Search This Blog

Friday, December 25, 2020

WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020) Spoiler-Free Review

 

Gal Gadot returns.

It's Christmas Day and WONDER WOMAN 1984 has dropped in selected theaters and simultaneously in theaters. Was is as good as director Patty Jenkins's inaugural entry in the series? Here are my thoughts on the matter, speaking as a lifelong Wonder Woman boster who was raised by a first-generation reader of the comics during the Golden Age:
  • I enjoyed it but it certainly is not without flaws, chief of which is its unnecessary over-length. The same story could have been told with at least a half hour judiciously edited.
  • Diana is seen in costume and superheroic action for less than fifteen percent of the film, so don't go in expecting what you got from her in JUSTICE LEAGUE. She's still a fun character though, and Gal Gadot manages to give her charm and personality, both aspects that, despite Diana's iconic status as a comics archetype and pop culture figure, she seldom possesses in most media. She's always been a great visual and symbol, but it takes someone special at the writing helm to make her more than just a distaff Heracles.
     
  • I initially balked at the casting of Kristen Wiig as Barbara Minerva/the Cheetah, but she did a very good job with the role.
  • Pedro Pascal's Maxwell Lord is every bit the on-the-nose Donald Trump analogue I expected, but he's also quite good.
  • I could have done without the inclusion of Aristea's golden eagle armor, as it was quite nakedly included to provide a merchandising alternative to Diana's signature look. It has no charm or anything that really makes it visually interesting, but at least its screen time is short.
  • The return of Steve Trevor actually makes sense and does turn out to be a major crux in the plot, so that gets a pass. The chemistry between Gadot and Pine works well and is more believable than many romances in superhero cinema.
  • What museum keeps a stock of fully-fueled and operational aircraft? Also, ace pilot or not, there is no way Trevor would have been able to just sit down and suss out the controls on a fighter jet roughly 66 years more advanced than the prop planes of his era.   
     
    The inclusion of longtime DC Comics antagonist Simon Stagg (from the cast of Metamorpho) and mention of first generation Wonder Woman villain the Duke of Deception. The latter figures majorly into the overall plot, but he is never actually seen.
  • The film features four action set pieces and all are fun, though I found the climactic set-to with the Cheetah to be somewhat of an anti-climax. To tell the truth, when really examined, her part in the story could easily have been left out, but the Cheetah os arguably Diana's Number One "Big Bad," so she kind of had to be in this film, I guess.
  • One definite selling point is that though the story is set in 1984, the soundtrack does not take that as an excuse to bombard us with ’80’s pop music hits. In fact the only such usage I noticed was a snippet of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” during a party scene, and it wasn’t even one of the more obvious parts of the song. 
     
    Stick around for a fun mid-end credits bit that is guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of longtime Wonder Woman boosters.
Bottom Line: WONDER WOMAN 1984 is a fun flick and a better-than-average sequel that actually sticks to the themes of its character and what she's about at her core. It's too long for its own good, but it's paced briskly enough and does not fall flat at the ending like the first film did. (That said, the ending may come off as a tad less flashy and slam-bang as some might want, but I thought it fit Diana and her themes.)
Lastly, as a film for ending this utterly miserable garbage fire of a year, this film solidly delivers a much-needed dose of sunshine, kindness, and hope. B+

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

IT WAS 40 YEARS AGO TODAY

Dear Vaulties-

here's a re-run from the past couple of years, complete with the title change and a few edits to render the accurate passage of time. Bear with it, because this has become an annual fixture.
NOTE : every word of the following story is true (or rather remembered as exactly as humanly possible given that nearly four decades have elapsed since it happened), and if you find some of it offensive at this late date, imagine being in my shoes at age fifteen!

December 9th, 1980-

It was the start of my tenth grade school day morning and I was disgruntled (as usual) at being denied sleep and instead being herded along with the rest of the cattle at Westport, CT's Staples High School into yet another inane class.

The first item of regurgitation/education of the morning was English with Mr. Dyskolos (not his real name; changed for reasons soon to be apparent), a late-forty-something red-headed guy who then resembled what Danny Bonaduce looks like today, who was also among the minute handful of teachers whose classes would keep students awake because he was genuinely interesting, did not talk down to the kids, and had not allowed the thankless teaching system to beat him down and force him to consider his job a mocking reminder of wage-slavery. (I'm the son of a veteran high school teacher, so I speak with a working knowledge of such things.)

As the students took their chairs we all noticed that Mr. Dyskolos's usual laid-back manner seemed somewhat "off" that morning and after nearly a minute of total silence while he stared into space as though contemplating some cosmic truth or inevitability, he suddenly focused himself, looked at us and said, as serious as a heart attack, "By the look of you, you haven't heard what happened this morning. I'll just get right to it. John Lennon, de facto leader of the Beatles, was shot dead by some lunatic fan." Most of the class had indeed not heard about Lennon's murder and those of us who hadn't, myself among them, were stunned. But before the horrible truth could fully set in, Mr. Dyskolos continued. "You kids probably know a lot about the Beatles from what your parents or maybe your older brothers and sisters played for you, but you can't even begin to imagine the worldwide pop culture impact those guys had at the time. Obviously I was there for the 1960's and can tell you firsthand what it was like, but I'm gonna spare you that nauseating, self-indulgent trip down memory lane. I guarantee you that all your other teachers are going to suspend actual teaching for the day and drag you along for their reminiscences of their flower-power salad days, but I'm not gonna do that to you. Instead, I'm gonna tell you a few truths that you won't hear anywhere else in this school, or damn near anywhere else, on what's gonna no doubt be a day of worldwide mourning."

