Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best/Worst of the Decade!

As the decade draws to a close, I thought it would be interesting to take a stab at putting together a best of/worst of list of Fantasmo-esque films from the past 10 years. While I recognize the superficial nature of these types of ranking efforts, I nevertheless enjoy taking them in (and hope you will as well). If nothing else they’re fun to debate. In looking back I wouldn’t say it was the greatest decade in genre filmdom, but it wasn’t bad either . . . and it was MUCH better than the 90’s! There were some bona fide classics which emerged, and a host of horrifically bad efforts as well. For putting together this list I stuck with identifying relatively major films, so more obscure (yet cool) titles aren't represented here (e.g. I’d certainly put Goodbye Dragon Inn or OSS 117: Cario, Nest of Spies on a best of list, but so few have seen them they likely wouldn’t register). So without any further ado here are my top 10 lists, both bad and good.

Top 10 Best Films

1Bubba Ho-Tep (2002): I don’t know about you, but Bruce Campbell had fallen off my radar for a while prior to this. He just hadn’t made anything that jumped out in an Evil Dead/Brisco County Jr. sort of way in a number of years. And the same was true for Phantasm director Don Coscarelli. Then the two team up for this unlikely story of the later years of Elvis and JFK as they battle an evil mummy! Not only is it a fun movie, it’s also surprisingly touching and gives Bruce what may be his best role ever. It’s a shame he appears to have passed on Bubba Nosferatu.

2Donnie Darko (2001): Arguably the biggest cult film of the decade, this one is a minor masterpiece. Director Richard Kelly came up with a melancholy, intelligent sci-fi outing that is sure to be the object of many a midnight show to come. He also understood the power of a great soundtrack, and his selections from the 80’s are top notch. Any film that opens with Echo and the Bunnymen garners instant points!

3The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004): I don’t always like Wes Anderson’s films, but they never fail to be interesting. Life Aquatic is amazing. Having Bill Murray play a washed-up, Jacques Cousteau type character was brilliant. And I love the idea of competing marine biologists (I believe no matter what field you’re in, be it librarianship or whatever, you should always cultivate a nemesis). I personally would love to own a pair of the Team Zissou Adidas sneakers. Apparently there was an unsuccessful grass roots effort to get Adidas to actually produce them for the mass market. You can still get them on Ebay where folks have made their own custom versions, but I digress.

4Night Watch (2004): The inaugural film in the adaptation of a series of Russian fantasy novels, Night Watch was a breath of fresh air, particularly in the arena of vampire movies. It had cool, Matrix-like flourishes, and established a fully-realized world of its own that was akin to something on the scale of Lord of the Rings. Although it deviated significantly from the novels, enough was retained to satisfy fans (at least non-sticklers like me). The follow-up Day Watch appeared to tie up any loose ends, but there are still two books to go. Here's hoping we'll see those in the upcoming decade.

5Team America: World Police (2004): Trey Parker and Matt Stone continue to prove that they are geniuses. Reviving Gerry Anderson style supermarionation for the purpose of skewering the current political scene (along with Michael Bay action films) was a jaw-droppingly brilliant idea. How they convinced anyone to back it financially is nothing short of miraculous, and its dismal failure at the box office probably insured that such an endeavor won’t be undertaken any time in the near future. Perhaps best of all is the incredibly catchy soundtrack, which will lodge itself firmly in your mind for a good, long while after the credits have rolled.

6The Devil’s Rejects (2005): Let’s be clear upfront, I’m not the world’s biggest Rob Zombie fan. But as I mentioned in my post on remakes, I respect that he has a unique voice in the world of horror cinema. I’d rather see 10 Rob Zombie movies than one of the lifeless retreads we’ve endured in recent years. Having said that, The Devil’s Rejects is the closest he’s come for my money to making a great film. It has a terrific villain in the form of William Forsythe, the 70’s vibe is spot on, and it’s often visually stunning. The drawback for me is that it’s grittier than I care for, but if it’s your cup of tea then there’s little not to like.

7The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008): Here’s another one where it’s somewhat of a miracle the film even exists. Almost a decade after the first X-Files feature, Chris Carter crafted what could best be described as an anti-blockbuster. Arriving in the heart of the summer movie season, I Want to Believe was unapologetically minimalistic. No explosions, relatively little action, and absolutely not epic. It doesn’t concern itself with the main story arc of X-Files, but rather a standalone tale that is touchy on a number of fronts. For this reason alone it merits attention, even if it left audiences cold during its initial run.

8JCVD (2008): If you would have told me in the year 2000 by decade’s end I would be raving about the brilliance of a film starring and named after Jean-Claude Van Damme, much less putting it on a top 10 list, I would have called you crazy. In defiance of all odds that is exactly what has happened, and I can’t recommend this movie more strongly. Not only is it a cool riff on action cinema, it is proof positive that Van Damme has strong acting chops that have yet to be explored. Let’s just say I find myself unusually excited about the upcoming Universal Soldier 3 which teams him and Lundgren up again!

9Black Dynamite (2009): In the interest of full disclosure I have not seen this film, but feel confident on the strength of the trailer and every review I’ve read that it belongs on this list! Sadly it didn’t get a strong release, but hopefully video will see it become the cult favorite it deserves to be. Michael Jai White has officially made up for Spawn!

10Drag Me to Hell (2009): After far too much Spider-Man for my tastes, it was great to see Sam Raimi in a stunning return to form with this wildly, over-the-top horror film. Some were disappointed that this was PG-13, but frankly it wasn’t missing a thing as far as I’m concerned. I’ve said it before in an earlier post, but the sequence with the goat is one of the most hilarious things I’ve seen in a long time . . . and classic Raimi. If you liked Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, you’ll love this movie.

Top 10 Worst Films

1Battlefield Earth (2000): If there’s one thing I can appreciate, it’s when a big star cashes in hard won clout to make a movie that is truly personal. Look no further than Seagal’s On Deadly Ground. John Travolta made his personal opus in adapting Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. Meant to be the beginning of a blockbuster saga, the movie utterly tanked. I don’t think this was due as much to the content, which is pretty standard sci-fi stuff, as it was to questionable choices. The clearly expensive production just isn’t very attractive, and it has sort of a bland lead in the form of Barry Pepper. To be fair I don’t know how much you can really put that at his doorstep, as he isn’t given much to work with. At the heart of it all though is Travolta. His villainous turn ranks as one of the all-time most over-the-top performances ever committed to film – which is both good and bad. On the positive side it gives the film some life and is fun to watch. On the bad side it turns the proceedings into total camp . . . which probably wasn’t the intention. If you like this sort of thing it doesn’t get much better (or worse) than Battlefield Earth.

2Monkeybone (2001): I’m not familiar with the source material for this film, but it must be pretty outrageous stuff . . . and it’s always surprising when a movie like this gets made. Unfortunately what seems to have happened is that those who greenlighted it realized too late that they’d approved something that had the potential to be quirky and interesting (horrors). As a result Monkeybone was reportedly edited in order to put together something palatable for a mass audience. To no one’s surprise the final product is a disjointed mess. On that level Monkeybone is not a good movie. However one can still see the vestiges of what promised to be a truly special film, and interested parties should (and likely will) continue to seek this out in the future. It would be great to see a true director’s cut, as Monkeybone is ripe for such treatment.

3The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002): Eddie Murphy has carved out a pretty decent comeback in family films, this one was an expensive misfire. I’d love to see him return to some of his 80’s greatness, or at minimum get offered some stronger projects. That the star of Beverly Hills Cop, The Golden Child, and 48 Hours is stuck playing Pluto Nash is just unfortunate. Enough said.

4Rollerball (2002): I know I just wrote a big piece on the worthiness of remakes, but here is a perfect example of the type of remake that creates such bad blood. The original Rollerball isn’t the greatest movie ever made by any stretch, but it’s fairly entertaining and has an interesting concept. In some ways it’s perfect for an update as it doesn’t have that high level of rabid fandom that other similar properties do (e.g. Logan’s Run). Truth be told when I heard the director of Die Hard was at the helm, I figured this would be a home run. And it had one of the greatest teaser posters ever. Alas the action was unexciting, and Chris Klein didn’t prove to be a substitute for James Caan.

5Thunderbirds (2004): When you look at Gerry Anderson’s original show, it wasn’t the awesome storylines or well-developed characters that kept kids glued to their sets - it was the puppets (Team America sure got that part right)! So it was no surprise that Thunderbirds were not go at the box office. The casting of Ben Kingsley as The Hood was relatively inspired, but everything else not so much. Basically it’s a movie that is puzzling to anyone too young to remember the original and off-putting to longtime fans.

