Little Monsters

January 25, 2013

littlemonstersFor a few generations now, kids have been insisting that monsters live under their beds. In Little Monsters, this claim is given irrefutable proof.

As the movie explains, monsters live underneath the Earth’s surface in a vast subterranean world. Once night falls up top, the monsters rise up stairways and slip out from under the beds of little kids, wreaking havoc (for which kids everywhere, the innocent darlings, are blamed the next morning). This explains a lot.

Little Monsters is concerned with one denizen of the underworld, a blue reptilian creature with horns and a Mohawk, who goes by the name of—what else?—Maurice. Maurice, played by comedian Howie Mandel, has arrived to torment the nights of 11-year-old Brian (Fred Savage, the likable little ham from TV’s “Wonder Years”).

Brian’s family has just moved to their new house, his parents (Daniel Stern and Margaret Whitton) are bickering, his little brother is a pill. So he has need of a friend, and Maurice turns out to be an amiable monster, and a good guide to the world below, where kids can play pinball to their hearts’ delight and eat as many cheeseburgers as they please.

Director Richard Alan Greenberg tires hard to give this story the feeling of Ray Bradbury’s writing: a lonely kid, an unhappy family, the promise of something supernatural to spark the boy’s imagination. Unfortunately, Greenberg’s efforts don’t mesh well with the monster stuff.

The monster stuff is dominated by Howie Mandel. Mandel was eminently likable in his role in “St. Elsewhere,” but in his comedy routines he tends toward manic obnoxiousness, and that is the direction he takes here. It becomes clear from the first moments of his performance that he is doing much what Michael Keaton did in Beetlejuice, but without Keaton’s sustained frenzy (or the writing to support such frenzy).

Little Monsters runs out of creative juice long before Mandel runs out of shtick. In fact, there is probably a direct correlation here—a little bit of Howie goes a long way.

First published in the Herald, August 31, 1989

Except for this odd picture, the director mostly stuck to visual effects and titles sequences. This was the first credit for Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, who have flourished in animation and live-action alike, including the Pirates of the Caribbean business.


Leviathan

January 22, 2013

leviathanLeviathan has exactly the same plot as Deep Star Six, a film released in January. Both movies are about a station at the bottom of the ocean menaced by a sea monster that attacks the crew members one by one.

Is there something in the collective unconscious that fears big, ugly things that emerge from the ocean floor? Perhaps. Or could it be that two production companies had the idea for ripping off Alien at the same time?

Whereas Deep Star Six was a bouncy exercise in B-movie silliness, Leviathan comes equipped with some A-movie trappings. It’s got some actors, for starters, and a more impressive set design. The basic idea is slightly more clever: The crew of a mining station discovers the hull of a Soviet ship resting on the sea floor. They investigate.

A couple of the crew decide to drink from the ship’s still-intact vodka supply. Bad idea. This causes, as the doctor (Richard Crenna) puts it, “Some sort of genetic aberration,” and the afflicted mutate into big ugly slimy things that want to kill.

The response of the guy in charge (Peter Weller, Robocop) is to fire up all the power tools, zip the bodies in plastic, and set ’em adrift. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see the spare limb that gets sheared off and left behind, like a demonic leg of lamb. When it reconstitutes itself, things really shake loose.

Some of the other crew members include Hector Elizondo, Ernie Hudson, Lisa Eilbacher, and Daniel Stern. A decent enough ensemble, but with very little to do except wait around to get slimed. Also, there’s Amanda Pays, a luscious British actress (from the “Max Headroom” TV show), who is the resident fitness expert. This means the filmmakers must find excuses for her to jog around in tight sweat clothes. Which they do.

Director is George P. Cosmatos, best known as the man who guided, or endured, Sylvester Stallone in Rambo II and Cobra. Cosmatos clearly has his heart in action sequences, and Leviathan gives him a few to play with. Unfortunately, there’s nothing else going on, and the movie stiffs out long before it’s over. Lloyd Bridges, where are you when we need you?

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1989

This film is no relation to the 2012 release labeled “best of the year” by Cinema Scope…or is it? I haven’t seen the other Leviathan, so I suppose I really can’t say.


Angel Heart

January 3, 2013

angelheartAmong the artistically ambitious movie directors of today, Alan Parker is the kid with the sledgehammer touch.

