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!

Monday, November 21, 2016

ROCKY: 40 Years of The Eye Of The Tiger

The piece which you see before you probably isn't so much a review or a retrospective of the Rocky series.  In fact, it's more a document of how the Rocky series and character has touched my life through some of the toughest challenges I've ever faced. 

40 years ago today, a small film was released.  It was a film that no studio particularly wanted to make, least of all with its unknown, struggling screenwriter in the starring role.  It was a film that spoke to every single underdog who gave it their best shot.  It was a film that spoke to American spirit of never giving up, no matter how stacked the odds may seem.  It was a film that would go on to win three Academy Awards -- including Best Picture and Best Director.  It was a film that was spawn an enduring 40-year franchise and give birth to an indelible title character. 


I've always considered myself an underdog.  Perhaps that underdog spirit was ingrained in me at a young age, maybe even before I knew what it was.  The character of Rocky Balboa is the underdog for every person who's ever felt like a nobody, a loser, or like they just needed their one shot at their dreams.  Rocky Balboa is the voice for the voiceless who feel they deserve their "shot", but cannot find that voice within themselves.  Rocky Balboa is a heart of gold encased in a rough exterior; coarse edges with what is perhaps not the most eloquent delivery at times.  Rocky Balboa is the wrinkled, favorite t-shirt in a room full of neatly pressed dress shirts and ties. 

I am Rocky Balboa.

The first time I met Rocky Balboa, I was a mere 3yrs old.  My parents took me to see my first big-screen movie in a movie theater -- Rocky IV -- at the old Barn Theater in my hometown of Frenchtown, NJ.  Maybe it was the fact that the screen itself may as well have been 30 feet high or that my parents had hyped up the experience that I would be seeing "a really big TV" (but I had to be very quiet during the movie) . . . but I was instantly hooked.  Of course, sitting atop my parents piled-up coats, I wound up falling asleep.  Though my memory is fuzzy of that experience, I do remember key scenes from the film and, of course, that soundtrack!  Almost immediately after seeing Rocky IV, I remember my mom buying me the soundtrack on cassette -- something I played almost exclusively and literally wore out from so many plays!

From that point on, Rocky Balboa was a personal hero of mine -- along with Indiana Jones, Mr. T. and, later, Freddy Krueger.  I had the Rocky and Clubber Lang action figures from Rocky III, as well as some strange erasure-like rubber figures of Rocky and Drago from Rocky IV.  Whenever a Rocky movie was on TV, I'd watch; though at that young age, they all kinda blended into one film.  As I grew older, the Rocky films sort of got buried in my totem of fandom and, strangely, became a sort of embarrassment for the point where I remember playing the Rocky IV soundtrack for a friend and lying to him that it was some sort of Christian Rock!

In 1990, I clearly remember seeing local news stories out of Philadelphia while Rocky V was filming and my dad clipping and saving newspaper articles for me about how Sylvester Stallone was going to kill off the character in a street-fight at the end of the film!  Philadelphia was pretty close to home and I begged and begged my parents to take me down their while they were filming, but it never happened.  Even when the film was released, for some odd reason, we didn't go see it in the theater!  Instead, I wound up catching most of it on Request Pay-Per-View (the first 10 or so minutes in perfect condition and the remainder of it through a scrambled signal like the Playboy channel!).  Again, not really sure why I didn't just rent the VHS when it came out! 

Again, Philadelphia wasn't too far from where I grew up and, as a kid, my parents would often take me into the city to visit the Franklin Institute or other various museums.  We'd almost always find ourselves driving by the Philadelphia Museum of Art at some point, but I never had the chance to get out and run up the stairs like my hero!

In 1996, the original Rocky celebrated its 20th anniversary and I recall a great deal of fanfare at the local Suncoast video as all five movies were re-released in a snazzy new VHS boxset.  I shrugged at such a release and moved on, ultimately feeling that maybe I'd outgrown the character. 

In the summer of 1999, I enrolled in a Video Production workshop class at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.  It was basically a week-long summer camp and we were housed in the Freshman dorms of Drexel University.  Early in that week, I'd heard that there was a free movie screening of Rocky actually ON the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art!  After some asking around, I managed to get approval to get some of us together and pile into a cab to head over to the screening!  Watching Rocky at that place, while sitting on those steps, surrounded by Philly locals was an absolute treat!  Naturally, the crowd exploded when Rocky actually runs up the steps.  Although the famous Rocky statue first introduced in Rocky III was no longer at the museum, there was a cool little plague with Stallone's Chuck Taylor footprints commemorating the film and character at the top of the steps! 

In 2000, I graduated high school and started at a local community college.  At the same time, I also started working a video store where I quickly re-acclimated myself with the Rocky series, as any one of them were my sort of "go-to" movies to put on while at work.  On 9/11/01, though I wasn't scheduled to work, I ended up coming in so that my boss could take some time off and reach out to his loved ones.  That night, I played Rocky IV on repeat as its sense of American pride and spirit spoke to me and brought comfort on that horrible day. 