He leaned forward in his chair, his face a mask of utmost solemnity, and uttered words that blew the minds of the roomful of privileged suburban white kids (and me): "The Beatles sucked. They were a bunch of marginally talented 'heads' who started out ripping off the work of their black American influences and made a hell of a lot of money for no good reason, killing real rock 'n' roll in the process and unleashing legions of even less-talented imitators in that godawful British Invasion nonsense. And then they went to India, supposedly to gain 'enlightenment' or some other George Harrison-inspired bee-ess, but if you ask me all it did was make their music more annoying." To emphasize that point of criticism, Mr. Dyskolos began making a nasal and high-pitched "neeeeeeer neeeeeer neeeeeeeeeee neeeer" sound by way of approximating the tones of a sitar.

By this point in his diatribe you could have heard an amoeba fart.

Young eyes practically bugged out of their sockets and jaws had fallen into laps. This was rock 'n' roll blasphemy in the extreme, and on the morning of the senseless slaughter of a man held by most in the room to be a hero of peace, love and great music, no less. Our worlds were shaken to the core. And then Mr. Dyskolos continued, still looking solemn, but his mouth betrayed a slight half-smile as he was very obviously enjoying his class' speechless outrage.

"Then they put out that asinine White Album that had exactly two good songs on it — 'Birthday" and 'Back in the U.S.S.R.,' and those two were good because they sound like actual rock 'n' roll! — and they had the fucking unbelievable nerve to include that 'Revolution 9' horseshit! What the hell was that? (assumes comedic Liverpudlian accent) 'Noombuh nine? Noombuh nine?' What a load of crap! I'm telling you kids right here and now, remember how 'deep' that bullshit is when you decide to give acid a try!" (NOTE: this was the first time I ever hear a teacher curse when not discussing some of the content in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.)

Before he could say another word, Mr. Dyskolos was cut off and drowned out by an aural assault of irate dissenting opinion, his every word being tarred as the rantings of an anti-peace & love curmudgeon who "just didn't get it." "Who do you think you are???" shrieked several of my classmates. "The Beatles were the most important band in history! John Lennon and Paul McCartney were two of the greatest songwriters who ever lived! Are you crazy?" Dyskolos responded with a sneer that would have done Vincent Price proud and uttered my favorite comeback heard in all of my teenage years, whether I agreed with him or not: "What the hell did they ever write that was worth a goddamn? 'We all live in a yellow submarine?' Puh-leeeeze. The only reason you kids enshrine those hacks is because of nostalgia filtered down from parents who were barely your age when the Beatles showed up and absorbed by the general public and your older brothers and sisters who used that garbage as a soundtrack for when they'd sneak off to smoke weed in the back of a 'bitchin' van. Which also explains how anybody could ever find the stomach to listen to those Doors assholes! Face it, kids. For some of what are supposed to be this country's brightest young minds, you sure are a bunch of programmed parrots!" And when one of the students blurted out that John Lennon was a symbol of "give peace a chance," our sage teacher batted that one aside with "You've obviously never heard about the time when Mr. Give Peace A Chance went to some club and hung out with a Kotex stuck to his forehead," a then-shocking truth that only elicited more teenage keening.

That was the real meat of it but the back and forth ranting went on for the class's full hour, with order barely being restored with the ringing of the bell marking the rotation to the next class. Each of my classmates and I zombied off to the next class and swiftly discovered that Mr. Dyskolos had been correct in his auguring. Indeed, each and every teacher I had to endure for the rest of the day derailed the planned curriculum in favor of rose-colored reminiscences of "a more innocent time" full of free love, "the people getting together, man!"and how the Beatles were the troubadours that saw them through all of it and changed to reflect the time. That was all well and good in theory, but not for hours on end as heard from speakers of wildly varying levels of eloquence (to say nothing of interest), with lunch being the day's only respite from what was essentially the same story only with the most minor of variations. When the day finally ended I headed downtown to do my volunteer teaching of a cartooning class at the local YMCA and the journey allowed me some time to process the events of the day and the "truths" imparted.

I'd grown up liking the Beatles quite a lot but didn't own any of their albums on vinyl thanks to their many hits being available in endless rotation on some of the nascent stations that played what would come to be known as "classic rock," and as the seventies ended I avoided the agonizing repetition of disco and such by listening to the excellent oldies station WBLI out of Long Island, a radio entity that served to plant the seeds of my passion for pre-1970's rock that was either primitive and raw or bizarre and very much off the beaten path. WBLI played some of the standard Beatles hits, but they also threw stuff like "Devil in Her Heart," "Dig A Pony" and "Rain" (nowadays my favorite Beatles tune of all) into the mix and showed me just how much the classic rock stations played the same Fab Four songs over and over and over and over and over again, ad nauseum, and taking into account the espoused theory — voiced with absolute certainty of its veracity — that myself and my fellow students may have been a bunch of programmed drones, I began to wonder if Mr. Dyskolos had in fact done his young charges a favor by showing none of the rote reverence extended to the favorite sons of Liverpool by all who drew breath. He had effectively "killed our idol" on the day when one would expect nothing but 100% adherence to the party line, and that greatly intrigued my punk rock-influenced sensibilities.

As I pondered these thoughts, I wandered past Westport Record and Tape, one of the town's most accessible record stores, and greeted Jean, the sweet southern proprietor. I asked her if the shooting of John Lennon had affected her sales that day and she said, "Honey, look over at the Beatles and John Lennon sections. Whadda you see? Tumbleweeds 'n' cattle skulls, that's what! Folks came in and cleaned the place out like they were a bunch of vinyl-eatin' locusts! On sales of Beatles and Lennon records alone, I could close early today." And it was true. Every single Beatles/Lennon platter had vanished into the Westport ether, bought up by fools who believed those perennial best-sellers (okay, maybe not SOMETIME IN NEW YORK CITY) would become instant collector's items.

Later that night as I lay there in my bed staring up at the white stucco ceiling, I listened to my cassette tape of SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (the only Beatles album I owned at the time) and experienced it in a way that I never had before. I'd listened to it about two dozen times since acquiring it a couple of years previous, but now it served as a poignant grave marker for my favorite member of the Beatles and its words took on a whole new timbre. No one would be "fixing a hole" in Lennon and ensuring he would live to see sixty-four and beyond. He would not be getting better and there would be no more good mornings for him. Yet tragic though it was, this was just another day in the collective life, and that life would go on without John Lennon (though obviously not "within").

