Monday, December 31, 2012

The Boogens (1981)

1981 was a banner year for horror fans.  First, we were inundated with over a dozen slasher flicks, including genre classics such as Halloween II, The Burning, The Prowler, My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th, Part 2.  The year also included future classics like The Howling, The Evil Dead, An American Werewolf in London and The Beyond, so it’s no surprise a little monster movie called The Boogens became lost in all the cinematic mayhem.  But the film developed a following and is now out on DVD for the first time. 

The film opens recounting the tale of a sliver mine that was closed a hundred years ago after a devastating tunnel collapse.  The sole survivor said the miners that survived the cave in were attacked by something living in the tunnels, though his claims were disputed and he was taken to an asylum. 
Now a company wants to reopen the mine and has hired two recent college graduates, Mark and Roger, two recent college graduates, to help.  Mark is looking for a break before entering the job market, while Roger just wants to spend the winter with his girlfriend, Jessica, and take advantage of the nearby skiing resorts. 

Traveling with Jessica is her friend Trish, another recent graduate with a job waiting for her in the area, and Jessica’s dog Tiger.  They all plan to spend the winter in a house the guys rented and are moving into that night.

Upon blasting open the tunnel, the crew finds a subterranean lake and the remains of the missing miners, little more than a scattered pile of bones.  But they don’t know that the tunnels are connected to several houses in the area (of course, all old houses in a mining town have tunnels leading into the basement, right?) and the night after the blast, Mark and Roger’s landlady is attacked in the house as she gets it ready for them to move in the next day.

Toss in a clichéd harbinger of doom, several revelations (such as Mark finally figuring out the skeletal remains are a disordered pile, not the bones of people that died of starvation or oxygen deprivation) and a very slow revel of the Boogens and this movie becomes a rarity for the early 80s, one that spends more time building characters than wallowing in mayhem every few minutes.

But the slow build works in the film’s favor.  The limited cast of characters/victims are developed beyond standard horror clichés (except for the harbinger) and they all are likable.  The script avoids writing any characters that would lead the audience to root for their demise, so as the cast dwindles in the final act, the audience is left rooting for all of them to survive.

The script isn’t perfect, and contains some clunky dialog, but writers David O”Malley and Bob Hunt deliver a very tight script.  The acting is quite good, surprising given the low budget for the production.  And the filmmakers were very lucky to find animal trainer Karin McElhatton.  As with the husky in John Carpenter’s The Thing, Tiger has enough personality to become a member of the cast, not just a token dog.  Yes, the pooch is that good.

The only disappointment is when the Boogens are reveled, which director James L. Conway keeps saves until the film’s final eight minutes.  And it’s easy to see why, as the Boogens look like a cheap Gamara knockoff and an earlier revel would defuse any tension.  But by showing only glimpses of claws and tentacles for most of the film, Conway keeps the tension high, and earns enough good will to keep you involved until the end of the film.

The DVD release is rather bare bones.  Though the transfer isn’t cleaned up much, OliveFilms found a great print to work with and the transfer looks pretty good.  The only special feature is a commentary with director Conway, screenwriter David O’Malley and actress Rebecca Balding, but it’s one of the best I’ve heard in a while.  Equal parts good-natured reminiscing and a reveling look at the pitfalls of making a low budget film, the commentary track is lively and never drags.  OliveFilms should be commended for putting in the effort to deliver a feature more special than a simple transfer of the trailer.

It might not a rapid paced, blood soaked slasher, but The Boogens has enough charm and energy to make it a lost classic.  And OliveFilms delivers a DVD worth the expense.  Fans of the film will be quite pleased, as will any horror fan that decides to check this one out.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Piranha DD (2012)

Alexandre Aja’s 2010 remake of Piranha was no cinematic masterpiece, but it was grand fun.  Chocked full of gratuitous (female) nudity and jaw dropping gore, the movie captured the frantic energy of the low budget features that filled in the slots between the blockbuster seasons during the 80s.  So when Piranha DD was announced, the filmmaker’s promise to top the prior version seemed unachievable.  But falling short of Aja’s maniacal mix of blood and boobs is the least of this sequel’s problems.  

If you saw the preview, you know the plot.  The piranhas survive an eradication program in Lake Victoria (the lake in the Aja film) and find their way into an adult themed waterpark.  Of course, mayhem ensues, shotgun legs are fired and someone learns how to swim in the nick of time.  And, as expected, another sequel is set up in the closing minutes.

Movies like this don’t need a great plot, or even to make sense, in order to be fun.  Aja’s Piranha contained stereotypical characters and clichéd dialog, but wrapped these elements with gory deaths, lots of female flesh and a show stopping assault on a massive spring break party.  This type of film works because, once the plot is set in motion, the story moves at a relentless pace, barely giving the audience a chance to breathe. 

