Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Horror Triple Features, Day the Final


Today's movies don't really have much in common except that they're horror movies and they all feature characters who are dressed up in costumes. But it felt like a fitting way to close out the Halloween season.

HELL NIGHT (1981)

Linda Blair, several years out from The Exorcist, leads this cast of fraternity/sorority wannabes who have to spend the night in a spooky mansion as part of their hazing (why the guys and gals all seem to be pledging the same organization and why there are only four of them is unclear). Their tormentors have devised a bunch of fake scares for them, but some very real (and very deadly) scares are in store for them instead. This movie is pretty goofy, especially at the beginning, with some laborious joke set-ups, but I love that everyone is in costume and the story that gives us the background of the spooky house is pretty well done. This movie also boasts a rare character who actually acts in his own interest and is proactive - CONCEPT!


TERROR TRAIN (1980)

The old "prank gone awry" chestnut is so much of a trope that I almost made it a triple feature of its own. This prank is particularly sick -- perhaps even worse than the pig's blood prank in Carrie, if you can imagine such a thing. The use of costumes in this is actually relevant to the plot, since the killer keeps exchanging costumes with their victims, which means no one knows anything fishy is going on until well into the movie. This movie boasts Jamie Lee Curtis post-Halloween and not many more actors of note. It also features David Copperfield as a (wait for it) magician, but not as himself -- the kind of magician who would take a job entertaining college kids at a party that takes place on a train. This is a pretty cool slasher, even if for a brief period of time the killer strongly resembles film critic Gene Shalit.


TRICK 'R TREAT (2007)

This movie is a new Halloween favorite of mine and it's a shame it never got a proper theatrical release. It's an anthology film, but not like most that you're used to. Rather than being short stand-alones, these stories all happen on the same night, in the same town, and overlap and criss-cross in unexpected ways. Over the course of the film we see: a father carving "pumpkins" with his son; a group of Sexy Disney Princesses (pictured above) out for a wild night, teasing the youngest among them about her "first time"; a group of kids paying their respects to children who tragically died many years before (and another entry "prank gone awry" pantheon); an old man terrorized by ... well, I'm not sure what to even call it; and a few other little plots that tie things together. A new horror classic, as far as I'm concerned, and it's juuuust scary enough to be fun.

***

I hope anyone who read these enjoyed them, and perhaps tried one of them out for themselves. Happy Halloween, everyone!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween Horror Triple Features, Day 5

Final girls are a staple of the horror genre, and particularly of slashers. There's a pretty famous list of tropes final girls are supposed to adhere to, but no final girl fits them all. Heck, they're not even all girls (*waves to Jesse from Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and Alfred from The Burning). They're definitely the last victim left alive, the closest thing horror movies have to a heroine/hero. They usually defeat the villain (often with a phallic weapon). They're sympathetic in some way, usually fulfilling the "good girl" role (she's either a virgin or she doesn't drink or do drugs like the other characters). And she's usually the only one who takes the villain seriously from the beginning, while everyone else laughs off the "legend" or whatever device the movie has concocted for telling us about the Big Bad.

If you're a horror fan, there are probably a bunch of final girls you'll instantly think of -- Laurie Strode (Halloween), Nancy Thompson (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Sally Hardesty (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Ginny Field (Friday the 13th Part II), Kirsty Cotton (Hellraiser), Ellen Ripley (Alien), Sidney Prescott (Scream), etc. But I want to shine a light on a trio of lesser known (or perhaps just less frequently heralded) final girls.



Nora Davis, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963) -- This movie is technically a giallo (though originally written as a romantic comedy), but these movies were the forerunners of slashers and Nora (played by Leticia Roman) was a prototypical final girl. Stranded in Rome after the death of her aunt, and believing that she has witnessed a murder, Nora's life becomes as exciting as the mystery novels she's constantly reading. Why, she's even cavorting with a young John Saxon! She may be a bit hysterical, but she's also clever, resourceful and tenacious. A worthy predecessor to the likes of Laurie Strode and Chris Higgins.

Jess Bradford, BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) -- Jess (played by Olivia Hussey) has something not many final girls have. A fully fledged character arc. Probably her only rival in this respect is Sidney Prescott, but Sidney gets four movies while Jess has to win us over in just one. The abortion subplot may seem a little out of left field, but not only does it give us a great red herring in Jess's overwrought pianist boyfriend, but it also gives us a lot of subtle character development. She bucks the "good girl" cliche (which didn't even exist yet) but proves you don't have to be a goodie two shoes to be a good person.

