Friday, February 26, 2010

Is this Hell? No - it's Iowa

Film Review - THE CRAZIES (2010)

Screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright
Inspired by a 1973 screenplay by George A. Romero
Directed by Breck Eisner

Since I'm thoroughly convinced that many of those on the Coasts believe that we Heartlanders are a few sandwiches shy of a picnic on a normal day, small wonder that the fictional hamlet of Ogden Marsh, Iowa provides the setting for this reworking of George A. Romero's 1973 button-pusher, The Crazies. According to author and historian Andreas Killen, that was the year of our "National Nervous Breakdown," as Americans contemplated whether their president was non compos mentis enough to suspend the Constitution, declare martial law and stave off the grinding machineries of impeachment. Into this charged atmosphere, Romero contributed his version of a Saturday Night Massacre; the victims of a biological weapon were piling up in a small town in Pennsylvania, but when the poster for the movie asked, "Why Are the Good People Dying?," it might just as well have referred to the Kent State-like casualties at the weapons of the US Military, as opposed to any insanity-inducing microorganism.

Our 21st Century chromium plated intellect has given us an army with a lot more toys with greater firepower, and more reliance upon omniscient eyes in the sky than boots on the ground. Breck Eisner's zippy version of Romero's cautionary tale starts us off fearing the plague that turns friends into fiends, but then swiftly shifts to the panic that ensues when the full military might of the Red, White & Blue comes down on a population of a mere thousand and change, and comes down hard.

We open on Ogden Marsh's main street in flames, and before cinema latecomers have time to fit their 44 oz. cups into the armchair holders, we flash back two days earlier, to the sunniness of early April and high school baseball on the field. Immediately our mental chronometer kicks in; we're gonna have to go a long way to get to Chaos in a mere 48 hours. The initial incidents are isolated, infrequent, as a stupefied man and former town drunk shows up at that ballgame, toting a loaded shotgun, and needs to be dispatched by Pierce County Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), the kind of lawman who doesn't have to discharge his firearm with regularity in a town billed as "The Friendliest Place on Earth." It's another 24 hours before a second case crops up, an unnerving sequence in which a milquetoast husband and father sheds both responsibilities in a fiery act. If you're in Iowa, there's nothing halfway about the crazy way they'll treat you.

Remember that mental chronometer? Well, we've reached this point within the first twenty minutes or so, and if you've been paying attention, you know that things are headed south very quickly. The military swoops in (in one effective scene, literally), a confused citizenry are rounded up, families are separated (Olyphant has my favorite line of dialogue, to a friend and fellow husband who's willing to be herded with little concern for his wife's well-being), and the infected are segregated from the rest, a fever being the apparent telltale symptom. But Dutton's wife Judy (a tough and resourceful Radha Mitchell) is pregnant...and with an elevated temp. Uh oh. And it only takes one pick-up truck against an improvised barricade for the best-laid plans of Uncle Sam to go the way of all rodents.

I appreciated the fact that The Crazies never loses touch with its B-Movie roots, and though there's the level of budget at disposal here that Romero can only salivate over today, there's still a sense of cost-effective storytelling. Eisner doesn't try to paint a panoramic canvas here; he keeps close to the point of view of the Duttons, and there's no attempt to balance it with the military's calculations. To the scurrying multitudes, those remain largely inscrutable. There's an audience laugh when Olyphant offers the prosaic "We're in big trouble here," but we choke on it when we subsequently realize how easy it is to isolate a town that has only one road in and one road out. Eisner is also a skilled enough director to wring a lot of tension out of his set pieces, including memorable sequences in a funeral parlor basement (autopsy saws = nothing good), an upstairs nursery, and the film's high point, a dizzying confrontation in the otherwise mundane confines of a car wash.

Olyphant has had a troublesome career; he's often tagged with the borderline psycho label, or called upon to play jerks, but he finds his inner Eastwood here, a man of few words whose thumbs just naturally slip into the loops of his belt. (There are flinty lines he delivers that, if you close your eyes, it really is 1973 again, and you're ready to call him up to request "Misty.") From what I've seen of his new series Justified, and from the strong work he did on Deadwood, it's a shame that we no longer have that one genre anymore for him to play in -- you remember, the one with dust and horses? Six years ago Aussie Radha Mitchell looked poised to become the next Naomi Watts (Woody Allen got such a strong performance out of her in the otherwise negligible Melinda and Melinda), and while she's been gracing a number of genre offerings (Rogue, Surrogates, Silent Hill), it's long past time she was handed an A-Level script.

So, yes, The Crazies is a B-Movie, unapologetically so, and demonstrably better than it has to be. It's characters are lightweight - all the easier to blow away - but they're dealing with the epitome of a Very Bad Day, and they need to find egress, not moments of emotional bonding. And it's a B-Movie that's not without sly commentary. In addition to the evils of the Military-Industrial complex, there's also an implied reference to our gun-loving culture, and a suggestion that those who are used to firearms - and channeling that internal angst into trigger-finger action - may be slightly better at, uh, integrating their loony rage and surviving, once they go insane in the membrane. And when the center no longer holds, and the microcosm that is Ogden Marsh is blinded by violence, it's the one-eyed who can squint down the barrel of a shotgun who will be King.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

To put you in that Crazies mood...

