Joe Dante Is Awesome

the burbs poster Joe Dante is the kind of director who was wildly influential on me as a kid, though I only realized it recently. After enjoying The Hole so much I decided to look at his filmography and saw that he made a ton of movies I loved as a kid that are still awesome to this day.

Of course I knew that he did Gremlins and Gremlins 2, which were probably my first monster movies, but I didn’t know he was the brain behind a movie like Innerspace which I haven’t seen in probably two decades, but loved when I was younger. I also had no idea that he helmed five episodes of Eerie, Indiana, another show that had a huge impact on me. Long before I was into actual horror, I was sitting on my living room floor staring at this wonderfully weird show with eyes wide open.  And, man, how good was Matinee? I’ve only seen that movie, but now that I actually know who William Castle is, I need to revisit it.

With that kind of revisiting mentality, I did what was natural and opened up my unwieldy DVD binder and got flipping. First I watched another Dante classic from my childhood that introduced me to all kinds of horror, suspense and haunted house tropes while also playing with them and turning them on their heads. Of course, I’m talking about The ‘Burbs, the director’s 1989 suburban horror suspense comedy starring Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, Corey Feldman, Rick Ducommun and Henry Gibson.

Here’s the gist. Hanks’ Ray is on vacation and wants to just relax in his neighborhood, but his wife Carol (Fisher) wants to go to a lake. Of course, that winds up being the least of Ray’s problems as his paranoid neighbors Art (Ducommun) and Rumsfield (Dern) start convincing him that their new neighbors, the creepy Klopeks, might have killed their other neighbor. All of this leads Ray and his pals down the road of madness (though funny madness) as they become obsessed with finding out where the potential bodies were buried.

I saw this movie long before things like Rear Window or House On Haunted Hill which do get borrowed from, at least in tone if not direct plot points. Dante’s able to weave actual scary elements along with cartoonish comedic bits that make this film not only unique, but a joy to watch. There are still parts of the film that get in my head and make my skin crawl a bit and then the next moment I’m laughing. And a lot of that comes from Dante and company taking the mundane — having weird neighbors — and making it feel epic. It helps that Hanks is so good at conveying that regular guy normality as well as the pushed-to-the-limits nature of the character, something he displayed in The Money Pit too.

While watching the movie I also realized that I’ve wanted to live on a street like this my whole life, one where neighbors actually talked to each other and would join forces in this kind of insane endeavor (or watch from the sidelines like Feldman’s Ricky does).

piranha_poster From The ‘Burbs, I immediately went to Piranha, a film I saw for the first time thanks to the excellent Shout Factory offering from a few years back. My second viewing brought to mind many of the praises I had the first time around, most of which revolve around the fact that what was probably originally intended as a straight-up Jaws rip off, turned out to be a lot more than that. I don’t think I’d bust out the word masterpiece to describe this movie, but I do think Dante did a whole lot of awesome work with something that could have been just another cash grab.

One of the elements of Dante’s work that I appreciate is the variety of the material. I haven’t seen his first full-length movie Hollywood Boulevard, but he went from a drama to a fairly low budget horror flick like Piranha and then onto what I assumed was the larger budget The Howling. From there he did everything from the Gremlins flick to Masters Of Horror episodes and Looney Tunes: Back In Action to Hawaii Five-O episodes.

I’m pretty excited to check out Boulevard and the more kid-oriented Explorers, both of which are on Netflix Instant. I’d also really like to revisit The Howling ( usually I don’t like werewolf movies), Matinee and also Innerspace. I’ve even heard a few good things about Small Soldiers, so let’s add that to the must-see list too.

Anyone who can keep making quality films for 40 years deserves all the accolades in the world, especially when he or she can make a series of movies and shows with all different kinds of themes and settings. Those are the kinds of artists that inspire me and the ones I hope to be like.

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Halloween Scene: The Burning (1981), The Mist (2007) & From Beyond (1986)

The Burning Scream Factory Halloween’s the best you guys! I’ve been able to watch more horror flicks than I expected considering our toddler staked her claim on the TV long ago. Still, I’ve been able to go back and watch some old favorites and also check out a few new films like the amazing Sinister.

A few weeks back, after earning a few extra bucks at NYCC, I decided to splurge on some Scream Factory Blu-rays. I snagged The Burning and From Beyond on sale. A subdivision of Shout Factory, Scream is a horror centric imprint that goes all out when it comes to special features, extras and great looking transfers. Continue reading Halloween Scene: The Burning (1981), The Mist (2007) & From Beyond (1986)

Halloween Scene: Sinister (2012)

sinister posterI consider myself to be a pretty jaded horror fan. After seeing so many of these things in my earlier days, I like to think it takes a lot to scare me. As I mentioned in the most recent episode of my dad podcast called The Pop Poppa Nap Cast, the first few decapitations you see on screen might freak you out, but eventually you get used to it, strange as that may sound. Sure, I’ve been scared by movies. In fact, I’m working on a list of the 10 movies that scared me the most over the years and I think I might have to make room for Sinister.

