Archive for October, 2012

31
Oct
12

Lunatics and Laughter Day 20: Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010)

Director: Eli Craig

Writer: Eli Craig & Morgan Jurgenson

Cast: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Travis Nelson, Chelan Simmons, Christie Laing, Brandon Jay McLaren, Alex Arsenault, Adam Beauchesne, Philip Granger, Joseph Allan Sutherland

Plot: In the Appalachian Mountains, a group of college students takes a trip to the woods. They stop to get beer, encountering a pair of rednecks. One of the girls, Allison (Katrina Bowden) is startled by the appearance of redneck Dale (Tyler Labine), and the kids hustle back to their car. Dale admires Allison from afar, and his buddy Tucker (Alan Tudyk) tries to convince him to take a chance and approach her. His weak attempt to be friendly frightens the girls. Chad (Jesse Moss) ushers them back into the car, and they speed off. Dejected, Dale slumps back to his truck and Tucker urges him to find the courage to pursue what he wants. The boys are on their way to a “summer home” Tucker bought by the lake, with an eye towards fixing it up. When a beam slips from the ceiling and nearly hits Tucker in the face, they decide they’d better start on the repairs.

At the college students’ campsite, Chad begins telling his friends the story of the “Memorial Day Massacre.” Twenty years ago, a bloodthirsty hillbilly slaughtered a group of college students just like them. Chad comes on to Allison, but she rejects him and goes to her friends, who are skinny-dipping in the lake. Tucker and Dale, meanwhile, are night fishing. When Dale spots Allison stripping, he accidentally startles her and she falls in the water, hitting her head. They pull her from the lake, saving her life, but the other kids mistake the rescue operation for a kidnapping and flee in terror. In the morning, Allison wakes up in Tucker’s cabin, head bandaged, wearing one of Dale’s flannel shirts. As he approaches her, she’s terrified of him… until she realizes he’s just bringing her breakfast. She’s stunned to realize her friends abandoned her when they thought she was in danger, and finds herself slowly charmed by the gentle, sweetly awkward Dale, even giving him permission to call her Allie.

Chad plans an assault on the hillbillies, sending Chuck (Travis Nelson) to try to find the police and Mitch (Adam Beauchesne) to attack Tucker, who’s chopping wood with a chainsaw. Tucker accidentally saws into a beehive and begins to run, Mitch fleeing in a blind panic, impaling himself on a fallen tree and dying. The teens believe Tucker killed him. Back in the cabin, Dale and Allie start playing board games, Allie impressed by his knowledge of trivia and tells him of her plans to become a therapist. Tucker summons him to help outside, and the kids hide from them as they chat about Allison, mistaking their comments and Dale’s misspelled note (“We got yur frend”) for a threat.

Allie joins Dale in digging a hole for the outhouse, revealing she grew up on a farm and is used to hard work, while Tucker gets to work disposing of all the dead wood near the cabin in a huge chipper. (If you have paid any attention since the beginning of this project, you know exactly where this is going.) The teens attack, one of them spearing himself on the stick he planned to use to kill Dale and another leaping at Tucker and landing right in the wood chipper. Allison is accidentally knocked out. The boys bring her inside, believing the college students have entered into some sort of crazy suicide pact. Outside, the kids meet up with Chuck and the Sheriff (Philip Granger).

The Sheriff pulls up at the cabin just as Tucker and Dale get the remains out of the wood chipper. The Sheriff (understandably) doesn’t believe their story, and insists they take him inside to check on Allison. He accidentally triggers the beam that nearly hit Tucker earlier, and a board full of nails is drilled into his forehead. He stumbles outside and dies next to his car full of terrified teens. Chuck takes his gun and tries to shoot the rednecks, but forgets about the safety until Dale reminds him. Chuck winds up blowing his own head off. Chad manages to capture Tucker, dangling him upside-down from a tree and torturing him for being “pure evil.”

Allison wakes up and Dale tearfully says her friends are trying to murder his best friend and his dog. Allison starts to understand the misunderstanding and steps outside to calm her friends, but finds a package left on the stoop: a part of Tucker’s shirt with two fingers and a note from Chad, daring Dale to try to save his friend. Allison’s attempt to explain reveals she was afraid of Dale when she first saw him, and he blames himself for everything that’s happened. He asks her to tell her friends he never wanted to hurt anyone and sets out to rescue Tucker. He stumbles into a trap set by Chad, but the trap misses and he saves his friend. As night falls, Chad and Naomi (Christie Laing) sneak into the cabin. They find Allison alone and Chad begins pouring gas around the cabin, calling the boys evil freaks. Naomi accuses Allison of falling in love with her captor, Chad growing angry before Tucker and Dale arrive. Allie tries to make everyone talk things out, making Earl Gray tea (because Chad is allergic to Chamomile).  Chad reveals his mother was the lone survivor of the Memorial Day Massacre. Outside, the last two teens (Jason-Brandon Jay McLaren, and Chloe-Chelan Simmons) break in. They wind up setting the cabin on fire. The remaining teens, except Chad, are killed, and Dale crashes the truck trying to escape. When he wakes up, Allison is missing and Tucker too injured to go on. Tucker tells Dale he’s a better man than he knows, and that Allison sees it too, and sends him off to be the hero. He tracks Chad to a mill, where Allison is tied up. Dale cuts her free and they run, finding an attic with more newspapers and boxes of tea. The papers reveal that Chad’s mother was actually raped by the hillbilly killer… and the photo of the murderer looks just like Chad. Chad refuses to believe it and he slashes at Dale, but Dale hits him in the face with Chamomile tea. Chad staggers backwards and falls from the window.

The news blames the deaths of the college students on a deranged killer (Chad), and Tucker watches the report from his hospital room, where his fingers have been (mostly) reattached. Dale takes Allison out bowling that night. As he awkwardly tries to profess his feelings for her, she silences him with a kiss.

