The Best and Worst of 2012

It’s Christmas Eve once again and time to “wrap up” the year in entertainment.

On the Television Screen

I was relieved to see Dexter come roaring back after last year’s ridiculous storyline. I know Michael C. Hall is working for that ol’ Emmy nom but I think he’s getting serious competition from ex-wife Jennifer Carpenter, who did some really fine work with her character’s…uh…conflicted personality? Her confession of her love for her brother was just terrific, as was the choice to run and clutch LaGuerta‘s dying body after shooting her. As we head to the series’ possible final season, there’s nowhere to go but down. Debra is doomed and Dexter has lost whatever morality “the code” provided him. I just know someone is going to die. Deb wouldn’t let Dexter go to prison and I don’t think Dexter would allow himself to be caught.

Also riveting this year was The Walking Dead. Well, the season is technically not finished yet, but getting away from the farm has given the sow some welcome momentum. The creepy Governor (David Morrissey) of creepy Woodbury adds great interest, but what’s the deal with Andrea (Laurie Holden) jumping into the sack with all the messed-up bastards? First it was Shane (Jon Bernthal) and now this guy? Bad choices, lady. Apropos of nothing, I think that if someone ever does a movie about the making of Last House on the Left (which is a great idea, by the way), Bernthal should play David Hess.

Probably the most affecting scene this season occurred when young Carl (Chandler Riggs), who’s just shot his mother (Sarah Wayne Callies) after a gruesome and fatal Caesarean, carries the baby out to Rick (Andrew Lincoln) who, realizing what has happened, breaks down. I was simultaneously blubbering and marveling at the fact that a show about zombies was doing that to me.

The killing of Jimmy (Michael Pitt) in last season’s finale of Boardwalk Empire tore the heart out of that show, I’m afraid. All we have left now are heartless bastards — even Margaret (Kelly McDonald), who is destined to become an even more heartless bastard now that her side piece Mr. Sleater (Charlie Cox) is dead. And just as we were starting to grow fond of Nucky’s side piece, Billie (Meg Steedle), she explodes. At least we still have Jack Huston’s Harrow, a character who’s strange and enigmatic but not exactly heartwarming, but it’s sad that Bobby Cannavalle’s sadistic pervert, Gyp, the thorn in Nucky’s side, is already toast. Now we need to see if Nucky can regain some humanity or just continue repelling (or killing) everyone who was once close to him.

Breaking Bad is definitely heading into its last season, and it’s got the same dramatic conflicts Dexter does. Bryan Cranston’s Walter White has transformed from a cancer-stricken family man into a hardass drug lord and pretty damn ruthless killer who even terrifies his wife (Anna Gunn). It’s in those scenes with Jesse (the terrific Aaron Paul) that his humanity can still be glimpsed, and that’s what helps make the show so compelling.

The added tension includes brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) is starting to get hot on his trail. And he’s teamed up with Todd (Jesse Plemons), a hair-trigger douchebag who killed an innocent kid just for being there. I predict Walter will move to Central America and become the Heisenberg he always dreamed of being. Or maybe he’ll get his brains blown out.

I’m looking forward to the returns of Nurse Jackie, Shameless and The Borgias, but The Big C really need to be taken off life support. By the time the douche husband Paul (Oliver Platt) become a world-famous “blogger” and hooked up with Susan Sarandon’s ridiculous self-help guru while the son (Gabriel Basso) was doing his religious girlfriend in the back so she’d remain a “virgin,” it was just too absurd for words.

The Cinema

2012 was really a desolate wasteland for Weird Movie Village-style movies aside from the wonderful Cabin in the Woods. To be honest, I didn’t see many of the others, but hell, look at the list. A movie about demonic possession that’s only PG-13 is absurd. Plus, I couldn’t get that damn INXS song out of my head every time I saw the poster on a bus stand. And I’ve never gotten into the Underwear — er, I mean Underworld series. Worst of all, when I saw that Sinister was “from the makers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious” — any film that needs to be linked to those suckfests is required non-viewing in my book. They’re not scary and they’re actually insulting in their stupidity and pandering. If you must see a “found footage” film, see Chronicle.

Vincent D’Onofrio’s Don’t Go in the Woods turned out to be an unwatchable disappointment, and my initial interest in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter quickly cooled when I learned that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith was also responsible for Tim Burton’s flatulent Dark Shadows revamp. Probably the biggest genre disappointment was the computer-animated Paranorman, which started out wonderfully with bizarre character design and a bent storyline, only to devolve into a Hocus Pocus ripoff (and Hocus Pocus is more fun to watch!)

Happily, films from other genres stepped in to filled the void. Darting in and out of theaters quicker than a Manhattan bike messenger was the Joseph Gordon-Levitt starrer Premium Rush, the action film for biking devotees, which is probably a rather small focus group, but being part of that community, I loved it. Also with Gordon-Levitt was Looper, which pleased the sci-fi crowd, but the absurdity-piled-upon-absurdity climax left me cold. I still roar when I watch 21 Jump Street on cable, but the initially amusing Ted has faded into a dull memory.

