Sunday, November 25, 2007

Enter Wings Hauser

Every now and then I like to highlight an underrated actor/actress you might not have heard of, and the latest addition to that list is 80’s heavy Wings Hauser. Beyond having one of the coolest names ever (seriously, I want to be named Wings in my next life) Mr. Hauser is also deserving of attention for the wide body of work he has contributed to the world of cult filmdom . . .

While his filmography dates back to the mid-70’s, Hauser made his first big cinematic splash in the 1982 film Vice Squad. Gary Sherman’s (Dead & Buried) standard crime thriller remains memorable to this day due to Hauser’s iconic villain performance. It was so strong, that it relegated Hauser to playing bad guy roles for most of his career (drawing comparisons in some circles to Richard Widmark), although he did manage to play a hero now and then (e. g. Dead Man Walking). From that jumping off point, Hauser worked steadily throughout the 80’s (and well into the 90’s) in numerous genre films including: Mutant, Uncommon Valor, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Beastmaster 2, Watchers 3, Tales from the Hood, and Original Gangstas to name but a few. Whether playing the villain (which he does so well) or the hero, his appearance always adds something special even to the blandest outing. He’s one of those folks who oozes charisma (often in the form of menace), and totally captures your attention when he’s on the screen. That he never became a major star is unfortunate, but you can still find him turning in memorable cameos on television in shows such as House and Monk (and for retro fun he appeared several times on The A-Team and Beverly Hills 90210).

My personal favorite Hauser film is the 1983 film Mutant. This zombie film is (despite a little cheese here and there), one of the best entries in that particular genre. In a setup echoing An American Werewolf in London, Hauser and his young brother enter an odd southern town where the inhabitants seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate. When Hauser’s brother turns up missing after an overnight stay, he begins to unravel a mystery that involves water pollution and the undead! Although it could have been a throwaway B-movie, this one has great suspense, a top-notch cast, good effects for the time, and even an orchestral score! Oh, and it has one of the coolest 80’s horror posters! If you haven’t seen it, run (don’t walk) to check it out. It’s a great way to discover the Hauser magic (not to mention a great zombie film).

Friday, November 23, 2007

A Film Not To Be Mist

It’s a rare thing that I leave a multiplex movie these days utterly blown away, but that was certainly how I felt walking out of Frank Darabont’s The Mist on Thanksgiving night. All I can say is wow! The film gets practically everything right . . .

Hard to believe it’s been so long, but I read the original Stephen King story a little over 20 years ago. It quickly became my personal favorite from his catalog, only overshadowed in the intervening time by his Dark Tower series. The story is a pretty standard B-movie premise. A group of people gets trapped in a grocery store when a mysterious mist enshrouds their town. They quickly discover that there are deadly creatures lurking outside, which may have been unleashed at a military complex nearby. The rest of the tale involves their attempts to survive and escape. Been there, done that. However, what makes The Mist so memorable is the conflict among the people, rather than the battle with the creatures. Really the supernatural part of the tale is somewhat of an afterthought. Much more time is spent on character development, and how polite society breaks down in extreme situations. And boy does it break down!

In the small group trapped within the store, several factions emerge. You have the normal folks led by David Drayton (the book’s hero), the religious cult led by Mrs. Carmody, the “Flat Earth Society” who refuse to acknowledge the reality of the situation, and a small military contingent who have an inkling of the source of the mist. Each of these groups have their own outlook and plans for action, and needless to say they do not mesh with one another. As a result it becomes apparent that the human threat is just as dangerous, if not more so, than that posed by the monsters. While it is a necessarily dark tale, King nevertheless provides us with a cautious sense of optimism through the selfless acts of several characters and a hopeful, if ambiguous, ending. It’s an engrossing story, and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t read it (particularly fun if you’re a Lovecraft fan as well).

As a huge admirer of King’s story, I was quite excited to learn a film adaptation was finally coming out. It has been in development for quite a while, early on discussed as a television project (with Michael J. Fox as the lead). Don’t get me wrong, television can sometimes produce great things (e.g. Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot), but I was glad to hear it was going theatrical. I was even more pleased to hear that Darabont was at the helm. His earlier adaptations of King, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, were very well handled (even if they weren’t at the top of my list as King stories). Given the strong points of those adaptations, I thought he would nail the characters and human element of the story, while also capturing the proper tone (if not providing a spot on adaptation – which is difficult if not impossible in translating books to the screen). For the most part Darabont has done just that.

