Saturday, October 22, 2016

Halloween (2007)

If Rob Zombie had dropped trou on Hollywood Boulevard and plopped a steaming load on the negative of the original HALLOWEEN, it would not be less respectable of John Carpenter’s horror classic than this ersatz remake. It isn’t just that Zombie is poorly suited to the kind of white-knuckle terror the original film represents. It’s that he doesn’t understand HALLOWEEN or why it works. Zombie’s brand of horror is based in freak shows and trailer parks and crude language and being outrageous and explaining everything. Which can be a legitimate path to a good horror film, but it ain’t HALLOWEEN.

Of the many bad decisions writer/director Zombie makes, the most egregious is creating a backstory for Michael Myers. Instead of a little boy who inexplicably stabs his sister to death and is sent away to a mental hospital, from which he escapes and begins a killing spree, Zombie’s Michael Myers (played as a boy by Daeg Faerch) is the product of a white trash family with a stripper mother (Sheri Moon Zombie), an abusive stepfather (William Forsythe), and a disrespectful sexpot sister (Hanna Hall). What Zombie doesn’t understand is that the unknown is always more frightening than the known. By changing Michael from a bogeyman — a supernatural personification of evil — to a bullied kid from a lower-class family, Zombie has missed the point.

After an interminable first half, in which Zombie goes so far as to explain why Michael Myers wears a mask, Michael finally escapes custody and heads back to Haddonfield, where he (6’9” Tyler Mane) stalks Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her friends Lynda (Kristina Klebe) and Annie (Danielle Harris, the star of HALLOWEEN 4 and 5), the daughter of local sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif). Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), Michael’s shrink, follows. Strangely, much of this section plays as a shot-by-shot remake of the Carpenter film.

As a director, Zombie has few saving graces. One is an arresting visual style, which manifests in some scary shots of Michael in background stalking his prey. Another is a love of old character actors, which results in welcome cameos by Sid Haig (SPIDER BABY) and Dee Wallace (THE HOWLING) and Sybil Danning (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS) and Clint Howard (APOLLO 13) and Micky Dolenz (HEAD) and juicy supporting roles for McDowell (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) and Dourif (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST). They don’t prevent HALLOWEEN from tasting unpleasant, but they help make it easier to swallow.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Magnetic Monster

Cost-averse producers have been using stock footage for decades to augment low-budget features, but rarely does a film exist solely because of stock footage. According to Curt Siodmak, credited with directing and co-writing the picture with producer Ivan Tors (FLIPPER), Tors came to him with ten minutes of spectacular footage from a 1934 German feature called GOLD and wanted to build a science fiction film around it.

Meant to be the first of a series about the fictional Office of Scientific Investigation (only RIDERS TO THE STARS and GOG followed), THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was also the science fiction debut of star Richard Carlson, one of several actors, along with John Agar and Richard Denning, who would become synonymous with the genre during the 1950s. Other good Carlson films, besides THE MAGNETIC MONSTER, are CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE.

Inspired by DRAGNET, the pilot for which was edited by MAGNETIC MONSTER editor Herbert L. Strock (more on him shortly), the film stars Carlson and King Donovan (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) as OSI agents (or “A-Men,” for atom) investigating an outbreak of magnetism in a Los Angeles hardware store. Their plodding inquiries lead to an elderly scientist played by Leonard Mudie (FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), who has created a radioactive isotope that is killing him. Worse, the isotope feeds on its surroundings, growing rapidly and presenting a deadly danger to the entire world.

The expensive-looking GOLD footage is used in the climax to represent an underground Canadian facility where the isotope can be destroyed. While the special effects are impressive, the ending’s fantastic nature clashes with MAGNETIC MONSTER’s previous semi-documentary style, and the ludicrous wardrobe changes Carlson and Donovan endure to match the footage is distracting. Still, the tradeoff is acceptable, and the tightly paced production ends with excitement.

Siodmak, a writer of excellent genre pictures like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE WOLF MAN, was something of a washout as a director (not much of a cult for SKI FEVER and LOVE SLAVES OF THE AMAZON). According to editor Strock, Tors fired Siodmak after a few days of production and hired Strock, who was intimately familiar with the stock footage, to direct the film. While it is basically accepted that Strock directed without credit, supporting actor Michael Fox claims Siodmak was the director. What is for sure is that Tors later hired Strock to direct GOG, but we may never know the truth about THE MAGNETIC MONSTER.