By this point, I'd say I was pretty much a full-fledge Rocky fan once again and I didn't care who knew it.  By now, I'd manage to not only investigate, apply, get accepted to, and start classes at Rutgers University, but I was also the first in my family to do so.  I was determined to be the first to graduate from college and, not unlike a certain down-on-his-luck boxer from Philadelphia, it was all a million to one shot in my eyes. 

In 2005, Stallone announced the release of a mens' health book he had written called Sly Moves and that he was to embark on a book signing tour across the country.  Somehow, I'd heard that he would be in New York at Barnes & Nobel and I decided that I needed to be there.  After a train ride that seemed to take forever a short cab ride, I found myself walking towards the end of a line that never seemed to end, stretching across multiple city blocks.  "There's no way this is gonna happen," I thought to myself.  The entire afternoon, as I waited, there seemed to be a sense that NOT everyone would get in and get a book signed.  Of course, as soon as I got there, I grabbed up two copies of the book in the hopes that I'd get them signed.  Sure enough, once the signing started, the line started moving and continued at a brisk pace.  Before I knew it, there I was....inside the store and Stallone was mere feet away from me.  I couldn't believe it that right there was a man whom I'd looked up to for as long as I could remember.  [Just thinking about it while writing this is making me tear up actually - ED]  I could really use some of that Rocky spirit to push me through my remaining time at Rutgers towards graduation in 2006!  We were given the following instructions:  no personalized autographs and no photos with Stallone.  Fair enough.  Next thing I knew, a worker grabbed my books, opened them to their title pages, and placed them on the table that Stallone was signing at in front of me.  

My eyes were huge with amazement as the man sat there, not 5 feet from me, signing and looking up at the hundreds of fans in line.  My books were up and I immediately thought to myself "I have to take advantage of this moment...."

"Thanks Sly."  It just blurted out.  I don't even know how I managed to get those two words out.

He looked up after signing my books and looked right at me with his crooked smile of his.

"You're welcome."

Goosebumps.  [Then, and of course even now as I relive the memory 11 years later! - ED]

Throughout the series, Rocky had Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago, and Tommy Morrison.....I had Math.  Math has always been my greatest and toughest opponent, often pounding me into defeat and tears of frustration and heartbreak.  Throughout 2005, I worked my ass off trying to finish school and potentially graduate in December of that year, earlier than expected.  I literally did a bunch of classes in the Spring '05 semester, took some during the Summer semester, and then loaded up again in the Fall.  One of those classes that Fall was an uncredited Math course -- the second of which were required for my English Literature major.  The rest of my courses were a breeze; sitting in hours-long lectures?  Writing 20+ page papers?  I didn't bother me.  In fact, my grades in those courses were great as a matter of fact!  That Math class was all that was standing between me and "the title" of Graduation.  I'll never forget going into my Math final pretty much knowing that I was defeated...there was no way I could pass as my back was against the wall and the bell wasn't gonna save me this time.  I was done. 

Right before Christmas that year, I got my grades and, low and behold, I failed that Math class.  Surprisingly not by much...but I still failed and my fate was sealed in terms of an early graduation.  That day, I immediately signed up to retake the class during the Spring semester.  As I was reeling from the defeat, literally my life played out like the scenes following Mickey's death in Rocky III; I was mopey and needed some motivation.  As it turned out, Stallone was actually in Philadelphia filming Rocky Balboa, and so in January 2006, with a good buddy of mine, I set out to the city to see if maybe I could find the production and maybe catch a glimpse of my hero again.

Our first stop was the Sports Complex where the Rocky statute had been housed (when it wasn't in storage) after the filming of Rocky V.  As it turned out, the Philadelphia Museum of Art deemed the statue to be a mere movie prop, not fit to be on their property, so it had be moved to the more fitting Sports Complex near the Philadelphia Spectrum [RIP - ED].  It was a sight to behold as I suddenly found myself face to face with the Rocky statue!  To some, yes, it was a mere film prop symbolizing a franchise to (at least in the eyes of many) progressively went down in quality.  To me, though, it was a symbol of hope...a beacon of strength even...telling me that I could do this.  Shouting at me, as Mickey told Rocky in Rocky V "Get up, you son of a bitch!"

Soon after, we headed for the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the steps.  Now, going into it, I'd see hundreds of people run up and do the "Rocky dance" tons of times.  I probably even did it myself the first time I went there in '99 (though it was probably a little more subdued as I was around people I didn't really know, ya know?).  This time though...all bets were off.  Aside from two fellow sight-seeing fans that we ran into early at the Spectrum, no one else was around.  I remember walking up with every ounce of baggage about my seemingly crushed dream on my shoulders....and then I darted up those steps with every ounce of energy I had in me.

