Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part VII)

Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990) dir. Ron Oliver  


First up is the hokey Prom Night III: The Last Kiss, which (to my surprise) continues to mine the Mary Lou Maloney story from Hell Mary Lou (though still, of course, ignoring the original film). This fact makes the film a bit of an anomaly--it's a sequel to a sequel, rather than a second sequel to an original film. It's almost as if Prom Night II and III have broken off and formed their own autonomous franchise, leaving Jamie Lee Curtis back on the disco dance floor. (A quick aside: Have you, loyal reader, ever encountered a series that's taken the same strange track that the Prom Night series has, in re: the above musings? I can't recall any off the top of my brain, but don't feel confident to proclaim the Prom Night series to be one of a kind. Leave me a comment if you think of any. I'm intrigued).

So, yes, we're set up for more of Mary Lou's murderous supernatural shenanigans from the start (which are provided in abundance), but we're also introduced to the new general tone that the film adopts: a pair of opening scenes featuring a heart popping jukebox electrocution and a school orchestral band playing a dreadul off-key rendition of "La Bamba" at a ribbon-cutting ceremony (while the groovy principal cuts his own thumb off instead) assure us that the following film will be a comedy, through-and-through. Sure, Hello Mary Lou was more than occasionally chuckle-inducing, but it still had a conventional spine of dramatic sincerity propping it all up. (That was a weird sentence to type). Prom Night III forgoes all those thrills and bouts of dramatic tension, allowing Mary Lou to crack wise and play dress up with her victim's corpses instead. (She slits one open from end to end and makes him into a banana split rather large for one serving). Again, like its immediate predecessor, it's aping the Nightmare on Elm Street series, letting Mary Lou follow the latter day Freddy's predilection for role playing his murders: Mary Lou dispatches folks while dressed as a soda shop clerk, a football coach, and a manicurist. The film also finds a bit of new ground by applying aspects of the psychotic love subgenre. In lieu of possessing a new, nubile female body like she did during the last go-around, Mary Lou opts for killing people and simply finding a boyfriend to clean up her mess. A boyfriend she finds in waffling high school flunkie Alex, who is glad to "dig a few holes and boff a ghost" for all the good she's doing him (getting him onto the honor roll and into his parents' good graces) but eventually grows concerned over her possessive behavior and interference in his extra-ghostly affairs (like when she starts trying to kill his other, corporeal girlfriend). As a sort of blank parody of the psychotic lover trend in genre thrillers, it somehow succeeds in making both men and women look utterly ridiculous, and so is a bit less misogynistic in its view of gender relations than most of the standard offerings are. (Alex's notion of a romantic dinner is burgers and fries at the drive-in, which would only be romantic if his date were me).

It's an hour and a half of elaborate murder set pieces and goofy jokes (Alex's living girlfriend doesn't get angry, she bakes anger cookies; no one involved seems to care much when Ms. Richards shows up dead because, after all, "it wasn't a person; it was a guidance counselor"). Director Ron Oliver would go on to direct a whole slew of the better (and some of the most frightening) episodes from the classic '90s children's horror anthology television programs, Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps. That feels entirely appropriate. Blood, with Laughs for Free: Prom Night III.

Prom Night IV: Deliver Us from Evil (1992) dir. Clay Borris

Prom Night IV: Deliver Us from Evil is the first of the series to go sans prom. True, it begins with a needless prom sequence set in 1957 (a loose callback to Parts II & III? In any case, reliable Mary Lou is nowhere to be found), but this setting is incidental, used merely to introduce the possessed priest who will be our sinner-slaughtering antagonist. In addition, our current day crop of early '90s teens have a prom to go to--they even hire a limo to take them there--but it wasn't clear to me if they ever actually spend any time at the event (we never see them do so) or simply drive by the school instead (and moon their schoolmates) on their way to one of their fathers' unoccupied summer home (bizarrely converted into one after a past life as a seminary) for a night of mild debauchery. The brief time we spend with our teens in the limo produces the film's most inexplicable moment, with the foursome giving a toast to "prom night" and "Jamie Lee Curtis." (Do not let this scene fool you; the film is more self-deluded than self-aware).

Otherwise, the film rests somewhere uncomfortably between the series' initial slasher roots and the supernatural influence of its sequels. A stigmata-sporting, Satan-spewing priest named Father Jonas hacks up a couple of cavorting teens in '57 and is then put into a drug-induced coma by the church until '91, when a young priest put in charge of his care decides to try for rehabilitation over doping and winds up strangled for his trouble. This supernatural priest (who hasn't aged a day and is accompanied by his trusty stabbing crucifix) takes up his old habit--slaughtering "sluts and whores"--though what exactly Satan's problem is with horny teens is never established. The killer priest targets out heroes because they're crashing in his old seminary and, well, they appear as horny as any other group he could stumble across.

It's all fairly standard stuff, but I found myself admiring the final twenty or so minutes, those taking place in the relative seclusion of the oddly transformed seminary/summer home hybrid (look out for the grotesque, off-putting decorative paintings adorning the walls), as the supernatural elements fade in importance and we're allowed a stretch of conventional yet inspired slashing. A pair of rather horrifying burning crosses with victims' bodied strapped to them announce Father Jonas' intentions for the surviving couple, and then we're off in a spirited game of cat and mouse. The killer burns/explodes himself to semi-permanent death in the finale, but not before chasing the final girl around a bit (as she's dressed in her unflattering, puffy, velvet baby doll dress) and offing her boyfriend in a well-staged roof tumble. Sure, it's not a lot to savor, but what can one expect from a film in which much of the plot hinges upon the fact that the heroine repeatedly neglects to wear shoes around broken glass?

