Monday, February 6, 2017

Rings (2017)

In 2002, director Gore Verbinski introduced American audiences to a cursed videotape and thereby kick-started the wave of American Remakes of Japanese Horror [or J-Horror as The Kids call it - ED.].  Much like any trend in film -- especially Horror -- the imitations quickly paled in comparison to the original.  The Ring was a fine film starring Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, and Brian Cox, which scared up millions at the box office for DreamWorks, with something that was original to US audiences.  Sequels were inevitable and The Ring Two followed in 2005 . . . though the less said about that one, the better!

Twelve years later, Samara returns in F. Javier Gutierrez's Rings, a sort of sequel/reboot trying to breathe new life into a somewhat forgotten franchise.  The biggest question going into a film about a cursed video tape in the year 2017 is "Does the target audience even know or remember what a VHS tape is?"  This, of course, is quickly addressed by Johnny Galecki's Gabriel, a pot-smoking, deep-thinking professor at the local college, when he laughably refers to a VCR at a flea market as "vintage".  And all the hipsters looked up from their lattes and squealed.

The VCR that Gabriel purchases comes from the collection of a kid who once again falls victim to Samara's curse in the film's opening sequence aboard a turbulent, late night flight.  For what it's worth, this could have been a very cool opportunity to do something unique and interesting -- what with all the TV screens available on an enclosed flight (the TV monitors on the seatbacks, peoples' portable DVD players, smart phone screens, etc.) -- and the film tries to play up this idea a bit, with Samara appearing even on the cockpit monitors!  Though things quickly fall apart when American Horror Story's Lizzie Brocheré shows up proclaiming "I've seen the tape too!" and all logic goes out the window and the story becomes muddled for the sake of the film's shock opening. 

Of course, Gabriel investigates his new/old VCR and finds a tape, labeled "Watch Me!" jammed inside.  In an age where VHS collecting has definitely become a thing (I'm a proud collector and VHS Misfit), there's an inherent thrill to scoring tapes from thrift and GoodWill stores.  Sometimes picking up tapes of the unlabeled variety with the hope of finding some bizarre, comic gold in the form of someone's personal home movies, so it's not unexpected that Gabriel would go down the rabbit hole with this cassette. 

In a small town not too far (?) away, young Holt Anthony [to quote Mad Dog Tannen in Back To The Future Part III, "What kinda stoopid name is that?"- ED.] lays in bed with his too skinny girlfriend Julia (played by Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) on the eve of his leaving for his Freshman year of college.  Holt is played by Alex Roe, looking like a budget version of Dave Franco (himself a budget version of his older brother) with distractingly annoying Martin Scorsese-esque eyebrows [seriously...once you see them, you cannot unsee them...or the fact that they appear to be a uni-brow that was clumsily split not quite in the middle, with one straying a bit far over the borderline - ED.]  Roe plays Holt with all the "hero" factor of Rick in Friday the 13th Part III; the guy is as dumb as a box of rocks...but he's got six-pack abs for the girls in the audience.
Alex Roe, his eyebrows, and Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz
When their Skype session is interrupted by Holt's obnoxious college bros, Julia becomes concerned about her knight in skinny jeans.  He won't answer her texts or calls and then Julia receives a strange Skype call from a girl looking for Holt.  Since she apparently doesn't have a job or any responsibilities at home, she heads for Holt's college campus -- which must not be too far away -- and wanders across the grounds and into his dorm room [this college must have a helluva Campus Security team - ED.].  She finds his iPhone (which dies just after she reads some frantic texts from a girl named Skye), a strange key, and Holt's course list, with one particular class highlighted -- which is conveniently happening right at that exact she wanders over to whatever building that class is being held in and walks right into the middle of Professor Gabriel lecturing.

After Gabriel brushes off Julia's interrogation about why Holt isn't in class that day, she decides to follow the ironic weasel to an elevator, which he takes to the unauthorized 7th floor.  She soon stumbles into a workshop/party environment of what appears to be an entire class who have seen or are currently watching The Tape, with its imagery plastered all over the room via monitors and printouts of its various cryptic images.  It appears that, after watching The Tape himself, Gabriel did some research on Samara and the curse and has turned his findings into some sort of experiment about soul searching/soul jumping.  Whatever.  Anyway, for every one of his students that he selects for the experiment, he must eventually find them a "tail" who will then watch The Tape as well, thereby it's assumed, lifting the curse from the previous person . . . I think . . . are you following?  Since it's 2017, the experiment consists of making copies of the .MOV file of The Tape and passing it along to the next idiot succumbing to peer pressure. 
Those aren't eyebrows, they're forehead moustaches!
After actually seeing Samara come out of a flatscreen TV (yay modern times!) and claiming a hapless victim, Julia, of course, watches The Tape herself in a desperate attempt to save Holt.  Though, since she sees different imagery than what everyone else sees, this sets the rest of the plot in motion and calls for a roadtrip to mine the backstory of Samara and uncover the secrets of Rings

Rounding out the cast is Vincent D'Onofrio, who looks to be phoning it in so much that the moment he appeared on-screen, I exclaimed "Private Pyle!"  He does his best impression of James Earl Jones in The Sandlot here and chews up every scene he appears in; even a phoned-in D'Onofrio acts rings around his young co-stars! 
Apparently Gunnery Sgt. Hartman made good on his promise.
First things first:  like any Horror sequel, Rings falls victim to its need to explain Samara even more than what already was explained in the two previous films.  Hey screenwriters, sometimes it's okay NOT to have a reason "why" for some of these characters and films -- they're scarier that way.  The screenplay by David Loucka, Jacob Aaron Estes, and Akiva Goldsman piles on one ridiculous twist after another [a couple of which are fairly obvious right from the get-go when a particular character is introduced - ED.] in the hopes of wowing or "freaking out" its intended teenage audience.  In what was supposed to be a tense cat-and-mouse game in the final act, one is reminded of how it was done better in last year's Don't Breathe!  The film's poster even spells out one of the twists as well!  Forhelvede!

