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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The VOH Roundtable: Which Horror Fave Do You Think Is Terrible?

This week on the Vault of Horror Roundtable, BJ-C, RayRay and myself reached into our bag of contrarian tricks to come up with the horror films we specifically dislike that are genuinely loved and embraced by much of the horror community. Many of you should prepare to be pissed off--I know even I got a tad miffed reading one of this week's submissions... Ahem, anyway, without further ado, it's time to take a wizz on some horror favorites...

For months, I had read all the raves about Hatchet, seen the glowing praise heaped upon it at places like Ain't It Cool News and Bloody-Disgusting, as well as various message boards. "Old-school horror is back," seemed to be the general consensus.

Imagine how shocked I was then, to rent the damn thing and be confronted with one of the most amateurish, wrong-headed, derivative and falsely trumped-up pieces of horror cinema it's ever been my sad displeasure to endure? But I've got to hand it to the marketing gurus behind this one--they took a grade-A turd, polished it up real nice, sprinkled on some herbs and spices, and served it up as choice tenderloin.

Old-school horror? No offense, Adam Green, but old-school horror is Boris Karloff tossing little girls into lakes; Fredric March getting wasted on cheap wine and man-handling prostitutes; Max Schreck stalking the deck of the Demeter like a panther. Hatchet, on the other hand, is nothing more than a sad, masturbatory aping of a dated '80s subgenre that was never that great to begin with.

Ever the optimist, I somehow got it into my head that Hatchet might be an inventive, sinister new take on great exploitation horror like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Last House on the Left, like the best of Rob Zombie is. But what I got was a film literally devoid of imagination, with nothing fresh to say at all; rather, it's content to mimic all the worst cliches and stereotypes of '80s slasher movies, trying so hard to be like them that it only succeeds in resembling the very worst of them.

If that was your goal, Mr. Green, you succeeded. Congratulations. All the standard tropes endlessly churned out by the slasher purveyors are mindlessly followed, including most noticeably of all, those filmmakers' depressingly sociopathic disdain for their own protagonists.

Green raises the slasher movie, in its day viewed as the ultimate nadir of the horror genre, to the status of great movie-making, idealizing it to a ridiculous degree. Hey, everyone's allowed their guilty pleasures, and slashers definitely have a trashy-cinema appeal. A handful of exceptions, like the original Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, might even be damn fine flicks. I'm not saying there's no pleasure to be gotten from them. But I question any horror fan who limits himself to them, and considers them, without irony, to actually be quality pictures.

Hatchet is the filmic equivalent of "The Chris Farley Show". "Y-y-ya remember that time...in Friday the 13th Part VII...when that bitchy camp counselor opened the door...and Jason was standing right there? A-a-and he smashed her in the face with the axe...?? That was awesome...." It's disappointing that Green would content himself to be a filmmaker with such limited ambition--much like guys such as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, who can't get over their adolescent fascination with one hackneyed subgenre, and continue mindlessly paying tribute to it for the rest of their careers.

Oh, of course, it's not purely an '80s-style slasher flick, because you also have your requisite post-modern irony thrown in for good measure. Telegram for Mr. Green: That was already done more than a decade ago in a movie called Scream. Even that's old hat now.

The acting is terrible. The script is painfully bad, with dumb joke after dumb joke. At times, it feels like you're watching a Sci-Fi Channel original movie. "Ah," you may say, "But that's what it's all about, man. That's what those movies were like! Green nailed it!" Well, yes, I guess he did. Once again, congratulations. You succeeded in making a bad movie that's a tribute to bad movies. Only in the 21st century could this be considered a positive. See, the difference here is that back then, the people who made movies like Chopping Mall, Slaughterhouse and The Slumber Party Massacre made them because they weren't capable of making anything better.

Jesus wept. And so do most of my horror colleagues when I tell them how I hate Hellraiser. Now, I love Clive Barker, and most of his writings. However, I do not enjoy Hellraiser AT ALL. Now, before everyone starts whipping their special edition puzzle boxes at me (which by the way, aren't very cool since they aren't even actual puzzles) note that I never ever ever ever ever enjoyed Hellraiser. I've watched it numerous times in attempts to give it another shot, but there's just nothing about the film I like. Okay, I'll give credit that Cenobites are pretty cool characters and Pinhead is truly an icon. Clive, you got me there. However, you can have the best characters since Shakespeare, but if the script sucks, it doesn't matter.

First. I hate the characters that aren't cenobites. Frank only cares about himself. He's completely self-absorbed and has absolutely no problem fucking his brother's wife. Keeping it classy, I see. Julia is JUST LIKE HIM. She's a megaskank and has no cares in the world when she bones her husband's brother. Right there is a perfect example of lazy writing. If, say, Julia was some super sweet girl who got mixed up, you might feel for her, but instead, it's just another random hookup on today's Maury Show.

BUT THEN--Frank comes back to life. WHY? Why the fuck would you bring back such a shitty character? When he died, I praised the day and did a little dance, but then that fucker comes back. Ruins my day everytime.

But what really gets me is that stupid fucking puzzlebox. It is by far the most confusing object ever brought into the horror genre. So blood can bring Frank back to life, right? Right? Well, here's where it gets confusing. Pinhead not only killed Frank, but he also CLOSED THE BOX and took it with him, which then CLOSES THE GATE BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL. Frank died when the gate was open...in hell, not Earth. When the box is closed, the gate is closed as well. Frank has already been ripped apart, Jesus wept, and the gate closed. Frank stays in hell and all is well here on Earth. THATS WHERE IT SHOULD HAVE ENDED.

