Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pretty Good Movies With Pretty Bad Endings

            It turns out that writing movies isn’t easy.  As anyone who reads this blog -or, more likely, actually watches movies- knows, there are a lot of pretty bad ones out there.  A bad movie in and of itself is pretty innocuous.  After all, truly, truly bad movies are easy to spot, and most people who watch them know what they’re getting into.  Seriously, nobody in 2014 is watching The Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong without some personal culpability for the act.  Watching the movie is the viewer’s crime and punishment rolled into one.
More insidious, however, are movies that start out promising but just can’t clinch the final act.  These are movies that you get invested in, that you want to like, but in the end they just plain let you down.  With that in mind, here’s the first installment of Pretty Good Movies With Pretty Bad Endings.  These are two films that I can honestly say I liked 90% of, and one of them is near and dear to a buddy of mine.  Unfortunately they both have unforgivable endings and must be brought to justice. Needless to say, spoilers abound. 

The Last Broadcast (1998) – Despite being overshadowed by The Blair Witch Project, this was one of the films that sparked the “found footage” revolution in horror movies.  With a budget of reportedly just $900, filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler managed to create a film with a surprisingly effective and suspenseful atmosphere.  Shot in the style of a TV documentary (think “Sightings” or “Forensic Files”), The Last Broadcast details the violent deaths of a pair of public access TV hosts (played by the filmmakers) in the remote pine barrens of New Jersey.  The two men were filming an amateur hunt for the mythical Jersey Devil, only to disappear and later be found horribly mangled in a veritable ocean of blood. A local weirdo and self-styled psychic was with the men at the time of their deaths, and given his history of erratic behavior –including no small amount of it caught on film – he was eventually convicted of the crime.

The film’s narrator (remember it’s a “documentary”), in a brilliantly executed “Unsolved Mysteries” style, hints at a supernatural explanation for the killings.  Some of the early evidence seems flimsy and this adds an effective level of verisimilitude.  More than once I found myself forgetting that it was a film and arguing with it as if it were intended to be a presentation of facts.  Slowly, more compelling evidence begins to surface, and the viewer is drawn into the notion that there may be something unnatural lurking in the woods.  It’s a great premise, and it’s a lot of fun watching the mystery unravel…until the last five minutes.
            The third act of the movie constantly references a piece of video from the night of the murders that’s being restored by a media expert.  When it finally comes time to see this image…it’s the documentary host.  Suddenly the film switches to cinematic camera angles and the apparently evil narrator slap-fights the media restoration tech before suffocating her with a piece of plastic.  Then he drives back to the woods and keeps filming the documentary.
Fade to black.
The viewer is left to wonder: Is this guy a serial killer?  Is he working with some supernatural force out in the woods?  Is he the Jersey Devil?  Why the hell is he making a confessional documentary, let alone one that beats around the bush so much?  If he knows he did it, why the hell does he act surprised when it’s him in the video?  What does any of the preceding 95% of the movie actually mean now that this plot twist has come up?
 I'm sure this all sounds like I'm just poking fun at a cheap indie film, but that's just not true.  The Last Broadcast flirts with being great, but the ending is catastrophic.  The sad fact is that the climax of The Last Broadcast effectively renders the rest of the film nonsensical.  The ending of this film would be a howler if it were attached to a bad movie, but given that the rest of the movie is actually good, the boner of an ending is doubly disappointing.

The Lords of Salem (2012) – By far the best of Rob Zombie’s films, The Lords of Salem hearkens back to the weird “coven of witches” genre that briefly existed in the 1970s.  Taking all of the best queues from films like Rosemary’s Baby, and The Wicker Man, The Lords of Salem is a disturbing, uncomfortable film that benefits immensely from its surprisingly effective cinematography. It also has an oddly likable cast, anchored by Sherri Moon Zombie but also including the always-welcome Ken Foree of Dawn of the Dead fame.  The film centers on radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Zombie) whose life is upended by a mysterious musical album that fills her head with frightening demonic visions. The film becomes increasingly bizarre throughout, and by the end it’s not always easy to tell what’s meant to be real and what’s meant to be hallucinations and fever dreams.

