Halloween Scene: The Frighteners (1996)

the frightenersI want to say I saw Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners starring Michael J. Fox at some point in high school, but I can’t quite remember. I do remember seeing a special somewhere about how they did the ghost-wall special effects, but that’s about all I could recall. So, when I saw it on Netflix, and since I’ve been in the mood to watch movies I’ve seen only once before, I figured it would be a fun watch. It turned out to be strangely timely too considering I’ve been enjoying The Michael J. Fox Show and I just watched Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator very recently.

The film itself follows the exploits of Fox’s Frank Bannister, a man who can actually see and talk to ghosts. Instead of using this power for good, though, he uses it — and the ghosts — to trick people out of their money. Basically, he sets up a haunting and then gets paid to get rid of the ghosts who simply ride back with him in his crappy car. In the course of a normal swindle, Frank becomes aware that there’s a hooded, Grim Reaper-looking figure killing people and ghosts. Frank and a recent widow become embroiled in this battle and the crook has to become the hero.

I haven’t been this conflicted about a film in a while, you guys.

One one hand, I love the plot of this film and was completely surprised by the twist at the end. I’m still not sure how or if it makes sense, but it made for good drama. Plus, Fox and his main co-star Trini Alvarado were a lot of fun to watch. I’m a long-time fan of MJF and love him in just about anything, but it’s also cool seeing him in kind of a broken down, action hero role. I can’t say that’s something I’m used to and it was a nice change. For the most part, the rest of the cast really got into their roles, I thought Dee Wallace and Julianna McCarthy really dug into their characters as the daughter and mother Bradley.

On the other hand, two elements of this film that keep it from being a true, timeless classic: the tone and some bad-by-today’s-standards CGI. While Fox and Alvarado play the whole thing straight, most of the ghosts seem like cartoon characters. This gives the film a kind of Beetlejuice vibe (as does the Danny Elfman score). And I think that would have worked well…but then Combs’ Milton Dammers shows up. If you thought Combs was intense in Re-Animator, you ain’t seen nothing yet. He’s a government agent who had been deep undercover with some cults and is now completely out of his mind. Oh, he also can’t stand when women scream at him. He’s just so over the top and bonkers that he’s nearly impossible to take seriously and definitely took me out of the film.

The bad CGI will probably take more people out of it, especially younger viewers. I’m sure they were great at the time, but everything just looks fake. That coming-out-of-the-wall thing just doesn’t work. The hooded villain is completely rendered in CGI and sometimes almost looks like an unnatural beast, but mostly looks like old CGI. This becomes most evident in scenes that include ghosts (who look like they were shot normally and then tinted blue) and the villain who is completely CGIed. The actors are doing their best, but it sometimes look like they’re just getting attacked my an ancient screensaver. The worst part is that some of the poorly CGIed scenes probably could have been done practically to better effect. I’d sacrifice some of the Reaper’s animal-like movements for a villain that actually looks real.

And yet, I fell in love with the characters and really appreciated the story so I’m giving this a thumbs-up with a “but.” I don’t see this ever happening, but I would put The Frighteners at the top of the list of films to get update with modern CGI. I have no idea how these things work, but I just kept imagining how much better the whole thing would come off with a more polished and update set of visual graphics. I think with better looking effects, it might balance out the parts of my brain that don’t like how all-over-the-place the tone gets.

Quick Movie Review: Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010)

If there’s one documentary subject I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of it’s filmmakers talking about the good old days of cheaply made schlock shown at drive-ins and grindhouse theaters. And I’m glad that people are not only making these movies, but also that the people who were involved are not only still alive, but also willing to talk about their experiences. While the excellent Not Quite Hollywood focused on these kinds of movies shot in Australia and the not as great American Grindhouse focused on its own obvious subject matter, Machete Maidens Unleashed set its sites on American films that were shot down in the Philippines in the 70s and 80s. I actually just looked and the guy who directed this movie, Mark Hartley, also directed Not Quite and is the man behind the upcoming Canon Video doc which I am really looking forward to.

