Archive for October, 2008

What’s your favorite scary movie? Part 4: ‘Psycho’

October 25, 2008

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While Alfred Hitchcock made some pretty good thrillers like Rear Window and Marnie (and the labyrinthine Vertigo, which on repeated viewings still eludes me–this is not a bad thing), he is best known for Psycho.  It’s a shame, in a way, that many elements from this film are often parodied–the Ree!  Ree!  Ree! from Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score; Norman’s mother, to name a few–because this film is an effective piece of horror/thriller cinema.  Narratively, it messes with the viewer in ways that few movies have.  And psychologically, you’ll never want to stay in a motel off a main highway ever again.

What’s it about? Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) love for Sam Loomis (John Gavin) temporarily blinds her when she steals $40,000 cash from one of her employer’s clients.  Marion and Sam meet up in hotels for midday lovin’ sessions–she’s in Phoenix, he’s in California–but that’s not enough; Marion wants to marry Sam, but Sam–strapped for cash due to his low-paying  job and an ex-wife whose alimony payments are nearly breaking him–feels they should wait.

Marion leaves town, with the $40k, en route to Sam.  The strange thing is that we see her second-guess herself every step of the way.  The fear of getting caught–and possibly, the fear of getting away with it–tear at her from the beginning.

To avoid the cops, she travels on the old highway.  The weather gets bad, so she stops at the Bates Motel.  Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) runs the motel while his invalid mother stays trapped inside the house nearby.

Norman and Marion have dinner together.  It is then that Marion realizes three things: 1) she needs to own up to her mistake and return the money; 2) Norman’s got some serious mommy issues; and 3) He’s not the kind of guy that you want to have dinner with.  Alone.  She’ll turn around and head back to Phoenix in the morning.  But tonight she’ll unwind with a nice, hot shower.

What’s good about it? Where to begin?  Psycho is more than just a slasher film, it’s a movie that gets under your skin.  The performances are all solid, particularly Perkins, whose Norman is off-putting right from the beginning, even though you don’t know why.  (Who the hell does taxidermy as a hobby?…Oh, wait.  I think I answered my own question.)  And what Hitchcock does about 45 minutes into the film is shocking and unforgettable.  And Herrmann’s score is wonderfully, richly, dark and foreboding.

The film is also impressive because it was made for only $800,000 (the equivalent to $5 million in today’s dollars) and became a huge box office success (adjusted for inflation, it grossed about $200 million.)  Proof that effective storytelling can be done without a massive budget, if done well.  (Hithcock shot on black and white even though he’d been shooting his movies in color for about five years.)

What’s bad about it? Nada.

Perfect for: Anyone who really wants a good freaking out this Halloween.


What’s your favorite scary movie? Part 3: ‘Alien’

October 16, 2008

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I had seen Alien on tv before and didn’t think it was that scary.  But in 2003 20th Century Fox rereleased the film in a handful of theaters, and so I went; more because I was such a big fan of its sequel Aliens.  The theater was large and there was hardly anyone in it.  Perfect for any big-screen viewing, but especially appropriate for Alien.  So to really get the heebie-jeebies, Alien is best when viewed alone.  In a dark room.

What’s it about? In the distant future, the space ship Nostromo heads back to Earth.  The ship delivers mineral ore and is manned by a crew of seven.  The trip is long, so the crew is in cryo-sleep.  (No sense in aging when you’re millions of miles away from Earth, right?) The ship receives transitions from Mother, a computer that communicates with The Company back on earth.

The crew is awoken mid-journey because Mother has orders for them to check out a life form on a nearby planet.  So Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the ship’s captain, and crew members Lambert (Veronia Cartwright) and Kane (John Hurt) put on their space suits and check out the signs of life Mother says are out there.

While on the planet, Kane discovers life: giant egg-like pods, with something moving inside.  One of the pods opens, and the creature itself latches on to Kane’s face.  And so the trouble begins.

Warrant officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) refuses to let Kane back on the ship because it violates The Company’s quarantine policy.  She is overruled, however, by Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer.  And so the trouble worsens.

The parasitic creature attached to Kane’s face has acid for blood (the crew finds this out the hard way).  There is no way to remove it without killing Kane.  A few days later, the thing falls off Kane; he seems to be fine.  It’s only a few hours later that the crew of the Nostromo realize that something inside Kane will wipe them out.  And so the trouble turns into terror.

What’s good about it? Like my favorite scary movies, this one’s on slow burn.  And just when you think things are good, they’re not.  Not even close.  There’s an unnerving eerines right from the beginning, thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s restrained score, which is so sparse, it doesn’t give you the luxury of knowing what’s going to happen next (as many horror movies do).  The production design is genius–this is not the pristine future of Star Trek or Star Wars; this is a grimy, working-class type of outer space.  The cinematography is fantastic; while released in 1979, the film has a look that indicates it could have been made this year.  Great performances from an exceptional cast, particulary Holm and, of course, Weaver, who became the star of the Alien franchise.  And, of course, expert direction from Ridley Scott, who at the time had only one prior feature under his belt.

