Da Boom!

Did you read/watch Friday’s post? If not, jump back or scroll down to view the short clip from David Cronenberg’s Scanners.

Okay, did you watch it? Pretty cool, huh? It’s the most famous exploding head in horror movie history, and rightly so. “The exploding head scene was accomplished by filling a latex head with dog food and rabbit livers, and shooting it from behind with a 12-gauge shotgun,” as the movie’s IMDb trivia page helpfully explains. Sounds dangerous, disgusting and politically incorrect, but there’s no denying the visceral thrill of the final result. In my opinion, the impact derives from the tactile quality of the explosion. This is something we can almost touch—wet, immediate and final. Physical effects, when done with skill and attention to detail, have a palpability that CGI can’t even begin to replicate. That’s why the vaporized noggin in Scanners, a movie that’s 29 years old this year, has yet to be matched in the digital age.

Jeez, this guy is all over the place!

To further illustrate the point, here are two more exploding heads. The image above is from Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero’s zombie masterpiece from 1978. And although Tom Savini’s work isn’t up to par with what Dick Smith did three years later on Scanners, it still possesses the essential directness, the sheer bodily bravado, that brings a good effect to gory life. Contrast that potency with the image below, which is taken from Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Another excellent movie, but by 2004 filmmakers had begun to augment live-action effects with digital trickery. Blood spatter from a hard drive? Carnage care of mouse clicks? Something intangible is lost when bloodshed becomes pixilated. Since horror often deals with destruction or a warping of the body, perhaps it needs the physicality of traditional makeup effects to be convincing. Yep, that might just be the meat of the matter.

It's nice to see someone with such an open mind!

The Convenient Coincidence

Most movies begin with a convenient coincidence. And as long as it doesn’t completely insult our intelligence, we as audience members will accept just about any inciting incident. A lonely boy befriends a gentle alien who didn’t make it back to the spaceship in time. An ordinary businessman raises his hand at exactly the wrong moment and gets mistaken for a spy. A down-at-heel boxer just happens to live in the city where the reigning champ is searching for his next opponent. This is what sets the story in motion. You don’t need a degree in film theory to instinctively know the conventions of storytelling. But subsequent coincidences, even just one, will test our goodwill. They are cheats, pure and simple. Deployed by the writer to get out of a tricky spot. Every movie gets one free pass, because that’s how it has to be. One should suffice. One is plenty.

Argh! You're breaking the fourth wall!

When I recently watched Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage again, after enough time had passed for me to forget some of the salient points, the same pesky conclusions came back to haunt me. For one thing, the story progresses too smoothly. Now, a sense of simplicity and orderliness is good. The many clunky flicks out there suggest that it is a difficult effect to achieve. But the advancement of a movie’s plot shouldn’t feel this unchallenged or easy. Well, that’s my opinion, anyway. The Orphanage really runs into trouble about halfway through, when main character Laura (Belén Rueda) just happens to see an old woman she’s been searching for right in front of her car, crossing the street. And this is in some snowy mountain hamlet, far from the seaside where Laura lives. Dude, what are the odds? Things aren’t helped by the abrupt and arbitrary nature of the sequence either.

Everything is spookier in night vision.

As has become customary when I dump on a movie here at OP-dEaD, I now come running to its defense. Because I really like The Orphanage. Rueda gives a superb performance, and the director skillfully utilizes the creepy setting. Also, Óscar Faura’s cinematography is really good. Few, if any, haunted house movies have ever looked better. Besides, if faced with a choice, I’ll usually take subtle chills and a mounting atmosphere of dread over blood and guts. The Orphanage is pleasantly slow, infused with affection and about as vulgar as a glass of milk. But a tasteful presentation doesn’t automatically bestow more free passes. The rules apply. The rules always apply. Want a haunted house movie that sticks to them? I’d recommend The Others or The Devil’s Backbone, both of which are splendido.

Happy New Year!

What say we start things off with a real bang?

Everybody’s Favorite Uncle

It’s easy to forget that every field has its pioneers. Even movie fandom, which may seem trivial to most people, had its trailblazers. Long before fan conventions, Internet chat rooms, and self-satisfied movies that telegraph their in-jokes (e.g. Scream), someone had to do the heavy lifting of actually defining what it means to be a fan of the fantastic. Forrest J. Ackerman, who passed away in early December of 2008, was one such devotee. He amassed what must have been the world’s largest collection of movie memorabilia, and let complete strangers into his house every Saturday to view it, free of charge. In addition, in 1958, the colorful Ackerman founded Famous Monsters of Filmland, the prototypical horror movie magazine. As he generously shared his love of all things horror and sci-fi, he singlehandedly inspired an entire generation of budding American filmmakers.

