Friday, July 27, 2007

Episode 27: It Came From the 80's

Hot on the heels of our werewolf night, the next Fantasmo is just one week away on Friday, August 3. Having abandoned our regular first Friday schedule during the chaotic summer, Rob and I are looking forward to finally getting back to normal . . . and what better way to do so than a dip into the world of 80’s horror! This time around we’ve selected two undeniable classics, which both feature vampires (among other terrifying creatures). Here is our expertly chosen lineup:

8:00 P.M. – The Monster Squad (1987) – Rated PG-13
This one is as cult as it gets. Seen by a mere handful of people in its theatrical release, The Monster Squad disappeared from theaters quickly, and barely made it to video at all (it's been out of circulation for well over a decade). Only through the devotion of a rabid fan base has the film become one of the most beloved monster films of the era. The premise involves a group of pre-teens (think The Goonies) squaring off against the classic Universal monsters (led by Dracula), to prevent the end of the world. Although this could have turned into a cheeseball, kiddie movie, director Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) shaped it into a love letter to all monster movie fans (particularly in respect to the Universal horrors). Great stuff!

10:00 P.M. – Fright Night (1985) – Rated R
Our second feature is a Team Fantasmo favorite! The legendary Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes) plays an aging horror show host recruited by a terrified teen to do battle with his next door neighbor . . . a vampire (played by Chris Sarandon in the role of his career). Fueled by great performances, amazing special effects, and of course a terrific 80’s pop soundtrack, this is truly one of the greatest vampire films ever made! Hey, how can you go wrong with a film that features the invigorating sounds of Devo and the J. Geils Band?!?

So there you have it Superfans, another magical evening awaits you in the cozy confines of the Fantasmodome. See you there!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ode To Pare

In my post on Silver Bullet I mentioned having an opportunity to also watch Bad Moon, our middle feature in this Saturday’s werewolf tribute. It’s an enjoyable film featuring all the hallmarks of a fun, B-grade horror entry, and was 90 minutes well spent. While the story and performances kept me engaged, perhaps what interested me most in approaching the film was the casting of lead actor Michael Pare. If you were growing up in the early 80’s, you probably have a pretty good fix on who this guy is. If your first experience is Bad Moon (circa 1996), then you’ll probably be scratching your head saying Michael who? Just to give you some preparation, I thought it might be informative to talk a bit about Pare, and a phenomenon (prevalent in the late 70’s/early 80’s) of which he is a perfect example . . . something I like to call the big splash, slow crash effect. To explain how this phenomenon plays out, first I’ll give you a little background on Pare’s career.

According to legend, Pare got his break after being noticed while working in a New York restaurant (apparently he was training to be a chef). While he appeared in a few minor parts early on, his first noteworthy role was on the popular television series The Greatest American Hero. On the show he played a character named Tony Villicana, who was more or less a tough guy/biker with a heart of gold. The character was popular, and served as a launching point for what would become Pare’s best-known character, Eddie Wilson of Eddie and the Cruisers (1983). In that film Pare played a tortured rocker, who was essentially a variation on his character from Hero. While the film was not an outright blockbuster, it had a wildly popular soundtrack (featuring the ubiquitous ditty On the Dark Side), and has since gained a substantial cult following. At the time, it was certainly successful enough to ensure that Pare would continue to receive decent parts in high profile films.

Following Cruisers, Pare was cast as the lead in 1984’s Streets of Fire, a film that should have cemented him as an A-list leading man. Streets was the brainchild of action director Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hours), and was a most unusual concept. Set in “another time, another place,” the film incorporates elements of several genres including action, rock musical, and science-fiction. The plot involves a soldier of fortune (Pare) being hired to rescue a pop singer (Diane Lane) who has been kidnapped by a ruthless biker gang, set against a Blade Runner-like backdrop. Everything about the production is first-rate, and the movie is entertaining from the word go. Additionally, it features a terrific 80’s soundtrack (that was huge at the time), with hits such as Dan Hartman’s I Can Dream About You. Unfortunately the studio didn’t know how to sell the picture, and audiences weren’t sure what make of it. Not surprisingly, the film was a financial disaster. Note: In my opinion this is Pare’s best film . . . a future Fantasmo perhaps? Hey, you can’t go wrong with a Walter Hill action movie!