            All of this works pretty well, and the movie is certainly enjoyable, although some of the plot elements are arguably a bit predictable.  The film’s greatest strength is its refusal to go for the cheap scare; there aren’t really any “jump scares” or silly tricks like that to be found.  Instead, Heidi’s world becomes progressively stranger as the evil influences pressing in upon her intensify.  There are scenes in Heidi’s apartment where there are gruesome monsters simply lurking in the background, with no musical stings or camera tricks to call attention to them, while Heidi is seemingly so entranced as to pay them no notice.  This approach feels pretty original and works nicely.
            By the time the end of the film draws near, the viewer probably has a pretty good idea of what the long and short of the climax will be…and then, even as the expected ending comes to fruition, we’re subjected to…a music video?  The viewer is aware that Heidi has become the vessel for the Antichrist, but this is expressed by way of goony montage sequence featuring Heidi writhing around on a stuffed goat, lots of shots of religious iconography being warped with Paintshop Pro effects, and just a smidge too much strobe light.
If the triumph of evil over good really does come down to a bunch of 1990s rock video tropes presided over by some rhythmically masturbating monster-popes, then good needs to redouble its efforts to make sure that never comes to pass.  The trippy ending of The Lords of Salem doesn’t ruin the movie, but it undeniably takes away from it. 

Monday, March 03, 2014

American Samurai (1992)

When I was in middle school in the mid-1990s, I got bitten pretty hard by the Highlander bug.  You know the movies and attendant television series about immortal guys fighting with swords?  I was totally into those, and I have a collection of stamped steel flea market samurai swords in my closet to prove it.  Because of Highlander, there was a period of time when I was extremely interested in anything that to do with swordfighting, from playing those Bushido Blade video games to standing out in the woods with my buddy Josh and cudgeling each other with sticks.  This interest led me to look for other movies in a similar vein, but my resources at the time were basically limited to checking the weekly TV schedule each Sunday to see if anything with a sword-fighting-ish title would be playing on HBO.

It was this process that led me to today’s movie, the 1992 martial arts offering American Samurai.  It’s directed by the ever-prolific Sam Firstenberg, who also gifted the world of cinema with the American Ninja and Cyborg Cop franchises and directed the celebrated opus Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.  The titular American samurai is played by martial artist David Bradley, whose other credits include three of the American Ninja movies (though weirdly not the ones directed by Firstenber) and an episode of Murder, She Wrote.  A bit of disclosure here: I'm reviewing the 2005 Warner Bros. DVD release of the film, which is cropped like crazy to the point that it's functionally edited for violence despite carrying an R rating.

The setup of the movie is as simple as it is nonsensical: A private plane carrying a rich family crashes in the mountains of Japan.  Everyone on board is killed except for baby Drew, who is found and rescued by Tatsuya Sanga, modern Japanese swordsman and easy-going guy.  Rather than, say, contacting the proper authorities and reconnecting the boy with his surviving family overseas, Sanga adopts Drew as his own and trains him to be a samurai warrior.  Drew progresses quickly with the help of a training montage and eventually surpasses Sanga’s own son Kenjiro in skill.  Kenjiro is bitterly envious of Drew, and when their father passes on the family katana to Drew instead of him, Kenjiro vows revenge.

Several years later we find Drew living in the United States as a reporter, while the sinister Kenjiro has gone on to become the Chairman of Iron Chef America a dangerous yakuza assassin.* Kenjiro sends goons to Drew’s apartment to steal back the family sword.  Drew beats up several members of the gang but is eventually shot, losing the sword and punishing viewers with an extended, weirdly shot dream sequence.  After finding his samurai will to survive in dreamland, Drew sticks his fingers into his own abdomen and pulls out the bullet, after which he is somehow just fine.  Because the presence of the slug itself is what’s harmful about being shot, apparently.

Shortly thereafter, we find Drew back on his feet and on his way to Turkey to investigate a murder related to the drug trade.  (This is the one and only time it is ever salient to the plot that he’s a reporter.)  Drew is convinced that only Kenjiro could have committed the murder, as the victim was apparently killed with special technique known only to the Sanga line of swordsmen.  Alongside Drew is photographer Janet Ward, with whom he bickers unconvincingly for ten minutes of screen time before they shag in the least titillating love scene ever filmed this side of National Geographic.  In all honesty, if you like boobless, buttless sex scenes using obvious body doubles, dubbed voices, and creepy art-house lighting, American Samurai is your kink.  It may also be worth noting that this pallid humping comes immediately after Drew has a waking nightmare and Janet finds him swinging a sword in an empty hotel room while wearing nothing but tiny red man-panties.

The two eventually follow Kenjiro’s trail to a nightclub connected to a known drug trafficker.  While subtly looking for clues about Kenjiro by directly asking every shady-looking guy in the bar if they known his brother by name, Drew finds himself drawn into a bar brawl between the local talent and a big beardy guy dressed as a cowboy.  Drew is shot with a taser during the struggle and he and Janet are captured by the bad guys.  Drew awakens chained up in an old-timey dungeon, with Kenjiro waiting to inform him that Janet will be killed if Drew doesn’t take part in a Tukish swordfighting tournament filled with pirates and guys dressed like Conan the Barbarian.

