Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Night Horror: Wes Craven's MY SOUL TO TAKE and Joe Dante's PIRANHA

AAAAAHHHHHH!!  October Horror Movie Madness!  Maybe not as good as's coverage, which is day by day, but whatever, I can get through some of these.  And here are two, done back to back, one in a near empty theater and another watched in a time crunch for return to Blockbuster.

"Hush little baby, don't say a word, and nevermind that noise you heard,
It's just the beast under your bed, in your closet, in your head." (Metallica, Enter the Sandman)

In My Soul to Take we get a return to the director AND writer combined of Wes Craven - his first time doing both since his New Nightmare sequel/revamp in 1994.  His tale is of the Riverton Ripper, a killer who was a schizophrenic maniac in a small town years ago who almost killed his little girl but was killed at the last minute... OR WAS HE?!  It cuts ahead to sixteen years later where in Riverton the seven children all born at the same time in the town when the Ripper supposedly died convene to do a ritual "killing" of one in a Ripper mask.

Bug (fresh-faced Max Thieriot) can't bring himself to do it.  The next day things just seem to get weird... and weirder still.  And something more terrifying: the kids start getting picked off, one by one, by the Ripper!  But how can this be if he's alive?  Could it all be Bug, who was born and raised an "innocent" by his not-Mom and beleaguered sister, and turned into a kind of freak at school who goes presenting projects for class in a wild condor costume?  All signs seem to point to yes... but could it be... someone else?  Perhaps close to Bug?  Or is the killer still alive?  And the personal connection is...

Ah, this is Craven back alright... back to form?  That would depend on what form that would imply.  His style here, which could all be in keeping with the subject matter of split personalities, is not very concise.  He has two methods going on at once.  On the one hand he delivers a typical teen slasher story, where we have very textbook, one dimensional characters: conflicted but decent-likable protagonist, fun but stupid best friend, the jock douche-bag-bully, the goodie-too-shoes chick (in this case a Bible-thumper), and maybe (no, in this case for sure) the token Black guy (Craven does go a step further - there's a token black guy AND girl!).  They're put into a storyline where they're picked off one by one, also with the inclusion of the main character's sister who has some secrets to tell, and it all comes down to a showdown where the protagonist has to show his chops... and there will be twists!

There's that.  And then on the other hand Craven's trying to work something on that's trickier, more surreal and subversive, dealing with the supernatural and the psychotic kind of meshed into one.  This is where it gets messy, since Craven certainly has a lot on his mind just to try and come up with a concept like this where the question of if it's a serial killer still alive or a bunch of souls of the dead still in one ('souls' we're told early on as opposed to 'personalities'), *or* of it's a psychological thing, hinted at by the friendship between Bug and the talkative Alex (John Magaro, who is very good even when given little good to speak).  The ideas conflict rather ungainly in manner with the more conventional slasher pic Craven's also doing, and the clash doesn't come off anywhere near as well as something really daring like Nightmare on Elm Street.  And I don't throw that comparison around loosely, it deserves to be made here.

It also hurts, doesn't help, that Craven's dialog is clunky and, at certain times like early on in the film when he juxtaposes rather ludicrously a TV news reporter going on about split personalities as the killer is revealed in his split-personality state, just bad.  It's hard to get through some scenes where the actors, limited as they are in experience, try to get by, but are given some pretty stupid stuff to try to get through.  It really gets to a point where I would prefer an Are You Afraid of the Dark writer to come in and revamp things.  And it pains me to have to criticize the film so much since there is a lot of it that is interesting here.  And when it finally digs its heels into the big set-pieces at Bug's house (that is everything after the big revelation to Bug about his bond with the Riverton Ripper), it's well-executed in pacing and for thrills and in the confrontation between protagonist and villain (actually there are *two* confrontations ultimately, one more fight-like the other a mind-stare-down), I was sucked into the narrative.

Craven shows his talent here, but it's a messy talent, like a sketchbook that needs a fine polish and professional spit-shine to get it really acceptable.  The mood isn't too shabby, and some of the kills are staged for adequate killing-effect.  But it's hard to reconcile that the film doesn't know fully what it wants to be, and it doesn't excel ultimately at either side - Hollywood B-horror and more art-film avant-garde stuff - and it becomes a totally fascinating failure.  The hacks behind Saw VII wouldn't go this far with the jumble of ideas in its mind.  