I’d heard a few things about this film directed by Scott Derrickson (The Last Exorcism Of Emily Rose) and starring Ethan Hawke. Nothing specific mind you, just that it was a really original take and that it was pretty darn scary. I’d seen a few of the other Blumhouse films like Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 and Insidious. I dug those flicks, but they weren’t super scary, so I wasn’t sure what to think. Still, with Halloween creeping closer and closer, I figured I’d challenge myself with something that’s supposed to be pretty eerie.

And you know what? It is. It’s really damn creepy. I won’t get into too many details or spoilers here because this movie really works best when you go in knowing nothing, but the story follows Hawke’s true crime novelist Ellison Oswalt who moves into the house a family was murdered in to research his next book. As the story progresses we come to understand that Ellison not only has the creative desire to write that I can relate to, but the dragon-chasing need to get back on top in his field, to be beloved, famous and rich again.

The problem? This case is getting creepy. Not only does he repeatedly wake up hearing strange sound at night, but he also discovers a mysterious projector and several home movies in the attic. But these aren’t any normal films, they’re videos of people getting brutally murdered, many of which feature a creepy man in a white, red and black mask with stringy hair. The more Ellison uncovers about the mystery the more strange occurrences he experiences including several that involve his son and daughter.

Usually, I let these things simmer for a night or two (either to form my thoughts or because I’m generally lazy), but I’m writing this one up immediately after watching because it freaked me out so much. There’s a strong sense of dread and atmosphere built up as Ellison descends deeper and deeper into this mess that we know can not end well. But, there’s one scene in particular that had me squeezing my remote so hard I thought it might snap. Let’s just say I knew there were five elements from a previous scene and was counting them down in my head, wanting them to immediately leave the screen as soon as they appeared. Yeesh, I haven’t felt that nervous and freaked out because of a movie in ages. When the first showed up, I gasped out loud which almost never happens anymore.

I actually watched this movie in two chunks because I started while my wife was putting our daughter down for the night and then she came out. The timing could not have been worse considering it was right after the above scene and I went into our kitchen to switch out the laundry. I heard her walk down the hall, but then I turned around she my wife’s standing there holding one of our daughter’s baby dolls by the neck. I don’t usually let these things scare me in the real world, but that got me. Also, I’m definitely going to get a little skitchy every time the kid tells me to shush now.

So, it wold be pretty safe to say that I liked Sinister and that it scared me, which is — I assume — what it set out to do, so mission accomplished. I appreciate that the movie earned 98% of its scares instead of going for quick sound or fake out gags. I wasn’t such a fan of the repetitive feel that came from Ellison walking into a dark room and NEVER turning a light on or the fact that he woke up to creepy noises so many times, but such greatness came from those moments that it almost didn’t even matter.

Toy Commercial Tuesday: Mad Scientist Double Feature

Had I been a little more on my game this month, I would have stacked every week with a horror or monster-themed Toy Commercial Tuesday entry. Instead you get this pair of Mattel Mad Scientist commercials which will hopefully be enough. Above you can see the awesomely gooey commercial for the Mad Scientist Dissect-An-Alien. From the looks of it, you stuff an alien toy with slime and plastic organs only to rip its chest open and let everything pour out.

Meanwhile, you’ve also got the Monster Lab set which gives you a plastic monster skeleton which you’re supposed to build a body around using clay of some kind. Once you’re done with that, you mix a packet of something mysterious in some water, dunk the little creep and let the new concoction eat the flesh away.

Guys, how insane are these toys? I was thinking recently about how kids used to be exposed to scary things much earlier than they are these days (at least in pop culture, not necessarily in real life). When I was a kid you had everything from monster-themed cartoons to toys like Madballs, not to mention a kind of dull, general awareness of slashers like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. Plus, there were horror-like movies that were created in a PG or PG-13 space, but not in a way that felt truncated or less-than. Now, the best you get is a few weeks of Disney Channel, PBS and Nickeloedon programming about costumes and what not, though I will admit, I saw some pretty spooky things on Disney.

I didn’t actually have either of these Mad Scientist toys and probably wouldn’t have liked them back then (I don’t always like getting my hands dirty), but I love the idea of them.

Halloween Scene: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

night_of_the_living_dead Sometimes you think so highly of a film that you just assume you’ve blogged about it already. That was the case with Night Of The Living Dead, a movie I love, but apparently not enough to spend time writing about on UM.com. As you probably know George A. Romero’s classic film finds a group of survivors holing up in a country house as the dead start roaming the earth. The film itself never uses the Z word, but this style of creature soon became synonymous with a kind of monster that still dominates the genre to this day.

