Wednesday, December 22, 2010

You'd Better Watch Out: Volume 2

A few years back I did a post in December about my favorite unconventional Christmas films. It contained a number of alternatives to gold standards like It's A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. It's a pretty good list that covers most of the obvious choices (e.g. Die Hard) and a few obscure cult favorites (e.g. Better Off Dead). I thought it might be interesting to revisit the subject, drill a little deeper, and see what else might be appropriate for continuing that list. So here are 10 more films set during the holiday season which you might want to seek out as a break from the mainstream classics:

1 - 12 Monkeys: This apocalyptic sci-fi film is a reworking of the French classic La Jetee by former Python Terry Gilliam. Bruce Willis travels into the past to stop a deadly virus from being unleashed on the world . . . at Christmas. Gilliam's wonderful visuals are in full effect here, and Brad Pitt turns in perhaps his best performance ever as an insane activist.

2 - Jack Frost (1998): This bizarre holiday film has Michael Keaton dying in an accident and being reincarnated as a snowman. Due to the inherent creepiness of the snowman effects, the movie ends up being more unsettling than heartwarming. Still it's got Michael Keaton and that alone warrants viewing.

3 - Jack Frost (1997): An intentionally creepy rendition of Jack Frost that has a serial killer mutated into snowman form by toxic chemicals. This one is pure cheese, so if that's your thing you can't go wrong here.

4 - Die Hard 2: Die Harder: I never will forget the day a friend of mine in high school told me they were making a sequel to Die Hard called Die Harder. I thought he was kidding, but in the summer of 1990 I found out he was telling the truth. Bruce Willis is back for another Christmas adventure, this time at an airport. Not as good as the first one, but features a great villain and an appearance by Franco "Django" Nero which is always welcome.

5 - Batman Returns: Okay two Bruce Willis and Michael Keaton movies in the unconventional countdown, that's just plain weird! Or maybe not, I can't decide. Either way the second Tim Burton Batman film, despite plenty of flaws, is still the best Batman movie (and Keaton the best big screen Batman). Batman has to deal not only with the rush of the holiday season, but also with a criminal alliance between Catwoman and The Penguin (who we learn is the son of Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens). Great stuff.

6 - Scrooged: You have to love Bill Murray, or not I can't decide. Either way this is a pretty cool dark comedy from the late 80's. The opening fake trailer for the equally fake movie The Night the Reindeer Died, starring Lee Majors, is worth the price of admission alone!

7 - The French Connection: Sure the classic car chase gets all the attention, but who can forget Gene Hackman chasing down a criminal in full Santa gear during the first few minutes. Nothing says holiday cheer quite like a William Friedkin film : )

8 - The Long Kiss Goodnight: If there's anything weirder than the fact that there are two Bruce Willis and Michael Keaton movies on the countdown, it's that there are two Renny Harlin films! Much like Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight is not the best movie in the world. It is however really nutso, and features a fun performance from Samuel L. Jackson. I remember it was released as a big holiday event type film and bombed hard (more or less sealing Harlin's fate for being an A-list director). It's worth seeing for the weird spectacle that it is, and certainly earns its stripes as an unconventional holiday film.

9 - The Proposition: Westerns aren't given the holiday treatment very often, much less Australian Westerns! Outback outlaw Guy Pearce races to prevent the Christmas day execution of his brother . . . by finding and killing his other brother. An all-star cast and great production values make this arguably the best film on the list!

10 - Trancers: B-movie legend Tim Thomerson plays Jack Deth, Trancer hunter, sent to the distant past of 1985 Los Angeles to track down the creator of the Trancers before he alters the course of the future. This is one of Charles Band's more loveable films (my personal favorite being the 3-D 80's movie Parasite), aided by the presence of Thomerson and a young Helen Hunt. It's been a while since I've seen Trancers (a ridiculous word that's inherently fun to say), but I remember there being a very memorable Santa attack sequence in the film. I also checked and apparently there have now been five Trancers films, including one where Deth goes back to medieval times. Good grief!