After the fiasco that was Streets of Fire, Pare got one more shot at the big time with the science-fiction outing The Philadelphia Experiment (executive produced by horror master John Carpenter). Basically a time travel adventure, Pare is again cast as a tough-guy hero, thrown forward in time as part of a botched military project. Once there he of course checks up on his past, and tries to find a way back to his time. While an entertaining film, The Philadelphia Experiment was not the type of success Pare needed to assure his stature. It received a lukewarm reception, and served to relegate Pare to an endless stream of straight-to-video work (e.g. Moon 44, Lunarcop, Space Fury, etc.) occasionally punctuated by cameos in big screen roles (e.g. Village of the Damned, The Virgin Suicides, Inland Empire, etc.). No great tragedy perhaps, except that he’s a pretty decent actor and probably didn’t deserve to be cut off so early in his career . . . and he’s not alone.

While I’m sure one could point to numerous examples throughout Hollywood history, in the late 70’s/and early 80’s there were a host of leading men in genre pictures that shared the experience of Pare . . . what I call the big splash/slow crash effect. Essentially this phenomenon entails the following:

1 – Actor has significant initial fortune in a successful/high profile film, after being plucked from relative obscurity.

2 – Actor follows with projects that fail to duplicate previous success or notoriety.

3 – Actor is quickly relegated to obscurity, receiving little or no substantial work.

4 – Actor refuses to go gently into that good night, and continues to appear in sub par productions for decades.

Clearly Pare fits this mold. His success in Eddie and the Cruisers assured him as a recognizable commodity. He followed with films that should have built on his debut, and cemented his position as a bankable leading man. After box office failures unrelated to his performance, Pare quickly became persona non grata with the Hollywood studios. Favoring work more than his legacy, Pare struggled on (to this day he has over 70 credits to his name) producing a body of work that is best described as mostly awful. Want some more examples? Here are a few leading men from the period in question, along with their early hits/subsequent misses . . .

Michael Beck: The Warriors/Xanadu

Barry Bostwick: The Rocky Horror Picture Show/Megaforce

Zach Galligan: Gremlins/Nothing Lasts Forever

Mark Hamill: Star Wars/Corvette Summer

Richard Hatch: Battlestar Galactica/Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen

Sam J. Jones: Flash Gordon/Jungle Heat

Ralph Macchio: The Karate Kid/Teachers

Kyle MacLachlan: Dune/Blue Velvet (Note: This is a great movie, but forever typecast MacLachlan as quirky).

David Naughton: An American Werewolf in London/Hot Dog: The Movie

William Ragsdale: Fright Night/Mannequin 2: On the Move

Christopher Reeve: Superman/Somewhere in Time

I could keep going, but this gives you an idea of what I’m talking about. Essentially you have folks who could/should have become A-list actors. They had the initial boost, but for a variety of reasons became sidetracked. To be fair, some of them have gone on to moderate success (e.g. Kyle MacLachlan surged with Twin Peaks, and has had recurring roles on Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives), and some individuals remain icons based on the strength of their initial work (e.g. Mark Hamill). Additionally, I’m not suggesting that all of the follow-up work was bad, but clearly it didn’t serve these actors well in terms of strengthening their careers. The bottom line is that each of these individuals got a bit of a raw deal. To quote my friend Tony, “what kind of a world do we live in where Patrick Dempsey gets a second chance, but William Ragsdale remains in obscurity?”

So be sure to come out this Saturday night and pay your respects to the unfortunate Mr. Pare, who absolutely deserved better. You may not witness the high point of his career, but you’ll still have a lot of fun : )

One final note, Klaxar’s Focus Group will be screening/skewering Phantasm tonight (7/19) at 10:00 p.m. The show will be held at The Boot in Norfolk, and admission is $3.00. More information is available at http://www.insidetheboot.com/ or from Klaxar member George Booker at gwbook@hotmail.com.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

They're here . . .