Oh, but I love how a Horror movie can take an incongruous song and re-cast it to chilling effect.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Seeing Red

There's a lot of commotion on the Interweb about the new red-band trailer for Kick-Ass, due in theaters April 16th, and the difficulty in keeping objectionable material away from underage eyes. I'm not gonna wade into that controversy today (although after a couple of drinks, I can get quite chatty on the subject), but, as I've been browsing other sites, there is a mistaken perception out there that red-band trailers are a recent development, as very few are citing any examples prior to the year 2000. Well, us Horror fans know that just ain't the case. Yes, they were infrequent, but they did exist. Your ability to see one in the pre-Interweb era was affected by four factors:

1) The film had to have one produced for it; some that did produced a red-band as an alternate version to an All-Audiences (green-band) trailer;

2) You had to be watching an R-rated film, as red-bands could only be attached to a Restricted feature;

3) The theater or its chain had to have a policy allowing for these trailers (for example, Regal Cinemas has allowed them only in the last three years);

4) The trailer had to be attached, either through the studio's insistence, or through the individual manager's decision. As a rule, trailers are matched to the themes and genre of the Main Feature - you shouldn't get a Horror preview before a Merchant-Ivory costume drama - not in theory, anyway.

So even though I have been a pretty rabid moviegoer since 1980, it took eight years before I ever saw a red-band trailer in a theater, and when the screen turned scarlet, it sure got my attention. I don't recall what film it preceded, but it would have been in the early months of 1988, and the movie being promoted was Bad Dreams. Unfortunately, the red-band is missing from this upload, but trust me - it was there. And by the time it finished playing, the audience knew why it was restricted...

But that turned out not to be the earliest red-band I ever saw in a theater. Thanks to some mental prompting from my former radio reviewing cohort, there was a very enjoyable occasion when he, as the manager of a movie theater, discovered a reel of trailers from the late 70s and early 80s squirreled away in a storage space behind one of the screens. And as we watched it late one night, there, in all it's red-banded glory, was this preview that would have run during 1980, before the film's January 1981 opening...

Here's a few more trailers from the 80s and 90s that also bore the notorious Red Band. I think you'll discover that, compared with the two above, they're a pretty tame lot. It seems as if intensity could get you that ruby red restriction. And if any of you Jarheads are aware of others from this time period, especially if they're earlier than Scanners, let me know, ok? Hours of trying to find "the first red-band trailer" on the Interweb are proving fruitless. I'll try to add your contributions to this posting.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tuesday Terror Trivia for 2/23!

One of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture prominently features two music cues lifted from Horror films of the early 1980s. Now, I'm guessing you're savvy enough to figure out which nominee it is from the filmmaker's track record (it sure as hell ain't The Blind Side), but can you name the two pictures that provided the music cues - one instrumental, one vocal?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Spoiled - My Crusade Against Alerts

In 1991, back when I was co-hosting a radio show of movie news, interviews and reviews, Columbia pictures had a Christmastime release with My Girl, a charming coming-of-age dramedy that was the follow-up for Macauley Culkin's 1990 box office blow-out, Home Alone. During the course of the movie, there is a surprising development - not a "twist," mind you, but a dramatic turn of events that had the studio pleading with critics to please be respectful of audiences and not reveal too much about the storyline. We complied, religiously so; in the months and years that followed, when the topic of the movie came up, we steered well clear of the surprise, as we did with other films that relied upon keeping a crucial plot turn secret (like one year later, when the world was playing hush-hush with The Crying Game). But here it is, almost two decades after the fact, and surely the statute of limitations has run out on keeping a cinematic secret, right?

I don't think so. Someone, somewhere is encountering My Girl for the first time, and my opinion on the worth of it notwithstanding, that viewer is entitled to as virginal an experience as our "No More Secrets" Interweb culture can possibly grant - or at least my little corner of it. We have become guilty of using plot secrets as shorthand ("My Girl? Oh yeah, that's the one where ________"), and as the last ten years have seen an explosion of "twist" endings in the theaters, we have developed that horrible phrase "Spoiler Alert!" (really, do you know anyone who is able to truly look away, or skip to a later paragraph as directed, without absorbing some of the offending material?) as a way of absolving ourselves from the difficulty of talking about film, while still maintaining the potential for enjoyment for those who have not yet experienced what we have experienced.

Alerts are no longer reserving themselves for post-release commentary. Last summer, in the weeks leading up to the unveiling of The Orphan, there was a minor kerfluffle about the movie's potential for scaring off future parents from adopting the unwanted. On a major general interest website, a writer taking issue with The Orphan's subject matter casually spilled the goods. Oh, yes, they posted Spoiler Alert in big, bold type - and when you clicked on the second page of the article, there it was at the top, immediately followed by the disclosure, impossible to avoid. The writer was dismissive of the film, fearful of its effects - and the choreography of her revelation was designed to accomplish maximum destruction. (The ability to change public perception is a wonderful metric in gauging a Horror film's impact - remember the initial drop-off in infidelity and one-night stands after Fatal Attraction? If The Orphan had found its audience, you bet we'd be dubious of raising kids that didn't spring forth from our loins.) I had been soooo good in being able to keep the surprise away from my eyes, but then was blindsided. As it turned out, The Orphan was no less a guilty pleasure - how can you not love a movie in which a 12 year old kills a nun with a hammer? - as knowing the secret afforded me a unique insight into the title character's motivations and tactics, but I ain't talking about the secret here. Not even among us Horror fans.

I must also call out my fellow Horror bloggers, not by name or website - there is enough acrimony on the Interweb as it is, thank you - but by protocols. Last Fall, Paranormal Activity saw a graduated roll-out across the country. Small pockets of the
US were exposed to the film first, and it became a badge of honor to say that you saw it and give your reaction. Before that first weekend was over, one respected blogger had posted a virtual beat-by-beat reiteration of the movie's plot, under the mitigating category of "analysis." Analysis? Of a film that had only unspooled to a few thousand patrons in select markets? Shameful. It came as little surprise that, no, they didn't care for the film much at all, but by trumpeting their ability to claim ownership of a ticket stub, they exhibited one of the primary reasons that great swaths of moviegoers have no use for critics. Viewing equals power; I've seen this film, and you haven't. Indeed, I've seen many more movies that you probably have, and I have a forum, and you don't. And to prove my power and my utter wonderfulness...

