31 Days to Scare ~ The Frighteners (1996)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a tragic car accident kills his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people. However, when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes (Director’s Cut)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: What I love so much about movies is that over time bad ones can become good and good movies can become bad. We’ve all had experiences where we have this certain vision of a movie in our head (positive or negative) and then, upon revisiting said movie, our opinions can change. Then there are the movies that you liked but didn’t quite catch on with others which eventually gained a cult following in the ensuing years. The Frighteners is one of those movies that I remember really liking when I first saw it but a prime example of a one that didn’t get the audience is richly deserved. With the rise in popularity of its director over the last two decades, more and more people are “discovering” this horror-comedy and claiming it as a spooky favorite. Better late than never, in my book.

In 1996 director Peter Jackson hadn’t yet become ‘Oscar winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy Peter Jackson’. He had found underground success with Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, his first two movies that were truly out there in their oddity (both cult classics unto themselves). It was his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures (introducing most of us to Kate Winslet for the first time) that really put him on the map and caught the eye of big shot Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis (Flight). Originally bringing Jackson on to create another film in his Tales from the Crypt series, Zemeckis read the script from Jackson and Fran Walsh and decided it was good enough to be a standalone film. Using their homeland New Zealand as a stand-in for a seaside California town, Jackson and Walsh gathered their friends at WETA studios, the fledgling effects company that would explode with the LOTR films five years later, and set about to make a different kind of ghost story.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is an opportunistic ghost hunter looking to con unsuspecting people out of their money in exchange for ridding their houses of poltergeists. The catch is that he can actually see these ghosts and has conspired with them to swindle the townspeople of Fairwater. When otherwise healthy townsfolk starting dying at an alarming rate, Frank realizes a malevolent spectre is at work…one that he may just have a personal history with. And what of the meek woman (Dee Wallace Stone, The Lords of Salem) being terrorized by an unseen force in the home she shares with her mother on the outskirts of an abandoned mental hospital? Is the same ghost responsible for all of the shenanigans going on?  With the help of a local doctor (Trini Alverado) and his ghostly friends (John Astin, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) Bannister avoids a creepy detective (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) and goes further into the unknown as he seeks answers to who has gone-a-haunting (and a-hunting) within the town.

Jackson and Walsh have imbued their script with a truckload of dark humor and it’s easy to see why it may have been off-putting for audiences looking for a more straight-forward tale of terror in the summer of 1996. The movie takes a while to get hopping and when it does it blasts off like a locomotive with little reprieve. It’s an effects-heavy film and one that famously held one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Studios. The extra time was worth it, though, as even twenty years later the movie holds up to CGI scrutiny with the best of them.  I recently watched the Director’s Cut for the first time and it’s about 10 minutes longer than the version released in theaters.  The added scenes flesh out the characters (pun mostly intended) and provide a little gasp of air while the movie is moving at lighting speed. Jackson is good with setting up extended scenes of delirium but he’s not simply out to give you the willies. He’s more concerned with the overall film experience and that speaks highly of the kind of filmmaker he was growing into.   Much like he immersed us in Middle Earth with his unimpeachable LOTR trilogy, he gives the audience checking out The Frighteners what they came for and much more.

The Silver Bullet ~ Grand Piano

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Synopsis: Moments before his comeback performance, a concert pianist who suffers from stage fright discovers a deadly note written on his music sheet.

Release Date:  March 7, 2014

Thoughts: Taking more than a few choice notes from the likes of Hitchcock and De Palma (Passion), I’m hoping that Grand Piano is better than it looks.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a taut thriller set in a confined space where our lead had to figure out a way to escape death without tipping off the killer but I’m not sure if Elijah Wood has that everyman quality that made Cary Grant and James Stewart so appealing.  The trailer also makes the mistake of giving away the identity of protagonist which could be a risky move if there are no more surprises in store.  Arriving On Demand before a theatrical release, this is one that may go down easier from the comfort of your own couch.

Movie Review ~ The Lords of Salem

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Heidi, a radio DJ, is sent a box containing a record — a “gift from the Lords.” The sounds within the grooves trigger flashbacks of her town’s violent past. Is Heidi going mad, or are the Lords back to take revenge on Salem, Massachusetts?