The film manages to communicate practically all of the significant elements of the book, and absolutely gets the human element right. This is not a monster movie. Yes, there are a few battles with the beasties here and there, but they are just as they are in the book – window dressing. The film, like the book, is about the people and their struggle with each other. The monsters are just there to provide the setup. A different movie, the Hollywood-ized version, would feature epic battles and probably delve into the military experiment that created the situation. You’d probably get a cross between Jurassic Park and Stargate. Here you have a 2-hour film devoted to folks who lose their cool in a supermarket. Which is as it should be.

All of this could not work of course without fine performances, and there is not a bad one in the bunch. From Thomas Jane as Drayton, to Marcia Gay Harden’s Mrs. Carmody, all are well realized and completely believable. The most important aspect is that character reactions to the situation seem genuine, and they certainly do. It is easy to see oneself in these people, and that’s part of what gives the story and the film such power. The only minor complaint is that Mrs. Carmody’s ranting seems a bit over-the-top at times, but it still works (and to be fair it was the same way in the source material). Interestingly, Carmody’s sermons manage to tie in several current issues ranging from stem cell research to the Iraq War. The film is not preachy about those, nor does it take sides. Instead it effectively shows how our conflicts at the micro level (the store), reflect our debates at the macro level (societal norms). This was not part of King’s tale so much, but it works nicely here.

Okay. Below, I’m going to get into a discussion of the film’s tone and there may be a few spoilers along the way. If you don’t want any hints about the book or film’s endings, stop here and skip down to the next section of bold text which indicates the end of spoiler country.

While Darabont has done a masterful job of translating the characters and plot points, where he strikes off on his own is the tone of the film. As I mentioned, although the book is somewhat grim, it nevertheless gives us a few reasons to hope. Our “heroes” all demonstrate elements that engender faith in humanity (e.g. love, compassion, and sacrifice), and the ending suggests that all is not lost. Not so in the cinematic version. Incredibly, although the film treads all the same territory as the book, Darabont has crafted it in such a way that it is unrelentingly grim. It’s difficult to pin down why, but I would say it has to do with a shift in emphasis. Whereas the book saw Drayton and others heroically fighting back against the threat, and passionately arguing for reason amongst the factions in the store, here those efforts seem utterly futile. Although they were no more successful in the printed tale, for whatever reason they provided some ray of light. Here we see in no uncertain terms that humanity would be doomed, and the voice of reason crushed in the face of chaos.

And then there’s the ending. Folks, this may be the single most disturbing ending I’ve ever seen in a film mainstream or otherwise. There are just a handful of films that I would say have “haunted” me after leaving the theater. Picking one that raised the bar highest is difficult, but I would say David Fincher’s Se7en is right up there. There are others with “downer” endings to be sure, but this will give you a frame of reference. The Mist makes Se7en look like a feelgood, adventure film. I’m telling you, the ending of The Mist is so uncompromising, it’s nothing short of a miracle that it made it to the screen. In the span of five minutes Darabont layers on disturbing revelation after disturbing revelation. I had heard going in that he had deviated from King’s story with a darker ending, and I had a guess as to what he might do . . . and he did just that. But then he kept going, and by the time the credits roll all you are left with is shell shock and utter despair. Perhaps the only thing left he could have done to make it more unsettling, was to flash back to the store and show everyone getting rescued. Otherwise, he has crafted the most disturbing ending possible.

Having said all this, you might think I’m displeased with the tone or the ending – not at all. I think Darabont has made something different from the source, which I loved, and utterly amazing. If you want to see a movie that thrills you and leaves you with faith in the human spirit, do not see The Mist. It is the polar opposite of such a film (e.g. The Shawshank Redemption). What he has managed to produce is something much more rare – a disturbing, emotionally devastating genre film. Anyone can tack on a “downer” ending to a film and then claim it’s “powerful,” or perhaps “brave” on the part of the filmmakers. That’s been done. What makes such an approach work is if the audience has been made to care what happens to the characters. And here you care. You REALLY care. Believe me, I’m as jaded a filmgoer as they come, and this one had quite an impact.

One might argue that Darabont has gone overboard with the ending by heaping on so much grief in those final moments. That he threw in everything but the kitchen sink just for the sake of doing so. I would agree, except that he ties it back to the overall theme of the failure of our humanity in extreme situations. How does he do this? With one simple shot. He shows the mother who asked for an escort at the beginning of the film pass by on a military transport with her children. Everyone in the store failed her, including Drayton, and they have reaped what they sowed. Maybe that’s a bit unfair, after all Drayton was responsible for his own son, but there’s some truth there. That moment gives the ending a depth that clarifies it is there for a thematic purpose, rather than for the simple motive of pushing emotional buttons.

End of spoilers.