Time for more greatness from the summer of 1982! Continuing with the horror theme, the next film I’d like to highlight is Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. I’d hazard that this is one that pretty much everyone has seen by this point, so I won’t go into any significant description of the film itself. What I would like to focus on instead is a) my experience with the film, and b) the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg controversy . . .

My initial encounter with Poltergeist began in the spring of 1982. At some point in the months leading up to that summer, I found myself at the local bookstore’s magazine rack leafing through Fangoria magazine. For those of you who have never see this publication, basically it’s devoted to horror films - especially those that are somewhat gruesome. Back in the days prior to the Internet, I spent a lot of time with Fangoria and it’s sci-fi cousin Starlog to keep up to date with what genre films were on the horizon. (As a side note, I was curious to see if Fangoria is still published and was happy to find that it’s alive and well at issue #264). Although there were several other related publications at that time, Fangoria stood out because it was always loaded with impossibly gory still images from the wildest films imaginable. Truly, the simple act of flipping through it was a courage check . . . much less actually seeing the films.

With that in mind, the issue I was checking out had a cover story on none other than Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. Incredibly, even at that young age the name Tobe Hooper already meant something to me. As luck would have it, I was extremely fortunate to have an older cousin who would take me along to horror movies. Consequently, I had seen The Funhouse a few years earlier. Plenty of what happened in that film was lost on me, but I was mesmerized by the monster chasing the teens at the carnival setting. And while I had never seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I was certainly aware of it. As such, receiving the news that a new Hooper film was coming out was a cause for great excitement.

As I raced through the magazine to reach the article and images, I was assaulted with some of the most horrific-looking stills I had ever seen in that publication! Images of Jobeth Williams in a muddy swimming pool filled with skeletons, a monstrous esophagus erupting in a child’s bedroom, an extremely gross photo of an apparently melting human being, etc. My initial thought was that this movie was going to cause a major uproar . . . and be extremely cool : ) How right I was! But what truly shocked me was when the film came out and was rated PG (turns out it was originally given an R until Spielberg intervened, and ultimately it served as one of the catalysts for the creation of the PG-13 rating)! While I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to work too hard at convincing my folks to let me see it, I was dumbfounded that the film described in Fangoria could slip by with a mild warning about parental guidance.

Needless to say, by the time June 4, 1982 rolled around I was more than eager to get to the local multiplex to see how things turned out. What a way to start summer vacation! A group of fellow friends and I were dropped of by someone’s parents, and we proceeded to wait in a line that wrapped around the theater. After we finally got our tickets, and made our way inside the chilly theater with the rest of the crowd, the excitement in the air was palpable. Finally the lights went down, and for the following two hours we had the pants scared off of us (not to mention the rest of the audience that was also jumping and screaming)! Indeed, the plethora of terrifying images and moments we witnessed would fuel discussion not only throughout the rest of that summer, but many lunch table analyses well into the fall school semester.

While Poltergeist has gone on to become an undisputed classic of the genre over the past several decades, there has been a longstanding controversy surrounding its production (which I was unaware of at the time). Direction of the film is credited to Tobe Hooper, while Steven Spielberg acted as producer and supplied the story. Unfortunately for Hooper, Spielberg is apparently a hands-on sort of guy, and this led to his exerting a fair amount of influence over the finished product. So much so, that many have speculated that Hooper was nothing more than a tool, with Spielberg being the true creative element behind the scenes. Apparently there is no definitive evidence, and the various parties involved offer varying takes. As a result, one must look at the finished product for answers.

In my opinion, it seems that the film was a joint effort, with both men adding personal touches . . . which results in an interesting hybrid of their unique styles. Clearly, there are a number of scenes where Spielberg’s work is on display. These mostly include the “heartwarming” interaction of the family members, and moments that inspire childlike awe. You know what I’m talking about. In every Spielberg film an amazing image is presented and the camera then zooms in on the faces of the characters, usually with their mouths hanging open. The fact that we are supposed to share in the wonder they feel is usually driven home by composer John Williams, but here Jerry Goldsmith performs the duty (Williams was busy working on Spielberg’s E.T. which was also in production). There’s nothing particularly heinous about this type of thing, but it does get a little repetitive after you’ve seen a few Spielberg films. The question is whether it works in this instance . . . more on that in a moment.