Piranha DD fails to match both the energy and spectacle of the previous film.  For starts, the gore effects are rather tame, lacking the successive over-the-top moments that peppered Aja’s film.  Though one scene (hinted at in the trailer) will have viewers of both sexes cringing, most of the gore is limited to bloody water and floating body parts and the film suffers for not matching the original.

While a rushed production schedule and ultra low budget could account for the lackluster gore, Piranha DD has deeper problems.  The script by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan and Joel Soisson, is flat and fails to deliver on the mayhem.  The script has a few attacks leading to the invasion of the waterpark, but the scenes aren’t exciting and fail to build in intensity.  And once the fish enter the waterpark, director John Gulager can’t find any way to generate excitement, which isn’t a surprise as all the victims need do is get out of the pool.  No sinking platforms or boats to be trapped upon, no frantic swim for yards to reach the shore, and no water vehicle/victim interaction.  Gulager is limited to countless shots of people running out of the pool, as any sense of isolation from safety is removed by the setting.

Gulager does attempt to match Aja’s parade of topless women, but his direction is rather dull and uninspired.  While Aja delivered several moments that looked more artful than lecherous, director John Gulager seems content to leer through his lens, neutering his film by delivering the same fratboy viewpoint that horror fans have seen since the 80s slasher craze.

As for the acting, it’s pretty good for this type of film, especially David Hasselhoff’s self-parodying performance.  He’s such fun to watch, he outshines the mayhem and nudity at times, which is not good in a horror film that promises to, “Double the action.  Double the terror.  Double the D’s.” 

Yet even The Hoff’s performance can’t elevate this to the level of a decent time waster on a rainy Saturday afternoon.  You’d be better off watching Aja’s remake or John Gulager’s first film, Feast, if you’re looking for cheap, cheesy fun during the winter months.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hell Night (1981)

Pray for the end of this film is the more apt tagline.  Coming on the heels of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Hell Night fails to generate any suspense or gore, resulting in a dull, overly long slasher film.

The film takes place during Hell Night at a college, as four pledges (including Linda Blair and Vincent Van Pattern) are locked into a mansion with a horrid history (including mutant births and murder) as part of their initiation.  Of course, the frat president and his flunkies plan to scare the pledges with some lame haunted house antics, but everyone soon discovers that someone living in the house doesn’t tolerate unexpected guests.

As with most slasher films, you don’t expect much in the way of plot, just an isolated location with enough victims to keep the kills coming on a regular basis.  But director Tom DeSimone and writer Randy Feldman can’t stop messing up this simplest formula, as their film ends up wasting over 100 minutes with pointless character development, stupid scares and endless scenes of people moving down assorted hallways, garden paths and tunnels. 

The ways this duo are able to bungle the slasher formula are surprising.  For starts, the body count is incredible low.  Sure, Halloween only had four onscreen deaths, but that film had style and atmosphere.  As the slasher genre got into full swing, most films made up for such shortcoming by including more frequent and violent deaths.  But DeSimone and Feldman missed that memo.  To be fair, the first kill is a spectacular beheading (possibly trimmed for the MPAA), but the mayhem devolves as the film goes on, until the deaths take place off screen.  Not a smart movie for a fillm released more than a year after the original Friday the 13th.

A low body count means fewer main characters, so rather than spread out screen time getting to superficially know multiple victims, we end up spending too much time with four very dull characters.  The rich guy whines about being part of a wealthy family, the underprivileged gal complains about what she has to do become a sorority member, and the horny, drug-fueled couple try to be sympathetic victims.  Rather than giving the audience disposable stereotypes for a few moments before they are slaughtered, the script tries to make these characters likable.  Rather than giving the audience disposable stereotypes for a few minutes before they’re killed, the script tries to flesh the characters out, but only makes them more annoying.

But the filmmaker’s most egregious error involves Linda Blair’s portrayal of the worst Final Girl ever filmed.  It’s easy to criticize Blair for this one, as she’s not a good actor (her performance earned her the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress that year), yet no other actor could have done any better.  The script forces Blair to whine, shriek and hide behind her potential romantic interest for over 90 minutes, before she is forced to stand up to the killer.  Yet even than, shear luck is the predetermining factor in her survival, as she “takes out” the killer while screaming in a car that must be on autopilot, as Blair’s hands are everywhere but on the steering wheel.  It feels screenwriter Feldman fashioned his character after a heroine from a 50s horror movie, and only bothered to try and create a Final Girl in the script’s last pages.

Trimming about 15 to 20 minutes off the running time might have helped by tightening things up.  Yet editor Anthony DiMarco (using the name Tony Di Marco, a pseudonym common to his work in less “prestigious” films like Chained Heat and The Giant Claw) appears to have been content to just paste scenes together using as much footage as possible.  Or maybe director DeSimone wouldn’t allow any of his footage to end up on the cutting room floor.  Either way, the film lurches between some fairly suspenseful scenes and long, tedious moments that destroy any suspense generated earlier in the film. 