I remember the hue and cry when Elvis Presley, the so-called King of Rock 'n' Roll, gave up the ghost and people acted as though the world had come to an end, and I frankly didn't get it. I liked some of Elvis's music, but it didn't really speak to me in the way that the Beatles had and I now chalk that up to the Beatles happening during what could arguably be considered the most pivotal period of the twentieth century, a time that redefined much of American culture and into which my generation was born. We didn't grow up with Elvis, whose music helped set the template of rock 'n' roll, but we did come along during the rise of the Beatles and reached early sentience while under the influence of their sound. We couldn't know at the time just what their contribution meant, but we did know that we liked it. Obsessive poring over the minutia of the whys and wherefores of their lives, art and careers would come later. At that point in our young lives love was indeed all we needed, and in the wake of the plastic disco era and what small impact punk had in the U.S. at the time, that wasn't a bad thing.

So today marks the fortieth anniversary of John Lennon's senseless slaughter and for me the day that it happened becomes ever more remote, so I figured I'd jot down my experience of it before age robs it of what clarity remains. If any of you have tales of that day, please write in and share.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 31: JENNIFER'S BODY (2009)

When your supposed BFF just ain't right.

Our story is narrated by our protagonist,  nerdy-but-cute high-schooler Anita "Needy" Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried), from behind the walls of a Minnesota women's mental institution, where she now resides as a violent inmate whose propensity for assaulting the inmates and the guards earns her frequent trips to solitary.

Needy has been best friends with Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) since their sandbox days, and one is hard-pressed to understand exactly why. Needy is a sweet girl buy Jennifer, one of that breed of sexually-aggressive high school goddesses whose stunning beauty and smokin'-hot bod practically guaranteed she'd end up a cheerleader, could kindly be described as an alpha female "mean girl," and she lords her position and social status over all around her. Needy is no exception, but apparently their very one-sided friendship serves a purpose for the nerdette.

Jennifer: a self-proclaimed "great friend " and a truly horrid human being.

On a night when Needy had intended to spend some quality time with her boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons), Jennifer demands Needy's presence as her wing man, as she wants to go to a local club (actually a dive bar) so she can stalk the hunky lead singer of the indie emo band Low Shoulder. This is just the latest time that Jennifer has hijacked Needy, thus derailing Chip's plans, and the exchange between him and Jennifer makes it clear that there is no love lost. Anyway, the underage girls get into the bar (which apparently does not check I.D.s at all) and Jennifer makes a beeline toward the band. She does not even attempt to hide her lady-boner for the singer, while Needy take sin instant dislike to him, considering him a "creep." While Jennifer hits the bar to get drinks for herself and her bestie, Needy overhears the band members discussing Jennifer and taking quite an interest in whether or not she's a virgin. Needy calls them out for that and attempts to keep and eye on the randy Jennifer, but a fire mysteriously breaks out, burning the bar to ground while many people, adults and the girls' classmates, are either immolated or crushed underneath the escaping panicked throng. The girls make their escape the the bathroom window, but the second they are outside the douchey singer takes the hand of a dazed Jennifer and tries to lure her into his bitchin' van. (I'm not certain but she acts likes she's either drunk or roofied.) Needy tries to convince Jennifer not to go with the band, but she's too smitten (and possibly wasted) to resist. As the singer leads her into the van, the singer smirks at Needy before slamming the door and driving off.

Needy, appalled at her friend ditching her for four strangers.

Understandably freaked-out by the carnage and also by Jennifer leaving with the band for god knows what fate, Needy calls Chip and tells him what happened. While on the phone with Chip, Needy hears an intruder downstairs, and she should be alone in the house because her mom is working the swing shift. The intruder turns out to be Jennifer, who's completely covered in blood and acting strange. She does not answer when the frantic Needy asks her what happened, instead raiding the fridge and devouring a roast chicken from the floor like an animal. She then does some EXORCIST-level projectile vomiting, only the spew is inky/jet-black, with unknown spiny objects within. Jennifer, in a display of inhuman strength, hoists the terrified Needy against the wall and begins sniffing around her neck like a vampire, but she backs off and leaves, leaving a horrified and confused needy to clean up the mess.

The following day, the girls' high school has become a place of communal mourning as the students come together over the loss of friends and family. A shell-shocked Needy is astounded to see Jennifer show up like nothing happened, and her callous disregard for the tragedy is the first clue that Needy notices that tells her her bestie is not right. From there matters escalate, as Jennifer, who is now more alluring than usual, embarks on a killing spree, targeting various males among the student body. Things deteriorate between the girls as Needy, spurred by her best friend's negative traits coming to fore more aggressively, tries to distance herself from Jennifer and reflects on the nature of their long-term so-called friendship. But Jennifer will not leave her alone and, in a weird attempt at keeping the friendship going, she climbs through Needy's window and tries to seduce her. The two start to get hot and heavy but Needy snaps out of it and demands to know just what the hell is going on of late. Jennifer states that there should be no secrets between besties, so she makes with an origin story:

On the night of the fire and her abduction, the members of Low Shoulder drive Jennifer into the deep woods, where Jennifer quite understandably fears that she's about to be gang-raped. Such is not the case, however, as Low Shoulder intends to sacrifice her to dark powers in exchange for success and fame, because things are hard for a struggling indie band. Jennifer pleads for her life, suggesting that the band kidnap some other girl, "someone who knows how to do sex things," as she claims she knows nothing because she's a virgin. The truth of the matter is that she has been quite sexually active since junior high, but she's not gonna tell the band that. Psyched at having a self-proclaimed virgin in their clutches, the guys do their best to scare her, because fear further purifies the ritual, and the end up stabbing Jennifer to death with a Bowie knife. They leave her for dead and drive off to hoped-for success.