Thoughts: Being, as I am, from Louisiana, cinematic depictions of the south frequently infuriate me. While every geographic region has some legitimate stereotypes, the notion that being from the south automatically makes someone lackwitted or intolerant is personally insulting and as ignorant as anything the people who make those claims are upset about. And that is why I love Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. On its face, the movie seems to play into all the backwoods hillbilly stereotypes. It soon becomes clear, though, that writers Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson had a totally different agenda with this film. Granted, Tucker and Dale could stand a few more showers and they may not be as refined as the Chads of the world, but they’re unrelentingly clever, hard-working, loyal, and brave. They are the salt of the Earth, and every death in the movie comes not at their hands, but because the college kids are far more stupid and intolerant than they accuse our heroes of being, and bring disaster upon themselves.

Even more so than most modern slasher movies, the death scenes are played for laughs, mainly because every single injury in the movie is either self-inflicted or Chad-inflicted. As it turns out, the only thing funnier than watching a teenager get hacked up by Jason Voorhees is watching a pretentious douche get hacked up because he thinks he’s being chased by Jason Voorhees.

The therapy scene is a great little double-punch. It comes across as a minor dig at the modern attitude of trying to talk through problems that may be beyond talking. Chad is clearly harboring deep, violent issues and it’s doubtful from the outset that there’s anything anyone could say to make him see reason. At the same time, it’s a great way to establish more of Chad’s character (he’s still a one-note villain, but now he’s a one-note villain with a motivation), and get some of the film’s funniest lines out all at once.

In terms of legitimate horror, there isn’t too much here. Some of the death scenes are a little gory and violent, but they’re never played realistically enough to get too horrified. Tucker and Dale are supposed to look disturbing at the outset, but that switch is flipped virtually as soon as they start talking. And while Chad makes for a solid villain, he’s never particularly frightening or intimidating. Tucker and Dale could easily take him out at any point if they weren’t trying to hold back, which they do either because they don’t realize they’re in danger, don’t want to hurt anybody, or are instead more concerned with protecting Allison.

In a strange way, this movie is a further deconstruction of the sort that began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although it takes its inspiration more from the Last House on the Left or Texas Chainsaw Massacre school of terror. In Buffy, we watched as the typical horror movie victim got the upper hand on the monsters and became a superhero. In Tucker and Dale the reversal goes a step further, with the usual victim becoming the monster himself and the usual monsters becoming champions. It’s such a simple, brilliant change-up that it’s almost impossible to believe it hasn’t been done before. (Unless it has been done before. If it has been done, please let me know.)

Although I wasn’t sure what to make of this movie the first time I watched it, it won me over almost instantly. The change to the usual horror movie formula is fresh and entertaining. Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk are charming comedic actors that work really well together, coming across as a great movie duo. This is the newest movie on the list, receiving only a limited theatrical release and a DVD release earlier this year, so I won’t be surprised if a lot of you haven’t seen it yet. If you fall into that category, go to NetFlix streaming and stream the heck out of it, now, before your Halloween passes. It’s a great way to cap off the season.

Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.

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30
Oct
12

Lunatics and Laughter Day 19: Zombieland (2009)

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Writers: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray

Plot: Zombies have taken over the world, and only a few isolated survivors remain. A young man from Columbus, Ohio (Jesse Eisenberg) has lasted longer than anyone he knows thanks to a carefully constructed set of rules, assembled mainly through trial and error. Little things make a difference in Zombieland: cardio, “double tapping” (always use a second bullet to make sure the zombie is dead), and of course, fastening your seatbelt. He’s a nervous sort, afraid of clowns, and mostly a loner. “Columbus” is making the long journey home from Texas in the hopes that his parents may still be alive. He is picked up by a cowboy hat-wearing fella in an SUV who calls himself Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). In order not to get attached, Tallahassee insists on using their hometowns as identifiers, rather than bothering with real names. Tallahassee’s passion for killing zombies is matched only by his craving to find a Twinkie, and when they encounter a supermarket, Tallahassee insists on stopping to check it out. Instead, they find a young woman who identifies herself as Wichita (Emma Stone). Her younger sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) has been bitten, and they’re begging for help – they need a gun to kill her. Tallahassee is about to pull the trigger, but Wichita asks to do it herself. Taking the gun, she turns on the men, stealing their car, ammunition, and weapons; it was all a scam.

The girls head west, planning to get to a supposed safe zone called Pacific Playland. Tallahassee, meanwhile, finds a Hummer in good condition, loaded with big guns. They set out to find the girls, and although Columbus cautions Tallahassee not to let his anger take him, Tallahassee says he’s got nothing but the little pleasures since he lost his puppy, Buck. They find the SUV on the side of the road, hood open, abandoned. While Tallahassee checks it out, Little Rock hijacks Columbus in the Hummer. The girls rob them, again, but this time take them on the road. Wichita drops the sad news that Columbus, Ohio, burned to the ground during the outbreak. She offers to drop Columbus off so he can find a new path, but he decides to stay with her.

Eventually, they make it to California, where Tallahassee suggests finding and resting in the home of his favorite celebrity: Bill Murray, an unknown quantity to the 12-year-old Little Rock. They split up to search the place for zombies, and Columbus decides to culture Little Rock by showing her Ghostbusters in Murray’s own movie theater. Tallahassee and Wichita, elsewhere, make enough noise to summon a zombie – Murray himself. Or so it seems. Murray, still alive, had himself made up in zombie makeup as a defense. He begins showing his guests a good time, reenacting scenes from his movies, and they convince him to prank the jittery Columbus by pretending to be a zombie again. The joke goes too far and Columbus shoots Bill Murray in the chest. As he dies, Murray identifies his one regret: Garfield.

As they decompress and remember the things they miss from the Pre-Zombieland world, Columbus realizes the “Buck” Tallahassee has been mourning isn’t really his dog, like he said, but his son. He has a good cry, finally letting the emotion out. Later, Wichita brings Columbus a bottle of wine. As they trade life stories, Wichita asks him to dance, and he’s about to kiss her when Tallahassee interrupts, asking for help in moving the couch to build a fort.

