In Name Only

In Cold Blood meets The Last House on the Left in American Gothic, as a pair of convicts break into a farmhouse, only to encounter a family mad for revenge. Unfortunately, such rough comparison is about the best thing that can be said for this 2017 horror film.

The acting is glaringly awful, with the film’s troupe of alleged thespians performing like community theater cast-offs. Their unconvincing dialogue is matched only by their characters’ unfathomable actions–decisions consistently serving no logic other than directorial steering of a contrived plot. The climactic twist, involving a young woman held captive in the farmhouse cellar, is both telegraphed and clumsily executed. This movie is so bad, it makes its homonymous 1987 predecessor seem like Silence of the Lambs.

The biggest problem I have, though, is with the film’s title, and the hackneyed sense of American Gothic (“crazy inhabitants of a rural Pennsylvanian farmhouse”) conveyed by the film itself. Then again, the filmmakers might deserve kudos for clever marketing: had they labeled their effort more honestly–Low-Budget Lameness Appropriating the Title of Grant Wood’s Famous Painting–I likely would have passed.

Amazon Prime members can stream American Gothic for free, but viewers are apt to regret the cost of seventy-five minutes out of their day. Be forewarned: poking one’s eyes out with a pitchfork makes for better entertainment than watching this cinematic monstrosity.

Judgment Against

While Hellraiser: Judgement is nowhere near as execrable as some of its predecessors in this long-running (rights-securing) series, it is hardly a sinful delight.

The cinematic transgressions here are numerable. Let’s start with stilted dialogue, laced with exposition. Follow that with a cliched premise: detectives hunting an exotic serial killer–the Preceptor, who proceeds from a warped interpretation of the Ten Commandments. In this regard, Judgment steals from a much better film (Se7en), just as its scenes of squalor horror/torture porn clearly rifle the Saw franchise. What’s worse, Judgment‘s derivative storyline feels like one we’ve already suffered through in a previous installment: 2000’s Hellraiser: Inferno.

Writer/director Gary J. Tunnicliffe’s police-procedural plot meanders, making 81 minutes of runtime seem like a season in hell. Meanwhile, Pinhead is barely seen, save for periodic glimpses of him seated on a stony throne, straining for gravitas. As in other lackluster entries in the series, the iconic Cenobite appears out of place in the very film featuring his pierced visage on the DVD cover. Here he is supplanted by the sadistic machinations of the Stygian Inquistion (kudos to Judgment, though, for at least attempting to bring a fresh element to the Hellraiser mythos).

The film only really becomes enjoyable when Pinhead finally takes center stage for his obligatory last-act demon ex machina. Paul T. Taylor is unlikely to make fans forget Doug Bradley, but proves a more-than-passable Hell Priest in the climax. Pinhead displays both his trademark wit and spectacularly sadistic touch as he hauls human sinners off to Hell. This is all just the undercard, however; the main event is a philosophical–and savagely physical–face-off with an angelic adversary. The scene is one of the best to appear in a Hellraiser film in quite some time, and gets even better with an ironic twist that satisfyingly concludes Pinhead’s series-long character arc.

For sure, there are things to like about Judgment. An understated Tunnicliffe supplies some dark comedy in his turn as the Auditor character. Also, the love triangle/infidelity theme that emerges late in the film makes for a nice bookend with the inciting moments of the original Hellraiser. Unfortunately, the formulaic outweighs the fantastic, and a strong finale cannot make up for a sluggish build-up. At times tantalizing yet disappointing overall, Judgment will leave viewers yearning for that special someday when Clive Barker regains the rights to Hellraiser and returns the series to its full infernal glory.

Don’t Fear the Creeper

The original Jeepers Creepers was an unnerving, atmospheric horror film that introduced a terrific antagonist. The fun (if not quite as frightful) Jeepers Creepers 2 offered loads of action and suspense as the Creeper–that ghoulish gargoyle decked out like The Undertaker–menaced a high school basketball team’s bus. For fans of these first two installments, though, the long-delayed Jeepers Creepers 3 will prove bitterly disappointing.

Jonathan Breck returns here to embody the carnivorous Creeper (whose looking a lot beefier from all that binge eating), but the character gets utterly upstaged by its own paraphernalia. More attention is given to its weapons (which spring to hand via campy telepathy) and its gadget-pimped, booby-trapped truck (imagine the Batmobile redesigned by Jigsaw). Even one of the creature’s severed hands from twenty-three years earlier gets a disproportionate share of screen time–in a hokey bit of mythology, holding said appendage allegedly furnishes insight into the origins and vulnerabilities of the Creeper. I write “allegedly,” because the film refuses to reveal any of this information, despite featuring two drawn-out scenes in which different characters endure the visionary experience. Such failure to deliver marks Jeepers Creepers 3 as a whole; there isn’t even a climactic confrontation, just the histrionic dismay of the monster after it discovers that some of its human nemeses have learned its secrets.