Jennifer further explains that she came back from the dead — she does not know the how or the why of it — and during the time since the ritual murder she has discovered that she came back with a number of supernatural powers, such as inhuman strength, levitation, and a Wolverine-like healing factor that makes her damned near unkillable. The only hitch is that she must kill and consume human flesh, preferably male once per month, or her inhuman looks and sexual allure will fade. Appalled, Needy kicks her out and the two begin to grow distant.

Needy puts her nerd skills to good use and researches exactly what happened to Jennifer, studying several books on the occult, witches, and dark rituals, and she concludes that the band botched the ritual by offering an "impure" sacrifice, so a case of demonic transference took place, allowing Jennifer to become a vessel for a murderous succubus. She also discovers that the only way to stop the succubus is to destroy her heart. What follows in the best teen dance horror movie finale since the original CARRIE (1976), as matters escalate, betrayal occurs, and Needy truly comes to terms with the true nature of her relationship with Jennifer. When all is said and done, Needy does what needs to be done, resulting in unexpected side-effects...

 I skipped JENNIFER'S BODY when it came out, because it looked like just another shitty "teen" horror outing, starring two of my least favorite female leads, and also because it was universally lambasted upon release. I saw it for the first time yesterday and I am glad to say that it is a deeply misunderstood effort that is far more intelligent than the vox populi would have one believe, and bith Fox and Seyfried are fantastic in their roles. Written by JUNO scribe Diablo Cody, the film displays some of the most believably-written and believable-sound teenagers ever to grace the screen. I'm a guy who has always fit in better with my female friends, so I have seen and heard pretty much everything and seen all the ways that females interact since I was in high school, and Cody's examination of the specific inter-female dynamic seen here rings as very authentic, with Jennifer's demonic side being the sort of cunty inner beast that many high school hotties express, especially when dominating an easily-manipulated less-secure friend, only writ horrifyingly and homicidally large. Jennifer was always evil and bad friend, but it took supernatural madness to wake Needy up to that fact.

I was going to review HEREDITARY as this year's final 31 DAYS OF HORROR entry, but I'd recently heard good things about JENNIFER'S BODY, so I gave it a chance. It's one of the best horror films of the early 2000's and is apparently finding the justice it deserves as it is reexamined and reappraised in a time that is more open to what it has to say. It was not helped by its studio focusing on Megan Fox's hotness and catering to her horny male fan base with the film's marketing, which made it look like another disposable and brainless teen horror flick, instead of the intelligent ultra-dark comedy that it actually is. Of this year's roster of 31 DAYS OF HORROR choices, this is one is my pick for the cream of the crop, an outstanding high school movie and equally superb as a demonic possession story, and I cannot recommend it enough. A must-see for all horror fans, both hardened grown-up "monster kids" and civilians alike.

Poster from the theatrical release. Talk about totally mis-marketing your film...

And with that, I bid all of you a safe and Happy Halloween 2020 in spite of the pandemic. If you can't go out, stay in and educate yourself on horror movies. And if you do go out, remember social distancing protocols and wear your mask! (By which I mean a face covering intended for use in the pandemic, ya sillies!) Thanks for reading CINE-MISCREANT and see y'all next year!

 

Friday, October 30, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020 -Day 30: NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962)

When you REALLY have no idea what the fuck you're talking about.

Psychology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) lectures a class on superstition and occult lore, firmly establishing him as a man firmly rooted in the empirically quantifiable and the rational. He's relatively young and happily married and his future at the British university where he teaches looks bright, what with a pretty young student clearly making eyes at him, along with him being under serious consideration for advancement of his academic career. As far as he's concerned, everything is coming up roses, but his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), knows better. She understands the subtleties of communication between women, specifically her interactions with the other university wives, and she has takes steps to ensure her husband's safety and that of his career against the perceived hostility of the other professors' spouses. You see, Tansy is into the mystic arts, specifically those she encountered during a trip to Jamaica and that she continues to foster on her solo weekends at her cabin getaway. Her position in the all-female power play is made clear early on, during a bridge game with the professors and their wives, and we see the vicious hatred and jealousy fairly radiating from the hateful university secretary, Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston), whose husband's career stalled when Norman arrived. Tansy, being unable to sleep after the bridge game, goes downstairs and discovers a crude voodoo doll made in her image and affixed inside a lampshade, where it was unlikely to be found. Tansy remove the fetish item, cracks it open, spilling its powdery contents into an ashtray and setting them alight.

 

A hidden item of voodoo.

One night while searching for a fresh pair of pajamas, Norman rummages through one of the bedroom dresser's drawers and finds a dessicated spider in a carved box hidden at the bottom of the drawer. When he confronts Tansy on this, she nervously laughs it off off, stating it was a souvenir from her last trip to Jamaica, a gift and "good luck charm" from a warlock whose acquaintance she had made while there. Upon returning home from work the next day, Norman notices a bell that Tansy has hung in the rafter above their house's front door. Puzzled and thinking back to the spider he'd discovered, Norman's knowledge of occult lore and superstition is activated and he searches the entire house, unearthing a plethora of items that are clearly for the use in spells and ritual, including some sort of juju pouch pinned inside the collar of his jacket.

A wife's charms exposed.

Disturbed by the trinkets and by his wife's actions, Norman demands the truth from Tansy, and he does not like what he gets: Two years prior, during their trip to Jamaica, Norman almost died and was so close to death that conventional practitioner of medicine had given up on him. The desperate Tansy voiced her desire to trade her life for her husbands, inspired by her witnessing of a local warlock bringing very dead girl back to life. Without having to forfeit her life, Tansy, inspired by what she has seen and now believes is unarguably real, begins practicing the arts of obeah, practices that "seem" to work. Since their arrival at the university, Tansy has been using her magic to improve things for her husband while warding off the other women. She declares that she is a full-on practicing witch, much to Norman's disgust and annoyance, so he demands that she burn all of her charms while declaring his disappointment at how someone as smart and rational as his wife would ever do something so "stupid." Tansy is distraught over this, stating that they cannot survive with her protections, but she nonetheless complies and watches in fear as Norman sets her wards alight. Funny how one's words can come right back to bite one on the ass, no? From the instant the last of Tansy's items goes up in flames, Norman's life and career turn into an ever-widening gyre of doom as the other witches are now free to utterly destroy him. A false rape accusation from his obsessed student, nearly getting run down by a lorry driver, a near-deadly confrontation with his most belligerent and now gun-wielding male student (who was interested in the rape accuser but was jilted in favor of her infatuation with Norman), strange noises in and around the house, a cursed audio tape and madness-inducing sounds from the telephone all add up to Norman beginning to believe, all while a stone eagle watches and waits. But Tansy is not down for the count. Not by a long shot...

