Killer Hedgehogs from Outer Space!

As befits the approaching holiday season, OP-dEaD will soon pay tribute to Gremlins, Joe Dante’s masterpiece of mid-80s monster mayhem. But for now, we’ll make do with a close cousin: Stephen Herek’s Critters. In the wake of Gremlins’ success, director/co-writer Herek’s inspired debut was probably the only movie to come close in terms of success and relative critical praise. It left comparable, second-rate fare like Ghoulies and Munchies in the dust, and spawned three decent sequels. However, the comparison to Gremlins is a tad unwarranted. For one thing, according to Wikipedia, Critters was in development before its illustrious predecessor. And the similarities between the two are fairly superficial. In my opinion, Critters is more the bastard, spiny-backed offspring of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

The calm before the storm.

Fans know that E.T. started out a very different proposition. The suburban setting was the same, but Steven Spielberg initially envisioned the alien visitors to be downright vicious. In these early stages, his next project after Raiders of the Lost Ark was titled Night Skies. But at some point during pre-production, Spielberg changed his mind and the result was the cuddly little guy who trounced box office records in 1982. Rather than scrap the idea for Night Skies entirely, though, Spielberg got Tobe Hooper on board and the discarded project morphed into Poltergeist, another box office winner from the same year. And as a kind of completely unrelated what if?, Herek served up his mean-spirited space porcupines in 1986.

E.T.? Is that you?

Critters has a simple and wacky setup, as a band of malevolent little creatures escape from a prison asteroid and hightail it to Earth. These fugitives from interstellar law, or “Crites,” have a couple of deadpan bounty hunters on their tails, and the whole thing is obviously played with tongue firmly in cheek. Choice moments include the bounty hunters crashing into a church, a critter’s vain attempt at eating a firecracker, and another one biting the head off of an E.T. doll when it fails to answer him. But the knowing approach doesn’t preclude an affectionate tone, most prominently conveyed here through the likeable Kansas family at the center of the mounting chaos. Herek is clearly fond of his characters (maybe even too fond), and he peppers proceedings with well-judged in-jokes.

This is going to end badly!

Aside from the incident of stuffed alien mutilation, there are many other deliberate echoes of E.T. Dee Wallace Stone, who played the mother in both movies, is the most obvious parallel. Scott Grimes, as the fresh-faced Bradley, tools around on his BMX bicycle, just like Elliot did. And when he ventures out into the mist with his father (Billy Green Bush), it’s hard not to be reminded of all the flashlight action in E.T. Nadine Van Der Velde plays Bradley’s older sister. She’s a bit stuck-up in the early scenes, but we warm to her eventually. Robert MacNaughton had a similar function as the older brother in E.T. The ship in which the critters have escaped, or at least its entryway, is also a clear reference to E.T.’s vessel—albeit much cheaper!

Tonight's forecast: Foggy!

As a dose of 80s entertainment, Critters works a treat. The central family plays it straight, while the bounty hunters, town oddballs and critters provide the comic relief. Tim Surhstedt’s photography lends a lovely golden glow to the daytime scenes, and composer David Newman does a credible John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith pastiche. Things do fall apart toward the end, but not enough to erase a positive impression. Critters is the kind of innocent movie that nobody makes anymore. It’s fun.

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The One That (Thankfully) Got Away

By movie buff standards, my DVD collection is fairly modest. (No Blu-ray as of yet.) Still, shelf space in my humble lair is currently at a premium—at a premium because my lair is humble, you might say. Some recent reorganizing alleviated the situation, but I’m not about to stop buying movies, and space will be a problem soon enough. Still, at least the time of indiscriminate purchases, which resulted in my being the proud owner of turkeys like AVP 2: Requiem and Constantine, is over. Until I’m able to upgrade from crypt to castle, space considerations force me to evaluate more closely what I buy.

Regular readers (all three of you!) know that I like to rummage through DVD bargain bins. Since I’m a fan of almost every genre, I’m usually able to find a movie I like. Or six. (Recent non-horror additions include Serpico, The Elephant Man and Goodfellas.) In September, I came across Rats: Night of Terror, a slice of slightly tempting Italian cheapo horror from 1984. As is my habit when I only kind of want something, I dithered. Long story short, I didn’t buy Rats: Night of Terror. In fact, if memory serves, I left the store empty-handed. But soon after, in time-honored fashion, I began to regret my decision.

