Friday, December 14, 2018

And Then This Happened... Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Hooray! I thought I had posted an image from this fine film to our little caption game a couple years ago. I was wrong. So really, how could I resist putting one up this year. Tis the season and all that.

You know, one thing I've noticed over the years, is that Santa Claus in most family films and shorts is not really jolly, or even holly jolly. He's insane. For some reason the line gets crossed. Not sure if it is the acting, the direction or the story surrounding the character, but when Santa laughs the whole world wants to back away. I think most of this comes from the fact that MST3K and Rifftrax always find the most disturbing holiday films they can find for riffing, but that is my impression and I'm sticking to it.

Case in point. Good old Saint Nick in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians seems a bit unstable at times. I mean the man is interested in interplanetary conquest, so maybe he's more Ming the Merciless than Santa Claus. All I'm saying is that the FBI may want to open a dossier on this guy.

And then this happened...


Monday, December 10, 2018

Score Sample: Scrooged (1988)

Time to listen to some more holiday movie music. But what to pick, what to pick? Could go with some classic stuff, or even with some John Williams. But I decided to go a little stranger. And even though I highlighted his work in October, I'm once again throwing Danny Elfman some love on this blog.

Elfman's film scoring career really took off in 1989 with Batman. But before that we got a bit of a warmup with his score to the Bill Murray Christmas comedy Scrooged. Elfman's distinctive style is present from the opening cue, and fans of his work from Edward Scissorhands will certainly recognize this era of Elfman's writing. Elfman has fun adapting some familiar Christmas carols to his unique orchestral voice, but it is the children chanting "la la la" in an eerie voice that just gives the score its darkly festive touch.

The fun start with the Main Titles/Terrorist Attack as Elfman gives us his main theme combining dark overtones and festive la las. Then it transitions to sparkling joy as we enter Santa's workshop. Things take a turn for the action packed as Elfman unleashes a strident propulsive action theme as terrorists attack Santa's workshop. The only man who can save them... Lee Majors. I'm not kidding.

So enjoy the opening track from Scrooged composed by Danny Elfman.


Friday, November 30, 2018

And Then This Happened... Outlaw of Gor

It is good to be king. You can wear whatever you want. Command all your minions. Demand absolute obedience from your subjects. And of course you get to make proclamations. But sometimes wearing whatever you want while making the proclamations can turn out to be a bad thing.

Case in point in the example below.

But still, this moment from Outlaw of Gor gives us the perfect opportunity for caption fun. So we can't be all that mad at King Goofy here.

And then this happened...


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

And Then This Happened... Samson vs. the Vampire Women

We all know who you need to call when there is something strange in the neighborhood. But who do you call when you have a silly looking bat floating outside your window? Who do you call when every time you look outside your daughter's window, there is a creepy woman staring at her? Well the answer is obvious, right?

I think you can also call the same number if your lasagna won't cook in your oven. You could also call him if you have issues with robots mocking every movie you put on your television. I think he also handles medical and legal advice, but I'll need to check out his website.

In any case, I think it is time to come up with a caption for this image from Samson vs. the Vampire Women (aka Santo Versus the Vampire Women).

And then this happened...


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

MST3K - Season 12 Overview

With the outstanding success of Season 11 of Mystery Science Theater 3000, most fans were hopeful that the series would continue. Sure enough Netflix ordered up another helping of episodes. Joel gathered together the crew and got back to work.

The good news is that Jonah would return as the host of the series, not to mention Patton and Felicia coming back as the mad scientists. Good to see the familiar faces in front of the camera.

But other changes were in the works. Season 12 would be shorter, with six films riffed. But in an attempt to make the series more "binge-able", Jonah and the bots had to riff all six movies in a row. Kinga (Felicia Day) declares it "The Gauntlet" and laughs madly... because she is a mad scientist after all.

What this means for the series, well, I'm sure I'll have something to say about it. But let's also take a look at the this line up of movies. The bad movie gods were smiling, because we have some great fodder here. Let's see how Jonah and the bots handle them.


  • 1201 - Mac and Me
  • 1202 - Atlantic Rim
  • 1203 - Lords of the Deep
  • 1204 - The Day Time Ended
  • 1205 - Killer Fish
  • 1206 - Ator: The Fighting Eagle


Friday, November 16, 2018

MST3K - The Gauntlet is Coming!

