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 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:

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 : )