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Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Strangers

      Is it just me or does horror pretty much suck these days?  I mean occasionally you stumble across a diamond in the rough, but usually they just suck.  But then I saw "The Strangers" and all was forgiven.  Now first of all, I'm fully aware of all the negative criticism this movie received.  And I know that it's not a perfect movie by any means.  Having said all of that- I loved this movie.  I really did.  Every minute.  It had a wonderful old-fashioned feeling to it, you know?  Besides the cellphone, "The Strangers" doesn't really smack of now, know what I mean?  It could almost be the 80's in this movie.  Almost.  The story is simple.  Two people are terrorized in their house by strangers in the middle of the night.  It's that simple.  And that's where the brilliance is.  Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are a young couple staying at his parents summer home in upstate New York, I think.  Late that night they get a knock on the door. A female voice asks for Tamara.
 She leaves.  And comes back. Then things start to get really scary.  There is no psychological mumbo-jumbo.  No back to avenge so and so's death.  No supernatural forces at work.  Just simply 3 weirdos out for some demented kicks who decide to terrorize some random person in their own home.  And that to me, is horrifying.  

     When I was in the 8th grade we had some guy running around town peeping in windows and knocking on doors and making prank phone calls. Of course he never actually killed anybody, but it was still unsettling, to say the least.  Who hasn't been home alone at night and heard strange noises?  Or had that spine-tingling feeling that you're being watched?  We all have, and the makers of "The Strangers" know this and use it.  This is like some "Helter Skelter" meets "Halloween" meets "When A Stranger Calls" shit.  (Originals of course!)  I actually kept thinking of "Helter Skelter" while I was watching the movie and how frightening of a book it is.  (It really is and if you're into this sort of thing I highly suggest reading it- you will be scared.)  Just the randomness of "The Strangers" I found scary, much like how Manson's family would pick a house, dress in black and crawl through a window at night and creep around targeted person's home, maybe putting a knife to their throat, maybe not.  That to me is disturbing stuff, to be sure.

     Certain movies come along once in awhile and tap into that certain spot in our subconscious.  This movie did that to me.  "The Strangers" was a throwback to those old, hoary slashers I grew up watching in my childhood.  We were scared silly watching this in the theater- popcorn was flying, drinks were spilling, people were on the edge of their seats.  This is exactly how a scary movie should be.  Usually I find myself bored to tears in most horror movies, sadly enough.  And I don't think I'm just jaded and cynical and "I've just seen fucking everything, you know..."- I'm not that kind of person.  I still have the ability to be frightened, it just doesn't happen that often.  That's why I'm so thrilled when it does happen.  Once again, I found myself in the minority on this one.  We loved the movie and exited the theater laughing and talking and giddy like teenage girls.  But then I started hearing the reviews.  Negative this and horrible that.  It sucked, it was boring, stupid... blah, blah, blah...  What?  Were they talking about the same movie I had just been so frightened of?  When you watch as many horror movies as I do, you see that most of them really are terrible.  I really do think "The Strangers" was a truly inspired horror flick.  Maybe I enjoyed it so much because I wasn't really expecting much in the first place.  I had read something on it about a year or so before it was released theatrically and really only saw the trailer a couple of times, but had not heard much about it at all.  There were 5 of us that went together and we all very much enjoyed the movie. And what I found the most frightening about "The Strangers"?  This could really happen.  Easily.  It has happened before- not this particular situation, mind you, but people have been terrorized in their own homes before by strangers.   Like I said, this movie is NOT perfect.  It does contain some basic scary movie cliches and cheap scare tactics,  but he director rises above those and redeems himself by building up the tension to an almost unbearable point.  The movie has a remarkable sense of dread throughout.  A somewhat flawed production, but still, I really liked this movie.  I don't expect everybody to have my same taste and opinions by any means.   As usual I'm in the minority on this one yet again.  And I'm perfectly cool with that.