But no, we can't just end it there. Let's throw in an M. Night Shamyahymen and go TWIST ENDING... Blood can bring Frank back through a closed gate! But Pinhead can't... Pinhead can't get back to earth unless the box is open. Even though the Cenobites have all the power of hell on their side. I'm pretty damn sure that creatures with all the power of hell could get through a damn gate. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Okay, so Frank escapes the Cenobites when Kirsty opens the box and Pinhead is pissed. Because for some reason or another, in order to get Frank back, the Cenobites need Kirsty's help. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? You're demonic thingamabobs from HELL. Use your weird demon magic or something! The Cenobites thus become officially the shittiest characters. You may look hard, but if you need the aid of a teenage girl to find someone...you're not as hard as you look.

This film is super overrated. Just because a guy is going to "tear your soul apart" and has a bunch of nails sticking out of him is no need to worry. I've seen plenty of homeless people on the sidewalks of Chicago with nails in their head blabbering about souls. The book does such a good job tying everything together, but the film....doesn't. I hate Hellraiser...HATE.

Since receiving this assignment from the exalted B-Sol, I have thought long and hard. There has to be some beloved horror movie I just cannot stand. Sure, maybe I am not the biggest Texas Chainsaw Massacre fan, and don't really appreciate Romero's seminal zombie flicks, but not as much as some. But can't stand? Sure. Beloved that I can't stand? That's tough.

So I am going to hedge and push the envelope of this assignment slightly. I am not going to talk about one film, but rather a franchise. And that franchise is Friday the 13th.

I will certainly be voted off the island, having become a heretic and an apostate all at once. But allow me to explain before casting me among the lepers. I think the original Friday the 13th was and is great. It was amongst the first in its genre, following on the coat tails of John Carpenter's Halloween, and was damn scary. Hell, it was scary even when it was edited for television.

And to tell you the truth, Part II wasn't a bad follow up. But it was the real beginning of what I consider a lousy franchise that exploited teens for their cash and really made a series of lousy movies that, in the end, became self parodying.

I wrote recently that I got sick of Jason Voorhees after he was killed by Corey Feldman. But in truth, that was being charitable. While the original was a good, scary movie about virile teenagers being silently stalked by a mysterious killer out for revenge, the continued serial returns ad nauseum of the wronged-little-boy-turned-relentless-zombie-murderer got old rapidly.

And they didn't end. Ever. Even when they said they would. Rather, while the original was released in 1980, Part II was in 1981, III in 1982, IV the Final Chapter in 1984, A New Beginning in '85, Jason Lives in '86, A New Blood in '87, Takes Manhattan in '89, the inaptly named Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday in '93, the exceedingly stupid Jason X in '01, Freddy v. Jason in 2003, and now Friday the 13th [part XII??] in '09.

This demonstrates the complete cynicism of the producers of these films, cashing in on Jason's hockey mask and machete wielding ways. And seriously, how many different ways can we, as an audience, watch Jason dispose of nubile young women? I have seen him stab, crush, twist, break, bend, and smash his myriad victims over the two-plus decades Jason has been in movies, and, in truth, it isn't really that entertaining.

I am sick, sick, sick of the silly, stupid and insulting manner that the writers of these crappy movies return Jason back to life, or at least to dry land. And, honestly, what the hell is Jason? I'll admit, not having watched the last 2 or 3 of these miscarriages of filmmaking, that maybe his origin was revealed or something.

Is he a ghost, a zombie, a vampire? All I know is that nothing kills him for long, and his bloodlust knows no bounds. And that's the end of the good news. Usually, when you have these qualities in a villain or monster, it is the beginning of a good horror story. But in this franchise that is where the creative process ended. After this, we are just served up imagination-free kill after kill, to the point that we look upon this violence as comedic. Now, if that isn't doing a disservice to the genre of horror, I don't know what is.

The series of Friday the 13th movies defined the horror genre for over a decade, with many spin offs and copycats. Even the original unstoppable masked killer, Michael Meyers, was returned to the silver screen in a wholly cynical attempt to cash in on the relative success of Jason's franchise, with the release of Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Meyers in 1988. Since then we have been treated to several more completely vapid returns of Michael Meyers, simply so some studio execs could cash in on teens with $10 in their pockets.

Jason was key in setting back the horror genre a full decade. Only recently has the genre, as a whole, begun to recover, in no small part thanks to the importing of the Japanese horror movies.

So before you get all up in RayRay's grill, ask yourself: are any of these good movies? The inescapable answer is no.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Drag Me to Hell Took Me to Heaven

Thank you Sam Raimi, for saving us from sequels, remakes and adolescent garbage. Welcome back, sir. Hail to the king, baby.

In an age when so much unimaginative crap is being pumped out there for horror fans to deal with, Mr. Raimi has returned to the horror genre for the first time since the Evil Dead trilogy, and given us a truly fresh, original piece of horror cinema that is bound to become one of the all-time favorites of a great many fans--including this one.

Many reviewers are hesitant to come off so enthusiastically, but I'm going to simply come out and state that I have nothing negative whatsoever to say about Raimi's Drag Me to Hell. It is a rollicking, non-stop rollercoaster of terrifying fun from beginning to end, and I plan on revisiting it often. I have not thoroughly enjoyed the hell out of a horror flick this much in a long time. The unabashedly geeky glee that this film has inspired in me is truly formidable.

For one thing, Raimi has proven that provided you hold off on too much blood, you can pretty much get away with anything and still squeak under the PG-13 radar. This movie contains so much that is truly revolting (in a good way) and disturbing that it amazes me the MPAA did not slap it with an R--we're talking vomiting maggots, corpses spewing embalming fluid, rulers shoved down people's throats, eyelids stapled shut, and that's only what I can think of off the top of my head. If you think Raimi's gone soft with the rating, think again my friend.

Alison Lohman is wonderful as the heroine of the film, almost coming across as a more evocative and effective version of Kirsten Dunst's Mary-Jane Watson from Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. Her signature scene in the graveyard--don't even get me started. Pure, iconic Raimi, and the girl pulls it off beautifully.