And let me remind my fellow bloggers of one of the greatest sins ever perpetrated against Horror fandom. In 1980, to voice his displeasure with Friday the 13th and star Betsy Palmer's participation, critic Gene Siskel revealed the identity of the killer for the purpose of dissuading people from seeing the film. He admitted at the time that this was a genuine weapon that he had in his critical arsenal, and he assured audiences that it was one he did not employ cavalierly, but it was a potent reminder that all critics, no matter the size of the audience, carry a WMD - a Weapon of Movie Destruction.

Now I hear you saying, "Well, that's all fine and good, Senski, but if people don't want secrets spoiled, what are they doing poking around on a Horror website?" A few thought:

- I do not presume that all of my readers are Horror fans. In fact, I know that many friends check in on this site merely because they know me and gain what small level of enjoyment there is to be found in my blatherings. They may not all be conversant in the films of M. Night Shyamalan (I have friends who read this blog who have yet to see Psycho, but are too scared to watch it, and know next to nothing about its storyline. We should all be jealous of them and the surprises that lie in store), and I feel a responsibility to them that eclipses any need for me to display whatever level of Horror erudition I may possess.

- If we are the fans of Horror that we claim to be, then it is incumbent upon us to be not only the Keepers of the Flame, but the Fanners as well. We want to bring people to the genre, not drive them away, and few other genres rely as heavily on the element of surprise. Blithely dropping important elements of storylines into reviews without first considering if there's a more artful, indirect way of writing about them has become Standard Operating Procedure. I was dismayed to see how many reviews of The Wolfman casually mentioned important details about Anthony Hopkins' character, details that the filmmakers clearly wanted to keep from the viewer for at least the first hour of the movie. And I admire anyone who still avers from mentioning the surprise cameo in Zombieland. I'll repeat this - No, not everyone knows, folks. Not everyone has figured it out in advance. And they haven't all seen the trailer, either.

- I am very aware of how preachy this next point is going to sound, but here goes - Keeping secrets is hard, very hard. It requires a certain skill with words that I grapple with every time I have to turn in a review, but I feel it is owed to the filmmakers, many of whom spent years in development and production to create that which I dissect after one viewing and a few strokes of the keyboard. (If you think writing is tough, try ad-libbing criticism in a dialogue over the airwaves, constantly mentally censoring yourself while still trying to think and speak coherently. One of the things I most enjoyed about Siskel and Ebert's exchanges was the way they spoke up to the line of revelation, knowing how not to cross it, no matter how much they liked or disliked the film - and let me be clear again: Gene's treatment of Friday the 13th was an aberration, albeit an unfortunate one.) I would respectfully ask my fellow bloggers to read critics like Ebert, Kael, Denby, Schickel, Corliss - not for their content, but for their technique and ability to structure a compelling review that tells just enough, and no more. If print criticism is disappearing, then we have to step into the breach, and be willing to embrace those ethics that made legitimate film criticism respected as reportage and a valued artform in its own right. Here's a simple rule - disclose anything that happens after the first two reels (40 minutes) with the greatest of care.

Can this toothpaste get back into the tube? I doubt it. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to shake my fist at the heavens and declare The Jar a Spoiler-Free Zone (and I shall do my damnedest to keep it so). Seeing and being wowed by Shutter Island this weekend has inspired me to screw my courage to the sticking post, and encourage others to do the same. Hence the creation of The Rosebud League, dedicated to eradicating spoilers and removing the need for alerts, and named after the greatest of all cinematic secrets - one that was spoiled for me at a tender age when Charles Schulz referenced it in a Peanuts strip that I read (and remembered) decades before I ever saw Citizen Kane. The writers I've read who dismiss Shutter Island while patting themselves on the back for "figuring it out" utterly miss Scorsese's point - whatever ruse is there is not the construct of Scorsese, but of the film's characters. (If you went to the movie intent on proving you know more about film than Marty, you were on a fool's errand, and you missed so very, very much.) Today I deleted two blogs from my "follow" list that not only gave away Shutter's surprises, but in one case, did so just to demonstrate callow snarkiness in pursuit of a not-very-funny punchline. This world is filled with people who do not yet realize what Rosebud meant to Charles Foster Kane. If we love cinema as much as we say we do, let's leave that trick for the great prestidigitator Orson Welles to demonstrate, and be ready to stand and applaud when he pulls it off for future generations.

But where will Candyman live now?

Over the last decade, Cabrini-Green, the urban nightmare that was the location for 1992's Candyman has been undergoing a total makeover, and the buildings that were a black eye for Chicago are almost gone, replaced by expensive housing and upscale commercial development. Here you see the stop-motion destruction of one of cinematic Horror's most recognizable landmarks. Candyman is looking for new digs, Jarheads. Time to head to the mirror...

The Japanese may be having problems with Toyotas...

...but they sure do know how to produce a helluva poster for a Cronenberg picture.

This is gonna blend in so well with my decor...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jim Harmon 1933-2010

Jim Harmon remembered stuff. Fun stuff. Sure, he got his start as a SF author, with over four dozen tales to his credit appearing within the pages of all the classic digest mags - Galaxy, Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But in 1967, he published one of the first volumes of Old Time Radio nostalgia, The Great Radio Heroes, which led to subsequent releases The Great Radio Comedians, Jim Harmon's Nostalgia Catalogue, eventually transitioning into titles on film and television, including a personal favorite. 1986's The Godzilla Book.

