Saturday, October 24, 2015


Children scare me sometimes too.... but not as much as SPOILERS

This is one of those horror movies that I'd heard of over the years but never came to watch (the sequel as well, though I only knew of that vaguely, in part from an Iron Maiden song, which I'll include at the bottom here).  This falls in line with what happened with what happened for me with another John Carpenter film, The Thing, where I watched the remake before catching up to the original.  I tend to do that sometimes, missing out on some key moments in the history of horror and science fiction and Westerns, and I can only imagine and speculate as to how I would have received seeing this younger, a lot young even, like as a child (and incidentally both films, their originals, are part of a series I'm doing on my podcast, The Wages of Cinema, where I have to see movies my friends has suggested I see that he's seen over the years, you can listen to that episode very soon, but I digress).

This is at times a very British series - it comes from a book called The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, who also wrote Day of the Triffids (you know the one, maybe, where plants attack, that's basically what I know about it - and the basic horror behind both films is this: what happens when children, who adults see as not being fully-formed and can be molded and shaped are just BAD from the start, and in a society where we expect them to be well-behaved and upstanding and can control people's minds?  Is the power structure turned upside down?  How about logic and emotion, the latter sometimes (often times in the past from my perception of things with certain families and groups in the UK) are kept to a level where things are 'proper' and 'orderly', another word for repressed?

Of course in this case there isn't some 'Bad Seed' style element, nor is there Satan ala The Omen.  This is a science fiction set-up from the beginning, and the start of Village is nothing is not chilling to the core.  What happens if suddenly, all at the same time, everyone in a town falls asleep or is knocked out at once (humans and their pets), and once others come in to the area of the town they too fall asleep (and please don't try to fly a plane into this area).  Something about seeing all of these shots of people, all slumped over, in the streets, in their stores, in their cars (parked, for now), leaves an uneasy feeling, especially how the filmmakers add little to no music and it's also in stark black and white; in color it may still be terrifying, but the B&W carries a deeper dread to it.  I'm reminded of Lewis Black in a stand-up bit saying how when you see a movie in black and white it means (usually) everything is super serious and without any shred of humor (sorry Mr. Black if I screwed up that line, I'm sure it was more clever when you said it).

The gist of the story comes from everyone waking up in this small community of Midwich, and when it appears that all (or at least most) of the women are suddenly soon after expecting babies.  But did the husbands even do the deed to get this done?  I was slightly confused at first as to whether the men were knocking them up (i.e. our main character George Sanders as Gordon Zellaby, a man of science and rationality), but it seems pretty clear that there's some "immaculate conception" going on as well, such as with a 17 year old who seems to have not had sex before.  The pregnancies are fast - 5 months into it the embryos are 7 months along - and the kids seem to become kids very quickly.  Though there's no clock as to how quickly these kids become the size they are at, that's part of the point - we're disorientated as much as I'm sure the adults are.  And it's clear as day these children, about 7/8 of them in all, with the same white hair and albino skin and black clothes, freak people the fuck out... and seem to be driving people to kill themselves(!)

I was still a little confused after the movie ended (not as I watched it though, which I give the writers credit) about how the kids knew exactly about the other kids in other countries who were born and were soon after either killed by the town elders (Eskimos for example don't take kindly to babies with light hair), or were left to 'run' things in as in Soviet Russia.  But then that's one of those small story details I can certainly take more than a grain of salt to think about - hey, they can control people's minds and/or melt them (it seems), and are implants from another planet, I'm sure there is some logical explanation there.  And that's not the point of the movie anyway: the horror comes from how we as a society will look to beings we don't understand, and how quickly or not we respond to such threats.

I think know the presentation goes helps to mask that it's kind of a conservative message at the bottom core of it, in some part, as some of the main people in town want to round up the kids and (at least) put them in prison when they hear how other countries deal with these demon spawn, but Sanders wants to study them, find some way scientifically to discover their capabilities or how they think and use their minds.  As soon as the kids start really fighting back against the adults - some wanting to kill them more than others, as you can see in a couple of scenes where it's just shocking how easily it can happen in the matter of a minute - Sanders realizes his mistake and knows they have to be put away.

