Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Out of the House Right Now...

For what it's worth, I've been catching up on other things. One of them I kicked off today, a serial novel I'll be posting a chapter a day from as I edit it into something readable.

Introducing HOMETOWN SECURITY. It's a Red State Lampoon. Read at your own risk of irritation, depending on your headspace.

I'm calling it a lampoon instead of satire because, well... the humor is sort of cheap and mean-spirited. But hopefully still amusing. Its roots are more Thomas Nast than Jonathan Swift.

Not that (as far as I recall) that Nast was mean-spirited. He created the face of Santa Claus. And Uncle Sam. But... he was primarily a political cartoonist. And political cartoons are lazy satire. Damnably effective, but a minimalist like Tom Toles can crank out a Pulitzer Prize-winning one in fifteen minutes.


As for the tone, I'm from Ohio... which means I'm a bit conflicted about the whole Red State/Blue State thing. But as I grew up closer to Cleveland than to Cincinnati, I lean towards the Blue.

But like a lot of folks from where I grew up, I've got some of that ol' Warren G. Harding Republican blood pounding through my veins. I can admit that dubious connection now with some sort of pride, seeing that he's no longer considered the worst President in the history of the United States.

So... that pretty much means I'll be taking potshots at both sides. And to keep it simple, it's set in Wyoming, not Ohio. Actually, it just boils down to that there's less people to piss off in Wyoming, so there you go.

If you join me, feel free to point out typos and places where I didn't convincingly fake knowing what the hell I was going on about.

The way it looks, at a chapter a day, this should wrap up by the end of January.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

THE MIST... Chapter and Reverse

Y'know, I found a way to bump THE MIST up to a 100% in the personal satisfaction ranking... in that if you approach THE MIST in a Ms. Carmody kind of headspace, the ending of the film actually makes a whole lot more sense, and doesn't feel like just a cheap shot on Darabont's part.

Just get all Old Testament on its ass.

Of course, this also needs to take into account that the God of the Old Testament seemed to have a weird sense of humor, and didn't exactly come across as logical to begin with; what with such things as demanding that Abraham sacrifice his son to prove how faithful the man was, and that whole bet with Satan over how much grief Job would put up with.

And He seemed to like throwing plagues around just for the hell of it. Among other things.

So taking as fact (well, within the context of the film) that a vengeful God truly exists, that He has allowed man to inadvertently unleash the End of Days and annoited Ms. Carmody His small town messiah. Remember how that bug crawls up her blouse, looks her in the eyes and then flies off?

What if Carmody wasn't actually crazy... say, any crazier than the firey-eyed biblical prophets from the days when Giants walked the Earth and plagues descended on a vengeful God's whim?

That after offering up the young soldier as a blood sacrifice, the supermarket then lies in a state of grace... until another sacrifice is required?

But by martyring the Voice of God and leaving the supermarket, in his hubris Drayton incurs the displeasure of that vengeful God. Sort of an Abraham that sacrifices Issac because God just decides to allow the angels arrive too late.

And as the Army rolls by in the end, no one goes to him, acknowledges him except for the mother (that he refused to play The Samaritan to) who in passing looks down at him accusingly... as if she sees into his heart and senses the betrayal he has wrought. And as the sole remaining infidel, he has become an Outcast.

Um. Of course, that would make God the Antagonist of the piece. Whoops.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

THE MIST Opportunity

As we know, Sturgeon’s Law dictates that 90% of everything is crud. Generally, that’s applied in a broad overview, and not applied to individual cases.

But here, Frank Darabont’s long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s novella is 90% the perfect horror film.

And so it goes (arguably) as to what the other 10% is.

While it seems churlish to complain about something that comes so close to succeeding spectacularly in a genre where most entries crash and burn in the first reel and then keep rolling along in a slow motion fireball of idiocy, I’ll have to admit that complaining about what doesn’t work (as opposed to lauding what does) is my nature. I’m just drawn that way.

And of course, nothing is ever absolutely so.

But what does work here is so good n’ plenty that it seems such a damnable shame when everything just falls apart in the end. Especially since what is apparent was the perfect ending arrives and Darabont feels obligated to just keep plowing along until things just become ludicrous.

I’ll just pull on my tattered fanboy t-shirt and sulk that King’s original ending was perfect.

It took me twenty-seven years to realize that, but not until I saw Darabont’s idea on how it should all end (not with a whimper, but a *BANG*BANG*BANG*BANG*CLICK!). When I first read “The Mist”, I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly happy with the resolution... or lack of. Like the protagonist’s mother, I’m not a big fan of ambiguity when it comes to my entertainment, and King’s novella was about as ambiguous as you could get.

And incongruously enough, Drew Struzan's poster art for John Carpenter's THE THING (a movie infamous for having the courage to go with an ambiguous, downbeat ending) is given a prime opening reel cameo.

But ending aside, as Stephen King adaptations go, I’d say that tentacles down this is the best of a sorry lot. With only a few minor alterations, Darabont assays the proceedings with admirable fidelity.

After an atypical storm knocks out the power in a small Nor’ Eastern town, the residents head to the local supermarket to pick up some supplies to bide them over until repairs are made.

Muzak pipes and secondary characters make their entrances... and soon after, so does the eponymous mist. And with the mournful, chilling wail of the town’s air raid siren, THE MIST shifts gears and rolls up its sleeves. And the minute that sucker went off, I got chills. Sort of interesting though, in that I don't know how much power that wail will have with audiences born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But from that moment on, my heart was pounding, my leg jittering. Occasionally, I jumped. Squeaked even... but in a manly way, not like a little girl. If monster movies are your bag of popcorn, then I'd recommend seeing this in a theater.

As the preternatural mist rolls in, it cloaks and isolates the market. Inside, the consumers trolling the aisles for supplies abruptly find themselves to be the consumables as a man bursts in through the front doors and screams that there's something out there, and it's weird and pissed off. Don't be afraid of the mist... just what's in it. Soon, barely glimpsed beasties tap against the fragile plate glass wall that separates them from sudden and grisly death.
"Cleanup on Aisle 5..."

It doesn’t help matters much that within their group is a bible-shouter that is slowly gathering together a cabal of recruits who think that offering up a blood sacrifice to an angry God is the only way out.


Man, this is gonna be one bitter pill for any touchy Christians in the audience. I'm no fan of the more extreme of the bunch myself, but Darabont lays it on with the perceived bashing pretty thick here. More time was spent setting up the loopy Ol' Testament gal and her growing band of bloodthirsty followers than was on the external threat. Seriously... the film is called THE MIST, not THE CRUCIBLE GOES SHOPPING.

The Devil is in the subtext, and here Darabont seems to be having problems with what exactly he's trying to imply.

Overtly it seems pretty obvious, and the tagline says it all: "Fear Changes Everything." As Our Lady of Perpetual Gloom and Doom fires up her band of fear-fueled zealots, their first true blood sacrifice is a soldier only a couple of weeks away from being sent to Iraq.

I sort of get the vibe that Darabont doesn't think that we're fighting a war just over oil. Trouble is, the underlying point he seems to be playing with throughout the narrative doesn't make it all the way to the resolution.