I could go on, but Hell Night took up enough of my life.  Unless you need to see Blair’s heaving bosom filling out a dress more suited for a gothic Hammer tale, this film is the cinematic equivalent of a razor blade filled apple in a slasher fan’s trick or treat bag, and should to be avoided at all costs.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How I can be a horror fan in such horrific times

Today started off like any other Sunday.  I watched a couple of horror films with some friends on Synchtube, then went off for brunch and a couple of beers.  Hey, it's my day off and it was 5 o'clock somewhere.  Don't be judging me.

But my pleasant day was ruined by the reports of another shooting, this time at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  Seven dead, three wounded, including a police officer responding to the attack.  I've heard lots of other details, but feel it's too early to comment on them now.  Instead, I plan to take a moment after writing this to offer my thoughts and prayers to the families of those killed today, and all those affected by this horrific act.  Then I have to get on with my daily life, including the mundane task of doing laundry and dishes, and be thankful that my family is safe and sound in their homes.

And I'll probably end the evening with a nice little horror film in the DVD player.

I know a few people will question that final choice.  After all, reveling in violence and mayhem is just feeding into the beast, fueling the fires that drive people to commit such heinous acts against others.  That's what the MPAA is protecting us from, right?  Or else, I must be one of THOSE people, with a lot of tattoos, unkempt hair and a proclivity to worship the devil.

Well, wrong on both counts.  And it will be cathartic for me to tell you why.

Let's take on the latter subject.  I'm 51 years old, with a clean shave scalp and no tattoos.  I don't worship the devil and my music preference swings towards jazz and blues.  Not your typical horror fan, I'll grant you.  But more fans like me exist than people would like to believe.  And even the ones that might look like Rob Zombie are normal people, just like everyone else.  We worry about our families, our jobs and the people affected by violent acts like the ones that occurred today in Wisconsin, or the shooting in Colorado a couple weeks ago.  We love our pets, we love children and we are happy to donate to worthy charities.  We are like everyone else, though our tastes and appearance might suggest otherwise.  And those, like me, who look "normal" in our everyday lives, express our love for the genre in other ways.  For example, my room is a house of horrors in progress.  The more stuff I get, the more warped it becomes, and I like it.

The sad thing is, the people involved in crimes like the one today all tend to look like me.  Clean cut, short hair, no visible tattoos.  They don't look like the horror fan stereotype most people expect.  The perpetrators of these crimes look like everyone else, only with a bubbling pocket of hate hidden deep within them.  They are the monsters we all fear, horror and non-horror fans alike, the creatures that hide in polite society before striking out.

Which brings me to the idea that such horrific images must warp one's mind, driving people to unspeakable acts of violence.  But that is far from the truth.

If I was to say that horror is inspired by such acts, I wouldn't be lying, though one might take it the wrong way.  Horror is inspired by people like Ted Bundy, Ed Guin and such, but fans and filmmakers aren't seeking to commit such atrocities in real life.  We look for them upon the screen, in the pages of books, and expect the artist involved to make sense out of such madness.  Or, in the case of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, among others, revel that any attempt to find a reason or motivation is fruitless.  Madness can have a reason, as Clarice Starling discovered in The Silence of the Lambs, or it can try and enforce it's own logic on a world that tries to act sane.  Regardless of a motivation, it exists in the world and all the power of logic and reason cannot dispel it's shadow.

If you need further proof, look at the creators of such nightmares.  Stephen King, who's novels have fueled nightmares in the general reading public, is a rather pleasant man, someone who depreciates the value of his autographed books by going into an airport and signing all the books he can find.  John Landis is seldom interviewed without a smile on his face, as is Joe Dante, Eli Roth and George Romero, among others.  And when these people are serious about their works, it's more about how they reflect a disturbing (to them) trend in society, rather than about the violence.

As for the creators of on screen mayhem, again, watch any interview with the likes of Tom Savini or Greg Nicotero, among others.  Like a magician, these artists are more excited about pulling off an illusion, leaving fans to wonder how it was done, not how to replicate it in reality.  These people are not trying to inspire acts of violence, but attempting to fool the audience into seeing things that would never, or should never, take place in the real world.

But perhaps my final point is the most salient.  Unlike action films, where the solution to an evil plot is often found in an absurd amount of spent ammunition within the final act (at least until the inevitable sequel), most modern works of horror offer no such final resolution.  The final frames of a horror film, or the last sentence of a horror novel, often show struggle of good over evil is never over.  Something stronger is at work, a power that will resist the attempts of humanity to extinguish it.  We can lessen it's power, we can weaken it and keep it at bay, but the evil will never be vanquished.  In short, horror fans know no absolute solution is possible.  Even destroying the earthly remains of the villain can give no assurance that the evil is gone forever.