And yet the other part though is that this is a stone cold, not too funny satire/commentary about logic vs conformity, and how the same conformity and Group-Think that forms the kids together also will send out a mob from the pub to go after the 'Other' that's the threat.  There's some deeper stuff going on in the story, the subtext of things and the greater socio-politican implications, and it helps to elevate what is actually a pretty short film at 77 minutes long.  It's a very good movie that suffers if anything most from the one child actor who talks - Zellaby's "son" David (Martin Stephens, who was just in the "Spooktacular" series in The Innocents - being obviously dubbed over, and an ending that feels kind of ambiguous but not at the same time.  It's an eerie shot involving eyeballs, let me put it that way, but it doesn't answer what happens to these... 'children'.

On to the sequel, and it's... a little different, that's for sure.  Is it better? Ummm... to quote the kids in the movie when asked why they're doing this... I don't know(!)  Ok, I do, kinda, but...  

I think the best way to see Children of the Damned is as a stand-alone film, oddly enough.  It is a sequel,  but it isn't in the way that it might, say, reference anything from the previous entry.  It's almost as if there was no incident in Midwich where these children all (spoiler) die when George Sanders brings in the bomb and uses his "brick wall" in his brain to stop them from controlling him.  You'd think there may even be some reference to how this was a phenomenon in other nations with children born en-masse.  But in 'Children', it's like the first movie didn't... happen(?)  Not to say the international-element of the first film is removed; on the contrary, this time it's one child from different nations, and they're all in London (I'd presume that's the place) and, with the exception of one child (I think anyway, the main kid Paul), the 'Damned' are all kids of Embassy leaders.

In a way, one might think that this could be an improvement on the first film in the sense of how these kids could live for so long - you might recall if you watch 'Village' that the Eskimos killed their kids since, naturally, having light-haired children was a very odd/kill-worthy thing for a group of black-haired people.  Here, there's Indian, African, Chinese and Russian kids to join the British Paul, and they don't have the same hair.  In another way this makes them less frightening - there's no visually congruous way to see them as the same, and I think this is an attempt to make them, perhaps, sympathetic in this one.  This is spearheaded by Ian Hendry's let's-try-to-see-what-they're-like psychologist (ala Troy MacLure you might remember Hendry from such films as The Hill and Repulsion), who doesn't want to wipe them out like (spoiler) everyone else does.  Well, almost everyone.

The problem with watching Children of the Damned is the fact that Village of the Damned exists; if you have something that has the same title (in part) and the same connective tissue of the kids-who-look-deadpan-and-use-mind-control powers, then it should have some relation to the original.  Maybe if I'd see this first it would be more effective, but it takes a while for the movie to get to a final act where it sort of crams in a lot of things that Village, though a shorter film, was able to pace out in a more interesting way.  What I mean is the split between those who immediately want to jump to killing the kids since they are, shall we say, not human, and then those (i.e. Hendry's Llewelyn) who sees them still as kids and, yes, they may be a superior race, but aren't we humans supposed to be the better species?   But Oh, wait, hold on to your horses, one more BIG revelation comes that throws even what little connection to the first film out the window (BIG spoiler):

They're us - a million years into the future, at least so says one old doctor who studied the DNA and found, uh, reasons that this is the case.  Holy AI Artificial Intelligence, Batman!  So the movie suddenly turns into hard-sci-fi when I thought it was still, at least somewhat, a horror movie about telekinetic children who are half alien and half human.  Suddenly I wonder if Planet of the Apes is in the strangest way possible a *prequel* to this whole series(!)  It was a shame to have this at the last minute since, again, it makes for an interesting idea... but in the middle of a "Damned" movie?  Where one thinks that the mechanics of how these children are is without question?  But there's still the immaculate conception angle, no?  Yes?  Then what?  Do human beings a million years in the future come back to the past to suddenly impregnate our women to create, uh, a special super species that JUST WANTS TO BE LEFT ALONE DAMN IT, OR YOU'LL DIE!

