Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fantasmo Episodes 43 & 44

Hey Superfans!
January is just around the corner, so it’s time to talk about what’s in store for Fantasmo 2009! Those of you who made it out to our unstoppable holiday show may recall Rob and I talked a little about the schedule for the next few months . . . well disregard all of that! Some late breaking releases have made it necessary for us to switch up our lineup for the next few months, but it’s all for the best (we know you’ll agree when you hear what’s in store)!

First off, let’s have a look at January. There are a lot of holidays in January, which means we won’t be able to do the first Friday of the month, nor several after. In fact, we’re going to have to hold Episode 43 on the last Friday of the month, January 30th. But the wait will be absolutely worth it, because Episode 43 is our first ever zombie night! Of course there’s a lot to choose from there, so we’ve decided to go with a couple of foreign zombie films that you may not have caught during their ever so brief theatrical runs. First up is a 2003 zombie fest from Australia appropriately titled Undead, in which a meteorite shower turns the peaceful citizens of a rural town into ravenous zombies! We’re following that with one of the all-time greatest zombie films, Peter Jackson’s 1993 masterpiece Dead Alive. Before he did Lord of the Rings, Jackson was making some of the wildest horror films ever conceived in his native land of New Zealand, and Dead Alive is perhaps his crowning achievement (for my money I like it a lot better than anything he’s done since).

So here are your official Episode 43 details:

When: Friday, January 30th

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Films:

8:00 P.M.: Undead – Rated R

9:45 P.M. Dead Alive – Unrated

Okay, so that’s our supercool lineup for Episode 43 . . . but there’s more . . .

We had originally announced that we were going to screen Friday the 13th 1 & 2 as our January show in anticipation of the forthcoming remake being released on February 13th. Well, we just recently found out that on February 3rd three new editions of the first Friday films will be released that we just had to wait for. First off, the original Friday the 13th will be released for the first time in America in its uncut form. For years this version has been available overseas, and now almost 29 years after its release we will be able to see it on the big screen at Fantasmo. If you’re a fan of effects legend Tom Savini (and who isn’t) you don’t want to miss this. As awesome as that revelation was, we also learned that on the same day the third film in the series will be released in its original 3-D format. That’s right, we’re going to screen part 3 in 3-D! And rounding things out, we’ll also be screening a spiffy new edition of the 2nd film, which is actually my personal favorite of the Fridays (I consider it to be The Empire Strikes Back of the Friday the 13th films, a crown jewel if you will).

In addition to the above (yes there’s still more), we’re also working on getting a special guest for this one who played a pivotal role in the series . . . stay tuned for updates. This truly has the potential to be one of our best episodes yet, so mark your calendars now. Your official early details for Episode 44 are as follows:

When: Friday, February 6th

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Films:

8:00 P.M.: Friday the 13th: Uncut Edition

9:45 P.M.: Friday the 13th Part 2 – Rated R

11:30 P.M.: Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3-D – Rated R

For those of you crunching the numbers at home, you’ll note that we’re back on the first Friday schedule in February . . . which means back to back Fantasmos in January and February! Can you say Happy New Year?!? Two great Fantasmos to kick off 2009! And there’s more where that came from! We’ll be rolling out the news shortly for the upcoming months, including our all-night April anniversary show, but let’s just say this is just the tip of the iceberg. In particular, we have two contenders for our April show that could rival previous greats such as Can’t Stop the Music, Gymkata, and Shark Attack 3 (yes, it’s true : ) Viva la 2009! Viva la Fantasmo!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Horror From the Land Down Under #4: Rogue

For my next entry on the horror cinema of Australia, I’m briefly leaving the 70’s to talk about a release from last year that really knocked my socks off. The film is called Rogue, and it’s a new contender for king of the hill in the killer alligator/crocodile genre (in this case it’s a crocodile). Now I should state up front that I have a real fondness for killer alligator/crocodile movies. These animals have always fascinated me, and they exude such menace that they are tailor-made to be the subject of horror films. For my money, the grand champion of the genre sweepstakes in this category is Lewis Teague’s 1981 film Alligator. It managed to be both a thrilling monster movie, and wry satire at the same time (thanks in large part to Piranha scribe John Sayles). Not to mention the fact that it had cult movie icons like Robert Forster and the incomparable Henry Silva on hand. Others have tried to match the brilliance of Alligator, but none have come close . . . until now.