Robert Zemeckis’ Flight will certainly bring Denzel Washington another Oscar nod, and he deserves it — his portrayal of the alcoholic, unwitting “hero” pilot demonstrates true stripped-to-the-core excellence. Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, starring and co-written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, is getting an unfairly lukewarm reception. Sure, it wears its heart on its sleeve, but it does so in a most involving way, and Van Sant populates his film with very real characters. Matt’s pal Ben Affleck did a nice job with Argo, pulling double duty as star and director. The tense opening scene reminded me of something Costa-Gavras would do. And Alan Arkin is very funny as the world-weary producer of the fake film.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, torture controversy aside, is a gripping 80-minute film stretched out to almost twice that length. Of course, the critics are swooning over it, but there was never a point at which I made a visceral connection to it. Any intensity it may have had really dissipated over its bloated run time. The Hobbit, which has been slammed again and again for its length, its art direction, the HFR and crappy 3D, deserves most of the slams, but I have my reservations. Sure, Jackson is slavishly indulging his love of overblown epics, but as I recall the first LOTR in 2001 was a nightmare of boring exposition, not really clicking until we got to the second and third chapters, so who knows? I kind of enjoyed the last 40 minutes when we finally got to meet Gollum, and the climactic confrontation with the Orcs was pretty good.

The biggest surprise of the year for me had to be Life of Pi. The name and the trailer made me think that it was going to be silly, but I was wrong. We’re talking about Ang Lee, after all. Has he ever made a wretched film? Whoops — The Hulk. Anyhow, I saw Life of Pi at the Arclight Hollywood in 3D and was completely transported by the opening credits with their bright, colorful, multidimensional close-ups of animals at probably the most beautiful zoo in the world. And whoever does opening credits these days? The 3D is used as judiciously as Scorsese’s Hugo and the digital effects are jaw-dropping.

The Year in Music

I saw the Dandy Warhols in concert for the third time (every time at the Wiltern…hmm) and decided that I want to “Grateful Dead” them — follow them around the country and see them everywhere they play. Their newish album, “This Machine,” is great, particularly the track “Autumn Carnival.” I also saw the Grammy-nominated Fun at the Wiltern along with a thousand hysterical teenage girls. Oh, well…I must admit it was a good show and I got this really great picture of a confetti bomb going off over the audience. Their album, “Some Nights,” with the inescapable “We Are Young,” is okay, except for the songs that have too much autotune. Frontman Nate Ruess has a great voice and doesn’t need to sound like Justin Lesbeaver.

Smashing Pumpkins and Counting Crows were also a treat to see this year, with the pumpkins playing “Oceania” in its entirety and then settling down to knock out some old classics including Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” My favorite Pumpkins event of the year, though, was the release of “Mellon Collie” on vinyl for the first time in the U.S. Crows also have a decent release, “Underwater Sunshine,” which is all covers, but well-chosen, with Pure Prairie League’s “Aimee” a favorite.

The very best concert I saw this year, though, had to be My Morning Jacket. Damn, that was a good show. They did many songs from 2008′s “Evil Urges,” which is just a terrific album. And as an added bonus, frontman Jim James’ mane of long curly hair would close over his face from time to time as he sang, giving the impression that Cousin Itt was performing. At one point, I think it was during “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream pt. 2,” I was totally mesmerized by the music. Looking around the audience, I saw that pretty much everyone was in the same blissed-out state that I was in.

Next year Blur needs to regroup and come to Los Angeles. That’s an order. I bought the vinyl box set and even “Dr Dee.” That’s commitment.

Mellow Giallo

Of all the genres in Weird Movie Village’s universe, the giallo is one of the most compelling and often one of the goofiest. You know the drill…a line-up of semi-clad actresses/models/singers/aerobics instructors waiting to be killed, a murderer whose black-gloved hands clutching a knife are all the audience sees, tough-talking detectives working to solve the crimes and red herrings dangling everywhere. The genre’s heyday was the ’60s and ’70s with maestro Mario Bava kicking things off in 1963 with The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Dario Argento is responsible for perhaps the best giallo of them all…Tenebrae. If Suspiria is Argento’s perfect fantasy/horror, then Tenebrae is his most magnificently realized murder mystery.

Anthony Franciosa stars as Peter Neal, an American writer visiting Rome on a promotional tour for his latest book, Tenebrae, when a rash of murders occurs mimicking the deaths in the novel. He is contacted by the police and soon finds himself embroiled in the investigation.

For viewers who have only seen Argento’s “dark” films, Tenebrae may come as a surprise. It’s brightly lit and color-saturated; indeed, there are many daytime scenes including the murder of Neal’s agent (John Saxon). But night does fall, and Argento takes full advantage of the blackness to stage some of the film’s most gruesome killings and suspense sequences. One great scene has a girl trapped between the killer and a vicious guard dog.

There’s a great crane shot as the camera prowls all around a building before the murderer goes inside to kill the lesbian couple within (hilariously calling them “slimy perverts.”) And when another victim gets her arm chopped off by the killer, she staggers around the kitchen a lot as blood sprays everywhere on the walls, creating a kind of sick modern art. And the surprise revelation at the end is truly a surprise. I jumped about ten feet off the couch the first time I saw it.

Tenebrae is Argento’s most coherent and best-acted film, and it’s also well-cast. Franciosa is great as Neal and Saxon provides able support as his tough-talking agent. Argento’s love at the time, Daria Nicolodi, plays his devoted assistant, Anne, and the director even sneaks in fellow Italian horror moviemakers Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi in cameos.

Speaking of Bava, he’s tried so hard to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he peaked early with 1980′s Macabre, a little number about a woman who keeps her dead lover’s head in the refrigerator. It’s a good movie, reminiscent of Polanski’s Repulsion, but even more twisted.

However, Bava’s resumé has otherwise been spotty. A lot of fans (and I hope readers of WMV) love the Demons series of films. They’re not without their charm, but they’re pretty much murder machines with a lot of special effects makeup, which I must confess is a lot of fun. And Soavi shows up again in a metal-masked cameo.

I bought A Blade in the Dark (1983) on laserdisc on the strength of Bava’s name. It stars Andrea Occhipinti (the quack quack killer in Fulci’s New York Ripper) as a composer who ensconces himself at a Tuscan villa while writing the score for a horror film which may hold the clue to a real killer’s identity. It’s a goofy movie, but not entirely objectionable in a “let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” kind of way. And Soavi appears again as Occhipinti’s agent. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I remember that people kept dropping by his house to swim in the pool. How rude.