 

It's merely a statue...

This British adaptation of legendary fantasy writer Fritz Leiber's classic story CONJURE WIFE (1943, but later published in extended novel form a decade later), does considerable justice to its source material, though it shifts the location from New England to the U.K. The book has long been one of my favorites, as I read it as if it were a dark version of the classic TV sitcom BEWITCHED (1964-1972). While BEWITCHED mined the concept of a with married to a mundane/mortal husband who tried (and failed) to get her not to use her powers for often-hilarious comedy, Leiber aimed for more serious and darker results, and came up with gold. The story was earlier filmed as WEIRD WOMAN (1944), but its narrative was reportedly re-jiggered as more of a mystery than a straight-up supernatural thriller. I have never seen it, so I cannot speak for its qualities, but I know if I had read CONJURE WOMAN and gone in expecting something close to the source and got a fucking mystery, I would have been pissed. Speaking as a fan of the novel, NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, which was re-titled BURN, WITCH, BURN for the American release, I very much enjoyed this adaptation of it definitely recommend it to those who, like me, love a good witchy yarn. If I had to sum it up in a nutshell, this is kind of THE CRAFT for grownups.

Poster from the original U.K. theatrical release.
 
Poster from the American theatrical release.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 29: GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)

I wish they'd aimed their proton blasts at my head and blown it off, rather than allow me to sit through this creative cul de sac...

I finally sat through the much-maligned GHOSTBUSTERS (2016) and while it is not the worst thing I've ever endured — far from it — it really is as bad as they say. As I endured it the other night, by about 48 minutes into it I decided against writing on it for this year's round of seasonal essays, but after mulling it over further I figured I'd just bite the bullet and let my voice be heard.

The 2016 GHOSTBUSTERS is basically an attempted remake/reboot of the classic 1984 supernatural comedy, and as such it's defeated as of frame one. The original was an unarguable case of lightning in a bottle, the prefect film that landed just at the right time in history and that went on to become a beloved touchstone. Everything about it, from its script to its performances to its superb practical effects, was right on the money, and anyone with a brain in their head could sit through it and tell you that it was the kind of thing that just cannot be replicated or sequelized without subsequent entries being doomed to be at the very least lesser than the source material. Such was the case with GHOSTBUSTERS II (1989), a sequel that was painfully lackluster in every way, and that's definitely the case with the 2016 iteration. There was a reason why the would-be franchise lay fallow for 27 years after the failure of the first sequel.

This time around the studio pretty much stuck to the concept of the original film, which was an origin story but clearly intended as a "done in one" piece, but this time around the four protagonists are played by well-known comedic actresses, three veterans of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE — Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon — and one all-purpose comedic mainstay (Melissa McCarthy, who was phenomenal in BRIDESMAIDS and the criminally underrated SPY).

In a nutshell: The group comes together after managing to capture a ghost, but the NYC Mayor's office demands that they shut down operations immediately, despite the Mayor knowing what they do is real, so as to avoid mass hysteria, and the officials also launch of campaign to discredit the Ghostbusters as attention-seeking frauds. Meanwhile, a disgruntled misanthrope plots to bring about the end of the world by opening a portal the beyond, killing himself in the process as part of his plan, thus becoming a ghost of considerable power. The final act is a rehash of the end of the original, only with modern CGI effects that make it look like watching someone else play a video game. Also, the film  is peppered with loads of catering to nostalgia, including useless cameos by the remaining principals from the 1984 original, a memorial bust of Egon Spengler (since Harold Ramis is the only original Ghostbuster to have died in real life),  a regular hearse pimped-out into the new Ecto-1 (which makes zero sense as the original Ecto-1 was clearly a vintage ambulance), an appearance by Slimer, and an awful contemporary version of the Ghostbusters theme (as if the original wasn't over-saturated ad nauseum, and it's still in fairly heavy rotation on oldies stations and during Halloween), none of which add anything to the overall narrative.

The cast seems to have been handed the most rudimentary of scripts and told to improvise and "be funny," and while all of the leads are quite capable of eliciting laughs elsewhere, the ad-libbing here was out of control and mostly crashed and burned. The bright spots in the performances include Kate McKinnon's deliriously weird engineer Holtzman, who's so strange that she often feels like she escaped from some other far-better movie. She the maddest of mad scientists and she's so bizarre that it's impossible not to want to see her in the spotlight. For me, McKinnon stole the film. The other standout, and a true shock to me, is Leslie Jones as Patty, a subway booth worker with real smarts and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of New York City's buildings and landmarks, which comes in handy when she becomes the fourth Ghostbuster. I am not a fan of her work elsewhere, as I find her usual schtick to be loud, ghetto-stereotypical, and coonish to the point of bordering on minstrelsy (minus burnt cork), but here she was easily the most grounded, normal-acting, and relatable of the protagonists. And then there's Chris Hemsworth, who's about as far away from his signature performance as Thor as he could get. He plays Kevin, the hunky receptionist who gets hired because he's major eye-candy, despite the fact that he is dumber than a bag of hammers. Hemsworth was allowed to do a lot of ad-libbing, as he has proven himself quite capable of delivering laughs elsewhere (most notably in THOR: RAGNAROK), but here he ventures deep into the Twilight Zone of bizarro dumber-than-dumb character creation. Kevin is simply too stupid to live, and even within the context of a goofy comedy, he's just too much. No one in their right mind would hire him for any job imaginable, and his would-be wackiness utterly fails to land. To put it more succinctly, it wastes its cast — I'm looking at you, Charles Dance — with the exception of Kate McKinnon's aggressively loony distaff Egon Spengler, and and Jones's relatable everywoman who's thrust from the mundane world into paranormal weirdness and superheroics virtually overnight.