Ah... the ending. As it is, the coda is a either a mean-spirited sucker punch, a muddled metaphor or in its way a validation of the bible-shouter's belief system. In some regards, the ending feels so unearned and Old Testament in its own right that it feels out of place and context with what preceded it.

I suppose it’s not so much that I had a problem with how Darabont ended it, just how he executed it. Not because I'm opposed to downbeat endings (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has a perfect ending), but because I felt that it didn't earn it. It just seemed too overwrought to me (not the characters’ head space, but the execution).

And then it just kept going... and going...

After showing admirable restraint throughout the movie, Darabont just completely lost it and went with the overt manipulation. He tries so hard not to fall into the Spielberg trap of blowing a perfectly fine movie by getting all hamfisted and manipulative in the final stretch that he goes so far around the bend that he falls into Spielberg's tracks.

One example was the Dead Can Dance song. Now, I happen to like Dead Can Dance. But the minute Lisa Gerrard started her caterwauling, the power of THE MIST literally began to dissipate. As the rest of the film had almost no music bed, to throw in something so joltingly out of context and on the nose ripped me from the narrative.

Maybe Darabont didn't think that he could get away with cranking up Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" and cutting to black.

And because of that I was reminded that all I was seeing was smoke and mirrors, and that as the characters met their fate it just seemed like a narrative choice (and so a cheap shot), not an organic conclusion.

Of course, when the beast finally arrives on DVD, there’s always the chance that Darabont will throw the natterers like me a bone, and toss in the ever-popular Alternative Ending that King envisioned. If so, hopefully that one will be sans Gerrard and the soundtrack emphasis will be on the spooky sounds that accompany our doomed passengers along their final trek through the mist.

Friday, November 30, 2007

I Rant... Therefore I AM LEGEND

Recently it was announced that director Francis Lawrence was back at work on the Will Smith version of I AM LEGEND, doing a reshoot on the ending. According to CHUD, the Suits weren’t happy with the ending. They wanted something more positive.

Having read the shooting script by über-hack Akiva Goldsman, I was perplexed: How in the hell could they make the ending more positive than what was in the shooting script?

Take the most grating ending you can imagine, slam your head against the wall and rethink that ending, and you might come close to imagining how poorly (considering the entire point of the source material) it was tied up. Well, if you're imagining a gathering of multi-cultural children holding hands and singing “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” ala that Coke® commercial from the Seventies, you hit your head too hard... but it's close.


After besting the lead mutant in a fistfight (as the other mutants obligingly just stand around) the next day Neville and his new family load up a truck to rendezvous with another human outpost.

And the dog is cured. Actually, everyone is cured because just in time, friggin' Neville finally figured out the secret recipe.

CUE: Sunshine and rainbows.


I mean, Jeebus... how are they going to top that for an upbeat ending? Hand everyone a puppy as they leave the theater?

But then, in my outrageously humble fucking opinion, the entire script was buggered from the start. An early sign things were going amiss was the relocation of the setting from the outskirts of Los Angeles (at the time of the novel’s writing, a middling sized city) to New York.

Yeah, New York. Because if everyone in the world suddenly turned into vampires (or zombies… or zompires), you'd want to keep refuge in what is one of the biggest metropolitan areas of the world.

The script starts off like biting on tinfoil...

... it's three pages of an extended com- mercial on the sheer macho exuberance of driving a '08 Shelby GT500. Although to be charitable, it also seems to be a nod towards the opening of THE OMEGA MAN.

But that begs the question: why not just call the film that and go from there?

Then it's thirty pages of Neville and his dog puttering about the empty city before we get around to some (brief) mutant action. And, well... generally the rest of the script plays like Goldsman has a pretty high level of disdain for the material, or that he's solidly aiming for the 13-year-olds in the audience. He blithely disregards maintaining any sort of adherence to his own internal logic, and pretty much defangs any sense of dread as to Neville's plight... the piece is more focused on the loneliness of the last man on Earth rather than any threat that exists at night.

In the script, it comes across that despite three years of being the only human left in New York, the millions of mutants that prowl the night have never been able to pinpoint his brownstone refuge. Or even seem to be looking for him. Actually, aside from about three set pieces, there's really no mutant action at all, just Neville talking to himself, his dog, and... well, a kid.

Actually, I didn't have too much of a problem with adding a kid to the mix, although traditionally you're supposed to wait until the sequel to pull that stunt. And that as applied here, it just seems like an excuse for Goldsman to just retype two pages from the screenplay for SHREK. Verbatim. Maybe he just was dying to field test the dual dialogue option in his Final Draft screenwriting software.

My issue was how they introduced the kid character and his escort, with a plot device so anathema to the internal logic of the world that Will Smith's character would have been perfectly justified in stepping back, looking up and saying, "Ah Hell no, tell me you didn't just do that!"

There’s so much deus ex machina hovering around the script that it probably needed its own airport.

Also, I can see where producer/writer Goldsman might have some problems selling the subtext of the source material in this day and age; Matheson was basically saying that there is no help from God and that evolution rules.

Whoops... That might alienate half your multiplex crowd right there. Which also brings about casting issues: on the page, Anna is implied to be British... but as the film gets cast, she ends up being played by a Brazilian. I suppose the Suits figured that Middle America couldn't bear the sight of Smith macking on a white chick.

Cripes, under the premise, can't the filmmakers take the opportunity to cross that color line? I mean, Chuck Heston got it on with Rosalind Cash…

... but thirty-five years after THE OMEGA MAN, we still can’t handle something as innocuous as some black dude kissing a white chick on a wide screen? Does pandering to the delicate sensibilities of the crackers hold more sway than just getting with the 21st century?


But then, there is also some intentionally bizarre subtext action going on... the weirdest one was having the introduction to the mutants as having taken refuge in the United Nations building. Um. It's not inadvertent, because Goldsman throws in an aside about the traditional ineffectiveness of the UN.

I find it hard to imagine why the film is still called I AM LEGEND... any subtext attached to that title has been removed to the point that it'd be like maintaining the title of THE SCARLET LETTER after doing an adaptation that removes any mention of adultery. Yeah, the Demi Moore vehicle came close, but still didn’t go that far.

There comes a point where you have to wonder why they even bother to option the original book, when it really has nothing to do with the source material... other than making sure no one else attempts to mount a faithful production.

Although to be fair, there comes a point where the source material becomes irrelevant. This is not an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”. It’s a Will Smith vehicle that shares the same name. It’s almost like being a huge fan of James Herbert’s “The Fog” and getting upset that John Carpenter’s THE FOG had nothing to do with the story.

Um… sort of. Although now that I think about it, Herbert’s novel would still make for one hell of an apocalyptic movie.

But then, the screenplay for I AM LEGEND just doesn’t even hold up in its own small way. Although, most of the things that aggravated me about the script were the same kind of things that have people rolling their eyes at me and saying, "Sheesh... it's just a movie."