One thing I want to mention before we get started is that Rogue is part of the Dimension “Extreme” horror series. This is indicated at the top of the DVD cover, which hovers above unfortunate cover art depicting a giant crocodile mouth. First off, I have to say I’m not a fan of the “Extreme” moniker. Usually I see that kind of branding as a ploy to lure horror fans into almost certain disappointment. It’s saying in essence that these films can’t compete on their own merits, so we have to market them as over-the-top effects festivals. Don’t get me wrong, over-the-top effects can be a lot of fun, but a film can’t live on these alone (at least not well). Furthermore, I wouldn’t necessarily call these movies particularly extreme. Yeah there are some wild titles in the series, but generally they are just silly horror films with no more fake blood on display than your average teen multiplex crowd pleaser. I consider extreme stuff to be movies like Hostel or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, not a remake of Wizard of Gore starring Crispin Glover (which is sort of inspired casting I must admit).

The other thing that irks me is that there are some really great gems in this series that are likely to be overlooked because they’re getting this lowbrow marketing push. Inside for example, is a very well made (albeit highly disturbing) French film, that is done no justice by the “Extreme” campaign. I suppose it is “extreme,” but it’s also a cerebral film that has a lot more going for it than just gory effects. While I wouldn’t go as far to say Rogue is particularly cerebral, it also is not the cheesy croc film the unimaginative cover would lead one to believe. Unlike Z-grade schlock like Tobe Hooper’s Crocodile (oh how the mighty have fallen), Rogue is a beautifully photographed, suspenseful thriller with an unexpectedly clever sense of humor. I mean it, the cinematography in what should be a throwaway film is pretty breathtaking. The man at the helm is Greg McLean, who was also responsible for the recent horror film Wolf Creek (which is a pretty harrowing viewing experience). That film was also visually interesting, so I wasn’t too surprised that this one was of equal caliber when noticing his involvement. I can’t say I’m really a fan of Wolf Creek, as it’s a little too grim for my tastes (makes Se7en look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm). However, I can still admire its artistry and execution (no pun intended), and was eager to see what McLean could do with subject matter a little more up my alley.

The setup of Rogue finds an American travel author (Alias’s Michael Vartan) checking out a rural boat tour, designed to give tourists a peek at the local wildlife (in particular the crocs). We get a broad sketch of the group who are your standard collection of stock characters that show up in these type of films. The squabbling married couple, the widower who is spreading his wife’s ashes, the attractive female tour guide (Radha Mitchell) who of course will become a love interest of sorts, etc. The good news is that despite the fact we’ve seen these characters before, the actors are all top notch and make us care about them. Once we get past the broad sketch introductions, the film awes the viewer with the imagery of Australia’s scenic wilderness. The tour chugs along spotting a croc or two, and all is going well . . . until the tour runs into a couple of backwoods acquaintances of the tour guide. There’s some back and forth and tom foolery, before Vartan steps in and the two menacing thugs speed away in their boat. Eventually things settle down and the tour proceeds . . . until they spot a flare in the distance! Apparently there is some unwritten rule that any sign of trouble must be investigated on the rivers of Australia, regardless of whether it jeopardizes the safety of innocent women and children. With this in mind, Mitchell takes a fork of the river seldom traveled only to discover a wrecked boat. Unfortunately in addition to the wrecked boat, they also discover the cause in the form of a giant (and apparently unhappy) crocodile that proceeds to shipwreck their boat on a tiny island in the middle of the river.

And here is where the genius of Rogue comes into play. The group is stranded on a tiny island (really it’s more of a clump of sand with a tree), that is slowly disappearing as the tide rolls in. By the time night falls there will be no island at all, and the tourists will become croc food. What is so great about this setup is that it turns Rogue into more of a suspense film that focuses on the characters, rather than a 90-minute excuse to show an endless stream of CGI croc attacks. In so doing, it mirrors the best films of this type (e.g. Jaws, Alien), where the creature is always hovering at the periphery seldom seen. Not only does it build audience expectation, but it minimizes the need to overwhelm the viewer with effects that are not likely to be all that convincing. The creatures in Jaws and Alien would have suffered greatly from overexposure. If seen head on for long periods Bruce the shark would have been shown for the malfunctioning junk heap he was, and the Alien would have clearly been a tall guy in a creepy suit. By masking the creatures Spielberg and Scott made the action seem real, and kept viewers on the edge of their seats. McLean is “almost” successful at accomplishing a similar feat with his Rogue . . . almost.