This is a film that has it all–if all we are talking about is hammy acting, B-grade CGI, and a nonsensical, go-nowhere plot. The less said about it, the better; I feel I have already wasted enough time just sitting down to watch it.

After suffering through this wretched resurfacing, I can only hope that the Jeepers Creepers franchise remains dormant for a lot longer than twenty-three years.

Murder as a Fun Art

Scooby-Doo undoubtedly forms the first major influence on my sensibilities, molding my lifelong interest in the Gothic and the macabre. (I can remember penning at age 10 or so a notebook “novel” titled Murder About the Manor, whose sprawling cast included tennis greats Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl–hey, I figured, if the Harlem Globetrotters could guest star on Scooby-Doo…!) The next phase of my development, though, can be traced to a trio of atmospheric mysteries. These movies hooked the adolescent me with their humor, but made a lasting impression with their hints of the horrific:

 

Murder By Death (1976)

Watching this air on broadcast TV as a kid, I might not have been quite old enough yet to catch the full scale of the super-sleuth parody, but I reveled in the silliness of the Neil Simon script (the sights gags involving Alec Guinness’s blind butler; the politically-incorrect humor centered on Peter Sellers’ Charlie Chan stand-in). I was also absolutely mesmerized by the setting: a fog-shrouded, rain-drenched country house complete with falling gargoyles, a shrieking doorbell, cobwebbed and booby-trapped bedrooms. And long before I ever read a word of his American Gothic prose, I was enthralled by Truman Capote–who here makes a rare acting appearance as the film’s master manipulator.

 

The Private Eyes (1980)

Tim Conway and Don Knotts play a pair of detectives so bumbling, they make Inspector Clouseau look like Hercule Poirot. To this day, I chuckle over the killer’s hilarious deviations from rhyme scheme in his notes left with the victims (e.g. “He deserved what he got, I don’t regret it a bit. / By the way, you are standing in bull caca.”). Again, though, the film’s darker elements are what delighted me most: the spooky mansion featuring secret entrances, behind-the-walls passageways, and spyhole-eyed portraits; a Shadowy menace (whose black hood and robe make Ghostface’s costume look like a hand-me-down) purported to be the estate’s murdered lord returned as vengeful revenant; the terrific jump-scare inside the family crypt. I watched this one countless times on HBO as a youngster; seeing it again recently, I am reminded of all the wonderful reasons why.

 

Deathtrap (1982)

An older cousin brought me to the movie theater to see this adaptation of the Ira Levin stage play, and I soon realized that I was experiencing more adult fare than what Murder By Death or The Private Eyes previously offered. Slapstick humor is replaced by a more sophisticated wit (although there’s still some broad comedy to be found in the meemies screamed by Dyan Cannon’s high-strung character). The violence–even when the weapons prove to be theater props borrowed from the wall of a playwright’s office–is more graphic, and the perpetrators’ motivations more sinister. Watching this finely-crafted film taught me that a plot twist can be more elaborate than a bunch of meddling kids removing a monster mask from some greedy schemer.

78/52 = 10

No, the above equation isn’t a math mistake, but an acknowledgment of the sheer perfection of writer/director Alexander O. Philippe’s documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene.

“78/52” refers to the number of shots/cuts employed in the filming of the iconic demise of Marion Crane in Psycho, and also serves as an early indication of the documentary’s precise approach. While viewers might already be aware of some of the fun facts (Hitchcock’s use of Hershey’s chocolate syrup to simulate blood; the faintest twitch of actress Janet Leigh’s eye as the camera pulls back from Marion’s sprawled corpse), they are sure to learn plenty of new details about the shower scene. This reviewer, for instance, never knew that pin-up model Marli Renfro stunt-doubled for Janet Leigh, that the knifing of a casaba melon and a slab of raw meat furnished the flesh-stabbing sound effect, or that the scene even had a direct impact on Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

The actual footage from the shower scene is invoked throughout, but the documentary also features clips from a whole host of films as it establishes Psycho‘s immediate cinematic context and perennially pervasive influence. A couple of neat bonuses also come in the form of an opening reenactment of Marion’s rain-drenched arrival at the Bates Motel, and a dramatization of the shower scene as it plays out (slightly differently, but no less hauntingly) in Robert Bloch’s original novel.

