Jan 31, 2013


Zombie Vampires

The Last Man on Earth
Ubaldo Ragona
William F. Leicester, Richard Matheson
Furio M. Monetti, Ubaldo Ragona
Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia,
Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart,
Umberto Raho

"By night they leave their graves, crawling, shambling, through empty streets, whimpering, pleading, begging for his blood!"

Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the sole survivor of a plague that has wiped out the human race. Worse, plague victims have returned from the dead as something very much like the vampires of legend. They gather outside Morgan's house every night seeking his blood. Morgan's entire existence consists of fortifying his home and hunting down vampires every day then blaring loud music to drown out their cries as he drinks himself to sleep every night. Yes, that does sound kind of great but Morgan has grown sick of it over the three long years that he has managed to survive. Loneliness and despair have begun to take their toll.

The Last Man on Earth was the first film adaptation of Richard Matheson's post apocalyptic vampire novel. It's a more faithful version than either Omega Man or I Am Legend and, in spite of suffering from an obviously low budget and often unimaginative direction, it's still my favourite of the three. The main reason for this is that it features vampires and doesn't transform the antagonists into psychotic cultists or mutant darkwalkers in the name of...realism I guess. See, back in the 70's a big budget film with an A-list star couldn't possibly trifle with something as silly as vampires no, albino psychos in holocaust cloaks would be taken far more seriously by sophisticated audiences of the time. Of course, today we realize that albino psychos in holocaust cloaks are completely ridiculous so instead we have cartoon CGI mutant darkwalkers instead. In another ten years this will be remade with Joseph Gordon-Levitt fending off bath salt zombies.

"There. That cross, mirror and garlic
 are bound to keep those zombies away."
Speaking of zombies, there is a slight controversy over whether the plague victims in Last Man are more properly defined as zombies rather than vampires. George Romero has cited Matheson's novel as the inspiration for Night of the Living Dead but I agree with those who think it more likely that this film was his main inspiration. The stark black and white shots of zombies laying siege to the farm house in Night look as if they could have been lifted from Last Man (the entrail eating business was new though, rock on Romero). In any case, Night pared down the already pared down vampires of Last Man to establish the ground rules for the countless zombie movies that we know and love today. Though Romero never referred to the flesh eating corpses of Night as such in his film, zombies soon stopped being those poor bastards brought back from the dead by mystical voodoo rituals to toil away in sugar mines. Now they were rogue, infectious devourers of human flesh. The undead horde of Last Man is like a transitional fossil between traditional supernatural vampires and the modern zombie.

As well as craving blood the film's plague victims exhibit many other traits specifically associated with vampires. Sadly for them, these traits are a laundry list of things which repel and kill them. They shun sunlight, are allergic to garlic and recoil from mirrors and crosses. A wooden stake plunged into their hearts will kill them though it's later shown that sharp metal poles work just as well. The finale also reveals a prosaic susceptibility to being riddled with bullets. As in Matheson's novel, these vampires have been disenchanted possessing no supernatural abilities. The film gimps them further as they mostly shamble around in a clumsy stupor, displaying none of the speed and strength described in the book. However, they do engage in a rudimentary form of psychological torture, calling out Morgan's name in the night and vandalizing his car when he isn't looking. So I just take them to be dim witted vampires but, if you wish to be more charitable and think of them as high functioning zombies, more power to you (but they are vampires).

"Morgan, come out! We want to be friends."

One of the more interesting things about Matheson's I Am Legend is how he describes creatures of myth stepping into the modern world and taking over. Vampires were old hat even as far back as the 50's, even Bram Stoker's Dracula plays with a juxtaposition of a creature of superstition pitted against the tools of then modern science. Matheson takes this a step further by using vampire folklore but explaining it in completely rational and psychological terms. The effect, when accompanied by a proper willing suspension of disbelief, is to lend a new plausibility to very old stories. It's like finding out that the reality of nightmares has been demonstrated through scientific means. Everything from the vampire's craving for blood to their aversion to the cross is explained without reference to the supernatural. Last Man drops most of the details of this speculation and exposition, but it remains implied. The film does spend time detailing the cause of vampirism, here an airborne bacillus.


Matheson was not pleased with Last Man, citing poor direction and contending that Vincent Price was miscast. I get the impression that Matheson envisioned his last man as more of an average man type and Price always had an air of refinement about him. The one deviation from the novel common to all three films is that they turn the protagonist from a plant worker into a scientist. This makes sense as each film also deals with a search for a cure, far more plausible when the character doing the research has some professional training. So I really have no problem with Vincent Price cast in the lead as opposed to some everyman type. He delivers a fine performance maintaining the audience's interest over the film's rough patches, such as the longish opening in which he wanders around an empty world as a voice over narration states the obvious. Got to get gas, I need to get gas, here I go, going to get gass. Price conveys loneliness and bitterness through his physical demeanor and there is a very good scene, as he lays back on the couch listening to the vampire horde trying to break in, where his cynicism gives way and you can see the fear in his eyes.

