Thursday, October 31, 2019

What I Watched This October (2019 edition), part 12

We begin part 12 -- 12! -- with one of the titles I was really hoping would come out of the hopper this year:
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

And come out of the hopper it has, so we'll see if that turns out to be a thing I'm as pleased with after as I am before.
Prior to this, I'd only seen the film a couple of times.  I saw it on opening night in 1996, with a group of work friends; we all went to a late show, and were having a grand old time with it until the film melted during the big turn that the movie takes partway through.  They got it fixed, but it took a while; years later, once I became a projectionist, I retroactively diagnosed the incident as a brain wrap (I'd love to spend a paragraph or two trying to explain what that means, but nope, not gonna -- it involves the film bunching up and becoming unable to move through a crucial 35mm-platter-system device called the brain).  Anyways, after that, I can't honestly say I enjoyed the rest of the movie; I got the DVD when it came out, and still felt like it fell apart during that scene and never got its mojo back, so I don't blame the experience of the film melting -- I blame the film.
I was not a horror fan at the time, though, apart from enjoying King books and movies.  Now that many, many years have passed, I'm anxious to see whether my ongoing love of Tarantino combined with my (relative to this film's release) newfound appreciation for the cinematic genre as a whole might combine to turn this into a movie I can finally embrace.
The verdict:
Nope.  I just don't like this movie.  I like parts of it; I like the enthusiasm which seems to power it.  But as a whole, it doesn't work for me.  And to be honest, I find it to be really icky.  The Gecko brothers are gross, awful people; Seth less than Richie, but Richie -- played quite effectively by Tarantino, if you ask me -- is utterly loathsome in every way, so Seth being a step up from him is an awfully low bar to clear.

We return now to the question which dogged me a bit when I revisited The Devil's Rejects: what are the ethics of me being okay with these characters being the protagonists of a movie?  If I follow the chain of rational self-examination I opened up there, I suppose I ought to come to the same conclusion: namely, that there's no real need to worry about it, because the characters aren't meant to be taken as anything other than the device by which the horror is delivered.  Richie is probably no more loathsome than Otis.  Otis, in fact, could be seen as a combination of Seth and Richie: Seth's verbosity and charisma mixed with Richie's penchant for sexual perversity and cruelty.

But I'd much rather spend viewing time with Otis, as opposed to the Geckos.  Why?  I'm really not sure.  All I know is, the scenes in From Dusk Till Dawn in which we have to spend time inhabiting Richie's perversity are genuinely gross.  I think maybe I'm worried that Richie shares more with the real Tarantino than I'm comfortable with.  After all, we know Tarantino is a foot fetishist, so when we get a scene in which Tarantino as a screenwriter writes a scene in which Tarantino the actor "has" to have one of the world's most beautiful women stick her foot in his mouth and pour whiskey down her leg into it, that seems as if in the real world a line has been crossed.

I could likely write a very long post discussing the movie from this standpoint and others similar to it, but that seems like a waste of my time.  Suffice it to say, the movie bummed me out from multiple such angles; and I'm not super PC myself, you know, so if it's bumming me out then it must be appalling to those more sensitive than I.

Even with such considerations ignored, though, I really just don't like the movie.  The shift to cartoonish horror doesn't work tonally.  If it had shifted to a serious balls-to-the-wall vampire-focused action movie, I think that might have worked, and possibly quite well.  For it to shift to one which takes itself as non-seriously as this one does is sloppy at best; at worst, it smells like a squandering of money on a boys-being-boys playground of exploitation.  I suppose the argument could be made that the entire movie is that, but I'd argue that if it was shooting for that, it failed.  Want to see that done right?  As your physician, I prescribe House of 1000 Corpses, and good luck not getting worn out by it within half an hour.  But at least there's some clarity of approach there; the result is overkill, but that's an appropriate result for the approach, so it's at least consistent.

There are some charms within From Dusk Till Dawn, though.  Here are a few:

  • Tarantino's screenplay isn't one of his best, but it's got occasional great lines.
  • George Clooney is great.  I wish his character was better-written, but he gives a strong performance.
  • Salma Hayek.  Jesus God Almighty.  She is apocalyptically, mind-meltingly hot in this movie.  During her character's dance scene, you can see Tom Savini's character in the background sitting there looking at her with his jaw literally dropped.  I do not believe this was acting.  There's also a bit when Hayek is on the table with her back(side) to Clooney when she backs up toward him quickly.  You can see Clooney react with stunned and appreciative surprise, and I don't think this was acting, either.  I strongly suspect that Salma Hayek strode onto the set of this movie and time stood still for anyone who was susceptible to her charms, which was probably just about everyone.  (I can only imagine the impact it must have had on the kid who plays Scott.  You could probably hear the sound of him entering puberty.)
  • It's kind of fun to have Tom Savini playing a large-ish role.  He's squandered; Savini has buckets of charisma, and little of it is utilized.  Still, nice to see him.
  • A few of the gore gags work well.  It makes no sense, but the guitarist inexplicably having an instrument made out of a human torso and limbs is kind of funny.

