Monday, October 13, 2014

Fright Night

How fun is the original Fright Night? What a terrific love letter to campy, late-night creature-feature cinema. You can practically feel the warmth and affection radiating off of this movie, which is smart, sexy, funny and gleefully disgusting. I saw Craig Gillespie's remake back in 2011 (in large part because I wanted to see David Tennant on the big screen) and it's a perfectly decent movie but it takes itself too seriously. I much prefer the humor and charm of Tom Holland's original version.

When high schooler Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) realizes his charming new neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire he tries, in vain, to warn the people closest to him of the danger. Charley's mother (Dorothy Fielding), preoccupied with work, doesn't have time to indulge her son's fantastical imaginings; his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and his friend "Evil" Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) both think Charley has lost his mind. The desperate young man finally reaches out to the one person he thinks will believe and help him: Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), legendary horror film star and host of Charley's favorite show, "Fright Night," a serialized showcase of B movies. It never occurs to Charley that Peter might not be as skilled at vanquishing the undead as his cinematic counterpart. In Charley's mind Peter Vincent is a fearless vampire slayer, not a burned-out, past his prime actor who's cash-strapped and desperate for work.

Like many of my favorite horror films, Fright Night holds up well, in large part, because its characters are memorable and appealing. There's an every-boy quality to William Ragsdale's Charley that makes him relatable and a bravery, along with an inherent sense of decency, that makes him admirable. The same could be said for Amanda Bearse, who's so fresh-faced, sweet and sassy that it's easy to see why Charley is crazy about her. Chris Sarandon is equal parts charming and oily as vampire-next-door Jerry and Roddy McDowall is absolute perfection as Peter Vincent. Like Charley, there's a sense of decency at the core of McDowall's character; it's heartening to see these two underdogs find their inner reserves of bravery and join forces to protect their community and the people they care about. And speaking of underdogs I have a particular soft spot for Charley's pal Evil Ed, a character who starts out as obnoxious (but effectively amusing) comic relief and becomes something much more unforgettable and tragic by the end of the movie. Stephen Geoffreys is adept at projecting Ed's false sense of bravado as well as his vulnerability. 

Another thing I love about this movie is the variety in the vampire death scenes. Just like The Lost Boys two years later, no two vampires go the same way in Fright Night. The effects during the blood-sucking bloodbath at the end of this movie are gory, goofy and wonderful. Vampires transform into wolves, bats and one of them, after being staked dissolves into a pile of green goo and, inexplicably, sand. Like everything else about Fright Night the ick factor is equal parts horror and humor. But the hijinks never come at the expense of the characters, who are the heart of this great movie.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Evil Dead

I enjoy all of the Evil Dead titles but Sami Raimi's original flick, about five college students vacationing at a cabin in the woods who unwittingly unleash a bunch of demons and get themselves possessed one by one, remains my favorite. It's frightening and it's fun. There's a gleeful, manic energy that permeates Raimi's debut feature and his filmmaking choices are incredibly creative and appropriate. The Evil Dead also introduced horror movie lovers to the brilliant Bruce Campbell and, even though it's the sequel that cemented Campbell's cult status, I have a soft spot for the more traditional "Final Girl" performance Campbell gives in this first film. And the fact that The Evil Dead was shot on location in my own back yard, in Morristown, is a tremendous source of pride for me as an East Tennessean.

There's very little that needs to be said about the plot of The Evil Dead; it's straight-forward and basic and, given all the imitators over the years, it's more or less become horror cliche at this point. Five Michigan State University students, siblings Ash and Cheryl Williams, Ash's girlfriend Linda, his friend Scotty and Scotty's girlfriend Shelly, venture into the remote backwoods of Tennessee for a little R&R at a rustic, isolated cabin. The friends discover a Book of the Dead in the cabin's basement, along with audio recordings of spells and incantations that, when played (unbeknownst to them), release the demonic forces within the forest. Once the recordings are played and the demons unleashed Cheryl, Shelly, Linda and Scotty become possessed one after the other by the evil entities, leaving Ash to fend them off and fight to survive the night with his life, and his soul, intact.

For a movie made thirty one years ago The Evil Dead holds up incredibly well. There's a creepy, unnerving quality to the location which is heightened by the camerawork, particularly the eerie tracking shots that race through the forest and are meant to represent to the demons' point of view. Shot for peanuts, the low-budget movie has a crafty, homemade quality that enhances both its horrifying nature and its charm. It's the etsy of the horror genre. Even the more outlandish and unbelievable effects towards the end of the movie, the stuff that looks like outtakes from an 80s-era Peter Gabriel video, still hold up because they are so wonderfully odd. And Bruce Campbell is truly delightful and lovable as Ash, the movie's very reluctant hero. His reaction shots throughout the story are hilarious. He seems less afraid and more repulsed and exasperated by each terrifying turn of events. But there's genuine warmth and affection in Campbell's performance as well, which keeps the character from backsliding into snarky, ironic parody. 

The small-scale, intimate nature of The Evil Dead makes the terror feel more real and immediate. It also makes this movie endlessly endearing. This one's a real gem.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ginger Snaps

I've seen Ginger Snaps more times than I care to remember. It's one of my horror stand-bys every October. The premise is simple but oh-so brilliant, the story so perfectly and enthusiastically executed and the performances so endearing that it's impossible not to fall in love all over again every time I watch it. It is everything I want in a horror movie. It's gory and a bit tongue-in-cheek but it's also intelligent and thoughtful. It's wildly entertaining but it doesn't pull punches. And it features characters I genuinely care about, which makes the inevitable tragedy of the movie's conclusion all the more heatbreaking. I like horror that scares me but also makes me feel something beyond terror. Ginger Snaps certainly fits that bill.

