Sunday, 25 November 2012

Sleepwalkers (1992)

Boyfriend and I recently received a VCR on indefinite loan from Boyfriend's parents. (Thank you, Boyfriend's parents)! Since then, we have tirelessly scoured Value Villages, scouted Salvation Armies, and spelunked small-town flea markets for long-forgotten celluloid trash and treasures. We have left no stone unturned in our quest for the best, and more importantly the worst, movies. And I am happy to inform you that in the latter respect, Sleepwalkers (Mick Garris, 1992) paid off big time.

This screenshot is somewhat misleading regarding the actual content of the movie.
Based on a Stephen King short story which was (to no one's surprise) never published, Sleepwalkers follows mother-and-son monster duo Charles (Brian Krause) and Mary (Alice Krige) on their disastrous quest to find a virgin to feed on. As their crucially intacta target they choose small-town usherette Tanya (Madchen Amick, parlaying her Twin Peaks fame into a fleeting sixteenth minute). Once Charles and Mary have taken out Charles' pederastically ambitious English teacher Mr. Follows (Glenn Shadix), Tanya's parents (Lyman Ward and Cindy Pickett gearing up for Ferris Bueller), and 3/4 of the local police department, we realize that Tanya's apparently invulnerable pursuers are weak to the scratch of a cat. Before you can say "meow mix", Charles and Mary meet a horrible, but also hilarious, death by tabby: cue the end credits, scored by Enya (no, really).

How is Sleepwalkers not remembered more fondly in the annals of horror trainwrecks? Its highlights rival the creme de la creme of the cinematic cheese-and-corn buffet. Someone is stabbed in the eye with a corkscrew. Someone is stabbed through the ear with a pencil. Someone is stabbed in the back with a boiled ear of corn. And the script. My god, the script. The script is so achingly bad, so wondrously inept, that it sent me into transports of unadulterated joy. Somebody out there, somewhere, wrote this. Somebody out there chose to have his or her villain ruthlessly stab a police officer, then punctuate the crime by screaming "COP KEBAB!" (Gore warning on the cop kebab... obviously).

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Sleepwalkers is that deep down inside this terrible movie is a decent movie trying to get out. A few moments -- Mary setting bear traps for the neighborhood cats, Mary and Charles' weirdly Oedipal relationship -- are almost disturbing. Plus there are cameos from Clive Barker (what?) Mark Hamill (what??) and even Stephen King (post-coke, ostensibly). Hollywood vegetables bent on remakes could do worse than Sleepwalkers. There is a scary movie in there somewhere. In the meantime, the original is entertaining in its own right.

Did you know she was in Mad Men? True fact.
FINAL GIRL: Tanya's sort of a nonentity in this movie; a force more acted-upon than acting; no brighter than basic human survival requires; basically, a cut-rate Molly Ringwald with a 90s makeover and a lobotomy. Madchen Amick does what she can with it. She can scream convincingly, anyway, which is all the role really demands. Also, she gets a bonus introductory dance montage that makes the movie ten times better if you're a Motown fan.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Favorite Movies

I spent some time this morning uselessly choosing my top ten favorite movies in order to put off going to the gym for as long as possible. So here they are: my all-time favorites offered up for your heartless judgement.
 

Thursday, 22 November 2012

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

It is perhaps time that I admitted something that may, in retrospect, already have been obvious to all of you. I think I might just have bad taste in movies. I didn't like Lawrence of Arabia. I didn't like Citizen Kane. But I liked I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997), which movie critics high and low universally reviled. Well... life goes on, I guess. And this review, too, goes on, as I spend several paragraphs and an irretrievable hour of my life trying to justify my fondness for this film.

The hilllllllls are alive.
I Know What You Did Last Summer kicks off in the smallest of small-town USA (seriously, this is legit Springsteen territory). Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Barry (Ryan Phillippe), Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) have just graduated high school, and to cap off their caps-off, Helen's been named Croaker Queen (think that's bad? Her surname is Shivers). Everything's peachy keen until a drunken Barry accidentally steers his car into a hapless jaywalker and the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed quartet have a hit-and-run on their hands. They drop the corpse off a dock and attempt to go about their post-high school lives, but inevitably the dead guy wasn't sufficiently dead and soon enough he's back to pick the pals off one-by-one.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
What I really love about I Know What You Did Last Summer is that it's a horror movie long before the Fisherman sinks his hook into our heroes. The small-town beauty queen who goes to NYC to make it big as an actress, then slinks back with her tail tucked between her legs... the nice boy from a good family who cuts his best friends dead when he decides he's been slumming it.... the smart kid with potential who ends up working his dad's fishing boat....That's horror. The grim figure stalking them through the backstreets, ready to gut them with a meat hook, is just the icing on the cake.