I actually didn’t even know this was a thing before reading the description on Netflix Instant (I, of course, was first drawn in by the poster image and then the title), but there was actually a full-fledged movie industry in the Philippines at the team that lots of producers and directors like Roger Corman and Joe Dante took advantage of because of the low, low cost. At one point, one of the filmmakers in the doc said something along the lines of “The film was cheap and human life was even cheaper,” referencing the lengths local actors and stuntmen would go to put their lives on the line to get just the right shot. Fight scenes were filmed so that people were actually beating the crap out of each other and a lot of the explosions going off and glass being broken were real. It’s the kind of thing that, today, would create a public outcry for human safety, but at that place and that time, those apparently weren’t big concerns.

There are two aspects of this film that make it so interesting aside from the subject matter itself. First off, it seems like everyone who’s still alive agreed to be interviewed for this flick. Heck, John Landis is there and I don’t even think he shot a movie in the Philippines! That dude just loves to talk about these kinds of movies (he’s also in American Grindhouse). I already mentioned Corman and Dante, but tons of people appear in this movie: Pam Grier, Sid Haig, R. Lee Ermey, Dick Miller, Brian Trenchard-Smith, seemingly every hopeful starlet who appeared topless in those movies and several local filmmakers. Everyone is very open, honest and entertaining when it comes to relating their experiences. The second aspect of this movie that really makes it great and seems to be a trademark of Hartley’s, is the quick and efficient editing of the picture. There isn’t a wasted moment in this flick and, at the same time it doesn’t feel rushed.

If you love bad movies of years gone by, exploitation cinema or are just interested in some of the less glamorous corners of the film business, I highly recommend giving Machete Maidens Unleashed a watch.

Dragnet (1987)/Fletch Lives (1989) Double Feature

Today was a pretty busy day. I was thankfully so busy with freelance work that I still haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast I was on, nor was I able to go outside and enjoy the nearly 70-degree weather, but I was able to watch a few movies while I worked. I also got a chance to check out my brand new column on Maxim.com called We Like To Watch, which covers various TV shows you should check out. Anyway, the two movies I watched were Dragnet and Fletch Lives. I had never seen Dragnet before, but a few months ago I picked up a Tom Hanks 2-disc, 3-movie pack featuring Money Pit, The ‘burbs and it. After seeing the video at the end of the review on Maxim.com I figured I’d finally give it a watch.

And man, this is a really weird movie (I should have guessed from the video), but I really enjoyed it. In addition to being a really funny movie (you’ve got prime Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd here), it also plays to my love of continuity. See, I’m not a fan of the original Dragnet, but I do appreciate that Aykroyd plays a relative of the original Joe Friday and that Harry Morgan reprises his role from the original series as now-Captain Gannon. By doing this they’re not dumping on or forgetting the original and it fits in with the rest. Not every adaptation can work like this, but I like when it does (they did something similar with the Sam Jackson Shaft movie). This one turned out to be pretty long, so hit the jump for the whole thing.

Anyway, like I said this is a weird movie. Aykroyd and Hanks are on the trail of this group called P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness And Normalcy) who…well, they’re trying to do a bunch of bad stuff. I’ll be honest, some of the finer details of the movie might have been lost on me while I was working, but I do know that a lot of dudes were dressed up in goat legs while the P.A.G.A.N. leader threw a woman in a big pool with a giant snake. From there, Aykroyd, who plays the super-uptight and by-the-book officer in LA, comes a bit undone as Hanks’ loosened-up-ness rubs off and the case gets crazier and crazier.

One interesting thing about this movie is that it was co-written and directed by Tom Mankiewicz who mostly wrote more serious flicks like Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun along with uncredited runs on the scripts for both Superman and Superman II. Meanwhile, he directed one of my favorite comedies of all time Delirious. I think he’s a big reason the movie has such a fun feel since he;s clearly comfortable in both the action and the funny. And now for the video, which hopefully won’t make you want to NOT watch the movie. I give you Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd rapping:

I come by my love of the Fletch flicks and Chevy Chase honestly thanks to my dad. I distinctly remember renting both Fletches a number of times and watching with him. As I got older I bought both movies on DVD (and I think I might have had them on VHS too, but can’t quite remember). The DVDs are pretty paltry and I can’t believe they went with that weird cover for Fletch Lives with the snapshots instead of this hilarious and awesome poster painting here which I remember from the VHS cover.

