Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Dark Carnival comes to town...


The final recommendation in my Halloween themed posts this month is a classic novel by master fantasist Ray Bradbury: Something Wicked This Way Comes, originally published in 1962. I’ve always been a fan of the late Mr. Bradbury’s fantastic, evocative writing; this is my favorite among his many wonderful works. The novel is the story of two 13 year-old friends, Will Halloway & Jim Nightshade, who live in Green Town, Illinois. One fall evening, they meet a strange lightning rod salesman who says a storm is coming to town. Others in the area also say they feel something in the air.

The boys learn a carnival is arriving in Green Town and are excited, but Will’s father, Charles, who’s the town librarian, has some misgivings about it. The friends stay up late, and watch Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show being set up. As they & the townspeople explore the show, it becomes apparent that there is more going on than they thought at first. Residents are being tempted with visions of their deepest desires, and some people disappear, or show up changed by their experience. For instance, the boys’ teacher appears to have transformed from an older spinster into a young girl. Jim is especially fascinated by the carnival and it’s owner, the mysterious & devilish Mr. Dark, who wants Jim to ride the carousel....but why?

As the story progresses, Will’s Dad has to get past his own fears & desires, and rescue the boys from Mr. Dark and the carnival’s other eerie denizens, including the Dust Witch & The Skeleton. This is a wonderful novel, with beautiful prose, great characters & some truly creepy, scary passages. As he did in many of his other works, Bradbury manages to paint a masterful picture of a small town we’d all like to live in, which is threatened by supernatural forces. While temptation exists, good is stronger than evil, and love & light can triumph over the darkness in the end. Will & Jim are changed by their experience, but as they move closer to the adult world, they'll always remember the lessons Charles teaches them.

The novel actually started out as a 1948 short story called "The Black Ferris." It was originally planned as a movie to be directed by the author's friend, Gene Kelly. When financing for the project couldn't be obtained, Bradbury turned his screen treatment of the story into a novel. The book was later adapted into a film by Disney in 1983, starring Jason Robards as Will’s father and Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark. Directed by Jack Clayton (The Innocents), it’s a decent version of the story with some good performances, but the novel is far superior. The movie is currently available on DVD. Over the years, authors like Stephen King & Neil Gaiman have sung the praises of this excellent book. My brief review can’t do it justice; I’ve re-visited it many times since I first read it as a kid, and I enjoy it even more each time. This isn’t just a book for Halloween: you can read it anytime, and I’m sure you’ll be brought under its spell by the power of one of our greatest writers. Something Wicked This Way Comes is very highly recommended, as are any of Ray Bradbury’s other fine works.

“The father hesitated only a moment. He felt the vague pain in his chest. If I run, he thought, what will happen? Is Death important? No. Everything that happens before Death is what counts. And we’ve done fine tonight. Even Death can’t spoil it.” – Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)

Here’s a link to the trailer for the film version of the novel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up7KHbJTmoo

Next: Gary Clark, Jr.'s rocking the blues, with a little soul...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Enter This "Cabin," If You Dare....

Horror fans have seen this setup before; a group of friends heads to a remote area to hang out, party & engage in a little pre-martial sex. Then strange things start to happen, and people start dying in grisly fashion, stalked by a seemingly indestructible, supernatural killer. Is this Evil Dead (1981)? Friday the 13th (1980)? No, it’s The Cabin In The Woods (2012), a clever homage to the genre from co-writers Drew Goddard & Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Avengers). This time, the story has a different angle; as the teens prepare for their trip, they are being observed on video screens by mysterious people. These watchers are able to manipulate events & the environment around the teens, and their job seems to be to kill them off; but for what purpose?

The script by director Goddard and co-producer Whedon both honors & subverts the conventions of several sub-categories of horror (slasher movies, zombie films, and even tales of cursed & haunted places) in enjoyable fashion. Our main characters represent all the stereotypes we’ve come expect in stories like this: the jock (Chris Hemsworth of Thor), the hot blonde (Anna Hutchison), the nice kids (Jesse Williams & Kristen Connolly) and even the stoner (Fran Kranz from Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse). As frightening events start to take place and the characters are being murdered one by one, the mysterious observers celebrate as each death occurs. Something bigger is happening here, but will any of our heroes stay alive to figure out all the answers?

Whedon has commented in interviews that part of the reason he & Goddard wrote the film was as a reaction to the fact that the so-called “torture porn” films (Hostel, Saw, etc.) seemed to have taken over the horror world, and they wanted to revitalize the genre. Well, they succeeded. The dialogue is witty & clever; and if you liked Whedon’s work on the Buffy & Angel TV series, you’ll smile at the ultimate reason for the chaos & weird events. There are also good performances by the main cast, as well as the actors playing the watchers, including Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Richard Jenkins & Amy Acker, a veteran of a few previous Whedon projects. And there’s a great (though perhaps not too surprising) cameo at the film’s conclusion.

