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Monday, April 23, 2012

More Terror in the Woods

Teaser posters having fun with the film's long delay
In what has become a Weird Movie Village tradition, we're tromping back into the wild for another edition of Terror in the Woods. Past editions can be seen here and here. But unlike the previous versions, we've actually got a brand new "woods" movie to talk about.

Yesterday I saw the much buzzed-about and long-shelved Cabin in the Woods, co-written by Joss Whedon and Cloverfield's Drew Goddard, and directed by Goddard.

Completed in 2009, Cabin was held up while original distributor MGM debated upconverting it to 3D (which would have been awful), only to go bankrupt, leaving it languishing on the shelf until last year when Lionsgate picked it up. Was it worth the wait? Definitely. Like the Scream series, Cabin can best be described as a "postmodern" horror film. But unlike the Scream series, it's actually good.

The filmmakers start messing with our expectations right away. From the first frame. we expect to see kids getting stoned while driving down a country road in a VW van, but instead we're introduced to a couple of lab workers (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) who seem to be involved in some sort of secret surveillance project. They talk about the Japanese and failed experiments, and none of it makes any sense.

Finally, we meet the gang of college students who fit the standard mode established by Friday the 13th and its ilk: The jock (Chris Hemsworth), the slut (Anna Hutchison), the good girl/final girl (Kristen Connolly), the brainiac (Jesse Williams) and the stoner (Fran Kranz). They all jump into the requisite RV and head to a cabin on a lake for a weekend of fun, sex and partying. But as the RV drives away, we see some governmental-looking guy, wearing an earpiece, observing them from a rooftop.

Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchinson
When they arrive at the cabin, things turn strange. Behind a ghastly painting in one of the bedrooms they discover a one-way mirror. And the basement is packed with all sorts of creepy antiques, including an ancient diary from which the good girl starts to read aloud.

Sound familiar? Well, it may remind you of Evil Dead, but (aside from sharing Evil Dead II's cinematographer Peter Deming) that's where the similarity ends. I don't want to reveal any more because you really should see this film for yourselves. Let's just say that Whedon and Goddard take the slasher genre, spin it real fast and stab it in the head. And it's funny, too!

Speaking of revisualizations, I remember being surprised to see old-school advertisements in the L.A. Times for a film called Wrong Turn back in the late spring of 2003. Since it was playing at my neighborhood theater, I figured I'd fork out the price of a matinee ticket. What a delightful surprise! You'd almost have thought it was an undiscovered stalk-and-slasher from the '70s except that it featured Law & Order's Jeremy Sisto, Dexter's Desmond Harrington and Whedon favorite Eliza Dukshu.

"You made a really wrong turn, pal!"
Produced by the late fx whiz Stan Winston, it also featured wonderful old-fashioned prosthetic effects created by his studio. The plot here is simple: a young man (Harrington) is driving to another city for a job interview and smashes his car into the vehicle of a group of friends whose tires have been mysteriously flattened. They set out to find help, unaware that there's a bloodthirsty gang of mutant mountain men out to get them.

That's it, plotwise. What it does deliver big-time is suspense and gore, and Winston's mutants are simultaneously repellant and disturbingly deviant. How I wished I'd been able to see it at a drive-in, so perfectly did it capture the '70s vibe. I could see myself sitting in my car at the Western Drive-In watching Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave...and Wrong Turn. Sheer bliss.

Wrong Turn has spawned a number of direct-to-video sequels, none of which I've seen, although fans seem to like Part Two, so I might have to check it — hey, score! It's on Fox Movie Channel tonight. DVR is set.

Speaking of backwoods mutants, Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977) cornered the market on  effed-up families. Here, a dysfunctional group of vacationers gets stuck in the desert when their RV breaks down, and a clan of mutant cannibals living in the hills nearby move in for the kill. Okay, it's not exactly the woods, but it is outside.

In his first film since the shockingly raw Last House on the Left, Craven realized that he needed to keep his fans happy, so he packs the film with gory killings, a rape, immolation and the kidnapping of a baby with intent to consume. It's based on the legend of the  incestuous Sawney Bean family of Scotland, which was said to have abducted and consumed thousands of travelers over the years. In a modern twist, the Hills cannibals are deformed and mentally perverted as a result of living on an atomic bomb testing site.