Anyway, something about Dragnet made me think of Fletch Lives, I’m guessing it was the bigness of it and something about the P.A.G.A.N. “ritual” reminded me of R. Lee Ermey’s Jimmy Lee Farnsworth shenanigans. Whatever the reason, I had a great time watching Fletch Lives as usual. I’m not sure if someone who’s not a fan of Chase will like the movie, but I’m a huge fan of his characterization of Fletch, a man who uses words to get out of whatever crazy situation he finds himself in and comes out on top (eventually). Plus, he’s a writer so I of course love that. He even makes grammar joke in this one!

The plot finds Fletch heading down south to take over the plantation house his recently deceased aunt left him. As you might expect, things aren’t quite what they appear as Fletch runs into a Bible-themed theme park, someone who wants to buy his land, a dead girl he had sex with (before she died of course, this isn’t Weekend At Bernie’s) and the Ku Klux Klan. There’s a lot going on with the story and I probably would have missed a lot of the details had I not seen the movie a bunch of times.

Seriously, if you haven’t seen Fletch or Fletch Lives, just go do it. Right now. If I know, you can even borrow them. I like the movies so much I’ve gone on to read two of the Gregory McDonald books the movies were based on and have two more in my to read pile. On a completely different note, I found out that Fletch Lives director Michael Ritchie also produced and co-directed the weak slasher movie Student Bodies, which is pretty interesting.

You might notice that this post has a Saturday Night Live label on it. In addition to the fact the SNL alumns star in both of these movies, I also wanted to bring up one of the first things I ever noticed about the relationships between movies, actors and directors. That is that any movie starring a current or former SNL cast member usually has another one in at least a bit part. At first, from looking at the Dragnet credits, I thought my theory might have been busted, but it turns out that Dan’s brother Peter not only had bit parts on SNL, he was also a writer. In Fletch Lives, Phil Hartman has a bit part as the man running a lab. So, as far as I’m considered, the theory still stands (but I haven’t watched all of Chevy Chase’s or Bill Murray’s movies, which will surely kill my theory).

Halloween Scene: Texas Chainsaw Massacre Beginning (2006)

2008-10-06
6:04:17 am

Two Texas Chainsaw Massacre flicks in one day? Maybe something’s wrong with me. But, I’ll be honest, I didn’t find much wrong with this flick. Consider this movie the Year One of TCM movies as we get to see the birth of Leatherface, how his uncle played by R. Lee Ermey “became” a cop, Leatherface’s first kill, chainsaw, chainsaw kill and his first human flesh mask. And it’s all done very well by director Jonathan Liebesman who stays as far away from cheesy as possible, even when rehashing the same old TCM tropes you expect: the dinner scene, the girl jumping through a window and getting chased by Leatherface.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story starts in 1939 where we see Leatherface born, abandoned and found by the Hewitt family. I thought this was an interesting plot point because maybe Leatherface (aka Tommy) could have had a fairly normal life although his apparent facial disfigurment might have prevented that. It’s kind of nature/nurture thing that isn’t really touched on again, but it put an idea in my head and I like that. The main part of the story takes place in 1969 as two girls drive with their brother boyfriends as one plans to re-enlist for Vietnam and the other says he’s going to join up, but really plans on heading to Mexico with his girlfriend. Meanwhile we see the meat packing plant that Leatherface works at getting shut down and R. Lee Ermey kills the last sheriff in town and puts the uniform on. Basically the Hewitts, lead by R. Lee, decide they’re going to take over the abandoned town. Oh, they’re also going to eat human flesh, starting with the the previous sheriff.

In a pretty great scene, the kids are getting hassled by this biker chick, the driver (the marine) is struggling to get his gun out the glove box when they smash into a car, wrecking it in the process. That’s when they get caught up with R. Lee. The effects of the cow-explosion and all the later death scenes look gruesomely real. Just wait until Leatherface starts hacking people up.

From there it’s a lot of what you’d expect and some things you wouldn’t. Like I said above, the directing is fantastic as is R. Lee’s performance. Unlike Matty M in TCM TNG, R. Lee plays the role with the same amount of brutality, but a lot more subtlety. And this Leaterface puts the TNG one to shame. He’s a huge, beast of man mountain. And the filthy chainsaw really looks creepy.