Somewhere around the midpoint, Gabriel discovers a pivotal plot point and immediately tries to call Holt to warn him and Julia, but the call goes straight to voicemail.  By the film's coda -- literally the very end of the picture -- Holt finally looks at his phone and sees that he has a voicemail.  What kind of teenage/college-age kid isn't looking at their phone constantly these days?  Granted, Holt is a pretty dumb buffoon for most of the film, but surely he'd glance at his phone at least once during the movie and see that he had a missed call and voicemail! 

It's unfortunate that principle photography on Rings started almost two years ago, as it aided in the screenwriters missing what could have been a very obvious angle for the story . . . all of these stupid Youtube challenges that The Kids do these days.  Instead of Gabriel's experiment and desperately trying to find "tails" for his students, the entire movie could have been over if they just uploaded the video to Youtube and labeled it as "The Samara Challenge"; dumbass teens would have been all over it and everyone would have been saved! 

Unfortunately, Rings is a bit of a mess that will likely make enough money at the box office to warrant yet another sequel -- theatrical or direct-to-DVD -- when it should hopefully be put out to pasture.  What started off as a great remake of a truly scary Japanese film has become so watered down as a franchise that it drowns in its own mediocrity.

No, please don't.  Save yourself.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tales From The Crypt: "...And All Through The House" 1972 vs 1989

If you're reading this blog, you know what I'm talking about when I say that the "...And All Through The House" segment of the classic Amicus anthology Tales From The Crypt flat out RULES!  In fact, it rules so much that Robert Zemeckis decided to remake it as the second episode of the classic television version of Tales From The Crypt.   So, since it's the holidays and all, I figured now is as good a time as any to look at both versions of this creepy classic tale.  Let's get into it shall we?

Of course, there will be spoilers here . . . so if you haven't seen either the 1972 film or the TV episode yet . . . turn away now!

Tales From The Crypt is a fine example of a British Horror anthology (of which, there was quite a boom in the early to mid-1970s, with Amicus releasing the best of the bunch).  It's got five separate stories, tied neatly together by an engaging wrap-around, all of which serve as the sort of morality tale the original source comics did in the 1950s

"I know he's got that insurance money on him somewhere!"
The first segment, of course, is "...And All Through The House" and it stars Joan Collins as a Joanne Clayton, a woman who kills her husband on Christmas Eve, with the hopes of finding a rich insurance settlement in her stocking!  As Joanne methodically arranges her victim so that it appears he had an accident, she fails to hear a radio announcement of an escaped mental patient dressed in a Santa Claus outfit in her area.  Of course, he comes straight to her house and she gets into a bit of a juggling act trying to arrange her late husband's corpse, barricade her home, and pull the St. Nick wool over the eyes of her daughter who is anxious to see the Jolly One and won't stay in bed.  Amicus mainstay Chloe Franks plays the daughter, Carol, who eventually lets "Santa" in at the story's climax. 

Joan Collins thinks it's Linda Evans outside her window!
Everything here is played for sheer terror and director Freddie Francis works hard to make the audience's blood freeze when the killer Santa first shows up.  Collins is exceptional at showing off her range of emotions with very little dialogue (she only really ever speaks to her daughter and once to her husband after she's killed him).  She goes from cold and calculated as she arranges the "accident" scene and cleans up the murder scene to fright once "Santa" reaches in through and open window.  All the while, she's trying to let on what happened to her husband even though Carol let's out a "goodnight Daddy" and her prying eyes are constantly on the verge of exposing Joanne's misdeed. 

Santa, wash your hands before taking a cookie please!
The gore is minimal here, though, as it was 1972.  However, the little bit of red stuff that we do see is effective and works well within the context of a "comic book film".  When Joanne first clobbers her husband over the head with the fireplace poker, there's a squirt of very pink blood on the newspaper he's reading.  There's also a messy -- again, very pink -- stain on the white shag carpet that the body collapses onto.  Honestly, it looks as though Collins spilled some pink nail polish onto her groovy carpet . . . but the color is so splashy that looks right at home in the context of a 1970s comic book!  Joanne also collects some of the spilled blood into a champagne glass to effectively dress the scene of the "accident" once she throws her husband's body down the basement stairs.  Although, as she cleans up her tools later on, the "blood" comes off a little too easily with some soap and water. 

All in all, this original version of "...And All Through The House" is the perfect kick-off to a great film where every story is a corker!  In fact, it also may very well be the first (?) [or at least first "modern" - ED.] "Killer Santa" film!  Everything is played pretty straight, though there is an underlying sense of dark humor in the segment's penultimate twist as young Carol finally lets "Santa" into the house with the same sort of naïve and giddy smile any child would have at seeing Saint Nick at their house! 

True be told, the television remake of "...And All Through The House" was actually the first Tales From The Crypt episode that I ever saw -- at least part of it!  I vividly remember my dad being excited about the premiere of Tales From The Crypt, recalling the old comics and there was even Mom chiming in about seeing the 1972 film back in the day as well!  Of course, the first episode was "The Man Who Was Death" with William Sadler taking the law into his own hands after he's laid off as the city jail's executioner; of course, being a good dad and shielding my then 6yr old eyes, my Daddy-O quickly changed the channel at the first sight of female nudity!  We, of course, came back to HBO a short time later, picking up with the "...And All Through The House" episode which, again, I recall Dad putting his foot down and changing it quickly deeming it to be "too scary" for my young eyes!

Alas, series show-runner Robert Zemeckis directed "...And All Through The House", which effectively retells the classic story as seen in the original 1972 film [and Vault of Horror #35 - ED.] though, as with most remakes, things are expanded a bit. 

