House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

SEPTEMBER 13, 2019

GENRE: SURVIVAL
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

I honestly don't know when the last time I watched Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses in its entirety, in fact it's possible that I only saw it the one time, theatrically (where I dozed off for a bit to boot). I could have sworn I watched my DVD at some point before Devil's Rejects came along, but today I found myself struggling with Lionsgate's notoriously obnoxious security adhesive (where they seal all three sides of the disc, and use a sticky solution that often leaves residue on the case) as I opened it for the first time. With 3 From Hell coming in a couple days, I wanted to refresh my memory, but as I watched the film I realized my memories were so poor it was essentially like watching the movie for the first time.

Indeed, even two of my "specific" memories of the film turned out to be wrong. I thought I remembered a scene of Baby (Sheri Moon) ordering pizza, but it was just booze - I had it mixed up with Texas Chainsaw 4 I guess? And then I vividly remembered the scene where Bill Moseley executes a man, depicted via a long slow-motion crane shot, but in my head it was the father of one of the girls the Firefly family was terrorizing - this was also wrong, as the father was gunned down earlier in the sequence. No, the man who got the crane shot was none other than Walton Goggins, a name I was surprised to see in the credits anyway, further proving how long it had been since I took a look at the film (yes, I remembered that Rainn Wilson and Chris Hardwick were the two male heroes).

In turn, the movie was better than I remembered. I wouldn't say I loved it - it's kind of all over the place and has about two too many villains - but I was never bored, and found myself frequently impressed by how much memorable imagery Zombie managed to cram into the 88 minutes of his very inexpensive movie. The set dressing alone is on par with things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Nothing But Trouble, in that you can watch the movie a dozen times and still be noticing strange props and decor around the (equally colorful) characters. The Natural Born Killers-esque cutaways (recolored footage, video mixed with film, etc) get a bit overused, but otherwise I was impressed by how clearly Zombie established himself as a filmmaker in his first attempt.

Granted if you hate his "thing" then there's no chance to enjoy the movie, but just as I came around on his 2nd Halloween entry (in director's cut form) I found myself really appreciating how he was basically applying his distinctive style to a particular brand of horror (in this case, a Texas Chainsaw kind of thing, though he has some Eaten Alive in there too). I remember someone saying that if they had to guess what a Rob Zombie was like (for better or worse), their mental image would be almost identical to his film 31 - but they were saying it dismissively, whereas I kind of love that I know what I'll get when I sit down for one of his movies. If he was making them every year, I'm sure it'd get tiresome, but 3 From Hell will be his 3rd movie in the past decade - that's a big enough gap in between to enjoy his hillbilly hijinks as a diversion from the supernatural horror movies that make up an increasing percentage of what horror films are playing in our multiplexes.

It's also legitimately tense at times. The finale is kind of a dud (Zombie always knew this, for what it's worth) but there are some really great sequences along the way to make up for it. The first big attack on the group as they attempt to escape is fairly harrowing (and again, this was a movie released at a time that the likes of Darkness Falls was able to top the box office), and even the fakeout bits, like Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, in what was his first major role in years) pretending to get angry at Wilson's character for mocking him, carry their fair share of unnerving energy. Also, Zombie's penchant for zooms and film distortion lends the film the appropriate "grindhouse" flair four (really seven since it was filmed) years prior to the film Grindhouse, so he deserves some credit for bringing that sensibility into the mainstream long before it became tiresome.

Its only real flaw (again, if you're on board with its general vibe in the first place; it's admittedly a tough sell) is that it's got so much packed into it, it ultimately kind of feels like Zombie lost interest in his own villains. The final 15 minutes finds the one survivor (Erin Daniels) facing off against Dr. Satan (a character we've heard about but not interacted with) and his creations, leaving Moseley and Sheri Moon pretty much on the sidelines, which is not only awkward but simply unsatisfying - it'd be like if Sally Hardesty's final ordeal found her fighting off the random drunk from the cemetery instead of Leatherface. There's also an ongoing subplot about five cheerleaders that is continually referred to for a solid hour of the movie, only to be discarded without fanfare, making me wonder why Zombie didn't just confine them to an introductory prologue so we could focus on our hero quartet the rest of the time.

