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Friday, October 31, 2014

Horror Movies I Grew Up With: The 1980s

Exploring a Memorable Decade for the Genre

By Chris Sabga

Oh yes, that's George Clooney!

I was in a film class a few years ago when the professor started running down the 1980s as a bad decade for movies. Needless to say, her words left me in a state of deep shock. How could this be? The '80s were great. Okay, they weren't the '70s, where so many classic films and directors emerged; and they weren't the '90s, which was the period of the indie renaissance. But I'll forever defend the '80s as an underrated decade for movies. Perhaps no genre was better represented in those years than horror. Here are some of my favorite fright flicks from childhood:

A Nightmare on Elm Street (series – 1984-1994): A demented boogeyman goes around killing teenagers, but only in their dreams. Was I afraid to go to sleep afterward? Not at all! Freddy Krueger was cool. He had claws on his hands! I always wanted a Freddy costume for Halloween, but my parents said no. (They were probably right.) Ironically, the series became more kid-friendly as it progressed: Freddy was funnier by the third film. But I first discovered Freddy when he was still "scary." I saw the first two movies when I was only in the second grade. A friend recommended them to me. (What the hell were two 7 or 8-year-olds doing staying up late to watch stuff like this?) The series had its ups and downs, but I made sure to see all of them. My favorite: "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare." Poor Carlos!

The Fly (1986): My sister still can't bear to watch Jeff Goldblum in anything. His transformation in "The Fly" from man to mutation after an experiment gone awry is just that good, disturbing, and chilling. With great acting by Goldblum and Geena Davis, and even better makeup and effects, "The Fly" is one of the greatest remakes of all timeand one of the most memorable horror movies of the '80s.

Phantasm II (1988): The "Tall Man" from the first film is back. I jumped into this series with this sequel, and truth be told, it's still the only one I've seen. When you're a kid, you're able to fill in the blanks and be more open-minded. I didn't feel like I'd missed anything. Watching it seemed like being in a waking nightmare – a delirious fever dream. It ranks among the coolest horror experiences of the '80s. It definitely left an impression on me.

The Lost Boys (1987): Today's teenage vampires – such as the ones in the "Twilight" saga – are moody little pretty boys who sparkle. I weep for the current youth of America. "The Lost Boys" was one of the first modern teen vampire films – if not the first – and it's still one of the best. These vampires were cool, dangerous, even a little bit scary. They didn't shine in the yellow sunlight – they shed red blood when it was pitch black, and they loved it. "Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It's fun to be a vampire." That was the advertising tagline for "The Lost Boys" and it's one of the most memorable of all time – and the movie itself lives up to it in every way.

Howling V: The Rebirth (1989): Don't expect Oscar-caliber acting, Oscar-caliber directing, or Oscar-caliber anything from this "Rebirth" to the "Howling" film franchise. Truthfully, I can't remember if I've ever seen any of the others, or whether this ties into those, but I doubt it matters much. The premise: A group of people are stuck together in an old castle, and one of them is the wolf. As the death toll deepens, so does the mystery. "Howling V" seems to be a loose take on the Agatha Christie novel "Ten Little Indians." A classic framework like that is almost impossible to screw up. Some stories just work no matter what, as this "adaptation" of sorts proves even with the barest of budgets.

Return to Horror High (1987): The dilapidated venue I saw this in – a rundown mall movie theater that had seen much better days – probably made this seem scarier than it actually was. I haven't revisited it since childhood, so I can't tell you how it holds up now. Somehow, I doubt it will have the same effect on me. I'd love to be able to claim that I noticed future megastar George Clooney and predicted great things for him based on his role here, but that would be a lie. I was only 8 years old at the time, and really, George probably wasn't exactly given Oscar-worthy material to work with. For years, I didn't even know if there was an original "Horror High" movie. (There was, but the two – oddly enough – appear to be completely unrelated.) I'll watch this again one day – if I dare.

Fright Night Part II (1988): I suspect this film has very few defenders, which is a shame, because it's actually the rare of example of a sequel that lives up to the original – and surpasses it, if you ask me. (I know I'm in the minority with that viewpoint.) The head vampire in "Part II" – the sister of Chris Sarandon's character from the first – is certainly much easier on the eyes. Ditto for the main character's girlfriend. It also features some pretty solid acting – especially from William Ragsdale and Roddy McDowall – and a good script with enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.