"Terror, horror, death. Film at eleven."

Piranha knows what it needs to be, but it also sets out to want to be something a little more.  On the surface, and by that I mean just by the look-see at the poster (which, as the stock-and-trade of Roger Corman's films, you see the poster you get even *more* than you would get out of the movies usually), it's a rip-off of Jaws only instead of a huge fish it's lot of little fish - Corman himself makes this distinction on the DVD special features.  It was such a rip-off to the extent that Universal studios tried to sue Corman and the production only to stop when Steven Spielberg saw the film and loved it; not so oddly enough director of Piranha Joe Dante and Spielberg collaborated on Gremlins.  

Sure, it needs to be a typical Corman production: some kind of ACTION! or VIOLENCE! or BOOBS! every fifteen minutes or so, and it doesn't matter what kind of actors you can get - the variety of good (Kevin McCarthy), decent-dependable (Dick Miller), or not so good (Belinda Balaski) - it just matters that they can get through the lines and we get some solid bits of violence throughout and especially in the last reels.  But what it wants to be is something not so cheesy.  The actual "human" stuff on screen, the stuff with the characters, is not as thin as one might expect.  The dialog, provided by John Sayles, is fun, but it also doesn't take itself so ridiculously as to not work.  It is a serious dramatic effort first, and then via Dante's input or by the nature of the sub-genre, there are moments of comedy.  But here's the rub - when it means to be funny, it's FUNNY!

And, sure again, some of the action is cheesy; oddly enough it was only during some, though not all, of the piranha action did I think back to seeing the remake of Piranha in 3D back in August.  It's a credit to both Dante and Alexandre Aja that I didn't harkon back every five minutes to the remake when seeing the original, and really the only pure "homage" is in the climactic set-piece from this film when everyone tries to get onto the raft and it topples over back into the lake.  This Piranha is set in its own time and place of late 70's and (if you can believe it) post-Vietnam guilt-trip mania, as the fish mutated and created for attack against Charlie is instead kept under wraps until accidentally let loose into the river and down into the lakes (they can go in Fresh AND Salt water now!), and hell little by little breaks loose.

It goes by some of the numbers of the book that Jaws the movie laid out, such as the couple of people getting their wits about them and saying repeatedly to those in charge "clear the beaches, get people out of the water!" and those in authority not giving a damn and keeping things open with tragic results.  But I liked how Dante and Sayles and company kept things fresh.  I liked that our main characters, Paul and Maggie, were smart like with breaking out of the local jail and doing their best to stop what's coming.  I liked how McCarthy's scientist character comes on, does his exposition, and then as if made to be a sacrificial lamb for his transgressions he puts himself into the water to save a kid and his lower half is all eaten away.  I liked just how rampantly stupid the military and Dick Miller's water-part people were in their strict keep-everything-looking-alright quota, where it neared (or perhaps did) go over the top, but was never so unbelievable as to take me out of the film.

I liked some of the piranha effects, but some more than others.  There's an absolutely beautiful-haunting shot where a woman is dragged under water by the piranhas into the black depths of the water, and its noticeable for how much longer- even just by a few seconds- the shot is from a lot of the other piranha-attack stuff.  One can tell at times where they really did save their pennies, and who can blame them?  They had what they could work with and do the best with it they can, which is surprisingly a lot; in a sense they follow, on a smaller scale, a principle for the first half that Spielberg himself had on Jaws, though for him by default of a faulty shark: less is more.  This is thrown out the window once Phil Tippet and Rob Bottin, masters of make-up and special fx, are brought on the scene to make things more exciting.  But the tension in some of these early scenes, cheap as they are and only passably acted (i.e. fisherman with his dog on the dock), are very effective for scares.

It's a good ol' late 70's when-animals-attack movie, done with not too much tongue-in-cheek, and at a time when Dante was just about to hit his stride with The Howling and Gremlins, and is both no better and no worse than the 2010 remake in 3D, which is for the most part a very different monster of a B-movie.

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