March 31, 2014

I Had a Dream

March 30, 2014

Hey, so I guess I have recurring dreams now. Well, sort of; I don't have the same dream per se, but I've been having dreams that involve a recurring setting.

I honestly haven't dreamt much since I cut down on booze years ago. In the last couple of years, specifically, sometimes months would go by and I wouldn't have a single dream, or I'd have a half-assed one here and there. But ever since I started taking certain "vitamins" three months ago, I've been having some very vivid and amazing ones.

In this particular dream, I wound up at the same video store that I've dreamt about on at least one occasion. The video store in my dreams is basically a spooky version of the same store I grew up renting VHS tapes from before they ultimately merged with another video store and moved to another location in town. When you walk in the front door and look straight ahead, you'll see the employee standing behind a counter where the cash register is. Behind the employee is a wall of VHS tapes. On either side of you, there are obviously movies on shelves and walls and whatnot. It's a small store. The real store was just straight across and never had any back rooms or an upstairs area. In other words, you'd walk in and be able to see everything that store had to offer from where you're standing. Well, the layout's more or less the same in my dream, except one side of the store extends further back from the counter. And on the shelves are movies that don't exist in "real life". The details are blurry, but I do recall a lot of gruesome-looking horror movies on the shelves. All of the genres had their own sections, but there were horror movies everywhere. I also remember seeing a lot of FACES OF DEATH-style "Mondo movies" or whatever you wanna call 'em. The store itself also gave me an uneasy feeling - like walking into someone's house and seeing shocking items openly displayed next to family photos, on top of the fact that there may or may not have been a ghost roaming around somewhere.

I didn't spend much time in the store in this particular dream. It all wrapped up when I picked up SCOOBY-DOO: WRESTLEMANIA MYSTERY off the shelf (or at least some bizarre variation of it) and being ridiculed for it by two other customers - a man and a woman. The woman had long, dirty blonde hair and had a plaid jacket on, like she was on her way to a Grunge revival festival. I think the man was balding, but those details are also blurry. Hell, it's quite possible that there may not have even been a man there. Or maybe the man turned into the woman, or vice versa.

I ended up putting the movie back on the shelf.

March 28, 2014

The Day I Became a Scumdog / Rest in Peace Dave Brockie

Before I get into the first time I saw GWAR, let me set the stage for you (no pun intended). I first discovered GWAR for myself in either 1990 or 1991, which would've made me nine or ten years-old at the time. Keep in mind that I grew up in a place with no music scene whatsoever, during a time when my access to underground music was limited to magazines and music stores (it wasn't until a couple of years later that we got cable and I was able to watch MTV). And even then, I barely had any context for what was what and who was who, so I mainly acquired music based on album covers and names of bands. Fortunately for me, at a young age I could walk into a music store and buy albums with "Explicit Lyrics" labels on them and all of the cashiers would be fine with it. Long story short, a friend of mine in school (the only friend I had who listened to Metal and would ultimately be the person who schooled me on a lot of bands that I still listen to to this day) showed me a picture of GWAR. Subsequently, I bought their album Scumdogs of the Universe and the rest is history.

Fast forward to the year 2005 - specifically the 23rd day of November. That was the date of GWAR's stop in Las Vegas - where I lived at the time - for their 20th Anniversary Tour with Mensrea, A Dozen Furies, and DevilDriver. The venue was the House of Blues, which is where I had been working since April of that year as security. We typically had a calender in one of the back hallways of House of Blues that would have a list of all the bands that were booked. I don't remember how far in advance it was, but I do remember seeing GWAR's name pop up on the calendar one day and being excited. Actually, "excited" is an understatement; GWAR had been one of my favorite bands growing up and they were pretty much my dream band as far as who I'd like to see live the most. Prior to this, some of my co-workers had told me that GWAR was actually banned from the venue and that they'd never play there again, so when I saw that they were booked, it was a very surreal feeling - like, "Holy shit, I'm actually gonna be seeing this band that I've obsessed over for years!" Not only had this mysterious ban suddenly been lifted, but the 13 or 14+ year wait for me had finally ended.

I debated on whether or not I should work the show or take the night off and show up as a fan. But that debate didn't last long; I asked for the night off because I wanted my first GWAR experience to be a blood-soaked one. The plus side of working the show would have been this: my supervisors would often have me do security backstage, which basically consisted of enforcing the "no cameras" policy, making sure everyone had backstage passes and the proper credentials, and watching the show - but mostly just watching the show. I'm pretty certain I could've been allowed to work backstage for the GWAR show if I asked, which would've been amazing. Not a lot of ordinary people like myself get to say that they got to sit backstage at a GWAR show and witness how the magic is made - it would've been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. But then again, there was always the possibility that I could've been stuck outside of the venue tearing tickets and not see the show at all. I wasn't about to take that risk, so "night off" it was.

The plan from the start was to be in the crowd during GWAR's performance and leave the venue covered in fake blood. So I arrived to the show in a white t-shirt over a black long-sleeve shirt, shitty jeans, and an old pair of Chuck Taylors that were probably falling apart. The venue, which held about 1,200 people if I remember correctly (give or take), was packed. I remember some people being concerned about ticket sales leading up to the show, but GWAR ended up selling the place out.