It's all a soulless and wholly unnecessary quasi-remake reboot that brings nothing to the table and apparently had no real creative vision going in, other than to establish a franchise that the studio could milk the shit out of. The jokes all fall as flat as a roadkill raccoon, and there is nothing as tragic as a comedy that utterly fails at its main goal, which is making the audience laugh.

GHOSTBUSTEWRS 2016 is a creatively bankrupt piece of cranked-out corporate product cinema, no more, no less. And don't blame its failure on its leads. Them being women has zero to do with it. This would have been a dud with anyone in these roles.  And now GHOSTBUSTERS AFTERLIFE looms, which is an attempt at course correction that chooses to ignore the 2016 iteration and instead focuses on a bunch of tweens who take up the Ghostbusters mantle. I hope it turns out to be good, but after the fialed direct sequel to the original and then the 2016 debacle, I have to say I have the lowest of expectations...

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-DAY 28: COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019)

Laser Floyd it ain't.

The formerly city-dwelling Gardner family moves to a remote country house after wife and mother Nancy (Joely Ricahrdson) undergoes a mastectomy, the idea being that the rustic tranquility of their alpaca farm will aid in her recovery. Along with Nancy are her husband Nathan (Nicholas Cage), stoner eldest son Benny (Brendan Meyer), Wiccan middle child Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and Jack (Julian Hilliard), the youngest. All is going well, what with Lavinia performing amateur rituals to keep her mom's cancer at bay, and Nathan tenderly proving to Nancy how much he loves her (she is at a loss for grasping how he could possibly still find her desirable), but their charmingly idyllic world is irrevocably thrown into chaos when a meteorite plummets from the stars and lands in their yard, accompanied by a spectacular and rather lysergic lightshow. This out-of-this-world rock possess a number of strange properties, such as causing the local flora and fauna to mutate into creatures that are definitely not of this world, allowing young Jack to communicate with unseen "friends," contaminating fruit and vegetable crops, and rendering the local water sources undrinkable. Matters only get weirder as more strange life forms manifest, tempers flare, and a semi-catatonic Nancy cuts off some of her fingers while chopping carrots. From there things go full-tilt cosmic as Nathan basically goes completely mad and the entity from within the meteorite shows up to wreak unfathomable havoc. Sometimes being 12 miles away from any hope of help is a stone-cold bitch.

The latest mining of the vast lode that is H.P. Lovecraft and his concepts, COLOR OUT OF SPACE is one of the most evocative screen adaptations of the author's catalog, deftly managing to visualize his signature cosmic and unknowable sense of crawling dread and man's utter insignificance when stacked against powerful beings from beyond. The cast is solid, with Nicholas Cage stealing the show with a slow-burn full-tilt gonzo decent into madness (or what he simply calls Tuesday), and a fun turn by Tommy Chong as Ezra, the friendly hippie squatter who resides on the Gardners' property and who is the first to truly twig to what is transpiring.

I won't go into the surprises that film has in store, but I will state that the film's leisurely pace allows us to get to know all of the characters and actually care about them before the shit goes south. They are all likeable people and none of them deserve what turns up in their front yard. All I'll say is that the third act owes a large and disturbing debt to John Carpenter's THE THING (1982), and that COLOR OUT OF SPACE is absolutely worth your time. Very much RECOMMENDED.

Poster from the theatrical release. A very accurate depiction of just some of the film's events.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 27: THE BLACK ROOM (1935)

Gregor and Anton: twin roles that allow Boris Karloff to show of his considerable range

Hungary, the late 18th century: The twin heirs to the baronial clan de Berghmann are born, but their birth is not greeted with celebration. Their birth is a harbinger of the end of the family, as they are the fulfillment of a dire prophecy that states much as the line was begun by a pair of twins, the elder of which was murdered by his younger sibling, it was destined to come to an end when the same act of fratricide is committed by the next set of twin sons to come along. The catalyzing event occurred in the Black Room, a hidden dungeon featuring implements of torture and a deep it for the disposal of bodies. The identical twins, Anton and Gregor (both portrayed by horror legend Boris Karloff) are visually alike in every way, save for Anton being born with a paralyzed right arm. The boys grow up together in the castle and endure the deaths of their parents, and when their father passes Gregor, the elder of the pair, inherits the title of baron, along with absolute power over the local peasantry, while Anton leaves to travel abroad and study. Things skip ahead by many years and Anton returns to the castle, summoned by Gregor. His resemblance to his brother shocks the locals, who had more or less forgotten his existence, and Anton soon discovers that his brother is hated with a white-hot passion by all and sundry. In the years since Anton's departure, Gregor has proven himself to be a cruel and tyrannical ruler who also sidelines in the rape and murder of girls from the village, thus fomenting an imminent uprising by the locals. Upon arriving at the castle, Anton is warmly welcomed and attempts to verify the claims made against his brither, but Gregor shuts down his inquiries at every turn.

