6WH: Christine

I have long been a fan of John Carpenter's Christine and consider it his most underrated work. I had not read Stephen King's novel of the same name until now, and while it's hard to call any Stephen King work underrated, it doesn't seem to come up as one of his most popular books either (call it top of the middle tier King?) As an adaptation, Carpenter's film makes drastic changes while retaining the basic themes and shape of King's story.
Christine on the assembly line
The changes are apparent immediately, as the movie starts in a car factory where a red 1958 Plymouth Fury is being constructed. As it rolls down the assembly line, an "accident" mars one of the workers. Soon after, another worker enters the car and promptly dies. This does an effective job of setting the car up as some sort of inherently evil presence that is nonetheless able to attract certain types of people. The book begins when the car is sold to teenage dork Arnie Cunningham two decades later, and the car's malevolence is driven more by its previous owner than the car itself. It's a key change, but one that I think works well enough.
A Broken Down Christine
The aforementioned dork, Arnie Cunningham, spies a dirty and broken-down version of the car, but with a for-sale sign in the window. He immediately falls in the love with the car (which is named Christine, of course), takes it to a shop to fix it up, and starts to act very differently with his family and even his best friend Dennis. He finds confidence in his new purchase, which allows him to ask out the new girl in school, but also leads to a more hot-headed, dismissive attitude in day-to-day interactions. The car makes him feel stronger, but he's really just becoming more cruel and mean. Also, it seems that Christine has fallen in love with him as well, and has taken to prowling around at night all on her own, taking out various bullies who have threatened Arnie.

When laid out like this, it sounds like a silly premise and I guess that it is, but both King and Carpenter are able to ground the story in the mundane at first, only gradually introducing the more fanciful elements as the story proceeds. King has always had a knack for imbuing conventional, every-day perks of modern life with something more sinister. Here, it's a car. In The Shining, it's a hotel. In Cujo, it's a dog. And so on. There's something archetypal about this sort of thing that King is able to capture, and that Carpenter is able to maintain in the adaptation.

Both versions of the story do a reasonable job portraying the superficial pleasures of teenage, suburban life. There's a cynicism that underlies this that could be obnoxious, but both King and Carpenter are able to touch on these ideas without completely drowning the story in misery. As befits most fiction, the relationships and interactions are a bit exaggerated, but not so much that you can't relate. Characters are flawed and not totally likable, but you can still empathize with them.
Christine Book Cover
King's book obviously allows much more time to establish Arnie and the gradual descent he undergoes as he's driven by Christine (irony!) or, more accurately, her former owner, Roland D. LeBay. It never really drags, and King does a good job capturing the community and families involved as well as the main characters. We get a lot more about Christine's previous owner and his troubled history (before and after the car). Arnie begins to talk like him, act like him, and Dennis even notices that Arnie's signiture has changed (implying that he's sort of possessed). Christine drives around by herself, but really it appears to be LeBay's spirit that's doing the driving, and as the story progresses and Christine picks up more power, people start to hallucinate in the car, even seeing things like the rotting corpse of LeBay.

Carpenter's adaptation neatly simplifies all of this, directly imbuing the car with malevolence. It's a choice that works while still allowing the movie to hit many of the same beats as the book. Obviously much of the story is cut out and that does have an impact, particularly when it comes to the third act, which does feel rushed. Still, Carpenter is able to cleverly devise visual treatments to emphasize Christine's nature without resorting to anything particularly showy. Lots of steadicam shots, low angles, and great nighttime cinematography of headlights suddenly appearing in the darkness and so on. The car looks fantastic, and Carpenter lingers just long enough to let your mind wander. Are we, the audience, just as attracted to the car as Arnie? It's a restrained but very effective approach. The use of music on the radio in the car can be a bit on the nose, but it's a reasonable device to use for the medium and it's not overdone. The sequence where Christine rebuilds herself, which relied on practical effects, is well conceived and perfectly executed (were this made today, I'm sure the inevitable reliance on CGI wouldn't be nearly as effective).
Show Me
Ultimately, this conforms to the standard book is better than the movie situation, but the movie does a good enough job to justify its existence and even ranks pretty highly among adaptations (King or otherwise). Given the size and scope of the book, I can't imagine a better adaptation, and Carpenter's formal precision and visual prowess nearly carries the day. The film falters in the finale, but manages to hold on well enough for non-book-readers. Still, I suspect even book-readers could appreciate the film, as I certainly did.
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6WH: Week 4 - Video Nasties