In the morning, the girls take the Hummer and leave the guys behind, Wichita upset that she almost broke her cardinal rule: the sisters trust no one but each other. They drive the last few miles to the Pacific Playland amusement park. Instead of the zombie-free paradise they were promised, when Wichita turns the power back on the lights and sounds draw all the undead for miles. They are trapped at the top of a ride, surrounded. At Murray’s house, Columbus fails to persuade Tallahassee to help him find the girls and starts to set out on his own. When he drives a motorcycle into a hedge, Columbus takes pity on him, and they take one of Murray’s cars to Pacific Playland. Tallahassee lures the zombies away from the ride so he can blow them away. He locks himself in a carnival booth, shooting through the bars and ceiling, killing all the zombies he can. Columbus, meanwhile, makes it to the girls just in time: there’s a zombie climbing the ladder towards them and they’re out of ammo. But before he can charge to the rescue he encounters his greatest fear: a zombie clown. Taking a page from Tallahasse, he beats the clown to hell and saves the girls. Wichita gives him a special prize – her real name – and he kisses her. As they leave, Little Rock tosses Tallahassee a Twinkie from the snack bar, and the odd little family sets out on the road again.

Thoughts: Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick originally conceived Zombieland as a TV series, and looking at the movie through that prism, it’s actually pretty obvious. It plays much like a TV pilot, introducing a cast of characters and a situation through which it would be easy to tell a lot of stories over an extended period of time. It also explains why, unlike most zombie movies, the entire principal cast survives the film. There are a lot of short holdovers from that TV script as well – the rules for surviving Zombieland were intended as part of the TV framing sequence, and the “Zombie Kill of the Week” was going to literally be a “kill of the week.” It also suggests that there may have been intended answers to some of the assorted questions the story leaves open – why sisters Wichita and Little Rock have different home towns, for example, or perhaps even more tellingly, why on Earth the electricity is still on everywhere we go. Seriously, throughout the film we see a total of five living people post-outbreak, how is it that the only place with no energy is the amusement park, and all it takes to get that going again is Wichita hitting a few switches?

Those minor holes aside, the movie is still intensely enjoyable. The story comes across as a clear Type A horror movie, but that doesn’t diminish the comedy at all. We get a group of very funny, very relatable characters in this movie, each of whom displays more depth and potential than their archetypes would suggest. Columbus is your standard awkward nerd, and the others tease him as such, but at the same time the very fact that he’s survived so long on his own reveals the sort of steel he really has. Tallahassee’s tenderness is hidden for much of the movie, but obvious when he decides to open up about his son, and integral in his decision to join Columbus on the rescue mission. The girls are tough and fight dirty, but at the core is a mutual desire to protect each other. We don’t know why, exactly, they’re so damaged, but that damage is presented in a believable way that makes their behavior easy to understand. The four of them fit together very naturally and very organically, in a way that leaves open plenty of room for the comedy.

I was reluctant to talk about the Bill Murray sequence in my recap, because not only is it a delicious, hysterical segment of the film, but it was such a surprise when I saw it that I think it ratcheted my overall enjoyment of the movie as a whole, and I hate to spoil that for anybody else. But then, I suppose anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet either won’t read this recap or doesn’t care about spoilers, so why skip talking about something so memorable? The thing is, the film was planned in such a way that any of several celebrities could have been plugged into those scenes, depending entirely on who they could get to agree to do it. I don’t know who else was under consideration and I don’t care: Murray was perfect. His pedigree, the chance to listen to him as he performed some of his greatest one-liners, the admission that making Garfield was a terrible mistake… who else could have possibly filled that role in such a perfect fashion?

The finale, not to overstate it, is the greatest thing ever committed to celluloid. Killing zombies is always fun. Doing it while riding roller coasters, marching through a haunted house, or dangling from one of those spinning swing rides? It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Or at least a bitchin’ video game. In fact, that’s what the last fight actually feels like: we’re watching Tallahassee and Columbus fight their way through the final level, except instead of one boss it’s just more zombies than anybody has ever seen.

The zombies themselves really feel like a secondary element to this film. While it wouldn’t work as well if the apocalypse was caused by vampires or a virus or something of those sorts, the zombies are just stage dressing. In many ways, this movie shares a lot in common with that other zombie TV show that did get made. In The Walking Dead, the zombies are usually relegated to the background – a problem to be dealt with, to be sure, but not the major thrust of the stories. The same is true here. The major difference is that The Walking Dead plays the scenario for drama, while this is a relatively lighthearted comedy. The only truly serious moment, in terms of character, is when we realize that Tallahassee is mourning a dead child instead of a dead puppy, and our hearts break a little… something that is rectified only moments later when he wipes his tears away with a wad of now-useless money.

Like I’ve said for several of our recent films, I hope the suggested sequel to this someday gets made. Sure, Eisenberg and Stone have both become much bigger stars since the film premiered and Breslin is a teenager now, but that doesn’t mean the time lapse couldn’t be worked into the story in an organic way. By design, these are characters that have a lot of life left in them and much more story to tell. I just hope, sooner or later, we get to see it.

Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.

29
Oct
12

Lunatics and Laughter Day 18: Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

Director: Michael Dougherty

Writer: Michael Dougherty

Cast: Dylan Baker, Rochelle Aytes, Quinn Lord, Lauren Lee Smith, Moneca Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Brett Kelly, Britt McKillip, Isabelle Deluce, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Alberto Ghisi, Samm Todd, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, Connor Christopher Levins, James Willson

Plot: (Note: Trick ‘r Treat is a movie in the Robert Altman tradition – not just an anthology film, but a film in which multiple plotlines tend to weave in and out of one another. Although I’ll attempt to give as straightforward a synopsis as possible, it may be best if you just watch the movie. Come to think of it, just watch the movie anyway. It rocks.)

On Halloween night, Emma (Leslie Bibb) and Henry (Tahmoh Penikett) return home after a party. Despite Henry’s objections, Emma blows out the candle in their Jack O’Lantern and begins taking down their decorations, even as kids on the street continue trick-or-treating. Something leaps out at her, covered in a sheet, and slashes her throat open with a pumpkin-shaped lollipop sharpened into a blade. Henry comes outside later to find her head severed and limbs dismembered, dangling from a scarecrow, the lollipop stuffed in her mouth.

Earlier that evening, elsewhere in town, the streets of Warren Valley, Ohio are loaded with partiers and revelers – this is a town that takes Halloween seriously. But not everyone is ready yet. Laurie (Anna Paquin) and her friends are at the local costume shop, trying to find last-minute outfits. Laurie is reluctant to join the fun, but her sister Danielle (Lauren Lee Smith) insists. Laurie selects a Red Riding Hood costume. As they check out, Danielle invites the sales clerk to join them at a party they’re going to in the woods. After the others chide Laurie for being a virgin at 22, Laurie abandons her friends, saying she’ll meet them at the party later. She’s decided she wants to find “her guy” herself.