Well November has rolled around again, and that means it is time for more Mystery Science Theater 3000. Thanksgiving is turkey day and for the past few years Shout! Factory has been streaming a MST3K marathon on their channel. They serve up episodes from across the 10 seasons (Comedy Central and Sci-Fi years), and usually have bumpers with cast and crew from the series.

But 2018 is going to be a bit different because SEASON 12 (aka The Gauntlet) is premiering on Netflix on Thanksgiving. That's right six new episodes of the series featuring the cast of the previous season are back on the satellite. Some really perfect films for riffing are lined up, so this season looks like it could be a blast. The whole season drops onto Netflix on Thursday, November 22.

But wait, what about the Turkey Day marathon?

No worries Shout! has you covered. They will be running the marathon on Sunday, November 18th. It will include six episodes, intros from Joel and Jonah, some sneak peaks of Season 12 and a few surprises.

Head on over to MST3KTurkeyDay.com for more information on how to catch the marathon.

Need more, here are some trailers!





Yep, this Turkey Day looks like it might be a little more hilarious than normal.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Bloodlust: Subspecies III (1994)

Over the past couple years I’ve been exploring the 1990s vampire series, Subspecies. Today we dive into the third film of the franchise (or Subpecies cinematic universe if you prefer). When it comes to horror series, it is usually a case of diminishing returns. But a couple of things give this film an edge. They planned to make this particular sequel and the surviving cast returns from the previous film. All they need to do is finally get a decent script. Should be easy, right?

Summary:

The film opens moments after Bloodstone: Subspecies II ended. Rebecca (Malanie Shatner) left her vampiric sister Michelle (Denice Duff) in a tomb to wait for nightfall. The plan is to return with help and then… um… well Rebecca’s plan is unclear. But it doesn’t matter anyway because the decaying Mummy (Pamela Gordon) is still alive! She seizes Michelle and drags her back into the depths of the tomb. There she performs blood rites to resurrect her son Radu (Anders Hove). The three then transform into mist (with a lot of over the top chanting, laughing and screaming) and escape, just as Rebecca returns with American diplomat Mel (Kevin Spirtas) and skeptical Detective Marin (Haiduc).

Now the hunt returns to Radu’s mysterious castle as Rebecca, Mel, and detective Marin attempt access the fortress via the crypts. Meanwhile Radu and Mummy continue to train Michelle in her new vampire powers and force her to embrace the darkness. Villagers are abducted, blood is spilt and Radu gets to drool a lot more gore. Finally Mel contacts his CIA pal Bob (Michael Dellafemina) to lead the attack against the castle. But will a trained military operative be enough to defend against Radu’s Bloodlust?

Good Points:
  • Feels like a natural continuation of the previous film
  • Hove is still horrifying as the vampire Radu
  • When the movie goes over the top it is at its best 
Bad Points:
  • There doesn’t appear to be much of a script to this film
  • So many ideas are brought up, but never explored
  • Never gets into a solid and entertaining flow
Overall:

When it comes to these films the script has been the major issue. We run into that again. But this time it feels like they added a bunch of padding because they only had a few ideas (and locations) to explore. The result is a movie that has some of the best scenes of the series surrounded by scenes that meander in circles. The climax is impressive and fitting to a trilogy, but I will say it is the weakest of the three films.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

"Oh yes, I'm back, and droolier than ever!"
Ah Subspecies, you try so hard, and yet sometimes I wonder if you are trying at all. There is so much potential in the series as a whole, and specifically in Bloodlust: Subspecies III (calling it Subspecies III from now on). But time and again the movie unravels at the seams and just never quite recovers. I was entertained for most of it, but as a whole the movie falls flat.

So what happened? Mostly the script (or lack of one) happened. Just about all the production elements remain the same. Visually the movie looks a lot like the previous one, with some excellent location shooting in Romania. But we’ve seen many of the locations already, like the castle and Bucharest. There is a new village we get some time in, and some more scenes in the forest surrounding the castle, so that helps things a bit. The familiarity of the settings isn’t a deal breaker, but it was one of the advantages the previous films had over your typical vampire horror. 

