31 Days to Scare ~ High Spirits

The Facts:

Synopsis: The owner of an Irish castle decides to attract visitors by falsely claiming the building is haunted, only to have a pair of real ancestral spirits start causing trouble…

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Daryl Hannah, Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D’Angelo, Liam Neeson, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Tilly, Donal McCann, Mary Coughlan, Liz Smith, Tom Hickey, Tony Rohr

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  As another October was drawing to a close and it was getting time to step away from focusing solely on scary movies for the year, I was thinking about what to feature for the last few posts.  I knew I’d cover some well-known titles and already planned out my Halloween entry but it was that last day, the 30th, that had me scratching my head.  Then it hit me…or actually it came crashing down.  I was just waking up this morning when a unexpectedly picture fell off the wall, causing a great deal of noise and starting the day off with a startle.  A faulty nail is the assured culprit but…what if a ghost was having some fun with me in the early hours?  For some reason, it got me in haunting mood and my mind went right to High Spirits, a silly but fun favorite of mine.

Now, let’s be clear.  A horror movie this is not so if you’re looking for blood, guts, and gore you can skip to tomorrow but if you need a spooky/goofy respite from suspense and are up for a trip back to the late ‘80s you have come to the right place.  Released in 1988 to mediocre reviews and no box office, this isn’t exactly an unheralded classic that didn’t get its due.  While I personally find it to be a riot, at the time it arrived in theaters audiences were already distancing themselves from this broad type of farce.  Over time, I think the movie has aged well and the cast is chock full of familiar faces, many of whom are turning in sharp and ribald performances.

Poor Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole, The Stunt Man) is having trouble getting guests to stay at his castle in the Irish countryside.  Though the place is in need of repair, Plunkett and his staff of locals don’t do much to spruce it up to make it more appealing to the tourist trade.  When he’s (literally) at the end of his rope, a light bulb for an idea goes off when he’s reminded by his boozy mother (a delightful Liz Smith) about the numerous ghosts that supposedly live in the castle.  Why not market the castle as haunted and, once the guests arrive, fake the appearances to create massive buzz?  That should keep the rooms occupied and the cash coming in.  Right?

The plan works…almost.  When the first batch of tourists arrive, they include Jack (Steve Guttenberg, Diner) and Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo, The Sentinel) a couple on their second honeymoon and they clearly need it.  She’s an uptight city gal while he’s looking forward to getting the most out of their creepy Irish adventure.  They’re joined by a priest (Peter Gallagher, Hello, My Name is Doris), a sexpot (Jennifer Tilly), and a demanding family from the suburbs (led by Martin Ferrero from Jurassic Park).  The staff do their best to give the group a good scare but the results are less than thrilling.  Figuring out they’ve been duped pretty quickly, the guests plan their escape…and that’s when Jack meets Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah, Splash!), Peter’s very beautiful but very dead relative.

Murdered on her wedding night by a jealous husband (Liam Neeson, The Haunting) and doomed to repeat the violent act nightly for eternity, when Jack intervenes in a drunken daze it breaks the cycle and Mary is freed to be a regular old spirit.  Grateful to Jack for freeing her, the two strike up a connection that neither really found with their significant other.  The movie then becomes your typical boy meets ghost story, further complicated by her dead husband and his living wife getting into the mix.  All this happens while Plunkett tries to keep the other guests out of harm’s way when their less than haunted experience gets very real after the rest of the Plunkett ancestors get roused and the line between the living and the dead is tested.

Written and directed by Neil Jordan (who would score an Oscar four years later for The Crying Game and also gave us Greta in 2019), the movie is total Sunday afternoon rainy-day fare and I think it’s a lot of fun.  It’s obviously not trying to be a classic in any sense but it has some memorable moments and performances that are off-the-wall enough to be quite amusing.  Smith is a hoot at Peter’s mum who is always three sheets to the wind while it’s nice to see Neeson so early in his career in a lark of a comedic role.  Guttenberg and D’Angelo can play these types of roles in their sleep but they’re engaging nonetheless and Hannah makes for a lovely apparition.  The production design of the castle is impressive and, haunted or not, you’ll likely wish a similar stay would be in your future.

High art?  No.  High Spirits?  Yes.

31 Days to Scare ~ Wolfman’s Got Nards: A Documentary

The Facts:

Synopsis: This heartfelt documentary explores the power of cult film told through the lens of the 1987 classic The Monster Squad and the impact it has on fans, cast and crew, and the industry.