Parts of this movie are a little too meta and self-referential for my tastes (there's only one Scream and this ain't it, so quit telling each other slasher stories and name-checking Jodie Foster already). And of course, it's utterly predictable -- the bad kids die, the good kids live, and a sequel is shamelessly plugged. But there are also moments of inspired brilliance -- like Helen dumping the Fisherman's body in the basin while still wearing her Croaker Queen crown. Basically, I Know What You Did Last Summer is time well wasted. If there's nothing else on, you could do a lot worse. Citizen Kane, for example.

Jennifer hasn't quite found her sea legs, bless her.
FINAL GIRL: Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), the film's de facto final girl....

I think she borrowed that apron from Pyramid Head.
Is a lot less interesting than Missy (Anne Heche), the Fisherman's sister, who also makes it through to the end of the film. Missy is a slightly more genteel spin on the character Janus Blythe played in the original The Hills Have Eyes -- she's so ignorant and backwoods, it's hard to tell whether she's evil or just a hick. But Heche's haunted eyes and Les Mis bones stick with you as one of the few moments of genuine pathos in a movie that is mostly goofy fun. I wish Heche had done more acting in the 90s and less mooning around declaring that she was an alien being named Celestia.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Skyfall (2012)

THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE. SPOILERS. SO MANY SPOILERS. DON'T READ THIS POST IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN SKYFALL YET, BECAUSE IT WILL RUIN YOUR LIFE. Turn back now! This is your last chance! I am not responsible for your misery if you read beyond this point without having seen the movie. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. Get it?

SPOILER: Bond seduces a woman and drinks a martini.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) is one of those earworm film titles that lodges in your head the very first time you hear it, whether you've seen the movie or not. The string of three apparently random nouns has been endlessly parodied, often by sources that have no business acknowledging the film's existence (I'm looking at you, Goof Troop). What makes this title so compelling? Is it the sex? Is it the lies? Is it, god forbid, the videotape? I don't know. All I know is that if a movie features a twentysomething James Spader and has "sex" right there in the title, I'm checking it out.

I like this screenshot because it looks like an excerpt from an infomercial for a new, improved vacuum cleaner.
The plot of Sex, Lies, and Videotape is celluloid-thin. Married couple Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher) are the proud owners of a dead bedroom when John's school buddy Graham (James Spader) comes to town. Ann and Graham become increasingly intimate confidants; John doesn't notice because he's too busy banging Ann's sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) behind Ann's back. Graham soon confides to Ann that he's not only impotent, but that he gets his ya-yas out by filming women's sexual confessions. Before you can say "holy indie blockbuster, Batman!" Ann and Cynthia have both made tapes for Graham, inspiring both the voyeur and his subjects to reclaim their sexual agency. It's a happy ending for everyone but John, but you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs and he's a lawyer anyway.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is genuinely about nothing but those three things, but it never stops being interesting, because it finds infinite new angles to examine its material from. Sex is simaltaneously John's affair with Cynthia, Ann's desire to finally experience an orgasm, and Graham's peeping-Tom tapes. "Lies" encompasses Cynthia's sisterly betrayal, John's infidelity, Graham's history as a complusive liar, Ann's feigned disgust at Graham's very "personal" video project. The videotape is both the tape-er and the tape-ees, and what happens when the tables are turned and Graham's camera is finally pointed his way.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape moves at a hypnotic crawl, but it becomes increasingly engrossing. Despite its self-consciously trashy-cute title, and despite its seedy subject matter, the film depicts its characters in a manner that is both respectful and truthful. There's not a false note in the performances or the directing. You may get impatient during the slower scenes, but it's worth it in the end. Oh, the sex. Oh, the lies. Oh, the videotape.

