Some years back, in a previous iteration of this blog — there have been many, many of those — I did a little experiment. I decided for some strange reason to watch every one of the Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street movies in the order in which they were released. I did reviews for all of them and I wish I still had those reviews because they represented a lot of work. Sadly they were lost when the database for the old blog went kerflooey. I hope against hope that won’t happen to this blog.
Anyway, I performed this exercise because I wanted to see how the slasher movie developed over the years, starting with the granddaddy of them all (Halloween) and proceeding all the way through to the Friday the 13th reboot from Marcus Nispel. At a certain point all these series were sort of feeding off one another and trying to one-up their levels of carnage, so it was interesting to watch the progression, especially from the perspective of today’s horror, which is largely bloodless and concerned primarily with poking fun at the genre.
I bring all of this up because it’s pretty clear Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, the co-writers of The Cabin in the Woods, have seen all those movies and probably more. And they may even like them — it’s hard to watch all that without some affection, at the very least — but they also retain the current generation’s propensity for snark. This combination of reverence and irreverence makes for an uneasy creation, and one I can’t wholeheartedly say I liked, or even found effective in terms of the genre.
It makes me sad that there are two movies called The Fog. One is the real deal, directed and co-written by horror master John Carpenter and released in 1980. The other is a faint imitation from 2005 made by people whose names I don’t remember, starring a bunch of young actors I barely recognize and containing nothing of the original’s character or thrills. In case you didn’t notice the image on the left there, we’re talking about the former today.
I did not see The Fog (1980) when it was released. Oh, I wanted to see it, because the television spots made it look very creepy and scary (which it is), but my parents went through these occasional fits of propriety, and though they had taken me to many inappropriate movies in the past — and would again, I should add — they drew the line at this one. Harrumph.
Since I missed out on The Fog in the theater, I had to wait until its cable television debut, at which point I could watch it over and over and over again to my heart’s content. And I did watch it over and over and over again because I thought it was totally fascinating. I would be lying if I said I was still enraptured by The Fog today, but I do still like it and I do enjoy taking it out to watch periodically. Not too often, because then the atmosphere would be depleted, but every couple of years or so.
This year for my birthday, my wife bought the new Blu-Ray restoration of The Fog released by Shout! Factory. It has a wonderful painted cover (see the image again) and is jam-packed with goodies sure to delight fans of The Fog everywhere. I highly recommend picking this sucker up if for no other reason that The Fog has never looked so good. It’s a pristine HD transfer and it’s probably a cleaner, sharper image than even theatergoers got. Seriously, buy it now.
You may recall that I recently reviewed a book by Communion author Whitley Strieber called The Grays. In that review I did a short recap of Strieber’s greatest hit and noted that The Grays was a new approach to the material with which he’d become most associated. To whit: Strieber claimed that the things he wrote about in that book were, in fact, true but that he was not able to substantiate them adequately enough to include them in a nonfiction book. Consider this for a moment and decide what you think. Is it possible? Even likely? Probably not, but it is an interesting way of approaching subject matter that’s gone fairly stale over the decades.
Strieber includes no forward or afterword in this book, Hybrids, that makes any similar claim, but I can only assume given its contents that we are meant to take seriously at least some of what’s included. I know, as it happens, that Strieber has expressed a great deal of trepidation about human-animal hybridization going on at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, off the coast of Connecticut. You may recognize the name Plum Island from The Silence of the Lambs, though Thomas Harris never worried about the stuff we’re concerned with here.
Hybrids is about human beings using alien technology to create programmable human-animal hybrids that are faster, smarter and tougher than normal humans. The purpose is ostensibly to create a better soldier, but things go too far very quickly and what seems more likely is that the creator of the hybrids was fixated more on making the perfect being. A next stage in evolution, if you will, only skipping the whole “natural selection” part of the equation.
Twenty-three years passed between the releases of Psycho (1960) and Psycho II. That’s a really, really, really long time in movie years and I’m still a little amazed that Hollywood actually did such a thing. I’m glad they did, though, because Psycho II is an excellent sequel, even though it’s not as good as the original film.