Night of the Demons 3 (1997) dir. Jim "James" Kaufman

Only slightly less fun than its predecessor, this third entry in the Night of the Demons series (the last before a reboot in 2009) resolves itself to be the most enjoyable aspect of my Friday night. We're missing the second film's emphasis on religion (no killer nun here-- blasphemy!) and practical effects wizardry (there's still some, though we're treated to almost as much low-end computer-generated fumblings), but otherwise the series' tone and general format remain consistent. Amelia Kinkade is still kicking around the annually popular, demon-infested Hull House as the sultry Angela, leading groups of teens to their sticky ends since 1988. Here she tangles not with a set of Halloween night partiers (her forte), but a collection of short-fused teens on the lam after a convenience store beer-run turned stand-off gone awry, which makes events more suspenseful (I guess?) but loses some of the more general levity. You can't bring a gun to a party without sacrificing some smiles.

I suppose that what distinguishes these teens from those of the earlier films is that not one of them is likeable. I figured Abbie, the meek poor woman's cat-suited Minni Driver, was to be our heroine, as she's the only quasi-sensible one among them (i.e. she wants no part of this whole "let's hide out in haunted Hull House" scheme), but that thought was jettisoned around the halfway mark when she decides that being sexy is a more valuable character trait than not being possessed by a demon. The other characters spend the duration yelling at one another, brandishing guns, and telling "Yo Mamma" jokes-- the hallmarks of lovable scamps. Without exception, they all act through the exclusive employment of exaggerated facial expressions. To loop back to Prom Night 3 and discover only one degree of separation between them, one of these teens, Orson, is played by Christian Tessier, who starred in several of director Ron Oliver's children's TV offerings, including the lead in one of Are You Afraid of the Dark?'s most memorable episodes, "The Tale of Laughing in the Dark." (For those curious: Tessier, all grown up, is still acting. He played Duck in the second and third seasons of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica).

But the film is an easy recommendation for its eccentricities. Witness the batshit CGI opening credits, featuring nondescript, hovering ghouls slithering across the air above a flaming cemetery. Or absorb a scene of extremely casual full frontal nudity between the two female leads while discussing college plans and cup sizes ("you think if I watered mine they'd grow?" asks Abbie). If those don't convince you, how about the scene where Angela fellates a gun barrel, sucking out all the bullets and suggestively spitting them back into Orson's palm? No? Well, there's always the sequence where one of the teen girls walks into a freezer and watches in horror as her arm turns into a giant snake head which then, instead of biting her, brings her to orgasm. Yes, I suppose this is a sexually charged film.

It is impossible to fathom that this came out in the same year as Scream 2. Night of the Demons 3 belongs to a different time and place, stunted in its growth, ignoring nearly a decade of horror that had come after the close of the 1980s. It's not a throwback, but a relic, blissfully unaware of the genre's recent meta recursions. It feels odd to say, but--even in consideration of its situational exorbitance--this is a rather quaint film. I see no harm in that.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part VI)

Amityville II: The Possession (1982) dir. Damiano Damiani

My affection for The Amityville Horror--a film only remarkable for its window design and that one shot of Margot Kidder--rests on close to nil, so I was persuaded by the notion of watching its first sequel for one reason: that greasy Italian flavor. Though written by American sequel hound Tommy Lee Wallace (Fright Night Part II), this feels way more like it belongs to Italian director Damiano Damiani's geographic cinematic heritage. Let's not mince words: this is gleeful, exploitative, perverse trash--'80s Italian horror to its very foundations--and I adored it. I supposed I knew I was in for something sweet when I saw Burt Young (Rocky I-VI) pop up on screen cast as the patriarch of the new set of Amityville occupants: following the narrative logic of the first film, which featured the affable, mild-mannered James Brolin becoming increasingly unraveled through the haunted house's influence, Young's casting seems particularly nuts considering he has all the charisma of a raging alcoholic. (He's threatening to belt his children at something like the twenty minute mark).

But that winds up being okay, because the narrative decides a more fruitful host for possession is the family's teenaged son, aptly named Sonny. In this tale of repressed teenaged angst, Sonny spends his evenings in bed listening to his demonically inspirational Walkman implore him to murder his family, and his nights either spraying graffiti around the house (with tags like, "dishonor thy father. PIGS!") or stealing his sister's panties ("why do you have my panties?" she asks him, with a certain earnestness). Yeah, so there's a scene in the film wherein Sonny and his sister Patricia play everyone's favorite game to play with a sibling-- "Famous Fashion Photographer and His Model"--and then have sex. Later on, she gives him a really neat sweater for his birthday. This is how we deal with psyche-scarring incest and sexual abuse, I suppose. So besides all of the way-sexually-questionable content, The Possession also features a real downer of a climax (where, in good old Amityville tradition, almost the entire family dies), followed by (heck, why not?) another climax that apes the conclusion of The Exorcist shamelessly. (The Possession here is quite literal, with the demon being represented as less of an essence than a physical entity invading Sonny's body--his flesh often bubbles, writhes, and contorts throughout the film in a swell display of practical visual effects. At one point, he looks almost exactly likely Michael Jackson in Thriller).

At certain moments in Sonny's physical/psychological deterioration, I was also reminded of Bob Clark's Deathdream (1972). Deathdream's expression of the guilt, frustration, and trauma of a young Vietnam War vet manifesting themselves as an external monstrosity is here in The Possession transmuted through Sonny into a monstrosity of the anxieties accompanying puberty and young adulthood. Which is all to say that its concerns are a bit less complex than those of Clark's film, though still of some small interest--the film isn't thoughtful enough to overtly imply that Sonny's sickness sprouted from within the hidden abuse and dysfunction of his family unit, but up until that second climax it's certainly one way to read things.