As I said, in my estimation this was a collaboration, which means there are also elements that scream Tobe Hooper. Primarily these include the sequences and situations that feature envelope-pushing horror (e.g. evil clown dolls, graphic violence, physical abuse the actors are clearly enduring, etc.). These in-your-face, uncompromising details are all typical of Hooper’s previous efforts. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg has featured folks melting and exploding heads in his films (Raiders of the Lost Ark), but it usually amounts to spectacle – here it’s terrifyingly real, and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. It is this quality that marks the majority of Poltergeist’s fantastic visuals as the property of Hooper. If they had been left to Spielberg, I have a feeling that they would have been largely toned-down, and ultimately less effective.

Assuming the proposition of a dual effort, with both men directing, I would submit that the arrangement worked out pretty darn well. The combination of Hooper’s visceral horror with Spielberg’s “magic,” resulted in a film that was not only terrifying, but also extremely polished and epic in scope. If it hadn’t been for the negative rumors that spread about Hooper following production, I believe Poltergeist would have been a great moment for him. Up to that point, his films had been relatively small in scale. With Poltergeist he could have learned from the master of the blockbuster, and used the knowledge to move on to the next phase of his career. In fact, Hooper would go on to make at least one bona fide epic (Lifeforce), which showed he had what it took to play in the big leagues. Unfortunately, the combination of poor box office returns of his subsequent films, as well as the lingering doubts left by Poltergeist, led to his gradual decline into straight-to-video features . . . which is a real shame. Still, he has a number of classic films to his credit, and will always be an icon of horror cinema.

For even more info on all things Hooper and Poltergeist, be sure to check out Eaten Alive At A Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper by John Kenneth Muir. It’s truly the ultimate resource on the man and his work. John hosted a Fantasmo screening of Hooper’s Invaders From Mars and The Funhouse a couple of summers ago, and gave a terrific lecture. You can get the book at (of course) Chesapeake Public Library, or purchase multiple copies online at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Finally, be sure to have a look at author/producer Joe Maddrey’s blog Maddrey Misc. Joe recently took a trip to the shooting locations for Poltergeist and took some terrific photos . . . I for one envy the folks who live in the Freeling house (apparently it didn’t really implode at the end of the film : )

Saturday, July 7, 2007

An Unexpected Endorsement: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Haim & Busey


You’d be surprised how tough it was for Rob and I to choose three werewolf films for our July episode – especially given we were operating with the theme “good, bad, and ugly.” An American Werewolf in London was a no-brainer, as it’s certainly one of the best of the genre (and arguably the best in my opinion). But for the bad and the ugly . . . there are a LOT of bad werewolf films out there. The Howling series alone (after the original) is chock full of titles to choose from. However, being the kind sort of fellows we are, we wanted to select films that were bad but fun to watch. After all, we have to suffer through them as well : )

With that in mind, something interesting happened. We each managed to pick something the other hadn’t seen (which is very rare for us, believe me). Rob selected Bad Moon (the bad) and I went with Silver Bullet (the ugly) – yep, we have a great deal of faith in each other (in spite of the fact he was largely responsible for The Apple and I for Gymkata : ) Well, over the long holiday weekend I had an opportunity to watch both Bad Moon and Silver Bullet (which I hadn’t seen since opening day in 1985), and have to say they’re both very entertaining. I expected Bad Moon to be fairly decent based on what I’d read, but (going on my fuzzy memory) I was anticipating something truly awful with Silver Bullet. Instead, I was treated to a film that managed to surprise me at every turn - not with its standard werewolf plot, but in its outrageous execution.

Based on a novella (Cycle of the Werewolf) by Stephen King, Silver Bullet is a simple tale of a small town under siege by what else, a werewolf. As the body count rises, only a young boy (Corey Haim) who discovers the monster’s identity can bring an end to the killings. That’s the movie in a nutshell. Ho-hum, right? Wrong. The “magic” unfolded from the moment I pushed play on the remote . . .