Around ¾ of the way through the film, McLean finally unleashes the big guns and stages a long sequence that culminates in a final battle. Unfortunately, there’s just no way around it and there’s a good bit of unconvincing CGI. I’m not at all sure what he could have done with practical effect to make the sequence work. Certainly my favorite Alligator had a similar problem in its finale which featured an unconvincing rubber alligator chasing Robert Forster. McLean somewhat makes up for the CGI by keeping the tension up, not letting the audience get a chance to catch their breath. And characters take a beating, and some much worse (no one is safe in this film), lending the proceedings an uncompromising tone. In another film I probably wouldn’t give the blatant CGI croc a pass, but the first ¾ of the film are so excellent that they more than compensate for a finale that would otherwise be pretty satisfying.

If you have any sort of interest in killer alligator/croc films you owe it to yourself to check out Rogue. The cover art will make you think you’re about to venture into Shark Attack 3 type waters, but this is a truly masterful effort. There may be some necessary, if regrettable CGI, but the balance of the movie more than makes up for this transgression. With this and the equally captivating Wolf Creek under his belt, McLean is a horror maestro to keep an eye on. He’s more visceral than a Peter Weir, but he has a visual sense that is certainly on par with the great one. I can’t wait to see what subject he tackles next!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nightmares In Red, White And Blue


One of Fantasmo's oldest and dearest supporters is a filmmaker named Joseph Maddrey. You'll see his great blog Maddrey Misc. over on the left column of this very page, and you can find his written work on our library shelves. Joe was a fixture at FantaSci, Monster Fest, and Fantasmo for a number of years, until he headed off to continue his film career in sunny California (taking hectic breaks to lend his producing talents to The House Between). Well, his efforts have paid off in the form of a cool new documentary he's put together on the evolution of the American horror film called Nightmares in Red, White And Blue. The documentary is based on his 2004 book of the same title, and features interviews with the likes of George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, etc. In the coming weeks I'll be interviewing Joe about the film, but in the meantime you can check out the trailer over at the official site: http://www.nightmaresinredwhiteandblue.com/.

A cool tidbit of info you horror fans may notice is that Joe also managed to get the great Lance Henriksen (The Terminator, Aliens, Millennium) to narrate the film. How cool is that?!? Anyhow, look for more info on the documentary here on the blog soon, and in the meantime you can read the awesome print version here at the library (shameless plug : )

Sunday, December 7, 2008

19 Horror Greats

One thing I always enjoy checking out are "best of" lists, especially with regard to the world of horror filmdom. One can often find overlooked gems when comparing notes with others, and it's a great jumping off point for some fun debate. Team Klaxar member George Booker has compiled a very interesting list of top horror pics over at No Ripcord (www.noripcord.com/features/horror-list), including a few somewhat obscure titles that any self-respecting horror fan should really make a point to watch.

The one choice that I was extremely happy to see was the Ingmar Bergman film Hour of the Wolf. It's a tale about a writer's psychological meltdown that is brimming with horror elements, and makes for great late night viewing. In fact, several Bergman films contain horrific imagery and themes. For example, Wes Craven's shocker Last House on the Left is a retelling of Bergman's Virgin Spring! Makes you wonder if Hills Have Eyes or the Elm Street series have any parallels . . .

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Horror From the Land Down Under #3: Long Weekend

With Thanksgiving past we’re just a few short days away from the BIG holiday show featuring the beloved Can’t Stop the Music and the soon to be beloved Xanadu. With bad musicals on the brain I must confess it’s a bit difficult to ponder Australian horror, but I will bravely soldier on. For this installment, I’ve decided to focus on what is for my money the best entry in the 1970’s “when animals attack” film sweepstakes. Throughout the 70’s, largely as a result of the mega success of Jaws and real world environmental worries, studios sought to capitalize by churning out numerous variations of this theme. Stateside I have a soft spot for the William Girdler epics Grizzly and Day of the Animals, which are two of the most over-the-top films of the genre. In one you have a maniacal grizzly being shot point blank with a rocket launcher, and in the other you have a maniacal Leslie Nielsen engaging in a wrestling match with a maniacal grizzly (strange symmetry there). But these films I primarily love for the high cheese content. Hopping over to the land down under, they got in on the action as well but in a decidedly more solid artistic endeavor known as Long Weekend. This one dispenses with the cheese and plays it serious and creepy, a rare feat for this type of movie.