This pic here sits at my desk at work, reminding me that I can beat any odds.
From the top of the steps, I stood exactly where Rocky Balboa did in both Rocky and Rocky II, throwing my arms up in victory and triumph while I surveyed the city in front of me.  It was truly an empowering and exhilarating feeling.  The spirit of Rocky was now in me and I was ready to give the fight of my life!
When classes started back up, I reacted to this final Math class in a way that I never had before; with no fear and no pain.  I made sure that I either sat in the first or second row directly in front of the teacher's desk.  I made sure that I asked at least one question about the previous night's assignment; ensuring a discussion and How To was done for at least one problem I may have been struggling with.  When it came time to do my homework each night, I did not just once...but at least two or three times in a row.  However many Math problems -- fractions, equations, word problems (my toughest opponent probably) or whatever the hell I was doing -- I'd do 'em all multiple times to ensure they were engrained in my brain!  For each test leading up to the Final, I received the best Math scores of my entire school life!  It was working.  I had the Eye of the Tiger!  In fact, just before going in to take my Final, I vividly remember cramming one last study session in one of the commissaries.  I was cranking the Rocky IV soundtrack through my iPod, psyching myself up to go in and give everything I 

I passed with a strong score, effectively acing the class this time!  And, in May of 2006, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college.  It's a moment that I'll never forget and a win that I will cherish forever.  Not only did I pass the class and graduate, I also made the Dean's List either my second to last or final semester; another feat which I believed to be an impossible goal!   Much like how all of the Rocky films end with a freeze-frame, capturing that film's absolute peek moment for the character....that is how I will remember my time at Rutgers University.

December of 2006 saw the release of Rocky Balboa, a film that many scoffed at the mere idea of.  Stallone himself met such opposition in getting the film made that it seemed as though he were facing an incredible opponent the likes of which Rocky himself had never seen before!  Left and right, people were telling Stallone "No" and "you can't do this" . . . much like I had experienced throughout my atypical journey to and through Rutgers as a matter of fact.  When I saw the film on its opening day, I remember getting choked up and sobbing as it's revealed that Adrian has passed away and Rocky had very little left aside from a restaurant named after his late wife and his old pal Paulie, who was still stuck in the same dead-end job he'd been in 30 years prior in the original film.  Seeing the character of Rocky break down and speak about "some stuff in the basement" and a "beast" inside of him that needed to get was powerful stuff that I easily connected with on almost every level.  It was truly a remarkable film and a fitting cap to an inspirational film series. 

 In 2014, my youngest cousin got married in Philadelphia and my wife and I traveled back home to visit my family and attend the wedding.  The day before we headed home, we made a pilgrimage to several filming locations from the series in South Philly...namely, the area where Mighty Mick's gym, J & M Tropical Fish (Adrian's pet shop) and Andy's Bar from Rocky V exist.  We also hit Rocky's apartment (and street) which isn't actually too far from these locations.  Gotta admit, visiting these locations was incredibly awe-inspiring and just as moving as standing at the top of the "Rocky steps" in '06!

Yo, how ya doin' Mick?

J & M Tropical Fish...long since closed up.

This is pretty much the site of the street fight in Rocky V.

Of course, nearly a decade after Rocky Balboa, Stallone would once again revisit the Rocky character one last time (in fact, pretty much every single Rocky sequel was supposed to be "the last time") in a very different film called Creed.  Here, Rocky was more of a supporting character, finally at peace with his past and his fighting career effectively in his rear-view mirror.  He lives a somewhat lonely, quiet life outlined by daily routines of ordering/delivering food for his restaurant and visiting the cemetery where he visits the side-by-side graves of Adrian and her brother Paulie.  Into the mix though, comes Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky's one time rival and best friend, the late Apollo Creed.  Rocky reluctantly agrees to train young Donnie, only to face his own toughest opponent yet:  Cancer. 

I'm not ashamed to admit it:  when Rocky first receives his Cancer diagnosis and refuses treatment (Adrian died of "woman Cancer" as Rocky calls it, despite going through various treatments herself), I was a blubbering mess.  I went into Creed essentially believing that Stallone would finally kill off the Rocky character, as his story had pretty much reached its apex.  I'd come to terms with that very real possibility, believing that I'd have to say goodbye someone -- although fictional -- who has been both inspirational and friend-like for my entire life.  [for those of you who haven't yet seen Creed, you didn't really think I was gonna spoil the ending did you? - ED]

Today, when I watch a Rocky movie or listen to any soundtrack from the series, it's ON as far as I'm concerned.  I get hyped up to take on whatever challenge is in front of me.  I'm inspired to kick as much ass as I can and give my entire heart to whatever task is ahead.  Or, I just feel like fighting people!  Hey, Eddie Murphy wasn't lying about what happens when we see Rocky!

So, it is with this . . . me spilling my Rocky story, that I say a heartfelt THANK YOU to Sylvester Stallone for not just writing a screenplay and creating a character.  With the original Rocky (and its sequels), Stallone birthed a symbol for hopes, dreams, and success.  Rocky Balboa has always been and continues to be an inspiration to me.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Metallica: Hardwired...To Self-Destruct (2016)