6The Wicker Man (2006): Again a remake. The original is such a fantastic film, that it’s a tall hurdle to clear in doing something worthwhile in terms of an update. Interestingly it has a cool director (Neil LaBute) and great cast (Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn), so you’d think it might have a shot. Nope. Particularly crazy is the outlandish performance by Cage who is in rare form. Don’t get me wrong, I like when Cage is in full on Cage mode (e.g. Vampire’s Kiss, Wild At Heart) . . . just not here. I always thought Ewan McGregor would’ve been good in the role, but he couldn’t have saved this.

7Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007): I didn’t hate the first Alien Vs. Predator film as some did. It had a cool concept, but was unfortunately a bit watered down. Frankly I preferred it to Alien Resurrection. The announcement of Requiem didn’t excite me at all, but it did have a great tagline – “This Christmas there will be no peace on Earth.” Say what you will but that’s pretty good. Giving it the subtitle of Requiem also makes it sound as though it may be high minded fare for a movie depicting a conflict between aliens and predators. Unfortunately the movie is a total mess. It’s not just that the plot and characters are weak, the film looks bad. You literally cannot see the action most of the time. In some cases (e.g. the original Alien) this is a stylistic choice, here it looks like someone forgot to pay the electric bill.

8Hulk (2003): The truth is I’m of two minds on this movie. While on one level I appreciate that Ang Lee attempted to do something radical for a summer blockbuster, it simply doesn’t measure up to the larger than life nature of the title character. The comic book visual style is pretty cool, there are a few great Hulk action sequences, and Nick Nolte turns in a performance beyond description. I’m betting in a few years I warm up to this one, but that hasn’t happened yet. For what it’s worth it’s not as lifeless as the follow up with Edward Norton.

9Hollow Man (2000): This was such a major disappointment. The material was perfect for Verhoeven, and it certainly bears some of his crazy trademark touches, but the end result is underwhelming. Interestingly I watched the first 30 minutes of the DTV sequel starring Christian Slater and found it more entertaining. That’s the great thing about DTV, it rarely favors style over substance.

10Halloween: Resurrection (2002): This installment came and went without showing up on my radar, and then I randomly came across it on cable one night. It reminds me of the old saying what good is wisdom if it brings no profit to the wise. Not much as it turns out. Say what you will about Zombie’s reimaginings, but they’re a far cry better than this. It makes the Friday the 13th reboot look like a work of unparalleled genius. In the right hands I don’t have a problem with the concept they were trying to pull off (i.e. reality television meets the horror genre). Recently I just saw a great example of a similar effort in the British show Dead Set (zombies meet Big Brother). Unfortunately these were the wrong hands.

So there you have it a best of/worst of list for the 2000’s. As I said in the intro, these kinds of lists are never satisfactory, in my mind they serve to highlight standouts (of which there are many). Feel free to comment and share others you think are worthy (or unworthy : )

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fantasmo Episode 52: Lugosi Forever!

Hey Superfans!

It’s a new year and as we like to do here at Fantasmo, we’ll be starting things off right with some bona fide classics. For this very special episode, we’re focusing on some post-Dracula efforts from the legendary Bela Lugosi. Much adoration is given to the late, great Boris Karloff. He brought life to Frankenstein, creeped us out when teamed up with Val Lewton, and generally turned in a host of excellent performances throughout his legendary career. Bela Lugosi, while attaining icon status with Dracula at around the same time, wasn’t quite so fortunate. Although he was granted some good projects early on, eventually Hollywood relegated him to terrible cameos or riffs on his most famous role. The example most folks are familiar with of course are his collaborations with Ed Wood, as depicted famously by Martin Landau in the excellent Tim Burton film. For whatever reason, Lugosi could never seem to break out or escape typecasting the positive way Karloff did.

Here at Fantasmo HQ we have a lot of love for Lugosi, and are excited to screen three of his best. No cheapies here friends (although those are great in their own way), only Grade A classic horror! Here are your full Episode 52 details:

When: Friday, January 8th, 8:00 p.m.

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

Films:

8:00 p.m.: Return of the Vampire

9:15 p.m.: The Black Cat

10:30 p.m.: The Raven

Can you imagine a greater lineup or a better evening? We sure can’t! Be sure not to miss these timeless horror classics on our bigger than life screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! See you there!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

To Remake or Not to Remake?

One of the coolest aspects of Fantasmo is the conversations that are generated during the course of the evening by the films being screened. At our most recent outing with Dr. Syn, discussion veered off on a tangent to Patrick McGoohan’s classic series The Prisoner. Specifically talk was directed toward the new AMC remake of sorts starring Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel. Before I go any further I have to warn you that this piece may get into some spoilerish territory of The Prisoner and other things, so proceed with caution. It is safe to say that the majority of the folks involved in the conversation were fans of the original show, myself being included. In fact for my part, I would say The Prisoner is perhaps my favorite piece of filmed fiction ever produced (television, movie, or otherwise). McGoohan created a truly timeless work of art that is as relevant today as it ever was. When I initially heard about the possibility of a remake I was skeptical, as the original was quite surreal and unlikely to lend itself well to a retelling. After all the end of the show sees McGoohan literally confronting the dark side of himself, and learning he was (as portrayed in a living, breathing metaphor) his own jailer. Once you’ve witnessed that punchline and all that it represents, the thought of doing it again wouldn’t appear to make much sense. Who would care? This point was what fueled the discussion, as it brought up the larger issue of the validity of remakes in general. Is there such a thing as a worthy remake, or are they all just bankrupt endeavors from folks who have run out of ideas, wishing to make a quick dollar off of a familiar property? This is the question I seek to answer.

My knee jerk reaction to remakes, and I think many feel the same way, is that they tend to be rather lazy. Take for example the recent reboot of Friday the 13th. It plays around with familiar elements of the films, but it captures neither the essence which made the originals great, nor covers any new ground that makes the territory worth revisiting. It’s just empty calories that make for a big opening weekend box office, but not a lasting impression. And how many of these have we seen in recent memory? Last House on the Left, The Hitcher, The Fog, The Hills Have Eyes, Death Race 2000, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, etc. And the list just keeps getting bigger with remakes of Fright Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and others on the way. If you run the numbers, the sheer volume of terrible remakes out there do not inspire much enthusiasm for the artists behind these endeavors, nor the potential quality of the final products. As such it’s easy to understand why fans don’t react well to these, given their dime a dozen nature.

For me the notion of a classic or beloved piece of work being revisited is not in and of itself a bad thing. The perfect example of this would be in the theatre world where you have numerous interpretations of the work of Shakespeare. Not only are his works given inexhaustible life by the interpretations of the performers, but in many instances they are spun in a new fashion (e.g. an update of the time period). This is evident in recent film adaptations as well such as Romeo + Juliet and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet. One may question the quality of any given interpretation, but the notion of staging a unique Shakespearian production is not the subject of fiery debate. New generations of artists pick up the baton and keep the work fresh and relevant for their own particular moment in time. And like him or not, one would be hard pressed to argue that Shakespeare is not one of the most (if not the most) important artistic giant with regard to the written word. With that in mind, the next question would be if we can remake and retell the greatest works of literature, then why should The Prisoner, much less Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street, be untouchable?

My own personal answer to the question is that no piece of art, no matter how revered, should be untouchable (even The Untouchables itself was re-envisioned . . . not to mention DePalma’s reboots of Scarface and Mission: Impossible). Once an artist puts something out in the open forum of the entertainment universe, it becomes a part of that fabric and forever altered by the perceptions of those who experience it. So the only “pure vision” is actually in the mind of its author (which is why I don’t have a big problem with folks like Lucas or Friedkin revising their classics, even if the final result isn’t pleasing to me). By extending their work to the world of artists and critics, which on some level is all of us, they are accepting all the risks of compromise that come with that action. All art is a collaboration. There is the issue of copyright of course, but that is an issue of economics more than artistry. Outside of any legal considerations, the morphing of that original concept by other “artists” is fair game. When you think about it, sequels fall under this banner as well as they are often extensions by others of an original concept, even if they don’t follow the exact plot. For example Dan O’Bannon may have come up with the story for Alien, but chances are he didn’t envision the place James Cameron eventually took things . . . yet most would agree that Aliens was a worthy film.