The plot of Lost Weekend involves a bickering couple who travel to the remote Australian wilderness for a weekend of camping. Things are clearly not going well in the beginning when the husband Peter (John Hargreaves) arrives home and pulls a hunting rifle out of his trunk and aims it at his unsuspecting wife Marcia (Briony Behets). Now granted she’s apparently been giving him a hard time about the camping trip (she would have preferred a posh getaway with all the luxuries), but this sort of attitude on his part is beyond the pale. Despite their differences they still pile in their Range Rover along with the family dog, and head for the country. While driving late into the night, Peter accidentally runs over a kangaroo and this is where things begin to get strange. Once they reach the forest Peter seems unable to get them to the designated spot where they plan to set up camp, even though he clearly is following the beaten path. It’s almost as if the forest is leading them into another dimension. Frustrated, they decide to sleep in the Range Rover for the night, and upon waking discover they are at their campsite. How they ended up there is a mystery, but they’re so relieved to have made it that they abandon any concerns over that particular issue.

As they set up camp and make an attempt at enjoying the trip, the two show a complete disregard for Mother Nature. They start fires, cut down trees, shoot at animals, destroy eagle eggs, etc. Now this probably sounds a little exaggerated, but the way it goes down is very believable. Basically Peter and Marcia are just completely careless and seem to think that the great outdoors is their playground. Of course this sets the stage for a little revenge action on the part of the environment, and here’s where this film stands out from the pack. Instead of being stalked by a grizzly, attacked by wildcats, or bitten by sharks, subtly disturbing events start taking place. Peter shoots at an eerie looking shape in the ocean, unsettling cries are heard on the wind, animals start taking menacing postures around the camp, bad weather sets in, and general hysteria ensues. Both characters begin to come unhinged, and the tensions already present in their relationship ultimately explode in a climax laden with outright panic and desperation. Much like the Weir films I’ve previously discussed, the sum of these parts adds up to a very atmospheric and disturbing mood.

A significant part of the success of the approach taken in Long Weekend is that it takes its time in building toward the climax, rather than constantly hammering the viewer with outrageous attacks. Events keep building on each other, until you feel the panic that the characters do. In fact, by the end of the film one actually has a little sympathy for Peter and Marcia, which is a minor miracle considering how unlikeable they are. Some have criticized that the characters are so unsympathetic that it brings the film down. I would have to disagree with that point. These are real people with flaws, and folks like this do exist in the world. To draw a parallel with a vaguely similar film think of the characters in The Blair Witch Project. They are not particularly likeable, and there is certainly no “hero” in the group. We relate to them because of the desperation they experience, and sympathize with them during the darkest hours. The same holds true for Long Weekend. The characters keep going further and further down the rabbit hole, and you just know things are not going to turn out well. The result is that the goings-on have a get under your skin quality usually absent in the other films of this genre that go for a more visceral approach.

So, if you’re looking to find the Citizen Kane of animals gone wild films look no further. Long Weekend shows that a great film can be made within the genre confines that balances genuine creepiness and an environmental message. In an era where environmental concerns are prevalent and very much in the social consciousness this film may not seem so revolutionary, but back in the day I’m sure it packed a bit of a punch on that front. Messages aside though, if the mysterious aquatic creature and inhuman wailing in Dolby 5.1 surround don’t raise the hairs on the back of your neck nothing will. As a bit of trivia I looked up director Colin Eggleston to see what else he had done. I figured he must have some other cool titles to his credit given how cool this movie was. Sadly the only notable film I saw in his filmography was the horrendous 1986 Indiana Jones knock off Sky Pirates (it’s every bit as bad as it sounds). Oh well. Be sure to look for my next entry on the surprisingly good recent outback horror fest Rogue, detailing the exploits of a killer croc!