Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween 2010 From The WGON Helicopter

Ah, October 31st, one of the most beloved times of the year for those of us who cherish a little spookiness in our daily mix. I have loved Halloween since I can remember, whether I'm completely dressed up and out at a party or just enjoying a nice autumn evening at home with my favorite horror movies. It's the pleasant crossroads of summer and fall, the weather easing into crisp air and brilliant, golden sun spreading across the vibrant colors of the season.

Yeah, I have always loved this time of year. In fact, please allow me to share some past Halloweens with you here through the magic of photos and interpretive dance, the latter you won't actually see:

My brother and I - circa 1974 - in our homemade Captain Marvel and Superman costumes. We rocked to Casper then.

We were the law. My college roommate Dan and I - as Sonny Crockett of Miami Vice - in 1987.

"Push the button, Frank." Your pilot as Dr. Clayton Forrester of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Slapped together pretty quick in 1992.

Ah, yes, youth.

I hope all of you readers and fellow horror bloggers have an insanely spooky, safe, and wild Halloween, full of laughter, sugar, and festivity. And now I shall sit down well before the LONG-anticipated series premiere of The Walking Dead on AMC and watch my traditional viewing of my favorite horror film of all time, 1978's Dawn of the Dead:

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Prince Of Darkness (1987) Big Ol' Tube Of Evil

Atmosphere. That's what really counts. You can throw buckets of blood and gore at me, but what can really give me that unsettled feeling is the right atmosphere. The way a film looks or feels, how the characters are made to look or how we perceive them as they react to what's happening to them. The environment or setting of a film can be a character all in itself.

There are lots of characters in John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness - some of them actually make it through to the end. But one of the best characters is the atmosphere - it's almost a living thing in itself: heavy, confining even in outdoor shots, a weight on the human characters as they move through the mystery of St. Godard's Church. I'll talk more about what I call a "heavy" atmosphere in a setting a little later, but first let's get into the movie itself:

When a priest dies before a big meeting with the higher-ups, an unnamed Priest (Donald Pleasance - the character is actually known as Father Loomis - Carpenter fans do the math) is called in to retrieve his personal effects, which include a small metal box containing a key. What the Priest discovers shakes him to his bones and leads him to call upon someone he considers a friend and rival, Professor Howard Birack (the great Victor Wong), who teaches doctorate-level physics theory.

That's right. Science and religion are tagging up in a cage match against...a tube of pure evil.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's fun to say "tube of pure evil." Go ahead, try it. See? But everything about that tube is no laughing matter. Even science man Birack is rattled after seeing the swirling goo. The Priest tells him it has been influencing the outside world for about a month, changing everything on a molecular level even as the sun and moon align in the daytime sky.

In the meantime, insects and worms are getting agitated and the homeless around St. Godard's begin acting strangely in unison, watching the visitors to the old church with robotic menace. Also, handsome young student Brian (Jameson Parker of Simon & Simon and his mustache) first innocently creeps on then legitimately courts fellow classmate Catherine (Lisa Blount). He's all googly-eyed over her, but she's mostly guarded.

Birack gathers his best students along with other specialized departments to investigate the entity and translate an ancient text that is in the room with it. They load equipment into the abandoned church despite not a single one of them knowing what the whole she-bang is about. Finally, the restless crew is summoned to the basement to witness the Big Ol' Tube of Evil for themselves. Their mission becomes clear: find out what the hell is in there and prove what it is.

A long night ahead of them, the students get to work. One of them is cleared to leave, but meets a throng of the homeless outside. After "admiring" a blasphemous pigeon-based sculpture, the unlucky guy is stabbed with half a bicycle by the lead homeless dude (Alice Cooper). The games have begun.

The students put the clues together and find out that the tube itself is millions of years old, had once been buried in the Middle East about 2,000 years before it ends up in the USA, and that the text in the old book is a literal warning from Jesus Christ Himself that it is indeed Satan inside the tube...and that the tube was buried by Satan's father, dubbed the Anti-God.