Besides all this fun/grim stuff, The Possession also a film worth remembering for those small, cockeyed moments, whether cropping up in a stray line of dialogue ("I think Mommy doesn't want to make love to Daddy anymore") or inexplicable action (the two younger children playing a joyous game of "Pull a Plastic Bag Tight Around Your Sibling's Head"; family game night is never innocent in the Amityville house). Off-color bits like those (and yeah, the whole big incest thing) simply scream to me "Eurosleaze," so I must imagine we have our Italian director to blame/thank. As far as I know (and as far as IMDb can tell me), Damiani--a stalwart of Italian crime thrillers (How to Kill a Judge (1974)) and westerns (A Bullet for the General (1966)) --never directed any other major horror films. That's a shame--if Amityville II is any indication, he could have been a delightful purveyor of fine trashy goods.

Amityville 3-D: The Demon (1983) dir. Richard Fleischer

We're certainly back on American soil with Amityville 3-D: The Demon. In many ways, it's a much more conventional, VFX-laden horror show, and that lack of any defining edge leaves it as the sort of sequel you would anticipate, rather than the one that boggles the mind; let's call it the Poltergeist II to The Possession's Poltergeist III. (After all, I don't think any Italian ever had the resources or interest to bite on the early '80s 3-D craze-- it's a shame that Argento's Dracula 3-D is about to rectify that). But who gives because, hey, Amityville 3-D is still pretty good, and if little else is still leaps and bounds beyond its originator. In fact, it's the tension between its ostentatious pandering to its 3-D gimmick and its genuine desire to produce a haunting, melancholic ghost tale that make this an always fascinating, charmingly flawed film.

The tantalizing ghost story in The Demon revolves around the old DeFeo homestead (of course) and its ghostly/demonic inhabitants' resolve to claim the life of the new young girl living in the house with her reporter father. This central story arc leads to a handful of super creepy moments, including instances of the demon's soon-to-be victims showing up in photographs with monstrously distorted faces (a semi-frequent horror convention most recently used to great effect in the decent found footage film Skew (2011)) and a scene capturing the momentary appearance of a soaking wet doppelganger. To avoid spoiling the goods, this latter scene is the most effective moment of creeping dread produced during the entirety of this marathon-- I would have vocally upheld my conviction that something of the sort couldn't be found in a 3-D shock fest, so there's my foot in my mouth. This scene, and its correspondent plot turn, brings the film into some quite dark and despondent territory, dwelling on the tragedy of a lost child, the delusion of bringing her back from the dead, and the taunting of an evil spirit. (The rather grim fates of the characters in both of these Amityville sequels make them a fine counterpoint to the mushy "family love conquers all" theme of the Poltergeist sequels-- in an Amityville film, your family members are more likely to kill or sexually abuse you. C'est la vie). Also prominently featured in this aspect of the film are two requisite ghost story staples: a seance and a bout of Ouija boarding. Few things are more comforting for the horror fan than a coupling of the two.

But to no surprise at all, the 3-D stuff is super cheesy. Undoubtedly, I'd derive some sick sense of enjoyment from all its many pop-out moments--a frisbee throw, a wave of flies, and a climax full of flying doors, flying people, and ten seconds of shattered glass being thrown in the audience's direction--if I were indeed able to watch it in its native 3-D. In two lowly dimensions, a sequence like the one in the final act--wherein a fire-spitting-well-demon-swirly-purple-ghost-thing starts decimating a team of paranormal investigators stationed in the house-- feels (ahem) flat, though certainly full of energy. One has to assume the 3-D would obscure, or at least make hazy, some of the sketchier optical effects. But in any case it's these go-for-broke moments that partially devalue the otherwise strong atmosphere. A haunted mood isn't exactly going to be preserved for very long if in the next act you blow up the house. (And for the record, the house "blew up" in The Possession as well, but I guess that didn't cause enough structural damage. It's decimated here, leaving only a single 3-D fly remaining to buzz over the ashes-- not that this stopped the production of five additional sequels).

The film boasts some low-level star power: a post-Woody Allen Tony Roberts is our investigative journalist hero who buys the Amityville house in order to debunk its nasty legend, and he's accompanied by a pre-fame Lori Loughlin (from television's Full House) as his daughter and a wild, giddy Meg Ryan as her best friend (one would almost swear that Ryan is playing the same character she'd play three years later, in Tony Scott's Top Gun (1986)). Roberts is a decent enough hero, but he gives off that unmistakable aura of a middle-aged actor who is just a little too well-known in Hollywood to be relegated to starring in the second sequel of an also-ran horror franchise (see: Tom Skerrit in Poltergeist III, and (minus the also-ran part) George C. Scott in Exorcist III).

Director Richard Fleischer had a long and inordinately diverse career in Hollywood, directing fondly-remembered classics (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)), beguiling oddities (Mandingo (1975), The Boston Strangler (1968), Ashanti (1979)) and the occasional horror film (See No Evil (1971), Soylent Green (1973)). Amityville 3-D was one of his last films-- he'd go on to direct the sequel Conan the Destroyer (1984), the spinoff Red Sonja (1985), and a mystery/adventure film that existed solely for the purpose of being a promotional piece for Glad-Lock bags before giving it up in the late '80s and enjoying a nice long retirement until his death in 2006. I suppose that on the surface Amityville 3-D isn't all that different from those other examples of Fleischer's late-career decline, but there's that subtle, haunting quality to the film beneath all the bombast that I'm guessing will linger long in my memory.