But for the purposes of The Jar, let us remember when Marvel editor Stan Lee hired him to be the West Coast editor of Monsters of the Movies, The House of Ideas' cheeky answer to Jim Warren and Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland. Launched at a time when Marvel felt audacious enough to give B&W industry leader Warren a run for its money, a direct competitor to FM, Warren's flagship title, was truly a declaration of war, and of the handful of mags that Stan launched in 1974, MotM was probably the one that really raised Jim Warren's ire - and judging from the editorials and full-page attack ads in Warren's pages, hoo boy, did it ever.

It would be tempting but wrong to say that Harmon was meant to be MotM's "Uncle Forry," as the Marvel title was clearly more adult-oriented and text-based, with lengthy interviews being the magazine's stock in trade. Such features were also a mainstay of the other Marvel comic mags; they were publishing at least two full magazine's worth of cinema-based features every month, spread out over their half-dozen or so titles. MotM was a consolidation of sorts, and tucked between covers by Luis Dominguez and the incomparable Bob Larkin (just look at that front for #8 - who wouldn't want to read that issue?) was a pretty classy periodical, one that treated its subject with enthusiasm and respect.

However, it sometimes felt as if Marvel's Bullpenners were bringing the enthusiasm, and Harmon provided the respect. After all, comic scribes like Tony Isabella, David Kraft and Chris Claremont were fanboys right down to their marrow, but Harmon lent his gravitas, connections, and the simple blessing of geography - he was where the movies had been, and were being, shot. In those pre-Interweb, pre-fax days, creating a bi-coastal movie magazine could not have been easy, even for a company with Marvel's experience. Tensions mounted, mis-communications began to abound, and after eight issues and an all-original Annual (with a Star Trek cover that had to be a big seller), Marvel called it a day. While some have attributed these difficulties to MotM's demise, the cancellation occurred within months of the company canning almost every one of their B&W mags, so a grain of salt might be required here. For Horror movie fans, it was a great loss at the time, and those nine issues are definitely worth seeking out on eBay (and their theme issues might be a template for, say, a Fangoria looking for inspiration for a re-boot).

Harmon continued to produce volumes of material on the media of days gone by, and came to richly deserve the nickname "Mr. Nostalgia." Among trivia-holics, his books are essential reading.

Harmon died on February 16th of a heart attack.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Island of a Lost Soul

Film Review - SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)

Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane

Directed by Martin Scorsese

A number of years ago, an interviewer asked Martin Scorsese why he never really branched out into various movie genres and directed, say, a western. He replied that, since a master like John Ford established his brilliance with the form, what could possibly be there for Scorsese to add? When I heard that answer, I was crestfallen, always hoping that one day our Greatest Living Director would decide to ply his hand to the Horror genre, yet knowing that, as much as he admired such films as The Haunting and The Innocents, he didn't feel up to the task. But jump ahead to a few years ago, when Scorsese brought an old Hitchcock treatment to life and produced the short The Key to Reserva, and perhaps a few dark wheels were set in motion, for now we have Paramount's delayed release of the Scorsesean take on Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island. It's clearly been sold as Horror (it features more than a few ghosts, but not necessarily ectoplasmic in nature), but it begins as a stylish Technicolor-noir exercise in paranoia and anxiety, and winds up a shattering character study that transcends and triumphs over its pulpy origins. It is, in a word, electric.

The year is 1954, and a ferry is disgorged through the fog off the coast of Massachusetts, bound for Shutter Island and Ashecliffe, the asylum for the criminally insane that sprawls over a deceptively bucolic campus. U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are called to investigate the disappearance of one of the island's 66 prisoners - or patients, as they are reminded by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, mercifully delivered from dreck like A Sound of Thunder or BloodRayne), a psychiatrist transitioning from the barbaric practices of the past to more humane methods of compassion through empathy. The missing woman is a mother who drowned her three children in Medea-like fashion, and she's vanished from a locked room. But Daniels is suspicious - there is no way that a barefoot young woman could escape into the craggy, thorny environs without someone seeing her or assisting...that is, if she ever existed in the first place. For Daniels has long believed that there are medical atrocities afoot on Shutter Island (sponsored by no less than HUAC), and as a veteran of the liberation of the death camp at Dachau, he's witnessed all the atrocity required for a lifetime of nightmares. Layer on his grief at the loss of his young wife (Michelle Williams, literally and figuratively haunting), and the fact that Asheville may be housing her arsonist-murderer (Elias Koteas, his face held together by surgical staples), and Daniels realizes he is on a mission far greater than the disappearance of one woman.

And THAT just gets us to the end of the second reel. What follows is as labyrinthine a plot as any Scorsese has committed to film, as doubts pile on top of doubts, twists and switchbacks take us in any number of directions, and we are pulled as deeply into the mystery of the island as is DiCaprio's character. Only a director at the absolute peak of his craft could keep this narrative thread from being lost (unlike, say, for his nephew's fifth birthday party), but Scorsese is able to prevent it from becoming entangled with little obvious effort, and still have all the technique to pull off a menacing reveal of a Max von Sydow when needed, or get astonishing sidebar performances out of Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley or Ted Levine, whose scene feels like a first. (Here's a switch - Scorsese eschews his traditional "found pop songs" score for jarring, jangly compositions from the likes of Ligeti, Penderecki and Schnittke - very powerful, very Kubrick-ian.)
From sight to sound to editing (see Thelma Schoonmaker drop out the occasional frame or seven to keep us ill at ease during even the quiet moments), this is bravura filmmaking at the service of a compelling storyline, and the result is a pure manic pop thrill.

Until, suddenly, it isn't, and that's when Shutter Island achieves true greatness. At an essential moment in the storyline, Scorsese's stylized approach departs for scenes of raw, unbearable emotion (surely one sequence in particular must rank among the most difficult DiCaprio has ever been required to play), and that's when his legendary ability to work with actors on shaping scenes of uncompromising honesty steps to the fore. His camera never leaves DiCaprio's side, and of their four collaborations, Shutter Island feels like a culmination, a final integration of the actor's Boy-Becoming-Man that allows the character's woundedness to tattoo itself across his still-unlined face and reach a palpable sense of loss. It's a masterful performance that ranks among his best - made all the more remarkable by its humble Noir-Cop beginnings.

