6WH: Week 5 - Horror Noire

Earlier this year, Shudder released Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, which is exactly what the title says (and well worth watching). It's based on a book of the same name by Robin R. Means Coleman, though there are movies in the documentary that are not in the book and vice versa (full list on Letterboxd). I've actually seen a fair amount of the movies mentioned in the documentary (er, less from the book), but I had some blind spots that I thought should be corrected, so I spent the weekend revisiting the documentary and watching a few of the mentioned movies:
  • White Zombies (Key & Peele)
  • Get Out (trailer)
  • Horror Noire (trailer)
  • Vamp - I made note of this movie back when the documentary came out, but as it turns out, it's not even in the movie. It is, however, in the book, and I must have read people talking about it in the wake of the documentary or something. This movie is about two fraternity pledges tasked with procuring some strippers to perform for the frat, so they head to a strip club in the big, bad city and immediately run afoul of gangs, albinos, and as the title would imply, vampires. Perhaps because I actually haven't watched that much 80s horror this year, this feels like the most 80s movie to ever 80s. Neon colors and bad fashion galore, with lots of other more thematic 80s signifiers sprinkled in for good measure. What starts as a sex comedy sorta transmogrifies into light 80s horror, making for a somewhat inconsistent tone, but something that evokes films like An American Werewolf in London and probably influenced From Dusk Till Dawn (even if both of those are better movies that more deftly switch between modes). So why is this Horror Noire? Because of the absolutely perfect casting of Grace Jones as stripper/Vampire Queen.
    Grace Jones in Vamp
    She's introduced onstage performing the most 80s striptease ever (with, like, metal underwear, striking red hair and bodypaint, etc...) and generally owns the screen whenever she shows up, which unfortunately isn't that often. Still, she chews the scenery with aplomb despite not speaking much (if at all?) She elevates the film into perfectly cromulent territory and makes the whole enterprise worthwhile, even if the film is otherwise unremarkable. I'm glad I caught up with this though. **1/2
  • Night of the Living Dead (trailer)
  • Walking Dead Chappelle's Show (SNL)
  • Candyman (trailer)
  • Tales from the Hood - Supremely pissed off anthology film with a wraparound set in a mortuary with Clarence Williams III's Funeral Director telling a trio of gang members four stories, each of which is presented as a segment. There's nothing subtle at all about each segment, which confront racial issues head-on, including police brutality and corruption, domestic violence, white supremacist politicians, the prison system, and gang warfare.
    Tales from the Hood
    It's not exactly "fun", but it's very well done and fits right into the tradition of classic anthologies like Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, etc... As per usual with anthology films, some of the segments work better than others, but this does present a more cohesive, unified package than most manage, and it ends strong. Unfortunately, the issues presented in this nearly 25 year old movie are still pretty relevant today, which might make this a bit of an uncomfortable watch... which is exactly the point. ***
  • Sexy Vampires (Key & Peele)
  • Abby (trailer)
  • Ganja & Hess (trailer)
  • Blacula - An 18th century African prince named Mamuwalde visits Transylvania to meet with none other than Count Dracula in an effort to negotiate an end to the slave trade. Naturally, Dracula is a racist, so negotiations grind to a halt when he bites Mamuwalde, turns him into a vampire, imprisons his princess, and dubs him "Blacula". A couple centuries later, Dracula has long since been defeated by Van Helsing, and a pair of interior decorators purchase Dracula's castle with the intention of selling off all its antique contents as campy decorations in the new world. Among the belongings they inherit is Mamuwalde's locked up coffin, which is transported to L.A., whereupon Blacula is awakened. He's obviously hungry, but also heartbroken at the loss of his love, who appears to have been reincarnated in the form of a woman named Tina.
    Blacula
    So this is the sort of film everyone has heard of, but is probably less widely seen than it should be. The punny title is certainly goofy and certainly implies a less sophisticated film than what we actually get (the title is undeniably catchy and memorable though, so there is that). The whole idea feels a little silly - what if the vampire was black!? The film's marketing proclaimed that he was "Dracula's soul brother", which again, kinda sells the movie short. This isn't a rote retelling of the Dracula story, though to paraphrase George Lucas, it rhymes with the source material. It's certainly low budget, and you can feel that while watching, but it's a reasonably well told story that holds more value than its reputation implies. Director William Crain sadly didn't have a particularly prolific career (he would work primarily in television), but he does good work here, despite budgetary constraints. The performances are also pretty great, especially William Marshall as the titular Blacula. I also enjoyed Ji-Tu Cumbuka's comedic performance as Skillet, and Vonetta McGee is good as the love interest (and she shows up in one of my favorite, obscure seventies flicks, The Eiger Sanction). Look, it's not exactly a classic or anything, but it's more than just a silly Blaxploitation cash-in and well worth checking out. **1/2
Dammit, how is it week 5 already? Coming down the homestretch, we've got some thoughts on the crossover of Vintage SF and Horror coming up, and a trio of Giallos next week, so stay tuned!
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6WH: Week 4.5 - Netflixing