First off, I immediately noticed that the film was shot in the anamorphic, widescreen aspect ratio of 2:35:1, usually reserved for epics and blockbusters. Now, I don’t like to be one of those people who go in pre-judging something based on surface characteristics, but I was not expecting “epic” out of Silver Bullet (not even in 1985). By choosing this format the director (whom I will speak of toward the end) is making a bold statement, in as much that he fancies himself able to fill every inch of screen space with important, visual information.

The next item that caught my eye as the titles came on the screen was the cast list. Sure I knew it starred Corey Haim and Gary Busey, but listen to some of the other names on the roster: Everett McGill (Dune, Twin Peaks), Terry O’ Quinn (Millennium, Lost), Bill Smitrovich (Millennium, Crime Story), and Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs). If you’re not familiar with those names, trust me you’ll recognize the faces. Already my hopes had risen just a bit.

My expectations continued to increase when I saw that the score was by Jay Chattaway. I’m not going to sit here and tell you Mr. Chattaway is John Williams, but his early career was spent scoring some great B-movie classics including: Maniac, Vigilante, Missing in Action (1 & 3), Invasion: U.S.A., and Maniac Cop (1 & 2). I can’t say for certain, but I would guess that Silver Bullet is his masterpiece. As the film starts he provides a nice John Carpenter-esque synthesizer score, and then goes on to do a number of themes. You get after-school special hokum, spaghetti western homage, cheesy military overture, quasi-Goblin moments, and so much more. It’s a true tour de force.

As if the above weren’t enough, the werewolf effects were credited to legendary effects master Carlo Rambaldi. What has the late Mr. Rambaldi done you may ask? Twitch of the Death Nerve (the inspiration for elements of Friday the 13th), Night of the Devils, Andy Warhol’s Dracula & Frankenstein, Deep Red, Alien, Conan The Barbarian, E. T., and Dune to mention but a few. Things just kept getting better.

Finally, the screenplay was by none other than Stephen King himself. Now this can be a good thing or a bad thing, as his movie efforts (as writer and director) have been hit or miss (with more in the miss column). I don’t know that King intentionally went for over-the-top camp here, but the dialogue is so ridiculous at times it’s hard to believe otherwise. I guarantee that there will be lines from this film that will become standard entries in my mental reference book from which I regularly draw. Truly the creativity behind such dreadful prose is nothing short of genius, and I mean that sincerely. You will laugh. You will cry. And to quote the film itself, “you will make lemonade in your pants.”

With an unexpected amount of optimism and good will generated by the opening credits, it was time to settle in for a ride on the Silver Bullet. With a 95 minute running time, the film wastes not a single second in getting down to business. The action starts with veteran character actor James Gammon (Cabin Boy) being decapitated (most unconvincingly) by the furry antagonist. The effect of Gammon’s flying head is so wildly cheesy, that it is nothing short of a shot across the bow letting brave viewers know what madness awaits. From this point forward we’re treated to:

*A church picnic introduction that is worthy of a David Lynch film.

*An after-school special type drama between Corey Haim and his teen sister (who sporadically narrates the film years later as an older woman), struggling to come to terms with each other.

*Gary Busey as Corey Haim’s loveable, alcoholic uncle. Trust me when I tell you this is Busey in full-on Busey mode, not Busey in Lethal Weapon-comeback fighting shape. Every preconceived notion you have about the man will only be reinforced by this performance. Great stuff!

*Lawrence Tierney going mano a mano with the werewolf, using a baseball bat called “The Peacemaker.”

*A surreal and oddly hilarious sequence featuring a church full of werewolves.

*Corey Haim in a turbo-charged wheelchair called, I kid you not, “The Silver Bullet.” Fire literally comes out of the exhaust pipes!! Any attempt at treating the character’s handicap in a serious fashion immediately goes out the window when we witness Haim in a Fast and the Furious style road duel with the villain’s Ford Crown Victoria.

*A montage in which the sister seeks out the killer’s true identity, that plays like a tribute to the films of Sergio Leone (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but just a tad bizarre in this particular film).