Aside from Price's performance, Last Man does have other moments that make it worth while. I've already mentioned the siege scenes, here made slightly creepier as his former best friend groans "Morgan, come out!" There is also a flashback containing a great bit in which we discover what ultimately became of his wife. During the last stretch, as a second character is introduced, we get to see how Morgan's ordeal has chipped away at his humanity and the film ends on a gloomier note than did the novel. This would make a terrific double-bill with Night of the Living Dead.

"I'd kill for an Xbox...and some weed."

Dec 2, 2012


Boredom Lurks And Its Prey Is You!

Nimrod Antal
Alex Litvak, Michael Finch
Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace,
Walton Goggins, Oleg Takarov, Danny Trejo,
Laurence Fishburne, Mahershala Ali,
Louis Ozawa Changchien

"Fear is Reborn"

I tried to imagine what it would have been like watching this if I didn't know what was going on before popping in the DVD, just trying to appreciate how the story unfolds without any preconceptions. I would likely have had a better time but still ended up disappointed. It opens with Adrien Brody waking up in freefall, his parachute opening just in the nick of time for him to land safely in an unknown jungle. Six more men and one woman have recently been through the same thing. Nobody knows how they got there. The last thing they remember was seeing a bright light before waking up over the jungle. It's quickly established that they are all a rough bunch. Brody's character, Royce, is a mercenary. Isabelle (Alice Braga) is an IDF black ops sniper, Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) a Yakuza enforcer, Stans (Walton Goggins) a death row inmate, Danny Trejo is Danny Trejo and so on. The unlucky bastard whose parachute failed to open will forever remain a mystery. Only Edwin (Topher Grace) seems out of place being a doctor, though the group may soon find they need one. They stumble upon some booby traps and quickly realize that their lives are in danger.

The set up is very much like Cube, but while that film got a lot of mileage out of keeping just what was going on something to be puzzled over throughout the film, Predators is at a disadvantage because anyone going to see it knows who abducted these people and why. A race of Predators have kidnapped and deposited them on an alien game reserve so that they can be hunted and killed. The characters are killers themselves because Predators enjoy a small modicum of challenge. The characters don't know that right away but the script can only keep them in the dark for so long until their ignorance becomes frustrating for an audience three steps ahead of them. So everyone is on the same page very quickly. Had Predator, Predator 2 and the horrible crossover films never been made this could have been interesting based on the premise alone. As it stands, Predators needed a few tricks up its sleeve to make it work.

It doesn't have any. It would have been nice, and not at all difficult, to have had a more charismatic lead than Adrien Brody. The characters are dull. They are a mostly unpleasant group with maybe a sliver of humanity, not written well enough to be taken seriously or broadly enough to be entertaining. The lone female character is, unimaginatively, the most compassionate of the group and therefore the most sympathetic. This movie would have been vastly improved with a more colourful cast of characters. It seems like this was the direction that the writers were trying to go in but the acting and dialog were reigned in too tightly, likely in a misguided attempt to strive for more natural performances. The script displays a strange disinterest in group dynamics. Any one character could be replaced with somebody else and not effect the story. The alien planet setting is wasted. Where is the interesting alien vegetation and terrain? The film is primarily Adrien Brody sullenly marching on as the other characters are picked off around him and we wait for his showdown with a predator. The journey isn't engaging and I never cared if he reached his goal. Laurence Fishburne makes an appearance and briefly livens things up but not enough to make a real difference.

"Follow me! Or don't. It's not like I care."

The fights are unremarkable and the movie isn't gory enough. I do think it's possible to salvage an entertaining film from a thin story and underwritten characters. A movie like Predators could get away with that. If it would just admit what it is and deliver the goods. Unfortunately, it feels like the whole film just absorbed Adrian Brody's sullen attitude. It just sits there with its arms crossed and a pissy look on its face, daring you to watch it until the end but not really giving a shit whether you do or not.

"Go on, shoot me! Or don't. It's not like I care."

Predators tries to up the ante by not only, as the title suggests, increasing the number of monsters to three but also by establishing that they are super-predators. This is to say, exactly like ordinary predators only bigger. Remember how much trouble Arnold Schwarzenegger had with just one regular size predator in the original? Well just imagine how much tougher fighting three super-predators will be. Not much as it turns out as the Yakuza enforcer is able to go toe to toe with one while wielding a katana and the serial rapist takes one on with nothing but a shiv. This is why the mechanics of the fight sequences are crucial. I'd love to see these guys take on impossible odds and triumph either through excellent strategy or luck or sheer viciousness. I do need to see it though. The fight scenes really need some creative choreography to be convincing. Otherwise they have all the dramatic tension of a slappy fight. This guy defeats the other guy just because the script says so. The action sequences are lazy and dull.