One of the weird things about Netflix's insatiable desire for content is that they're producing (or purchasing) so much of it that many individual works get lost in the throngs of new releases. A good example happened to me last week, when I realized that there were two newly released films on Netflix that I hadn't heard anything about (nor seen upon opening the app), but which were directed by two guys I find interesting. Jim Mickle isn't exactly a household name, but he directed films like the vampire apocalypse story Stake Land and the excellent Texas noir Cold in July. Vincenzo Natali might be marginally better known, but he's most famous for Cube and TV work on series like Hannibal and Westworld. Again, neither are marquee names, but in film nerd circles, both names turn heads. Did their two films live up to expectations? Eh... sorta?
  • The Silence of the Lambs (trailer)
  • Lotion in the Basket (Robot Chicken)
  • Shining (fake trailer)
  • In the Shadow of the Moon - When a trio of mysterious murders turn up in Philadelphia in 1988, a police officer who is bucking for detective becomes intrigued by the case. Weird injections that defy scientific explanation and a killer's cryptic last words only add to the mystery. Nine years later, more murders with the same M.O. appear, and the now-detective descends into full-blown obsession. And so on! This starts out as a pretty intense police procedural and serial killer story, then shifts in a more science fictiony direction, before settling on a Lost-esque series of events that ultimately prove unsatisfying, though not entirely without merit. At its best, towards the beginning of the movie, it sorta evokes that X-Files or more accurately Fringe-like (er, the good parts of Fringe)) exploration of science-ran-amok. As the film progresses, it gets more and more predictable, yet somehow makes less and less sense, and culminates in a crushingly didactic monologue that almost sinks the entire endeavor. All that being said, the nuts and bolts filmmaking is well crafted, fast paced, and exciting enough to keep things interesting. Mickle has a keen eye and directs action well, but the script lets him down a bit.
    In the Shadow of the Moon
    The performances are all good considering the material, and the production values are actually pretty great. As a Philly guy, I appreciated some of the regional touches (the Septa bus, the Wawa cameo, etc...), even though it's otherwise clearly not shot in Philly. The action and pacing were quick enough that my dumb engineer's brain would come up with a lot of questions, but not really have time to get annoyed by them... until after the film ended (i.e. you're police and you see three murders where people started suddenly bleeding out through all orifices like they were injected with some sort of biological weapon... but there's no talk of quarantine or other protective measures; the twist about where the killer comes from implies a whole host of questions which the film doesn't even pretend to engage with; and so on). I keep complaining about this film, but it's actually pretty enjoyable. There's a place for technically well-executed, pulpy, trope-driven thrillers like this, and its worth checking out, I just wish some its wrinkles were ironed out a little more (or maybe if they fully embraced the wrinkles or something). **1/2
  • Cube (trailer)
  • Haunter (trailer)
  • Triangle (trailer)
  • In the Tall Grass - A pregnant woman and her brother are driving through Kansas. At one pit stop, they hear a young boy's cry for help coming from a field of tall grass. They go in to help, but can't seem to find their way out... and something sinister is at work. Based on a short story by Stephen King and Joe Hill, the premise evokes Natali's most famous work, Cube, by crafting a constantly shifting, disorienting space... and not quite knowing how to solve the puzzle. Naturally, the story focuses more on the interpersonal relationships between the woman and her brother, the boy and his family, and so on, and the mysteries of the field and the evil rock get short shrift. Not necessarily the worst tactic, but the relationships aren't particularly special and the one-location setting gets repetitive pretty quickly. At its best, it reminded me a bit of House of Leaves, but it drags a bit too much in the middle, and much of the premise doesn't lend itself to logical explanations. Again, not necessarily terrible in a horror flick; such nonsensical physics can be frightening, but something about this doesn't quite hold together. Like Mickle's entry above, Natali's filmmaking chops are still effective. The film looks great, and despite their repetitive nature, he's able to coax a lot of visual strength out of a field of tall grass.
    In the Tall Grass
    Remember a few years ago when Shyamalan tried to make the breeze and grass scary in The Happening and failed miserably? Well, Natali is actually able to coax some tension out of this sort of thing. The performances are mostly good, with the standout being Patrick Wilson, who's clearly having a blast in this role. Its slower paced and drags a bit more, but it's not really boring either, so it still has plenty of appeal. It's been getting brutal reviews, which aren't entirely unwarranted, but it's not as bad as the aggregators would have you believe. **1/2
Stay tuned, a trio of Horror Noire will follow on Sunday...
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One of the funny things about digging through the annals of obscure horror cinema is when you stumble on an A-list superstar making an early career appearance before they were famous. Of course, I've already seen most of the biggest examples of this: Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th, Tom Hanks in He Knows You're Alone, Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun, Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter in The Burning; the examples are numerous. But I haven't seen them all, in part because some of these aren't particularly any good. I should perhaps stop intentionally watching bad movies this year, but maybe these will be fun?
  • Jack Chop (short)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: Nightmare Cafeteria
  • Slaughter High (trailer)
  • Return to Horror High (George Clooney) - The trouble with "before they were famous" movies is that, often, the person who will go on to be famous is only in the movie for a short time, and this movie is a pretty good example of that. George Clooney shows up for the first ten minutes or so of this movie, but then he's unceremoniously killed off. During his short time onscreen, he does actually display some sense of charisma... that, or I'm just really suggestible. But seriously, there's a moment where he's walking up steps in a police officer uniform and messing with the film crew that feels like an ad lib that they kept in the movie because Clooney's a likable dude.
    George Clooney in Return to Horror High
    Anyway, the other thing about this movie is that I sorta assumed it was a sequel (to a film called Horror High?), but as it turns out, that's not the case. There was some sort of massacre at a high school a while back, and now a low-budget horror movie crew is retelling the story at the very location in which the tragedy happens. There's actually a lot going on here. The film opens with the police trying to piece together what happened with the film production (apparently they're all dead). The lone survivor relays what happened, which we see in flashback. Then the film production itself is retelling the original tragedy... which are also portrayed as seamless flashbacks. It's flashbacks within flashbacks; we have to go deeper. An interesting idea, if not exactly well executed and rather confusing at the end. That ending has some cooky twists that don't make sense at all, but are kinda fun anyway and along the way, there's lots to enjoy here. There's plenty of humor on display (even if all of it doesn't land) and while Clooney is offed at the beginning, there's lots of other lower-tier faces that you might recognize. Alex Rocco, he actor who played Moe Greene in The Godfather, is hamming it up as the sleazy Hollywood producer. Maureen McCormick, of Brady Bunch fame, is having a good time as a police officer. And there are a couple other folks I recognized too. Look, it's not a good movie, and I don't think anyone would be watching this if it weren't for the Clooney bit part, but it's kinda fun. **
  • American Pickers Texas (Robot Chicken)
  • Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (NSFW Trailer)
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (trailer)
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey) - Two for the price of one! Both Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey play major roles in this rote retread featuring a quartet of kids on prom night getting lost and running afoul of (what one must assume is) the next generation of chainsaw wielding cannibals.
    Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation
    This is clearly the worst movie of the weekend, with a plot that's just a mashup of Texas Chainsaw tropes and a few baffling non-sequiturs (Why is McConaughey's character... bionic? Who the hell is that businessman?) That being said, McConaughey brings a real villainous energy to the role. It's a shame that he mostly disowns the movie because his performance really does keep things lively, no matter how bad the rest of the movie is. Zellweger, too, is doing pretty well given the crappy material. Ultimately, this is another situation where I'm guessing that the movie would be forgotten if not for the before-they-were-stars component, though some of those bonkers decisions might garner enough of a cult following, I guess. *1/2
  • "Gremlins 2" Brainstorm (Key & Peele)
  • Critters (trailer)
  • Critters 2 (trailer)
  • Critters 3 (Leonardo DiCaprio) - A family on a road trip inadvertently picks up some Critter eggs and transports them to the big city, where they hatch and start wreaking havoc on an apartment building in the slums. I can kinda see what they were trying to do here - take the Critter threat away from the rural town setting and set them loose in a big city... but they clearly didn't have anywhere near the budget needed for the requisite mayhem. Heck, they don't seem to have enough budget to equal the first two installments, which had throngs (packs? herds? hordes?) of critters, while this one has exactly five. They still look great, and the movie does a reasonable job differentiating them (one is scarred by bleach and becomes the sorta unofficial leader; another is called "Blackie" for presumably racist reasons), giving them new powers (they have a Sonic-like ability to spin in place before launching an attack now), and coming up with creative ways of killing them.
    Leonardo DiCaprio in Critters 3