Mostly, though, I think the gore gags are a bust.  They are weakened by virtue of the vampires' blood being green, and there's also a kitchen-sink approach to the mayhem that strikes me as a vastly-less-successful version of what Peter Jackson did in Dead Alive.

So for me, I think a final opinion has been reached on this film: it doesn't work.  It doesn't work as a horror movie, it doesn't work as an exploitation movie, it doesn't work as a Tarantino movie.  It's got the Salma Hayek scene to its credit, but even that is compromised by Tarantino's acting role within it.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What I Watched This October (2019 edition), part 11

Six more days til Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, six more days til Halloween, let's watch movies!
Fuck, that was lame.
Riding the Bullet (2004)
Speaking of lame, I've been banging the drum for years and hollering about how sucktastic Riding the Bullet is.  I only ever saw it once, though, and a friend has been telling me about how it's one of his favorite King movies.  So when we (and his wife, who I've known even longer than I've known him) decided to have a movie night tonight, he picked Riding the Bullet.  Fine by me!  It was on my list for the season, anyways.
And I'll be gosh-darned if that movie isn't quite a bit better than I remembered it being.  In fact, I ... I, uh ... I kind of dug it.  Does this mean I have a bunch of apologizing to do to Mick Garris?  Shit, man; it might.  If so, I also owe David Arquette and Barbara Hershey apologies for things I've said about their performances over the years.
So what gives here?  Was I wrong about the movie all along?  Am I simply extra receptive to things this year?  (After all, I became a quasi-apologist for mother-scratchin' Trucks, of all things, in my previous post.  Trucks!)
I think I lean closer to thinking the former is true.  The fact is, this is an imperfect movie, but one which has a big heart that it wears on its sleeve the entire time -- and that's a good look for a King movie.  King pretty much always wears his heart on his sleeve, both in life and in fiction, and most of the best adaptations of his work beat with that same sentimental heart.  It doesn't always work -- for every Shawshank there's a Hearts In Atlantis, and Riding the Bullet isn't even as good as that.  But it's not bad.  Or I didn't find it to be tonight; that's all I can say with authority.
The film's biggest problem lies in its overuse of an editing conceit that is designed to offer us peeks into Alan's imagination, which is almost always overflowing with negativity.  It's a neat device, and Garris uses it very effectively a few times; but he pops the cork on it way too often -- seemingly about a thousand times.  My friend's wife was audibly annoyed by it by the end of the movie (although she liked the film overall).  I don't blame her.
Apart from that, though, this is a fairly effective film.  The performances are good; Jonathan Jackson is solid as Alan, Barbara Hershey is good as his mother, and David Arquette is effective as the ghost (?) George Staub.  I remember Arquette being absolutely dreadful, and I can imagine somebody watching the movie and thinking he was kind of campy; but dreadful?  No way.  He's actually kind of great in a few scenes.
The 1969 setting is effective, too.  It leads to some quality -- if stereotypical -- songs being on the soundtrack, so there's that.  But Garris's decision to set the film in that decade -- in its waning months, which in some ways were the waning months of an entire movement, and entire way of life -- brings into contemporaneity with King's own real-life college career (and Garris's, if I'm not mistaken).  And the way the movie links its notions about facing life and death on equal measure have some interesting things to say in conversation with, for example, the previously-mentioned Hearts In Atlantis.  (The novel/collection moreso than the movie.)
Whether any of that is enough to vault one past the movie's iffier moments is a matter of personal preference; for me, it did, this time.  
I was especially struck by a brief conversation Alan has with his two roommates in which one of them talks about how weird an idea it is to think about the future, when their rock idols of the moment -- Lennon, Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison -- will be fat and old.  It's kind of an obvious and cheesy observation to toss into a modern movie, which I'm sure is how I took it back in 2004, with an accompanying eyeroll.  Thing is, those are precisely (a few of) the people you'd mention if you were going to have that conversation in 1969.  How could you know that none of them would make it?  Why would you even guess at such a thing?  How would you know you yourself wouldn't make it?  Many people who had a thought of that nature in 1969, or in any year, didn't.
I'm at the point where 2004 -- goddamn fucking 2004, man -- seems like the distant past.  Know why?  Because it is!  That was fifteen frigging years ago!  Good lord.  So maybe it's that adjusted relationship with mortality which sparked a reappraisal of this movie.
Beats me.  All I know is, I'm suddenly a bit of a Riding the Bullet fan.
2019 really IS a wild year, man.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