Stop me if you’ve already heard this one. Two nuns walk into an occult bookstore …

John Landis and Joe Dante in particular knew how to show their appreciation. Landis had Ackerman make appearances in Kentucky Fried Movie and Beverly Hills Cop III, among others, and even put him right behind Michael Jackson in the Thriller video. (Landis himself can be seen among the theater patrons, as well.) Dante, meanwhile, gave Ackerman a cameo in Hollywood Boulevard, his 1976 directorial debut. Then, five years later, Ackerman memorably cropped up in Dante’s The Howling, as a cranky patron in an occult bookstore.

Things got a little tense when Walter Paisley met Dr. Acula.

Ackerman’s silent but expressive presence is just one element in what amounts to in-joke nirvana. Dante veteran Dick Miller is Walter Paisley, the proprietor—Miller had played characters with that name in both A Bucket of Blood (1958) and Hollywood Boulevard, and he would do so three more times after The Howling. In a fittingly macabre touch, Paisley has decorated the premises with the withered armchair corpse seen in Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Nice! And of course, as Ackerman browses the shelves and displays, the sneaky devil is clearly clasping a couple of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Sadly, the magazine would fold only two years later, after a steady, decade-long decline.

Product placement, done with panache and subtlety.

The last 15 years of Ackerman’s life were no picnic. A relaunched Famous Monsters of Filmland brought a lawsuit and financial woes, and his health deteriorated. Adding insult to injury, he had to sell most of his impressive collection and the mansion that had housed it. But through it all, as this LA Times article from early 2003 shows, he kept his spirits and enthusiasm up. (Ackerman’s LA Times obituary is also worth a read.) And as long as people like you and me are captivated by the darker and more fanciful movies out there, the immeasurable influence of Uncle Forry will live on.

A Field Guide to GREMLINS

“I have always liked movies that show a sense of film history. And, if it were only about movies, people wouldn’t like it much. The references are there, but not in a way that would obscure things for anybody.”

– Joe Dante, Fangoria #38 (1984)

Well, it’s Christmas Day. For many people, movies are just as big a part of the holiday season as good food, gifts and quality time spent with friends and family. There aren’t any movies that I have to see each and every year, but there are definitely movies that I can only see around Christmas. Gremlins, which fried my delighted young mind upon its release in 1984, is one such movie. Along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which came out that same year, it deserves credit for turning me into a film fanatic. So to mark the 25th anniversary of Joe Dante’s perennial creature feature, and the little milestone of OP-dEaD’s 50th post, here is the OP-dEaD 2009 Gremlins Christmas Extravaganza! Keep reading for lots of information on in-jokes, cameos and other fun stuff …

The Spielberg Connection: Onscreen, the movie is billed as “Steven Spielberg presents Gremlins.” Executive producer Spielberg was the one who came across an early draft of the screenplay (by Chris Columbus), and who brought Dante on to direct. And throughout the movie itself, there are deliberate references to Spielberg’s output. Everyone recognizes the Indiana Jones typeface and costume on the Rockin’ Ricky Rialto billboard near the beginning. A couple of minutes later, however, there is a much more subtle nod to the bearded wizard of Hollywood—as Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) is walking to the bank with his dog, he passes a movie theater that’s currently showing A Boy’s Life. A Boy’s Life was the working title of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and the marquee gets my vote as the cleverest in-joke in Gremlins.

A Feast for the Fans’ Eyes: When Rand Peltzer (an underused Hoyt Axton) calls home from the inventors’ convention, the scene is a film buff’s dream come true. The man in the cowboy hat, who glances into the camera, is the late Jerry Goldsmith. (Goldsmith, as any soundtrack collector knows, was Dante’s dependable go-to guy for orchestral scores.) Also during the course of this scene, a reclining Stephen Spielberg zips by in a weird little car/wheelchair, before Robbie the Robot shuffles across screen from the opposite direction. (We see Robbie on the telephone moments later, reciting lines from Forbidden Planet verbatim.) Also, the time machine from The Time Machine (1960) can be seen in the background, but it has disappeared in a puff of smoke during a cutaway.