Elsewhere, a young boy named Charlie (Brett Kelly) marches down a street, knocking over pumpkins as he goes. He approaches the home of his school principal, Mr. Wilkins (Dylan Baker), who catches him stealing candy. As he carves a new Jack O’Lantern, he gives Charlie a lecture about respecting the dead and the traditions of the past no one cares about anymore. Charlie begin throwing up blood. Wilkins gleefully confesses that he poisoned the candy, and Charlie dies. He takes the body into the house, but is interrupted by trick-or-treaters. As he gives them candy, one of the kids asks if they could have his Jack O’Lantern for a scavenger hunt. He drags Charlie to his backyard, dumping the body into a hole where another body already waits. While working, his son Billy (Connor Christopher Levins) loudly yells for him from the window. His next interruption is the neighbor’s dog, which he distracts by throwing one of Charlie’s fingers to him… but his neighbor Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) comes out. As Wilkins hides in the grave, the second body squeals, not quite dead. He gives Kreeg a story about his septic tank being backed up, sending him back inside. Billy pops out again, begging to go with Wilkins to the Halloween party, but Wilkins says he can’t, he has a date. He finally manages to get the bodies buried. When he walks inside, Kreeg shrieks at him from the window, but Wilkins ignores him, and we see someone attack Kreeg. Inside, Wilkins and Billy sit down to carve their Jack O’Lantern… Charlie’s severed head. Billy sweetly tells his daddy to help him with the eyes.

The trick-or-treaters who took Wilkins’s pumpkin meet up with some other friends who’ve been gathering pumpkins. Macy (Britt McKillip) says they need more, so they visit “idiot savant” Rhonda (Samm Todd), who has carved dozens. Schrader (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) charms Rhonda into joining them. They make their way to a quarry where, according to the legend Macy tells them, 30 years ago a school bus full of mentally challenged students were taken instead. The children’s parents – exhausted and embarrassed– asked him to do “the unthinkable.” As he passes out candy and checks the chains on the students, one of them gets free and starts the bus, sending it into the lake at the bottom of the quarry. Only the driver survivs, and no one knows what happened to him. Finishing the story, Macy says they’re going to leave the Jack O’Lanterns by the lake. They manage to activate the old quarry elevator, taking Macy, Schrader and Sara (Isabelle Deluce) to the bottom. Macy says she’ll send the elevator back up for Rhonda and Chip (Alberto Ghisi).

Back at the Halloween party, a hooded figure in black kisses a girl in an alley. He bites her with a pair of fangs, drinking her blood. She flees into the streets, running into Emma and Henry and begging for help, but they think she’s just drunk. The hooded man returns, finishing her off. Laurie, meanwhile, is having no luck finding a suitable single man – until she sees the man in the hood.

At the quarry, Rhonda hears a howling in the distance and declares it to be werewolves. She and Chip take the elevator down, hearing their friends shouting for help as they come down. When they reach the bottom, the others are nowhere to be found. Rhonda leaves the frightened Chip behind and seeks the others, finding the half-submerged school bus in the lake, along with shredded and bloody remains of the other kids’ costumes. A pair of creatures emerge from the slime, and she runs. She falls into the lake, hitting her head, and the attackers reveal themselves to be Schrader, Macy and Sara – the whole thing was a cruel prank. Schrader tries to apologize, but Macy seems more irritated that their trick is over. Packing up, Macy kicks the last lit Jack O’Lantern into the lake, and voices begin to come from the water. The children from the bus crawl from the lake, pursuing the pranksters. They get back to the elevator, where Rhonda sits with her Jack O’Lanterns. The dead children approach, and Rhonda turns the elevator on, leaving her tormentors behind, screaming.

Laurie walks through the woods to her party alone, afraid she’s being pursued, until she encounters the hooded man. Danielle, at the party, is nervous for the sister her mother always called “the runt of the litter.” As she waits, a body in a Red Riding Hood cloak falls from the trees. Danielle lifts the cape to reveal the hooded man, begging for help. Laurie suddenly steps out of the trees, casually, albeit with a little blood on her. Danielle admonishes her for being late, and one of the other girls, Maria (Rochelle Aytes) removes fake fangs from the Hooded Man’s mouth. She removes his mask to reveal Principal Wilkins. She smiles, saying she’s glad he’ll be Laurie’s first. Laurie admits to Danielle that she’s nervous, and her big sister tells her to just be herself. She walks to Wilkins, sits on his chest, and transforms into a werewolf, opening her mouth wide for her first kill.

Earlier (again), a group of trick-or-treaters visits Mr. Kreeg’s house. He scares them off, taking the candy they left behind, and desperately tries to find something on television that isn’t about Halloween. He’s alerted to an intruder when his gate begins creaking, and someone begins pelting his window with eggs. He steps into the backyard, where his dog is nibbling on something and, over his fence, his neighbor is digging a hole. While they chtalkat, someone watches him from the bushes.  Kreeg sees a figure running through his house – a small child in orange pajamas with a burlap sack for a mask (Quinn Lord). (“Sam,” as he’s called, has turned up several times throughout the film, watching our stories.) Kreeg goes to his bedroom, where a burning pumpkin reveals “Trick or Treat, give me something good to eat” written on the walls and ceiling, over and over again, in blood. Sam slashes his ankle with a knife hidden in a candy bar. Kreeg runs for help, slipping on candy and broken glass that sends him tumbling down the stairs. He goes to the window and begs Wilkins for help, but his neighbor ignores him and Sam leaps again. Kreeg  rips off Sam’s mask, revealing a horrible pumpkin-like head. Sam finally gets the upper hand on Kreeg, approaching him with a sharpened pumpkin lollipop… but instead of stabbing him, he takes the candy Kreeg stole earlier. As Sam leaves, we see in Kreeg’s fire a burning photograph… years before, when he was a bus driver, at a home for mentally challenged children.