Erin Harson, YOU'RE NEXT (2013) -- I almost feel sorry for the killers in this movie. (Almost.) They've shown up like they're in a heist movie, but they soon find themselves in a zombie apocalypse movie (not really, but with the same level of carnage), up against Erin (Sharni Vinson), who seems like she's already lived through one of those and knows all the tricks of survival. Her closest spiritual predecessor among the final girls is probably Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street, but even Nancy could never have dreamed of being *this* badass. Nancy studied survival techniques only after she found herself in a crisis. Erin has all that knowledge ready to go. No preparation montage required.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Halloween Horror Triple Features, Day 4

One of my FAVORITE horror tropes -- and one of the tropes that genuinely scares me the most -- is the conspiracy plot, the idea that everyone is in on it but you (or the main character, rather). The feeling of not being in control and that everyone else is operating under a different set of rules or different information than you is TERRIFYING. Sometimes these fears are unfounded, but I really love the ones where the fears are justified and the character has to deal with how far the conspiracy goes and who they can and can't trust. Here are three movies that utilize this trope extremely well.


GET OUT (2017) -- The newest addition to this trope, and a confronting look at race in America. Chris goes with his white girlfriend to spend the weekend with her parents, and even before the usual horror stuff starts, the racial awkwardness is already horrifying. From the cop's profiling of Chris to Dean's interrogation to every horrific conversation at the garden party ("Is it true? Is it better?"), this movie is as deliberately cringe-inducing as any David Cronenberg body horror. Like a lot of movies of this subgenre, Get Out gets a lot of mileage out of making you suspicious of something (like a phone being unplugged) and then undercutting it with the knowledge of how ridiculous it sounds to speak that suspicion out loud. Surely it can't be what it looks like -- that's ridiculous! Right? TSA Rod's conversation with the cops is this whole trope in a nutshell. We know what he's saying is (mostly) right, but it sounds so insane you wonder why he thought anyone would believe him. (Strangely not available to rent online. You can buy a digital version on most streaming sites, but it costs about as much as buying a physical copy.)

ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) -- I love Mia Farrow's Rosemary more and more every time I watch this. It would be easy to read her as a weak, passive character, but in truth she's anything but. She's suspicious of the Castevets almost immediately, but her husband assures her that there's nothing to worry about. Her biggest mistake is trusting him, but who would suspect their spouse of the things Guy is doing? Especially at that time when gender roles were so different than they are now. Rosemary puts up a good fight, though, and it's only through deception and manipulation (Guy is just disgustingly passive aggressive and gaslight-y) that the devil worshippers are able to keep her under control. I still say she should have known something was up, though, when they were able to afford an apartment in that building, which in real life is one of the most famous and exclusive buildings in New York. (Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes.)

SOCIETY (1989) -- A good percentage of this movie is cheesy 1980s "rich people partying" goodness, but there's a lot going on here and it's frighteningly relevant to our current times. (There's a theme song that actually has the lyric "when you get tired of winning." #somuchwinning) This movie is one of the better examples of undercutting the protagonist's point of view, because Billy does have genuine psychological issues and hallucinations. And feeling alienated from his family could just be a result of his having his own life and his own friends. The third act has to be seen to be believed, and it's a vivid (and perhaps on the nose) metaphor for how the rich suck the life out of the poor. (Streaming on Shudder.)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Halloween Horror Triple Features, Day 3

I find huge trucks inherently scary. They're just so enormous and they're on the same roads with the normal-sized cars and driving around them is kind of frightening. I can't imagine actually driving one either. I don't know, it makes total sense to me that "scary trucks/truck drivers" is a little niche in the horror genre. Scary cars is adjacent to this niche, but I'm going to stick with trucks because it's a particular kind of creepy. And most of these movies take advantage of the inherent anxiety I think most of us feel when we're driving on the open road in the middle of unfamiliar territory. It's a bit wild west and it feels like normal rules of society don't necessarily apply. Anyway, here's a trio of scary truck flicks! [Side note: I've seen all three of these for the first time in the last three months.]


