Friday, October 11, 2013

Diary of the Dead 2013: Week 2

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week in October. I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 4

Hollywood Boulevard (1976- dir. Allan Arkush and Joe Dante) ***

Producer Jon Davison bet that he could make the cheapest movie New World Pictures ever made. Roger Corman took that bet, hence the existence of Hollywood Boulevard, a $60,000 crazed-killer flick/clip show littered with bits from eleven previous Corman pictures. Davison guaranteed he’d have more than a bet-winning turkey on his hands by hiring the future directors of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Gremlins to get behind the camera and Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, and the deputy from Jaws to get in front of it (plus bonus cameos from Robby the Robot and Godzilla!). As a result, Hollywood Boulevard is a cartoon-come-to-life parody of movie making from a bunch of people who’d reduced movie making to a cartoon parody. Unfortunately, attempts to mine laughs from rape keep derailing the fun. Exploitative, sleazy, self-aware, and mostly entertaining. It’s a Roger Corman movie.

Konga (1961- dir. John Lemont) ***½

AIP gives King Kong a mad scientist twist in Konga. Michael Gough is the doc who gives his chimp, Konga, a dose of enormity serum he picked up from an old witch doctor buddy. Soon the cute little guy is a hulking gorilla loose in London and smiting Gough’s enemies. I get why Konga gets bigger, but there’s no explanation for why he becomes a totally different species of primate. Whatever. It’s pretty stupid tp split hairs about a movie starring a guy in a gorilla suit. Gough is pretty psycho, so Konga isn’t totally devoid of menace, and the ease with which his sweet girlfriend (Margo Johns) goes along with the killing is kind of chilling, but the bottom line is that this is schlock, which becomes wildly clear when Konga starts treating Gough like Fay Wray in the final reel. I like schlock, and it sure isn’t boring, so I’m not complaining.

October 5

World War Z (2013- dir. Marc Forster) **

Despite being the most limited monsters, zombies continue to get more play than vampires, werewolves, and Frankensteins combined. World War Z is well made and well acted, but you’ve seen 100 other movies just like it and there will be 100 more before this year is over. The only things that distinguish it from other zombie movies are its globetrotting and its refusal to criticize the military. Otherwise, World War Z is purely generic. Panic in the streets, martial law, flesh eating, metaphor, metaphor, blah, blah, blah.

October 6

Scream Pretty Peggy (1973- dir. Gordon Hessler) ***½

Donald from “That Girl” is a sculptor who hires a college kid to do his housekeeping. His mom is Bette Davis, who flounces around the house in her nightgown drunk. He keeps his sister locked up above the garage to keep her from hacking up the neighbors with a kitchen knife. Co-writers Jimmy Sangster and Arthur Hoffe rip limbs off of three well-familiar Gothic and horror stories, piece them back together like a couple of little Dr. Frankensteins, and end up with a made-for-TV horror flick that goes down as easily as a fistful of Velveeta. Plus, you can never go wrong with Bette Davis. That’s currency you can put in the bank.

October 7

Pumpkinhead (1988- dir. Stan Winston) ****½

Special effects and makeup whiz Stan Winston (Jurassic Park, Aliens, The Star Wars Christmas Special) takes a crack at directing his own film and cracks it wide open. At a time when cynical slasher movies and ironic horror-comedies were king, Winston made an old-fashioned monster movie with a fairy tale-like atmosphere. Pumpkinhead is a wonderful creation, not unlike the Gill Man but still very original, which is the least we should expect from Winston. The real surprise is how much humanity, sincerity, and willingness to confront moral complexities he brings to his first picture. Lance Henrickson gives a restrained yet emotionally intense performance as a grief-stricken father who makes a demonic deal of love and revenge. Winston makes some concessions to contemporary tastes with the systematic slaughter of a bunch of teens, and the killings are the least interesting parts of Pumpkinhead. Fortunately, Winston populates his film with enough witches, monsters, owls, spooky old graveyards, and real people with real feelings to distinguish his film from its era.