The trouble, and general lack of goodwill toward remakes/retellings/re-envisionings in the current climate, stems from the quantity vs. quality angle. It seems that Hollywood has veered away from concerns of putting forward visions that truly expand or enhance original material, and instead seek to cash in on pure name recognition. The template is to find a hotshot director, hand over a revered property the studio owns, and have them crank out a slick-looking update of the original in the minimum time/cost required. Even if the movie goes down in the second weekend due to bad word of mouth, chances are it will make a profit from the first weekend. And that’s not even counting foreign grosses and video. Consequently it is a rare occasion when remakes in this day and age manage to be both profitable and interesting. Despite this condition, those few films (and I’m including television here as well) that manage to say something new with the classic material have a right to make their artistic case. In my mind they constitute an experiment, and therefore provide food for thought – even when they aren’t successfully executed. The fact is that they are attempting to push forward in some fashion, and that is often a worthy endeavor in itself. It is only through the encouragement of such experimentations, that other artists are emboldened to chart new paths.

It’s taken me a while to come around to making this conclusion, and I can clearly identify the turning point. When I was reading Vern’s Seagalogy, he talked about his admiration of Seagal for making the wildly non-commercial environmental epic On Deadly Ground. While noting that Seagal’s vision was a departure from grounds less deadly to box office receipts, he admired him for cashing in his clout to do something personal (even if it wasn’t perfectly executed). In making his case, Vern drew a parallel with Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot (mostly) remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. He felt some admiration for Van Sant for using his Good Will Hunting clout, and undertaking a project that was maligned by practically everyone from the word go. Van Sant thought it would be interesting to see what would result in trying to (mostly) perfectly replicate Psycho using the tools/artists of the day. In this sense he was not simply remaking a film to cash in, he was engaging in a true experiment with purpose. Now mileage may widely vary as to what folks thought about the worth of the purpose, but that’s the nature of art anyway.

The fact is when I saw Van Sant’s Psycho during its original run, I along with just about everybody else thought it was a travesty. I haven’t seen it since, and suspect my assessment of its success as entertainment or a good film would likely not change very much. That being said, having listened to Vern’s argument, I became firmly convinced that Gus Van Sant’s Psycho had a right to exist. Going further I believed it was good that it did exist, and that Van Sant courageously tried a bold experiment. Although the experiment was not successful in terms of garnering praise or producing a great film, I believe he answered the question he sought to answer (even if it was not the answer he and the audience were hoping for). If nothing else that answer will insure there are no shot-for-shot remakes of Vertigo anytime soon. And let’s be honest, what he attempted was a far cry from what we’re given in lesser remakes such as Friday the 13th. There was something behind what he was doing beyond making money. To look at more recent efforts for comparison, I would say his stab at Psycho was close in spirit to Rob Zombie’s Halloween I & II. Zombie parroted certain elements of the originals, particularly in Halloween, but he took it a step further and gave each his own spin. The fact is both directors had a vision and an artistic reason for what they were doing, and I can respect that even if I didn’t care for the films.

I keep picking on Friday the 13th, but it’s not just these flash in the pan types of remakes that lack vision. One can look at more respected auteurs and encounter the same problem. There are few directors I hold in higher esteem than the legendary John Carpenter. Yet when he sought to update Village of the Damned, the results were decidedly mediocre. Instead of putting his own touches on a film I’m sure he was fond of, he produced one of the empty calorie remakes. It has all the plot elements of the original film, cool ILM effects, and a great genre cast, but it lacks anything that would distinguish it as being a worthwhile endeavor. There are a couple of minor plot re-workings, but they add nothing significant. What’s interesting though is that Carpenter is actually a director who happens to be adept at remakes. For example Assault on Precinct 13 was an amazing update of Rio Bravo, and he even produced a clever remake of AOP13 years later in the form of Ghost of Mars. Furthermore, Escape From L.A. was a good remake of Escape From New York, which tread the same plot points with a new message. So one can even see the pitfalls and values of remakes within the filmography of a single director.

Bringing this all back to AMC’s The Prisoner, despite my devotion to the original show I feel that it (thus far) is worthy. I’ve only seen the first four episodes of the show, so the ending may disappoint, but it is clear that the makers have done enough to establish that it is not a by-the-numbers, hollow retread. There are visual touches that recall the old show, and the Village/Number Two/Number Six structure is similar, but the execution is much different. This new Prisoner is even more surreal (who would have thought that possible), features a weaker Number Six, and sports a pretty hopeless atmosphere out of the gate. Additionally, the underlying purpose/theme of the show is both a mystery and a departure. McGoohan’s Prisoner early on established personal identity and the struggle against those who would squash it as a central theme. Caviezel’s Prisoner pays lip service to this, but genuinely seems more concerned with just getting out. Now that’s a simpler construct, but I’m thinking they’ll attempt to tie the disjointed narrative together with some message in the end. Whether that’s successful or not is another story, but it’s clear they’ve made a decision not to try to outdo McGoohan (unless Caviezel discovers himself in an ape mask in the end, and launches a rocket).

As far as my enjoyment of the new Prisoner goes, I’ve found it to be interesting but nothing I’ll add to my all-time favorites list. If I were seeing it with no knowledge of the original, I’d probably say it’s a solid series worth seeing (again four episodes in). In the context of the original, it’s certainly nowhere near matching McGoohan’s efforts. It’s stylish and well-mounted, but it doesn’t resonate with me as strongly, nor is it as engaging. That may sound harsh, but remember it’s up against what is perhaps my ultimate favorite. A strength I should mention though is the performances. McKellen is outstanding as one would expect, and Caviezel does a good job with the spin on this Number Six. Six spends much of his time disoriented and is not particularly strong, and that works within the context of this version. Caviezel has taken some hits for a limp portrayal, but it’s smart that he didn’t try to imitate McGoohan . . . because no one could. I think reviews have been overly negative in the press, largely focusing on its comparison to the original. If taken on its own merits, this Prisoner is an interesting diversion and riff on the original.

The most persuasive argument that was advanced during the course of the Fantasmo debate, was that McGoohan had a strong vision that was intensely personal. As such any attempt to replicate or modify that is unacceptable. I understand this position, and on some level feel that myself. However what I would counter with is that appraisal of art, be it merit of concept or execution, is subjective. I don’t think one can apply objective principles in determining whether the artistic endeavor of a remake should be commenced. In other words I couldn’t look at the original Prisoner and objectively state that McGoohan had a strong artistic vision (X) + strong execution of that vision (Y) = the material should not be tampered with (Z). As I said in the beginning, due to the nature of art as a collaborative experience between artist and audience, I believe we must assume that modification will happen on some level once the art is exhibited. The ability to objectively identify merit (e.g. technical/aesthetic values) will be more possible once the modification (in this case remakes) has occurred, but even then subjectivity is going to be a greater factor. There may be a consensus that something is bad (e.g. Friday the 13th), but there will always be some contingent who find the updated/modified material worthwhile on some level.

Long story short, I would suggest that despite mine and the tendency of others to dismiss the majority of remakes out of hand, the right for remakes to be undertaken is legitimate. Unfortunately the trend is toward the by-the-numbers efforts that lack inspiration, but those few which have a vision make the sifting through process worthwhile. Even the noble failures, among which I would count the new Prisoner as it is not the equal of the original, are worth experiencing for what they have to offer. To go back to an earlier example, while I don’t plan on revisiting Rob Zombie’s Halloween films, I’m glad I saw them. They gave me a few new elements to consider, even if the ride was uneven. For what it’s worth I’d love to see Zombie remake Halloween III, as I’m sure he’d do wonders with the evil toymaker plotline. He couldn’t top the original though unless he was able to get Tom Atkins back for the lead, I think we can all agree on that!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fantasmo Episode 51: The Two Faces of Dr. Syn (AKA We Can Stop the Music)

Hey Superfans,

Hot on the heels of our landmark 50th episode Zombieocalypse, we are returning to our first Friday schedule after a long summer/fall. This year’s holiday episode is also a landmark of sorts in its own right, as we break with our longstanding tradition of screening the ultimate crowd favorite Can’t Stop the Music. It was a painful decision to actually prove that we could indeed stop the music, but we figured a break was in order for this fine feature film that has served us so well over the years. So if you feel the need to celebrate the season with Steve Guttenberg, Bruce Jenner, and the Village People, it will have to be at your own personal home edition of Fantasmo : )

Even though our beloved standard will not be shown, we have come up with something very special for this breakaway Fantasmo. In what truly is a gift to you our loyal viewers, Team Fantasmo will be showing two big screen adaptations of Russell Thorndike’s Dr. Syn character. For the uninitiated Dr. Syn is a Revolutionary War era Robin Hood type vigilante based in rural England. Unlike Robin Hood however, Dr. Syn is a truly fearsome masked avenger not unlike The Dark Knight. The film versions, Night Creatures and Dr. Syn: Alias the Scarecrow, star Peter Cushing and Patrick McGoohan respectively. While both put their own spin on the character, each conveys a sense of threat and menace as they wreak havoc on the monarchy’s elite soldiers. Perhaps what is most interesting is that the films are produced by Hammer (Night Creatures) and Disney (Dr. Syn), which has to be one of the weirdest developments in the history of cinema! As one might expect Dr. Syn is not your typical Disney film, and remains one of the biggest cult titles in their catalog.