My one complaint about the flick is how utterly stupid Chrissie (Jordana Brewster). First she tries looking around the destroyed truck she was in instead of getting on the biker chick’s motorcycle and rolling away. Now, she does get points for going for her boyfriend’s gun, but come on. It’s just foolish. So, she ends up at the house with the rest of her friends and instead of making a break for it she spends the rest of the day and night trying to find a way to save her friends. I respect her sticktoitivness, but for cripes sake take the hint. There’s one point where she finds the biker girl’s boyfriend on the road, he wants his girl, so he ditches Chrissie. Again, she doesn’t take HIS motorcycle and get away, she ends up in Leatherface’s basement butcher shop. THEN she’s making her escape when she hears the other girl screaming upstairs, so she goes back upstairs to try and help her. She was at the freaking door when she turned around. Ugh. By this point I was rooting for her to get iced. If any of my friends are reading this post, take note: don’t come back for me if I’m being held captive by a family of psychopaths, cause I’m gonna steal the first motorcycle I can find and get out of there.

One thing I noticed about the movie is that I really really wanted the kids, especially the marine, to kill the entire family, I knew it wasn’t going to happen due to its prequelness, which added a kind of hopelessness to the whole thing. Sure some of them could have gotten away SPOILER (no one does), but they weren’t going to kill the bad guys. I do love the scene when dean smashes R. Lee’s face into the porch a few times. It felt cathartic. It was also cathartic in a weird way when Leatherface popped up in the back seat of the car that Chrissie stole and chainsawed through her seat, killing her. Man she was dumb.

Dueling Reviews: Texas Chainsaw Massacre Remake

2008-07-22
7:42:30 pm

Hey gang, we’ve got a new feature here, Dueling Reviews. A few years back when I first got to Wizard a rad dude named Rickey Purdin and I became roommates and started watching movies all the time. Mostly horror movies. So, we’ve got pretty similar tastes when it comes to those kinds of films, but not always. This is one of

those cases as he likes the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I don’t. So, to give a fair and balanced perspective I asked him to jump on and offer up his opinion on the flick. So, here’s the basics before we get into it:

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

Written by Scott Kosar

Directed by Marcus Nispel

Starring Jessica Biel, R. Lee Ermey, Eric Balfour and a bunch of other folks with narration by John Larroquette

No offense to my friends from Texas of which Rickey is one, but it seems like only bad things happen when you drive through the state in which everything is bigger. Like getting killed by freaks. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of my top two favorite horror movies of all time, so I was pretty surprised when Rickey recommended this remake. So how did it hold up?

First, the story though. The flick opens with a cold case-like explanation telling you that these are based on true events and even shows “archival footage” from the 70s (which is when the movie is SUPPOSED to be set). We then switch to the actual movie which follows five kids as they’re on the way to a concert and stop to pick up a female hitchhiker. This woman has been terrorized by the Hewitt family (Leatherface’s peeps) and is just trying to get away, but it turns out that the kids are actually heading back towards the Hewitt’s headquarters. She freaks out and shoots herself in the head in the van. So the kids stop and try to deal with it responsibly by calling the local police and all that. From there they split up and find out just how crazy the Hewitt’s are and start getting killed. Pretty standard horror movie stuff.

I know I’m supposed to look at this TCM as its own independent flick, but it just doesn’t work for me. It’s impossible to not compare a remake with the original, especially when you’re so familiar with the original. Which isn’t to say that I hated all the changes these folks made. I have problems with the hitchhiker girl that I will get to, but it doesn’t stem from changing her character from the original. But I really did like the opening credits and the old footage because it implies that the real world actually got involved at some point to try and stop these people. I’d like to see that movie actually.

So, what didn’t I like? Well, first off, I didn’t buy for a second that this was set in the 70s. Maybe it’s because they were going to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert and you can still do that. Plus, I see crappy vans like they ride around in all the time. I’m not sure if that’s nit picky or not, but it bugged me.