Ginger Snaps is the story of the close-knit, misfit Fitzgerald sisters. Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) live in the suburban Canadian town of Bailey Downs, a place whose only defining characteristic seems to be its ordinariness. A recent rash of animal killings are, apparently, the only thing that breaks up the monotony and the townsfolk are all a-twitter over the unknown man or beast who is tearing their canine companions limb from limb under cover of darkness. I wondered why these folks didn't just bring their beloved pooches inside at night but maybe they're too dimb-witted and chipper to think that tragedy could strike in their own backyards. It's obvious from the outset that Brigitte and Ginger are fed up with this bland, insipid little community. When they're assigned the school project "Life in Bailey Downs" the girls do a photo shoot and stage pictures of each other commiting various forms of suicide. When they present their slide show to their class their teacher is appalled but the male students think that Ginger is hot. Brigitte and Ginger are bright and creative (and hardworking when they wanna be, cause that suicide project took some effort) but this is not a community that fosters their particular brand of creativity. They clash with their female classmates, who think the sisters are freaks. And while the boys may pine for Ginger she couldn't care less about any of them. The girls have made a pact to get out of Bailey Downs or end their lives and they constantly repeat their mantra "out by sixteen or dead in this scene." Even though they're death obsessed they don't seem to actually want to die. They just seem incredibly stifled and bored. Under different circumstances I'd like to think they'd have gotten out of town and made a new life for themselves in a community where they could feel more accepted. But this isn't that kind of movie.

The one person in town who supports the girls wholeheartedly is their mother, Pamela (Mimi Rogers). But, sadly, support doesn't always equal understanding. Pamela is the kind of woman who wears appliqu├ęd vests, hair bows and festive, dangling pumpkin earrings. She is relentlessly chipper. She comes across, initially, as the target demographic for Hobby Lobby but she's more accepting and open-minded than she first appears. Or maybe she just loves her girls so unconditionally that she overlooks their eccentricities. More than anything, Pamela is preoccupied with the fact that neither of her high-school aged daughters has gotten her first period. So when Ginger complains of pain in her lower back one night at dinner Pamela can barely contain her glee when she asks "Do you think it might be cramps?" There's a definite reluctance on the part of both girls to accept that this is something they're inevitably going to have to deal with. To them the transition to womanhood (ugh, what a Hallmark way of saying it but I couldn't think of anything else) is just another way of selling out and conforming. Sexual maturity is part of what makes their classmates into a bunch of idiotic airheads, as evidenced most clearly by the school's Queen Bee Trina (Danielle Hampton), a mean girl of the highest order who taunts and torments the Fitzgerald sisters during PE class but turns into a simpering pile of empty-headed goo after school when she sees the local drug dealer, and object of her unrequited affection, Jason (Jesse Moss). 

Nevertheless, Ginger does get her first period. Which happens to coincide with a full moon. So, while the girls are out looking for dead dog parts (to use in a prank they're planning for their nemesis, Trina) they are confronted by a werewolf, who attacks Ginger. The girls manage to outrun the beast (who is promptly dispatched by Jason and his minivan) and by the time Brigitte gets her sister home Ginger's wounds have already begun to heal. Post-attack, Ginger becomes increasingly volatile; she's hostile and combative towards Brigitte and she's suddenly got a voracious sexual appetite. But we still catch glimpses of the real Ginger and it's clear that she is a very frightened young woman. One who feels she is no longer in control of her emotions or her body and who is terrified of the damage she might do. It's up to Brigitte to find a cure before the next full moon transforms her beloved sister into a full-on lycanthrope.

I have a particular affinity for tragic female monsters. Angela Bettis's May Canady and Sissy Spacek's Carrie White always elicit my sympathies, even when their stories spiral into bloodbaths and their actions become impossible to condone. Katharine Isabelle's Ginger is cut from the same cloth. The thing that makes Ginger Snaps so special is the incredible bond between the Fitzgerald sisters. Even when every trace of Ginger's humanity is gone the beast she has become still recognizes Brigitte as her sister. And Brigitte is loyal to the end to Ginger. I usually feel bad for misfit characters because they're isolated and alone so the love and devotion these two outcast siblings feel for one another really resonated with me. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle have fantastic on-screen chemistry and create a bond that's entirely believable. At the outset Brigitte is surly and Ginger is mouthy but as the movie progresses you see the warmth and affection they have for one another and the underlying vulnerability they both feel after being thrust into an impossible, hellish situation. I thought the supporting players defied expectation in pleasant ways, too. Mimi Rogers is terrific as Pamela, whose perpetually perky demeanor belies the depth of her fierce maternal instincts. Jesse Moss's Jason, who initially seems like a cool guy looking out for his own interests, turns out to be sensitive and genuinely concerned for the sisters when he understands their plight. Even Danielle Hampton's Trina exhibits flashes of insecurity underneath her icy, hateful exterior.

Like Carrie, I wonder sometimes about the message Ginger Snaps is trying to convey. I think there's something empowering about Ginger owning her "curse" (in both senses of the word) but as things escalate and she's shown to be out of control I start to worry that the moral to the story is "women who own their sexuality, who feel empowered by it, are scary and need to be put in their place." I feel like that's surely not what the filmmakers wanted me to take away from this movie. Maybe it's meant more as a critique of society's view of strong women rather than a critique of the women themselves. Or, most likely, it's just a story about how awkward and crummy it is to be a teenager and feel like you don't belong. And once you hit puberty and your body starts betraying you things get even worse. I dunno. I'm probably overthinking it. I do know that this is a movie dominated by dynamic female characters and it features actresses who deliver compelling performances. That alone makes it worth checking out. The sharp, snarky dialogue, and the great special effects (sometimes a bit hoaky but mostly a great big practical gore win) are just icing on the cake. This one is definitely something special.