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) dir. Brian Yuzna

If absolutely nothing else, Brian Yuzna's entry in the Return of the Living Dead series at least captures the general spirit that's required in this sort of thing. By that I mean that the original Return of the Living Dead (1985) established its own niche--the uniquely horrifying zombie comedy-- and to betray that notion in future installments would raise into question the point of those films' existences: if a Return of the Living Dead film was produced to be "just another zombie movie," wouldn't that be missing the point? Writer/director Dan O'Bannon's treatment of the material is markedly satirical, of both genre conventions and governmental bureaucracy, and is often as gut-busting (figuratively) as it is gut-munching (literally). The second entry in the series, Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) directed by Ken Wierderhorn (helmer of Shock Waves (1977), a rather bland island Nazi zombie movie that's gathered a bewildering number of admirers), is a child-proofed disaster, bloated with humorless jokes, child leads, and toothless zombies-- the sort of film whose IMDb trivia page tells you all you need to know: "The blue electrocution lines in the final sequence were all hand-drawn frame by frame and cost over $50,000." Yuzna, the director of many fine, queasy horror films (Society (1989), Bride of Re-Animator (1990), The Dentist (1996)), makes the basic content of the first film his own while still hewing close enough to the general tone and feeling that worked so well in the original. This second sequel isn't very funny, nor is it particularly goopy (and never frightening), but it is satirical, perverse, and more than a little romantic, making it a welcome addition to the series

The film's most interesting decision is to beef up the involvement of the military in the overarching story. The characters make checkpoint stops at a secret, underground military science complex throughout the film, and there we witness bizarre experiments enacted upon the barreled Trioxin zombies. There's some disagreement about how to weaponize them (one scientist wants to freeze their brains (and thus inhibit mobility) with darts from some sort of gun stolen from Mr. Freeze's closet, while another wants to drill their corpsey bodies into mechanical exoskeletons), but naturally there's little reflection over whether or not the government should be weaponizing nearly indestructible zombies. Fittingly, the reckless staff of the military complex receive their comeuppance in a wonderfully corny and chaotic finale, one that like The Howling III and (to a more explicit extent) Romero's Day of the Dead (1985) actively encourages us to feel sympathy for its monsters. (A finale that inspired me to note a possible alternative title for the film-- Pay It Forward: A Zombie Romance).

But while most of the sympathy-building in the finale feels a little forced and perhaps intentionally silly, there is a genuine sense of pathos built for our main characters, a pair of doomed lovers. When Curt's girlfriend Julie dies in a motorcycle accident (inconveniently right as they are planning to run away from town and Curt's overbearing Colonel of a father), Curt sticks it to the man one final time by breaking into the country's least well protected secret military installation and dousing her with a whiff of the reanimating trioxin. Julie is resurrected and because she's so freshly dead she's a good deal more cogent than the normal zombie, which makes her slow descent into brain-munching harder than usual to watch. Regardless, her affection for Curt remains locked in her zombie brain, and after making the discovery that physical pain lessens the urge to consume the neurons in living brains, she enacts a quite extensive regimen of body modification in order to avoid chowing down on her beau (see the above poster for a hint of the finer details of her work). I suppose one could read this almost Cenobite-esque pleasure from pain as the expression of Julie's burgeoning masochistic tendencies (especially in contrast to the faint enjoyment she seems to take from the rather lifeless love scene she has with Curt earlier in the film), but maybe that's stretching an interpretation farther that it can go. In any case, after Curt gets nipped by a zombie in the finale, the two lovers/zombies/sexual deviants have no choice but to throw themselves, embracing, into an incinerator. At the end of three days and eighteen sequels, pardon me if I do the same. But, like Curt and Julie, I'll be jumping into the flames embracing these eighteen troubled joys.

This is the end of the moviethon proper, but wait! There's more: a post on Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990), Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil (1992), and Night of the Demons 3 (1997) will hit this spot soon.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part V)

The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1985) dir. Wes Craven

Wes Craven's bold-faced cash-in on his brutal 1977 back-hills classic gets a lot of flak for a scene wherein one of its major stars, a German Shepard named Beast, experiences a flashback to the previous film. But I must ask: what's the big deal? Who says a dog can't recall with fondness the occasion upon which he ripped some dirty mutant's throat out? Perhaps flashing back was Beast's method of coming to terms with his guilt, through both reliving the traumatic tussle and sharing his pain with us through the hazy fog of 16mm memory. For a moment, I could have sworn that within his barks I heard sobs. But, honest: it seems like a niggling detail to get caught up on-- half of the films I've watched in this marathon so far could have been radically improved through the inclusion of an empathetic dog flashback. Furthermore, I'm supposing that these flak-givers haven't seen Boogeyman II, or else they'd find The Hills Have Eyes Part 2's self-poaching (maybe a total of five minutes of flashbacks) rather quaint. (For instance, show me proof that those flashbacks in the former film didn't belong to the haunted mirror). But I digress.

Craven has been quick to admit that he really needed the work in '85, and that this film was motivated by little more than the desire to buy groceries. (Allegedly, he claimed he would have directed Godzilla in Paris at this point in his career, if anyone had bothered to offer). And so it's that indifference that winds up being its dominant attribute-- the film has all the enthusiasm of a rained out company picnic. The motocross #coolteens who we follow for the duration are amiable enough (one of them complains that his girlfriend spends more time conversing with a snake than with him), and they actually wind up being more courageous and resourceful than you'd expect in a film like this. Fairly early on the kids wise up to the mutant menace and instead of defaulting to a prolonged series of escape attempts, our heroes actually jump on their bikes and start chasing Michael Berryman's resurrected Pluto. That's a neat twist on how these situations usually play out, but the way it's all handled by the film leaves it feeling flat and uninvolved. The teens soon catch and subdue Pluto and it takes the arrival of new mutant leader, the feral Reaper, before things sort of land back on the horror track.

