Fright Night (2011) – Not a waste of film

Title: Fright Night

Director/Stars: Colin Farrell (Actor), Anton Yelchin (Actor), Imogen Poots (Actor), Craig Gillespie (Director)

Genre: Horror

Watched: August 19, 2011 (and before)

Summary: Fun update!

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As a lifelong vampire fan — hell, my first novel is (somewhat) about vampires — I saw and loved the original Fright Night when it opened in 1985. Truth be told it was always one of my favorite vampire movies (up there with Coppola’s DraculaInterview with the Vampire, Let the Right One In, and The Lost Boys). The 1985 Fright Night offers up a clever blend of comedy and horror. Not only is the movie very funny (and it holds up well today), but it’s not a pure spoof. The plot’s moderately clever, and the vampire, played by Chris Sarandon (Susan’s first husband) has a sinister charm and a genuine sense of menace. In my opinion vampires need a sense of menace (even the goofy Master from Buffy Season 1 is menacing). No sparkles for me.

So it was with some trepidation that I checked out the remake. See the trailer below:

I was pleasantly surprised to find the new version pretty fricking good. The story is loosely faithful to the original film. Buffy writer Marti Noxon penned the screenplay. She’s a consistently excellent writer, with the exception of the incredibly sucky I Am Number Four (maybe someone butchered it after the fact?) with a knack for catchy dialog. Most of the original elements survived intact, but character and balance has been adjusted significantly. Most substantially, Roddy McDowall‘s campy older vampire-killer TV host has been replaced by David Tennant channeling a campy blend of Chris Angel and Russell Brand. But that works.

The casting is top notch. Anton Yelchin is fast talking, self deprecating, and likable as Charlie. Imogen Poots is smoking inferno hot — and 21st century feisty/competent — as Amy. Hers is a career to watch, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her carrying a movie in the next year or two. The rest of the cast is fun too. But it’s Colin Farrell that steals the show with his visceral new take on the ancient killer. Farrell’s Jerry isn’t so slick or romantic as the classical vampire, but he brings a feral intensity to the role which is extraordinarily predatory. Supremely confident, this Jerry starts off the movie as a mere “human” predator, clearly a man not to be trusted with the ladies. But when he senses the kids are on to him, he doesn’t just depend on the defense of disbelief that the original did (although he does have some good fun with this) but goes straight for the jugular — literarily and figuratively. Part white trash, part serial killer, part vampire, he’s all around delicious to watch.

Noxon’s script is full of dark humor and quippy (but not too campy) lines. The story has been rearranged to suit modern tastes. Essentially act 1 has been compressed to almost nothing. Gone is the first third of the movie where the characters (although not the audience) are trying to sort out exactly what they’re dealing with. Instead, we open with vampire, and by scene three (perhaps 4-5 minutes) Charlie’s friend Evil is desperately trying to convince him that the new neighbor Jerry is a vampire. The movie makes no bones about confirming this either. It leaps right into fang games and breaks into a very extended second act filled with big chase and action scenes. This could have ruined the film, but the scenes are slick and intense. The final showdown perhaps felt a little rushed, and there was at least one major story error (the vampires show up in Vegas at exactly the wrong time and place with no explanation of how they knew to be there), but none of this really detracts from the fun and mayhem.

The effects are top notch and don’t get in the way too much. Sure they’re gratuitous, but they’re supposed to be. The editing is more classic, not the frantic mess that’s popular these days. And the cinematography was often quite striking. Certain shots were highly memorable: particularly both fang outs (Jerry and another), the stripper’s final number, and many others.

So vampire fans, go see.

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Truly Deeply Sick and Twisted

Title: Human Centipede

Director/Stars: Ashley C. Williams (Actor), Dieter Laser (Actor), Tom Six (Director)

Genre: Gross-out Horror

Watched: February 17, 2011

Summary: Repulsive premise coupled with startlingly matter-of-fact delivery.

 

Just so you don’t think I always review good films, here comes a doozy. My brother knows the guy who stars as the head of the titular Human Centipede in this film, and he brought it to my attention (although he hadn’t seen the film). We looked it up and the premise was so horrifically nasty, so out-and-out repulsive and dark, that I couldn’t help but watch the film.

Now, in the interest of protecting my dear and tender readers, I’m not going to actually tell you the premise. If you are so inclined, you may watch the trailer and decide for yourself. Be warned. Let’s just say it’s terrifying, gross, and of totally dubious possibility.

But having conceived this idea, the writer/director pursues it with gusto. This is actually not a badly made film, considering it’s genre and budget. But there is no attempt to craft a clever plot or characters. It charges headlong into the ramifications of the disturbing by use of straightforward Horror tropes and coincidence, and replies on sheer dread to deliver. The villain, a twisted German surgeon which a penchant for illegal and immoral procedures, is played to hammy perfection by Dieter Laser. His emotionless delivery as to the nature of his plan is as disturbing as it’s intended to be.

