Friday, October 31, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Trick ’r Treat

Happy Halloween. Sam is here to make sure you are in the spirit. Trick 'r Treat.
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing has brought readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we made our way to Halloween. Well, today is the day. Happy Halloween, all. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and if you have made it this far, thanks for checking out the site.

Day 31: Trick ’r Treat (2007)

Halloween is probably the easiest day of the year to separate your neighborhood into two groups: the good-natured folks and the grumps. I would put it ahead of even Christmas in this category because people have myriad reasons for not enjoying Christmas beyond general grouchiness. On the other hand, even for those not so inclined to the festivities, Halloween requires minimal effort. How hard is it to buy some candy and turn on the porch light?

The best part of Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat is its commitment to the holiday spirit. The film is even based on a short animation by Dougherty called Seasons Greetings. The movie’s would-be mascot, Sam, is the spirit of Halloween incarnate, named after the Celtic festival of the dead, Samhain, which is from where many of our modern traditions around the holiday are derived.

Set over the course of one Halloween night, the film tells the interlocking stories of five very different groups of people with, shall we say, differing opinions on the spirit of the holiday. Some of the stories cross over into others, and some just occur simultaneously in the background, but lurking throughout them all is Sam. We will learn more about Sam as the night goes on, but his presence permeates every second of the film, creating a lingering sense of doubt, dread, and fear for whatever may be around the next corner.

The night begins at the end for one couple returning home from a party. The husband is a Halloween fanatic. The wife, not so much, and she wants to begin taking down the decorations before the clock has even struck midnight. This will prove to be a big no-no on Sam’s watch.

Down the street, Dylan Baker plays a neighborhood teacher who has a couple secrets to hide and one major problem to handle. Next door to him is an old curmudgeon played by Brian Cox. Of all the characters, Cox’s Mr. Kreeg is the one least in the spirit of the evening, but he may have to find it, whether he likes it or not.

In town for the festivities is a group of 20-something girls trying to help their virginal friend, played by Anna Paquin, let loose. Then, in the movie’s least-connected vignette, several teenagers decide to play a prank on the nerdy girl in their class, and things do not go as planned.

It would be hard to nail down any one of these vignettes as the best. Mr. Kreeg’s story is definitely the scariest of the bunch, while Baker is an absolute riot in all of his scenes. I am partial to the tale of the teenagers and its ultimate anti-bullying message, though Paquin is a ton of fun over the course of her character arch, and the husband-and-wife story that opens the proceedings sets the perfect tone for the events that follow.

This is Dougherty’s only feature film, though he reportedly has two projects in development, including a sequel to this movie. Despite the writer-director’s inexperience, there is an easy artfulness to the way Dougherty’s camera moves across the town, finding little details and building a world out of the specificity of his creation. In the same way, Robert Ivison bounces around among the five stories with grace and precision, and while the film is comprised of several smaller components, the whole thing feels of a piece.

There is humor, horror, and real pathos in the stories of all these characters, and taken all together, the film is a loving and razor-sharp tribute to Halloween and a knowing recreation of what it is like to spend the holiday just kicking around town with your friends. So if you find your spirit waning and your energy running low, pop this in the DVD player and try to find the joy in the season. If you cannot, do not be surprised if you get a visit from old Sam. That ought to do the trick. Happy Halloween.

Tomorrow is the first day of November. Take a break from the television and go outside to watch the leaves change if you are lucky enough to live somewhere with real fall weather. Thanks again for joining me for Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Night of the Living Dead

They're coming to get you, Barbara, and they are coming to get all of us in Night of the Living Dead.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 30: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Barbara and Johnny drive to the countryside to visit their father’s grave. It is a pleasant day, and the cemetery is mostly empty, except for one older man in the distance. Barbara’s discomfort with their surroundings is apparent, and like any good older brother might, Johnny begins to tease her.

“Barbara. They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” he says. About this much he is correct, and for the next 90 or so minutes of screen time, they come to get Barbara and anyone else unlucky enough to be in their path. They are the dead, brought back to a grim simulacrum of life by unknown causes, and their mass re-animation means no one is safe.

Some might say The Exorcist or Dracula or maybe The Shining, and there are legitimate cases to be made for all of them and many more, but for me, there is no other choice. Night of the Living Dead is the greatest horror film ever made. Until Pulp Fiction came along in 1994 and opened the floodgates on a thousand hyper-literate, highly stylized crime films, it would be hard to name another movie that influenced the future of its genre and film in general more than George A. Romero’s fright night masterpiece.

The zombie as known by the popular culture was invented in that Pittsburgh cemetery, and movies have not been the same since. Like how your parents said you can be anything when you grow up, zombies can be anything now – Nazis, strippers, heartbroken teenagers, classic literary characters – but with rare exceptions, they are all Romero zombies.

In whatever form they come, they are implacable, uncaring, and devoid of the thing that once made them human. You can stand and fight or you can run and hide, but most likely, you will be frozen with fear, and in the next heartbeat, you are one of them. You are a convert to their cause, and what anyone you love might recognize as you is gone, replaced by the coldness of your stare, the pallor of your skin, and the insatiable nature of your appetite.

But, influence is one thing. Films become influential because they are great, sterling examples of the best of their form. Night of the Living Dead is an unimpeachably brilliant thriller from start to finish with any number of social messages buried like gold pieces among the ghouls. It rewards repeat viewings by showcasing the kind of subtlety and nuance often missing from even the most austere dramas, let alone scary drive-in flicks.