And Junior is waking up in preparation to bring his Daddy into our world. *shudder*

Things start happening, small at first. One student bangs her arm, which seems innocent at first, but that changes later. When she goes to take a nap, that's it for her, as we'll soon see. Another, Susan ("radiologist, glasses" becomes a running line of dialogue about her), falls victim to a stream of water that carries the evil one's essence. She becomes possessed, then breaks the neck of another student before moving on to infect the theologist translating the text. They, in turn, infect the very tall, very deep-voiced student Conor with juicy, devil-juiced-filled kisses. Susan and Lisa, the theologist, bring the canister to the sleeping, Blue Oyster Cult-bruised woman and pretty soon the essence of evil is flowing into her. Seriously, the symbol that the bruise on her arm forms looks exactly like BOC's infamous symbol.

Apparently, the Tube of Evil is a big fan.

Another student tries to leave around this time, citing that the whole thing is ridiculous. He glimpses the possessed Susan just before he's stabbed multiple times by a homeless woman. But don't fret, minor character fans, the guy they call Wyndham comes back with a strange, foreboding message:

Things break down after this, as Conor fights the possession long enough to cut his own throat with a piece of wooden banister. The homeless have barricaded everyone inside and the woman once known as Kelly has completely absorbed the essence and has become the living vessel for Satan. The dreams of a possible future - sent from 1999 via tachyon transmissions - show shaky, grainy, and eerily understated pictures of something emerging from the church. Everyone in the church experiences these dreams, but we only see a couple snippets of them. Just enough to creep us out.

During a huge skirmish, everyone is separated, with the Priest ending up in the boiler room, where a huge mirror sits on a wall. You see, Satan needs the mirror to bring the Anti-God into our dimension. Reaching into the huge mirror,,, it grabs hold of a horrible, grasping hand and begins to pull. No one is there to stop one except Catherine, who tackles Satan into the mirror just as the Priest smashes it with an axe. The image of Catherine on the other side, fading into a flickering blackness, is heartbreaking. Like someone disappearing into cold, dark water under broken ice.

The survivors emerge, and move on sadly with their lives. Brian has one last dream before gazing hopefully/fearfully at the bedroom mirror and reaching his hand out to...

And cut to black and end credits.

If this movie doesn't make you fear mirrors, I don't know what will.

John Carpenter made this film as the second part of what he called the "Apocalypse Trilogy," after 1982's remake of The Thing and before 1995's H. P. Lovecraft/Stephen King tribute In The Mouth Of Madness. In each movie, the world is threatened on a level experienced only by a small group of people. The rest of the world is pretty much clueless for two of the movies - they learn the hard way in the final one, but I'll discuss that one at another time.

The threat in Prince of Darkness begins on a conceptual level, and I find that fascinating. Sure, big, blatant threats can be fun from the masked killers of Friday the 13th and Carpenter's own Halloween to the monstrous threat in Cloverfield. But the hidden dangers, the ones that lurk behind our own perceptions of reality...that's where real terror lies. You don't see it coming. You feel it, but it's one of those "corner of your eye" nudges until it's too late. Things in this movie happen not only on an outwardly physical level, but as Professor Birack states, "on the subatomic level" as well. The Priest has a similar quote when he said Satan hides "between the atoms," which is how he sneaks his slimy little way into peoples' hearts. The world around the characters is changing: ants and worms spaz out and climb windows, the homeless (or possibly only those homeless with mental illness) act in unison to carry out the will of something unseen, moon and sun align in space, the sky and the air appear...heavier.

In one subtle scene...blink and you miss it...main character Brian discusses the weight of thing as they have been occurring. He's messing around with a playing card, as he loves card tricks and it's a neat character quirk that he has to do that to busy his hands (maybe he's an ex-smoker). As he makes his point, he performs a pass to make the card look like it's disappearing. Simple sleight of hand, really. Only...the card actually disappears. No one has time to comment on it as events then spiral towards the conclusion. But I thought it was a well-timed, tiny little aside that shows the world is literally sinking into something unexplainable and not quite so obvious.

Here is the scene of which I speak, with the first few minutes setting it up:

Subtle and spooky.

And yes, because it is my blog, I will compare the heavy feeling to - I know it's getting old, but bear with me - Grant Morrison's Final Crisis from DC Comics. When evil Darkseid finally manifests himself in regular reality, it tears a hole in everything we know. Earth is pulled into a black hole singularity created by Darkseid's fall from The Fourth World's reality. In Prince of Darkness, I think something similar would happen. If the Anti-God forces its way into our reality, it will rip and tear the universe at the point where it happens: our world. Wrap your mind around that concept as you fall asleep. You're welcome.