In this groundbreaking holiday episode, you can witness both of these classic precursors to the likes of Batman in all of their widescreen glory! Here are your full Episode 51 details:

When: Friday, December 4th, 8:00 p.m.

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

Films:

8:00 p.m.: Dr. Syn: Alias the Scarecrow

9:45 p.m.: Night Creatures

So there you have it Superfans, another great (if Village People free) holiday edition of Fantasmo! This year we’ll prove that we have the power to stop the music (much to the relief of cinema lovers everywhere : )

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review: Steven Seagal Lawman

Well I have just experienced the first episode of Steven Seagal Lawman, and have to say it lived up to all expectations (which were running pretty high). The show played it pretty straight, and presented Seagal as a solid contributor to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Dept. As he stated in the promo it was "for real." For anyone who has ever seen an episode of COPS, that is pretty much the set up for Lawman. We follow Seagal and his partner on several calls to everything from carjacking to domestic violence . . . and it is definitely real. As with the long-running Fox show it gives you an appreciation of what these brave folks endure on a regular basis. That having been said, Lawman definitely has a distinctly Seagalian flavor as one would hope. There are some trademark outrageous (yet cool) moments that distinguish this as a Steven Seagal enterprise through and through. Here are some highlights I noted:

1 - Kicking off the opening credits sequence Seagal has a voiceover giving some background on his participation with the Dept. What I love is that he says "my name is Steven Seagal . . . that's right Steven Seagal." It's just a great tough guy line and announces Lawman as a show to be reckoned with.

2 - During the opening chase to nab a carjacker Seagal has this voiceover where he explains that "as a lifelong practitioner of the martial arts," he is "trained to stay calm in the face of danger." He actually uses that "lifelong practitioner" statement several times in various contexts, and it never gets old. In any case, it's like in the middle of this chase the show goes into a Zen moment which is very cool.

3 - Still in the midst of the carjacker chase, Seagal starts yelling directions to his partner who is driving. The partner then says "Steve let me drive!" Seagal responds by saying "just telling you where the holes are." It's an interesting moment that reveals these two have a regular relationship, and that the other cops don't just bow down to Seagal because he's famous. I liked that they left this in, as it shows they aren't just sugarcoating to maintain a perfect image for Seagal.

4 - After catching the carjacker, Seagal pulls a hockey mask out of the perp's back pocket and says it "looks like Jason." Who knew Seagal was a Friday the 13th fan?!? Pure gold.

5 - Shifting from the following a patrol type format, the show has a parallel track in which Seagal is trying to help a trainee pass his firearms test. If he fails he'll be consigned to desk duty. Before we see Seagal actually training the guy on the range, he states that he's "trying to pass along secrets that have made him a master shooter." Let's just say he is more than able to back this up. Seagal demonstrates a stunning level of ability with a pistol, that is just shy of magical. He puts several bullets in the same initial hole on a target, and even is able to hit Q-tips and a match. Believe me it's pretty wild stuff. While the trainee just squeaks by with a passing score, I'm still very impressed with Seagal's ability.

6 - When the show shifts back into patrol mode, Seagal goes into more depth about the aikido philosophy as applied to the job of a policeman. He sees the patrolling of neighborhoods as their effort in "trying to take away the bad guys and restore harmony." He also emphasizes that he always tries to solve problems first with humor and kindness. This may sound corny, but it does add another layer to the show that is pure Seagal. And you have to like the guy for espousing these standards (which he displays when bouncing a drunken fellow from a local bar, then chatting and signing autographs for the folks on the scene). I just kept waiting for some version of the On Deadly Ground "essence of a man" speech to come out . . . maybe in later episodes.

7 - Perhaps the most outrageous moment of the show is what I am going to refer to as "Seagal Vision" from henceforth. Seagal gives a voiceover early on in which he states his martial arts training allows him to derive information from environmental cues. For example a cocked head on a perp might indicate that he is about to flee. After this setup there are several instances where Seagal will spot something unusual (e.g. an open door, certain movements) and the screen will zoom in and go into a sort of X-ray mode, indicating Seagal's special martial arts vision. It's almost like the Predator, but not quite as technologically advanced. No matter how you slice it, the effect is absolutely ridiculous yet completely awesome!

8 - Finally I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Seagal retains (mostly) his adopted Cajun accent for the show. There are a few times, largely during the training segment where he seems most natural, sounding more like Nico Toscani than Jacob King . . . so the Seagal we knew from the old days is still there. I suspect the accent comes from hanging around with the folks he's working with. This actually explains a lot, as it is sort of natural to fall into picking up an accent after you've spent a great deal of time in a different region of the country. Either way it still adds some serious entertainment value.

In summary, Lawman is off to a fantastic start and I can't wait to see future episodes. Pictured above is a special limited edition set you can get with the episodes "The Way of the Gun" and "The Deadly Hand," as well as some other fun goodies (including that nifty bulletproof vest . . . like he needs such a thing)! That and an online Lawman game can be found over at the A&E official site even as I write this. Truly superior!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lawman Tomorrow!

Hey Superfans!
A fantastic development to pass along! Tomorrow night (11/18) on the A&E web site at 8:00 p.m., there will be an early screening of the premiere episode of Steven Seagal's reality show Lawman (the regular series will start in early December). Those of you who have followed the blog for a while know this is the much anticipated mashup of Fox's COPS with the trademark street justice Seagal dishes out in his filmic endeavors. The preview clips thus far have been pretty surreal, especially one where a perp recognizes excitedly that he has been apprehended by Steven Seagal. Truly the show promises to be pure gold : ) I'll be back on Thursday with a review, but I highly recommend you do everything in your power to not miss what is sure to be quite an experience! All the info (including a delightful countdown clock) can be found on the official site here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Just in Time For Thanksgiving! Fantasmo Episode 50: Zombieocalypse!

We’ve been talking about this for a while now and it’s finally here – our full-blown zombie event! If there’s one thing you’ve told us over the years, it’s that you love zombies. Well that message has been heard loud and clear! Because you demanded it we are going above and beyond the norm with this one. Not only are we screening a triple-feature of zombie classics old and new, we are also going to have the latest zombie games on hand (both video games and board games). But that’s not all! We’re also holding a zombie costume contest with some great thematically relevant prizes for the best dressed. Truly if you have any interest in zombies, and we know you do, you don’t want to miss this one!

As always the fun will start at 8:00 p.m. Movies and games will run simultaneously. It will truly be unlike any other Fantasmo you’ve ever attended . . . guaranteed! Without any further ado, here are your full Episode 50 (can you believe Fantasmo is turning 50 ?!?) details:

When: Friday, November 20th

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

Films:

8:00 p.m.: Land of the Dead (2007)

9:45 p.m.: Fido (2006)

11:30 p.m.: [REC] (2007)

So there you have it, the beginning of what is sure to become a proud Fantasmo tradition! See you there!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!


I’ve noticed lately that several genre Web sites out there are now holding annual October horror watching marathons. Basically a movie is selected for each day of the month, and general discussion ensues on the blogs and message boards of the various sites. It’s a cool idea and something I’m considering doing here next year (I’m usually watching a movie a day through October anyway to get in the spirit, so might as well make it that much more interesting : ) As for the big day itself, I usually try to watch a couple of movies I haven’t seen on Halloween. This year I have some that look pretty interesting . . .

#1 – Fear(s) of the Dark (2007) – This is one I’ve been hearing about for a while, and the one that I’m most excited about. It’s a French produced animation anthology, featuring comic/graphic artists from around the world. The concept involves the artists exploring the phobias and nightmares that they find unsettling, and the animation is rendered in black and white. The whole thing just looks extremely cool. The closest it played to Hampton Roads was up in Williamsburg, but I was too lazy to make the drive. Thanks DVD!

