Geek Doc: The Death Of Superman Lives (2015)

the-death-of-superman-lives-posterDirector and documentarian Jon Schnepp asked the question many of us have been wondering since the 90s: What happened to Tim Burton’s Superman Lives? Back then, word got out that the Batman Returns helmer would put his stamp on the Man of Steel with star Nicolas Cage. Most of us didn’t hear much else aside from the film’s eventual demise, Kevin Smith’s recollection of writing the film’s first draft and later design images that would find their way online. Enter The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened?

As the film got rolling producer Jon Peters hired a slew of people to work on the project. Smith and two other screenwriters worked on the script, Burton invested himself in the story and a variety of costume designers and artists started working on the ever-changing visual elements.

But, even with so many people working hard on the film, it ultimately fell apart. The doc doesn’t necessarily place the blame on any one individual person involved, though its hard not to put Peters’ name up there with some of the chicanery he pulled. Ultimately, though, the answer to the question posed in the title comes down to some simple facts: Burton’s weird vision made the studio nervous. That same vision also would have cost a bunch of money to bring to life and the studio eventually decided to go another direction that lead to Superman Returns.

Even so, this doc isn’t really about why Superman Lives didn’t get made, it’s about all the work that went into it while the creative people involved thought they were making it. Everyone from Peters and Smith to Burton and costume designer Colleen Atwood. It’s fascinating to see how they all attempted to bring each others’ visions to life and maybe a little tragic that it was all for nothing. Except, it’s not really for nothing because this public record of their work now exists. I think that might be the great thing about this era of “why didn’t it get made” documentaries. They take something that a lot of people put a lot of effort into and bring it to your attention, even if it’s not in the originally intended way. With that in mind, I’m even more excited about eventually seeing Doomed and the one about George Miller’s Justice League movie.

For all the effort he put into the film, I give Schnepp huge buckets of kudos. Cage is the only major player who did get interviewed for this thing, but he still shows up thanks to some filmed segments of him trying on the costumes with Atwood and Burton. Those clips really bring the whole thing together because the represent the in-the-moment as opposed to the looking-back. I’m not personally a fan of the animated sequences in the film and think it’s super awkward for the interviewer to be on camera nodding when the subject is answering questions, but altogether I can’t recommend this movie enough for anyone who’s ever been even remotely interested in Superman Lives or the process that goes into making these big, blockbuster superhero films.

Geek Doc: Electric Boogaloo (2015)

electric boogaloo posterHere’s a statement I don’t often make, but I was super excited when the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films popped up on Netflix Instant not long ago. Now, I love a good geeky documentary, but I usually stumble across them while looking around instead of knowing about them ahead of time. But, Electric Boogaloo comes from Mark Hartley, the same guy who made Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens, the former of which is a masterpiece and the latter of which is highly entertaining.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, cousins, bought a US film company called Cannon Films that would go on to make some of the best and worst action and sci-fi movies of the next few decades. They particularly dealt with stars like Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, but also made movies like Cyborg, Superman IV, Masters Of The Universe, Texas Chainsaw Massacre II and more than I can even count.

The doc itself tells the story of how these two guys hustled, begged, borrowed and even stole their way to Hollywood success by making more movies than anyone could keep track of. Unfortunately (for them and audiences paying good money for a ticket) the movies tended to be pretty bad, but a goldmine for fans of less-than-perfect cinema like me and a lot of my friends.

Told at a breakneck pace, Electric Boogaloo feels like an open and honest recounting of a company that was neither. Everyone from producers and directors to editors and stars appeared on the film to talk about the slap-dash way some of their projects were put together and presented to the world in general. Ultimately, it’s a story of how quickly these two men and their company could rise and how fiery they eventually fell. The only downside is that Golam and Globus, who are both still alive, refused to appear in this film in order to do their own doc called The Go-Go Boys, which doesn’t seem to be available on Netflix. Actually, there’s one other downside: there’s no mention of James Cameron’s Spider-Man film which was set up there for a while. I’d like to have seen them talk about that, then again, maybe there’s a full doc in the works for that. I hope.