At this point I feel like I should point out that I’m not skimming over the plot in this review, it’s just that this movie has all the coherence and structure of a fever dream.  I don’t know for sure if the final product represents the film as it was originally intended or if a bunch of plot elements somehow ended up on the cutting room floor, but American Samurai is not overly concerned with forming an intricate narrative.  Or any narrative.  Instead, it wants desperately to get to the fight scenes as fast as possible – Which is fair enough, because they’re the only good parts.

Drew reluctantly agrees to fight in the tournament, which is apparently being held so that the super rich can bet on mortal combat.  There’s a million dollar prize up for grabs to the winner, but the price of defeat is death or dismemberment.  A video game roster of costumed combatants has shown up, including the aforementioned barbarian and pirate, some kung fu guys, a Viking,  and (shock of shocks), the bowie-knife wielding cowboy from the bar.  The cowboy introduces himself as Ed Harrison, a down-on-his-luck guy who views the tournament as his last shot at the good life.  He and Drew share a long moment as they both realize that Ed is going to fill the “good guy’s pal who gets killed by the bad guy” role in this picture.

I actually don’t want to say too much about the fight scenes, as they’re really what the movie exists for.  The viewer gets to see pretty much all of the tournament fights and many of them are pretty interesting, although honestly the ones without the main characters are arguably the best.  There’s a fight between a couple of kung fu-ish guys that’s quite a bit of  fun, as well as a battle between the oft-mentioned Conan clone and a guy dressed like an American gladiator that scratches the itch pretty well too. 

Drew’s fights are odd because, since he’s the good guy, he doesn’t want to kill anybody.  This means he’s doing a whole of ninja-kicking bad guys while they’re trying to run him through with halberds and whatnot.  In one fight he turns his sword around and fights with the spine of the blade (kind of like that old samurai anime Rurouni Kenshin), which is pretty cool, but I wish we got to see more swordplay out of him.  He also constantly gets ghostly, Obi-wan Kenobi advice from the disembodied voice of his dad.  Well, not really advice, just his dad’s voice constantly telling how bad-ass samurai are, but I think we’re meant to take it as advice.

The tournament sequence, which takes up around 60% of the movie, is for some reason divided up into days that the viewer is made aware of through subtitles at the bottom of the screen.  I guess this is meant to give us some sense of verisimilitude – Nobody would physically be able to handle half a dozen death duels in one day while still putting on a show for the crowd – but since the editing is so bad that you can see guys who got disemboweled earlier in tournament walking around in the locker room later it all becomes kind of a moot point.

At the end, of course, Kenjiro and Drew must duel to the death.  Again, it’s hard to escape the video game vibe here.  Both guys are dressed in opposite color outfits like Ryu and Ken from Streefighter and, dun-dun-dun, Kenjiro is evilly using the sacred family sword against his own brother.  Before they begin, Kenjiro announces that once he’s killed Drew, he’s going to go back to Japan and kill their dad too.  Since the dad had only appeared as a magic ghost voice since ten minutes into the movie, I’d assumed he was dead already.  Silly me.

Unfortunately, the climatic battle is probably the worst fight scene in the movie.  A number of sequences consist of one combatant flailing away at a disembodied sword blade poking in from off-screen, and in general it’s just shot so badly that it’s hard to tell what’s going on.  There’s even some cropped stock footage from a previous fight.  In the end Drew pacifist spares his brother’s life by hacking gigantic gashes out of both of his ankles and leaving him to wallow in a pool of his own blood.  Drew reclaims the family sword, then magnanimously gives Kenjiro his own katana so that the wicked brother can commit seppuku and reclaim his samurai honor.  Of course, once Drew has his back turned Kenjiro gets other ideas.  Once Drew is approximately 15 yards away, Kenjiro lawn-darts a full-sized katana at him with an angry villain yell, only have Drew knocked it back at him (from 15 yards away, I must repeat) such that it impales him perfectly through the center of the chest.

The end.

What can I say about American Samurai?  It’s bad.  I remember being extremely impressed with this movie when I saw it on cable as a 12 year-old, but it just doesn’t hold up well at all.  If I’m honest, I also had it mixed up pretty badly in my mind with Circle of Steel, a 1994 movie with more or less the same plot.  I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone, but for the curious, there’s an edited version of it on Youtube that only has the fight scenes.  I still wouldn’t recommend it, but what you do when I’m not looking is your business.

*  But seriously, that actor went on to become the Chairman of Iron Chef America.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Child Exorcism in the U.S.

This has been a movie blog for a couple of years now, but I saw something in the news today that demanded a return to skeptic mode.  CNN is reporting that two children are dead and two others wounded in Maryland after being stabbed by their mother during an attempted exorcism.  The two children who were murdered, Norell and Zyana Harris, were 1 and 2 years old, respectively.  The two survivors were 5 and 8.  Their mother, Zakieya L. Avery, 28, is in custody, as is another woman yet to be publicly identified.