At least they had a nice one-sheet.

A few weeks later, I bought watchable Jaws rip-off The Last Shark, which happened to include the trailer for Rats: Night of Terror among the extras. Luckily, by a wide margin, it turned out to be the worst trailer I’ve ever seen! The horrendous costumes, wooden acting, and atrocious dubbing made me feel sorry for anyone involved with the movie. And the guinea pigs, which were used in lieu of actual rats(!), look to have been treated appallingly. The whole thing appears to be a sad, stupid and incompetent mess. And remember, these are supposed to be the good parts, the parts that make us want to see the movie! Only one shot, of city streets being fumigated by ominous government types, is noteworthy.

"Excuse me, why are we dressed like Adam & The Ants?"

Everything considered, I don’t particularly enjoy lousy movies. Oh, I have five Ed Wood, Jr. movies in my collection, and a few other duds like this one and the aforementioned pair, but I rarely seek out bad movies because they’re bad. (Wood’s oeuvre is an exception.) Competent storytelling, with a touch of invention or even artistic integrity, is perfectly doable on a small budget. Also, I suspect that connoisseurs of crap watch rotten movies because it makes them feel superior. That’s a pretty smug agenda, and not entirely compatible with being a true fan. So with the clear indication that Rats: Night of Terror would have been a real pain to sit through, I was relieved that I hadn’t bought it.

"Remember to eliminate every trace of this rotten movie, men!"

Reading about terrible movies can often be more fun than actually watching them. The IMDb bio of the late Bruno Mattei, who directed Rats: Night of Terror, claims that he “eventually had more pseudonyms than any working director in the world” and that he’s been called “The Italian Ed Wood.” Various sources also allege that the rodent epic was his personal favorite, and that’s is easy enough to believe. When your résumé sports titles like S.S. Extermination Love Camp and Women’s Prison Massacre, Rats: Night of Terror sounds like a Bergman-esque work of cinematic art by comparison. You know, now that I think about it, I seem to remember Rats: Night of Terror just barely losing out to Out of Africa at the 1985 Oscars …

Voiceover from the trailer:

“Rats! What do they want from us? Rats! Why are they man’s enemy? Rats! They’re watching! Waiting! Rats! Their time has come! Why do rats repel us? What is it about those little furry bodies that’s so frightening? Just think of them close to you in the night! Who can stop them? And how? Rats are here, under our feet, all around us!”

But not in my DVD collection. Phew!

Belated Props to Karl Malden

Giallo, that distinctly Italian crime subgenre, has some signature characteristics. There’s usually a ludicrous whodunit plot, some striking visuals, and a groovy soundtrack. Fans like me watch these movies for the flash, since there’s precious little substance. And we’re seldom given anyone to really root for, becauseall the characters, even the heroes, are frequently utter jerks. Dario Argento’s Terror at the Opera (1986) provides a fitting example when a stage manager tells the protagonist, an opera singer, that a stagehand died while she was singing. Apparently, it was “molto strano”. With his very next breath, he tells her to leave her costume in the dressing room for refitting. She hangs her dress on the coat stand, turns back, and asks him to accompany her to the opening night party. Yikes! There’s cold, and then there’s heartless, know what I mean?

"Some guy just died. It's pretty weird. Wanna go to a party?"

To compensate for the insensitive weasels and shrill hellcats that often populate these callous movies, Italian filmmakers will usually include a character that’s so innocent and goody-goody as to nearly induce vomiting. This person, sometimes an ebullient colleague of the main character or some absurdly kind neighbor, inevitably suffers a grisly death at the hands of the killer. This person adds nothing of value—other than a cool death scene. To craft a genuinely sympathetic character in a giallo, the actor has to do all the work, through sheer talent and star power. As it happens, that’s just what veteran character actor Karl Malden did in Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), in which he plays a blind one-time reporter. His Franco “Cookie” Arno has inane dialogue like everyone else around him, but Malden’s acting chops and charisma help him rise above the material. And although his is a small part, it’s one of the better performances in the Argento back catalogue. Leonard Maltin once wrote that he “brings his innate dignity to every role he tackles,” and that quality is certainly on display here. Imagine, dignity in a giallo!