The surprise twist at the end really illustrates just how desperate the film makers were to have something, anything to serve as a climax. After Adrien Brody coldly leaves Alice Braga's character behind in an ill advised attempt to cut a deal with the normal predator that the super-predators are holding captive, Topher Grace suddenly attacks her for no real reason. It turns out that he is a serial killer and has chosen that very moment to turn on her. Damn, and the only reason she stayed with him and not gone with Adrian Brody is because of her female compassion. Look what compassion gets you. I can buy Topher grace as a serial killer but I cannot buy his rational. It turns out that he kind of likes the place. Why? Yes he's a monster and a predator like his captors but I am pretty certain that he would have no desire to be prey. That would be his status on the alien planet. Anyway...surprise. Of course Adrien Brody has a change of heart and comes back to rescue the girl. It's a good thing too because his getaway spaceship explodes. It seems that compassion can sometimes save your life. Makes you think, doesn't it?

"Ah, I see that you have mastered the science of sharp, pointy metal.
Well played, Earth Man. Well played."


Predators was unlikely to be a success as an engaging science fiction film of ideas or a deep, or even shallow, examination of the darker elements of humanity. Maybe such a film could be made but Predators doesn't come close. Worse, the film makers don't recognize this and then fail to make the exhilarating, violent action film that anyone sold on the title was no doubt hoping to see.


Crash! Bang! Boom!

James Wan
Leigh Whannell
Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne,
Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye,
Leigh Whannell, Angus Simpson,
Barbara Hershey

"It's not the House that's Haunted."

Insidious is the third feature from the writer/director team Leigh Whannell and James Wan, the duo responsible for Saw and Dead Silence. Saw was a low budget mega success. It was made for just over one million and went on to gross one hundred times that. For better or worse, Saw was among the most influential, if not the most influential, horror films of the 2000's. Dead Silence would boast a respectable twenty million dollar budget and barely make its money back. So, with Insidious, we are now back to a low, one and a half million dollar budget. Counter-intuitively, Wan and Whannell decided to make their third collaboration something far more along the lines of Dead Silence than Saw. Ghostly old hags ARE scary dammit! The crazy thing is that they appear to have another mega success on their hands. A ninety-seven million dollar gross and a sequel in development prove that being stubborn can sometimes pay off.

The future of horror?

The story is a fusion of Poltergeist and Paranormal Activity with a touch of The Exorcist thrown in. A young couple, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) move into a new home with their three kids. It's a sinister looking house infested with dark corners. It boasts a scary, spacious attic that looks to serve as a place for ghosts to hang out while at the same time providing extra storage room. The initial supernatural disturbances are low key, things mysteriously get moved around or go missing. Shortly after the couple's son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a coma while playing in the attic, things escalate quickly. Soon Renai is being terrorized by ghostly visitors traipsing all over the house. Josh begins to put in a lot of overtime at the school where he works.

Eventually the family moves into a new house. Of course, as the film's tag line indicates, this doesn't help. Borrowing a plot point from Paranormal Activity (produced by the same company) the focus of the haunting is not a place but a person. Comatose Dalton is now a ghost magnet. This does solve the problem of explaining why a family would choose to stay in an obviously haunted house, they don't, but it doesn't matter. The brightly lit and far less creepy second home becomes just as dangerous. This is a clever way for the film makers to have their cake and eat it too. They get to exploit all the traditional trappings of the creaky old spooky house and, just when that starts to wear thin, move in another direction. A third shift in gears is set up after a psychic is brought in to figure out what's up with Dalton.

"Hypothetically speaking, I mean just in theory of course,
if we were to move and not take our son with us
the ghosts would leave us alone, right?"

The scariest thing about Insidious is Joseph Bishara's alarming score. This is a film comprised almost entirely of jump scares. A quiet, creepy scene is established, the audience waits, and suddenly a glimpse of a ghost or a demon or whatever is accompanied by a really loud musical cue that makes everyone jump out of their seats. Do this at least once every fifteen minutes. Add on a jump cut and another loud musical cue and you've got yourself a twofer. To its credit, Insidious has the courtesy of showing us actual ghosts or demons or whatevers. It doesn't resort to spring loaded cats and false alarms. Some of the ghosts are a little creepy, the demon looks like he should be weilding a double bladed lightsaber but it doesn't really matter. Using this formula you could achieve the same effect by just giving the audience a glimpse of somebody walking around with a bed sheet over their head as long as the sound was loud enough. It would be more cost effective.

But hey, whatever works. I have no problem with film makers manipulating my emotions with cheap tricks. Please, manipulate me, I want to be entertained. Keep in mind though, there comes a point when the audience begins to see a pattern and the law of diminishing returns kicks in. So the question becomes, what else have you got? What am I actually going to remember a few days after seeing this? Insidious has some great opening credits. A series of quietly unsettling shots give the impression of having just caught something out of the corner of your eye. These are in direct contrast to the jump scares, something off centre in the shot not drawing attention to itself, but very unnerving when spotted. There is a scene set in the bright kitchen of the family's second home where Renai walks right past what I could have sworn was a small figure in a cap standing motionless with its back to the camera. The seance scene is interesting. The gas mask contraption that the psychic wears is bizarre in a fun way. There is a good use of a Tiny Tim song. That pretty much covers it.