Giallo fans often cite Lucio Fulci‘s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin as a favorite, but I like Don’t Torture a Duckling, made in 1972. When a series of child murders breaks out in a small town, the suspects include a simpleton, a gypsy woman, a hermit and a young woman of “easy virtue.” It’s one of Fulci’s most serious-minded films with its themes of religious hypocrisy and criticism of the Catholic church.

The setting for this film is interesting. Giallos are typically urban, but Duckling takes place in one of those little Italian villages whose church forms the center of its community and, like Tenebrae, it’s very sunny.

It’s also quite violent — superstitious villagers accuse the gypsy of being a witch, beating her with chains and leaving her for dead. A scene with a man falling off a cliff features loving close-ups of his face being smashed up on the rocks, a trick Fulci re-used in 1977′s The Psychic. And the director pulls no punches in showing the bodies of the murdered boys.

The very intense Florinda Bolkan plays the gypsy. She was also in Lizard and the bizarre nunsploitationer Flavia the Heretic.

American gialli are a rarity, but Alfred Sole’s 1976 Alice, Sweet Alice fits the category with its mystery killer and gory murders. Paula Sheppard plays Alice, a seemingly unhinged 12-year-old who is accused of murdering her younger sister (a debuting Brooke Shields). Set in 1960s New Jersey, it’s packed with religious symbolism…and religious guilt.

Sole keeps the audience guessing while providing a lot to think about. His compositions are extraordinary, the murders swift and vicious, and the characters suitably bizarre. The landlord in Alice’s building is the disgustingly obese and damp Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble), who tries to molest her, and practically all the other adults seem to be out of their minds.

There are some memorably violent setpieces in the film as well. When Alice’s Aunt Annie (Jane Lowry) is on the staircase outside their apartment, the killer below her stabs at her feet and legs. And when a victim is clutching the killer’s St. Christopher medal in his mouth to provide a post-mortem bit of evidence, his teeth are bashed in with a rock to get him to release it. I don’t want to give any spoilers, because this is a slasher worth seeing.

Due to distribution troubles, Alice got thrown into public domain in the early days of home video, and has wrongly earned the reputation of an exploitation cheapie. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And, of course, killers in flesh-colored masks are extra creepy.

Now for the goofy. Today I watched 1972′s The Slasher…is the Sex Maniac! starring a slumming Farley Granger (Hitchcock’s Rope and Strangers on a Train), and I was rewarded with all the cheesy fun one wants in an Italian thriller from the ’70s.

Granger plays a homicide detective in search of a murderer who consistently targets the wives of prominent men who are also involved in extramarital affairs. This sets the rather misogynist tone of the piece. Even Granger’s cop notes about one of the widowers: “The husband is shattered. First the murder, and then he finds out his wife was a whore.”

This being 1972, it’s a big-time boob and butt movie, and almost all of the victims are seen frolicking with their Bee Gees lookalike boyfriends prior to their slaying. And there’s always a knife wound below one of the victim’s breasts so that the camera can linger upon it again and again. The score is a kind of soft jazz with the de regueur female voices singing “oohhh…ahhhh….”

There’s some strange continuity, too. One victim’s boyfriend leaves the house and the killer, dressed all in black with a black stocking hiding his face, appears. She screams and races outside where it’s suddenly day-for-night and she’s running on a beach. And even though the killer stabs at her with up-and-down motions, somehow her throat is neatly slit from ear to ear.

It’s also a really smoky movie — everyone is smoking constantly. And Granger stops to stare thoughtfully at the camera for a long time (while smoking) when something is occurring to him. I don’t recall seeing a film with so many actors that look like wax dummies. but they blink and move, so I guess they must be real. The women all have really elaborate ’70s eye makeup and hairdos, and some of them look like drag queens. And how come when the killer telephones the police to mock them he’s all dressed up in his maniac outfit and mask? It’s not like they can see him!

The literal translation of the original Italian title is even more hilarious than the American title: Revelations of a Sex Maniac to the Head of the Criminal Investigation Division. And the ending is actually quite interesting. There’s supposedly a XXX version with hardcore inserts which would be a very strange experience indeed.

Wretched Dark Shadows

The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaborations have fallen into four categories: near-masterworks (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands), rather good films (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd), an interesting failure (Sleepy Hollow) and an outright disaster (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Alas, their latest, Dark Shadows, falls firmly into the fourth slot, and is indeed such a misfire it’s a puzzle why it was even made at all. Certainly the television series it’s based on was no classic (although some may argue the point), but this feature adaptation is a tedious and unsatisfying mixture of mawkish camp and Burton’s trademark “weirdness,” which — in this case — isn’t weird enough.

It begins promisingly with an 18th-century prologue in which Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) describes how he’d become a vampire by spurning the affections of a household servant, Angelique (Eva Green), who also happened to be a vengeful witch. Cursing him to immortality, she orders him buried in a silver-chained coffin where he lies trapped for nearly 200 years before being unearthed by a crew constructing a McDonald’s restaurant in 1972.

Barnabas makes his way back to Collinwood, his familial estate, and meets the current generation of Collinses: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michele Pfeiffer), her brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath). Also in residence is Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), the handyman/butler/caretaker, and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), a psychiatrist who’d been hired to treat the disturbed David after the tragic disappearance of his mother a few years earlier. A new arrival is Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) David’s new nanny, who instantly transfixes Barnabas as she is identical in appearance to Josette, the young woman whose love had cost him his humanity two hundred years before.