If I could compare this flick to anything Raimi's done in the past, I'd say it most resembled Evil Dead II, meshing gut-wrenching horror and genuinely funny gallows humor in equal measure. I'll be honest--I didn't expect this to be as much of a comedy as it was, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Because as with all the great horror comedies, it is as frightening as it is funny. Much of the splatstick is pure Evil Dead, and there is a seance scene in particular which will have fans of Raimi's classic horror trilogy squealing with glee. Talk about throwing a bone to the diehard fans! Fantastic.

Much of Raimi's signature camera work and splatstick sensibility is in full effect, if a bit more polished than in his earlier work. Also, the strings-driven score of the picture will give fans Evil Dead flashbacks as well. But make no mistake--this is no slavish nostalgia piece. Drag Me to Hell is a voraciously original and inventive piece of filmmaking, which can be enjoyed even by those who wouldn't know their Ash from their elbow.

The sense of horror-driven fun that pervades this film is infectious. This is the kind of film-going experience we fans long to achieve, but so rarely ever seem to. Raimi hits joyously on every brand of terror--the easy jump scares, the deep genuine dread, and of course, the gratuitous gross-outs. It's all here in a veritable cornucopia of shocker goodness.

My friends, Drag Me to Hell embodies what makes being a fan of horror cinema such a joy. See it immediately, and often.

And for a completely different yet equally enthusiastic look at Raimi's latest, proceed directly to Day of the Woman, forthwith!

A Quarter-Century of Krueger: Alice, Sweet Alice

"I have a place in my heart for all of the different characters I have played and there is a story or two behind each. The character of Alice in the Nightmare films is still one of my favorites. Alice was me in grade school and me when I 'blossomed' in college. From weak to strong, from day dreamer to realist." - Lisa Wilcox

With all due respect to BJ-C and her kick-ass Women of the Week over at Day of the Woman, in this particular installment of QCK, I'm taking a look at my personal favorite Elm Street final girl, and one of horror's most overlooked final girls in general: Lisa Wilcox, a.k.a. Alice Johnson.

Ironically, although I find her the most interesting (not to mention attractive) of all the NOES heroines, she debuted in my least favorite movie in the series, The Dream Master. Yet she proved so popular with fans--and the film itself made so much bank--that the character was brought back for the fifth and most underrated entry in the series, The Dream Child.

The strongest female character in the series, Alice is revealed to be the equal counterpart of Freddy, and thus the most powerful and integral of all the mortal characters in the series as well. In fact, she manages to pull off the unheard-of feat of defeating Krueger and surviving in not one, but two Elm Street flicks (take that, Heather Langenkamp!). So beloved was the character that there was a certain element of the fan base that was outraged when her storyline was abandoned and she did not show up in the sixth Nightmare episode, Freddy's Dead.

Although quite memorable in both of her appearances, Lisa--whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the Chiller Theatre convention some years back--has never done any other work that rivaled them.

While still a student at UCLA, she made her acting "debut" as a "Wendy's girl" in an early '80s commercial for the fast food chain. Her first major film role came in the 1984 sexploitation flick Gimme an F, for which she took off a quarter from school. She had a brief recurring role on the '80s prime time soap Knots Landing, and a one-time appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation that is still remembered by hardcore Trekkies. Her most high-profile non-Nightmare work might very well be her turn as Florence Henderson in a 2000 TV movie on the Brady Bunch. Needless to say, to her fans she will always be known first and foremost as Alice.

These days, Lisa and her Dream Master co-star Tuesday Knight are the owners of Toe Brights, a wholesale jewelry supplier which has been featured in major women's magazines, and counts among its celebrity customers the likes of Drew Barrymore, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Even as recently as 2002, fans continued to clamor for Wilcox to reprise her role in Freddy vs. Jason, which some hoped would finally resolve her unfinished storyline. Alas, with the impending Elm Street reboot, it seems that we will never again see Lisa appear onscreen as Alice again.

Night of the Living Dead, Re-Enacted in 30 Seconds. By Bunnies.

Friday, May 29, 2009

VAULT VLOG: In Praise of Second-Run Cinema

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Exclusive FEARnet Giveaway!

Just popping in tonight to inform all you loyal Vault Dwellers of a fun little giveaway I'm doing. As you may know, I've been hawking my brand new Vault of Horror T-shirts lately (check out BJ-C's bad-ass new banner, top right). Well now, thanks to my recent partnership with FEARnet, I'm offering a pretty nifty little accessory to sweeten the deal.

Specifically, the next reader to purchase a VoH T-shirt will receive, free of charge, this handy-dandy FEARnet bathroom sign:

It's educational, fun at parties, and will let everyone know you're a complete subversive weirdo. So check out the sidebar for T-shirt ordering information. And check here for another look at the spiffy shirt.

Retro Review: The Last Man on Earth

Screw Will Smith. Screw him in his giant Dumbo ear. In honor of Vincent Price's birthday yesterday, I'm taking a look at what I consider the finest adaptation of Richard Matheson's yet-to-be perfectly adapted novel I Am Legend. With all due respect to the great Chuck Heston, Omega Man is just not a really good film either, despite the glories of Heston chewing up the scenery in frilly '70s attire.

No, if you want to see the original undead apocalypse movie, this is where you need to go. Because without The Last Man on Earth, there would have been no Night of the Living Dead. Don't believe me? Just ask George Romero, he's said it himself on many on occasion. I've also always felt that this film version was greatly influenced by the Twilight Zone, yet presented in a more intense and brooding way that only a feature-length film can allow.