A rather nihilistic world view, perhaps, but one more grounded in reality than the fantasies of an action thriller.  Horror fans know the root cause of evil, whether a maleficent force or the simple greed within mankind, will never be extinguished.  And, while we might mourn the senseless loss of life that occurred today, as we have countless times before, horror fans accept that no silver bullet, no stake through the heart, will keep the evil from returning to haunt us.

But it's the battle against such forces, not the victories, that horror fans celebrate.  While action films promote the idea that we can overcome such forces, horror fans revel in the determination of the human spirit to fight a losing battle against such evil.  The hero of a horror movie isn't a person armed with the proper weapons or allies to defeat evil, but an ordinary human making a stand against extraordinary forces.  Even if they fail, such acts define humanity better than a Rambo-esque soldier.

So let the latex flesh tear and the Karo blood flow.  To me, horror is not just a thrill ride or magician's trick.  Sure, those elements come into play, but it's a cathartic experience as well.  Because while Laurie Stroud will never defeat Michael Meyers, her struggle against that black force gives me hope that, for a while, we might keep the monsters at bay.  And that's really the best we can hope for.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Everyone needs to stop politicizing last night's tragedy in Colorado

Judging by the response on the Internet, most everyone is aware of last night's shooting at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. And people are expressing their opinions on how this tragedy might have been prevented. I've read from both sides of the gun debate, a senator claiming this was the result of the "war on Christianity," and a few others talking about violence in the media. And every news outlet are interviewing any "expert" willing to blab about the killer's motivation.

So, I figure I should weigh in with my opinion. Hey, I'm on the Internet, I have a blog site, so I can say whatever is on my mind at the moment.

And it's my opinion that everyone needs to shut the F@#$ up.

This shooting was a tragedy, not an opportunity to express your political beliefs. So before you hit the keyboards, or jump at the opportunity to appear on television, think about how little your opinion really matters compared to what happened last night.

Think about the twelve families awaken last night with the news that a loved one was killed in a random, brutal and senseless act. And how those families will have to face that loss every day for the rest of their lives.

Think about the people who felt a bullet rip into them, scarring them forever. And think of how their families raced to the hospital, praying the wounds inflicted upon their son/daughter/husband/wife/parent/partner would not result in death.

And think about how everyone in that theater will remember the screening, as a nightmare full of tear gas, bullets and terror.

Last night wasn't a political opportunity for those people. And it shouldn't be for you, either. So just shut up.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Bagdad's unlucky Friday the 13th

Horror fans were treated to a bit of bad luck last night, if they attended The Bagdad Theater's screening of Friday the 13th, Part 3 in 3D. A combination of poor staffing and a subpar presentation was enough to give even the most forgiving audience member a bit of a headache.

For starts, the film started 45 minutes late. So, if you bought your ticket early, grabbed your snacks and got in your seat before the movie was scheduled to begin, you could have spent over one hour waiting for the lights to dim and the movie to start. All you could do was wait, talk with your friends (unless you attended the screening alone) and watch the endless ads for various McMenamin locations and events.

It wasn't a problem with the staff that caused the delay, but rather, the lack of people working in the theater. Tickets could not be purchased in advance, so you had to wait until the doors opened at 7:30 pm to be admitted. The front of house staff consisted of one ticket taker, one guy handing out glasses and three overworked snack bar attendants. The second bar for beer and snacks was closed. And the line was stretched around the block.

Perhaps they weren't expecting such a crowd, but it was 8 pm on Friday the 13th, and this is a movie celebrating the day. And anyone with any familiarity with the genre offerings around Portland should know that we'll turn out en masse for just about anything. So someone at The Bagdad underestimated the crowd, yet it looked like the second bar had recently closed. It would have made more sense to keep the second bar open until everyone was in their seats, rather than assume no one would turn up for this film. Bad move on the part of The Bagdad management team, but the people working were great, so don't blame them!

The second problem was more with the film itself. Or, the digital presentation of the film. We all know theaters are moving to digital projection, as most studios are foregoing 35mm presentations and moving into the digital age. And I'm not going to complain about that. It's going to happen, whether I like it or not, so better to enjoy the screenings of obscure genre films in any format. But for 80s 3D movies, this is a big problem.

I'm not a tech geek, so here's a VERY brief summation of the process. In the 80s 3D revival, only one camera was used to process a 3D image. In the 50s, 3D images were created using two cameras, and two projectors were needed to show the images. Any misalignment, whether from the projectors or an audience's members head positioning, lead to "ghosting" or multiple images "appearing" on screen.