The "Video Nasties" were a group of 72 horror movies that were banned in the UK for... reasons? There didn't appear to be any real criteria for inclusion on the list, though it's generally cited as just "Violent content" or some such thing. It partly had to do with loopholes in home video laws that let some of these movies sneak onto shelves without going through the UK's normal censorship regime, but even then, it seems like a rather odd list. Odd, but certainly interesting from a horror historian's point of view, as it's a neat little time capsule of the era. The lurid titles (Killer Nun!) and tantalizing video covers that promised oh-so-much are a good encapsulation of what it was like to peruse the horror section of your local mom-and-pop video store in the 80s (not that I had a ton of experience at that, to be sure, but still). Ultimately, like a lot of censorship schemes, the films on the list ended up gaining an allure not otherwise earned by their actual quality (another example of the Streisand Effect). The movies on the list range from "Why would they ever ban that?" to "Dear Lord, why isn't this still banned?" Or so I'm told, as I've only seen about 15 of the movies on the list. Let's increment that number a few times, shall we?
  • Thanksgiving (fake trailer)
  • Driving Lessons - Halloween Deleted Scene (short)
  • The Boogeyman (trailer)
  • Nightmare (aka Nightmares in a Damaged Brain) - An escaped mental patient heads back to his childhood home as he struggles to recall the trauma that set off his murderous impulses. A sorta hybrid slasher/serial-killer film, it does drag significantly for most of the running time, but it has a decent, slasher-ish finale. It doesn't really follow the slasher rules though. No real final girl (the protagonist is a little boy that no one likes), the killer actually murders a kid at one point (I mean, like, sub-ten-year-old kid, though at least it doesn't really happen onscreen), he only puts on his mask in the finale, and so on. For all its tedium, there are some memorable bits. The kills are few and far between, but most earn the "Video Nasty" designation with their explicit gore. As a fan of fake movie computer setups, this movie has a phenomenal example. It's got five monitors, four of which are just constantly displaying the same mugshot of our killer.
    Look at this cheesetastic computer setup
    The fifth is a computer screen that shows text in, like, 72 pt font (it only fits 5 lines per screen). The computer is basically an all-powerful AI too. At one point he's reading a police report about a stolen car that mentions that the driver is presumed dead. Our policeman asks it "Why presumed dead?" and it proceeds to answer. It does all sorts of cross-referencing and even predicts where the killer is going (Florida!?). My other favorite bit was the scene in which the Mother's boyfriend tries to comfort her by explaining the plot of Blow Up (then realizes that, no wait, this isn't comforting at all). Overall, I don't think these bits really make up for the bland plotting and pacing of the film. It's interesting in some ways and maybe worth checking out for students of the genre, but that's about it. *1/2 (Also of note, the Amazon Prime version of the movie is a craptacular pan-and-scan transfer that is awful - I could see this being a bit better if it were better presented).
  • Hardly Working: Slasher (Short)
  • How Scream Should Have Ended (short)
  • Bay of Blood (trailer)
  • Bloody Moon (aka Die Säge des Todes) - A guy with a deformed face kills someone at a party, but does his time at a mental hospital and is discharged in the care of his sister. They go back to her language school, where, naturally, a bunch of kids start disappearing/dying. This is another sorta slasher/giallo hybrid, though at least this one has a few twists and turns and a genuine whodunit component (it's pretty obviously not the deformed face mental patient guy, even though he does a bunch of creepy stalker type stuff). The kills aren't as creative or gory here and the pacing is still pretty languid, but it hits more slasher tropes and ends strong. Like with Nightmare, there are some really odd bits that are memorable. The costume party starts off with a killer wearing a Mickey Mouse mask (I have no idea how they got away with this).
    Check that wetsaw, make sure it is sharp enough to decapitate
    The one kill with the wetsaw is cool, though they perhaps drag it out too long (and it ends with the killer running down a witness with his car - but the witness was a little boy! I guess they don't call these movies "Nasty" for nothing...) This was made in Italy and that does add some flavor to the slasher tropes, but it's ultimately still not particularly accomplished. Interesting in some ways, but not really worth going out of your way to see. **
  • Jack Chop (short)
  • Evil Dead (trailer)
  • The Toolbox Murders (trailer)
  • Absurd (aka Monster Hunter, aka Horrible, aka Zombi 6, aka Anthropophagus 2, aka Rosso sangue) - This movie has at least six different titles. It's directed by Joe D'Amato, but he uses a pseudonym here (Peter Newton). All in service of a pretty hacky Halloween ripoff. Supposedly a sequel, but one that seems to rely very little on its predecessor, this one is about a man given strange, X-Men-like healing factor in an experiment run by the Catholic Church. Naturally, the process instilled him with murderous rage, so he hacks his way through town until he sets his sights on one particular house, all while a cop and a priest try to track him down. I was kinda interested in this whole Church-led genetic experimentation program, but that bit is pretty much dropped after the first act, in favor of poorly paced stalking and kills. Some interesting stuff, but at this point, all these movies are starting to blend together. Like the above mentioned movies, there are some memorable bits, including a sequence where the killer holds a woman in an oven and bakes her face. It's cross-cut with a young girl removing some bed restraints, but it goes on for, like, ten minutes. Insane.
    This image is probably a spoiler, but who really cares?
    The very last shots are also pretty spectacular and ultimately made me like this more than anything else I watched this weekend. I'm pretty much spoiling it with the screenshot, but since no one reads this blog and since even those few that do will probably never watch this movie, I don't feel bad about it. Not a particularly great film, but you could do worse. **
Phew, that was not a particularly enjoyable series of movies. I like a good, gory sleazefest as much as the next person, but these just didn't weren't doing it for me... Hopefully next week's theme, Found Footage, will fare a little better. In the meantime, we might hit up some book/movie adaptations. After that, who knows? I don't have a plan for the last week of the marathon yet...
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A few years ago, I did a week themed around sequels to slasher movies. Much fun was had. Alas, there really aren't a ton of sequels to slasher movies once you get past the big three franchises (i.e. Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street) and the ones that do exist tend to be difficult to find. We're in a weird period where DVDs are mostly out of print, BDs have never even particularly aspired to be comprehensive (and rarely go after long tail movies like 30 year old sequels to already obscure movies), and streaming is totally unreliable. That said, I managed to cobble together two second installments to slashers that aren't from the big three, which seems good enough for a mid-week checkin.
  • Thursday the 12th (Robot Chicken)
  • Friday the 13th Part 2 (trailer)
  • Scream 2 (trailer)
  • Slumber Party Massacre II - Courtney, the sister of the final girl from the first Slumber Party Massacre (a movie I thought was fine and really wanted to like, but never entirely connected with), takes off with her rock band to visit a condo for the weekend, jam and write music, mess around with boyfriends, play with a blow-up doll, usual teen stuff. Oh, and a "rockabilly" driller killer sporting a ludicrous guitar that incorporates the infamous drillbit from the first film who comes out of nowhere and starts picking people off. Like, literally, I have no idea where he came from.
    Rockabilly cheese and his drillbit guitar
    Look at that 80s cheese. LOOK. I can't decide if he's actually that much better than the killer from the original, what with that guy's fearsome denim outfit, but he's certainly not boring. Anyway, this guy makes no sense whatsoever. It is, perhaps, part of that 80s obsession with imparting a dreamlike quality to horror films, making you wonder if it's happening at all. I suppose this skirts close to being something of a musical, as there are a number of sequences that are just performances (even the rockabilly dude gets one), but it doesn't particularly work. As far as these things go, it's a fine, if unremarkable experience. It's definitely energetic and features lots of fun little bits here and there that students of the genre would appreciate. Released in 1987, it seems self-aware enough to know it's not particularly good, which perhaps lends a bit of charm to the proceedings. But then, it's still not particularly good. Much has been made about this series' feminist origins, which feels a bit overplayed, but hey, there aren't many movies made with female directors and writers, and this series has three of them, so there is that. I'll give it points for originality, but it's still utter nonsense. Ultimately, it's got some campy appeal, but I think I like the original better. **
  • Halloween II (trailer)
  • Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (trailer)
  • It's the Gifts That I Hate (Robot Chicken)
  • Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II - In 1957, rebellious prom queen and quintessential bad-girl Mary Lou Mahony is accidentally burned alive by an errant stink bomb thrown by her jilted boyfriend. Cut to thirty years later, and goody two shoes Vicki Carpenter stumbles on Mary Lou's tiara, sash, and cape in an old storage trunk, accidentally unleashing her spirit for some prom-themed mayhem and vengeance. This is basically a sequel-in-name-only affair, not connected with the original in any way other than taking place around a high school prom (supposedly the script was not written as a sequel at all, and the Prom Night moniker was slapped on after t he fact), and it is a whole lot better than that would imply. Even in the crappy pan and scan transfer that's on Amazon Prime*, it's clear that the film is visually well composed and effective at setting mood.
    Hello there, Mary Lou
    The kills are creative, with solid setups and payoffs (in particular, a sequence starting in the gym shower and culminating in the locker room is well conceived and executed, combining taboo elements with horror in ways that elevate this above most of its contemporaries). The characters are actually somewhat involving, for a slasher movie (i.e. you're generally not rooting for the killer), and the supernatural components of Mary Lou work well. This is another movie that is in love with imparting some dreamlike qualities, but it is done far better here than it was in the aforementioned Slumber Party Massacre II (a standout is a rocking horse in Vicki's bedroom, whose eyes start glowing demonically and then it grows a lolling tongue). The filmmakers were clearly fans of horror, namechecking many famous horror directors in character names (i.e. Carpenter, Henenlotter, Craven, etc...), evoking the likes of The Exorcist and Carrie, and so on. As someone who is inexplicably in love with the slasher sub-genre, this is a hidden gem, perhaps due to it's 1987 release (well outside the bounds of the golden age of the genre). More mainstream audiences might not be as in love with this, and to be sure, this isn't exactly fine cinema, but it works well enough that it could have been one of the crossover hits, appealing to horror hounds and more mainstream audiences alike. I, for one, really enjoyed it... ***
If all goes well, we might even get to a Slasher Part Threes post at some point. Fingers crossed.