We start off with Barbra and her brother Johnny who have traveled several hours to this remote town in order to place flowers on their father’s grave. While there, they encounter a man who seems normal at first, but winds up attacking both siblings and killing Johnny. Barbra goes on the run and eventually finds the house. Soon enough she’s joined by Ben, a very proactive man looking to turn this place into a fortress. After fortifying the main floor, they come to realize that five people have been hiding out in the basement: a married couple with an injured daughter and a pair of teenaged kids who are dating. Conflicts instantly start brewing between the upstairs and downstairs factions, thanks to Harry, a head strong guy who wants them all to hole up in the basement where his zombie-bitten daughter happens to be slowly turning over to the side of flesh loving baddies.

The beauty of a Romero zombie movie is that he’s not just trying to scare people, he’s also trying to hold an undead mirror up to society to show off its uglier side. Some of these elements are overt while other sneak on by. I think the conveyed message can also change a bit as society changes and the film stays the same. For instance, there’s a lot of race elements being explored thanks to Ben being such a strong character who spends most of the film bossing white people around with most of them listening.

But you can also read into the presented ideas of womanhood. The movie gets some flack because Barbra spends so much of it in a catatonic state, which is understandable. However, I don’t think that’s a commentary on all women, but just the presentation of one particular character. Just look at the other two women presented in the movie. Harry’s wife Helen and even Judy the young lady from the basement are pretty strong and cool-headed.

I also think there’s something being said — or conveyed — about how city life makes people less prepared for these kinds of disastrous events. Barbra and Johnny make a big deal about how they had to drive out to the middle of nowhere which made me assume they lived in the city. I also assumed that Ben was from more of a small town scenario, but he later says he’s not from the small farm town, so my theory might actually be blown to hell.

Whatever the case may be, Romero created a film that not only had something to say, but presents itself in such a way that you can keep finding new aspects in the work that make you think. Speaking of emotions, seeing how the zombified kid takes out her mom — with a gardening shovel instead of her teeth — totally bummed me out as a parent. I used to think, “Once they turn, just blast them away!” But not only are they in a world that’s never seen a zombie like this, but it’s also you’re freaking kid. Also, the ending of this movie is so freaking depressing and I kind of love that.

Watching this movie lead into a re-watch of Dawn Of The Dead, which is still one of my favorite movies regardless of genre. Seeing the films together in such a short period made me notice a few things. First, these movies are like Nirvana songs going from loud to quiet to expertly. Second, while these films obviously both feature undead monsters, they’re more about human beings trying to intellectually deal with the fact that the world they once knew has been completely turned upside down. Can you imagine what it would really be like if people stopped dying in the traditional sense? I don’t think I can. And third, these movies all feature characters who can do things very well. That’s why we’re following Ben and the crew in the mall instead of some other randos, they’re survivors. They’re the ones that can survive in this environment…for a time. Eventually, they all screw up one way or anything and the mindless zombies win out against the smart humans. There’s a poetry there that I don’t think I can parse, but love experiencing. Now I really want to give Day Of The Dead and the 1990 Night remake another watch to see whether they continue those themes.

Ambitious Halloween Reading List: The Shining (1977)

the shining 1

Books were my first entry into the world of horror. At some point in grade school I started reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and then graduated to his more mature Fear Street series as well as Christopher Pike’s myriad of young adult offerings. At around 16 or 17, I moved from those into the seemingly more grown up world of horror movies, but somewhere in the transition phase, I read Stephen King’s The Shining. I can’t remember the exact timing, but sometime in high school I gave this book a read, saw parts of Stanley Kubrick’s film and viewed all or most of the 1997 TV adaptation starring Steven Weber from Wings.

So, when I decided to give the book another read as part of my Ambitious Halloween Reading List, I thought I’d have a pretty good idea of what was going on in the book. But, as I read I realized that my brain had a jumble of previously seen and read elements thanks to the above experiences — and the “Treehouse Of Horror” spoof from The Simpsons — and couldn’t remember what source the elements I remembered came from (as many of you probably know, Kubrick’s film took several departures from King’s original story). As it turned out, I actually remembered very little (possibly nothing) from my previous reading, which made the experience a lot more intense.

The story itself finds disgraced prep school teacher, former alcoholic and struggling writer Jack Torrance taking a winter caretaker job at a big hotel in Colorado called The Overlook. He’s had a rough go of things lately — partially because he beat the crap out of a student named George who slashed his tires — and feels like this is a last resort career-wise. He brings his wife Wendy and their 5-year-old son Danny along for the experience.

