2.13.2014

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Growing up in the early 80s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was notorious as an almost mythically gory horror movie.  Part of its infamy was due to the "based on a true story" introduction (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is "based on" the Ed Gein case in the same way that Predator in based on my life- not at all). When I first saw it in high school, I was honestly a little disappointed.  At that time I was obsessed with horror movies, having refused to watch them my whole adolescent life out of fear, and like the Cenobites in Hellraiser I was on a never ending quest to reach new heights (or depths) of horror and gore.

The thing with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that it is really not very explicit at all.  Like Halloween and Psycho, much of the violence is suggested so expertly that your mind fills in the blanks.  For a young gorehound this was too much work and I hadn't had the experience watching (good) horror films that I do now, and it was impossible for me to appreciate just how good this movie is.

I have seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre now half a dozen times, and it gets better with each viewing- more suspenseful and tense, more beautiful.

Concerned by news of corpse mutilations in Texas, Sally, her brother Franklin, and their friends decide to check out their grandfather's grave to make sure he is still there and intact.  Along the way they pick up a disturbed hitchhiker, setting into motion the events of the rest of the film.

What makes this movie work is, unlike the slashers of the 80s and 90s, Sally, Franklin, and the others are generally likable kids.  The movie starts off slowly and is mostly the kids driving around and chatting.  They're good kids and their reason for getting together is innocent and noble.  Franklin is often cited as an unlikeable character, and while he does whine a lot I found him to come across as a sympathetic and even charming character.  He seems genuinely interested in communicating with the bizarre hitchhiker for example, when most characters in horror slashers would act dismissive and insulting.

The pacing is impeccable.  Starting off slow, once the murderous and infantile Leatherface shows up the movie hits breakneck speed and doesn't slow down until the end.  The introduction of Leatherface in particular is an amazing and shocking scene.  In fact, Sally's attempt to escape from the family of cannibals is so frantic that it almost feels like a single 40 minute take, broken up only when she is knocked out- only for her to wake up in an even worse situation and renew her escape.
Special mention must be made of the house much of the last act takes place in.  Its rooms are filled with bizarre sculptures made of human and chicken bones, its floors covered in feathers and grime. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a particularly (surprisingly?) beautifully photographed horror film.

There is also a surprising amount of character development when it comes to the cannibal family.  At first they are presented as an actual family, but later in the movie you realize they are more a clan than anything.  They stick together more out of necessity than anything and it is clear that they don't really much care about each other though they try to maintain the semblance of a family.  The "father" is a very interesting character, who, contrary to his "sons" claims to get no pleasure from killing, but at the same time cannot help but smile as the others torment Sally.

While the empty and meaningless slashers that were influenced by this landmark film could be fun, they missed what made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre work- likable characters and villains with (some) depth.  This movie has become a Halloween tradition for me, and I am eagerly awaiting this year's viewing.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho is so entrenched in our popular culture that, even as a huge fan of horror movies, until now I have never really felt the urge to watch it.  I knew the story, I had seen the most famous scenes more times than I could count, I even knew all about the true story it is roughly based on.  I suppose I felt that the film had been ruined for me in a sense, and that it would hold no surprises for me- no suspense, and what would be the point of watching a Hitchcock movie without suspense?  Having finally watched it in its entirety, I realize I could not have been more wrong.

Marion (Janet Leigh) is handed $40,000 in cash to deposit for a client but decides instead to take the money and run.  As the weight of her crime weighs on her conscious she begins feeling and more importantly acting paranoid, attracting the attention of a police officer and a used car salesman.  Finally she checks in to the Bates Motel, managed by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who has a disturbing relationship with his mother.

The rest is cinematic history.  Much of the audience was likely drawn by Leigh's appearance in the film, and it must have been unbelievably shocking for them to witness her violent death halfway through the movie.  The movie then switches to the perspective of private investigator Arbogast (who is also suddenly murdered) before finishing up from the point of view of yet another set of protagonists.

I really enjoyed Anthony Perkins' performance.  His portrayal of Norman Bates has been
parodied and referenced to the point where I was expecting a one-note depiction of an awkward mama's boy.  I was surprised to see that Bates is instead boyishly handsome and charming in his own way. His mask of sanity slip now and then, but he almost always seems to realize when he has gone too far or said too much and reels himself back in.

When he is being interviewed by Arbogast he starts out cool and friendly but within a few questions he has been caught in a lie and ineffectually tries to modify his version of the story.  What he doesn't realize is that the local sheriff pretty much considers the case closed, assuming that Marion has run away with the money.  His problem, like Marion, is that he cracks under even the slightest pressure.