Goddard & his crew do an outstanding job; cinematographer Peter Deming & editor Lisa Lessek have clearly done their homework; this looks & feels like a horror film. There are some wonderful scenes & set pieces, including a wonderfully creepy encounter in the cabin’s cellar.  The Cabin In The Woods is dark, twisty fun; if you’re a horror fan, you’ll love seeing the sly references to other films, and the way that the script plays with your expectations of this classic genre. It’s recommended as part of your scary viewing for Halloween this year. The film is available on DVD, Blu-ray and for digital download. Check out The Cabin In The Woods, but don’t linger too long….

Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ENUBUdFswM

Next time: The spooky goings-on conclude with a look at a classic novel from Ray Bradbury

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"They're coming for me now, and then they'll come for you..."


Last week I wrote about City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel), suggesting it as part of your Halloween film festival. This time out, I’ll offer a different kind of scary tale; House on Haunted Hill, a fun & spooky fright fest from 1959. Produced & Directed by William Castle, the movie stars Vincent Price as a millionaire who invites five people to spend the night at a supposedly haunted house. He hands out fun party favors like handguns that are stored in little coffins! If you survive the night, you get $10,000. All of the attendees need the money he's offering for one reason or another. One of them is the house’s owner, Watson Pritchard, who warns everyone that there are angry spirits in the house, and that they shouldn’t stay if they want to live. In addition to Price, the cast includes veteran character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. as Pritchard and Richard Long (of TV’s The Big Valley & Nanny & The Professor), as another guest.

Director Castle was well known as a flamboyant showman who used unique gimmicks to sell his films. During screenings of The Tingler (1959), there were vibrators installed under the seats that induced shocks when the title creature was seen; for 13 Ghosts (1960), patrons used special ghost viewers to see (or remove) the spirits on screen. In this film’s theatrical showings, a skeleton seemed to float right out of the film at the audience in a process called Emergo. These ideas worked like a charm for Castle, who had a lot of financial success with his films, which were aimed primarily at teenagers. His autobiography was called Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare The Pants Off America.

House on Haunted Hill is truly the kind of B film they don’t make anymore. A haunted mansion that features ghosts, blood dripping from the ceiling, secret rooms, skeletons in the basement, and heads with no bodies are all part of the scares & shocks. There may even be a non supernatural reason for some of the weird goings on in the house....could our host know more than he's telling? Price is at his smooth, witty best and gets most of the film’s best lines, though Cook gets to deliver a few, like "Only the ghosts in this house are happy we're here" and the film’s memorable closing bit, seen as the headline for this review. This is a matinee movie for the ten year old in all of us; it sounds kind of old fashioned and goofy in the age of the Internet, but it’s great fun.

The film was remade in gorier fashion in 1999 with Geoffrey Rush, but that version can’t hold a candle to the original. The movie is available in various DVD editions (including a colorized version) and for digital download as well. So warm up the popcorn, and settle in for some silly, scary fun. And here’s another piece of suggested viewing: The 1993 Joe Dante (Gremlins) film Matinee is about a B movie producer (John Goodman) who premieres one of his monster films in a small Florida town during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Goodman's character is an affectionate homage to Castle; Matinee is also worth a look, especially for fans of 50s & 60s sci-fi, horror & fantasy films.

Here’s a link to the films’ trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFtLw4lbgP8

Next time: The Halloween terror continues as we visit The Cabin In The Woods (2012)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Different Kind of Vampire Tale

Let The Right One In (2008) is a unique spin on the traditional vampire tale. The Swedish film (based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist) is the story of Oskar, a quiet 12-year old, who lives with his mother in a Stockholm suburb. He’s bullied at school on a regular basis, but often imagines the revenge he would take on his tormentors. One night, while playing outside his apartment, he meets Eli, a pale young girl, who has recently moved into the complex with an older man, who Oskar presumes to be her father. The two chat, and eventually strike up a friendship. Oskar senses Eli is an outcast like himself, and starts to develop feelings for her.

Meanwhile, a series of strange murders is plaguing the area, and the police are trying to catch the killer. Eli seems to appear only at night, and as the bond between she & Oskar grows, he becomes curious about her origins. But Eli is harboring a mysterious secret, and it may threaten their relationship. To say more would give away the surprises in this well-acted, offbeat movie. Kare Hedebrant as Oskar and Lena Leandersson as Eli are excellent, and you really believe the depth of the bond between these two characters. Director Tomas Alfredson effectively conveys the cool, snow-laden, night-time atmosphere of Stockholm, which is almost like another character in the film. The eerie feeling you get is quite different from other horror films.

This is a surprising, inventive & out of the ordinary look at a vampire story, and is worth viewing even if you’re not typically a horror fan. The film inspired an American remake called Let Me In (2010), directed by Matt Reeves and starring Chloe Grace-Moretz & Richard Jenkins, with the story’s locale shifted to New Mexico. It’s a well done remake, but I would catch the original first. It’s truly one of the best horror films I’ve seen, with some good character development and a real emotional core amid the darker elements of the story. Let The Right One In and Let Me In are available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as for online viewing. Both versions of the story offer effective, unpredictable takes on vampire lore. I'd also recommend the original novel if you're in the mood for a creepy, chilling read. Here is a link to the trailer for "Let The Right One In" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICp4g9p_rgo.

Next up: The Halloween fun continues with House on Haunted Hill (1959)