Only three years would go by before Norman Bates and his infamous motel graced movie theaters again. Psycho III would be the last time there’d be a Psycho sequel on the big screen, which is probably too bad, because Psycho III is every bit as worthy as Psycho II.
From what I understand, Anthony Perkins could only be lured back to the role of Norman this time if he was offered the opportunity to direct. I’ve already said twice that the very best thing about the preceding films is Perkins’ nuanced acting work, and it turns out that Perkins was also a director of some talent. I take nothing away from Richard Franklin, who directed Psycho II, because he did a great job, but Psycho III is first-rate visually and features a couple of transitions that are nothing short of brilliant. Psycho III is a far, far prettier film that anyone had any right to expect.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen Psycho II during the 30 years you’ve had the opportunity to, but unfortunately I have to spill some of the beans in order to talk about what happens in Psycho III. To whit: Norman is absolutely off his rocker again, and Mother is back in full force as a consequence of a late-film interlude in Psycho II that certainly took me by surprise when I saw it.
These days if a certain amount of time has passed since a movie’s release, sometimes as little as ten years, the word on every studio head’s lips is “reboot” or “remake” or some variation on a theme. They certainly don’t say sequel, largely because studios are in the business of appealing to the broadest audience possible, and if that audience is restricted only to older people who are familiar with the last installment(s) of a series, that means less money to go around. That said, it does happen that movies get sequels well after their sell-by date would seem to have been exceeded. I mentioned recently how too much time had been allowed to elapse between Die Hard entries, and in the case of the Psycho series, a whopping twenty-three years would pass between the first and second films.
If you read my earlier review of Psycho (1960), then you know that I think very highly of it. That’s not exactly going out on a limb, as I don’t think I’ve ever met or heard of anyone who doesn’t like it, but I have a real fondness for that picture that’s carried over into many viewings. I always enjoy watching it again for its distinct late ’50s, early ’60s feel and the sharp performances, not least by Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. It’s just an all-around good movie of the sort that doesn’t crop up that often and, really, everyone should see it at least once.
So where does that leave Psycho II? Not only was it released more than a generation after the original, but it had a totally new director and screenwriter and was even (gasp!) in full color. It also had the misfortune of coming out right in the middle of the slasher-film boom, a filmic trend that many trace back to the original Psycho, though that’s an interpretation I have some dispute with. Could any sequel live up to the standard set by the 1960 film? The answer is no… and yes.
O, Steven Seagal giveth and Steven Seagal taketh away. That much you must know by now, but you will probably never see a better illustration of this when looking at the two films, Driven to Kill and Against the Dark. As it happens (read my review), Driven to Kill is surprisingly solid for a direct-to-video Steven Seagal film, even accounting for Seagal’s not-so-great Russian accent and weird, orangey tan. And yet, in the same year we received Driven to Kill we also got Against the Dark, and Against the Dark is double-plus ungood.
On paper it doesn’t seem like too bad of an idea: Steven Seagal fights vampires. It worked out pretty darned well for Wesley Snipes in the Blade movies, so why not give some vampiric love to the jowly master of aikido? After all, he knows how to handle a sword and does stoic with the appropriate amount of intensity. What could possibly go wrong? Funny you should ask.
Against the Dark reveals its first and most critical flaw very early on: this is a Steven Seagal movie without much Steven Seagal in it. Viewers of Seagal’s films — be they fans or, like me, semi-fans with a morbid fascination with Seagal’s post-theatrical decline — know his movies can usually be relied upon to deliver at least a decent minimum of Seagal-related action, and yet I would probably guess that only ten minutes of the film’s 93-minute runtime are taken up by the portly one. Despite his prominent placement on the DVD jacket, clad in leather with sword in hand, surrounded by evil vampire faces, Seagal basically performs a guest-star role in his own movie.