Technically, the movie is perfect of course.  The black and white photography is moody and beautiful with excellent use of shadow, and Hitchcock's direction is of course masterful.  The pacing is perfect (with one little problem I will go into later) and while I still found the movie to be suspenseful having known the story before watching it, even if I didn't the movie would have been a pleasure to watch.  It is always fascinating to watch people doing something they are expert at, and that is a fitting description of Psycho.

I have two problems with this film.  The first is the shower scene.  It just doesn't work for me.  I've not been stabbed to death in a shower so I can't say for sure, but I never get the feeling that the knife is actually even touching Marion.  I'm not saying it needs to be more explicit, but something seems off about it... knife seems to slow, angle is off, the way Marion slides down the wall seems overly theatrical and not realistic.  Having said that, the lead up is perfect.

Regardless of my hangup over the shower scene, it doesn't diminish the movie in any way.  That can't be said of the closing scene.  First we get Norman Bates shrieking "I'M NORMAN BATES" as he rushes into a room wearing his mother's clothes.  He doesn't even seem to be saying it, and it appears to have been dubbed in after.  Was this done in fear that audiences would not understand what was going on?  Next, we get a hammy, rambling speech by a psychiatrist explaining what exactly is wrong with Norman Bates, and it completely spoils the pacing of the movie.  Finally, a long shot of Norman Bates that would have been way more effective without his internal monologue.

I can forgive the last 10 minutes due to the strength of the rest of the movie.  Psycho is still an effective thriller and a masterpiece of suspense half a century later.  Who will even remember garbage like Saw in 2060?

2.12.2014

The Shining (1980)

Very few film adaptations can be said to be unquestionably better than the books they are based on in every way.  The Shining is one such film.

As a fan of Stephen King I had resisted seeing The Shining due to Stephen King's dislike of the adaptation.  The film is indeed quite different from the novel; the changes go way beyond those one would normally expect in adapting a 200,000 word novel into a two hour film.  Whereas King's novel focuses on how alcohol can turn a decent man on his family, Kubrick's movie seems to assume that the same man is bad from the start and seemingly destined to go off the deep end.

I can thus appreciate that King himself is not a fan of the film and I would not blame a diehard fan of the novel for looking down on the adaptation.  Having said that, I believe that King's novel would have been almost impossible to film effectively as it was in 1980 and I appreciate the work that went into changing not only the story but the characters as well in order to get it up on the screen.  This is really a fantastic movie that is beautiful to look at and atmospheric in a way that the original novel is not.

Jack Torrance accepts a job as caretaker of a massive hotel during the winter, and brings his wife Wendy and young son Danny along.  The hotel is remote and secluded and a previous caretaker had gone stir-crazy and murdered his family with an axe.  Jack has got no problem with that, since he wants to be left alone to do some writing.

The movie then follows Jack's (predictable) descent into madness as he first becomes frustrated
with Wendy's interrupting him while he is writing, then becomes seemingly jealous of her closeness with their son.

It's a great movie, and the pacing is perfect; before you know it you have been sitting there for two hours and the movie is over.  As far as I am concerned the movie is perfect... if not for two things (one of which is not really the fault of the movie).

First, Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Jack Torrance, while fun, is so over the top he is almost campy.  As a madman stalking his family with an axe he's fine, but he gives Torrance a menacing edge from the very first scene.  He is constantly fidgeting and making bizarre facial expressions even when he is supposed to be "normal" at the start of the movie.  It's possible that the intent was to show that Torrance was off from the very beginning, but I would have appreciated a gradual descent into madness rather than going from "kinda crazy already" to "jumping off the walls insane."

The other problem I have with this movie is actually a problem with the novel.  The titular Shining (Danny's psychic powers) just does not work for me.  In the novel it plays a more important role, since the hotel itself is some kind of entity and wants to eat Danny's "Shining" powers.  Even when I first read the novel in high school, I felt the book would have been better off without explaining this at all.

Watching the movie, I feel like Kubrick wanted to reduce the importance of the supernatural stuff, but had to keep the Shining in for the title to make any sense.  This is downplayed so much that the character of Halloran, who shares a psychic connection with Danny, could pretty much have been cut from the film with no effect.  As it is, he exists to deliver exposition (on the Shining itself) and then rush in during the last scene to be killed.  The movie would have been stronger without the explanation.

It thus goes without saying that I approve of the changes made to the supernatural elements of the story.  I feel like they distract from what the film is saying, but even distract us from the point of the novel.

