Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hungry Like The Wolf

The wolfman hasn’t had an especially storied career in the movies, or so goes common thought. Without the gravity of the Frankenstein monster – and the nobility – or the suave power of Dracula, he wound up a sidekick in the Universal pictures, a sad joke (Lon Chaney Jr’s puffy appearance in films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein underlines the actor’s drunken darkness, and that reflected in how we interpreted the Wolfman as well).

But there are good werewolf movies, and not the obvious ones either. The original The Wolfman, John Landis’ funny, tragic American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante and John Sayles’s satiric, meta-fun The Howling get most of the credit. But you can be rewarded if you dig a little deeper.

Dog Soldiers, Neil Marshall’s brutal and intense feature debut, pits a group of unarmed (more or less; they don’t have bullets, anyway) soldiers on maneuvers in the Scottish Highlands against a roving group of tall, fearsome werewolves. Marshall’s wolves are bipedal, supernaturally tall and absolutely terrifying. The soldiers, led by Sean Pertwee (son of third Doctor Who Jon Pertwee), must battle these beasts with their wits, and some are disassembled in spectacularly gory ways. The film is unwaveringly tense, presaging Marshall’s next, supremely scary film The Descent in its commitment to tone.

Just a couple years before Dog Soldiers, John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps used lycanthropy as a metaphor for the pubescence of two gothy Canadian girls. A smart, witty script marries it to the sort of societal commentary and body discourse fellow Canadian David Cronenberg used to truck in (Rabid, The Brood, The Fly), as well as the kitschy philosophizing of Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, The Stuff). Ginger Snaps was followed by two relatively decent sequels.

Speaking of kitschy, The Beast Must Die features the divinely unkitschy Peter Cushing and Michael Gambon among the assembled guests at gloriously ‘70s millionaire big game hunter Calvin Lockhart’s mansion. One of the guests is a werewolf, and it’s up to Lockhart  -- and you – to determine which one is causing all the ruckus. A convenient 30 second “Werewolf Break” happens at the climax so you can cast your votes and make a drinking game out of it, if you so choose. Getting there is most of the fun, though, even if it’s a bit dated by this point.

Cushing’s alma mater Hammer Pictures staged The Curse of the Werewolf, with Oliver Reed as the beastly titular character, a wolf sired out of the rape of a young prison girl. Hammer films were at their best when pairing straight-laced Britishisms with lurid colors and images – all heaving breasts, thick, bright red blood and impeccable set design. Given these films’ meager funds, it’s always amazing how great they look, thanks to smart use of dense sets at Bray Studios, shot by the likes of Arthur Grant, who went on to do the smart Satanic cult pic The Devil Rides Out and Hammer’s sole zombie epic, Plague of the Zombies.

While not a straight werewolf picture – instead of a wolf, the main character turns into something resembling a cicada the dog’s been chewing on – The Beast Within has some marginal thrills and a supremely icky timbre. But the transformation effects will do it for the 12 year olds in most of us.

Wes Craven’s Cursed gets a bad rap – to be fair, it mostly just gets ignored – but I think it’s a somewhat interesting film, if only for its unusually varied cast (Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, Joshua Jackson, Judy Greer, Portia DeRossi, and in glorified cameos Craig Kilborn and Scott Baio) and slightly funny pro-gay subtext (if you can call it sub-) courtesy of Scream writer Kevin Williamson. It’s passable weekend afternoon entertainment, assuming the fridge is stocked.

For further viewing: The Werewolf of Washington, Werewolves on Wheels, I was A Teenage Werewolf, Brotherhood of the Wolf

Friday, August 3, 2012

Bigfoot Update 1

I swear; the things I do for you people:

Last night I started watching "Clawed: The Legend of the Sasquatch." I was about 4 minutes in when I realized 3 strikes were up:

1. '80s level production company pre-roll.

2. Titles and credits were in Copperplate font, video overlaid on film.

3. Name stars were Miles O'Keeffe and Cooper Huckabee.

Now I'm not saying that means a strike-out, but it's not promising. I'll finish the damn thing, though.

"The Abominable Snowman" from Hammer is up next, but that's almost cheating because I've already seen it and Forest Tucker is in it.

More to come...

Friday, July 27, 2012

Somehow, This Got Missed

What with all the late Sherman Hemsley Acid Gong Prog Rock news this week, nobody bothered on Facebook -- now the paper of record- hadn't you heard? -- to mention the passing of Chad Everett. RIP Mr. Everett, late of Medical Center, James Michener's Centennial, and countless TV appearances. Seriously, this guy was TV in the '70s. Here's an episode of Medical Center that I'm going to watch this weekend in remembrance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Medical Center: Adults Only.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


This review got me thinking:

And yes, I'm the kind of guy provoked by a cover image of Bigfoot on Mount Rushmore. 

It got me thinking: has there ever been a good Bigfoot movie?

I'm about to find out. Here's my syllabus:

The Snow Creature (1954)

Man Beast (1955)

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Half Human (1958)

Bigfoot (1967 doc)

Bigfoot (1970)

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

Shriek of the Mutilated (1974)

Creature from Black Lake (1976)

The Legend of Bigfoot (1976)

Snowbeast (1977)

The Capture of Bigfoot (1979)

Search for the Beast (1997)

Sasquatch (2002)

Clawed: The Legend of Sasquatch (2005)

Abominable (2006)

Bigfoot (2006)

Sasquatch Mountain (2006)

Assault of the Sasquatch (2009)

Note: Cry Wilderness (1987) and Harry and the Hendersons (1987) removed because I don’t swing that way.

