Sunday, June 12, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

There’s a scene early in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, set in the summer of 1979, where we’re shown two of the main characters’ bedrooms. In that of our hero Joe Lamb’s, we’re treated to Aurora model kits of famous Universal monsters like the Hunchback, a Frankenstein mask, and a Creature From The Black Lagoon doll, as well as various era-specific comics and even an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland (what, no love for Fangoria #1?). The bedroom dwelling of aspiring filmmaker Charles has its walls adorned with theatrical one-sheets for Halloween and Dawn of the Dead. It’s quickly established that Super 8’s young characters are self-described “Monster Kids” and, if you have even a remote interest in horror or science-fiction, you just might be one, too, or at least grew up as one.

JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg definitely fall into that category and, with Super 8, wear that love proudly on their sleeves.

Abrams, along with producer Spielberg, hopes to awaken those possibly forgotten feelings of excitement over the latest b-movie playing at the local, single screen, movie theater or the newest monster make-up technique from Dick Smith (Tom Savini/Rick Baker/Stan Winston/Rob Bottin if you grew up in the 80s). At the very least, you might be able to go to the movies this summer and say “Finally. Someone gets it. I really don’t have a single thing to complain about with this movie.”

The top secret story involves a group of kids making a zombie movie with a borrowed Super 8 camera, who stumble upon a horrific train crash and subsequently get tangled up in the enigmatic red tape of an Air Force conspiracy. Their small Ohio town becomes invaded by uniformed scientists as townspeople begin mysteriously disappearing. Sheriff’s Deputy Jackson Lamb (played by Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler) starts asking questions and, before he knows it, crosses paths with his young son, Joe, and his adventure-seeking friends.

There are certainly elements of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T. present here (there are even some direct references throughout) and, it’s precisely the spirit of those early blockbusters Abrams is recreating. Sure, there is the standard use of summer movie CGI, but there’s also a subtlety and heart that has been missing in these types of films for a long, long time.
Recalling early Spielberg, at its core Super 8 is about a family – Joe and his recently widowed father, trying to put their lives back together and fill the increasing void between them. Their loss has also affected many of the townspeople (not counting the families of Joe’s friends) as well and the town as a whole is in need of something uplifting.

It’d be easy to sit here and point out things like “That town meeting bit was lifted from Jaws”, “this dialogue exchange between the kids echoes Goonies or Stand By Me”, or “that kid constantly hitting the dining room table is a direct homage to Close Encounters”, but it’s even easier to just sit back and enjoy what is truly a breath of fresh air for American summer movies. This summer, multiplexes will again be overcrowded with super-heroes, talking animals, and big, dumb, loud sequels to pointless CGI eye-candy. In fact, I’m interested to see how some of the younger moviegoers will respond to a picture like Super 8, given that they may have only grown up on movies like this through home video – that’s if movies like Goonies, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Close Encounters aren’t too “old” in their ever so critical eyes.

Even if you didn’t grow up in 1979, Super 8 hits all the right beats of adolescence and the types of kids you probably hung around with; there’s the total geek, the pyro maniac, the shy kid who probably hasn’t hit puberty just yet and, of course, the dreamgirl who’s totally out of your league and you think you’d die if she even talked to you.
The young cast, as headlined by newcomer Joel Courtney (as Joe), and rounded out by Riley Griffiths (Charles), Zach Mills, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, and Elle Fanning is terrific all around. All of the kids bring believable life to their characters and, frankly, I was pretty impressed to see such range coming from this bunch of actors. Their talent and relative anonymity is surely a treat given today's blockbuster standards of casting familiar faces from hit television shows.

Overall, Super 8 is a great summer movie and if it, along with 2009's Star Trek is any indication, we're all in for a treat as J.J. Abrams continues his flourishing career. See it!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Shock Waves (1977)

Ken Wiederhorn's Shock Waves is one of those "Holy Grail" Horror movies as far as I'm concerned. It's got everything needed for enjoyment:

-Awesome 70's poster art
-Great cast
-Creepy music (no need to really argue the difference between a horror movie with a score versus a horror movie with a soundtrack featuring
music from and inspired by the film) -rustic 1970s (or 1980s, depending on the movie) cinematography
-Rad 1970s vibe
-Atmosphere. Atmosphere. Atmosphere.

