Thursday, November 19, 2009

When the Tagline Says it All

Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966)
directed by Don Sharp
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Christopher Lee is perfect as Rasputin, a character - unlike Dracula - who didn't already belong to another actor. Not surprisingly, Lee makes Rasputin a vampire: his gifts are supernatural, and the women he mesmerizes belong to him forever. Sex is his coffin, his dirt, his tomb, and Lee's cadence is a spell that gives voice to his eyes. In Sharp's adaptation, Rasputin the bon vivant - a good dancer, a good drinker - lives only to seduce and possess Russia's rarest and most beautiful daughters. Behind the modest director, a clean screenplay conspires to create something violent and cruel in dark Russian corners, as simple as a play. That modesty of execution saves Hammer from its perennial plague of too much cheapness, placing The Mad Monk in the small pantheon of that studio's pictures truly worthy of Lee's great gifts.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gauges to Displace Your Fears

Below (2002)
directed by David Twohy
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

You only have to watch David Twohy at work in the first two minutes of the “making of” featurette to realize why Below wasn’t ever going to be better than mediocre. Directors like Twohy will always be just as interested in cracking jokes with the crew behind a camcorder as they will be in the movie itself. Kubrick he’s not (but who is?), but Below does two things really well. First, it tells a ghost story, the best of all possible movie premises. Second, it sets the story in World War II. Historical horror movies make the usual set-up of a modern day horror film unnecessary. You can still have teenagers (in this case, the crew of a US submarine), but the requisite (more often distracting) hormones of the cast are controlled by the military’s chain of command.

That leaves a lot of time and a lot of room to play in the dark. Twohy even adds a few flourishes of real wonder – manta rays attracted to flashlights, say, or the contrast between the black of a ship’s barracks and the infinite edge of the ocean beyond – but always has to feed the slow-motion bravado of his inner Stallone. Das Boot, I suppose, was a ghost story even before it began, but it’s nice too see a face in the half-light of a hatchway in the hall.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How a Hot Rod Reinvents the Rainbow

Mad Men - Season 2 (2008)
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

With the lamentable exception of a stroke victim used to elucidate the inner turmoil of Don and Betty’s marriage, the second season of Mad Men is as sure-footed, nuanced, and wonderful as the first season was awkward, over-bearing, and over-hyped. I don’t know if Matthew Weiner had more time to articulate more precisely his intentions for the show to his staff, or if writers were replaced, or what, but the Drapers are no longer merely the prettiest couple in the room. They are handsome, to be sure - few movies get the way eyes in a crowded public space gravitate to beauty like that slow-motion shot on Valentine’s Day – but they are also, in this second season, true and compelling characters.

If the show writes people like Roger, Pete, and the weird little kid down the street to be facets of Don’s personality – to be the people Don could be if he wasn’t who he was – and Betty is Don’s definitive “other half” – sure when Don is not, more confident of the answers she’ll find to questions each of them asks – it is important to me that Weiner has enough faith in Don to make him, essentially, a good man. In The Sopranos, David Chase fought for a broader sympathy towards mankind and human behavior. Learning to love a sociopath isn’t so difficult if you know enough about him, and once you love someone like Tony, how can you help extending that same goodwill to the world at large?

Weiner, I think, takes a narrower view. Life, Mad Men argues, is made up of many good people, but few who really arrive at the essence of things. Men like Don Draper deserve some sort of record – a biography, a diary left behind – to inspire the rest of us to be better men and women. It’s a Founding Fathers narrative, like George and the cherry tree, modernized with gimlets, neckties, and front-porch Los Angeles breezes.

The LA scenes are incredible, as promised - like the California of Tony’s dreams instead of Christopher’s career. Words, at last, are left unspoken when they need to be, so out with the psychiatrist and in with the agreed-upon derision of fakes like Kinsey. The intensity of that hatred – of the writers’ disdain for bearded Pauls – is how Mad Men shows its hand. We can’t all be Don. We can’t be that lucky, that honest, that good-looking, or that sincere. But we can learn to recognize a false heart, learn to apologize, and strive, in our way, towards that which is noble and right. Bright, too; bright enough, finally, for sunglasses.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bride of Mirror Man

Candyman (1992)
directed by Bernard Rose
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I’d love to see some statistics to back up director Bernard Rose’s claim that black audiences loved finally having a horror franchise of their own. However aware Rose, Clive Barker, and the cast of Candyman insist they were of the more complicated racial implications of their Cabrini Green-centered plotline, I’m suspicious of the thornier subtexts inherent in scenes like a parade of African-Americans assembling, To Kill a Mockingbird-like, at the grave of a white woman. Does she really deserve that much credit for transforming their considerable historical baggage into an avenging spirit for scorned bourgeoisie? Candyman is dated, is what I’m saying, and more than a little dubious from an ethical standpoint. But the fear of the things we half-expect to see on a bathroom mirror in the middle of the night is pretty convincingly replicated, expounded upon, and twisted deeper into our psyches – this is, after all, the director of Paperhouse – and for every way in which Candyman does not transcend Hollywood’s worst realization of a “social conscience,” it also offers up one or two authentic scares. Good but not great, in other words; a mouthful of bees might be fun, but they’re not – and shouldn’t have to be - very profound.