I had the poster (seen here) hanging in my room when I was a teen, and Michael Berryman's face was enough to creep out any visitors. Among the cast of relative unknowns is Dee Wallace, who'd go on to greater glory in such classics as The Howling, E.T. and Cujo. Shot in 16mm, the film is coarse and grainy, which only adds to its sleaze appeal.

Stranded travelers stop to do the Time Warp in Hills II.
In the early days of home video, distributors were hungry for product. Coincidentally, Craven was hungry for cash, so he excreted a dreadful sequel to Hills in 1985 which is basically a remake without blood, suspense or any redeeming values whatsoever, unless you count the fact that this film features a scene with a dog having a flashback. Yep, that actually happens.

Amazingly, Craven made this travesty just after what is arguably his masterpiece — 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street. Of course, he's always been rather inconsistent. For every Nightmare or Last House, there's a Shocker...or Music of the Heart...or Scream (if you haven't already guessed, I hate those things).

Robert Joy in the Hills remake
Future Piranha 3D director Alexandre Aja helmed the remake of the original Hills in 2006, and damned if it isn't a decent reboot. There's not much tweaking needed for the story — it's a pretty faithful adaptation, except it looks great (courtesy of cinematographer Maxime Alexandre) and the effects are eons ahead of the original.

And how do you handle the sequel to a good remake of a cult classic? Bring in Craven and his son, Jonathan, to screw it up once again! Maybe they wrote it as a joke since the 1985 sequel was such a disaster. But in that case, shouldn't it have been sarcastically funny? This one is just ba-a-a-d. And there's not even a dog having a flashback.

Today's good news is that the sequel to Marcus Nispel's horrendous 2009 remake of Friday the 13th is still stalled. Now if we can only get Rob Zombie to stop desecrating the tombs of the classics...

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Grand Guignol, Chambers of Horror and the Theater of Death

Last Saturday night I attended Urban Death, a performance art piece by the Zombie Joe Underground Theatre Company in North Hollywood, and I was suitably impressed. It's probably the closest I'll ever come to seeing live stage horror in the Grand Guignol tradition.

My full review can be read at Blogcritics, but I can certainly say here that it was a refreshingly unique evening of theatrics — 42 vignettes in one hour, ranging from the splattery to the darkly humorous, — that built to an impressive intensity. It's certainly more sophisticated than the cheapjack thrill shows of yesteryear, and it forms the inspiration for today's post.

Ever since theater has been around, there's been horror. From Sophocles' ancient Oedipus Rex to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, audiences have always responded to grim subject matter — the gorier the better. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was formed in Paris in the late 1890s to give audiences a glimpse of the horrific behavior of the city's lower classes — prostitutes, thieves, street urchins and murderers. Featuring several short, violent plays at each performance, it became a source of pride on the part of the theater company to report how many people fainted each evening.

One of London-based Madame Tussaud's earliest and most popular attractions is the Chamber of Horrors, in which visitors can gawk at famous murders and famous murderers, torture and execution devices. A 1936 film, Midnight at Madame Tussaud's, is interesting for its location footage in the museum itself, but is otherwise your typical "quota quickie."

Another English notable is Tod Slaughter, a barnstorming actor whose full-blooded melodramas raised the hackles of audiences in the 1910s and 20s. His most famous role was Sweeney Todd, a character he played 2,000 times. He staged his blood and thunder shows at the Elephant and Castle Theater in South London, at first for the locals but eventually attracting sophisticated audiences from the West End who came to see what all the fuss was about. Many of his most notable plays, including Todd, were made into films in the 30s and 40s.

Universal depicted a traveling sideshow in its 1944 monster rally House of Frankenstein, in which showman (and mad doctor) Boris Karloff displayed the bones of "Dracula — a real vampire!" to frighten his audience, and chambers of horror were featured in both Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953).

Mystery
was filmed in primitive two-strip Technicolor (red and blue), but the limited color palette actually contributes to the creepy atmosphere. And, of course, House — with Vincent Price — was one of the most successful 3D movies released during its first go-round. Both have scenes in which a wax figure is revealed to have a real corpse encased within.

I'm a fan of both versions, but I rather like Mystery with its contemporary (at the time) New York setting — and the scene in the morgue when the body suddenly sits bolt upright is still a shocker. And the figures in the museum are real actors — the Technicolor lights were too hot for wax to stand up to, and it gives these scenes extra zing, because you sort of think that they're moving just a little bit...but you're not sure.

