10.31.2011

One More Thing

Okay, let me explain.


It is Halloween proper as I write this. Spooky Month has lived and thrived in the month of October. It's dying now, fading into the cold, dark abyss of Minnesota winter. As sad as I may be to see my favorite holiday come and go once again, it's not the end of the world. Fall here is a beautiful time; the leaves are changing. The air is crisp and clear. The first snow is beautiful. There - I said the S word. It's inevitable. Every year we have to face the undeniable return of the dreaded white stuff. Again, not the end of the world - it just feels like it. The older I've gotten, though, the more I see the beauty and natural order in it. So how does this tie in with the end of Spooky Month? Simple. I want to implore you to watch the 1982 version of The Thing.
The Thing is a classic of the horror genre, with a few unique twists that still set it apart from the modern dreck. Set in a research station on the South Pole, the movie tells a paranoia inducing tale of an alien creature that can change shape. That's really all I want to give away of a plot that's well worn and almost 30 years old. To say anymore would ruin a few good surprises. Kurt Russell stars as a burly and surly helicopter pilot who unravels the mystery in front of him, one shot of whiskey at a time. When a dog from a neighboring Norwegian research facility arrives at the station, being hunted by the last surviving Norske, things go awry and an expedition is sent out to find the facts. The venturing crew find...something...in the ice. The Norwegian camp is in ashes. When they return to their outpost, Russell and co. are faced with a terrifying, inhuman force. It. Is. Amazing.
There are so many things that work well in this movie. The direction is fantastic, establishing a sense of space in a grounded, if painfully cold, place. Watching this movie almost gets me excited for winter, if that makes any semblance of sense. The cast do a superb job of recoiling in the face of indescribable monstrosities, which brings me to the crux of the movie. The monster, the titular Thing, is astounding and horrifying, even today. The practical effects are appalling in the best possible way (WARNING - NOT SAFE FOR STOMACH). Consider yourself warned - this movie is not for the faint of heart. It's nasty and ultra grotesque. In spite of, or perhaps because of the graphic and slimy gore, The Thing is an astounding watch.
I have little to no interest in seeing the recent prequel in theaters. This version, directed by John Carpenter (in his first major outing), is a perfect stand-alone horror movie. The story is told so fantastically well, the beats so well spaced and timed, the plot so deftly woven, that seeing explicitly what happens before it is simply not necessary. The chaos in the Norwegian camp was so perfectly established in this version that I just don't see the point in revisiting it to tell their story. Maybe I'm wrong here, but I just feel Carpenter's version is such a great, singular thing that it doesn't need expansion.
So there you have it. One last gasp of Spooky Month to see you through to next year. Get ready for the impending winter with a horrifying, paranoid tale of isolation and mistrust. It'll keep your mind free of cabin fever for the next season. Or maybe not. Maybe you'll just get more suspicious of your companions. Either way, enjoy The Thing. Lights off, as always.

10.30.2011

Where We've Been

Evening, gang.


If you're reading this, it's most likely Halloween where you are. I dig. I hope you're having as mega of a day as I am. I spent the previous day recapping the Saturday night hijinks, packing some boxes while watching spooky movies and opening a bottle of Cabernet to enjoy another Treehouse of Horror. Not bad, I have to say. My apartment has no kids, so no trick or treaters for me, to my dismay. I would have fun passing out candy. I would have fun with wine until I pass out, too, but that's not really a Halloween thing. I digress. This year I was a bull, my better half was a matador. Here's me:
Nice, right? Best of all - pretty darn cheap. Total cost? Five bones for the horns. All else was mine. Okay the leg warmers on my arms as hooves were courtesy of my better half. 


So I've written up and down about Spooky Month. I loved it. It gave me a chance to indulge in my spooky side and share some awesome Halloweenish things with the wider world. There are, however, some things that slipped through the cracks. These are the posts I wrote prior to Spooky Month that would have been totally appropriate to cut and paste if I had been short on time and creativity. In no particular order, you should check out:


The Thing and I - a genuinely creepy Treehouse of Horror installment, all set at night in a storm.
Silent Hill 2 - the most terrifying game I've ever played. An emotional trip, to say the least. HD collections for PS3 and 360 due out in January.
Cloverfield - A modern Gojira, my favorite monster movie. It's a crazy post-modern take on terrorist events.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors - An underrated gem for the SNes. A love letter to B Movie madness.
Crimson - Beautifully dark album from the Alkaline Trio. Lush and pulsing punk music to set the mood.
MST3K - The best way to enjoy old B Movies. Snark galore. Laughs abound. Legendary.
Old Boy - Not a horror movie, per se. Still a dark, twisted trip to the most tormented depths of humanity. Yeah.
Silent Hill - My love for a flawed, but well-intentioned cinematic adaptation of the video game series.
You Were Always On My Mind - Getting severely caught off guard by a creepy soundtrack.
Grabbed by the Ghoulies - A forgotten gem from Rare. Super fun and full of simple frights!
Maniac Mansion - One of the first great haunted house games. Packed with point-and-click antics.
House of Leaves - Watch a book eat itself like a snake swallowing its own tail.
World War Z - The definitive record of humanity's war on zombie-kind. A sprawling, epic tome.
I Hear You Calling - A great video by the band Gob with homages to Thriller.
So that about sums it up. It's been a month of scares and jumps, noises in the vents and things lurking around the corner. Hit up the Spooky label on the side bar for more goodness. Otherwise, come November 1st it's back to business as usual here. I've had a blast this past month. Hopefully you have too. I'll try to do more large scale themes in the future. Christmas Conundrum, perhaps?

