Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fright Night

Vampire lore has had many types of themes over the last century of filmmaking.  The very story of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" had within it a love story of sorts, making it less of a horror story and more of a tragedy.  Sometimes, the vampire films we see are mostly monster movies featuring the bloodsucking character as a villainous monster.  Other times, the character is seen as a protagonist, siding with humans and even caring for them.  One theme that I hope the history of vampires in film will stay away from is the Twilight saga motif, where it's mainly a love story involving glittery vampires as a secondary theme—ugh!

As long as all the recognized rules are featured, I'm okay with it.  To be clear, vampires can be destroyed by sunlight and a wooden stake through the heart, they can't come in to one's home without being invited in by the owner, they can be harmed—if not destroyed—by garlic or blessed holy water or even touched by a crucifix.  Those are the main elements as to protect oneself from a vampire.  Other fundamentals about vampires in film are that they cannot cast a reflection and—depending upon the movie or story—they may be killed by silver.  I don't know when the silver mytho was established into the legend, perhaps within the Blade film franchise or comic book run, but it's understood now that that could be a defense against them in horror movies.

Between the decades of the late 20s into the early 60s, horror movies were pretty tame when it came to bloodletting or seeing someone—or something—getting killed.  It wasn't until the 60s and 70s—especially with Hammer Studios—that moviegoers were able to see some gore associated with vampire film mythology.  However—and maybe I'm a little biased in my opinion—I think the 80s was the best decade for horror films.  Whether it was creature features, vampire, zombies, werewolf, slasher or what have you, the 80s were the best.  Even with today's perfection of special effects and better cinematography, it can't hold a candle to 80s horror.

One of my favorite vampire films of the 80s was a little gem in 1985 called Fright Night, written and directed by Tom Holland.  Now Holland has had an interesting career as a writer and director of some of my favorite films.  He wrote the screenplay for Psycho II, which I thought was a worthy, and above average, sequel to Hitchcock's masterpiece.  Not only did he write and direct Fright Night, he also did so for Child's Play and Thinner.  If you get a chance, you should check out The Psycho Legacy; he really seems like a nice guy and enjoys recounting anecdotes about being involved in the sequel he had written.  I really wish he'd been involved in more movies back then because he really knew how to capture the feel of that decade and what moviegoers wanted to see back then.  If you grew up in my generation, then you know what I mean, especially when you watch this movie.

The film begins with high school sweethearts, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) and his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), making out in his upstairs room as the late night show, "Fright Night," hosted by the famed 'vampire killer,' Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), is playing on TV in the background.  In the middle of the session, Charley hears new neighbors moving in and looks out the window to see two men appear to be
carrying a coffin into the house.  Charley, from then on, becomes obsessed with the mysterious men, especially after seeing women show up to the house and then hearing reports on the news of the same women missing or turning up dead.  As Charley keeps on eye on the new neighbors, and after seeing one of the men, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), upstairs with a woman, noticing the characteristics he displays, it leads him to suspect Jerry is a vampire.

There's no denying this film is from the decade of the 80s when you view it.  The sets, attire, music, and style of filmmaking give it away for sure.  But that's a good thing, because I really miss the cinematography and style of movie sets you see in films like these.  For years I had thought that this movie was filmed at Universal Studios, thinking that Charley's street was the "Mockingbird Heights" portion of the back lot—I'm not sure what studio it was filmed, but it has that same quality feel to it.  Unfortunately, that's what today's movies steer clear from, for some reason...the filmmakers, I guess, don't want to feature the surrealism of a nice neighborhood or small town to be caught on camera.  I think they believe audiences won't buy into it, but, in fact, we want to go somewhere unlike the place we currently live.  I don't know...maybe they just don't want to make their pictures look the way 80s films did back in the day.