    A larval Leonardo DiCaprio shows up as the stepson of the apartment's scumbag owner. Unlike the other stars in this post, he doesn't get to show much of his starpower here. He's not bad, to be sure, but it's not like you'd watch this and think "That kid's going places!" (like you might with McConaughey, Zellweger, or Clooney in the other movies). So this isn't as fun as the first two entries in the series (which I should probably revisit, since I really enjoyed them when I was a kid), but it's not unwatchable or anything. The very end of the film is a pretty blatant setup for a sequel, but it's actually kinda funny and so obvious that it works and... I kinda want to watch Critters 4 now (the two films were apparently greenlit and produced concurrently). You could do worse, but you really shouldn't be trying to do worse - just watch the first two and you'll probably be fine. **
So I had fun this weekend, but I think I'm ready for some actually decent movies, so hopefully we'll figure something out for next week's theme that will work a little better.
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During last year's Six Weeks of Halloween marathon, I watched a record 61 movies. Part of that came at the expense of watching horror related television, despite some good stuff happening there. Since I've already been thrown off my pace this year by travel and other happenings, I might as well switch gears a bit and check out some new shows. I haven't delved particularly deep just yet, but I've been watching some stuff that I found interesting, so I figured I'd share some thoughts:
  • Creepshow S1:E1 "Gray Matter/The House of the Head" - Shudder's new Creepshow series is dropping one episode at a time for... six weeks (culminating on Halloween itself). It looks like each episode will feature two segments (each about 20-25 minutes long). This first episode starts a bit slow but ends strong. The first segment, "Gray Matter", is based on a Stephen King short story, and it takes place during a big storm. A kid shows up at the local convenience store to pick up a case of cheap beer for his father, who has been drowning his sorrows in alcohol since his wife died. But grief has turned him into something altogether different... Some nice atmosphere and decent creature effects, but ultimately kinda straightforward. Enjoyable, but not going to light the world on fire. The second segment, "The House of the Head", is altogether more successful and effective. A little girl plays with dolls in her dollhouse, but a mysterious severed doll head shows up, and her dolls start moving on their own.
    The House of the Head
    The head has murderous designs on the quaint family the little girl built up in the house, and she must figure out a way to help them. Now this is the stuff. You never see the dolls move, but the still shots you see are very effective and menacing. The little girl makes some interesting attempts to solve the problem, but because this is Creepshow, they don't really work out. Not exactly a bummer, but very creepy and entertaining...
  • Creepshow S1:E2 "Bad Wolf Down/The Finger" - A platoon of American soldiers gets trapped behind enemy lines and takes refuge in a local police station. It appears that the Germans in the station have been slaughtered by some sort of wild animal. Surrounded by enemy soldiers, the Americans find a novel way to fight back. It's silly and fun and pretty much all you could ask for out of this one. "The Finger" is a little less successful, though it has some nice moments and the idea at its core works well enough. A man finds a finger on the ground and brings it home to research where it came from. Then the finger starts to grow, at first another finger, then a whole arm, then a whole little gremlin thing... that likes to watch soap operas and eat popcorn. Ultimately it just sorta peters out, but it comports itself well enough. As per usual, these anthology series are a bit uneven, but each story is short enough to keep interest going. I'm looking forward to watching more of these as the season progresses.
  • The Twilight Zone S1:E1 "Where Is Everybody?" - I've obviously seen lots of episodes of the Twilight Zone, but I thought it might be fun to go back and start from the very beginning with this 1959 episode in which a man finds himself in an empty town and slowly grows crazy in the isolation. A neat little tale, not one of the best episodes to be sure, but short and sweet, and pretty indicative of the types of stuff we'll see in the rest of the series.
  • The Twilight Zone S1:E2 "One for the Angels" - A street salesman (i.e. a pitch man) comes home one day to find that Death is waiting for him, sez he's scheduled to die that night, gives him time to set his affairs in order. The salesman attempts to appeal, settling on the idea that he'd like to make a really big pitch before he dies, you know, "one for the Angels!" Death agrees, but when the salesman attempts to welch on the deal, Death tells him that he's going to have to take someone else's life instead, and chooses a local neighborhood girl. Will the salesman be able to find a way to save the little girl? This is a really nice episode. I don't normally think of The Twilight Zone as being heartwarming, but this episode strikes the right balance. Great performances here too, which certainly helps sell the experience.
  • The Twilight Zone S1:E3 "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" - A western about a town drunk and former quick draw champion whose past catches up with him, with a little help from the personification of Fate. Another neat little episode with a happy ending, but no less effective because of that.
  • Evil S1:E1 "Pilot" - This new show from the creators of The Good Wife is about an investigator for the Catholic Church looking into reports of possession and miracles, etc... The first episode involves a defendant trying to use insanity/possession as a defense against murder charges. There are some effective little bits here and there, and I like the debunking aspects of the episode, but it also feels like they're trying to have their cake and eat it too. This sort of thing could potentially be worked out over time though, so maybe this will end up scratching that X-Files monster-of-the-week itch. It's an easygoing show akin to your typical CBS procedural, but with a more supernatural flair. Some bits are perhaps too on the nose, but it's a decent enough start. I'll probably watch more of this.
I'm definitely planning to dive deeper into The Haunting of Hill House this year, and may check out some other series if time permits...
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Wherein I continue my slow, shambling stroll through the classic Universal Monster movie catalog. Or should I say, my slow, uncoordinated swim through the Creature from the Black Lagoon series, of which there are only really three entries and a massive trail of failed remakes and reboots. Naturally, there are tons of Gillman-like creatures peppering the pop culture landscape. Most recent and notable is Guillermo del Toro's Oscar Winning The Shape of Water, itself a failed reboot concept that del Toro was able to wrangle into something slightly different. Now that the whole Dark Universe concept has floundered, who knows when we'll see the next iteration of the Creature. But I suspect we will, someday. In the meantime, let's dive into the sequels:
  • Creature from the Black Lagoon (trailer)
  • The Lagoon Creature's Name (Robot Chicken)
  • The Shape of Water (trailer)
  • Revenge of the Creature - Another trip to the Amazon, another encounter with the Creature. This time, the Gillman is captured and transported back to a water-themed amusement park, presumably to be trained in dumb show tricks like jumping through hoops and kicking footbals or something. Naturally, the experiments go poorly and the Gillman escapes for the inevitable rampage. Lots of underwater photography (I want to say more than the original, though its been awhile since I watched it) and the Creature hiself looks as good as ever.
    Revenge of the Creature
    Storywise, there's not really much here. The love triangle is not especially romantic and perfunctory at best, and the characters strike me as less effective versions of the same types from the first film. The Creature kidnaps our heroine not so much because of story reasons, but because that's what happened in the first film. The aforementioned inevitable rampage isn't particularly rampagey, and the Gillman seems a bit less badass in this sequel. Even the thematic component lacks here, with the broad ecological concerns of the first film replaced with the idea that animals don't like being in zoos (which is fine, but a step backwards for the series). A paint by numbers sequel that entertains well enough but doesn't really push any boundaries. I think the most interesting thing about this movie is that it features a very early appearance of Clint Eastwood as a scientist who forgot he has a mouse in his pocket. Which is cool, and all, but it's only about 30 seconds of screen time. **
  • The Monster Squad (trailer)
  • Creature Nightlife (Robot Chicken)
  • The Host (X-Files)
  • The Creature Walks Among Us - Another expedition, this time to the everglades, where they quickly find the creature but accidentally light him on fire. The third degree burns have mostly burned off the Gillman's scales, revealing what appears to be human skin, prompting questions about biological transformation and evolution. Credit where credit is due - this is not a tired retread of the previous two films, and indeed, it makes some interesting choices. In fact, the Gillman is notably less aggressive in this film, especially after his transformation (this despite appearing to be surprisingly jacked in his more human form).
    The Creature Walks Among Us
    There is, of course, the requisite rampage towards the end, but besides the two main villains of the piece (a serial harasser and a cowardly, abusive scientist and husband that are both real turds, especially with respect to their treatment of our female hero), the Gillman's ire is mostly reserved for inanimate objects like gates and stone pillars. The ending is surprisingly affecting, with the Gillman, suffering from several bullet wounds, instinctively trying to retreat towards the water, a place where he can no longer survive. **1/2
I've been traveling, so this week's posts have been a little lighter than normal (actually pretty surprised I managed the two scheduled posts, even if they're not up to normal standards). I'm back now, so regularly scheduled 6WH activities can resume in full force. At this point, I'm not sure what the coming week will hold for me, but I have some ideas, so stay tuned!
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There's a phenomenon known as Twin Films, wherein two films with suspiciously similar plots are released around the same time by two different studios. Canonical examples include Deep Impact and Armageddon (well, for people my age, I guess) and Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe (to give a much earlier example).