10.29.2011

Many Returns

Yo! Spooky Month is heading to a party.


I'm guessing you're going out tonight. If you're like me and work the traditional 40 hour, Monday to Friday week, this is your Halloween night out. Maybe not - maybe you don't wanna deal with the drunks and crowds. I hear you. Personally, I'm avoiding any bars this year, a major plus. Going to a party at a friend's house. Much more relaxed but still super fun and a social outing for a change. But maybe that's not your bag. Maybe you're somewhere in the middle, wanting to stay in a watch a movie, but not a lights off, creeper kind of movie. May I suggest the movie that got me fascinated with the undead in the first place? I submit for your consideration - Return of the Living Dead.
I caught this movie on cable back in the mid 90s without any context. Being young and naive, I thought (mistakenly, I later found out) that this insane movie was supposed to be taken at face value as a horror movie. Only when I watched it as an adult did it click with me - Return of the Living Dead is a comedy zombie movie. A Zom Com, if you want to be obnoxious. Still, there are some really messed up moments from this movie - the Tar Man in the basement. The horde of rain soaked, decomposing zombies rushing the ambulance in the dark. The torso that explains through delirious revelations that zombies eat the brains of the living to ease the pain of being dead. In fact, this little known horror comedy is almost single handedly responsible for establishing that notion in wider culture. 
It's not without its detractors, though. It has no connection with the much more revered, Romero-based continuity of Night of, Dawn of and Day of the Dead. John Russo, one of the producers who worked with Romero on the original Night of the Living Dead, held the rights to the titles, and thus established his own continuity with this vein of movies. It's more crass, vulgar and exploitative. It's more of a raucous, rollicking kind of movie in comparison to Romero's terrifying and academic canon. In Return's established universe, the original Night was a cover-by the government after a supposed real life incident in which an army chemical (fictional Trioxin) reanimated the dead. A group of young punks get caught up in the madness when one of their friends, who works at a mortuary, exposes a large quantity of the stuff to the outside world. 
Look, let's be honest here. Return's never gonna win any prestigious awards. It had a surprisingly decent reception and box office performance when it was released. What it will do is take you on an insane ride of splatter-stick comedy and gore. It's violent and over the top, but in an absolutely intentional manner. You want to spice up your night if you're staying in? Give Return of the Living Dead a shot - there is no other movie quite like it, I gurantee it.

10.28.2011

Scary Business

Evening, one and all.


It's been a long week for me. One that finds me here, having a cocktail and waxing nostalgic about movies from 15 years ago. I'm glad it's over - Halloween is almost here! So in the interest of Spooky Month, I've been racking my brain, trying to summon the unsung, the things that deserve another day in the sun. Even if the sunlight kills them. Today, it dawned on me - a movie that is surprisingly enjoyable and criminally underrated. Do you guys remember The Frighteners?
In some ways, it's amazing this movie is as unappreciated as it is. First off, it was directed by Peter Jackson. Yes, that Peter Jackson. As a result, it was filmed in New Zealand, which gives a very distinct look to the film - it's a little Beetlejuice-esque in some of its more zany moments, but with gorgeous landscapes and vistas. You want more notoriety? Sure - how about the last major theatrical role by everyone's favorite, Michael J. Fox? We all adored him at his peak, but how many of us saw this hidden gem when it was released? Not I, sadly. Debuting in 1996, I recall seeing the trailers and thinking it looked pretty rad, if a bit off. The kind of movie that seemed too good to be true. Allow me to explain.
The Frighteners is a movie that is, in a way, the flip-side to The Ghostbusters. Fox plays an architect named Frank Bannister (puns!) who loses his wife in a mysterious car accident. Through a series of conveniently obtuse events, he gains the ability to see and commune with the dead. This ability, coupled with a small town's gossip about the mysterious death of his wife, lead him to a career stall-out. He begins to use a few ghost friends to con his fellow townsfolk with staged hauntings and fake poltergeists. It's more than a little over the top, if just a little bit bad ass. His convenient little scheme goes awry, though, when a massive black-robed...thing...begins killing people around him, setting Bannister up as the culprit. These events manage to tie back into a reclusive neighbor and the legend surrounding a long dead serial killer. Needless to say, it gets worse. A lot worse. 
If you have any interest in Spooky Month, you have to see this movie - it's an underrated gem of the horror-comedy genre. Fox is superb as the tortured but good natured con man. His undead friends, one of whom is Chi McBride, are awesomely ghoulish, playing their strange roles with aplomb. Sean Astin's father John gives one last amazing performance. Jake Busey delivers an insane performance as Starkweather, the less of whom I say, the better. It's a surprisingly strong film for a little-known mid-90s horror-comedy. Also of note - it bears more than a passing similarity to Silent Hill 4. Both center around similar antagonists and horrible things that strike from within the walls. 
I have to say, if you've never seen The Frighteners, you're missing out. It's one of Fox's great unsung roles. He has this wonderful anxiety through his whole performance that makes him so energetic and endearing, despite the trouble he causes. It's both freaky and deeky, full of laughs and gore, dancing the line in a superb manner. Check it out before Halloween hits!