I'm gonna revisit Devil's Rejects too; I KNOW I haven't seen that one since theaters (but retain more memories of it), and in my mind it's still his best film - curious to see if it holds up to that. I don't outright love anything he's done, but I don't hate anything either (hell even his Halloween - his worst film - has stuff I enjoy), and while early reviews on 3 From Hell have been pretty scathing, I suspect I'll walk out enjoying it. I just hope I'm not doing it a disservice by refreshing my memory of the first two, when he was still hungry (and had more budgetary support for his ideas) and what he was doing was something wholly unique in the landscape. I'll know on Monday!

What say you?

P.S. I went to the 1,000 Corpses maze at Universal Horror Nights last night, my first time in one even though it's like the fourth time they've done one based on the film (which was partially shot on the same backlot), and not only did I quite like it, but was amused at scenes in the film that were essentially playing out the same as these mazes, with the girl wandering through corridors as things jump out at her. It's the first one you'll come across after you enter the park, so make sure you check it out if you plan on hitting up the event!

PLEASE, GO ON...

It Chapter Two (2019)

SEPTEMBER 5, 2019

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (IMAX SCREENING)

I've revisited the 2017 It a couple times since my theatrical experience, and realized along the way that the real MVP here was the casting agent. The kids are all so good in the roles, it more than makes up for the movie's faults (some dodgy FX, a repetitive middle section), and keeps it rewatchable long after its ability to scare has worn off. It's almost like a hangout movie as opposed to a horror movie; I'd almost rather watch the kids go swimming and ride their bikes than fight the evil clown. And the tradition continues here in It Chapter Two; in addition to the kids all returning (some noticeably aged for scenes that are supposedly taking place during the original's events), the adult cast is largely terrific as well, and whenever I found myself sighing or even rolling my eyes at some of the script's decisions, I'd be instantly back on board whenever it got back to letting these performers bounce off each other.

You should all know the story by now: It, most commonly in the form of Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård returns as well, naturally) returns to Derry every 27 years, and while the kids did a good job of putting him in his place and maybe having him go back to his hole a bit early, they didn't actually kill him at the end of the first film. Well it's 27 years later, and the murders have started again, prompting Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, a standout) to call his fellow Losers - all of whom moved away, unlike him - and cash in on their promise to come back if it ever returned. All but one of them do (the marketing has made zero attempt to hide this, so don't give me any "spoiler" shit), and the fun begins again.

While the book and original miniseries started in this present day and filled in the kids' part of the story via flashbacks, the 2017 film didn't have as much of a hint of the adult stuff - apart from the "Chapter One" title (which it only got at the end), there was nothing to suggest it wasn't a standalone story. And that worked perfectly there, but here it's slightly odd that the adult characters reunite literally moments after we've first seen Bill Hader, James Ransone, etc., not to mention maybe 20 minutes into a movie when it's something designed to be around the story's halfway point. But that's just testament to how good their chemistry is; in fact I flat out loved their Chinese restaurant reunion, as it really did give me the same feeling I get from some sequel with a long gap when two old friends share the screen again (Han and Leia in Force Awakens would be a good example), even though it occurs, in Bev's case, the next scene after we first see her in the form of Jessica Chastain.

I bring this up because the movie as a whole has to constantly overcome its peculiar situation: staying faithful to a book that they consciously went out of their way to rework the last time. I almost wonder if leaving the kids out of it entirely (or perhaps confining them to bookending scenes) would have been better, as most of the scenes with them are repeats of what we saw the first time. At around the hour mark, Mike tasks them with finding a token to sacrifice to perform a ritual he believes will stop the monster, and tells them they all have to go out on their own to find their own unique object, which means that a big chunk of the middle of the film robs us of its best asset: the adult cast's chemistry. In its place, we get a series of repetitive sequences where Ben, Bill, Bev, etc go off to retrieve their object, have a flashback about some scary incident that occurred in 1989 (one they didn't show us last time, obviously), then encounter It again in the present before running back to the inn where they're all staying.