Oh, and it’s scary as hell.

What’s bad about it? If your tolerance for language and gore is low, skip this.  There are some shocking scenes of violence that are messy and disturbing.

Perfect for: Sci-fi fans, horror fans, and those with strong stomachs.

What’s your favorite scary movie? Part 2 – ‘The Orphanage’

October 14, 2008

The problem with so many supposedly scary films is that they resort to the same, tired tactics.  Gore does not necessarily equal scariness, nor does a loud jolt of music when The Monster pops out of nowhere.  The best scary movies are ones that don’t pander to the lowest common denominator, that take their time developing character and plot.  And while I only recently saw The Orphanage, I would have to say that it’s one of the better–if not the best–horror/suspense films I’ve seen in a long time.

What’s it about? Laura (Belen Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have moved into the orphanage where Laura once lived before being adopted.  Their son, Simon (Roger Princep), is also adopted and has HIV.

Laura and Carlos are prepping the orphanage so that they can take care of a few special needs kids.  A visit from a social worker  named Benigna (Montserrat Carulla) bothers Laura greatly, due to the fact that the social worker is asking questions about Simon and not the kids who will live with them.

Simon’s a lonely boy and already has two imaginary friends.  But soon he’s made new imaginary friends, particularly with a boy named Tomas.

Laura hears noises in the house and eventually believes that the house is haunted.  At a party with lots of guests (and in the daytime, no less), Laura has a violent run-in with “Thomas.”  That same afternoon, Simon goes missing.

Time passes, and still no leads on Simon’s whereabouts.  Laura and Carlos hire a clairevoyant (Geraldine Chaplin) to help them figure out if the ghosts in the house can help find Simon.

More stuff happens.  But it’s so eery and suspenseful, I want you to have the same chills up your spine as you watch the story unfold.

What’s good about it? The gore is used sparingly (in only two scenes, really) and the film doesn’t resort to cheap tactics to get you to squirm in your seat.  The story is compelling with lots of genuinely scary moments.  Reminicent of The Others, this is a ghost story that doesn’t rely on special effects to wow you.  The pacing is great; the cinematography is lush and effectively creepy when it needs to be.  The score is very, very good.  But probably the weirdest thing about The Orphanage is that, in a way, it’s a feel-good horror film–when was the last time you smiled after getting the crap scared out of you?

What’s bad about it? The film is rated R, but it’s one of the tamest R’s I’ve ever seen.  (A scene with an automobile accident is what made it too intense for PG-13.)  But if you couldn’t handle The Others or The Village, you’d probably be best skipping this.  Oh, and if you couldn’t tell by the trailer, the film’s in Spanish.  So if you hate subtitles, suck it up!  If you love scary movies, this one is too good to pass up.

Perfect for: fans of intelligent horror films (yes, there is such a thing).

What’s your favorite scary movie? Part 1 – ‘Wait Until Dark’

October 13, 2008

Seeing how Halloween is coming up, and seeing how I love scary movies (but am rarely scared by them), and seeing how this is my 50th post (in less than five months of blogging, no less), I’ve decided to start a new series of reviews (similar to Batmania that I did this past summer) that celebrates what I think are some of the best scary movies of all time.

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Wait Until Dark, based on the play by Frederick Knott (who also wrote Dial M for Murder), is a delectable game of cat-and-mouse.  In one corner, you have a blind woman who’s still getting used to living in a world of darkness.  And in the other, you have a man who’s full of darkness, eager to destroy the lives of those around him–even those who are his accomplices.

What’s it about? Audrey Hepburn (who was nominated for an Oscar) stars as Suzie, a blind woman who’s being conned by three scam artists looking for a doll hiding a stash of heroin.  Alan Arkin plays Roat, the enigmatic ring leader who’s two steps ahead of his accomplices (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston).

Suzie’s husband (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) became the unwitting caretaker of the doll when Lisa (Samantha Jones) gives the doll to him at JFK airport.  The doll goes missing, Lisa is murdered, and Roat moves in for the kill, devising an elaborate scheme to get Suzie to believe her husband is responsible for Lisa’s death and that finding the doll is the one thing that could clear Suzie’s husband’s name.

Suzie’s bratty neighbor Gloria (Julie Herrod) keeps sneaking into Suzie’s apartment (she’s big on playing tricks on the blind) and eventually helps Suzie figure out what’s really going on, leading up to a heart-pouding climax.

What’s good about it? The play, of which the movie is based on, is one of my favorites.  The movie tries to add a bit of scope–like the prologue in Montreal which is not in the play–and it takes a while for things to get rolling.  But hoo-boy, once things have been set in motion, the tension builds and builds.

Hepburn’s Suzie is one of those characters who you wish nothing bad would happen to, while Arkin’s one of those characters who’s evil just to be evil, oddly reminscent of Heather Ledger in the Dark Knight (although Arkin’s performance is far more subdued.)