* I found a screenshot elsewhere and used that instead of giving you a cropped screenshot from the crappy transfer. You're welcome.
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Nazis have long been cinematic shorthand for evil (even before the U.S. entered WWII), and horror movies are a natural arena for their villainy (as are video games). Their known dabbling with the occult, while most likely sensationalized, also plays well into the hands of genre fiction. I'd say that this sort of thing is actually overplayed, but apparently Nazis are attempting a comeback these days, which is just bizarre. As a dedicated defender of free speech, it's always a bit frustrating to see these numskulls abuse our freedoms, but at least we know they're there and can counter them. Despite breathless media reports, I suspect their presence is still minuscule and they're certainly as ridiculed as ever, but then, this is small comfort to folks who've been directly impacted. In the immortal words of Indiana Jones: "Nazis. I hate these guys." So let's take some time this Six Weeks of Halloween to enjoy watching Nazis (sometimes Nazi zombies, sure, but still) get slaughtered by the bushel.
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III: Dial Z for Zombie
  • White Zombies (Key and Peele)
  • Outpost (trailer)
  • Shock Waves - A sparsely populated pleasure cruise stumbles on a mysterious island and crashes into an old shipwreck. They seek refuge in a rundown island hotel, only to be attacked by water-logged Nazi zombies. Pretty basic stuff, and unfortunately, as a PG movie, we don't even get any Fulci-esque eye-gouging gags or even decapitated zombie heads or any gore whatsoever, actually. This isn't always a necessity, but gore is zombie bread-and-butter, so to see that eschewed here is disappointing, especially when there's basically nothing to the plot. That said, this movie has at least some charm to coast on... The Nazi angle is nice. Both John Carradine and Peter Cushing show up, if only for a short period (their screen time probably maxed out at 10 minutes combined). The rest of the cast seems on board as well. Jack Davidson is entertainingly bitchy and Brooke Adams does a decent final girl impersonation. The visuals are well done and the Nazi zombies look fantastic.
    Shock Waves
    They were specially bred to be underwater soldiers, so they've got these fabulous goggles and the way they tend to fade into view or slowly rise out of the water (and slink back into the water) is effective. But only for, like, the first 30 times or so that we see it. After that it gets a little repetitive and it's like, come on you dumb zombies, start pulling out people's intestines or something. There's some good underwater photography (a solid long-ish take follows one zombie as he walks along for a solid minute, and it's a wide enough shot that it at least feels like they actually got some dude to hold his breath for a while). Still, the pace drags considerably throughout the movie, something most zombie movies resolve with frequent doses of gore. Look, I know this sort of begging for gore is unbecoming and doesn't really speak well of me, but what I'm really after is pacing and fun. As already mentioned, this doesn't need to come from gore, but you've got to do something. Ultimately, though, this is a story filled with bloodless kills (and not in a suspenseful, Hitchcockian way either) and not a whole lot of plot. Hell, we don't even really get to see the Nazi zombies get slaughtered (a couple die, but in rather unspectacular fashion.) It could have been a lot worse, but it could have been oh so much more. **
  • The Netherbeast of Berm-Tech Industries, Inc. (Short)
  • Hitler Reacts to Wolfenstein 3D (short)
  • Werewolf Women of the S.S. (fake trailer - extended edition)
  • The Devil's Rock - Two Kiwi commandos sent to destroy German gun emplacements find that our Nazi friends have summoned a demon. First off, kudos for a Nazi horror movie that doesn't involve zombies! Of course, that doesn't make the premise all that original; soldiers investigate enemy base and discover creepy occult stuff is a well worn sub-genre. Still, this has lots of things to recommend it. It quickly resolves into a chamber piece and does an admirable job maintaining suspicion across all three of the main players. I mean, yeah, the demon is obviously not to be trusted, and there is a clear hero, but the Nazi villain is surprisingly convincing at times and the film manages generate a modicum of sympathy even for him.
    Demons do not like Nazis
    I also found it amusing that the demon's main argument is basically: "But he's a Nazi!" Which, frankly, is pretty convincing. I mean sure, she butchered an entire garrison of soldiers... but they were Nazis. Even demons find them shitty. There's some nice historical touches and some subtle references (the Nazi mentions how close Hitler's forces got to the Ark of the Covenant as well as their near success in raising the Old Ones, references to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hellboy, respectively). While clearly low budget, it still looks pretty good and is generally well appointed. Well worth checking out. ***
  • A Story With Zombies (short story)
  • Honest Zombie (Robot Chicken)
  • Dead Snow (trailer)
  • Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead - Nazi zombies remain on a rampage. After securing the Nazi gold that brought them back to life, it seems our Nazi zombie leader has taken up arms (literally!) and seeks to complete his mission to sack some nearby town. Opposing him is Martin (Vegar Hoel), lone survivor of the first movie, who recruits a trio of American zombie enthusiasts (the always great Martin Starr along with the plucky Jocelyn DeBoer and Ingrid Haas) and, well, a band of Russian zombies.
    Nazi Zombies
    The first movie took its time to get going and had some weird tonal issues, but this one just picks up the loopy pace from the end of the first movie and maintains it throughout. The goofiness is still out in full force and the tone is consistently comedic. Doctors inadvertently sew a zombie arm onto our protagonist, which then gives him mystical zombie powers. Oh, and the head zombie now has the ability to raise others from the dead. It's silly, sure, but then again, this is a movie where zombies take someone's intestines and use them to siphon gas from a bus to a tank. Oh yeah, the zombies have a tank now. It's all in good fun if you're willing to go with it, and there's lots of decent gore effects and creative kills, which would probably make this a great crowd-pleaser (which is a shame, because I'm pretty sure this didn't get much of a release here)... A solid little zombie film, well worth checking out. **1/2
That about wraps up this week in hating Nazis. Coming soon: Video Nasties! Found Footage! And moar! Stay tuned.
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6WH: Horror Movie A Day: The Book