Having said that, the film works as is, as does the novel.  They are different enough that it is worth experiencing both.

2.08.2014

They Saved Hitler's Brain (1969)

They Saved Hitler's Brain was made by combining a short feature with new footage shot by amateurs much later, and it shows.

The short feature, Madmen of Mandoras, is nothing special and concerns a plot to establish Hitler's head as the ruler of the world.  It could have been a shlocky but fun little appetizer for the main feature, but the budget is so low that the entire conspiracy to bring Hitler back to power is limited to Hitler's head (that just sits there in a glass box blinking), and a few guys.  They plan to release some kind of nerve gas, but I just don't see how this could possibly work out well for them.

Ten years later, some students filmed 20 minutes or so of footage and added it to increase the running time.  Instead of skillfully splicing scenes into the feature to lengthen it, they just filmed some nonsense and dropped the whole thing at the start of the movie.  Sure, it's in black and white like the rest of the movie, but the film looks newer as the costumes, hairstyles, and cars are obviously from a different generation or era.  I don't even understand how the new footage is related at all to the Madmen of Mandoras.

The only thing common to both is that they are awful.  I had trouble following what was going on because scenes didn't seem to flow into each other at all.  The movie is disjointed.  Nothing much happens for most of it, and like all awful 50s/60s "science fiction" movies, most of the running time is taken up by scenes of talking in offices, which are cheap to film.

I suppose I get what I deserve for watching stuff from "50 movies for $10" DVD collections, but it's pretty disheartening to watch these kinds of movies.  Hopefully the next one won't be so bad.

7.06.2013

Mad Max (1979)

There's not much to say about this classic post apocalyptic film.  For a stunt/revenge flick it's got a surprisingly intriguing setting, memorable characters, and a great story that leaves you thinking about the fine line between justice and vigilantism (alternately: AWESOME STUNTZZZ).

There are two things that are really interesting about this movie.  The first is how the setting is revealed extremely naturally, with very little exposition.  It's obvious that society has broken down to some extent, but there is no boring text crawl at the beginning of the movie telling us what exactly happened.  Gangs roam around terrorizing people, and the police are basically undermanned and powerless.  A legal structure still exists but you get the feeling that it is just a desperate attempt at pretending that society can still function in a civilized manner.  On the other hand, people still have jobs, can purchase goods and services, and technology in general still exists.

The second really interesting thing is of course the examination of the fine lines that exist between justice and vigilantism, and protecting society from predators and hunting them down in cold blood.  You often get the sense in this movie that the police force is merely another gang- albeit a gang that is concerned with tracking down murderers and rapists.

So these two aspects of the movie give you a lot to think about.  How is the rest?  Pretty great actually.  Performances are great all around, dialog is natural, and the movie alternates expertly between high-octane car stunts and slow panning nature shots.  Even the uniforms that cops all wear are awesome.

There is a single negative thing I have got to talk about.  The soundtrack can be pretty awful.  In general it just stays in the background and you don't notice it much, but during the last part of the movie- when Max becomes Mad Max and hunts down the remaining gang members- it just ruins the whole thing.  These scenes should be tragic- as a character mentions earlier in the movie, no one believes in heroes anymore, and basically the last hero in the movie has lost his way and no longer trusts the system.  But then the soundtrack is playing triumphant hero music every time Max takes out a bad guy.  It takes a movie that is really quite intelligent and reduces it to a stupid revenge flick over the course of five minutes.

Although the movie is kind of ruined during the last few scenes, it is otherwise perfect and should not be missed by anyone interesting in genre films.  This movie went on to spawn two sequels- one really excellent, one okay... and also influenced a bunch of Italian ripoffs and the excellent Hokuto no Ken/Fist of the Northstar Japanese comic/cartoon.  If you have any interest in that stuff and have not seen Mad Max, you owe it to yourself to watch this classic.

6.22.2013

1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982)

1990.  The Bronx.

...Warriors.

Everyone has given up on the Bronx, leaving it to be run by a bunch of novelty gangs, including the barbaric rollerskating guys, and the formidable tapdancing Broadway gang.  But those guys are nothing compared with the generic motorcycle gang, the Riders, led by Ice and Trash.  They are one of those movie gangs that are actually just a bunch of fun-loving guys in a bad situation with hearts of gold.

Trash and his gang end up saving a girl who has escaped to the Bronx from her rich father, but her father will stop at nothing to get her back- including hiring an ex-Bronx psycho named Hammer.  Hammer starts playing the gangs against one another and before you know it there is a full-scale war as the Riders attempt to reach the base of the Tigers, crossing over the territory of multiple bizarre gangs.