Perennial ninth bananas Byron Foulger and Billy Benedict play hardware store employees (the less said about the pathetic actress in their scenes, the better), Jerry Lewis fave Kathleen Freeman is a telephone operator, and a barely recognizable Strother Martin is an airplane co-pilot. Jean Byron (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW) is nice as Carlson’s pregnant wife. Tors’ insistence on scientific plausibility (not the same as accuracy) was successful and led to his creation of SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE, a syndicated anthology television series that focused on science over space opera.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Halloween: Resurrection

Absolutely the worst of the original eight HALLOWEEN pictures, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION only exists through a ridiculous cop-out opening that explains how masked killer Michael Myers could still be alive after having his head definitively removed from his body by Laurie Strode’s axe at the end of HALLOWEEN H20. I suppose attacking a later HALLOWEEN sequel for being ridiculous is beside the point (after all, H20 expected us to believe Michael was just roaming around supporting himself for twenty years before stalking Laurie again), but even the slightest attempt at intelligent logic would have been appreciated.

Sigh. So anyway, yeah, Michael is still alive, and so is his sister Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis for the fourth time), whose guilt from committing H20’s beheading has driven her to a psychiatric hospital. But not for long. Getting on to the main story, which couldn’t be dumber or more cynical, a bunch of college students plan to spend Halloween night inside Michael’s boyhood home in Haddonfield, Illinois and stream everything over the Internet. For the first time in the series, the audience is glad Michael hates teenagers and can’t wait for him to start knifing away.

Rick Rosenthal is the director. He also directed 1981’s HALLOWEEN II — the first series director to repeat — and he’s worse this time around (the first two kills suffer from terrible blocking). The desperate screenplay by Larry Brand (MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) and Sean Hood (who later wrote underperforming Hercules and Conan movies) gloms on to then-current fads that made RESURRECTION irrelevant fifteen minutes after it was released (“We’re gonna be bigger than THE OSBOURNES!”). Its disregard for history is shocking, particularly the fate of Curtis’ character. In her confrontation with Michael, she tries to pull off his mask, saying she has to be sure it’s really Michael under it, Rosenthal and the writers forgetting she’s never seen his face.

EDIT: I stand corrected (see comments below). Of course, Laurie briefly saw Michael's face in the original HALLOWEEN. This movie still stinks though.

Not a single character or scene is believable. The young victims couldn’t be more vapid. Some of the actors did more prominent work elsewhere: Bianca Kaijich on RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, Katee Sackhoff on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and 24, Sean Patrick Thomas in the BARBERSHOP movies, Thomas Ian Nicholas in AMERICAN PIE. Getting top billing is, of all people, Busta Rhymes, the rapper, who holds a heralded position in cinema history as the only actor (to date, I guess) to get into a kung fu fight with Michael Myers.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later

Dimension Films celebrated the 20th anniversary of John Carpenter’s horror classic with the seventh in the series, which is stupidly titled HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER. It takes place two decades after the events of HALLOWEEN and HALLOWEEN II (which occurred the same night) and pretends HALLOWEENs 4, 5, and 6 (HALLOWEEN III was unrelated) never existed.

Influenced more by SCREAM than HALLOWEEN (SCREAM scribe Kevin Williamson was an executive producer), H20 gathers a group of sexy teenage television stars and knocks them off one at a time. It does have a secret weapon, however, which is the only reason to see H20: Jamie Lee Curtis, the star of HALLOWEEN and HALLOWEEN II.

Curtis is quite good as Laurie Strode, who has changed her name, moved to California, married, divorced, reared a son (now 17), and served as headmistress at an exclusive prep school. She also suffers from PTSD twenty years after her serial killer brother, Michael Myers, was presumably burned to death. Ain’t she the surprised one when Michael appears out of nowhere to finish the job he started twenty years earlier: kill Laurie.

Josh Hartnett (PENNY DREADFUL) debuts as Laurie’s dick son and is horrible. Michelle Williams (DAWSON’S CREEK), Jodi Lyn O’Keefe (NASH BRIDGES), LL Cool J (NCIS: LOS ANGELES), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (SNOWDEN) play victims. It’s fun to see PSYCHO star Janet Leigh — Curtis’ mother — in a horror film again, and Nancy Stephens returning as Loomis’ nurse from HALLOWEEN.