What I Watched This October (2019 edition), part 10

2019 is the third consecutive year I've done these "What I Watched This October" writeups.  I enjoy them greatly, but I remembered last night that the first year, I wrote a mere three posts in the series; last year it was ten, and by way of cheating and beginning in early September this year, I've already hit ten.  With nine days off coming up at the end of the month, there's no telling how many I'll hit.  I hope this isn't taxing anyone's patience, but if it is then allow me to reassure you somewhat: the 2020 edition is likely to be briefer on account of how I'm planning a trip to Disney World.  (Although if that trip ends up happening -- and I expect it will -- then there's likely to be a trip to Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, my first ever.  You think that isn't going to get blogged up a storm?  Sheeeeeeit....)
Anyways, this year's Part 10 begins with a movie I'd never even heard of until relatively recently:
Dead & Buried (1981)

The screenplay for this one is credited to Alien co-writers Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon, but Wikipedia informs me that O'Bannon disavowed the movie, claiming that Shusett rewrote it extensively and removed all of his ideas.  Well, that's how it goes in Hollywood, I guess.

This one is about a small coastla-Californian town -- Potters Bluff -- where vicious murders begin happening.  The sheriff begins investigating, as sheriff are wont to do, and stumbles into a morass of voodoo, witchcraft, and mortuary cosmetology.

The setup isn't bad, and there are numerous effective moments strewn throughout the movie, beginning with the opening scene, in which a photographer is ambushed on the beach by a woman who flirts with him before setting him on fire in a very different way.  There's a good deal of inventive suspense in this scene, and when the movie hits notes like that (as it does occasionally throughout), it's on solid ground.

However, on the whole it makes little sense, and it's weighed down by a weak performance from James Farentino in the lead.  I was more interested in Melody "Dale Arden from Flash Gordon" Anderson, who plays his wife; she's pretty great, and is underused compared to Farentino.  I'm somewhat torn on the subject of Jack "Grandpa Bucket from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" Albertson, who plays -- spoiler alert! -- the bad guy; he's good, but he's also hammy, and I don't think I think he helped the movie all that much.

My opinion of the movie is also worsened by two factors, one of which is fair and one of which is not.  The fair one: holy crap is there a lot of dubbing in this film, and holy shit is most of it terrible.  If you notice dubbing at all, it's a bust; if you notice it enough to have a negative opinion of it, it's a disaster.  This is a disaster.  So is my unfair criticism, which is that the video quality on the Blu-ray (from Blue Underground) is quite poor; it looks like a mediocre DVD transfer that has been slapped onto a hi-def disc.

So all in all, Dead & Buried was a bust for me.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

What I Watched This October (2019 edition), part 9

We'll begin this one with an eighties classic that doesn't qualify as horror, but which is of interest to us nonetheless:
Clue (1985)

"Classic" might be a bit of a stretch on this one, actually.  It was a complete flop when it first came out, and while it's developed a cult following over the years, I'm not sure describing it as a classic is a bucket that holds much water.
I'd never seen it before now.  I remember it coming out; it had a big marketing presence.  I never did actually see it, though.  In fact, to this day I have yet (as far as I can remember) to ever actually play the board game upon which the movie was based.  Clue altogether seems to have just sort of escaped me; or perhaps I escaped it, who knows?
I thought the movie was pretty amusing, though.  It gets by almost solely based on the charms of its exceptional cast, which includes:
  • Tim Curry, who is manic and delightful as Wadsworth the butler;
  • Lesley Ann Warren, who is bright and slinky as Ms. Scarlet;
  • Christopher Lloyd, who is a bit more reserved than normal, though still fun, as Professor Plum;
  • Eileen Brennan, who is mildly cuckoo as Mrs. Peacock;
  • Martin Mull, who is greasy and somewhat dull as Colonel Mustard;
  • Madeline Kahn, who is mostly wasted (though occasionally funny) as Mrs. White;
  • Michael McKean, who is bland but eventually effective as Mr. Green (the character most likely to not work with modern audiences);
  • and Colleen Camp, who is required to wear a rather short dress as Yvette, the maid.