So, Children of the Damned turns out to be kind of an intellectually frustrating experience, even as I can't fault the production quality or generally the performances by the adults (the kids are just... there, you know); it's directed in a way that still retains some of the creepiness of the first film (a scene where soldiers are attacked with what is in essence a sonic-plexus disruptor or some kind of sonar thing in the church where the kids are hiding in is the best scene of the movie, in tension and editing and everything).  But at the same time it takes too long to get what it's really about, the meat under everything that it's hinting at.  Even as a stand-alone film I'd still have questions, even as, again, it's difficult, especially if you watch it so soon after the first movie, that it would have SOME connection to that movie.  I hasten to say the producers used just some elements and slapped together their own movie, but maybe that's it.

If I sound harsher about it than it deserves, it's due to how good the first movie is, and what a concept this presents us with.  I'd love to see someone possibly make a a version of this story one day from the kid's point of view - maybe it could take the tact of Last Temptation of Christ.  We assume that the kids are still, whether they're alien or super-advanced human or not, half human, and thus they have that property of being a super-being but having the heart and soul of homo sapiens.  What kind of burden that must be on a child!  What if you could look at that dramatically speaking?  Or... maybe I'd be sucking the horror out of that as well.  This is a good, unique little series that has some elements of a 'Body Snatchers' motif, but uses society and how adults view children (and the collective-hive mindset in general in societies) in a clever way.

But the solution for these kids.... PUT THEM IN THE IRON MAIDEN!

Spooktacular Savings #17: WOLFCOP

So, hey, you see the title above there?  Do you think you'll get what the title promises you?  By that metric, you should know up front if what you expect to see is a Wolf Cop ... you're damn right you get a cop that's a wolf!  Or a werewolf, at least, and he's actually the Sheriff not a regular beat cop, but YOU'LL GET THE POINT!

This independent title comes to us from Canada, and it wasn't immediately apparent (though a friend watching the movie pointed out a map showing the Canadian train line in the background of a scene).  But no matter - these darn lycanthropes are everywhere!  In this case, we have a Sherriff in a small town named Lou Garou (get it!  Uh, there's some kind of connection there I think).  He drinks.  A lot.  And he also has to watch over this town that is infested with crime and has a mayor who doesn't really give a shit about much, and the other cops on his team are actually effective or want to do more (Amy Matysio), but what can they do with so much crime and so little will.  At least on Lou's part.  At first.

Then things happen and, you know how it goes, one thing leads to another, he's taken by some people in the middle of the night and a ritual is performed on him (big star-shaped symbol included in his flesh), and he has been... afflicted, cursed you might say, and now he can do things like smell things much more sharply and can feels something 'off' in his mind and, yeah, what's with that big symbol carved into his flesh.  So he goes to the Tooth & Nail bar (great name, legitimately) and has some drinks, but the bartender seems to want him to drink more, so he does... and then as he pees in the restroom his PENIS IS TURNING INTO A WOLF PENIS AND HIS BODY IS TRANSFORMING AND AAAAAAAHHHHH NOW HE IS - WOLFCOP! 

Ok, I so I tried to build up the story a little more than it needs to.  If there's a weak spot with this flick, which knows what it is immediately from the title, it's that it takes a little while to get going.  I thought back to another movie, steeped in schlocky violence, where a figure comes to rid the town of crime and human vermin, and in Hobo with a Shotgun they didn't waste any time in getting to the excessive gore and gross-out beats and exaggerated performances.  With this one, well, perhaps it should get a modicum of credit for not diving into completely unbelievable characterizations (i.e. certain Troma movies, looking at you), but at the same time none of the actors, except possibly for the mustached Jonathan Cherry, are particularly strong or could do much with the ok dialog given, and that goes for Leo Fafard who reminds me too much like Jason Jones from The Daily Show (and I mean in a way that was oddly distracting). 