#2 – Artifacts (2007) – This is a body snatchers type of film released by Lion’s Gate. I’ve been watching a fair amount of stuff from Lion’s Gate as of late, because they’ve been picking up foreign horror films that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day here. It’s been a mixed bag, but occasionally you find an interesting gem in there. I saw a very positive review of this at one of the sites a visit regularly, but the overwhelming consensus seems to be negative. I figured I’d risk it.

And I would be remiss in my duties to you if I didn’t remind you that tonight is Dr. Madblood’s annual Halloween special on WRHO! I believe he’s showing William Castle’s House On Haunted Hill this time around. If you haven’t seen it in a while, it’s just a fantastic film . . . and surprisingly startling at times. As if that weren’t enough incentive, there will also likely be some Monster Fest footage thrown in there if I’m not mistaken. So if you missed the event you can live vicariously through this awesome viewing experience.

I hope you all have a safe and happy Halloween, and I’ll be checking back in early next week with the final details on our BIG zombie event in November! It’s easily going to be one of the greatest Fantasmos ever!!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Sanchez & Myrick Revisited

With all the buzz surrounding Paranormal Activity, another entry in the “found footage” genre, it got me thinking back to the one that started it all – The Blair Witch Project. Hard to believe, but it’s actually been a decade since that came out. I’m sure many of you remember what a phenomenon that was, eclipsing somewhat the release of The Phantom Menace. I’m not sure if this is still the case, but at the time it hit the achievement of being the most successful film ever in terms of money made vs. cost to produce. While feelings about the film vary widely, it was unquestionably a watershed moment in horror film history. I personally found it to be extremely effective, and remember having more than a little trouble falling asleep the night I saw it. Its creators, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, not only produced an amazing marketing campaign, but understood just how effective our imagination is in creating the scares. The film shows you absolutely nothing in the way of an actual monster, but is all the more frightening because of it. There are only a couple of other films that I’ve ever found unsettling (e.g. The Exorcist), and this one may just be the best of the bunch. So after such a huge cinematic splash, these guys became big time filmmakers right? Well not really . . . but in my mind that may not be a bad thing, and I’ll explain why.

In the year following Blair Witch, it came as no surprise that there was an eagerness to capture lightning in a bottle twice. So just in time for Halloween 2000 came Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. At the same time Haxan Films, the production company co-founded by Sanchez, Myrick, and friends, produced the television series FreakyLinks for Fox. So these guys were staying active out of the gate, make no mistake about it. I remember being incredibly psyched about both, but particularly getting wrapped up in the Blair Witch mythology. You see the duo had also conceived a multi-part video game series and tie-in novels, further expanding the legend of the Blair Witch. While I never read the books, the video games were on par with the chills produced by the film. Particularly one that took place in the Civil War era. By the time Blair Witch 2 came out, I was ready to be thrilled again (just as I’m sure millions of others were). And then something interesting happened. Blair Witch 2 turned out to be something completely unexpected . . .

Instead of being either a retread of the plot points of the original with new characters, or an Aliens type follow-up where marines go into the woods, Blair Witch 2 went after the psychosis that develops around media frenzies like . . . well, like the Blair Witch. The film follows a group of Blair Witch devotees who sign up for a tour of the sites believed to be traveled by the doomed members of the student film crew. After a drunken night of camping the tourists wake up to find a rather unsettling scene at the camp site, and have no memory of what took place. The rest of the film deals with them trying to figure out what exactly happened. It’s not really scary, with a few exceptions, and is more about examining our reactions as a society to pop culture reality entertainment. It’s even directed by celebrated documentarian Joe Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper), which in itself is a pretty inspired turn of events (Sanchez and Myrick wrote and produced). While the film doesn’t quite manage to completely come together in the end, it’s still pretty fascinating as a left field turn of events for a sequel to a blockbuster. My guess is that Sanchez and Myrick, feeling the pressure to have another run at the material, decided to blatantly go in another direction as a rebellion of sorts. I could be wrong, but it sure has that feeling about it.

Not surprisingly Blair Witch 2 was a box-office disaster. Fans and newcomers were bewildered, with very few singing praises for the experimental approach taken. The fact is though, like it or not, you have to admire the duo for trying something different. That’s what made the first film great after all. It defied expectations, and may not have achieved classic status, but it was nevertheless interesting. So against the new guys came their first strike, but there was still FreakyLinks. This series for Fox followed a group of young folks who investigated the paranormal via their website FreakyLinks.com. It had an X-Files type vibe in that it was comprised of standalone stories, with occasional story arc episodes involving the death of the main character’s brother. The show even utilized Blair Witch style marketing gimmicks by actually putting up a FreakyLinks website. Unfortunately the show got canceled pretty quickly, a victim of the Friday night graveyard (see Firefly, Millennium, Harsh Realm, etc.). For some reason X-Files has been the only one to survive there. Strike Two.

After FreakyLinks these guys completely went off my radar. For all I knew they left the business and were enjoying a life of ease and riches from their Blair Witch fortune (sort of the way Dolph Lundgren fell off my radar after Johnny Mnemonic). Well that may be, but as it turns out they were also staying busy with other projects (albeit not in collaboration with one another). For the sake of this writeup, I’m going to stick strictly to their directorial efforts so as not to muddy the waters, but you might want to do some independent investigation into their other endeavors if you are so inclined. Although I haven’t gone completely through their respective filmographies as of yet, the work I have seen is proof positive these guys were not one hit wonders. They each have produced their own consistently unique body of work in the horror genre, even though their stuff isn’t released wide theatrically. Most of their films appear modestly budgeted, but they make the most of what they have. And frankly, the fact that they aren’t under big studio type pressure is probably why their films have remained so interesting. What follows is a rundown of their works, with brief commentary where I’ve actually seen the film in question.

Daniel Myrick:

#1 – Believers (2007) – Two paramedics responding to a call find themselves smack in the middle of the internal struggle of a religious cult. After being kidnapped by the cultists, an attempt is made to convince both men of the validity of the cult’s beliefs (which are based on mathematics and astrology). And the clock is ticking, as the group claims the end of the world is only hours away. Commentary: Cool little movie that does a fantastic job of blending science and math with the supernatural (think John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness). While the twist ending is a little predictable, the vast majority of the film is solid and engaging.

#2 – Solstice (2008) – Haven’t seen it. From the synopsis/reviews it sounds like a bit of a slasher type scenario, with supernatural elements thrown in. Most comments say it is executed in a way that makes the material fresh, and that is certainly consistent in regard to my experience with Eduardo/Myrick.

#3 – The Objective (2008) – Set in November 2001, shortly after the U.S. enters Afghanistan, a C.I.A. operative leads a Special Forces team into a remote region of the country to find a high ranking Muslim cleric. But that’s only the cover story. The real target is something otherworldly, and more deadly than any WMD. Commentary: It’s interesting to see genre films now using the War on Terror as a backdrop, and this one certainly does a great job with the setting. Often with this sort of thing the filmmakers tend to veer into the realm of political commentary. That can be okay as long as it doesn’t overwhelm the effectiveness of the story and entertainment value (e.g. Land of the Dead). Here Myrick is most interested in crafting a suspenseful tale, rather than making a statement about the war. If there is a message I would say that he’s highlighting the potential for trouble in failing to properly understand cultural differences. In this case Myrick seems to be indicating that his perception is that Afghanistan is a pretty mysterious place, and that one can accidentally land in alternate dimensions there. Whether that’s true or not, it makes for an exciting movie. Not to overstate the case too much, but this is one of the best genre films I’ve seen this year.

Eduardo Sanchez:

#1 – Altered (2006) – Alien invasion on the micro scale. After being abducted years earlier, 3 small town friends manage to capture one of the creatures who imprisoned them. Unfortunately they didn’t plan anything beyond the capture, since they figured the first part of the scenario was impossible. Desperate, they take the creature to an isolated cabin owned by their estranged friend who was also abducted. What ensues is a rollercoaster ride as the four friends try to make their next move, somewhere between revenge and foiling a fullscale invasion. Commentary: This is one fantastic film! I saw this shortly before Monster Fest and was pretty blown away. It’s not so much that it is a deep or thoughtful endeavor, but it is one of the most entertaining movies of its kind you’re likely to come across. Imagine if something like Fire in the Sky had actually been exciting, and perhaps directed by Sam Raimi during his Evil Dead years. Something like that. The premise is great, there is a strong focus on the characters, and the tension never lets off from the word go. If you see one film from the Sanchez/Myrick post-Blair Witch era, this is the one to see.