Director: André Gower

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  After horror, if there’s one genre that I just can’t get enough of it has got to be documentary features.  There’s something about that reality of interviewing real people or hearing a true life tale recounted that produces a similar charge within that I get from watching a movie meant to send chills up my spine.  So a documentary about a favorite horror film from my youth?  I’m SO there.  Most often, these documentaries are relegated to a bonus feature on whatever special edition DVD/BluRay has been produced from a long-lost classic finally making its debut in a restored print. That’s cool and all, but on the rare occasion a behind the scenes insight into a film’s genesis and staying power is created for distribution in cinemas…well now, that’s an event to be celebrated.

In the past several years, documentaries on beloved horror/cult classics have upped their ante with lengthy explorations on the Friday the 13th (Crystal Lake Memories) and Nightmare on Elm Street (Never Sleep Again) series prime examples of those that have exhaustively covered the work.  What makes a documentary like Wolfman’s Got Nards so unique is that in 91 minutes it manages to amply cover the highlights of the making of 1987’s The Monster Squad while also exploring it’s unexpected resurgence as a cult classic taught in college curriculum and as a touchstone for numerous genre aficionados from the heartland to Hollywood.

By all accounts, when it debuted two weeks after The Lost Boys in August of 1987, The Monster Squad was a total bomb.  Mis-marketed and poorly reviewed, it likely should have been held back a bit longer and built on the success of screenwriter Shane Black’s (Iron Man 3) current project Lethal Weapon, which had been released the previous March.  Fading from theaters and the minds of most people shortly thereafter, a core group of hardcore fans held the movie close to their hearts for years.  I vividly remember renting the movie numerous times from my local video store; after all, I was the target audience for a PG-13 rated film surrounding pre-teens doing battle against a horde of monsters out to rule the world.

It wasn’t until 2006 when a longtime fan partnered with the Alamo Dratfhouse in Austin, TX to hold an anniversary screening that the film started getting the long lost love it richly deserved.  Surprising the cast and director Fred Dekker more than anyone, it kicked off a whirlwind of press and promotion that resulted in the movie making its much heralded debut on DVD and numerous screenings over the last decade.  It also inspired star André Gower to team up with Henry Darrow McComas to produce this documentary about the film, how it’s reputation changed over time, and what that shift meant to those involved.

This is one of the best documentaries made about a movie I’ve seen in quite some time.  Obviously, with Gower involved there’s going to be some sort of level of reverence to the piece, but even if the original film has flaws that’s not what we’re sitting down and watching this for.  It’s also not a straight making-of documentary either.  At my screening, Gower and McComas were present to introduce the film and they mentioned it wasn’t a behind-the-scenes or where-are-they-now film and they’re right.  While it covers the elements of making the movie (which I was grateful for) and includes tidbits not found on the DVD making of doc, it’s more interested in committing to film interviews with fans and supporters who have championed the movie over time and can pinpoint exactly what about the experience of the film is so important to them.

I was surprised at how unexpectedly emotional it was on top of everything else.  One of the most loved characters in the movie is Horace (aka Fat Kid) and the actor who played him, Brent Chalem, sadly died at 22.  Many fans, including myself, only found this out when the collectors edition DVD came out and it’s been a sensitive subject ever since.  This documentary interviews three family friends who give us a bit more information on Brent as the person while several of the film stars get choked up thinking about what he would have thought about all this newfound popularity of his character.  Sitting in the theater watching this sequence, I found myself shedding a tear or two – definitely didn’t think that was going to happen.  While it would have been nice for the doc to acknowledge the several key cast members that are also no longer with us (including the brilliant Mary Ellen Trainor, who played Gower’s mom), I do get why Brent/Horace got his own special shout-out.

Handsomely produced with little padding to extend its running time to 91 minutes, this is a blueprint for how to produce a movie doc that’s not just about how the script came together and why the director cast the actors.  The interviews with the technicians that worked on the film are fascinating and the amount of fan interviews featuring people from all walks of life was astounding.  These types of serious-minded reflections can only happen decades on and I’m glad Gower and company were moved to take the approach they did with this look back on a popular title that continues to gain new fans.  I even stayed after and re-watched The Monster Squad for the first time in a theater and was reminded what a fun watch it was…so is this documentary.