This script was written for those people.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


What is it about Richard Matheson’s seemingly adaptation-friendly novella I Am Legend that makes producers want to make it into something that it isn’t? At what point did some Suit decide that it would make for a boffo Will Smith action movie?

Although while it does have its action moments, it is by no means an action driven narrative.

It’s a fairly meditative piece with a straight-forward story arc, with some flashbacks to fill in the backstory. But in the 50-odd years since its debut, why hasn't there ever been -- or will be -- a proper adaptation?

The novella picks up with the lonely plight of Robert Neville, a man of the Los Angeles suburbs who has watched his wife and child succumb to a deadly bacterium that has also swept his city and the world, leaving him literally the last living man on earth. But not the last man, as a side-effect of the plague causes the victims to return from the grave as bloodthirsty ghouls. Sort of like vampires, but without the table manners.

By day he tracks down the creatures and disposes of those he finds sheltered from the sun with a stake through the heart, and by night he barricades himself in his fortified ranch-style home, bulbs of garlic serving as a moat and mirrors propped to dissuade the approach of the foul-minded trespassers.

The work has been adapted twice already since its publication in 1954, by the Italians in 1964 as the Vincent Price vehicle THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and again as the Charlton Heston camp classic THE OMEGA MAN in 1971.

It was also the acknowledged inspiration for George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and by extension the catalyst for the entire zombie subgenre as we know it.

But in all three adaptations (including the upcoming Will Smith version), everything that made the story compelling, made it something more than just some proto-bunker horror story -- was jettisoned.

Although if nothing else, Smith's I AM LEGEND makes THE LAST MAN ON EARTH look lavishly faithful to the material.

In some cases, I can understand why they didn't want to take all the perceived baggage on board. There's a nifty streak of satire running through the story, and Christianity for one doesn't come out looking too good. Obviously, that's not exactly a demographic you want to alienate from filing in to see the latest Will Smith vehicle (as in movie, not the extended commercial for the 2008 Mustang Shelby GT500 that he maneuvers through the empty streets in the opening of the film).

But the most intriguing aspect of the novella is that it took the old fashioned vampire template and worked out a scientific rationalization for the mythos. But with THE OMEGA MAN and I AM LEGEND, the vampires have been reduced to garden variety mutants, rendering the source material's raison d' etre moot. And with that goes one of the more powerful moments of the novella, as Neville's wife... well, read the book.

Even worse... they change the ending. Long story short, not all those Neville staked during the day were vampires. Some victims of the plague didn't fully succumb but still were forced to sleep by day, seemingly just more of the vampire ilk. Among those folks -- the next step in the progression of human evolution -- he was viewed as a literal boogeyman.

Pardon my fucking French, but that's the whole fucking point of the fucking title.

Our wiggy hero has become to the next race as the vampires once were to man. The good guy turns out to be really the bad guy, if you're willing to step back from your bias. Neat stuff.

Too bad that no one who has adapted it seems to get the punchline.

Actually, there's always the book and nothing Hollywood can do will change that. But that still doesn't make the process any less confounding.

One of the odd things about the creative process in Hollywood is how much fidelity the movie makers abide by when adapting works of utter and complete dross that has been met with critical disdain but taken up adoringly by the public (as with THE DA VINCI CODE). But when approaching works that have critical and popular cred within the speculative fiction realm, these producers feel no qualms about alienating the core audience that made the work timeless in order to pander to what they figure the perceived cud-chewing masses demand.

The Will Smith vehicle I, ROBOT, as an example, showed how contrary to the source material The Suits are willing to go, ultimately delivering a debasement of the mythos that Asimov had created, filming an alternate universe where hordes of robots scheme to destroy mankind. Or some such nonsense.

One could venture that it's a cultural knee-jerk reaction in the century-old East versus West Coast pissing contest in pursuit of popular entertainment dominance.

Books versus films, y'know?

The damnable thing is that as the story plays out on the page, it would make for one nifty low budget film. The problem is, everyone wants to throw too much money at it... which in turn, forces the project to become something that it's not.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Another Night in THE ASYLUM

You gotta admire Grade Z.5 genre distributor The Asylum. In keeping up with that fine ol’ Roger Corman tradition, they've made a name throwing out the cinematic knockoffs to suck up some of the ballyhoo floating around whatever Hollywood big-budget success is set to rake it in.

Infamous for such D2DVD efforts as PIRATES OF TREASURE ISLAND and THE DA VINCI TREASURE, The Asylum actually might have made a better profit off of mockbusters SNAKES ON A TRAIN and INVASION OF THE POD PEOPLE than their big studio counterparts did with the real deal.

In the process, they've also more than likely confused some of those... ahem, slower folks that kept waiting in vain for Johnny Depp or Tom Hanks to show up in their bottom shelf rental. Gotcha, Sucka!

And coming hot on the heels of this summer's amazing colossal TRANSMORPHERS, now we get…

Instead of Will Smith, we get some guy by the name of Mark Dacascos. From what I hear, some people know the name. If so, most of the budget probably went into his pocket.

After some unexplained plague wipes out most of humanity, Dacascos idles about his remote cabin up in the hills over Los Angeles. It can’t be too long after the apocalypse, because a heavy haze still hangs above the deserted streets of the city. He passes his time popping pills, moping over his dead wife and kid and getting pissed off at alarm clocks.

Sometimes he goes out for a drive and places timebombs at the base of poles that say No Smoking or No Digging. It seems that the man has authority issues. Or he might just be cranky about being stuck in the post-apocalypse with the world’s most annoying laptop.

If Apple got coerced into paying for product placement here, it wasn’t a good investment… Dacascos’ laptop sounds like some mid-sixties mainframe as it chatters and beeps at him. I know it was bad foley work, but it still in some absurd way makes me hesitant about switching from my PC to a G5. It’s those little things, you know?

But the point of the flick is the mutants.

Unlike THE OMEGA MAN, the mutants here don’t wear black cowls. They do wear rubber suits, but you’re not supposed to notice that they're suits... but the whole suspension of disbelief thing ain't happening here. The suits are pretty bad.

Anyway, anytime the mutants come sniffing around his cabin, Dacascos takes a time out from trippin’ and steps outside to kick their asses. He’s good at kicking their asses. He’s got the moves down and knows how to swing a nasty nunchuck… that’s probably why some people have heard of him.

Of course, it’s a little easier for him to kick their asses because the damned things are slowed down by their silly rubber suits. What the hell is up with that? Most micro- budget filmmakers go with a zombie or vampire flick because it’s less FX intensive. Throw some gray make-up on your extras, douse them with fake blood and have them lurch around: zombies. Or throw a pair of fangs in their mouths and have them make catfaces at each other: vampires.

Can’t get more budget efficient than that, short of just having them get naked and fake having sex. For what it's worth, there’s no sex in I AM OMEGA, fake or otherwise.

Instead, here they sank what was left of the budget into rubber CHUD suits. So much so that the filmmaker had to resort to photocopying sheets of paper to scotch tape to any surface that demanded a No Smoking or No Digging legend.

It also doesn’t help matters any that the mutants don’t give a whit whether it’s day or night, so you get plenty of full daylight opportunities to see latex flaking from the suits.