DUEL (1971) -- Wow, you can see Spielberg's gifts on full display even this early on in his career. I love that you never see the driver of the truck, and I *LOVE* how things escalate from something so simple -- our hero passes a truck with his car, which is something all of us who drive have done a million times. And after watching this movie, I may never do it again without at least briefly wondering if I just set someone off and they're going to start terrorizing me. I also really dig the exploration of the main character, because he's kind of a coward. Even when he calls his wife at home, you can see that there are real things in his life that he just doesn't feel like dealing with because he doesn't like confrontation. And now he's forced into this situation where he *has* to face this thing, even though it's very likely to make things even worse. That scene in the cafe where he knows the guy is in there but doesn't know which person it is, and he's practicing how to confront him. I relate to that so hard. (Available for rent on Amazon.)

MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986) -- Stephen King's sole directorial credit, and you can kind of see why, but it's not THAT bad. The premise is that Earth is passing through the tail of a comet, and during that time, all the machines on the planet become sentient and start terrorizing the population. Several people hole up at a truck stop and fend off a bunch of semi trucks who just want some fuel, man. This is a sort of cool idea, but I couldn't help wondering what was happening with all the non-truck machines. We get teased with an electric carving knife coming to life and slicing a woman's arm, but then it's all about the trucks. What about, for example, the thousands of planes that must have been in the sky? There is a bit of awkward philosophizing (yes, giving the trucks fuel is EXACTLY like Neville Chamberlain appeasing the Nazis) and a hilariously tacked-on "solution" to the crisis (we're told literally by a closing title card that, oh yeah, it was aliens and some Russian astronauts shot their UFO, the end!). But it's still enjoyable, with a badass AC/DC soundtrack and at least a *few* genuinely tense moments. (Streaming on HBONow and available for rent on iTunes and Amazon.)

ROAD GAMES (1981) -- Stacy Keach plays a truck driver who tries to track down a serial killer with the help of a hitchhiking Jamie Lee Curtis. The film is set in Australia, and if there's anywhere I don't want to be driving for long periods of time more than West Texas, it's Australia. This is a really well put together movie, with a great mystery set-up and you're never fully confident that what the truck driver believes happened actually happened, or if it's just a product of his exhausted mind. The movie has a pretty sick sense of humor as well, and it really captures the strangeness and uneasiness of driving alone at night and how the road can play tricks on you. (Streaming on Shudder.)

Almost Made the List: JOY RIDE -- This is half a great movie and half a not-so-great one, but the first half really is stellar and wonderfully tense. Listen for Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs) as the uncredited voice of "Rusty Nail."

Friday, October 27, 2017

Halloween Horror Triple Features, Day 2


How lovely to be a woman! LOL just kidding, it's pretty horrifying, am I right, ladies? And nothing better exemplifies the horrorshow of womanhood than the monthly hemorrhaging. Menses are featured in a handful of horror films, and such films could go hand-in-hand with films that deal with the horror of childbirth (Whaddup, The Brood!). So hit the deck, guys -- all three of these films have pretty memorable scenes involving bleeding vaginas. If you're going to do this triple feature, I'd highly recommend prefacing it with the educational short Naturally a Girl (bonus for the Rifftrax version -- why yes, the female reproductive system *does* resemble a 70s rock album cover).

THE LOVE WITCH (2016) -- Man, I love The Love Witch! On the surface, a loving homage to Hammer films and other lush Technicolor frightfests, but underneath a pretty serious exploration of gender roles. It also brazenly confronts our society's unease with feminine sexuality and sexual power. Not to mention feminine hygiene. I think it's also worth looking at this film through the lens of the history of witchcraft in America and the persecution of women believed to be witches, many of whom were simply outcasts who didn't conform to society's expectations of women and what their roles should be. (Streaming on Amazon, for free if you have Prime.)

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970) -- This is usually seen as more dark surrealist fantasy than horror, but it's still pretty danged creepy. Not least for the ideas it so beautifully visualizes, which seem more timely than ever as our culture is finally starting to come to grips with how women are frequently treated as sex objects. The eponymous heroine's "week of wonders" is incited by her first period, illustrated for us in the film's most indelible image -- a drop of blood splashing on the pure white petals of a daisy, an unmistakable metaphor for innocence lost. This film blurs the line between reality and Valerie's subconscious, so any attempts to put things in some kind of order are misspent. Just let go of logic and let the movie wash over you. (Currently streaming on FilmStruckAlso available for rent on iTunes and Amazon.)