I'll report back when I'm finished. Am I missing anything?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Godzilla's Face

This article features a blurry picture from the forthcoming Godzilla remake/reboot, directed by Monsters director Gareth Edwards:

Or here it is if you don't want to click through to the other site. I understand, we all have things to do.

Looks to me like Godzilla got his face back. Half-cat, half T-rex. Awesome.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


So few horror movies are genuinely scary.

And by scary, I mean they provoke a genuine physical response – shivers, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, tension and release.

Scary movies shock us out of our normal viewing and entertainment patterns. Terror, shock, surprise, creepiness, spookiness, outright horror – the emotions associated with good horror films poke holes in our safe reality, and bring us a little closer to, if not understanding, at least the barest contacting of death, loss, violence, the other side. The very physical jump at a lurching cat hiding in a closet, or the clenching of your partner as the protagonist walks slowly, tentatively into a dark room, these sensations are real and yet not real, dangerous and yet not at all dangerous.

In 1999, the Blair Witch Project became a massive sensation, genuinely scary in its faux verite.  The “handicam horror” genre persists in the Paranormal Activity series, with its scares wrought from tedium. Those movies are like watching paint dry on a board, but every 30 minutes someone whacks you in the face with it. Entertaining for some, mind-numbing for the rest (although the bleak long shots of the pool cleaner in Paranormal Activity 2 had something almost Atom Egoyan-esque about them in their oddly frightening banality and slow suburban desolation.)

But at some point, hinted at in 2001 with the bleak, superbly crafted and suggestively scary Session 9, confirmed by our adaptation of The Ring in 2002, it was OK to make a movie that was, simply, scary. A thoughtful, adult, sophisticated, well-crafted, scary movie.

I’m trying to pinpoint when it happened – when horror movies started being genuinely scary again.  And clearly I’m making an assumption that there was The Great Bleak Period when horror movies weren’t scary at all. I’m open to discussion on this point, but let’s at least agree with my primary point – there’s a new breed of horror movie, and its toolset is austere, bare-bones and uncomplicated.

In movies like Ti West’s The Innkeepers, James Wan and Leigh Whanell’s Insidious, Neil Marshall’s The Descent, the recent Hammer re-entry The Woman In Black, with these movies, and others like them, we’re getting scared again. And not through torture or gore effects or CGI. Through sound design, impeccable pacing, minimal make-up (relatively), great casting, movies are getting scary again.

Previously in recent memory of modern horror (I’m thinking generally post-‘90s, post-Clive Barker, post-Stephen King), there was that flood of remakes where everything was bigger and glossier and more Michael Bay-y (God save you if you actually try to watch / enjoy that remake of Friday the 13th, a series generally only noted for its quantity of installments and consistent terribleness in the first place – seriously, none of those movies are good. At least Halloween and the first Nightmare on Elm Street are legitimately good movies).

There was, arguably, that strain of torture movies, initiated sort-of by Saw but really bookended by the Hostel movies on one end and, appropriately, The Human Centipede movies on the other. And there have always been major studio horror movies that almost universally reek of compromise and bloated effects budgets – see the bland The Devil’s Advocate, the slightly underrated The Mothman Prophecies, or the unremittingly awful The Wolfman. Not to mention an endless stream of made-for-cable/DVD/On Demand monster pics (likely picked up at film markets), barely watchable independents that didn’t get bought, slasher films, whatever-on-earth Charles Band and Full Moon were putting out anymore… Horror was everywhere, but, as with anything else, much of it… well, it sucked.

In Wan and Whanell’s Insidious, for me one of the purest examples of the New Scary, the setting and family are all too predictable. But the scares come slowly at first, until we’re faced with the red faced and utterly terrifying demon, created with simple makeup EFX. This thing evokes something dark and wrong in our collective memory, demonic, satanic, cloven-hoofed, a child’s deepest nightmare. It’s like something out of an old woodcut drawing, made real without CGI or other trickery (the strings of which, it’s almost always too easy to see).

And the ghosts? They might as well be real people under a white sheet with eye holes cut out. But by that point, we’ve given ourselves over to the scary.

In Ti West’s The Innkeepers, two adrift losers work the night shift at a hotel that’s about to close down. Their bored ennui is the most palpable emotion for the first third of the movie, but details accrue, and soon we’ve got a pretty immaculate portrait of people lost in indecision. Meanwhile, something in the basement seems to have it in for the girl, while the boy rattles away on his ghost hunting website, ostensibly trying to record phenomena that will scratch the itch left by an early ghostly haunting. Once again, the monsters are more human than one would expect, mostly stage blood and mascara, but the overall tension and terror is real. Kelly McGillis continues a short run of brilliant mystical older ladies in Glass Eye Pix movies (starting with Stakeland) in this as well, offering both a rationale for the haunting and a bridge to the spirit world for the main character.

In The Descent, sure, we had ooga-booga bat monsters, but the bulk of the film’s terror quotient was the rapidly encroaching smaller spaces our protagonists found themselves in. The claustrophobia is palpable, such that, after watching The Descent again recently, the merest idea of watching the ultra-claustrophobic Ryan Reynolds film “Buried” – which takes place entirely inside a coffin and is, by all reports, far inferior to films like The Descent – seems impossible.

But it’s simple effects that provide the greatest terrors in films like this. And by simple, I mean not relying on expensive computer effects or gore prosthetics, but on directorial ingenuity and intelligent framing, on perfectly created tension and smartly crafted sound design.

For more movies like this, see Bill Paxton’s underrated and psychologically creepy Frailty, the Guillermo Del Toro-produced The Orphanage, the woefully unseen Session 9, Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, Jaime Balaguera’s [Rec] series. I’ll post more as I think of them or as people add them in the comments. What scares you? - Nick Tangborn