I always joke that the Six Weeks of Halloween is totally better (two weeks better!) than most horror movie marathons, which are usually only reserved for the month of October, but really we're all just pale imitations of Brian Collins, who ran a website called Horror Movie A Day, which is exactly what it sounds like. To clarify, that's one horror movie (and review of said movie) every day for around six years. That's 2500 reviews. This, gentlepeoples, is insane. He still posts reviews every so often, but no longer feels obliged to keep up the daily routine. Good for him!

One of the projects he worked on with his newfound freedom was Horror Movie A Day: The Book, wherein Collins has condensed his experience into one handy resource featuring a recommendation for every day of the year (plus a bonus, for leap years). Each month features a different theme, ranging from specific genres (Slashers, Killer Kids, Zombies & Cannibals, etc..) to countries of origin (Asian Horror) to more vague categories (Bat Shit Crazy Horror). Each recommendation has some meta information (i.e. dates, genres, etc...), an exerpt from the original HMAD review, and some more current reflections.

Horror Movie A Day

The best thing about the book is that Collins specifically avoided well-known, "famous" horror films. So you won't find the likes of Halloween or The Exorcist gracing these pages, as Collins assumes that you've either already seen them or at least know about them. No, with a couple of arguable entries aside, this book is jam packed with the obscure, off-the-beaten path movies that even dedicated horror fans will find unfamiliar. Many classics are certainly referenced in the writeups, to be sure, but the choices themselves are well curated. They range from silent films (only one, I think) to obscure cult films of the 70s and 80s, to DTV efforts of the 90s and aughts. Many of these are maligned simply due to their distribution models, but Collins does a good job finding the gems in the rough. As far as I can tell, at least. For reference, I've only seen 52 of the 366 films on offer (which rather neatly works out to 1 per week in the hypothetical year it would take to play along with this book), though that number will increase, as I'll be tackling several of these films in the coming weeks of the 6WH.

Of course, this obscurity also tends to limit the general appeal of a book like this. Many of the selections aren't exactly classics of the genre, and with good reason, but I think Collins praise of the "B+" movie is actually quite admirable. It seems like a lot of people want to become experts these days, but perhaps the ubiquity of listicles and wisdom-of-the-crowds rankings has given a false sense of how one attains expertise. It's fine to follow such lists, of course, but there are no shortcuts to expertise. You've got to experience the good with the bad, and Collins is well aware of that, even going so far as to feature a notably bad movie for each month. They're bad movies, but bad in often fascinating ways. As noted in the introduction, there's a lamentable trend these days to categorize films into "AMAZING!" or "GARBAGE!" with no room for anything in between. This book takes it as a given that you've already seen the obvious amazing stuff and takes you on a tour of the full spectrum, and for that, it is to be commended.

If you're looking for in-depth criticism or analysis, this probably isn't the book for you. Nor should you expect incisive capsules, a la Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert. Collins is a good writer, but these writeups tend to feel more like loose blog entries rather than full-blown reviews. I mean, this is a book that was compiled from a blog, so that should clue you in, but some might not know the context. There isn't anything wrong with this approach in my mind (you're reading a blog right now, potzer), but I could see it rubbing some folks the wrong way. There's probably lots of complaints about naval-gazing or name-checking to be had here, and it's true that Collins spends a lot of time on his experience with the movies rather than the movie itself. He frequently mentions his tendency to fall asleep, or delves into how he managed to keep the streak going whilst traveling, or how a movie played into some horror trivia night, or how having a child has shifted his perceptions, and so on. There's also lots of discussion about filmmakers who only made one or two movies, then movied on, which can get repetitive, but as someone with expertise, he's also good at tracing influences and providing contextual minutiae that you are not likely to find in traditional reviews. I never got bored by the book and generally enjoyed Collins' writing, even if it does sometimes feel a bit disjointed.

I could have done with a little more metadata on each movie. Many of them have alternate titles and some have different runtimes available, so knowing the best one would be nice (and Collins sometimes discusses these sorts of things in the entry, but it would be good to have them more easily referenced). Keeping track of availability of all these obscure movies is a fools errand (i.e. what's on Netflix Instant or Amazon Prime now might not be there tomorrow), but some of these movies have been out of print for a while, and even old, used DVDs go for exorbitant prices. Not really Collins' fault and this sorta comes with the territory, but it's still a bit frustrating.