Okay, I'm done with the damned rubber suits.

Meanwhile, back at the noisy computer…

It’s the end of the world, and the poor dude still has his dinner interrupted by a telemarketer. Well, not a tele- marketer… but somehow, some stranger that's a dead ringer for his dead wife manages to find a way to set up a live video feed to contact him. Mutants have eaten the rest of her traveling companions, and she needs his help to get out of the city. How she got his number isn't something to give much thought to, because scripter Geoff Meed sure as hell didn't. Oddly enough, she's tech savvy enough to link up with him, but not common sense savvy enough to just jump into a car and hightail it.

He blows her off. Why? It’s not clear. But over the course of the first half of the movie the guy has been getting loopier and loopier, so I suppose it fits within the character.

I suppose.

Maybe he just didn’t want to risk complicating the title of the film. Not that it matters, because not too long after that a couple of road warriors show up in a beater van from nearby Antioch. One of them is played by the screenwriter, which probably explains why some points of the narrative don't exactly, um... make sense. Spreading himself a little thin, y'know? They want Dacascos to join them to rescue the chick, who is immune from the plague.

“Help us, Obi Wan Dacascos… you’re our only hope.”

He still ain’t having it and -- the road warriors having left the Holy Hand Grenade back in Antioch -- one of them uses the Holy Bazooka to blow up Dacascos' house. It being pretty damned pointless to argue with that one, he agrees to join them. Civilization being dead and all, you’d figure folks would find less complicated ways of going about things…

… like just driving into the city instead of deciding to scuttle along through the dank sewer tunnels beneath the streets, where any ol’ CHUD could be lurking in the shadows.

Fortunately, the mutants have retained some sense of play nice and wait until Dacascos has rolled in to rescue the girl before they try to peel the flimsy sheets of plywood from her barricade. Or maybe they held off because KEEP OUT was spray-painted across the sheets… but once Dacascos winnows through a gap, they decide that they not gonna play that game anymore.

Even better, as the damsel in distressed jeans, Jennifer Lee Wiggins is cute and engaging, and so the movie immediately picks up. Even better-er, now that he has someone who knows how to act to play off of, Dacascos’ acting doesn’t seem half bad itself.


With Dacascos no longer having to carry the flick muttering to himself and generally acting wiggy, the last act is actually pretty entertaining. Mutants finally show up in more than groups of two and there’s ticking bombs in the background.

While it’s no THE OMEGA MAN (which itself was no THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, which was no I Am Legend, which the upcoming I AM LEGEND seriously won’t be) I AM OMEGA is still not without its pleasures. There's a sly sense of humor about itself at work and referential touches that are are surprisingly understated.

Technically, it’s a lot better than one would expect from D2DVD… although a little more attention to small details like internal logic and less obsession with rubber suits would have helped immensely.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Recently, Arbogast posted an image of the 100th issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. The cover elicited an unexpected wave of nostalgia, a recollection of the August day back in 1973 when the 11-year-ol’ me was able to scrap meager resources together (a whole buck-twenty- five!) and finally buy an issue of the mag.

Up until then, I’d seen it on the shelves of the quaint country store near where I was being brought up, but could only thumb through the magazine and inhale the pulpy newsprint as my mother went about her shopping, reluctantly putting it back on the rack as we prepared to exit.

But then the day came with the 100th issue, and I was finally allowed to take one home with me and devour it at my leisure. Heeding the advice that it was a Collector’s Issue, I tried to keep the magazine in optimum collector’s shape, but repeated returns to the pages inevitably took its toll. By the time the magazine (and the ensuing issues) and I parted ways, it was one sorry lot of pages struggling to stay hooked to the staples.

The nostalgia had a bittersweet taste, a recollection of the quaintly-sated desires of youth and of a month (or two or three) of anticipation finally fulfilled. The store would only stock a couple of issues, so if my timing was off, I was out of luck and had to wait through the cycle until the next issue came out. But if my timing was good, my stomach would lurch happily at the sight of the freshly printed magazine nestled between such incongruous companions as Field & Stream and Hot Rod Magazine.

Snatch, “Mine!”

In the days before the growing popularity of Stephen King made horror -- while not entirely respectable -- at least tolerated as something other than a mark of possible deviance, Famous Monsters of Filmland became a textbook.

And the ubiquitous Forrest J. Ackerman became the mentor.

Serving the function of all good childless uncles, Uncle Forry slipped us forbidden goods while the parents’ attention was elsewhere. Long before the advent of the internet existed to assure an off-center Ohio farm boy that there existed others with the same perplexing obsession, Famous Monsters provided a lifeline. In its pages were letters from other young boys (long before Anne Rice created her gateway for the girls to join the gang) swearing fidelity. Those names would over the years move on from the back of the horror magazine and gain a currency of their own; on the dust jackets of novels, at the bottom of film posters and in the credits of the movies themselves.

Never being a letter writer, my name never graced the pages. But the continued ministrations of Uncle Forry nurtured me through the dark times of pre-adolescence and darker obsessions. Of course, all tutelages come with a price and to this day I cannot shake my predilection for bad puns.

But in all familial dynamics inevitably comes the breach, the point where the son recoils from the shared ritual with father as he strikes out to indulge in his own personality. With the advent of STAR WARS, the covers and pages of Famous Monsters began to exhibit an unhealthy (at least to me) obsession with same. It was called Famous Monsters, for Cripe's sake. My dedication with the magazine waned and ultimately was seduced away by the slicker promises of Fangoria. And while Uncle Bob was fun for a brief period, ultimately he proved to be no Uncle Forry.

But once the contact is broken, the rift -- while not irreparable -- is never the same again.

It’s been near twenty-five years since I snatched that hundredth Collectors Issue from the magazine rack, and November 24th marks the 91st anniversary of the birth of Forrest J. Ackerman. 91 years since a boy was born, to become a toddler and to rise up to become the first fanboy.

The boy to be the man who walked amongst gods and monsters.

The Ackermonster’s influence on the horror and science fiction scene is incalculable. In the decades before the genres became actual commodities, he moved among the monsters and their makers and provided a link between the unholy celluloid sciences and the hungry fanboys.

Before Stephen King changed the face (and value) of horror, he interned with the rest of us by studying the black-n-white pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland through his adolescence before turning to his own blank pages, to fill them with shared nightmares and dreamscapes.

Joining him would be such names that graced the letter pages as Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson, Rick Baker, George Lucas and… well, pretty much any other name of a certain generation (or two) who continue to make their own contributions to the rich, dark tapestry.

A little early, but Happy Birthday, Uncle Forry. And… thank you. I axed for it, and I got it.

4E 4-Ever.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In The Old Dark Doghouse

Say… it’s been a month already with no posts. Mea culpa, or in frat boy: my bad.

Time’s fun when you’re having flies and I was off on my periodic quest to spin words together to form another screenplay.

A tribute to the Old Dark House genre, naturally. Albeit with supernatural trappings, so the Scooby Doo purist will sneer. Twist the lip away, cartoon boy… it’s my damned screenplay and I’ll do what I want with it.