For horror fans, H20 is more miss than hit. Though the body count is decent, most of the murders occur off-screen, and the kills we do see are pretty tame in the gore department. Horror veteran Steve Miner, who began his directing career with two FRIDAY THE 13TH movies and HOUSE, fails to wring necessary suspense out of the contrived story, which unimaginatively plods along to the de rigueur mano-y-mano climax. John Ottman (X-MEN: APOCALYPSE) delivers a score reminiscent of John Carpenter’s memorable theme from the original film, but Dimension brought in SCREAM composer Marco Beltrami (who gets an “Additional Music by” credit) to remind the audience of the Wes Craven movie.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Rocketeer

Released by Disney two decades before superheroes were battling on big screens all over the world to boffo box office, this joyous adaptation of writer/artist Dave Stevens’ period piece stands as one of the best comic book movies ever made and most likely the most fun. Despite top-flight visual effects, an appealing script, likable stars, and plenty of breathtaking derring-do in the sky and on the ground, THE ROCKETEER was a major flop, opening in fourth place (behind vehicles for Kevin Costner, Billy Crystal, and Julia Roberts) and barely grossing its production budget.

Why didn’t audiences flock to THE ROCKETEER? A lack of movie stars, perhaps, though topliners Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly share terrific romantic chemistry and main heavy Timothy Dalton was just coming off two James Bond films. Maybe it was the 1930s setting, which didn’t hurt Indiana Jones any, but THE PHANTOM and THE SHADOW later in the ‘90s didn’t do business either. I guess at this point it doesn’t matter why THE ROCKETEER didn’t strike a chord with 1991 audiences, except the movie’s failure meant we didn’t get to see further adventures of Cliff Secord and his magnificent rocket pack. And that’s a damn shame.

Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, who did a wonderful job bringing DC Comics’ The Flash to the small screen, wrote the screenplay for THE ROCKETEER, graduating to Disney from the low-budget tongue-in-cheek adventures they made for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, such as ZONE TROOPERS and the excellent TRANCERS. Stevens, of course, had his own inspirations for the Rocketeer, most notably the Commando Cody character seen in Republic serials like KING OF THE ROCKETMEN.

Stevens’ love for old movies, in addition to that of DeMeo, Bilson, and director Joe Johnston (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER), is captured not just in the film’s story and setting, but also its characters. Dalton, dashingly portraying a Nazi spy named Neville Sinclair, captures more than a pinch of Errol Flynn, whereas the object of Sinclair’s affections, Connelly’s sweet and innocent Jenny Blake, is an unabashed tribute to pinup queen Betty Page.

Cliff Secord (Campbell), a hotshot young stunt pilot, and his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin, who is delightful) discover a rocket pack in their hangar. Adding a leather jacket and a bullet-shaped helmet to the ensemble, Cliff first dons the jets to rescue a pilot (Eddie Jones) in trouble, which creates headlines about a mysterious flying man. Soon, Cliff and Peevy become hunted by the FBI, gangsters (led by Paul Sorvino), and Sinclair, who kidnaps Jenny to exchange for the one-of-a-kind rocket pack, which, by the way, was invented by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn)!

State-of-the-art visual effects by Industrial LIght and Magic combine with Johnston’s old-style direction and a star-making performance by the luminous Connelly, not to mention a zeppelin, for a fun tale of adventure and good-hearted derring-do. Bilson and DeMeo give the story some humor to leaven the suspense, but not of the campy or cheap slapstick kind.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Phantasm: Ravager

Eighteen years after series creator Don Coscarelli unleashed the dull and disappointing PHANTASM: OBLIVION in video stores, he somehow has managed to convince theaters to carry the latest sequel. Latest and presumably last, considering star Angus Scrimm passed away in 2016, though you can never count a cash cow out.

And that’s all PHANTASM: RAVAGER, the fourth sequel to 1979’s dreamy sleeper PHANTASM, is. Proof is in its twist — an infuriating and incompetently considered insult to everyone who admired Coscarelli’s original vision and even some of the sequels that followed (particularly, the fun PHANTASM II, which enjoyed a higher budget thanks to Universal, which agreed to release it). Coscarelli didn’t direct RAVAGER, instead handing the reins to David Hartman. No, not that David Hartman (who wouldn’t have done a worse job), but the David Hartman who directed LASER FART. It seems Hartman brought the same je ne sais quoi that made LASER FART a sophisticated classic to the set of PHANTASM: RAVAGER.

