Pet Sematary

October 29, 2012

During the end credits of Pet Sematary, a message reminds us that “No animals were harmed in any way” during filming. This is small reassurance, because it’s the animals in Pet Sematary that are threatening harm, not the other way around.

It’s another movie adaptation of a novel by frightmeister Stephen King, but this time King wrote the screenplay himself. Adding interest is the choice of director Mary Lambert, an artsy type who has made some of the better music videos, including Sting’s “We’ll Be Together” and Madonna’s new scandal, “Like a Prayer.”

Pet Sematary turns out to be one of the better King adaptations. Nothing major here, but it delivers the goods.

King’s scary idea in this one is that a family moves into a remote house in rural Maine, and discovers that its property borders on a pet sema—er, cemetery. As the old geezer (Fred Gwynne) across the road informs them, the cemetery does pretty good business, since the road outside carries constant truck traffic and the local critters are not quite fast enough.

But there’s another funny thing about the cemetery. Animals that are buried there have a way of not staying dead, as the young husband (Dale Midkiff) finds out when the family cat is felled by an 18-wheeler. Kitty comes back, but with a distinctly malevolent attitude. The movie’s kicker comes when Midkiff asks the old-timer the inevitable question: Has anybody ever buried a human out there?

Lambert mounts some scary sequences, and a few of the images are truly creepy. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t get much better than merely effective, because there are too many gaps in the narrative. However, any horror movie that ends with a Ramones song can’t be all bad: “Don’t put me in a pet cemetery….”

First published in the Herald, April 27, 1989

The movie seems to have its share of fans. It’s superior to Silver Bullet, and probably Maximum Overdrive too, but I’m not sure that’s saying very much. Denise Crosby was the female lead.

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Re-Animator

October 26, 2012

Based loosely on an H.P. Lovecraft tale, Re-Animator brings us another variation on the Frankensteinian desire to bring the dead back to life.

This time it’s set in a New England hospital, where an intense young intern, Herbert (Jeffrey Combs), arrives bearing a strange new potion. He’s fresh from studying with a disturbed genius in Switzerland, and he believes his serum can re-animate dead tissue.

He moves in with a fellow student, David (Bruce Abbott), and promptly “borrows” his friend’s cat for an experiment. The dead cat is injected with the serum, but the dosage is too high; the crazy kitty starts bouncing off the walls and screeching its lungs out.

This gets David’s attention: he’s initially horrified but then fascinated by the process. But when he tells the dean of the medical school (whose daughter he is dating) about it, he gets himself expelled.

Hoping for a dramatic demonstration of the re-animation process, the two lads sneak into the hospital morgue and inject a corpse. It—he—springs into life, unwieldy and insane. Unfortunately, the dean picks that moment to walk in on the experiment, and the re-animated corpse kills him.

But, as our heroes have proven, death is not necessarily forever, and …well, you get the picture.

Lots of things get re-animated after this, including a nutty professor who’s been lusting after David’s girlfriend Meg (Barbara Crampton). This professor had discovered Herbert’s secret formula, so the young genius decapitated him; but then, in a gory sequence, his parts are re-animated with such skill that he walks around, escapes from the lab, and even manages to kidnap Meg.

The professor’s corpse then brings her back to the laboratory—stay with me here—and when Herbert finds them there, it sets him up for one of the funniest lines of dialogue heard all year: “So, professor—you discover the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed co-ed?”

I hope these descriptions impart some of the flavor of the film. Its subject matter is thoroughly gross and repulsive, and it’s made with a considerable amount of wit and skill. It’s not a comedy, although there are some sly bits thrown in, straight-faced.

Nope, this one just wants to make audiences jump, and that they do—when they’re not groaning from the explicit examinations of autopsies and decaying corpses, that is. Bleccch.

Stuart Gordon, who also worked on the screenplay, directed with a healthy sense of what will make an audience squirm. He shouldn’t be pardoned for the rip-off of Bernard Herrmann’s music from Psycho, though; it’s blatant.

But then, it’s a blatant film—it doesn’t hold much back. If you’re queasy about such things, don’t go. You won’t last.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1985

The giddy high points of Re-Animator were a true breath of fresh air back then, especially in a horror field that had grown dismal with slashing. The movie seems to loom over everything Stuart Gordon and the actors have done since, and I guess there are worse things in life.


Return of the Living Dead Part II

October 25, 2012

If the title Return of the Living Dead Part II strikes your ear as just a bit redundant, be advised: This whole movie is a retread. In other words, the zombies aren’t the only things that get resurrected.

Return Part II borrows most of its effective moments from the 1985 Return of the Living Dead, a graphic and amusing horror flick. That film was directed and written by Dan O’Bannon, who struck a giddy balance of comedy and horror. O’Bannon came up with a lot of audacious black-humor moments, and conceived a wicked send-off for his living dead. Of course, that film was a spin-off of George Romero’s series of Living Dead films.