Drinking too much can cause a splitting headache.
Zemeckis' then wife, the late Mary Ellen Trainor (Dr. Stephanie Woods in the Lethal Weapon films), stars as the wife, killing her second husband (played by the always awesome Marshall Bell), once again, for his insurance money.  Following the same set-up, there's an upstairs daughter who is supposed to be sleeping, whom the wife desperately tries to hide the evidence of the murder from.  Larry Drake also stars as the decidedly more gruesome Jolly Old homicidal maniac, caked with blood and gore in his beared and suit!  There are some subtle changes to the story here as well -- the wife tries to dispose of the body via an outside well, the story is expanded with a lot more action between the wife and "Santa" as he tries methodically tries to get into the house. 

What? No more Lethal Weapon movies?!
Zemeckis plays up the dark humor of the original story, really ramping up an almost cartoonish vibe as "Santa" becomes like Wile E. Coyote, always getting bonked on the head and mugging for the camera before falling out of frame, unconscious.  It's also worth noting that Marshall Bell is great at playing a stiff; he's always displaying a goofy death face -- even with a plastic bag on his head -- and expertly plays dead weight as Trainor drags him out of the house, through the snow and decides just how to dispose of him.  Another comedic moment comes when, after the "Santa" has first shown up, the wife decides to make it look like her husband was axed to death by the killer!  Even though she herself is a cold-blood killer, she still cannot bare to smash an axe into her late husband's head -- his dumb expression peering back her probably doesn't help!  So, she closes her eyes and blindly swings, completely missing him! 

Trainor herself is quite effective as well, as she again displays a range of emotions; going from cold-blooded murderer to a mom whose trying to hide her misdeed to a frightened mom trying to protect herself and her daughter.  Her blood-curdling screams at the story's close as, once again, "Santa" finds his way into the house, are pretty chilling too, if not a bit over the top.

'Dem cookies ya got there are bad for my teeth!
Drake really steals the show here though, as the homicidal maniac.  At the time, he was known for back to back Emmy wins as mentally-handicapped Benny on L.A. Law (his only previous foray into Horror as the similarly challenged Bubba Ritter in the CBS TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow some eight years earlier).  Drake is effectively menacing -- again, that nasty shit in his beard probably helps sell it -- without saying a single word until the very end when he utters a "Naughty...or nice?"  His comedic chops are also on display as he gets manhandled and beaten up like a Looney Tunes character, displaying a stunned expression and muttering something that sounds like a Gremlin, just short of seeing stars and tiny, cartoon birds circling his head. 

Ultimately, this episode perfectly sets the tone that the rest of the series would follow -- horror morality tales, soaked in dark humor.  It perfectly updates the (then) modern sensibilities of the story and expands a little to pad out the running time for a full episode.  All in all, not a bad piece!   

If you were to hold a gun to my head and ask me to choose which version of "...And All Through The House" was better, I'd probably go with 1972 because Joan Collins.  Although, my love for that particular telling may be mostly due to the nostalgia I feel for the first time I saw Tales From The Crypt from front to back; the same could be said for the Zemeckis version as well, with a similar nostalgia for the television series!  If you haven't seen either of them, do yourself a favor and make it happen -- Tales From The Crypt is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory in its original, uncut form, paired in an awesome double feature with its 1973 sequel The Vault of Horror (presented in two different versions!) and, of course, HBO's awesome Tales From The Crypt series is available via Complete Season sets or multi-packs depending on your needs (you wants Season 1, of course, for "...And All Through The House").

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Black Christmas (1974)

Few horror films are as synonymous with the seasons they depict -- My Bloody Valentine (Valentine's Day), Halloween (duh), Jaws (summer) -- as Bob Clark's 1974 shocker Black Christmas.  It's an interesting little film that, along with Peeping Tom and Psycho laid the template for what we know as the modern Slasher film [or, at least the 70s and 80s version - ED].  Its got a fairly simple premise:  a sorority house is being stalked by an obscene phone-caller and, soon, the girls start turning up dead...and there's a neat twist, too.  Clark throws in enough twists and turns to make the story interesting and, most importantly, frightening.

There's a certain sense of nostalgia I always get when I sit down and watch Black Christmas and, oddly enough, it has to do with the awesome 70s Christmas lights on display throughout the film.  Anytime these lights -- on the house outside or on the tree inside -- are on-screen, Reg Morris' cinematography has a soft focus, which creates a strange halo on those lights.  Somewhere in my home video library is a Christmas tape from when I was an infant, so we're talking probably '83.  In that clip, my family is at my aunt and uncle's house and, sure enough, their tree and its lights look exactly like what is seen in Black Christmas -- strange halos and all!  Maybe it's just the product of early 80s home video recording equipment, but dammit, it helps to fully immerse me in the world that Clark and writer Roy Moore create!

Another unique aspect of Black Christmas is that the audience never fully sees the killer (spoiler?), instead only seeing shadow-drenched shots of him with maybe an eye or a mouth exposed.  When we're not even seeing the killer, we ARE the killer as Morris' camera allows us to see through his eyes...the blackest eyes...wait, that's a reference for a little bit later on.  But yeah, along with Peeping Tom, this film is one of the earliest examples of placing the audience into the killer's POV!  It's an unnerving effect that, literally from the start of the film, has us all wondering "What the hell is going on here?"
Perhaps most bizarre of all the tidbits and background for Black Christmas is that director Bob Clark is also responsible for that other famous Christmas movie . . . A Christmas Story.  For my money, it just proves how diverse he was as an auteur in that he can terrorize Christmas audiences with one film and yet also bring so much joy with the other!  This film came early in Clark's career and still showed echoes of his earlier works like Dead of Night (aka: Deathdream) and Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, but there were hints of where he would eventually go with some of the more comedic elements that were present in Porky's and A Christmas Story; the "fellatio" scene in the police station is straight out of Porky's with Nash's naivety and the hilarious reactions from Lt. Fuller and the laughing detective!  The scene even features Coach Warren from Porky's himself, Doug McGrath!