Carpenter was always a master of atmosphere. I mean, look at Halloween, with its minimal blood spray yet sheer terror. The Thing is a study in claustrophobia and paranoia. Even Big Trouble In Little China provides an air of high adventure and magic that happens just beyond the streets and buildings of Chinatown. Prince of Darkness is mostly lesser-known than those three films. Horror fans and aficionados are very familiar with it, and most do agree that it is underrated and among the most chilling horror films. It is certainly among my favorites from the 80's or any decade, for that matter. This Halloween, do yourself a favor and check it out if you haven't before. It's a great popcorn chiller, nostalgic for those of us who grew up in the 80's and saw it then, and still has weight for those just now discovering it.

Now, here, enjoy the final dream sequence/message from the future:

Oh, and here's what the voice says: "This is not a dream...not a dream. We are using your brain's electrical system as a receiver. We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year one, nine, nine, nine. You are receiving this broadcast in order to alter the events you are seeing. Our technology has not developed a transmitter strong enough to reach your conscious state of awareness, but this is not a dream. You are seeing what is actually occurring for the purpose of causality violation."


OK, I'm off to deal with zombies. They're not a threat on the conceptual level. They're just undead and hungry. Until next time, fellow survivors...

Friday, October 15, 2010

In The Helicopter Bay 10-15-10

* So not only am I flying the WGON helicopter, trying to herd what's left of civilization into acceptable shelters, I'm finding a great deal of my time taken up by being a school librarian. There are going to be times where my posts are pretty sparse, but I will continue to throw my thoughts at the Inter-webs wall and see what sticks. Hopefully, I'll entertain and titillate, even if on some occasions, I'm just talking to myself.

* An interesting tidbit: during one of my assignments, I asked the middle school students to look up their favorite movie on the Internet Movie Database and jot notes down to answer general questions I provided (note-taking is part of the library curriculum...sometimes you have to be sneaky to get them to work on assignments). The movie that just about half of them listed as their favorite? The first Paranormal Activity movie, fully released last year. Many of them cited that it...and I quote..."almost made me pee my pants." Ah, youth.

* Anyone else excited to see what the film Monsters has to offer?

* It's no secret, I love t-shirts. Be sure to check out the great designs they have over at Fright Rags. Recently, they had a shirt created for Breast Cancer Awareness, but the link doesn't seem to work at this time. Plus, Crazy Dog t-shirts is having a sale, $5 off Halloween shirts on their site with the code HALLO5 through Halloween - there's even a t-shirt I didn't even know existed featuring the WGON logo from the original Dawn of the Dead, so you know I'll be checking that one out.

* This weekend, I'll be catching up on some movies to review. Not sure how good they'll be, but hey, that's part of the fun.

...And that's all for now, my friends. Keep hiding from the undead and shine a flashlight up into the night sky. I'll get to you momentarily.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Suspiria (1977) Creepiness Never Looked So Good

I've always found that each country that contributes a substantial amount of horror films to the waiting community has its own identity. It's not always easy to identify it, but Japanese horror films are different from French horror films, which are different from Spanish horror films. As far as I'm concerned, diversity is an enormous strength. There's a little for everyone. Italian horror films have long been entrenched in the upper echelon of filmmaking. Often referred to as giallo, Italian horror films combine elements of - among other genres - horror, mystery, and visual artistry. Arguably, the reigning king of giallo has to be Dario Argento.

Argento's been making movies for a long time, and when he isn't making his own, he helps with others. He's often credited as playing a huge part in the making and European distribution of the original Dawn of the Dead, even helping add the distinctive music with the band Goblin. He's made some of the most influential films in the horror and mystery world, and continues to inspire directors, actors, and filmgoers.

Suspiria is considered Argento's greatest film (although many will have their own preference) and is a bizarre, twisty, gorgeous mystery with healthy doses of occult shenanigans and beautiful shots that lend to an ethereal experience. It's not full of savvy teens cracking wise and throwing out ironic quips. Instead, it's more of a dream-like walk through an old building lit up with primary colors. Oh, yeah, and with unsettling, wildly creepy music blaring at you from all sides.

It goes a little like this:

Young American dancer Suzy (Jessica Harper) lands in Austria one rainy, windy night, arriving at a prestigious dance school just in time to see a frantic student named Pat argue with someone, then run away through the woods. Suzy heads to town when she isn't allowed in, and Pat heads to her apartment where she is stalked and brutally murdered - emphasis on "brutally" - by an unseen attacker who seems to be able to operate at great heights. Maybe even fly. All Pat ever really sees are the eyes.