Truly, I can’t recommend this film strongly enough. To me there are just a few “perfect” horror films, and this one comes very close to hitting that mark. I wouldn’t mind seeing Carmody dialed down just a bit, and sometimes there is a little too much CGI (although I think it was mostly well done). Nevertheless, this is not only an extremely solid adaptation of the source material, but an amazing alternate take on the themes explored in the story. Darabont has crafted one of the most gut-wrenching horror films of any era, but more importantly a film that transcends its trappings to say something about “us.” It’s not for everyone (definitely don’t go if you’re easily upset), but if you do brave The Mist you won’t soon forget the experience.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Episode 32: Can't Stop The Music 2

Hard to believe as it may be, it's time again for our second annual holiday show. As has become tradition, we're rolling out the 1980 Village People epic, Can't Stop the Music! It's pretty stunning that out of all the films we've shown, this has become the signature title of Fantasmo (even more unbelievable given the fact that Rob and I are obsessed with horror films). However, once you've seen it you'll know why it can't be stopped! From the moment Steve Guttenberg roller skates out into the streets of New York the game is afoot, and the film has announced in no uncertain terms what you the audience member are in for . . . pure, cheesy bliss! Indeed with infectious musical numbers aplenty, including show stoppers like Y.M.C.A and Milkshake, it's really no surprise at all that it's gotten under the skin of your Team Fantasmo and so many Superfans. And lest you think all cheesy musicals from the early 80's are created equal, look no further than The Apple to understand that we pay homage to CSTM out of sincere admiration, not sarcastic mockery (okay maybe there's just a little of that . . . after all it does feature Steve Guttenberg : )

And speaking of Steve Guttenberg, if you have yet to experience CSTM, you will not find a more insane performance in a major studio release. Guttenberg looks like he's about to burst a blood vessel in his forehead every time he delivers a line. I don't know if he's just excited to be there or what, but watch for this next time you see the film (which had better be Friday, December 7)! It's like he's yelling at all the other characters every time he speaks! Thank goodness he mellowed by the time he turned in the iconic performance as Mahoney in Police Academy. But enough about Monsieur Guttenberg . . .

In addition to CSTM, we will also be screening the 1978 musical Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This is one I hadn't seen until a few years ago, but I must tell you it's right up there with CSTM. I remember the movie coming out when I was a kid, and the ensuing publicity blitz (particularly for the soundtrack). What I couldn't grasp at the time was why The Beatles were nowhere to be found (instead replaced by Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees). Having seen the film now I can understand why they had no involvement! It tries to mimic the lighthearted nature of classic Beatles films such as Help! and A Hard Day's Night, but doesn't quite make the grade.

The film follows the exploits of Billy Shears (Frampton), grandson of the late Sgt. Pepper, and his Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Bee Gees). All is rosy in their hometown of Heartland, U.S.A. until an evil record producer (Donald Pleasence) attempts to sign them to a contract (which will ultimately corrupt them) and steal their magical instruments. Luckily the mayor of Heartland (George Burns) and Billy's girlfriend Strawberry Fields are working to bring the group and instruments back home where they belong. Oh, and this tale is all told without a trace of dialog (except for a few introductory words and narration from Burns), which really is just asking for it. Oh, and you have performances from diverse talents ranging from Alice Cooper to Steve Martin (I kid you not). On the crazy meter this one's a home run, but how did they ever think it would fly?

I'll tell you how. The film was produced by Robert Stigwood, an uber producer of the late 70's, who churned out a stream of monster hits including: Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease. Coming off that stream, Sgt. Pepper really made some sense (particularly the inclusion of The Bee Gees who were huge at the time). Unfortunately the movie is all over the map, features wildly uneven performances, and most importantly lacks The Beatles. Seriously, if you are making a movie out of one of the most famous albums of all time, you really need to have the artists responsible on board. Although I admittedly enjoy the interpretations by the various artists in the film, you just know Beatles fans are not going to embrace this sort of thing . . . and everyone else is just going to be scratching their head. Of course the film was a huge financial failure, and Stigwood's stock continued to fall during the 80's with unsuccessful sequels to earlier blockbusters (e.g. Grease 2, Staying Alive). Note: Despite his fall from grace, Stigwood also produced a couple of more winners in the 80's with Galipoli and The Fan (which featured a great early performance from Michael Biehn).

All that being said, this one has magical cult film written all over it. It may have managed to alienate purists and mainstream audiences, but it is so over-the-top that it has earned a loyal following since its disastrous theatrical run. The songs of course are catchy, and the bizarre performances and odd casting choices are truly inspired, making this a one-of-a-kind experience. I was hooked from the first viewing and have seen it numerous times since (much like CSTM). There's some kind of special allure with the musicals from the late 70's/early 80's, because I typically can't stand more than a few minutes of most others. Note: For another great 80's musical rarity check out The Pirate Movie with Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins!