Exorcism in general and child exorcism in particular are topics about which I have no moderate position. The practice of exorcism is anachronistic charlatanry that inflicts nothing but trauma and harm wherever it rears its head.  I would venture that it's doubly harmful, as it not only inflicts injury in and of itself, but frequently is performed upon mentally ill or otherwise infirm individuals in lieu of actual psychiatric or medical help.  Children being injured and killed in exorcisms is something you read about happening in the Congo.  Human society should be working to stamp out this kind of pseudo-sorcerous nonsense, and yet this morning we see a report of it here in the U.S.

There's a caveat to this story, of course, and that is, frankly, that's it's being carried on CNN with its penchant for clickbait headlines.  In the next few days I'm sure we'll learn more about this tragedy and hopefully find out the truth of what happened.  In the meantime, to all appearances, two young lives have been snuffed out and two two more shaken forever by misbegotten iron-age witchery.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Curse of Chucky (2013)

Child’s Play was, as much as any horror movie, a pretty big deal back in 1988.  Based around the chilling concept of the soul of a serial killer inhabiting the body of a large “Good Guy” doll (closely resembling the then-popular “My Buddy” and “Kid Sister” line of toys), Child’s Play received generally good reviews and ended up making over $44 million worldwide – nearly five times its budget.  Two more sequels appeared in 1990 and 1991 to diminishing returns and less favorable reviews before going on to play on the USA Network every weekend for the next fifteen years.1  After a long hiatus, the franchise re-emerged in 1998 with a more comedic sequel¸ Bride of Chucky, that rode the wave of popular self-aware horror/comedy films to a $50 million box office.  Another long break followed and then in 2004 came Seed of Chucky, a full-blown dark comedy.

I won’t lie – I pretty much wrote this franchise off when it started switching to comedy.  I’ve never made it all the way through Bride and I’ve not seen Seed at all.  You may well imagine the eye-rolling on my part when I heard that yet another sequel, this time entitled Curse of Chucky was headed straight to DVD.  Who wants another dumb, comedic Chucky movie anyway?  But then a strange thing happened – I started reading interviews with series creator and writer Don Mancini in which he talked about his desire to return to the roots of the series with a serious, frightening vision of the character.  My interest was piqued.

Curse of Chucky begins with a simple set-up: A paraplegic woman named Nica and her mother Sarah live alone in a huge, isolated house.  One day a package containing a Good Guy doll is delivered to Sarah.  By the next morning Sarah is dead, the victim of what appears to be a gruesome accident.  Soon Nica’s sister Barb and her largely dysfunctional family descend on the house to settle Sarah’s affairs. It soon becomes apparent that Barb is up to no good, hoping to talk Nica into selling her share of the estate and pressuring her to move into a supported living facility.  In the meantime Sarah’s daughter Alice has latched onto the Good Guy –Chucky, of course - which is still floating around in the house.  As the night goes on, Chucky begins killing his way through the household as the truth behind his vendetta against this particular family is slowly revealed.

I don’t want to talk too extensively about the plot here, because there are actually some fun twists that I wouldn’t want to spoil.  I’ll say that the kills are generally well done, if not extraordinarily inventive.  The exception to that is a dinner sequence at the beginning of the film in which Chucky has managed to spike just a single bowl of chili out of a table setting of six with rat poison. That scene, with its Russian roulette feel, is a lot of fun.  I also like the choice to have a wheelchair-bound protagonist, as it adds an extra element of physical danger from Chucky.  After all, an adult who is actually aware of Chucky should basically be able to kick a field goal with him and be done with it.  By having Nica in a wheelchair, it makes Chucky nearly her physical equal and really ups the tension of their encounters.

Special effects-wise, there’s a lot more puppet and prosthetic work than I’ve come to expect out of a modern film and it all looks great.  Even during the scenes in which Chucky is CGI, he moves right – which is to say “wrong” I suppose, because puppet Chucky has always had a distinctive gait.  These effects look far better than I would’ve expected from a straight-to-video movie.  There’s perhaps not as much gore as I would’ve expected, but I guess the Child’s Play movies have never focused too much on actual blood and guts.  I also admire the decision to play it slow with revealing Chucky – sure, the audience knows what’s up, but you don’t see Chucky speak in his own voice or move full-body on camera until pretty deep into the film.  It’s especially easy to rush the pacing in horror sequels, but they did a good job here.  When you finally see Chucky speak to Alice in Brad Dourif’s voice for the first time it’ll give you the willies, even though there’s been a quarter century of Chucky films before this.

