Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

As a subset of horror's Slasher Genre, there exists a Killer Clan Genre, though not often divided as such -- primary example being Tobe Hooper's flinch-inspiring, mesmerizing low-budget Grand Guignol nightmare, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That template has begat every-miserable-thing from The Last House on the Left to The Human Centipede. The simple formula: a first set of characters (friends, family, combo) wanders into questionable territory, thereby encountering (often through vehicular breakdown) a second set of Very Bad People. Hijinks ensue.

In Wes Craven's original The Hills Have Eyes we have a family on vacation, camper in tow, taking a detour through the desert to visit a silver mine. While driving, the unfolded route map literally flies into dad's face. He steers the station wagon into a stand of sagebrush, breaking the rear axle. Night falls, a band of cannibals descends from the surrounding crags. Despite the National Lampoon-esque setup, Craven conjures a harsh, effective sense of unease. The targeted characters may not be fully drawn but are at least affable; even the most annoying of them (spoiler alert: the grandmother) is capable of evoking sympathy. Whereas Craven's previous Last House was a dismal exercise in viewer endurance, Hills provides touches of genuine horror; if not a classic, at least a taut exercise.

When a film aiming for big scares wants to go all the way, it often purports to be "Based on a True Story." It's long been said The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was inspired by serial killer Ed Gein; given that Gein was one person rather than a whole family and never used a chainsaw or a leather mask and was from Wisconsin, this might be a stretch. After all, TCM was originally released in 1974 -- just enough time for a low-budget, subversive cinematic echo of the upsetting evils of the Manson Family, pinging the dark undercurrent of the American Unconsciousness. In the case of The Hills Have Eyes, Craven looked to Scottish folklore for inspiration: the grisly cannibalism of Sawney Bean. What, did somebody already have an option on The Alferd Packer Story

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Don't Go in the House (1979) / Broken Flowers (2005)

Would it be fair to compare the 80s horror flick Don't Go In the House to Jim Jarmusch's latest arthouse fare Broken Flowers simply because I watched both in close succession? Probably not, but here goes.

Jarmusch, who began his career with the role of Amos Dade in the Alex Cox masterpiece Straight to Hell (1987), concocts a suburban mystery in the character of Don Johnston (Bill Murray), a tracksuit-clad recluse who learns his youthful wild oats may have reaped him a heretofore unknown son: How did this utterly disconnected guy, who loathes budging from his leather couch, ever function as a Lothario? Murray has found a remarkable second career playing disaffected, disappointed middle-aged men taking life's continued punches with stolid grace. Johnston is silent, subsumed, undoubtedly suffering behind his poker face. He made his money in computers but now doesn't own one, is his chief character note. And he hates when his one friend, Winston, calls him "Don Juan" -- obviously his younger self earned him nothing he now values. Or so he thought.

This rich, sophisticated character is pretty much nothing like the subject (didn't catch his name) of Don't Go In the House, an blunt rip-off of Psycho, sans any of that Tony Perkins pizzazz. See, dude's mother burned him over the stovetop as childhood punishment, so now he keeps the crispy corpses of his female victims, dressed in their Sunday best, in the upstairs drawing room. Basically, this is the kind of movie that makes you want to go outside and stare into the sun for a while, to ensure you'll never see anything like it again.

But. Both those characters are annoyances, treading along with the barest modicum of motive. At least with House, of course it's just a bad movie, with a bad end, case closed. But Flowers has a fascinating set of situations, made maddening because everything is predicated upon the dead singularity of Johnston. He engages with the plot without tangible reason, following travel itineraries provided by a wannabe detective friend in order to interview women from his past. For a character shown as too lethargic to pick up a wineglass, it would have been more believable if he'd just waited at home, maybe a little impatiently, with nothing good to watch on television, for his Prodigal Son to inevitably appear on his doorstep. Johnston even phones home at one point in his quest, literally begging off the coming responsibilities of the story. Which is why, when he finally realizes he's aiming his life in the right direction, it couldn't ring more false; according to everything else in the narrative, that direction wouldn't have ever occurred to him in the first place.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Dracula 3000 (2004)

Marooned deep in the bloody bowels of the Carpathian System, cargo ship Demeter is captained by the intrepid Abraham Van Helsing played by Casper Van Dien from Milton, Florida. There's a nice canoe route through Milton, on the Blackwater River. I thought of that peaceful place often as I faded in and out of consciousness while viewing this film. Also aboard the skiff is former Playmate Erika Eleniak, fresh from Chasers (1994) and with a clause in her contract exempting her from exhibiting emotive talent. Likewise, there's rapper Coolio, who slides, slides, slippity-slides into vampirism with a good deal of relish, but no ketchup; a line referencing his "anaconda" and a section of Eleniak's physique is one of the more, uh, "witty" in the script. Anyway, the Demeter is just chock full of Space Coffins, each in turn chock full of sand (perhaps dredged from Milton, Florida?), and out of which Count Dracula and one of his brides arises. Took a wrong turn in Albuquerque, I guess. All in all, this reeks of something taped for the Sci-Fi Channel, then deemed too pitiful for the cablewaves. Moral of the story: In space no one can hear you suck.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The Day of the Triffids (1962)

A meteorite shower that blinds 98% of the Earth's population is only a warm-up for the coming apocalypse: aggressive (and mobile) carnivorous plants take over the planet, giving new meaning to the term Persistent Vegetative State. One by one, survivors find each other and begin banding together, etcetera, etcetera. John Wyndham's original novel is one of those prescient, perpetually allegorical, perfectly eerie tales of SF armageddon, ranking with Matheson's I Am Legend, Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, King's The Mist and of course War of the Worlds by some dude whose name I forget. Those stories pivot not so much on the weird disaster element -- be it vampires or space pods or extradimensional creatures -- but on how the surviving humans react and fight back against their hostile new environment.

Steve Sekely's 1962 film does Wyndham a disservice by lifting only the highbrow concept (Killer Plants! From Space!!) and ignoring the characters who actually powered the novel in the first place: their frustrated attempts at rebuilding civilization while on the run, sometimes losing each other along the way, spiced the original tale with drama aplenty. In the film, everyone is scattered from the get-go, and stays that way. The lead character is teamed with a little girl whom he protects, rather than a potential love interest with whom he can hook up in order to repopulate the planet (is he supposed to wait for her to grow up? --because that's just creepy). Another couple are holed up in a lighthouse for no good reason; he's a belligerent drunkard, she yelps a lot, I set a timer to see how long it would take for the plants to shut them both up. Since the predicaments aren't especially interesting, Sekely relies on the venomous, flesh-eating plants for terror, but mainly they just show up and shake their fronds and rarely eat (or even hurt) anyone that we see or care about. In the final accounting, Danny Boyle's Triffid-free 28 Days Later (2002) is actually a closer adaptation of Wyndham's story.