First things last:  yes, Metallica's last studio album was 2008's Death Magnetic, but it's not as if the band released the record and then promptly sat around on their asses for the last eight years.  Starting in 2008, they toured the world for two years on Death Magnetic, got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, toured with their Big 4 brothers in Slayer/Megadeth/Anthrax in 2010 and 2011, recorded a secret collaboration record with Lou Reed (2011's much maligned Lulu), celebrated their own 30th anniversary with four MetClub-exclusive shows in their hometown later that same year, toured Europe for the 20th anniversary of The Black Album in 2012, started their own Metallica-themed festival in the form of  Orion Music + More also in 2012 (which repeated the following year), started their own record label in the form of Blackened Recordings also in 2012, filmed -- and bankrolled -- their version of Pink Floyd's The Wall (released in 3D/IMAX in 2013 as Metallica:  Through The Never) and did a handful of dates with their largest ever stage and production, got added to the Guinness Book of World Records as the first band to perform on all seven continents in a calendar year in 2013, performed their first "By Request Tour" in 2014 which saw the live debut of fan favorite "The Frayed Ends of Sanity", wrote a brand new song for said tour (the love it or hate it "Lords of Summer", which also appears in a reworked version on Hardwired's deluxe edition), 2014/2015 saw them begin their massive remaster/reissue project of their previous albums as well as compiling and releasing a hefty coffee table book (by author Matt Taylor) revisiting the entire Master of Puppets period . . . all before finally settling in to write and record new material that would become Hardwired...To Self-Destruct without much of a time-table, working on said new material as they pleased.

So yes, between 2008 and 2016, Metallica were indeed quite busy.

The wait is finally over friends!  I'm happy to report that Metallica have returned with an album not only worthy of the gap between the last record, but also worthy of the Metallica name.  If Death Magnetic was merely Metallica flirting with their thrash metal past (to some, with a degree of rambunctious energy that saw every single riff crammed into each song, resulting in some needlessly long songs), Hardwired...To Self-Destruct is the sound of a band firing on all cylinders like a focused machine bent on squeezing the life from its listener!

Production-wise, Greg Fidelman (who engineered Death Magnetic and has worked with the band ever since) brings a warm, thick feeling to all parts of the record.  If Death Magnetic had a production akin to set of dried out animal bones left baking in the sun for a few years, the production on Hardwired... appears to be a little more colorful and vibrant with its instruments front, center, and primed for a face-smashing.  Guitars are crunchy and thick -- Hetfield even claimed that this is the best guitar tone he's ever had!  Solos are tasty and inspiring.  Robert Trujillo's bass is thumpy, moving and, at times, ominous.  Lars Ulrich's drums are loud and thunderous -- not simply brick-walled.  And vocals are full, in your face at times, and soulful.  This is how Metallica sounds on record in 2016 -- and it is amazing!  Hetfield is truly the star of the show here as he shines in vocal acrobatics not yet heard on a Metallica record.   This is absolutely the record that maybe should have followed 1991's The Black Album.

We Metallica fans are a rabid, die-hard bunch; each new release from our heroes is a goddamn cultural event!  We eagerly count down the months and days while feverishly pre-ordering all manner of formats for a new record!  It's safe to say that our world nearly exploded when, on August 18th [my birthday no less! - ED], the band surprised all of us with not only the announcement of the album, but also the premiere of its first single and pseudo-title track, "Hardwired" ahead of their headlining stadium gig in Minneapolis, MN on 8/20/16 where the track received its proper live debut! 

Track By Track Breakdown

"Hardwired" - as a sampler of things to come, this track shows a band that is back and, even after 35 years, is still pissed off and has something to say.  "We're so fucked / shit out of luck" is such a statement that it had me literally jumping up and down like a little kid upon first listen just after checking into a hotel room in Springfield, IL the day the song premiered!  Musically, the track is a fierce, front-end loader of aggression bent on pummeling anyone within hearing range!  For my ears, this song is a borderline hardcore song with drumbeats that sound as though they'd be at home on any Cro-mags record.  The breakdown before Kirk Hammett's solo is enough to inspire some sweet stage-dives! 

"Atlas, Rise!" - all I really ask for in a new Metallica song is something that immediately makes me start headbanging, air-drumming, and playing air guitar.  As the album's second track -- and final pre-release single -- this one smokes!  Almost immediately, Hetfield's chunky and groovy riffage demands one to air-guitar along.  With a structure that would be right at home on the lovechild of Master of Puppets and the groove of The Black Album, "Atlas, Rise!" is a toe-tapper from front to back.  The chorus, with its Maiden-esque harmonies, commands goosebumps -- and, to me, that's a sign of a great song as far as I'm concerned.  "Die as you suffer in vain/Own all the grief and the pain/Die as you hold up the skies/Atlas, Rise!" is such an incredible piece in the chorus....I mean,
damn!!!  Just try and get those hooks in the chorus out of your head!  And, that Maiden-esque dual guitar harmony towards the end?  Beautiful.  This song has NWOBHM all over it! Lyrically, I'm a fan of what Hetfield has to say here, as he takes aim at people who worry too much about "the big cause" that they need to fight for, while ignoring those closest to them.

"Now That We're Dead" - starting with a backbeat that would make Joan Jett proud, "Now That We're Dead" is love song told through the melancholic Metallica prism of death and despair.  The song's main riff instantly gets stuck in your head and refuses to leave.  Hammett's solo is a strong statement, showing off his skills with something that sonically could have been on ...And Justice For All.  After the solo, there's a nice a jam/solo from Hetfield that recalls the extended jam of Load's "The Outlaw Torn".  