This isn't too far of a departure from the book, where Mike asks them to go around town to restore their memories, but the "fetch quest" element is what makes it not work here, not to mention treading water narratively. In the book it made sense - we hadn't gotten the full story of their first encounter with It yet, so it was still filling in gaps, and it made sense to have each character remember those things when off on their own. But we already know what happened last time - seeing this or that isolated, previously unmentioned incident doesn't really offer us anything necessary, and it's worse if you aren't easily scared by BOO! scenes because that's their actual function anyway. And by changing the purpose for this "let's split up" mission in the first place, the movie opens itself up to a rather silly plot hole, as one character goes off to their old school and goes through his motions, even though his token was in his pocket the whole time anyway (and this isn't even a reveal - he shows it to us before he's even arrived in Derry). I understand the motive on the creative team's part for this 30 minute chunk of the film (get the kids back! Add some scares!) but it really does the movie no favors.

Another "quirk" of the film is a bit too much comedy. I am ride or die for Bill Hader and I think he is great as Richie, but they overuse his ability to make a joke - I'm of the "less is more" school of thinking, and he undercuts more than one scare or emotional moment with a crack that wasn't really necessary. When Bev actually "Beep Beep"s him at one point (the only instance of it used in the original context, I think?) I silently thanked the woman and hoped it would stick. Don't get me wrong - I laughed my ass off at a number of his lines (there's one in the clubhouse that damn near killed me) but they lean on it a bit too much. And there are other things that had me shaking my head, including a bizarre four second-long needle-drop during a scare scene that comes off as an editing error more than an intentional decision, and a truly awful nod to The Shining - in a movie where things had to have been cut (Bev's big line in the trailer isn't in it, for starters) I had to wonder why this stuff got left in at all.

And not for nothing, but the first movie made 700 million dollars worldwide - why couldn't WB improve their FX budget for the sequel? Once again It takes several forms, and while some look fine, others look downright last-gen video game level "not good", undercutting the effectiveness of what might otherwise be a perfectly good setpiece. And if you ever want to prove to someone the value of practical FX over CGI, just show them the fortune cookie scenes from the miniseries and this film back to back - it was one of the 1990 film's most lauded scare moments, and it doesn't work at all here. Skarsgård's stuff, unsurprisingly, always works perfectly, though I swear he's in it a lot less this time, which doesn't help the overall feeling that the film doesn't generate as much nightmare fuel as its predecessor (which itself wasn't exactly the scariest movie ever made). The suspense is there, particularly in the finale since they've proven they're not going to do everything the same way it was originally written, and there are a couple of great moments like Pennywise bashing his head against a funhouse mirror, but perhaps because of the length of the film spreading these moments out more, I can't say I was ever truly tense or unnerved (at least, not after the brutal opening scene, which book readers will know but was left completely out of the miniseries: the horrible death of Adrian Mellon).

But the cast! Chastain is always wonderful, but I loved seeing this two-time Oscar nominee fully commit to the traditions of a horror movie, including getting covered in blood and diving/ducking her way around whatever CGI nonsense was going on around her. Ransone (as Eddie) was also a terrific choice (possibly the best "look alike" beyond Stan, who... well, you know), though like Hader they tend to let him go for laughs too often (as well as F-bombs - between the two of them I swear they rack up more than the Pulp Fiction characters), and again, Mustafa as Mike was a knockout; his scenes of trying to explain what's going on to his old friends who have forgotten everything (including him) are kind of devastating in a way. James McAvoy as Bill was less impressive, however; not only did he look the least like his younger counterpart, but he never quite made the role his own either (doesn't help that young Bill was a standout for the original), and he also has to keep sighing his way through the film's endless running gag about how his writer character can never come up with a good ending, a nod to a traditional criticism aimed at Mr. King himself. It's cute the first time, but by the 5th or 6th? Not so much.