10.27.2011

Dawn of An Era

I promised myself it wouldn't come to this. 

For Movie Week during the last leg of Spooky Month, I initially thought I would do a whole week of zombie movies. While there was definitely enough fodder to give life to such an indulgent idea, I thought it would be better to cover a broader theme of horror movies than strictly the zombie sub-genre. Well, nuts to that. I'm not saying it's all Romero from here on out, I'm just saying the original 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead is sublime. 

Expanding on the premise posited in the initial Living Dead installment, Dawn of the Dead is everything a sequel ought to be. Well, it's not technically a sequel. None of the characters return, nor do the locales. Instead, it's a movie set in the same universe, the same fictional disaster as the first and following installments. Whereas Night was a claustrophobic, isolated film that ran on anxiety, Dawn is huge and sprawling, working in the notion of growing dread. It's a movie that takes the same scope from the first and opens it up. As Romero pulls the camera back we get a sense of the devastation on a wider scale. We see a clearer take on his examination of modern living as viewed through the lens of horrendous circumstances. His allegories are broader, yet more clearly delivered. The action is more spread out, as are the beats of the story. So what gives? 
Dawn of the Dead, famously filmed in 1977 Monroeville, tells the tale of four survivors as they escape the crumbling of society by seeking shelter in a shopping mall. While that sums up the plot, it's much too brief to encapsulate what happens. The movie opens on a frantic television studio, broadcasting in the last day's of humankind holding their collective crap together. Chaos begins to take over the studio. No one is in control. The government is at a loss (or has pulled back, in a pre-Redeker plan sort of way). No official word will tell anyone what to do, other than to shoot for the head. The dead are coming back to life and attacking the living, and order is breaking down on a massive level. We see a SWAT team enduring a standoff with people in a brownstone who won't obey the imposed curfew and who are also harboring their deceased relatives in the basement. A botched assault occurs and innocent people are killed. Stuff's just going wrong all over, basically. So a plucky group of people (smartly fending for themselves) pilot a stolen news chopper away from the city. After a near-fatal refueling pit stop, the band of survivors find refuge in the newest pantheon of American excess, the shopping mall. After a fantastic series of coordinated operations, they barricade the entrances and clear the mall of remaining zombies...and with that, they're trapped. 
That's what we all forget about the novelty of Dawn of the Dead - seeking shelter in a mall is great until you realize it's just a fancy prison filled with stuff. The four protagonists initially seek material thrills with their surroundings but quickly become disillusioned with the reality of their situation. A pallor falls over them as they attempt to settle in to their new lives as the last people in their own little world, but it only gets worse. I won't give away the end of a 30 year old movie, but suffice to say - it gets worse. It's Romero, so take a wild guess. But needless to say, our own inability to work together is always our own downfall, movie or not. 
The sad thing about all of this is that I shouldn't even have to tell you any of this. Dawn of the Dead wasn't just popular right out of the gate - it's become a legend in the horror field, and the alpha and omega of zombie movies. It's permeated our culture to the point that you don't even realize it until you dig it up. Countless musicians have sampled the iconic soundtrack and score, and even more have sampled audio and bits of dialogue. Entire movies have been inspired just from this film. Without Dawn of the Dead there would be no Walking Dead. Crazy amounts of video games have found inspiration from it, from Resident Evil to Dead Rising. It's become an institution of the zombie genre and is regularly included on lists of the greatest films ever made. The pacing might be a bit sluggish at times, but it's a movie that is so well crafted that a simple premise feels massive and organically hewn. The characters, while not Shakespearean, are natural and believable, enduring the end of the world and struggling to cope in any way they can. Tom Savini's effects are unparalleled, even to this day. I showed a friend of mine this movie and even though he's a horror buff (and I'd seen it several times) we both still winced at some of the more brutal encounters. That's saying something for a movie that's over 30 years old. 
So why do I preach about a movie that seems to get all the respect it deserves? Because it's just that good. I know it has deservingly received accolades for the its quality and longevity, but it still deserves more adoration. While the recent remake was close, it just doesn't hold a candle to the original. Dawn of the Dead is a masterpiece, the very definition of what a zombie movie should be. You don't want to slum it with slasher flicks this Halloween? Look no further. 

10.26.2011

Bleak Projections

Spooky Month is about to get real, folks.