Oddly enough, as I typed FADE OUT and read back what I had written, an unexpected subtext slowly emerged… it was one quiet screenplay. People gasped instead of screaming, and the deaths were deliberately off screen. I was writing with the no-budget spec market in mind, but I also realized that my sudden coyness was deliberate…

… seems that in my middle age, I’m losing my taste for over-the-top carnage.

In a way it makes sense. The rise and decline of torture porn was part of it, serving up two hours of simulated torture with no nutritional value. But also, anyone who has watched a horror film made in the last few years might agree that the offerings are generally noisy, disjointed and stocked to the brim with tired clichés and hamfistedly applied tropes.

I was reminded of the old bumper sticker sentiment, "If It's Too Loud, You're Too Fucking Old." And admittedly, as a cranky middle-aged dude who has seen too many horror films in the last 40-odd years, I'm obviously not part of the target demographic.

But even back in the day as a young Headbanger, or Punk, or Goth, or whatever phase I was going through at the time, I also knew on some fundamental level that being too loud was (generally speaking) the musicians' attempt to drown out the fact that they just plain didn't know what the hell they were doing.

And it would seem that the same applies to your stock Hollywood horror film cranked out for the cud-chewing mall rats these days. Here I'm putting aside the whole remake debate, because personally I can see the point: As someone who suffered the ‘80s as they unfolded, why should the younger generation have to sit through a film made in that period? You can only take the Sins of the Fathers aspect so far.

Part One of the problem is that Hollywood operates on the assumption that fans of the genre are unsophisticated, if not just plain outright stupid. I'm talking the long-abiding (and long-suffering) faithful, not the cellphone-wielding rabble that -- not being old enough to gain legal entry to nightclubs -- use the cinema as a social gathering, the movie unreeling as background noise.

So here is where they fall back on the tropes. The rule of thumb seems to be that if you throw a cat through the window with an accompanying musical sting (provided by the ubiquitous Graeme Revell) your audience is happy, especially if you spend half the budget on a former cast member or two from Dawson's Creek or The O.C. and throw in plenty of gore effects (or shoot for the PG-13, ‘cause the teenyboppers will pay to see anything that's supposed to be scary).

Hey! Get off of my yard!

Problem Part Two is that the fans of the genre aren't as stupid and callow as Hollywood thinks they are. Um... to a large degree.

So, what to do? If a filmmaker acknowledges that and works with that in mind, the project is already on its way to being an acceptable addition to the genre. The fans know the tropes and clichés, so find ways to subvert expectations.

The horror template is stale (isolate the pretty kill bait and pick them off one by one), so invert or reinvent the template. The tropes are a good reference point, because just by the nature of being tropes, that means that they were effective at one point, and with a little tweaking, can be effective again.

Sit down and actually think about the psychology of the human animal, and figure out what would make an audience jump out of their seats (without resorting to Mr. Revell slamming his fists down on the keyboard at regular intervals).

Empathy is built by reaction of the characters to the situation, not by some clumsy backstory. Every character is a human, not a gear to move the story forward. Eliminate empathy from the equation and all you are left with is faux-snuff vignettes... although gauging by the continued popularity of the SAW franchise, maybe I'm just being too old again.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

DAWN OF THE DEAD-ish (2004)

Going back to James Gunn, the writer probably thought that it was a privilege and an honor when he was tabbed to rewrite George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, an opportunity to do right by the undisputed King of the Dead.

Of course, he didn’t factor in the legion of Deadheads who would set about gnashing their clothes and rending their teeth that the dude behind the Scooby Doo adaptations was set on reimaging the holiest of holies. Who would think that some folks would get so upset over a 25-year-old zombie flick? Hell, some of the nattering nabobs weren’t even born when the original DAWN OF THE DEAD first hit the screens of the mall multiplex.

I recall that internet death threats were involved at points, because dude… people are that stupid, and inevitably stupid people say and do stupid things over stupid things.

Of course, these are the same folks that didn’t bother to support Romero when LAND OF THE DEAD came out because they heard it wasn’t all that good. They’d wait until the DVD came out, they typed as the intertubes crackled with betrayal. Romero had let them down, the bastard. Six months later they probably typed the name of the movie into a P2P and downloaded it. Way to show the support.

But then, the trailer hit the screens. As it unreeled, it was interesting enough. Tantalizingly ominous, but on the whole nothing special. But then as the trailer ended with a girl blacking out the screen with a can of spray paint, the film reel burned away to leave blank screen... a momentary blank screen, as the shadows of the dead lurched up from behind and began to paw at the fabric.

Now that was a fucking trailer. And with that small but decidedly awesome stroke of creativity, the remake suddenly seemed in good hands. Promising, even.

And for the most part, that promise was kept.

Not so much a remake as an homage to the genre, DAWN OF THE DEAD 2.0 opens with a tepid bit of character development that explodes into one of the most satisfying ten minutes of pre-opening credits in horror, as seemingly overnight the world dies. And then gets back up and starts gnawing on those that missed the first round of dying. And of course, when there is no more room in Hell and the dead walk the Earth, the survivors hit the mall. Because that’s where the goodies were in 1978 and still were in 2004.

That’s pretty much where the remake ends. After that it’s a well-executed zombie thriller that just happens to take place in a mall.

The bad news is the relative weakness of what follows the first ten minutes and a fantastic credits sequence featuring Johnny Cash's sepulchral voice. Granted, a very hard act to follow. Although a lot could have happened between the first draft Gunn turned in, then the one Michael Tolkin handed over to Scott Frank to doctor up and hand to director Zack Snyder. But James Gunn got sole writer credit for the final result, which means that he gets all the blame for everything script-related. Although Tolkin wrote the plodding DEEP IMPACT and Frank was responsible for the plothole-driven MINORITY REPORT, so there you go...

Doesn’t being a screenwriter sound like fun?

Most of the narrative drift involves plot holes one could drive a city bus through and random contrivances that threaten to derail the whole project. One has to admire Snyder's ability to keep things cracking at a pace that demands that the viewer not notice the complete lack of internal logic until after leaving the theater.

However, the frightened mall rats here are a loosely sketched lot of stereotypes: the feisty heroine, the taciturn black cop, the nice guy, blah, blah, blah.

In other words, almost no one here inspires empathy, thus serving as nothing more than zombie fodder. Almost… because Gunn also throws a wholly unexpected character into the mix called CJ (played by Michael Kelly).

At first, CJ comes across as yet another stereotype in a morass of stereotypes. Yet another swaggerin’ baseball- capped redneck with a mustache, a slow-talkin’ peckerwood wearing the loser badge of mall security… and using that small authority suddenly writ large to play God when the shit hits the fan.

The thing is, the damned asshole grows on you. And even better, the character rewards the warmth by confounding expectations. Weirdly enough, the ostensible villain of the piece is the only character who is actually given an character arc. Bloody brilliant.

Admittedly, while replacing the social satire of the original with the equivalent of dead-baby jokes (both figuratively and literally); the script does manage to maintain the uneasy balance of being both scary and funny at the same time.