That noted, once the WolfCop-ness and the transformations take off, then the movie takes off too, and the tone gels into a place where the writer/director Lowell Dean put together some magnificently stupid-terrible-fun-awesome set pieces.  It starts off with the WolfCop putting together his new 'Wolf-Mobile', which is just a revamped cop car, spray-painted black and given a "W" emblem on the back trunk (they never do give it a name, I don't think anyway).  and with the front doors ripped off (all that's missing is a special motor to make the car go WHOOSH with a fire to the engine).  Then two scenes, one set at a convenience store (you can imagine the madness that happens there - a lot of lopped off limbs and ripped-off heads in the process, one of the victims getting their bodies hit with a limb as well), and one at a barn where a meeting of the same douches that made Lou a wolf have congregated.  But does he get them all!  They are shape-shifters, after all, which we learn in a kind of exposition dump that comes from a book dubbed, literally, Occult Mythology

Oh, this movie doesn't give a fuck about certain logic things, but it does more than try to get some genuine laughs and be funny in its knowing-bad-B-ness.  This stuff can be tricky, like if the movie is trying to hard to shock and have blood-splattered violence just for the sake of it.  These parodies of bad horror movies can be bad unto themselves, but the key is to make it a giant live-action cartoon and just have fun with it.  A sex scene that happens, which I can't spoil too much of the details about who with or what is set about in the room to make it 'sexy' (if it even is a room), is one such example.  Oh, and the WolfCop loves to drink just as much as Lou does when he's on the clock or wherever, from the local store called Liquor Donuts.  I had pondered for a moment if it was actually called 'Liquor/Donuts' with the slash, as if you can get liquor and OR donuts.  But, no, alas, they are donuts slathered with liquor.

What this cop does with this torn-flesh of a man's face... is actually hysterically funny.
 WolfCop is horror-sometimes-comic trash, and it knows it, but it's fun more than its not.  I had my share of laughs and I had some uncomfortable moments with the performances here and there.  And damn does this director love his schlocky rock music to go with his manic action-fights.  It's the kind of movie you see at Best Buy on the shelf and you'll either pick up by instinct or you won't by the same impulse. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #16: James Wan's DEAD SILENCE

And hey, it wouldn't be Spooktacular Savings without some CHEAP THRILLS, right?  Eh?  (shit, there's still time for something cheaper, this was from a major studio, but enough digression on with the review)

For quite a while, I didn't like James Wan.  Saw was a movie that was screened as kind of a special "secret" event right around the time the movie first came out when I was in college, and me and the fellow film freaks/friends at the Student Film Association all came to the same consensus that it was a pile of hot horror garbage, with camerawork that was murky, editing that tried to do that "super-FAST-OMG-IT'S-GOING-CRAY-CRAY" approach with the victims that was annoying, and worst of all a story that not only lacked logic but shoved it down your throat how clever they were with a particular twist.

While the Saws continued in the 00's, Wan didn't actually work that much as a director; he made two movies in 2007, this one and another 'dead' movie, a thriller called Death Sentence.  It wasn't until The Conjuring in 2013 that he finally impressed me, and certainly in a way I didn't expect (I still remember seeing just one sequence at 2012 NY Comic Con at the panel for the movie, and being like 'Oh shit, this is a director I haven't seen before').  In the interest of full disclosure, I must note I still have yet to see 'Sentence' or the Insidious movies, and I hope those are good when I do see them.

So I came to this movie tonight and gave it a chance, unlike in 07 when I brushed it off and didn't look twice (and hey, ventriloquist dolls, c'mon man, isn't that old hat, I thought).  It starts off promisingly enough, as Ryan Kwanten as Jamie (Jason on True Blood for those that may recall) is happily married and one night he and his wife get mailed a ventriloquist doll.  Why did it get sent to them?  Or, more to the point, why, when our main guy is out getting Chinese food for a night in, the doll seems to mercilessly slaughter the wife (and briefly, in confusing Jamie when he comes home, take on her voice)?   Thus a mystery has to be solved - certainly Donnie Wahlberg's asshole detective won't do it (oh, I'll get to him soon, friendly readers) - and it takes him back to his hometown, where he has to see his estranged father (good old Warden Norton from Shawshank, Bob Gunton), and finds a conspiracy involving dolls.  Lots and lots and LOTS of dolls.