A movie like The Blair Witch Project could still scare you in the days before Google, Youtube and omnipresent irony. I remember reading bits and pieces about a supposed found-film piece of cinema that ended poorly. Being from a small town with barely functioning internet access, I only knew the essentials - college kids go wandering off in the woods, something bad finds them, they don't make it back. Only thing was, this time it wasn't so safe and fictional. The kids had been reported lost for quite some time. Their home made, hand-held shot movie was rumored to be melting faces and stopping hearts in art-house cinemas all over the country. I was totally intrigued. Then the cat got out of the bag.
The Blair Witch Project has become something of a punchline or shorthand for a common understanding of DIY aesthetic. That's really being too dismissive of a revolutionary thing, though. The truth of the matter is, even knowing that this movie was (spoilers, you dummy) a work of ingenious fiction, it was still damn scary. That seems to be the big secret that no one wants to acknowledge. We're all too cool and jaded and self-aware to be genuinely unnerved or swindled by any kind of momentum or legitimate feeling of connection. Instead we dismiss and say "Oh, that thing? Yeah, what a lame fake movie, right? Who ever bought into it?" Well, I totally did.
I only saw the bleak, doomed cinema verite affair after the fact. The summer it saw wide release was one full of movies you had to see as a teenager - South Park, The Sixth Sense, I think there was an American Pie in there, too. Maybe not. Sometimes those years blend together a bit. Anyway, the movie came and went in the theaters and I still hadn't seen it. So our local Blockbuster (back when that was a thing) had it on sale in the bargain bin (cat being out of the bag) I picked it up for less than five bones. I took the VHS (yeah, I know) home to my parent's new home in the woods, where I watched it all alone on a Sunday night, lights off, house lights outside reflecting off of the bare tree limbs of late October. I got my business thoroughly freaked out.
It may not be the coolest, most bad-ass thing to say, but I'll stand behind this weird little indie horror flick. It has this air of doom and despair permeating it. You knew going into it that the three plucky teenagers (no matter how obnoxious they could be) weren't going to come home. Something unseen was stalking them, to great affect for a solitary audience. The only way it could have gotten scarier for me was if I had to go orienteering alone in the woods that night. The manner in which the 'show-don't-tell' philosophy is employed here puts it in the same realm as Alien or Jaws. We are so much more terrified by the imagined, unperceived threat than a CGI money shot. Noises in the night stop the blood cold. Snarling beasts leaping at the screen, not so much. The cold air of fall and the empty trees create an unmistakable ambiance, the likes of which I haven't seen in any other horror flick since. 
The Blair Witch Project brought us one step farther into our modern age of in-media-res production and (ugh) "reality" TV. That's the unfortunate legacy of a game changer. This movie was a refreshing novelty, one that deserves a better reputation than we've bestowed it. Turn the lights off and pick a quiet, solitary night. Watch this ground-breaking found-footage horror movie and tell me you're not the least bit affected by it. I'll be waiting in the heart of the metropolitan area with the lights on, far from the woods.

10.25.2011

Muffled Scream

Let's look at another old movie, but not quite as old as yesterday.

I recently re-watched the 1996 slasher movie Scream, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven. It was an interesting experience for more than a few reasons, but I'll admit I still found it pretty entertaining some 15 years later. It's interesting to see where we've come from and what our tastes have acclimated to in the intervening years. Scream was responsible for resuscitating the dying genre, one that had become a bad parody of itself. Fitting, then, that an intensely self aware, parodic take on the genre kick started a whole new wave of the very movies on which it was riffing. It became apparent through the modern lens, though, that what the imitators lacked in voice and vitality, Craven stacked them to the rafters in his send up. So what's the deal? What makes Scream enjoyable when it could just as easily have gone stale in the last decade and a half? Let's take a closer look.