For all the film’s unabashed directness. It actually isn’t that graphic, although the ramifications of the premise are rather nasty. I’m also not sure I’ve seen another movie with so much moaning/pathetic-whimpering in it, I felt compelled to keep turning down the volume. And for all it’s true horror, the deadpan delivery lends it to the almost darkly comic. NOTE: On that note, Robert Ebert (my favorite film reviewer) has an an absolutely hilarious review of it here (WARNING, he reveals the premise). There are also some odd choices, like the fact that in the second half their is almost no English dialog as the Doctor often speaks in German, the “head” babbles in subtitled Japanese, and the two female leads can only moan.

And it isn’t the best paced film (particularly the first half), so was an excellent candidate for the Playstation 3‘s most appreciated 1.5x speed viewing feature. This not only speeds up the film smoothly, but does a pretty good job of time based correction on the audio so it doesn’t sound too funny. Many slightly dull films are eminently watchable in this format. For example, silent films from the early 20th century, with their 1-2 minute title cards. It rendered the Human Centipede in an even hour which was just about perfect.

In any case, if you are a fan of Horror, or the truly deeply sick and twisted, crawl on board.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 4

CONTINUED FROM PART 3 ABOVE. And the whole series [12, 3, 4, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:

 

Season 5:

Season 5 and 6 pretty much tie for the best of the seven! Pretty incredible how this show just keeps on getting better and better until the final season. With this season everything slips into a serious groove, but what’s really surprising is the depth of emotion pulled out of the viewers. Nearly gone are the episodic “one off” episodes (discussed in my Lost vs The Love Boat post), instead the story just rolls from one episode to the next with only a few exceptions.

The first episode (“Buffy vs. Dracula“)  is light, but it ends with a shocker, one that is reinforced in episode 2 (“Real Me“). Suddenly, and without explanation only-child Buffy has a little sister named Dawn. What casually might seem like a gimmick to spread the show demographic younger in fact becomes completely central to the season’s plot and deepens the character interactions immensely, particularly for Buffy. The season’s “big bad,” Glory — my second favorite after the Mayor — is a Hell God in need of a magical key to break open the barriers between dimensions. Some crazy monks rebuild the entire reality of the world to hide the key as Buffy’s sister, having altered all reality and history such that she existed all along. Pure genius.

What this really does is turn Buffy’s nice little dyad with her mother into a full-fledged family, upping the personal stakes immensely. And it isn’t all supernatural. Joyce (Buffy’s mom) develops a brain tumor in a long and very emotional arc that ties in brilliantly with the family aspect and with Dawn’s growing understanding of her esoteric nature. This comes to a series of shattering culminations in “Blood Ties” and “The Body.” This last episode is probably the best of the entire series, or at least tied with “Once More with Feeling,” and is a stunning piece of television. Written and Directed by Joss (as most of the great episodes are), it is a tour de force of film making. Free of music, almost free of the supernatural, but jammed packed with horror, reality, and emotion, this is a seriously tear inducing hour. And it includes network television’s first on-screen lesbian kiss!

Wisely after the disruptions in some of the formulas from the first three seasons that college (season 4) brought on, season 5 brings the gang into a stable new orbit. Giles has purchased the Magic Shoppe and this replaces the library as the central hub. Xander and Giles are back in full orbit, and Anya, Tara, and Dawn integrated into the team. But it’s Spike, and his new every episode role and gradual character transformation that really livens things up. In an amusing, poignant, and brilliant turn he falls for Buffy (hopelessly — at least for now) and she literally ends up making him a better man. But this doesn’t stop him from still being sordid, hilariously. “Fool for Love” in particular is a brilliant episode in which Buffy forces spike to recount the story of his creation (by Drusilla) and his killing of two other slayers. Plus the Buffybot is pure genius, and real Buffy’s turn playing the bot to get the truth from Spike truly touching.

There are some serious themes of loss and alienation going on here, growing and growing as we head toward the dark territory that is season 6 — Love it! The weight of the world, the family crises, and the burden of protecting Dawn, take their toll on Buffy. This comes to the world shattering conclusion in the finale, Joss’s brilliant “The Gift,” which even on the third viewing had me crying. Seriously, this show is that good!

As the poignant music surges, and Buffy runs from Dawn to dawn across the platform — Death is your gift!