Later that night Kreeg, wounded and heavily bandaged, gives candy to a group of trick-or-treaters who come to his door. As he looks around the street he sees Billy Wilkins, bloody, handing out candy, Rhonda coming home with a wagon of pumpkins, Laurie and her friends driving by and giggling… and Sam, on the sidewalk, watching him. Across the street, Emma and Henry arrive at home, Henry admonishing her not to blow out the candle in their pumpkin. When she does it anyway, Sam looks down at his sharpened lollipop and walks towards their home. Kreeg drags himself back inside, but there’s one last knock on the door. The dead children from the quarry are back… and they want their candy.

Thoughts: Trick ‘r Treat is one of those movies that sat on a shelf for a few years, scoring only a limited theatrical release before coming to DVD. As such, many people dismissed it – straight-to-DVD movies have a rather negative reputation, you may have heard. But when I finally got a chance to watch the movie I realized that, not only was this a cut above most DVD-first fare, it was actually one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in a very long time.

Writer/director Michael Dougherty’s film puts its inspiration on display in the opening credits, which are structured to resemble old-fashioned horror comics of the Tales From the Crypt variety (inspiration for the TV show and movies, the Creepshow series, and countless other contemporary horrormeisters). He displays his four tales (and pieces of others) as part of a single night of insane terror across a little town, connecting them in subtle ways and using the audience’s own expectations of horror movies against it. The effect is a movie that makes you chuckle, jump, and scream, all the while giving you a brand-new horror icon that really could stand right up there with the Freddies and Jasons of the world.

The movie isn’t quite a gag-laden comedy the way a lot of the other movies in this project have been. In fact, someone unfamiliar with horror movie tropes may not find much to laugh about at all. The laughter almost always comes in when you realize the direction the story is going is not at all what you expected. In the principal’s story, for instance, Dougherty shows us early that Wilkins has no qualms about murdering a child, and when he begins showing clear frustration at Billy, we’re certain that either Billy will die or Wilkins will get some sort of cosmic comeuppance at the hands of his son. In virtually any other horror movie, in fact, that’s exactly what would happen. The end of the scene, where they tenderly begin to carve Charlie’s mutilated head up together, works brilliantly against everything a normal horror movie does, while delivering a powerful kick to close off that story (for the moment, at least).

Even more brilliant, perhaps, is the twist at the end of Laurie’s story. Dougherty sets her up perfectly as the sweet, innocent, virginal “survivor girl,” even making it seem as though she’s going to be pitted against a vampire for her grand moment of triumph. He nails us with two reversals here – first, making her the killer instead of the victim, and second, pulling a werewolf out of nowhere to close it off. Well… almost nowhere. Rhonda, earlier, did claim she heard werewolves in the woods, something that is easy to blow off the first time you watch the movie but that seems like a brilliant bit of foreshadowing on the second viewing.

Those little connected moments, by the way, also work brilliantly to make this a strong, cohesive film. Each of the four main stories could be chopped out of the anthology and shown as individual short films, and each would feel more or less complete. The connections, though, make things a lot more fun and help us connect the characters to one another and keep track, mentally, of the timeline. The movie doesn’t jump around quite as much as, say, Pulp Fiction, but it does jump.

The good thing is that the nonlinear nature of the story helps with the playfulness of the plot. When Sam kills Emma at the beginning, it seems sort of random. Okay, so she didn’t like Halloween, but surely that isn’t enough to deserve a death sentence. The callous way Henry blows off the girl who died at the party – which happened earlier but which we see later – helps bring things around to Emma getting what (in a twisted scary movie sort of way) she had coming to her. Mr. Kreeg’s story also benefits tremendously from this technique. Chronologically speaking, Sam attacks him long before we hear the story at the quarry, but had the film been shown in that order, the burning photograph would have been meaningless. We would have picked up the meaning later, but it would have robbed the story at the quarry of much of the impact. What’s more, when the dead children drag themselves out of the lake, it’s the first time the movie shows anything that’s explicitly supernatural. Rearranging the story would undercut that, and lord only knows what it would do the werewolf story.

Then there’s our new horror icon. Sam, at first, appears to be just a sort of playful phantasm, something that appears everywhere. He gets candy from Wilkins, visits the massacre at the quarry, and observes the murders at Laurie’s party. At first, he’s actually cute. He comes across as a mischievous little sprite that seems to be a watcher of sorts, but not actually connected to the chaos around him. The encounter at Kreeg’s house changes all that, of course, and does so in a clever way. Without actually spelling things out, Dougherty reveals why Sam is after Kreeg, ties many of the stories together, and makes the jolly little pixie truly horrific. You even understand – kinda – why Sam decides to let Kreeg live at the end. (It’s telling that perhaps the most disturbing part is that when Sam is injured, he doesn’t explode in blood, but in pumpkin seeds and entrails.)

Dougherty and producer Bryan Singer have been working for a few years to get a sequel to this film made. Although progress is slow, unlike the perpetually-stalled Behind the Mask sequel, it seems like this one will make it to the screen sooner or later – the movie is not only critically acclaimed, but eventually achieved solid commercial success on DVD. The FearNet TV channel has also embraced the film, having Dougherty direct several holiday shorts starring Sam and showing the film for 24 hours on Halloween, mimicking the success of A Christmas Story on TBS. In fact, if you’ve never watched this movie and you get the FearNet network, there’s the perfect chance to rectify this egregious error. Just check out the various shorts on YouTube, then set the DVR or carve out any two-hour block on Halloween night, and prepare to discover a movie that has become a tradition for horror fans everywhere.

Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.

28
Oct
12

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 276: The Showcase Boys Vs. the Evil Dead

 

The Showcase Halloween Marathon returns! This year, the guys tackle Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell’s trilogy of terror, Evil Dead, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. The guys also discuss the Dynamite Comics and the upcoming Evil Dead remake. In the picks, Kenny goes Halloween-y with the Vampire Hunter D franchise, and Blake gets a little meta with Superman #13. Contact us with comments, suggestions, or anything else at Showcase@CXPulp.com!

Music provided by Music Alley from Mevio.