In the midst of preparations for the 1978 Project, I noticed one such pair of films, this time concerning killer bees. Combining the 70s penchant for disaster films with the general fascination and panic around the Africanized Honey Bee, these are only two examples of many others tackling the vaunted killer bee (there's even another one from 1978, a TV movie called Terror Out of the Sky). I'm guessing they were also trying to capitalize on the When Animals Attack trend ignited by Jaws and its many imitators. But wait! There's more! The 70s also saw the rise of the eco-thriller, and these movies certainly glommed onto that trend as well..
  • Nicolas Cage: No, not the bees! (clip)
  • Animals Attack Trailers
  • A Message from the Bees (Robot Chicken)
  • The Bees - As killer bees migrate through South America and eventually reach the United States, researchers seek to understand and end the threat before the swarms attack high population cities. But the bees are changing, becoming more intelligent. Will our intrepid heroes figure out a way to defeat the vicious, unstoppable bees and their blasphemous hive minds? This one has a really poor reputation, but it showed up on Shudder last year and I caught the end of it, which made me want to revisit it this year. It's... not a good movie, but I suspect its blatant anti-corporatism and eco-thriller elements would go over reasonably well with certain audiences these days. I mean, this is some truly hamfisted stuff, but it sorta rockets past unbelievable and pedantic into so-bad-it's-good territory. Genre mainstay John Saxon (Black Christmas, Nightmare on Elm Street, Enter the Dragon) anchors the cast, delivering his hammy lines with the proper amount of authority. John Carradine lends some gravitas to the proceedings as well, and Angel Tompkins holds her own too (though at first, she's saddled with an... unlikely relationship partner). The plot gets more ridiculous as it goes on, mostly reserving its ire for greedy corporate types but also putting the United Nations and general governmental bureaucracy on full blast. By the time Saxon figures out the mutated hive mind's hyper-intelligent plans and starts relating it to the United Nations, it's almost laughable, though again, I feel like today's general climate of environmental advocacy might actually get an earnest kick out of this sort of wish fulfillment. Of the two movies in this post, this is clearly the lower budget take. Apparently it was completed first, but Warner Bros. paid the distributor to postpone the release to allow more room for The Swarm... I don't think that has any real impact on the legacy of either film, really, but it's interesting and does prove the Twin Movie theory (some things labeled as Twin Movies have more dubious connections). **
  • Does God Hate Bees? (Robot Chicken)
  • The Killer Bees: Home Invasion (SNL)
  • The Burns and the Bees (The Simpsons)
  • The Swarm - Producer/Director Irwin Allen led the charge on disaster films in the 1970s. After his initial successes, he announced a slew of projects, including this one, which lingered for years and eventually came out in 1978. It flopped hard and pretty much signaled the end of the disaster movie era. It's a lavish production though, featuring a star studded cast (including Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, amongst many others), lots of special effects and explosions. But it's also incredibly bloated and sloppy, with a sprawling but rather silly narrative about a scientist overseeing a military effort to combat the bees (this is basically the same thing as the other movie - deadly new strains of Africanized honey bees are coming to America and must be stopped!) Caine is always fun and does his best with poor material here, quickly flying off the handle every time he has to justify himself to the military. There's some pure entertainment value here in terms of spectacle, and the higher budget definitely helps, but the overlong running time really sinks this one. Both of these killer bee movies have a degree of sensationalism and panic about them that is fun, but the svelt 90 minute The Bees never really overstays its welcome the way that The Swarm does... *1/2
When I was a young, I distinctly remember seeing a sensationalist documentary about how the killer bees were gonna get us all, but we're still here, so I'm guessing we did something right. Anyway, stay tuned, for we've got a Creature Double Feature coming on Sunday... if I can find the time to write it, as I'm traveling at the moment (i.e. it may come a bit late).
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6WH: Week 2 - Classics' Part II