"Moth Into Flame" - here's a track that musically would be right at home on Ride the Lightning while echoing the observational lyrics of ...And Justice For All, spitting its venom at social media and the desire for instant celebrity.  Again, melodic hooks on the chorus tattoo themselves into one's psyche, immediately making this a standout track.   Hetfield's lyrics are incredibly strong with a call and response sort of list motif and the chorus is instantly memorable.

"Dream No More" - for Fifth Members (aka:  Metallica Club members), this is the new website welcome video riff.  Recalling H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos first dabbled in on Ride The Lightning's "The Call of Ktulu" and "The Thing That Should Not Be" from Master of Puppets, here is a mid-tempo stomper heavy enough to rattle your teeth loose!  Some have said the opening recalls "Sad But True", which I guess is there if you really want to hear it that way.  Hetfield goes into some brave new vocal delivery territory as he spits of lyrics soaked in dread; there's an overall Alice In Chains sort of vibe to the vocal with the main one being in a higher register and Hetfield doubling himself  in a lower one (ala the vocal plays that Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell were famous for).  The chugging of the chorus riff recalls a main riff in "The Thing That Should Not Be", this song's heavy older brother.  There's a cool little pause/sigh before Hammett rips into another face-melting solo as well. 

"Halo On Fire" - While it's 100% true that there are no traditional ballads in the sense of "Nothing Else Matters" present on this record, "Halo On Fire" kind of follows the formula laid out on Track #4 on the first four albums (as well as Death Magnetic) . . . only that seemingly tired formula has been updated for 2016.  It's not quite familiar territory in fact, as the song screams alive with energy and an overall sense of "newness".  This is easily a standout track [if not the best? - ED] from these sessions.  Some of Hetfield's darkest and moodiest lyrics set the tone for some sinister riffing throughout.  In fact, the song's final two minutes are -- for my money -- right at home next door to the melodic middle section of "Orion"!  It's as if the writing duo of Hetfield/Ulrich once again tapped into the melodies that the late Cliff Burton taught them over three decades ago.  From top to bottom, a standout track and easily one of the band's strongest -- ever!

Moving on to Disc 2, some pre-release reviews claim that the album's second disc is a bit unfocused and lackluster.  I can't say that I agree with those sentiments; however, if Disc 2 has any weakness it's that the songs on Disc 1 are just THAT GOOD, making for an incredibly tough act to follow!

"Confusion" - starting with a marching intro reminiscent of Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?", this song is another cruncher that echoes the PTSD struggles following the horrors of war seen on "Disposable Heroes" and "One".  Hetfield bellows "My life / The war that never ends" speaking for the soldier who has left the battlefield, but the war still rages on inside.  

"ManUNkind" - The only track not entirely written by Hetfield/Ulrich (Trujillo also contributes) is another first for Metallica; lots of groove.  Sure, the band has dabbled with groove before -- see the boogie-woogie of Load's "2x4" -- only here the groove comes courtesy of the one and only Black Sabbath.  Trujillo starts things off with a bass intro reminiscent of "N.I.B." before the song launches into a riff straight off the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath LP.  Hetfield's lyrics (and their delivery) also echo sentiments of vintage Sabbath as well.  Ulrich shines with drum beats and time changes that would make Bill Ward proud as well.  Trujillo's bass work on this track in particular has a bounciness in the vein of Geezer Butler even!  Guitar solo-wise, there's a cool moment as Hetfield sings "Seized by the day / All the dark days of your life" and Hammett rips into his solo that last word, with both sounds essentially becoming one. 

"Here Comes Revenge" - Here comes a song that will likely be right at home at US sporting events for years to come -- certainly in bumpers to and from commercial or in highlight reels.  Hetfield sings about the story of Cain and Abel, essentially the birth of revenge.  The main riff sounds like something loose and greasy off of Reload, only filtered through the mentality of the band who performed Kill 'Em All in its entirety in 2013.    Hammett's solo has a looseness with a Load/Reload attitude from the late 90s.  Later in the song, Hammett shines with some distorted shredding that sounds like a visceral beast awakening.  

"Am I Savage?" - another slab of groovy riffage in the vein of the Pepper Keenan-lead era of Corrosion of Conformity.  Lyrically, the song makes me want to watch The Howling or An American Werewolf In London.  Hammett lets loose with a solo spelling ones' doom as a hungry beast closes in. 

"Murder One" -- A fitting tribute to Motorhead's fallen frontman -- and unofficial Father/Uncle/Grandfather to the Metallica guys -- Lemmy Kilmister; the main riff is instantly recognizable as The Night Before riff that was jammed on after "Battery" during Metallica's first gig on 2016.   The overall progression of this main riff, combined with Ulrich's beats and Trujillo's bass has a feel simiar to "To Live Is To Die" [itself, a bit of a tribute to the late, great Cliff Burton - ED].  Listen, tributes by way of song can sometimes feel a little goofy and too sentimental for their own good (or even fail by trying to sound like the band or artist they're paying tribute to), but "Murder One" feels different and feels like a win.  Hetfield starts things off with a riff that is reminiscent of "Fade To Black" or "Sanitarium" before launching into the aforementioned Night Before riff.  Lyrically, the song recalls song titles and lyrics/phrases closely associated with Lemmy's persona and the overall Motorhead mantra.  It's quite the mid-tempo stomper, chock full of crushing riffage and the lyrics to match.  "Hear your thunder / Still feeding back..."  Lem would be proud.

