Firestarter

December 12, 2019

firestarterOverheard while walking out of the theater after Firestarter: “Let that be a lesson to you: never volunteer for scientific experiments.” Words of wisdom. But if people, real or fictional, ever heeded  that lesson, we’d be robbed of a lot of science fiction/horror stories.

In Firestarter, the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King tale, a scientific experiment with hallucinogenic drugs alters the minds of David Keith and Heather Locklear, who develop certain telekinetic powers. Their eventual offspring (Drew Barrymore) is even more gifted: She can start fires just by concentrating.

This makes the little girl a target of interest for the fiendish government agency (called The Shop) that started the whole experiment in the first place. One doctor (Freddie Jones) wants to expunge the kid’s talent before she passes through adolescence and develops nuclear capabilities. Naturally, he’s not long for the world.

The Shop would rather exploit her abilities. The head honcho (Martin Sheen) sends his most fearsome hit man, a psycho named Rainbird (George C. Scott), out to bring back the girl and her father (mother having been killed in a flashback).

Some of this gets a bit murky. We don’t really know what kind of powers Keith has, for instance, or why, if he can control people, he doesn’t just manipulate an effective solution. And, when Barrymore is eventually imprisoned, it should occur to her that she could burn her way out. Evidently it doesn’t.

Plot holes such as these don’t stop the movie from being a fairly good, professional job. Director Mark L. Lester doesn’t have a very clean visual style, but at least he doesn’t let the film become a guts ‘n gore epic. And the star-heavy cast, presumably bankrolled by the inexhaustible executive producer Dino De Lau rentiis, makes it watchable.

Oscar-winners Art Carney and Louise Fletcher have the kind of supporting roles that could have been played by almost any actors. Scott, however, makes the most of Rainbird, who insinuates himself into a friendship with the child, then reveals his despicability in the climactic scene. As he stalks Barrymore through a stable, toting a pistol and wearing an eye patch, he looks like a deranged version of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn – truly a child’s dream turned into a nightmare.

Someone had the canny idea to cast cherubic Drew Barrymore – the little sister from E.T. – as the tiny heroine. Her naturally likable presence plays well against the reality of her terrifying power. Every few minutes, she gets to burn something to the ground, which she does with deadpan intensity.

All through the film, we’ve been made aware that all the girl wants to do is live a normal life. At the end, after The Shop gets its just reward, our heroine doesn’t quite fade into the general populace. Instead, she finds herself at the front door of the New York Times, ready to reveal all. Good grief. Out of the frying pan . . . .

First published in the Herald, May 1984

I never saw it again, and don’t have much recollection of it. You’d think the George C. Scott stuff would be memorable, but I honestly had no memory that he was in this movie until just now. To say nothing of Heather Locklear, of whom we will say nothing.


Link/Trick or Treat

November 1, 2019

link2Just in time for Halloween, here are two decently produced horror films, both of which go disappointingly awry from unusual premises.

Link attempts a Stephen King-ish story about some apes getting the better of their master, a scientist (Terence Stamp), at his lonely Cornwall mansion. Actually, it’s just one ape who goes bad, an orangutan named Link who’s been trained to outsmart humans. All too well, as it turns out.

Link gets the upper paw, dispenses with the professor, starts threatening the young house­keeper (Elisabeth Shue) who can’t seem to figure out a way to get out of the house.

The director here is the Australian Richard Franklin, who has made some good chillers (Road Games, Psycho II). And Franklin actually directs the film well – he mounts a few exciting sequences. But the basic idea finally seems so silly that even Franklin’s efforts can’t jerk the movie onto a higher evolutionary plane.

trickortreatTrick or Treat is even more disappointing. It springs from a potentially funny-scary Idea that a demonic rock ‘n’ roller might be raised from the dead by a coded backward message on one of his albums.

A teen-age misfit (Marc Price) is stunned when his hero, heavy metal monster Sammi Curr (Tony Fields), dies suddenly. A sympathetic DJ (Gene Simmons) gives the kid the acetate recording of Curr’s last, yet-to-be-released album: Songs in the Key of Death.

When played backward, the secret messages on the album form an incantation that brings Curr back. He’s as surly as ever, but now he has supernatural powers. When his music is played, it melts the ears of kids who listen to it. He must be stopped, and only our hero can do it.

The excesses and self-importance of heavy metal deserve satirizing, and so do the bluenose attitudes of those who would ban the music. Trick or Treat does some of both but blows most of the good opportunities. The script is all over the place, and doesn’t know what it wants to do. Charles Martin Smith directed the film; he’s the actor who played the nerd In American Graffiti and the lead in Never Cry Wolf. He gets off a few funny ideas – the villaincan reach into a TV set and yank out the person onscreen – but most of the movie is as thick and tortuous as Sammi Curr’s music.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Charles Martin Smith continues to direct; his 1992 film Fifty-Fifty is an unusual picture that has some old-movie zest to it. Other than that, does anybody remember this film? Link has enjoyed some cult approval, I think, especially with that good cast (and Jerry Goldsmith did the music). Franklin had previously done the creditable Psycho II, and went on to make F/X 2, whereupon he went back to mostly Australian work.