But as an immediate horror show experience, it does its job and does it rather well. Any weaknesses are more than adequately balanced by several well-crafted setpieces, and the occasional sly bits of irony. My favorite being the survivors on the roof of the mall being ignored by a military helicopter flying over... a helicopter that looks suspiciously like the one parked on the front lawn of the White House during the opening credits.

And then the DVD hit the shelves and… holy shit.

Of course we know that she made it out of the bus unbitten... as we learned from LAND OF THE DEAD, the belly-button ring is the first thing the zombies go for.

The DVD of DAWN OF THE DEAD is exactly what I expect a DVD to be but rarely ever see. Of course the gore was juiced up. That’s to be expected in a sane and rational world.

But what I didn’t expect is to get two short films that expand on the premise of the feature. One of them is rudimentary, but still packing a small wallop of its own. It's a video diary of the last days of doomed gunstore owner Andy, trapped across the block and starving to death, separated by a sea of dead, pissed-off flesh from the other survivors.

Of course, doomed is a relative term in a world where most deaths are rewarded by living death.

The second bonus feature is the most rewarding, a as-it- happens live feed from a local news desk as the world slowly decays outside the barred studio doors. It’s cracker-jack apocalyptic stuff that transcends the obvious breadcrumb budget, a taste of what we zombiphiles have frequently been promised but have never received… a fullscale epic account of the world dying and then slowly shambling to its collective feet.

Now, if all three pieces were all edited together and tweaked a little…

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"You Don't See That Everyday"... SLITHER

If you have an affinity for those mid-'80s splatter- zomedies such as RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, DEAD/ALIVE, or NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, you might wanna drop in on this one if you haven't already. For some reason, despite being the highest ranking genre film of 2006 on Rotten Tomatoes, a lot of folks didn't. In my book, it was easily the most perplexing tanking in recent box office memory.
It was funny, it was scary... it was very lonely in the movie theater. Theaters are way overrated anymore, anyway.

What writer/director James Gunn (scripter of the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) has pulled off here is a step beyond the current Hollywood trend of auto-cannibalizing every classic (and even not-so-classic) horror film in the vaults. Here, he remakes an entire sub-genre as one Whitman's Sampler of dark, drippy treats.

Some of us have seen it all before: On the eve of a hoedown celebrating the start of deer-hunting season, a meteor crashes to Earth on the outskirts of some grubby little redneck town. Soon after, in the course of a late-night tryst, one of the locals stumbles across it and becomes infected by the blobby menace from outer space. Rapidly mutating into a voracious, tentacled slime creature, the redundantly monikered Grant Grant (a game Michael Rooker) takes a break from feasting on neighborhood pets to indulge in inseminating the town mattress. And before you can say, "Well, you don't see that everyday," phallic little slugs are darting into the townies' mouths and turning them into shambling zombies with a hive mentality and (natch) a taste for human flesh.

It's then up to the sheriff (an agreeably deadpan Nathan Fillion), Grant's plucky schoolteacher wife (Elizabeth Banks) and the foul-mouthed Mayor MacReady (Gregg Henry) to stop the menace before the inherent threat of Air Supply's "Every Woman in the World" is consummated.

Borrowing heavily from David Cronenberg's venereal horror classic SHIVERS (aka: THEY CAME FROM WITHIN) for his narrative framework, Gunn peppers the proceedings with samples from everything from 1958's THE BLOB up to the wretched DEAD & BREAKFAST. In regards to the latter, he raises the bar by showing empathy for his down-south folks by presenting them as viable characters, not just as stereotypical inbred caricatures.

And unlike D&B, none of his zombies break out in a rap or bust a move cribbed from the THRILLER video. Maybe that's why SLITHER didn't go over so well... it didn't pander to the lowest common denominator.

The key to the success of Gunn's script is his affinity for each of his characters (even the ostensible villain of the piece maintains aspects of his humanity), dryly delivered irony, and the indulgence of some immensely quotable lines that rely on understatement instead of ham-fisted mugging.

Ultimately, Gunn reveals the thematic focus of SLITHER to be the triumph of finally requited love by closing the proceedings with "The New Kid" from the Old 97's.

Indulge in listening to the song through the closing credits for a bonus.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

28 Days Leads to Weeks Later...

Horror — like comedy — is entirely subjective. What some folks may find terrifying others find silly. And, of course, the reverse can be true. As horror film tropes go, nothing has the potential to descend into utter ridiculousness more than the zombie film. And before the keyboard battalion of internet Cliff Clavens chime in with "You know, that's not entirely accurate — 28 DAYS LATER isn't exactly a zombie film..."

Yeah, I get it... the Ragers in the two films aren't exactly zombies. But like zombies, they're weird and pissed off and don't remember how to play nice. That's close enough for a game of hand grenades and horseshoes.

But 28 DAYS LATER... and 28 WEEKS LATER... don't play around. This is deadly serious business here and, as a white-knuckle ride into primal horror, more than welcome entries into the admittedly weak zombie canon.

The first film dealt with the set-up:

A bunch of ALF types busts into a Brit animal research lab, bent on liberating the research animals. Unfortunately, they liberate a bit more than they bargained for when an ungrateful chimpanzee promptly bites the hand that freed it, setting off a chain of infection. Seems the gub'mint has been working on a viral form of rage. Nasty stuff, it seems. Once infected, a poor sap goes from happy-smiley to wild-eyed and frothing-at-the-mouth in seconds flat.

Twenty-eight days later some nekkid bicycle delivery guy called Jim wakes up in a hospital bed to find that the city of Big Ben is half past dead. After mucking about for a while in the ruins, he finally hooks up with some other folks, which is good, because there are some severely messed-up people still roaming the streets — we're talking the tweaker version of a George Romero convention here. The infected are fueled by an all-consuming rage that blinds them to anything, save for spreading the disease (not unlike Rush Limbaugh listeners, but only slightly less open to reason).

Although 28 DAYS LATER isn't the most attractive film to watch (although shot with tricked-out Canon XL-1s, it is admittedly an inspiration to DIY digital moviemakers), it does maintain a serious level of dread. Well, to a point. After our hero and his new friends head out to the boonies to look for a promised bastion of civilization, things tend to lag a little. Just a little, because things get a little loopy when they finally do hook up with civilization.

The only issue I have here is how derivative the film is. Anyone who remembers DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS is gonna go, "Hey, wait a minute...."

We're talking very casual riffing here: substitute deranged, bloodthirsty feral folk for the bloodthirsty broccoli of the original. Add to that various "tributes" to the Romero trilogy and ensuing knock-offs, and ol' Danny Boy's doing a whole lot of borrowing here. But then, I'm far enough along in this game where I'm a little tired of homages and just want to see what the directors have to say for themselves.

Actually, a couple more issues...

It's best not to give much thought to the implication that Jim spent three unmolested weeks in an unsecured hospital bed as all bloody hell broke loose around him. Because after that comes the wondering about how he spent so long a time unmolested in his hospital bed as the city went to hell, how he went near a month without an IV refill, and how he manages to wander about a Rager-packed London all day before he finally encounters some just before nightfall.