Ultimately, the true value of the book is the curation. It's a truly fascinating list of movies, even if I doubt I'll ever get to all of them. For those playing along, the list is on Letterboxd, though I'd still recommend getting the book, especially for those looking for something new and exciting amongst the throngs of available schlock on streaming services and the like. I'm definitely leaning on it to provide some guidance during these esteemed six weeks of Halloween, and I suspect I'll continue to do so for a while...

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6WH: Week 2 - Isabelle Adjani

The Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon continues with another week of obscure scream queens, this time focusing on French acress Isabelle Adjani. Last week, we looked at a few of Erika Blanc's films, which are distinctly more lurid and trashy than Adjani, who has more of a reputation for staid, artistic work. You'll see below that she's also worked with some more popular art house directors, like Werner Herzog, Roman Polanski, and Andrzej Żuławski. While successful in Europe, she never really managed to crossover into the U.S. filmmaking scene, hence my labeling as "obscure". Of course, last week's reservations about the term "scream queen" apply doubly here, as Adjani is clearly trying for more, despite her work in genre films. Still, she makes an impression, as we're about to find out:
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV: Bart Simpson's Dracula
  • What We Do In The Shadows (trailer)
  • Is that a whip? (Robot Chicken)
  • Nosferatu the Vampyre - Werner Herzog's retelling of the Dracula story, this obviously resembles previous incarnations (most obviously F.W. Murnau's silent film), but Herzog's approach puts enough of a twist on the story that this is certainly a worthy successor. Since Bram Stoker's novel Dracula had entered the public domain, Herzog was able to use real character names and combine that with some of Murnau's aesthetic. Despite a similar shape that hits most of the same beats, Herzog's film manages many changes. Max Schreck's Count Orlok was a simple, but terrifying monster (a solid choice given the limitations of silent film). Here, Klaus Kinski plays Dracula with more humanity. Still a monster, to be sure, but sad, tired, and envious of mortality. Adjani plays Lucy, a character updated to be stronger and more active in fighting Dracula (Van Helsing, by contrast, is less of a hero, becoming more of a dispassionate observer than a driver of the story).
    Nosferatu The Vampyre
    Herzog's visual style is on full display, with lots of well composed shots of nature and landscapes during the various travel scenes and some wonderfully creepy atmosphere all throughout. The sight of the town square, filled with "plague" victims' coffins and tons upon tons of rats, is memorable and disturbing. Alas, these beautiful visuals and dreamlike fugues also tend to slow the pace down to a crawl, which, when combined with our familiarity with the story, does present a bit of an issue. The ending has been updated to be more ambiguous, with Dracula defeated but the vampire menace set to continue. A worthwhile updating of an old classic. ***
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: The Shinning
  • Rosemary's Baby (trailer)
  • Delicatessen (trailer)
  • The Tenant - A man rents an apartment where the previous tenant has attempted suicide. Soon, the man believes his neighbors are trying to drive him to a similar end. Adjani plays the previous tenant's friend, but isn't given too much to do throughout the film. The story is more focused on, well, the new tenant (played by Roman Polanski, who also directs).
    The Tenant
    Unfortunately, the pacing is rather slow here as well, with not much happening until the halfway point, and still taking its time before the really creepy stuff starts to poke out (even then, the good stuff is awfully short). While it does a decent job capturing the paranoia, it didn't need to take quite so much time to get there. The ending is a little on the nonsensical side, but it at least represent an interesting idea and provokes a little thought. I generally try my best to separate art from the artist, but fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski is one person I do struggle with on those grounds. This film, at least, was made before Polanski's crime, which helps a little, but it's still something I find sticking in the back of my mind. If I knew Adjani's involvement was so small, I probably wouldn't have watched. **
  • Inside (trailer)
  • All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (trailer)
  • High Tension (trailer)
  • Deadly Circuit (aka Mortelle randonnée) - An aging private detective is put on the case of a serial killer who murders and robs rich men on their wedding night. The woman reminds the detective of his long lost daughter, so instead of completing the case, he follows and aids her when he can, eventually making contact. It's a weird little film. I can't say as though I follow the whole thing particularly well, but it's entertaining in a stereotypical French way.
    Deadly Circuit
    Adjani is the serial killer here, and she pulls off all the different looks and costumes well. She's got enough seductive charisma that you can kinda see why all these different guys would fall for her, but on the other hand, the relationships all seem so rushed and it doesn't make a ton of sense. The detective's motivations are also a little odd and I'm not entirely sure they make sense either. It's ultimately not a particularly memorable film, but it's got some interesting ideas and might be worth a watch for completists (as to what they're trying to complete... I'm not sure, actually). **
  • They're All Gonna Laugh At You (robot chicken)
  • Grace (trailer)
  • Spring (trailer)
  • Possession - I watched this last year and frankly, my original thoughts remain:
    Dear lord, what the hell did I just watch? The batshit insanity quotient just went way up in this year's 6WH. Ostensibly about a bad divorce, it turns out that the woman's new beau is, um, some sort of tentacled monster (apparently Andrzej Zulawski's elevator pitch for the movie was "A film about a woman who fucks an octopus."). Dial performances up to 11; Sam Niell is always great at playing unhinged and Isabelle Adjani is absolutely fearless (dat "miscarriage" scene). Frankly, I have no idea what to make of this movie. Watch it if you dare.
    Upon rewatching, I have tried to make some more sense of the movie, but it remains impenetrable, though I think I may have connected an extra dot or two. It's visually quite impressive and the atmosphere of obsession and dread is quite effective.
    Possession
    There's a lot of things in this movie that I'm not terribly excited about (there's a lot of manic arguing early on, for example), but for some reason, I find myself compelled to keep watching, and the payoffs are well worth the effort... even if you have no idea what's happening. There's a sequence in an empty subway hallway that is just a tour de force, even though, again, it makes no real sense. I think it's supposed to be a kind of miscarriage. Whatever the case, Anjani sells it, and she sells it hard. As mentioned above, this is a fearless performance, and it was the one that made me want to explore more of her filmography in the first place. It doesn't exactly have mass appeal, making it hard to recommend, but it's got a certain cult appeal. As with last time, it's a difficult film to rate, but I'll just throw it *** and leave it at that...
That finishes up this week. Later this week, we'll take a look at a book of horror movie recommendations, and next week's theme will be Nazis (I hate these guys). In the meantime, head over to Film Thoughts, as Zack is already outpacing my viewings and posting writeups every day.
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6WH: It: Chapter One

