31 Days of Horror - Week 3: 'Fright Night!' 'The Walking Dead! 'Red State!'
Day 14: The Wolf Man (1941)
I don’t have much to say about The Wolf Man, so I’ll try to keep things brief for both our sakes. I can see why Lawrence Talbot is largely thought of as being the best and most sympathetic of Universal’s line of howly monsters. He’s such a lope-a-dope schmo, a guileless man-child who likes to work with his hands and can’t turn away from a pretty face—even when that face is, ahem, engaged. So it’s kind of a bummer to see the big buffoon turned into a murderous monster who eventually gets bludgeoned to death by his father. Lon Chaney Jr. gives perhaps the most human performance of his monster movie pals—and the film does a job job at selling Larry’s brutish stature. Even though Chaney was only about 6’2’’, setting him next to the 5’6’’ Claude Rains makes him look like a giant. I also love the scenes set in the misty, monster laden swamps of Wales—it’s always nice to see a classicaly creepy setting put to good use. One last thing before I give up on finding things to say: I suspect that I might be overselling the innocence of Larry Talbot. Sure, he seems to be an up and up guy, but hound dogging an engaged woman is what got him into this mess… so maybe that’s the lesson here. Don’t try to mess up marriages folks, it would turn you into a hulking dog monster.
Day 15: Fright Night (2011)
When the trailer for the remake of Fright Night hit earlier this year, I feared that the remake would take the flawed but fun original and suck all of the fun out of it (see what I did there? Vampires!). To me, it just seemed like a studio attempt to take a pretty face use it to capitalize on the vampire craze while it was still hot. After all it has Colin Ferrell and a PG-13 rating—Bristle! Spit! Scorn!
But, like I am with most things, I was as wrong about Fright Night. The movie tanking at the box office wasn’t much of a surprise so much as the praise it received from the 8 or 9 people that actually went out and saw it. Indeed, Fright Night is quite a bit a fun—maybe moreso than the original, though I still prefer the original’s “Late Night Horror Hack battles Dracula” premise more than the weirdness they cooked up with David Tennant as a Vegas horror magician. The remake’s success is thanks in large part to Colin Ferrell hamming it up as the delightfully wicked vampire Jerry. Jerry takes such delight in being bad, smirking and grinning his way past every challenge, while yielding his overly-curious teenaged next door neighbor tiny little victories just to draw him in closer. It’s like watching a cat bat a mouse around before it finally puts the little guy out of its misery.
Overall, Fright Night is fun but thin, like a watered down soup (I’m sorry, but I couldn’t think of a better metaphor; I don’t know how soup can be fun). I started to forget about the movie as soon as it ended, which is never a good sign for its longevity. Roger Ebert once used the term “vaporfilm” to describe a movie like Fright Night, it zips through your brain without hitting any of the memory molecules, leaving you feeling kind of empty inside. A description like that is probably a bit harsh for Fright Night, but despite its good nature, there’s a distinct lack of meat in this breezy vampire tale.
Day 16: The Walking Dead – “What Lies Ahead” (2011)
Hey, The Walking Dead is back. Pretty swell news for horror fans—well, horror fans who didn’t think that the last season took a sudden turn for the terrible (for the record, I think that). But unlike a lot of people that turn their noses up at The Walking Dead for being a good pilot followed up by a few diminished episodes, I have a bit more hope that the show can still find its legs. After all, we have only seen six episodes, and I’m still enamored with the idea of a long-form horror story on television—that and the comic is still pretty great and shocking after all these years.
I was glad to see that the season 2 opener showed some promise in shying away from the B-movie silliness that was the CDC at the end of last season and got back to the horror basics and human drama that made the pilot ring with so many. The scenes of our surviving band taking cover under cars and corpses as a herd of the undead shamble past was pretty thrilling, and I like the liberties they’re taking with Shane. Jon Bernthal gave the best performance of last season, so I can see why the show’s writers would want to keep him around—like a kind of “what-if” alternate universe had he not gotten shot through the neck in issue 6. It’s also nice for the show to use Daryl beyond the broad redneck stereotypes that defined him before. This episode showed that he has use to the group beyond walking around while spewing racial slurs. He may be unpleasant, but he’s practical—which is a neat conundrum in this sort of circumstance.