Some honorable mentions:

The Serpent and The Rainbow: The Haitian voodoo setting is deeply unsettling.

Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II: I vividly remember a chalkboard and letters of the alphabet coming alive – creepy!

The Monster Squad: Technically, I didn't grow up with this – I only saw it for the first time a few years ago, and it's more of a comedy anyway – but it's great fun with some hilarious lines. "Give me the amulet, you bitch!" makes me laugh every time.

Gremlins and Ghostbusters: What list of '80s "horror" movies would be complete without them? You've seen them already, of course. If not, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Guest Editorial: Horror Remakes That DIDN'T Suck

Comparing the Remake to the Original

By Kevin Sowers

The air gets crisp, the clothes get heavier, and pumpkin spice monopolizes our taste buds. That means not only has autumn arrived, so has my favorite holiday, Halloween! Dressing up, candy, and perfect weather lies ahead! And what good is Halloween without viewing some of your favorite chilling movies? However, instead of the usual top five list, let's look into Horror Remakes That Didn't Suck!

These are in no particular order:

1. The Thing (1982): This classic from the 80's starring Kurt Russell and directed by John Carpenter, was a remake of the B&W Sci-Fi classic, "The Thing From Another World." This came out way before CGI came along, and to this day the special effects in this remake still hold up 32 years later. From the haunting score, to the suspenseful build up, this is definitely the perfect Sci-Fi/Horror mash up!

2. Dracula (1979): There have been countless "Dracula" remakes, sequels, reboots, etc. However, of all the versions that have been brought to us after Bela Lugosi's iconic portrayal, this one remains my favorite. Frank Langella plays the title role, having also played the role on Broadway. He just oozes charisma, and his scenes with Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing are priceless. Add Donald Pleasance to the mix as Dr. Seward, and you have, in my opinion, the best film adaptation of Dracula.

3. The Fly (1986): This chiller is based on the original, "The Fly" starring Vincent Price. However, the 1986 version starring Jeff Goldblum makes the 1958 version look like a Disney cartoon. The stunning special effects, along with the onscreen chemistry between Goldblum and Geena Davis, put this remake on the map, and set the bar high for any other remakes of other horror classics. Many of which, of course, have failed tremendously.

4. The Hills Have Eyes (2006): If you would have told me that one day someone would release a remake of a Wes Craven classic that would be far superior than the original, I would have had you committed! However, this version of the 1977 classic does just that. It probably helped that Craven signed on to produce this remake. The 2006 version is much more gritty and gruesome than the original. It also is better written and produced.

5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): The original 1956 version pales in comparison to this gem. In the 50's this film was a statement about communism and The Red Scare. In the 70's, it's all about alienation. No, not that type of alien. The fear of being all alone in this big world. Donald Sutherland gives a tour de force performance, as do Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy. Kevin McCarthy, who was in the original, gives a fun cameo in the beginning of the film.

There you have it. Five remakes that didn't suck. Maybe Hollywood needs to revisit how they used to put out great remakes? I mean, if they MUST put them out there, then make them watchable and enjoyable. Who knows? Maybe they can put out something that could replace one of the five titles I listed as one of the greatest remakes.

Kevin currently resides in Wichita, KS. He is highly active in community theater and independent film-making with Sanitarium Pictures. Check out the 4 minute short he wrote and directed, Love Bites.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Matt's Movie Mortuary: Digging Deep Into the Mortuary

Five Under-the-Radar Gems for Halloween

By Matt Wintz

Yes, that's Judd Hirsch!

One of the big things around this time of the year is website after website, reviewer after reviewer, talking about the horror genre and making lists of movies that you should go out and see. Many of these lists of course use movies that many people already know: "The Exorcist," "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Halloween," "Friday the 13th," and several others. While being the horror movie guy here for Silver Screen, I wanted to add my own list, but I wanted to do something different. I'm trying to stay away from "mainstream" or well-known horror films. So there's not going to be a "Halloween" entry, or "Paranormal Activity," but I do want to touch on a series of movies I'd definitely urge you to watch in the Halloween time.