I think this was his Marlon Brando impression.
SCENE STEALER: Steven Brill provides some much-needed comic relief as a drunk in the joint Cynthia bartends, He has exactly three pickup lines and swaps them out, or occasionally mixes them up, as the situation requires. Looking at Brill's filomgraphy, he was also the dishwasher in Edward Scissorhands and the screenwriter for the Mighty Ducks movie. One might say that the early 90s were... Brill-iant.

Ba ha ha ha ha!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Scream (1996)

Most great slasher movies are not especially good slasher movies. Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street... they're justifiably iconic, but they're also ill-acted, ill-written and largely ill-conceived. It might be fair to say that most slasher masterpieces (slasherpieces?) are brilliant in spite of themselves.

And then there's Scream.

Scream (Wes Craven, natch; 1996) is scary. Scream is funny. Scream is so tightly written, directed and edited that you barely notice two hours go by. Best of all, Scream shamelessly panders to the horror buffs in the audience. It pays twisted homage to the great-not-good slashers of yore while thumbing its nose at the genre's cliches. At times, Scream is less a horror film than a love letter to its predecessors, and yet it's often better than the films it pretends to rip off.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.
High schooler Sidney Prescott (90s roll call: Neve Campbell) is having a rough year. The anniversary of her mother's murder is fast approaching, and someone's marked the occasion by offing Sidney's English-lit classmate Casey Becker (90s roll call: Drew Barrymore). Sidney's friends and peers are assholes who loudly speculate with a total lack of empathy as to who could have committed the murder(s); her boyfriend Billy (90s roll call: Skeet Ulrich) wishes she would get over her mother's death and let him go to third base already; and Gale Weather (90s roll call: Courteney Cox), a cheesy tabloid reporter wearing April O'Neil's hand-me-downs, is writing a tell-all book about how Sidney fingered the wrong guy in her mother's murder. As Sidney's bad week gets worse, more locals are gutted, and a party thrown by Sidney's buddy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is crashed by the murderer and summarily blood-soaked. Sidney and Gale are forced to take matters into their own hands, slaying the killer and saving the day. Traumatized Sidney may be, but she'll have something unique to write about in her college admissions essay.

There's not a lot I don't love about Scream, but there are aspects that I find bemusing. Principally, the killer -- retroactively dubbed Ghostface -- seems to be a bit of a misfit in ye olde slasher canon. Most horror villains derive their staying power from their utter inscrutability: picture the blank and silent Michael and Jason, or the lumbering Leatherface. Ghostface is more in the flamboyant Freddy Krueger vein, but he's neither as grimy nor as grotesque as Krueger. Characterized by flirtatious pre-slaying crank calls, the ritualistic cleaning of his blade, and an odd tendency to get kicked in the balls, Ghostface veers uncertainly between glamor and effeminacy. It makes a little more sense when his true identity is revealed, but Ghostface is still an odd anomaly in a film that purports to follow the splatter bible by rote.

In intention and execution Scream is quite similar to 2012's The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard). Despite its being released over 15 years earlier, I think Scream is the more successful of the two films. Its big finale is certainly truer to its humble splatter-flick roots: Scream reinvents its conventions where Cabin in the Woods in content to merely bulldoze them. The scene in which Sidney assumes Ghostface's mantle to terrorize the killer beneath, for instance, redefines the much-maligned "Final Girl" stereotype. What's that Nietzsche quote? "Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you." I'm aware that I'm  babbling nonsense, so I'm just going to insert a picture of Rose McGowan here and get on with the review.

Scream is set in California, except for this one scene which apparently takes place at the North Pole.
SCENE STEALER: Sidney's best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) is a simpering, lollipop-slobbering, pigtail-twirling pop tart -- until Ghostface makes his move. Then she turns into a biting, kicking harpy who comes closer to besting her killer than any other victim. Tatum's death -- trapped as she tries to crawl out the pet flap in the garage door and electrocuted by the door-open mechanism -- is probably unique in cinema history (and real life, for that matter). It also lends itself almost too well to a feminist analysis of the slutty blonde's role in the horror genre. Isn't it true that Tatum, although infantilized and objectified by the other characters, perishes only when she becomes willing to objectify herself by crawling out an exit intended for a lower form of life (the family cat)? Or should I just put down the Camille Paglia and go take a long walk in the fresh air?