Virtually none of the political commentary or cultural critiquing was intended by the filmmakers, but simply by doing what came naturally, a subversive work of art was born. As a general rule, only the best films are deemed dangerous enough to be banned – A Clockwork Orange, The Last Temptation of Christ, etc. – and in a country torn apart by Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and endless social upheaval, you better believe Night of the Living Dead was considered dangerous.

Our hero is Ben, a smart, resourceful black man played by Duane Jones, who had never acted before and would act only rarely after. Just casting a black man as a hero would have been considered shocking at the time, but Romero and his team just saw the right man for the job. Thank god they did because Jones’ performance is a vital breath of fresh air in a film culture that to this day is desperately lacking in strong black heroes.

He battles hordes of mindless drones, a ready-made metaphor for almost anything. Just take your pick – consumerism, television, political party loyalty, mobs of any kind, and basically all situations in which a large group of people comes together in thoughtless destruction. Joining Ben in the fight, to the limited extent they are able to help him, are Barbara, a young couple, and a family of three.

Of these side characters, the family and particularly the father is the most intriguing. Played by Karl Hardman, who performed multiple behind-the-scenes tasks on this film, Harry is a panicking, petty man interested in his own survival, the survival of his family, and everything else, in that order. In storytelling terms, he is a perfect foil for the calmly logical and eminently capable Ben, but if we dig deeper, we find a pointed jab at the patriarchal structure of American families and the myth of the “You can count on me” dad.

Some of this is there, and some of it is not, but all of it depends on your context for viewing. Because the zombies can be anything, anywhere, and anyone, the audience can plug itself into the terror, which means that no one will have the same experience as anyone else watching Night of the Living Dead. Whatever your deepest fears are, they are manifest in the form of zombies. You can run until you drop and hide until you cannot breathe, but they are coming to get you, me, Barbara, and everyone else. That is the gift of this movie, and the power of horror.

Tomorrow: (yells out the window) “Boy, what day is it?” “Why, today, it’s Halloween day.” And thus had Scrooge found his inner goodness. We wrap up the 31 Days of Horror with a swan song you will perhaps agree is appropriate.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Army of Darkness

Bruce Campbell shows us his boom stick in Army of Darkness.
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 29: Army of Darkness (1992)

Bold, charismatic leaders may not win wars, but they lead great armies. By the time Army of Darkness, the third film in the Evil Dead trilogy, rolls around to its epic conclusion, Bruce Campbell’s Ashley J. Williams has completed the metamorphosis that began in Evil Dead II. He is a leader of men, ready to take his troops into battle against a strong, superior, and supernatural enemy.

Onscreen evolution is easy to chart: We see actions translated either as cowardice or bravery, and we see competence translated as either success or failure. What is more difficult to appreciate is the evolution of the leader behind the camera, and like his heroic creation, director Sam Raimi is a bold, charismatic leader of men and women.

By the third film in his legacy-making trilogy, Raimi has gone from clearly talented novice to impossible-to-deny master of the craft. Army of Darkness is Raimi’s fifth feature film and would be the last time the horror maestro would tackle the genre for nearly two decades until his near-perfect Drag Me to Hell. For the lead into a 17-year horror hiatus, he threw everything at the wall, including a couple kitchen sinks. What he and his highly qualified cast and crew produced is a glorious exercise in excess, an over-the-top, genre-bending mash-up of everything Raimi holds dear.

Ash has been transported back to medieval times along with his car, his chainsaw, and his shotgun.  These accessories – which by this point, in ways both literal and figurative, are as much a part of Ash as his good hand – make him virtually a god in this mostly in-the-dark society. The first impression he makes is to kill a couple of the un-killable Deadites, an act which is now so commonplace as to almost be beneath him.

There is no denying that even at a rapid-fire 81 minutes, the plot gets convoluted, and it gets there quickly. To vanquish the Deadites for good, Ash must find the “Necronomicon,” which you may recognize as the book that got him into all this trouble in the first place. Along the way, there are wenches and women, wizards, magic, an army of tiny Ash’s, and the evil version of our intrepid hero –named Badash, no doubt with a wink and a nod.

Raimi’s influences are as much the Three Stooges and Jason and the Argonauts as anything from the first two films in the series. The comedy and old-school effects come flying from moment one, and coming from someone who has loved just about everything Raimi has done, I have to say this film feels the most like the one he was born to make. He clearly relishes the vastly increased budget – going from about $350,000 on The Evil Dead to $13 million on this picture – and puts every dollar on screen.

If some of the effects look hokey to modern eyes, well, they looked that way to viewers in 1992, as well. It is a purposeful effect, and if you are on Raimi’s wavelength – which you must be if you have made it this far in the series – you will love it. This is a director who showed enough talent and achieved enough success to warrant this kind of investment from a studio, and he used it to make the kind of movie he would have made for free in his parents’ backyard with even a few of the same actors.

The reason Army of Darkness hold up after all these years and what makes it worthy of rewatching is the do-it-yourself spirit of the cast and crew. Raimi went on to make some of the biggest, most expensive movies of the new century with the Spider-man series and Oz: The Great and Powerful, and there are wonderful thing about those movies, but when I really want to enjoy myself and be reminded why movies are fun, I will take Army of Darkness and the brilliant glow of a guy making a movie with his friends.

Tomorrow, for the penultimate entry in our series, we go straight to the top. We have explored the bloodiest, the most violent, the craziest, the darkest, and my personal favorite, but on Day 30, we are just looking at the best. I know we said this is not a best-of list, and it is not, but the month would not be complete without a superlative exclamation point somewhere.