Once it gets around to it, the horror here takes its cues more obviously from the early '80s slasher's penchant for stalk and slash rather than the original film's all-out, booby-trapped warfare. This means that the earlier film's blunt commentary on the fine line separating the civilized and the savage (a favorite theme of Craven's early career; see: Last House on the Left (1972)) is replaced by no more than various instances of teenagers being murdered by a mutant who unmistakeably resembles a shag carpet. Thematically that's as complex as the film gets. It's a bodycount picture, and a rather lackadaisical one at that. It begins the third day of my marathon, but as the credits roll I have to question whether or not I've watched anything at all.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) dir. Brian Gibson

Poltergeist II: The Other Side is director Brian Gibson's only horror effort, and I'm guessing that's because he didn't have much of a knack for it. The evidence backing up such a claim is slathered all over the screen when watching this hokey film, one that dwells far too openly on the healing powers of familial love when faced with evil obstacles. I just loathe this sort of sappy stuff-- Poltergeist was an adult film simplistic and tame enough for children, but this one cuts right to the child market while still, confusingly, devoting significant screen time to subjects like alcoholism, domestic abuse, and insurance denials. So who's this really meant to appeal to? Certainly not the first film's audience, who (one would hope) would be expecting something a bit more sophisticated.

Moreover, the emphasis on family bonds and the increased relevance of Native American beliefs to the plot result in it being awfully, grossly spiritual. To bolster that spiritual edge it's stuffed with wonky '80s VFX of the non-practical variety: we suffer through a gaggle of glowing ghosts and a conclusion that I can only describe by having you imagine the Freeling family stuck floating through the Phantom Zone. There are also moments, like one featuring a flying chainsaw that shoots right towards the camera, that I immediately pegged as a lame attempt at a 3-D shock. (The Internet soon confirmed my hypothesis, though the film jumped on the 3-D revival bandwagon a bit too late to bother following through with it). All of this said, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the presence of some strong practical work in the film's effects department: C. T. Nelson vomiting the giant, mutating tequila worm, in particular, is some next-level stuff. But these moments are shallow rewards: Hooper/Spielberg's original Poltergeist built up to its bombastic screen imagery and knew when enough was enough, but The Other Side doesn't waste time on atmosphere when a screen full of floating, swirly orbs will do.

Actor and playwright Julian Beck's performance as the quietly menacing Rev. Kane is the film's strongest asset, but his unfortunate demise during filming means there is far too little of him-- all told, he's featured in only eight minutes and change of the film's running time. (He is really very good though, even in the few scenes he has. His ability to imbue rather innocuous lines and gestures with a well-concealed ill intent is remarkable. I have little doubt that he was the bane of many late '80s childhood bedtimes). But what else here is appealing or frightening? One scene features little Carol Anne Freeling being menaced by a toy robot. We're a long way from Cuesta Verde.

Poltergeist III (1988) dir. Gary Sherman

What's up with all the Part IIIs surpassing the Part IIs this moviethon? There are some welcome changes to be found in the diabolical mess that is so conveniently labeled Poltergeist III: Adieu, Craig Nelson, JoBeth Williams, and swirly suburban ghost orbs; Hiya, mustachioed Tom Skerrit, child-hating Nancy Allen, pre-Twin Peaks L. F. Boyle, and ultra-modern high rise demonic mayhem. Gary Sherman, director of the excellent Death Line (1972) and Dead & Buried (1981), gives horror another attempt only a brief year after directing an action picture pitting Rutger Hauer against Gene Simmons. (Let's call both 1987 and 1988 Sherman's Victory Lap).

What he does so right is inject a bit of quasi-Eurosleaze lunacy into the basic Poltergeist premise. The film is randomly complicated and inconsistent, to the point of frustrated delight. I often couldn't tell who was dead or possessed at any given moment, the nature of each being variously extravagant. We have the docile suburban settings of the past two films transformed into a massive, sterile hunk of urban modernity-- the notion of poltergeist activity afflicting such a structure is simultaneously preposterous and glee-inducing in this less-than-serious context. Furthermore, the previous film's computer-generated chicanery is shuffled out in favor of nothing but in-camera practical effects, some of which are quite goopy indeed (see: a stream of goo exploding a man out of a manhole, or Laura Flynn Boyle violently emerging from of Zelda Rubinstein's resting corpse). All of these elements could have convinced me I was watching Lamberto Bava's equally demented Demons 2 (1986) if I didn't know better. (On occasion, I'd almost swear that both films take place in the same high rise).

While in every category a significant improvement from what we were offered in The Other Side, this isn't great horror cinema. It's weird and diverting, but still ultimately beholden to the lame "love conquers all" theme that never fails to start me yawning. And I suppose it's worth broaching the sensitive issue of young Heather O'Rourke's performance. It's probably bad form to upbraid a child performer who tragically died before the film was released, but I can't exactly criticize her so much as the film itself for giving her so little to do. She's absent for most of the latter half (being sucked over to the Other Side), which is certainly no help, but she also falls victim to that bizarre effect a viewing audience experiences when watching a child actor blossom into the awkward tween years. She just sort of loafs there on screen (whenever she's present at all), and the series anchoring itself upon her seems a mistake if it has nothing more creative than a basic rehash of the second film's plot and motivation to work with. But the fact that one could momentarily mistake a Poltergeist sequel for a Lamberto Bava supernatural splatter film hints that there's more than enough to recommend. We're even farther from Cuesta Verde here, and I am totally okay with that.