The Blob

October 31, 2019

blobThe original 1958 version of The Blob was a typical low-budget sci-fi movie of the period: There was very little to distinguish it aside from its relatively snappy pace and the presence of an intriguing young actor, “Steven” McQueen. In most respects, it was like a hundred other wonderfully goofy monster movies in that golden era of flying saucers and giant insects.

And yet, somehow, you gotta love that blob. So simple. So direct. So gooey.

I suppose there are people who appreciate the blob, and people who don’t. The latter are probably beyond help; for the former, there’s a brand-new version of The Blob, featuring a much higher budget than the original and with state-of-the-art special effects. But still with the same basic idea.

Once again, the blob falls from outer space and attaches itself to the hand of an expendable old coot. Then it begins devouring everything in sight, starting with the coot, until an entire small town in threatened.

The only people who can stop the blob are a motorcycle boy (Kevin Dillon) and a cheerleader (Shawnee Smith), but of course they have a hard time getting anyone to believe them.

The director is Chuck Russell, who displayed an inventive visual sense in his previous film (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3). Russell has a field day concocting ways for the purplish-pink mass of blob to surprise its victims; one person is yanked down a drainpipe, another is squished in a telephone booth, and a romantic teen is unfortunately surprised during a heavy-petting session in lovers’ lane.

Russell includes an update on the original film’s most famous scene, in which the blob slimed its way into a movie theater. In this case, however, the original is not improved upon. One twist in the new version provides an explanation of the blob’s origin. It isn’t just a bit of space glub; actually, the blob is the result of a government germ-warfare test. When the officials hit town, they’re more concerned with capturing the blob than with saving the populace; “This’ll put U.S. defense years ahead of the Russians,” burbles one scientist.

This new Blob is a good little horror movie There’s some comfort in the thought that, despite its one-dimensional personality, the blob is still gooey after all these years.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

Russell went on to direct The Mask and Eraser; he wrote the screenplay with Frank Darabont, then at the beginning of his career. Certainly a movie headlined by Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith has some essential 80s cred, am I right? As far as I know this film’s rep is pretty solid with horror mavens—and the ’58 Blob is not exactly a fall-down masterpiece, so there’s not a great deal to resent about a sequel.


Dolls

October 30, 2019

dollsIn 1985, a giddy, extravagantly gruesome horror movie called Re­Animator brought a rookie director named Stuart Gordon to the spotlight. Actually, Gordon had been a director for years, in the vanguard of experimental live theater in Chicago. His first movie displayed considerable wit, iconoclasm, and a freewheeling willingness to disgust.

His next movie, From Beyond, was another spinoff of H.P. Lovecraft, and basically another mad-doctor movie. (It never had a regular run locally, but it’s out on cassette.) It was solid enough, but not as original as Re-Animator.

Gordon’s third film is a change of pace, although he remains firmly within the horror film tradition (also within the stable of Empire Pictures, a quirky exploitation-films company). Dolls, which debuted as a midnight movie at the recent Seattle International Film Festival, is a haunted house picture, with the usual group of ill-matched people coming together on a stormy night in a mysterious old mansion.

Basic, well-worn stuff, and it still works, given that Gordon is sprightly indeed about moving the proceedings from one ghastly situation to another. It turns out that the kindly old couple who own the mansion are dollmakers of the old school, the type who labor to make every doll special in some detail. All of these dolls are “special” in the same detail: they can come alive and do mischief to people who rub them the wrong way. Usually these victims are people who don’t like dolls (they also happen to be the ones who get up in the middle of the night and go poking around in the dolls’ rooms).

The concept of dolls rising up against humans may sound goofy, but it has worked before as a horror concept. Remember the old episode of Twilight Zone in which a Chatty Cathy told Telly Savalas it was going to kill him? To many of us given to indiscriminate fears anyway, dolls can be creepy. Most kids seem to go through some phase of doll anxiety – you just can’t trust the little things completely – and Dolls plays upon these childhood fears.

Not that any of this is played straight. Gordon’s tongue is frequently in cheek, and he has fun bestowing demonic powers upon his toys, who screech, claw, and nibble at their victims. Barbie and Ken wouldn’t last a minute in such rude company.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

It seems a more innocent time, that I would have to explain that dolls can be creepy. Child’s Play was a year in the future. Some of us were intrigued by what Gordon was getting up to back then, although it surprises me to recall that From Beyond didn’t even get a proper opening in Seattle. (But it’s on cassette, folks.) Gordon has had an interesting career in theater and film; his non-horror movie work includes a scathing adaptation of David Mamet’s Edmund.