So why did we have to wait to see this? Why was it pushed from a Fall 2009 slot? Word is that Paramount was scared. They had a movie that demanded the attention of the audience, and there simply aren't a lot of those getting released anymore now, are there? (Fair warning - there were a goodly number of patrons at my matinee today who were hopelessly bewildered. Maybe they should have sprung for a repeat showing of The Blind Side.) But the better news is that it was a full house, as all moviegoers have learned that a Scorsese film is an Event. (There is such a predominant "ash" theme that I wonder if one-time seminarian Marty has a appreciation for the rare opening of one of his films during Lent.) From its Gothic windswept opening scenes to the final, static, heartbreaking shot, Scorsese has once again crafted an Event - and not just for those with a taste for darkness.

Now, my fellow bloggers, I beg of you - no spoilers, ok?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Percy Rodrigues: The Voice of Horror

Being that we are in the midst of Black History Month, attention must be paid to a talented, ground-breaking artist whose contributions paved the way for a new generation of black actors to assume roles of quality and authority. But for the purposes of the Jar, and for Horror fans everywhere, those achievements may well be eclipsed by his voice-over contributions to a succession of fright film trailers over a 17-year period. He used his talent to sell dozens of movies, but when he turned that golden throat over to scaring the bejeezus out of audiences, the results were incomparable.

He was Percy Rodrigues, a Montreal-born actor who worked for decades in his native Canada before coming to New York City at the age of 42 and landing a role in the 1960 Broadway staging of Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic. While stage opportunities proved limited, he quickly gravitated over to television, landing an important role in the one-time-only broadcast of Rod Serling's A Carol for Another Christmas, a dour, apocalyptic 1964 updating of the Dickens classic that featured a stellar cast, including Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers, Robert Shaw, Ben Gazzara and Eva Marie Saint. Soon he was in demand for supporting roles on dozens of TV series, including a continuing stint as Dr. Harry Miles on the ABC prime-time soap Peyton Place. Because of his imposing demeanor and commanding, resonant voice, he was frequently cast as figures of authority and respect, one of the first black actors accorded roles of such power and weight. In the first season Star Trek episode "Court Martial," he is Commodore Stone, who oversees the trial of Captain James T. Kirk. Such roles did not escape the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, who once famously wrote to Trek cast member Nichelle Nichols about the importance of seeing people of color as doers and achievers in Gene Roddenberry's Starfleet.

During the 70s, Rodrigues (it was once misspelled with a "z" at the end in the playbill for Blues for Mister Charlie, and he kept it as a stage name) began to explore voice-over work, discovering the joy to be found in not having to report to the studio at an early hour to apply make-up. It was the trailer for a 1975 thriller that established him as The Voice of Horror...

That sepulchral voice soon popped up in trailer after trailer, and for Horror fans, hearing it was simple shorthand for getting your keister to the cinema for
opening weekend. Granted, it wasn't always employed for the finest of productions, but Rodrigues imbued every narration with what I've long considered the dual subtext behind every great Horror trailer: "If you see this movie, you might die. And if you don't see this movie, you might die!" And if you were writing the copy for Rodrigues, you were foolish if you didn't at some point require him to use the word "Now" - there are three vowel sounds in that word, and no one could coax more ominous portent out of every last one.

His output slowed considerably during the 1990s (hell, so did Horror), and he passed away in 2007 due to kidney failure at the age of 89. There have been other great Horror trailer voice artists, but for my money, no one held audiences in thrall quite the way that Percy Rodrigues did. Watch this selection of trailers, and try to imagine any other voice having this same compelling authority and pervasive sense of dread. He was one of a kind, and Horror advertising hasn't been the same since.

Tuesday Terror Trivia for 2/16!

You may have needed a pencil and paper to write them all down, but what motion picture's trailer introduced its title characters in "diabolical order?"

Saturday, February 13, 2010

There's a strange reaction - can you feel it too?

Happy Valentine's Day from The Pet Shop Boys, Sir Ian McKellen, and the Jar. And here's hoping whoever keeps your heart in a jar lets it out every now and then.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Monthly Beast

Film Review - THE WOLFMAN (2010)

Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self
Based on a screenplay by Curt Siodmak
Directed by Joe Johnston

On the way to the cinema for The Wolfman, I was trying very hard to pretend that it was 1996 or 1997, and that I was seeing the next installment in Universal's efforts to update their classic Horror icons of the past, hammocked sometime between 1994's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and 1999's The Mummy (and all springing from the success of Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992). But when Kenneth Branagh's film laid a spectacular egg at the box office, Universal re-calibrated, turned The Mummy into an Indy Jonesian adventure romp, and never got around to the tragic poignancy of Lawrence Talbot, who, despite his nightly prayers, still became ever so much shaggier when the wolfbane bloomed and the autumn moon shone bright.

Fourteen years after it should have been delivered to
a viewing public, we finally have Universal's updating - and I use that term advisedly, for the movie avoids any studio temptation to wrench it into the present day, and takes the audience-be-damned risk of letting the story remain in the final decade of the 19th Century. We open with Maria Ouspenskaya's famous cautionary quatrain on lycanthropy to establish an immediate link with the 1941 original, The Wolf Man. Kindly note the absence of that space between "wolf" and "man" in the title of this rebooting; it's a sign that this werewolf movie has things to do, and time is of the essence. No sooner do we hear the poem, and we're plunged headlong into the film, witnessing Ben Talbot's death at the claws of something fast and feral. Cue title card (which bleeds), swell the music, flash the lightning, and we're off.

