Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Before Ghostface and Leslie Vernon came along, Jason rose from the grave and started poking fun at the slasher genre.  Though Friday the 13th: Jason Lives might not fit the definition as of meta-horror as we know it today, writer/director Tom McLoughlin injects the film with a sly ability to laugh at how silly the genre is while delivering on the bloody mayhem.

By the way, the next paragraph contains spoilers for the previous two Friday the 13th films.  You have been warned.

Janson really hates unmarked spoilers.

After dispatching Jason in Part IV, than being terrorized by a Jason wanna-be in Part V, Tommy Jarvis was to put on the hockey mask for this film.  However, after negative fan reactions, and a drop in the domestic box office numbers, the producers decided to bring Jason back from the grave for Part VI. 

McLoughlin disregarded the ending in Part V (a trend other films in the series were happy to follow), and opened with Tommy (Thom Mathews) driving to Jason’s grave.  His plan is to burn the killer’s corpse and bring an end to his nightmares of Jason’s return.  Aided by Allen (Welcome Back Kotter actor Ron Pallio), Tommy exhumes Jason, but instead of simply incinerating the corpse, Tommy’s anger takes over and begins stabbing at Jason’s chest with a metal rod.

Bad move, Tommy, as an inconvenient thunderstorm sends a few bolts of lightening down the makeshift lightning rod and into Jason’s chest.  As the reanimated slasher kills Allen, Tommy runs off to the nearest police station, conveniently located at Camp Crystal Lake, to warn the cops of Jason’s return.

Today's lesson is that lightning, a metal rod and a corpse
 always leads to that "Oh CRAP, HE'S ALIVE!" moment.

I guess Tommy’s councilors weren’t too good at reintroducing their clients into normal society.  To no one’s surprise, Tommy is locked up for the night, than driven out of town by the sheriff (David Kagen).  But during this time, Jason’s been trekking back to the former Camp Crystal Lake, while killing anyone he meets on his way.  As the bodies pile up, the cops figure Tommy is behind the mayhem, motivated by his desire to prove Jason is alive.  Ah, movie psychology.

Meanwhile, Tommy finds the only occult bookstore in a three state radius and formulates a plan to put Jason to rest for good.  Aided by the sheriff’s daughter, Megan (Jennifer Cooke), the pair heads back to the former Camp Crystal Lake, dodging Jason and the cops. 

Okay, we all know how this ends.  But while the basic plot remains faithful to the formula established earlier in the series, this entry not only makes fun of the franchise, but also hints that Jason’s motivation for killing might not be as simple as making teens pay for drinking, doing drugs and having sex.

Well, there's at least one drunk, drugged sex fiend in every crowd.

To start, McLoughlin’s Jason is more menacing.  He not only kills innocent victims (like the two female councilors who are doing their job and NOT partying), but also threatens children.  While it shouldn’t be a surprise that all the kids survive, the film contains two scenes where things might have ended badly for a child had circumstances not drawn Jason’s attention away from them.  By suggesting that Jason would kill children makes him a more deadly and menacing figure than previous incarnations.  No longer the punisher of hormonal transgressions (as deemed by puritanical society), Jason is now a harbinger of death to anyone trespassing in his domain.  

I suspect the MPAA's reaction to this scene involved hysterics at some point.

Another surprise is the film’s lack of nudity.  Unlike previous entries (though, to be honest, my memories of Part V are a bit hazy), no actress takes her top off during this film.  Thought the film contains a sex scene, and one unconsummated act, the moments are more chaise than some network television shows.  Whether this was a decision on director McLoughlin’s part, or fear of incurring the wrath of the MPAA, it is a bit of a shock, coming from the franchise that started the blood and boobs trend in slasher films.