The first band to play was Mensrea. Comprising the group were some of the guys who played GWAR's slaves during the live performances and the late Cory Smoot. Cory portrayed the character of Flattus Maximus in GWAR beginning with the War Party album and was an amazing guitar player whose style really shaped the sound of the band and helped them regain some credibility in the Metal scene. Sadly, Cory passed away a few years ago and thus the character of Flattus Maximus was retired. But anyway, I don't remember much about Mensrea. They were technically solid, but nothing about the music or the performance really stood out to me.

Up next was A Dozen Furies. Their claim to fame was that their guitar player emerged victorious on the MTV show "Battle for Ozzfest". They were a good band, though, and I had actually been following them and listening to their music after hearing them on "Battle for Ozzfest". The show itself was alright, but the only thing that really stands out in my memory to this day is that they played the intro of GWAR's "Love Surgery" towards the end of their set.

After that was DevilDriver, fronted by Dez of Coal Chamber fame. This was my first of three times seeing them live. I was actually a fan of theirs since they came onto the scene with their self-titled album, so I knew all the songs and had more of a personal connection to DevilDriver than the previous two bands. I had watched A Dozen Furies from the side of the venue near one of the bars but I moved closer to the pit when DevilDriver came on. Nothing much to say about their performance - they plowed through their set and got the crowd (myself included) riled up. Oh, and their bass player had really long fucking hair.

And then it was time. The moment of truth. The wait was finally over. As a kid, I had to seek out back issues of Metal Maniacs just to get any info on GWAR. It wasn't like I could look them up on YouTube back then or steal their entire discography with just the click of a button. I grew up a fan of Horror movies, pro wrestling, and GI Joe, so I was always drawn to cartoonish, larger-than-life characters. On top of that, the identities of GWAR were a mystery to me, and it was something that kept driving me to learn more and more about them through whatever means were available (ie. old issues of Metal Maniacs). I actually believed at one point that all of them were disguised members of other groups, and I was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. The point is, I did anything I could just to have more GWAR in my life, and now here they were, about to be right in front of me.

The break between DevilDriver and GWAR was a bit long - understandably so when you consider how elaborate GWAR's stage show is and how much is involved in setting it up. It got to the point where some of the people in the crowd were getting restless. During this time, I pushed my way as close to the front of the stage as possible without being a dick about it. I ended up somewhere in the middle of the crowd. Eventually, the curtain opened, and there they were. But instead of kicking right into a song, their set started out with a skit, which is typically normal for a GWAR show. The two guitarists, Flattus Maximus (Cory Smoot) and Balsac the Jaws of Death (Mike Derks), were standing on ramps on either side of the drum riser. Sitting behind the massive drum set, of course, was Jizmak the Gusher (Brad Roberts), and off to the side of the stage was bass player Beefcake the Mighty (played back then by Todd Evans, who looked like a tattooed Anton LaVey on steroids). One of GWAR's many victims then walked out on stage as the person in costume pantomimed to the prerecorded dialogue that played over the venue's speakers. And then out came vocalist Oderus Urungus (Dave Brockie) with his ginormous trademark sword in his hands. He played to the crowd like he was trying to sneak up on whatever celebrity that was about to be killed on stage and then proceeded to dismember and disembowel this character as fake blood spewed into the audience and the band kicked into "The Salaminizer" - the opening track from Scumdogs of the Universe and, inherently, the first GWAR song I ever listened to.

Since the pressure of this initial blood-spewing wasn't too high, only a little bit of it touched my skin as it lightly sprayed into the crowd like a bloody sneeze. But it wasn't long before they turned on one of their high-pressure pumps and I (and most of the crowd) was being doused in fake blood. Not only that, but I was in mid-scream as the blood hit me, so a bunch of it actually got in my mouth. Getting covered in GWAR's trademark fake blood for the first time was like a religious experience for me. I stood there in a sea of white t-shirts as I raised both my hands, caught the Unholy Ghost, and praised GWAR along with the rest of the congregation; in return, they blessed us with their bodily fluids and Thrash Metal.

I don't remember the specifics about their set. But considering this was a special show on a special tour for them, I was fortunate enough to be treated to a lot of the classics. They played a lot of stuff from Scumdogs of the Universe, some tracks from War Party, and they closed the set with a medley of every song from their debut album Hell-O! But the real "mark out" moment for me was when they played "Gor Gor" from their album America Must Be Destroyed. From what I remember, they semi-retired this song for a number of years and never played it. For those who don't know, live performances of this song would consist of Oderus Urungus slaying a rather impressive-looking Tyrannosaurus Rex that towered over everyone on stage. Well, I was shocked to see that they actually brought the dinosaur with them to this particular show. And I say "shocked" because I had the privilege of knowing how cramped the backstage area of the venue could be. To this day, I had no idea how they managed to assemble the dinosaur backstage and eventually get it on stage and I never asked; it would've killed the illusion for me.