Doug McGrath as the clueless Nash

John Saxon as Lt. Fuller
As the girls being terrorized by the film's obscene caller, Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder really standout.  Hussey plays Jess with an air of concern and general fright over the calls, while Kidder's Barb borders on the obnoxious with her sarcastic and standoffish reactions to the threats.  Of course, Barb's archetype would later be seen again and again in the genre throughout the 80s and 90s as characters would continue to talk shit to their tormentors.  SCTV's Andrea Martin is also a standout -- although much more subdued than what audiences familiar with her comedic work might expect -- as Phyllis (or Phyl as Jess repeatedly refers to her).  Phyllis is played as sort of the mediator between Jess' panic and Barb's alcohol-induced insults (to the caller and her fellow house sisters), though she herself is also visibly shaken by the events unfolding.

If only Barb had a super man to protect her...

This ain't no party line, ya hoser!

Lynne Griffin as Claire and Andrea Martin as Phyl
Perhaps serving as the film's sort of McGuffin, there's also Lynne Griffin as Claire, who turns up missing in the first reel and sets the plot into motion.  For the sake of spoilers [shame on you for reading this if you haven't already seen the film! - ED], Claire is the first victim and Griffin spends the majority of the film tucked away in the attic, sitting in a rocking chair with a plastic bag over her head.  She plays dead incredibly well actually!  As Claire's worried father Mr. Harrison, James Edmund shows up looking like a dead ringer for Frank Oz.  Edmund's performance perfectly conveys the feelings and emotions that a parent must go through when they fear something has happened to their child.  In fact, Mr. Harrison is probably the film's most tragic character; he comes into the world of the college campus in search of his daughter, immediately getting pelted by a snowball, then is introduced to the free-thinking sorority life, becomes a victim of the obscene phone-calls by default of being in the house as they happen, joins a search party for another missing girl in the area (he's ultimately disappointed when it's not Claire) and then never actually receives the closure of knowing what exactly happened to his beautiful daughter . . . while she's literally right over his head for most of the picture!  It's tragic stuff, folks!

Mr. Harrison doesn't have time for Mrs. Mac's shit!
While some of the lines that Kidder delivers as Barb could be comic relief, most of them play as a bit dated, but then there's Mrs. Mac (played by Marian Waldman of Deranged fame) who, honestly, reminds me of my Gram with her vulgar dialogue!  Mrs. Mac is another great character in Black Christmas, as she's blissfully unaware of what's happening around her (she believes that Claire went off with her boyfriend for the weekend) and is more interesting in tying one on and finding her dear cat Claude. 

On the male side, there's Art Hindle (of The Brood and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Claire's hockey playing -- they are in Canada after all -- boyfriend Chris.  Hindle is convincing as a hero type who immediately sets off to the police station when he finds out Claire is missing.  Although, Chris doesn't become the sort of "last survivor hero" type, as this trope hadn't quite been invented yet.  He's likable though.  Also along for the ride is brooding, struggling pianist Peter (2001's Keir Dullea), who is Jess' boyfriend.  Dullea plays Peter with the sort of short fuse and unpredictably possessive nature that has itself become a trope recycled again and again to show a possessive asshole lover.  But it works here, as Peter quickly breaks down when Jess won't talk to him about their baby she's carrying and her decision to get an abortion -- again, this is pretty heavy and timely stuff for 1974! 

Peter just wants to TALK Jess!
If there is a "hero" in the traditional sense though, it's definitely John Saxon as Lt. Ken Fuller (get your Mystery Science Theater 3000 jokes out of the way now because "Hey! Wasn't John Saxon in this movie?").  Saxon is fine as Fuller, a cop who's just trying to figure out what the hell is going on!  When a second girl (after Claire is first reported missing) turns up MIA, Fuller heads a massive search party and Saxon is quite believable and comforting in the search.  Fuller is ultimately cut from the same archetype cloth that Saxon would later revisit ten years later in A Nightmare on Elm Street as Lt. Donald Thompson.

Going back to the film's Prowler (some call him "Billy" as it's a name that he repeatedly says during some of his calls), the film really keeps the audience guessing as to his true identity!  At times both Chris and Peter may as well be in a police lineup, although the former quickly vindicates himself of any potential guilt.  As many times as I've seen the film, I'm not really sure WHO the Prowler is . . . though most signs point to an unhinged Peter finally cracking and offing Jess' friends as he terrorizes her throughout the picture.

As an aside, unfortunately (or fortunately, if you're into this sort of thing), the Prowler and "Billy" are further explored in Glen Morgan's 2006 remake (affectionately known as Black X-Mas . . . hey, keep Christ in our Christmas horror movies dammit!), fleshing out some sort of backstory based on "Billy" and "Agnes" (another name the caller repeatedly spews).  On one level, sure it's kinda cool to dig into it and effectively explain what was only implied in the original film . . . but, as is all too often with similar backstory-mining remakes, the question stands:  did what made the original so effective really need to be fleshed out and presented on a silver platter?  Andrea Martin returns as Ms. Mac, which is a cute enough nod to the original, as things are played campy and millennial Slasher, emphasizing gory set pieces over the restrained suspense of the first film.  Bob Clark even served as an Executive Producer, so the remake at least had his seal of approval.  Unfortunately, this remake would be Clark's last project before his tragic death (along with his son!) the following April. 

Andrea Martin and Lacey Chabert in Black Christmas (2006)
Today, with the advent of caller-ID, Black Christmas would probably fail to catch on with a younger audience.  However, its basic premise is still just as powerful as it must have been in 1974; I still say its main twist and final reveal as the camera slowly dollies away from the house is positively skin-crawlingly creepy and depressing!  