The third direction the film takes is exploring an astral projection angle. Dalton is able to leave his body and wander the astral plain but his still living body becomes prime real estate for ghosts and demons looking to possess it. We also discover that Josh had the same talent when he was a child but some bad experiences caused him to suppress the memory. Now Josh is going to have to journey into the astral plain to bring back his son before a demon steals his body. The film does not succeed in mining any emotional drama out of this father and son dynamic, which is a shame because it might have been an effective finale. A similar development in Poltergeist, with the mother traveling into the spirit world to rescue her daughter held more dramatic impact. To make things worse, the astral plane is disappointing. It's a slightly distorted version of things that we've already seen. By this point the film has edged way passed the point of being silly so it's a shame that they couldn't go for broke here. I was hoping that the astral plane would have looked something designed by Steve Ditko but really the point is it should have been visually stunning. Maybe if it had a bigger budget.


Insidious will probably scare you if you aren't too jaded about horror films and turn the sound up loud. It does become sillier as it progresses and has little in the way of offering something that you haven't seen before. I can't see this holding upon repeat viewings but that goes for most horror films (most films, really). It does at least employ its small bag of tricks somewhat effectively. I would recommend Paranormal Activity over Insidious however. It uses the same tools to achieve the same effect but is a much leaner, comparatively elegant film.

Dec 1, 2012

SATURN 3 - Review

Bizarre Love Triangle

Saturn 3
Stanley Donen, John Barry
Martin Amis, John Barry
Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas,
Harvey Keitel

"Trapped between unnatural love and inhuman desire"

Saturn 3 is about a pair of scientists working in a hydroponics lab on an unnamed moon of Saturn. They are lovers. Earth is crowded and starving, but the pair have managed to fashion a comfortable Garden of Eden oasis for themselves. That all changes when Earth gets tired of their screwing around and Captain James is sent to shake things up. To improve efficiency, a hulking beast of a robot named Hector is to be assembled on the station. Unfortunately, the man who arrives has a dark secret and there may still be some bugs to work out with Hector. Mayhem ensues.

Based on a story by John Barry with a screenplay by Martin Amis, Saturn 3 began with promise. Barry worked as the production designer on A Clockwork Orange, and gone on to do impressive work on Star Wars, Superman and the under appreciated Phase IV. He turned down an offer to work on The Empire Strikes Back in favour of Saturn 3. Barry envisioned the film as an extravagant depiction of a dystopian future. Amis was an award winning novelist and they even had the acting chops of Kirk Douglas at their disposal. So what went wrong?

Amis' novel Money may hold a clue. A fictionalized account of Amis' experiences working on Saturn 3 is depicted in the book. Lorne Guyland, a sixty something former Hollywood hunk with a penchant for nudity, is based on Douglas. In the novel, Guyland creates friction on set with his prima donna behaviour including demands for three long love scenes with full nudity. On the set of Saturn 3, there was friction between Barry and Douglas. Stanley Donan was brought in as a replacement director. That's Stanley Donan as in Damn Yankees, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Singing in the Rain, a strange choice to rescue a sexy sci-fi horror film.

There's no question that Saturn 3 was, in large part, a vehicle to showcase Farrah Fawcett's...talents. An attempt to propel her career out of the television ghetto and on to the big screen. Essential to this would be for the film to have a large appeal among a young male audience. The more killer robot and titillating glimpses of Farrah Fawcett the better. Naked old man flesh? Not so much. Yet Douglas seems to have been far more eager to sex this up than was Fawcett. In the finished film he displays a lot of skin. There is an awkward scene in which he wrestles with Keitel in the nude. To clarify, Douglas is nude, Keitel isn't. Those familiar with Bad Leuitant might be relieved to hear that. To indulge in wild, baseless speculation for a moment, what if Donan was brought on because he was willing to let Douglas have his nude scenes?

We certainly do see a lot of Kirk Douglas. Farrah Fawcett on the other hand, while apparently game enough for a little light T&A, did have her limits. Fawcett sports a rather kinky little outfit during one deleted scene. Though stills of Fawcett dressed in this costume were used to promote the film, she successfully had the segment removed before the film's release.

Suddenly, Charlie's Angels didn't seem so bad.

The film opens with ten minutes of padding. It adds nothing to the film other than to show us that it is indeed set in the future, and that the future is strangely well choreographed. The premise of the film is that Earth is overpopulated and starving. The work that Adam (Kirk Douglas) and Alex (Farrah Fawcett) are doing is intended to address this crisis. All we see of this future is the interior of a spaceship and the hydroponics lab on Saturn 3. The spaceship sequences show a future that looks more like 2001 than something like Soylent Green. The plants in the hydroponics lab look more decorative than functional. This is how Earth will be fed? The sets look great but don't really suggest the type of future that the story is trying to depict. Benson's trip through the rings of Saturn might have made a striking opening shot if they had the effects nailed down, but it's a jarringly poor sequence that really should have been cut from the film.