The heart of 78/52, though, is found in its slew of talking heads. An impressive number of actors (including Janet Leigh’s own daughter Jamie Lee Curtis), directors, authors, and film critics not only testify to the personal impact of the shower scene but also provide extended, insightful analysis of what makes it so effective both visually and aurally. Their commentary brilliantly elucidates various aspects of Psycho, from the meticulous foreshadowing of the shower scene via both dialogue and imagery (e.g. the slashing of the windshield wipers prior to Marion’s ill-fated stop off) to the subtle but poignant symbolism (the specific painting that Norman removes from the wall of his office when peeping on Marion’s showering takes voyeurism as its very theme).

Ultimately, Philippe’s documentary convinces viewers what a true auteur Alfred Hitchcock was–the deliberate artistry Psycho‘s director brought to the filming of the shower scene (which took a whole week to shoot). At once finely detailed and highly entertaining, 78/52 offers an appropriate appreciation of one of the most seminal and memorable scenes in the history of film.

Pest in Show

In yesterday’s post, I raved about the macabre brilliance of the Stephen King adaptation 1922, but I have to admit: it is not even the most frightful rat-related work currently streaming on Netflix. This other endeavor just might be the most unnerving film I’ve ever seen (I can’t remember ever cringing and exclaiming in horror so many times in one viewing). What makes the film that much more difficult to endure is that it’s not even fictional. I’m talking about the 2016 Morgan Spurlock documentary Rats (inspired by the Robert Sullivan book of the same title).

Appropriately enough, the documentary opens in the “ratropolis” of New York City. As someone who used to live and work in Manhattan, I know there’s a tendency to try to ignore the omnipresence of rats, but this film graphically undermines such willful blindness. Again and again, the surreptitious scourge is shown surfacing on food runs, finding a bountiful harvest in curbside garbage bags (one man’s trash is many rats’ treasure). Spurlock reminds us that there’s a biting nightmare lurking just underfoot in the City’s sewer drains, and it is a lot nastier than Pennywise.

From New York, the filmmakers venture down to post-Katrina New Orleans to follow the efforts of a research team at Tulane to track the various diseases carried by local rats.  The cut-in photos of infected humans are haunting enough alone, but viewers are also treated to nearly-unbearable scenes of rat autopsies (beware the botfly-sac extraction!).

There are unpleasant surprises aplenty, but I won’t spoil them by cataloging them all here. I’ll just say that the segment about the preparation of captured rats as Vietnamese cuisine had me ready to declare a hunger strike. And just when I thought matters couldn’t get any worse, the documentary concludes with a visit to a Hindu temple in India, where worshipers happily share space–and food and drink(!)–with thousands of venerated vermin.

I don’t want to misrepresent Rats as sensationalist, merely concerned with creating dismay or sparking disgust. The documentary ultimately aims to open eyes, not force people to avert their gazes from the screen. It was interesting to learn about the intelligence of rats, about their behavioral adaptations (outsmarting the latest attempts at extermination) and evolutionary mutations (developing resistance to the most potent poisons). Humanity appears to be making little progress in its prolonged war against these rodent opponents, and it’s not out of the realm of imagination to consider that someday the earth’s dominant species will be subterranean.

While definitely not for the squeamish, the grimly-fascinating Rats is a film well worth catching.

A Very Good Year: 1922 (Movie Review)

Writer/director Zak Hilditch’s adaptation (currently streaming on Netflix) of the Stephen King novella 1922 astounds on a host of levels. For starters, there’s stunning cinematography on display: shots of the cloud-shrouded Nebraskan plains, a labyrinthine cornfield, a looming, secluded farmhouse. While amazing to behold, the film also features plenty of horrific imagery, from vermin-swarmed church pews during a funeral service to clawed and gnawed corpses (thankfully, the rat-savaging of a cow teat–one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve ever read in a King narrative–is only briefly dramatized here).

1922 is expertly cast, with Molly Parker playing the ill-fated Arlette, and Dylan Schmid and Kaitlyn Bernard portraying the fresh-faced teens tragically turned into the “Sweetheart Bandits.” It’s Thomas Jane, though, who dominates as main character Wilfred Leland James. Countering his more heroic outings in previous King-based films (DreamcatcherThe Mist), Jane embodies a man who exudes intensity even in his pensive moments, and radiates menace without ever having to raise his voice. Physical tics and a pronounced rural drawl do not reduce to a caricature of a country rube, but instead enrich this unprofiting character. Jane’s performance as a doomed (if not damned) wife-murderer is nothing short of award-worthy.