And that’s just a taste. Ultimately, the combination of so many offbeat elements makes for a rather fascinating, if disjointed experience. While I can’t say that Silver Bullet is a “great” film, it never fails to entertain and is constantly surprising. The story may be familiar, but stylistically one never knows what is coming next. I thought An American Werewolf in London would be the evening’s highlight, but this will come in a close second. A grudge match between quality (American Werewolf) and absurdity (Silver Bullet)! Seeing this on the big screen is an absolute must!

One final piece of trivia you might find interesting. After sitting through this surprisingly enjoyable film, I was curious to know what other work director Daniel Attias had to his credit (as the name didn’t ring any bells). From what I can tell, he’s never made another feature film, but has gone on to direct episodes for some of the coolest shows on television. A short list includes the following: Sledge Hammer!, Miami Vice, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, Lost, Deadwood, and Entourage. Not a bad resume . . . and it all began with Silver Bullet!

Monday, July 2, 2007

Cats Are People Too . . .


Continuing on with my mini-tribute to the summer films of 1982, the next classic I’m highlighting is yet another remake - Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader’s Cat People. Much like The Thing, this film was also maligned as inferior to the original at the time of its release, but two decades later it has also aged extremely well (for the most part) . . .

Cat People is based on the 1942 film of the same name, produced by the legendary Val Lewton. Lewton’s name is well familiar to horror fandom, with titles such as I Walked With A Zombie, The Ghost Ship, The Seventh Victim, and several other classics to his credit. The original film told the tale of Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a young, New York City designer who falls in love with architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). When the two marry, Irena reveals that she is under a curse which will cause her to transform into a deadly panther if she has physical contact with a man. Needless to say, this causes a rift in the marriage, and sets up the action for the film when Oliver becomes friendly with a female colleague.

The film was praised by critics, and rightly so. It possesses a great sense of style, and opts for a subdued approach rather than the outrageous spectacle of other “monster” movies from the time. In so doing, the film exudes an aura of foreboding and menace. Consequently, it has remained fairly effective generations later, and often is at the top of the list of classic horror favorites.

Flash forward 40 years to Schrader’s version, starring the beautiful Nastassia Kinski as Irena. This time around the action is transplanted to New Orleans where Irena arrives to be reunited with her long, lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell). Separated when very young, Irena is overjoyed to meet Paul so that she can finally belong somewhere and have a family connection. Unbeknownst to her, Paul seeks to make her his bride as they share the curse of the cat people! Things get really “hairy” when Irena develops an attraction to local zookeeper Oliver (John Heard), and deadly consequences follow.

As with John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, critics pounced on Cat People with scathing reviews. The film was condemned as nothing more than an inferior retread, loaded with unnecessary, gratuitous sex and gore. Again, in the summer of E.T., the critics (and audiences) missed the boat. Just like The Thing, Cat People uses its sometimes extreme effects and actions to enhance the tale. In fact, Cat People is even less deserving of such criticism, as its outbursts of violence are fairly sporadic by comparison. Even the sexual component is mild in consideration of other films of the day, and is done in a way that isn’t exploitative. It all fits with the tone of the film, and things rarely stray off course.

But enough about wrongheaded criticism, what really makes the movie special is that, like the original, it establishes a terrific mood. From fantasy images of the early days of the cat people cast in hues of orange, to the shadows of the New Orleans zoo, Schrader provides the viewer with a visual feast. But that’s just half the equation, as the music is also pitch perfect. Composed by Giorgio Moroder (Scarface, Flashdance), the synth-heavy score adds to the sumptuous mood of the film. The only caveat is that Moroder’s style is very 80’s. If that’s not your bag, you may be turned off. On a related note, Moroder teamed with David Bowie to provide the theme song of the film, and it’s one of Bowie’s best!

Last but not least, what makes Cat People a classic in its own right are the performances of the lead characters. Kinski manages to be both vulnerable and dangerous, Malcolm McDowell (wild as always) is menacing yet sympathetic, and John Heard is terrific as the man in the middle of the storm. Added with the modern setting and sensibilities, the film really is a well-conceived update of the original. Aside from the 80’s soundtrack, the film has aged remarkably well . . . and hopefully will someday see a critical reappraisal ala The Thing.