Friday, February 26, 2010

The Crazies (2010)

I managed to catch a sneak preview of The Crazies last night at the Lloyd Mall Cinemas. This was the first preview I ever attended, so I was a bit excited. Not that I expected any bells and whistles; after all, this was just a preview for the general public. Still, it was a first for me and that gave it an air of excitement.

The Crazies (for those who don't know) is a remake of the George Romero film of the same name. It takes place in the farming community of Ogden Marsh, Iowa. Through a government accident, a toxic agent, code named Trixie, was released into their water supply. But the time this is discovered, too many of the citizens have become exposed to the agent, which induces a homicidal zen state. Yep, these are the calmest crazy people ever to grace the screen, at least until their veins start popping out and they finally start screaming.

As the story progresses, we follow the sheriff, his wife (the town doctor and pregnant with their first child), a deputy and the doctor's secretary as they try to avoid both the crazies and the government out to cover up this mishap and contain the outbreak through any means possible. No spoilers here, as you can guess all this from the trailer.

Anyway, the movie started a bit late, as the person running the preview was trying to fill the theater. Apparently, not enough pass holders showed up, so I assumed she was grabbing people from the mall to come see a free movie. I base this assumption on the actions of the lady sitting behind me.

This woman spend most of the movie whispering like, "Oh, God, don't go in there," "Oh, no, it's too dark in there," "Oh, Lord, what's going to happen," and so on. It fell into a pattern, where the whispers would start out slow, growing in speed as the tension mounted, then came the shrieking exclamation point. Followed by a moment of silence until the tension mounted again.

I don't know if she'd ever seen a horror movie before, but that lady was the perfect audience member for The Crazies. Because The Crazies isn't a real horror movie. It's a collection of jump scares, a full blown Hollywood version of the Haunted Houses that spring up everywhere during Halloween. You go into one room of the house, with your expectations of the scares to come culminating with something leaping out of a dark corner with a shriek. Everyone screams and jumps, you walk to the next part of the house and start all over again.

Not that a movie like that is a bad thing. And everyone involved worked hard to make the best damn Haunted House in the area. The acting is uniformly good, the production values are high and some of the set pieces are outstanding (the attack in the car wash was a lot of fun and the pitch fork killer was pretty creepy).

But the problem of making a movie SO reliant on jump scares is that some of the audience will get wise to the trick, see it coming and start yearning for something different. Not people like the lady behind me, who fell for it every time, but I saw a few members of the audience getting as restless as the picture wore on.

The second problem is, eventually the characters start acting stupid simply to set up the next jump scare. You would assume that, by the time our posse of heroes is whittled down to two (no surprise who they are), they'd figure out how not to act stupidly in this situation. Yet, they split up not once, but twice within the space of 5 minutes. In reality, these two would be winners of a Darwin Award, but the plot needs a few more jump scares, so the characters must behave as if they have no concept of how to learn from past experiences.

And, of course, the rule of escalating thrills required that a movie like this one have a massive climax. Again, not a bad thing, but did they have to dip into the Indiana Jones/Crystal Skull bag of tricks? All credibility this movie might have maintained was gone in a massive, overdone CGI sequence.

Finally, I really found myself missing the social commentary Romero worked into the original (if you don't know what I'm talking about, go rent a copy of the original). And while there are a few moments in the remake that touch upon some interesting issues involving the government response, they are soon cast aside for another chance to make you jump.

As I said, that's not a bad thing. But, like a buffet that only serves one item, you might get a bit bored after a while.

Unless you're like the lady behind me. Then this is the perfect movie for you.