Here's the thing. I'm not very kind to sequels. I enjoy novelty and originality, and sequels are almost by definition not doing that sort of thing. Now, this isn't to say that everything has to be groundbreaking or transcendent. A formulaic but well executed film works great for me; witness my love for the hallowed and well established conventions of the slasher film! Sequels, though, tend to have additional constraints that are difficult to overcome, namely their tendency to repeat themselves and to suffer in comparison to the original. There are exceptions, to be sure. For instance, my favorite Friday the 13th film is Part VI: Jason Lives! (the whole Friday series actually does a decent job introducing new elements into the relatively strict slasher formula, actually, but there's also an element of nostalgia that distorts my impressions that should be taken into account).

Given my general distaste for sequels, I naturally decided to spend all weekend watching sequels to utter classics that couldn't possibly live up to the expectations set by their predecessors. By most accounts, these... are not great movies. I may not have thought this through.
  • The Omen (trailer)
  • Lucy, Daughter of the Devil (short)
  • Horror Movie Daycare (short)
  • Damien: Omen II - The antichrist is growing up! Now thirteen years old, living with his aunt and uncle, and attending a military school. Occasionally, someone will catch on that Damien is evil... and then they fall prey to some sort of crazy accidental death (or, at least, one that appears to be so). And that's pretty much it for the plot here. Basically a retread of the first film, but this time Damien's innocence and vulnerability are lessened. There's a nugget of a cool idea here, which is a sorta coming of age story for the antichrist, but the film does not go into a lot of detail about that. A couple of times, I thought they would have Damien struggle a little more to come to terms with his destiny, but it's mostly just surface material. The accidents are more over-the-top (with the exception of the beheading in the first film) here, with the most notable set piece being a most excellent elevator gag.
    Damien
    The cast is actually doing pretty good work here too. William Holden and Lee Grant do well as Damien's aunt and uncle, Lance Henriksen shows up as a military instructor who helps awaken Damien's latent antichrist powers or somesuch, and Jonathan Scott-Taylor presents Damien as the potentially evil little shit he is. It's repetitive and hokey, but I kinda enjoyed it for what it was. Nothing special, for sure, but if you liked the first, you won't have any real issues with this one. **1/2
  • Psycho (trailer)
  • Here's Your Problem... (Robot Chicken)
  • American Psycho - Hip to be Square (clip)
  • Psycho II - 22 years after the events of the first movie, and Norman Bates is being released from the mental institution. He moves back to his infamous motel and takes a job at the local diner. Nothing could go wrong here! Soon, a coworker moves in and he starts to get mysterious phone calls from what appears to be his long dead mother. Is Norman Bates still crazy!?
    Psycho II
    Look, nothing can really compare with the original, and to be sure, I think this movie makes an admirable attempt to progress the story. It's actually a decent character-based drama. Director Richard Franklin does good Hitchock pastiche, and Anthony Perkins is still great reprising his role as Norman. There's a bit part for sweaty Dennis Franz that's fantastic, and some other supporting characters are well done. The second act is a little flabby and the movie is a bit too long, but there are some good twists and turns later on that keep things interesting. Like all the sequels in this post, this is completely unnecessary and pales in comparison to the original, but it has some redeeming factors and is maybe even a tad underrated. **1/2
  • The Exorcist (amazing banned/unreleased trailer)
  • Repossessed (trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror XXVIII: The Exor-Sis
  • Exorcist II: The Heretic - Four years later, Regan MacNeil doesn't remember the events of the original film, but she does have disturbing dreams that indicate her exorcism may not hold. A Vatican investigator and a hypnotic research specialist team up to see if they can free Regan from the demon Pazuzu once and for all. As a sequel to The Exorcist, well, it's bad. Taken in context of director John Boorman's filmography (nestled between Deliverance, Zardoz, and Excalibur), it looks better. There's some really bizarre choices on display here, and a lot of the film centers on weird shared-hypnosis effects and, um, locusts.
    Exorcist II: The Heretic
    Boorman's got a keen eye and I like a good freakout as much as anyone, but the special effects struggle. There's goofy giant locust composite shots that don't work, a couple of people burn alive in strangely unconvincing shots, and there's a car crash that's just kinda sad. The plot isn't particularly coherent and goes down some rather strange avenues. Richard Burton's histrionic performance as the priest suits the film though, and Linda Blair does decent work as the troubled Regan. Both are asked to do ridiculous stuff, so their performances standout all the more because of that. The film certainly has its defenders (including, apparently, Martin Scorsese, though even he admits that the execution is lacking) and has garnered a bit of a cult following, and I can kinda see it, though it's not a cult I'll be joining anytime soon and the general reception remains one of profound disappointment. I can appreciate some of what's going on here, but it ultimately doesn't work. **
Phew, that was interesting, but I'm not rushing out to watch more sequels (though I remember The Exorcist III being pretty great - dat nurse scene!) I'll be traveling this week, so posting/watching will be light. If I find time, I might still get a couple posts up and I'm loading my laptop with stuff I can watch during the flight, but who knows how much I'll actually want to do...
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6WH: It: Chapter Two