Heading towards the end of it all: Amityville II: The Possession (1982), Amityville 3-D: The Demon (1983), Return of the Living Dead III (1993).

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part IV)

The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) dir. John Boorman

I'll be honest: William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) has never done much for me. I wouldn't call it a bad film, but its peculiar structure (consisting of a third act stretched across approximately half the film) and general lack of character development (for anyone but Jason Miller's Father Karras) leave me weary through the duration of each viewing, only allowing me to perk up for the handful of still transgressive moments. The Exorcist is an important, if decidedly singular film in horror history-- one that captured the zeitgeist of late 1970s American unease and, for a moment, legitimized the genre to the public at large, while simultaneously sending them into hysterics. A piece of art that comes with as much word-of-mouth baggage as this one is going to result in a extreme split in critical opinion, but I'm okay with my own falling somewhere in-between. While growing up, Friedkin's film was the only horror film banned in my home. Having seen virtually every other piece of classic and not-so-classic horror cinema you can name, imagine my disappointment when I finally smuggled a rental around the time of "The Version You've Never Seen" debacle-- this was what I'd been missing out on?

I have to imagine a similar response was generated from anyone in 1977 who had been steered away from the original but took a gamble on John Boorman's sequel, The Exorcist II: The Heretic. Boorman, the director of some exquisitely moody films (Deliverance (1972), Excalibur (1981)), attempts to refashion the basic Exorcist story into a a surreal, hallucinogenic, almost metaphysical journey through the nature of demonic possession. This could have been a splendid idea-- after all, nothing would have been less desirable than a simple rehash, which the continued presence of Linda Blair keeps threatening. Sadly, the film is more often just corny, with the height of its trippy visuals being a superimposed locust flying all over in extreme close-up and James Earle Jones roaring like a leopard. (In the end credits, some industrious soul is labeled as being responsible for "Special Locust Effects"). But what this really all results in is Richard Burton stumbling around Africa in a state of confusion and Linda Blair joining a chorus line.

Somewhat intriguing is the fact that the film attempts to intertwine its metaphysics with some wonky pseudoscience, though this fades as the film builds up to its conclusion: (what else) an over-the-top, contracted repetition of the first film's exorcism, wherein the ground literally falls out from under everyone involved. (Regardless, I liked the pseudoscience angle, and am glad that the basic concepts, iffy biofeedback headwear, and Louise Fletcher in the role of investigative scientist would be recycled a few years later in Douglas Trumbull's more successful, though no less nutty Brainstorm (1983)). It all goes towards making you wonder what it is Boorman thought people liked about the first film. Obviously, he didn't much care-- I've very okay with that attitude and approach, it's just a shame it resulted in a film as dull as this. If nothing else, the film birthed Ennio Morricone's diabolical score-- so thanks, movie.

The Exorcist III: Legion (1990) dir. William Peter Blatty

Original Exorcist author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty was granted permission to take his own property for a spin at the dawn of the 1990s, and--who could have guessed it--wound up making my favorite Exorcist film of the three. The title alone on that poster over there (with its shades of the disingenuous claims made by '90s bedfellows Bram Stoker's and Mary Shelley's-- after all, how much of The Exorcist's legacy belongs to Friedkin? Then again, I suppose that "The Version You've Never Seen" would argue against W. F.'s good creative senses...) rather bluntly declares this as his unique, authorial vision, which--after Boorman's fumble--was probably the right move, if a bit immodest.

A lot of my appreciation for this film springs from its rather corny sense of humor (the affable, gruff George C. Scott tells a wonderful anecdote about discovering a carp in his bathtub) commingled with the oppressively dark storyline and atmosphere (this is, after all, recounting the tale of a Pazuzu-possessed, resurrected, body-mutilating serial killer and his continued bloody exploits 15 years post-execution). The general tone can be summed up in a line like this one: "I'm so sorry you were murdered, Thomas." It plays out closer to a procedural thriller for the first half, while the latter portions resemble an adequate evolution of the requisite exorcism sequences: here, a zombie-like Father Karras and a bunch of senior citizens are possessed by the Gemini Killer's wicked soul, and it's up to Scott to do the vanquishing. We're given the welcome return of Jason Miller to the series, and the wily addition of the always hammy Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer, managing to scenery chew while straight-jacketed and spouting off ironic, self-deluding quips like "did you know that you are talking to an artist?"

It can't manage the aura or gravity of the original Exorcist, but, wisely, it doesn't attempt to. This is an understated and effective film, a largely successful continuation of the themes and situations of the original (which is a good deal more than Boorman's film can claim), and it has also been perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise of this marathon. Pardon me for not initially being thrilled about the notion of enduring a third exorcism; I stand corrected. (But don't let this lead you to believe that I'll step anywhere near the Renny Harlin or Paul Schrader prequels. There's only so much pea soup one sap can stomach).

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) dir. Bruce Pittman

The End of Day Two: Hello Mary Lou. I've been alerted to the very peculiar progression of Prom Night sequels, but I have a hard time believing that any turn could be more sudden or complete than what's on display in this first one. Whereas the first Prom Night (1980) is a rather uninspired though fun enough post-Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis slasher (with an almost anachronistic Paul Zaza disco score that's probably thought of more highly than the film itself), Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is an in-name-only sequel that takes the A Nightmare on Elm Street route (a woman who is burnt to death returns from the grave to take surreal, supernatural vengeance against the descendants of those responsible/those who looked on/anyone in general) with a dash of Freddy's Revenge (this vengeful ghost takes possession of a new body in order to do her murderin'). If I'm recalling correctly, I think there are even a few direct nods to Wes Craven's nightmare opus (nails screeching across lockers and the famous hallway scene). In my late night hypnotic trance after hours of basket cases and exorcisms, I very much dug what Mary Lou had to offer. It's a large brick of well-aged cheese-- very agreeable and, occasionally, surprisingly sharp. For the remainder of this write-up, I think I'll settle for transcribing the notes I took during my viewing because a) I'm not sure I understand them well enough (It was quite late; I was quite out of my gourd), and b) I feel that these notes are fairly demonstrative of what the film has to offer:

"Mary Lou is a third wave feminist stranded in the 1950s--that bomb was a stinker--women are getting a bad rap in this one, either frigid or rude or possessed by old fashioned ghosts--wouldn't her dress be burned when she comes back as a ghost? did she go shopping?--Siouxsie Sioux making a dog poo hand sculpture holding a cig--head in bean stew + bug eyes--blowing bangs out of eyes <3--go away, hobby horse; molesty bed--Mary Lou's dudes become a principal and a pastor, respectively; the former grows up to be Michael Ironside--Vicki speaking to a yearbook picture--blackboard swimming pool w/ swirling alphabet--"you know what pissed me off the most? no fucking wings"--Linda Blairsville (he talks like me (?))--gratuitous full-frontal locker room nudity, homophobia; tell us how you really feel, Vicki--womp ba ba doo bop locker squish kill--semen breath (?) "how'd ya blow it?"-- Mary Lou reborn through chest, goes all Carrie; somehow Vicki is not dead post-chest bursting; OK--well filmed and inventive--a ghost who just wanted to be Prom Queen; in essence, a tragedy."

Twice in the film we hear the opening bars of The Partland Brothers' dreadful "Soul City" before it cuts out. Its absence from the end credits' soundtrack listing leads one to believe that the filmmakers didn't pay for their use of it. I suppose they ran out of money after putting up all the budget for literally everything else in existence, all of which they managed to crush lovingly into the film's brief running time. Bless them. Addendum: I don't believe I'm done with the Prom Night franchise yet. Check back here after the Sequelthon has breathed its last for a surprise (or two (or three)).

Soon: The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), Poltergeist III (1988).

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part III)

The Boogeyman II (1983) dir. Bruce Starr & The Boogeyman 2: Director's Cut (2003) dir. Ulli Lommel

Ulli Lommel's journey from New German Cinema actor (he's an enigmatic presence in some of Fassbinder's best early work) to Warhol collaborator (Blank Generation, Cocaine Cowboys) to legitimate director of bizarro American horror (The Boogeyman, The Devonsville Terror, Brainwaves) to soulless hack (the two films covered here, his numerous recent serial killer exploitation flicks) is perplexing, but it's also the sort of journey that one can take some grim fascination in. These two sequels to his unlikely 1980 hit supernatural slasher, The Boogeyman, are by equal turns mind-numbing and enthralling, infuriating in their utter lack of scruples and sort of snidely refreshing for the same. Dissatisfied with the state of the American film industry (the sort of the film industry that would gladly bankroll a film as uninspired and lifeless as Boogeyman II), Lommel composes these films to be deliberate wastes of time. Collectively, they possess more gall than any other pair of cash-in sequels, and for that they earn my admiration (respect or enjoyment would be going further than I'm comfortable with; I did, after all, have to watch them).

By some luck of the draw, I viewed Lommel's 2003 director's cut first, erroneously imagining it to be the preferred cut. One can only suppose that for Lommel it is the superior version, but I can't imagine anyone else claiming the same: it consists of approximately 90% footage lifted straight from the original Boogeyman, 3% footage from the 1983 Boogeyman II (but integrated into the film as if someone had hit the fast forward button over all of it), and 7% newly recorded standard definition home video shots of Lommel sitting across from the camera, decked in a baseball cap and sunglasses, recounting the "plot" of the 1983 sequel with all the clarity of someone who has never seen it. It is quite possibly the most cynical film I've yet seen. It has all the appeal of a bad special feature on a dollar bin DVD. Lommel's monologue does allow us to part with a few memorable lines of dialogue, such as "I'm an art film director!" and "I'm innocent."

Feeling that this so-called Director's Cut was only giving me a partial picture of Boogeyman's sequeldom, I made the decision to track down Lommel and Bruce Starr's 1983 "original." (Though Starr is credited as sole director, most sources claim that Lommel-- who is also one of the film's lead actors-- co-directed but removed his name after production. Curious, then, that he'd want his on the later cut...). In this go-around the film is bogged down by only about 40% of its running time consiting of repurposed footage from the original, which seems scant in comparison. The new footage concerns the only survivor of the first Boogeyman film (Suzanna Love, oil heiress and Lommel's wife until 1987) stranded in Hollywood and being courted for the rights to her story by studio lowlifes. Apparently, the sequel rights to Boogeyman II were fought over by various studios before Lommel decided to produce the film independently, and his Boogeyman II appears to be simultaneously a screed against studio exploitation and almost exactly the sort of cheap film that a lazy studio would be glad to spit out. I say "almost" because there's no hiding the film's satire of Hollywood ethos, which wouldn't sit well with any backer: in the film, Lommel plays a director named Mickey working on a picture that used to be titled The Age of Diminishing Expectations (!) before the studio changed it to Kiss and Tell; Mickey laments that his producer insists upon the inclusion of a topless scene ("but that would be pure exploitation!") immediately before Lommel/Starr include it for us; Mickey is seen reading a copy of Hollywood Babylon, filmmaker Kenneth Anger's expose of early Hollywood's seedy underbelly, a time which Mickey refers to as "the good old days," drawing our attention to how much worse it must be in 1983; all this, plus every resident of Los Angeles is portrayed as a lecherous non-talent desperate to use status for purposes of cheesy seduction. But the satire seems double-edged-- Lommel is as much taking the wind out of himself as his vapid surroundings. One character declares that "Halloween is over" and that what audiences and studios want now is "suspense and melodrama." Boogeyman II's equivalent? Death by electric toothbrush, shaving cream, corkscrew, and horsehead fire poker.