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 3

CONTINUED FROM PART 2 ABOVE. And the whole series [12, 3, 4, 5, 6]

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:


Season 3:

Everyone must have thought: With the little half-length first season, and such a strong second season, that Buffy season 3 was heading toward a huge sophomore slump. But no, this season is even better than the second. Several things contribute to this:

1. The writers learn to deepen the mythology. They bring back old characters in surprising ways. They take gimmicks that made previous episodes great, and reintroduce them with new twists that get even better. Through it the characters and dialog stay strong, the veneer of comedy and fantasy is used to toe into, and then later delve deep into places where TV was usually afraid to venture.

2. The “experimental” or more radically different episode is introduced.  These special episodes shake up the viewers preconceptions about the show. Many of these are written and directed by Whedon himself, and make up some of the best episodes of the series, culminating in Season 6’s “Once more with feeling.” Season 3 comes out of the gate this way with “Anne” (Buffy alone in LA), and continues with “The Zeppo” (told entirely from Xander‘s perspective), and “The Wish” and “Doppelgangland” (where an alternate version of the town and characters are explored). These introduce vampire Willow, who heralds some of the long term changes in store. Willow: “It’s horrible! That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil and…skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay.”

3. The main series arcs become more integrated with each of the shows. We get the best darkly comic villain of the whole series, the sinister “Mayor.” The arcing becomes so sophisticated that even the most standalone episodes have important changes affecting the relationships of the characters. We meet bad-girl Faith, who provides delicious counterpoint to Buffy’s honor-bound sense of duty — not to mention introducing sexy newcomer Eliza Dushku. Her presence, twisting as it does across the entire season and winding together with the overall villain arc helps stich the entire season together. The result is very few episodes that feel standalone, as even those with a monster of the week are moving forward the relationships between the characters.

4. Sub arcing involving character relationships, notably the love lives of Xander, Willow, Cordelia, Oz etc. proceeds fast and furiously.

 

Season 4:

This season could have sunk the show, as High School shows often fail after graduation. It’s stil a transitional season,  but it accurately reflects many details of college life (adapted to the Buffyverse). The show’s formula is mildly upset by the change. The relationship of the Scooby Gang (the main gang of friends) and mentor Giles teeters — enough that by season five, college will be downplayed and a new equilibrium established around the magic shoppe as headquarters.

Additionally, the main villain of the season is the weakest of the series, involving a government/army conspiracy and a frankenstein-come-terminator monster. Still, the great writing holds everything together through the change.

Many classic elements of a High Schooler’s transition to college are parodied successfully: college jitters, bad roommates, one night stands, over-drinking, fraternities, four-year lesbians, etc. The show keeps us engaged by continuing the ever evolving relationships. Willow and Oz explode, and she goes gay. Xander finds love with an ex-demon. Buffy has her only healthy relationship of the entire show. Spike, the popular villain from season two makes a return and begins a long an amazing transformation that is pretty much a Whedon halmark, where villains can become heros and heros villains.

The tradition of special episodes also continues with the groundbreaking “Hush,” the extraordinarily creative “Superstar,” and the oddball “Restless.” In “Superstar” for example a relatively minor (at this point) reoccurring character from the past literarily takes over the show. This extends to a meta level, involving the creation of a new custom title sequence just for the episode. There is a radical creativity here, a willingness to experiment and play with even the container and format of TV itself.

CONTINUE WITH PART 4 HERE.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – part 1

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Creator: Joss Whedon

Genre: Comedic Teen Contemporary Fantasy

Watched: Winter 2004-05, Summer 2009, Winter 2010-11

Summary: Best TV show of all time.

 

As a diehard vampire fan I saw the movie version of Buffy when it came out. I hated it so much I used to mock it as my pre Twilight example of lame vampires. I have this requirement that vampires need to be menacing, even if comic (Fright Night) or romantic (Interview with the Vampire). The Buffy movie undead were just flaccid.

When the TV show debuted, I was in the midst of the busiest year of my life, the year of Crash Bandicoot 2, when I was in the office every single day (7 days a week) between New Years and September 8th. Besides, the movie had been dumb. So the show even became a punching bag of mine (although I hadn’t seen it at the time) used to illustrate Hollywood’s creative drought: Hey, they’d made a show based on a terrible movie that hadn’t even made much money.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Finally, in November of 2004, after having “retired” from Naughty Dog, my wife having insisted for years that the show was good, I succumbed and ordered the first season on DVD. Thus began an obsessive binge where I watched all seven seasons, plus five of Angel, back to back over the next three months. Generally I consumed three or more a day, including watching 18 episodes of season 3 in one continuous sitting (home Sunday with a cold). My only breaks were the week back east for Thanksgiving and three weeks we spent in Sicily (yum!). Four and a half years later I re-watched all seven Buffy seasons during the summer of 2009. It was almost as good the second time, and I appreciated it more.

Despite a significant cheese factor, and a first season that suffers from being overly episodic, the show is absolutely brilliant. If you aren’t a fan you probably think, “Buffy has these weird obsessive fans, but that kind of thing isn’t for me.”