I was pleasantly surprised by what is now referred to as It: Chapter One a couple of years ago. That film arrived in the midst of a semi-revival of Stephen King adaptations and its success (currently the highest grossing horror film of all time, though Jaws might take it if you adjust for inflation) guaranteed more King and, of course, the exciting conclusion to the It story, It Chapter Two. Unfortunately, by "exciting conclusion", what I actually mean is... "repetitive slog".

I have not read Stephen King's novel, but as I understand it, part of its power comes from its structure. Basically, he's telling the same story twice, in parallel, with the occasional interlude from Derry's history to break things up. The dual narrative concerns a group of kids confronting a demonic clown, and the grown up versions of same, fighting same. The first movie broke out of that mold by necessity, and it was probably the right decision. However, in the process of doing so, they were setting the sequel up for failure. I suppose the writers of this could have really strayed far from the source material to provide something more original, but it's not like that sort of approach is guaranteed either. And let's not forget that King's reputation for great setups leading to bad endings (actually a pretty good recurring meta-gag in It: Chapter Two, including a cameo from King himself). It's not that King's lazy or just couldn't think up a better ending; he seems to genuinely write himself into corners. Whatever the case, the filmmakers opted for a more straightforward adaptation of the Losers as adults returning to Derry to face off against Pennywise, so it's quite repetitive.

Like the first installment, this is a slick movie with great production value, fabulous casting, and generally good performances. Unlike the first movie, the scares here feel muted and perfunctory. The problem is that the kids at the end of the first movie figured out the trick to defeating Pennywise, so all the scares in this second installment are just going through the motions. The first movie relied a little too heavy on jump scares, audio stingers, and CGI, but ultimately worked because of the approach and good execution. This second movie leaned into all of those things people didn't like, but the approach isn't novel anymore and the execution is sporadic, so it all sorta falls flat.

The child actors in the first movie had a great chemistry together, and it really felt like you saw the bonding experience as it happened onscreen. In the second movie, all of that is gone, explained away by the conceit that when you move away from Derry you "forget" what happened there. What's more, it takes forever for the characters to get back on the same page, and the plot quickly separates the characters before they can reestablish any rhythm. The whole approach reminded me a little of a video game sequel where your once powerful protagonist has to start over and rebuild all their strengths and abilities. The second act of this movie is essentially a fetch quest, with each character going off on their own to find some sort of talisman, which naturally leads to encounters with Pennywise (which, again, generally feel muted because we've seen all this sort of thing before). Some of these segments are more successful (Bev's visit to her old apartment) than others (the one bizarrely goofy needle drop during what I think was supposed to be a jump scare?), but they take up way too much time and don't get us where we need to be.

It Chapter Two Cast

The actors are all doing their best, but the material is holding them back. Bill Hader's deadpan humor is great. James McAvoy could have chewed up the scenery with his character's stutter, but wisely kept those hammy impulses in check. Jessica Chastain is always fantastic, but again, she's not given much to do here. Bill Skarsgård's portrayal of Pennywise is still a highlight of the film... when they're not CGIing him to death (and honestly, he's pretty good even then). The other actors are all doing good work here too, but the structure of the film is letting them down. They never manage to reestablish the chemistry present in the first film, and when the film really tries to do that at the end, it somehow feels rushed and incongruous. The film does feature lots of flashbacks to the characters as kids, which you'd think would help given the aforementioned chemistry and bonding, but it only serves to further highlight the flaws in the current day portions of the film.

The plot also includes a few other encounters with Pennywise that are experienced by folks around town. Some of these are straight from the book, such as the gay couple getting attacked by local homophobes and then literally becoming a meal for Pennywise. Others I'm not sure about. While some of this stuff is well done (and better executed than the stuff featuring the adult Losers, perhaps because these other characters don't know what they're up against), it's all completely superfluous. In a movie that's nearly three hours long, that sort of thing should have probably been minimized in favor of keeping the story moving.