#2 – Seventh Moon (2008) – A honeymooning couple in China follow a day of soaking up local culture with a cab ride into the country to visit the groom’s family. Unfortunately it also happens to be the night of the seventh moon festival, in which demons roam the countryside. When the couple’s cab driver abandons them in the middle of nowhere, things go from bad to worse. Commentary: This is a pretty creepy film, and has a nice payoff with the finale. The only negative is that the whole thing is shot in shaky cam mode. Those of you following the blog for a while know I’m not the world’s biggest shaky cam fan. Some will argue it creates a sense of urgency or excitement, but in most cases I just think it makes it hard to tell what’s going on. If that counts as excitement then mission accomplished I guess. Don’t get me wrong I’ve seen it work well (e.g. [REC]), but it’s a risky proposition. In the case of Seventh Moon Sanchez doesn’t quite pull it off. Nevertheless it’s worth checking out.

#3 – ParaAbnormal (2009) – This is listed on IMDB as July 2009, but it hasn’t hit video yet. Looking forward to it though.

Those are the highlights, and I think they form a pretty good track record for these two. They just keep making small, interesting films that tend to get the job done. As an interesting parallel, Blair Witch came out the same summer as The Sixth Sense which became sort of an event as well (also eclipsing The Phantom Menace . . . Star Wars had a rough summer all things considered). It marked the emergence of M. Night Shyamalan as an A-list filmmaker whose gimmick became the clever twist ending. He kept getting big budgets and lots of press, but I would argue that he never did anything after that initial splash as good as the least of the works of Sanchez and Myrick (and I’ll lump BWP2 in there as well). It’s a perfect example of how having Hollywood backing isn’t always a good thing. In looking into Sanchez/Myrick I came across an entry on Wikipedia claiming the two are reteaming for Blair Witch 3 in the near future. With almost a decade gone by since BWP2, I have to say I’m very interested to see what they might do with the material at this stage of the game. Maybe this time around they will send the marines into the forest. Either way I bet it will be worth watching.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The 7 Days of Monster Fest - Day 7: Thank You!

Hey Superfans!

Sorry for the endless delay in updating the blog here, it’s been a busy couple of weeks following the Monster Fest marathon : ) So Day 7 of Monster Fest finally arrives in the form of mine and Rob’s tremendous thanks to all of the folks who made this year’s event a screaming success! We had a wonderful contingent of authors, artists, organizations, and vendors turn out and interact with an enthusiastic crowd. Special thanks go out to those guests who came and presented a fantastic lineup of programs including panel discussions on supernatural literature and Godzilla, film screenings, a special Madblood event, tributes to Forrest J. Ackerman and Saturday morning cartoons of the 60’s, and so much more! And major kudos to Brian and Marie Bridgeforth for again loaning their talents to designing the Monster Fest web site . . . truly awesome. Finally our greatest thanks to all of you who came out once again to support and share your love of all things horror (especially those of you who came dressed for the costume contest : ) Your continued interest makes Monster Fest the thriving program it has become, and we couldn’t do it without you!

In my downtime following Monster Fest I’ve been engaged in my annual home horror movie marathon, and have seen some great films over the past few weeks. I usually do a combo of old favorites and titles I have yet to see (new and old). All of course in preparation for the big finale on Halloween! In that vein I thought I’d give you a top 10 of some of the best of the bunch you might want to give a look:

1 – The House of Usher (1960) – Vincent Price in a well-mounted Roger Corman film. Greatness.

2 – The Objective (2008) – Wild horror film set in the early years of the Afghanistan conflict. From one of the minds behind The Blair Witch Project (I’ll be blogging about those two guys prior to Halloween).

3 – Phantasm II (1988) – Finally(!) released on DVD, the first and best of the Phantasm sequels.

4 – Night of the Creeps (1986) – Also finally(!) released on DVD, this pristine new version features the director’s original ending . . . which includes even more Tom Atkins! If you haven’t seen this in a while, you’ll be surprised at what a terrific film it really is. Totally lives up to the fond memories.

5 – Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) – This is one of those creepy, slow burn type of films that really get under your skin. Watch it with the lights off and you’ll definitely be looking over your shoulder.

6 – Drag Me to Hell (2009) – Everything they’ve been saying is true . . . Raimi’s back! The scene where they attempt to transfer the evil spirit to a goat is priceless.

7 – Beneath Still Waters (2007) – Spanish horror from Re-Animator veteran Brian Yuzna. A little uneven at times, but well worth checking out for a truly creepy premise.

8 – The Church (1989) – Italian horror movie in the vein of Demons, starring Highlander’s Hugh Quarshie and Asia Argento. Not particularly great, but does a good job at creating atmosphere. Worth checking out to see an early film from the director of Cemetery Man.

9 – Dead of Night (1977) – Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) anthology film, scripted by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson. The first two stories are so-so, but the third one will cause you to miss a little sleep. Pretty wild stuff considering this was made-for-TV.

10 – Death Dream (1974) – Really weird spin on the monkey’s paw story from director Bob Clark (A Christmas Story). A Vietnam vet reported killed in action returns home, but he isn’t exactly the same. Low-budget affair, but the performances make it all work. Well worth your time.

As I mentioned in #2, I will be doing a pre-Halloween post on Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, co-creators of The Blair Witch Project. While they haven’t ever reached the pop culture high of their freshman film, these two have put out consistently interesting horror entries since their big splash a decade ago. In the meantime, hope you enjoy scouting out these 10 very interesting Halloween treats!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The 7 Days of Monster Fest - Days Five & Six: Godzilla!

I know what you're thinking, no post yesterday. Well the fact of the matter is that this post is just TOO BIG for one day! This weekend Fantasmo All-Star and The Original Superfan Tony Mercer will be on hand to give a presentation on the History of Godzilla in Film. Those of you who have been coming to Fantasmo and Monster Fest for a while now have seen Tony (pictured above in an exciting action pose) deliver fascinating talks on everything from Euro horror director Mario Bava to the history of Hammer Studios. His encyclopedic knowledge of the horror genre knows few equals, and attendees can vouch for the fact that one comes away from his lectures with a wealth of information . . . and possibly even smarter (although we haven't conducted a scientific study on this as of yet). Either way you can bet that the presentation will be captivating, and time well spent.

As mentioned Tony's lecture this year will be on everyone's favorite atomic age monster Godzilla! This famous lizard(?) creature with the fiery breath has entertained monster fans for many decades, and Tony will talk about the many highs and lows Godzilla has experienced. This will provide nothing less than a road map for viewing, allowing you to avoid the weak entries if you so choose . . . or at least know what you're getting into : ) The action starts at 3:30 on Saturday!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Paranormal Activity in Hampton Roads?

I don't know how many of you have been following this, but there's a new Blair Witch style film called Paranormal Activity that's making waves right now. Apparently it was screened at a festival a while back in 2007, but is just now being released (in a very interesting fashion) by Paramount. The studio is running an unusual campaign in which they have started a Web site where fans can demand that it be screened in their city. I figured that it would turn up in the big spots like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc., but Ain't it Cool News is reporting that the "Hampton Roads metro area" has just become one of the selected cities. Pretty cool indeed.

I can't find any mention of it on the Virginian-Pilot movie schedules as of yet, so I hope this is for real. If you haven't seen the unbelievably scary trailer you can do so over at the Apple Web site. As creepy as anything I've seen in a long time . . . can't wait!

The 7 Days of Monster Fest - Day Four: Dr. Madblood!

It wouldn't be Monster Fest without the presence of Dr. Madblood and members of his team, and I'm ecstatic that he and several others will be on hand as always to meet and greet visitors . . . not to mention shoot footage for his show (so if you're a shameless publicity hound like Team Fantasmo you'll definitely want to wander into camera shot : ) Team Madblood has supported FantaSci and Monster Fest from the beginning, and are certainly THE genre icons of our local area! If you've grown up on the Doctor's roasting of horror classics (and not so classics) you don't want to miss this opportunity to chat with him, and revisit some classic Madblood moments from the past. To that end, longtime cast member Craig T. Adams will be hosting a very special presentation of a vintage Madblood episode on our big screen . . . the way it was never meant to be seen (but we love the opportunity to do so : ) The fun starts at high noon on Satruday!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The 7 Days of Monster Fest - Day Three: The Authors

While movies are a big focus at Monster Fest this year, fear not we still have paid plenty of attention to the written word! In addition to having a special morning panel discussion on paranormal fiction, several authors will be on hand throughout the day to meet and talk about their works including:



Justin Cristelli: www.myspace.com/divitanovel




Also on hand we'll have Scary Monsters Magazine, Royal Flush Magazine, and folks from the excellent literary themed RavenCon event . . . and you never know who else might make an appearance!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The 7 Days of Monster Fest - Day Two: Virginia Creepers: The Horror Host Tradition of the Old Dominion

Hey Superfans!