A quick note, as my favorite movie of all-time, "Night of the Living Dead," is not on this list. That's because I will be writing a piece on that at a later time and how that movie single-handedly changed my life. Until then, however, let's take a look at a few movies I think you should dive into for the Halloween holiday.

<1> Hell Night (1981)

This film was the first movie I bought on DVD. I remember it well, picking up a new DVD player and deciding to pick up one movie for it too. Wanting it to be a horror film, I went over to the horror section of the Electronic Fry's I was at and began going through the titles. I found "Hell Night" behind a few others, the awesome artwork of Linda Blair screaming at me from behind a gate immediately drew me in. I bought the film and went home, watching it for the first time, and since then it has been one of my favorites. The story of four pledges needing to spend the night in Garth Manor plays as a bit of a slasher film and a little bit of a haunted house/monster movie. Against the grain of the time, there's no nudity, though Blair's outfit was enough for me to develop a crush on her.

<2> Return of the Blind Dead (1973)

The Blind Dead were the main antagonists of a four-movie series by Amando de Ossorio and they are a bit of a fun Spanish film series that have not seen anyone do any remakes of them over here in the U.S. That in itself surprises me. The Blind Dead are former Templar Knights who were doing all sorts of evil things and they are put to death by a mob of villagers, but not before they swear revenge. They get their eyes burned out by the villagers, and we are then cut to the 500 year anniversary of the village. And just in time for the celebration, the skeletal zombie knights rise from their tombs and ride their horses into town to cut up some people. The Blind Dead were always this creepy idea to me, skeletal zombies that can only go by what they hear, but when they find you will cut you down with swords or eat you type of monsters. I remember buying this on VHS thinking it had something to do with the "Evil Dead" films (this was released as "Return of the Evil Dead") and being disappointed when it didn't. Once my knowledge of horror matured though, this quickly became my favorite of the four movies and a great foreign horror movie.

<3> The Bay (2012)

Directed by Barry Levinson this was one of the many "found footage" movies I watched when binging on the genre a few months back. However, it is the one I've probably then watched a half-dozen times, always intrigued by it. It plays as a series of different videos found over the course of some time dealing with a Chesapeake Bay town that is plagued by sea creatures (a mutant form of Cymothoa Exigua) that get into humans and turn them into hosts before breaking out of them. Excellent for those with a disgust of "creepy crawlies" this film continues to fascinate me. The whole idea of toxins in the water due to hormones in chicken waste that gets into the water and the gory fun that ensues, all while keeping it in a "found footage" genre is fantastic. It's streaming on Netflix and definitely worth the 90 or so minutes.

<4> Phantasm (1979)

Might be the most "mainstream" title on here, Don Coscarelli's entire series is just mind-bending. Famous for the Tall Man, his flying silver death spheres, and creatures I've always likened to "zombie Jawas," I love this series and this movie. The story of two brothers and their ice cream selling friend Reggie taking on the supernatural Tall Man spanned from 1979 to present day, as a fifth film for the series, "Phantasm: Ravager" has been filmed and "Phans" of the movies are awaiting its release.

<5> The Halloween that Almost Wasn't (aka: The Night Dracula Saved the World) (1979)

While not a horror film this was a staple of my viewing as a kid. It was a TV special from 1970 that showed on ABC or the Disney Channel until the early 1990s and has never been released on DVD. Dracula, played by Judd Hirsch, brings together a Mummy, a Zombie, Frankenstein's monster, a Wolfman, and the Witch together for Halloween. Complete with Dracula's servant Igor, some fun (although maybe dated) humor, it's a cute story. For horror fans, Dracula even pokes fun at the other monsters for no longer being scary. If you can find it (I found it on VHS years ago) it's a fun piece of TV history (and Disco) that can be a little bit of a palette cleanser in-between all the gore.

Of course, I could make lists of all sorts of films that are always being played on Sci-Fi or AMC at this time of year, but these five are just a tip of the iceberg of horror movies sometimes looked over, but great for the holiday that is all about spooks.

However, it couldn't be a list of great movies without a few more well-known movies to throw in...