The Collins family is impoverished and Collinwood has fallen into ruin, but Barnabas tells Elizabeth that he can rebuild the family’s cannery business — and its fortunes — in exchange for allowing him to remain at the mansion (and remain close to Victoria). The immortal Angelique is still kicking around town, running a competing cannery, and she comes charging back into their lives for vengeance when she learns of her old flame’s resurrection.

Once this not-so-original plot is set in motion, desperation sets in pretty quickly, and most of the blame must be laid at the feet of screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who provided the story along with John August. Smith is the author of the bestselling mashup novel “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” whose upcoming film version was produced by Burton, and it throws into doubt just how good that film is going to be, given the creatively bereft nature of this one.

Lame fish-out-of-water gags are fobbed at the audience as Barnabas misunderstands modern technology (seeing Karen Carpenter performing on television provokes him to shout, “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”) while everyone else, puzzlingly, is more taken aback by his antiquated style of dress and manner of speaking than the fact that he is an undead vampire. There are even some truly flat-footed sex gags that are completely out of place in Burton’s universe.

For his part, Burton — who should have known better — has cobbled together a tone-deaf mashup which doesn’t make a lot of sense and is frankly not any fun.

A montage about 30 minutes into the film signals the point at which the writers have run out of ideas and we’re going to be subjected to circuitous tedium for another hour-and-a-half: Barnabas brushing his fangs while the camera makes a circular pan to the mirror, revealing no reflection save the toothbrush — ha ha ha — the senile old maid repeatedly opening a wardrobe without noticing Barnabas sleeping in various positions inside — ha ha ha — the old maid repeatedly making up a bed without noticing Barnabas hanging upside down from the curtains above it — ha ha ha… Like a basketball that’s sprung a leak, Dark Shadows loses its momentum until it’s a sagging mess.

And the cast is wasted. Pfeiffer, who’d demonstrated a lovely flair for comedy in 2007′s Stardust,  mostly acts annoyed here (and who wouldn’t?); Moretz’s hip, sullen Carolyn spends most of her time pouting and being hostile to her elders until her awful surprise! character twist; and Miller’s Roger could have been played by virtually anybody. When Carter first roars onto the scene in tacky clothes and copious amounts of awful blue eyeshadow, one’s hopes are temporarily raised that she’s going to channel the series’ original Dr. Hoffman, Grayson Hall, and deliver a big sizzling slice of ham, but unfortunately the griddle’s not hot enough.

Heathcote is okay as Victoria/Josette, but like the others, once her role has been established, it doesn’t have anywhere to go. And Haley, who has specialized in creepy characters since his career reboot as the child molester in 2006′s Little Children, is a puzzling choice to play Willie, whose decrepit appearance is at odds with the essentially harmless nature of the wisecracking character.

Green could’ve been so much fun as the lusty and evil-minded Angelique, but she’s let down by the “nyah-ha-ha” superficiality of the role. And Depp, who has been the go-to actor for weird characters for the last 20 years, seems committed to his performance as Barnabas but is similarly hamstrung by the lame script — and a bizarre, smooth-skinned makeup that gives him the appearance of being a wax replica of himself.

Danny Elfman’s riffs on the original score are promising at the beginning, and his constant underscore in the style of ’60s soap operas is fun at first, but once we get the gag, it becomes unnoticeable. The period songs seem to have been chosen simply because they’re of the period. The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” is played over the opening credits, and it doesn’t make any thematic sense. The Carpenters’ “Top of the World” is performed during the aforementioned horrendous montage and it likewise doesn’t fit.

Some of the art direction — the Liverpool prologue, the establishing shot of Collinwood — is nice, but a lot of it is ridiculous. A nighttime street scene makes the tiny town of Collinsport look  more like Greenwich Village, with a populace that appears to be a combination of hip twenty-somethings and old sea salts (including a cameo-ing Christopher Lee). When Barnabas wants to have a ball at the mansion (and yes, there’s an unwelcome series of terrible “ball” jokes), Carolyn convinces him to host a “happening” with a musical performance by Alice Cooper (who Barnabas keeps referring to “Miss Cooper” and “that ugly woman”), and the film lurches into full-on Addams Family/Beetlejuice territory, making it appear that the burg’s denizens, including a scene-making Andy Warhol, are as strange as the residents of the house.

And one wonders what Burton was trying to accomplish with the cinematography. It’s so blown-out and blurry it’s as if he was trying to replicate the look of the primitive two-inch video format that the original show’s producers used in the 1960s.

Certainly, we can expect more Burton/Depp collaborations, and hopefully there will be more good ones, but Dark Shadows is an idea that should have stayed buried in its coffin. Why Burton didn’t stop everything and order rewrites of the horrendous script is beyond comprehension. As it stands, it plays like a bad remake of a Tim Burton movie.

Those Swinging’ 70s Vampire Films

The publicity drums are banging away for the May 11th release of Dark Shadows, and it’s making me nostalgic for some of the vampire films of the 1970s. Just as the “love generation” of the previous decade was fading into the sunset, and disco — with its attendant horrible fashions — was on the horizon, vampire films were also breathing their last gasp for a while.

Hammer Films was also getting ready to pack it in. Its last period-piece classic, Vampire Circus, was released in 1971 by 20th Century Fox, heavily cut in America for a PG rating, which was pointless, because the excised perversion was what the movie was all about! As sapphic vamp films go, the 1970 Ingrid Pitt starrer The Vampire Lovers isn’t bad, but 1971′s Twins of Evil is ridiculous. And the less said about Allan Gibson’s Dracula updates — Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula — the better.