And that's my long-winded story of the first time I saw GWAR - hands down the best live show I've ever seen. Since I worked at the venue, I was able to have someone grab a set-list for me, which I kept and tacked to my wall in Vegas next to my GWAR-stained t-shirt and my ticket stub. Unfortunately, all of that stuff (and the rest of the memorabilia I collected over the years) was stolen before I moved out of Vegas, but that's another fucked-up story for another fucked-up time. GWAR used green dye at the time, so everyone who was in the pit that night left the show looking like the Incredible Hulk. I literally had green stains on my skin for the next week. Just when I thought I'd removed it all from my body, I'd wake up one morning to see green behind one of my elbows or behind my ear. The next time I saw GWAR play was during the 2006 Sounds of the Underground tour. I stayed out of the pit for that one, but they used blue dye that night and everyone looked like a Smurf by the time the show was over.

Fast forward to March 23, 2014. I was at work fucking around on the computer when my buddy Tim posted something on Facebook about Dave Brockie being found dead (Brockie, of course, being the vocalist of GWAR and the only founding member of the group who was still active in the band).

Anyone who knows me well can vouch for the fact that I'm a very emotional person, especially if I'm drunk. But I've always been weird when it comes to death and mourning. I rarely get "sad" when someone dies. Instead, I just get quiet and think about that person. I've always had a very strange sense of acceptance when it comes to death. Some deaths affect me more than others, obviously, but I can honestly say that I've never sat there and sobbed when someone I looked up to passed away, whether I knew them personally or not. My own father passed away when I was seventeen and I never shed a single tear for him, but then again we'd been estranged by that point anyway. So when it came to the news of Dave Brockie passing away, my immediate thought was: hoax. Dave's drug use over the years has been documented, but he's never been associated with any of the legendary drug-abusers of the music industry, the upper echelon if you will - the Motley Crues, the Ozzys, the Phil Anselmos, the Al Jourgensens, so on and so forth. So really, even if I'd accepted Dave's death immediately, it wouldn't have been a huge shock. One can easily speculate when someone dies at 50 years-old and that person is a rock star, but there still could've been a chance that he had a freak cardiac arrest, choked on his dinner, spontaneously combusted, etc. Whatever the case, the cause of his death is irrelevant. The point is, I never once imagined living in a world where GWAR didn't exist, which means, in my mind, Dave Brockie/Oderus Urungus should have lived forever.

I spent a couple of hours online after learning of his death trying to find answers. Did someone start a crazy rumor that simply got out of control, or was the Metal community in fact suddenly deprived of one of its most prolific and entertaining contributors? The more I looked, the more it leaned towards Dave's death being confirmed by those close to him, but it didn't really sink in for me until a couple of days later. Despite a statement from the band's manager and tributes from his peers and fans, I didn't believe it at first. Even now, as I sit here and write this, I haven't completely come to terms with the fact that Oderus Urungus has left this "Toilet Earth". I don't know what the future holds for GWAR, but if they decide to continue on as a band (which I hope they do), it won't ever be the same without the presence of Dave Brockie. Selfishly, I'm at least glad I got to witness Dave and his crazy "shock rock" band and be able to share this story with the two people who are actually reading this.

R.I.P. Dave Brockie and thanks for providing me (and the rest of your loyal Scumdogs) with years and years of entertainment.

December 17, 2013

50 States, 50 Movies: Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except (1985; Michigan)

Directed by Josh Becker. Starring Brian Schulz ("S. Sgt. Jack Stryker"), Robert Rickman ("Sgt. Walker J. Jackson"), John Manfredi ("2nd Lt. David Miller"), and Timothy Patrick Quill ("Lance Cpl. Tim Tyler"). Not Rated.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Synapse)
Running time: 01:22:56
Country: USA

A disabled Vietnam veteran named Jack Stryker returns home and re-adjusts to life as a civilian. Unlike most traumatized characters in post-Vietnam movies, he seems to be doing fine and isn't haunted by the war; Stryker has his own cabin out in the woods and successfully becomes reacquainted with his old flame. However, this all coincides with a Manson Family-like cult wreaking havoc in the nearby area and sacrificing humans to a higher power. The cult eventually plays an important part in the story in a way that attracts the attention of not only Stryker but of some fellow Marines who he served with in 'Nam. THOU SHALT NOT KILL... EXCEPT essentially turns into a revenge movie with the Marines versus the cult, and a bloodbath ensues.

Originally titled "STRYKER'S WAR", THOU SHALT NOT KILL... EXCEPT is an independent film that was produced in Detroit, Michigan and features a cast made up entirely of Michigan natives. A few weeks ago, the post-Vietnam movie WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN was on my mind and I reached out to some friends about similar films to check out. One of them suggested this particular movie, which I'd never heard of until he mentioned it. It wasn't exactly the type of post-'Nam flick I was looking for, but I knew I had to check it out for different reasons. The main selling point for me was its ties to the original EVIL DEAD, most notably the fact that it stars Sam Raimi and it originated from a short film that starred Bruce Campbell in the lead role. Also, the list of titles I had for Michigan movies for my 50 States theme weren't exactly appealing, so I figured I'd use this one and kill two birds with one stone. While it's not specifically set in Michigan (it's given the generic setting of "United States"), it was filmed in the state and it's a collaboration of filmmakers and actors from Michigan.