The single camera process reduced that shadowing. By capturing the two images needed for 3D imaging in one camera, it allowed one projector (with the proper lens) to present the image to the audience. Using cheap polarized lens glasses, the audience was treated to a crisper, cleaner 3D experience. Maybe not as good as the digital images presented in theaters now, but much better than the experience through the red and green lens glasses.

But the single camera image (known as over/under) can not be translated to digital imagery. But red/green 3D can, so when I saw the screen flash a Blu-ray mode signal, I knew this presentation would be nothing like the version I was back in 1982.

And it wasn't. Hell, I could could have stayed home and watched the DVD version of the film.

Look, I don't care what the staff at McMenamins might say. I was there in '82 and the 35mm version is far superior to the digital copies. And somewhere, in all the publicity, the audience should have been told this would be a digital presentation.

I know it won't matter for some. But we should be told all the facts about the movie we're seeing, especially if it's a film made prior to the digital age. If you plan to show a digital copy, that's fine. But some of us might prefer a 35mm print, and we have the right to know what we're going to see before we buy our ticket and sit down in the theater. And we might surprise you, and show up anyway.

But we deserve to know in advance, especially in Portland. Any city that wants it's food labelled non-GMO deserves to have revival films labeled "non-35mm."

As for films starting 45 minutes late, well, you really need to work on that.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Goodbye, Ray Bradbury

Hey all. I will have your horror calendar to you tomorrow, if all goes well, but today I have to share some sad news. Ray Bradbury, died yesterday at the age of 91.

I'm sure many of you are aware of this, as it's been over the Internet since this morning. Yet many of the news articles flooding the web are rather short sighted. Calling Bradbury as science fiction or fantasy writer might be the only way a news organization can identify him, but the man's work was so much more than simply fantastic tales. Bradbury was an artist, his works creating a world for the reader to explore. His writing allowed one to see the Martian landscape, smell the smoke from burning books or indulge in a deep drink of dandelion wine.

But we will always have his books. What the world lost yesterday was a teacher who reminded us that, no matter how adult the world forces us to behave, one must still find time to allow us a moment of childlike wonder, whether through a book, a movie, or the rustling of autumn leaves on a dark October evening. To deny ourselves that sense of bewilderment, joy or fright, we allow our world to become drab and lifeless.

So I bid farewell to a man I never met, yet he taught me to find a place in my life for dinosaurs, aliens and creatures of the night, even as an adult. RIP, Ray Bradbury. You leave the world a little duller, but taught us all how to keep it bright and colorful. For that, I can not thank you enough.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Skip Burton’s Frankenweenie remake and watch ParaNorman instead

Fans will have the chance to see two horror themed stop-motion features later this year. And you won’t have to choose between them, as the films will be released about two months apart. But, if you’re only willing to see one family stop motion film this summer, I suggest you skip the remake and take a chance on the newcomer.

Let’s talk about Frankenweenie first. Scheduled for an October 5 release, this is director Tim Burton’s remake of his 1984 short film. As if you couldn’t guess that by the trailer.

It’s disappointing, as Frankenweenie looks like every other movie Burton has released in the past several years. Is the hero rather pale and pasty looking? Check. Bunch of Burton’s favorite actors lending their voices? Check. Did Danny Elfman compose the music? Check! Does the film have a gothic atmosphere? Double check! The only thing missing are the voices of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, though I’m sure there’s time to fit them in before October.

Look, I’m not saying Frankenweenie will be a bad film. But Burton’s been playing it safe since Mars Attacks! and Planet of the Apes bombed. He’s had a few flashes of brilliance since, but most of his films look and feel similar, with a plot depicting a pale faced, misunderstood protagonist and his struggle to be accepted by the “normal” world. The only difference here is that Burton seems to have given up any pretensions of originality and is content on remaking his previous work, rather than trying to jam the same tired story into another franchise.

So, if you plan to see just one stop-motion feature this year, consider buying a ticket to ParaNorman instead. The second feature from Laika, the stop-motion studio behind Coraline, is scheduled for release on August 17 and the trailer looks great.

Okay, we’ve got the misunderstood protagonist, but at least he’s not pasty looking. And we have a fair share of bathroom humor, standard to any modern family feature. And lessons on tolerance, acceptance and being true to one’s self will be learned. But the film also delivers ghosts, witches and zombies! Oh my!!

The film looks like it’s trying to be scary. The zombies appear to be biting people, and the trailer includes a decapitated zombie head, a zombie losing an ear, along with some very spooky moments. In case you’ve forgotten, Coraline had some very frightening moments as well, with images some people considered more appropriate for a PG-13 rated feature.