Geek Doc Double Feature: Journey To Planet X (2012) & The American Scream (2012)

journey to planet x poster A few weeks back, a friend asked for geeky Netflix documentary suggestions. I rattled off several including King Of Kong, Chasing Ghosts and The Rock-afire Explosion only to find out that they’re not actually on the streaming service any more. Heck, you can’t even get a DVD copy of the latter two. Anyway, I wanted to check out a few newer geek doc offerings and recently knocked out two, one I’d never heard of and one that’s gotten a lot of praise from the horror community.

First up, we’ve got Journey To Planet X, a film that follows two guys named Troy Bernier (left on the poster) and Eric Swain who have joined forces to create a sci-fi short film. Directed by Myles Kane and Joshua Koury, this doc gets into both men’s filmmaking background which revolves around Swain creating short sci-fi and fantasy films on a homemade green screen. Eventually he made friends with Bernier who joined in first as an actor and later as a creative partner. The main thrust of this film follows the pair as they work on a longer form sci-fi film that would not only include a larger cast and longer run time, but alsoutilize better technology and use more practical locations when possible.

I enjoyed this film on several levels. On one hand, you’ve got this story about two guys trying to make an ambitious film. It’s a  different take on things like Son of Rambow and Raiders! both of which I loved. That desire to create something and putting in the work to make it happen is something I can relate to, but also find incredibly admirable.

And then there’s the dynamics between Swain and Bernier that I find fascinating. Swain was pretty happy doing things the way he had done them for years until Bernier came in and wanted to up their game. There’s definitely some friction there that isn’t a huge part of the film, but is certainly there. As the film progresses, Bernier becomes a more and more interesting character to me. He takes the project very seriously, which makes sense, but he seems to become more obsessed as it progresses. There’s something of a disconnect for me in this because he’s making a film with some wooden acting and CGI effects that look straight out of an early 90s PC game. But he doesn’t see any of that and considers this film to be a calling card that will move him on into a new realm of success and filmmaking. On one hand, that attitude was probably necessary to get the film finished, shown at a viewing party where it got a lot of unintentional laughs and even a festival appearance, but at a certain point you wonder how connected to reality he is.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter though, does it? These guys got what they wanted and made a movie that got shown to people. That’s something I wish I could do and will maybe actually make happen in the next few years if I can tap into some portion of Bernier’s passion or obsession or whatever you want to call it. As far as I’m concerned, though, there’s a lot more personal value in Koury and Kane’s documentary about these guys than their movie. Showcasing the struggles of creativity, bringing a film to life and doing their damndest to make it happen is a lot more engaging to me than watching the results of all that. It’s that whole, “life’s a journey not a destination” trip. Plus, the doc filmmakers were clearly working with better cameras than the filmmakers because this film looks fantastic.

The American Scream I decided to watch The American Scream, Michael Stephenson’s doc about three families in a Massachusetts town that build huge haunts in the yards for Halloween because I’d heard a lot about it, but it actually made a solid double feature with Journey because both movies showcase people pursuing their particular arts with varying levels of obsession.

The three Fairhaven-based stars include Victor, a dad who’s something of a haunt perfectionist, father and son team Richard and Matthew and Manny who does it because he knows the people in his neighborhood love it. Manny’s pretty straightforward and seems to do it for the love of the game which means he’s not featured nearly as much as the others. Matthew and Richard have some friction between them which garners more attention, but Victor’s the real star of the show.

Not only does Victor have the most detailed and complex haunt of the group, but he’s also got the most drama surrounding him. Of his two daughters, one’s really into the whole thing and the other isn’t. But there’s some sadness because dad’s desire to keep the yard clear for Halloween lead to them not getting the swing set they wanted. Meanwhile, his wife is very supportive of this whole thing, but it definitely sounds like there’s some rationalization going on there with how much money he spends on this whole thing — we see him drop $200 on a coffin — especially in light of the revelation that he knows he’s getting laid off. I had a real problem with him at this point because that just seems like burying your head in the sand and ignoring your impending problems in favor of doing something you love. But by the end there’s some vindication. I won’t get into it, but I actually gasped when they went back to him after Halloween and revealed his post-lay off plans.

