Friday, May 06, 2005

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Movie Club #2: Weird Horror-A-Go-Go
The second rule of Movie Club ARE allowed to talk about movie club. Think of it as a book club without Oprah or all that annoying reading. Or think of it as a chance to dissect your favorite films and see why the hell you like 'em anyway.
Mankind's always been fascinated with death and destruction. It's why you slow down when you go by an accident. It's why slapstick humor is so funny. It's why horror movies have endured as a genre for decades.
Occasionally, though a few deaths isn't enough to truly grip your horror jones. Sometimes, you just gotta see everyone buy it -- or go totally insane. So, inspired by the writings of a few early icons like H P Lovecraft, weird horror was born.
We're talking end of the world stuff here...powers that were not meant to be freed...bad juju where death is a damn sight better alternative than getting caught by the creepy things just beyond the gate. Where Lovecraft succeeds as a writer is that he makes the unmentionable, indescribable things in the dark just that - unmentionable and indescribable.
Numerous films have attempted to translate Lovecraft to the screen, either directly or indirectly. Films like Die, Monster, Die!, The Creeping Flesh, The Haunted Palace, Quatermass and the Pit, The Dunwich Horror, Re-Animator, From Beyond, Necronomicon, Dagon, Hellboy, etc. Hell, even Ghostbusters borrows a little from Lovecraft's mythos, inventing fictional spirit guides and tomes on the spirits that walk the earth.
None of the movies I've selected this week are based on Lovecraft stories, but all carry his influence, some more than others.
John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness doesn't get a lot of attention, even from his fans. There's no a-list talent. Instead, you get Jameson Parker from Simon and Simon as Brian Marsh, the intrepid academic guy hero who joins a weekend expedition to study something found in the cellar of a Los Angeles church.
The scientists; an interdisciplinary lot of physicists, chemists, engineers, translators, philosophers and Biblical scholars; set up shop and find an ancient container in the basement. Ancient in that it predates humanity. In it, a substance swirls malevolently.
What's in the container? Oh, you didn't get the title the first time, did ya? Inside the jar is the essence of Satan...the Prince of Darkness. An ancient, unnameable thing that's been guarded by a group of priests for a millenia. Big problem...the container, while built to cracking open.
The script, credited to Martin Quatermass (John Carpenter being cheeky with a pseudonymn), is essentially yet another revisit of Rio Bravo, except with demonic possession, the undead and prophetic visions. There are hints of The Thing, in that anyone can become One of Them, but it's much more overt. You know when someone's possessed. Mainly because they do nothing but try and kill and/or possess you.
The cast are mostly seasoned Carpenter veterans (Carpenter, like many directors, likes to cast familiar faces since he's familiar with their work and he can count on them), including Victor Wong from Big Trouble in Little China and Donald Pleasence from Halloween and Escape from New York. Parker does an adequate job with his character, though he's not given the opportunity to become an iconic Carpenter hero like Snake Plissken or Jack Burton or R J MacReady. But that's OK, since Kurt Russell he ain't.
The movie depends a lot on atmosphere, and if you don't buy the atmosphere, you certainly aren't going to buy an ageless interdimensional demon entity in liquid form. When things start happening and the inevitable doom starts coming to pass there's little the researchers can do to stop it. They're surrounded. They're outnumbered. They're trapped.
In the Mouth of Madness is Carpenter revisiting Lovecraftian horror in a much more direct manner, and it's probably the best instance of the genre ever made. Working on a script from Michael DeLuca (known principly as a film producer -- also the ex-president of New Line Features and current president of Dreamworks Pictures), Carpenter borrows liberally from Lovecraftian canon to create something akin to the worst case scenario in horror literature.
Sam Neill's character John Trent is an insurance investigator -- the best. He has fantastic instincts and he's smart. In your typical horror movie, he'd be the guy who saves the day.
Trent is hired by Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), the head of a publishing company, to find their #1 author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), who's gone missing just before delivering his latest book. Cane's a recluse who writes weird horror stories about unmentionable and unnameable beings lurking behind the shadows of our world (thankfully, unlike Lovecraft, Sutter Cane is not an obsessive momma's boy).