The daily countdown to Monster Fest 6 continues. Today I’m highlighting another one of the film premieres taking place at the BIG event. Yesterday we looked at Joe Maddrey’s excellent documentary film Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, and today we have another outstanding horror documentary with major local interest. Virginia Creepers: The Horror Host Tradition of the Old Dominion from directors Sean Kotz and Chris Volluzo explores the long line of TV horror hosts in the Commonwealth from 1958 forward (of which Hampton Roads has been fortunate to have a healthy number : ) As a Virginia transplant whose first exposure was Dr. Madblood, it has been very cool to discover what a horror tradition we have in our neck of the woods. A bonus that adds to the coolness is that some of the interviews in the film were conducted at Fantasmo!

Want even more reasons to come out and see Virginia Creepers? That’s easy. First it will likely be your only opportunity to see it on the big screen in our area. Better still you will be able to meet some of the subjects in the form of Team Madblood (including Dr. Madblood himself) and Chamber Theater host Rick “The Keeper” Clark in a rare appearance. And you just never know who might show up! The show starts at 2:30 p.m., right after Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue. You dare not miss it!

The 7 Days of Monster Fest - Day One: Nightmares in Red, White and Blue

Hey Superfans!

For the next 7 days I'm going to post highlights of the upcoming Monster Fest event, and I'm kicking things off with something we're all extremely excited about here at Fantasmo HQ. Honorary Fantasmo All-Star Joseph Maddrey's documentary Nightmares in Red, White and Blue is having its area premiere at Monster Fest, having just come from a successful screening at the Deauville Film Festival where Joe brushed elbows with the likes of Meryl Streep (who I'm sure is a hardcore horror film fan : ) If you've followed the blog for a while you may remember reading about the film here and the interview I conducted with Joe. The documentary provides an overview of the development of the horror film as a reflection of changing cultural attitudes and influences in America . . . interspersed with some truly excellent footage (including a showstopping montage of Jason Vorhees in action). It also explores the genre's enduring popularity over the years, and why it continues to resonate so strongly with audiences. Terrific stuff.

As if the subject matter weren't interesting enough on its own, Joe miraculously managed to interview a virtual who's who of great horror directors including the likes of Romero, Corman, Carpenter, Dante, Cohen, etc. Hearing their thoughts adds a fascinating perspective to the proceedings, and makes an already great film something truly special. Personally I can't wait for the DVD release to see even more of this footage - pure gold. The final crowning touch is that it's narrated by none other than Lance Henriksen (Near Dark, Aliens), the most perfect choice I can imagine for a project like this! I don't believe I'm overstating the case when I say that Nightmares in Red, White and Blue is poised to become THE definitive documentary on the American horror film. Ken Burns may own baseball and the national parks, but horror belongs to Maddrey!

So how can you see this amazing new film you ask? Just come on over to Monster Fest next Saturday at noon, and you can see it on the big screen in a darkened theater . . . the way it was meant to be seen. Given that we are not New York, Los Angeles, or Deauville, France, this will possibly be a one-time opportunity to see this in Hampton Roads . . . so you dare not miss it! See you on Saturday : )

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Monster Fest Programs Unleashed!

The GINORMOUS lineup of programming is now up and running at the amazing (and tremendously spooky) Monster Fest 6 web site at: http://www.monsterfestva.com/. This year's schedule of events is focused on movie premieres, and we have three BIG titles! But that's not all, there will be panels on paranomral fiction, Saturday morning monsters of the 60's, a loving tribute to Forrest J. Ackerman, a classic episode of Dr. Madblood on the big screen, a special Monster Fest edition of the popular children's program PAWS to Read, a presentation on the history of Godzilla in film, and the always popular costume contest . . . not to mention the all-night horrorthon : ) I'll be writing about our three movie premieres in a separate post, but in the meantime will leave you with the official Monster Fest 6 schedule of events:

10:00 a.m. - Taste the Blood of Frankenstein (premiere!) - Hosted by director Eric Miller

10:00 a.m. - Fiction and Nonfiction Paranormal: Why So Popular Nowadays? - Hosted by Pamela Kinney, Beth Brown, A. B. Wallace, Justin Cristelli & Deborah Caravelli

10:00 a.m. - Saturday Morning Monsters of the 60's - Hosted by Michael Joyner

11:00 a.m. - Tribute to Forrest J. Ackerman: The Godfather of Horror Fandom -
Hosted by Debbie Painter, Paul Knight & David Hawk

12:00 p.m. - Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film (premiere!) - Hosted by writer/producer Joseph Maddrey

12:00 p.m. - Classic Dr. Madblood Episode - Hosted by Craig T. Adams

2:00 p.m. - Costume Contest

2:00 p.m. - Claws to Read

2:30 p.m. - Virginia Creepers: The Horror Host Tradition of the Old Dominion (premiere!) - Hosted by writer/director Sean Kotz

3:30 p.m. - Godzilla: A History in Film - Hosted by Tony Mercer

Easily poised to be our biggest, bestest Monster Fest yet! See you on Saturday, October 10th!!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Drive-In Update!

Hey Superfans!
It looks like the weather is not going to cooperate today, so our outdoor screening will have to move indoors this evening. Rest assured we will try this again at some point in the future! In the meantime we will enjoy Armand Assante wrestling mutant bears in the comfort of Theatre du Fantasmo tonight : )

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Monster Fest Horrorthon Lineup!

Late breaking Monster Fest news!

Rob and I have just settled on the final schedule for the BIG Fantasmo All-Night Horrorthon following the daytime portion of Monster Fest! Every year we keep raising the bar higher, wondering if it will be possible to top the previous year. Well, I feel pretty confident that we have pulled off our best lineup yet. We have two great classics to start off with, followed by a couple of iconic 70’s monster films, and two of the best from the 80’s. Remember with the Horrorthon we start rolling at 8:00 p.m. and the doors are locked at 10:00 p.m. So don’t be late : ) Without further ado, your Monster Fest Fantasmo Horrorthon 2009 lineup:

Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde (1931) – Perhaps the best screen version of Jeckyll ever!

House of Frankenstein – Not Rated – Need I say more?

Scream, Blacula, Scream – Rated PG – William Marshall at his fangtastic best!

The Return of Count Yorga – Rated R – Robert Quarry back in a sequel that surpasses the original!

Motel Hell – Rated R – You just can’t beat Farmer Vincent’s fritters!

The Blob (1988) – Rated R – Finally a remake that is the equal of the original!

There you have it Superfans, another classic Horrorthon in the making. See you there!

Dark Night of the Scarecrow at the Byrd


Yet another very cool midnight screening coming up at The Byrd Theatre in Richmond. This time it's the rare early 80's classic Dark Night of the Scarecrow. There's just something inherently creepy about scarecrows, and this is certainly one of the best of it's kind!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Movie Review: House of Dark Shadows (1970)

Perhaps one of the greatest joys for a genre fan like me is coming across an unexpected treasure, particularly one that’s been under my nose for a while. Recently at the library we’ve been getting in classic Dark Shadows sets, and I’ve been plowing through them at a ridiculous pace. Keeping in tune with horror and sci-fi television, Dark Shadows has always been in my peripheral field of awareness but never quite grabbed me enough to seek it out. I would see stills, or occasionally run across reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel, but it seemed a little too soap opera to me. Several folks have tried to sell it to me over the years unsuccessfully, but due to the ready access here at the library I finally took the plunge. I popped in the first DVD armed with the knowledge that it was a 1200+ episode commitment, and initially I did have some reservations about that. Well I’m about 500 or so episodes in now, and I have to say it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. Right up there with classic Star Trek, The Prisoner, etc. Jonathan Frid totally holds his own as a genre icon along with the likes of Shatner and McGoohan (and he doesn’t even show up until around episode 200). His portrayal of the tortured Barnabas Collins manages to be simultaneously heroic and villainous, making for one of the most complex vampires ever committed to film. It’s easy to see why this show was such a phenomenon in its time, and the strong performances contribute to it being just as interesting today.

