Sunday, October 28, 2018

Your Daily Scare: Return of the Living Dead

"Send more cops." 

There are a lot of jokes in Return of the Living Dead, but the funniest one may be the title. Moviegoers in 1988 may have been baited into expecting a sequel to George Romero's claustrophobic thriller; instead Dan O'Bannon served up a dramatically different flavor of classic, a funny, tongue-in-cheek shocker with more laughs than scares.

The plot involves a group of "characters" -- to call most of them paper-thin would be an insult to the structural integrity of paper -- who are caught up in the midst of a growing horde of zombies. Unlike the ghouls in Romero's film, these ones very explicitly crave brains, and every time someone gasps "brainnnnns" in reference to a zombie, they're quoting Return of the Living Dead.

The ghouls are appropriately gruesome and the kills are impressively gory -- one zombie's spinal cord seems to flap on its own, like the thoughtless wag of a dog's tail. But O'Bannon seems far more interested in studding the film with little jokes and sight gags that hit you about 30 seconds after they've passed. One of my favorites comes soon after an unelaborated-on "chemical" is released, causing the undead to rise. If you look carefully, you can see the wings of pinned butterflies flap to life.

The characters aren't especially memorable, but it's hard not to come to the conclusion that's by design. Most of the characters are so broad as to be comic, a game that's given away almost immediately when Linnea Quigley's red-haired punk has to leave her clothes behind during a rainstorm and spends the second half of the film mostly in the nude. (As a side note, this is the second film in this series where Quigley's performance is perfectly in tune with the movie she's in.) Dan Calfa is also a standout as a mortuary owner who turns out to be handy in a crisis.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Your Daily Scare: Night of the Demons (1988)

"I've never made it in a coffin before." 

A well-preserved slice of 80s cheese, Night of the Demons is an artifact of a time when mullets weren't shameful, boom boxes and Coors were party essentials and bared boobs were the coin of the realm. If that sounds familiar, it's because we've already visited a couple of films from that era with Fright Night and The Lost Boys; unlike those films, Night of the Demons doesn't have much of the way in shocks or wit to defend itself.

Night of the Demons is the story of a group of teenagers who unwisely decide to hold a Halloween party in an abandoned mortuary. ("Isn't a seance a little chancy?" asks one of the more thoughtful characters.) They're soon set upon by demons ... but not too soon, as the audience is treated with an hour-long windup that includes a bevy of stock 80s characters including The Shy Virgin, The Tarted-Up Easy Girl (Linnea Quigley, having the time of her life) and the Obnoxious Fat Guy.

When the horror arrives, it's solidly delivered. The makeups and effects are mostly decent, and the camera work is lively and smart. (One kill, where a close-in camera spins around the victim in embrace with his killer, is especially canny.) The acting is hit or miss; some of the performers are painfully wooden but Quigley, on her way to cult fame, pegs the film's wavelength immediately and delivers an appropriately outsized performance.

You'll probably do more laughing than screaming while watching Night of the Demons, so rooted is it in its era and yoked to the tropes later mocked by meta films such as Cabin in the Woods. But at a zippy hour-and-a-half with some gore and giggles, it's worth a look.

Side note: Much of what was popular in the 1980s can be left in its grave, but we really should endeavor to bring back 'butthole' as a widely used insult.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Your Daily Scare: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

"Don't touch that. You don't know where it's been." 

Sure, it occasionally veers to the silly side, what with the giant zucchini-like pods, the outrageous '70s fashions and the deadpan humor. But Philip Kaufman's remake of Don Siegel's original is still a blast, a shot of paranoid horror goosed by a game cast.

Donald Sutherland plays a diligent public health inspector in San Francisco. Along with co-worker/obvious love interest Brooke Adams, he begins to suspect pod-grown replicas are replacing local people, including those he knows and cares about. He and Adams enlist the help of several friends, including always-welcome Veronica Cartwright; live-wire Jeff Goldblum; and, most fun of all, a scenery-chomping Leonard Nimoy as an unctuous celebrity psychiatrist.

By most accounts, Siegel's original is more haunting, honing in on what it would be like as loved ones are replaced by emotionless aliens. Kaufman's film, for the most part, is moving too fast to register, although it finds some pathos in the chemistry between Sutherland and Adams. But there's still plenty of fun to be had here; the tension is especially acute in the middle section, when the leads realize they're surrounded by hostile creatures. There are also a couple of truly memorable horror images, one of which is so audacious I laughed out loud when I saw it. It's tremendous, tense fun.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Your Daily Scare: Ringu

"You have four days left." 

Ringu is a masterpiece of dread, a film accomplishes almost as much as with what it chooses to leave out as with what it portrays. 

The plot is best mostly left under wraps; suffice to say it's about a television journalist who explores, with rapidly escalating stakes, the existence of a cursed videotape that dooms anyone who dares watch it.

It's a creepy premise, well-exploited by the filmmakers. But what's especially effective is their approach. The film isn't stuffed with bloody shocks or jump scares; instead it's mostly a quiet procedural, following the journalist and her ex-husband as they race against time. They don't panic or shriek; one gets the impression that life continues to roll on, even as the supernatural draws terrifyingly near. The quiet certitude and lack of hysteria, somehow makes the film more frightening. 

