With the Halloween fast approaching, Starpulse contributing writer Kris King is watching a horror movie that has passed him by for every day in October. This week Kris does the time warp with "Rocky Horror," gets turned into a pod person
The culture behind "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" has always sort of lingered on the edge of my awareness. I knew it was there, I knew people liked it and I knew it involved dressing in drag and spanking each other with paddles. So, knowing that, and because I'm not a gay drama club member, I sort of chalked the whole institution to "not my thing." After finally watching "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (away from the synchronized transvestites in the comfort of my own home), I can safely report that the movie is definitively not my thing. That said, I now understand the movie's appeal, and I don't think I will ever be able to get "Time Warp" out of my head for the rest of my life.
"Rocky Horror" is celebration of hokey B-movie culture. A jovial middle finger to normality that transforms the representation of the viewer (Brad and Janet) from fuddy-duddy prudes into hedonistic, leather clad omnisexuals. Even though "Rocky Horror" is considered a cult movie, it's made more than $139 million dollars since its release and can still be seen in theaters across the country. Call me jaded, but I can't help but shed the feeling that it all feels a bit too safe. Sure there are men in lingerie (who would have thought Tim Curry would have such nice legs?) and a general breakdown of traditional morals, but in the end dressing in drag at a midnight showing of Rocky Horror feels about as subversive as going trick or treating. Unless there are Rocky Horror orgy parties out there. That's pretty subversive.
It's logical that the sole survivors of a zombie apocalypse would be plagued with neuroses. The same social ticks that protected them from normal people come in mighty handy once everyone turns into flesh starved corpses. Wimpy WoW-nerd narrator Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) stays alive through borderline OCD routine, and an adherence to survival rules that read like a scene from "Scream." Always check the back seat. Avoid public bathrooms. Don't be a hero. Columbus's personal zombie survival guide gets put to the test once he teams up with reckless redneck Tallahassee, whose love of zombie killin' is only matched by his never-ending quest for the world's last Twinkie. Those things have an expiration date on them, you know.
Compared to other zombie comedies, namely the high water mark "Shaun of the Dead," "Zombieland" almost feels refreshing. While "Shaun" remains a pitch perfect send-up of the genre, it ultimately submits to the same generic touchstones it spends most of the movie spoofing. "Zombieland" doesn't go that route, and it's nice to see a comedy about zombies that doesn't devolve into tearfully blowing away a friend or watching a likable character ripped apart before your eyes.
As horrible as it is, the world of Zombieland represents a cathartic release for those that are left. It's a world where taking out a few zombies with a banjo or demolishing a tacky souvenir shop takes the place of scream therapy. A place where golf courses and amusement parks are not only free, they don't have any lines. You can even get stoned with your favorite movie star. For the four misfits of "Zombieland" it took the apocalypse to finally achieve their dreams of bagging the girl, building a family, or just finally eating a goddamn Twinkie. Can you have a feel good zombie movie?
Producer Val Lewton's ability to turn schlock into art is remarkable. As the head of RKO's horror department, Lewton used nascent directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson to churn out masterful works of suspense based on hokey titles like "Cat People" and "I Walked with a Zombie" with $150,000 budgets. Averaging about seventy minutes a pop, Lewton's films are like bite sized bits of cinema. With "The Leopard Man," rather than regaling an exploitative tale of a man/leopard hybrid, Lewton and Tourneur tell one cinema's first serial killer stories.
The film's thin budget barely shows through its tense scenes. Early on, in what amounts to the best scene of the movie, a young girl is forced to walk to the store at night to pick up corn meal for her mother. Afraid of the dark, she bravely ventures into impenetrable darkness. Darkness on film is cheap, and Lewton and Tourneur use it to their advantage. Both the girl and the audience know that a virtually invisible predator lurks in the shadow, and the simple glint of two eyes is enough to send everyone reeling.
In terms of gore, Tobe Hooper's seminal "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" comes up short by today's standards. It's a brutal, affecting movie, with eerie characters and a man that wears a mask made of other people's faces, but on a whole it's pretty tame. Then there's the Spanish produced piece of exploitation schlock "Pieces." "Pieces" might not be the best movie ever made, but what it lacks in scares, substance, originality, decency, restraint, or artistic integrity, it makes up for in being ridiculously and unscrupulously gory as shit.
The tagline for "Pieces" promises viewers "You don't have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre." On a whole, the movie feels like a schoolyard effort to prove that it's the harder than its better, more successful older brother chainsaw movie. As a result, "Pieces" achieves a special level of grindhouse sleaze. Naked women get chased down corridors and sawed up in the shower, a kung-fu Bruce Lee look-alike attacks the heroine for no discernable reason and a small child chops up his mother with an axe for taking away his pornographic puzzle. It's a nutty movie that continually adds nonsense on top of nonsense, and climaxes with a hilarious left-field "say what?" ending that's as glorious as it is retarded.