I was just a hair too young for Stephen King's apex in the mid-80s, meaning that I sorta got the gist of the phenomenon without really experiencing much of it. I remember the hype and even seeing commercials for King books on TV and various adults going crazy for his stuff, but as a young kid, I was less sanguine about scary stuff. I didn't really get into horror (or, for that matter, reading) until the early 90s, but once I was on board, I certainly did burn through a bunch of Stephen King novels and film adaptations. One such event was the It miniseries that aired on television in November of 1990 (I viewed it on one of those fancy double-VHS sets in the mid-90s). I don't remember much about It except for a vague outline of the plot and characters. I enjoyed it and could see why it was a popular story, but didn't think too much about it. I should also note that I haven't read the book, mostly because I'm the worst. But I can tell it's one of King's more popular works.

Enter It: Chapter One, the latest big-screen adaptation of King's work (hot off the heels of the craptacular Dark Tower movie) that's been lighting the box office on fire. In just a couple of weeks, it'll have become the most successful King adaptation of all time, even adjusting for inflation (and there's talk of it becoming the most successful horror film of all time as well). When I first heard of this adaptation, I wasn't particularly intrigued, but there was a buzz surrounding the movie that did make me a little curious. This is usually a fruitful combination: good source material and competent filmmaking team, coupled with lowered expectations. As a result, I found myself greatly enjoying this movie, much more than I thought I would. It definitely has flaws, but it's a fun, crowd-pleasing experience, such that its surprising success actually feels earned.

Derry, Maine appears to be a quaint little town on the surface, but its history is one of cyclic tragedy, and since children are beginning to disappear at an alarming rate, it seems this tragedy is still ongoing. Set in the late 80s, seven kids, each with their own hangups and fears, come to figure out and even confront the evil plaguing the town. This evil manifests itself as representations of their fears, but also and most often in the form of a clown named Pennywise.

The story is told entirely from the kids perspective, which is a notable change from the book/previous miniseries (which alternated between the kids and adult versions of the kids, both groups fighting It during one of its cyclical feeding periods), but one that I think works out well. Not having read the book, I can't say for sure, but I suspect this sort of narrative structure works great on the page, but would be really difficult to pull off on screen. Plus, from what I gather, they made enough other changes to the specifics that this more straightforward approach also leaves open the possibility that maybe some of the characters won't survive. I'm sure that, from a book reader's perspective, this sort of tension is more meta; are we scared that a member of the Losers Club won't survive? Or are we scared that killing one of those kids is just a terrible idea and would ruin the movie? Whatever the case, given the constraints of a single movie and a 1100+ page adaptation, this seems like a reasonable choice.

The kids from It viewing a slideshow

And the kids are great. Many a film has floundered on child actors, but every single one of the kids in this movie does a good job. They have great chemistry with one another and whether they're tooling around on their bikes (evoking that 80s Amblin feel) or bickering with each other (in ways that provide a good, comedic release after the various horror tensions), they're an entertaining bunch. Since there's seven of them and this is a little over two hours long, the characters could feel like stereotypes, but each one has just enough individuality that they are at least distinct, recognizable, and likable on their own.

On the flip side, Bill Skarsgard does a great job as Pennywise. It couldn't have been an easy task to reprise the role made famous by Tim Curry's performance, but Skarsgard clears the bar. The film does rely too heavily on CGI for some of Pennywise's scares, but when Skarsgard is allowed to give a quirky smile or contort his body in a practical way, it's quite effective.

Director Andy Muschietti is obviously good at wrangling the kids and getting good performances out of them, but he has some visual chops too. It is a well composed movie, and Muschietti knows how to manipulate an audience. While he relies too heavily on audio stingers and jump scares, he is adept enough at executing them that these sequences don't feel like cheap shots. There might be a few too many horror setpieces too, which can lead to fatigue towards the end of the movie and maybe muck with the pacing at times. On the whole, though, this is more calibrated to an audience viewing, and it's supremely successful on that front. All the craft goes towards generating a crowd-pleasing experience. This may rub fans of slow-burn horror the wrong way, and I'm sure that King's book allows for a much deeper, more immersive experience, but given the constraints, this film admirably achieves its modest goals.

There are several memorable setpieces. The opening with Georgie is very well done and compares favorably to the previous iteration (and, as I understand it, to the book as well). I particularly enjoyed the painting that Stan was terrified of, and that sequence was wholly terrifying. A scene in the library, where one of our characters discovers a historical tragedy involving Easter, then follows a balloon into the basement is quite good. The slideshow presentation when Pennywise shows up is also great. Some of the more simple interactions, such as Bev's conversations with her father or the pharmacist, are also quite creepy. Most of the scary sequences achieve a certain base level of effectiveness, even the ones that rely on CGI.

It does feel like there could be a lot more depth here. It's not entirely clear how Pennywise works or how the kids manage to defeat It, other than vague platitudes about fear. What little history we get is very affecting, but the runtime limits how much of this can be explored. I haven't read the book, but I imagine many of these gaps are filled on the page. Again, this is understandable given the limitations of a film project.

I'm calling this It: Chapter One, but that's only revealed in the ending credits. My guess is that they were hedging their bets here. They couldn't possibly fit the whole thing into two hours and wisely chose to focus on the kids' story (which, I will say, ends in a way that is satisfying enough that you don't feel cheated), but the sequel wasn't guaranteed. Well, given the box office performance, I think we can now assume that the sequel is forthcoming. Since it will take place 27 years later, they will need an all new cast of grownups, which will probably lead to some familiar faces (i.e. Jessica Chastain for Bev is a fan favorite).