The pair are invited to the home of family friend Colonel Hassell (Thurston Hall), where Anton meets and is instantly smitten with the Colonel's lovely daughter, Thea (Marian Marsh). Gregor has long had designs on Thea and makes it known to her father that he intends to make her his baroness, but Thea's heart belongs to young soldier Lieutenant Lussan (Robert Allen), who distrusts Gregor and would kill him in cold blood if he could get away with it. With the love quadrangle in place, Gregor sets in motion a diabolical scheme that frames the Lieutenant for the murder of Gregor's mistress, Maska (Katherine De Mille), thus getting him out of the way, and arouses the ire of the locals who, having had enough of his evil, storm the castle with the intent to kill him. Gregor weasels his way out of his lynching by agreeing to leave the country for good, abdicating his title and responsibilities to Anton. Once the locals have agreed to this, Gregor Lures Anton into the Black Room, revealing that he summoned his brother home because he knew it was only a matter of time until he met his fate at the hands of the justifiably pissed-off peasants, and he intends to murder the kindly Anton and take his place. Anton is unceremoniously pitched into the pit while holding the knife Gregor attempted to stab him with, and he perishes, but not before swearing that he will kill Gregor, even if he has to return from the grave to do so. With that, Gregor seals the pit and reminds himself that from that day forward he shall become his brother in every way, even affecting his brother's paralyzed arm. Some time passes and Gregor then murders the Colonel, who who had figured out the deception. Unfortunately the Colonel did not act upon that knowledge sooner, as he has Gregor (as Anton) sign legal documents granting him custody of Thea as her guardian, along with giving him full access to all of her property and finances. He then capitalizes on Thea's grief over her father's death and sadness at her true love awaiting execution for a murder he did not commit, proposing that she become his baroness. It all builds to its inevitable conclusion, and end that can only come in the Black Room...

Is there anything more horrifying than family dysfunction?

THE BLACK ROOM is a tidy thriller that gives Boris Karloff ample opportunity to mine the thespic territory of the nice guy and the complete and utter rat bastard, and he plays both parts quite believably. The entire cast is game and the story moves at brisk pace, but with all of the plot details that I just recounted, anyone with half a brain in their head can easily predict where all of this is going, but the magic here is in seeing exactly how it reaches its foregone conclusion. I last saw this film in 1975 during an airing on New York's Channel 5, when I was ten years old, and though it had no monsters it held me riveted with its solid story, bleak atmosphere, and Karloff in two roles that were about as far away from Frankenstein's monster as one could get. It's an often-overlooked gem that deserves rediscovery, especially if you love the Universal horror cycle of the 1930's and 1940's. It's a Columbia release, but you get what I mean.

Lobby card from the theatrical release.

Monday, October 26, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 26: DOCTOR WHO "The Green Death" (1973)

Aka "the one with the giant maggots."
 
Llanfairfach, South Wales, 1973: In an abandoned coal refinery,  the corpse of a miner is discovered,  suffused with an unknown pulsing green glow, and it's only the first of several. Derailing his plans to travel to the planet Metebelis Three (after landing there and immediately being attacked by assorted monsters), the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) follows his UNIT assistant Jo Grant (Katy Manning), and the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) to investigate the situation in Wales, encountering the opposing factions of a chemical corporation's shady bigwig and a protesting environmentalist group led by a young bio-technic research scientist who reminds Jo of the Doctor. (You can see where that element is going...) The investigation reveals chemical waste has spawned enormous maggot-like larvae but another threat lurks behind the scenes as the chemical corporation's officials find themselves manipulated by their hidden "boss," with sometimes-fatal results.

 Truly a gag-inducing threat.
 
As matters escalate,  it is determined that the miners have died of an unknown virus, while the Doctor obtains one of the creatures' eggs that, much to the horror of all involved, hatches, swiftly maturing into an exponentially-enormous, vicious flying insect. Also, the big boss is unmasked, and the Doctor must race to simultaneously find a cure for the virus while sorting out a way to exterminate the maggots before the world is overrun with swarms of their airborne adult dragonfly-like version (which the Doctor perceives as "beautiful"). And let us not forget the menace of the increasingly-insane boss's agenda of world conquest...
 
The adult form.
 
Reflecting the growing environmental concerns of its era, THE GREEN DEATH tells its story over six half-hour chapters and starts off as rather a slow burn.  One of the things I love about classic-era DOCTOR WHO is its willingness to patiently weave a solid narrative, as it allowed the story to take its time when establishing scenarios and allowing us to get to know the characters. That is certainly the case here, and the earthbound nature of this specific story grants it a more recognizable flavor to its horrors than something taking place in some far-off future location crammed with aliens. There's something quite Lovecraftian about the hissing, squirming super-maggots, and the natural human revulsion upon encountering such vermin of normal scale is sent into overdrive here. The sequence where the Doctor and Jo employ a mine cart as a makeshift canoe while paddling through a flooded mine shaft swarming with squirming mega-larvae firmly illustrates this point.
 
The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee),  holding some stroppy creepy-crawlies s at bay.

Another element of this story is that after having portrayed the Doctor's companion and aide for about two years, Katy Manning opted to leave the show, so the always charming Jo Grant finds herself strongly attracted to the young scientist who makes her imagine a younger version of the Doctor. Until this point, Jo and the Doctor had something of a father-daughter relationship and it was clear that as their association flowered, Jo matured and, in essence, grew up, so it was only natural for her to want to spread her won wings and get out from her "father's" shadow. Over the course of the story the Doctor takes note of this, along with Jo's obvious interest in the scientist, so he resigns himself to the inevitable and lets her go. It's a poignant touch and the departure of of Jo is only mitigated by the introduction of Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, arguably the Doctor's most celebrated companion, as of the next story. 

THE GREEN DEATH is must-see classic DOCTOR WHO, though I honestly wonder if it would be so well-remembered today, nearly fifty years after originally airing, if not for the nauseating nature of the maggots. It's good, but admittedly a tad overlong in telling this story in six chapters. It could eaasily have been tightened up by making it as four installments.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 25: SANTA JAWS (2018)

No, you are not going insane.

"He who holds this pen holds great power. With generosity and heart, it can only do good.  Beware of he who uses it for selfish gains."