A digression: I am increasingly troubled by the absence of opening titles in films that would only benefit from their inclusion, especially ones dealing with supernatural horror. What was insidiously begun by the Lethal Weapon franchise has become Standard Operating Procedure for too many movies today, all in the pursuit of grabbing an audience from the get-go and never releasing them. But a period piece - and a Horror one at that - needs a bit of transition to usher the viewer into an unfamiliar world, one where the rules that govern reality don't necessarily apply. Musical theater has its overture - film has opening titles. Done correctly, they can drench the screen with mood and foreboding menace, and allow the score - a fine one here by Danny Elfman - to begin its spellcasting. Their absence in The Wolfman is profoundly felt, and telling.

The Wolfman has had a troubled path to the big screen, and I'm not going to recount that history here (here's an excellent summation). But it does raise an antenna, as many movies plagued by production difficulties and subjected to studio tampering are edited within an inch of their celluloid lives, mounting a surgical strike upon the audience by getting in and getting out quickly, and hoping that the seams holding the picture together don't show. There may not be seams - the picture has a lush, expensive look and is technically crafted with great care - but there are casualties, and one of them is the development of its titular character.

Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is a successful Shakespearean actor touring America when news arrives concerning his missing brother, whose fiancee (Emily Blunt) entreats him to return home to England and his ancestral estate at Blackmoor. His estranged father (Anthony Hopkins) welcomes home the prodigal son with news that his brother's body has since been discovered, horribly mangled by some ferocious beast. We learn via flashbacks that this is indeed a seriously dysfunctional family; Mother died at her own hand, Father has dominance issues, and Lawrence subsequently spent time in an asylum for the mentally disturbed (which illustrates the old adage that people go into acting because it's cheaper than therapy). While at a gypsy camp and investigating his brother's death, Talbot falls victim to a werewolf bite, and by the next full moon, he is undergoing the accursed transformation - for which there is no known cure, save death at the hands of one who loves the afflicted.

And herein lies The Wolfman's gravest flaw. Talbot is a distressingly underwritten character, made all the more apparent when compared with the rich, purple dialogue accorded both Hopkins and Hugo Weaving as Abberline, a constable on the trail of the beast. Whereas they get to attack their roles with relish, Del Toro has attacked his with an eraser. The actor has a wonderful haunted countenance, the kind of face that classic films of the 40s would have loved, but he's given virtually nothing to say. He's a Shakespearean actor of renown*, but this is only seen in the briefest of shots during a montage, and if he is, he's the most laconic actor to ever trod the boards. Is this because of the weakness of his (non-existent) British accent? Not to be mean, but I've always found Del Toro's pre-Oscar roles to border on the unintelligible. He's Method to a dangerous extreme; mumbly and incoherent. Since he's one of the executive producers on the film, I'm guessing that this was a deliberate choice. And by the time the obligatory love enters the picture, it does so because the script demands it, not because of any chemistry between Del Toro and Blunt (who also has very little to do, save stand around and look beautiful). Is it any wonder that massive re-cutting has taken place on the film? Any wonder that the ending was completely changed? Preview audiences must have been reporting little or no emotional investment in the relationship, and the filmmakers spent the better part of a year trying to come up with a version that worked.

Those who have expressed concern about the quality and integration of the CGI effects need not worry; they look just fine to me, and are utilized not just to produce a lithe and ferocious man-beast, but also to return such landmarks as the London Bridge to their 19th Century glory. As for the transformation sequences, they don't last very long, and at the risk of repeating myself, the sequence in a film like An American Werewolf in London feels painfully real not just through the magic of a Rick Baker, but also because we've grown fond of David Naughton's character by that point in the film. Del Toro's Talbot is just an empty shell waiting to sprout hair and fangs.

To his credit, director Johnston produces a movie quite unlike any other in his filmography, with a fever dream quality that makes The Wolfman feel at one with Coppola's Dracula and Branagh's Frankenstein. We are hurtling into the horror when the script calls for it, and the attack sequences - especially one in a doctor's symposium - are nicely staged. It's unfortunate that those rhythms are established too early in the film (you'll be hard-pressed to find any exchange between characters that lasts longer than eight or ten lines of dialogue).

Like all the great movie monsters, Lawrence Talbot should elicit great sympathy as a good man who was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's this central element that the filmmakers of The Wolfman missed, and missed very early in the production. They lavished generous attention upon the Wolf, but forgot the Man.

* This allows Hopkins to get in a few choice snaps at Del Toro's expense and his abilities as an actor. I think Hopkins was referring to Del Toro's character. Or maybe not.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Announcing the Heart in a Jar Boo Klub!

While perusing the Interweb for Horror blogs months ago, I noticed a recurring theme - "Gee, but I wish I read and covered more books." And so, to address this in my own highly imitable way, let's kick off the first installment of the Heart in a Jar Boo Klub. In my continuing effort to become the Oprah of Horror Bloggers, embracing the entirety of Horror fandom and crushing it to my more-than-ample bosom, I'll declare a book of classic Horror a Selection of the Month, give you some time to acquire a copy, and then invite you all to return to the Jar about a month later to read my half-baked thoughts, and to contribute some wisdom and insights of your own. We'll also do a little aromatherapy, creative visualization, and spend some time Accepting the Abundance, propped up on big taupe-colored pillows with huge steaming cups of chai. Or Cosmos. But I draw the line at looking at my vagina in a mirror.