So who are the stars of Against the Dark? Well, they’re a bunch of actors you’ve never heard of, including the cousin of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In what are essentially cameo roles, we have Linden Ashby and Keith David of all people. I can’t imagine what Keith David is doing in this movie at all — the man has a Tony Award, for God’s sake! — but there he is, dutifully adding Against the Dark to his resume. It’s kind of surreal.
If you’ve read my movie reviews for any length of time, you know that I am of two minds about “found footage” movies. On the one hand I think that they are extremely self-limiting in storytelling terms and are, because of that, pretty much played out. On the other hand, no matter how many of these things make their way into the wild, I feel compelled to watch almost all of them. Usually, as you can imagine, I come away disappointed for one reason or another, and I’m sad to say that is also the case with Apollo 18, a found-footage horror movie that strains mightily against the restrictions of its format, but doesn’t quite make it.
Apollo 18 posits that there was another Apollo mission following the 17 that took NASA-engineered machines — and sometimes people, of course — to the Moon and back again. Officially additional flights were cancelled for budgetary reasons, but most people acknowledge that what killed the Apollo program was apathy; after Apollo 11, each successive Moon landing drew less and less attention until it had become workaday. This is similar to what happened with the Space Shuttle missions. By the end, hardly anyone even noticed NASA was flying the craft anymore. Its discontinuation was the very definition of anticlimax.
One of the things I find interesting about the reaction to Apollo 18 is not that it’s loaded with logical flaws and weak plot points (which it is), but that its central premise is patently impossible. The space-enthusiast community really, really, really hated the very idea that there could have been an eighteenth and secret Apollo mission, and they trotted out a laundry list of reasons why this would be, including the inability to NASA to conceal the launch of such an enormous rocket, the ease with which people could eavesdrop on space communications and more. This may seem like the epitome of nerdrage but, really, Apollo 18 brought it upon itself by daring to suggest that the story could possibly be true. Is there anyone who can be fooled by that kind of flim-flammery? Was The Blair Witch Project the first and last time it ever really worked?
Say what you want about Hammer Film Productions — that their product was cheesy, exploitative, cheap, even tawdry — but they did know how to stretch a concept. Thus was the case with their movies about Dracula, which numbered nine in all, and thus is also the case with their Frankenstein films (seven). They knew a good thing when they had a hold of it, and goddamn it they were going to run with it until there was no more running to be done. Were the end products all of those things I listed above? Were they cheesy and exploitative, made on the cheap and calculated for maximum titillation? Absolutely. That’s why they’ve stood the test of time: people like that kind of thing. I like that kind of thing, especially when it’s balanced on the edge of a knife the way most Hammer films are.
Frankenstein Created Woman was the fourth in Hammer’s Frankenstein series and it is pure Hammer all the way through. Not as good as the best they could produce, but also better than some of the dreck that came late in their lifespan, it sometimes does venture a little further than it should to retain that balance, but it’s still an amenable way to spend 92 minutes, even if the end result is a touch drawn out.
The thing to remember about these Frankenstein movies is that they are only tenuously related to one another. They all feature Baron Frankenstein and the titular character is always played by the excellent Peter Cushing, and they all have to do with raising bodies from the dead, but the story continuity is pretty much blown from film to film. Audiences are asked to suspend their disbelief and get down to the business of watching Frankenstein’s latest creation blow up in his face. So, yes, there is a formula, but if you happen to like that formula, you’ll be fine.
This time around the Baron is in some vaguely Germanic European country, as is usually the case with these things, and he is interested not just in the reanimation of dead tissue — been there, done that — but in the quality and preservation of the soul. It’s worthwhile to note that in Frankenstein Created Woman the soul is basically the personality and memories of the dead person. I found it a little surprising that the scientific explanation for such things, that the brain is responsible for our individuality, is rejected in favor of something more spiritual, but then I remembered that this was 1967 and there were still a lot of religious folks out there for whom the soul was a very real, tangible idea that superseded science.