Horror of Dracula – Christopher Lee's first run as Dracula by Hammer Films, it is THE definitive Dracula for me.

Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter – The perfect slasher films. Blood, boobs, and Jason Voorhees.

The Fog – John Carpenter's original, ignore the remake at all costs!

Until next time, the crypt is closed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: The Judge

Downey and Duvall – Court is Now in Session

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 10, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 141 minutes
Director: David Dobkin
Writers: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, 
David Dobkin
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, 
Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, 
Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, 
Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, 
Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, 
Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, 
Grace Zabriskie, Denis O'Hare, 
Sarah Lancaster   

Watching Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall – two absolute masters of the acting craft – go back and forth would be worth the price of admission alone, but "The Judge" is so much more than that. It's a genuinely great movie. At two hours and twenty-one minutes, it's a long movie too. It earns its length though. Despite its extended running time, it's tightly scripted. Every conversation, every line, means something and leads somewhere. That might be the most impressive feat of all.

Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) is a successful lawyer. He's also an unpleasant man – a trait he openly admits to and almost seems to take pride in. He hasn't seen his family in years, but when his mother dies, he's finally forced to go back home. His very young daughter (Emma Tremblay) wonders if his father – her grandfather – is dead too. "Just dead to me," he explains. Who speaks that way to a little girl?

When we finally get to meet the judge, Joseph Palmer (Duvall), we can clearly see that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. The elder Palmer isn't exactly "unpleasant" like his son, but he is stubborn and has a definite sense of right and wrong. There's no arguing with this man when it comes to the law and the very best way to apply it. So, of course, he ends up being accused of murder.

A local man, Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), is found rotting on the road. Judge Palmer's car has Blackwell's blood on it. The judge's possible motive: Blackwell came through his courtroom before, and it didn't end well.

The judge always been self-righteous about the law, but would he take it into his own hands to get justice at any cost? The opposing counsel, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), is ready to argue just that.

The elder Palmer initially hires a well-meaning but inexperienced local lawyer (Dax Shepard) instead of his own flesh and blood. But I don't think it's a spoiler to mention that the son will, of course, eventually have to step in and defend his estranged father in court – because that is, after all, the basic premise of "The Judge."

The scenes between Downey and Shepard are some of the best and funniest in the film. Instead of the adversarial relationship you would expect from their characters, there's almost a sweetness to their scenes as the more experienced Downey gives Shepard tips on how to handle stress before a big case.

The cast, as you can see, is tremendous – and I haven't even gotten to some of the main players yet. There are two more members of the Palmer family, Glen and Dale (played by Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong, respectively), who are Hank's brothers and the judge's sons. Glen is old, disheveled, and rough around the edges, but he's generally a good guy. When we first see Dale, it's at a funeral home – and he's holding a camera, which seems incredibly inappropriate. I was under the impression that he was a rude reporter who had pushed his way in – until Hank gives him a big hug. As it turns out, Dale has a mental impairment of some sort – or possibly a form of autism – but it's never really specified.

In any other movie, a character with a "disability" would be treated like the second coming of Baby Jesus – someone who can say and do no wrong – but that's thankfully not the case here. To this film's credit, Dale's family reacts realistically to him. For example, during one tense moment, Glen dismissively comments on Dale's obsession with video cameras by telling him to "film the vending machine."

Hank – Downey's character – also runs into an old friend, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), whose prominent tattoo seems to hint at a wilder past. At first, I found it almost jarring that a prim, proper, uptight lawyer like Hank would ever associate with the tattooed girl from the diner. But that's what makes "The Judge's" script so smart – even the smallest details, such as a tattoo, tell a larger story.

The acting is amazing all around, but this is primarily a showcase for Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. Both of them wholeheartedly deserve Oscar nominations – and it wouldn't surprise me if Duvall, at least, ends up with one. Their best scene together – in a bathroom – is unimaginably tragic, but it also manages to be hysterically funny at the same time. Life is often like that. In lesser hands, a moment of that magnitude would be almost impossible to pull off. Old pros like Downey and Duvall make it look easy.

The title of "The Judge" refers literally to Duvall's Judge Joseph Palmer, but it also signifies every other character in some way – because they're all judging and being judged for something.

My judgment: This is one of the best films of the year.