O’Bannon has departed and left the writer-director duties to Ken Wiederhorn, who follows the formula exactly, but with less original inspiration. Once again a barrel, containing the results of a chemical experiment gone awry, falls into the wrong hands; when opened, said barrel releases a gas that has the power to re-animate the dead. The gas seeps into a graveyard, and the underground denizens are soon up and at ’em.

The uprising catches a couple of grave-robbers unawares (they are played by Thom Mathews and the shamelessly hammy James Karen, who played similar roles in the first film). These two morons band together with a few other dippy live folks to do battle with the dead.

As in the first film, the dead basically walk around with their hands outstretched and moan, “Brains.” Eating the brains of live persons is the only thing that will assuage their pain.

The special corpse effects are quite state-of-the-art. It’s all here: worms extending from rotting heads, gooey faces collapsing in on themselves, and an expressive skull that says, “Get that damn screwdriver out of my head.”

If you’re still with me, the film builds to the moment when one of the living spots a meat-packing plant and says, “They want brains? We’ll give ’em brains!” A great line, and the beginning of the end—again—for the dead. Temporarily, of course: Return of the Return of the Living Dead Again is probably already in the works.

First published in the Herald, January 1988

From the director of King Frat, Eyes of a Stranger, and Meatballs Part II.


Poltergeist III

October 24, 2012

Even by the admittedly devalued standard of sequels, Poltergeist II was a shockingly poor follow-up to one of the decade’s great scareshows. It would be difficult to sink much below that level, but the makers of Poltergeist III appear to have tried. I’m not sure they’ve succeeded, but P-III comes awfully close to matching its predecessor’s wretchedness. Call it a dead heat.

The only returning cast members are Zelda Rubenstein, as the sawed-off psychic, and Heather O’Rourke, as Carol Anne, the blond daughter who has been dragged off by the poltergeists in each installment of the series. (O’Rourke died not long after filming was completed.)

The little girl is staying with an uncle (Tom Skerritt) and aunt (Nancy Allen) who live in a Chicago high-rise. Carol Anne is attending a school for gifted-but-troubled children, where a goateed shrink believes her history of hauntings is just some kind of mass hypnosis. (Richard Fire plays the doctor with just enough B-movie ludicrousness to make his scenes enjoyable.)

No one believes Carol Anne when she begins to see ghostly figures in mirrors, except the psychic, who boards the first plane for Chi-town. The evil spirits capture Carol Anne through a puddle in a parking garage—yeah—and the adults must break through to the other side.

Director Gary Sherman (who wrote the script with Brian Taggert) plays with the idea of mirrors as gateways to the poltergeist world, although Carol Anne’s destination through the looking glass is no wonderland. The special-effects budget evidently wasn’t large enough to provide any glimpses into this other world, so Sherman contents himself with a lot of mirror-image visual tricks. They are the most interesting thing, technical or otherwise, about the movie.

It’s a desultory outing in a lot of ways. The cut-rate quality of the acting, the leaden banter of the opening reels, the extraneous teenagers needed to appeal to the largest moviegoing audience, all contribute to the film’s bargain-basement atmosphere.

First published in the Herald, June 16, 1988

A dismal movie. Gary Sherman also did Raw Meat (aka Death Line) and Dead and Buried; Richard Fire, whose performance I apparently liked, wrote the screenplay to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.


A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child

October 23, 2012

Summer horror movies are falling on their faces.

Jason came a cropper in Friday the 13th, Part VIII, a bad outing even for that low-rent series. Now Freddy Krueger, he of the striped sweater and longish fingernails, weighs in with A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. It may be Freddy’s worst.

The first Nightmare on Elm Street, from director Wes Craven, was an edge-of-your-seat experience. The subsequent movies have varied in quality. Part 3 in particular had some creepy moments, and Mr. Krueger has generally kept the energy level up.

Not so in installment No. 5. This is the most incoherent outing yet, with no sense of the rules of suspense or the careful dream scheme of the first Nightmare. The audience could never quite be sure when the dreams were over in the first movie, which meant you couldn’t relax for a moment. Here, Freddy (played once again by the inimitable Robert Englund) can invade the mind of the young heroine (Lisa Wilcox) at any time, not just in her dreams. Ho hum.

Freddy himself keeps in the background, occasionally popping up to deliver a one-liner. Far from the menacing figure of the first film, he’s now a wisecracking chap who simply appears to be a bit cranky. He is, apparently, content to sit back and let the teenagers line up and make themselves Freddybait, which they do with machinelike regularity.

The new wrinkles involve an anorexic-looking model who eats herself to death, under Freddy’s cheerleading supervision, and a nerdy cartoonist who becomes trapped in the pages of a comic book with “Super-Freddy,” the new, pumped-up superhero.

But for the most part, this film is simply boring. (Those who haven’t seen the previous episodes in the series will be particularly bewildered.) If Freddy has let us down, never fear. In a few weeks we’ll be seeing more long-running crazies: Halloween V is on the way, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 is also ready to be unleashed. The slasher wars are not over yet.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

This was directed by Stephen Hopkins, who went on to make Blown Away, Lost in Space, and the first season of “24.” Yes.