The original Dark Shadows series starring the recently departed Jonathan Frid has its devoted followers, but that’s a cult I don’t really understand. I was just a little kid when it was on, but I still remember watching Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman and thinking, “Jesus, this woman is a hambone.” I kept waiting for the creepy stuff to happen, but it was a lo-o-o-o-ng wait.

Much better were the movies. They had much more vampire activity and lots of gore (for the time). The first, House of Dark Shadows, starred most of the cast, including Hall and Frid, and plays like a faster, gorier version of the series.

The image that sticks in my mind in House is Barnabas getting really, really old (thanks to jealous Dr. Hoffman) and trying desperately to get some blood to reverse the process. Makeup artist Dick Smith (who also did The Exorcist) re-used the bald head appliance he made for Dustin Hoffman in 1970′s Little Big Man on Frid. To restore his youth, he goes to Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and puts the bite on her. Enjoy Hall’s hilarious emoting and the humorous makeup on Frid here:

I remember going to the good old Avon Art Theater (which, despite the highfalutin’ name, served as my hometown South Bend’s exploitation/trash house during the 1970s) to see Robert Quarry as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Even today, it’s surprising that this American International pickup got a GP (the predecessor to PG) rating, as it’s pretty sleazy. Originally conceived as a softcore porn film, it still has aspects of its original, dirtier self. There’s at least one inexplicit but extended sex scene and women are running around in see-through blouses with their nipples a-poppin’.

Interestingly, the scene most everyone still talks about is the one in which the recently-vampirized chick is caught eating a kitten. Allegedly this scene was heavily trimmed to get the lower rating so that you could barely see what was going on, but maybe I saw a less brutally cut print, because I certainly remember the shock scene quite clearly, emphasized by the sickly green low-budget cinematography.

The Return of Count Yorga arrived in 1971, followed by The Deathmaster the following year. Neither one is very good, but the wise folks at American International decided to refer to Yorga as the deathmaster in the first film, making it confusing to audiences which film was which. But it didn’t really matter — neither one had the sleazy charm of the first Yorga.

American International also made sure the blaxploitation circuit was served with 1972′s Blacula, starring the elegant William Marshall as Mamuwalde, an African prince resurrected in (then) present-day Los Angeles to encounter all manner of jive-talking stereotypes. 1973′s indifferent sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, also features the awesome Pam Grier. It’s a tragedy that AIP didn’t hire writer/director Jack Hill — the king of exploitation and blaxploitation — to oversee these films. They’d have been so much better…maybe even classics.

More serious-minded was 1973′s Ganja and Hess, starring Night of the Living Dead‘s Duane Jones as a scientist who becomes infected with an insatiable need for human blood. Considered a rare example of ’70s African-American art cinema, it owes more to Buñuel than Blacula.

Another arty vampire flick from 1973 was Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural starring cult fave Cheryl (Rainbeaux) Smith as the title character, a backwoods girl who runs afoul of a pack of bloodsuckers, one of whom (Leslie Gibb) wants to get to know her a whole lot better. Dismissed upon its original release, the film was rediscovered in the ’90s and now has a cult following, especially after the untimely demise of Smith in 2002.

1971′s Daughters of Darkness, starring Last Year At Marienbad‘s Delphine Seyrig, brought Euro arthouse eroticism to the forefront. She plays a mysterious, Dietrich-style countess who seduces a pair of young travelers in an eerie coastal hotel. Seyrig is a striking bloodsucker and it’s easy to see why both Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) are so easily swayed.

Those who remember Karlen as Tyne Daly’s bearish husband in “Cagney and Lacey” will be shocked to see how young and well-built he is in this film. Though not explicitly gory, it’s got some Eurostyle nudity and a great vampire death-by-shower scene.

Bob (A Christmas Story) Clark and scripter Alan Ormsby blended the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” with a Vietnam war protest to make 1974′s Dead of Night, aka Deathdream, about a soldier, Andy (Richard Backus), who’s killed in action but whose mother wishes for him to come back to her. He does, and his elated parents think the reports of his death had been a clerical error, but actually dead and must feed on human blood to stave off the decaying process. Andy spends his days brooding in his room, refusing to see friends and relatives and only going out at night, behavior his parents write off as battle shock. But they soon realize there’s something even more terrifying wrong with their son.

Clark and Ormsby had previously made the cheap and overrated zombie comedy Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, so it’s surprising that this grim, sober and effective little shocker would come from them. It manages to be both eerie and tragic and still has an emotional heft today. When it was shown on KHJ’s Movie Macabre in 1982, Elvira’s puns and interruptions seemed terribly out of place.

Of course, there was time for vampire comedy before the ’70s wound down. David Niven appeared in 1975′s Old Dracula, a dreadful spoof whose original title — Vampira — was altered by hopeful distributors praying that fans of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein would race to the boxoffice. They didn’t.

1979′s Love at First Bite was more successful. George Hamilton is fine as the Lugosi-style vampire who travels from his native Transylvania to New York to find his bride, but Arte Johnson is a big slice of ham as his devoted assistant, and Susan Saint James, channeling Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane in the previous year’s Superman, is annoying. However, if I was forced to choose, I’d definitely prefer to sit through this than Brook’s 1995 disaster Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

So which camp will Burton’s Shadows reboot fall into — brilliant black comedy or awful spoof? I’ll find out on May 18th, at which time I’ll post my review.

More Terror in the Woods

In what has become a Weird Movie Village tradition, we’re tromping back into the wild for another edition of Terror in the Woods. Past editions can be seen here and here. But unlike the previous versions, we’ve actually got a brand new “woods” movie to talk about.

Yesterday I saw the much buzzed-about and long-shelved Cabin in the Woods, co-written by Joss Whedon and Cloverfield‘s Drew Goddard, and directed by Goddard.