But it’s McLoughlin’s injection of humor into the script, often at the expense of the slasher genre, that might have influenced future filmmakers.  Victims comment about how horror films inform them that a masked figure in the road is never a good sign, young campers wonder what they would be IF they grew up, and, most telling, a scene when one character turns to the camera and exclaims, “Some folks have a sick idea of entertainment.”  It’s quite funny, but a surprising jab at the fans of the franchise. 

Yes, the smilie face is in the movie.  I didn't say all the jokes worked.

Perhaps these moments are not as self aware as current meta-horror films, but it’s hard not to admire McLoughlin’s daring script.  Not only did he inject a sense of humor that poked fun at a beloved genre franchise, he also had the guts to question the audience’s taste in wanting Jason brought back to the screen.  And though the box office take was low (no surprise, considering the reaction to Part V), McLoughlin’s attempt to move the series in a new direction garnered a surprising amount of favorable critical response.  Had Part VII found a filmmaker daring enough to follow in his footsteps, the franchise might not be in need of a second reboot.

He's practicing on the RV.  Up next, space stations!

Monday, July 7, 2014

A PG-13 version of At the Mountains of Madness IS NOT a bad thing

As expected, the Internet is full of opinions concerning the recent announcement that Guillermo Del Toro is willing to film his long awaited version of H. P. Lovecraft's novella, At the Mountains of Madness, in a PG-13 rated version.  As I write a horror blog with a title that’s more than a bit of a wink to one of Lovecraft's more famous stories, I figure I'll weigh in on this topic as well.

Now, I can just state that I think that a PG-13 version will be just fine, but I won't make such a blanket statement without providing evidence to support that claim.  So, here are six reasons why a PG-13 version of the tale will work as well, if not better, than an R-rated film.

1) PG-13 Horror Films Can Be Scary

This might be heresy to some, but nothing says a horror films must receive an R-rating.  It just depends on the subject matter and how it is presented.  And just because a horror film is rated R does mean the film is gory.  The Blair Witch Project was rated R due to language only. 

Had the language been toned down to a PG-13 level, the film would not have lost its impact.  The filmmakers relied more on atmosphere and the threat of the unseen (themes found in Lovecraft's writing) to scare the audience and, whether you like the film or not, it’s a great example of getting more by using less.

But let’s focus on a horror film with a PG-13 rating.  Gore Verbinski’s American remake of The Ring is one of the most atmospheric and creepy horror films in recent years.  The film contained a few graphic moments, but relies more on mood to ratchet up the sense of unease, making the more horrific moments more intense than simply dumping a bunch of gore on the floor.

If you're still not convinced, just remember that Poltergeist was rated PG, with a stuffed clown that induced nightmares in kids and a few parents.  


2) An R-rating doesn't equal a scary (or even good) horror film

You might think I'm repeating myself with this one, but it's important to remember that an R-rating, and buckets of blood, does not make a horror film scary.  Or even any good.

The best way to explain this is to talk about the remake of 2008’s Prom Night, the PG-13 slasher remake.  Once the rating for this film was announced, fans of the 1980 original proclaimed the film would be a disaster without R-rated levels of gore (forgetting that the original Prom Night is not very gory and might earn a PG-13 rating today).

But, if you've seen the remake, it’s easy to realize the filmmakers could have painted the screen red with spurting blood and flung entrails, and it wouldn't have made the film any better.  Sure, a few gross out moments might make you feel a bit better about spending your time and money on an abysmally bad film, but it would still be a rotten movie.

Yep, nothing could have helped this turkey.

A horror film with graphic depictions of gore won’t make up for a bad script and poor filmmaking.  You can have both gore and scares, but once the FX crew comes in, it seems directors and studios are willing to spend more time grossing the audience out, than engrossing them with a spooky, engaging story.

3) PG-13 movies can be graphic

It might seem unlikely that a horror film could ever get a PG-13 rating, the default rating for the average studio blockbusters.  And, in a sense, the rating is more a marketing tool now, designed to give a film an adult edge, only without any real mature content.  It makes young boys and adult audience members more comfortable, assured that the film is not for kids (as a PG rating now indicates the film would be rated G were it not for the fart jokes).

