Saturday, October 31, 2009

Casting The Runes (Again)

While brushing up on Curse Of The Demon, I made mental note of the fact that no less a personage than Kenneth Branagh his own self is in talks to remake Jacques Tourneur's demonic classic. One would hope that the classically-trained Shakespearean actor will scoff at allowing himself to be cast as dull fuddy-duddy Dr. John Holden, skeptical inquirer, and demand the meatier and more vivid role of supernatural impresario Julian Karswell, as essay by the grand Niall MacGinnis in the original.

One can only hope.

Though I am stand firmly in the anti-remake camp (I mean, Christ Almighty, exactly how many remakes of King Kong, et al, do we really need, guys?), I am cautiously optimistic.

The Perfect Crime Specialists

Where is Byron Chudnow? According to the Internet Movie Database, bastion of cinematic knowledge on the interwebs, he is not dead. Born in 1926, he'd be 83 years old now. His last active credit was as a producer for the Robert Mitchum-starring TV comedy drama, A Family For Joe in 1990. He spent four decades in the entertainment industry in various capacities, from musical supervisor to editor to producer.

Byron is also credited with having directed three feature films and one TV movie, each of these movies linked by a single element: dobermans.

Yes, Byron Chudnow is the director of The Doberman Gang, The Daring Dobermans, The Amazing Dobermans, a trilogy of theatrical releases, followed by Alex and the Doberman Gang, a 1980 TV movie that attempted to sell Chudnow's concept of canine-based action-adventure to a home audience.

I caught up with The Daring Dobermans in the '70s on (where else?) late night TV and was suitably impressed by the concept and execution of story and stunts. The final set-piece committed by the eponymous quintet and, allow me to state this for those of you who may doubt: any movie—ANY MOVIE—built around a climactic bank robbery executed by five doberman-pinschers wrapped in explosive vests is a classic in any book.

So, where's the retrospective DVD box set of this glaringly ignored triptych of canine goodness? Billy Jack got his—why not the world's perfect crime specialists? (And let's be quick about this one, too, before Byron croaks—if he hasn't already.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Even Good Directors Can Go To Hell

I really, really wanted to like this movie—honest! My wife can attest to the extraordinary measures I undertook in order to secure a copy of this movie, on Blu-Ray no less, by selling (yet another) chunk of my DVD collection to the local CD/DVD venue for the store credits that was used to purchase this disc. I don't want to think about that, because if I inadvertently gave up my fullscreen copy of Night Of The Bloody Apes, or my even duplicate of Queen Of Black Magic for Sam Raimi's triumphant return to horror…I think I might just lay down and cry.

I've been a fan of Raimi's since '87, after subjecting my entire family to Evil Dead II on VHS (my brother and sisters loved it; my mom tolerated it, though not without complaint; my dad found better things to do in another room). Since, I have avidly followed Raimi from film to film, celebrating his triumphs (The Evil Dead, Crimewave, Darkman, The Quick And The Dead, Army Of Darkness), forgiving him his failures (The Gift, For Love Of The Game, A Simple Plan, Spider-Man 3), and searching for sparks of that old, Evil Dead magic even in his most generic efforts (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2).

Which brings me to Drag Me To Hell. (Love the title, by the way.)

Drag Me To Hell is, in fact, sporadically inspired: the energy with which Raimi imbues the setpieces, beginning with a knock-down-drag-out between gypsy witch and timid bank loan officer, is on par with what the director brought to Evil Dead II. Allison Lohman, though no Bruce Campbell (but then, who can ever hope to measure up to the Chin?), and mostly bland and blonde throughout, does display some spark of character as she progresses towards the climax, especially in her final battle with the witch's corpse and demon helper.

The movie's failure and subsequent loss of any and all good will garnered by what preceeded the climax is wasted, flushed, blown and otherwise shat out in a moment, and it's an easy one to spot. Movies such as this tend to focus on big, BIG movements, because there are no small things going on here—this is LIFE AND DEATH WE'RE TALKING ABOUT HERE, DAMMIT!

So, when Justin Long slams on the brakes and the #10 envelope containing the crucial button is lost amidst a blizzard of similarly unmarked #10 evenlopes, you know—YOU JUST KNOW!—that as sure the sun will set this evening and rise in the morning, that Lindsay, poor, poor girl that she plays, is going to grab the WRONG ONE.

Why Raimi didn't simply super-impose the title "PLOT POINT!" on top of this shot could not have possibly made it more obvious. (Well, okay, maybe it could. But only the under 10 year old crowd will find themselves agape at the denouement without that supered graphic.)

