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).

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