Due to the mega success of the series, creator Dan Curtis was able to launch to launch two Dark Shadows theatrical films in the early 70’s, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. Unfortunately I was disappointed to discover that neither has made their way to DVD. Imagine my surprise a month or so back when browsing through Itunes, and discovering that the first film was available in widescreen! That discovery led to my search for similar treasures, including The Island and several others. Being a newly converted fan I couldn’t help but take the plunge, and for any Dark Shadows devotee worth their salt it’s time well spent. Most of the major characters are on hand, including Frid front and center as Barnabas, and the film loosely follows plot points from the series. I can’t confirm the similarity of all outcomes as I haven’t finished the Barnabas cycle of the show, but it’s clear that the film diverts from series canon on several points. So you won’t completely spoil all surprises that await if you later decide to watch the small screen version.

In a nutshell the film kicks off with the arrival of Barnabas at the Collins estate, and his subsequent pursuit of Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott). The changes start right here, as Maggie is the governess of David Collins on the big screen instead of Victoria Winters (who is the show’s anchor . . . at least throughout the first 500+ episodes : ) Barnabus is intent on claiming her as a doppelganger of his lost love Josette Collins, and proceeds to wreak havoc on just about everyone else in the family/community toward that end. He is aided (as he is in the show) by Grayson Hall’s Dr. Julia Hoffman, who has discovered a way to reverse the effects of his vampirism. Unfortunately she also has a crush on Barnabas which leads to disastrous results. Everything culminates in a final battle between Barnabas and series hero Jeff Clark (Roger Davis), the two eternal rivals for Maggie’s heart (although actually Victoria’s in the show). In many ways it’s a riff on the Dracula tale, but the characters and Curtis’s fine storytelling ability breathe new life into the myth.

What I find so appealing about the series and the film is that they are reminiscent of the best work from Hammer Studios. As a big Hammer fan I love tales dripping in Gothic atmosphere, and Dark Shadows is about as good as it gets . . . in some respects even better than Hammer. The chief reason for this is that Dark Shadows has the luxury of 1200 episodes to tell its story, whereas your average Hammer film has about 90 minutes. Imagine if Horror of Dracula or Curse of Frankenstein ran 1200 episodes how interesting that might be! Not surprisingly when condensed to 90 minutes Dark Shadows suffers from that same need to squeeze a large amount of information in too brief of a space. We get plenty of time with Barnabas and Maggie, but folks like Liz Stoddard or Roger Collins are reduced basically to cameos. With this in mind series fans will benefit in that they have deeper understanding of the characters that parade through, but may be frustrated that their favorites don’t always receive ample screen time. What will impress most is just how polished the film is compared to the series. No flubbed lines or flies buzzing around people’s heads here (although those things are certainly part of the show’s charm)! Seeing these characters writ large in widescreen is a pretty satisfying experience, and provides the cinematic grandeur the tale deserves.

More than anything else what the film drives home to me personally is what a missed opportunity Jonathan Frid was. From what I gather, following the Dark Shadows experience he returned to stage work, barring a few appearances in minor films. The man had a real presence and I would have loved to see him do more films. It always mystifies me a bit when situations like this occur, in which an actor is at the top of the world and then gets stymied by typecasting or lack of good offers (e.g. Mark Hamill, Michael Beck, etc.). Frid in particular is most frustrating in this regard as he’s got significant acting chops, in addition to being a charismatic fellow. Apparently he still does conventions (now in his 80’s!), and by all accounts is a great fellow in real life as well. Would love to see him do a cameo in the rumored reboot!

The good news about the film is that it is accessible to both fans and newcomers. I suspect that was part of the design, although it’s hard to imagine in the 70’s many people not having a passing familiarity with the Collins saga. To the layperson House of Dark Shadows will play like a top notch Hammer film, and to fans it will be a treat to see the characters in a big-budget adaptation. Either way House of Dark Shadows is a lost gem that warrants attention. I’m blown away that Itunes has done such a great job with the transfer to the digital format, and can’t recommend seeking this out highly enough. If you’re a fan of the show it’s a no brainer, but I would highly encourage Gothic horror films to give this one a chance. Next on my Itunes lost films series I’ll be discussing Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. It’s a weird sci-fi/road movie hybrid with perhaps the best soundtrack of the 90’s. Until then . . .

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Escapism Film Festival


The cool movie fests simply do not stop! The Carolina Theatre, home to our doppelganger program Retrofantasma, has an amazing film festival coming up the week after Monster Fest. This year it looks like they’re focusing largely on fantasy/sci-fi films, and the lineup looks well . . . fantastic! What is particularly interesting (and pretty scary) is that they are showing the last existing 35mm print of Flash Gordon, and the only existing 35mm print of Battlestar Galactica in the U.S. It is amazing to think that the theatrical exhibition of Flash Gordon comes down to a single copy . . . definitely underscores the importance of efforts to preserve film such as the National Film Registry. Most disturbing was that they couldn’t locate prints of movies like Superman II, Dragonslayer, Condorman, etc. If you have a chance, and especially if you’ve never seen Flash Gordon on the big screen, it’s probably worth that trip to N.C.!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Team Fantasmo Vs. The Drive-In Super Monster-Rama

Hey Superfans!
Posts have been few the past week or so as your Team Fantasmo has been on an away mission. A Fantasmo delegation of myself, Rob, Fantasmo All-Star Craig, and original Superfan (and regular Fantasmo guest speaker) Tony Mercer ventured forth to the Drive-In Super Monster-Rama in Vandergrift, PA. It was an amazing experience and held several pleasant surprises. First off, we were blown away to find out that the drive-in was practically next door to Monroeville, PA. What’s the big deal you ask? Well the Monroeville Mall just happens to be where George A. Romero shot Dawn of the Dead! So of course we had to visit and check it out. Incredibly many of the familiar sites were still in existence (pictured below), including the elevator where Flyboy meets a bad end and the escalator Roger slides down (both in JC Penney’s). We ran into an employee at Penney’s who was a zombie extra in the film, and had a fun conversation. Also of interest was the fact that one of the stores had a zombie/Dawn of the Dead exhibit, featuring props and a replica of the mall layout as it was in 1978.
The Monroeville Mall

The Zombie Experience

Fantasmo All-Star Craig Vs. Roger's Burial Site At the Bridge

Fantasmo All-Star Craig Vs. Flyboy's Elevator

It was a great coincidence that we just happened to be staying in the town where Dawn of the Dead was shot, but things got better during our breakfast on the second morning of the trip. Our waitress asked us if we were in town to see Stan Lee. We exchanged surprised glances, and subsequently learned there was a comic convention in town with Stan Lee as guest of honor! Crazier still was the fact that The Last Dragon star Taimak (screened at our second Fantasmo anniversary) was also on hand!! Needless to say we checked the con out. Although I’m not an autograph seeking type of fellow, it was still very cool to be in the presence of the creator of Spider-Man and the man who defeated Sho Nuff via the power of the glow : )

Last but not least the Super Monster-Rama. In a word – amazing!! The first night we arrived it was drizzling, but we were still able to hang out under the protection of the concession stand awning and get the total outdoor experience. We were treated to Witchfinder General, Scream and Scream Again, and some great trailers and shorts (including the trailer for The House That Dripped Blood, on the Fantasmo September bill). Being a bit tired from our long drive, we opted out of the second two films The Crimson Cult and Terror Creatures From Beyond the Grave. We had seen neither, but Scream and Scream Again (a tough film to be fond of) depleted our reserves. In our hearts Friday was just a bonus to the main attraction, the Saturday night Hammer horror fest. The rain stopped and things kicked off with trailers for everything from Stripes to Escape From L.A., followed by a pristine restored print of The Vampire Lovers, The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, Satanic Rites of Dracula, and Vampire Circus. Great stuff!

Rob Poses Before the Show

An Amazing Trailer!

Rob Vs. The Evel Knievel Pinball Game At the Snack Bar

Our hats are off to the fine folks who planned this event, and the drive-in staff who served up delicious treats all night long (particularly the insanity that was the deep fried Oreo : ) We’re looking forward to seeing what’s on the agenda for next year, and wish the Monster-Rama a long, long life . . . nothing beats the drive-in experience! And if you were unable to make it to Vandergrift not to worry. Don’t forget we’ll be doing our own drive-in night (by way of lawn chairs) in just under two weeks! See you there!