Acting-wise…this is a horror movie.  Brad Dourif, of course, returns as the iconic voice of Chucky and is great as always.  That said, I watched Child’s Play 2 scant hours before watching this one and his voice has noticeably changed through the years.  It’s unavoidable, but you can certainly hear it.  Nica is played competently by Brad Dourif’s daughter Fiona.  Nica's paraplegia gives her a unique feel for a horror heroine, but unfortunately she doesn’t get very much character development through most of the film.  Summer Howell portrays Alice, the young child, and she does a good job, though the director has made what I feel is the right choice by largely keeping Alice off-camera throughout the film’s final act.  Pretty much every other character comes across as a terrible douche, so it’s hard to judge the actors on their performances there. 

If this movie has a serious flaw, it’s the ending…or rather, the endings.  It feels a little like Mancini had a “maybe” pile of several potential endings and then decided “what the hell, I’ll just use them all.”  Pretty much any one of them would’ve been okay, but taken together they actually kind of don’t make sense, especially the (otherwise fun) after-the-credits scene.

The ending notwithstanding, Curse of Chucky is not only one of the better Child’s Play films, it’s one of the better slasher movies to come out in the last decade.  It’s refreshing that they opted to do a true sequel instead of a reboot like so many other venerated horror franchises and that they didn’t try to reinvent the wheel by adding tons of extra mythology to the character.  It’s a Child’s Play movie –a recognizable, good Child’s Play movie- that feels right at home with the first three films in the series.  While Curse of Chucky may not be groundbreaking, it’s an unexpected return to form for a series I’d given up for dead.  It was a lot of fun and I recommend checking it out.
1.) Well, maybe not, but it sure seemed like it.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Quickies: Three Part 3s Worth Checking Out (And Two Part 2s Worth Avoiding)

Three Part Threes Worth Checking Out

Halloween III: Season of the Witch – This movie has enjoyed something of a rehabilitation among fans in recent years.  The “proud nail” of the Halloween franchise, Halloween III was, as everyone knows by now, the beginning of an abortive attempt to shift the series away from the Michael Myers character.  The plan was to establish an anthology series, releasing a movie each year under the Halloween title, with each film set on Halloween but otherwise unrelated to the other films in the series.

The result is a bizarre but entertaining film that centers on a plot by modern druids to use a stolen piece of Stonehenge to send out a magical television commercial that will cause any children wearing a certain brand of magic Halloween masks to dissolve into a writhing pile of snakes.  Also there’s robots.  The movie makes about as much sense as tits on a cactus, but it also accomplishes a surprisingly creepy mood and has better special effects than you’d expect.  Also, who doesn’t like Tom Atkins? Just beware of the extended shot of his naked ass halfway through the film.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream WarriorsNightmare on Elm Street was a hugely successful and influential horror film that got a rather…uneven, shall we say, follow-up.  With Dream Warriors Freddy finally got the sequel he deserves.  This film represents the best combination elements from the Nightmare franchise – Freddy’s snarky but has not yet descended into comedic parody, the dream elements are wildly imaginative, and the special effects are inventive and fantastic.  Heather Langenkamp returns as an adult Nancy Thompson, now trying to help a group of teens in a mental hospital defend themselves from Freddy using lucid dreaming techniques.  It’s a fun idea, especially when a D&D fan faces off with Freddy using his wizard alter ego.

Also returning from the original film is John Saxon as Nancy’s father Lt. Thompson.  He’s not around quite as much as I’d like, but his Harryhausen-inspired battle with Freddy Kruger’s razor-gloved skeleton towards the end of the movie is great.  (Come to think of it, if Freddy’s glove was in the furnace of Nancy’s house in the first movie, how is it with his skeleton at the end of this movie?)  I've heard stories that this film's original treatment was a pretty dark and serious affair centered around teen suicide. I'd love to see how that movie would have turned out, but what we got instead is still a lot of fun.

Exorcist IIIThe Exorcist was one of the best horror films of all time.  I know, I know, that gets said often, but only because it’s true.  On the other hand, Exorcist II was 118 minutes of crap.  I think it’s pretty fair to say that because of the enormous difference in quality between the first two films, Exorcist III is widely overlooked.  Based on the novel Legion by William Peter Blatty, Exorcist III is the tale of a priest and a cop trying to capture the person responsible for a series of murders that are eerily similar to those committed by a long-dead killer.

This movie is weirdly shot and oddly paced at times, but it’s probably the second best of the five Exorcist movies.  I don’t want to give too much away – There are some pretty satisfying twists and I feel like this movie is little-viewed enough that I could actually spoil it for someone.  While it never aspires to the heights of the original, Exorcist III is certainly worth a couple of hours of your time.