Stephenson not only starred in Troll 2, but went on to create the documentary based on that film called Best Worst Movie. He does a great job of capturing and presenting real scenes without laying any kind of judgement over them. You can argue all day long that the way a doc is edited may or may not convey a certain mission statement from the director in order to present a certain kind of story, but to me it felt like he was just telling this tale and letting the audience judge. Personally, I found myself wishing these guys could figure out a more consistent outlet for their artistic creativity that happens more than once a year, but that probably misses the point to some extent. 

On a personal note, this movie brought back a lot of memories from my trick r treating days. When I was growing up, my neighbor Denny who’s probably 8 or so years older than me used to decorate his garage and get his pals to dress up like various movie slashers. I think the first time I ever saw a version of Leatherface was his friend running out from behind a set of hedges with a chainless chainsaw. Even though I’d watch them prepare, there was still no way I’d go in there. I don’t like being scared in real life and I’m not even that big of a candy fan. No thanks. There was another house further away that I remember coming upon a time or two as well that made an even bigger show of things with items (maybe people) coming down from the trees in the yard.

Halloween Scene Blu Review: Scream Factory’s Body Bags (1993)

body bags I love seeing horror movies that I’ve heard about over the years but never actually seen. I also love the TLC that Shout Factory’s Scream Factory imprint gives to films like that as far as presentation and special features go. So, as you might expect, I loved Scream Factory’s recent Body Bags Blu-ray.

Originally conceived as a Tales From The Crypt-like horror anthology series for Showtime. Body Bags features director John Carpenter as The Coroner, a creepy, pun-loving ghoul who opens various black bags in the morgue and tells the person’s tale. Carpenter directed the first two installments, “The Gas Station” and “Hair” while Texas Chainsaw Massacre mastermind Tobe Hooper came in and did “The Eye.” As with most of the horror anthologies I’ve seen — like Cat’s Eye or Creepshow 2 —  this one features two solid stories and one weaker one.

I loved “The Gas Station.” It’s about a young woman named Anne (Alex Datcher) working over night in a gas station in one of those small booths so she can take money and sell cigarettes. While there she encounters a few creepy regulars, a few nice guys and a bum-murdering adversary who wants to add her to his kill list. Carpenter does a killer job of making this whole thing feel tense and dangerous. There’s a scene where Anne locks herself out of the booth and has to go find keys in the main building. I got super nervous during this portion of the short. Then you’ve got the end where she actually faces the killer. It’s great how Carpenter never leaves the gas station and makes it seem both cramped and huge depending on the scene.

There are a lot of fear elements here, many of which are simply related to work. She’s new, wants to prove herself and also make herself seem super capable. This seems like less of a pride thing and more a need for cash to keep putting herself through school, which is super important to her. You’re also dealing with the claustrophobia of the booth which goes from safe zone to cage and the seemingly expansive space between it and the main building.

Sometimes with anthologies or shorter form horror stories, they feel like truncated films, but I thought this story was perfectly suited for this format and used the timing well. Too much longer and it would be filled with too many fakeouts and lose suspense, which it has in spades.

SPOILERS THIS PARAGRAPH I want to talk a bit about the killer reveal in this one. Carpenter set up several possibilities for the killer in the forms of various customers — including a super-creepy Wes Craven — but I’ve got to say, I never once thought it was going to be Anne’s fellow employee played by Revenge Of The Nerds star Robert Carradine. He got me there. Even though I didn’t recognize Carradine right away, I knew he was a nice guy and didn’t even think about him again  I also liked how Carpenter included a few nods to his other films like when Carradine’s character does the background sit-up Michael Myers style with Anne in the foreground.

I wasn’t nearly as interested in “Hair” which stars Stacey Keach as an aging rich business guy who becomes obsessed with his thinning hair. I understand that this is something that does get into peoples’ heads, but it’s not really on my radar. Anyway, Keach goes to Doctor Lock whose method for hair growth seems to work really well, so well in fact that hair starts growing everywhere. I won’t get into the end reveal, but I’ll say it didn’t do much for me. I’ve actually gone back and watched this segment with an eye for the satire of it all and enjoyed it a lot more. 