Hello?  Hello?!  Hell-ooooooo?
So, if you haven't seen Black Christmas yet, now is the perfect time to snuggle up under a warm blanket and give it a spin.  If you're a longtime fan, check it out again via Scream Factory's just released 2-disc Collector's Edition Blu-ray loaded with new bonus features and even two versions of the film! 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Let's get this out of the way:  first and foremost, Silent Night, Deadly Night is not a very good film.  While I like it, it's definitely not one that I find myself running back to again and again for repeated viewings, as it usually only gets played during the Christmas season.  While I was too young to remember its theatrical release controversy, I can easily recall seeing its ominous "big box" video tape in video stores throughout my youth. 

That image is what sold me on the film.  It's just so iconic and states exactly what you're gonna get with a title like Silent Night, Deadly Night!   Here is a film that goes balls out to add its own twisted take on the Slasher Killing On A Holiday subgenre . . . and does so with the sort of glee and shock value one might expect from a classic grindhouse picture!

My original big box VHS copy of the film.
The plot is pretty simple:  as an 8yr old, after a twisted "Santa Claus punishes bad little boys and girls" warning from his dementia-fogged Grandpa, Billy watched his parents get brutally murdered by a gas station robber dressed in a Santa Claus suit.  Billy and his infant brother are sent to live in a local orphanage, where he continues to act out around Christmas time, having not really coped with what he saw that fateful night.  Billy's sense of reality continues to crack as he then witnesses two people making love and then is promptly caught by Mother Superior, who immediately punishes him for having witnessed such filth (and the couple for doing the deed).  At the age of 18, Billy has started working at a small toy store, where he quickly becomes a favorite good guy employee...until the Christmas season arrives and he's forced to fill in for the store's Santa.  From that point on, all hell breaks loose as Billy sets out on a yuletide murder spree.

Look, we don't watch Silent Night, Deadly Night for the smart decisions that its script doesn't make -- having someone traumatized by Santa Claus get a job at a toy store is bound for trouble around the holiday season!  We watch it (and love it!) for the over the top kills, carnage and distorted Christmas spirit that it conveys!  For someone with a slightly dark sense of humor, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a perfect fit when it comes to Christmas movies. 

Yes, that's Back To The Future's Mr. Peabody as Grandpa!
Acting-wise, Silent Night, Deadly Night was never going to win any awards, though Lilyan Chauvin is excellent as Mother Superior and character actor Britt Leach (Weird Science, The Great Outdoors) is effective as doomed toy store owner Ira Simms.  As a matter of fact, its star, Robert Brian Wilson, was initially said to be so ashamed of the film that he avoided talking about it for years after, only recently showing up at Horror conventions and eager to greet long time fans!  Genre favorite Linnea Quigley also shows up . . . to take her top off and quickly get impaled on a set of mounted antlers in one of the film's crazier kills!

Lilyan Chauvin as Mother Superior
Britt Leach as doomed toystore owner Ira Simms
What really helps sell a film like Silent Night, Deadly Night is its premise and the over the top kills that occur throughout its running time!  Also helping it along was the controversy surrounding its original -- and brief -- theatrical release from TriStar Pictures; the fury over it was so great, the film was pulled after two weeks, shelved, and eventually dumped on home video a year later, where its legend continued to grow.  Throughout the 80s and 90s, many kids like myself would frequent local video stores and see USA Home Video's big box cassette on shelves and react with a combined sense of fright, intrigue and awe.  It was almost a right of passage to see this film...though I ultimately cannot recall the first time I saw it myself. 

Robert Brian Wilson punishes the naughty as Billy
Speaking of over the top kills, this is probably the only movie where a cop guns down a deaf Santa Claus in front a bunch of kids!!  Come on man! 

Of course, the film was successful enough to spawn four sequels; the first of which, 1987's Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, itself became an internet sensation with its hilarious "Garbage Day" murder sequence.  A loose remake even followed in 2012, but you're better off just sticking to the OG as it's pure grindhouse trash, perfect to keep you toasty by the fire on a cold December night.

Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Paulie Pennino: The Real Star of The Rocky series

40 years ago, Sylvester Stallone introduced the world to a true champion and American symbol in the character of Rocky Balboa when Rocky first hit theaters.  Over the next 39 years -- 5 sequels and a spin-off -- that character would continue to endure and connect with audiences around the world.  However, there is one character throughout the original six films whose presence holds much more weight than we all first thought...

Paulie, as played by the wonderful Burt Young.

Throughout the 30-year timespan of the original films, Paulie remains a powerful character, often steering the plotline and setting events into motion, making him perhaps almost more important than Rocky himself!  Let's take a look shall we?

Rocky (1976) - In an Academy Award-nominated Supporting Actor role, Burt Young introduces the world to Paulie, Rocky's best friend and future brother in-law in a stink hole of a bathroom tucked away inside a Philadelphia corner bar.  Almost immediately, Paulie's character is defined with a short fuse, proclaiming (numerous times) that "I'd like to kill the freakin' moron who broke the mirror" and that sometimes his sister Adrian gets him so mad "that I could split her head with a razor".  Charming, right?  But, since Rocky is good friends with him, there must be something loveable about him...

In perhaps the most important act of the entire Rocky franchise, Paulie essentially masterminds the first date between Rocky and Adrian!  Granted, he was a bit of a violent dick about it -- throwing the turkey that Adrian had in the oven out in the alley and pretty much forcing his younger sister out on the date -- but it's a significant moment that sets the tone for not only the rest of the film, but also the series as a whole.  Later on, Paulie even begins to resent both Rocky and Adrian for the relationship where he drunkenly confronts them, demanding...something.  It's not really clear what exactly Paulie demands here; respect? acknowledgement? credit? a good word with Gazzo?