The Shining

     Stanley Kubrick's  nightmare of horror THE SHINING is a fascinating and hypnotic ghost story that really could have only been directed by Kubrick himself. Based on Stephen King's legendary tale of terror, THE SHINING is one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It's great in that it's loaded with some top-notch acting by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers. It's great because it's directed by the one and only Stanley Kubrick. It's great because it's light years away from your run-of-the-mill scary movie. It's great because it's epic, it's ambitious, and it's mesmerizing. And pretty damn scary. You betcha.

   THE SHINING is mesmerizing-  it's a film that you just cannot tear your gaze away from once you've started watching. It hypnotizes you with it's deliberately slow tracking shots, long scenes with no dialogue, and eerie score. It's a very powerful film.

     Although Jack Nicholson's performance has been consistently praised (and criticized...) over the years, he certainly doesn't deserve all the credit. Yes, Jack owns the role. It's legendary. But Shelley Duvall does some damn fine acting on her own, and I honestly can't imagine any other actress in the role of Wendy. I think she's spectacular in THE SHINING, to be honest. There's one great scene in particular where she slowly sneaks downstairs, knowing her husband has slipped into madness. Armed with a knife, she silently creeps through the abandoned hotel.  She soon discovers what Jack has been typing the whole time he was supposed to be working on his novel- the infamous All work and no play make Jack a dull boy scene.  Shelley doesn't say a word in this scene, yet conveys her emotions perfectly. She manages to hold her own against the scenery-chewing Jack, and their scenes together in the latter half of the film practically sizzle with tension. And little Danny Lloyd almost steals the show right from underneath the two. His acting skills are nothing short of amazing, and why those skills weren't put to use in later projects is a shame. The acting is brilliant in THE SHINING- this is light years beyond most horror movies in terms of the sheer talent involved.  This film is on the same level as ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE EXORCIST, and THE OMEN in terms of horror films with class.

      Besides the top-notch acting and directing, so many other things about this movie works. The sets, for one. The Overlook Hotel becomes a main character, and is amazingly brought to life by Kubrick and his set designers. It's truly mind-boggling to think that the hotel used in the movie is nothing but a massive set- it literally blew my mind when I found that out. This movie has also some of the most spectacular camerawork I've ever seen in any movie, much less a horror movie. The camera silently and eerily glides the empty hallways of the Overlook Hotel, never knowing what might be just around the corner... The lush cinematography, combined with the majestic and downright chilling score, are truly unsettling.  It's spectacular horror in every aspect.

      The "Heerrrre's Johnny!" scene is probably the most well known, but the film boasts many iconic moments in horror- the terrifying twin girls standing in the hallway- the elevator opening to unleash a tidal wave of blood- "REDRUM...". The soundtrack is another must have, containing some very scary music to listen to in the dark...although it's rather hard to find. It's worth it though to hunt down a copy- it's most recommended. Stephen King himself has gone back and forth on his opinion of the movie, but I think THE SHINING is one of the all-time greats. So many words come to mind when I think of this film. Unforgettable. Intellectual. Chilling. Majestic. It's a truly epic horror film- a grand, hypnotic masterpiece.

     The novel by Stephen King is just as entertaining as the film, if not honestly more entertaining in its own way. Of course, in a book, there's no way to put every single detail into a movie. The only movie that truly almost captured everything from the novel is Ira Levin's ROSEMARY'S BABY- they're both equally fantastic, and practically word-for-word identical. King's novel does offer much more backstory in the lives of Jack and Wendy. And he gives us much more backstory and history into the hotel itself- why the hotel is the way it is. Some book purists detest Kubrick's film, but honestly, I can't think of another director that could have brought THE SHINING to life. Both the film and the novel it's based on are epic masterpieces of horror, and I recommend all fans of the film to read the book. At the end of the day, even though the books differ here and there, all the little rich details you get from the book only add to the movie. And you might see the film in a different light by reading the book.  Regardless, THE SHINING is still one of the scariest novels ever written, with great and grand doses of sweeping terror.  It's truly a great read.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dressed To Kill