So obviously this is a low budget ripoff of The Warriors (1979).  Usually this would be a disaster,
but there if there is one thing 80s Italy was good at, it was ripping off movies on low budgets.  And as a result, this movie is really very good!

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way.  The gangs are admittedly ridiculous.  The acting is all over the map; like most Italian productions in the 80s, it's likely that some actors acted in English, and others had their Italian acting dubbed over in English.  Trash is a bizarre character: he's supposed to be a badass fighter with a heart of gold, but he looks totally awkward at all times, like the actor was never comfortable with the role but is trying his best to work with everyone.

That is literally all that is wrong with this movie.  Everything else is amazing.  The sets looks fantastic, the costumes (while bizarre) look great, and the plot is surprisingly straightforward for an Italian exploitation movie. 

I think a lot of thought actually went into making this movie.  You get a few scenes showing gang rituals/culture and each gang has its unique quirks.  Most Italian exploitation movies just string together a bunch of the most memorable scenes from the movie they are ripping off.  While Bronx Warriors does this to an extent, it doesn't feel forced at all and thus comes highly recommended.

Four of the Apocalypse (1975)

Stumpy "Stumpy" Preston is an incompetent gambler who loses every single game he plays during the movie (or gets caught cheating).  Bunny is a pregnant prostitute.  Bud is crazy, but in that lovable way.  Clem is the town drunk, but also in that lovable way.  Combing their formidable powers, the four are able to survive a vicious attack on the town but since everyone else is dead they have no choice but to travel the land until they find something.

Along they way they run into both friends and enemies, including a seriously psychotic guy who might be a little of both (mostly the latter).

So why is there a western movie on this blog?  Well, it just so happens that this movie was directed by Lucio Fulci, the Italian goremeister and after watching all of his actual horror movies
I decided to give this one a watch.

It's a pretty good movie to be honest with you.  It's a little nonsensical (kind of like all of Fulci's movies...) but that really just adds to the charm.  It's a very dark western- everyone has got their flaws, and lots of innocent people die horribly.  With a couple of minor changes this could easily become a Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic movie.

The tone is a little uneven.  One minute our heroes are a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' while they shoot their guns at the sky and dead birds rain down from the heavens.  The next minute, someone is getting skinned alive.  It's kind or reminiscent of Cannibal Holocaust (though not nearly as brutal and not as effective).

It's pretty violent for a western, but Fulci fans will be let down by what few gore effects are here.  Gunshot wounds are pleasantly wet and chunky, but the skinning scene is only effective due to the acting, since the effect is so lame.  Yes, at this point in my movie hobby I am rating movies by how effective their gore effects are.

I watched the English dub and it was fine.  Accents seemed to change from scene to scene and there was a lot of unconvincing screaming, but nothing too bad.

It's no Unforgiven, no The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, no El Topo.  Maybe not even Young Guns.  But it's an entertaining 90 minutes of gritty western movie.  

9.30.2012

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

A man drives his car, from where (to where) is not clear.  Every once in a while we flash to a shot of a dead woman, obviously murdered, her body dumped somewhere or just left where she died.

In the first minute of Henry, we see four dead bodies.  The soundtrack switches to the the sounds of struggle that took place before the women were killed.  A perfect way to set the tone for this bleak and uncompromising portrayal of a psychopath.

Henry is really the ultimate serial killer film.  Movies that came after- Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Saw, American Psycho- were fine films, but they missed the point or didn't even try.  Silence is a great movie, but Hannibal Lecter is not a psychopath.  Seven is also a great thriller but it's less a movie about a psychopath than it is a movie about police tracking down (or really, failing to track down) a serial killer.  Saw is just sadism and special effects.  American Psycho is fantastic and it's obvious that everyone involved did their research, but the movie is exaggerated to make a point and is thus more a comedy than it is any kind of serious look at psychopaths.

Henry, on the other hand, is a really masterful "slice of life" look at a day in the life of a psychopath.  Henry is not your typical movie psychopath.  He's not an evil genius like Hannibal Lecter.  He's not a sanctimonious, moralizing character with no depth whatsoever, like the Saw guy.  He's polite and charming, but he's not well-educated (in fact, he is illiterate).  He doesn't revel in his killing, he just does what he thinks he needs to do and does it.

Performances are really phenominal all around.  Michael Rooker's portrayal of Henry is simply amazing.  Every time he talks you just sit there mesmerized.  When he talks about his childhood at one point, you can't help but get chills.  And there is a twist to that discussion too, if you pay attention.