THOU SHALT NOT KILL is interesting, in that it feels like three separate movies that tie into each other: a Vietnam movie, a post-'Nam movie, and an exploitation movie. The opening 15 minutes are supposed to be set in the jungles of Vietnam and explain how the lead character got wounded while in combat. This section of the film also establishes the camaraderie and brotherhood between a small group of Marines that carries over into the rest of the movie. From there, the film goes back to the United States and focuses on Stryker's life after the war and subsequently turns into a full-blown exploitation movie once the revenge angle kicks into gear.

The only things, to me, that really expose THOU SHALT NOT KILL is a low-budget and independent production are the ADR/sound effects and some of the acting. Interestingly, Bruce Campbell actually worked on the sound editing for this film and is responsible for a lot of the film's sound effects, some of which were recycled from the first EVIL DEAD. Campbell unfortunately couldn't star in the film and reprise his role as Jack Stryker from the original short movie because he was a SAG member by this point and technically wasn't able to. However, Campbell is very much present in spirit; he was a stand-in for some pick-up shots and a majority of the interior scenes were filmed in his garage. Speaking of EVIL DEAD, its director, Sam Raimi, is fun to watch as the nameless Manson-like cult leader in what can only be described as a scenery-devouring performance. His brother Ted also gets a decent amount of screen time (albeit under a mask) as one of the sadistic cult members. As far as the other cult members, some of them look rejected villains from an 80s Troma movie.

All things considered, the people who worked on this did a great job of turning nothing into something, and by that I mean making the best of whatever resources they had to make a campy but (in some ways) believable film. For example, the Vietnam scenes are kinda silly and aren't exactly of the highest quality, but the people who made this clearly tried their best when it came to utilizing stock footage, editing it together with footage that was shot in the woods and fields of Michigan, and disguising it all for the sake of portraying the Vietnam war. Whether they were truly successful or not is subjective, but I appreciate the hard work put into this by the cast and crew. Another example of what I'm talking about would be the back end of the film that sees the Marines going to battle with the homicidal cult. The back end is kinda sloppy and anti-climactic in spots, but it's satisfyingly violent in the context of it being an exploitation movie (the body count is very high), and it's certainly reflective of a group of people having some fun and making an indie movie out in the woods. Overall, THOU SHALT NOT KILL is well-made for what it is, aware of what it is, entertaining, and interesting watch as a fan of not only EVIL DEAD but of Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and that whole crew.

Score: 6

December 13, 2013

50 States, 50 Movies: The Crazies (2010; Iowa)

Directed by Breck Eisner. Starring Timothy Olyphant ("David"), Radha Mitchell ("Judy"), Danielle Panabaker ("Becca"), and Joe Anderson ("Deputy Russell Clank"). Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Anchor Bay/Starz)
Running time: 01:40:39
Country: USA, United Arab Emirates

On what seems like a normal day in rural Iowa, a citizen of a small town walks onto a baseball field with authority in the middle of a game, and he's brandishing a shotgun. Luckily the local Sheriff, David Dutton, is there to intervene, but the disturbed local is gunned down and killed in the process. What would cause a supposedly well-liked person to do such a thing? This is a question that the guilt-stricken Sheriff asks himself following the incident, especially as he comes face to face with the woman he widowed and the teenage boy he left fatherless. However, it seems as if more of the locals are experiencing the same sudden and drastic changes in personality and demeanor. There's clearly an ailment going around, and it's causing people to become emotionless and develop harmful tendencies.

Aside from some of the locals behaving strangely (and violently), a corpse attached to a parachute is discovered by some hunters in a nearby swamp. Considering the size of the town, the Sheriff is tackling all of these problems with only the help of his loyal Deputy, Russell Clark. Needless to say, these cops are really earning their paycheck. And shit gets crazier (no pun intended) when all of these incidents lead to the town being stormed by a machine gun-wielding soldiers in chem suits who force the town's population into a large quarantine area that's eventually compromised by angry rednecks. Most importantly, I learned that there are swamps in Iowa.

Basically, THE CRAZIES turns into a WALKING DEAD-ish apocalypse/survival movie when the Sheriff and a small group of characters hit the streets and embark on a quest through a maze of wrecked vehicles and burning debris, all while hiding from both the military and the people who are infected with whatever virus is floating around. They're faced with various obstacles on their journey and tension eventually mounts between them, which adds an unreliability to the storytelling, in that you often question who's infected or who's simply exhausted and frustrated by the circumstances. That said, the stakes are pretty high when you consider the severity of the virus.

I first saw this remake of George Romero's THE CRAZIES on a rare trip to the movie theater, despite the fact that I try my best to avoid financially-supporting remakes at the box office. I don't remember why I decided to see it on the big screen. I think it had to do with some of the decent buzz from the horror community. If that was the case, they were wrong. I fucking hated it. Now, not so much. I was a bit more forgiving of it this time around, but the same things annoyed me about this movie as when I first saw it. For one, parts of it are contrived as fuck, and anyone who's seen it will definitely know what I'm talking about. The other thing about this movie that bugs me is the amount of cheap jump scares that rely on loud noises rather than building tension. All of that being said, though, with the film's problems in mind, I was able to focus more on its positives this time around.