Lady in White

October 29, 2019

ladyinwhiteReally good ghost stories are hard to come by these days. Oh, there are plenty of horror films, but the ghost story is a specific genre, with definite rules and traditions. A new film, Lady In White, fulfills so many of these traditions that it’s tempting to applaud it. Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

But at least writer-director Frank Laloggia had the right instincts. Lady in White is old-fashioned and evocative, and it rightly tells its story through the eyes of a child: a 9-year-old boy (Lukas Haas, the kid from Witness), who begins to suspect that all is not well in the quiet little town of Willowpoint Falls.

He’s drawn into a mystery when two bratty pals lock him up in a school coat closet at Halloween time. It’s the very same room where, 10 years before, a little girl was murdered … yipes! This night, of all nights, a man breaks into the room, discovers Haas there, and tries to kill the boy.

This leads the kid into a mystery that involves the strange murders of a handful of children over the years, and ends up at the spooky old house at the edge of town and an encounter with the ghostly lady in white, “a mysterious, long-robed woman who roams the cliffs at night.”

The script is full of creepy incidents, although it telegraphs the identity of the child-killer fairly early on. There are no surprises, but there is a lot of affection for the expected twists and turns of the classic ghost story, along the lines of a familiar old tale told ’round a campfire.

Laloggia seems to be attempting to capture the autumnal chill of Ray Bradbury’s small-town horror stories. Unfortunately, Lady in White has a low-budget look that sometimes undercuts the director’s more expressive moments. And not all the actors are up to snuff, although Haas provides an effective hero. (Alex Rocco plays his widowed father, Len Cariou the father’s best friend, and Katherine Helmond plays the weird old woman who lives in the dilapidated shack by the cliffs.)

Lady in White has its problems, but it does get closer to raising occasional gooseflesh than the disappointing adaptation of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes a few years back, which covered similar territory. It’s an honest, well-meaning try, and endearing even when it’s at its clumsiest.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

I’m not sure where Mr. Laloggia went, but he posts on Twitter every now and again. The film has a following, for sure. At the time it was a welcome break from the dismal run of slasher films that had dominated the earlier part of the decade.


A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge

October 28, 2019

nightmare_on_elm_street_2Last year’s Nightmare on Elm Street was a flat­ out screamfest, a niftily constructed thriller that raised gooseflesh more honestly and effectively than any horror film since The Shining. Its carefully balanced mingling of dream and reality had helpless audiences unsure where the next scare was going to come from.

The sequel is here, and it’s a dorky mess. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge was rushed into production, and it shows. Nothing is thought out; everything’s predictable.

It’s safe to assume that the drop-off in quality is largely due to the absence of director Wes Craven, one of the best horror maestros in the business (Last House on the Left, Swamp Thing). Someone named Jack Sholder has taken the reins, and he botches things pretty completely.

Here’s how it goes: A family moves into the house that was inhabited by the ill-fated characters from the first movie. (They are apparently not bothered by the iron bars over the windows; Dad says, “Well, how do you think we got this place for such a reasonable price?”) The teen-age son (Mark Patton) starts having weird nightmares; the film begins with his ride on a bus that drives out into the desert and falls into the San Andreas Fault. Now, right away you can see why Part 2 isn’t going to work: In the original, you never were sure what was dream and what was reality. This opening scene is clearly an outrageous nightmare, which makes it less interesting.

The kid notes that the creepy guy in his dreams is the same ugly dude described in the diary he finds in his room, left there by the previous inhabitant. Then a lovebird bursts into flame in the living room. Then the kid gels up in the middle of the night, goes to an S&M bar and finds his gym teacher there – at which point, the nightmare guy, who goes by the name of Freddy Krueger, takes over the kid’s body and kills the gym teacher.

Sounds weird, right? There’s more: The obligatory girlfriend (Kim Myers) throws a pool party at her parents’ house, and Freddy decides to attend. This girl sticks loyally by her boyfriend, even when he shows up at the party with blood all over his shirt and steel claws on his hand. And they called it puppy love.

The party is the blow-out of all time: when young Patton mutates into Freddy, all hell breaks loose. Freddy makes frankfurters explode and cans of beer blow their tops. Obviously, this man is evil incarnate. (For future reference, the pool is the worst place to be in such a situation, because Freddy makes the water boil.)

The movie is bad news. The worst news is that ol’ Freddy (played under much makeup by Robert Englund) may be receiving the Jason treatment. Jason of course, is the inexhaustibly popular killer from the Friday the 13th movies. The ads for Freddy’s Revenge all feature the bad guy, and there is every evidence we may be seeing him in our dreams for years to come.

First published in the Herald, November 1985

The next movie Jack Sholder directed was The Hidden, a very nice little horror picture, so apologies there. I haven’t revisited the film, and never will, unless there is a lot of money involved.


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.