Keitel plays Captain Benson. He's been rejected for the mission to Saturn 3 as psyche tests have identified him as potentially unstable. Captain James has been selected instead. So Benson flushes James out an airlock and assumes his identity. Guess the tests were right. I think that this early reveal was a mistake. Had Benson simply arrived on Saturn 3 and his true identity been discovered as the story progressed, this could have been an intriguing element of the plot. As it is, the audience knows that Keitel's character is a dangerous creepy psycho making it all the more frustrating when Douglas doesn't lock him up within five minutes of meeting him because Keitel's character is written as an obvious creepy psycho. Keitel's voice was dubbed over by British actor Roy Dotrice making his character come across all that much weirder.

Several bits of dialogue clue us into the fact that Earth is no longer a nice place. Finding a moment to chat with Alex, Benson casually remarks, "You have a great body, may I use it?" Alex proves immune to Benson's smooth talk. Benson notes that it's selfish for Adam to keep Alex "for his own personal consumption" and that such unfriendly behaviour on Alex's part would be illegal on earth. He pops blue dreamers (space drugs) like they're candy. He also wants to eat their dog. Maybe Benson's appalling behavior is perfectly normal in the future world of Saturn 3 although, Captain James seemed like an alright guy, before he was flushed out an airlock.

"You're telling me that thing plays chess?
It just looks like a big waste of money to me."

It looks like Adam and Alex are going to be stuck with the Captain for a while. He needs to assemble and activate Hector. They'll be unable to send or receive communications for a while due to an eclipse. The captain casually informs them that Hector will make one of them obsolete. Adam is nearing "abort time". I'm guessing that's something like retirement though, from the way things are going back on Earth, it might also include being ground down into a nutritious paste. It's fairly obvious that by "one of them" the captain means Adam. Of course, he will soon have more pressing concerns than his imminent obsolescence.

The reason for Benson wanting the Saturn 3 mission, badly enough to kill, is never made clear. He's not like the mad scientist driven by a passion to perfect his monster. It seems like it's just a job to him. In fact he's very quick to help dismantle Hector when it proves dangerous. Once on Saturn 3 he soon becomes obsessed with Alex but we have no indication that he was aware of her before he arrived. So it's unlikely that she's the reason he wanted to go there. He attempts to follow through with Captain James' mission, apparently unconcerned with any repercussions for his crimes back on Earth. The character's only reason for being in the movie seems to be so he can bring along the robot and introduce some sleazy undertones to its malfunction.

"So, what's wrong with it? How come nothing happens?"
Leaving aside Fawcett's sex appeal, Hector the robot is by far the best thing about Saturn 3,  It's a cool movie monster, looking like something Skynet might have designed before coming up with the T-900. The massive body supporting a stick like head is an interesting design. It gets even more interesting later in the film. The tank of foetal brain tissue that makes up it's CPU is a nice touch. Benson programs Hector by linking up brain to brain. So Hector catches Benson's crazy. He also starts noticing girls, taking a shine to Alex.

Adam is beginning to face the fact that he won't be around to protect Alex forever and that their relationship might be holding her back. Benson comments on this pointing out that Adam abandoned Earth out of selfishness and keeps Alex out of selfishness. Though motivated by his own creepy fixation, Benson's observation is not without merit. Alex would prefer to stay with Adam, but who cares what Alex thinks? She is depicted as almost childishly naive and little more than a fair damsel in need of protection. Benson's arrival with the emasculating named "demigod" series robot, just actualizes a problem that Adam would have had to confront sooner or later. He is an old man perhaps no longer quite up to the task of being a suitable lover for the much, much younger Alex.

See? I AM double right clicking god dammit..."


A chess game between Hector/Benson and Adam foreshadows the conclusion of the film. Adam sacrifices one of his pieces but is able to win the game. He notes that, for all the whiz bang technology going into your fancy robots these days "Sacrifice. It's the one thing you can't teach them...". To be fair to Hector, this blind spot probably has more to do with being programed by a psychopath rather than due to any flaw in his design. A downloadable patch would probably fix him up in no time. Also, Adam is getting on in years and old people hate technology so his opinion on the matter is biased. The film needs to make some sort of statement and falling back on the lazy theme of man's superiority to machine should do. Sure, why not? In the end Adam sacrifices himself for Alex and sets her free. It's kind of noble on Adam's part and mostly condescending towards Alex. The most interesting thing that happens in this movie (other than the naked senior citizen battle) is when Hector rips off Benson's head and starts wearing it as a hat. This is why I have rated the film a four rather than a three out of ten.