He seems bent on describing his personal vision of hell, whether it’s in a Turkish prison (Midnight Express), a failed marriage (Shoot the Moon), or a paranoid rock ‘n’ roll fantasy (Pink Floyd: The Wall). And he wants to do it in terms we can’t miss: Parker exults in rubbing our faces in it.

In his new, already-much-discussed film Angel Heart, Parker goes deeper into the netherworld than ever before. It’s an unclean, frequently sickening journey, but also often a compelling one. This has as much to do with the actors and the fiendishly intriguing storyline (adapted from a novel by William Hjortsberg) as with Parker’s heavy-handed approach.

The distributors of the film have made a special point of asking reviewers not to reveal the surprises of the plot. That’s good, because this is a film that turns down some very dark alleys indeed.

Roughly, then, it’s about a dead-soul Brooklyn private eye named Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke, disturbingly in his element) hired by the shiveringly eccentric Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a certain Johnny Favorite. Favorite was a minor-league crooner before the big war (the film is set in 1955), and Cyphre wants him found, for mysterious reasons.

The bloody quest takes Angel eventually to New Orleans, where he runs into a fortune teller (Charlotte Rampling), some voodoo practitioners, and a haunting girl named Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet of “The Cosby Show,” who is very good).

You can tell just from the characters’ names that Angel Heart is laden with symbolic overtones. Parker, unfortunately, overplays the overtones. He can’t let anything pass by unemphasized; De Niro, for instance, wears a marvelous set of long pointed fingernails for his role, but Parker has to cut to big close-ups of the nails drumming, just so we notice. He keeps the camera close so we can’t miss the slime running down the walls or the pimples erupting on Mickey Rourke’s face.

It was probably Parker’s over-the-top storytelling methods that earned this film an X rating, when it first went to the ratings board; the body count here is not higher than in comparable films, but Parker does play up the gore and the sex.

It’s even been suggested that the board slapped Parker with an X because he had the audacity to cast a “Cosby” kid, Bonet, in a very sexy role. I doubt that had much to do with it, although it was one of her scenes—a sexual episode within a montage of voodoo blood rites—that Parker trimmed by 10 seconds to get an R rating.

With all its greasiness, there’s a good deal of power in this film. It’s not an exhilarating kind of power—more the kind that, by the end of the movie, makes you feel like Mickey Rourke’s seedy, wrung-out overcoat. Take that recommendation for what it’s worth.

First published in the Herald, March 1987

Alan Parker in his element, all right: down and dirty.


Little Shop of Horrors

November 2, 2012

Once upon a time, during a weekend in 1960, Roger Corman had a set, some actors, and nothing better to do. So in three days (so the legend goes), he and scriptwriter Charles Griffith filmed a wacky little horror comedy about a man-eating plant.

This no-budget throwaway has survived as one of the zaniest products of Corman’s freewheeling early days. For years it was a staple of the revival circuit and television. Then, a few years ago, someone had the improbable idea to turn the thing into a stage play. And a musical, yet.

The project, shall we say, blossomed. More improbably, it was a big hit. And most improbable of all, it’s been made into a movie again, this time with big-budget backing and songs to boot.

Deep down, I’ll always prefer Corman’s zonked-out quickie. I love its skid road production values and its Catskills-style ethnic humor.

But the new movie has a lot going for it, and deserves to end up as one of this season’s hits. It’s a bright, ditzy thing, full of artificial sets, arch acting, and goofy songs.

A trio of doo-wop girls serve as a chorus, as we are introduced to a rundown New York neighborhood, circa 1960. Mushnik’s florist shop is mired in an apparently terminal slump—until the shop boy, Seymour (Rick Moranis, from “SCTV”), finds “a strange and interesting plant” one day. Placed in the store window, the plant quickly attracts business, much to the delight of Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) and clerk Audrey (Ellen Greene, adorably vapid). That this homely little bulb would attract all this attention is just the first of the film’s intentional absurdities.

Seymour names the planet Audrey II. He harbors a love, or as much goony affection as he can muster, for the real Audrey, but she is stuck with a sadist boyfriend (a plum role for Steve Martin). Naturally, the sadist practices dentistry.