 

Check out my original review of The Monster Squad right here:

 

 

31 Days to Scare ~ The Monster Squad (1987)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A small town is disrupted with the arrival of Dracula to retrieve an amulet controlling the balance between good and evil.

Stars: André Gower, Robby Kiger, Brent Chalem, Tom Noonan, Duncan Regehr, Ryan Lambert, Stephen Macht, Mary Ellen Trainor, Jack Gwillim, Jon Gries, Stan Shaw, Leonardo Cimino

Director: Fred Dekker

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Few films bring up such rich retro memories for me than 1987’s The Monster Squad.  I can still see it now.  I’m nervously biting my lip standing next to my dad at Home Video, our local rental haunt.  He’s holding the box for a movie he and my mom are checking out and I’m clutching the cardboard case (stuffed with a perfectly fitted Styrofoam rectangle) for The Monster Squad. I’m 10, it’s PG-13…I’m anxious.  I’d already asked about getting this and my dad agreed…but would he change his mind?  Will I get to take this home and see what looks like a rad flick filled with monsters, cool kids, and, best of all, Dracula?  Or will I be denied at the last minute and wind up empty-handed?  My dad turns to me, looks at the VHS and says to the clerk, “And my son is joining The Monster Squad.”  Score.

Aside from being a great memory of my dad and I, this evokes the kind of excitement that came with physically going to a store and renting movies which has become a lost art.  Being able to browse just the boxes of numerous movies without access to IMDb.com or watching the trailers on YouTube was the chance to create your own narrative as to what you thought the movie was going to be about.  With The Monster Squad, what you see on the box is definitely what you get.

Taking place in a small town that suggests mid-America (actually filmed on the back lot of Universal Studios…look for the Back to the Future clock tower in certain scenes), The Monster Squad doesn’t waste an iota of its short running time.  After an establishing prologue in Transylvania where we are introduced to a powerful amulet that Van Helsing desperately wants to use to send monsters into a black hole, we jump forward a hundred years to meet Sean (André Gower) and Patrick (Robby Kiger).  Typical high school teens, they just want to be able to talk monsters and not worry about silly things like school and chores.

At the same time, a plane carrying the remains of Frankenstein’s monster is hijacked by Count Dracula and winds up in the pond behind Sean and Patrick’s clubhouse.  When Count Dracula uses his power to resuscitate Frankenstein it also awakens The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolfman.  Dracula is after the same amulet we see at the beginning of the film which he hopes to use to unleash hell on earth.  The only problem is that he needs Van Helsing’s diary to locate the stone and unlucky for Sean, his mom just picked it up for him at a garage sale.  It’s up to Sean and his gang to vanquish the evil without getting picked off in the process.  So begins a battle between monsters and teens.

Co-screenwriter Shane Black would go on to become one of the highest paid scribes in the business (he wrote Lethal Weapon and was behind the recent reboot of The Predator) and his writing partner Fred Dekker sat behind the camera.  You can tell the two of them had a ball writing this and, though a lower-budgeted film, they make the whole thing look like a high class affair.  It has a ton of fun inside jokes that any classic monster fan will eat up and since most of the special effects are practical and not shoddy computer generated (thank you, Stan Winston), it has aged gracefully.  Admittedly, while the film has stood the test of time visually, it does have a few cringe inducing homophobic phrases that are hard to excuse away even in the most charitable sense.

I love that during the Halloween season instead of pulling the film back from free steaming services someone has allowed The Monster Squad to be readily available to any and all that want to revisit their childhood memories or introduce their kids to the fun.  Though nowhere near a hit when it was first released, it has rightfully gained a cult status over the last three decades.  It’s a bit scary for younger kids but instead of a few off-color potty mouth moments and the aforementioned regressive dialogue it’s fairly family friendly.

31 Days to Scare ~ Candyman

The Facts:

Synopsis: The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.

Stars: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, Bernard Rose, Michael Culkin

Director: Bernard Rose

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Growing up, I watched many horror movies and usually found them more funny than actually scary. Most of the films I saw had a heightened sense of reality so you could always tell they were operating in the confines of a fantasy world and not based in reality. It was easy to disassociate with the blood and gore because you would see the edges of the make-up applied or would jokingly feel that the characters got what was coming to them for going camping in the woods where a madman was rumored to be lurking.

Then there are movies like Candyman.