Saturn 3 doesn't really work as an exploitation film or science fiction or a monster flick though it has elements of all three. It can't commit to any one of these and ends up failing in every regard. We get bad performances of poorly written characters in a thin and unconvincing story. I suspect that everybody involved with the project stopped caring long before filming was complete. Donan probably cared for a short time before his was removed which is sad. It's like he tried to throw a party but some gate crashers came and ruined it then threw him out of his own house. Then everyone realized they didn't want to be there after all and had a shitty time. It's still worth a look for fans of retro sci-fi and those who appreciate well funded train wrecks.

Sep 30, 2012


Empty Promises

Maximum Overdrive
Stephen King
Stephen King
Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle,
Laura Harrington, Yeardley Smith,
John Short, Ellen McElduff,
J.C. Quinn, Christopher Murney,
Holter Graham, Frankie Faison

"Stephen King's masterpiece of terror directed by the master himself."

During the mid-80's legions of Stephen King fans were excited by the news that King would be directing a film version of one of his stories. His fans had high hopes for this one. I know I was one of them. There's the old canard that the movie is never as good as the book. While no doubt true in many cases, simply comparing the film versions of Jaws and The Godfather with the books on which they were based demonstrates that this ain't always so. An equally pervasive idea among fans of whatever it might be, The Lord of the Rings for instance, is that the more involvement the authors have in adapting their own work for film the better. This could be directly, say having the writer drafting the screenplay. Or even posthumously with the expectation that the film makers preserve every jot and tittle of the author's text. So when King announced that he was going to be filming an adaptation of his own work many fans were thinking "finally, we're going to see this done right". I know, I was one of them.

The thing is that in retrospect it turns out that King had not been treated all that shabbily in film up until then. We had Carrie, Salem's Lot and The Shining made in the 70's and Christine, The Dead Zone and Cujo in the 80's. Though not all masterpieces I don't think it could be fairly argued that any of them were turkeys. Firestarter might have been and Children of the Corn definitely was, but this is still not a bad ratio. No, King's work would be adapted into many terrible films but in 1986 these mostly lay in the future. So when King made Maximum Overdrive in an attempt to finally get it right, he was addressing a problem that didn't really exist yet. Ironically, in doing so he managed to make the worst adaptation his work in existence at that time.  Make no mistake, Maximum Overdrive is a disaster. It was a critical and box office flop, a failure in any artistic sense, and someone lost an eye. Oh it has its defenders amongst fans of bad films. Lots of wacky, loud stuff happens so it would be hard to claim that it's boring. In much the same way that being trapped in a room full of flatulent, shit slinging monkeys wouldn't be boring. But that's not what we were promised, promised by the man himself.

"I'm going to insult
 THE HELL out of your intelligence"
In the trailer King confidently declares "I'm gonna scare THE HELL out of you!" Maybe, but it wasn't going to be with Maximum Overdrive. When the film bombed King claimed that he'd been aiming to make a fun, campy B movie. It fails even in this regard. This is no Night of the Creeps or Night of the Comet. The gags have not an ounce of wit. If the movie is funny, and it's not, it would be unintentionally so. I don't believe that King was not trying to give the audience what he thought they wanted. Something not shitty.

In an interview promoting the film, King discusses how the spirit of the author is so rarely captured on screen. He goes on to say that he had received tons of letters from fans complaining about the film adaptations of his work and states, "letters-really started to flood in after The Shining, they ruined your book..." Oh please, this just seems like a cheap shot at Stanley Kubrick. King's dislike of the film version of The Shining is well documented and I find it hard to believe that the Kubrick adaptation is the one likely to receive the most complaints. Though, that novel was a favourite amongst King fans, and fans can be so damn nitpicky, I guess it's possible. King goes on to praise Milos Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest as an example of a film which really captures the spirit of the author. Of course, Ken Kesey hated Forman's film. I think that there may be a pattern here.

If Maximum Overdrive was what King thought his fans wanted to see then he must of have had a very low opinion of his fans. Or, he has terrible taste in film. This doesn't seem to be the case based on the insightful writing that he has done on the subject. Maximum Overdrive really runs with the low in the lowest common denominator. This has since been confirmed by King himself who referred to the film as "a moron movie" chalking up the films failure to his inexperience and being coked up out of his mind at the time. That I can believe. And you know, I really don't hold it against him. So he made a crappy movie, big deal. I recently read Under The Dome and it rocked my socks off. I still have oodles of respect for the man. But Maximum Overdrive serves as a shining example to fans who'd like to see their favourite authors adapt their own works for film, be careful what you wish for.

"Emilio...Emilio...psst!...Emilio.... you got any blow?"

An adaptation of the short story "Trucks" from Night Shift, about a bunch of trucks that come to life and start killing people (much better than it sounds, honestly). Maximum Overdrive expands the concept to include all machines turning murderous. Not a bad idea but the concept isn't followed through. We have killer trucks, a killer walkman, a killer arcade game and so forth. The cars continue to behave themselves because...King got lazy? In the film we eventually get an explanation for the machine apocalypse, space aliens. Yet the strength of the story's premise is playing on the irrational fear that machines have a malevolent will of their own. Who hasn't screamed at their computer when it crashes or at their car when it won't start? Attributing a stubborn conscious to machines is a common experience. Now, what if the machines weren't just stubborn but actively murderous?