House of Wax was loosely remade in 2005 by Jaume Collet-Sera (who went on to make the infinitely superior Orphan) with Parasite...er, I mean Paris Hilton in a small role. Now that's scary.

Chamber of Horrors is a 1966 made-for-TV film and a pilot for a proposed House of Wax series. Considered too intense (yeah, right) for broadcast, it was released theatrically with B-star cameos (Tony Curtis, Marie Windsor, Suzy Parker) and the added irritants of the "fear flasher" and the "horror horn" to indicate when something awful was about to happen, which pretty much renders it unwatchable.

Starting in the 1930s, midnight Spook Shows became a regular feature in movie theaters across America. Typically they'd feature a headlining magician who'd haul out the old tricks like a seance, a floating cabinet and disembodied voices. As the years went on and the audience's lust for bigger thrills increased, blood and sex were added to the mix, with simulated decapitations, killers running through the audience, ghosts floating on the ceiling and — in one instance — Lady Godiva and her horse materializing onstage!

I wish I'd had the opportunity to see one of these shows. They were probably hilarious hokey, but that can be fun. The advertising was outrageous — these guys could've given master showman Dave Friedman a run for his money. They promised so much on the program — including up to four complete features — you'd think the shows would've lasted until noon the next day.

Probably the biggest was Dr. Silkini's Spook Show, originated in 1933 by Jack Baker. At one point he had seven Silkini units traveling around the country. He even managed to talk Universal Pictures into letting him depict the company's monsters onstage, something that would never, ever happen today. When he died, Steve Conners bought the show from his widow in 1980. Conners managed to keep it going for a while (even bringing it to Hollywood in 1988, which I missed, dang it).

Something Weird Video has a great DVD called Monsters Crash the Pajama Party which features a full 45 minutes of great Spook Show commercials. And the title featurette is a hilarious piece of cheese that was actually shown in theaters with an emphasis on audience interaction. Here's the trailer:



Godfather of Gore Herschell Gordon Lewis got into the guignol game with The Wizard of Gore, one of his more splatterific films, about Montag the Magnificent, a magician who hypnotizes young women onstage and mutilates them in a series of "illusions," only to have them literally fall apart later at home. It was remade in 2007 with Crispin Glover as Montag.

In 1976, Bloodsucking Freaks (whose plot is based on Wizard) was released by Troma Films, New York-based maker and distributor of low-budget schlock whose penchant for hucksterism rivals the Spook Show promoters. Freaks is set in a Grand Guignol nightclub run by Sardu and his dwarf assistant whose "models" are actual kidnap victims that they keep in cages and mutilate to the delight of their audiences. When the feminist group Women Against Pornography protested against the film's release, Troma used the controversy to garner free promotion for it.

Written and directed by Joel M. Reed, Freaks' special effects — which range from finger amputation to sucking out brains through a straw — are amateur, but it's one of those films that uses its minuscule budget to nauseating ends. Besides, no matter how badly it's done, torture by tooth extraction is always awful to watch. The film kind of a forerunner to today's torture porn genre (Hostel, Saw). On his official web site, Reed seems to be attempting to raise funds for a sequel.

Hell Houses are the fundamentalist Christian's answer to Grand Guignol. Around Halloween, all across the United States, these attractions pop up with graphic scenes to shock impressionable youngsters into avoiding pre-marital sex, drugs and — gasp! — homosexuality. Of course, Jerry Falwell's 1972 "Scaremare" was one of the first to arrive, but Colorado-based Keenan Roberts has made an entire industry of it, hawking Hell House Outreach kits online — only $299!

Hell House Outreach?

Of course, being an Angeleno, I attended a performance of Hollywood Hell House in 2007, which was set up in a two-level former Mexican restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. It featured an extreme abortion scene, a Columbine-style massacre, a drug overdose and an AIDS patient. HHH was created by Maggie Rowe, a recovering Fundamentalist, who said that no exaggeration in the writing was necessary — the extreme material parodies itself. Now that's really scary. Roberts himself came to the premiere, and thereafter added a "Maggie Rowe" character to his own production to demonstrate how "Satan does God's work."

The Hollywood version's gimmick was "special guest Satans" appearing throughout the run. Check out this clip reel to see some of them, including Penn Jillette and Bill Maher, who some fundamentalists think is the Devil already...

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