 When it was developed and released in the late 90s, the slasher movie was a dying breed. There was little interest in the genre and little of any consequence being produced as both cause and effect of this. It took a creative pairing like Craven and Williamson to inject fresh blood into the field. Coming off the heels of his incredibly prescient meta-contextual love fest that was Wes Craven's New Nightmare, he sought to both send up and send a love letter to a genre on what was perceived to be its last legs. Writing an expanded take on a hyper-self aware script, Williamson gave the director material with which he could do his best. 
Set in the sleepy little town of Woodsboro, Scream starts with a bang. The opening scene (which also gave new life to Drew Barrymoore's stalled career) is immediately captivating. A young woman, alone in her parent's home, is quizzed via the phone about old horror movies. She realizes the person on the phone not only can see her, but is planning to do away with her after violently kill her boyfriend out in her back yard. It's a graphic and horribly flashy way to start the movie but it's also enthralling and sends the clear message that the movie won't be pulling any punches over the next two hours. After the grisly murder of the two high school students, everyone becomes suitably paranoid and a media circus begins. As more and more people meet their untimely ends at the hands of the serial killer in the now iconic Ghostface mask, suspicions grow. Everyone is a suspect. Curfews go into effect. A party is thrown. Teenagers wander off. It all sounds a bit rote, but the plot unfolds in a fairly organic (if by the numbers) manner. Craven, utilizing what was at the time a who's who of young actors, packs the movie with referential dialogue and unspoken nods to forbearance, including some of his own
Watching Scream now is an experience not unlike the one I wrote of when I re-watched the Matrix trilogy earlier this year. The things that made this movie fresh and novel back in 1996 were so copied and aped in every way that it's surreal to see them done well and without pretension. That a movie (a horror one, no less) would be so intensely aware of its own pop-culture existence was, at the time, almost groundbreaking. Now it's assumed that you can't make an affecting scary movie without snarky teens making constant self-referential quips in a pained attempt at relevancy. It also seems strange to have a movie in which there is no last minute pulling of the rug from under the audience's feet. Sure, the reveal of who the actual culprit was at the end is a surprise, but the surprise stems from clever misdirection and writing, not an arbitrary plot twist. Teenagers (okay, 20 somethings) giving monologues about 'rules' in a horror movie hadn't been done yet - I remember how during my first viewing of the movie the 'teenagers' and their witty dialogue seemed genuinely hip; now I watched it and  thought they still looked older than me, even though I'm clearly on the far side of college. 
It's an amazing time capsule from the 90s, when you get down to it. Guitar driven rock filling the soundtrack, awkward fashion choices and bad hairstyles, a lack of relentless shiny things to distract from the fact that you're watching a movie. The cast is nowhere near young enough for high school, but still were fun to watch - remember Neve Campbell? Matthew Lillard? Rose McGowan? Skeet Ulrich? Wow. Jaimie Kennedy. Henry Winkler in a dramatic role. This is the movie that introduced Courtney Cox and David Arquette! How weird is that? Give Scream a viewing for Halloween - it's a fun whodunit with an edge, even after all these years.

10.24.2011

Alien Essential

It won't all be zombies and ghosts.

To prove that point, today's movie-themed Spooky Month post will focus on one of my favorite movies ever, let alone a quality scary one. It's a movie with a long and storied history, one I'll only partially be able to delve into. Regardless, let's cut right to the chase and take a look at Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece, Alien

Alien is a movie that inspires awe in me, both as an avid horror buff and as a simple audience member. I knew when I first saw it on VHS back in the mid 90s that it was a renowned piece of movie history. At the time I was just into the sci-fi and titular monsters, the design and lore of which were fascinating. The older I grew and the more I learned about the movie (and to lesser extent the diminishing sequels) the more I respected and appreciated the artistry and craft that went into making this hallmark of horror. Every little tidbit of information made it that much more impressive, in my eyes. But enough fan-boy gushing from me - let me explain what the deal is and why you should care, in case you've (sadly) missed out until now. 
Alien is a claustrophobic, dramatic science fiction movie that established one of the most subversive, original monsters in modern creation. Set aboard an interstellar mining vessel in the semi-distant future (a believable one with well-drawn human characters, not the cardboard-yet-fantastical George Lucas world), it tells the tale of a crew investigating a distress signal on a supposedly uninhabited planet. The ragtag, contentious crew accept company orders to land on the surface and venture out to see what caused the auto-pilot to wake them from their cryogenic hibernation. Among ancient wreckage awaited something...dangerous and absolutely unfamiliar. A crew member is brought back on board with something attached to him, which inevitably leads to an uncanny monster stalking the claustrophobic halls of their vessel. Already back on path to Earth, the near-defenseless crew struggles to survive against the lurking horror. This description is all in the hopes of enticing you without giving away surprises for a movie that's well over 30 years old, so if you have never had the fortune of being terrified by it, for the love of scary movies, see it now. If you already know, then you get why I have to beat around the bush on some of the more central elements. 
But let's assume you're familiar with the movie for a moment. What is it that makes it so remarkable? There are countless reasons, frankly. But is there any particular one that stands out as the backbone to the legendary status of this film? Certainly Ridley Scott's direction is integral, with his gorgeous framing and nail-biting pacing. I can include myself among the many people that swore up and down that the alien changed shape and size throughout the film, despite the concrete evidence to the contrary. His creation of enclosed sets for the mining vessel Nostromo were also a key factor, establishing a real space with palpable tight spots and a sense of being lived in. The cast did a fantastic job of portraying working class people in a future that otherwise would be cliched and hokey. They feel like a genuine band of dysfunctional coworkers with old disagreements and grievances, as well as disparate motivations. Sigourney Weaver did an impeccable job as the heroine, cementing her status as an action lead despite the dearth of women in the field. This casting choice is especially noteworthy considering that it occurred back in the ancient 1970s. 
Of course this all glosses over the most notorious element of all - H.R. Giger's unholy creation. Summoning inspiration from the most biological yet unnatural sources, Giger created a monster that unnerves us and disturbs that sense of normalcy in the mind. When seeing it for the first time, we are naturally repulsed yet intrigued by its simultaneously organic and mechanical elements. Furthermore, the manner in which it reproduces (let alone how it bursts onto the scene) are subversively abhorrent to our standards of tradition and the expected world. The idea of the creature's reproductive cycle and the parallels it possesses to rape and male pregnancy are well established, no doubt causing further unease in our subconsciousness as we watch the film. 
There are tons of little details that add to the movie, giving weight to unspoken themes or just adding to the world we're brought into. The idea of the ship waking up in the opening scenes is added to by framing shots of the monitors in reflective helmets, as though the machines were speaking. Corporate omnipresence Weyland-Yutani's motivations and questionable actions in the face of ethical dilemmas are ever the more prescient today, given the horrible repercussions depicted in the film. This is further elevated by our continuing advances in cybernetics and artificial intelligence. Unacknowledged things in the derelict spacecraft on the surface of the planet also suggest a deeper history to the movie - the Space Jockey is massive, clearly not a human. Further, what was the signal? A warning? A beacon? Attempts in recent movies are only semi-canonical and disappointing at best. The mystery here is so much more fascinating than a hard answer. 
Alien is excellent in every aspect. It is just as terrifying today as it was when it was first released. Quality presentation only adds to the experience. High resolution transfers, a widescreen TV and a dark, quiet place make it more of an immersive, unnerving experience. If you've never seen this masterpiece of science fiction horror, check it out as soon as possible. You want to see the monster? Go find it in the dark.