Sutter Cane has a lot of fans. A lot of very ardent fans. And they tend to go crazy and kill people and themselves.
Trent traces Cane to Hobb's End, a supposedly fictional town in New England that's not on any map. Checking clues on the covers of Cane's books, Trent manages to locate the town. And with Cane's editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) in tow, he sets off to find the author and deliver the final manuscript.
Hobb's End really doesn't exist. And yet they find it. Just like Cane described.
There's a small problem.
Sutter Cane DID contact the nameless things from beyond. And they, through him, are entering our world. The more he writes about them, the more they can come through. His books are becoming real. Cane has just finished his masterpiece and the gate is opening.
From there, things just get nuts.
At times an extremely atmospheric creepfest, at times a full-on mind fuck, In the Mouth of Madness is one of those movies that has a cult following just because it's John Carpenter, but it deserves more than that.
Kaïro (Pulse) is yet another J-horror movie that's going to get a Hollywood remake. It; like The Ring/Ringu, Dark Water, The Grudge/Ju-On or One Missed Call/Phone; is a ghost story. The ghosts tend to be children and women with long, dark hair. The ghosts are contacting the living world, and people are dying.
This time it's through a website (shades of fear dot com). The website tantalizes visitors with an invitation: Would you like to meet a ghost? Well, if you've seen one Japanese horror movie, you know that's a bad idea. A really bad idea.
Writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa keeps things stark and murky. And it only gets darker as the movie goes along. This is a ghost story by way of Marshall MacLuhan. Information, including the digital information of the internet, is a virus. And it's spreading. If not for the global reach of the information superhighway, this would be yet another rote Japanese ghost story. Because of it, it becomes a meloncholy apocalyptic vision of how the world might end -- not with a bang, but with a whimper.
I first found out about our final film from a neighbor when I was a kid. The guy was a Vietnam vet, and since he'd pretty much seen it all, nothing scared him. Until Phantasm.
Is Phantasm the scariest movie ever made? Eh, I doubt it. But it hasn't lost one iota of creep factor since its release in 1979. For starters, the Tall Man (Anghus Scrimm) is the creepiest dude in movie history. Seriously. One scowl from that guy and I wouldn't need my Metamucil.
Also, Phantasm is just weird. Gloriously weird. One of the trio of heroes is a goddamn ice cream man, fer cryin' out loud. There's killer dwarves, shape-changing, reanimated corpses spitting yellow goo, interdimensional gates and of course, the Tall Man. If it doesn't seem like thest things will destroy humanity -- well, they wait until we're dead to enslave us (and help a few of us along). With an infinite demand for interdimensional slave's only a matter of time (which gets touched upon in the sequels).
Don Coscarelli could have jumped into the studio system, I'm sure. But the dude's too weird. In addition to the ubiquitous Phantasm sequels (Phantasm II, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead and Phantasm: OblIVion so far, with one probably on the the possibility of a remake), Coscarelli also directed The Beastmaster and the fantabulous Bubba Ho-Tep.
Phantasm is original and different and new, yes, but the film also plays on oodles of old horror staples. There's a gypsy fortune teller, the Tall Man works in a mausoleum and drives a hearse, there's a quest to save a brother...all tried and true conventions. So, things feel familiar, and yet...not. Therein lies its greatest strength, to make you fear the ordinary, since you never know what's behind it.
Horror doesn't necessarily have to follow the norm. And oddly enough, when things get a little bit skewed is when it gets to truly shine. The problem is, Hollywood beats that fresh new idea to death. Any more, no one remembers how fresh and fun Scream was before every other horror movie out there got self-referential and snarky. Soon, the J-Horror fad will pass. Hopefully before they destroy the integrity of the original movies and filmmakers.
Technology is finally catching up with the bizarre creatures called forth from the imagination of Lovecraft and his peers. This means, of course, that the more ambitious stories of this milieu could be coming to the silver screen. Which is pretty durn cool, if I must say.

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