Thankfully, I enjoyed the third installment, “Eye” starring Mark Hamill and Twiggy. Hamill plays baseball player Brent Miller who gets into a car accident that leads to the loss of an eye. He gets a transplant, but soon comes to realize that this new organ might be a bit defective as he begins seeing morbid scenes some of which are genuinely spooky. As it turns out the new eye came from a misogynistic killer who starts taking over his body which doesn’t work out so well for his wife. This is definitely the darkest, most intense entry in the series as Hamill struggles for his sanity.

It’s funny, while watching the movie again with audio commentary, “The Gas Station” whizzes by. The first time I watched, I was so absorbed and freaked out that it felt like a feature. Carpenter also points out that he used a station out in the middle of nowhere so it would feel even more remote and lonely. He also pointed out a number of shot set-ups that add to the feel of the picture. Carradine also joined in on the fun. The pair caught up a bit and talked about a few other things, but mainly stuck to the story at hand offering lots of insider details.

Keach comes on and does the same for “Hair” and it’s a ton of fun listening to these two longtime pros talk craft. More than that, Keach says that this story was very personal for him because his parents always told him to wear his hairpiece in part because his dad thought he didn’t make it as an actor for being bald. They even went off on a bit of a tangent about zombie movies after pointing out effects artist Greg Nicotero in a quick shot which was a lot of fun. Listening to this track actually framed the story in a better light for me which will definitely make repeated viewings more fun.

For “Eye” Hooper wasn’t available, so producer (and Carpenter’s wife) Sandy King and Justin Beahm talked about not only his segment, but also some of the goings on behind the scenes that went into filming the various segments and how the movie came to be. This one’s a bit more dry, but still really interesting.

The last major bonus feature on the disc is a doc called Unzipping Body Bags. Carpenter and King get a little more into the background of the show, which started out as an anthology script that they presented to Showtime who bit. So, they decided to do the first one without much thought to anything beyond this first offering. Carradine and Keach also joined in on the doc, which adds a lot of depth to the proceedings.

I’ve been on a John Carpenter kick lately and this movie just continues to build my feelings of affection for this director who has such weird, great sensibilities that have resulted in some of the most fun, creepy and adventurous films around.

Quick Doc Review: Jedi Junkies (2010)

Jedi-Junkies-poster The concept of Jedi Junkies is fairly simple, its a documentary about the many aspects of Star Wars fandom from people who dress up in costume for conventions and obsessive toy collectors to fan film and lightsaber makers. Fun side note: the lightsaber maker lives pretty close to us! Anyway, the problem with the film is that Star Wars fandom is just too damn big for one 75 minute doc.

In addition to the four subjects I mentioned above this documentary, directed by Mark Edlitz, also interviews a few actors who appeared in the films as well as celebrity fans, goes behind the scenes of the New York Jedi and attacks hard hitting questions like “Who shot first?” That’s just way too much to tackle in such a short amount of time.

I get that Edlitz and company wanted to cover as much of the Jedi loving-community as possible, but a bit more focus would have been appreciated. Another option would be to break this up into more focused segments, but it’s not like Netflix was doing its original series thing back in 2010.

Personally, I would have been interested in diving deeper into the collecting side of things. That’s something that I got into a bit myself, but never to the extreme levels as some of the people in the film who have multiple copies of so many toys I want! There was one guy in particular who I could watch for much longer who was married with two kids and slept on the floor because his collection took up an entire room in their small apartment. Making matters even more interesting, he knew that he had some kind of problem, but also didn’t seem like he was in a place to actually fix it. I also appreciated that they got not one but two psychologists to talk about the collecting mentality. That was a nice layer, but it was yet another aspect that made me wish this was a larger project all around.

At the end of the day, Jedi Junkiues seems to revel in Star Wars geekery which is great. It’s even well put together and, aside from the “Original vs. Prequels” and “Who shot first?” sections, it gets into some really clever and unique territory (can we stop asking those pointless questions, already?), but it’s just too ambitious of an undertaking to cover the width and breadth of Star Wars fandom with one 90 minute movie. Good effort, though!