In the spirit of George Romero, this remake has a built-in message. There's an obvious commentary here on the Iraq War, the misinformation (or lack of information altogether) provided by the media in regards to certain tragedies, and government cover-ups. On top of that, the film addresses the fact that the working-class are the ones who are left to suffer. This film's commentary is especially evident (and a bit heavy-handed) when one of the guys in chem suits is unmasked and revealed to be a young soldier who's simply carrying out orders based on the minimal information provided to him by his superiors. Does the commentary benefit the film in a significant way? Not necessarily, but it's there, and it inherently has a lot more to say than the average horror flick.

Another thing worth mentioning is the amount of violence in THE CRAZIES. One thing you can't accuse this movie of is being tame and holding back on the violence, because there are shootings and stabbings galore. For some reason the violence never really stood out to me when I first saw this (probably because the film has already lost me early on), but it's definitely a highlight for me this time around. And THE CRAZIES is also a lot more impressive from a production standpoint than I remember. The film looks great, it features some decent pyrotechnics work and stunts (burning houses, explosions, etc.), and the people who made this really exploited the outdoor settings, landscape, and architecture - especially some of the unique local architecture in Iowa and wherever else they shot this. My man-crush Timothy Olyphant is good in this as well, but sometimes he sounds like he's delivering his lines through a jaw that's wired shut. Overall, this ended up being a nice surprise. I still think I would've reacted to it negatively had this been the first time I'd seen it, so perhaps this will go down as one of those movies that required more than one viewing out of me in order to appreciate it.

Score: 7

December 9, 2013

50 States, 50 Movies: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006; Texas)

Directed by Jonathan Levine. Starring Amber Heard ("Mandy Lane"), Anson Mount ("Garth"), Whitney Able ("Chloe"), and Michael Welch ("Emmet"). Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Anchor Bay/Starz)
Running time: 01:30:25
Country: USA

I'm sure most of you know about this film's history, so I don't need to tell you that it was shelved for about seven years before it was given a proper wide release in North America. As a horror fan, it was sort of comforting to know that it was shelved due to its distributor going bankrupt as opposed to a distributor not having any faith in it and shit-canning it based on its merits. So with that being said, was it worth the wait? I don't know; I illegally downloaded it back in the day with the knowledge that I may never get to see a proper release of it. But, nonetheless, I'm glad it's not available for the masses, and yes, I quite enjoyed it when I initially saw it years ago.

As if you couldn't tell by the title, ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE is, in some ways, a throwback to 70s Grindhouse movies. And, as cheesy as it is, it's also an evocative title that draws you in like a magnet. Well, that was the case with me anyway. Had this been given some shitty generic title like THIRST or PULSE, I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't have given a shit about it until it got some decent word-of-mouth. But anyway, the lead character, Mandy Lane, is a high-school senior who's introduced via one of those cliche slow-motion shots of her walking through the high school hallway as everyone stares at her like she's the second coming of Jesus Christ. It's gradually revealed that, though, that she's not your typical hot, stuck-up chick; she's seemingly down to Earth and has a mysterious vibe about her. She's also very close with some loner kid named Emmet, who initially seems like her brother, but it ends up not being the case.

Long story short, it's revealed that Mandy suddenly blossomed during the summer between her junior and senior years of high school, which is one of the reasons why she's suddenly getting attention from boys and girls alike. It's also established that she's unexplored territory if you know what I mean, so there's that too. That said, she's sort of accepted into a circle of friends who are portrayed as the semi-popular kids. Subsequently, they invite her to take a trip with them out to a ranch that one of them owns for a weekend of debauchery, or something. She accepts the invite but does so at the cost of ditching her loyal pal Emmet, who, at this point, has been shunned by pretty much everyone because of an incident that occurred earlier in the movie.

Once at the ranch, ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE gradually turns into a slasher, in which the teens are being picked off one by one. However, it's not set up like a conventional slasher. For one, there's no establishing kill scene at the beginning of the film, nor is there some sort of origin story (THE BURNING, SLAUGHTER HIGH, etc.) for the killer that sets everything up. And by the time that first kill happens, it's seemingly random due to the fact that there's no motive established, but the film does a good job of setting up red herrings so there's at least somewhat of a mystery element once the actual slashings kick into gear. It's also unconventional in the sense that the characters have a lot more depth than your typical slasher movie and they're not set up to where you can predict who's gonna die first and who's gonna die last. In true teen-slasher fashion, the characters aren't the nicest people out there, but most of them (especially the girls) are insecure and possess what they perceive to be flaws, which isn't something you see in a lot of modern horror movies with cookie-cutter characters. Sometimes ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE feels like it's trying to be the furthest thing from a slasher, but, to me, that's a good thing. Something else worth mentioning is the manner of how the killer is revealed. I'm obviously not gonna get into details, but the timing of the reveal is one of the many bold things about this film.