Friday the 13th Part VIII—Jason Takes Manhattan

October 22, 2012

Jason, the socially maladjusted slasher of the Friday the 13th series, has been stuck in the small town of Crystal Lake for his entire cleaver-hoisting existence. Mind you, Crystal Lake provides an acceptable volume of stupid teenagers for Jason to slice up. But even Jason can dream of new horizons, new challenges. His vagabond shoes are longing to stray.

In the eighth installment of the series, Jason’s little-town blues are melting away; he goes uptown in Friday the 13th Part VIII—Jason Takes Manhattan. Yes, the man with the hockey mask gets himself to New York City, where, appropriately enough, he fits right in.

The TV commercials that have been incessantly promoting this film over the last couple of weeks have stressed the amusing angle that Jason is nothing unusual in New York. Unfortunately, all the good lines are in the commercials. The movie doesn’t have nearly as much fun with this idea as it should.

The ads, and the titles, have been misleading in another way. This film is two-thirds over by the time Jason and the other principals reach New York. The first part of the movie is taken up with a sea cruise, for a high-school graduating class of course, which Jason joins as an unwelcome stowaway. He soon has his hands full: so many teenagers, so little time.

Despite the switch in scenery, this outing is one of the series’ worst. Writer-director Rob Hedden blows nearly every opportunity for shipboard terror, and his treatment of the inner-city stuff is standard and unimaginative. The leading lady (or, main target) is Jensen Daggett, who lends a thoughtful presence; she could be at home in true Gothic material.

At some point, some Friday the 13th movie is going to have to spoof itself. (Intentionally, that is.) But who knows where Jason will turn up next? He may be off to Rio, Tokyo, or Paris; picture Jason crouched over a croissant at a café on the Left Bank, dreaming of ways to kill the waiter. This boy can thrive anywhere.

First published in the Herald, August 3, 1989

How did I not end this review with “He’s gonna make it anywhere”? I guess the movie wore me out, as did this dismal series. The intentionally funny one turned out to be Jason X, by the way.


The Keep

October 9, 2012

The Keep is easily the strangest film to be released this Christmas season. It’s something of an arthouse horror movie, and it’s almost sure to get lost in the shuffle of the holidays.

The Keep is an ancient castle—nobody seems to know how long it’s been standing—in the hills of Romania. It must be of some strategic value, because German soldiers occupy the fortress (the film is set in 1941), despite the cryptic warnings of the castle caretaker.

The first evening in the Keep, a couple of soldiers pry loose a stone from the wall—a wall that, as the German colonel (Jurgen Prochnow) observes, seems to have been built to keep something in rather than keep someone out—and let fly a maelstrom of special effects: smoke, wind, and bright light.

What they’re really setting free is a creature who may be absolute evil and possess ultimate power. To flex his muscles a little, he starts ripping German soldiers in half, which quickly gets the attention of the S.S., who send one of their slimiest officers (Gabriel Byrne) over to clear up the situation.

The beast can’t actually leave the grounds of the Keep until someone pure comes long to transport a talisman out of there, thus letting the creature off its chain, as it were.

That pure soul is Dr. Theodore Kuzar (Ian McKellen), a medievalist who actually makes contact with the monster. Kuzar becomes convinced that the creature will help destroy the Nazis, and he agrees to carry the talisman out.

But it’s not going to be easy; a mysterious figure (Scott Glenn) arrives in town, intent on stopping the thing in the Keep. He also takes up with Kuzar’s daughter (Alberta Watson), which complicates things when it comes time for the final showdown.

Writer-director Michael Mann had a fascinating feature-film debut with Thief, which played for a couple of weeks in 1981 and then stole away into the night. It was heavily cryptic and very high-tech, but it got under your skin in a weird way.

The Keep is also tersely written and enigmatically played, and Mann’s visual ingenuity is fun to watch. He likes to fill his frames with smoke and shadow and diffused light.

The only problem is, the story isn’t really propelled by all this stylization, it’s just decorated by it. I’m not knocking Mann for being ambitious, but there really isn’t enough meat to this tale to justify the pyrotechnics.

One aspect of Mann’s visual conception that is completely successful is the set design—the set for the castle is superb, with its huge stone front and catacomb-like hallways. Mann gets some spooky effects just by looking at the building itself.

And the monster is pretty neat. He’s about 8-feet tall, shaped like a man, with glowing red eyes and mouth. His voice sounds a bit like Kirk Douglas crossed with Debra Winger. As if that weren’t enough, sometimes he walks around without any skin on. But he can get away with it—this monster’s home is his castle.

Give Mann and his monster an A for effort, and keep your eye on this director. Someday he’s going to make a movie as solid as the fortress in The Keep—but slightly more inviting, perhaps.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Well I hope Michael Mann found this encouragement useful! He’s done just fine, to the extent that he has apparently disowned The Keep and doesn’t want people to see it. But I really want to see it again, so something’s going to have to give. I left Tangerine Dream’s score out of this review, which probably reflected my musical tastes (but I do approve of them as soundtrack generators).