CARRIE (1976) -- This movie is about what happens when you have to go through the horrors of entering womanhood (not just the blood part) and have no tools or support system to help you deal with it. I can't believe there are people out there who think Carrie is the "monster" of this movie. Have you SEEN that shower scene?! The horror climax of this movie is NOT Carrie's rampage of revenge (which is much more cathartic than scary -- for me, anyway). Rather, it is the one-two punch of Chris's pig's blood prank (one of the best Hitchcockian "show them the bomb" set-ups by a director not named Hitchcock) and the confrontation with Margaret at the end. Carrie is the one with telekinetic powers, yes, but she is still quite powerless for most of the film and only uses her abilities as a form of self-defense. There's probably a comparison to Frankenstein/The Creature confusion to be made here, but I think it's an even better metaphor for women in general. (Available to rent on iTunes and Amazon; you can own the HD digital version on iTunes for 4.99 - just a dollar more than the rental cost.)

Almost Made the List: GINGER SNAPS, about a girl whose "monthly gift" is turning into a werewolf.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Halloween Horror Triple Features, Day 1

I find myself inspired once again by PureCinema Podcast, which recently did an episode of horror triple features, each revolving around a particular theme. So, naturally, I am compelled to do some of my own.


People were obsessed with fitness in the 1980s. It was everywhere. There was even a product on the toy market called "Get In Shape, Girl." I earnestly pestered my parents to get this for me, but they never did, possibly (and if so, righly) guessing that it would only serve to exacerbate my burgeoning body image issues. Fitness is obviously still a huge industry, but the mid to late 80s is when it exploded, and it even bled over into horror movies, giving us a little cluster of movies that either heavily featured -- or were entirely set in  -- health clubs. Such as...

KILLER WORKOUT (1987) -- Oh wow. This movie (which is alternately titled Aerobicide, as in the poster above) is something else. Not good, by any stretch of the imagination, but fascinating. Around 13 minutes of the movie's 85-minute runtime is nothing but scenes of women doing low-impact aerobics and calisthenics -- no story, no character development, just five - and - six - and - reach - and - stretch! The killer's weapon of choice is a comically oversized safety pin. There is burn-victim nudity, which is one of the most perverse things I've ever seen. You'll probably guess who the killer is pretty early on, but the motive is a nice little mystery. More of a mystery than you have any right to expect from a movie like this, at any rate. 

NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984) -- I know what you might be thinking at this point: If this is III, is there a I and II that I should see first? Great news -- though there are two previous "ninja" movies in this pseudo-series, you don't have to see them to understand what's going on here. Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja are only connected to this movie by name, and barely that. Our Ninja III heroine is a telephone linewoman by day and an aerobics instructor by ... other days. She is possessed by the evil spirit of a dead ninja who uses her body to exact revenge on the people who killed him, and only through combat with another ninja can she be rid of him!  It contains what I'm pretty sure is the only instance in film of someone using V8 juice in foreplay. It's a Cannon film, so that may suggest something to you about its quality, but their Ninja movies are some of their better fare.

DEATH SPA (1989) -- Holy moley, this movie RADIATES 1980s. The clothes, the mullets, the skeeze masquerading as confidence. Death Spa, like its older sister Killer Workout, is set almost entirely in a health club. But Death Spa's setting is a health club of THE FUTURE! Where everything is automated (swipe your card at the bench press and it sets the weights according to your personal needs), which sounds great until you think about how horribly things could go wrong if there's a glitch or a hack. This being a horror movie, you can guess how that goes, and all these shenanigans lead to some cool inventive deaths (the shoulder press death alone is worth the price of admission). (Streaming on Amazon, for free if you have Prime.)

Almost Made the List: DEMONS 2 (Streaming on Shudder.) Apartment building's residents start becoming possessed by demons and patrons of the building's gym try to escape through the parking garage!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Five (Because) NYC Films

About a month before I moved to New York, I did a series of LiveJournal posts about NYC films and the lessons I believed they offered to me as a prospective New Yorker. I'm still pretty proud of those posts and I feel like they hold up.

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Taxi Driver
King Kong (1933)
Sweet Smell of Success
Rosemary's Baby
Manhattan
Big
Sex and the City
The Fisher King
Can't Stop the Music
The Goodbye Girl
The Muppets Take Manhattan
(I also did a post referencing Funny Girl, but it was the day I moved and more a "here I go" squee than a proper post.)

Having lived here nine years has, unsurprisingly, given me a new perspective. So here are my "five because" New York movies.