As it turns out, the hotel has a mysterious and dark past the includes a good deal of murder, death and other nefarious dealings. None of that would be so bad if Danny didn’t have the shining, an ability that allows him to read others’ minds, see parts of the future and communicate wordlessly with other people possessing the same ability like the hotel’s outgoing cook Dick Hallorann who explains some of the abilities and hotel-based creepiness to the young boy. The longer they stay in the place, the more it gets to Jack in an effort to absorb Danny’s powers. Danny sees gruesome phantoms of past violence, some of which start attacking him physically. But none of that compares to the fear that comes from his father Jack as he struggles to keep his sanity.ambitious halloween reading list 2013

I’ve mentioned this on the past two episodes of my parenting podcast The Pop Poppa Nap Cast, but reading this book as a father really added to the sense of dread that builds up. Anyone can relate to the idea of being penned in by an impending blizzard that will strand you on a mountain and how potentially scary that could be. But, I felt like I was able to tap into this story more for a few reasons now that I’m a dad. First, much as I hate to admit it, I can relate in some small way to some of the anger that comes from being a parent. Jack takes that to a whole different, awful level, but the best horror stories are the ones you can understand the basis of in your heart. Second, my love for my own kid makes it all the worse when Jack does start losing his cool, lets the hotel get into his brain and start going nuts. Seeing him devolve from a man on the mend to a beast-thing is a tough thing because I think many of us have the potential to fall from grace like that. And third, having a young child who is just starting to fear things, I can only image what it would be like for a person her or Danny’s age to try and process all of this insanity and the damage that might cause.

King did a great job of drawing a complicated, sympathetic and awful character in Jack Torrance. He’s a creative guy who came from a bad home and eventually created a solid life for himself. But, be it genetic, predestination or whatever, he gave in to the temptation of booze and his fiery temper which lead to several different problems for him. You want to simply write the character off, but it soon becomes clear that he could have had a fair shot if he hadn’t taken a job in a place filled with demons just waiting to wake his own up. He’s a beautifully composed tragic figure who you root for, but don’t let yourself believe he’ll fully overcome the Overlook.

I did have one question for fellow Shining readers. Are we to assume that Jack and Al, while on their last drunken joyride, hit George Hatfield’s bike? The night’s events are recounted to us, but then when Jack remembers coming upon George slashing his tires, the young man mentions something about a bike before Jack wails on him. Am I grasping at straws here or is this something that people have talked about before?

the shiningAnyway, I thought this was a great work of suspense and horror, though I don’t think I’m blowing any minds with that statement. I really enjoyed the book and feel pretty primed to check out the sequel Doctor Sleep. Also, I wanted to note that this is the first book that I’ve read completely on my Kindle. I’ve got to say, I’m a big fan of the method because it’s pretty light, easy to read (and customize) and you can simply tap a word if you’re not familiar with it. My only complaint is that I don’t know how deep into the book I am. The percentage given is cool, but it doesn’t let know how much you have left and I’m still not sure what the numbers at the bottom of the display mean, so I can’t accurately use that to gauge how much of a book I have left. Ah well, I’m sure I’ll get used to it.

Halloween Scene: The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988)

the serpent and the rainbowFor some reason I thought I hadn’t seen that many Wes Craven films, but after looking through his IMDb page, I realized I’ve actually seen a fair number of his offerings. Still, the ones that always stick out are The Hills Have Eyes movies, his Nightmare entries and Scream. So, when I saw one of his movies that I hadn’t seen pop up on Netflix Instant, I figured I’d cross another one off the list. That’s how I came to The Serpent And The Rainbow.

This is one of those movies that I know of, but went in knowing zero details. As it turns out, Bill Pullman stars as Dennis Alan, an anthropologist who spends his time traveling from one remote place to another, usually running into various kinds of mystical or supernatural elements. In fact, the main thrust of the film finds him in Haiti dealing with voodoo after his bosses at the pharmaceutical company task him with figuring out what turns people there into zombies. To clarify, we’re talking about voodoo zombies which aren’t actually the living dead, but instead living people acting like the living dead.

I won’t get into too many details on this one because, honestly, it’s been a few days and I can’t quite remember many of them. Pullman narrates the whole thing like it’s a detective story which is actually an intriguing element for a story like this. I also enjoyed seeing a more modern take on the original zombie concept considering the only films of that nature I’ve watched are Val Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie and the James Bond movie Live And Let Die.

And yet, at the end of the day, there wasn’t much about this movie that stuck with me. There was a solid sense of xenophobic dread all around in the film, but I didn’t really connect to Pullman or any of the other characters. As such, all the crazy dream sequences — which really are quite effective — weren’t enough for me to really get invested in the story. I guess that just goes to show that you need more than an interesting story to make a great film.