Audrey II brings Seymour money and glamour, but there is a photosynthetical downside. The plant can live only on blood. Human blood. Seymour must supply supper, or lose his plant—and, he supposes, lose Audrey.

Understand that not one whit of this nonsense is played straight. The approach that lyricist Howard Ashman (who also scripted) and composer Alan Mencken have taken is a thorough put-on: campy and tacky.

I don’t know how they came up with Frank Oz for director—he’s a longtime collaborator of the Muppets’ Jim Henson—except that one of the main characters is a large Muppet-like creature; the plant, given voice by the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs, steals a number of scenes, and behaves with much impertinence.

Oz directs with uninhibited glee, frequently stuffing visual gags into the big numbers. Martin’s dentist song, a tour de force that ought to be released as a video for MTV, is a string of hilarious jokes on the fear of oral surgery, building to the moment when Oz cuts to a shot looking at the insanely cackling Martin from the inside of a large fake mouth. Oz is exactly in tune with this show’s nuttiness.

There are cameos, mostly unnecessary, from John Candy, Jim Belushi, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray; the latter plays a dental patient who loves pain.

In the original film and the musical play, the plant eats everyone at the end. That ending was filmed, but was reshot after some test previews favored a happier ending. Actually, this new ending may be even better and funnier than the original. In a quiet way, Audrey II still has the last laugh.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1986

Hey, didja notice I never mentioned the title of the movie? I didn’t notice, when I wrote this review. I have a feeling I did this a few times over the years.


The Lift/Frankenweenie

November 1, 2012

Thanks to the ingenuity of horror-film makers, the face of evil has inhabited nearly every form known to man. We’ve had all kinds of killer animals—from sharks to spiders to giant rabbits (really—doesn’t anyone remember The Night of the Lepus?).

We’ve also seen machines go mad—haunted houses are full of them, and there’s Christine, the killer car, and, since 2001, a slew of demonic computers. Even the lowest forms of existence have found themselves endowed with diabolical intent. Think of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and you see this thing has gone about as far as it can go.

But not quite. Along comes a Dutch film called The Lift and you realize there are a few curves left in the format. The terrorizer in question is an elevator in a high-rise office building.

Apparently the elevator’s control system, ruled by microchips, has taken on a life and consciousness of its own. It starts playing mean tricks on some of its bewildered occupants—luring a blind man to step into an open shaft, asphyxiating a group of late-night carousers. One poor soul, innocently sticking his head into the shaft one day, is surprised by the elevator, which comes streaking down from above, murder on its mind—or at least on its microchips.

The hero of this tale is the elevator engineer (Huub Stapel), who tries to find out the source of the foul-up—but encounters mysterious opposition from his bosses.

It’s a rather silly story, redeemed by writer-director Dick Maas’s sense of humor about the whole thing. He makes sure the film has an absurd tone, even when the elevator is up to its mayhem.

Playing with The Lift—and overshadowing it for originality—is a 25-minute short called Frankenweenie, a lovely version of Frankenstein set in modern suburbia. It’s about a little boy (Barrett Oliver) whose dog, Sparky, is run over by a car. The kid’s determined not to lose Sparky, however, and improvises an electrical system in the attic of his house (the parents are played by Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern). He harnesses lightning with the TV antenna in an attempt to revive Sparky—a hilarious updating of the similar scene in Frankenstein.

It’s a funny little vignette, affectionately directed by Tim Burton. The black-and-white photography harks back to the original Universal horror classics of the 1930s, but the tone is hip.

Burton made the film for Walt Disney studios, which also produced his animated short Vincent, about a little boy who wants to be Vincent Price, a couple of years ago. In producing such odd shorts, Disney is to be commended. Once upon a time, they were at the vanguard of innovative short-subject production.

First published in the Herald, June 17, 1985

Supposedly Disney fired Burton because his movie was so macabre, so maybe they weren’t to be that commended. The Lift opened at the Egyptian theater and became a local hit. As a reviewer, I hadn’t hit my stride yet, if stride there be.


Bad Dreams

October 31, 2012

Bad Dreams is an example of what is becoming a frequent form for the modern horror movie. It’s half straight, half put-on, all hip.

Movies such as The Terminator, The Evil Dead, and The Hidden have staked out similar territory, with some success.