Two Part Twos Worth Avoiding

Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh – Remember how Candyman was a mournful, dreamlike tale exploring the way people rationalize the chaos and violence of urban life through the social construction of modern legends while also calling to mind the effects of the de facto segregation of modern society through the splintering of cities into rich and poor neighborhoods?  Yeah, well, Candyman 2 is about Tony Todd killing people at Mardi Gras.  Inexplicably set in New Orleans despite the original film’s narrative being tied directly to the socioeconomic disparities of inner Chicago, Candyman 2 is no longer a ghostly morality tale but instead is just another slasher flick. 

This film’s greatest sin is that of over-explanation.  There’s a backstory to the Candyman in the original movie, but like any good urban legend it’s lacking any names and is by turns weirdly specific and frustratingly fuzzy in its details.  In this movie it’s all spelled out for us.  Daniel Robitaille was a black guy who knocked up a white lady back when you got lynched for that sort of thing; he promptly got lynched for that sort of thing, and then – blammo! – his soul gets stuck in a magic mirror and now he’s the Candyman.  Is that fun?  Are you using your imagination to fill in the blanks and becoming more attached to the story because of it?  No?  Didn’t think so.

Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings – The first Pumpkinhead is one of my favorite horror movies and I’ve talked about it at length in the past.  Featuring amazing special effects work by Stan Winston and possessing a bit more intelligence than the average horror film of the time, I would say that Pumpkinhead is a definite much-watch for fans of the genre.  Pumpkinhead II, on the other hand, goes out of its way to cater to all the stock horror tropes, even going so far as to rewrite the history of the titular monster to do so.  Whereas in the first film Pumkpinhead was literally a demon – the living embodiment of vengeance and all the sinister glee associated with it – in this movie he’ a disfigured boy who was killed by cruel teenagers only to later be resurrected after his mother is murdered.  So basically in this movie Pumpkinhead is…Jason?

Boobs, bad gore effects, and worse acting abound.  Directed by Jeff Burr, who also helmed several other horror movies of the era such as Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and Puppet Master 4 & 5 – all of which are alright but forgettable – Pumpkinhead II feels like a mad-lib.  It feels as though the script was written with a placeholder where the monster’s name should be and then Pumpkinhead was pulled in at the last minute in order to attach the movie to an existing franchise.  Watching this one isn’t torturous, but you won’t miss anything by skipping it either. 

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Quickies: Two Fun Part Twos (And Three Crappy Part Threes)

Two Fun Part Twos
Zombi 2 – Maybe, just maybe, this one’s a little bit of a cheat, as it’s really only a pseudo-sequel to the Italian cut of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.  Still, Zombi 2 is not only one of the best (pseudo-) sequels out there, but it may well be the definitive Italian zombie flick.  The plot, about a woman and a journalist traveling to a cursed island in search of her missing father, might not be especially memorable, but the movie’s special effects and menacing atmosphere certainly make it worth a look.

Italian horror movies of this era were often forced by budget constraints to employ painfully primitive special effects.  There’s certainly nothing fancy about the effects work in Zombi 2, but in this case it’s probably to the movie’s benefit.  The zombies, caked as they are in layer upon layer of makeup, have a dirty, moldy look that’s worlds apart from the comic book-colored ghouls of Dawn of the Dead.  Every single special effect in this film looks grotesque and genuinely unpleasant; I really can’t think of any other films from the same time period that were quite so willing to show the audience such extended and explicit scenes of zombie violence.  The film’s famous eye-gouging sequence, for example, is honestly not easy to watch.

Also a zombie wrestles as shark.  What else do you need?

House II: The Second Story – The first House was a pretty weird film – part slapstick horror-comedy, part meditation on the psychological toll of war.  It was also a hell of a fun movie.  House II, which has little to do plot-wise with the first movie save for the title, plays up the comedy even more.  The plot is fairly unique – Jesse and his girlfriend move into an old house with a pair of their friends, only to find passages to alternate dimensions hidden in the walls.  Their explorations lead to the reanimation of Jesse’s zombified cowboy ancestor, as well as Slim, an evil cowboy zombie who they must fight for control of a magical crystal skull.  Along the way they must also fight their way through caveman times and then rescue a human sacrifice victim from a Mayan temple with the help of an adventurer electrician.

This movie inexplicably scared the crap out of me as a kid.  Slim, with his gaunt, rotten frame accentuated by his ridiculously red hair, somehow got under my skin.  As an adult I can see it for the comedy it is, albeit comedy with a great Henry Manfredini horror soundtrack.

Three Crappy Part Threes
The Howling III: The Marsupials – The first Howling was one of the best werewolf films of all time and combined groundbreaking special effects with a genuinely interesting story.  The Howling 2 had…um…lots of nudity.  The Howling III, however, is an unmitigated turd of a film.  Although the idea of were-thylacines running amok in Australia is admittedly a little bit cool, this movie has laughable special effects and a plot that somehow manages to be simultaneously bizarre and predictable.  That notwithstanding, I can remember defending this movie to my brother as a teenager, largely because it portrayed the werewolves in a sympathetic light and I was, at the time, really into that old Werewolf: The Apocalypse RPG.