That said, the repetition of this idea, that the endings he had aren't good and need to be changed (when we meet Bill he's on the set of an adaptation of one of his books, where the director is insisting on a new ending), had me thinking that they were just warning us that things wouldn't go down the same way. And indeed, there are some modifications to the finale, most of which I think are improvements. In fact even though I've lived through ______'s death in two other incarnations at this point, this time was the first time I cried about it, and I attribute it to the actors (one in particular) just flat out killing the loss they were feeling. Also, Audra doesn't follow Bill to Derry this time, so Bill doesn't have to save her, allowing the focus to remain on our Losers the entire time, which is the right choice (there's also a new plot point involving a letter that I quite liked) and helped make THIS ending a winner.

(Also, I have to assume it's intentional since other King adaptations are given little nods here and there - Bill's writing room at the end looks almost identical to Gordie's at the end of Stand By Me, which is a lovely tribute to a fellow "the ending made me cry" King tale.)

So ultimately it's... a lot like the first one! If I were to rattle off a list of strengths (the cast, the general vibe, the story) and weaknesses (the FX, the repetitive middle) in broad terms you wouldn't even know which one I was talking about, which I guess makes it a successful sequel that unfortunately has to combat higher expectations (and a longer running time; it's basically one sequence shy of being a full three hours*), hence the very mixed (even downright negative) reviews. Is it a perfect film? No it is not - and neither was the 2017 one, and folks were pretty kind to it and also it made a lot of money, so I'm not sure why folks seem so surprised that this one is, for better or worse, following its structure and overall tone pretty closely. An "ultimate" cut has been teased; maybe it would work better in that regard (or, as one friend suggested, recut entirely to match the book's structure), but for now I think it's a solid followup that was probably as good as it could be considering they had the unenviable task of tackling the trickier parts of a book they wanted to remain faithful to, while also working around the fact that they had to live with their decision to make the first one as if this one might have never existed. I think they got it more or less right.

What say you?

*Indeed, we aren't shown Mike's own quest to get his sacrificial object, presumably because he already had gotten it before everyone arrived. I've seen complaints that the movie wastes Mike and points to this as an example, which is absurd on all levels because a. these same people were complaining about the entire "get the object" subplot anyway, so I don't know why they'd want it to last LONGER, and - SPOILER! - Mike isn't attacked by Henry this time around and forced to sit the big battle out. Instead, he goes down to the sewers with the others, giving Mike "more to do" than ever before. So it's a very stupid complaint in my opinion.

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Dead Zone (1983)

SEPTEMBER 2, 2019

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REVIVAL SCREENING)

I started watching SNL when I was 11, so obviously there were a lot of sketches that went over my head, but every now and then I'd enjoy one even though I wasn't even fully clued into the joke. One such sketch was when Christopher Walken was hosting and he played a psychic who could foresee inconsequential events in the future of anyone he touched ("You get a pistachio that's really hard to open!"), which I found hilarious and quoted all the time over the next few weeks. However, at the time I hadn't seen The Dead Zone, the 1983 film starring Walken, so I had no idea he was parodying one of his own characters.

I finally got around to seeing it sometime in college, and more or less immediately followed it with a read of the book, but hadn't seen it in its entirety since. So watching it on the big screen (part of a Stephen King themed programming block at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse in LA*) was basically seeing it for the first time; all I really remembered was how it ended and that the film was kind of episodic, though even the details on those two things were hazy. Long story short, it was great to discover that the film is one of the best King adaptations.

It's also one of the best David Cronenberg movies, though it's worth noting it rarely feels like one of his. Apart from being shot in Canada, it's got zero of his trademarks; hell, it doesn't even have a score from Howard Shore, as the the studio insisted on Michael Kamen (who did a fine job, for what it's worth). I can't fault a guy for following his bliss, but I also can be sad that he didn't make more traditionally commercial/studio films - it's accessible, but there's a matter of fact-ness to the film's proceedings that I don't see other directors attempting, and it serves the subject matter well.