Horror Happenings in Portland this week:

Slither, James Gunn's under appreciated horror comedy, is have a three day run at the 5th Ave. Cinema. Show times are 7 and 9:30 pm on Feb. 26 and 27, with a 3 pm showing on Feb. 28. While some people call this a rip off of Night of the Creeps (and there are quite a few similarities), it's also a great, gory romp of a film. Watch for some great work by Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi's House ('77) is at Cinema 21 from March 1 to 4 at 9 pm. Described by Manohia Dargis of The New York Times as "Delirious, deranged, gonzo or just gone, baby, gone...", it involves seven Japanese schoolgirls visiting a haunted house. What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Case against Universal Monster remakes

On Feb. 15th, The New York Times summed up the weekend returns for The Wolfman as disappointing, but better than expected. After all, the internet had been ablaze for months with negative buzz from the fans. But absent from the article was any mention of the cause for such rumblings; the two year delay in getting the picture to the theaters, the reshoots, the last minute talks of re-scoring after multiple edits and the replacement of the original director. Yes, fans like myself were nervous, and with good cause.

Now, I won't spend time reviewing the film, as it's been done many times over in print and on the web. And while some have enjoyed it, the major consensus among horror fans seems to be one of disappointment. This was to be the film that jump started the Universal monster line, the blockbuster to bring back into the theaters the best known versions of Dracula, Frankenstein and the like.

Or, if not the creatures themselves, the style of horror Universal did so well in the 30's, a more serious, Gothic vision of horror. Movies where shadows, settings and characters were more important than simple jump scares and set piece moments.

And so, at this point, after much reflection, I think it’s time tell Universal not to try remaking these classic movies. I’m not saying to lock the monsters away in a vault, but stop try to recapture the flavor of those older films. Change the time period, the characters, bring the settings to more modern times, do whatever you think will bring the audience in. Just stop packaging the films as a return to the classic style of horror, because, quite frankly, you can't make those movies anymore. You don't know how, and even if you could, you wouldn’t want to make such a picture.

I know this is a strong statement and I expect it will upset a few fans. But allow me to present my argument over the next few posts before sharing your feelings on the subject. It’s not an easy thing to say, as I’m a big fan of these creatures. They were some of the first horror movies I saw as a kid. But as much as it pains me, I truly believe the sooner Hollywood stops trying to recapture the magic of those classics, the sooner the studios might make better movies with our favorite monsters.

They don't make movies like that anymore.....

I think part of the reason for the failure of The Wolfman is it's schizophrenic nature. Like the title character, this movie is a human drama until the moon is full. Then it becomes a furious collection of action pieces that undermines everything that came before it.

Look at the first 40 minutes or so of the movie. Up until the Lawrence Talbot's first transformation, we had a movie drenched in atmosphere. The rich settings, the dense forests, the interplay of shadow and light. Though I wished for a bit more character development, I liked the texture of the film. It felt creepy, something modern horror has forgotten in it's rush for the sensational and shocking.

Even the attack on the Gypsy camp, with the rapid pacing and increasingly gruesome violence, was unable to disturb the feeling of doom that hung around Lawrence like a smothering cloak.

But then Lawrence changes to the wolfman, and the film increases in pacing and action sequences until, finally, the audience is subjected to a climatic battle royal more in line with a Transformers movie than the preceding scenes.

Why the sudden change in tone and tempo? Because that's what Hollywood believes the audience wants in a movie. Because, even in an R-rated movie, the studio feels the ending has to be something that resembles a 12 year old's version of a comic book than an actual adult movie.

And this will be the fate of all Universal monsters should a remake trend take hold. Expect to see Frankenstein's Monster taking on hordes of villagers, throwing bodies about at dizzying speeds. Dracula will be bouncing across the walls of his castle to dodge a hailstorm of arrows let loose by Van Helsing and his crew. If you don't believe those scenarios, I suggest you revisit Universal's reboot of The Mummy. We were expecting a retelling of the classic Karloff film; what we got was a childish, forgettable video game.

Face it, old style film making is no longer practiced in Hollywood. Any hope of getting a serious Universal Monster movie has to come from outside the studio system, which likely won't happen anytime soon.

Next: The Trouble with Transformations.