Stars: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davidson, Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Maria Conchita Alonso, Judy Gleeson, Meg Foster, Griffin Boice

Director: Rob Zombie

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  In his previous four films, director Rob Zombie was in it to win it.  A fan of old-school horror films, Zombie brought back a throwback nature to films like The House of 1,000 Corpses and its superior sequel The Devil’s Rejects.  These films were low down, dirty movies not for the faint of heart and established Zombie as a talent with an eye for the twisted.  Undertaking remaking the king of the slasher films, Zombie took a reboot of Halloween to a place I didn’t care for and then slashed through a sequel that managed to be even more vile – both of those movies really scared me, not so much because of any frights provided on screen but because of the lasting impression Zombie left with his shockingly violent killings.

So it’s pretty surprising that his latest effort seems so tame in comparison – it’s as if Zombie has gotten the need to shock out of his system and decided instead to focus on a more serious filmmaking exercise.  Clearly taking a page from Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, and early Dario Argento, The Lords of Salem finds Zombie not so much holding back but moving forward.  It’s not a great movie but it shows continued growth from the filmmaker.

Zombie’s wife (with an acting style that’s passable at best, laughable at worst) is a radio DJ in Salem, MA —  a dreadlocked bohemian chick that loves her dog, has colorful tattoos, and likes to sleep in the nude no matter how chilly it is outside.  Working in a Mod-Squad type set-up on her radio show (Phillips and Foree are her fellow mic-men), they play death metal and generally roll off each other well.  It’s interesting that Sherri Moon Zombie is the most effective in these scenes…naturalistic and unguarded – it’s only when she’s working through dialogue on her own that she sounds like she’s reading the script for the first time and missed all the punctuation.

Living in the type of boarding house straight out of any number of 70’s possession flicks, Heidi gets sent a record from The Lords and when it’s played on the air it’s eerily dissonant instrumental music has a strange effect on Heidi and other women of Salem that happen to be listening at that time.  You see, Heidi is the descendant of a famous witch hunter and has opened the door for the witches to return and bring Satan back with them.

That’s the gist of the set-up and Zombie takes a good forty minutes to set his picture into true motion.  There’s something to be said for a focus on characterization before the odd manifestations start to take place…but the material and performances in this first act doesn’t rise to the occasion.  It doesn’t help matters that wild-haired Davison blusters his way through the film as an author interested in witchcraft who surprisingly knows very little about the town he’s grown up in and its storied history.

Aside from Sheri Moon Zombie and Davison, the film casts four interesting veteran actresses in memorable roles that pretty much steal the show.  As the big bad super high meanie witch, Foster (with those icy blue eyes) is buck naked for 98% of the film and seems to relish the artistic freedom that comes with it.  As three sisters that seem to be auditioning for a local production of Macbeth, Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Stone (The Howling, Cujo), and especially Geeson (To Sir, With Love) are nearly worth the  price of admission – here are three established actresses that are game to play with what Zombie has given them.

Though his previous movies have creaked toward the two hour mark, this barely cracks the 90 minute plateau and all the better.  Zombie seems to have made it to the final reel before giving in to his previous stylistic trappings and decides to cram it all into a finale that features a lot of old lady nudity, ripped out intestines, and several strangely effective demonic images.

Even with all this it’s a slow film and I found myself fighting to keep my eyes open on more than a few occasions.  Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with Zombie tightening his reins and trying something different.  His last film, Halloween II, was way too violent for me and The Lords of Salem was overly languid to go along with.  Zombie picks and chooses his projects carefully so I’m hoping his next effort is a better balance of directorial narrative and the stylized violence and imagery he clearly is so adept at.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Lords of Salem

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Synopsis: Residents of Salem, Massachusetts are visited by a 300-year-old coven of witches

Release Date:  April 19, 2013

Thoughts: Musician Rob Zombie is a filmmaker that always keeps it interesting.  Though I’ve been up and down in my appreciation of his film work, you can’t deny that he doesn’t do anything halfway.  With a keen eye for detail and production design, Zombie has delivered very effective (and effectively depraved) films ranging from the gruesomely watchable (The Devil’s Rejects) to the unwatchably gruesome (Halloween II…where future Oscar winner Octavia Spencer gets killed horribly).

His latest film stars his wife whose acting skills seem once again up for debate.  Lords of Salem appears to be another rough around the edges Zombie feast with the witch coven angle vaguely reminiscent of Italian horror-master Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria.  With The Evil Dead remake right around the corner and this arriving in April, audiences will have their squirm factor put to the test .