Speaking of the 1980s, one part of the film that really sends it home to let you know you're watching something from that decade, is the night club scene.  It seems that films from that era always had to make sure they featured some pop music to establish credibility of the filmmakers that they know what's hip.  On the contrary, however, the scene in the night club when Jerry is able to hypnotically keep Amy within his reach and have her dance with him is a pivotal scene.  Added to that passage of the story, you see Amy's point of view when her and Jerry are dancing in front of the club's mirrored walls and she sees that Jerry doesn't cast a shadow.

Now, Jerry Dandrige is more than your typical vampire—he's definitely a monster when called for and Chris Sarandon plays the part well.  He does the charming mystery man who has that slight edge of evilness in his smile quite well and at times he can be pretty terrifying—of course, it helps when you have some pretty terrifying prosthetics added to your body to make you look like a monster.  But there are times when he gives Charley that look that says he's going to kill him...soon...and it makes you feel the dread Charley feels.

One of my favorite characters from the film, Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), really made this film as he was featured in some of the most memorable scenes.  Who can think of this film without remembering his high-pitched laugh and the line, "Oh, you're so cool, Brewster!"  More than the humorous sidekick to the main character, the character of Evil Ed does have a few imperative scenes that give a lift to the film.  When he's first turned by the vampire, it's such a sad dramatic scene and unsettling to see it since this movie, overall, is such a fun flick to watch.

Of course, the title of the film, Fright Night, refers to a very popular type of show throughout the country, and usually a locally produced show, at that time.  Back when I was growing up, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the late night horror show was called "Creature Features" and was hosted by Bob Wilkins on Saturday evenings.  Of course, I was banned from watching it even though I begged and pleaded to my parents to let me stay up and see it.  But, on rare occasions-usually when my cousins came over to visit and
my parents played cards with my uncle and aunt, not paying attention to us rambunctious kids—my cousins and I would flip the channel to local Channel 2, KTVU, to see what horror movie would be on that night.  As karma would have it, the movie was usually something that scared the shit out of me and would give me night terrors for weeks, but I still have great memories and a longing fondness for those times.

So, understanding that concept—especially if you didn't grow up during that era—you can appreciate Roddy McDowall's character, Peter Vincent, and what he does for a living.  Essentially, he's just a character in a position that's becoming obsolete.  That, in turn, was happening in the real world-late night horror hosts were becoming a thing of the past in the mid-80s.  He even explains in the film, which rang true at the time: "I have just been fired because nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore...or vampires either.  Apparently, all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins."  And he was right...at the time.  But besides all that, McDowall did a wonderful job at playing Peter Vincent.

Finally, William Ragsdale as Charley Brewster was a good choice.  The film needed to an actor with a nerdy presence, making it plausible that he would easily believe his next door neighbor is a vampire.  Yet, he has that everyday boy-next-door look to him to make you believe he isn't some outsider either.  Giving him a good-looking girlfriend (who knew that she would end up as...uh...Marcy?) and a friend goofier than him unquestionably substantiated him as the stable character in the story as well.  All in all, you see his point of view and find yourself wondering: What would you do if you found yourself in his situation?

Well, my final "bit" on Fright Night?

Now, many of you may have seen the remake a few years ago and probably enjoyed it (I can admit that I had as well), but it couldn't compete with its predecessor from the 80s.  I really can't understand why Colin Farrell would involve himself in a remake of an 80s horror film, but he made a decent choice in doing so (the Total Recall remake, however...not so much).  With that said, 1985's Fright Night is a great nostalgic piece of 80s horror—and vampire horror to boot—that's fun to watch and purely an awesome popcorn movie.  It's not pretentious or overly complicated—it's just a simple vampire movie for the modern day (if the modern day is 1985).  I highly recommend it and think any fan of 80s horror should look this one up and rent or buy it.

One caveat about trying to purchase this classic, however: You'll probably be able to find it on DVD, but if you want the Blu-Ray, you might be in for a shock.  Back in 2011, Screen Archives Entertainment released a limited edition Blu-Ray of the film.  When I say "limited edition," I mean they only released 3,000 copies.  I was lucky enough to be on a notification email list and was alerted when the discs were available for
purchase, but I could kick myself for not buying more than one.  The reason being?  Go on eBay and you'll see that there are astronomical prices for the Fright Night Blu-Ray.  In fact, a while back, I'd conducted a search and only saw one...for $349!  Oh well...at least I was able to get one to enjoy...I just hope it never breaks or becomes unplayable.  But you can still buy DVD copies or rent them, so please do so.