Episode 276: The Showcase Boys Vs. the Evil Dead

28
Oct
12

Lunatics and Laughter Day 17: Slither (2006)

Director: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Don Thompson, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, Haig Sutherland, Jennifer Copping, Brenda James, Jenna Fisher, Lloyd Kaufman

Plot: Thesmall town of Wheelsy, South Carolina is in danger. A meteor has fallen to Earth. Local car dealer Grant Grant (Michael Rooker)’s relationship with his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) hasn’t been great lately, and he’s in the woods with a woman he picked up in a bar (Brenda James, as Brenda) when they come upon the meteor. A parasite infests Grant’s body, and the next day, he begins stocking up on meat. Starla returns home to find a lock on the basement. Grant is changing – odd sores appearing on his body, and intense discomfort in his abdomen. A pair of fleshy tendrils sprout from his chest and almost reach for Starla, but he makes up an excuse about leaving something at work and flees. He goes to Brenda’s home and abducts her.

Starla, meanwhile, reconnects with Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), a childhood sweetheart who never stopped carrying a torch for her. At home she finds Grant covered in bumps and sores. He claims it’s just a bee sting and the doctor has already treated him. She calls the doctor the next day, though, and he denies having seen Grant. Grant, meanwhile, has chained Brenda in a barn in the woods, and is bringing her huge bags of meat. Her stomach has become grotesquely distended, and she is ravenous. Bill and his deputy Wally (Don Thompson) pay Starla a visit. Brenda has been reported missing, and the neighbors saw Grant enter her house. Scared, Starla breaks the lock off the basement door to find a grotesque, flyblown nest full of animal corpses. Grant attacks her, but Bill and the cops return just in time to see his mutated form as he runs away.

Three days later Mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) is up in arms. Although he doesn’t believe reports that Grant has turned into a monster, he does believe he’s behind Brenda’s kidnapping and the rash of animal slayings that has sent the town into a frenzy. Bill rounds up a posse to stake out the next farm in Grant’s attack pattern, and Starla asks to come with him. Grant has mutated further, turning into a horrible, fleshy mass covered with tentacles, and the horrified police watch as he slays and consumes one of the farmer’s cows. Starla tries to reason with him, but when a deputy tries to play hardball, Grant kills the man and flees into the woods. They track him to the barn and find Brenda, now transformed into an enormous, pulsating blob. She explodes into a torrent of sluglike creatures that attack the cops, slithering into their mouths. Billy, Starla and a few others escape by covering their mouths until the slugs are gone, but most of the cops are down – alive, but comatose. The slugs converge on the farmhouse, where one attacks the farmer’s daughter Kylie (Tania Saulnier). Although it makes it into her mouth, she digs her fingernails in and yanks it out – but not before she has visions of its horrific alien homeworld. When she stumbles from the bathroom, she finds her parents and sisters have been taken by the hundreds of slugs overwhelming the house. She locks herself in her father’s truck as the slugs swarm over it.

Back at the barn Bill calls for help and tries to get the fallen cops outside. Wally wakes up and begins talking to Starla, saying he’s sorry and that he didn’t tell her because he was afraid she wouldn’t love him anymore. As the rest of the posse stands, it becomes clear Grant’s mind is controlling them all. Starla shoot Wally and rest of the Grant-zombies give chase. Back at the truck, the slugs have slithered away, but Kylie’s blood-soaked family is now trying to get to her. Bill saves her, but a horde of zombiefied people from nearby homes attack. Starla and MacReady run by, pursued by the zombies, and Starla slays another. The four survivors climb into Bill’s car and flee, while the zombies they leave behind cry Starla’s name.

Kylie explains what she saw when the slug attacked her – a creature that moves from planet to planet, consuming everything and turning what it doesn’t eat into part of its hive-mind. Bill calls his dispatch officer Shelby (Jenna Fischer) and tells her to call the CDC, but the slugs burst into the office before she has a chance. Instead, Shelby sends a zombie in a van to collide with Bill’s car. A horde of the zombies kidnap Starla. Bill and Kylie hide while one of the zombies gets MacReady. The zombies bring Starla and MacReady back to Grant’s house, and the thing that used to be Grant puts on some romantic music for a night at home with the wife. She approaches him as he continues to absorb the zombies into his own mass. She finds him in a twisted shrine to their marriage, surrounded by pictures of the two of them. She attacks as Bill and Kylie arrive, but Bill misses with his grenade. The creature stabs Bill, but he manages to get a tentacle jammed into a propane tank. Starla grabs Bill’s gun and shoots Grant, igniting the gas. As he dies, everyone taken by the slugs collapses. Bill, Starla and Kylie stumble out into the rising sun, surrounded by the bodies of the zombies, and begin to go down the road, planning to walk to the hospital in the next town.

Thoughts: If Eight Legged Freaks was a love letter to 50s-era giant animal monster movies, Slither is a tribute to that time period’s other great fear: alien zombies. Of course, the zombies of that time aren’t zombies as we know them today (that was largely a creation of George Romero in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead – virtually all zombie movies since have taken their cues from Romero). At the time, pretty much anything that turned ordinary people into mindless beasts or, even better, part of an alien hive-mind, could qualify. Slither fits in well with that brand of horror film.

It’s most certainly a Type-A horror/comedy, though. In terms of sheer gore, this movie far outstrips anything we’ve yet watched in this project. James Gunn (writer of the Scooby Doo films and the Dawn of the Dead remake, here making his directorial debut) is a product of Troma Studios, and it shows with horrific monster designs, highly realistic animals, and garbage bags full of blood and offal. Gunn pays his dividends to his alma mater in this movie. Not only is the story like something ripped right from a Troma film (albeit with a less campy tone and much better production values), but he works in a cameo by Lloyd Kaufman as a town drunk and even throws in a clip from The Toxic Avenger on Brenda’s TV screen. That’s only the obvious stuff, though. Less obvious, but still undeniably Tromantic, are some of the monster scenes. When Grant infects Brenda, for instance, the scene is surprisingly brutal, but shot in many ways like a sex scene, right down to the rhythmic gyrations one would expect at such a moment. It’s the sort of thing that’s either wildly funny or horribly disturbing depending on how you want to look at it. The part where Bill grapples with a zombie deer? Well, that’s just funny any way you cut it.