In these films, the order of the day is outrageousness, and Bad Dreams has an abundance of that. The film’s prologue describes a Manson-like cult leader dousing his flock (a bunch of people who look like Squeaky Fromme) in gasoline and burning them all up in an isolate country house. One survives, a girl (Jennifer Rubin) who spends the next 13 years in a coma.

When she returns to the conscious world, she enters a group therapy session at a hospital, a collection of nervous patients described by their doctor (Bruce Abbott, a veteran of Re-Animator duty) as “The borderline personality group.” Rubin is convinced the cult leader is still pursuing her, a conviction that gains credence in the way the other patients keep dying off in mysterious ways.

This section of the movie indulges in mucho sick humor, as a trysting couple falls into the turbine ventilation system and the air ducts flow with human blood; and a young patient works off his excess energy by mutilating himself to the tune of Sid Vicious’s “My Way.” Among other things.

Well, maybe that doesn’t sound all that funny. But a lot of Bad Dreams is irreverently hilarious, thanks to the swift touch of director/co-writer Andrew Fleming and producer Gale Ann Hurd (she produced Gremlins). They keep the punchlines (and the graphic bloodletting) coming, and it may not be until after the movie is over that you realize how little has actually happened.

The way Bad Dreams finally comes up short is in failing to exploit the whole cult-family subject. There are a lot of possibilities, horrific and darkly comic, in the milieu. Fleming and Hurd obviously chose not to pursue those aspects, which is their right, and as it is Bad Dreams is high-energy wackiness. It’s also disposable and forgettable, and not even very scary.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

Fleming later made Dick, which is a movie I happen to like a whole lot, so whatever it took to get him there is fine by me.


Christine

October 30, 2012

Boy meets car, boy loses car, boy gets car back. Hmm, Christine is a different kind of love story—in this case, the object of an adolescent boy’s affection is his red 1958 Plymouth Fury.

Well, maybe that’s not so weird. The kid’s pretty lonely, and the car is the only thing on which he can lavish his attention. Its name—her name—is Christine.

Christine is a horror movie as well as a love story, however, and the terror twist here is that the car is possessed by the devil. Actually, we don’t ever find out exactly what the car has that makes it so mean, but whatever it is, it likes rock ‘n roll and murder.

Christine’s previous owner was haunted by a history of violent death in the family—and they all died, over the years, in the malevolent car. When 17-year-old Arnie (Keith Gordon) buys Christine as a broken-down pile of junk, he doesn’t care about the history of the car—he just knows that he has some mysterious connection to it.

He fixes up Christine so that she’s all shiny, and in the process, he starts to change himself. The whimpering nerd is banished, and a veritable Mr. Hyde emerges. It isn’t long before Arnie, in his new swaggering persona, is dating the prettiest girl at Rockbridge High—and taking her to the drive-in, courtesy Christine.

Arnie used to be bothered by bullies. But Christine flexes her chrome and—no more bullies. In fact, Christine may be doing her job a little too thoroughly. The local police are staring to sniff around, wondering why all the creeps who once bugged Arnie are being found with tire tracks on their letterman’s jackets.

This premise, based on Stephen King’s best seller, might have been a lot of fun. But the movie is so straightforward and one-note that it becomes rather boring.

The director, John (Halloween) Carpenter, whose early promise as one of the leading lights of the New Hollywood is dimming rapidly, does not seem to be particularly engaged by the material. He tries to develop the idea of Arnie’s loneliness being answered by this seductive machine, but that really gets skipped over pretty quickly. Not much is allowed to stem the flow of car stunts and chases.

And even the stunts and special effects aren’t unusually impressive. The teen crowd may be disappointed by Carpenter’s customary restraint when it comes to the more graphic elements of gore ‘n guts that have been the bread and butter of so many horror movies lately.

Christine herself, it should be said, is a hot number. Whether cruising down a highway in flames or dramatically reconstructing herself after absorbing a pounding from the local toughs, she’s a formidable machine. But it doesn’t say much for Christine to point out that she has more personality by far than anyone else in the film.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1983

I would have guessed that sometime in the last 29 years I would have given this movie another look, but apparently I had other priorities. At this moment in Carpenter’s career I was perpetually disappointed, so maybe I’d see the movie with kinder eyes today.