The Joe Dante Repertory Company: It must be a delight to work for Dante. Aside from his extended relationship with Goldsmith, he is famed for using the same actors in many of his pictures. Dick Miller, my favorite character actor of all time, is the most celebrated example. Here, and in the sequel, he appears as Murray Futterman—town drunk, snowplow driver and vocal patriot. In a charming touch, Jackie Joseph plays the part of Mrs. Sheila Futterman—the pair had appeared together in Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors 24 years earlier. The lovely Belinda Balaski, already familiar to fans from Dante’s Piranha and The Howling, puts in a sympathetic appearance as poor Mrs. Harris. Another of the director’s stalwarts, Kenneth Tobey, plays the gas station attendant. Miller is certainly the most fun to watch, but the cleverest bit of casting may well be Jim McKrell. In Gremlins, he reprises the role of reporter Lew Landers, the very same part he had played three years earlier in The Howling.

An Animated Cameo: As they sit in Dorry’s Tavern, an elderly gent named “Mr. Jones” compliments Billy on his caricature of evil Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday). Billy’s kindly friend is none other than Chuck Jones, legendary king of Warner Bros. cartoons.

Quite the Character (Actor): Mrs. Deagle, who rules the town’s real estate affairs with an iron fist, is a heartless widow. At least she’s kind to her numerous cats, all of whom have names after currency (e.g. Kopek and Dollar Bill). It’s also clear that she remembers her late husband with great affection, judging from the large portrait of him that hangs in the staircase. The man in the photograph is actually esteemed character actor Edward Arnold, who was known for his stout build and commanding baritone. Since he played imposing big business types in various Frank Capra movies, Arnold was an obvious choice for the late Mr. Deagle. (He didn’t appear in It’s a Wonderful Life, though, the clearest Capra antecedent to Gremlins.) Since Arnold had already been dead for 28 years, the producers needed permission from his estate to use his likeness in the movie.

Howling for More: Apparently, The Howling was the movie that originally put Dante on Spielberg’s radar. (I guess that’s how Dante ended up directing one of the tales for Twilight Zone: The Movie.) And there are at least three references to my favorite werewolf movie in Gremlins. One is Lew Landers, obviously. What’s more, the Kingston Falls movie theater has lobby cards from The Howling on display. All well and good, but as crafty in-jokes go, nothing beats the smiley face sticker on the Peltzer family refrigerator. Smiley face stickers are an important story element in The Howling, used as a kind of signal between Dee Wallace’s newswoman and madman Eddie “The Mangler.” (Eddie, incidentally, was played by Robert Picardo. Yet another Dante regular, for some reason Picardo doesn’t appear in Gremlins.)

Fangs for the Memories: As the gremlins hatch from their slimy cocoons, Gizmo watches in terror from inside a motorcycle helmet. And in the mist, we can barely glimpse a copy of Fangoria, the preeminent horror magazine. It’s issue number 30, which just so happened to feature Twilight Zone: The Movie on the cover. And just a few issues down the line, Gremlins would appear on three consecutive Fango covers.

Movie Marinade: Since Gremlins is steeped in movie lore, it’s only fitting that scenes from numerous old movies are prominently featured. It’s a Wonderful Life, To Please a Lady, Orphée and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers play on various television sets. Moreover, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has apparently taken the place of A Boy’s Life, holds the gremlins in thrall towards the finale … and ¡SPOILER! ultimately spells their doom.

First Go for the Logo: As well as all the allusions to movies past, Gremlins hinted at important things to come. This happened to be the first movie ever to feature the famous Amblin Entertainment logo, Amblin being the production company of Speilberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. But observant viewers may notice that the logo is incomplete. The outline of the moon is there, but not the moon itself. The finished article would not grace screens until the following year, when it could be seen in The Goonies.

Gremlins is full of references to everything from Flashdance to Star Wars. You discover a new pop cultural reference, or at the very least some new detail, every time you see it. Fittingly, in light of the Christmas setting, it’s a movie that just keeps on giving. For more information, you might want to check out the movie’s IMDb trivia page.