In yet another tremendous move that solidifies their lifelong friendship, Paulie is the first true person to get in Rocky's corner (albeit for his own financial gain of course) once it's announced that he's been chosen to fight Apollo Creed for the Heavyweight title. This of course results in Rocky getting his infamously baggy boxing robe for the big fight (itself spawning a joke reference before Superfight II in Rocky II).  Later, after the fight, Paulie is instrumental in getting Adrian into the ring to reunite with Rocky, by causing a ruckus with a Philly police officer! 
Perhaps one of Rocky's most famous training techniques wouldn't even have been possible had it not been for Paulie:

Sure, Rocky "invented" punching the meat, but Paulie let him into Shamrock Meats to do so -- and did it again in Rocky Balboa!

Rocky II (1979) - A leaner (perhaps meaner?) Paulie has finally gotten out of his dead-end job at Shamrock Meats and now is collecting for mobster Tony Gazzo (obviously since Rocky is now legit and gone straight).  The entire time, it's Paulie who insists that Rocky should keep fighting, all the while he's trying to make a living off his winnings from the fight with Apollo and trying to parlay his career into TV commercials.

When Rocky's big break in commercials and his search for a cushy desk job don't pan out, who takes ownership of the Trans Am and picks up the payments Rocky can no longer make?  Paulie.  Of course, he also condones violence towards his little sister as well at this point with the hilariously sage advice of "Is my sister giving you a hard time?  If she is, ya break her teeth." 

When Adrian first pulls her defining character trait of "You should retire/My husband is retired" in this first sequel, seemingly forcing guilt at Rocky making him take up Paulie's old meat-packing position to make ends meet (only to get laid off anyway), it's Paulie who steps in to level things out.  Again, he does this by being a complete jackass to his pregnant sister, forcing her to fall into a coma after prematurely giving birth to Rocky Jr.  See?  Paulie is even responsible for Rocky Jr. being born!!

It's also worth noting here that Paulie seems to be off the sauce, as his leaner and healthier appearance indicates a man more keen on being a Wiseguy than a Budweiser Man.

Rocky III (1982) - Perhaps the sting of seeing Rocky's rise to the top after defeating Apollo and winning the Title in Rocky II -- events all spurned by Paulie's actions -- got the best of our lovable loudmouth.  He constantly sees Rocky getting all kinds of adoration and attention, while no crumbs are thrown his own way.  He turns back to the bottle and lands himself in the clink, forcing Rocky to come bail him out.

In this second sequel, Paulie's biggest contribution is that he's the one constant on Rocky's side.  Early on, he's now officially in Rocky's corner, working the charity fight against Thunderlips -- even showing a bit of courage by smashing a wooden chair over the giant wrestler's back and whipping out a switchblade (who carries a switchblade as a cornerman into a boxing match?!  Oh that's right...Paulie does!) to help cut off Rocky's gloves when the fight turns into a circus!  He even delivers some awesome, overlooked (especially in light of Mickey's many inspirational nuggets) words of wisdom in this scene:  "Rocko, remember the neighborhood!"  This quote seems to suggest the hardships that Rocky and Paulie came from growing up together, no doubt, rumbling and feuding with bums from the neighborhood, with Paulie whacking them out of course.  Now there's an interesting prequel idea:  a young Rocky and Paulie, brawling with neighborhood lowlifes in a bizarre combination of Bum Fights and Jean Claude Van-Damme's Lionheart!

Sqaushin' sterno bums since 1982.
Throughout the rest of the film, Paulie remains the one constant during the ups and downs that Rocky sees; when Mickey falls ill, it's Paulie who calls the doctor....when Mickey dies, Paulie is still there for Rocky.  When Rocky begrudgingly agrees to be trained by Apollo for a rematch with Clubber Lang, Paulie is the only one who still has faith in Rocky -- granted, "he's a bruiser, he ain't no boxer" isn't the most endearing endorsement, but it's better than the fear and uncertainty that's permeated from Adrian and Apollo.  Paulie knows Rocky can hit!  Besides, most importantly, during Rocky's training for the rematch, Paulie carries the boombox with the instrumental "jungle junk music" version of "Eye of the Tiger" . . . this is almost as important as Rocky himself during a training regiment!

Later in the Clubber Lang rematch, it's Paulie who knows exactly what Rocky is doing:  "He's not getting killed, he's getting mad!"

Paulie also acts as a "wonderful" babysitter for Rocky Jr. during the statue unveiling.  This is probably one of his funniest scenes as he hilariously finishes the story of Goldie Locks & The Three Bears:  "...busted for trespassing and 30 days in the cooler."

Rocky IV (1985) - At the height of the Cold War, Paulie represents the jingoistic sentiments many Americans felt at this time by sporting a Don't Tread On Me flag on the back of his coat when the team arrives in Russia, which Paulie quickly dismisses with "it don't look so tough."  He's also the first to stand up to Communism by mouthing off at Michael Pataki's Nicoli Koloff by pointing out the violent nature of the Russian government (keeping their people behind a wall with machine guns) and declaring that he's "the unsilent majority, bigmouth!"

Once again, Adrian delivers one of her famous "you can't win/don't do it" speeches . . . and Paulie is still there, encouraging Rocky to "blast this guy's teeth out."

Perhaps, in the film's most famous bit of advice, during Rocky's grueling fight with Drago, as he's starting to see "three of 'em out there", Paulie's wisdom shines through once again:  hit the one in the middle. 

Rocky V (1990) - It's safe to say that the entirety of Rocky V is Paulie's fault.  When meeting with Rocky's financial advisor after all of his assets are stolen by a crooked accountant, Adrian even exclaims "we are here because of you, Paulie!" 

"Fightin's the ticket Rocko!"
Once Rocky's fortune is gone, who was smart enough to keep the keys to his old place in the neighborhood?  Paulie, that's who!  With that, the entire family moves back into the split house that Paulie and Adrian lived in during Rocky.