The movie (which was produced by Debra Hill, who also produced films this blog holds dear such as Halloween and The Dead Zone) is set in 1954 and is shallowly set against the backdrop of the Red Scare from American politics of the period.  The screenplay wrings some decent humor out of that element, and I give the movie credit for even trying to do such things during the process of being based on a freaking board game.  The set also deserves kudos, as do the costumes.
Really, though, this is one is all about the acting for me.  Nobody does Oscar-worthy work or anything like that, but everyone has fun and gets their individual jobs done in memorable fashion.  Overall, I'd say the movie is a low-key charmer; perhaps not more, although it's entirely possible it will grow on me over time.
Either way, I'm happy to have seen it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

What I Watched This October (2019 edition), part 8: All-Romero Special

As you may have gleaned from the title of this post, I'm devoting part eight entirely to the films of George Romero.  I'm going to be tackling all of the ones I've never seen before, as well as a few that I have seen but have not covered on my blog.  We begin with one of the latter:
Day of the Dead (1985)

Rather than march chronologically through all the films I'm covering, I thought I'd cover the remaining Dead films first.  That way, we don't have to end with Diary and Survival, which I've been assured are doggy doo.  I've seen neither, so I cannot comment ... yet.
I have seen Day of the Dead, I think only once.  I thought it was pretty great, but this rewatch only kind of reinforced that opinion.

The good: I'm onboard for the concept (underground scientific-research bunker guarded by increasingly dissatisfied soldiers) and for the zombie action (which is pretty damn gnarly).  I like the main character (Sarah) and the score (by Creepshow composer John Harrison).

The bad: I dislike most of the acting.  Quite a bit, actually.  Lori Cardille is very good as Sarah, and Howard Sherman gets close to being great as Bub the zombie.  Almost everyone else is a complete washout.  Let me single some folks out:

  • Terry Alexander puts on what I assume is a ridiculously false Jamaican (?) accent as John the helicopter pilot; why he was allowed to do this is a mystery to me.  
  • Joe Pilato as Rhodes, the leader of the soldiers, has some good moments in which he's appropriately scary; but he also gets way overwrought at times.  Maybe this is the idea; I could sort of buy that, I guess, but it doesn't play that way for me.
  • Richard Liberty, playing "Dr. Frankenstein," is simply incompetent.  He's trying things that are well outside his limited skillset, such as aiming for a mixture of instability and knowledge-based superiority.  He's bad in every scene he has.  An argument could probably be made stating that this helps to make the untrustworthiness of the doctor come across, and I'd tentatively buy that if it didn't also make everyone working with him look like a chump for doing so.  But it does, so it hurts the movie.
  • The guys who play Steele and Rickles (the perpetually-sarcastically-amused soldiers) are aggravating beyond belief.  They may as well be there purely to cause audience members to cheer when they -- spoiler! -- are killed by the zombies.  Yeah, sure, I guess; you get on my nerves for an hour and a half, I'm glad when you're gone.  Well done...?

Everyone else is basically fine, including John "Martin" Amplas as a scientist.  But those five performances listed above really drag the movie down a notch for me.  I still like it as a whole, but this feels like a movie I ought to have loved, and it isn't, quite.

A few individual moments I did love:

  • That jump scare at the beginning is still effective (and was put to good use at the beginning of Stranger Things 3).
  • Every scene with Bub.  It's arguably a silly idea, but remember, Romero invented this type of zombie; so if he wanted to progress the concept to this point (and, potentially, beyond), then that's okay by me.  A zombie getting googly-eyed over hearing a bit of Ludwig van?  Yes sir.  A zombie snapping off a sarcastic salute?  Sure, why not?
  • The standoff scene where Rhodes orders Steele to shoot Sarah is pretty great.
  • The zombie whose head is gone except for the brain and spinal cord is a hell of an effect.
  • Miguel freaking out and slapping Sarah -- twice -- and immediately regretting it is well-played.  Cardille's reaction is shocked and hurt but still determined to help; she's great there.
  • Rickles's head being pulled off is also a great effect.  Pretty obvious how that was done, but effective all the same.
  • Ditto for Rhodes's death.
And probably all sorts of other stuff I'm not immediately remembering.
So yeah, all in all, I like the movie.  But gosh, some of the performances hurt it.