The film is expertly structured, starting with its use of a framing device. Viewer interest is instantly piqued as a maimed and haggard-looking Wilfred enters a rented room in the opening scene: this is someone whose fortunes no doubt have declined considerably. At strategic times throughout, the film returns to this scene of Wilfred penning his confession, and demonstrates that while the character survived the disastrous events of 1922, his psyche is not necessarily intact, and his immortal soul might be in peril. A h(a)unted man, Wilfred is progressively plagued by Lovecraftian rats in the walls that give new meaning to chewing up the scenery.

Although deliberate in its pacing, 1922 never grows tedious or tension-free. To its credit, the film takes the time to allow the unsettling aftershocks of Wilfred’s brutal crime to slowly unfold. There’s no facile reliance on jump scares or sudden, shrill sound effects. No campy mugging, either, by decomposing ghouls: the scene where a ravaged and rotten Arlette seemingly returns from the grave (in her case, a rat-infested well in the backyard where her body was hidden) and proceeds to whisper inaudibly in Wilfred’s ear proves that quiet horror can make for the loudest screams.

1922 also offers a seamless merging of genres, working both as a tale of supernatural comeuppance and as a naturalistic crime story in the vein of Frank Norris (one of King’s favorite novelists). Such duality is signaled in the naming of Wilfred’s son Henry, who insists on being called Hank following his mother’s murder (which he assisted his father in committing). “Henry James” recalls the preeminent writer of nuanced ghost stories, while “Hank James” (the handle of a soon-to-be fugitive) forms a near echo of notorious outlaw Frank James.

Hilditch’s script follows King’s source text faithfully; if there is one ostensible misstep, it comes in the film’s final moment. A whole layer of psychological complexity gets stripped away (in the novella, the bite marks covering Wilfred’s body when his corpse is found in the hotel room are notably self-inflicted), as the film instead opts for a more Creepshow-y image of impending revenant vengeance. This ultimate divergence, though, does not spoil all the fine work that has come before. In the end, 1922 stands as one of the best King adaptations ever made, and an indisputable American Gothic masterpiece.

Exorcist Confession

Maybe it’s because I was less than impressed by the William Peter Blatty novel. Maybe my existing familiarity with the various notorious scenes (which have become ingrained in pop culture) doused my interest. Maybe my reticence stemmed from deep-seated dread (had all those years as a Catholic schoolboy put the fear of the Devil in me?). Maybe all–or none–of the above. For whatever reason, I had never seen The Exorcist (a film nearly as old as I am) until yesterday. Now, this may sound like heresy to many, but I have to say: I don’t see what I was missing.

The film moves at a ponderous pace, beginning with an overlong opening in northern Iraq. Ellen Burstyn–who, ironically, portrays a movie actress–overacts throughout. While I am a huge fan of legendary makeup artist Dick Smith, I found his work here to be too over the top: Linda Blair as the Pazuzu-possessed Regan looks like some eczematous Orc escaped from Middle Earth (her transformation is so extreme, it’s easy to forget the fresh-faced young girl that is being subjected to such diabolic abuse). Frustratingly, the plot defies logic: when Regan comes spider-walking down the staircase, that should be sign enough that it’s high time to give up the search for medical/psychological/ pharmacological causes and call in a Christ-loving exorcist! Incredulity (the suspension of “Dis belief”?) also arises when Regan’s head is forced to spin around 180 degrees: surely such a maneuver would have broken the girl’s neck, killing her (just as Burke was apparently dispatched by Pazuzu before being hurled through the bedroom window) and thereby putting a prompt end to the demon’s possessive shenanigans. Director William Friedkin seems to value shock over narrative sense, to the point where these periodic outbursts of outrageousness (e.g. pea-soup projectile vomiting) become almost laughable. And that’s probably my biggest issue here: the film–often touted as the scariest ever made–just didn’t seem all that frightening. I would argue that Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism (two modern films undoubtedly influenced by The Exorcist) work much more effectively in establishing a dread-saturated atmosphere, in making the supernatural feel like a natural threat.

I understand that it’s not really fair to judge a film from 1973 by the standards of this day and age, when obscenity/grotesquerie has become a familiar part of the pop-cultural landscape. Experiencing The Exorcist fresh in theaters four-and-a-half decades ago must have been a genuinely jarring experience. Like the best works of American Gothic horror, The Exorcist taps into the anxieties bedeviling the national psyche (as David J. Skal writes in The Monster Show: “The film became a highly publicized cultural ritual exorcising not the devil, but rather the confused parental feelings of guilt and responsibility in the Vietnam era, when–at least from a certain conservative perspective–filthy-mouthed children were taking personality-transforming drugs, violently acting out, and generally making life unpleasant for their elders.”). Yet just because the film has succeeded in touching a societal nerve does not mean that its makers pushed all the right artistic buttons along the way.