Originally intended to be a Hammer production, the film instead fell under the auspices of B-movie distributor extraordinaire American International Pictures, and was produced in Italy, of all places. Price is at his earnest, tortured best as Dr. Robert Morgan, the lone scientist driven to eliminate as many vampires as he can during the day while trying to to formulate a cure at night. That's one of the things I love about this version that was completely overlooked in the new one--he's actively out there wiping out these bloodsuckers. That's what I'm talkin' about!

Much more of the traditional vampire lore is maintained in this version, with Morgan staking the creatures through the heart, protecting himself with garlic, etc. And yet the seminal influence on zombie cinema is absolutely undeniable. We have the desperate guy seeking refuge in his boarded-up house. We have hordes of undead trying to get in and feast upon him. We have a worldwide epidemic. We have the fear of loved ones turning against you as they fall victim to the plague. It's all here. Just add a dash of Hitchcock's The Birds, and you have Romero's brainchild.

Speaking of loved ones turning, without question the film's most powerful and bone-chilling sequence occurs when Morgan recalls what happened to his own wife. After her death, Morgan, unable to bring himself to burn her body, instead buries it far from the house, even though he knows deep down she's coming back. This knowledge, however, takes nothing away from his abject dread--and the dread shared by the viewer--when she does indeed return, clawing at the front door, and moaning for him to let her in. And when he does... Let's just say it's hard to understate the terror in this scene, particularly for a pre-Romero audience.

The external location shooting in Rome adds to the film's feeling of realism--yes, Price's melodramatic hamminess is part of his charm, but it only makes for that much more of a jarring juxtaposition against the grim imagery of eerily empty city streets and fire pits filled with flaming corpses. If anything, it's a testament to Price's versatility that he fits in just as well in this scenario as in the classic Gothic visions of Roger Corman and the like.

Not quite the articulate anarchists of Omega Man, but also not the unthinking demons of Smith's version, these creatures are definitely proto-zombies, shambling about their post-apocalyptic landscape, moaning in their limited vocabulary for Morgan to come out so they can drink his blood. From a visual standpoint, the resemblance of some of these scenes to NOTLD (made only four years later) is remarkable.

And like NOTLD, The Last Man on Earth has a stark, uncompromising downer of an ending. Much more so than either of the subsequent versions. It's well known that Matheson has never been satisfied with any filmed version of his book, including this one, and yet this one is probably the most faithful of the three. There might be some major deviations, but if you judge it without loyalty to the novel in mind, on its own merits, I think you'll find it to be a highly effective little horror flick.

The film rarely gets the credit it deserves for being one of the earliest "modern" horror movies, often being completely overshadowed by the much more flamboyant Omega Man of ten years later. But if anything, the shameless Hollywood-ization of the property that occurred with I Am Legend should draw even more attention to this overlooked 1960s gem. Seek it out--in fact, thanks to a lapsed copyright, you can actually watch it right now!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Happy Birthday to the Undisputed King of Horror

On this date in 1911, in St. Louis, Missouri, one Vincent Leonard Price Jr. entered this mortal plane. For my money, there had never been before, nor has there been since, an actor who more naturally and effortlessly epitomized the horror genre like he did. The world was quite literally made a better place for his being in it, and even though he left us nearly 16 years ago, the body of work that remains will continue to thrill lovers of Grand Guignol for generations to come. Thank you, Mr. Price for populating our nightmares with your brilliant performances, and making sure we never forget how important it is to smile once in a while, even when you're being scared out of your wits...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lose the Swine Flu Blues with FEARnet's Free "Infectious Films"

It's my distinct pleasure to announce that The Vault of Horror is now an affiliate of FEARnet.com, the web's #1 entertainment site devoted to horror, suspense and thrillers, named by PC Magazine as one "The 15 Best Websites for Movie Fans." This is indeed a very cool development for me, as I've been a longtime reader of FEARnet.com, and a member since 2006, when I was first introduced to it by a fellow horror aficionado. Thanks to this new relationship, The Vault will be able to bring you exclusive news, video, goodies, etc. courtesy of FEARnet on a regular basis.

And to kick things off, here's a special look at the latest batch of free movies FEARnet.com will be presenting next month. In response to the recent media overdose of swine flu coverage, the site has put together what they're calling "Infectious Films"--a collection of favorites focusing on the concept of creepy viruses. Perhaps not in the best taste, but this is horror people, if you want taste, go watch Oxygen or some crap.

Here's what they've got in store starting Wednesday, June 3:

Dance of the Dead A recent fave of mine, about a bunch of high school geeks who must band together when all the cool kids get turned into zombies. And how can you not like a movie with a Pat Benatar cover?

Resident Evil: Apocalypse Milla Jovovich kicks zombie ass in this RE sequel, making its web premiere.

Night of the Creeps One of the original zombie comedies, featuring Tom "Thrill Me" Atkins.

Infection (a.k.a. Kansen) An unsettling piece of J-horror about a disease that liquifies muscles and organs. Yummy.

C.H.U.D. II A so-bad-its-good sequel to the '80s cult classic, featuring the guy who played the rebellious douchebag on Head of the Class.

Days of Darkness A goofy 2007 zom-com about a comet that turns the whole human race into flesh-hungry ghouls. Kind of like Night of the Comet, except.... hmmm, wait... actually, it's exactly like Night of the Comet.

FEARnet.com will be streaming these germ-ridden flicks for free, 24/7, starting June 3.

The Tuesday Top 10: Least Frightening Vampires

10. Evil Ed
Yeah, maybe he's kind of freaky when you're about ten years old, but all I can think of now when I look at him in Fright Night is, "I could totally kick this little dweeb's ass..." Besides, he was much scarier in 976-EVIL.... Anybody...?

9. George Hamilton
Captain Coppertone's performance as Dracula in Love at First Bite is right up there with Leslie Neilsen as one of the screen's silliest Counts. The only thing scary about him is his disco dancing, and bizarre attraction to Susan Saint James.