But if you can get past that, then you'll be able to swallow anything that happens in the sequel.

28 WEEKS LATER... picks up ... well, six months later.

London has been re-secured by the United States military and the infected starved out. Civilians are being brought in to reseed the Isle of Dogs, a London peninsula and obviously some prime real estate.

But due to an unfortunate lack of intuition on the part of an Army doctor overseeing the project, all hell breaks loose again and the Yanks are up to their armpits in Iraq allegory.

Some viewers had issues with how inept the military came across in the film. I didn't have a problem with them being presented as being a little off their game in this, because I spent four years in the military... so I've seen that if there's a possibility for the brass to find a way to screw things up and then exacerbate (heh) the situation, they'll find it.

There's a reason the acronyms SNAFU and FUBAR came from the military.

Also at issue was the handheld camera approach that was used during the attack scenes. Some folks hate the shaky-cam, I don't mind it if there is a point behind it. Here, I thought that it was an interesting choice on the director's part... a lot of tight close ups during the conversational points, and a lack of cover shots during the chaos to try to put the audience in the scene as almost (as close as you could get) being a participant, rather than a casual observer to the narrative.

The film was near pitch-perfect in delivering what I want out of a horror flick (aside from one sort of silly bit that was already touched on in a few weeks before with the release of GRINDHOUSE). In the first movie, the infected just ran around in a rage attacking the uninfected; here, subtext is added to underscore what fuels that rage.

The movie also works better than its antecedent as far as acting. While Cillian Murphy's Jim in the first entry was a bit of a cypher, here we're offered some incredible nuance in the performances of Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormack. We're talking an almost imperceptible tick of the lips, a twitch of the eye that conveys a lot more shadings to what the character is feeling that may not be picked up on a television screen.

Let's put it this way: Even being a horror junkie of the old school, I was curled up in a ball in my seat for the last hour. And I'll cop... there was one point where I actually sobbed, the dusty waterworks spilling open for the first time since...

... Bambi's mother got shot?

This was the best white-knuckle horror film I've seen in years. It's not as meditative as the first one, but it sure is a lot more primal.

And in its essence, isn't that what a good horror film is supposed to be?

All I Know About Staying Alive, I Learned From the Living Dead...

Aim For The Head!

Half-assing your way to the obvious solution wastes precious time. Do it before someone finally yells "Just shoot it in the head, already!"

Beware The Others

There are always ravens that want to steal your shiny objects. Don't leave shiny objects lying about. Keep your guard up... the ravens can smell your stuff.

That's why they're called The Others.

Cultivate a Team

You need a team to keep off The Others. Know who you want to be fighting alongside and who'll have your back before things go bad...after the shit hits the fan is way too late to start putting together a fantasy team.

Don't Get Noticed

Metaphorically speaking, flying your helicopter around the roof of a mall that you've barricaded yourself in is going to draw the wrong kind of attention.

Literally speaking it's an even worse idea. Let some other group of survivors draw the attention.

And ^^that is the cheesiest binocular effect in the history of film. 

Eliminate The Dead Wood

That whiny yuppie/hippie/slacker/whatever is always the one that ends up letting the menace over the threshold.

Cut/chase and send him packing...or just throw him to the zombies and use the distraction to make a break for a more secure location.

Hipsters suddenly become useful.


Speaks for itself, doesn't it? Just secure the house before wasting time arguing whether the basement — or the ground floor — is the best place to weather the zombie attack.

Any fool knows that the second floor is a much more secure refuge...

Greed Kills

If you have enough to get by on, going out for more is just a bad idea. There's more to life than dying over something you don't need.

Help Is Not Coming

The Man doesn't give a flying rat's ass about you. He's got his own shit to deal with...and it ain't you. Besides, if you finally do get his attention he'll just mistake you for one of Them...

It Is What It Is

Bad things happen...wasted time trying to figure out the Why of the situation could be spent finding a way out of the mess.

Just assume that it was of The Man's doing, and move on to...

Just Deal

This is how the zombie apocalypse begins. A few scattered reports of cannibalism. Authorities making excuses. Late night hosts cracking jokes. Then shit gets real.

Just deal with it or die.

Know Your Exits

All safe avenues come to an end...know when to recognize the right exit when it presents itself. And no...air ducts are not to be considered as an escape route. Take it from me...they won't hold your weight.


Loyalty only goes so far

Or love for that matter. They may look like a former loved one, but once they turn there's no reasoning with them. As usual, but worse. Leave them to shamble on after their dead friends into a fading twilight...

...or for their own good just put them down right away, for God's sake. They're just gonna die anyways, and then get right back up and bite you in the ass.

Malls Are SO Like Not a Good Idea

Everybody knows that the Mall is where the goodies are... even the dead. Think outside the big box. Think about how your asshole local gun nut might not have made it back to his fortress.

Wouldn't hurt to check. Right?

No Such Thing As “No Such Thing”

Try telling a zombie gnawing on your arm that it doesn’t exist. It's not listening, is it?

Just because there hasn’t been a documented case of the walking dead doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened…

...with no one left to document it.

Open Your Eyes

Someone has to be the first to raise the alarm… just make sure that you’re also the first to hit the gun store before the looting begins.

On the other hand, also make sure that it’s not just some scabby-faced tweaker clawing at you for change or a smoke, or no one will believe you when they really need to.

Pie Fights Are Fun

And they’re good for alleviating boredom…unless you invite the dead. They don’t get slapstick.

Inflicting humor on the humorless is never a good idea.

Quit Yer Squabbling

Infighting distracts until it’s too late to start working together.

End of argument.


Dude. Just fucking run. No one's gonna think you're a pansy.

Stay Out Of The Graveyard

If the shit is hitting the fan, don’t run towards the fan.

They ARE Out To Get You

It’s not paranoia…the shambling masses are mindless and building in numbers. And they want you to join them…

But at least you can always fake caring about American Idol until a break opens up.

Understand Why Taboos Are Taboo

Using an antediluvian spell to raise the dead for shits n' giggles is generally not a good idea. Especially if that spell is contained in a book bound in human flesh.

Vanity Is Deadly

If a zombie has you by the hair and is about to impale your eye on a shard of wood, hair loss is an option.

When All Else Fails... Wing It!

If a gun isn’t available, a lawnmower can do in a pinch.

X Is Not An Option

Nor booze or any other distraction. Just because it makes you feel better doesn’t mean the situation has improved. Maybe some meth to keep the senses sharp...

Shit...what was that?

You Are Going To Die No Matter What

It’s best not to think about that one, you...

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Grapes of Death (1978)

Leave it to a Frenchman to incorporate "grapes" into the title of a horror film. Or for that matter, "raisins".

While discussing the auteurs of horror, French writer/director Jean Rollin is usually disregarded as one of the lesser names, dangerously close to being considered the Andy Milligan of Goth.