But ParaNorman also has a sense of humor aimed at horror fans of all ages. Norman’s ringtone, the scene of a hockey-masked figure amongst billowing laundry and the Abbott and Costello meets Frankenstein-like approach (in which the monsters are scary while the people’s reactions are funny) all points to a few genre fans being involved with the production. This looks like the perfect film for the modern horror family, no matter how old you might be.

Judging a film by the trailer is perilous, but I suggest you check out ParaNorman. No reason you can’t see both, but if you end up missing Frankenweenie, don’t worry. I’m sure Burton’s got another film coming out soon that’s just like it.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Caught The Hunger Games last night, and though I know it's not horror, just had to post a few thoughts on this world wide phenomenon.

Oh, maybe not world wide, as it appears Wrath of the Titans cleaned up outside of the domestic market. I won't say I'm surprised, because while The Hunger Games is quite good, it's just not that good. The film has some serious flaws and feels about 20-30 minutes too long.

Now, I'm not going to compare the film to Battle Royale, as other sites have made the comparisons. Nor am I getting into the visions of The Running Man that flashed through my head during one of the more listless moments in the film. Come on, an innocent person, thrown into a game to the death, inspires the flames of revolution is an oft told story. This version simply didn't have over the top hunters and the presence of Arnold.

And I'm dispensing with a plot summery, as I suspect anyone reading my blog probably knows it by now. But I will issue a spoiler alert, as I will discuss some things not in the trailer, so be warned. And please, don't tell me about the book, as I haven't read it. I'm just talking about the movie, so any complaints that reference to the book I will have to ignore. I just saw the movie and that's what I'm writing about.

Let's start off with what worked. First off, Jennifer Lawrence was amazing. I don't think the film could be a strong as it was without her. Also, her more seasoned costars (Banks, Sutherland, Tucci) were outstanding as well. Her romantic interests, well, not as good, but they and the rest of the young cast did a fine job.

Second, director Gary Ross did some outstanding work. His use of silence during several scenes was amazing, and he gave Lawrence to opportunity to deliver an emotion gut punch during those scenes. And I really enjoyed how Ross let the action tell the story, rather than relying on worthless exposition to tell the audience what it should know by the character's behavior. And I will be forever grateful for not being exposed to a soundtrack designed to sell CDs/downloads/whatever, rather than tracks suitable for the film.

But the movie was a bit too long, as a few moments could have been trimmed down or excised. For example, unless the subplot about Katniss' father comes back in a later movie, the scenes surrounding his death seemed underdeveloped and more like filler than a driving force in the narrative. Additionally, some of the moments when Katniss and Peeta are exposed to the good life before the game could have been shortened without losing anything but running time.

Had that been the only problem, I might have enjoyed the film more. But the fact that the basic premise made no sense was a big stumbling block to me. Yes, I understand that the Hunger Games was enacted as punishment for the 12 districts revolting against the main government. Still, after 70 something years of feeding their children into a gladiator game, the idea that no one thought about open revolt until now is unrealistic. One would expect some kind of resistance force to form after such a long history of oppression, even if their attempts failed.

Also, the film tries so hard to keep Katniss from becoming a killer that I started to wonder why I should be rooting for her. I know the story had a fine line to walk, as the plot involves kids becoming killers for sport, but it goes to absurd lengths to show that Katniss isn't evil, it dilutes the concept of her as a hero. The most glaring moment (SPOILER ALERT) is at the end of the film, when Cato is about to snap Peeta's neck. Instead of putting an arrow in his face (which would be fine, as Cato is presented as the villain of the Games and he's going to kill Peeta to spite her), she shots him in the hand, allowing Peeta to free himself and push Cato into the pack of mutant dogs below them.

Okay, first off, shooting Cato in the hand would only serve to present him and Peeta as toothpicked sausages to the dogs, as her arrow would pass through Cato's hand, Peeta's neck and into Cato's chest. Second, given the skill Katniss displays with a bow, a simple head shot would have been easy and achieved the same results. By trying to keep Katniss from outright killing someone, the script made her weaker as a hero. Cato not only had to die, he deserved to die and if Katniss isn't willing to step up and take action against the bad guy, I don't give the rebel forces I suspect she will lead in the sequels much of a chance. And, don't get me wrong, I deplore when films let male heroes not kill off the bad guy as well (don't get me started on Road House). When it's obvious the villain needs to die, yet the hero is reluctant to do it just to remind us they are not evil, the screenwriters have let the character down.

And let's talk about Peeta's rock make up. Good stuff, but I want to know how he was able to apply it with no materials and no mirror. Yes, the moment was set up earlier in the film (and the script made it obvious his skills would show up later in the film), but it's doubtful he could have done such work in the woods, without supplies, and while dealing with a massive sword wound, no less.