Maybe I'm not an expert when it comes to doll movies - another missing entry for me when it comes to this particular brand of horror is Stuart Gordon's Dolls, and though I've seen clips I've yet to see the full segment from the British classic Dead of Night with the ventriloquist (though I hope to get to that in this 'Spooktacular' series, by the way).  What I can give Wan credit for is that he isn't slouching too much when it comes to setting up atmosphere, and surely from places like the cemetery with the dolls (yes, they have their own caskets, which is where our Mr. Whoever-Doll was originally in), and when it comes to a major set piece in the third act, and takes place in lots of dark, black-and-grey tones and has lots of places where things can go 'Boo' in the night, it's fine.  In a way this may be more like a semi-training ground for what Wan would later do in The Conjuring, but to more naturalistic effect (yes, naturalistic for a supernatural-ghost movie, yet it's true).

On the other hand, I'm not sure if a doll moving its eyes and turning its head slowly, after the 10th time, is any scarier than the first (and the first time it's only mildly 'oh shit', on the basest, boiler-plate level).  Certainly Wan is trying to treat it seriously - it's not the Mr. Bubbles or whatever its name was in that episode of Seinfeld (you know the one, where Jerry's haunted at night while trying to sleep in Kramer's bed).  But where the film really falters is the script, and in a lot of key areas.

Leigh Whannel's screenplay has lots of flat characters and dialog, and the one time it tries to make for something 'humorous', we get Wahlberg's detective as a guy who has an actual *character tic*.  By this I mean he carries around an electric shaver and shaves just a little part of his neck without touching his face.  This gimmick is tired at the first time it's done when in the investigation room with the Jamie character (and by the way, isn't him being out getting FOOD his alibi, the food is there, other people saw him get it, why go right away to the creepy doll angle at all, but, ah, fuck it, that'd require some logic here, right).  But his whole function is similar to the shitty cops in the Saw movies - run through procedure, act like a dunce, and keep the story moving as if we're not already aware THE DOLL IS EVIL RUN IT'LL KILL US ALL.  But no, let's keep this guy as a thing for, like, comedy or something.

Then there are parts that are predictable, though not in a way that makes you angry, just more of a 'meh' feeling.  There is a coroner character, for example, who has a lot of useful information for the protagonist - there's even an elaborate flashback, actually, probably, my favorite scene of the movie because we get to see the doll and its 'maker, the 'Mary Shaw' from the oft-repeated poem that kicks off the plot in a way, and how it interacts with a large audience.  There was no way this character could possibly live past a certain 'reel', so to speak, and sure enough this character did not.  Other times, and this may be more on Wan's end and yet I can't be sure due to the nature of the writing, that jump scares have to be used.  It is a tussle of what-to-do I'm sure; it may be creepy for some in the audience to see all of those doll's heads turning at the same time (you'll know it when you see it, it's like a spook-house version of what I saw back in 'Spooktacular' #1 of Attack of the Puppet People).  But for others, this will be simply another thing that is just kind of.... there.

Wan pulls some of his Saw tricks out here and there, and I can actually forgive that since most of his direction here is competent, and Kwanten does as good a job as he can with what he has (Wahlberg is kind of sleep-walking, honestly, but then what else can he do with that fucking razor, which ends up being like a weak is-it-a-gag-even near the end).  Dead Silence has a decent premise, and it gets undone scene by scene by writing that isn't bad due to it trying something TOO hard and being a complete disaster (such as Saw), but through mediocrity and things we've seen before.  Hell, I suddenly remember as I type this a creepy doll was the focus of a goddamn episode of ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK (it was even featured in the opening, if you recall).  It was surely scarier back then!

And God help us all, there is, sadly, a twist.  And a pretty shitty one; not Saw level, but it surely comes close, and undoes a lot of good will I had through the movie, or tried to keep up.