It's a refreshing take on the concept now, never mind back in 1986.  Surprisingly, there isn't even any kind of subplot involving cops on the case.  Henry's murders never even come up on TV or in the news in the movie.  At one point he and his "friend" Otis kill a couple of prostitues and while Otis is worried about what will happen, Henry assures him that there is nothing to worry about, because nothing will happen.

It's a deceptively clever movie.  Rather than just striging together a bunch of murders and calling it a day, everything build up intelligently.  There are two scenes in particular that just blow me away.  The first is a scene where Henry and Otis go to buy a television on the black market, and the end up killing the totally unlikable guy selling the set.  Every single person I have watched with this has the same reaction: laughing and cheering.  The characer is just that slimy and detestable.

Shortly after that, there is a scene where Henry and Otis break into a house and murder a family.  The camera pulls back and you see that the two of them are watching it on a tape they make using a camcorder they stole from the TV guy.  Every single person I have watched with this has the same reaction: dead silence.

There's more to it than, well, the TV guy was awful, and the family didn't do anything to deserve getting murdered.  But did that TV guy deserve to die, just for being a jerk?  Not in hindsight.

Having said all that, the movie is surprisingly bloodless, though you sure won't remember it that way when you are done.  It's that effective.

It's really hard to imagine a more perfect psychopath film.

Maniac (1980)

Frank is a pathetic specimen of a human being.  He lives by himself in a tiny apartment surrounded by manikins that he has dressed up.  He's got pictures of (we assume) his mother up on the wall, and some really unsettling artwork as well (watch on DVD and really pay attention to what he's got up on his wall...)

Years of serial killer movie experience allows us to surmise quickly that this guy is not okay.  And he isn't.  And the movie wastes no time in establishing this.

Maniac is an interesting movie, because while it is about a serial killer, there are no mysteries.  You know from the very beginning that the main character is a psychopath and the only thing that is up in the air is when (if?) he will be caught.

It's a very bleak horror movie, and probably at that point in time included the most realistic portrayal of a psychopath out there (to be eclipsed by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer six year later).  It's bleak because it offers no easy answers, and because Joe Spinell's performance is so eerie and believable.  And the creepy and inventive soundtrack doesn't hurt.

As Frank continues his spree it appears that he's getting worse.  He's less able to control himself and his outbursts aimed at his dolls get more and more manic, less and less understandable.  And he starts getting sloppy.

The movie ends sadly on a low note, with a scene you are supposed to wonder whether it is supernatual, or all in Frank's head.  Up until that point though, the movie is really amazing.  It would only be another six years before the serial killer movie was perfected...

The Gate (1987)

Some kid, his older sister, and his buddy are terrorized by demons as a result of an inprobable chain of events which has just happened to summon all these demons.  Will they survive?????

I've kept the plot summary short for three reasons.  First, there isn't much to it.  Second, I like this movie a lot, and don't want to really go into much detail so that you will be intrigued and then go watch it.  Third, if you want to check a plot summary, you can go to IMDB or wikipedia or what have you.

The first time I saw this movie was when I was a kid in middle school, on a class trip to Montreal.  Whereas all the older kids were out drinking and going to strip bars with their teachers, all us good (that is, stupid) kids were stuck in our hotel room eating convenience store food and checking out late night movies in French.

Well, this movie came on and I was transfixed.  I understood French a bit back then, and could follow what little story there was.  But more importantly: the effects.  The little demons running around.  The laborer who came out of the wall and fell to the ground only to turn to worms.  The large demon at the end of the movie.  These images all stayed with me over the years.

Once I found out the movie had been released to DVD, I ordered a disc and sat down to watch it.  If anything, it was better than I had remembered.  The other night, I watched it a third time and was really impressed.

It's a clever movie.  It was probably meant for children; it's not very gruesome and of course the main characters are all young kids.  However, it's got a really great sense of humor and no matter how old you are you really have to appreciate the effects, which are a mix of stop motion and guys in rubbers suits and forced perspective shots.

And what kid in the 80s couldn't relate to this movie?  You really can't get more 80s than demon summoning spelled out in heavy metal record album notes.

The performances are all really great, with the exception of the main character who is totally outclassed by heavy metal-loving best pal.  The kid playing him is amazing, and he's also a really well-written character.  The way the three kids act together is really believable and helps the movie to be more than just a special effects flick.

If more "lite" horror movies were more like this, I'd still be watching them in the theaters.