#5. A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

This may seem like a weird one, but I first saw this on a Christmas Eve when, for financial reasons, I was in the city rather than in Tennessee with family (don't get too sad for me -- it was just a lot cheaper to fly after the holiday, which is what I ended up doing). It perfectly encapsulated the lonely-yet-exciting vibe of being in Manhattan away from family at Christmas -- at least as I was experiencing it -- and there was nothing more emotional to me than the group rendition of "Fairytale of New York." On the other end of the emotional spectrum, of course, is "Santa Wants Some Loving" (LMAO George Clooney creeping out from behind the trees!). This is not actually a movie, I guess, but it's a new holiday favorite of mine and makes me want to spend Christmas Eve at a piano bar in Midtown.


#4. Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

You can keep your Sex and the City, *this* is my Fabulous and Fashionable New York Movie. Faye Dunaway is a fashion photographer whose work has taken a turn for the macabre, and her photos somehow closely resemble crime photographs that she can't possibly have seen. She experiences episodes where she literally sees through someone else's eyes, instead of what's actually in front of her, and people keep dying around her. Tommy Lee Jones is her love interest, Raul Julia is her ex-husband, and Rene Auberjonois is her fabulously bitchy manager. The movie is a particularly brutal example of "Bury Your Gays," but in 1978 that wasn't as much of a trope yet (though with Someone's Watching Me coming out the same year and Cruising a couple years later, it was well on its way). And coming as it did in the late 1970s, it arrived with its own "love theme" -- by no less than Barbra Streisand! (Check it out, it's so dramatic!) I love this movie as a straight-up thriller, but I also love it as a New York movie. Iconic Manhattan locations, stark studios, creepy warehouses and credibly cramped apartment sets (except for Laura's lavish apartment, of course) make this a much more genuine look at New York than most movies set here now, even if that look is somewhat outdated.


#3. The Secret of My Success (1987)

Hang on, hear me out. Most of my own personal mythology about New York came from the 1980s, and The Secret of My Success was certainly part of that. Sure, it's a complete fantasy (not to mention basically an 80s remake of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), but it's also a snapshot of a particular slice of New York -- one that's part of the image of "making it big" out here. I'm not a successful CEO or hedge fund manager, but I do get to work in some of the shiny buildings like the one pictured above. I work at a desk, I have a job that actually makes use of my college degree, and I get a nice car to drive me home every evening. And there is occasionally free food and swag. It's not overwhelming success, and I don't have a ton of time to write (which is what I came here to do), but if you'd told 17-year-old me what I do every day, she would have thought it was amazing. But what does she know? ;-)


#2. The Out-of-Towners (1970)

When I'm having a bad day here, where it feels like the city is against me at every turn, I'm irresistibly reminded of this movie. It's a perfect encapsulation of a phenomenon that any real New Yorker has experienced many times. You start the day with a plan and either one little thing goes wrong or there's some piece of information you were missing, and it sends your entire day down the toilet. Like, you might as well have never left your apartment. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis have one hellacious night, with misfortune piled onto misfortune, and you can trace a whole lot of it back to one or two little things they should have done differently right at the beginning. I don't really like where this movie ends up, with the couple deciding no big city job is worth this big city headache (everyone has a bad day, give it a little more of a chance than that, guys), but I've had days that feel at least a little like what they go through in the movie -- having to be late to work because the subway trains are borked, falling on the sidewalk, having to trample over trash bags because no one left a path, being pooped on by a pigeon, finding out that place you need to go to is closed on the one day you're trying to go, etc. You have not truly lived here if hasn't happened to you.


#1. The Warriors (1979)

The longest subway ride EVER. In fact, I'm fairly sure that *if* you were to take the subway from Van Cortlandt Park to Coney Island, as the characters of this film have to do, it would take longer than the running time of this film (for one thing, you'd have to change trains at least once). And that's even without the police and the other gangs dogging your every step. This movie is so, so good, and I love that -- even though it's set in Future New York, it's still unmistakably New York (side-eyes the fake NY of Escape from New York). I could cry at the diversity -- not just ethnic diversity, but all the different gangs that feel fully realized with their own backstories. It's kind of a perfect metaphor for the city itself; every gang has their own turf, their own rules. And New York isn't one big city, it's a bunch of different neighborhoods all crammed together. (just like the real NY) The movie's plot is simple, but incredibly effective and has the same basic structure of another film by the same director (Walter Hill), Southern Comfort -- our characters have to get from Point A to Point B, but it's super hard because 1) they have a serious disadvantage of some kind, and 2) there's been a major misunderstanding that puts them at odds with people they have to get through/past to get to their destination. I've always wanted to make a day of taking that subway trip. Just probably not in the middle of the night.