To its credit, it’s not as bad as the four sequels that came after it (Howling IV-VI and The Howling Reborn), but that’s like saying that one kick in the groin is more pleasant than another. 

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth – Following hot on the heels of the groundbreaking Hellraiser and the significantly less groundbreaking but still fairly enjoyable Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Hellraiser III showed definitively that the franchise had succumbed that ravenous plague of the horror genre: infinite sequelitis.  Whereas the previous films in the series offered at least some meditation on humanity’s dark side and the sinister symbiosis of pain and pleasure, Hellraiser III can be summed up as follows: Pinhead jumps out of a haunted statue then tries to conquer the world. 

Gone are all of the other iconic Cenobites like Chatterer and Butterball from the first two movies – they were all killed off at the end of part two.  Instead we get Camera Head Guy, CD Face Dude, and Firebreathing Barbed Wire Man.  Even Pinhead says on camera that the new Cenobites suck…so I guess this movie gets a few points for honesty.

Paranormal Activity 3 – I have in past spoken of Paranormal Activity as a great movie that should never ever have a sequel.  Well, it turns out that Paranormal Activity 2 was alright, even if it was more or less just a rehashing of the first flick’s scares with a silly “hold the camera while I fight the monster” finale. Paranormal Activity 3 on the other hand is a little harder to describe.  I’m of a mind that prequels pretty much always suck, but to be fair the first 90% of the movie is actually pretty alright.  It’s got a kind of The Entity vibe to it and it does a pretty good job of conveying the paradoxical childhood feeling that your room is both the safest and most dangerous place of all.  Overall it’s solid, just kinda’ predictable.

Then we get to the climax.  The best part of the first movie was that neither the characters nor the viewer ever knew exactly what was up.  We have no idea what the motivation of the entity is, or even what the entity is.  Then Paranormal Activity 3 shows up and tells us in no uncertain terms that, yup, it’s cult stuff.  Also, things happen in this movie that undoubtedly would have been mentioned in the previous films had they been established in the fiction at the time those films were made, and that makes this movie that  much harder to swallow.  Spoiler Alert: If a ghost breaks your stepdad in half and sticks his head up his own butt, then 15 years later your boyfriend is picking a fight with that same ghost, tell him about your stepdad.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Bronies in the Mist pt III - How Bronies Think They're Perceived By Outsiders

It would not have been unreasonable for readers to conclude from the wrap-up of the previous post that this post would be up relatively quickly.  That being said, I'm nothing if not easily distracted - Between having to go out of town for work and then taking a vacation with the Wife for our first wedding anniversary, it would not be entirely untrue for me to say that I kind of forgot about my Brony research for a while.  That being said, I'm now back again and ready to soldier on.

In Which We Discuss the Wording of Questions and Answers
I've never been a fan of 5-point responses to survey questions.  You know what I mean: "Rate statement X on a scale of 1-5, where 1 means that you strongly disagree and 5 means that you strongly agree."  It's not that I have any evidence to back up my dislike of them, it's just that they irrationally bother me.  Thus, when I was designing the questions used in my Brony study I had a notion that I would leave them largely open-ended, the better to get more precise data.

This was an error.

I say this because many of my survey questions were poorly worded to the point of clearly confusing the respondents.  Furthermore, when I decided that I would use graphs to represent the answers, I found that having that nice 1-5 agree-disagree scale would have been hugely preferable to trying to manually categorize freely worded answers.

For example, the question we'll be discussing to today ought to have been worded thusly: "Bronies are unfairly thought of in a negative light. Do you agree or disagree with this statement?".

It was, unfortunately, worded like this: 'Do you feel Bronies as a group are stigmatized on the internet or society as a whole?"

That's...well, that's just pretty terrible.  In addition to the fact that it's actually two questions ("Are Bronies stigmatized on the internet?  How about in society as a whole?"), it was so open-ended that the responses I got varied in length and content to the to degree that it was not at all easy to categorize them.  Here are two sample responses:
From Respondent 6, a 14 year-old male:
A little.
Certainly to the point, maybe indicating weak agreement on a 5-point scale.
From Respondent 7, a 36 year-old male:
I'm not going to say that. For various perspectives to be optimally told. I could simply say that bronies are the most misunderstood part of the fandom. Hate groups or people are in fact out there. We can be as loving and tolerant all we want but that currently is a fact we cannot deny. But hate is really just living and judging things based upon a lot of things that funnel into this thing called ignorance, and what is ignorance other then ignoring your own insecurities and fear and not thinking.
That's a response that requires a bit more unpacking.