Well, that's it for today's post...thanks for reading...and I welcome any comments!

You can also tweet to me on Twitter, @CinemaBits, or check out my Facebook page here.

Jason X

Well…as one of the longest lasting slasher film franchises, this one finally jumped the shark by doing something very drastic and very risky.  Like the lesser-known Leprechaun franchise, the Friday the 13th filmmakers—the second go-around with New Line Cinema—decided to send their series icon, Jason Voorhees, into outer space.  Although not one of my favorites, I like what they did here and enjoy it for what it is: a mindless romp filled with special effects and Jason Voorhees letting loose on a spaceship in 2001's Jason X.

Now, I must say, there are a lot of things wrong with this film, but they’re mainly little things I can nitpick and useless stuff that can be easily overlooked.  For the most part, this film is very entertaining and New Line definitely made up for the Jason Goes to Hell debacle.

The film takes place in the near future, where the government has actually caught and imprisoned Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder, reprising his role), keeping him in a research center near Crystal Lake.  The lead scientist, Rowan (Lexa Doig), wants to cryogenically freeze him since attempts to kill him have failed, as he’s able to regenerate and come back to life.  Of course, Jason is able to break free of his confines and run amok, killing everyone in the research facility, leaving Rowan as the last one alive.  She’s able to lure Jason
into the cryo area and lock him into the chamber as she starts the process to freeze him.  As she looks into the chamber, Jason slams his machete out into her, causing the chamber to leak.  As a result, not only does Jason freeze, but so does Rowan.  Cut to 447 years later, with a group coming into the research center, discovering both Rowan and Jason.  They take both of them and bring them onto their ship, flying off into space.  It’s explained that Earth has become too barren to support life, so humanity has moved to another planet called Earth Two.  The medical staff on board is able to revive Rowan, but decide against bringing back Jason, citing that his cells appeared to be too deteriorated to reanimate.   But he awakens anyway and goes after everyone on board, killing anyone in his way.

Now, I said I have some nitpicking about this film, so here they are.

First off, why couldn’t they get Jason right?  The Jason that always scared me is the ones where you really couldn’t see his eyes, being shadowed out in the hockey mask’s eyeholes.  In this film, they actually show a close-up of his eye and, knowing Kane Hodder’s appearance so well, I just saw his eye and not Jason’s.  Not only that, but did they give Jason a full head of hair?  Looks like it in some shots.  Basically, it looks like they just put the mask over his face and didn't bother to put the latex bald cap and prosthetics on his head.  A very shoddy job indeed.

Secondly, did no one else know about this research facility?  How is it possible that Rowan and Jason are cryogenically frozen and left there for 447 years?  Nobody ever came by to check on the place?  It just sat abandoned for four and half centuries?  What about the power to run that freezer?  Wouldn’t the power company come by and disconnect them for non-payment?  I don’t know…maybe it was nuclear and just ran forever.

Lastly—the dialogue.  Again, they get a little too comedic for my taste. When the girl’s about to get sucked out of the ship and into the vacuum of space, she yells out, “This sucks on so many levels!”  Really?  That’s the best you can come up with?  The lines in this movie almost left my eyes permanently rolled up into my brow.

Other than those few critiques—and even with them—I thoroughly enjoyed Jason X.  I like the concept of taking Jason to space, using futuristic concepts like the nanotechnology for medical purposes (and to create an Über-Jason) or the cryogenics in the beginning of the film.  Overall, the film is much like the first Alien film, where everyone is crammed into these tight quarters of the ship, wondering where the threat is and when it’ll strike.  Of course, the best concept filmmakers have ever come up with—since, of course, giving Jason the hockey mask to wear—is the creation of Über-Jason.  Yes, using the nanotechnology as the McGuffin in this film, they’ve produced an even more unstoppable killing machine.