"Spit Out The Bone" - The main riff is exciting as hell and demands headbanging and circle pits.  Again, there's a bit of a Cro-mags vibe in places on this track.  Hammett's solo sounds as if it came right off Kill 'Em All.  Trujillo even manages to gain a bit of Lemmy's bass tone for a small bass breakdown!  Again, Hetfield sets his lyrical sites on humanity's dependence on technology.  The section starting at 3:59 with a harmonic guitar doodle is, for my money, right up there with the closing 2 minutes of "Halo On Fire"!  "Stop breathing and dedicate to me / Stop dreaming and terminate for me..." -- I just got goosebumps typing those lines out! 

One of the most succesful aspects of Hardwired...To Self-Destruct is that everything about it feels so natural.  The uninformed may argue that the Load and Reload brothers were the sound of a band trying to stay relevant amongst the Soundgarden and Alice In Chains clones of the late '90s.  Other may say that St. Anger saw the band trying on the shoddy production and guitar solo-less mindset of the early 2000's nu-metal scene.  Other critics may claim that Death Magnetic saw the band mimicking their earlier glory days in both song-writing and overall album structure.  With Hardwired..To Self-Destruct though, as Hetfield told NBC Sports back in June before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, "(Hardwired) is exactly what it's supposed to be."

Once again, it is a great time to be a Metallica fan!

Oh wait, there's one more song to review . . . on the 3-disc deluxe edition of the record, 2014's "Lords of Summer" has been reworked during the Hardwired... sessions.  She's gotten some work done and had some fat trimmed from her; new lyrics as well.  I didn't mind the original version of the song, but I can definitely see its faults and, sure, some of the lyrics are a bit cringe-worthy.  However, here the song is made slightly better, though I guess the old expression of "you can't polish a turd" stands true here.  I get what the song is about and all, but it just falls a little short.  With that said, I'm glad that it isn't on the actual record itself...adding a previously released song (that is two years old) to a new record is a bit of a cheap shot (I'm looking at you No Doubt with putting "New" on Return of Saturn), though Metallica get points for actually reworking and re-recording the track here and throwing it in as a bonus on a limited edition.  Not bad. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Horror Movie Trailers: My Top 10 (for today anyway)

Ever since I can remember first going to the movies, the Coming Attractions (or previews/prevues, trailers, etc) have always been one of the excited aspects of going to the movies.  As a kid, I obviously didn't read too much about upcoming movies or know what was in the pipeline, aside from the odd heads up my Dad would throw my way after he'd heard it on the news or read in the paper.  There was something magical and surprising about seeing a coming attraction to a film that likely wasn't even in my vernacular before that very moment.

These days, trailers are still exciting, although the fun is taken away a bit now that we have trailer premieres on youtube well before actually seeing it played in a theater.  Also, it goes without saying that a lot of trailers are pretty redundant these days and, truthfully, in the last 17 or so years that I've been actively going to the movies on my own, there are some trailers that I've gotten incredibly tired of seeing again and again and again (fatigue from going to the movies too much maybe? - Ed.). 

Perhaps the argument for what makes a good trailer versus a bad one is something for another Constriction Pictures piece some other day though.  Instead, I'd like to share some of my favorite trailers and talk about what makes them so...

1.) Dawn of the Dead (1978)

What makes this trailer awesome?  Well, first and foremost, it's for my all-time favorite movie (obviously) -- but it's also a damn good trailer!  From the start, you've got Adolph Caesar's incredible, dread-soaked narration.  His voice, along with Percy Rodriguez (more on him later), was probably one of the most recognized in Horror trailer history.  On top of that, this trailer shows excited sequences from the film (spoilers though) without simply showing seemingly entire scenes.  It's got great graphics (more on that later) with that famous logo popping up several times.  All in all, it's just a solid, applause-worthy Horror trailer!  There's also a shorter version that utilizes an animated intro showing the film's poster artwork come to life!

2.) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973)

Here is the original release trailer for Tobe Hooper's classic; the New Line Cinema re-release trailer is cool, too, but this one just has a certain flare to it, making it feel 100% drive-in.  Again, cool narration throughout and awesome use of a logo.  It's also presenting a montage of sorts, showing off some exciting/terrifying moments without giving too much away. 

3.) Friday the 13th (1980)

This one is a good'un!  Featuring narration from "that trailer guy" Don LaFontane, the trailer for Friday the 13th terrorizes its audience with its seemingly never-ending body count of "1...2...3..." throughout its run time.  Granted, there's a bit of a fibbing and editing trickery in this trailer to make that body count inch closer to 13, but who's keeping score right?  If this was the first time I'd had any contact with the Friday the 13th series, I'd be terrified -- just by that counting!  Hell, it must have worked, as it literally continued with the trailer for Friday the 13th Part II the following year and the count restarted with the trailer for Friday the 13th Part 3D as well.