The effort here is negligible, and Lommel is a competent enough filmmaker that we can't simply call the ineptness on display here an unintentional misstep. Mickey's wife at one point convinces him that he needs to make these sort of cash-grabs every once in awhile so that his next film can the sort of film he really wants to make-- I don't have trouble imagining that the same sort of reasoning justifies this film's existence, despite any nobler satirical intentions, and Boogeyman II is satisfied with giving us nothing more than the repackaged product a sequel demands. It's rubbing our faces in our desire for a sequel-- it's punishing us for lowering ourselves to a level of taste that it finds deplorable. And that takes a lot of gall. One scene features a woman telling Mickey that he could have made fifty profitable movies for the $18 million that MGM wasted on De Palma's Blow Out. I have trouble believing that Lommel thinks Blow Out was a waste, but, having seen these two films, I have no doubt that he could have stretched that budget out across a hundred grinning, mean-spirited Boogeyman sequels.

Basket Case 2 (1990) dir. Frank Henenlotter

Because I went on for two whole grafs on Boogeymen II, I'll attempt to keep these Basket Case write-ups brief: they're both awfully enjoyable films, consistent in madcap tone and their desire to one-up each previous entry. Basket Case (1982) is a classic of grungy NYC exploitation filmmaking in the last decade of 42nd street's relevancy. As humorous and gory as it is, it's almost somber in comparison to the garishness of its two back-to-back sequels. Produced at the beginning of the '90s, Basket Case 2 & 3 are closer in their sensibilities to the Gremlins films or Beetlejuice (in fact, both films' large and diverse stable of mutated folk looks as if it could have arrived on set direct from the afterlife's waiting room).

Maybe the best way to think about these sequels is as a pair of raunchy cartoons for juvenile adults-- I hope it doesn't hurt my credibility to say that I very much enjoyed them. Duane Bradley and his murderous, mutated, once-siamese brother Belial wake up in a hospital after the first film's massacre of the doctors who separated them. They manage to escape with the help of Granny Ruth and her daughter Susan, who manage a sort of secret assisted living center for a whole gaggle of mutants (or "Unique Individuals," as Granny Ruth likes to call them). Belial is quite pleased to be around his own kind (and even more pleased to find among the inhabitants a female version of himself), while Duane wishes to take this opportunity to get away from Belial and start life on his own with Susan, if she'll have him. Maybe it could have worked out, but a nosy journalist discovers the Bradley brothers' location and tries to capture some proof.

The film plays out as a bunch of elaborate ruses concocted by Duane, Belial, Granny Ruth, and the rest of the Unique Individuals leading the journalist, her photographer, and a private investigator to their messy deaths. All of this is punctuated by a revolting sex scene between Belial and his new mate (named, appropriately enough, Eve) and a midnight mutant picnic that ends in a pregnancy shocker. It's as simple, as insane, and as fun as I've just outlined. The practical make-up for the Unique Individuals is truly work to behold, although I found the updated Belial puppet to be somewhat deficient-- it's undeniably a better puppet, but not quite as creepy as the original and far below the standard set elsewhere in this film. My favorite mutant is a gargoyle who sits on top of the house and flashes the camera a smile every once in awhile. This is unadulterated delirium.

Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991) dir. Frank Henenlotter

Picking up directly after Basket Case 2, the second sequel deals with the aftermath of Duane's emotional breakdown and the disgusting Belial/Eve love scene. (In fact, a reiteration of that squishy, bestial humping (I think I can call it that) is the first scene we're presented with here, because once was certainly not enough). Eve becomes pregnant with twelve (!) little Belials, and so Granny Ruth packs everyone (including a straight-jacketed Duane) into a school bus on a trip to Ruth's estranged husband's house for the delivery. (He's a doctor with experience treating Unique Individuals. Also he probably has a high tolerance for gross things).

This film plays up the comedy angle, producing ever more sublime gag sequences: Granny Ruth's schoolbus musical number, a sheriff and his deputies speaking entirely through alliteration ("A bassinet of baby Belials!"), and Belial's drug-induced fantasy (being surrounded by topless women whispering sweet nothings along the lines of "a trapezoid is one of the simplest but most intriguing polygons") are only a few of the yuks spilling from the frame. I suppose that a good deal of the comedy also springs from Kevin Van Hentenryck's tour de force performance as an unhinged Duane. He really brings his sweet earnestness to scenes like the one he has with a teenaged girl while straight-jacketed and stuck halfway out of a school bus window-- he's so uniquely likeable that I have a hard time imagining the role working if inhabited by anyone else. The same goes for his line readings: a still straight-jacketed Duane asking, with determination, "May I borrow a Swiss Army knife?" (Additionally, I adore the gradual evolution of Duane's hair, which finds the curly mop he had in the original film reduced to that of a '50s teen greaser here. Only adds to the schoolboy amiability, I feel).

The gore factor is at its height in this third entry, though-- at the same time-- it's also at its most cartoonish. At the end of the film, Belial duels the sheriff while wearing a human-sized mech suit, akin to the one Ripley uses to defeat the Queen in Aliens. After that, the Unique Individuals storm the set of a chat show and declare to the world that the freaks are taking over. And that's as it should be: you're either with these films, or you're against them.

Look out! Next comes: The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), The Exorcist III: Legion (1990), & Hello Marry Lou: Prom Night II (1987).