Malden's blind ex-reporter gets the feel of a crypt.

When Malden passed away on July 1st, at the ripe old age of 97, the media was already in a frenzy. Six days earlier, some controversial pop star or other had expired from an accidental drug overdose, and consequently most people were far too busy elsewhere to notice that a Hollywood legend had died. It’s pretty disconcerting that a suspected pederast gets saint-like status upon his death, while a genuinely decent guy and top-notch actor is practically ignored. Watch Cat o’ Nine Tails to see how Malden injects sincere warmth into otherwise trashy, but certainly entertaining, material.

The Great Impostor

My word, I sure am getting a lot of mileage out of Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, a movie that always gets a bad rap (not least from me!). But it’s an entertaining entry in the slasher saga nonetheless—in an inept, groan-inducing sort of way.

Yo, dude! Ever hear of knocking?

What passes for a story is riddled with idiotic elements, including a grotesque backwoods mother and her semi-retarded son, an apathetic drifter who’s the most useless red herring ever committed to celluloid, and some seriously lackadaisical counselors. The major gripe for most fans, though, is undoubtedly the lack of Jason. After suffering the fabled “machete slide” at the end of part four, the real deal spends part five in his grave while an impersonator does the dirty work. (Actually, the misinformed mayor remarks that Jason was cremated, but six subsequent sequels would indicate that he’s a tad misinformed.) If you ask me, however, the fraudulent fruitcake is the least of part five’s problems.

If you're not the real Jason, please raise your hand.

Jason is an icon. His hockey mask is one of the most potent images in horror history. Even wet blankets who wouldn’t be caught dead actually watching a Friday flick, instantly recognize the mask. It’s narrative shorthand for death, carnage and epic fail camping trips. Add grubby coveralls and a bloody machete to the equation, and you’ve got an indelible presence to match that of Lugosi’s Dracula or Karloff’s Monster. Of course, only a moron would argue that Jason’s bloodbaths could ever hold a candle to the Universal classics, but there’s something to be said for his level of pop culture notoriety. When you consider that six men have so far played the masked, adult Jason, you begin to realize the potency of the imagery—with the right accoutrements and body language, any big guy can be Jason Voorhees, homicidal mama’s boy.

A mask in the mud.

From People magazine, by way of Fangoria #69 (1987):

“When I put on Jason’s clothes, I felt strange, like I had lived other lives. How I got the part is beyond me, because I really did not belong in Jason’s shoes. I am absolutely not a scary person.

Richard Wieand

See? Even the actor who played the phony, despite his reservations, could feel the power of the costume. So what if the real Jason was taking a dirt nap? SPOILER WARNING: Vengeful paramedic Roy dispatches his victims in the spirit of the genuine article, and that’s good enough for me. I even like the new, unscathed mask with the blue diamonds—as you may remember, Jason’s mask has red diamonds and a slit above the left temple.

Impostor Jason, I salute you!

Social Etiquette: How to Make Your Presence Known

So, how did I spend my Friday the 13th? I watched a Friday the 13th movie, of course! (I know, I’m so predictable.) The fifth entry, A New Beginning, was my choice for the evening. You might remember that I ranked this guilty pleasure as number ten in the series, but that doesn’t make it unwatchable … even though the acting is uneven enough to make you seasick, the story is bad, the dialogue is worse, the picture has the flat look of a TV movie, and a Jason impostor is committing all the murders.

boo_reggie

Reggie (Shavar Ross) is clearly thrilled to see Pam.