4.) Jaws (1975)

Another true classic!  While this theatrical trailer for Jaws is a little on the longer end of things (there were some great, shorter teasers as well), it still gets the job done and manages to excite the audience and hype the film!  Here, narration is handled by another famous Horror/Sci-Fi voice:  Percy Rodriguez.  The voice-over work from Rodriguez here perfectly depicts the terror of being stalked and attacked by a Great White Shark.  The clips herein are great, too, perfectly setting up the basic plot and, again, showcasing some of the action on hand.

5.) Alien (1979)

Here's a great trailer working together with the film's one-sheet to create a true sense of dread!  Using no dialogue or narration, the trailer for Alien takes viewers on a journey to the planet of LV-426 before smashing their sense with a quick, terrifying montage of clips as the volume gradually increases.  As much as it's effective in the film, the siren sound effect really sells Alien, not unlike the flashbulb pop effect in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre trailer!

6.) The Howling (1981)

Ahh, time for a red-band trailer!  You ever notice how there's that green screen with all the writing stating "The following PREVIEW has been approved for..." before almost every trailer?  There's a reason it's usually green, in that it was intended to be shown for "All" audiences (where owners obviously wouldn't show the trailer for The Terminator before a screening of Toy Story).  In this case, the red-band trailer for The Howling was approved for "Restricted" audiences -- ie: people who were already paying to a see an R-rated film -- Horror or otherwise.  While tame by today's standards, this red-band trailer for The Howling shows some of the film's more intense sequences, along with some cool poster-style animated slashes throughout.  For what it's worth, there are also black-band and yellow-band trailers (the latter specifically for internet-only, though these seem to have been abandoned) as well! 

7.) Scanners (1981)

Here's another red band trailer for you . . . and this is also a perfect example of showing what is essentially just a scene from the film.  Of course, in the case of Scanners, this isn't just any old scene from the film; we've got one of the film's bonafide, jaw on the floor sequences!  If you were a Horror/Sci-Fi fan when this trailer first hit, I cannot imagine you not dying to see Scanners!

8.) Silent Scream (1979)

Here's a trailer for a film which had a reputation preceding it long before I ever actually saw it.  See, when my parents were dating, they often went to the movies and, most times, they saw Horror movies; so I can thank the likes of Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, and Silent Scream for my existence!  Mom always told me about this movie: "it had a woman hiding in the attic and she'd come down and kill people" and then, how immediately after seeing it on a date with Dad, how she had to run and check the attic . . . which the door/stairs to, of course, happened to be directly across from my bedroom! 

9.) Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

First things first:  Peter Cushing rules.  When you have a film starring him and Christopher Lee, you've got cinematic gold as far as I'm concerned.  Hammer trailers were always awesome, but I had to go with this one since it was the first Horror trailer they did; and it's amazing from top to bottom!  You've got the ominous narration and some exciting copy throughout!  It sets up the story of Curse of Frankenstein quite well, while managing to showcase some of the film's grisly moments as well.  Again, just another exciting trailer that represents the Silver Age of Horror films perfectly. 

10.) An American Werewolf In London (1981)

Some of the best trailers and teasers don't even feature any footage from the actual movies themselves!  Along with the teaser for Leatherface:  Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (which I've written about numerous times), this teaser for An American Werewolf In London expertly uses newly shot footage to entice audiences to come check out the feature.  In fact, this is probably one of the most basic examples because it doesn't even feature anything really spectacular...just a trail of blood leading to a puddle and then a large werewolf paw stomping into it.  Simple and effective folks...maybe if some of the people who cut trailers these days paid attention, I'd be including some modern trailers in this piece! 

Speaking of modern trailers . . . I honestly cannot say that any have had the same sort of effect on me as the ones in this list.  Except for possibly the recent Star Wars and Creed trailers and teasers -- which, no doubt, got me excited as all hell, but were mostly exciting just to finally be seeing some footage from the films themselves -- I think most of these new only serve to generate clicks and hits on youtube.  The superhero trailers -- especially Marvel -- are all basically the same:  scenes of senseless destruction that would otherwise set an entire civilization back 20 or 30yrs, a CGI-looking suit and CGI stunts for said suit, the required "superhero landing" shot, that RWWWWAAAAAWWRR sound effect made popular in the Inception trailer, and possibly a catchy pop song (if it hasn't been covered by someone singing like they have a speech impediment, it's likely just a horribly butchered remix) and last minute funny, quotable quip before the credits shot. 

For modern Horror trailers, there's also a simple formula that, quite honestly, doesn't make the films look at that appealing.  My #1 pet peeve with modern Horror trailers is how any shots featuring any sort of blood in them are recolored so that the blood either appears to be chocolate or dirt.  What the hell is that?!?!  If the MPAA is gonna require studios to color tint any potential shots of blood, what's the sense of using that footage in the trailer anyway?!  Another peeve extends to the posters as well; using a shitty, generic-looking font for the logo.  All. The.  Time.  Even remakes of classics that had, ya know, memorable logos (three of the worst offenders that didn't even try to live up to their originals are Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Dawn of the Dead) usually opt for some neutral logo that appears to have been slapped together at the last minute!  It's insulting.  Again, there's also a reliance to use some old pop song in these trailers at times -- oddly sung/arranged cover or remix or even the original version -- because it's "creepy".   Seriously, I'm surprised no one has made a werewolf movie using Duran Duran's "Hungry Like The Wolf" in this fashion! 