     Brian DePalma's campy, kinky thriller DRESSED TO KILL, is one of the reasons why I love movies in the first place. This is pure cinema, and an amazing demonstration of the many possibilities of the film medium. DePalma created one of the most slick and atmospheric thrillers of the 80's, and it looks and sounds better than ever.  Echoes of PSYCHO, VERTIGO, and KLUTE pop up here and there, but this is 100% DePalma all the way. It's an obvious love song to Hitchcock, and that's just fine in my book. And if ever a movie is an example of the wonders and necessity of widescreen presentation, this is it. The chopped, formatted version is just plain insulting. You are cheating yourself out of half the movie. There are so many praises I could heap on DRESSED TO KILL that I wouldn't even know where to start.

     First of all- the acting is impeccable. Angie Dickinson brilliantly plays an unhappily married woman adrift in sexual fantasies. This is Dickinson's shining moment on film- she's 100% convincing. After seeing her psychiatrist, played by the delicious Michael Caine, she's cruised and picked up in a museum (which is a WHOPPER of a scene, by the way... this is hands down one of the greatest scenes ever filmed, all without a single word being spoken.). I won't tell you what happens next but let's just say it concerns a murderous, razor-weilding transexual on the loose... 

     Nancy Allen memorably plays a hooker with a heart of gold, Dennis Franz plays the sleazy cop determined to find the killer, and Keith Gordon rounds out the cast as Dickinson's son. The camerawork is nothing short of spectacular- most notably in that now-infamous 'museum' scene.  Pino Dinaggio once again crafted a stunningly beautiful yet nerve-jangling score, the use of colors and shadows are incredible, and the movie crackles with smart, snappy dialogue.  Everything about DRESSED TO KILL works perfectly.

     Slick, stylish, and scary, Brian DePalma has crafted a polished, almost hallucinatory nightmare- one that I think is finally receiving the respect and attention it deserves. FRIDAY THE 13TH was released around the same time in 1980 and kind of got all the attention, but DRESSED TO KILL has earned a devoted audience over the years and is now considered one of his best.

     DePalma received tons of criticism by critics and feminists alike for the violence in this movie, but it's nothing we haven't seen in any other horror movie. This is one of my favorite movies, not only of the 80's, but of all time. It's a truly creative effort that was obviously influenced by the works of Hitchcock and Argento, but still manages to come off as an entirely original work of art. This film gave me endless nightmares as a kid- I'll never forget the image of 'Bobby', quietly stalking Nancy Allen in that shower. I know I'll never look at nurses' shoes the same way again. A top notch, terrifying good time!

Invasion Of the Body Snatchers (1956)

     Dr. Miles Bennell returns to his sleepy hometown of Santa Mira, California because of many urgent calls from his patients.  Upon returning, he finds many reports of patients thinking certain loved ones are not who they're supposed to be,  as if they've been suddenly replaced by identical look-alikes.  Has a mass hysteria descended upon the small town, or is something more sinister at work here?

     Hands down the best horror movie of the 50's, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is a thrilling, almost film noir chiller that's packed with action, suspense, and a creeping, subtle terror.  It's an absolute gem of a movie, full of gorgeously crisp black and white photography.  "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is in my opinion the most original of all the  paranoid sci/fi-horror films to come out of the 1950's.  The way the story unfolds is simply chilling, even for 50's standards.   Alien invaders have long been a huge plot element in all kinds or sci/fi and horror movies, but never quite handled so creepily as in this movie.

      "Body Snatchers" has a timeless sense of paranoia, which is why the movie has been remade 3 times.   Made on a low-budget with a very simply plotline actually- but one of the most influential movies to come out of the 50's.   I can't stop raving about "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"- it's just one of those movies that I can always lose myself in at any given time.  It's frightening, mysterious, suspenseful, and original.  Classic!

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