Indeed, calling it a "horror movie" is misleading; it only really qualifies because of the pedigree of its creative team. As I mentioned the film is episodic, and one such "episode" is a chunk in the middle where Johnny helps the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) find a serial killer, which is the closest it gets to standard horror territory. But Cronenberg isn't interested in kill or chase scenes, and allows just about all of the violence it contains (not much) to occur off-screen to boot. The serial killings are never mentioned prior to Bannerman's first appearance, and neither he or the storyline are mentioned again once Johnny identifies the killer (who offs himself) - you could essentially cut the entire chunk of the movie out and it'd have no effect on the rest.

After that the plot switches to Greg Stillson, whose significance is threaded into the narrative much earlier so it doesn't come out of nowhere like the killer. Stillson's an ambitious candidate for the New Hampshire senate (not sure why it was changed from Maine) who has no intention of stopping there - he wants to be President, and when Johnny manages to shake his hand at a rally, we see how devastating that will be (the specifics are vague, but he is apparently launching nukes at some enemy). Man, it's a good thing we will never have a President that's a crazy jerk like him with access to our weapons arsenal!

OK, better writers than me have written about those unfortunate parallels already, so I'll stop at the one joke. Instead I want to talk about a small part that really gutted me out of nowhere: when Johnny makes a small joke to his father about his recent tryst with his ex lover, who is now married to someone else (and whose child with that man is in the room when he makes said joke). My dad died a year after I got out of college, and less than a year after moving out of the family home into my own apartment; I was closer to a kid than a fully grown adult, so I have been forever denied the opportunity to talk to my dad as another man like Johnny was here, making a "boys club" kind of joke as opposed to one I could ever see myself telling my own father.

Indeed, I'm now as old as Walken was when he made the movie, and seeing that brief scene really hammered home how much I've missed out on having my pops as a kind of buddy I could complain to about work or life, or ask for advice regarding things that were not even in my foreseeable future the last time I was able to talk to him (i.e. parental concerns). I know King's books have these scenes of humanity that give me "the feels", but they rarely make their way intact to the screen - and I certainly wouldn't expect one of those exceptions to be in a David Cronenberg movie, as warmth isn't really his thing.

The structure can make it somewhat frustrating for viewers who aren't prepared for it (it may be why I only saw it the one time all those years ago), but if you put less weight on the narrative and focus on Walken's tragic Johnny, the film works like gangbusters. As you might expect, Walken isn't the first guy I'd assume to be playing the role of a normal school teacher who has to save the world, but he's terrific here, downplaying a lot of his usual tics in favor of becoming, in a way, a romantic lead. His scenes with Brooke Adams are heartbreaking, and he really disappears in the role - it's only when he gets enraged at a man ignoring his warnings that you'll see the crazed Walken you know from Batman Returns and things like that.

The movie came out in 1983, same as Cujo (which also featured Bannerman, albeit played by a different actor) and Christine. They all made about the same amount of money (in fact they would be back to back to back on the 1983 chart if not for The Rescuers breaking them up), but Dead Zone made the least of those similar amounts, which is typical since it's naturally the most well regarded, even with its dated idea of a politician's career sinking after he did something despicable. I'm glad Alamo chose to include it with its select group of King programming (they only picked I think six of the 40+ options), as who knows when I'd find the time to finally revisit it otherwise?

Also, for the longest time Cosmopolis was the only Cronenberg movie I got to see theatrically, which is just a horrible way to live. But thanks to rep screenings I've been able to see many others, including most of my faves (The Fly, The Brood, Dead Ringers, this), some even on 35mm. So now Cosmopolis is simply the *worst* Cronenberg movie I've seen on the big screen, and I can sleep easier at night.

What say you?

*Where I'll be hosting my beloved Cathy's Curse two weeks from today - if you're around and want to go, act fast as we're almost sold out!

PLEASE, GO ON...

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