As a teen, I remember seeing this some weeknight with my dad at the Mall of America (RIP General Cinema!) and not really knowing what to expect. Yikes, I was in for a shocking treat. Based on Clive Barker’s short story (which I read a few years ago and found quite spellbinding) and adapted by director Bernard Rose who changes the action from the UK’s rundown council house neighborhood to Chicago’s inner city slum, Candyman has had a lasting impression on me throughout the years. How can a movie I’ve seen at least a dozen times still make me keep a light on at night, still send a chill up my spine, still make me dread certain passages?

Grad student Helen Lyle (Virgina Madsen, Joy, an inspring choice) is doing a study on modern urban legends with her colleague Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, The Silence of the Lambs). While interviewing subjects they hear the tale of an invisible killer with a grotesque hook for a hand now said to haunt Chicago’s famed Cabrini Green housing project. Dubbed Candyman over time by the superstitious locals, Helen and Bernadette investigate the claims in an effort to support their thesis. The deeper into the mythology of Candyman (Tony Todd) Helen goes, the greater the danger as her cavalier skepticism rouses the fabled slayer to show up and make an example out of her.

From the very first shot in the title sequence set to a creepy as hell music box score from Phillip Glass, your spidey senses should be tingling. Rose isn’t interested in bringing forth a supernatural creature that can’t be identified but in presenting the myth of a dangerous figure than manifests itself in reality. On more than one occasion it’s suggested the residents of Cabrini Green are harboring this creature or attributing other crimes to him as a way to ward off urban sprawl and keep people away.

The film takes its time to get to the madness and when it does it unleashes some fairly grotesque imagery and copious amount of blood. It all seems just a hair above slasher film territory but it’s interested in being more classy than truly exploitative. When bodies start to turn up and a baby goes missing, Helen herself is implicated as a possible killer and must track down the heart of the legend to clear her name and save an innocent life. The finale is a bold move by the filmmakers, even if they pander to the audience with a gruesome (if satisfying) epilogue.

You have a lot of options for scary movies around Halloween and Candyman might already be on your watchlist. If it isn’t, consider replacing one of the more obvious choices (Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street) and check out this modern horror classic. It’s followed by two sequels, with only the first (Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh) of possible interest if you liked this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Walk

walk

Synopsis: The story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s attempt to cross the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

Release Date:  October 2, 2015

Thoughts: Inspired by the Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire, this is the true story of a high-wire daredevil that pushed the limits of his technique.  The original documentary was a nail-biting bit of wonderment, easily deserving of its Academy Award and I’m interested to see what director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) makes of the material that was already told so well.  Zemeckis isn’t as formidable as he once was, opting to produce more films that he directs but when he does the results have been unique and defined by real storytelling.  Featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon) as Philippe Petit, our first look at The Walk doesn’t give away much…but at least you’ll have time to check out Man on Wire before The Walk arrives in October

In Praise of Teasers ~ Total Recall (1990)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Total Recall (1990)

Arriving right at the true peak of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (The Last Stand) popularity, Total Recall was a sci-fi action pic through and through that would up being a highly profitable snazzy summer blockbuster.   It’s also the movie that really introduced Sharon Stone (Lovelace) to audiences as well as cementing director Paul Verhoeven as someone to keep your eye on (Stone and Verhoeven would team up again 2 years later for the controversial hit Basic Instinct).  A remake was released in 2012 but it couldn’t hold a candle to the original which had a style and star that couldn’t be replaced.  This teaser trailer featuring a red-tinged Schwarzenegger ominously staring at the camera was a perfect way to let everyone know that a trip to Mars was in their future.

Missed my previous teaser reviews? Check out my look at Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge

Mid-Day Mini ~ Steel Magnolias

steel_magnolias

The Facts:

Synopsis: Revolving around Truvy’s Beauty Parlor in a small parish in modern-day Louisiana is the story of a close-knit circle of friends whose lives come together there

Stars: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott

Director: Herbert Ross

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Like the film adaption of A Few Good Men, the movie version of the play Steel Magnolias has ruined me for any future stage production.  Playwright Robert Harling brought his auto-biographical play to the screen with a script that took the ladies out of the beauty salon and added male characters without sacrificing any of the charm, humor, and emotion that made the theatrical work so popular.

It can be a tough chore to adapt a play for film without making it seem too stagey or confined but Harling and director Ross (The Turning Point) avoided these pitfalls with ease thanks in no small part to a slam-dunk sextet of females in leading roles.  It’s clear that the women enjoyed working together because their warmth and easy-going vibe really elevates the film from being a sappy Southern fried weepie to a memorably classic tearjerker.