8. Stuart Townsend
Just when I thought Tom Cruise's Lestat was foppish enough, along comes Stuart "Not Good Enough to Play Aragorn" Townsend in the abominable Queen of the Damned. Speaking of vampires I could totally layeth the smacketh down upon...

7. Mark Kendall
Ah, Jim Carrey: The Early Years. Before The Riddler, The Mask, Ace Ventura or even Fire Marshall Bill, Carrey did his best Jerry Lewis impression as the virginal prey of MILFilicious Lauren Hutton in Once Bitten.

6. Eddie
Stephen Root (b.k.a. Milton from Office Space) was heartbreaking as this sad, doomed couch potato bloodsucker on True Blood. The prisoner of humans far more monstrous than he, Eddie is easily the most sympathetic vampire this side of Anne Rice.

5. Rudolph Sackville-Bagg
God love my sweet little daughter, but it truly was a sign of my unconditional love that I managed to sit through the turdtastic The Little Vampire with her from beginning to end. I kept waiting for the scene where the dorky kid from Jerry Maguire gets his throat torn open, but it never came.

4. Grandpa Munster
I never knew that Dracula could be played as a flamboyantly gay Catskills comedian until I witnessed Al Lewis' timeless performance on The Munsters. I think the main reason Lewis got the part was that he was the closest in age to the real thing.

3. Bunnicula
Unlike in James Howe's original kids novels, in the cartoon version Bunnicula did indeed possess "vampiric" abilities, including sucking the juice from vegetables and turning them into veggie-zombies. Yes kids, this was made in the 1970s.

2. Count Chocula
What do you expect from a character designed to push teeth-rotting marshmallow breakfast cereal on kids? Along with his cohorts Frankenberry, Boo Berry and yes, even Yummy Mummy, the Count demonstrated just how far these classic monsters had devolved from their originally fearsome positions in our culture...

1. Edward Cullen
You can take your pick: Is it the pouty lips? Perfectly coiffed yet made-to-look-like-I just-got-out-of-bed hair? Ability to sparkle like Rainbow Brite under direct sunlight? Maybe it's the brooding, I'm-so-misunderstood, bargain basement emo routine that was old in 2004. Or the fact that he's more likely to pounce on a squirrel for sustenance than anything else. Whatever the reason, this poster boy for the "supernatural romance" genre of drugstore fiction would fit in better cradling a buxom wench Fabio-style on some plantation in the cheesily painted cover of a novel my great aunt would read, rather than pretending to be a vampire.

Count Von Count
I really should be flogged for leaving this guy out. Although I feel the need to point out that he used to be a whole lot creepier back in the '70s. Don't believe me? Check this shit out. But yeah, Sesame Street's resident undead muppet is totally harmless. Now if only someone had told my kids that before they met him at Sesame Place...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Horror Movie Makeover: The Odd Couple

Oscar Madison was a man with the world at his fingertips. Newly freed from a failed and miserable marriage, he was a born-again bachelor enjoying his new-found freedom and open to all the possibilities life now had to offer. But what he didn't count on was that he would cross paths with someone he thought was a friend, who would invade his life and turn the two of them into the oddest couple imaginable...

That supposed friend was one Felix Ungar, an introverted and repressed loner who had managed to destroy his own marriage through his relentlessly obsessive and compulsive behavior. Driven to the brink of insanity, the unstable Ungar makes a manipulatively half-hearted attempt to commit suicide as a way to illicit sympathy from his friends. And when that happens, Oscar is there, the perfect prey to walk right into the trap.

The unsuspecting Madison invites Ungar to move in with him. Little does he know that his carefree bachelor life is about to come to an abrupt end. For Felix's need to control knows no bounds. And Oscar's casual, spontaneous way of living sets him over the edge again, bringing out out the same side of him that caused his wife to flee and nearly drove him to suicide.

Taking on almost the role of an obsessive wife, Felix begins to slowly wrap himself around every aspect of Oscar's life. Just as Madison begins to realize the grave error he has made, he also realizes that it is too late. Before long, Felix has become inescapable, draining Oscar's life of all its vitality, sucking it into his bottomless vortex of madness as he attempts to impose his uncompromising sense of order.

Simple things like trips to the coffee shop, bowling, and poker night, things that bachelor roommates should easily be able to enjoy, become nothing short of nightmares, with Felix's deranged and self-sabotaging behavior smacking Oscar in the face at every turn. Even Oscar's long-time friends begin to back away from Felix's disturbing behavior, giving Felix more and more free reign to dominate Oscar's life.

"We're all out of cornflakes. F.U." writes Felix in a particular sinister note left on Oscar's pillow one morning. Does the F.U. merely stand for "Felix Ungar"? There's no way to know for sure.

The final move in their intricate psychological game occurs when Oscar makes the foolish attempt to mend fences with Felix by inviting the Pigeon sisters to their apartment for what he assumes will be a night of bachelorly carousal. But it's clear that he is still unaware of the depths to which Ungar's sickness runs.

Making sure that Madison is occupied, Felix twists the evening to his own personal agenda, manipulating the sisters into pitying him, abandoning any chance of amorous activities in favor of some kind of demented, parent-child dynamic. Enraged at this last betrayal, Oscar at last comes to his senses and demands that Felix exit his apartment, and his life.

And yet once again proving to be too much of a match for Madison's naivete, Ungar manages to once again overpower his former roommate with overwhelming guilt. Wracked with regret over what he has done to the supposedly alone Felix, Oscar tracks him down and begs him to come back. It is only then that he discovers the truth, and the final endgame in this fractured odyssey: Felix Ungar has moved in with the unsuspecting Pidgeon sisters. And his obsession is about to be born anew...

All Gave Some. Some Gave All.