"No seriously its just marina sauce, and a little blood. But not my blood. That makes it OK, right?
The acting remains solid over Subspecies III. Duff and Shatner do a good job as the tormented sisters. I actually came to really root for Rebecca in this one, and Shatner’s acting is a big part of it. She really convinces me that she is desperate to save her sister, even if she isn’t sure how to do it. Duff gets to embrace her dark side (a little bit anyway) over the course of this film. When she is haunting the village and using her new powers she does a good job of getting us to believe her dark desires are taking over. The script stumbles a bit with her motivations as the film progresses, but Duff’s acting is not the issue.

I think Spirtas is actually a bit better this time as Mel. He as a little more to do here, becoming a full-fledged vampire hunter. His interaction with Shatner works well, and his disgust and horror at Radu and Mummy is palpable. As for Detective Marin, well Haiduc is playing the same skeptical clueless detective he played before. He’s supposed to be the comic relief, and he doesn’t really succeed. But it’s a thankless and pointless role anyway. He just takes up too much screen time for so little payoff. I never laughed or really even smiled when Marin was around.

Not really comedy gold here, more like comedy pyrite. 
Now when Pamela Gordon was around as Mummy, I was entertained.  She is just as over the top, gross and ridiculous as she was in the previous film. Her antics are quite entertaining, especially when she ends up arguing with Radu over the fate of Michelle. There is less for her to do in the film, which is both good and bad. She brings some energy to her scenes, but I still don’t like the way the character dilutes the horror of Radu.

Still Anders Hove has so much presence and goes for the blood drooling with such gusto that he overcomes a lot of the issues within Subspecies III. He has some really good scenes with Michelle, and manages to show some kind of affection for her, in his own twisted way. Hove is absolutely fearsome when he faces down those that would attempt to separate him from Michelle. When Radu is on screen the movie is usually at its best, and it is a shame that the script is so flimsy because we could have had a real winner here.

"See I have the Bloodstone right here. It isn't going to impact the story, but I still have  it."
The sound effects and music remain in the same realm they were in previously. The sounds support the film well enough. The music is an assortment of tracks that build some mystery, chime in with the recognizable title theme and other times use the screechy violins to denote horror. Not bad stuff, but lacks some of the punch of other horror scores of the time.

So lets look at the culprit right in the face – the script. Subspecies III builds on the events in the previous two films, but only in a halfhearted way. It almost feels like they had a series of ideas they wanted to explore over the two sequels, but never really fleshed out a full script until they were close to shooting. With most of the intense stuff captured in Bloodstone, they were left with not a whole hell of a lot for Bloodlust. The result was sequences and scenes that just kind of go in circles. 

Looks like someone had one hell of a night... get it, hell... see what I did there.
One example happens right off the bat. Subspecies II ends with Rebecca saying she’ll wait for Michelle outside the tomb until nightfall. Then Michelle is seized by the roasted Mummy and hauled into the tomb screaming. Rebecca heard that right? Well according to Subspecies III, Rebecca leaves the tomb right after saying she’ll wait. She goes off to find some help, and comes back with Mel and Detective Marin. In some ways it makes sense, but we needed a quick scene of her making up her mind to get help, or something. Because it just feels arbitrary that she wanders off into the woods. And keep in mind the film starts off with a montage of moments from the second film, including the scene where Rebecca promises to wait. So her decision to leave feels even stranger.

Then there are a number of scenes where characters go the castle, can’t get in, talk for a bit about how they need to get into the castle, and then drive away. It happens about four different times and doesn’t do anything to forward the story. From a narrative point of view you only need that to happen one time and then have Rebecca and Mel head to the town to regroup and come up with some kind of idea (maybe contact agent Bob at that point). Detective Marin adds nothing to these scenes and we spend way too much time with him and his “funny” antics.

Mel and Rebecca doubt the veracity of your claim.
That is the main issue with Subpecies III. It doesn’t realize that the more interesting story is the power struggle between Radu, Michelle and Mummy. All the best scenes in the film occur with these three characters. The main issue here is that the script never clarifies where Michelle stands on any of this. Sometimes she seems to have accepted her fate as a vampire. Other times she seems to be resisting it. Sometimes she begs for death. Other times she begs Radu to teach her more about the vampire’s powers. Michelle needed the evolution of character here and one that is pretty easy to chart. After being dragged into the darkness at the end of Subspecies II she could have embraced her darkness, and even decided that she didn’t want or need Radu. Her whole goal cold be to surpass him in power and then destroy him. Then her interplay with Radu could be more effective, and her natural conflict with Mummy would have more bite.