When young upstart Tommy Gunn starts hanging around, who is immediately skeptical of him and his goals?  Paulie, once again.  Of course Robert (Rocky Jr.) and Adrian soon follow suit, but it was always Paulie right from the beginning who never liked Tommy and didn't trust him.  In fact, Paulie is also the first one to notice the "ship is sinking" when George Washington Duke gets involved and leers Tommy Gunn away from Rocky! 

As Rocky becomes more and more blinded by the shine of Tommy Gunn's wins under his management and training, Paulie is keenly aware of the scams and deceptions going on.  He can't watch his good friend fall down and become a victim to all of it . . . during the Christmas celebration as Rocky desperately tries to connect with the family and Robert in particular, Paulie immediately detects the young boy's unease and embarrassment in front of his friends and decides to drop the charade and continue drinking while watching Christmas Vacation!  Later on, when Tommy "The Machine" Gunn fights a seemingly rigged title fight under George Washing Duke, Paulie can barely stand to see his friend wallow in the brief glory he experiences by seeing his former protégé victorious.  It's Paulie's decision (at Adrian's behest) to go down to Andy's Bar and put their teeth around a few beers . . . after all, what are friends for right?

It's also here where Paulie becomes the main catalyst for the climatic streetfight between Rocky and Tommy, by standing up and declaring to the latter "Tommy, you're a piece of garbage, you know that?" before getting punched out himself!  Paulie getting punched out by Tommy is the spark that sets Rocky off to beat the shit out of Tommy once and for all! 

To top it all off, while Rocky's schedule is filled up with training Tommy Gunn throughout most of the film, who helps train Robert to whack out the local bullies at his new school?  Paulie (obviously the more technical training comes from Jimmy [Gambina]), but Uncle Paulie is there to help Robert focus on the tasks at hand and for encouragement! 

Rocky Balboa (2006) - Who introduces Rocky to the "cartoon fight" pitting current Heavyweight champion Mason "The Line" Dixon in a fantasy battle against a prime Rocky Balboa?  That's right...Paulie.  This ultimately awakens Rocky from his peaceful existence as a retired boxing legend/restaurant owner in the wake of Adrian's untimely passing. 

Who is a receptive ear, listening to Rocky as he discusses the "stuff in the basement", ultimately forcing our hero to come to terms with his own demons and questions of mortality?  Once again, it's Paulie.  Fittingly so, right before the actual fight (where Paulie is, once more, working Rocky's corner), Paulie urges his old friend to leave it behind after this. 

During Rocky's annual runs of "The Tour" of Memory Lane on the anniversary of Rocky and Adrian meeting, who's always right there by his good friend's side?  Paulie...always. 

Unfortunately, by the time 2015's Creed spinoff rolled around, Sylvester Stallone decided to retire the Paulie character, by having him buried right next to his sister Adrian, for Rocky to visit daily.

So there, you see, while some people might have said "drop that bum", Paulie turned out to be quite the catalyst for many of Rocky Balboa's greatest triumphs.  A true unsung hero of The Italian Stallion. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Night of the Living Dead: 1990 -- A Look Back At A Modern Classic

One thing I love doing is introducing friends and family to some of my favorite Horror movies.  Often times, it's almost like watching the films again for the first time, as I'm always peering out of the corner of my eye at certain moments to see if they're as effective as they're supposed to be 20 or 30 (or 40+ depending on the movie) years later.  Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of introducing my oldest niece and her best friend to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre which, I'm happy to say, despite them being of the Youtube generation (15yr olds) who've seen the original trailer a few times over the years [thanks to the cool uncle - ED], it was still effective!  But, friends, that is a story for another time . . . immediately after that screening of Chainsaw, we introduced one of our good friends to Tom Savini's 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead.

These days, when it seems that every single classic Horror film that my generation grew up on is getting the remake treatment, we can't help but roll our eyes and sigh in despair.  Most are quick, studio cash grabs, designed to capitalize on an already established title, almost guaranteeing a successful opening weekend brand recognition.  Some have legs and generally surprising:  2003's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2004's Dawn of the Dead, and 2006's The Hills Have Eyes.  Others, more likely, are absolute misfires resulting in cinematic garbage:  2006's When A Stranger Calls, 2008's Prom Night, and 2010's A Nightmare on Elm Street, among many, many others unfortunately.  However, in the 80s and 90s, Horror remakes weren't churned out by studios on an almost monthly basis.

The genesis of the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead started with the best intentions:  to make some money off of the name for its original creators who infamously lost out on untold profits due to a copyright error.  Original director George Romero, along with co-writer/producer John A. Russo and producer Russ Streiner were again at the helm behind the scenes.  Having directed several episodes of Romero's Tales From The Darkside television series, it seemed like there would be a surefire hit with Tom Savini in the Director's chair (this was, after all, the beginning of special make-up effects gurus dipping their toes into the film-maker pool).  It seemed all the stars were aligning, so . . . what the hell happened?

Savini, Tom Towles, Patricia Tallman and a makeup artist on-set (from
Released theatrically in October of 1990, the film admittedly flew under even my own radar; for whatever reason, I wasn't reading Fangoria magazine all that much if Freddy Krueger wasn't on the cover, so I missed any word of this film during its production or original release.  Around the time it hit video though, I finally caught it on Cinemax and taped it (although, I missed the beginning, instead only knowing this remake from the point of Barbara showing up at the farmhouse!). 

Tony Todd as Ben and Tallman as Barbara
Savini has spoken at length over the years of what an absolute nightmare shoot the film was; production costs were cut during filming (thanks Menahem Golan!), leaving much of what Savini intended never getting beyond the storyboard stage and now legendary clashes with the MPAA over a potential X-rating literally gutted the picture for its theatrical release.  Speaking of the latter, however, by today's standards, the excised gore shots would be viewed as relatively tame. With hindsight being 20/20, the lack of gore sort of works in the film's favor actually...