There's a scene about a third of the way through Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" that may be one of the best self-conscious winks to the audience I've ever come across. As Health Department inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) drives down a busy San Francisco street, a panic-stricken older man jumps onto his car screaming "They're here already! You're next! You're next!" The scene mirrors the end of the 1956 original, even down to the actor, Kevin McCarthy. The original film ends with McCarthy's Miles Bennell running down the street, warning passersby of the plot of the pod people. But, unlike the original, Kaufman allows the scene to play out, and the audience finally sees what becomes of Miles after the credits roll: he gets fatally run down by a car. The scene exemplifies Kaufman's push for a richly graphic, haunting vision of "Body Snatchers" that answers the unseemly questions left open by the original. Miles's last ditch effort to warn humanity feels like a warning cry, and his mad-eyed dash offers a small glimmer of salvation for the human race. But by 1978, things aren't looking so bright, and this updated version leaves little to hope for.
Driving through the Texas wasteland en route to California, guileless pretty-boy Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up a rain-soaked drifter John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) in an effort to fight off fatigue and spice up his dull ride with some labored conversation. Halsey's clueless platitudes quickly come to an end when Ryder pulls out a switchblade and threatens to dismember him just like the last dope that picked him up.
Through most of its running time, "The Hitcher" doesn't seem to know in what direction it wants to go. It's one part psychological thriller and one part inane slasher movie. While the scenes between Hauer and Howell are strong, and the cinematography from future Oscar winner John Seale beautiful, the rather wacky action and questionable ethics near the end bogs down what is otherwise a pretty decent thriller.
The little moments between Halsey and Ryder make up the best part of the movie. When the two first meet, Ryder becomes disgusted with Halsey's pantywaisted pleas for his life and Ryder seemingly takes it upon himself to make a man out of our hapless hero. What follows is a torturous effort to remake Halsey in Ryder's image. Ryder's games twist and pervert Halsey's sense of what's right and wrong, and forces the boy to face unsolvable situations like wrongful imprisonment and a state wide manhunt. But then there's all this other stuff…
Ryder's ability to simply appear wherever Halsey goes becomes increasingly unlikely and at times borders on supernatural. He appears in a locked hotel room like a specter, and manages shoot down a helicopter with a handgun while orchestrating the most elaborate frame-job this side of "North By Northwest." He even manages to kill an entire squadron of police officers like the goddamn Terminator. To make matters worse, there are a number of completely insane car chases in the film that feel out of place considering its low key beginnings. They're pretty car chases, but they're still kind of stupid.
A few years ago, Bravo often showed a countdown of the 100 scariest moments on film. It was a fairly interesting series that discussed many horror movies that don't often get much press in the mainstream media. It also managed to ruin the ending for practically everything on the list. It spoiled "The Wicker Man," "Black Christmas," "Don't Look Now," "Re-Animator" and, well, 96 other movies. It was through this special that I learned about the 1988 Dutch/French film "The Vanishing." I contemptuously avoided the movie for years, quietly cursing Bravo for spoiling the film's ending. And for a movie about a man's quest to find what happened to his kidnapped girlfriend--not knowing ahead of time is kind of important aspect of maintaining suspense.
Despite knowing what's coming, the final scenes of "The Vanishing" remain deeply disturbing and one of the most pure instances of genuine horror captured on film. As Rex (Gene Bervoets) marches towards solving the mystery of his girlfriend Saskia's (Johanna ter Steege) fate, his passion morphs into obsession, and knowing what's in store for him only compounds the film's tragic sense of crushing inevitability. The film's final scenes bear on your chest with the weight of an elephant. Watching it feels like being choked. It's a tangible horror, that's amplified by the film's cold objectivity.
As much talk as there is about the ending of "The Vanishing," and the hair pulling, suffocating sense of dread that accompanies it, the movie's success doesn't hinge on its final scenes. Aside from following Rex, we spend equal time with Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), Saskia's kidnapper. A cool tempered, affable family man, Raymond devises the perfect kidnapping plot like a kind of sick existential hobby. He'd almost be endearing if such horrible perversion didn't lurk behind his eyes. "The Vanishing" is, at its core, about learning the truth, and rather than obfuscate Saskia's disappearance in well worn dramatic trickery, the movie slowly reveals everything to the viewer. And the closer Rex gets to solving the mystery, the more we realize that knowing the truth might not be worth it.