While Sgt. Pepper may have its flaws, it serves as a potent reminder that films today just don't have the same unpredictability as they did in the 70's and 80's. Back then you could wander into a multiplex and see something unique (albeit odd), that defied expectations. Today mainstream cinema is largely homogenized and boring, with films carefully constructed to appeal to the largest number of moviegoers. Sure the film was a financial failure, but it surely deserves credit for going out on a limb . . . and producers like Stigwood should be admired for taking risks with such unusual projects, even if they didn't always pay off.

So here's your chance to see both of these unappreciated classics on the big screen, in all their sonic glory. Here's the rundown:

When: Friday, December 7

Where: Chesapeake Central Library

Films:

8:00 - Can't Stop the Music - Rated PG

10:30 - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Rated PG

Make sure to be there promptly - once the music begins it cannot be stopped . . . don't even try!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Cinematic Adventures in California

My apologies to everyone who wrote in last week and/or tried to get in touch with me, as I was sent out to California to attend a conference. Fortunately I was able to make it back in time for Gymkata . . . but just barely. For those of you who joined us for the Gymkata/Mighty Peking Man extravaganza, it was certainly an evening to remember : ) As I said before, neither of these are likely to reach the popularity level of Can't Stop the Music, but a more delirious cinematic ride you will not soon find. Rob and I (especially Rob) thank you for coming out and supporting the program, and no doubt contributing to a larger audience than Gymkata likely received during its entire theatrical run. Long live Johnathan Cabot!

Back to the subject of California, I found myself in beautiful Monterey for four days last week and it was a great trip. While my mornings/afternoons were spent learning about library technology, I did manage to sneak in some time for sightseeing in the evenings. And being one-half of Team Fantasmo, it probably comes as no surprise that I was on the lookout for cult movie happenings. Fortunately, since it was the week of Halloween, there was quite a bit going on. The absolute highlight was attending a double-feature of Dawn of the Dead/Shaun of the Dead at the Golden State Theatre (pictured above) in downtown Monterey. The theatre is an old movie palace that was built in 1926, and gloriously restored in recent years. They feature all kinds of cool shows, and have an International Film Festival coming up in November (kicking off with Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Monty Python and the Holy Grail)! If you want even more info on this extremely cool theatre, check out the Web site at: http://www.goldenstatetheatre.com/. If you ever find yourself out that way, you have to pay it a visit!

Of course, attending a horror film screening at such a venue certainly made me long for the days of old when such a thing was more commonplace. My hometown had a similar theatre which, up until I graduated from college, screened cult films at midnight every Friday and Saturday. I was able to see films like Eraserhead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Zardoz, Evil Dead, The Man Who Fell To Earth, etc. on the big screen with an audience, and that experience is sorely missed. As much as I love being able to watch pristine copies of my favorites in ridiculously wonderful Dolby Digital surround in my living room, there's nothing to match seeing those films in an old school theatre.

And that my friends is why Fantasmo exists, and why Rob and I do this. We may not be able to perfectly re-create the ambiance of a movie palace here at the library, but we do just fine I think. I knew we were on to something when we screened Count Yorga at our second Fantasmo and people were laughing, cheering, and even screaming. I'd seen the film countless times, but that was the first time with an audience . . . and it was a whole new (dare I say more rewarding) experience. Again, while I enjoy being able to watch the film at home whenever I feel like it, it's nowhere near as fun as taking it in with the Team Fantasmo All-Stars and Superfans . . . not even close : ) A perfect example of this in recent days was when we screened Halloween III at our all-night Horrorthon. Instead of quietly watching the film (which no doubt 95% of the folks in the room had seen before and often), a marathon audience riff (from start to finish) on the superhuman abilities of its iconic leading man Tom Atkins erupted. Pure gold. It's moments like these that make Fantasmo the special event that it is, and why you'll notice every Fantasmo flyer has the tagline reminder that this is the way these films "were meant to be seen." With an audience, on the big screen. Accept no substitute!

And speaking of great films to be seen with an audience, our December episode is right around the corner. This will mark our second (now annual) holiday screening of the ultimate crowd favorite Can't Stop the Music! Since it's legendary debut at our first anniversary show, it has been in such demand that Rob and I now set aside one month that it will be shown every year. In addition, we'll be pairing it with the Fantasmo debut of the 1978 musical disaster Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Beatles music + Peter Frampton + The Bee Gees = The Greatest Musical Ever! Okay that's likely overstating the case, but we think you'll be pleased (we certainly will : ) I'll be back soon with dates and details so keep watching!