Not an Attractive Look

Jon Schnitzer’s documentary Haunters: The Art of the Scare attempts to delve deeper into the haunted attractions that draw myriad thrillseekers every Halloween season. Some interesting insight is offered–why creators are driven to build such haunts, what makes people want to act in them, how attendees are affected (for better or worse) by them. Ultimately, though, the film fails to do justice to its promising subject.

Primary among the disappointments is the disproportionate attention given to amateur and extreme haunts (more professional operations such as Haunted Overload in New Hampshire and Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights are barely covered). The stories of local nobodies staging attractions on their own property simply aren’t that captivating.  Making matters worse, the documentary seems to resort to the manufactured drama typical of reality television.  A resoundingly false note is struck when a haunter receives (and reads aloud) a text from his Halloween-denouncing wife while in the midst of being interviewed. Further cause for skepticism: the testimony of a neighbor who claims she was traumatized by the haunt next door, yet somehow managed to get tricked into attending it several more times. If the film had chapter titles, “The House on Haunted Shill” would be a perfect one here.

So much focus is given to notorious extremist Russ McKamey, the documentary plays like a covert commercial for McKamey Manor. Accordingly, a distorted impression of haunting is given, where sadism and degradation masquerades as entertainment. The “art” of the scare reduces to torture porn, a point underscored by McKamey’s obsessive, close-up recording of attendees’ anguish.

Even though I only spent $3.99 on an Amazon video rental, I still felt fleeced by Haunters. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this documentary is that it has left the door open for a much less misguided and more compelling exploration of the haunted attraction phenomenon.

He Got Gamey

A quarter-century after its first publication, Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game has finally streamed its way onto Netflix. The film adaptation is no small feat, considering the challenges presented by the source material (with its inciting moment of a bondage game gone awry): protagonist Jessie Burlingame spends the bulk of the novel mostly naked and left handcuffed to the bedpost after a mule kick to her jackass husband’s crotch leads to the titular Gerald’s death by heart attack. Director Mike Flanagan deftly sidesteps issues of nudity and related sordidness by working details of a new negligee and a little blue pill into the plot, but he arguably drops the ball when attempting to execute a similar modifying maneuver.

I can appreciate that King’s novel–where Jessie is not only chained to the bed but locked up inside her own head–is fundamentally unfilmable without certain liberties being taken. Nevertheless, the movie’s decision to personify the voices in Jessie’s head as hallucinations proves problematical on several fronts. The almost darkly-comic note struck by these figures as they move around the bedroom somehow mutes the horror of Jessie’s solitary confinement. Streamlining eliminates the “Goodwife Burlingame” and “Ruth Neary” inner voices so prevalent in the novel, and the assertive/acerbic Jessie alter ego visualized in the film ends up lacking rationale. Most troubling of all is the reanimation of Gerald as recurring hallucination. While I did like that this allowed him to toss a couple of verbal Easter eggs (alluding to other King works), I soon found myself wishing that Bruce Greenwood’s character would just shut up and play dead already. Gerald spends too much film time posthumously dictating to his wife (for better or for worse), which seems to short circuit many of the feminist impulses of King’s novel.

Gerald’s lingering presence also eclipses another masculine antagonist; the film’s so-called “Moonlight Man” is both underutilized and misused. This dreadful apparition is drawn out of the shadows way too soon, missing a tremendous opportunity to develop extended psychological suspense. The Moonlight Man then haunts the film via a few nightmarish yet fleeting images that fail to capture the tormenting effect he has on the book version of Jessie. Also, in the adapted concluding scene in which Jessie confronts her monstrous voyeur, the film eschews the visceral (she spits right in his face in the book), opting for an expression of defiance that comes off as more trite than empowering.

Make no mistake, Carla Gugino gives a strong and believable performance as Jessie. Perhaps inevitably, though, the film lacks the immediacy, the intensity, of King’s novel.  As a viewer, I felt distanced, and (excepting the excruciating handcuff-escape scene) struggled to be be drawn into the experience of Jessie’s physical and mental ordeal. Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) is a fine director, but ultimately appears shackled here by the circumstances of King’s narrative. While it provides a few hours of solid entertainment, this version of Gerald’s Game isn’t destined to be called a classic.