Did anyone else know that Virginia Madsen was a David Lynch discovery? Makes me want to re-watch Dune.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Patron Saints of Witching Wells

Trick 'r Treat (2008)
directed by Michael Dougherty
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There was enough of a gap in the door between the spirit world and our own this soon after Halloween to leave the atmosphere of Trick ‘r Treat little diluted by November. That is essential to the movie; although I’ve just made a case for watching scary movies whenever you feel like it, Halloween movies deserve to be watched in their season. Dougherty does what Carpenter promised but the producers of Halloween only expounded upon once, in Season of the Witch: an omnibus of smaller stories with the holiday – and not Michael Myers – to connect them. They vary in success – there are four in Trick ‘r Treat - but convey a real love for jack o’ lanterns, ghosts, and costumes. Non-believers are dealt a heretic’s end, tales of injustice are revived in foggy fields, and Anna Paquin assumes the necessary confidence for brutality that Sookie Stackhouse – in the first season, anyway – happily deferred to Bill. For those of you who haven’t seen Trick ‘r Treat, allow me to recommend it as your first film next October.

Chris Sarandon for Chambrain

Fright Night (1985)
directed by Tom Holland
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

If any of you ever tell me that your new neighbor is a vampire, I will believe you. Screenwriters will have to be responsible for an extra 45 minutes worth of content in a movie like this, but I think it will be worth the financial investment to spare audiences who might be otherwise inclined to like the sincere and energetic second half of Fright Night the boredom of surviving the first. Future adult film star Stephen Geoffreys has to be one of the most obnoxious best friends in movie history, and by the end of his ordeal, you're ready to travel back in time just to cast him as the first unlikable Billy the Kid. If nothing else, Fright Night's worth renting for the special effects of a vampire obliterated by sunlight. And I guess there's a lesson for you ladies out there, as well, insofar as experiencing what it's like to be a bloodsucker with a vicious Glasgow grin helps Amy overcome her early timidity about finally having sex with her boyfriend. Only in 1985.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Finer Points of Essential Viewing

Phantasm II (1988)
directed by Don Coscarelli
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

In the nine years it took for Universal to green-light a sequel to one of my favorite horror movies, Evil Dead II had made a star of Bruce Campbell as the quintessential hapless, lantern-jawed sap. Reggie Bannister was such a great part of Phantasm because he was a funny-looking guy in an anything-but-funny realm of the senses. Don Coscarelli and Sam Raimi were/are friends, and when the check from Universal cleared, Coscarelli settled on an action film, starring “the Reg” as his Uncle Ash.

On the one hand, Phantasm II feels casual in a way that easy-going movies should, with plenty of time to rev the engine in Reggie’s muscle car, plenty of time to wander through a second round of great production design, and even an evening by the fire for a pair of pretty ladies lost along the way. But it trades too much on chainsaws, and feels more like a companion piece to Raimi’s franchise instead of Don’s, or else to the warrior/teenager spirit of Coscarelli’s own Beastmaster. Anything too similar to Phantasm would probably have left me cold, but Angus Scrimm is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery whose fearful facade works better when he isn’t racing his hearse down the highway. Although, again, that scene is pretty funny. Sometimes the sequel you want isn’t the sequel you need.

"You think that when you die, you go to heaven. You come to us!"

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Crying on the Outside Kind

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
directed by Stephen Chiodo
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Another midnight movie that isn’t a horror film, Killer Klowns isn’t even a comedy. The plot, such as there is, depends upon townspeople taking the threat of aliens seriously, and then doing all they can to destroy a clown mothership with an ice cream truck. But the individual vignettes simply don’t do justice to the silliness of the entire enterprise, comprised of deeply stupid re-imaginings of every trick in a clown’s playbook - shadow puppets, balloon animals, bouquet of flowers - into deadly weapons to use in the fight against earth’s unbelieving suckers. I didn’t see It when I was a kid, so maybe the impact of these Technicolor stooges is lost on me, but I’ll leave it to Insane Clown Posse to parse the soundtrack for posterity.