The true expression of how warped Gunn’s sensibilities are (and I mean this as a compliment) is the finale. Grant – now a truly hideous creature – has Starla trapped in the house while dozens of zombies walk around calling her name and pounding on the walls, all to the dulcet tones of Air Supply’s “Every Woman in the World.” The disconnect between the music and what we’re watching on the screen is jolting, funny, and terrifying all at the same time. There’s a bit of genius there too – when Starla begins talking to Grant about how long he’s been alone, it takes you just a moment to realize she’s not really talking to him, she’s talking to the alien. It’s really well-scripted and well-acted, and all the blood and gore is just a bonus.

Grant Grant actually manages to transcend his stereotype a bit. He’s the big lummox, the sort of guy you expect to turn into the threat in these situations, but it’s worth noting that before the alien takes over his body he actually turns down the chance to cheat on his wife. That’s not something most characters of his type would do. Even after the parasite takes him, we see him try to resist. There’s real pain in his eyes when Starla looks at him covered in the bumps and sores, when he realizes she’s starting to see the monster inside him. He even protects Starla when the monster wants to go after her in the shower, and although he quickly finds an alternate victim, it’s hard to argue that his love for his wife isn’t genuine.

If anyone fits into the dumb beefcake archetype, it’s Mayor MacReady (a nice nod to another of Gunn’s obvious influences, John Carpenter’s The Thing). He’s rude, crass, and uses his obnoxious personality to cover a streak of cowardice. When Bill shoots him in the head after his transformation, it’s the sort of horror movie kill that makes the audience cheer with approval. He does, however, get some of the film’s best lines – lots of tasteless jokes and panicked exclamations (he’s never seen anything like this, and he watches Animal Planet all the time).

Fans of Firefly have long known Nathan Fillion has leading man quality, and this film helps get that across. He’s got a heroic, self-sacrificing nature, not quite as bold or bombastic as the characters he usually plays. When he drops a one-liner (and he does, frequently), it’s more likely to be dry and a little self-deprecating than any kind of braggadocio. The scene in the car, when he nervously tries to explain to Starla how he’s responsible for stopping up his mother’s toilet and then gets into an argument with MacReady over the definition of “Martian,” is one of the best bits of writing I’ve seen in one of these movies.

Besides MacReady’s name, Gunn continues the now well-worn tradition of peppering the film with references to other horror stories. The scene where the slug attacks Kylie in the bathtub is very reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s attack on Nancy in the first Friday the 13th for instance, with other scenes calling to mind great bits from Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, and dozens of other films. Even Kylie’s little sisters are caught reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books before they turn into monsters themselves.

Like Eight Legged Freaks, the downfall of this movie comes in the CGI. Four years later than the other film, the technology has improved. Individual slugs actually look fairly convincing. But when you see an entire swarm of the slugs, the visuals start to break down. The worst bit is actually the first time you’re sure you’re looking at computer effects, when Brenda explodes and the slugs rush out in a wave. It looks very much like a 90s video game at that point. Although the rest of the movie looks better, that one moment tends to taint your perception.

Both Gunn and Fillion have gone on to bigger projects in years past, with it recently announced that Gunn would helm Marvel Studios’ upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Although we probably can’t expect the level of guts and gore he gave us in Slither, this movie really shows without a doubt that he’s got a powerful, unique visual style and a good eye for creatures and practical effects. If he can polish off the CGI, that movie is going to look fantastic. Hopefully though, he won’t stay in that relatively safe realm of sci-fi for too long, because this movie proves very neatly he’s got great chops for horror.

Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.

27
Oct
12

Lunatics and Laughter Day 16: Behind the Mask-The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Director: Scott Glosserman

Writers: Scott Glosserman & David J. Stieve

Cast: Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Robert Englund, Scott Wilson, Zelda Rubinstein, Bridgett Newton, Ben Pace, Britain Spellings, Kate Lang Johnson

Plot: Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), a journalism grad student, has found the perfect subject for her student film. Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) was a child possessed by a terrible evil and murdered by an unruly mob years ago. Now, he has risen from the grave to terrorize the town of Glen Echo, Maryland. At least, that’s the story. Vernon, very much alive, has grown up idolizing the likes of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers, and today he’s working to join their ranks. He’s allowing Taylor and her camera crew to film him in the process of becoming the next great slasher killer. Leslie leads Taylor and her crew members, Doug and Todd (Ben Pace and Britain Spellings) to the old house where he lived before his “death.” Teenagers sneak out to the house every year on the anniversary of his demise, and this year, Leslie is planning to return.

But that’s a month away, there’s still a lot of work to do to prepare his “survivor girl’ – the one person he’s going to attack that’s going to survive to carry on his legend. Leslie stakes out waitress Kelly Curtis (Kate Lang Johnson). He waits for her to dump the garbage from the diner and sets up a quick scare for her. The burst of adrenaline from shocking Kelly goes throughout Taylor and the crew, and they and Leslie begin to bond. The crew visits Leslie’s friends Eugene and Jaime (Scott Wilson and Bridgett Newton). Eugene is a retired killer who has been a mentor to Leslie, Jamie his supportive wife. Eugene advises Leslie to make his preliminary strike against someone only loosely connected to Kelly, and he chooses a librarian (Zelda Rubinstein). He plants a fake newspaper article for Kelly to find implying a “great uncle” she never knew about raped Leslie’s mother, thus creating a connection between himself and his target, then waits for her to find it. After the librarian “explains” the article he slays her, but instead of chasing Kelly as intended, he’s interrupted by the sudden appearance of Doc Halloran (Robert Englund). Leslie is ecstatic: he has an “Ahab,” a good person who knows the killer and will stop at nothing to defend the innocent.

Despite Leslie’s insistence that they stay away from Kelly, Taylor visits her diner. Halloran is there, and he warns them that Leslie is not who he claims to be, that he’s from Nevada and is using a fake name. When Kelly approaches, nervous, Taylor and Todd flee. When they return to Leslie he’s enraged, shoving her into their van, but he calms down and promises to tell her everything she needs to know. He confesses he’s not Molly Vernon’s son, just using her name to build his legend, and that he understands if Taylor wants to leave. Reluctantly, she decides to see it through.