What’s bad about it? It’s a good 35 minutes before things really start going.  Be patient.

Perfect for: Audrey Hebpurn fans, anyone looking for a good scare without coarse language or gratuitous violence.

Netflix this: ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown’

October 11, 2008

Halloween is probably my favorite holiday.  That’s not saying that every Halloween has been whiz-bang fun.  But I love dressing up, I loved the (not really) scariness of ghosts and black cats and bats and witches.  I loved Halloween as a kid (although growing up in Northern Canada meant trick-or-treating in sub-zero weather and a good 8-12 inches of snow in the ground, plus having to wear your snow suit under your costume).  Now, as an adult, I love seeing how excited my niece and nephew get about the holiday.

I recently watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown with my nephew.  He liked it, although near the end when Linus mistakes Snoopy for the Great Pumpkin he got a little freaked out and wanted me to turn it off.  He’s only four, so we can only hope that with subsequent annual viewings he’ll face his discomfort with a Santa figure in a Halloween special.  (It may be a while until he graduates to The Nightmare Before Christmas.)

It’s been a while since I myself had seen it.  As an adult, I obviously see it differently than I did as a kid, but that it also in part because the way I see the Peanuts comic strip has changed.  When I was young I absolutely loved Charles Schulz’s strip, but as I grew up my tastes became more refined and I embraced Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side.  As an adult I look at the comics page in the newspaper and wonder why today’s comics are not funny at all.  Has my sense of humor changed so radically since I was a kid (yes), or have comics just never really been that funny to begin with (YES)?

I feared that watching The Great Pumpkin with an older set of eyes would result in disappointment.  I am happy to report that the special still retains a sense of wonder and innocence.  After all, Peanuts itself is seeing childhood through an older set of eyes, and while The Great Pumpkin is not really funny, there’s a magic to it that invokes those same feelings I had about Halloween as I did as a kid.

What’s it about? Linus (voiced by Chris Shea) is anxious for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin, the aforementioned Santa Claus of Halloween.  None of his friends nor his sister Lucy (Sally Dryer) believe in the Great Pumpkin and think Linus is stupid for doing so.  Instead of going trick or treating with the neighborhood kids, he waits in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to bring presents and peace and goodwill to all men.

Meanwhile, Snoopy as the World War I Flying Ace’s plane/dog house is shot down over France.  Stranded in enemy territory, Snoopy must make it to safety without being caught by the Germans.  (This makes much more sense when you’re watching it.)

What’s good about it? I have always been a fan of the design and animation of the Charlie Brown specials.  The animation itself isn’t perfect–this, like A Charlie Brown Christmas, has some choppy editing–but that’s why it’s so appealing.  Unlike the crisp and luscious style of Sleeping Beauty (which I recently reviewed), The Great Pumpkin is hand-made and  sloppy, but no less lovingly crafted.  And at a running time of about 25 minutes, The Great Pumpkin knows not to overstay its welcome.

What’s bad about it? The cruelty of the other children towards Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) would leave massive emotional and psychological scarring if he was a real kid.

Perfect for: Kids and grown-up kids.

Netflix this: ‘Sleeping Beauty’

October 6, 2008

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I like to think that I’m well-versed in the pop culture canon.  However, from time to time, there are films that I see that I should have seen a long time ago.  Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is one of them.  It’s not like I avoided watching it; the opportunity just never presented itself.  If you have been denied the opportunity to see Sleeping Beauty, Disney has just rereleased the film on DVD and Blu-ray.  Buy it, rent it–just make sure you see it.

What’s it about? For whatever reason, the evil witch Maleficent is snubbed an invite to King Stephan’s celebration for his baby daughter, Aurora.  So naturally, she crashes the party and casts a spell on the baby:  when Aurora’s sixteen she’ll prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.  (Maybe it’s this kind of thing that prevents her from being invited to more parties.)

In an effort to prevent Maleficent’s curse from coming true, Stephan destroys all spinning wheels in the kingdom and sends his daughter into the woods with the three fairies–Flora, Fauna and Merriweather–until she turns sixteen. But Maleficent’s no dummy.  She has it out for Aurora, and she’ll stop at nothing to get her way.

What’s good about it? This film is absolutely beautiful.  There is an artistry to the animation that you just don’t see in today’s CG-driven world.  The backgrounds are sumptuous; the highly stylized animation is brimming with vitality; the colors are rich and vibrant.  What is most impressive with Sleeping Beauty is that it was made without the help of computers; we are witness to human perfection.  When was the last time you witnessed perfection?

What’s bad about it? Like many of Disney’s early animated features, plot comes second to the visuals.  And with Sleeping Beauty, you’re really not sure who the protagonist is.  (Yes, Aurora is titular character, but she really doesn’t do much.  And we never really know why Maleficent is so evil.)  But who cares?  This is homemade eye candy.  Savor it.

I was surprised, however, as how much dark imagery there is.  Maleficent’s malevolence is the stuff kids’ nightmares are made of.

Perfect for: animation/Disney enthusiasts.