Spooktacular Savings #15: Roger Corman's A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)

"Life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."
Man, this knocked my socks off!  Like, out of sight!  Daddio, what is this thing I'm about to lay out, A Bucket of Blood?  Ok, I can't keep up that type of writing.  I should start off by stating what the worst part about A Bucket of Blood, and I type that title again because, frankly, is the title.  Some might go into it expecting to see said bucket of blood; in fact, there actually IS one, sort of, in one scene, as a character is draining slowly of their blood while hanging above Dick Miller's ceiling hole after hitting him to death with a frying pan.  And while that description makes it sound like this is a violent/scary film, it mostly isn't.  Perhaps 'Art is Murder' could've been a better title, but not so great for the poster, which is what mattered most with Corman movies usually anyway.  But what this movie is, in fact, is a savage, insanely funny satire.

What is it making fun of?  And does it relate to today?  Oh hell yes it does.  See if this doesn't sound appealing if you're into a sick/twisted sense of dark humor: a bus-boy, Walter Paisley (Corman and Joe Dante regular Dick Miller), works at a 'hip' club where people in big, over-long, theatrical beards and clothes, usually wearing berets if they can afford them, go on stage and recite long-winded poems that the poets (such as the bearded guy, I forget his name) forget so that they can preserve the spontaneity of the ART (in capital letters). 

He's surrounded by these very hip beatniks and wants to fit in somehow - he memorizes the poems that aforementioned poet forgets intentionally - but can't as he has to get the cups and clean up.  He's a dejected loser, but basically a nice enough guy, and one night when he comes home he finds his cat is stuck behind the wall (how he got there, who cares), and he uses a knife to try to get it out.  Unfortunately, he kills the cat by mistake, and when he digs it out the cat's frozen.  Oh, and while he does this he's trying to make sculptures with clay, so to make it easier he makes his cat into the sculpture.  Who isn't intensely, obsessively fascinated more by a cat than a beatnik?  Or, excuse me, a hipster?  But what about full-sized human beings as the next step?  And can he keep up with the demand for MORE, as is always the trouble for the artist to top himself.

"If you like it so much, put it on Youtube!"  "Already did it when you blinked."

I think A Bucket of Blood could be easily remade today - in fact, you could basically transplant the plot and put it in, say, your average neighborhood in trendiest Brooklyn, and it would have the same result.  The portion with the cat is what was most striking to me, and perhaps the scariest thing about the movie is how nothing's changed, only here instead of the "art" being a cat, it's cat videos or things that are SO hilarious and meow-some because they're cats (and yes, I just typed 'meow-some', deal with it).   But the movie's strengths are that the writer, Charles B Griffith, commits to (also responsible for many Corman films, notably Little Shop of Horrors - which I think 'Bucket' stands above despite filming at the same time, and Death Race 2000), and that Corman finds solid actors to pull off a lot of this dialog and behavior in scenes that has to be carefully played.

Some of this stuff, like how Paisley's boss - who becomes a quasi-accomplice by allowing for Paisley to put the "art" at his place - has to get increasingly queasy with this artistic "process", has to played in a way that is not TOO broad, otherwise it would lose its punch.  The cast isn't super top-shelf, but they're good for a B-movie level, and I think that they along with Corman as producer/director rise up to the material.  Unlike several (or just many) of the movies that Corman was making at the time in the 50's, with giant monsters and bugs and other such exploitation fluff for drive-ins, Bucket of Blood is about something; as much as it may seem on paper like an obvious target, making fun of the stuffy art world, it's more than that.  This is a story that takes aim at an entire air of pretentious people in life in general.  This could be the Beatniks just as easily as it could be people in the Warhol "Pop" art world, or the hipsters of today. 

As a character actually says in the movie, you can't be an artist unless you get some nudes... NUDES...

In other words, the comedy of this movie is so excellent because of how merciless it is about people taking themselves WAY too seriously, which is always a gold-mine of comedy if done right.  Miller makes for a good hapless shlub as well, though a dangerous one; perhaps I just found a little bit of a sharper knife than 'Little Shop', but I think Miller is a stronger actor than the lead, Jonathan Haze, in the other film (both films used the same sets by the way and shot in a matter of just a few days a piece, if *that*).