I’ve seen Steel Magnolias on stage several times (even on Broadway with Delta Burke, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen, and the Noxzema Girl) and the shadow of the movie always loomed large…I know it’s unfair to make comparisons but it can’t be helped with a cast of this caliber.

It’s lovely to see the journey Roberts (coming off good notices in Mystic Pizza) takes as a young Southern belle.  Earning an supporting Oscar nomination for her work here, she’d follow this up with a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman a year later.  She fits in well with other Oscar winners Dukakis (for Moonstruck), MacLaine (for Terms of Endearment) perfectly cast as funny biddies and Field (two time winner for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart) as her kind but overly protective mother.  They’re joined by a surprisingly effective Hannah as gawky Annelle and the still underrated Parton (Joyful Noise) as salon owner Truvy.

Though the film has several scenes throughout that may get you misty, it’s Field’s breakdown near the end of the movie that chokes me up each and every time I’ve seen it.  There’s something raw and real about the internal struggle that manifests itself in a powerful cry for answers that hits a nerve within me.  The beauty of the film, similar to Terms of Endearment, is how it injects humor in all the right places so just when the tears start to flow you find yourself laughing.

Yeah, one could describe Steel Magnolias as chick flick and it absolutely is – but more than that it’s notable for its strong performances, gorgeous score (by Georges Delerue), and sensitive direction by Ross (though it’s widely known that Ross was a real devil to work with – he hated Parton and was especially hard on Roberts).  Tearjerkers don’t always come in this easily accessible a package.

Movie Review ~ The Call

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When 911 operator Jordan Turner receives a call from a girl who has just been abducted, she soon realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

Stars: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Michael Imperioli

Director: Brad Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s so aggravating to find yourself in the theater watching a B-movie that thinks it’s playing in the big leagues, so there’s something to be said about a movie that knows its place.  Though it’s a B-movie through and through, The Call manages to rise above its direct-to-video set-up and break on through to the other side of schlock entertainment.

I’d seen the trailer for The Call more than a few times and with each viewing I was less and less interested in it because I felt the preview gave away too much of the movie…a feeling I still stand by after seeing the final product.  However, even a giveaway trailer couldn’t quite put a damper on the fact that the film is more enjoyable than it has any real right to be.

Originally titled The Hive, referring to the 911 control center where much of the film takes place, The Call starts out strong as we find 911 operator Jordan (Berry, Cloud Atlas) using her expertise to help a young girl escape an intruder.  Trouble is, Berry is too on the ball and she inadvertently plays a part in the girl’s demise at the hands of a killer.  Six months pass and Berry is unable to bring herself to take more calls, deciding instead to teach incoming operators…until a girl (Breslin) calls from the trunk of a car after being abducted from a mall parking lot.

The Operator and The Abducted work together as they battle near escapes, broken cell signals, and one very loony tunes psycho across the highways and byways of Los Angeles.  Under Anderson’s (The Machinist, Next Stop Wonderland, the underrated Session 9) slick direction, the film chugs along without ever letting the audience get too far ahead.  Though Richard D’Ovidio’s lean script is filled with your stock close calls and convenient happenstances, it somehow works in a throwback sort of way.

Oscar winner Berry has had a rough go with movie choices for most of her career – for every good movie she’s done there are three or four others that she (and we) would like to forget.  I had my reservations going in and although she lays the emotional anxiety on thick, she acquits herself nicely by making her character a believable fighter and do-righter.  Breslin is another actress that can’t quite find her footing as she mozies through some teenage awkwardness…but the film allows her some opportunity to break out of the Little Miss Sunshine mode.

Most interesting in the cast is Eklund as our resident kidnapper (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler).  Eklund’s role is a tricky one – in these types of films the killer is usually either a pervert or nutcase and Eklund opts to mash those two together and produces a slow burn of creepiness.  When the film trips near the end and rips off a classic Oscar winning horror film it’s Eklund that brings it back to reality.

It’s not a perfect film by any means.  The secondary characters exist only to get Berry, Breslin, and Eklund where the script dictates they need to be and the ending may be something the audience wants but it’s not what the movie deserves.  Fortunately, for the previous 90 minutes The Call has brought you along on a breezy thrill ride that serves its purpose and delivers the goods.