Take some time to remember the honored fallen this Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The VOH Roundtable: When Are Remakes OK?

In our first installment of The Vault of Horror Roundtable, the stalwart staff of the VoH tackles that implacable question: When is a horror remake actually acceptable?

Long-time readers of the Vault know that one of my favorite topics to rant about is the dearth of original ideas in horror cinema today, and the rash of endless remakes that we've been bombarded with for the past few years now. It seems there's not a month that goes by that some cherished treasure of ours isn't being pissed upon by the Hollywood movie-making machine.

And yet, I want to be very clear in saying that, despite my reputation as an old-school curmudgeon, I do, in fact, believe that there are times when a remake is perfectly acceptable--in fact, sometimes much more than that. In my years as a fan of horror films, and of films in general, I've held to a couple of personal rules as to what makes a remake OK in book.

Here's how it breaks down for me. First off, and I guess this should just be a given, but I believe that if a movie isn't anywhere near an unassailable classic in the first place, than a remake is fair game. I mean, if the original makers didn't get the job done right the first time, then why shouldn't someone else have a crack at doing a better job?

The first example of this that comes to mind is The Blob. I'm sure I'll get flamed for this, but as much fun as the 1957 original is, it is also far from untouchable. And you know what? There are many, including this blogger, who felt that the 1988 remake knocked the ball out of the park and pulled off that rare feat--it topped the movie it was remaking.

On the other hand, and it seems like this is the case the majority of the time, most remakes are stepping on holy ground, which is where I have a problem. The most insidious example of this would be the Gus Van Sant's version os Psycho, which goes down in history as perhaps the most wrong-headed remake ever attempted. Simply put, there is no reason on God's green earth for anyone to ever put his or her grimy fingers on the work of Alfred Hitchcock. There is nothing you could do to make it any better, so why bother, other than to cynically make a buck, and piss off a lot of people?

That said, I have one other major criterion for what I would consider an "acceptable remake". I'm sure there are more who would disagree with me here, but I've always felt that in the case of movies that are largely effects-driven, if special effects have advanced so dramatically in the ensuing time since the original was made, and it looks like there is a chance these new advances could really add something, I say go for it.

Since most FX-driven flicks fall into the categories of horror or sci-fi, that's usually where this second rule of mine has applied. For example, the two movies people always point to when they talk about superior horror remakes are John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly. In both cases, I would argue that these remakes were justified from the beginning because their conceits were both rooted partly in strong special effects (for their time), and with 30 years having passed, and light years in special effects technology, it seemed a worthy pursuit to see just what these new, young whippersnappers were capable of bringing to two of horror's old warhorses.

And in both cases, it was well worth the effort. Now, I'm not trying to reduce the success of those two movies to strictly their special effects, but it is true that the '80s versions of those films pull off things from an FX point of view that would've been unthinkable to Howard Hawks and Kurt Neumann back in the '50s. They literally take the concepts advanced in their respective originals to a whole new, breathtaking, and previously unthinkable level. And I say that makes them OK in my book.

That said, there are also cases where this can easily backfire. After all, as I've made clear, special effects aren't everything. Allow me to direct your attention to King Kong. The 1933 original is an uncontested cinematic classic. Yet the techniques used to create its monster effects some 76 years ago have been so completely eclipsed that it seemed to me, at least on paper, that Peter Jackson and company had earned a right to take a stab at creating something fresh and new with it.

And boy, was I wrong that time. I don't know about you, but I found Jackson's effects-laden remake to be a tedious, abominable bore, so vastly inferior in every way possible to the original film as to make it completely unnecessary. And the overblown CGI, as amazing as it often is, only serves to lead me to prefer Willis O'Brien's elegant 1930s stop motion work.

So to sum up: Remake of mediocre original by competent filmmakers=Fair game. Remake of FX-driven original with vastly improved FX=Worth a try. Anything else=Stay the hell away from my beloved originals.

I was camping the first time I watched the 1999 remake of The House on Haunted Hill. I sat in our squeaky camper with my friend Taylor, a bowl of popcorn, and a blanket to put over my eyes for the scary parts. The beginning started out in black and white, and I remember saying to her "Great, this is going to be so stupid." The second I closed my mouth, a deranged mental patient grabbed a stack of sharp pencils and jammed them through the side of a doctor's neck. It was all downhill from there. I was screaming at all the murders, and I will forever be haunted by the underwater scene. While most horror fanatics out there scoff at this remake, it is what made me find old horror films.

I know it sounds completely ridiculous to think that one of the "worst horror remakes" could have influenced me to enjoy old-school horror, but I promise it does have a point. After that weekend, I ran home to my computer and used Ask Jeeves (yes, this is before Google blew up) and typed in "the house on haunted hill movie". I was hoping to see if it in fact WAS the guy from Night at the Roxbury in this film. Instead of getting a bunch of images from the movie I had just seen or finding out that YES Chris Kattan did a horror film, I was given a picture of Vincent Price.

Being only 9 years old, I had no idea who the HELL Vincent Price was. My mother did a great job leading me to the Freddy films, Jason, Michael, Carrie, and the rest of Stephen King's characters, but I had no idea who this guy was with the Boris Badinov mustache. So I went to my local family owned video store and asked "Do you have anything with Vincent Price?" The man smiled at me and said "Of course I do, and I wouldn't let most kids rent his stuff, but then again Brit...you've never been like most kids".

I scurried out happily from the video store with VHS copies of House of Wax, The Pit and the Pendelum, Theatre of Blood, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Fly, and on top of the stack..."The House on Haunted Hill". Along with those films, he sent me home with a few of Castle's other greats, like Uranium Boom, The Tingler, Macabre, and what ended up my personal favorite, 13 Ghosts. I must have looked pretty bad-ass to any middle-aged pedophiles down the street--a little 9-year-old girl with a vast collection of horror films bungie-corded on the back of her Huffy.