The film implies that we are witnessing a machine rebellion. Like the machines got tired of being used and decided to turn the tables. Angus Young shrieks "Who Made Who" and the waitress character shrieks at the circling trucks, "We made you! Where's your sense of loyalty you pukey things?" The hokey, tacked on extra terrestrial explanation undermines this by attributing the machines hostility to an outside agency. Sure, the idea that machines could suddenly come to life and hate and kill is irrational and absurd but that doesn't make it a bad concept for a horror movie. So long as the concept is followed through with and maintains an internal logic. This does not happen here. But hey, that's just a blown opportunity. It's not what sinks this film. No, it's the completely unappealing characters and atrocious dialogue that do that.

In many ways Maximum Overdrive is like The Mist. A group of colourful yokels are trapped together as hostile forces gather outside. But the characters in The Mist are presented with skill and display some depth. The people here are caricatures. King loves his dim-witted rubes and here they are at their dim witted rubiest. Good acting and snappy dialog can make this sort of thing work. Check out Slither or Return of the Living Dead for examples of broad, humorous characters portrayed well. The acting here ranges from bad to nerve wracking, though given the screenplay it's hard to blame the actors.

All you really need to know about the characters is that Emilio Estevez  is the good guy and Pat Hingle is the bad guy. Everything Estevez does is good and everything Hingle does is bad. When Estevez fires the rocket launcher it's a good thing when Hingle fires it...you get the idea. There is a hilarious fat guy we see taking a loud poop on the crapper at one point. Hysterical. A kid gets run over by a steamroller. Someone gets killed by a soda machine. Yeardley Smith (Bart Simpson's voice) made my ears bleed. Then the movie was over.

On the whole, I preferred Kubrick's film.

Sep 29, 2012

The Land Of Laughs - Jonathan Carroll

The Land of Laughs
Author: Jonathan Carroll
Publisher: The Viking Press
Publication Date: 1980

This is Jonathan Carroll's first novel, the only one of his books that I've read though based on this I look forward to reading others. The Land of Laughs came highly recommended to me by a friend and after finishing it I wondered how in Hell I'd never heard of it before. It's a dark fantasy which starts out as a whimsical, romantic adventure which becomes increasingly eerie and sinister as the novel progresses. It has a terrific hook which comes later on and balances its' alternate moods very well.

Thomas Abbey is the son of a deceased movie star grinding away at a teaching job that he's grown sick of. His social life is nearly non-existent and he suspects that the women he dates are more interested in his famous father. While this may be true, his problem also has much to do with the fact that he is aimless, selfish and more than a little strange. His two great passions in life are his exotic collection of masks and an obsession with an author of children's novels, Marshall France.

France inspired an enthusiastic following. He was also a recluse and hid away in the small town of Galen, Missouri dying of a heart attack at 44. Little is known about France but it is Thomas' dream to write the man's biography. Thomas comes across a used copy of one of France's rare books only to find that it has already been sold. He waits around the shop to buy it off the woman it's been promised to and soon meets Saxony Gardener. She is just as obsessed with Marshall France as Thomas is and just as strange, her thing being marionettes. While not exactly love at first sight, this does spark a romance and the two travel to Galen in order to do research for the biography. This may not be easy as they'll need the cooperation of France's devoted daughter Anna and the odd and secretive people of Galen.

The romance between Thomas and Saxony is founded on just the right combination of infatuation and irritation to make it believable. The initial meet cute set up is undermined with enough drab reality to make it plausible. Carroll builds both characters from a tool box of quirks and tics that lend specificity to each of them. His two protagonists share a passion that is infectious and both possess an awkwardness and vulnerability that make them endearing.

Of course the passion they share is primarily for Marshall France and his books. Carroll captures the excitement a true enthusiast feels when engaged in some way with the object of their devotion. He describes the sort of  fascination which would lead one to exclaim "that is where the great man wrote such and such, sitting in that very chair!" Initially the effect is engaging, as the novel moves on though it becomes cloying. No character in the novel views Marshall France and his novels as anything other than sheer genius, and his presence is inescapable. Given the direction The Land Of Laughs ends up going I suspect the effect is intentional. There is a strong theme of fathers overshadowing their children.

That Carroll chose to make Marshal France an author of children's fantasy novels rather than say, detective stories or contemporary adult literature is appropriate in at least two ways. Thomas and Saxony both first encounter his work while they are children going through difficult times. The nature of their obsession is grounded in a regressive comfort, a means to escape reality. This fits into their character arcs. Another good reason to make Marshall France a children's author is that the language of these books can evoke a haunting and magical quality like nothing else (I always liked the Wind in the Willows chapter title and Pink Floyd album title "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn"). A few carefully chosen names and phrases such as "Green Dog's Sorrow", "The Queen of Oil", "Moon Jester" attributed to France lend some weight to the assertion that he was a magical genius. Even his name is well chosen, it sounds authentic. I will note though that Bluebeard was a Marshal of France, just an observation.