Mummy just hates Michelle on principle and you don’t have to do too much with her. But I think she remained around a little too long. I love that Radu kills her (and the way he rips off her arm and beheads her with the knife still clutched in the desiccated hand is wonderfully ghoulish) because she just keeps trying to kill Michelle when he isn’t around. 

Oh yeah, Michelle goes all femme fatale goth style in this moment.
Finally if we go this way with Michelle’s character (as the vamp femme fatale) then it fits the idea that Radu is easily controlled by women, and supports the ridiculous relationship between him and mummy established in the previous film. Because some of those conversations between Michelle and Radu work really well. I love how he reflects on the fact that he has wiped out his whole family because of his passions. I feel the pleasure he takes in teaching Michelle to use her powers. It would work great if she was manipulating him (he could even figure out what she was doing part way through the film), and then as she was really delving into her dark nature be faced with her sister again. Lots of natural drama right there to explore.

The vampire scenes have less padding but they still suffer a bit because Michelle keeps changing her motivations and seems to reset to whimpering and helpless every other scene. This worked fine for Subspecies II, but by the time we get to Subspecies III we need to do more with her character. 

Nice little chat about finger demons.
I’m coming down a bit hard here because I see the potential for a really good movie buried in there. They could have doubled down on the drama and gothic horror. Or they could have embraced the over the top madness of two scenes that make Subspecies III memorable.

The first is Bob the CIA agent. When he shows up, it feels like you popped in a whole new movie about one liner spewing army heroes storming Dracula’s castle. Bob is a surreal character that comes out of nowhere with his machine gun and camo gear. His first reaction when he sees the desiccated Mummy is to shout “Heads up Granny” and open fire. It is hilariously silly and then his demise is just about the funniest thing in the entire Subspecies series. If the film had embraced this horror comedy feeling it would have been wonderful. Instead, it just feels like an odd moment that sticks out in the meandering film.

Bob and Mel: Fearless Vampire Slayers!
Then you have the climax of the movie. Hove finally gets to dive into his diabolical performance and chases our heroes through the castle, looming out of the shadows and growling at them. His intensity and their fear work so well, you feel like you are watching a genuine horror film. Then you have Rebecca trick Radu into trying to catch the Bloodstone as she hurls it over the castle wall, and into the open, as the sun ascends into the sky. (Side note, the Bloodstone once again appears and is once again completely pointless to the plot – what a waste of a great MacGuffin). Radu hurtles into the light and then proceeds to melt, burst into flame, hurtle over the castle wall and then land impaled on a dead tree as he roasts and melts. Yeah we get wood right through his oozing skull. It is gross and over the top, but a fitting end to the vampire. 

"Oh man I should really pay attention to my Swatch!"
This over the top ending to Subspecies III helps redeem it a little bit. I just wish he whole film had doubled down on this type of approach… or any type of approach really. The movie is a mess, but so were the previous two, but this one feels more disjointed and little less fun. The meandering characters and plot distract from the good and great portions of the film. It gives the Subspecies series an ending and that is good. It makes for fun viewing in October with you expectations adjusted. But I did end up wishing it had been given a bit more attention with the script. Once again, if Hollywood must keep remaking movies, the Subspecies films have a lot of potential in them. They could be improved and we’d have a fine horror trilogy ready to unleash on an unsuspecting public.

I think Michelle has a little surprise for her sister.
Would you trust these two to do anything right, much less slay a vampire and his Mummy?
I don't know who is more offended in this picture.
"No problem. Everything is fine. I'm sure there will be another sequel or two."

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

When Marnie was There (2014)

I assumed that Studio Ghibli had gotten all their spooky antics out of their system with the amazing Spirited Away. But it turns out that one of the last films the studio made was a supernatural puzzler… but you know, for families. I was just as surprised as you were. Could a studio long known for their family fare actually pull off a movie that has more in common with Vertigo than Kiki’s Delivery Service?

Summary:

Anna Sasaki (Hailee Steinfeld) is at a rough age. She feels awkward and misunderstood at school. Her home life became difficult after she made an unwelcome discovery. It caused her pull away from her foster mother. After suffering a stress induced asthma attack, Anna is sent to the coast to live with her aunt and uncle. At first things don’t go much better, as Anna’s discomfort around strangers causes her to snap at the people around her.

