31 Days to Scare ~ Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A night at the movies turns into a nightmare when Michael and his date are attacked by a hoard of bloodthirsty zombies – only a “Thriller” can save them now.

Stars: Michael Jackson, Ola Ray, Vincent Price

Director: John Landis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 13 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: To celebrate the 35 year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the folks over at IMAX did a pretty cool thing and re-released it in theaters for one week. Showing before The House with a Clock in Its Walls and looking scary good enhanced by 3D, it only hammered home again what a landmark achievement this was in the still-growing music video scene. All these years later, it stands as a high-water mark for the medium and is a pretty creepy mixture of horror and music.

Directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) who had shown an eye for horror and comedy, there’s a sizable portion of this without any music at all and it opens with Michael Jackson and his girlfriend Ola Ray running into car trouble in the woods. Aping I Was a Teenage Werewolf from 1957, Michael changes into a beast and just before he nabs his prey we see that we’re actually watching a movie…that’s also being watched by Jackson and Ray. The meta-ness of it all aside, Ray can’t take the scares and hightails it out of the theater. Reluctantly, Jackson follows her and that’s when Thriller takes control. As they walk home Jackson’s killer vocals and unimpeachable dancing give way to an ever expanding smorgasbord of all manners of ghouls and zombies that come out to play…and dance. It all culminates around the 8:25 mark when Jackson finds himself possessed by the dead. Will Ray be able to get away or will she succumb to the creatures of the night?

I can’t tell you what a joy it was to see this projected on the huge IMAX screen in 3D. It looked like a million bucks and by the time we get to the legendary dance break I had goosebumps all over. It’s such a masterful mix of music and story tightly packaged into 13 minutes. While this was only in theaters for a week, maybe we’ll all get lucky and they’ll bring it back around Halloween – it’s worth seeing whatever movie it is paired with.  Even if you can’t see it in a theater, watch it again above and relive how good this is!

31 Days to Scare ~ An American Werewolf in London

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two American college students on a walking tour of Britain are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will admit exists.

Stars: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine, Brian Glover, Lila Kaye

Director: John Landis

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: This fondly remembered horror flick from 1981 is one I personally tend to forget about every few years, prompting a re-watch to refresh my memory. It’s not that the movie doesn’t hold up over time, but it starts off so good that by the time it reaches the halfway mark it’s run out of steam and sputters to the finish line. While it’s widely regarded as a classic genre film and even nabbed the first ever Best Makeup Oscar for Rick Baker’s creative werewolf transformations and elegant gore imagery, there’s something chilly to the whole picture that fails to linger too long in the memory.

Coming off the one-two punch of Animal House and The Blues Brothers, it seemed like a strange choice for director John Landis to take on a horror film, albeit one with a heavy dose of sardonic comedy. There are so many in-jokes and enough rapid-fire yucks to make your head spin, but they serve as increasingly less-appetizing distractions from the horror main course. When the film stays on its mission it’s gold, it’s when Landis gets goofy that the film starts to unravel for this viewer.

Americans David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are wandering through the Yorkshire moors when they stop in at a local pub to warm their hands and their bellies. Sensing some tension from the locals, the two hitch up their boots and head out but not before being warned to stay on the road and not to venture off the path. Sure enough, as most dumb Americans are wont to do, David and Jack have strayed and get lost in the highlands at night and eventually find themselves stalked by someone or something they cannot see.

While one of these men won’t live past the first reel after being mauled by a giant beast, he returns often as a decaying ghost that haunts the other who was merely bitten by the monster. Like a bleeding Jacob Marley, he warns his friend that when the next full moon arrives he’ll be turning into a true blue werewolf. The living friend tries to write-off these visions as side-effects of the trauma and warms up to a kindly (and, really, rather unprofessional) nurse who takes him home to her flat and her bed. When the next full moon arrives, the poor guy goes through a whopper of a hairy growth spurt and begins a rampage through the London nightlife.

Funny, having only seen this a few weeks ago I’m already fuzzy on how the movie wraps up but I know that it was a far cry from the creepy opening sequence that sets the stage so nicely. Landis is a decent filmmaker who would go on to direct several classic films of the ’80s before striking out again and again. While he and Rick Baker would catch the attention of Michael Jackson and be hired to direct and design the make-up for his landmark Thriller video, I’m not sure Landis ever satisfactorily returned to horror even though he made a few vain attempts.

It is right and just that An American Werewolf in London became a touchstone of early ‘80s comedy-horror and Baker’s effects are really a sight to behold. I just wish the movie had more going for it than the effects and a strikingly good first 1/3. Whatever you do, don’t confuse this with the wretched sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris which is a follow-up in name only.

 

Movie Review ~ Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

drunk_stoned_brilliant_dead_the_story_of_the_national_lampoon

The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the history of the American comedy publication and production company, National Lampoon, from its beginning in the 1970s to 2010, featuring rare and never-before-seen footage.

Stars: Chevy Chase, Kevin Bacon, Al Jean, Billy Bob Thornton, Ivan Reitman, John Landis, Judd Apatow, P.J. O’Rourke

Director: Douglas Tirola

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though I’ve watched quite a few of the big screen offerings boasting the name National Lampoon, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the bawdy, rule-challenging magazine that started it all. Those in the same boat as me will be well served to devote some time to Douglas Tirola’s Lampoon love letter Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon because it gathers nearly every living member that was a major contributor to the magazine and films, detailing how the magazine rose to record high circulation before crashing and burning near the turn of the century.

The ground-breaking publication had a 28 year run starting in 1970, born as an offshoot of sorts to the Harvard Lampoon, a chaste satire magazine that I’m pretty sure didn’t feature as many bare breasts as its wicked cousin. Attracting some of the best and brightest in young comedic talent, the magazine grew to phenomenal popularity in pop culture and found its players turning up on a radio shows, stage plays, and, eventually movies.

The timing seems right for this documentary, coming on the heels of the numerous retrospectives that surrounded the 40th Anniversary of Saturday Night Live. Looking at the members of the National Lampoon that were eventually lured away to form the original cast of SNL, you get an even greater sense as to where they cut their satiric teeth before achieving the national spotlight every Saturday night.

It’s a fairly straight-forward documentary with good sound bites presented by people with names we recognize more for their behind the scenes contribution than anything onscreen. Though they are now older and (maybe) wiser, the wealth of timeworn photos show that in their heyday these people partied hard and produced a ribald humor magazine that was a counter-culture phenom of its time. It’s hard to know if such a thing could happen in this day and age, making the National Lampoon a time capsule of sorts for how things (and people) (and humor) used to be.