Completed in 2009, Cabin was held up while original distributor MGM debated upconverting it to 3D (which would have been awful), only to go bankrupt, leaving it languishing on the shelf until last year when Lionsgate picked it up. Was it worth the wait? Definitely. Like the Scream series, Cabin can best be described as a “postmodern” horror film. But unlike the Scream series, it’s actually good.

The filmmakers start messing with our expectations right away. From the first frame. we expect to see kids getting stoned while driving down a country road in a VW van, but instead we’re introduced to a couple of lab workers (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) who seem to be involved in some sort of secret surveillance project. They talk about the Japanese and failed experiments, and none of it makes any sense.

Finally, we meet the gang of college students who fit the standard mode established by Friday the 13th and its ilk: The jock (Chris Hemsworth), the slut (Anna Hutchison), the good girl/final girl (Kristen Connolly), the brainiac (Jesse Williams) and the stoner (Fran Kranz). They all jump into the requisite RV and head to a cabin on a lake for a weekend of fun, sex and partying. But as the RV drives away, we see some governmental-looking guy, wearing an earpiece, observing them from a rooftop.

When they arrive at the cabin, things turn strange. Behind a ghastly painting in one of the bedrooms they discover a one-way mirror. And the basement is packed with all sorts of creepy antiques, including an ancient diary from which the good girl starts to read aloud.

Sound familiar? Well, it may remind you of Evil Dead, but (aside from sharing Evil Dead II‘s cinematographer Peter Deming) that’s where the similarity ends. I don’t want to reveal any more because you really should see this film for yourselves. Let’s just say that Whedon and Goddard take the slasher genre, spin it real fast and stab it in the head. And it’s funny, too!

Speaking of revisualizations, I remember being surprised to see old-school advertisements in the L.A. Times for a film called Wrong Turn back in the late spring of 2003. Since it was playing at my neighborhood theater, I figured I’d fork out the price of a matinee ticket. What a delightful surprise! You’d almost have thought it was an undiscovered stalk-and-slasher from the ’70s except that it featured Law & Order‘s Jeremy Sisto, Dexter‘s Desmond Harrington and Whedon favorite Eliza Dukshu.

Produced by the late fx whiz Stan Winston, it also featured wonderful old-fashioned prosthetic effects created by his studio. The plot here is simple: a young man (Harrington) is driving to another city for a job interview and smashes his car into the vehicle of a group of friends whose tires have been mysteriously flattened. They set out to find help, unaware that there’s a bloodthirsty gang of mutant mountain men out to get them.

"You made a really wrong turn, pal!"

That’s it, plotwise. What it does deliver big-time is suspense and gore, and Winston’s mutants are simultaneously repellant and disturbingly deviant. How I wished I’d been able to see it at a drive-in, so perfectly did it capture the ’70s vibe. I could see myself sitting in my car at the Western Drive-In watching Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave...and Wrong Turn. Sheer bliss.

Wrong Turn has spawned a number of direct-to-video sequels, none of which I’ve seen, although fans seem to like Part Two, so I might have to check it — hey, score! It’s on Fox Movie Channel tonight. DVR is set.

Speaking of backwoods mutants, Wes Craven‘s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) cornered the market on  effed-up families. Here, a dysfunctional group of vacationers gets stuck in the desert when their RV breaks down, and a clan of mutant cannibals living in the hills nearby move in for the kill. Okay, it’s not exactly the woods, but it is outside.

In his first film since the shockingly raw Last House on the Left, Craven realized that he needed to keep his fans happy, so he packs the film with gory killings, a rape, immolation and the kidnapping of a baby with intent to consume. It’s based on the legend of the  incestuous Sawney Bean family of Scotland, which was said to have abducted and consumed thousands of travelers over the years. In a modern twist, the Hills cannibals are deformed and mentally perverted as a result of living on an atomic bomb testing site.

I had the poster (seen here) hanging in my room when I was a teen, and Michael Berryman’s face was enough to creep out any visitors. Among the cast of relative unknowns is Dee Wallace, who’d go on to greater glory in such classics as The Howling, E.T. and Cujo. Shot in 16mm, the film is coarse and grainy, which only adds to its sleaze appeal.

In the early days of home video, distributors were hungry for product. Coincidentally, Craven was hungry for cash, so he excreted a dreadful sequel to Hills in 1985 which is basically a remake without blood, suspense or any redeeming values whatsoever, unless you count the fact that this film features a scene with a dog having a flashback. Yep, that actually happens.

Travelers stop to do the Time Warp in Hills 2.

Amazingly, Craven made this travesty just after what is arguably his masterpiece — 1984′s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Of course, he’s always been rather inconsistent. For every Nightmare or Last House, there’s a Shocker…or Music of the Heart…or Scream (if you haven’t already guessed, I hate those things).

Future Piranha 3D director Alexandre Aja helmed the remake of the original Hills in 2006, and damned if it isn’t a decent reboot. There’s not much tweaking needed for the story — it’s a pretty faithful adaptation, except it looks great (courtesy of cinematographer Maxime Alexandre) and the effects are eons ahead of the original.

Robert Joy in Aja's remake

And how do you handle the sequel to a good remake of a cult classic? Bring in Craven and his son, Jonathan, to screw it up once again! Maybe they wrote it as a joke since the 1985 sequel was such a disaster. But in that case, shouldn’t it have been sarcastically funny? This one is just ba-a-a-d. And there’s not even a dog having a flashback.

Today’s good news is that the sequel to Marcus Nispel’s horrendous 2009 remake of Friday the 13th is still stalled. Now if we can only get Rob Zombie to stop desecrating the tombs of the classics…

Grand Guignol, Chambers of Horror and the Theater of Death

Last Saturday night I attended Urban Death, a performance art piece by the Zombie Joe Underground Theatre Company in North Hollywood, and I was suitably impressed. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to seeing live stage horror in the Grand Guignol tradition.