I think another key thing is good, knowing, self-conscious dialog that shows up these people (I encourage you go to the full IMDB quotes to see it all, especially the opening speech from Maxwell H Brock, the bearded poet I mentioned earlier).  And, lastly, that there are some people who are slightly more normal than the Beatnik-freaks trying to be too cool, like Paisley's wishful-love-interest Carla (Barboura Morris plays it straight and works well off of Morris, who is just so pathetic but sympathetic - see the scene where he finally asks Carla for love, and the rejection feels harsh despite everything we've seen him do).

Sure, the murder scenes carry some little suspense about them, and one set piece that involves just some guy working on some wood with a big table saw is effective as can be.  But I think it's a mistake to come to this movie expecting to get scared or shocked in the ways that the title might suggest.  It's not for nothing that the genre listing on IMDb is Comedy before Horror; I have to wonder if this is the sort of movie that made people like John Landis and Joe Dante and others so happy to be under Corman's wing, with a movie like this setting the example of talking a world that is, at the core, fairly serious, and warping it in such a way. 

Or as the fella once said, 'Better to be King for a day, than a schmuck for a lifetime"

To be sure the movie has flaws - if the movie was shot in just a handful of days, the music seems like it was scored in an afternoon, save for the climactic chase stuff, which isn't bad, and I found the certain 'voices' that Paisley hears in his head near the end to be cheesy and not in keeping with the rest of the tone of the movie - but among the Corman films I've come across, this is one of the very (legitimate, intentionally) best, and certainly the one of the sharpest takes I've seen at taking a group of people and holding up the mirror back at them to see how awful they are.  It's more in line with Tim Burton's Big Eyes, or even Dr. Strangelove (yes, that clever and sharp in the writing) in its worldview, than most other Corman flicks, except perhaps Death Race 2000 (though that's got a lot of goofy shit) and 'Little Shop', which is hampered by a lot of hambone stuff (including, sad to say, Nicholson).

Monday, October 19, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #14: Steven Spielberg's SOMETHING EVIL (1972)

"It's ok, Stevie.  It's only a bad dream." - Mother to little boy.


Let's be honest, folks.  If it wasn't for the name that comes with this, how many of us would seen it out?  I'm not sure if I would, just given the premise, unless if I was super hot on the look-out for stories dealing with possessed houses involving the devil.  Or maybe if I suddenly became a Darren McGavin or Sandy Dennis completest.  But no, this is Mr. Steven Spielbergo, getting his feet wet in the horror/supernatural genre, as a hired-gun in TV world.  And, lo and behold, coming off of the film that would start to give him major buzz as a Wonderkind in Hollywood... he's the best thing to happen to this.

And yet it's so very peculiar (as if it were fate... ::as I scooch very slowly away from the computer in terror::) - this story has a ring to it that may be familiar.  A family moves into a new house that seems so idyllic, and it's a family that has that good ol' Average American Make-up: father (McGavin), mother (Dennis) and two kids.  But there's something rather strange about the house, and also about the barn just right by: sounds of a baby crying in the middle of the night, but there's no baby; a malicious, uh, jar full of weird red and green goo; a couple leaving the party that the couple throws gets attacked and dies in a fiery crash (ok, this last one is fucking hilarious, I'm sorry, but it is, but I digress).

And Spielberg's off camera like, 'Hey, be thankful I'm not Kubrick on The Shining, aight?'
Looks like things are haunted.  Yelp.  Ten years after Something Evil, Spielberg would write and produce/ghost-direct (ho-ho) Poltergeist, about a family terrorized by demonic forces.  So if you get the sense, as I did, that this film - as another 'Movie of the Week' - is an unintentional test run for what he would later bring the world with his suburban brand of spooktacular shenanigans, it's there to see.  And the reason Spielberg is the thing that works best for this material is that the material is not very strong.  It's not a garbage script, and certain lines given to some of the characters are fine (McGavin it seems most of all, but Ralph Bellamy as the Old Man Down the Road who has experience with this sort of thing for some reason).  But it's not particularly original or exciting in any way.  It is what it is: a piece of pulp for those watching at home and couldn't find a babysitter to go out for the night.