10.23.2011

Hotel Horrors

I promised you this week would not be all about zombie movies.


True to my word, tonight's Spooky Month post is going to be on one of the oldest standards of scary stories, the haunted hotel room. True to form, this iteration of the classic of the genre comes to us via a cinematic adaptation from a Stephen King short story (a form in which the much-covered author excels) starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. Tonight, we're looking at the surprisingly strong 1408.
This movie's origins can be traced back to the short story collection Everything's Eventual, one of King's more recent salvos in the literary world. Written after his infamous roadside accident, the brief tale is an example of what he does best. It's succinct and to the point, a tale that gets in, gives you the willies, suggests worse things on the horizon and gets out before getting too long winded. A modern take on the old 'strange things happening in a hotel room' story, King paints a truly creepy portrait of a corner of the world that is just 'wrong' enough, just slightly off to the point that he hits all of our subconscious alarms. Reading it the first time gave me the creeps in a major way. Given his track record with TV and film adaptations of his work, though, I had justifiable trepidation over what would happen when I found out 1408 was optioned for development. To my surprise and delight, it's actually pretty damn good.
1408 is a sneaky little trickster of a horror movie. It lulls you in with trusted faces and a warm, golden-tinted cinematography that, together, lull you into a false sense of security. Soon enough, the tale of a 'haunted-attractions writer stumbles upon the real deal' stops pulling the punches and starts hitting you with legitimately scary things. Fresh takes on apparitions and psychic-imprints/haunting. Fake outs that swerve dangerously back and forth to total treachery. Tricks of the mind that make the protagonist and viewer question what they've seen. I love the idea of not just an evil presence, but an entire room being the source of trouble - the way it haunts people beyond it is ingeniously devilish. Getting cancers and terminal illnesses, years after setting foot in a forbidden room? Dastardly paranoia fuel. All of this adds up to a finale that was, to verge into hyperbole, absolutely devastating. Mostly for the protagonist, but as a viewer, man it was a crushing blow.
If you're looking for a good old scare in the classic sense using modern sensibility, look no further than 1408. Cusack is a one man show in the best sense. Sam Jackson is solid as always. The effects are well done and not distracting in the least. It's freaky, it's creepy and it's a crazy ride. Check it out, if you want to get the creeps in hotels. As if they weren't creepy enough, already. 

10.22.2011

Dead and Living It

Spooky Month will live forever!