It's obvious why American audiences are taken with The Hunger Games. It's the us against them film of the decade, the elite verse the working class, the 1% against the 99%, and people really want to see the top tier fall. But despite some shining moments, the glaring plot holes, unexplored subplots and a very weak climax hobbled the film. And while I'm curious to see where the story goes from here, I just hope the filmmakers do right by Katniss in the sequel.

Horror fans need to stop whining and go see The Cabin in the Woods and Piranha 3DD

If you can’t tell by the headline, I’m tired of my fellow horror fans bitching about the sorry state of the genre. Over the past decade, boards have been filled with criticisms about the state of horror, most of it directed at the terrible remakes of classic horror films, and the heavy use by studios of the PG-13 rating. And while exceptions exist (the American version of The Ring was pretty damn scary), I agree that most current horror films are timid, rather stupid, and tend to destroy iconic characters in a misguided attempt to modernize genre classics.

Yet, when a film Piranha 3D delivers everything horror fans claim to want, the film tanks. We could debate the reasons why, but it doesn’t matter. As studios and theater owners are looking to make money, both will be reluctant to try another genre film with an R rating if others underperform when PG-13 horror keeps drawing a bigger audience.

So this summer, I suggest horror fans take the opportunity to assure studios and theater owners that R-rated genre films can be profitable. It’s not hard to do. Just get off your couch, go to your local cinema, pay for a ticket, and see both The Cabin in the Woods and Piranha 3DD on opening weekend. Yes, both of them. It might be our best chance to get R-rated horror back into theaters.

First, let’s talk about sending a message to the studios. Your PAID admission will cast a vote for future R-rated horror flicks. Hollywood only pays attention to films that make money and as most horror films don’t require a huge budget, a modest audience can generate a healthy profit for the studios. But just watching the film isn’t enough if you don’t pay the studios to see it. Hollywood executives don’t care what you watch from Redbox or other rental outlets, as you are not fattening their wallet. And we all know what they think of illegal downloading.

Of course, once a few films are successful, the market will be flooded with R-rated horror films, resulting in a decrease in quality and a case of bad movie burnout. This will lead to decreasing revenues and prompt studios moving on to the next hot trend. It happened to slasher genre back in the 80s, as it will happen to the current YA craze. But having R-rated horror films premiering on a regular basis will be fun while it lasts, and might produce some new classics for us to savor during the dry years.

But studio owners aren’t the only ones that will pay attention to a surge in the R-rated horror audience. Theater owners continue to suffer terrific losses as attendance continues to drop. And many are wary of studio promises, as the 3D craze has started to wane, leaving theaters shouldering expensive upgrades for decreasing returns. A larger audience for R-rated horror could generate more money for theater owners and lead to an increased willingness to screen more genre fare.

To see how this could work, we need to discuss how a theater makes money during a film’s theatrical run. Ticket revenue is split between the studio and the theater, but like Vegas, always favors the studio. According to a 2002 report by, studios receives 70 to 80% of total admission revenue during the first weeks of a film’s release, though other articles place the figure as high as 90%. That’s why visiting the concession stand feels like highway robbery, as those snacks account for most of a theater’s income.

Theater owners do get a bigger slice of ticket revenues the longer a film stays in the screen, which fuels the desire for blockbuster films. A big opening weekend increases a studio’s odds of recouping the cost of a film, while theater owners benefit from a film that will continue to draw a crowd weeks after the initial release, when their split of ticket revenues increases.

This sliding scale is the reason the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) is rallying against the idea of early VOD and home market release dates. The sooner a family can see a film from their couch, the less likely they are to visit a theater after a film opens. And, as reported during last year’s Cinemacon, tensions are high between NATO and studios concerning this point. Though theater owners have won several skirmishes, the eventual outcome doesn’t look good for their side.

Also, the split is the reason films don’t get the time to build an audience through word of mouth. Theater owners need to keep the audience coming and are thus unwilling to risk screening a movie that underperforms. And I suspect it’s why major blockbusters occupy several screens in a multiplex on opening weekend, as theater owners are trying to ensure long lines at the concession stand, their main source of revenue.

But Cabin and Piranha 3DD might generate more money for theater owners, as their share of opening week ticket revenue might be higher. While the studios control the sliding scale, I suspect theater owners will get more revenue for several reasons.

First, the studios have less invested in a low budget film. To give you some perspective, the combined budgets for Piranha 3DD and Cabin is about one-fifth the estimated budget for The Avengers. And that doesn’t include advertising or other promotional costs, where I suspect both films have been outspent by a large margin. With less money on the line, the studios don’t need a massive opening weekend, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that theaters get a larger cut of the ticket revenue.

Second, no one has expectations to bring in a large audience. Neither film contains actors with box office drawing power or a build in audience. Okay, Piranha 3DD is a sequel, but to an underperforming film that barely made back its budget. And while Cabin has Joss Whedon’s name behind it, no one really knows if his fan base will go see an R-rated horror film. Studios might use a larger share of the revenues as enticement for theater owners to screen the films.