After watching Jason X I kind of wished that they would’ve continued with this and gone on to make more sequels.  The conclusion of this film definitely left room for another to follow, but I guess they’d decided that staying in the present was the way to go.  How cool would it have been to see the new Über-Jason on Earth Two, dealing with a new futuristic world and finding a new place to call his territory, killing anyone who comes his way?  I would’ve paid to see that, specifically if it had been done right. 

It’s really hard to believe this is where the franchise went, especially when I remember the first few films.  It just shows that this little small-budgeted film really went places and made a lot of people money.  Gone, however, are the days of teenagers flocking to the theaters to watch the newest Friday the 13th film.  I think the last time I had to wait in a long line to see a movie is when the first Spider-Man film came out back in 2002, but that’s because it was a big budget film.  Since the 80s, I haven’t seen a rush to the movie houses to see the latest horror movie.  Even when the Friday the 13th remake came out in 2009, not very many people went out to see it.  I just think the heydays of theater-going are long gone.  With the technology of computers and phones, people really don’t see the need to go out and watch the latest film…they can probably find an illegal download of it and just keep entertained until the film is released on home media.  Even the exhilaration of watching a flick on the big screen has vanished since most people are able to afford to buy huge screen televisions to watch shows and films at home.

But, I continue to watch the art of film in a comfortable setting, being all too happy to plop down ten to fifteen bucks a go.  I still get a flutter of excitement when the lights start to dim and the previews begin to roll as I sit back and enjoy everything.  To watch a film, particularly a horror film, with a crowd of people who are into it as much as I am sends a tingle throughout my body and it’s a feeling that has never been matched.

Okay, enough of my rambling.  What, pray tell, is my final “bit” on Jason X?

Jason Voorhees runs amok in outer space!  That’s all I have to say!  Watch this film…it’s a fun ride!

As a side note, the final sequel to the original Friday the 13th series, as well as the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Freddy vs Jason, was discussed in my look into the A Nightmare on Elm Street retrospective back on August of 2013.  Check it out here if you want to read about my discussion on the final sequel to all this.

Thanks for reading…and I welcome any comments!

Cinema Bits is on Twitter and Facebook.

Seeking Justice

Once again, Netflix streaming comes through for me with quite a nice movie in their “recommendations” section.  Looking for a change in my movie-watching the other day, I decided to browse through Netflix to see what I might like and I found 2011’s Seeking Justice, starring Nicolas Cage.  Thinking it was something along the lines of Law Abiding Citizen or Death Sentence, I was pleasantly surprised that it was something more intense and had quite a serious tone—something Cage seems to be fleeing from nowadays.  Although it left me with a few unanswered questions, I liked it a lot and found it quite entertaining.

When it comes to Nicolas Cage in films these days, it’s almost comedic how many movies he releases per year.  In 2011, he was featured in five movies; yet in 2012, there’s only one movie on his IMDb.com credits.  2013 has him with three and he’s got four, so far, slated for 2014.  But no matter how many movies he works on, one thing for sure, you’ll enjoy them to some degree. 

As Seeking Justice came up on the “popular” section of Netflix streaming, what caught my eye was when I read the description about a man who seeks justice after his wife is brutally assaulted and raped.  It made me believe that this was some kind of film about Nicolas Cage tracking down some guy who did unspeakable things to his wife and how he was going to get revenge.  But that wasn’t the case at all.  The other thing that caught my eye (and this was when the credits started popping up during the start of the film) was the cast featured within.  With all these well-known actors and actresses, how come I’ve never heard of this film?  I don’t remember Seeking Justice ever showing up in TV spots or even seeing trailers or posters in theaters.  It’s funny, because this is the second film I’ve enjoyed from Cage that has shown up in my Netflix streaming “recommendations” column, the first being Trespass.