All right, maybe not forever. But I'm digging it, and others seem to be, too. So far I've covered my favorite spooky books, creepy music and unnerving TV specials. Now comes the bread and butter of Halloween, or perhaps the chocolate and candy corn. I'm talking about scary movies, man. So what kind of movies are we talking about? I was gonna do a straight week on zombies, but I figured others have done more of a thorough job than I could hope to as a one man operation. So we shall start this final chapter of Spooky Month by looking into my undying love of the progenitor of the modern zombie zeitgeist - Night of the Living Dead.
What could I say about this pillar of the genre that hasn't been said already? It's already been the subject of heavy critical analysis, modern remakes and art projects galore. What if I just told you that this movie, already a solid forty years old, still manages to be a gripping, harrowing tale when I watch it every Halloween?
It became a bit of a tradition by accident. I would go out gallivanting with friends on Halloween, only to retreat home at a time when I could still get a cab ride and a late night bite. Out of historical appreciation I put on Romero's debut work. Maybe it was the fact that I had been imbibing, but I was really hooked in by the old black and white staple. I was amazed at how good the film looked, having been digitally restored and then up-scaled on a widescreen TV. Lights off, widescreen on, drink in hand - I was enthralled. The next year, the same thing happened by coincidence. By the third year running it had become a bit of a private ritual of mine - I hate staying out late enough for bars to close, so I like to come home early and put on the grandfather of the modern horror flick to celebrate where I feel the roots come from. 
I could go on for days about the little things about Night of the Living Dead that make the movie hold up to this day. The stark, matter-of-fact nature of the cinematography makes the movie just as dramatic now as it was back in the late 60s. Horrible, abhorrent occurances are shot and framed with an unemotional detachment that makes them more real and affecting than hyperactive cuts and edits. There's a drama to what we as a modern audience perceive as dated and muted story-telling, even though when it was released in its initial theatrical run it was considered scandalous and offensively violent. The characters seem both amateur and over the top, but that was the acting style of the day; the fact that the lead is black is hardly remarkable in the least for our current audience, whereas at the time it was considerably forward thinking. Romero has said of his casting choice for protagonist Ben, Duane Jones, that he wasn't attempting to be progressive, the actor just had the best reading of the material. All these weird historical details make a fantastic, legendary film all the more enjoyable.
I'm telling you - watch this movie between now and Halloween. You will not regret it. If nothing else, it's a fascinating example of a landmark film and how our perceptions of taboos have changed. If, like me, you're into it - it's still a Hell of a ride, 43 years later. How many films can still be that evocative, that far after their release? Here's the kicker - due to copyright issues, you can get this movie pretty much anywhere for free. Youtube, anywhere online, at any store for like a dollar, or even as a podcast. The only reason you couldn't get it is because you won't Google it. Here, watch it for free. Just turn the lights off and have a drink while you enjoy.

10.21.2011

Treehousing Crisis

Spooky Friday nights!


As I wrote in the piece about South Park and my Halloween indulgences, a yearly viewing of The Simpsons collected Treehouse of Horrors is a tradition in my household. About halfway through October my better half and I will exchange a look and simply say "Treehouse?" Thus begins the marathon of the only spooky stuff she will endure with me, and that's really only because it stems from the Gospel of The Simpsons. It is the ultimate signifier of the season for me. Treehouse of Horror marathon? Halloween is close. Only a matter of days until I end up watching Night of the Living Dead after coming home from a completely overwhelming party.
We both grew up on The Simpsons, watching it evolve from the embryonic phenomenon it was to the cultural institution it is today. One of the first times we ever hung out together, we bonded over a shared love and appreciation of the early seasons - me, being amazed by a girl who got and loved all the jokes, her, a girl way too cool for me and wiling to suffer my boyish enthusiasm. Our shared viewing habits became a bonding thing for the distance we had as a long distance couple. We'd start a DVD at the same time and watch an episode together on the phone, then say good night knowing we were partaking in the same animated lullabies. 
The Treehouse of Horror series were always a special thing for both of us. We both had memories of watching the annual trilogy of terror before trick-or-treating. They were these strange, twisted takes on the world we had come to know and trust as kids. The older I got, the more I loved the freaky takes on the Simpsons universe. Every Halloween as I got older the specials would come into syndication in increasing frequency; more specials were backlogged to be played out on the local channels. I was in heaven. Along with the proliferation of DVDs came the ability to instantly gratify viewing demands - we're spoiled by this now, but at the time it was revelatory. So if I wanted to watch all the Treehouse of Horror episodes back to back, I could. 
Having done this, I quickly figured out that my favorite of the older canon of ToH episodes was also one of the darkest. Treehouse of Horror IV is, in my humble opinion, the darkest and most funny installment in the series. From here on out it felt like it was a matter of diminishing returns. Considering that there are some 16+ installments after this, that's quite the damning statement. I don't mean to impugn the show to that extent; conversely I feel that this episode serves as a high water mark for the series, especially for the Halloween specials. Par example - 'The Devil & Homer Simpson' sees Homer subjected to his personal Hell, courtesy of Ned Flanders. 'Terror At 5½ Feet' retells one of the greatest paranoid tales from the original run of The Twilight Zone. 'Bart Simpson's Dracula' is pure Hammer horror, all, mood and dark substance, only broken by the briefest bits of levity. 
There's some genuine elements of horror in this installment. Homer's trip through Hell is visceral and bleak, despite the well known gag of his infinite appetite. Bonus points for the Jury of the Damned - Nixon, Lizzie Borden, Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth and the starting lineup of the 1976 Phillie Flyers. Bart's ordeal with a Gremlin (not that kind) on a school bus is the sneakiest bit of paranoia fuel, where as a child watching it for the first time (unaware of the Shatneriffic origins) I was terrified of his inescapable situation. His unraveling is effectively disturbing for a cartoon, espically during prime-time TV in the early 90s. The Dracula tale is a bit rote, but the ending, with its inescapability and subtle twist of villians, is spooky, haunting stuff. It gave me the willies as a kid. Now I just marvel at the effective atmosphere and vibe put off by what is (and was) the most entertaining and hysterical show on TV.
That subtle mix of horror and humour is what makes this installment of Treehouse of Horror so engaging. The framing device, which was soon dropped, has nothing to do with it other than introducing the pieces. But even those small bits of writing (inspired by Rod Serling's Night Gallery) are scary and funny. All of the most beloved horror media in the last decades have that mix of humor and horror - Shaun of the Dead, Ghostbusters, what have you. If you don't dig the Simpsons, what's your problem, seriously? If you do, congratulations on being a person. Hopefully this episode can add to your Spooky Month delights.