Pennywise floats

Then there's the plan to defeat Pennywise. Despite having already figured out the secret to fighting Pennywise in the first film, the crew devises this elaborate scheme based on an old Native American ritual... that makes no sense. One of the Losers has done a bunch of research on the town and discovered this ritual that was used to fight Pennywise when he first arrived a couple hundred years ago... but no one seems to point out the obvious, which is: if this is what they used to fight Pennywise before, but Pennywise is still around, then the ritual clearly doesn't work. Again, the crew has already fought Pennywise as kids and figured out the secret (Pennywise ran away at the end, so I guess that wasn't entirely successful, but they figured out what was needed). The writers further rush the Losers into the confrontation in a way that feels contrived and clunky.

Speaking of Pennywise, one of the minor complaints from the first movie was that the extent and degree of his powers were unclear at best. This movie only further leans into this lack of clarity, which is part of what drives the lack of genuine scares in the film, and also makes the ending feel facile and unconvincing. On the other hand, the ending does kinda sorta make sense. I mean, it's essentially the same as the first film and I don't know why we had to wander through three hours of film to get to essentially the same place, but it works better than, say, a giant space turtle saving them (a probably exaggerated paraphrase of the book's ending, which, again, I have not read).

Perhaps I am being too hard on this movie. It's indulgent, bloated, and overlong, but it didn't feel like three hours either? There's some weird contradictory feelings this movie brings out in me. It's clearly too long, but it also feels like there's stuff missing? This is a repetitive story, but it doesn't work here while it did in the first movie? Ultimately, I did not particularly like this film. I'm always tough on sequels to start with, and this one was primed to annoy me with its inherently repetitious plot and general sense of just going-through-the-motions. None of this is a particular surprise, but while the first movie would up greatly exceeding my low expectations, this one couldn't even manage to clear the low expectation bar. Count me interested in whatever director Andy Muschietti tackles next though. The guy's got some chops, for sure, and to be fair, this second It movie may have been an insurmountable challenge to start with... Anyway, stay tuned, for on Sunday, we're going to post about more (probably disappointing) sequels to good movies.

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The weather is turning, wind is blowing through leaf piles, wicker baskets are filled with mutant squash, people are mutilating pumpkins for fun, yards are filling up with cemetery furnishings like tombstones with ironic inscriptions, decorative corpses, and ornamental cobwebs, and of course, the pumpkin spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly traditions suddenly becoming socially acceptable can mean only one thing: It's Halloweentime! Yes, it's the best time of the year, and to celebrate, we here at Kaedrin watch a crapton of horror movies over the course of the next six weeks. Why six weeks? Well, it used to be a lot better than most normal people's four week marathons... but now everyone else seems to have caught on and started in with the Halloween jam starting in September. These days, Pumpkin beer shows up in July. Not that I'm complaining (I mean, the start of summer is at least partly great because by then we're well on our way to Halloween).

This year's marathon starts off with a trio of silent horror movies. I tend to find these movies a tad staid, but it's always an interesting experience and often illustrates a direct line of influence to current horror trends. The excessive focus on visuals over all can also lead to indelible imagery that can't quite be replicated by sound films (not that they don't have their own visual impressiveness, it's just different). Don't worry, we've got plenty of time to descend into the more schlocky gore and so-bad-it's-good zaniness. But for now, let's strap on our monacle and observe some historically important cinema!
  • Don't (fake trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror: Bad Dream House
  • The Cabin in the Woods (trailer)
  • The Bat - A violent criminal dressed up like a giant bat terrorizes a family renting an old mansion in search of a banker's hidden loot. Or something like that. Despite mostly taking place in one location, the plot is sometimes a bit hard to follow. Adapted from a play (which was itself adapted from a book), it's clear that the silent era constraints on this one were insurmountable (director Roland West would later remake the film as a talkie in 1930; apparently a more refined take, and there's also a 1959 remake starring none other than Vincent Price). That being said, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. The transfer I watched wasn't great quality, but the visuals were well done and memorable. It doesn't quite capture the the extreme angular German expressionism of the era (typified by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), but some of those elements are well represented nonetheless. The intertitles (while perhaps not up to the task of encapsulating the plot) are mostly on point and even quotable (the winner:"For twenty years I've stood by you through Socialism, Theosophism and Rheumatism - but I draw the line at Spookism!") It's an early example of the "old dark house" tale (though The Cat and the Canary did it better just a year later), complete with all the requisite tropes: dark shadows, silhouettes, mistaken identities, hidden passageways, red herrings galore, a screaming, slapstick maidservant, a racist portrayal of a Japanese manservant, a sassy, drunken aunt, and a dude running around in some sort of elaborate costume. In this case a bat, which apparently was one of the inspirations for Batman (indeed, there's even a sequence with a bat-signal).
    The Bat (signal!)
    At first shrouded in shadow and silhouette, The Bat is great looking, and even once you get a closeup look of the costume, it's pretty neat. It's also something of a precursor to the slasher and its various influences (i.e. Giallos, Krimis, etc...) The visuals do create a nice atmosphere, but it's not especially scary. Some of the humor works well enough, but it's also quite broad and sometimes incongruous with the generally dark tone (I kinda loved the whole bear trap gag though). All of which is to say that, while interesting, there's not much here that hasn't been done better elsewhere, even if this may have done some things first. Worth it for students of cinema to see how it influenced later works, it's not really a movie for the normals. Still, I got a kick out of seeing all the tropes in their larval form. **
  • The Phantom (Robot Chicken)
  • The Phantom of the Opera's Girl Problems (short)
  • The Phantom of the Opera (1962) (trailer)
  • The Phantom of the Opera - I've obviously seen the famous reveal from this film and countless imitations and remakes and parodies over the years, but this is the first time I've watched this one from start to finish. Set at the famous Paris Opera House, allegedly haunted by a Phantom who leaves notes making demands of the new owners about who should be performing what and when. The Phantom clearly has a thing for one of the ingénues and promises her fame and fortune, whilst sabotaging her competition. Watching this one made me realize that the pacing of The Bat was actually pretty good, as it's much slower here. The shots are static and longer lasting, even the intertiles stay up on the screen for a beat or two longer (to my modern, continuous partial attention addled brain, it's a bit much). On the other hand, the clarity of what's going on is much better here, and of course there's some all-time classic moments. Notably the aforementioned reveal of the Phantom without his mask, which really is something, even today.
    The Phantom... wants you!
    I can't imagine what the crowds of the day thought of this reveal, but it must have been wild. The film has a few other standout visuals as well. The Paris Opera House is lovingly captured here, and there is one sequence in which the Phantom dressed up in red at a sorta costume ball descends the staircase that is quite memorable (the Amazon Prime version I watched featured the red color, which really makes it stand out in the otherwise black and white film). The film has its baffling moments (apparently the result of studio meddling, which is not just a modern phenomenon) and while the story is simple and clear, it doesn't entirely hold together on its own. But Lon Chaney's performance keeps the entire affair humming. While menacing and mean-spirited, he sometimes manages to imbue the Phantom with a sadness that would be worthy of pity if he wasn't constantly trying to kill people or kidnap women. His exaggerated physical movements and dramatic poses manage to imbue the film with a sense of dread that probably wouldn't be present otherwise. If this were to come out today, I think it would be a boon to the the hot take industrial complex and movie twitter would be unbearable for a while. Or not. Whatever, it's worth it for Chaney's performance alone and could serve as a decent introduction to silent film. **1/2
  • The Grimmest Reaper (Robot Chicken)
  • The Chickening (short)
  • Final Destination 2 (trailer)
  • The Phantom Carriage - In Swedish folklore, there's a legend that the last person to die on New Year's Eve, if they've lead a wicked life, is doomed to drive a spectral carriage, collecting the souls of the dead for a whole year. This film opens with a Salvation Army nurse on her deathbed, asking for a local drunk she'd been working to reform. Said local drunk is hiding out in a cemetery. When he refuses to visit the ailing nurse, his friends beat him up and leave him for dead, whereupon the Phantom Carriage arrives. There's a real Dickensian feel to the whole affair, as the drunk reflects on his life and bad decisions, and spoiler alert, what at first seems like it will be a really dark ending turns saccharine as the drunk repents and goes through a Scrooge-like transformation. It feels a bit rushed, I guess, but considering that this is a 1921 film, I'll cut it some slack. The whole holiday redemption theme works well enough, and it's got some great visual moments, including the spectral Phantom Carriage, which shows up translucent on screen and features the unsettling and now iconic image of the grim reaper, wearing a hooded robe and carrying a scythe.
    The Phantom Carriage
    This movie was Ingmar Bergman's favorite film and clearly inspired his The Seventh Seal, amongst countless other films (notably including Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which directly homaged the shot of a man chopping through a wooden door with an axe). Really glad I caught up with this one, and the Criterion Collection presentation is great. ***
I must admit that I cheated a little by starting this year's marathon early. I was away this weekend without access to the internets, etc... and I have another trip coming up that will probably cut down on the number of movies I watch this year (and I may skip a post or two). Otherwise, full bore til Halloween! Coming up: Tackling a current release and a trio of sequels to classics (that are, eh, not classics in themselves)...
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Link Dump