My full review can be read at Blogcritics, but I can certainly say here that it was a refreshingly unique evening of theatrics — 42 vignettes in one hour, ranging from the splattery to the darkly humorous, — that built to an impressive intensity. It’s certainly more sophisticated than the cheapjack thrill shows of yesteryear, and it forms the inspiration for today’s post.

Ever since theater has been around, there’s been horror. From Sophocles’ ancient Oedipus Rexto Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, audiences have always responded to grim subject matter — the gorier the better. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was formed in Paris in the late 1890s to give audiences a glimpse of the horrific behavior of the city’s lower classes — prostitutes, thieves, street urchins and murderers. Featuring several short, violent plays at each performance, it became a source of pride on the part of the theater company to report how many people fainted each evening.

One of London-based Madame Tussaud’s earliest and most popular attractions is the Chamber of Horrors, in which visitors can gawk at famous murders and famous murderers, torture and execution devices. A 1936 film, Midnight at Madame Tussaud’s, is interesting for its location footage in the museum itself, but is otherwise your typical “quota quickie.”

Another English notable is Tod Slaughter, a barnstorming actor whose full-blooded melodramas raised the hackles of audiences in the 1910s and 20s. His most famous role was Sweeney Todd, a character he played 2,000 times. He staged his blood and thunder shows at the Elephant and Castle Theater in South London, at first for the locals but eventually attracting sophisticated audiences from the West End who came to see what all the fuss was about. Many of his most notable plays, including Todd, were made into films in the 30s and 40s.

Universal depicted a traveling sideshow in its 1944 monster rally House of Frankenstein, in which showman (and mad doctor) Boris Karloff displayed the bones of “Dracula — a real vampire!” to frighten his audience, and chambers of horror were featured in both Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953).

Mysterywas filmed in primitive two-strip Technicolor (red and blue), but the limited color palette actually contributes to the creepy atmosphere. And, of course, House — with Vincent Price — was one of the most successful 3D movies released during its first go-round. Both have scenes in which a wax figure is revealed to have a real corpse encased within.

I’m a fan of both versions, but I rather like Mystery with its contemporary (at the time) New York setting — and the scene in the morgue when the body suddenly sits bolt upright is still a shocker. And the figures in the museum are real actors — the Technicolor lights were too hot for wax to stand up to, and it gives these scenes extra zing, because you sort of think that they’re moving just a little bit…but you’re not sure.

House of Wax was loosely remade in 2005 by Jaume Collet-Sera (who went on to make the infinitely superior Orphan) with Parasite…er, I mean Paris Hilton in a small role. Now that’s scary.

Chamber of Horrors is a 1966 made-for-TV film and a pilot for a proposed House of Wax series. Considered too intense (yeah, right) for broadcast, it was released theatrically with B-star cameos (Tony Curtis, Marie Windsor, Suzy Parker) and the added irritants of the “fear flasher” and the “horror horn” to indicate when something awful was about to happen, which pretty much renders it unwatchable.

Starting in the 1930s, midnight Spook Shows became a regular feature in movie theaters across America. Typically they’d feature a headlining magician who’d haul out the old tricks like a seance, a floating cabinet and disembodied voices. As the years went on and the audience’s lust for bigger thrills increased, blood and sex were added to the mix, with simulated decapitations, killers running through the audience, ghosts floating on the ceiling and — in one instance — Lady Godiva and her horse materializing onstage!

I wish I’d had the opportunity to see one of these shows. They were probably hilarious hokey, but that can be fun. The advertising was outrageous — these guys could’ve given master showman Dave Friedman a run for his money. They promised so much on the program — including up to four complete features — you’d think the shows would’ve lasted until noon the next day.

Probably the biggest was Dr. Silkini’s Spook Show, originated in 1933 by Jack Baker. At one point he had seven Silkini units traveling around the country. He even managed to talk Universal Pictures into letting him depict the company’s monsters onstage, something that would never, ever happen today. When he died, Steve Conners bought the show from his widow in 1980. Conners managed to keep it going for a while (even bringing it to Hollywood in 1988, which I missed, dang it).

Something Weird Video has a great DVD called Monsters Crash the Pajama Party which features a full 45 minutes of great Spook Show commercials. And the title featurette is a hilarious piece of cheese that was actually shown in theaters with an emphasis on audience interaction. Here’s the trailer:

Godfather of Gore Herschell Gordon Lewis got into the guignol game with The Wizard of Gore, one of his more splatterific films, about Montag the Magnificent, a magician who hypnotizes young women onstage and mutilates them in a series of “illusions,” only to have them literally fall apart later at home. It was remade in 2007 with Crispin Glover as Montag.

In 1976, Bloodsucking Freaks (whose plot is based on Wizard) was released by Troma Films, New York-based maker and distributor of low-budget schlock whose penchant for hucksterism rivals the Spook Show promoters. Freaks is set in a Grand Guignol nightclub run by Sardu and his dwarf assistant whose “models” are actual kidnap victims that they keep in cages and mutilate to the delight of their audiences. When the feminist group Women Against Pornography protested against the film’s release, Troma used the controversy to garner free promotion for it.

Written and directed by Joel M. Reed, Freaks‘ special effects — which range from finger amputation to sucking out brains through a straw — are amateur, but it’s one of those films that uses its minuscule budget to nauseating ends. Besides, no matter how badly it’s done, torture by tooth extraction is always awful to watch. The film kind of a forerunner to today’s torture porn genre (Hostel, Saw). On his official web site, Reed seems to be attempting to raise funds for a sequel.