I also wasn’t all that scared. Sure, part of that is because I’m desensitized as hell by now, but watching the original TCM still freaks me out and I just don’t get that here. I think part of it is the style they used to shoot/edit the movie. I don’t know what it’s called but it’s been used a lot since this one came out. It felt tired to me because I’ve seen it in so many flicks, but that’s not this movie’s fault so I can’t blame them. But, it did feel to “movie” like and completely lacked that “I’m right in this with them” feel that the original had due to the film quality and what not. I guess what I’m saying is that it looked too slick. It should have been dirtier like the Hewitts themselves.

And speaking of the Hewitts, man are they creepy. I had no problem with the restructuring of the family or the lack of the infamous “dinner scene.” In fact I found that to be pretty brave. But, what bugged me was when they showed Leatherface’s ugly mug. I don’t want an explanation for what he does (as they give later on in the movie). I don’t care how badly he was made fun of as a kid or what’s wrong with his actual face. There’s no reason for me to feel sympathetic towards a character that murders and tortures people with hooks, chainsaws and bathtubs full of blood or whatever that was. He’s bad, that’s that. Get on with the maiming.

Speaking of the chainsaw for just a second, it wasn’t scary at all in this remake. Well, it was scary in the sense that all chainsaws are scary, but what made the original so terrifying was the looming threat of those teeth tearing into you, which was mostly achieved by its place in the sound mix. It was right there, always right behind you, always loud, always ready to attack. In the remake it just doesn’t sound as good. It feels buried like a regular old sound effect and that really takes away from the looming scare factor.

But, hey, the movie wasn’t all bad. There’s this scene where Leatherface chases one of the dudes through a huge maze of hanging sheets (it was a LOT of sheets) that really captured what I was talking about above with the impending doom factor. There’s also a scene where Jessica Biel has to kill one of her friends because she can’t get him off of a set of hooks. That was pretty crazy too. I also like the cast for the most part. R. Lee Ermey’s as over the top as always and the kids are all good, even though Jessica actually seems to fit and strong to be running around so scared. Not that I’d expect even Hulk Hogan to turn around and try to fight a psycho with a chainsaw, but you get my meaning. I hope.

But now, on to my biggest problem with the movie: its ending. So, Biel gets away from Leatherface’s Saw-like torture chamber with the help of the youngest Hewitt, a kid who later gets punished for helping her and one of her friends escape. She gets chased through the meat factory by Leatherface and at some point decides its a good idea to hide in a locker with a meat cleaver and then GETS LEATHERFACE’S ATTENTION. Brilliant! She even lets him walk by her and calls out so he’ll come back and look for her. She jumps out of the locker and ends up cutting his arm off with the meat cleaver. So she’s in the clear right? He’s freaking out so she runs away and gets to a road where a nice trucker picks her up even though she’s soaking wet covered in blood and probably smells awful (but hey, she’s hot). So, he’s driving her away when they pass by the sign for the gas station where all of her troubles started (when they pulled over to call the cops about the dead hitchhiker who freaked out in the back of THEIR car). So what does she do? She freaks out and tries to grab the wheel. So, the truck driver does what any normal person would do, he stops and tries to get help at the gas station. I understand freaking out. Hey, she’s had a pretty crappy day (though at least she didn’t get gummed by grandpa at dinner), but the driver made no indication of stopping. She just went nuts and he stopped because of her. You’d think if you were getting out murdertown safely, you’d take whatever you could get.

Okay, so the driver’s out of the truck and what does she do? Nope, not just grab the keys and say “sorry dude.” She sneaks around and grabs a baby that the family is fawning over while they’re distracted (it’s a tacked on plot element that was mentioned earlier in the movie, I think the kid was actually the hitchhiker’s child, or something) and then hotwires R. Lee Ermey’s police car and drives away in the rain. Though not before she repeatedly drives over Sherrif Ermy a few times and Leatherface gets one last jump at the camera in. The whole ending felt like it could have ended better a few times and just kept getting more and more ridiculous which took away from what, otherwise, was a pretty good last 20 minutes.