If you go into the theater expecting a fast-paced and thrilling episode of "Law & Order" on steroids, you won't get that. The courtroom scenes are exciting and nerve-wracking, certainly, but "The Judge" is about more than just a case. It's about a father and son, a family, a town, a past, what it means to come from something, and why it's important to remember and hold on to what matters most.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: Gone Girl

Did He Do It?

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 3, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Running Time: 149 minutes
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Gillian Flynn
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 
Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, 
Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, 
David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle  

"Gone Girl" is a pulpy, twisty, b-movie thriller – and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's great fun. In the capable hands of director David Fincher, writer Gillian Flynn (who penned both the screenplay and the bestselling novel it's based on), and a world class cast, this is one hell of a wild ride with many sharp starts, stops, and sudden turns.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home one day to find a glass table broken and his wife missing. Where did Amy (Rosamund Pike) go? Is she dead? Did her husband kill her?

The entire film raises one question after another. I spent all 149 minutes of it wondering what was going to happen next.

As the police (played by Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) investigate, Nick turns to his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), for support. A Nancy Grace-ish, tabloid-style TV reporter, Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), exploits every single detail of the case. The Dunnes are a ratings bonanza. A slick lawyer, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), gleefully offers his services to Nick on live television should the need ever arise – and of course it will. A suspicious ex-boyfriend, Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), shows up for the search party. Did he have anything to do with Amy's disappearance?

And that covers only the barest threads of the plot. Trust me, there is more – much, much more!

Ben Affleck had his fair share of critics earlier in his career, and there is still skepticism about him taking over the role of Batman, but he is remarkable here. He says so much with his face alone. Rosamund Pike is also extraordinary as his missing wife. Flashbacks lead us up to the day she disappeared. Carrie Coon does a great job too as the sister of Affleck's character. She's reliable and relatable – exactly the type of person you'd want by your side in a major crisis. Neil Patrick Harris crackles with a caring creepiness. It's a side of him we've never seen before.

I could go on and on about the actors – they're all fantastic – but one of the biggest highlights is Tyler Perry. He impressed me in "Alex Cross," but he takes it to another level entirely in "Gone Girl." He owns his role as a lawyer who claims to win the "unwinnable cases." He delivers his lines – some of the best in the film – with a relaxed confidence and sly smirk that makes him easy to root for. In a way, he seems to represent the audience. More often than not, he says what we're all thinking.

Lawyers – especially those of the cinematic variety – aren't always the world's greatest people (except for the ones who read this site), but Perry's character entertained the hell out of me and did right by his client. You really can't ask for much more than that.

"Gone Girl" reminds me of "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct" in many ways. Their stories aren't necessarily similar, but they all share the same loony vibe of over-the-top outrageousness. Let's face it: This situation is ridiculous. There's nothing realistic about anything that happens. It's based on a beach read and plotted like a Lifetime TV Movie of the Week. Tyler Perry's character even admits it. The audience I was with couldn't stop laughing for the entire second half of the film – literally non-stop chuckling at the sheer absurdity of what was unfolding. But all of that is okay as long as it works – and it does!

The core of "Gone Girl" really (bunny) boils down to the dynamics of a marriage – wildly exaggerated for dramatic effect, of course – but anyone who has been through the ups and downs (and downs and downs) of a committed relationship can probably relate.

The ending, which I won't spoil, initially had me throwing my hands up in the air and possibly uttering out loud a few expletives that begin with the letter F. Without giving anything away, it's a bit sudden. But after a period of deep reflection, prayerful sessions with my priest, and a delicious bowl of bunny stew, I am now of the firm belief that it's a brilliant way to conclude to a mystery movie like this. Others will naturally disagree.

I have no idea if those final moments are faithful to Flynn's book or something Fincher incorporated to give the film more of an "arthouse" element. If it's the latter, he needn't have bothered, because nothing else about the story is exactly "highbrow" in any way. That doesn't really matter though, because the ending is still very effective.

"Gone Girl" is a b-movie that's elevated by an acclaimed director, a-list actors, and several Oscar-worthy performances. It won't make anyone smarter, but there's something immensely satisfying about losing your brain for a couple of hours and enjoying a good, clean, missing girl mystery.