Whatever the case, I chose the movie and decided to watch it.

Will Gerard (Cage), a school teacher, and his wife, Laura (January Jones), a musician, are a happily married couple, living in New Orleans.  One night, as Will is at a chess club with his friend, Jimmy (Harold Perrineau), who is the principal at the school where Will teaches, Laura is at music practice with her good friend, Trudy (Jennifer Carpenter).  After practice, Laura is brutally assaulted and raped by some unknown
man.  Will finds out later and goes to the hospital where she’s recovering.  As he goes to sit in the waiting room, he’s approached by a man named Simon (Guy Pearce) and offering to help “take care” of the man responsible for Laura’s attack.  Simon says that all Will will have to do in return is help later with being a lookout or with a call, giving him some vague reasoning.  At first Will doesn’t accept, but then reluctantly agrees.  After the assailant is dispatched, made to look like a suicide, Simon let’s Will know the job is done and that he’ll be contacted later on for what he can do for Simon.  Soon, Will finds out he’s in over his head.

It’s nice to see Nicolas Cage give a good performance in a film, leaving most of his eccentricities at the door and giving us someone we can see ourselves as.  We really don’t see him goof around much in this film…I think the only time he does is when he’s imitating James Brown for a brief moment as he jokes around with his wife and friends.  We see ourselves making the exact choices he makes, so there’s really no move he makes illogically.

January Jones is all right in her part as the wife, although there doesn’t seem to be a lot of chemistry between her and Cage.  Maybe it’s because I kept thinking of her off screen capers, how she’s sort of despised for certain things she has said in the media…but that shouldn’t affect my judgment of her performance.  She was okay.

I’ve always liked Harold Perrineau, from his time in “Lost” to his villainous role in “Sons of Anarchy,” he’s always been a solid actor in everything I’ve seen him in and doesn’t disappoint in this one.

Jennifer Carpenter is wasted in this film, limited to a few minutes—the filmmakers could’ve gotten someone else to just be “the friend” to January Jones’s character.  I was looking forward to her in this film because, being a fan of Showtime’s “Dexter,” I’ve always noticed she can have quite a range when it comes to showing emotion.  Maybe Carpenter and Jones should’ve swapped roles…I think that might’ve added to the film.

Guy Pearce nails it as Simon, the lead man of this secret organization.  He comes across as someone who youthink you can trust and you find yourself believing you’d do the same thing if you were Nicolas Cage’s character because Pearce seems so damned honest.  But he plays that nice-guy-come-backstabber so eloquently; he should get parts like this one more often.

One question that rang in my head after watching this: How does the organization that Simon runs get funded?  Seems that they recruit people like Will, who want justice or revenge, to do these deeds, but how does this pay off for them?  Is this just some club they have?  Do they all have day jobs?  It just doesn’t seem logical.  They all have some nice firepower, brand new black SUVs, cool wardrobes, so where’s the money coming from to pay for all this?  All this kind of went through my mind as I watched and I was waiting for some explanation as to how the group gets financed, but it never comes to fruition.  And, if they’re such ghosts that they can get into locked apartments or schools and they can beat any type of security, why don’t they just do the bad deeds themselves?   Why recruit some average Joe to do what they want and risk them fucking it up?  That’s the few things that I thought about while watching this film.

And my final “bit”?

Don’t get me wrong, I know that I’m praising this movie, but you need to see it for the enjoyment level you’ll get out of it.  Seeking Justice is most certainly a ridiculous movie played out with a serious tone, but it’s not thought-provoking or something that’ll make you analyze what you’ve just seen, just a good popcorn movie to sit and enjoy watching.  It’s not a perfect movie—there’s no message here, no moral of the story (unless one that says you shouldn’t get involved with a secret organization), just an interesting story from start to finish.  But…at the end…seems like they wanted to go with a sequel.  Well…just remember…”the hungry rabbit jumps.”

Thanks for reading and I welcome any comments!

Cinema Bits is on Twitter and Facebook.