Since the whole world is going kinda wolf-happy these days, our initial tome will
be the novel that broke Whitley Strieber into the mainstream, and launched a string of creepy best-sellers that were interrupted by, uh, alien abduction. So let's return to 1978, and an era before BEMs were messing with his brains and turning him into the kind of person that only Christopher Walken could play, and all read The Wolfen. It's been well over three decades since I read the novel, and have no idea how well it holds up today. (We'll look at the book independent of the movie - that'll be a Boo Klub rule.) You can acquire some pretty cheap reading copies here or here, or your local used bookstore may have one. We'll always set the 13th as the date of postage, so come back on March 13 and we'll see how well Manhattanites can coexist with a race of super-intelligent lupine predators. I'm guessing there will be issues.

Get readin', Jarheads, and come back here in about thirty. Excelsior!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This business transaction is over!

Here's proof that every sub-genre of film will eventually roll around again if you just stand still in one place and wait long enough. During the Horror drought of the late 80s and early 90s, one of the substitutes we were granted to make do with was the Erotic Thriller, courtesy of creators like Lyne, Eszterhas, Verhoeven, and often featuring Michael Douglas with his pants waaay on the ground. Now we have a new trailer for the thriller Chloe from Canadian director Atom Egoyan, a natural fit for material that's dark and kinky (his Exotica is a must-see, as is The Sweet Hereafter from 1997). It's already seen a European release, and it's slated to open here in the US at the end of March. Reaction has been mixed, but I'm still eager to see it...and weirdly nostalgic for the days when there was at least one movie at the multiplex like this at all times.

...but whatever you do...Don't Look in the Mirror!

How unfortunate for him that the YouTube screen capture features Peter Sarsgaard...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Tuesday Terror Trivia for 2/9!

In a memorable moment from this Oscar-nominated 2009 film, its lead character pulls into a parking lot next to a building. Emblazoned on that building's side is a huge, stunning image taken from a classic horror film. Two questions - 1) What is the name of the 2009 movie, and 2) What is the name of the horror film that provides the image?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

He was Death on cleats!

Classic Creepy Comic Covers - EERIE #79 (November 1976)
Art by Ken Kelly

Undoubtedly inspired by the success of their annual Christmas issues, Warren Magazines decided to try a number of "themed" issues during the late 70s, but few were as gonzo - and fun - as the November 1976 and 1977 offerings of Creepy and Eerie. Now, technically the latter did not do theme issues, as Eerie had become a venue for a variety of series that Warren had developed (Memo to filmmakers; there's some low-hanging fruit just waiting to be turned into incredible movies, as their "Night of the Jackass," "The Demons of Jedediah Pan" and "Hunter" are virtual storyboards for instant classics). But in the Fall of 1976, as leaves turned to gold, the covers of these two magazines turned vibrant green and blood red. Creepy #84 sported a cyborg pitcher, hurtling a live hand grenade from the mound and right at the reader, and Eerie #79 suspended its serial policy for the last tale of the issue, a wacky excursion into gridiron grue called "Sam's Son and Delilah," courtesy of author Bruce Jones and the art team of Carmine Infantino and Al Milgrom (the former having been summarily dismissed from DC after a lifetime's commitment to the company, the latter on leave from Marvel). They company repeated the experiment one year later, even though the four sports-themed covers ('77's featured football and basketball) fronted some of the worst-selling issues in the company's last years. Gluttons for punishment, Warren even released the two '76 covers as posters, the perfect companion to those nubile, scantily clad Frazetta ladies languishing in the embrace of a beefy barbarian. You know, for teen Horror fans who wanted to prove they were, you know, tough.

The MVP for the Sports/Horror issues (Sporror? Horts?) was writer Roger McKenzie, a facile wordsmith who demonstrated at a number of companies the knack of writing in a style to match the demand. Not really possessing a unique voice of his own, he could approximate the style of any of Warren's other authors, but excelled when creating his own grisly EC-esque variations, or poignant tales that all but called for Rod Serling to step out at the end and deliver a postscript. "Elixir," about an aging hockey player and his longing for youth and vitality, was a nice, lyrical effort. McKenzie would also go on to stints writing Captain America, Ghost Rider and Daredevil for Marvel, and is the oft-overlooked scribe of Frank Miller's first issues on the character. He's been MIA since the early 80s. Where be you, Mr. McKenzie? The Jar is a big fan.

Enjoy your Super Bowl Sunday, gentle Jarheads. And keep an eye out for commercials for Shutter Island and The Crazies. So it won't be a totally Horror-free experience...

Frozen Out

No, that title has nothing to do with the winter storm that is clobbering you folks in the Northeast, but rather the release schedule for the newest offering from director Adam Green, and if the first round of reviews are to be believed, a movie that should break him into a higher level of commercial acceptance...depending on the receipts for this weekend. Frozen has received a limited release in a relative handful of cities, and any further expansion is going to depend on this weekend's grosses. I know that a number of bloggers are encouraging fans to nag their local theaters about getting the film, but having spent time in exhibition, I can sadly tell you that this has absolutely no effect. The decisions about what films are sent to what markets and what theaters are made very far above the pay grade of your local cinema manager, and in all my years of knowing dozens of managers around the state of Wisconsin (a place that traditionally gets stiffed when it comes to limited releases, and a place that, dammit, has ski lifts!), your requests result in this conversation between staff and boss...

STAFF MEMBER / GRUNT - "Gee, a lot of people are asking about/for (name of movie) tonight."

BOSS - "Isn't that interesting. Can you stick around tonight for inventory counts?"

Unfortunately, the rollout campaign for Paranormal Activity led many to believe that groundswells and public demand had an effect on release schedules, but this was all part of an ingenious master plan on Paramount's part, when they had every intention to break the movie wider once they saw the phenomenal dollars pouring in from the first round of bookings. And rest assured, if you're requesting Frozen, there are also folks requesting films like A Single Man or An Education. Take heart - your genre film has a much better chance of breaking wider than an art house release, which usually requires some major nominations or awardage to move outside of a limited platform release.