Halloween Scene: The Shining (1980) & Room 237 (2012)

The Shining movie PosterHave you ever had a movie in your life that has built up such legendary status that you almost don’t want to watch it? Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was like that for me, but not always. Back in high school I tried watching it a few times, but kept hitting roadblocks. One time, a bunch of us were watching it in a friend’s basement where we were sleeping over. I think we got to the bathtub scene when a friend started freaking out and demanded we turn it off. I begrudgingly obliged and it wound up being the kind of movie that got swept away.

As I mentioned when reviewing Stephen King’s book, I picked up a DVD copy of the movie last year, but still hadn’t gotten around to watching it until today and you know what? I kind of didn’t like it. Continue reading Halloween Scene: The Shining (1980) & Room 237 (2012)

Halloween Scene: Day Of The Dead (1985)

day of the dead scream factory I don’t think I’ve ever really given George A. Romero’s Day Of The Dead a fair shot. I’m not quite sure why. Back in my VHS-renting days at my local Family Video, I remember watching both versions of Night, Dawn and Day. Eventually I got one of the cheapo copies of the original movie on DVD and became a huge fan of Dawn to the point where I got that four disc DVD set several years back. But what about Day? Why had I only ever watched that movie once?

One reason might go back to a snafu at a video store in college. I went to school at Ohio Wesleyan in the small town of Delaware. There’s a nice main street that has (had?) a guitar store, a record store, several restaurants and a lot of other little places to check out. While walking around my freshman year, I saw a privately owned video store that was going out of business and therefore selling off its stock. I walked through and picked up a quartet of movies: Mom, Leprechaun In Space, Hot Potato and Day Of The Dead. The first three were just curiosities, but I was excited to own this Romero film. When I got back to my dorm, though, I slid the tape out of the cover and realized it was actually Dawn. I wound up falling even harder in love with that movie, to the point where I would have it on while studying or working on a paper and even fell asleep to it several times.

It’s funny to think of how my favorite horror movie list might look these days had I had easier access to Day. And, thanks to my buddy Rob passing me the recently released Scream Factory Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of Day Of The Dead, now I do. Romero’s third zombie film was originally going to be a giant, big-budget, explosion-filled action film, but instead he decided to split up his deal to also make Knightriders and Creepshow. In the excellent documentary included on the disc, Romero says he loves the finished version because he distilled the original script into a smaller, more claustrophobic script that focused on a group of scientists and soldiers in an underground research facility trying to figure out what’s going on with the risen dead.

One of the things I love so much about Dawn is that includes a little bit of everything, but not to the detriment of anything. Day, however, is a much more focused, angry film that focuses on the tensions rising not only from these people living in a world where one of the basic realities of life has been abolished, but also the ones that come from their shared task which includes wrangling zombies for research purposes. It’s not like these survivors are holed up and focused mainly on living like they were in Dawn, they’re constantly staring death in the face, which means they can’t ignore it no matter how many RVs you set up with tropical decorations. There’s a lot of emotion in the works here and it’s amazingly well conveyed by the assembled cast.

day of the dead VHS

And, man, Tom Savini and his crew absolutely murdered the effects in this film. The gore gags are fantastic — made all the more realistic thanks to the use of actual pigs’ blood and entrails — and the zombie make-up and appliances are just insanely good looking. As much as I love Dawn, I like how the zombies in Day look less neon-y. And, of course, the best of the bunch is Bub, the zombie we see learning (or remembering) how to use some common household items. This is a theme Romero wanted to include more of in this film that gets picked up on in Land Of The Dead and probably the next to films Diary Of The Dead and Survival Of The Dead, which I haven’t seen yet. It such a cool theme that I never really thought about before, but why wouldn’t zombies begin to evolve after a fashion the longer they’re around, especially as they become the dominant life form.

If you’re a fan of Day Of The Dead or haven’t ever seen it, I highly recommend checking out the Scream Factory offering. The movie looks fantastic and I had a good time going through a few of the special features. The documentary has just about everyone involved with the film talking about what it was like to make the movie. Since I came to horror so long after this movie came out, I didn’t realize how reviled it was when it debuted in theaters. I’m glad to hear that it’s gone on an upswing in fan popularity over the years because it really is a complex film that says a lot about society without being ham-fisted and still including some of the all time best special effects of all time. What are you waiting for? Go watch it already!