Aside from the entertainment value, we can also learn useful people skills from bad horror movies. Like how to make your presence known. Pay close attention, folks—this is important. If it’s a dark and stormy night, you’re out in the middle of nowhere, and people have begun to disappear, don’t honk your horn when you get back to the house. Also, don’t call out as you enter, don’t jingle your keys, and make sure to close the door as softly as possible behind you. Then, walk around on tippy-toe, and climb the stairs without emitting so much as the faintest creak. (This can be tricky if you’re wearing boots like Melanie Kinnaman’s Pam, but she proves that it can be done!) When you finally come across someone, don’t say “Hello” or “There you are” or “Where’s everybody else?” In fact, don’t say a word. Instead, after having made sure that they haven’t seen you yet, slap your hand down on their shoulder. If you’re a counselor of some kind, at a halfway house for severely troubled teens, this approach is even more advisable. So there you have it. No need to thank me.

what_is_it

"What is it, Reggie? It’s Pam. What’s the matter? What’s the matter? It’s me! What is it? What is it?"

Note: Let me just point out that we don’t see Pam until she appears by Reggie’s side upstairs. Her silent progress through yard and house is purely out of my imagination. But that’s how it must have gone down, right, for her to suddenly be standing there?

“Let … me … in!”

When I recently watched Poltergeist II: The Other Side, a childhood favorite that I’ve probably seen more times than the original, I was a little disappointed. I hadn’t seen it in 15 years or so, but I seemed to remember that Brian Gibson’s effort from 1986 was better than its predecessor. This impression was primarily based on Julian Beck’s outstanding performance as the nefarious Reverend Henry Kane. But my memory was wrong. While Poltergeist II is amiably ramshackle, it’s still pretty run of the mill, albeit marked by short bursts of Beck-related brilliance.

kane_mall

"Are you lost, sweetheart?"

A great performance can save an otherwise mediocre movie, and that’s exactly what happens in Poltergeist II: The Other Side. Although the rest of the cast is more than decent, Julian Beck almost singlehandedly salvages the movie. In only two scenes! There would have been more, I suppose, but he died during production, eight months before the finished product premiered. Oh well, lasting legacies have been built on less.

kane_freelings

The Beast makes a house call.

Kane is clumsily introduced. The very first time we see him, at an outdoor mall, he walks straight through somebody! It would have served the story better if there were some early doubt as to who or what he is. But no matter. Beck rescues the scene with his intense eyes, too-wide smile and oily charm. And of course, he sings that hymn: “God is in his holy temple. Earthly thoughts be silent now.” For some reason, it doesn’t take much to infuse religious music with a sense of wrongness. Beck’s delivery, however, is positively evil. You can tell that he’s enjoying himself, but there’s not a hint of ham. The menace is pure.

kane_screams

"You're gonna die in there! All of you! You are gonna DIE!"

In his second major scene, Kane turns up on the Freeling family doorstep, intent on wheedling his way into the house. And this is great stuff, undoubtedly the greatest scene in the entire Poltergeist trilogy. Beck, gaunt from the stomach cancer that would soon end his life, runs an impressive gamut of emotions. At first, he’s friendly and chatty. Too friendly. But once he’s left alone with Steven (Craig T. Nelson), Kane begins to prey on Steven’s insecurities. With feigned concern, he undermines the other man’s role as head of the family. Simultaneously pushy, incisively cruel, and persuasive, Kane gets under Steven’s skin with ease. Only the voice of Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) manages to break the spell, at which point strained civility loses out to the Beast. Thwarted, right hand pressed to the screen door, Kane screams that everyone inside will die, his face contorted in fury. Then, in a heartbeat, he is calm once again. With weary condescension, he places his black hat over his wispy hair and takes his leave. In the driveway, with a final wave, Kane fades and is gone. A fitting exit for both character and actor.

kane_waves

Farewell.

Note: Julian Beck wasn’t just the most memorable movie ghost of the 1980s. Read his Wikipedia entry, and you’ll see that fact is stranger than fiction. Much, much stranger! If ever a life cried out for a biography …

From the Trailer Park, Vol. I

Hmm … four Friday the 13th posts in a row? What say we make it five? Not about the movies themselves this time, but about the trailers. The Friday the 13th trailers are a master class in generating audience excitement. Even if you’re not a fan, they’re presented in a way that piques your interest. And below you’ll find perhaps the best example. While the film itself is pretty good, the trailer for part seven is better. Well, almost. It even introduces a humorous element largely lacking from the finished product. Shows you what clever editing can do!

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