And now, Rickey will surely show me up:

Rickey:

“Well, I gotta admit that while the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is definitely one of the most terrifying movies I’ve ever seen (the kind that creeps back into your mind at the most inappropriate times like when you’ve just laid down for bed in a newly lightless room or when you’re walking home from the bar in the dark all alone), no movie has ever been untouchable for me when it comes to a remake (except The Goonies and Monster Squad). That’s why I was more open to the idea of the updated version when it was released back in 2003 than TJ – but that’s not to say I prefer the remake; I just find a different kind of enjoyment in it. I may also have had a better viewing experience than TJ, which probably also increased my enjoyment of the film. It was Halloween and a bunch of my friends rolled down to the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas to check the film out. We had a bucket of beer between us and were sitting in the coolest theater in the world, ready to wet our pants with fear.

“That being said, though, I think the new TCM had a million and one things going for it in 2003. The Saw and Hostel film franchises had yet to open (that’d be 2004 and 2005, respectively), so the gorier, funkier takes on the slasher scenes in TCM were still fresh wounds on the eyes of the audience. TCM was also one of the few times that the MTV style of hip, beautiful, crisp images worked for me in a horror film. Sure Jessica Biel was gorgeous. But there was something creepy and crouching behind that massive metal door in that middle-of-nowhere mansion that whispered, “What do her insides look like?” and all I could do was stare at the screen.

“When looking at remakes, I mostly keep myself from trying to compare the remake to the original. I think you have to sometimes because the two films, while similar on the surface, almost always have a different intention. With the original TCM, director Tobe Hooper basically scared the audience sh_tless by showing what many actually believed to be a snuff film with a docu-style cinematography. It was a look into a world so horribly shifted from ordinary life that it was easy to see why the surviving girl had lost her mind by the end. With this remake, though, director Marcus Nispel wasn’t necessarily trying to pass off a rehash of the original, so much as update it with a more twisted look into the Hewitt family and a visual palette that, by itself, was extremely discomforting.

“From the start, you feel the heat in this small Texas town and the flies, sweat, blood, tears, saliva, fingernails and goo covering every frame maintain that constant anxiety. And the more the film continues after the genius R. Lee Ermey arrives on screen, the more your stomach hurts with the anticipation that something just god-awful will jump out and grab you. That’s not to even mention the real-world oddness a backwoods southern family can ooze. The last thing you want to run into after a girl shoots herself in the back of your car is a redneck cop eye-balling your ladyfriend and threatening to shoot you. I thought the look on the stoner kid’s face was legit. And don’t get me started on the little Hewitt who helps out Jessica. That kid was creepy enough in The Ring, but toss some hillbilly teeth on him and take away his shoes and…I just need a bath thinking about it (He’s tolerable, though, in the intolerable Drillbit Taylor)

“As for Leatherface, I thought the remake’s version employed a less unpredictable demeanor in the hulking madman, but there was some palpable terror in that Xanax-ed portrayal. Like a quiet, blood-covered dog whose steak you just pulled away. The unknown terror you know he’s about to unleash just continues to scare. For that matter, all the Leatherfaces in all of the various TCM films have all been fairly separate from each other and instigate their own, respective types of unease.

“And as for the ending, I thought it was rad that she chopped off Leatherface’s arm! I love when a movie tosses me a curveball like that because it leaves me thinking ANYTHING can happen. Especially when that type of thing creates a deviation in a remake from the remake’s source material. Just when you think the move will just follow the ending of the original, now there are NO rules. And that she kept getting stuck back in that backwards town just upped the tension for me. It was the “Don’t go in that room!” scenes for me. And that she got to take one final revenge on R. Lee Ermey’s kidnapping, rapist, misogynistic perv of a villain made me want to cheer. And it had me asking, “What would I do in that situation?” I like to believe I’d go back and help that baby. And I’d like to believe I could work my cathartic anger out on the man who created all this horror for me in the first place.

“So, it’s not better than the original – just different. But it did excite the horror genre at a time when horror was a little dead at the box office. Coupled with The Ring, the new TCM pointed out a sudden and promising new dawn on the horizon. I’m not sure it’s been a great day since that dawn, but it was still some scary sh-t in 2003. Plus, it has me excited for Nispel’s next remake; the 2009 New Line film Friday the 13th. Which, despite all out differences, TJ and I will be at on opening night.”

He’s right! We’ll definitely be there. Hope you enjoyed this extra long, extra dueling review.