One of the things that does make this movie worthy of being a regarded slasher and a solid exploitation throwback is the violence. There aren't any creative kills in the movie, nor are there any flamboyant Argento-esque death scenes, but the violence is still very satisfying from a visual standpoint. At times, the violence is stylized and fitting for a slasher that thrives on gory kills, but there are other times where the brutality is very sudden and matter-of-fact, which is why its a nice balance of traditional 80s slasher and 70s exploitation homage. Even director Jonathan Levine (WARM BODIES) says on the DVD's commentary track that he wishes he could've gotten a bit gorier with some of the kills, but it's those moments of sudden violence that keep ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE rooted in reality as much as possible.

As some of you may know by this point, Jonathan Levine loves to include a shit-load of unoriginal music in his films, and by that I mean contemporary (or not-so-contemporary) pop songs. Such is the case with ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE, but to good effect. Aside from the steady flow of indie pop/indie rock songs, this is a very stylish film and probably one of the better shot horror movies of the last decade. Darren Genet's cinematography, first and foremost, is pretty amazing, and there are clearly tributes being paid to a number of horror movies throughout the film based on certain camera movements and framing alone. There's also quite a bit of music video-style editing but without being overdone and obnoxiously flashy.

I don't know if it's ever been mentioned by anyone involved with the film, but ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE totally seems like it's making a commentary on the seemingly impossible task of men figuring out the opposite sex, but here it's taken to another level and it maintains that commentary until the very end. Again, I'm not saying this is fact, but it's how I perceived the film from an allegorical standpoint, which, to me, was most evident with the film's final twist. Overall, it's not the most well-paced or original horror movie out there, but it's pretty solid in the areas where it counts the most: style, entertainment value, and violence. The fleshed-out characters and the gorgeous Amber Heard are simply icing on the cake.

Score: 7.5

December 7, 2013

50 States, 50 Movies: What Lies Beneath (2000; Vermont)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Harrison Ford ("Norman Spencer"), Michelle Pfeiffer ("Claire Spencer"), Diana Scarwid ("Jody"), and Joe Morton ("Dr. Drayton"). Rated PG-13.

Source: Region 1 DVD (DreamWorks/Universal)
Running time: 02:09:48
Country: USA

Norman and Claire Spencer are an upper-class couple living in a nice Vermont neighborhood. Their large home is surrounded by trees, and behind their home is a pier that stretches out over a gorgeous body of water. But as Claire unfortunately discovers, this body of water is one of the many things in her life that holds a dark secret that's been protected for far too long, and now's the time for the horrible truth to come to the surface.

The initial, false set-up of the plot resembles the type of story that would be told by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma, in that it has to do with mysterious neighbors and deals with the inherent voyeurism that comes with the territory of watching people from afar. Personally it reminded me of THE BURBS more than anything, but I'm sure paying homage to Joe Dante wasn't the intention of director Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP). That being said, I'm not sure what the purpose of this part of the story was, especially when you consider how it's eventually squashed. I suppose it's an interesting misdirect and a way for us as viewers to get to know the characters (specifically Claire), but it ultimately just bloats the running time. Speaking of which, there's a quick info-dump very early on, as well as some expositional dialogue as a means of setting certain things up in a seemingly rushed manner, but I'm not sure how necessary that method of storytelling is when you consider that this is a two-hour movie that obviously has a lot of time to set things up. And therein lies (beneath) my only major gripe with the film: the writing. Fortunately, the uninspired script is in the hands of a super-talented director like Zemeckis, so at the very least we can expect an entertaining or well-crafted movie.

One of the things I noticed right away is that Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer have great chemistry as the Spencers. They really do make a nice on-screen couple. As the movie goes on, Ford is like the rock to the unstable Pfeiffer, who's quickly established as emotional, worrisome, and arguably on the verge of a breakdown because of certain circumstances that push her in that direction. Their initial dynamic plays a crucial part in how the story ultimately unfolds. Another thing I noticed is that, based on how cinematic and nicely-shot it is, WHAT LIES BENEATH had the potential very early on to be a decent atmospheric horror/mystery or, based on the sloppy writing I mentioned earlier, it could easily fall apart and become a waste of time. It ends up being the former for the most part, and this is thanks to the skill and vision that Zemeckis brings to the table, but it does ultimately go in a direction, story-wise, that's a bit over the top, silly, and borderline SCOOBY-DOO-ish.

As I said, WHAT LIES BENEATH is beautifully shot and full of great compositions and outstanding examples of framing and whatnot. I especially like the recurring use of mirrors in the film and how they enhance the overall style. And of course the pretentious theory regarding the mirrors is that the reflections are symbolic of "the other side", another presence, duality, etc., but mostly it just looks cool. When it was all said and done, for what it is, I couldn't find much wrong with WHAT LIES BENEATH aside from the writing and the fact that it's unnecessarily long. Both Ford and Pfeiffer are great, and it's nice to see a classy horror movie like this with middle-aged characters, big name actors, and a respectable director behind the camera. If this was made today, the Spencers would be in their late thirties and there'd at least be one kid thrown into the mix. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but personally just tired of the same old formula in modern horror movies. It's also nice to see what could be classified as a "ghost story" devoid of the typical, unimaginative cheap scares for the most part. That said, WHAT LIES BENEATH is a refreshing watch in the context of what's out there today and a stylish but dumb movie on its own merits.