We have a tendency to write off remakes as a bunch of crap that can in no way ever live up to the original. I can't say that the people saying these things are wrong, but I can't say they're right either. The thing about remakes is that it inadvertanly brings the old horror genre along to a new generation. These remakers are trying to be a part of cinematic history (or taking a slice of the pie the original brought) but if you get the word out that it is a remake, then the original starts getting more play. Of the stack of films my video store owner sent me home with, a handful of them ended up being remade. I can't begin to tell you how many of my friends I made come over and watch the classics before we snuck into the theater to see the new ones.

Most of my generation doesn't really have the horror chops that I do. Which is both a blessing and a disguise. It's a blessing in that old horror films aren't being completely worn down. We may love Michael Myers, but after watching him every Fear Friday on AMC, he loses his fear. Bash as you may on Zombieween, but the theater I was watching the premiere in screamed, yelled at the screen, and cheered in excitement when he pulled out the mask from the floorboards once more. When My Bloody Valentine 3-D hit theaters, I went to my campus' Family Video in search of the original copy. It had been checked out, and a waiting list was created for people who wanted to see the original first.

Does it break our hearts when we see our favorite films being remade? Of course. But we cannot go into these films with a bad attitude or boycott them. Look at the remake of The Fly. That film is a BILLION times more terrifying than good ole Vinny's version. Sometimes an update, or an up-keep for that matter, is in order. It's impossible to keep these old films in circulation when they have to compete on Blockbuster shelves with big-budget explosions and Megan Fox. However, when a remake is happening, people browse the shelves to find the original versions, and a lot of the time, pick up other old-school ones sitting next to them.

I'm only 19 years old. Most of the people reading my blog, as well as The Vault of Horror, are well into their 30s, and these are the people that got the blessing to grow up along with the classics. I'm not so lucky. My generation DEPENDS on remakes to be made. A good amount of the people who HAVE seen the originals--we're brought there by some sort of remake.

Face it, people are LAZY. They're going to go watch what is available to them and what is recommended. Only freaks like us die-hards are the people that pick a horror movie out of Netflix or Blockbuster based off the back cover. I honestly don't know anyone who actually reads the back of those anymore. It's all about marketing, and remakes are GREAT marketing for the originals.

I thank people who remake films, because without them, most people wouldn't even know the original versions existed. To be honest, I probably wouldn't be the young horror connoisseur I am today without that remake of House on Haunted Hill.

Well, to lean a little on my Philosophy minor, you can never know a priori whether or not a given remake is ok. Unfortunately, the remake needs to be made and then judged. I say this because, a posteriori, there are remakes better than originals, and some that were terrible flops. And then there are some that are not bad, but that just begs the question of whether they should have been made.

That being said, there are horror remakes throughout at least my lifetime that were great. These include, from the 70's and 80's, in no particular order: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Fly, The Thing [of course], and The Blob. Each of these brought something new to the table missing in the original, and each had respect for its forbearer. The Fly, in particular, is superior as a whole, telling a much more compelling story, and if anything, only lacks the gut wrenching "Help me!" from the end of the original.

Between the originals and the remakes, times changed. As B-Sol has pointed out in his posts, there were once codes and policies which prevented either gore or unhappy endings. Also, Hollywood in the '50s and '60s was often in the thrall of anti-Communism, and the movies reflected this. In particular, the invaders in Body Snatchers and James Arness' Thing from Another World were metaphors for Communism and/or Communist infiltration.

In the remakes the stresses were not on the politics of the day, but more about the isolation that can come from hysteria. And while the ending of the original Body Snatchers is vague, the ending of the remake is terrible and foreboding. Similarly, the admonishment to the world of "watch the skies" in Thing From Another World is replaced by a quiet "see what happens," which is much more chilling.

In others, the abilities of special effects improved so much that The Blob and The Fly were almost begging to be remade. And the fan bases were happy to see these movies redone.

Each of the above movies was successful, one way or the other, in remaking their original. And each brought something new to the table, either a new look, a twist, a return to the original source. In their own way, each was an improvement.

And I think there are some very commendable remakes done these days, as well. I think the new Dawn of the Dead holds up well against the original, though I am not the Romero freak some others are. But I have yet to see the remake of Night of the Living Dead, of which I have heard mixed reviews. However, DotD is excellent, both as a remake and a stand-alone film.

I also think the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre was also well-done, and told a little more of the story of that terrible family without encroaching on the original. To be frank, I have always had mixed feelings about the original TCM. When I first saw it, I was really disappointed with the poor film quality, especially the interior scenes with the decrepit grandpappy. Over time I have come around on the original TCM, and now recognize its greatness. There are some truly great scenes, notwithstanding that there was better film quality in some contemporary pornography.

Other remakes have fallen into the category of simply having good special effects, like the remakes of House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts. Neither is a bad movie, but neither is really a good stand-alone movie. Sans effects, the same can be said of the remake of Psycho - not bad, but not necessary, especially as a near shot-for-shot remake.

Then there is Halloween. Halloween, the remake, as a stand-alone movie, is fantastic. As I said in my review, it's biggest problem is it is a remake of Halloween. And while it brings a lot of new material to the table, while respecting the ground trod by John Carpenter, it is the baggage of the original that sinks this as a remake. Too many questions are needlessly raised. I also think it is a complete waste of the skill and style of Rob Zombie. More often, I would rather he use his considerable talent to spin new visions on old themes, not on H2. Let him rip with more insane twists, like what he gave us with his dreadful Firefly family.