It is.

I’ve never met anyone who’s sat down and started watching from the beginning who doesn’t absolutely love the show. But that’s just it, you have to start from the beginning. Fundamentally the show blends fantastic writing, really funny dialog, off-beat but likable characters, zany and intricate mythology, a creativity with the TV medium, and quirky humor with a kind of hidden dark realism found in only the best dramas. By disguising drama with humor and the supernatural the writers are able to get at real human issues without freaking out the network, and because they’ve created characters we care about, it all works.

The casting too is inspired. Sarah Michelle Gellar is perfect as Buffy. She may be cute, blonde, and perky, but she isn’t a typical airhead. She combines practical cleverness, toughness, and hidden vulnerability, with a strong sense of duty. Fundamentally the show is about the weight that rests on her narrow shoulders, and what it takes to bear it. The rest of the core team is great too. Alyson Hannigan‘s Willow is every geek’s fantasy, the shy computer nerd who learns to kick ass, Nicholas Brendon‘s Xander provides the token maleness with more humor than testosterone, and Anthony Stewart Head‘s Giles is pitch perfect as the stuffy older advisor with a dark past.

But it’s not just the premise that makes this show rock, but what the writers do with it. I’ll explain when I CONTINUE IN PART 2…

The whole post series [1, 2, 34, 5, 6]

Book Review: Tropic of Night

Tropic of NightTitle: Tropic of Night

Author: Michael Gruber

Genre: Supernatural Horror Thriller

Read: Spring 2010

Summary: Very good.

I read this book both because it was represented by an agent I was interested in and because it loosely fit the ill-defined cross-genre of my own novel: Supernatural thriller with realistic style and magic. In fact, in this book it’s not even 100% clear that the magic is intended to have actually happened — but I like to think it did. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, particularly to my taste. There are three points of view, and not all are as good. One is the female protagonist, a former anthropologist hiding out in Miami from her murderous African shaman ex-husband. The second is the same character, but told in the format of journals written during her field work in Siberia and Africa. And the third is a Miami Cuban-American police detective investigated a series of horrific murders in Miami (perpetrated by the nasty shaman of course). I loved the detective, his investigations of the ritual crime scenes, and the bit of Cubano Miami flavor . The present action protagonist was okay, and the journals were intermittent. When they got into the magic stuff they were good. What I most loved about this book was the creepy and very realistic feel of the mostly Yoruba based shamanistic magic. Overall I enjoyed reading it, but the book could have benefited from some tightening up. The detective investigating this awful ritual crimes was very good too. If you like murder procedurals, and you like creepy well researched voodoo-esque magic, then give this a read.

Book Review: The Passage

The PassageTitle: The Passage

Author: Justin Cronin

Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror

Read: Late June 2010

Summary: Excellent.

Nne of this year’s top new vampire entries. It’s an odd book, long, and broken into three parts, but good. The first third is set more or less in the present and deals with how a viral epidemic that turns people into nearly indestructible vampire-like creatures gets loose and destroys the world. The writing is good and this section is a bit of an oddity in that the plot itself is minimal, but padded out with almost gratuitous backstory on nearly every character. Bit players that we meet in the gas station for one page get five pages of life story flashback. All these people, lovingly details, die quickly. Oddly, it works and is a compelling read. However, it makes me scratch my head as all the standard writing advice I’ve been given by editors, agents, and the like would’ve been to cut all these backstories. In fact, they certainly would’ve told me that the entire first third of the book is backstory, and the proper place to start was far later. At a certain level they are correct, because there is only one character — and an odd one at that — who crosses from this long prelude into the main two thirds of the novel.

The middle third of the book takes place 100 years later and totally kicks ass. This was some of the best Sci-fi/horror I’ve read in years. It’s post apocalyptic, taking place in this one compound somewhere in the California desert. They are under continual siege by vampires, and their numbers are dwindling. Their entire life and society is organized around survival, but slow attrition of their numbers is the only thing in their future. The Road Warrior meets I-don’t-know-what feel of this section is awesome. Cronin does a fantastic job of world building here, and the specific animalistic vampires (a bit reminiscent of I am Legend) is great. In some way’s it feels more like a Zombie apocalypse because it has that feeling of instant-death-at-any-second.

In part three, these same characters are forced out of their little sanctuary into the big bad world. This part is still good, but does a little shark jumping and borrows very heavily from things like the Stand, etc. I didn’t mind, but the ending felt a little forced and just didn’t quiet sustain the promise of the amazing middle section.

Still, the overall novel was excellent. Flawed, but the middle part was so great, and the first and third sections enjoyable enough, to make it one of the better books I’ve read in a while.