Score: 6.5

December 6, 2013

50 States, 50 Movies: Fargo (1996; Minnesota)

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Starring William H. Macy ("Jerry Lundegaard"), Frances McDormand ("Marge Gunderson"), Steve Buscemi ("Carl Showalter"), and Peter Stormare ("Gaear Grimsrud"). Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (MGM)
Country: USA, UK

Set in snowy Minnesota (and occasionally North Dakota) during the 80s, FARGO revolves around a down-on-his-luck used car salesman named Jerry Lundegaard, who hires a couple of goons - the loudmouthed Carl and the silent oaf  Geaer - to kidnap his wife with hopes that her wealthy father will fork over some cash and they can split it amongst themselves. In reality, though, Jerry's intentions are to pay off some major debt rather than live high on the hog. In typical Coen Brothers fashion, however, nothing goes according to plan. In fact, shit goes wrong at every turn, whether it be Jerry's bumbling attempts at covering up the kidnapping or Carl and Geaer constantly plagued with bad luck, bad timing, and obstacles of every kind.

It isn't until the second act that we're introduced to the character who eventually becomes the focal point of the film: Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand, who won an Academy Award for her performance. Marge (or "Margie" as she's often called) is the cop who's assigned to deal with the trail of bodies (and clues) that Carl and Geaer left in their wake as they struggled to pull off a simple transport of their hostage. I haven't seen FARGO since it originally came out in the 90s, and I remember being lukewarm on it at the time for some reason. I think a lot of it had to do with the dark comedy of the film going over my head. That said, watching it now as someone who's a lot more knowledgeable when it comes to cinema, I can certainly understand why FARGO got as much critical acclaim as it did upon its release. But, most of all, I can see why McDormand got the praise she did for her performance as Margie. As far as the character, Marge is very pregnant and a damn good cop. The manner in which she initially gathers clues at one of the crime scenes and subsequently conducts her investigation seems effortless, and her and her husband Norm are so happily married that it's sickening. With that in mind, it's clear to me why Marge is such a crucial character in FARGO. She's the much needed light in a world of darkness, and the manner in which McDormand provides that light is simply amazing and strangely touching. Her monologue at the end of the film in particular is so simple, but yet compelling and moving, and I'd go so far as to say that there are very few actresses who could've pulled off what she did here.

Getting back to what I said about the film's dark comedy, FARGO is about as black a comedy as you can get. There's a lot to be said about the manner in which the Coens can turn unfortunate and tragic situations into comedy. For example, what should've been a tense and borderline Hitchcockean moment of suspense as the goons are caught with a dead body ends up being utterly hilarious. And when everything goes wrong for Jerry and the whole that he's dug for himself becomes deeper and deeper as the film goes on, you can't help but laugh, especially when it come to how his father-in-law never ceases to inadvertently ruin his plans. When it comes to Jerry, though, there's an equal amount of credit that should be given to how he's written by the Coens and how he's played by William H. Macy, who nails frustration, desperation, and disappointment in a way that I can't imagine anyone else doing.

Aside from being completely successful as a black comedy with interesting characters, FARGO is also a gorgeous film with masterful camera work and lighting, and this is evident right from the start as the film opens with a station wagon slowly appearing from out in the distance as Carter Burwell's epic score brings to mind a Spaghetti Western showdown or a massive funeral procession. The juxtaposition of this beat-up station wagon and a big score is one of the many interesting contrasts that appear throughout FARGO. For example: cold weather and warm attitudes/hospitality, pregnancy (life) and murder (death), blood and snow, Carl (short and loud) and Geaer (tall and quiet), a happy marriage (Marge and Norm) and a doomed marriage (Jerry and his wife), well-mannered people and horrific crimes, bad situations and humor, etc. In short, FARGO is amazing and pretty close to being a masterpiece. Still not my favorite Coen Brothers movie, but very close.

Score: 8.5

December 5, 2013

50 States, 50 Movies: Phantoms (1998; Colorado)

Directed by Joe Chappelle. Starring Peter O'Toole ("Dr. Timothy Flyte"), Rose McGowan ("Lisa Pailey"), Joanna Going ("Jennifer Pailey, M.D."), and Liev Schreiber ("Deputy Stuart 'Stu' Wargle"). Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Dimension/Buena Vista)
Running time: 01:35:57
Country: USA, Japan

PHANTOMS is  one of those movies that I associate with the post-SCREAM movement that took place in the late 90s, but that entirely has to do with the fact that it was released by Miramax and has one of those stupid "floating head" posters, which pretty much solely consist of the movies' titles in big lettering and glamour shots of the actors. I'd never seen it prior to watching it for this review, but I've heard from numerous sources that Ben Affleck is the bomb in it. That, however, wasn't enough of a selling point for me to go out of my way to check it out. My interest in this one has always been non-existent despite my fondness for a lot of the post-SCREAM movies, but I had to bite the bullet since there aren't a lot of horror movies that take place (and were filmed in) Colorado. Plus, I never read the Dean Koontz novel that it's based on.