Grim Prairie Tales (1990- dir. Wayne Coe) *

A couple of great actors anchor this direct-to-video portmanteau, but there’s no getting around how insubstantial it is. Menacing James Earl Jones and city slicker Brad Dourif tell each other a quartet of horror stories around a campfire in frontier times. There’s so little to the first tale about a man passing over an Indian burial ground that the most shocking moment is when it ends so abruptly and anticlimactically. The second one about a sexual encounter is the best of the lot for its utter weirdness, but again, it’s all over too quickly. The third tale, in which a girl discovers that her dad (William Atherton) is a member of a lynch mob, is actually genuinely horrifying, but not for the usual horror movie reasons. This story raises some serious issues, and its refusal to deal with them more directly may have worked in a better film, but it feels downright offensive in this perfunctory piece of crap. Finally, there are some gunslingers and a ghost. In the spirit of the movie I’m reviewing, I’m not going to bother thinking about that final story, and I’m just going to end this review in the sloppiest, most sudden way I can. Fart.

October 8

Room 237 (2012- dir. Rodney Ascher) ***

If any filmmaker constructed his images so meticulously that even his background props deserve closer study, it’s Stanley Kubrick, but Room 237 is not really a documentary about interpretations of The Shining. It’s about how that invitation to study closer can be a slippery slope to the kind of madness Jack Torrance might think is a bit much. Not every interviewee is a total crackpot. The guy who reads themes of Native American genocide into The Shining brings up some interesting ideas before going off the deep end, and hats off to the eagle eye who somehow spotted that Jack is reading a Playgirl while waiting in the Overlook lobby. However, the woman who sees Minotaurs in every frame takes overreaching to new lengths, as does the guy who’s convinced the movie is about the holocaust. The one who believes Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landing footage is flat-out nuts. A little of this stuff goes a long way, and Room 237 could have earned itself another half-star by losing a half-hour. That footage of The Shining superimposed forwards and backwards over itself is pretty cool though.

October 9

Child’s Play 2 (1990- dir. John Lafia) **

When I began Diary of the Dead (and Psychobabble!) five years ago, the biggest and most delightful surprise was how good Child’s Play is (which, quite coincidentally, I watched precisely five years ago today). In tribute to that momentous discovery, I’m going to be hitting a Chucky adventure a day for the next three days. First up is John Lafia’s Child’s Play 2, in which Grace Zabriskie places the kid from the first movie in Jenny Agutter’s foster home. Brad Dourif returns as Chucky, who possesses a Good Guy doll left by one of Agutter’s former charges. Mayhem ensues. As I’m, sure you’ve already detected, the cast of Child’s Play 2 is very cool. Dourif still delivers some foul-mouthed fun, but there’s not nearly enough Zabriskie. That’s not the only issue with Child’s Play 2, which just isn’t imaginatively written or directed. There’s none of Child’s Play’s social criticism and too little of its humor and outrageousness. I have a feeling that’s going to change tomorrow, though.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995- dir. Mel Brooks) **

Why oh why would Mel Brooks make a movie that so welcomes comparison to his greatest parody? His love for the subject matter is just as on display in Dracula: Dead and Loving It as it was in Young Frankenstein (no doubt horror historian and co-screenwriter Steve Haberman can also be thanked for a lot of the specific references to Tod Browning’s movie), and the cast is good, but they have nothing to work with. Brooks’s best films—Young Frankenstein, The Producers, even Blazing Saddles—each had an emotional core that is totally absent from this cold corpse. Even worse, there isn’t a single funny gag. You know the screenwriters are desperate when they start stealing jokes from “The Groovie Goolies.”

October 10

Bride of Chucky (1998- dir. RonnyYu) ****½

After a genuinely clever and pointed opening act, a lazy Part 2, and a third act that I haven’t seen, Chucky is back and realizing his full high-camp potential in the post-Scream era of self-aware horror. The winking nods to horror films past come furiously. Psycho, sexy, hilarious Jennifer Tilly is here to carry the first half of the picture as Charles Lee Ray’s former murder-mate, Tiffany. She then resurrects Chucky with a handy copy of Voodoo for Dummies and gets transformed into a devil dolly herself. Bride of Chucky is the most fun installment so far. Director Ronny Yu and cinematographer Peter Pau animate it with wonderful style that often resembles panels from an E.C. horror comic, and the doll effects are rad. Tilly and Brad Dourif are a killer team whether in the flesh or in the plastic. I even liked the teens’ funny “accidental Bonnie and Clyde” parallel plot. But what would happen if Tiffany got her wish and this terrible two had a baby doll?

To be continued…
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