"For the last time:  I don't want your damn pamphlets!  Get off my porch!"
Among Night 90's many strengths are Romero's script, which adheres to the basic plot of the original film -- people trapped in a farmhouse, surrounded by flesh-eating zombies; all the same characters that we know and love from the original -- but with a few twists and turns to keep diehard fans on their toes and constantly surprised.  The only real negative that I noticed has been Paul McCollough's painfully dated synth score that sounds like something from a cheap Sy-Fy Network original movie (although the piece that plays over the end credits is still just as creepy as it was the first time I saw the film!). 

The cast is strong and believable too:  Tony Todd as Ben, Patricia Tallman as Barbara, the late Tom Towles as Cooper, McKee Anderson as Helen Cooper, William Butler as Tom, Katie Finneran as Judy Rose, Heather Mazur as Sarah Cooper, and of course, Bill Moseley as Johnny.  Romero's script makes some surprising changes by having Barbara transform into a sort of Sigourney Weaver-type of survivor in the film's second half, but it also alters other characters a bit; Helen is more of helpless housewife in a loveless, abusive marriage...Tom is more of a redneck, good ol' boy...and Judy Rose is a lot more annoying, as she's always screaming and frantic.   However, these character types work, just as the original did in the sense of "Which one of these characters would you yourself be in this exact situation?"  Plus, it goes without saying that Towles nearly steals the show every time Cooper is on-screen, with his performance nearly rivaling the Karl Hardman in the original!

William Butler, Katie Finneran, Todd, and Tallman
The make-up effects, handled by longtime Savini assistants Everett Burrell and the late John Vulich, are outstanding.  While I'm a big fan of Savini's work on Dawn of the Dead (as weak or incomplete the zombies may appear next to, say, his work in Day of the Dead or even next to the likes of Fulci's zombies, I've always felt the blue/grey skinned zombies were the creepiest), I'd be lying if I didn't praise Night 90's zombies!  Drawing inspiration from autopsy photos, Burrell and Vulich's works really strive for realism with a yellowed/pale skin tone and sunken in proportions.  Seeing so many zombies slowly advance on the farmhouse in the dark is genuinely creepy and, I think, has yet to be rivaled in any recent zombie film! 

Greg Funk as the remake's Cemetery Zombie
Another strong, almost unsettling point is the film's coda.  Where the original had a posse showing up to "save the day" in a sense, Night 90 has a similar clean-up crew of hunters and bikers show up, only this time, they're more like Dawn of the Dead's rednecks (in a virtual Iron City Beer commercial), simply having a good ol' time huntin', shootin' and hellraisin'.  The festivities are on a much bigger scale here, with lunch trucks and make-shift wrestling rings set up for drunk rednecks to match wits with the Living Dead.  In fact, one of the more recognizable motorcycle raiders from Dawn of the Dead shows up as well!  There's just an overbearing sense of brooding in these brief scenes, especially when hunters unload their rifles on zombies that have been strung up, lynch style. Veterans from Romero's original, the late "Chilly" Billy Cardille and Russ Streiner (as an eye-patched Sheriff McClelland) show up to recreate the "...yeah, they're dead.  They're all messed up" line.

Unfortunately, upon its release, critics didn't agree and many fans were left scratching their heads with a resounding "Why?"  Sure it's a little too close to the original's storyline, but then on the flipside, if a remake strays too far from the original storyline (like a certain 2004 remake of a zombie film set in a shopping mall), diehard fans complain and boil with outrage.  Here, at least the original creators were involved and, to that extent, the right hands and hearts were in place with their intentions of remaking a classic.  In fact, I remember back in the early 2000s, a friend and I went to a midnight screening of Night of the Living Dead, billed as "the original classic" on the marquee outside...however, once inside, eyebrows were raised by the mylar clearly displaying the logo and rating for Night ' soon as the Columbia Pictures logo popped on-screen, many fans left in disgust and demanded refunds (we, of course, stayed and a had a great time!).

What?! They remade Night of the Living Dead? Those bastards!
Now, almost 30 (!) years after its release, it's safe to say that Night '90 has its share of fans and a level of appreciation found in other popular Horror remakes like John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly.  The film has seen a decent DVD release with a fine behind-the-scenes documentary, showcasing some of the deleted gore gags as well as an informative, no holds barred commentary track from Savini.  The film also received a curiously color-timed limited -- and ridiculously expensive -- Blu-ray release a few years ago, angering long-time fans.  Each year though, the film attracts a wider fanbase as more and more discover it and allow its due chance.
Cooper:  You got a problem with this remake?  Ya buncha yo-yo's!
Now, imagine a world where, instead of Zack Snyder's athletic zombies hopped up on Red Bull Dawn of the Dead remake and Steve Miner's 2008 WTF remake of Day of the Dead (or the second Day of the Dead remake due next year), but instead got remakes of these classics in the vein of Night '90.  I'd actually be okay with this . . . seeing remakes grounded in some sort of reality that closely follow the original storylines/screenplays, but with just enough differences to make 'em worthwhile for longtime fans.  Of course, touching either of these Romero classics -- let alone following them almost note for note -- would be viewed as heresy by many Horror fans, but hey, they couldn't be any worse than what has already been remade, could they? 

Do I have any food on my face?
Ultimately, Tom Savini's remake may have been doomed from the get-go -- because, really, how can one remake a true classic -- but he and his production team gave it the old college try, giving the world a favorable re-imagining that still holds up relatively well.  Considering the dirge of other unauthorized Night of the Living Dead remakes/sequels (thanks in no small part to that pesky copyright hiccup), Savini's film stands out as severed head and shoulders above the rest.  If you haven't yet seen it yourself, first go check out the 1968 original (again or for the first time!) and then give this one a spin.  You likely won't be disappointed!