But things change when she spots a strange mansion on the coast that is accessible only at low tide, but requires a boat to visit otherwise. Anna finds herself returning to the place again and again to sketch it and peer into the abandoned interiors. But one night she sees a young blonde girl inside the house. She eventually meets the girl, Marnie (Kiernan Shipka) who is the same age and also going through some tough issues at home. Anna is drawn to her new friend; despite the fact that no one else acknowledges Marnie or the parties her parents throw. And why is everyone in the old mansion dressed in 1920s fashions? Is Anna suffering a mental breakdown, or is she looking into the past, at a time When Marnie was There?

Good Points:
  • Some wonderful animation immerses viewers in the setting and atmosphere
  • Effective performances by the English voice cast
  • Keeps the viewer’s wondering just what is happening to Anna, and the mystery of Marnie
Bad Points:
  • Moves at a very measured pace
  • Looking for an outright thriller? Not in this film.
  • Why is this animated?
Overall:

I was impressed by how well this film works. Anna is a very relatable character, even if she can be difficult. The more we find out about her, the more we understand her reactions to others and especially to Marnie. The film does a good job of never giving away too much about Marnie until the right moment. An easy recommendation if you are looking for a coming of age film meshed with a psychological mystery.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review

For Anna it is easier to focus on her sketches and ignore people.
It is difficult to write too much about When Marnie Was There without giving away the mystery of the film. That mystery is one of the key elements that engages the viewer. But the core of the movie is the excellent characterization of Anna. When these two elements merge When Marnie Was There becomes a very effective and moving film, one that children around Anna’s age, and adults can relate to.

Anna arrives at her new home in the coastal town.
Visually Studio Ghibli did some wonderful work here. Don’t come in expecting those wonderful action flourishes or flying moments that thrill in the films of Miyazaki. Instead director Hiromasa Yonebayashi focuses on creating a sense of place and atmosphere in the movie. The coastal town where most of When Marnie Was There takes place feels like a real location. We see plenty of details in the buildings, the countryside and of course the mysterious mansion to have them crystallize in our minds. As Anna explores these locations we take them in with her. Details like a flapping curtain in an “abandoned” building or the way the tide creeps in closer and closer as time passes establish the feel of the town. Like Anna, we find it a bit strange at first, but soon come to enjoy its oddities.

Anna's first glimpse of the mysterious house where Marnie awaits.
For atmosphere Yonebayashi doesn’t go for anything as overt and mind bending as Satoshi Kon did with Perfect Blue. Obviously this isn’t a horror/thriller. But he does use some of the more subtle techniques that Kon would utilize, such as holding some shots just a little too long; building the mystery using pacing. He also uses light and shadow to great advantage, especially as Marnie and Anna meet more and more frequently. Darkness seems to be overtaking Anna and it adds a disconcerting feeling to the whole friendship. The strange hazy light during the parties creates a dreamlike feeling to those scenes. Even simple moments with Anna and Marnie on the boat and talking feel slightly off center. It all builds into in a wonderfully subtle feeling of unease..

Meeting Marnie by moonlight.
The sound and the score do a good job supporting When Marnie Was There. The sound work is mostly real world sound effects, keeping the film grounded, even while are doubting our eyes. The score by Takatsugu Muramatsu works fine. It is low key, supporting emotions and atmosphere without drawing attention to itself. Some of the key emotional scenes at the end do rise to the occasion and work very well in the moment. But the score didn’t really draw me in with themes. That is fine, not every score has to. But I usually expect something a bit more colorful from Studio Ghibli films. The song during the final moments of the film Fine on the Outside by Priscilla Ahn is a soothing piece that works well in the film.

Looks like someone is ready to party!
The English voice cast did a very good job in the roles. Steinfeld and Anna and Shipka as Marnie have the most challenging parts, and both ladies do an excellent job. Steinfeld keeps Anna relatable, even when we think she is being unreasonable. Anna’s struggles come through in the voice acting as well as the animation and Steinfeld’s performance is key. Shipka is also very good at making Marnie feel like a genuine girl, but also keeping a bit of the mystery to the character. It is a tough balancing act, and the animation surely helps. But some of Marnie’s lines need to be said in just the right way, and Shipka is up to the task. Aside from that the voice cast included several well-known names (Vanessa Williams, Catherine O’Hara, Geena Davis and John C. Reilly to name a few) keep things appropriate low key and believable.