In a few seconds, you'll hear the only fart-like sound in this PG rated move. 

Without going into a "When is was young,,," rant, I remember when PG movies contained blood squibs, harsh language, adult content and even brief nudity.  As movies like Jaws, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom pushed the level of acceptable violence for the PG rating, the MPAA created the PG-13 rating in 1984.  It worked pretty well, until studios started using it as a marketing tool for their summer blockbusters.

Based on the past, a PG-13 film can go into territory darker than giant robot fights, but that might depend on how the MPAA feels that day.  And we will get to that later, but first, let's talk gore.

4) Gore is becoming more acceptable

Graphic gore is becoming commonplace on television, and the best example of this is NBC's Hannibal.  During the show's two year run, viewers have seen murder victims skinned, used as brain dead mushroom fertilizer, turned into a cello, and vertically bisected several times like a gruesome science project.  This is not a cable show, but shown on a national broadcast network and as always been given a TV-14 rating. 

TV has changed.

One can argue such moments the (rather noticeable at times) lack of blood is what allows these effects to get on the air.  Still, shows like Hannibal and The Walking Dead prove that gore is becoming acceptable to mainstream audiences, the same people that might pay to see a PG-13 horror film with similar effects. 

5) Lovecraft's story isn't gory

Early in the novella, the story’s narrator and other explorers come across the dissected remains of other party members.  While quite gruesome, it is the story's only moment of gore.  The rest of Lovecraft's tale has to do with exploring a mysterious city filled with albino penguins, Shoggoths and the origins of humanity. 

As the story relies more on atmosphere than gore, it makes no sense to push the gore in one early scene to an R-rating level.  Chances are such a moment would seem gratuitous and unwarranted, but also feel out of place with the rest of the tale (unless the script deviates from the source material). 

Handled with a bit more restrain, perhaps only showing brief glimpses of the bodies during a dimly lit search of the tent, the sequence could as intense and disturbing as the flashbulb illumination of the desecrated grave and it's contents during the opening moments of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  And it would be more suited to the atmosphere Lovecraft generates in the rest of his story.

6) The MPAA might not be a problem

Most horror fans don't have a high opinion of the MPAA, with good reason.  The organization dislikes horror films with the same intensity they reserve for nudity.  So, the chance of AtMoM getting a PG-13 rating might seem a long shot, unless you remember how the MPAA works.

As pointed out in the documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the MPAA is supported by the major Hollywood studios and tends to act favorably towards their benefactors.  So, not only will the MPAA assure studio properties are rated with the studio’s target audience in mind, the organization limits the competition by making it difficult for more adult-oriented fare to get an appropriate rating (hello, NC-17).  That’s how The Expendables 3 got a PG-13 rating (despite assumptions that the violence will be the same as an R-rated version, but without CGI blood added), yet movies like The Kings of Summer (an indie film released last year) was rated R strictly for language.

All del Toro has to do is find a way to include a scene like this in the film.
The MPAA will freak out and allow anything else to stay in, as long as Eva Green's breast is out of the picture. 

Now, back to the point.  A $120 million dollar version of AtMoM will not be an independent feature, but a studio backed film.  And, as the MPAA loathes biting the hand stuffing its wallet, del Toro should be able to get a pretty graphic scene into a PG-13 rated film.  Sure, he might have to trim a couple of frames in a few spots, but those concessions will all the MPAA to maintain the illusion of doing its job.  And it’s doubtful such excised footage will change the impact of the film, or any individual scene, in any noticeable way.

I think a PG-13 version of At the Mountains of Madness will work.  And though I’m hopeful he pulls this one off, we can’t forget that del Toro has only started discussion the project with a studio.  Between now and whatever release date gets announced, a multitude of other factors will determine whether fans get to see a big screen Lovecraft adaptation or not.  All we can do is hope the stars will align.