Cheap Creeps

It’s possible that my recent dissection of Paranormal Activity came across as a tad harsh. Although I tempered the review with praise, the general impression was probably negative. I didn’t mean to imply that Paranormal Activity is a bad movie, because it isn’t. But even a brief inspection of proceedings reveals the forced plot mechanics cranking away underneath. As a consequence, Oren Peli’s debut doesn’t feel genuine. It’s a work of palpable fiction, slave to the same story conventions as a more traditional narrative. Unless you’re making anti-cinema that only people seeking refuge from the rain will see, that’s the tried and true way to do it.

But despite the touch of artificiality that all fake documentaries possess, Paranormal Activity is still creepy as hell. Though not the best new movie I saw this year, it was certainly the eeriest. Peli makes effective use of simple elements like a door, a light switch and a billowing blanket. (More “cinematic” ingredients, like the demonic footprints and Ouija board, aren’t quite as effective.) Additionally, the mundane setting heightens the tension. Many people, after viewing the film, go home to houses that look not unlike the one in the movie (Peli’s own). In the dead of night, do they wake up for no apparent reason, dreading the innocuous click of a light switch?

Peli is currently at work on an Area 51 movie, once again comprised of “found” footage but this time with a bigger budget ($5 million). I can picture it now—lab technicians ensconced in dark laboratories, panicked soldiers, shadowy hallways and a sinister, barely-glimpsed alien or two. Or perhaps something completely different. At any rate, on the basis of his debut, I’m looking forward to Peli’s next project. I just hope he doesn’t shake the camera too much, as that gives me motion sickness. Fat chance, right?

“Take him to Detroit!”

So said the mighty island warlord Dr. Klahn in “A Fistful of Yen,” that wacky send-up of Bruce Lee from Kentucky Fried Movie. 32 years later, if Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations is to be believed, banishment to the Motor City is still an unwelcome prospect. The outskirts, at least, are portrayed as a wasteland of gutted homes and dejected souls. One such soul is Sam Reide (Chris Carmack), who makes his living as a psychic for the local homicide squad. Unbeknownst to the police, Sam actually travels back in time to witness the murders as they happen. Back in the present, he submits his findings to Detective Glenn (Lynch Travis) as a kind of extrasensory revelation. Things quickly get out of hand, however, when he travels back to his high school days to solve the murder of his girlfriend. Regrettably, back in the new present, he has become a suspect. And when he tries to fix things with further leaps in time, more people die and he finds himself the prime suspect. Things culminate in a twist that’s no great shakes but fair enough.

Amazingly, Elizabeth (Sarah Habel) had never seen a book before.

Horror franchises don’t die, they just live on in direct-to-DVD purgatory. BE3 isn’t the sort of thing I’d usually watch, especially in light of the mean-spirited original (which starred Ashton Kutcher and should have been titled The Butterfly Defect—yeah, I know, I’m funny). But a generous colleague gave it to me, and my Friday night was free. Also, since the three movies are unrelated, it didn’t matter that I haven’t seen part two.

Harry’s back couldn’t take the weight of his impressive beard.

All in all, I thought BE3 was pretty good. IMDb estimates that the budget was $4,5 million. That’s very low, about 34% of the first entry’s budget—and the first entry was in itself a low budget movie! To paper over the absurd storyline, lazy dialogue and lack of money, BE3 makes good use of its strengths while turning shortcomings into assets. There are no elaborate visual effects—just as well, since they would have looked terrible. The brisk pace doesn’t give viewers much time to ponder how the story makes no sense at all. The acting is good, especially from Kevin Yon as Harry, a kind of mentor to the glum Sam. And the locations have a nice look of age and dark wood, accentuated by Dan Stoloff’s moody lighting. Harry’s sun-dappled greenhouse, overflowing with dense but drab flowers, is also a nice visual touch. Sure, I’m a sucker for mood, but BE3 clearly has more to offer. Professionalism always shines through, and some of the people involved will go on to greater things.

Was Sam going crazy, or were the flowers talking to him?

As an aside, according to this article, which I found by way of this Wikipedia entry, Michigan is the new hotspot for filmmakers. Got to love those tax breaks—and at the same time wonder why California doesn’t have them. It’s easy to see why the faded grandeur of Detroit makes for an appealing setting, especially for low-budget horror and crime productions. After all, the city comes with ready-made, all-natural decay that’ll save you a bundle on set design. I don’t think the local tourist board is too pleased, but any money rolling in to the local economy is good money. Instant, memorable visuals—just add film crew!

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