And then there are the rest, as far as I am concerned. While I didn't see the "remake" of Friday the 13th, I didn't need to. Seriously, what ground is going to be uncovered? I got sick of Jason after he was killed by Corey Feldman. How many different ways can Jason stab, crush, twist or break the human body? Simply put, this is just laziness and cynicism at the studio level. I can, and will, say the same thing about the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. It brought nothing new to the table, and was a cheap attempt at making money, not a good movie [for which I do not begrudge making money].

And then there are the remakes that have almost everything going for them, except that they forget the focus of the movie they are making. Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is one of these. The original is nearly perfect, a movie that holds up, full force, till today. It is absolutely terrifying at every turn. Even the quiet moments are fraught with unknown terror.

When I heard Spielberg was remaking WotW, I was overjoyed. I don't think there was a Spielberg flick I didn't at least like, and most I loved [E.T. excepted, now that I am an adult]. And I was also banking on Tom Cruise once again turning to gold any movie he is in [yeah, sorry, I liked Cruise's movies before he went batshit. I mean, have you ever seen Cocktail? B-movie masterpiece].

Yet this was one of the biggest disappointments I had, Star Wars prequels aside. It had it all in the beginning - Morgan Freeman's narration, an unassuming introductory sequence, and a fantastic initial attack scene from a visual standpoint [though the idea of 200-foot-tall secretly buried mechs under city streets was a tad far-fetched]. After that, the movie devolved into Cruise's character not trying to survive, but learning how to be a Dad. Give me a friggin' break. The friggin' Martians are coming, and the daughter is going to get snippy about peanut butter? Eat your friggin' bread! No to mention the vercochte idea of traveling to Boston as a strategy in the middle of an interplanetary invasion. What, Martians are Sox fans? What about finding a hole?

Then the movie totally lost focus. If you recall, the climax of the original was in the very end, with everyone praying for deliverance in a church. The Martians are still going strong, with no end in sight. A Martian attack ship comes through the CEILING, AND THEN...........!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Wow, who knew the human race was going to have its fat pulled from the fire by microbes?

But as the new WotW was winding up, the Martians were already faltering, and you see one get blown up by a handheld anti-tank rocket. That doesn't make the invaders all that impressive, after all, considering we hadn't dropped any Daisy Cutters yet, or nukes, for that matter. Apparently, we were supposed to be happier about the mysterious survival of a petulant teenager than the human race. Personally, I liked it better when I thought Robbie bought it doing the one brave thing he did in the movie. At least it would have brought gravity to the story, which by the end it totally lacked, [except in the scene when Daddy had to beat a man to death to keep him quiet].

By relieving the stress of imminent extermination, by failing to respect the original, Spielberg had carnal knowledge of the proverbial canine. In short, it was an error to try to make it a film about growing as a family, rather than huge monstrous death machines killing everything.

In conclusion, I think it is impossible to know when it is ok to remake a horror film. Perhaps you have to look at the motivations of the people making a given film. Did they love the original? Are they trying to add something to it? What is their angle? Then you have a chance for a good film.

But Spielberg had the best of intentions. He wasn't trying to cynically make money. He wanted a blockbuster for all time. What WE got was an all-time bust. So I guess it has to be okay to produce remakes, just don't expect too much.

Rare Interview with a B-Horror Legend

This morning I'd like to direct your attention to a candid Q&A with one of the true immortals of schlock cinema, the one and only Herschell Gordon Lewis. One Aaron W. Tellock, horror movie writer for Examiner.com--a fine website I myself used to write for--currently has an interview up which he conducted yesterday with the director of such gems as Blood Feast, 2,000 Maniacs, Something Weird, The Gore Gore Girls, and of course, The Wizard of Gore, Juno's favorite horror movie.

Lewis talks about breaking into the biz, doing the convention circuit, why horror flicks today suck, and even discusses his return to the director's chair for the soon-to-be-released Grim Fairy Tale.

I encourage all to check it out here.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Could This Zero-Budget UK Flick "Revolutionize Zombie Cinema"?

Rumor has it that a British zombie flick wowing industry big-wigs at Cannes is set to do big things. And the best part is, it cost less to make than the cost of the deluxe DVD edition of Dawn of the Dead...

For a grand total of 70 bucks American, Englishman Marc Price has directed a movie that is now being eyed for worldwide distribution. It's called Colin, and hinges on the ingenious concept of telling the story from the zombie's perspective.

"When we say it's a low budget film, people presume a couple of hundred thousand [dollars]," said publicist Helen Grace to CNN. "People can't figure out how it's possible. What Marc's achieved has left people astonished."

The astonished people Ms. Grace is referring to are the representatives from major Japanese and Hollywood distributors who packed the market screenings at the French film festival. Going on the mega-positive buzz the down-and-dirty flick has been generating, several of those distributors are now in serious negotiations to pick it up.

In what has to be an encouraging sign for amateur filmmakers the world over, Price explains how he recruited a horde of zombie extras on Facebook and MySpace, and recycled special effects from used materials cribbed from other movies. He also fesses up to learning everything he knows from watching DVD commentaries and special features.

The idea to make the film came from a late-night screening of Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead with a bunch of friends, which led them to lament how they'd never be able to make their own zombie film because they had no budget. That's when Price got the epiphany that making a movie from the perspective of the undead would seriously minimize those budget concerns. But even he has to be surprised at the mere SEVENTY-DOLLAR price-tag (Price reports the money went to the purchase of a crowbar, a few tapes, and tea and coffee for his zombie extras).

Included in the positive buzz that carried the flick to Cannes is a review from the zombie social networking site zombiefriends.com that says it's "as original, compelling and thought provoking as [George] Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead,'" as well as SCARS magazine's brash prediction that Colin will "revolutionize zombie cinema".

I've seen enough of these no-budget amateur zombie flicks to realize that most of them are godawful crap, but it would appear that Colin is that one needle in the haystack that may actually be worth catching. So keep your eye out for it, I'm sure it'll be headed our way pretty soon.
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