Hell Houses are the fundamentalist Christian’s answer to Grand Guignol. Around Halloween, all across the United States, these attractions pop up with graphic scenes to shock impressionable youngsters into avoiding pre-marital sex, drugs and — gasp! — homosexuality. Of course, Jerry Falwell’s 1972 “Scaremare” was one of the first to arrive, but Colorado-based Keenan Roberts has made an entire industry of it, hawking Hell House Outreach kits online — only $299!

Hell House Outreach?

Of course, being an Angeleno, I attended a performance of Hollywood Hell House in 2007, which was set up in a two-level former Mexican restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. It featured an extreme abortion scene, a Columbine-style massacre, a drug overdose and an AIDS patient. HHH was created by Maggie Rowe, a recovering Fundamentalist, who said that no exaggeration in the writing was necessary — the extreme material parodies itself. Now that’s really scary. Roberts himself came to the premiere, and thereafter added a “Maggie Rowe” character to his own production to demonstrate how “Satan does God’s work.”

The Hollywood version’s gimmick was “special guest Satans” appearing throughout the run. Check out this clip reel to see some of them, including Penn Jillette and Bill Maher, who some fundamentalists think is the Devil already…

21 Jump Street: Really Smart and Really Funny

NOTE: There’s some naughty language in this post, but I’m writing about a naughty movie, so what the fuck?

Well, I gotta hand it to Jonah Hill. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated performance in Moneyball (if you don’t count the stinker The Sitter), he scores again with a rowdy comedy that spoofs the now barely remembered ’80s Fox TV series that made Johnny Depp a star.

In a 2005 prologue, we meet nerdy high-schooler Schmidt (Hill), in full Eminem drag, trying to ask a pretty classmate to the prom, but before he can even get the words out, she’s pleading with him not to do it. Watching the proceedings is Jenko (Channing Tatum), one of the cool kids, who mocks Schmidt’s desperate attempt, causing him to run away in shame.

But later, Jenko (who’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer) is humiliated by a teacher for being stupid, and we next find them sitting on separate benches wiping away their tears, and it’s a testament to the filmmakers’ cleverness that this scene is actually quite touching, humanizing the characters from the outset.

Seven years later, Schmidt and Jenko are training in the same police academy. Jenko can’t pass his written exam, so he turns to his former adversary for help, and they form an unlikely bond: Schmidt will help with the scholastic requirements and Jenko will coach Schmidt in athletics.

After a lame drug bust foiled by Jenko’s inability to remember the Miranda Rights, things look grim until they are recruited to go undercover as high school students by the perpetually pissed-off Captain Dickson (an amusing performance by Ice Cube) to sniff out and arrest the manufacturers of a synthetic drug called Holy Fucking Shit—HFS for short. They watch a YouTube video of a kid experiencing the effects of HFS, broken down into four hilarious stages: “the Giggs”, “Tripping Balls”, “Insane Over-Confidence” and—finally—“Holy Motherfucking Shit.” Stage Five can either be “Asleepyness” or death.

To keep their cover, the guys have to go live with Schmidt’s parents, whose house is near the school they’re going to attend. But when they show up for their first day of class, they’re confused by the cliques, whose members they can’t identify with. And when Jenko makes fun of a kid for listening to “gay” music, he readily admits that he is gay, and his classmates stand up for him. It’s a whole new world.

Schmidt, meanwhile, begins to realize that he has a chance to be one of the school’s cool kids, getting involved in the drama club and track and field. Conversely, Jenko finds himself bonding with the geeks in the science lab. It’s a fun twist on normal expectations that is well-supported by a clever script. Indeed, the film’s sunny view of high school students as liberal, nonjudgmental and post-bigotry, is a breath of fresh air.

The partners finally track down a student dealing HSW, Eric Molson (Dave Franco, brother of James, whom many will remember from the hilarious “You’re So Hot” video with Christopher Mintz-Plasse). They buy a couple of hits from him, but he wants them to prove they’re not narcs by taking the drug in his presence. They do, and we get to watch them go through the four aforementioned stages in a foot-stompingly hilarious sequence.

Schmidt falls for Molly (Brie Larson), a sweet girl in drama club, but has to keep his dick in check because she’s just a kid. And Ms. Griggs (Ellie Kemper), the chemistry teacher, also has to keep her hands to herself when she’s tempted by the supposedly jailbait hunk-o-Jenko.

But some students clearly see through the ruse; one of the geeks (Dax Flame) asks, “You look really old. How long were you held back?”, to which Jenko responds, “You look really young. How long were you held forward?” Social media success story: Flame created himself on YouTube and is also currently in the outta-control party movie Project X.

The action sequences are a scream. When Jenko and Schmidt are being pursued by bikers involved in the manufacture of HFS, they keep shooting at trucks containing high-level explosives and fuel, only to wonder why they aren’t blowing up. Incidental scenes are equally hilarious, as when Schmidt, in his bedroom, phones Molly to engage in some high school small talk, only to have Jenko rush in, beat the shit out of him, dry-hump him, and otherwise engage in hilariously brotherly behavior to ruin the moment. It’s comedy gold.

Hill’s Schmidt is a well-realized character, maintaining his geekiness while trying to spread his new-found wings as one of the cool kids at last. Hill was also responsible for co-writing the story, and it definitely demonstrates that he can double careers (a valuable thing these days). Tatum, who was so impressive in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Fighting (I didn’t see his teen smoochy or dancy films), seems to be having a blast sending up his bruised beauty image here, and it’s infectious.

Yes, there are cameos by original Jump Street alumni, but to find out who participated, you’ll have to go see the film. I hope my review has persuaded you to do so.