10.20.2011

Blinky

Let's veer off course, shall we?

I was never a fan of Doctor Who - at least, not in my formative years. It was one of the many British things of which I had only peripheral awareness. I knew there were lots of scarves and something called a police box and a T.A.R.D.I.S. and that it was pretty hard sci fi. Thus ended the limits of my understanding of the Whoniverse. That all changed when I started listening to the Nerdist podcast - it was a constant source of excitement on the show and after so many episodes of these funny, intelligent people rambling on about things I didn't understand, I said why not?

Picking up the series via Netflix, I started with the latest incarnation or the long-running BBC show, a mere five series late. It was pretty damn good - interesting characters, outlandish (extremely hard) sci fi and funny, incredibly smart writing that constantly surprised me. So I stuck with it and watched episodes here and there when I was cleaning or cooking, working my way through the history. I was anxiously awaiting a particular episode.
So how does this relate to Spooky Month, you ask? That episode, Series 3's Blink, is some of the best unnervingly creepy science fiction I've seen. In an interesting twist of expectation, it's what is absent that makes it such a strong episode of the series, let alone any episode of television. There are no returning characters, the Doctor himself is hardly in it at all, there's no bloodshed or gore. All the drama and weight come from some fantastic and inspired writing and directing, as well as a few clever ideas. What unfolds, though, is terrifying and tense, a holding-my-breath-as-I-watch kind of rare viewing experience. If you want an idea of what to expect, here is the most encapsulated version from Wikipedia that spoils the least amount of content for you: "The episode focuses on a young woman, Sally Sparrow, trying to solve the connection between 17 disparate DVD titles, and statues that move when no-one is looking at them." 
This episode of Doctor Who is a small, isoltated example of the series, which I feel is a fantastic starting point for someone unfamiliar to the show - it plays like a short film and is quite accessbile. Even the time traveling elements are handled with such intelligent and emotional deftness that I enjoy repeated viewings. The idea or paradoxes and cause and effect are handled in a way that seems fresh and dangerous, instead of trite and cliched. It's a scary, smart story that gets you into a weird little world for 40+ minutes and out - not the time sink of a movie or watching a whole series, just an episode. Give it a shot and see if it sticks to you the way it did to me. Just don't Blink.

10.19.2011

Kingdom Done

More Spooky! Less renown!

Yeah, still doing TV here, only now we get off the beaten path into the more obscure. Less famous, more ghoulish. As much as I love Twin Peaks, I have to write about something else. So yesterday we looked at a legendary cult show. Let's flip that idea on its head and use today's Spooky Month post to look at a show that was little known, but just as deserving of a chance. I'm talking about the Stephen King-produced adaptation of Lars Von Trier's Riget, Kingdom 
Broadcast back in 2004, Kingdom Hospital was a 13 episode mini series. Adapting the story told in the Danish series, the American version similarly told the story of a hospital where the things that die don't stay dead. There was an old mill for making Civil War uniforms that burned to the ground in Maine. On that site, the original Kingdom Hospital was built...which also burned down. From the ashes came the latest iteration of the hospital, which serves as a place from which King spun a series of interconnected stories revolving around the doctors and patients in the haunted hospital. There are mysteries to be solved, wrongs to be righted and deaths to be avenged over the course of the series, most of which hold together fairly well. 
That's kind of the rub of the series, though. I certainly enjoyed it during my first experience watching it, essentially using it as a stop-gap while Lost went into re-reuns. It was a bit of spooky serialized TV that kept my attention and dealt in the macabre. After the fact, though, I felt underwhelmed. I watched it the first time through and haven't had the wherewithal to revisit it in its entirety. I feel like I ought to, as though I should give the series another spin and see if it still has the same charm it did almost ten years ago. 
There was a series-spanning arc about a little girl whose ghost is known to all the residents of the hospital, as well as some strange inhuman forces, not all of them benevolent. Individual stories, like a ball player and his shot at redemption, are nice distractions but I'm sure they were maddening when this was broadcast week-to-week. I caught the whole thing in one shot on DVD, which is by far the preferred way to view Kingdom Hospital - you can string a couple episodes together to get a better sense of the overall plot and character development.  I read online that the show was a shadow of Twin Peaks, and in a way I agree with that assessment. It's not that the show was seriously flawed, it was more that it struggled to make effective use of a premise so rich with potential. Haunted hospital produced by King! How could that go wrong? Still, the results felt muddled. 
I know this isn't the strongest recommendation for a series that I've enjoyed, but you should watch for yourself and make your own judgement. Kingdom Hospital certainly has some spooky and engaging moments, they just felt too few and far between. It could be too dreary and heavy handed. It still had some cool characters and settings, though. Creepy stuff for fall. Add it to your to-watch list and see if I'm off base. You might dig it like I did.