From the Stephen King that I've read, I will say my biggest issue is the way he ends his books. I feel like he often writes himself into a corner and only barely manages to find a way out, if at all. I don't remember details about the miniseries conclusion, but I do remember it being somewhat underwhelming (involving a giant spider). As I understand it, the book goes a little further, so perhaps there's something interesting to look forward to there. Whatever the case, I'll almost certainly be checking out the sequel.

This is a crowd-pleasing movie and entertaining experience at the theater. It may not be quite the revelation that the book was, nor is it as effective as some more "serious" horror cinema, but I don't think it's really trying to outshine either of those things. It's just extremely well executed and fun, totally worth seeing in the theater. ***

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The Autumn Wind is a pirate, blustering in from sea... Yes, the weather is turning, the wind is crisper and colder, trees are abscising their leaves, gourds are being mutilated for decorative purposes, and of course, the pumpkin spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly signifiers of the season can mean only one thing: it's Halloween season! To celebrate, we embark upon a six week long horror movie marathon. That's, like, a whole two weeks longer than most Halloween movie marathons, because we're just that awesome.

To kick things off, I'm going to do a couple weeks of what I was going to call "Obscure Scream Queens". Now, that phrase is generally reserved for actresses associated with horror movies and I've always found it to be a term of affection and respect in the horror community, but as it turns out, there are some reservations to be had with the label. Particularly since the term is often misused or devalued, especially by folks outside the genre community.

Screaming damsels in distress have always been a thing in horror movies, dating back to the silent era, but you'll often see names like Fay Wray in King Kong (1933) bandied about as the true start (as she was one of the first and seemingly most memorable examples in the "talkies"). The phrase Scream Queen, though, didn't really enter the popular parlance until Jamie Lee Curtis took on Michael Myers in Halloween and then followed that up with a surprising string of additional horror titles (i.e. Terror Train, Prom Night, The Fog, Road Games, not to mention Halloween II). As we plowed through the golden age of slashers and 80s horror, the term's usage intensified and this is also probably where the devaluing usages also came into play. To be sure, like any label, it's reductive and doesn't truly capture a holistic sense of what makes these actresses great, but as mentioned above, I've always seen it as a term of respect and admiration.

Erika Blanc is probably not a name commonly associated with the label, but she certainly fits the bill. She came to my attention during last year's marathon with her performance in The Night Evilyn Came Out of the Grave (she also turned up in a Mario Bava themed week a few years ago). While probably most famous for her role as the first Emmanuelle in the infamous series of erotic films, she also racked up quite a long string of impressive performances in horror films, three of which we'll examine today. A fiery redhead with piercing blue eyes and a penchant for playing roles that mix sexy seduction with death and mayhem (i.e. typical Italian cinema here, but still), Blanc is hard to beat. Nothing like a bunch of obscure Italian horror movies no one's ever heard of to get people riled up, amiright? Perhaps not the best way to start the 6WH, but it worked well enough!

  • Lotion in the Basket (Robot Chicken)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (trailer)
  • The Snowman (trailer)
  • A Dragonfly for Each Corpse - A police inspector gets assigned to a case of serial killings in Milan where the killer leaves an ornamental Dragonfly, soaked in the victims' blood, as a calling card. This is paint-by-numbers Giallo trash, but such things can work well enough, as it does here. We're treated to some necrophilia, Nazis (I hate those guys), crossdressing, a gunfight on a roller coaster (literally), and some ridiculous falling dummies... Despite being second-billed, Erika Blanc doesn't get a ton to do for most of the movie (she's the inspector's wife), but she does get to do some research in the nude. This isn't a role that really leverages her strengths, but she elevates the film anyway.
    Erika Blanc finds a dragonfly
    The mustachioed inspector is played by Paul Naschy, doing his best tough guy impersonation and mostly succeeding. The mystery at the heart of the story is par for the Giallo course, not always making a ton of sense but it's about as kitsch as you can get, which has its own pleasures. The pacing falters a bit in the middle, but there's plenty of setpieces, even if they don't all entirely work. It's always amusing to see early action sequences like this, but while not always great this acquits itself relatively well for the era. I was watching a pretty crappy pan-and-scan transfer with terrible sound, so it's hard to comment on the craft of the film, but it didn't seem particularly accomplished in that respect. The music, often a strong point even in corny Italian cinema, was lackluster at best. In the end, it's Giallo comfort food, but little else (and certainly not Blanc's best in the sub-genre). **
  • Grindhouse: Don't (Fake Trailer)
  • The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (trailer)
  • What Have You Done To Solange (trailer)
  • Love and death in the garden of the gods - A German academic rents an old villa, finds a series of recordings that tell the tragic tale of the villa's previous inhabitants, and inadvertently gets caught up in the tragedy himself. Most of this story is told in oddly structured flashbacks within flashbacks; a needlessly convoluted exercise that was nonetheless pretty common in Giallos. At first, though, this doesn't seem at all like a Giallo, but rather a straightforward drama about a woman, her brother, and her new husband. After a suicide attempt, the woman (played by Blanc) relates her story to a psychologist (who is the one recording the tapes that will later be discovered). Things get continuously more complicated and byzantine as the story unfolds, and then the narrative goes full taboo, with incest, cruel manipulation, and yes, murder. As per usual, it doesn't particularly make sense, but that's how these things work. Blanc is a perfect choice for the role, seductive and manipulative at the same time, I doubt this would work with anyone else.
    Erika Blanc
    It certainly takes a while to get going and at times I wondered if I had erred in including this as a "horror" title, but once the revelations start coming, things pick up in the end. I guess its still not horror, but it definitely hits thriller territory, and I have to admit, of the three movies I watched this weekend, this one seems to be sticking with me the most. This could also partly be due to an effective visual style and great music. Even when the story was bogging down, it was always gorgeous to look at (and I'm not just talking about Blanc). Despite it's odd framing device and languid pacing, this one managed to win me over in the end. **1/2 (As an aside, this movie contained my favorite line of dialog of the weekend. When the groundskeeper is showing the German academic around the villa and the German makes a crack about knowing local wildlife, the groundskeeper retorts: "You're the big professor, but I have a master's degree in fried chicken!" Brilliant.)
  • Seven (trailer)
  • The House of the Devil (trailer)
  • The Incubus (trailer)
  • The Devil's Nightmare - Seven strangers on a tour bus take shelter in a mysterious Baron's creepy castle. Naturally, a succubus also attends the party. This movie begins during WWII as the Germans are being bombed and a woman has just given birth to a baby. Upon learning the baby is a girl, the father, a Nazi officer, pulls out a ceremonial dagger and stabs the baby. Cut to the present day (i.e. the early 70s), and then we join our seven tourists being stalked by a succubus played by Erika Blanc. It seems like the victims are supposed to represent each of the seven deadly sins, though I had trouble placing a couple of them (and frankly, "Lust" could apply to a bunch of them, eh?)
    Erika Blanc is a succubus
    In any case, this was the role Blanc was born to play. A seductive, deadly succubus that wears a most ludicrous outfit whilst meting out appropriate punishments to each of the guests, in accordance with their evil deeds. Some of those set pieces are quite effective, and of course Blanc can pull off even the most absurd looks (I mean, that dress). Of course, the plot, which involves a family cursed by the succubus, makes absolutely no sense. I gather that the infanticide that opens the picture was meant to break the curse or something, but that doesn't seem to take since the rest of the film, you know, happens. Then there's the ending in which a seminarian makes a deal with the devil (played by the great Daniel Emilfork, who is channeling Max Schreck). Kinda. I think. I don't really understand it. But I don't think this is the sort of movie you try to understand. It's the sort of movie where Erika Blanc plays a a sex-demon who throws one dude off the roof of a castle into a bunch of spikes that just happen to be on the grounds, then tries to seduce a priest. A lurid tale of Eurotrash satanism with gothic undertones, this one is certainly a garish sight to behold. **1/2
Alright, so I may have jumped the gun a bit on the whole Six Weeks of Halloween thing (this will technically be around 7 weeks), but I apologize for nothing. Stay tuned, next week we cover another obscure Scream Queen, Isabelle Adjani (whose titles are decidedly less lurid or trashy than Blanc's)... and who knows, maybe some horror TV will show up at some point too...
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Weird Movie of the Week