Still, I can’t help but feel like there’s something missing in this show, a kind of tonal disconnect from writer Robert Kirkman’s strong comic. I know that the show is still in its infancy, so it’s probably premature to complain about this, but I’m not seeing it as being as bold with its characters as Kirkman is in the pages of the comic. Sure, the show is graphic as all get out (and still TV-14, somehow), but I can’t imagine it putting the characters through the same relentless torment that the comic drags them through. So, on that note, is it weird that when twelve-year-old Sophia wandered off into the woods that I secretly hoped that she would turn up dead? That’s not strange, is it? It’s just that I knew, deep down, that she would turn up okay. After all, this is television, and that’s how stories like this are resolved on television. I really want this show to challenge me as a viewer. I do like that her story wasn’t resolved in this episode, so I look forward to what the writers have in store for her, but I have a sinking feeling that it’s not going to go anywhere all that surprising. Then again, I’m not sure what I’m complaining about, this episode did end with a child being shot. Even though the scene of Carl taking a bullet was ripped straight from the comic, there aren’t too many shows on TV willing to take that route.
Day 17: Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)
I’m a sucker and a half for anthology horror films--even relatively inane ones like Black Sabbath (minority opinion, admitedly). The problem with a lot of horror movies is that they tend to lean to heavily on a solid but thin premise that then gets overstretched into a feature. There’s only so much you can do with “a man dresses up in a mask and kills everyone,” and as a result we get protracted scenes of people wandering around in the dark and endless streams of needless, often goofy, exposition.
With horror shorts you can dispense with the unnecessary details and skip to all of the good parts, which is essentially what’s done in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. This guy’s house gets overrun by an intelligent killer plant. Bam, done. There’s a werewolf in the basement. Wrap it up, done. Voodoo curse! The lack of explanation for anything adds an extra layer of oddity over everything and it rules.
When artist Michael Gough loses his hand when delightful asshole art critic Christopher Lee runs him over with his car, the artist’s hand comes back to haunt the prickly prick. Why? How? Look, don’t ask questions THERE’S A CRAWLING HAND COMING FOR YOUUUUU.
An Amicus Films production (not Hammer!), Dr. Terror sets five strangers in a train car who all get their fortune read by the titular Doctor of Terror (aside from Lee there’s also an extremely young, pre-hippie Donald Sutherland in the car, and Dr. Terror is played by a embearded Peter Cushing). Of course, being Dr. Terror and all, the mysterious doctor’s tarot readings always end with the turn of the Death card—meaning death and dismemberment for the subject. It's such wonderful hokum.
Day 18: Red State (2011)
I like Kevin Smith. He’s not a great filmmaker by any means, but his ribald Smodcast can be fun with its chuckleheaded humor and the hosts’ (Smith hosts along longtime producer Scott Mosier) knack for long, ridiculous yarns. It’s not sophisticated, but it’s fun, and, hell, I just like the way the man laughs. It’s endearing.
With that in mind, I was rather looking forward to Red State, the director’s foray away from semen and Batman jokes and into the world of horror. More people seemed to take interest in the film’s release than with the film itself, as Smith chose to opt out the traditional route of releasing his film through a distributor who would, in turn, spend ten times the film’s budget on marketing, and used his skills as a Web 2.0 huckster to release it himself. His ploy worked, Red State made money, and now it’s available on most web-streaming services. In that field, it’s Kevin Smith 1, Haters 0
Red State itself, however, is not wholey effective. It is, at the very least, a bold film, one that challenges the horror genre every chance that it gets—and why not? Horror films shouldn’t do what you expect. But Red State re-invents itself too often, baiting and switching so often that it leaves us wondering just what the hell we’re watching. For a counter-example, take a movie like Drive, for instance. Drive challenges genre in a way that brings you deeper into its dark little world. The first half of movie functions like many indie romance flicks—bits of quirk and tragedy mixed in with healthy dose of emotional weirdness, but then, suddenly, it changes in a way that makes viewers have to totally re-think everything that came before it.
Red State just kind of hops around. First as a genre piece where three horny kids get kidnapped by a lunatic group of churchies, then it becomes a bit like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (effectively, I should add) and then it turns into an assault picture. In jumping around like this, the cast shifts, bringing tertiary characters to the forefront and pushing what we thought were main characters off to the side. And the climax is more than a little silly. If your movie ends with straight faced scenes of women in flowery dresses screaming and spraying bullets out of a window then something went wrong somewhere. It’s like end of Hot Fuzz without the irony. Red State, at its core, is a massive mess.