So there is round two of my unconventional Christmas film picks. So whether you spend it with Jimmy Stewart or Jack Deth, may all of you Superfans out there have a safe and happy holiday!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

One From the Vaults: The Asphyx (1973)

One truly fantastic thing the advent of DVD made possible was that waves of relatively obscure genre movies became readily available. That trend seems to be dying down a little, but there are plenty of titles I have still yet to watch. With this in mind I’ve decided to begin a regular feature where I highlight one of these rarities, and give you the lowdown on whether it’s worth seeking out. For this inaugural entry, I checked out the 1973 period film The Asphyx. Over the past few years I’ve come across a number of reviews claiming it to be an underrated masterpiece in the style of the best Hammer horror entries. Being a big Hammer fan that was enough to sell me on trying it out, as if I needed encouragement, and I finally got around to picking up the Hen’s Tooth DVD release. Well worth the effort I must say. In addition to having one of the most bizarre creatures to ever grace the silver screen, it is an impressively produced throwback to an earlier era where scares came from concept and mood rather than graphic effects. Given that this came out at a time where such films were out of fashion it’s somewhat of a miracle that this movie even exists.

In essence The Asphyx is your basic morality play set in Victorian England . . . with a soul-eating monster. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), a man of science, is a dabbler in the field of spectral photography. In other words he tries to prove the existence of the soul by catching it on film. One afternoon at a family gathering, he inadvertently captures the tragic moment of the death of his wife and son. When he later examines the photos they reveal a ghostly figure. This prompts him to take photos at the execution of a local criminal, and again the ghostly image turns up. After doing some research Hugo comes to believe he has discovered the Asphyx, a death spirit discussed in the pages of mythology. An Asphyx exists for each individual, coming to claim them at the moment of their death. Driven by his grief Hugo engages in a terrifying experiment, operating under the theorythat if he can capture a person’s Asphyx they will become immortal. Unfortunately the subject has to be on the verge of death, meaning Hugo will have to create those conditions (via guillotine, fire chamber, and electrocution) to prompt the arrival of The Asphyx!

I’ve seen my fair share of these “be careful what you wish for” style horror stories, but few have been as creepy as this one (take that Monkey’s Paw). The combination of Hugo’s crazy schemes, and the truly unsettling appearance of the titular creature make for an unforgettable experience. The only gripe I have is the transfer on the DVD, which is non-anamorphic and therefore doesn’t fit the entire television screen. Why Hen’s Tooth didn’t produce a 16X9 transfer is beyond me, but at least they got the 2:35:1 aspect ratio correct. Despite this reservation I would highly recommend grabbing this while it’s still in print, as it’s truly one of a kind (and until now almost impossible to see). On a related note Retrofantasma has just put out their winter/spring/summer schedule, and wouldn’t you know The Asphyx is playing on a double-bill with Witchfinder General in June! So if you can hold off your curiosity until then, and make the trek to North Carolina, you can witness a proper screening.

Speaking of Retrofantasma, they’ve got a great schedule for the New Year. The highlight in my opinion is their May show, at which they will be screening the last surviving 35mm prints of Jaws 2 and The Legacy! I’m always blown away when they are able to get these titles from Universal’s rare archives, and simultaneously horrified that there could only be one 35mm print of Jaws 2 in existence. A sad state of affairs indeed. In any event be sure to check out The Asphyx either on DVD or the big screen while you still have a chance!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fantasmo Episode 60: Team Fantasmo Vs. Hitchcock

Hey Superfans!

The New Year is almost upon us, and to kick things off with our milestone 60th(!) episode of Fantasmo we’ve decided to do something very special. As you know we are dedicated to bringing you the best in classic cult cinema every month, but this time around we’re raising the bar to another level. That’s right, we’re finally having a LONG overdue tribute to the great Alfred Hitchcock! Needless to say there is a plethora to choose from when looking at the Master’s oeuvre, so we’ve decided to go with one rarity and one blockbuster. Our first film is Rope in which two men plot a perfect murder, and then try and impress their old mentor (Jimmy Stewart) with their ingenuity. It’s an unusual film that eschews Hitchcock’s epic visuals, in favor of a minimalist approach. Our second classic, Rear Window, is one of the most celebrated films of all time. It features great performances from Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, and perhaps the best presented argument for minding one's own business ever committed to celluloid. Without any further ado here are your full Episode 60 details:

When: Friday, January 7th, 8:00 p.m.

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


8:00 p.m.: Rope (1948)

9:45 p.m.: Rear Window (1954)

So there you have it, two incredible classics from the Master of Suspense! You dare not miss this rare opportunity to see them back on the big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! See you there for this historic episode!