His oeuvre is primarily populated by winsome vampires barely out of their adolescence, and usually mostly out of their clothes. With a background in more adult entertainment, his genre films however display a visual flair that is immediately recognizable, a distinct eye for the baroque that transcends his modest budgets. Although languidly paced, with a minimal amount of dialogue and an emphasis on the erotic, the films are usually grounded by an unexpected air of the melancholy. And usually with a Grand Guignol flare for gory mayhem.

If his name is known at all to the casual horror fan, it is in association with Rob Zombie’s “The Living Dead Girl”, a hillbilly-industrial track ostensibly based on the English retitling of Rollin’s 1982 film, LA MORT VIVANTE. While not his first entry into zombie territory, THE LIVING DEAD GIRL hews closer to his vampire mythos than his earlier effort, 1978’s THE GRAPES OF DEATH (aka: LES RAISINS DE LE MORT, aka: PESTICIDE).

It’s not exactly a zombie flick, but that is the closest genre you could categorize LES RAISINS DE LE MORT. If there would be an antecedent, it would be George Romero’s THE CRAZIES.

The film follows the trials of Elizabeth, a young woman traveling by rail across the French countryside. She’s en route to meet with her fiancé, who runs a winery. Before she reaches her destination however, she encounters a homicidal man who has just murdered her traveling companion, and whose face disintegrates before her horrified eyes as he chases her off the train.

Lost in the rural expanse, the woman encounters various peasants who seem to have become trapped between life and death, driven mad by the pain of decaying alive, and more than eager to throttle her and visit various abuses upon her body (implied by the fact that any uninfected individual she comes across in her adventure inevitably takes the proverbial bullet for her - by pitchfork, hatchet, or whatever lethal tool the living 'dead' have at hand at the moment).

Finally, it is revealed that her fiancé has been pimping out wine tainted by pesticides, which has been consumed en masse earlier at a festival by the unfortunate villagers (talk about becoming dead drunk).

This is easily one of Rollin's most accessible films, but may not be to the tastes of anyone weaned on Empty-Vee styled horror flicks. But to those with a discriminating palate and eyes welcoming to subtitles, this is definitely recommended neo-zombie fare -- leisurely paced, atmospheric, and with liberal dollops of gore and mayhem to boot, this is late 70's horror at its best.

The title was near impossible to locate up until a few years ago (aside from crappy greymarket dupes), at which point Synapse Films released a lovingly mastered DVD, in a transfer digitally enhanced for widescreen television. With a commendable attention to detail, this disc is a keeper.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction

Now, I wasn't expecting this to be good. But I did really like the first RESIDENT EVIL, which when removed from the eponymous video game it was based on was a stylish bit of zombie headbanger fun. And if nothing else, Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez were easy to look at. There was even a cute German zombie with big, sad eyes.

And while the second one was bad, it did have its moments. Unfortunately, the moments consisted of absurd disregard for internal logic, such as having an airborne virus reanimate a graveyard full of desiccated corpses (not to mention having the living characters -- caught in a mass resurrection of the dead -- take a unclear-on-the-concept shortcut through said graveyard).

RE: III takes the muttonheaded moments of the latter and makes them shine in retrospect. This is one piss-poor excuse for a zombie flick. Mostly because zombies have almost nothing to do with the narrative. The living dead on display here serve mostly as background as unconnected vignettes unfold in the foreground.

Oh, wait... rewind. Did I say narrative?

The only sign of a story here is a low-rent MAD MAX convoy driving around the desert in circles, in a futile attempt to find some sort of a plotline to follow.

Seems that when the deadly T-virus that causes the living to go dead and come back all bitey exploded from the bowels of the Umbrella Corporation research labs, it also inexplicably caused all the water on the surface of the planet to dissipate. And since Aussie director Russell "Highlander" Mulcahy is at the helm, that means that the Australian post-apocalyptic mode is in effect: a spaghetti western featuring SUVs loaded with junkyard armor, roaring back and forth across a dustswept outback.

The sad thing is, they didn't even bother to erase the tire tracks from the previous takes, so that the vehicles seem to be following their own trail. An apt metaphor, I suppose.

Meanwhile, some mad scientist (you know right away that he's mad because he looks like a button-down version of David St. Hubbins from SPINAL TAP) under the employ of the ubiquitously evil corporation is cribbing scenes from George Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD as he trains zombies how to answer cellphones. Failing that, he trains them to be zombie berserkers. Because having damn near everyone in the world already zombified isn't enough for evil corporations.

While all that nonsense is unraveling, our Mad Maxine (Milla Jovovich) is back in her fetish gear, tricked-out this time for the desert. After periodic set-pieces that serve no narrative function, she joins the vagabonds to see if they've found a plotline to follow. They haven't, so she helps them fend off a flock of badly-rendered CGI zombie crows instead.

Unfortunately, if a digital zombie crow attack looks as primitive as the super-imposed analog from 1963's THE BIRDS, all that shows is that no one is even really trying.

Then it's back to driving around the desert again, although this time (about halfway into the 95 minute movie) they decide to go to a CGI version of Las Vegas.

Yay! Something's bound to happen in Vegas!

Um, no... Vegas is empty. Apparently whatever happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. Seems that the zombie crows ate everyone left there, which is the biggest disappointment here... if you're going to have a zombie post-apocalypse set in Las Vegas, then you damn well better kick down with some zombie showgirls and a zombie Elvis or two. And a zombie Wayne Newton, damn it!

But no, none of that. So since there's no zombies in town, Dr. St. Hubbins loads up a cargo car full of hyper zombies and has a helicopter drop it down in the middle of our road worriers. Why? Damned if I know. I suppose since there's no plot, everyone has to resort to their own initiative... even if it doesn't make a lick of sense.

So Milla walks up to the cargo container, sticks her ear up against the door... and then the door drops down, unleashing a swarm of sprinting zombie clowns. Well... not really zombie clowns. But the amount of zombies that spills out of the container reminded me of the infinite number of clowns that jump out of a tiny car at the circus. Although they seemed more like timewarped zombies from NIGHTMARE CITY than what you'd expect to encounter in the Resident Evil series.

During this big zombie attack things almost get exciting, but unfortunately every damn one of the zombies in this flick are sporting so much latex and facial prosthetics that they sort of look like Halloween bobbleheads. It's hard to maintain the creeping dread with zombies that look like they're ready to bust a move from the THRILLER video. They could have saved on the budget by buying zombie masks off of eBay. All in all, it would've looked about the same. Actually, probably better... the makeup was pretty silly looking.

It doesn't help matters any that all the blood effects are done with really unconvincing CGI. You just don't do CGI blood in a zombie flick... it's just plain wrong.

But then, this is one CGI-happy movie. Even Milla's face gets the CGI treatment when they go to a close-up... she looks so airbrushed that her face should be on the side of a cruisin' van, not a movie screen. Every detail and contour is so washed out that it looks like her eyes, nose, and lips are floating in a placid pool of translucent skintone.

Finally, Milla gets fed up because the movie is almost over and they still haven't stumbled across a plotline, so she sends off what's left of the vagabonds to Alaska to see if there's one up there.

And then things get really silly, but then movie is almost over so it doesn't really matter. But if there's another sequel, the writer really has their work cut out for them.

Double damn.