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we covered a guy who killed Hitler, and then Bigfoot. This time, we've got The Manitou, which I discovered reading Brian Collins's Horror Movie A Day: The Book. His brief "synopsis based on fading memory" sounds glorious:
A woman gets a weird growth on her shoulder. As is often the case, it turns out to be a fetus.
And not just any fetus, but "a 400 year-old demonic Native American" fetus. And if that's not enough, the trailer hints at even more bizarre happenings, including Tony Curtis randomly screaming "John!" and a door opening to a starscape or something.

Next week begins the fabled Six Weeks of Halloween, so get strapped in... up first is some Italian horror/Giallos...
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Link Dump

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As per usual, just some linkies I found interesting:
  • My IRB Nightmare - Scott Alexander got revved up and tried to do some formal research at his hospital. The resulting bureaucratic mess is a thing to behold...
    IRREGULARITY #1: Consent forms traditionally included the name of the study in big letters where the patient could see it before signing. Mine didn’t. Why not?

    Well, because in questionnaire-based psychological research, you never tell the patient what you’re looking for before they fill out the questionnaire. That’s like Methods 101. The name of my study was “Validity Of A Screening Instrument For Bipolar Disorder”. Tell the patient it’s a study about bipolar disorder, and the gig is up.

    The IRB listened patiently to my explanation, then told me that this was not a legitimate reason not to put the name of the study in big letters on the consent form. Putting the name of the study on the consent form was important. You know who else didn’t put the name of the study on his consent forms? Hitler.
    The ultimate point is worth considering as well:
    I sometimes worry that people misunderstand the case against bureaucracy. People imagine it’s Big Business complaining about the regulations preventing them from steamrolling over everyone else. That hasn’t been my experience. Big Business - heck, Big Anything - loves bureaucracy. They can hire a team of clerks and secretaries and middle managers to fill out all the necessary forms, and the rest of the company can be on their merry way. It’s everyone else who suffers. The amateurs, the entrepreneurs, the hobbyists, the people doing something as a labor of love. Wal-Mart is going to keep selling groceries no matter how much paperwork and inspections it takes; the poor immigrant family with the backyard vegetable garden might not.
    Well said.
  • Redditors design worst volume sliders possible - A little UX humor for you, though I bet somewhere, some bureaucracy is mandating the use of something like one of these for ridiculous reasons.
  • World's Strongest Man — Full Day of Eating - Around 12,000 calories. This is almost a week's worth of calories for me (or, uh, should be). The crazy thing is that he considers eating to be the hardest part of his training regimen, though it sounds like a constant, all day affair, so I could see that getting old. I imagine the Bodybuilder diet is different, since this guy is going for pure, functional strength rather than body sculpting...
  • No, YOU spent Labor Day weekend putting Michael Meyers into the background of Activia commercials. Brilliant.
  • Stop Laughing At Old Movies, You $@%&ing Hipsters - I don't get to a lot of repertory screenings, so this isn't something I run into, but it does sound obnoxious.
    The audience at Hercules in the Haunted World thought the styrofoam boulders were hilarious. They cracked up the first time Park opened his mouth and baritone Kihun Yoon began to sing. Soon after, most people settled down. But a third of the house continued to treat Bava's heartbreaking fantasy epic like a comedy. Guy gets boiled in lava? Hysterical! Lady gets her throat slashed? Priceless! People weren't laughing because Mario Bava was funny. They were laughing because Mario Bava wanted them to feel. (No one seemed to care if composer Patrick Morganelli and his singers had their own feelings hurt.)

    The guy behind me munching Sour Patch Kids and wearing an ironic Hawaiian shirt kept up the chuckles for 91 minutes, long after I began to beseech Zeus to throw a non-styrofoam boulder at him. His stubborn laughter was an advertisement for his own superiority, like it's heroic to refuse to be “suckered” by a fake rock that's obviously fake. But there's nothing triumphant about being too cool to dream.
    Seriously, why would someone like that go to a Mario Bava movie? I guess he found it funny, but it's still obnoxious.
Oh man, the Six Weeks of Halloween is coming. Just two weeks. Gird your loins.
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