"Come play with me Anna..."
Where When Marnie Was There really shines is in the execution of the story and the character of Anna. The film has three parts. The first establishes Anna and her life in the city. The second brings her to the coastal town and into contact with Marnie. The third comprises Anna’s attempt to figure out who Marnie is and the impact it has on Anna’s life. Each portion of the story must be told completely and well for the ending to have the necessary emotional impact.

Visiting the house later, Anna sees that it is a real fixer-upper opportunity.
Pacing is important, and I know the slow pace is not going to work for all viewers, I feel it is necessary. The story does a good job of establishing Anna in the first portion of the film as an introverted pre-teen that is having trouble coping with growing up. Her asthma attack seems to be a symptom of her anxiety. As the film continues we start to get more and more clues about Anna’s life. We find out that she is a foster child. We find out that her parents died when she was very young. Her natural insecurities are increased when she finds out a secret about her foster mother. Each piece of Anna’s puzzle gives her more depth as a character, but more importantly it allows us to understand her relationship with Marnie.

Marnie marvels at the meticulous sketch.
The build up to the first encounter with Marnie is handled so well. It is mysterious and dreamlike all at once. Because we know that Anna has some emotional issues already, we begin to wonder if any of this is really happening. That balancing act is maintained throughout When Marnie Was There. It makes it a very engaging watch the first time through, but I dare say that the characters of Anna and Marnie will draw me back for repeat viewings.

A stormy night in a dangerous tower, what could go wrong?
Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few correlations between When Marnie Was There eand the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Many of these may be unintentional, but I get the feeling they were not. The obvious one is that Hitchcock directed a film called Marnie. Next is that the mysterious woman in this film is the classic Hitchcock cool blonde with blue eyes. A key sequence takes place in a silo that could be dead ringer for the tower in Vertigo, and we even get a moment where the Vertigo zoom is used when Anna experiences a revelation. Anna spends quite a bit of time peering into window and watching the mansion from a distance, very much like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. You could say that the coastal town in When Marnie was There is a sister city to Bodega Bay featured in The Birds. I haven’t seen all of Hitchock’s films, but I’m guessing there are a few more nods to his work in the film.

A lot could go wrong.
But cast those aside and you still have a really engaging film. When Marnie Was There may not go down as one of the best films from Studio Ghibli. But it is well worth seeking out and watching. It shows that even at the end the famous studio could still craft a movie that draws viewers in and allows you to feel along with these animated characters.

Anna and her new pal are ready for some sleuthing.
Marnie takes us on a little voyage to her home.
Is Anna sketching her new friend... or something else entirely?
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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Movie Musing - Excuse me... who are you?

Haven't seen this poster before, dare
I say it is perfect?
I recently revisited Satoshi Kon’s fearsomely good thriller Perfect Blue. It is one of those movies that I can revisit and get something new out of each viewing. This time I was struck by how Kon seeds certain ideas early in the film and then gives us payoff by the end. Most of the stuff is subliminal. For example there are several scenes where Mima crosses a busy street. She has a dream where a truck hits her. She has a dangerous encounter inside a highway tunnel. All these things just seem like part of the tale, but build to the climax of the film involving a desperate foot chase in the busy city streets and a truck careening toward one of the characters. Brilliantly foreshadowed, and something I’ve never really noticed until this viewing.

But why do I keep coming back to Perfect Blue after all these years? Because it is one of my favorite kinds of horror film. It is based around the fear of self; or to put it another way, the fear of loss of control.  It is related to my least favorite scare genre: possession. But the stories and films that work for me, don’t allow me to question the “why” of the situation. That is my primary issue with possession films, I keep wondering why a demon or devil would go to these extremes. 

But with these other variants on loss of control it feels more relatable. We have all had moments where something we saw, heard or felt can be brought into question. We’ve all been sick and our bodies seem to rebel against our mind. Horror films and stories take this concept to the extreme.