No matter how rotten the film is, there’s no denying a certain thrill in seeing the original cast still together. Even Bill Thornbury, whose character was killed off in the first movie, has managed to hang around for sequel after sequel. He’s here (briefly) as Jody Pearson with A. Michael Baldwin (who missed PHANTASM II because Universal insisted on recasting his role with James LeGros) as his little brother Mike, Reggie Bannister as the world’s coolest ice cream man, and — of course — the skeletal Angus Scrimm as the demented and mysterious mortician and dwarf slaver known only as the Tall Man.

Describing plots is generally of little use when discussing a PHANTASM movie. The plots rarely make sense, and at any rate, the PHANTASM films are more about setting a mood and developing its characters than following a linear storyline. Writers Coscarelli and Hartman don’t even bother with a story and just create a series of nonsensical vignettes instead. Most of them involve Reggie fighting the Tall Man’s silver spheres (much less scary when they’re cartoons), including a nightmare scenario where giant balls shoot lasers at skyscrapers to demolish them.

Because the twist occurs early in the movie, it’s fair to share it here. PHANTASM: RAVAGER reveals that Reggie is a nursing home patient suffering from dementia, and all five films are in fact a story he has been telling his visiting friend Mike. While the film’s sloppy structure allows for the idea that maybe the Tall Man is real after all, and Reggie and Mike have spent almost forty years fighting him, Hartman and Coscarelli can’t have their cake and eat it too. To even suggest that the characters and adventures PHANTASM fans have fallen in love with never happened — that our heroes aren’t heroes — is a slap in the face. And a surprising one coming from Coscarelli, one of the horror genre’s most fan-friendly creators.

Beyond the movie’s insulting story, PHANTASM: RAVAGER is a mess. Aside from the always fun Bannister, the actors, who include Daniel Roebuck (THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE) as a ludicrous Bulgarian farmer, are bad, the digital photography is ugly, and the visual effects are worse than those in the first film produced in the 1970s. I’m assuming child laborers in Bangladesh created the numbingly bad CGI, including phony fire, phony muzzle flares, phony blood spatter, and embarrassingly phony spheres. Oh, and lasers. Heaven help us, the lasers.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Licence To Kill

Until 2006’s “reimagining” of the 007 franchise in CASINO ROYALE, LICENCE TO KILL (note the British spelling) was widely considered the most brutal and violent film of the series. The first PG-13 Bond movie offers a change-of-pace plot by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson that finds 007 (Timothy Dalton in his second and final Bond performance) resigning under protest from the British Secret Service and plotting revenge against Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), the South American druglord who fed Bond’s DEA pal Felix Leiter (David Hedison, reprising his role from 1973’s LIVE AND LET DIE) to the sharks. Literally.

Some have referred to LICENCE TO KILL as a "Joel Silver Bond movie," and that's a good description, right down to the trendy choice of villain (Central American drug dealer), supporting cast of familiar American character actors (Don Stroud, Anthony Zerbe, Frank McRae, Benicio Del Toro), and Michael Kamen as composer. It mostly eschews the elaborate gadgetry for which the Bond movies are well known, and although it’s a first-rate action movie, it doesn’t feel much like a James Bond adventure, despite Dalton’s tough, underrated performance.

John Glen, directing his fifth consecutive and final Bond movie, handles the special effects and stunts with aplomb — the tanker truck chase that ends the film is one of the Bond series’ finest action pieces. As mentioned above, LICENCE TO KILL doesn’t feel like a James Bond movie, but it’s one heck of an action/adventure film. While Davi and the actors playing his henchmen are strong, the Bond Girls are weak. Talisa Soto (VAMPIRELLA) is quite wooden in her role of Sanchez’s girlfriend Lupe, and Carey Lowell, later a regular on LAW & ORDER, is not believable as a tough-talking CIA agent, though her short hairdo makes her a visual standout among Bond girls.

Robert Brown plays M for the last time. Same for Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny, though Eon and MGM kept Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, who has his most sizable part in LICENCE TO KILL, in subsequent pictures. Speaking of, LICENCE TO KILL was not a box office smash, and various creative, financial, and legal bugaboos prevented the next Bond film from being produced until 1994. Though Dalton’s 007 films were not highly regarded by fans at the time, his portrayal is closer to that of the popular Daniel Craig than any other Bond actor.