I was particularly impressed with how the film's unceasing sense of horror was constructed primarily without on-screen violence. The deaths are mostly bloodless, and the violence is largely implied rather than shown. But when it comes to some of the most iconic images in horror - especially in the last 20 minutes -- you'll be fortunate if it doesn't send you scrambling behind your couch. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Your Daily Scare: The Lost Boys

"Just wait until mom finds out!" 

There are probably better horror movies to come out of the 1980s (Halloween, The Thing) but there may not be a more 1980s movie to come out of the 1980s than The Lost Boys, a movie that entertains on parallel tracks: as a fun-as-hell horror-comedy, and as an artifact of hair spray, mullets and absurd shirts.

The Lost Boys is about two brothers (Jason Patric and Corey Haim) who move with their recently divorced mother (Dianne Wiest) to her father's home in a fictional California town with a surprisingly high murder rate. Patric immediately falls in with a crowd of toughs, led by Kiefer Sutherland, who haunt the old-fashioned boardwalk. Their numbers include Alex Winter from the Bill & Ted series, who sports a towering hairstyle that dares you to laugh at it. They're vampires. And pretty soon Patric and Haim have a very personal reason to defeat them.

If you go into this film with an eye for ridiculous '80s shit, it will offer delight after delight: Haim's outfits -- one of which is a multicolored shirt covered with a sports jacket David Byrne would reject as "too big" -- are a clear highlight, but there's also macho posturing, a soundtrack for the ages, and Jami Gertz.

It's fun, too. The vampire attacks are scary and cannily directed by Joel Schumacher. (One attack is filmed largely in close-up, which makes it claustrophobic and unnerving.) The final attack is sharply shot, edited and paced. And there are some moments of real visual beauty, like a shot that sails away from a group of vampires on motorcycles until their headlights blend into a single light.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Your Daily Scare: An American Werewolf in London

"Have you ever tried talking to a corpse? It's boring." 

An American Werewolf in London is an often-charming, occasionally shambling mix of horror and comedy that continues to intrigue. It's a bit of an odd duck -- more on that later -- but it's easy to see why it's held up while many of its imitators have faded away.

The story gets off to a brisk start. Two American tourists (David Naughton, Griffin Dunne) are backpacking through the British countryside. Ignoring the type of ominous warning spoofed by Cabin in the Woods, they are attacked by a werewolf. Dunne is killed and Naughton ends up in a London hospital, attended to by a nurse (Jenny Agutter) whose interest in him is more romantic than medical. Soon Naughton learns he's not out of danger; he may be a werewolf himself.

Thus begins a movie that hits some awfully soaring highs. The main cast is loaded with charm, especially the likable Naughton and Agutter; the latter is so lovely and flinty one wonders why she never became a bigger star, and her romance with Naughton has real heat. I won't spoil the circumstances, but you see more of Dunne, and his deadpan performance is one of the great marvels of horror-comedy. The effects hold up shockingly well, with one transformation scene that will still make you squirm (those nails!). The true horror scenes, most of which appear at the end, are tense and scary.

Still, it's an oddly paced film with a draggy middle. (The werewolf promised by the title takes seemingly forever to appear on screen.) And the last 10 minutes feel muted, sidestepping a moment that could have been the crux of the film.

Flaws aside, it's a fun and impressive film from its era and horror fans should seek it out.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Your Daily Scare: Fright Night

"Welcome to ... FRIGHT NIGHT"

A lot of great horror movies came out in the 1980s. The Thing, Halloween. But they weren't "'80s horror movies." '80s horror movies were movies I stayed up until 3 a.m. watching on Cinemax while at my permissive father's house. They were more fun than scary, although they'll goose a few jump scares; the monsters are made with practical effects that are evenly split between goofy and gruesome; the women have huge hair and bountiful boobs, which you're guaranteed to see before the final credits start scrolling.

If you're looking for a film with all of those qualities, I'm delighted to introduce  Fright Night, a 1985 shocker that has retained its reputation thanks to its wit and energy.

Charlie, the main character, is a suburban teen whose interests are horror movies and talking his girlfriend (Amanda Bearse) out of her clothes ... actually in that order. He becomes much more interested in the former when a vampire moves in, and Charlie needs advice to dispatch the baddie. He turns to Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), the hammy host of a late-night horror-movie marathon of the type that still ran on cable in those years.

The whole thing is a hoot. Sarandon is sinister and oily as the vamp, and grows more so as the film goes on; by the time it's over you're not sure whether he's going to chomp on your neck or drive you to Jazzercise in his convertible. McDowell is having a ton of fun as the blustery Vincent; and  Bearse gets to have a great time when her stodgy girlfriend takes a late turn toward the wicked. (Vaguely sourced internet reports say she used to bring her fake boobs to conventions and allow awed fans to squeeze them.) The effects hold up surprisingly well - a couple of shots haven't aged great, but most of the monster makeup is still arresting.