"Excuse me, who are you?"
Perfect Blue does it especially well, but putting the viewer into Mima’s world from the earliest scenes. Kon does some masterful editing during the opening sequence switching from scenes of Mima’s final performance with the pop group Cham and her daily life. These edits are hard cuts with the only visual link being Mima’s pose or motion. This allows us to see what Mima is like as a member of the idol singers and as a regular woman. It also plants the seeds for the later editing techniques and reality warping style that Kon will use as Mima’s condition tilts further and further to the extreme.

Mima's Idol life in the opening scene.
Mima's real life in the same scene about 2 seconds later.
We come to understand Mima, she’s a nice girl who is reaching toward a dream – but one that isn’t really hers. Already she has control of her career removed from her before the film starts. As we watch she loses control of her personality (having to act as someone else in a film), of her body (participating in the rape scene and the  photo shoot that turns into cheesecake shots) and finally her mind (she has conversations with the pop version of herself and sees the sinister Mr. Me-mania everywhere she looks). Kon often puts us in Mima’s perspective and it gives us the feeling of loss of control. He takes the reins and shows us things that couldn’t possibly be – they are just part of the film Mima is working on, right? She isn’t really killing people, that was just a dream, right? Perfect Blue allows you to feel Mima’s insanity and her fear and does so with amazing skill, especially for the first full-length film from a director. 

"Excuse me, who are you?"
Mima’s first line as an actress is “Excuse me… who are you?” It is a question she ends up asking herself many times over the course of the film. In that way it reminds me of a similar film made the same year, Cure by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. In that film the prime suspect of a series of murders only answers in questions. And his primary question is, “Who are you?” That question seems to get various disturbing reactions from different characters throughout the film. It is a question at the heart of many of the relationships in Cure. It is a question that protagonist detective Takabe answers in the climax of the film and one that seems to settle his mind… until the final scene shows him acting as the catalyst for a whole new set of murders (at least it appears that way… we can never quite be sure).
At some point both of them ask "Who are you?"
We define ourselves in so many ways including: actions, feelings, our past, our goals, our physical presence. A good horror film has the protagonists question these, and lose control of these. David Cronenberg does this masterfully in many of his films. The Fly is the manifestation of loss of control over an experiment as well as the physical being. Videodrome does something similar with a protagonist losing control of his reality, his mind and possibly his flesh. Might be why I enjoy Cronenberg so much.

Didn't your mother ever tell you not to sit that close to the TV...
especially if David Cronenberg if filming you!
One of my favorite David Lynch films basks in this concept too: Lost Highway. Fred loses control of his anger, convinced his wife is cheating on him. This causes him to snap and kill her. His mind shatters at the same time. He becomes someone else completely. He physically changes into Pete, a different man with a different life. But is Fred insane? Is the whole episode with Pete a delusion, or is this another manifestation of the uncontrollable rage within? The movie is a dark twisted puzzle that is filled with horror and fear. Lynch’s surreal imagery makes it more impactful, you feel like you’ve lost control as well, hurtling into the darkness along the Lost Highway.

Insanity noire.
Interesting that Lost Highway also came out in 1997. Something must have been going around that year, fear of losing our identity maybe? Fear of the world spinning out of control? Y2K looming in the horizon. Who knows, but having Lost Highway, Cure and Perfect Blue all come out the same year seems like more and a simple coincidence... or is it just my mind playing tricks on me.

Two women... one woman... don't think about it too long, or you won't
stay sane.
I could go on and on, but this type of horror film will probably always be my favorite. Because, yeah I’m a bit of a control freak, and losing control can be terrifying. In many of these films the characters find a way to get back in control, or accept that some things are out of their control. It ends with someone looking into the mirror and knowing exactly who they are… even if that is a deranged killer.

"Excuse me, who are you?"
Just had to add this. Seems like quite a few
of us want Criterion to release the Perfect Blu-ray.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Most of the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. Most film adaptations decide to put the stories in the era they were filmed, but a few take the leap for period production elements. Then you have this film, which moves the action to the 40’s, has a character named Lovecraft, contains the Necronomicon and a huge monster rising up to destroy the earth. It is as if the pulp magazines of the war years exploded all over the screen.

Summary:

It is 1948 in Los Angeles, and everyone uses magic. Well, everyone except for private detective H.P. Lovecraft (Fred Ward). It makes his job a bit tougher, since the police are using spells to catch the rampaging criminal gangs summoning demons to whack targets. Let’s not mention the werewolves, vampires and unicorns wandering around. Things take a turn for the weird when Amos Hacksaw (David Warner) hires Lovecraft to retrieve a stolen tome: a little book called the Necronomicon. Before you can say Cthulhu, all kinds of craziness starts to happen.