Right away, PHANTOMS feels like a straight-to-video movie as we're introduced to the two lead characters (and sisters), Jennifer and Lisa, as they arrive in a small Colorado town to find empty streets and dead bodies. I can't exactly point out why this feels like a straight-to-video movie, but it does. And this is in spite of the fact that it opens with beautiful establishing shots of Colorado's mountainous terrain and features talented actors like Liev Schreiber, Peter O'Toole, and Ben Affleck. Something about the quality of this film just feels like its lacking. Plus, Rose McGowan is in it. Speaking of which, McGowan plays the bratty but tough Lisa, who's reluctantly visiting her older sister Jennifer - a doctor-in-training who's based out of the quiet Colorado town.

Something I can't accuse PHANTOMS of is taking too long to get the ball rolling. The film wastes no time in setting everything up and showing us the goods. As far as the film giving us answers, though, is another story, but I'll get to that later. As soon as the sisters arrive in town, they're finding corpses everywhere and there's inherently an overwhelming sense of dread and confusion. The town's residents seem to have perished due to unexplained circumstances because of how their bodies are discovered. Even the cops are dead. Luckily, as the sisters wander around town and try to find some answers (and help) and Lisa inexplicably proves she knows how to load a shotgun, they bump into three cops who were sent from another town to investigate, one of whom is a Sheriff played by Ben Affleck. Giant moth attacks ensue, disembodied voices are heard through drains, and a bunch of military guys in chem suits eventually show up.

Going back and watching PHANTOMS now is interesting, and this is usually the case when I go back and watch films from the mid to late 90s in general. A lot of actors who are major stars now got their breaks back then, and such is the case with Affleck in PHANTOMS and even Liev Schreiber to a lesser degree. Of course Schreiber starred in the first couple of SCREAM movies and has since proven that he's not a snob when it comes to starring in genre films, but he's fortunately found himself in a position these days where he's able to branch out and take on meatier roles. Also appearing in PHANTOMS as one of the cops alongside Affleck and Schreiber is one of my favorite character actors, Nicky Katt, who was also in DAZED AND CONFUSED with Affleck. At the very least, it's cool to see those actors in a movie like this. Had I watched this just for Nicky Katt, however, I would've been disappointed, and I'll just leave it at that.

Anyway, if the first nine or ten minutes of this was any indicator, I knew it was gonna be terrible. I held on to hope that PHANTOMS would overcome its crappy writing and weak attempts at being suspenseful and turn into something decent, but alas it didn't. There's ultimately an Eco-Horror slant to what's going on, which is cool, but the film blurs the line between intellectual horror and coming across as being not as smart as it thinks it is, and personally there was too much of a disconnect between myself and the film due to the lack of context we get for the threat that looms over the characters, which goes back to what I said about the film taking its sweet-ass time to explain what's going on. It isn't until the very end that we get some decent special-effects sequences in the form of THING-esque Body Horror moments and spectacular exploding head, but it's already too late by that point; overall, it feels very paint-by-numbers, the actors seemed bored, and it's as enjoyable is a dry handjob.

Score: 5

December 3, 2013

Blu-Ray #MovieMagic GIVEAWAY

Hey there, Death Rattlers, here's a new giveaway just in time for the holidays. Before I let you know HOW you can win, let me tell you WHAT you can win. The winner of this giveaway will get to receive one of the following (randomly chosen) on Blu-Ray:

• The Little Mermaid - Diamond Edition
• The Lone Ranger
• Monsters University
• Angels Rising
• Rise of The Guardians
• Despicable Me 2
• Turbo
• Grown Ups 2
• Wizard of Oz 3D
• The Wolverine
• Star Trek: Into Darkness
• White House Down
• Fast 6
• Pacific Rim
• After Earth
• Man of Steel
• Red 2
• World War Z
• 2 Guns
• Weeds: The Complete Collection
• Predator 3D

To be eligible for this giveaway you must live in the U.S. Also, owning a Blu-Ray player would help. OK, with that out of the way, here's what you can do to enter:
1. Check out the #MovieMagic App below
2. Leave a comment with your e-mail address and the title of the most-watched Blu-Ray in your collection.

Deadline to enter is Tuesday December 10. Good luck!

But first, read up on what exactly #MovieMagic is:
You Haven’t Seen Your Favorite Movie Until You’ve Seen the Special Features!
This Holiday rediscover the #MovieMagic behind your favorite films. Blu-ray offers exclusive special features that put you in the filmmaker’s chair, with a behind-the-scenes access to all of the magic: Special effects, talent interviews, alternative endings, unreleased scenes, bloopers, and more!
With a Blu-ray combo pack, you can enjoy your favorite films in high-definition whenever and wherever you want. You can keep the Blu-ray disc in the living room, DVD in the car, and the digital copy on your phone for when you’re on the move!
Grab your favorite movie lover a Blu-ray this holiday!

• With the combo pack you can take your favorite films wherever you go. You can keep the Blu-ray disc in the living room, DVD for the car, and the digital copy on your mobile phone while on the move!
• Blu-ray lets you to watch your favorite movies with unmatched sound and video that is SIX TIMES the quality of DVDs!
• Blu-ray offers the most premium possible in home entertainment experience
• You don’t have to worry about the buffering that happens with streaming videos