Secretly they hate each other.

Thomas needs to convince Anna that he is worthy of writing her father's biography in order to gain access to diaries and notes and so forth. This is the main plot thread which is engaging in it's own right, but then the novel goes off in another direction that I can't discuss for fear of spoiling it. This would be the sinister and eerie part. Once established, this portion raises some interesting philosophic questions before placing the protagonists in jeopardy and concluding with some impact.

Sep 23, 2012

'Salem's Lot: Illustrated Edition - Stephen King

'Salem's Lot Illustrated Edition
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: 2005

First edition published by Doubleday October 17, 1975

This was Stephen King's second published novel. It was the first King novel that I read and it still remains my favourite. In spite of its flaws and clunky moments here and there, its greatness rests in being a very well executed realization of a terrific idea. This idea being to rewrite Dracula in a modern American small town setting and see what happens.

What happens is that you get, as King's editor at the time remarked, Peyton Place with vampires. Note that we don't get Grover's Corners with vampires. This is not the tale of a pleasant little Norman Rockwell community besieged by evil, something along the lines of Santa Mira in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (with which 'Salem's Lot has something in common). Jerusalem's Lot is a banal little town plagued by the banal evils of poverty, child abuse, alcoholism, prejudice, infidelity and violence. It's one of many little pockets of nowhere that can be found all over North America. It embodies a kind of living death long before the vampire arrives.

And Barlow takes some time to arrive. He lingers and lurks in the background, casting a shadow over everything as the reader turns the pages in anticipation. This is a rare case in which King starts out strong and keeps gaining strength until the climax. So many times he's able to grab the reader with a captivating premise but then looses some steam along the way. This is not something particular to King, sustaining a consistent level of engagement is no easy feat, especially in a novel length horror story. King's talent is evidenced in his consistent ability to nail that first part. Yet it's always a pleasure to come across a work in which the best parts are saved for last.

I like how the vampires are handled here. I'd go so far as to say that I've never read an example of vampires done better. At this point I'm obliged to bash Twilight and its ilk so consider it done. The emo superheros that populate the majority of vampire fiction alternately depress me and piss me off, there. Oh sure, Interview with the Vampire wasn't awful and vampires are just made up fantasy nonsense anyway so who cares what direction you take them in? Well I like my vampires scary. Part of what makes vampires scary is that they might bite you and make you one of them. This only works if being one of them involves an eternity as a hideous unclean thing that sleeps in the dirt. An eternity of being a gorgeous super powered sexpot that will forever look fabulous in Priape outfits just doesn't sound scary at all. All I have to do is develop a thirst for blood? Sign me up. I never liked the sun all that much anyway.

"I like watching you sleep. I find it fascinating."

With the exception of Barlow, the vampires of 'Salem's Lot don't have much personality (come to think of it, neither does Edward Cullen...oh SNAP!). Barlow has made a pact, possibly with Satan, probably something worse. He gets to continue on through the centuries as an avatar of pure evil. Yet those he infects are little better than animals. They have no real inner life, no real memory, just an unquenchable thirst for blood and compulsion to obey their master. They have been damned. Their threat is not simply physical but profoundly spiritual. I read an interesting observation once, though I can't remember who said it in regards to what, it might well have been King discussing this novel though I haven't been able to find the source. In any case it applies. The novel begins with a large cast of characters and is narrated at times through their perspectives. Once they become the other, in this case a vampire, we no longer get their perspective. The effect is similar to watching lights slowly going out all over the town. The descriptions of the undead townsfolk lying silent within seemingly empty houses during the day are eerie.

The major theme of the novel is the nature of evil and whether or not pure, supernatural Evil can coexist with the modern world. It begins with the writer Ben Mears exploring the question in the novel he's working on, researching the creepy Marsten house that overlooks the town and in which he had a terrifying experience as a child. Later, this thread is picked up with the character of Father Callahan, who has always secretly hoped that such a thing existed, a worthy spiritual opponent. Be careful what you wish for. 'Salem's Lot is an exercise in toying with the reader's suspension of disbelief. Of course, vampires and the modern world can't coexist. As Callahan tries to convince Henry Petrie's in his brightly lit kitchen, he is immediately shut down in an assault of reason. Despite the reader knowing that Callahan is telling the truth it as also obvious that Henry Petrie is completely right. But then the lights go out and Barlow rises up out of the darkness...

'Salem's Lot works as a pot boiler and an adventure yarn but most importantly as a horror story. This illustrated edition is fancied up Jerry Uelsmann's eerie photography, a couple of short stories related to the novel, and some alternate and excised material. The alternate scenes with Father Callahan are particularly interesting though I think King made the right choice in what he went with. The scene with Dr. Coby and the rats however is more disturbing than what was published. You can't have too many rats.