Some twenty or thirty years ago, it was marginally better. If your local theater was a single-screen art house, or that rarity in the 80s - a Mom & Pop affair - you might be lucky and get your movie for a week, and several weeks or even months after its national debut. (Having spent much of my life in a much smaller town in Central WI, there were even occasions when the cinema got a film after it was out on VHS - after the then-standard six month window of theatrical release.) But again, that would be at the discretion of the booker, who would be assigning the theater its movies from a place far, far away, not knowing or caring what audiences were demanding. I can only point to one time that my entreaties caused a theater to book a film that I personally requested. It was 1988, and it was Madison's famed Majestic Theater, which for years as part of the Landmark chain used to publish a calendar of upcoming films, and when a new one would hit the racks across the city, film fans would excitedly peruse it and plan their next couple of months of entertainment. Occasionally there would be one week in each calendar that was filled with irregular releases that stayed for only a few days, and that year, after I had been a notorious pest about the film, they actually managed to book the creepy delight Paperhouse. For two days. In the middle of the week. And no matinees. I was so proud...

Wanna see Frozen? Contact your friends in a city where it's playing, tell them to get their girdles in gear and see it themselves. Like everything in this life, it's all about the dollars.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Monsters! Aliens! Bizarre Creatures!

If that four-word slug has any particular meaning to you, then you, gentle Jarhead, are old. Or at least old enough to remember the humble, haphazard beginnings of Fangoria magazine - launched in 1979 with The King of the Monsters himself in all of his train-munching majesty on its cover. But not even Godzilla could rouse the curious to pick up that periodical from the newsstand and carry it to the checkout with intent of purchase. (A frank confession - I was one of those who remained skeptical about the latest product from the friendly folks at Starlog, and did not pick up that charter issue. And one of the reasons I did not was that, everywhere I went, the issues I found were well-worn, bruised, printed with the marks of thousands of thumbs. I was, and still am, kinda anal about my magazines. And it looked as if a lot of fans were curious but unconvinced. It was 1979, the economy was a bitch, and I was struggling just maintaining my steady diet of Marvels and Warrens.)

The magazine struggled as well through its first year,
and not even covers featuring Mr. Spock or the droids of Star Wars could entice enough readers to sign on to make Fangoria turn a profit. It was the grim visage of Jack Nicholson from The Shining, casting a baleful gaze from the cover of issue #7, that turned the terror tide in the summer of 1980. By the time issue #9 hit the stores, I was starting my freshman year in college. I had recently given up Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland - essential for my pre-teen years, and never recalled with anything other than great fondness, but I was a Man now, baby, and time to put away childish things. And there were many things that you could say about the dada-esque image of Rory Calhoun sporting a swine's head and brandishing a chainsaw, but "childish" would be damn near the bottom of the list of adjectives that came to mind. Issue #10's cover was pure Money Shot - the tragic consequences of an invasive mind probe from a Class A Scanner - and I was hooked, snapping up subsequent issues with glee.

In my mind, Fango established itself as the natural successor to FM, and when issue #25 allowed a forum for Ackerman to publish the censored editorial that was to have marked the end of his involvement with the magazine he launched over twenty years earlier, it not only turned a spotlight upon the ignominious treatment Forry was dealt at the hands of a new regime at Warren, it also served as a symbolic passing of the torch - as well as a source of pride for us Fango fans who secretly feared that the new mag might be presenting itself as the cooler, hipper model of FM. Instead, it proudly celebrated its debt to Ackerman and its determination to be the new voice for Horror in Entertainment. Over at FM, the usurpers' days were a numbered few.

Over the next three decades, I was a somewhat unfaithful reader, but probably wound up buying about 75% of Fango's run to date. ("Gee, do I really need an issue that highlights another crappy sequel to Child's Play?") I was working in radio when Fango hit #100, and had the pleasure of conducting a lengthy interview with editor Tony Timpone at a time when the outlook for cinematic Horror looked pretty bleak - and, by extension, Fango's chances of survival. But just as Horror waxed and waned, so too did the magazine, remaining a constant, comforting fixture on the racks. If there was Horror, there was Fangoria...and vice-versa. (And another frank confession - The magazine always kinda scared me a little. As their editors sought to publish only the grisliest, bloodiest pics they could find from the new releases, I was that rare reader who would have preferred a bit of restraint on their part. Seeing the graphic stills before seeing them onscreen diluted their impact for me, and allowing me the opportunity to view them at length in vitro made them less effective when seen in vivo. Am I weird that way? It's a rhetorical question, gentle Jarhead.)

The Interweb is rife this week with stories about Fangoria's apparent, or imminent, demise. I'm not going to recount the elements here, nor am I privy to any insider information. I can report that a trip to four area bookstores this afternoon revealed that, not only was Fango missing from their shelves, but, ominously, so too were the most
recent issues of competitors Rue Morgue and HorrorHound, leading me to believe that newsstand sales have been so poor that stores and distributors in the Milwaukee area have reached an unpleasant decision on the profitability - or lack thereof - of stocking the Horror trades. Many are tsk-tsking these developments, saying that they are simply the natural outgrowth of the difficulties all magazines are facing in this Interweb era. Count me among the fans hoping for Fango's survival. (I'd love to see a re-working similar to what Newsweek has done, with more analysis and features tied less directly to individual releases, but I'm sure THAT would last all of one issue. However, the covers have got to be re-worked, and fast. I know enough about magazine publishing to see that these lookalike "big head" wraps violate a primary rule - Make sure your new issue looks noticeably different from its predecessor, so regular readers can clearly see it's time to pick up the latest.) If Horror loses one of its biggest and most-recognizable champions for over thirty years - at times it's only champion - the genre will be the poorer for its absence.

And not all the bloggers in the blogosphere can or will make up for that loss.