Also, fans are still able to enjoy classic trailers through various compilations such as the 42nd Street Forever series from Synapse and Garagehouse Pictures' excellent Trailer Trauma and Trailer Trauma 2:  Drive-In Monsterama discs.  Of course, there are a number of excellent trailer collections on DVD, Blu-ray, and even VHS from all over the world, focusing on all genres!  One of my hobbies includes making my own trailer compilation DVDs digging through my collection that I've amassed from various special features in my DVD and VHS collections.  Making a trailer compilation is like making a good mix tape or a good setlist -- there is a particular flow to the proceedings! 

Until next time....please enjoy these Prevues of Coming Attractions!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

Despite somewhat promising trailers, Ouija:  Origin of Evil is a mess.  As a prequel to 2014's moderate hit Ouija, director Mike Flannigan (Oculus, Hush, the upcoming Gerald's Game) creates a film that doesn't really know what it wants to be.  At times, the proceedings feel (and look) like a spooky supernatural pilot episode for an NBC series, with stilted writing and wooden acting from some of its young cast.  Other times, the film is not sure if wants to be a simple carbon copy of more successful films like the Insidious or Conjuring films.  Ultimately, Flannigan's film will probably see just enough box office success to churn out another sequel to the original film which will, no doubt, repeat the process.

Set in Los Angeles 1965, the titular Ouija board becomes a new angle in the tarot card reading/séance scam run by a widowed mother (with the special effects aid of her young daughters, Doris and Lina).  Not long after the Hasbro game is introduced, young Doris starts communicating with her deceased father -- or so she thinks -- from the other side.  The usual oddities start happening to Doris at this point; eyes rolling into the back of her head, mouth agape like the "Come To Daddy" video from Aphex Twin, writing journal entries in Polish...  Enter the principal and head priest at the girls' Catholic school, Father Tom Hogan (Henry Thomas in a wasted role) who intervenes to investigate via a by-the-numbers possession trope -- when he first arrives at the house, Flannigan deliberately echoes Father Merrin's arrival in The Exorcist, though here it's during a bright, sunny day.  William Friedkin's classic is even recalled when Father Hogan interviews Doris while she's seemingly a conduit for the priest's own deceased wife. 

Cue "Tubular Bells"
Honestly, nothing truly interesting happens until the Scooby Doo moment when the true nature of the house is discovered -- via the Polish journal entries that Doris was a vehicle to write out.  Unfortunately, it's a bit of "too little, too late" as whatever interesting parts of that story arch are tossed aside for cheap scares and ridiculous-looking CGI demons...or ghosts...or whatever they're supposed to be (think a cross between Pulp Fiction's The Gimp and American Horror Story:  Murder House's Rubber Man).  During what characteristically should be a strong third act, things really start to fall apart for Ouija:  Origin of Evil as character possessions are telegraphed from a mile away and what was probably meant to be a classic jump scare unfortunately comes across as an unintentionally hilarious moment. 

Horror Boyfriend Material:  Comedic Relief Since 1984

When did it become a requirement for any ghostly characters to do stuff like this?
Unfortunately, those aren't the only two weak points in the film; Lulu Wilson, as Doris, does a carbon copy impression of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and David Dorfman in The Ring -- ie: your standard "creepy little kid" cliché.  Perhaps it's due to the writing as well, but there are times when this 9yr old little girl is spewing dialogue like she's a 30yr old, immediately killing any believability in those scenes.  Also, there's a bizarre subplot that tries to lay the foundations for a love connection between the widowed Alice (Elizabeth Reaser of the Twilight saga) and the widower Father Hogan!  The way it all plays out on-screen comes off as just as awkward as the two characters are when they're having dinner and Alice is showing an ample amount of cleavage! 

You know she's weird because Blank Stare.

Although kudos to Flannigan for starting the film with Universal Pictures' old logo (1963-1990) that most of us grew up with, his attempt to be cute and "retro" by digitally adding a black dot every 20 minutes or so to signify a reel change, while well-intentioned, is more distracting than nostalgic.  For a film shot digitally and released in a era when there is no such thing as reel changes any more thanks to digital projectors, this cute motif was a nice attempt to say "Hey, this is an old school film!  Look!" but it comes off as more of annoyance and only points out how slick and unbelievable shooting digital versus on film stock can appear. 

Hey!  How are ya?
As a prequel to the events in Ouija, this films takes place in the same house and Lina (played by this subgenre's resident go-to actress, Lin Shaye in the original film) is portrayed a high school sophomore by Annalise Bosso.  Bosso is effective and likable as Lina, though the script almost immediately kills any sort of "Yeah!" factor introduced by the character and her actions.  The goofy ending, I guess, bridges this film and the previous one.  However sequel, prequel, or not...this film should have been able to stand on its own and not confuse the hell out of the uninitiated. 

Annalise Bosso as Lina
In the end, Ouija:  Origin of Evil is an entertaining 99 minutes, but you're likely better off staying home and watching superior films with similar ideas like The Exorcist or Witchboard.

Oujia:  Orgin of Evil is a bored game.

Skip it!