Suzy returns and meets the staff, plus the makeshift roommate she'll have until her room is ready at the school. After staying with her new friend Olga, Suzy tells the staff she'd rather stay with her, but they insist she move into the dorm. Suzy has a weird moment with the school's cook, causing her to pass out. When she awakens, all her stuff has been moved into her new room whether she likes it or not. Regardless, Suzy becomes fast friends with the girl in the room next door, Sarah.

In a strange turn, maggots begin to rain from the ceiling, thanks to some rotting food in the attic. Forced to sleep in the gym (shades of Revenge of the Nerds), Sarah is put off by the strange snore of the school's director, who isn't supposed to be present. All we see is a silhouette behind one of the shades, presented in stark red light.

Sarah is convinced that the staff slips away to some secret room when they claim to leave every night. Suzy is perpetually confused by the weirdness of the school, but is probably the only one who would listen to Sarah.

Oddly, the next morning, the blind piano player for the dance classes is abruptly fired when it's claimed his seeing-eye dog attacked Madame Blanc's (Joan Bennett) young, weirdo nephew. For you comic book fans, the nephew Albert (Jacopo Mariani) reminded me of DC Comics' boy-witch Klarion:

I don't know. He could've been the same kid. Crazy little witch boys. The pianist threatens to expose the school for what it is and leaves to have a beer at some Oktoberfest-ish bar. Crossing an empty plaza at night, he is spooked by strange sounds before having his throat ripped out by his trusty dog.

Turns out Sarah and Pat were friends and they took notes on the strange behavior of the school's stafff. Suzy recalls Pat saying the words "secret" and "iris" that first night, but has no idea what they mean. Sarah can't find her notes, but Suzy, still feeling out of sorts since that fainting spell, passes out in her bed. An intruder enters the room, and then gives chase to Sarah, who ends up in a room full of razor wire before having her throat slit by the attacker. That room - coils of razor wire everywhere - has always stuck in my memory.

Suzy meets up with Sarah's psychologist, Dr. Mandel (the ever-present Udo Kier, looking really young here), to get some clues as to where Sarah may have gone. Mandel and his friend Professor Milius reveal that the school may have ties to a very old witch, who apparently founded it.

Counting the footsteps she and Sarah would hear every night, Suzy finds herself in the headmaster's office, a strikingly painted room that sported flowers everywhere. Including painted irises.

Suzy finds a secret area of the school, and discovers that the entire staff is there, plotting as a coven to have her murdered since she's finding out too much. She also meets the original woman who founded the school, and I think it's safe to say she's rather...supernaturally based. She appears only as an outline of a person sitting on a bed and threatening Suzy. The woman, Helena Markos, even reanimates Sarah's corpse, who comes charging in for a reunion with Suzy.

A bloody, eyeless, knife-y reuinon.

Suzy reacts by stabbing the outline of Helena with the glass feather of a piece of peacock artwork present in the room in a bit of a reference to an earlier Argento film, The Bird With Crystal Plumage. Helena dies loudly, causing tremors to rumble through the school and the rest of the coven to writhe in pain as Suzy escapes into the night.

Suspiria ends there, but the story continues as Argento laid it all out as a trilogy, with the films Inferno and Mother of Tears following in 1980 and 2007, respectively.

While the dubbing is sometimes...interesting, and some may find the pacing to drag some, Suspiria is a beautiful film. I mentioned those primary colors. You see stark renditions of red and blue, from the blood to the lighting that are both sharp and dream-like. After some reading around, I found out that Argento used "imbibition Technicolor prints," which was a technique used in films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind that causes the primary colors to appear more striking than usual. This, combined with the angles that Argento used, created something like artwork. Argento used space like a stage, with the actors sent perfectly across each scene as if they were part of a painting.

Now, the soundtrack is crazy. Goblin, who first captured my heart in Dawn of the Dead, performs a stranger bit of music here. Yet, it seemed as though the copy of the movie I got had problems with the audio channels as I kept having to fuss with the volume to either soften the music or turn up the dialogue. Don't let that stop you from seeing this. Suspiria is considered one of horror's classics, and while everyone has different tastes, one should see it at least for the experience.

Well, that's all for now, fellow survivors. Until next time, be careful out there, and be wary of weird dance academies.