Picture this: your life—nay, your immortal soul!—depends on stuffing a button torn from your coat sleeve into the gaping maw of a dead gypsy witch's mouth. You grab the envelope containing said button from a confusing pile of identical envelopes. And it does not occur to you to, say, give the envelope a little rub between thumb and forefinger to, I dunno, check and make sure that little button is still inside the envelope?

Nope. You trust it's still there, grab your shovel and head off to the graveyard to do battle with the demonic undead

Had Sam and his co-writing brother Ivan given us the wink-nudge ahead of time, we all would have warmly welcomed the climax and denouement as a goof and homage to Jacques Tourneur's Curse Of The Demon. In that film, Dana Andrews must overcome his obstinate disbelief in the supernatural in time to somehow sucker warlock Niall MacGinnis into taking back the scrap of paper that acts like a GPS signal to a demon made of fire. (Not the easy task it may sound like, either.)

As things are, Drag Me To Hell's final resolution smacks of gratutious cruelty, to Allison Lohman's character and myself, who felt that she had fought the good fight well enough to be spared.

There was so much more that Drag Me To Hell's creators could have stolen from Curse Of The Demon—a lovely, very human villian; a stalwart, square-jawed hero; a sense of mounting dread; a monster whose image has ground itself into the public subconscious in the half century since its initial appearance—that it makes me sad they stopped at copping merely the last fifteen minutes.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thrill Me

It was the summer of 1986. I was in Ocean City, the pre-season, which was, in those days, like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, only without the barracading of oneself against endless assaults of ravening hordes of the living dead. Instead, I was at the local movie theater, which was located all the way up Coastal Highway, about a mile from Delaware and its tax-free booze.

Milling around the lobby—I believe I was waiting for the next screening of Police Academy 2 to begin (which is not as bad a movie as you may think…if you're stuck in Ocean City with nothing to do and no one to talk to and your thoughts often drift to the gun on the nightstand, praying for a zombie to come stumbling through the door to distract you from turning the weapon on yourself) I came across a poster. Featured on said poster was a cute, young white couple, obviously dressed for a formal college dance, but lugging about a clunky-looking flamethrower and pump shotgun, accountrements that would easily gotten them stopped at the door of even the most liberal establishment. But there was a reason for the heavy weaponry: surrounding the couple was a horde of slathering dead folk reaching for the couple in the most offensive manner.

The tagline read: "The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is…they're dead."

The movie being advertised was Night Of The Creeps, directed by Fred Dekker, starring Jason Lively, Jill Whitlow and Tom Atkins. Naturally, I was intrigued.

Let me put this in context: I had seen Night Of The Living Dead in 1976 (or thereabouts) and, at the tender and very impressionable age of only 16, was invited to and attended a screening of Dawn Of The Dead in 1979 by the owner of my local comic shop. In 1985, I was one of the few witnesses to Day Of The Dead's blink-and-miss-it theatrical release.

To say I was somewhat interested in zombie cinema would be to make an understatement.

Alas, I did not see Night Of The Creeps that evening. Instead, I shuffled off to see Police Academy 2, returning later to my hotel room to contemplate the aforementioned gun on my nightstand, praying once more for zombie armageddon. There but for the grace of God went I.

It was until a year later, the movie unceremoniously dumped onto VHS and into video stores without so much as a notice from Fangoria or a by-your-leave. It was a classically produced and abandoned film, forgotten by the studio that made it, bought up by an uncaring video distirbution company and lumped into whatever block of garbage was being shipped to the mom-and-pop video stores in those dark days before the advent of Blockbuster (um, yeah).

Fortunately, I found it. Others did, too. Now, don't get me wrong: Night Of The Creeps is not a great movie, by any stretch. Viewed by today's teenaged sophiticates, it would not muster within them the splattery enthusiasm afforded the latest remake of a '70s or '80s classic.

What Night Of The Creeps has is a light heart and a tongue firmly planted in its cheek. It—or, more appropriately, Fred Dekker—not only had a fun and sometimes shockingly violent story to tell, but also an appreciation of not its own history, but of its genre as well. Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space is not only namechecked in both past and present-day sequences, but integrated into the story itself. (I've often considered Creeps to be Dekker's take on Plan 9, his meta-hommage to Ed Wood as well as the "true" story upon which Wood based his own warped narrative.)

Creep's opening is cleverly built around the classic urban legend of The Hook-Handed Man. Creep's climax, over-the-top for the mid-1980s provided the inspiration and template for the even more mind-scarring climax to Peter Jackson's zombie opus, Dead/Alive (aka Braindead)--zombies versus lawnmowers, anyone?

Night Of The Creeps arrived this week on DVD and Blu-Ray after twenty-three years of waiting for a proper release. Go and buy your copy now.