At least it’s an interesting mess. Smith works a hell of a performance out of Michael Parks as an even more extreme version of America’s biggest asshole, Fred Phelps. When Parks highjacks the movie for ten minutes, sermonizing to his small band of believers, it doesn’t’ feel long or obtuse as it easily could have, and the reason it takes you in is all on Parks. On the surface Parks is pure charm, but the closer you get the more you see the bile beneath. That and what follows the sermon is one of the most horrific scenes I’ve seen all month, as the group dutifully kills a kidnapped homosexual. Had Smith managed to maintain this tone throughout Red State, he would have a hell of a movie on his hands.
Day 19: Black Sunday (1960)
This might be the perfect spookhouse Halloween movie. With Black Sunday, director Mario Bava actually uses the medieval setting to create atmosphere rather than relying solely on visceral scares. Movies of this ilk, the ones with pretty maidens and evil vampires, tend to look cheap, boasting visuals that barely move beyond a medium shot. But Bava breathes a great deal of liveliness into Black Sunday, a kind of folk tale about a resurrected witch who seeks to punish the ancestors of those who hammered a spiked mask onto her face and then buried her alive. It’s all gusting wind and trap doors, with the doom and gloom of an old castle bearing down on you. Every year in 31 Days of Horror, I always look for my “Big, Stupid Bowl-of-Candy Movie,” the one that would be perfect to enjoy on Hallows Eve seated alongside a big, stupid bowl of candy, and I think Black Sunday might be this year’s winner, though Dr. Terror comes close.
The movie is unexpectedly violent as well. When hooded men placed that mask on the witch’s pretty face in the films prologue and then splatter it on with a smack from a massive mallet, I had to pause the movie to double check the date. 1960? Yep.
I also have a stupid theory about this movie. Want to hear it? Great! (I can’t hear you.) The witch’s slumber is broken when two wealthy professors wander into a crypt after they leave their unfortunate driver to tend to a wheel that had broken off of their carriage (after demanding that he take a short cut). Rather than pay an ounce of respect to the dead, the pair of them wander into the tomb, break a crucifix, remove the witch’s mask, take a few trinkets from her grave and then head back to the carriage to abuse some more servants. As the witch comes back, she punishes the wealthy men that wronged her, teaching them a lession in taking responsibility for their actions. It's like Occupy Wall Street: The Gothic Horror Movie. Don’t treat the poor and unfortunate like crap, rich people; don’t make the milk maiden wander off into the world’s most terrifying forest to fetch a pail of milk in the middle of the night--otherwise a witch might kill you.
Day 20: Bad Taste (1987)
What in the world did I just watch?
I am well aware that before Kiwi director Peter Jackson took on Tolkein with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he produced a handful of junk-food splatterfests in his natie New Zealand. In fact, I’m quite the fan of his completely nutty Dead Alive, which solves the ancient riddle of “what happens when you walk through a room full of zombies with an upturned lawnmower?” So with his first film, Bad Taste, which the director made with friends on weekends over the course of four years, I was expecting ridiculous amounts of goop and weird Kiwi humor.
But this. This I did not expect.
I don’t even know where to begin. The horrible, horrible sub-Mystery Science Theater score? The complete lack of structure? The aliens with their butt cheeks hanging out of the back of their pants? Just. What?
The gist of it is this: a group of aliens invade a tiny New Zealand village and turn their inhabitants into intergalactic fast food, so the New Zealand government responds by sending a group of, well, nerds with machine guns to take care of the problem. What follows is an incoherent, irritating mess of a movie, one that jumps from splatter to cornball gags and back for nearly an hour-and-a-goddamn-half.
I would guess that Jackson’s mission statement in making Bad Taste may have been something like this: “Okay, everything is going to look like shit and nobody is going to get paid, but we’re going to have a ton of sweet gore. So let's get cracking.”
Indeed there is some pretty gross stuff in Bad Taste and some of the jokes are even quite funny. You can even tell that Jackson is dynamic and energetic behind the camera. But geez couldn’t it be 40 minutes long instead of a feature? That way it would be at least make for an engrossingly weird student film—maybe not a student film that would make you think that the kid shoving alien brains into his broken skull would one day go on to win an Oscar and make one of the best epic films to ever grace the screen, but decent, nonetheless.
Still, if the existence of Bad Taste means that I would eventually get Dead Alive, The Frighteners and Lord of the Rings then I can live with it. If anything, it’s a testament to Jackson’s talent that he went from this cacophony of a film to Lord of the Rings in just twelve years.