I'd first come across this movie in a book called Clive Barker's A-Z of H
orror, where it was discussed under "Z" for Zombies. All that was really shown was the poster art, in a glorious black and white reprint. Instantly, I thought to myself, "I NEED to see this movie!"
And so began my search at what seemed like endless Chiller Theatre conventions, always asking dealers if they had a copy of the long out of print VHS from Prism Video. Of course, like clockwork, I was always met with a "I just sold it" (sure ya did...). One day though, I finally score a copy of the film (albeit a dubbed copy with a black and white photographed cover, depicting the poster art on both the front and back -- but I didn't need any key plot points spelled out...I knew I'd love this movie)!!

Upon that first viewing after getting home from that Chiller show (seriously, at like 2am), I'll admit I had a rough time trying to stay awake, eventually falling asleep, but what I did see amazed me. It was
everything I'd hoped it to be and then some!

The plot is pretty simple: A group of strangers are stranded in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida when the touring boat they've boarded breaks down. Luke Halprin (of TV's Flipper) plays Keith, the heroic deck hand to John Carradine's Captain. After an encounter with a ghost ship (straight out of Death Ship actually), the group must take the boat's dingy over a desert island after someone spots a large hotel. But, as they soon find out, the island isn't completely deserted and a Nazi secret has been lying dormant in the depths of the ocean for the last 32 years....

Throw in the legendary Peter Cushing as a weird old Nazi commander and you've got yourself one hell of a 70s drive-in movie!

"Man, I was in Vampire Hookers -- what movies have you been in?"

One of the cool things about Shock Waves is its prologue, featuring an ominous voice-over and a creepy photograph of Nazi stormtroopers. The narration talks about Germany's secret investigation into the Supernatural before the start of World War II and how Der
F├╝hrer had enlisted a group of scientists to experiment on the bodies of the dead. Awesome, huh? Believe it or not, because of this intro, many people believe Shock Waves to be based in some fact . . . which it may very well be . . .

Story-wise, as I said, it's pretty simple and straight-forward. It really delivers on its premise. There's no outlandish action sequences and you really get the sense the film was made on a slim budget at an actual abandoned hotel in Florida.

Co-writer/director Wiederhorn would later go on make such fare as Meatballs II (which, incidentally, features clips of Shock Waves in it!) and, of course, Return of the Living Dead Part II . . . but this is creative peak, hands down. Seriously, there is nothing wrong with this movie. I'd have given anything to have caught it on "USA's Up All Night" or "Shocktober" on WPIX 11 back in the day. It would definitely be one of "those" movies where you'd have a fuzzy recollection of it and can't remember the name, all the while wracking your brain trying to remember more about it.

Underwater Nazi zombies. What's not to love?

Back on 6/29/01, I was fortunate enough to finally catch Shock Waves on the big screen -- as the second movie on a double bill with Cannibal Holocaust! While not really the perfect pairing in the truer sense of the word, it was still something to behold. Most people laughed and scoffed at the idea of water-logged Nazi stormtroopers stomping around the depths of the ocean, but man . . . I was in seventh heaven!!

"Carradine thinks he's the man, prancing around with his vampy whores, but I was in Star Wars sucka!"

William Lustig's amazing Blue Underground finally released Shock Waves onto DVD back in 2003 (though it still has no Bluray planned unfortunately) in a pretty nifty special edition featuring a commentary track from Wiederhorn, make-up designer Alan Orsmby, and filmmaker Fred Olen Ray. There's also a brief featurette with Luke Halprin, wherein he recalls his transition from television teen heartthrob to adult actor and shares some fond memories from the making of the film. Rounding out the set is a theatrical trailer (which, as far as I'm concerned, looks to be in better shape than the movie itself), a TV spot, radio spots, and an extensive gallery of posters, stills, and production photos.

A note about the print used for the DVD: according to the disc's liner notes, the film's original negative mysteriously disappeared nearly 30 years ago, so the film was transferred from Wiederhorn's own vault print and digitally restored for the DVD release. The overlook of the film is a bit soft and grainy with some minor print damage throughout -- which I'm certainly not complaining about at all (that just adds to its greatness as far as I'm concerned).

Overall, if you're in the mood for a great, often forgotten gem of a 70s horror movie, you owe it to yourself to track down Shock Waves. Also, being that it's rated PG and there is virtually not one drop of blood or slip of the nip, it would make a great gateway introduction for young horror fan in training in your household. See it!

"The sea spits up what it can't hold down."