Turns out that the local crime lord (and former pal to Lovecraft) Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown), may have sent his hulking zombie after it. Lovecraft’s old flame Connie Stone (Julianne Moore) has a few clues of her own to share, but is the price worth it? Let’s not forget the car full of gremlins, a creature bursting from a pot of oatmeal and the sacrifice of a lovely virgin. Lovecraft has his work cut out for him, especially since he won’t stoop to actually Cast a Deadly Spell.

Good Points:
  • Fred Ward is a hoot as the hard boiled, square jawed detective
  • The concept and production are handled really well
  • Never takes itself too seriously, which helps with all the crazy creature effects

Bad Points:
  • Some of the humor falls pretty flat
  • None of the monsters are all that scary
  • The tone of the film never quite gels

Overall:

Oh man, how badly do I want to love this movie? I really do. But in the end it just never quite comes together. The concept is fun, the actors are game and the visual effects are pretty darn impressive. But the humor doesn’t always land, and contrasts with some of the over the top gore that ends up splashing around. Instead of going for slapstick humor, the film should have embraced a drier and darker variety of comedy, that would have fused well with the horror and noire overtones. It is a fun film.  If you’re looking for something a little bit different, this sure fits the bill.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting:  4
Script:  3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Score Sample: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I've done a few Halloween themed score samples over the years on this blog. So how did I manage to avoid putting some Danny Elfman up? Not sure, but it is time to remedy that. I picked one of Elfman's most gothic scores. It is one that has all the hallmarks of Elfman's style, but blown up huge and dark, with those haunting vocals and imposing proportions. That means we get some Sleepy Hollow music today.

While I'm not the biggest fan of the film, I can't deny that the powerhouse score is one of Elfman's best from the 1990s. It matches the over the top visuals that Tim Burton concocted for the film. It builds on the suspense and horror the situations in a deliciously in your face way, and it is a lot of fun to listen to. Lots of great tracks to explore on the soundtrack, but I'm going with the end titles which are some of Elfman's best.

So here is End Credits from Sleepy Hollow composed by Danny Elfman.


Friday, October 5, 2018

The Devil’s Candy (2015)

One of my favorite quotes from MST3K comes from Pod People, and it goes something like this “What is it about the gates of hell that compels people to walk right in?” It is a valid question and one that is often explored in horror films. But sometimes the gates of hell aren’t physical, sometimes they are in the mind. This film takes a look at that concept with a helping of heavy metal, because Satan is pretty metal.

Summary:

The film starts as many horror films do, with a family moving into home with a bit of a history. A double murder occurred in the house. Jesse (Ethan Embry) loves the home’s barn so he can paint his huge canvas’s and listen to heavy metal as inspiration. His wife Astrid (Sheri Appleby) and daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) are a little less enthused dealing with a greater distance to drive to work and a new school.

But everyone agrees that the house has a real problem attracting the imposing and obviously disturbed Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince). Ray is hearing a voice and it is driving him to do some horrible things. But the twist is, Ray used to live in this house and the voice started there. Too soon, Jesse starts to hear the same voice and his paintings become more and more deranged. What strange connection does Jesse have with Ray? And how will it doom this family when they come to understand the horror of The Devil’s Candy?

Good Points:
  • Creates an eerie atmosphere and building dread
  • The film keeps the viewer guessing at how dark it is going to turn
  • Impressive performances by the entire cast 

Bad Points:
  • Feels a bit choppy in places
  • There are small elements of the story that don’t seem to have a payoff
  • If you aren’t a fan of loud guitars then some of the music and sound design might aggravate you

Overall:

Liked the way the film portrays the corruption that seems to spread from the home, and creates this feeling of dread. We see early on what happened to Ray and how he is (not) managing it. But as we get to know the family, we fear for them. The performance are what make this work, we like the dysfunctional family, and we fear Ray. The movie feels a bit uneven in places, and has a few elements that don’t really pay off, but overall the camerawork and pacing build the horror until you are never sure just how dark this movie is going to get. Well worth checking out if you are in the mood for some heavy metal dread.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals:  4
Sound: 4
Acting:  4
Script:  4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total: 4

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