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Just clearing the baffles before embarking on this year's Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon with some interesting links from the internets:
  • 90 Branzinos Later: The Story Behind The Amazing Spider-Man’s Awkward Dinner - The amount of work that goes into a single shot of a bad movie is still pretty amazing (and far more impressive than most criticism of said bad movies, including mine).
    Consider the branzino. The Spider-Man scene originally called for Peter to be unnerved by the fish’s eye staring back up at him — something that’s not possible with the real-life dish, where the eyes melt in the oven. White found himself having to painstakingly remove one eye from each raw fish, then place it back in a roasted socket. The scene also needed one of Gwen’s little brothers to expertly debone the fish for Peter, a task that had to be as easy as possible for the child actor. White took a pair of scissors and made a few tiny, imperceptible cuts that allowed the kid to pull the bone out as if he were a Michelin-starred chef. He did this for every fish, for every take, alongside cooking the entrees for everyone else’s plate, as well. Sadly, neither moment made the final cut.
    To repeat, it's not even in the film. Crazy. See also: The Problem Solving of Filmmaking (linked in the previous Link Dump)
  • The Day the World Didn’t End - You may have heard of the story about the Soviet officer who got a missile launch warning but basically saved the world by not acting on it; this is a more detailed account of that story, with context usually missing from the story.
  • How To Make the Perfect Burger - Pretty much the platonic ideal of a How To Basic video. Perfect amount of innocuous content before it gets... weird. Wait for it. (I hope you like pickles.)
  • The Most Gullible Man in Cambridge - An almost absurd story:
    Over the next four years, the law professor would be drawn into a “campaign of fraud, extortion, and false accusations,” as one of his lawyers would later say in legal proceedings. At one point, Hay’s family would be left suddenly homeless. At another, owing to what his lawyer has described as the “weaponiz[ation] of the university’s Title IX machinery against Hay,” he would find himself indefinitely suspended from his job. He would accrue over $300,000 in legal bills with no end to the litigation in sight. “Maria-Pia and Mischa want money,” Hay told me last summer, “but only for the sake of squeezing it out of people — it’s the exertion of power.”
  • Very specific ways I eat snacks - Relatable.
  • Yoba Skywalker Starwars goes to infinity and beyond | Monster Factory - You wouldn't think that two dorks making a custom character in Star Trek online would be great, but then, you'd be wrong.
  • Steamed Hams But It's Directed By Quentin Tarantino - Goes on longer than you'd expect; gotta respect the committment to the bit.
  • Quentin Tarantino's Best Scene Has Almost No Words and Just Nine Shots - Speaking of Tarantino, this deep dive into the opening shots of Jackie Brown is very good.
And that's all for now, stay tuned for some silent horror as the Six Weeks of Halloween kicks off next week!
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