Yet Spielberg does the only thing a director in his position can do: hire some good actors (whether he was directly responsible or if it was also or just the producer's call, who knows), and then make things suspenseful as possible with the pacing and how the camera is used.  When I mention Poltergeist it may sound like I'm being cute, but Something Evil is very much like a student filmmaker tackling material from the Poltergeist handbook, and this includes how simple and natural the characters relate early on - again, McGavin and Dennis make the best of dialog that is just ok and, actually, improve it just by not forcing much - and then how crazy things get, step by step.  The camerawork is a mix of Spielberg's usual one-shot method, and then cut-ins that have some warped close-ups and cuts that can get jagged.

Either that devil is casting a spell, or he really has to hold in the shit he has to take...
For those who check out this film - which is, by the way, very brisk at 73 minutes, to the point where I almost wish it were five minutes longer so as to give a little more background about this boilerplate "devil" - take the scene where the son goes outside and gets 'lost' for a minute.  Sandy Dennis goes out into this big patch of what seem like bushes, calling "Stevie! Steven! Stevie!" over and over again.  The cuts come fast and ferocious, and it makes the shark attacking the Orca at the end of Jaws look like a Bresson picture.  The cutting here veers on being possibly too fast, with the angles on the characters so warped that you want to say 'Don't try SO hard'.  But I don't even think it's Spielberg trying to compensate for something missing in the script; to him, this is just the proper way to tell this story, with real jagged edges and nerves all strewn about.  For those who sometimes see this filmmaker as being too 'safe', here he takes some chances with his approach.

Not all of it works; when I say that a particular car accident is hysterical, I mean it in an unintentional way (unless if it isn't, but it's not the sense of humor that is the same as when, say, the McGavin character is directing the actress in the commercial on the farm, which is slight and clever and kinda cute and whatever, let's move on).  And I still think that the aspect of the 'Devil', how and why it's attacking this family - that they're living Godlessly because of ::gasp:: having some drinks with friends at night after moving in, or that the guy nearby doesn't spread enough chicken blood on the farm - or why it attacked the family there before.... I guess is a 'Suspension of Disbelief' thing.

But it does hamper what could have been a better film, maybe (just barely) on the level of Poltergeist.  And some of it is dated in that 70's way; another thing with the script is making the McGavin character more of a distant workaholic later-era-Mad-Men jerk, with his stupid big fancy ad job and that he can't come home to the wife and kids who need him to protect from demonic forces and yada yada, w when he starts off fairly easy-going and amusing in a sarcastic-tonal way.

In other words, it's no Duel.  But is it scary?  I must admit being dragged into the suspense of the moments when they did arrive, how Spielberg deftly would track the camera from Dennis going one spot to another, or would get an angle on a character trying to get by at the door (Bellamy's character's nephew, who of course is the "I blame YOU for coming here that the devil is here, etc").  Something Evil has a script that is at best just alright and passable and at worst is hackneyed.

Spielberg is very much in Proving-Myself mode (this is pre Sugarland Express, let alone Jaws), and for him this project means making things really POP and matter.  So he directs his actors as well as he can, and they rise above the material, and meanwhile his technical wizardry is already on display in moments like the mother becoming 'abusive' to her son and she can't control herself, or, especially, the climax where the devil gets full-blown ATTACK style in the son's bedroom.  There's even shots that seem like they were later aped wholesale for Poltergeist, and it's... cool!  No other words for it, really.

Despite all the script's issues, I bought into this woman's dwindling hope and sanity at this farmhouse, and because it's such a quick watch the upside is not dwelling too long on what doesn't work.  There's punch here and impact and daring-do with camera and editing and performance, and it shows a filmmaker ready to distinguish himself from the pack.  It's a directorial tour-de-force in the midst of what would otherwise be plain mediocrity.