If the studios increase the revenues theaters receive from opening ticket sales, a sizable audience for Cabin and Piranha 3DD could generate more money for theater owners than a massive blockbuster, especially if concession sales are taken into account. With enough such successes, theater owners might be more willing to screen R-rated horror films, which could open up a market for independent horror films as well. As many of these films are made on a small budget, owners could see increased revenues for opening weekend sales and, if the audience continues to be large enough, theaters might open up more screens for these smaller releases.

So get off the couch and cast a vote for R-rated horror films by seeing The Cabin in the Woods and Piranha 3DD at the theater this summer. Who knows, you might actually enjoy them. But if you stay at home and wait for the torrent file to show up online, or spend money on a VOD source, I don’t want to hear you gripe about the state of horror ever again.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Trailer Review: Dark Shadows

Okay, as most of you know, the trailer for the latest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film, Dark Shadows, premiered last weekend. And, if you read yesterday's post, you know I'm not that thrilled with it. Okay, I'm rather pissed off, but before we get into why I'm so angry, here's the trailer.

I hope fans of the original series weren't expecting a serious treatment of the story, like the TV revival in the late 80s, because you won't be getting that. Instead, it appears Burton and Depp are intent on driving a stake through our hearts this summer.

Okay, for the first few minutes, the film looks pretty good. As Barnabas Collins explains how he was cursed by a jealous witch and become a vampire, the trailer delivers a great Gothic setting and some slightly overblown moments keeping with the campy feel of the original. Imprisoned in a coffin for two hundred years, Barnabas is eventually unearthed, prompting his deceased fiancee (now a ghost) to begin chanting, "He's coming."

I must admit, the Haunted Mansion look of the apparition should have triggered a warning. But it's the moment when Barnabas springs out of his coffin and spreads his arms that things started going wrong.

And the trailer keeps getting worse.

Oh, where do I begin? Is it the horrid soundtrack, including Superfly and Bang a Gong?!? Just what was Burton thinking?!?!?!? Or maybe it was the disco ball hanging in Collinwood, or Angelique reveling her ageless cleavage as part of her master plan to seduce Barnabas. And let's not get into the horrid CGI chains wrapping around Barnabas before he's entombed, while Angelique drops her panties over his face. Arrgh!

Okay, have to stop or else my brain will explode.

I guess portraying Barnabas as a fish out of water might be good for a few laughs, and one suspects the filmmakers were trying to capture some of the humor from The Addams Family films. But it appears Burton and company forgot one small factor that made Barry Sonnenfeld's films work, which was never to mock the characters or the source material.

The Addams Family films worked because the humor didn't come at the expense of the Addams, but from their eccentricities and their interactions with the mundane world. Dark Shadows, on the other hand, seems to be aiming for a spoof on the caliber of The Naked Gun series. Which would be fine if the film was based upon original characters and situations, rather than a show still treasured by fans. The trailer makes Burton's treatment akin to a prolonged, two hour taunting from an obnoxious bully. And I'm sure most horror fans dealt with enough of that in our youths, so we don't need Burton mocking us once again.

As for setting his film in the 70s, the only reason seems to be a desire to have Barnabas host a disco party at Collinwood. That, and to use music from the decade. How much do you want to bet that the soundtrack cue will be Disco Inferno when Angelique mutters, "Burn, baby, burn," as she torches the Collins Canning Factory?

As for Depp, I expected to see him slathered in pale makeup once again (it must be in the contract anytime he works with Burton). But, as his work in Sweeney Todd indicates, Depp could have pulled off a brooding, angry Barnabas Collins, no matter the amount of pale pancake applied to his face. Yet, he's falling back into his Captain Jack Sparrow act once again, complete with buffoonish reactions and line delivery. "I must admit, they have not aged a day," is not what Barnabas would say to the witch who turned him into a vampire and imprisoned him for centuries, no matter how eternal her bosom may appear.

This film will isolate the fan base expecting a serious treatment, though I suspect it will make a ton of money. Some of the comments on the web indicate that people aren't familiar with the original Dark Shadows and assume the campy attitude is a direct reflection of the show. That help the film find an audience, but Dan Curtis and his team didn't set out to make a camp classic. The show feels campy because of the soap opera format and the pressures of making a half hour show every day of the week (the original 5 year run contains 1,225 episodes, more than Doctor Who or the complete Star Trek franchise). And, to be honest, four decades have passed since the show left the air, and what might have taken seriously in the 60s could seem dated and campy to a modern audience.

Still, it's no excuse for this mockery of a movie. While such a treatment might sit well with a younger audience unfamiliar with the original, it's sacrilege to the fans who anticipated a more serious treatment of Dark Shadows on the big screen.