Do Bronies Feel That They are Portrayed Unfairly?
Be that as it may, I have attempted to categorize all of these responses into four categories for ease of graphing.  "No" and "Unsure" seem to me to be self-explanatory.  Looking at Fig. 4 below, you'll then see "Somewhat" and "Yes".  Answers which were placed into the "Yes" category were unequivocal in stating that the respondent felt that Bronies get a bad rap wherever they go.  "Somewhat" implies some degree of equivocation - specifically, a number of respondents stated that they believe Bronies to be looked down upon on the internet, but that the average "real-life" person has no opinion about them.

Fig 4.  n=64

Because of the artificial groupings I had to impose upon the responses in order to graph them, these numbers are necessarily even less scientific than those presented in the previous section.  That being said, I think we can still see that a significant majority of respondents would agree that to at least some extent Bronies are the victims of negative stereotyping.

This is borne out to some degree by the occasional appearance of negative news reports about the subculture in the news media.  For example, a host on a FOX affiliate once famously compared Bronies to "baby lifestyle" fetishists.  Internet humor sites such as Cracked, as well as pop culture oriented sites such as Topless Robot, also occasionally poke fun at the Bronies, although usually in a rather more good-natured way.

Straight From the Brony's Mouth: Bronies Discuss Misconceptions about the Fandom
At this time I think it may be illustrative to allow some Bronies to speak their minds at length.  I had the pleasure of doing in-depth interviews with two of my survey's respondents.  The first was a 20 year-old man who asked to be identified by his forum moniker Antismurf9001.  I asked him what he thought was the most common misconception about Bronies.
Antismurf: While I don't have a huge amount of experience with those that are intolerant of bronies, my guess is that the most common misconception is that we're all homosexuals (which I can confirm to be false, considering that I'm heterosexual).  This is probably a large part of the reason that I choose to not let people know that I'm a brony.
I posed the same question to Ashley, a 20-year Pegasister, and got a similar response.
Ashley: [People assume] That we're all sexually repressed, mentally ill, homosexual, or perverts.  Basically that there's something different or "wrong" about us.  We can't be seen as normal people who happen to be at peace with who we are and who are happy as a whole.
Later on in my conversation with AntiSmurf, we turned the discussion to how expectations of gender roles may or may not color an outsider's perception of Bronies:
Antismurf: I'd say that it's definitely more acceptable for females to like male things than it is the other way around, or at least that's the case in the US....In fact, I'd go so far as to say that women being masculine is now seen as attractive, whereas men being feminine is often the punchline of a joke...It's hard to say whether or not this colors people's perception of Bronies, since there really isn't a masculine element to compare it to.  I can say though, that male Bronies are certainly less socially accepted than female Bronies...Even in the infamous Fox News segment, I believe it was said something to the effect of "Well, I suppose there are worse hobbies for my son to get into...", specifically saying 'son' and not a gender-neutral term such as 'child'.
I asked Ashley a similar question: Does she think that in society it is more accepted for a woman to be interested in traditionally masculine things than for a man to be interested in something that is thought of as feminine.
Ashley:  Yeah, I do feel that. In society, men are supposed to be the head of the household, the strong member of the family who works and holds everyone together. Women don't have that. We stay at home, work, and care for the kids. We're not watched nearly as closely, I think. More people care about what the men do, if they're taking good care of their family and such.
Antismurf also had a message for outsiders who may run into tales of rabidly obsessed super-fans online:
Antismurf: To the non-Bronies, I understand that there are fans that are overly obsessed and/or completely intolerable within the Brony fandom...All I ask is that you please, please, don't assume that every Brony is this way.  I've met some amazing and wonderful people in the fandom, and it really isn't fair to them if you stereotype them as irritants, creeps, child-molesters, and/or jerks.  You don't have to like use, and you certainly don't have to join us, but please don't hate us before you know who we are.
From the interviews I did with Antismurf and Ashley, as well as from the survey responses I received, it seemed pretty obvious that many Bronies chafed at the labels that are sometimes applied to them just because they're fans of a particular cartoon franchises.  Specifically, many of them feel that assumptions are being made about their sexuality or even their mental health due to the "feminine" or "cutesy" nature of the My Little Pony cartoon.

Well, that just about wraps up this section.  I may take a break from the Brony study for a while, although I'm likely to post the full interviews with Antismurf and Ashley at some point.  The fact of the matter is that the bulk of my survey questions were so poorly designed as to be nearly useless for generating meaningful data, so there's not much point in my fist-fighting responses into graphs from which we can't draw many meaningful conclusions.  Regardless, I've had fun working on this little project and I've enjoyed my time amongst the Bronies.  I'm not sure when or if I'll come back to this subject, but I'm glad you chose to join me along the way.