 - translated from German

Port City, Louisiana:  It's shortly before Christmas and high school-age aspiring comics creator Cody (Reid Miller) illustrates a comic book story about "Santa Jaws," a Great White shark that eats a homicidal Santa, is infused with his evil,  and becomes a sea-roaming force of carnivorous malevolence. As his family gathers for what looks to be a tension-filled holiday, Cody's posted-to-social-media drawing of his tyrannical principal lands him a week of being grounded, which throws a monkey wrench into his plans to attend a party at local comics shop. Upon being banished to his room, Cody finds an early Christmas gift from his grandfather, Papa Joe (Richie Montgomery), an antique-looking ornately silver-and-gold-adorned fountain pen in a wooden case engraved with a mysterious German phrase, and sets about inking one of his illustrations of Santa Jaws. (If you've ever seen a horror movie, you know what an old magical item looks like on sight, and that fountain pen falls squarely into that category.)  But it's Papa to the rescue, as he wakes Cody early for their annual morning of Christmas Eve fishing trip. If Cody sneaks out with Papa, Papa will swing him by the party on the way home. The pair make it to the pier, but a mysterious green surge of energy below the surface manifests a Great White shark whose fin sports a Santa hat. Yes, Santa Jaws has magically come to life, given form by Cody's wish to be rid of his annoying family, and her first move is to eat Papa.

Just when you think you've seen everything ridiculous.

A distraught Cody returns home and alerts his family to Papa having been dragged to a savage end in the depths, but none of them believe him and instead berate him for spinning lies. As the family leaves him at home by himself, Mom having taken away his cell phone and threatening grave reprisals if he should sneak out again, Cody nonetheless sets out to investigate how and why Santa Jaws somehow corporealized into reality. Aided by a small Scooby Gang of friends and family, Cody learns that Santa Jaws is attracted to Christmassy things — a Santa hat, spilled eggnog, Christmas lights, a guy in an elf costume who's eating lunch on the dock — and that it can be harmed by items associated with the holiday.  Things become desperate as the body count grows, but Cody proves his mettle by facing up to his fears and by remembering the value of his family.

 More of a comedy than an actual horror film — Seriously, how could it not be ? — SANTA JAWS is that rare effort of ridiculousness that knows exactly how utterly stupid its concept is but plays it straight, thereby upping its silliness. The gravitas with which the characters treat a shark with a Santa hat on its fin is hilarious in and of itself, and it only gets more idiotic when, in an attempt to put a stop to Santa Jaws by impaling her, Cody draws a candy cane harpoon being driven through the shark's head, only to have that strategy backfire and turn her into a Christmas-themed killer demi-narwhal. 

                                   When a savage devouring proves laugh-out-loud hilarious.

And while a comedy, some of the deaths are rather nasty, and in some cases quite unexpected and shocking, but when one of the plot's key elements is a magic pen in the hands of a protagonist who can tell visual stories on paper and make anything happen, the ending is pretty much a foregone conclusion and kind of a forgivable cop-out.

SANTA JAWS is utterly and charmingly shameless for knowing exactly what it is and delivering its madness with a straight face, and as such it's a good addition to the roster of off-beat Christmas films. Its gore is minimal, so it's perfectly suitable for anyone over the age of six, and it makes up for its lack of visceral shocks by having its heart in the right place and by being genuinely deadpan funny. A ture surprise and definitely RECOMMENDED.

Promotional image for the film.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2020-Day 24: DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

When you'd prefer to let dormant ghosts lie, but that is not an option.

Decades after the events of THE SHINING (1979), psychic Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) has grown up and goes by "Dan." His experience at the Overlook Hotel traumatized him deeply, and in an effort to keep his "shine" powers bay, he has followed in his father's dysfunctional footsteps and degenerated into a violent alcoholic drifter. His wandering brings him to New Hampshire, where he is shown kindness by Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), a stranger who, having once been in Dan's shoes, recognizes Dan's need for help. He secures Dan a place to live and a job operating a kiddie-scale train, but Dan also finds a part-time gig as an orderly in a hospice. While there, he follows the lead of the facility's cat, an animal that always senses when a patient is about to die, an infallible talent that allows the patients to know for certain that it is their time. Dan enters the room of the dying and comforts them with his shining power, alleviating their fear and suffering, and one of the patients pays him the honor of dubbing him "Doctor Sleep."

Meanwhile, a cult of, for lack of a better way to describe them, psychic vampires called the True Knot roams America in search of children who possess powerful shining talents. Once tracked down, the True Knot abducts and tortures their victims, stating that fear and pain purify the "steam," the powerful life essence of those gifted with the shine. This horrifying clan is led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Furguson) who, like her followers, is a near-immortal, and they all feed upon the steam to stay (hopefully) forever young. The more powerful a victim's shine, the greater the power imbued upon the predators. (Their murder and torture of a terrified and screaming Little Leaguer is perhaps the film's most genuinely scary sequence.)

Evil incarnate: Rose the Hat.

Time passes after Dan's arrival in New Hampshire, and he celebrates eight years of sobriety. He also begins receiving telepathic communications from Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran), a 14-year-old girl whose shining's power may have no precedent. We're talking telepathy, telekinesis, astral projection, in other words she's a gifted Swiss army knife of psychic badassery. And the True Knot wants to find her and use her as a reservoir to replenish their dwindling supply of the steam.

Powerful shining prodigy Abra Stone.

Once she knows they are aware of her existence and that it's only a matter of time before they descend upon her, Abra reaches out to Dan and asks for his help. Their battle against this implacable and heartless evil takes several turns that lead Dan to realize that the True Knot may be too powerful for he and Abra to defeat on their own, so Dan opts to lure Rose to the site of where all of his nightmares began: the Overlook Hotel.

I've been an avid Stephen King reader since 1979, and the source novel for DOCTOR SLEEP is one of my favorites of his more recent works. It's a sequel that satisfies, and the movie does it justice with only a handful of minor alterations here and there, mostly tightening some of the narrative points and trimming unnecessary fat. If you have not seen THE SHINING, watch that before sitting through this, though I would argue that one does not have to have seen it in order to get what's going on and enjoy what it brings to the plate. Simply put, this is one of the top tier King adaptations and it should be experienced by his devotees.

Poster from the theatrical release.