He takes her back to the Vernon farm to show her his preparations to the house, barn, apple orchard and mill. He’s made it easy to cut the power, put dead batteries in the flashlights, sabotaged the available weapons, set up rooms to be open to teens having sex and other places to make it easy to dispose bodies… it’s all about narrowing it down to just him and Kelly for a final confrontation. When the teenagers arrive, he even swipes a sparkplug from their car.

When a pair of Kelly’s friends begin having sex, Leslie starts his killing. Taylor and the film crew are suddenly unnerved, realizing how real the situation has become, and Leslie ushers them outside. He goodbye to them, knowing that at the end of the night he’ll be hiding, locked up, or dead anyway. Todd and Doug are ready to leave, but Taylor finds herself unable to stand aside and allow the killing spree to continue. They go into the house to warn Kelly and the others and, to their shock, find the “virginal” Kelly having rambunctious sex. Taylor is unable to understand why Kelly is behaving like just another victim instead of a Survivor Girl. With the teens’ cars sabotaged they rush to Taylor’s van, finding two bodies and an engine that doesn’t work. Taylor tries to urge Kelly to become the heroine Leslie wants him to be, but instead, she turns out to be the next victim. He chases the rest to the barn, killing Todd on the way, and Taylor realizes that Leslie had planned everything from the beginning. Kelly was never supposed to be the real Survivor Girl. Taylor was.

Halloran arrives, but neither he nor Doug – who confesses his love for Taylor – can stop Leslie. Soon he and Taylor are all that remain, racing through the apple orchard and playing out the final confrontation as planned. They arrive at the apple mill, where Taylor knows Leslie has planned the last showdown. Taylor traps him in the apple press and, with his head clamped down, he removes his mask and whispers to Taylor that he knew she was the one. With one final crank of the press, she crushes his head, then sets the mill on fire, weeping. She finds Doug and Halloran, still alive, and they watch the mill burn.

As the credits roll, Leslie’s charred remains are rolled into a police morgue. We watch and listen to his whispering voice. Just as the film ends, he sits up on the slab behind a hapless scrub. Just like the monsters he so idolizes, Leslie Vernon will rise again.

Thoughts: Although not as well-known as most of the other movies in this project, there was never any doubt for me that I would include it. I really don’t remember how I first discovered this little movie a few years back, but it instantly became one of my favorites. Like Shaun of the Dead, it’s ripe with meta-commentary on horror movies. Like Eight Legged Freaks, it manages to parody the genre it loves. But unlike either of these, it twists the entire world of the movie on its ear for a fantastic final act.

During the buildup, the movie comes across as a typical mockumentary. Leslie gives talking head interviews, Taylor follows him in his preparation and asks dozens of questions, and you quickly find yourself as charmed by Leslie as Taylor is. By all appearances, Leslie is a very warm, friendly, congenial young man. He shows great care for his pet turtles and is intensely proud of his enormous library, which is loaded with medical journals and books about escape artists and illusionists. He reminds me of a more gregarious Norman Bates – at the beginning of Psycho Anthony Perkins feels like a really nice (if somewhat browbeaten) sort of guy. Leslie has that same quality, with the added bonus of being funny and entertaining to boot. When the film turns later on and we realize that Taylor and her crew are, in fact, his targets, the effect is shocking. Leslie is a remorseless murderer. The entire movie is about following him as he plans his murders. And yet, when he suddenly starts murdering our heroes, we are shocked and horrified, as if there was no way we could have seen this coming. There’s a brilliance here that is almost impossible to quantify.

Eugene is a very good addition to the cast, allowing the (real) filmmakers to put out commentary on the state of horror movies and of fear itself. The sort of things he says actually make a lot of sense if you filter them through a real-world prism and consider the words as film criticism instead of the actual words of a killer. He comes across as a pretty typical character type – the old pro who’s upset because things just aren’t as good as they used to be. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s talking about cold-blooded murder, he’d be like somebody’s grumpy old uncle.

If you want more horror movie commentary, the extended sequence where Leslie describes the way the killing spree is supposed to go down is going to delight you to no end. Leslie taps into every psychological theory and trope used in the construction of horror movies, pounding home things like imagery, the importance of gender roles in the weapons used and in the Survivor Girl’s metamorphosis into a heroine, and probably a dozen other things I’m forgetting, even though I’m literally typing this paragraph while watching the scene. There’s just too much for me to keep in my head. Glosserman and Stieve could teach a graduate class in the psychology of horror.

A lot of the more lighthearted stuff doesn’t even come from the story or the characters, but from little Easter Eggs the filmmakers throw in for those who know where to look. The references to Freddy, Jason and Michael are obvious, and Robert Englund’s sizable role is a lot of fun. But people wondering where they’ve seen the librarian before would do well to check out Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist, and most people won’t even realize the Elm Street resident Taylor tries to talk to is Kane Hodder, the man who played Jason Voorhees more times than any other. Other things, smaller things, litter the background of the film, all of them there to make you laugh if you know where to look.

There are nice tricks on the technical side of the movie as well. Whenever we see one of Leslie’s “attacks,” we switch from the videotaped “mockumentary” style to a more traditional film stock, complete with a musical score, coverage, and all of the other techniques common to movies that don’t fit into the “found footage” subgenre. The “real” scenes grow progressively longer, until the finale, when the movie drops the comedy and the commentary and turns into a straight-up horror movie, with Leslie hunting down Taylor, the true survivor girl.

Towards the end of the film, things begin spiraling through a litany of emotions. Jamie reveals that she was once Eugene’s Survivor Girl, which makes you ask a dozen questions about how the hell she ended up married to him. Taylor and Leslie have a soft, somewhat disturbing conversation as he puts on his makeup and prepares for the evening, and the way he begins sobbing, claiming to be happy at the sudden culmination of his life’s work… it’s eerie. Even now, though, even though we’ve already seen him kill one person for real and watched his plans to kill a dozen more, there’s an unnerving humanity to him that feels somehow honest and wrong at the same time.

I’m also a fan of the visuals of the movie. The “real” segments are high-quality and well-shot, and I love the design of Leslie’s costume and mask. He’s the sort of character that kids should be dressing up as for Halloween every year – creepy mask, shredded clothes, an easy prop weapon to lug around with him… Well, maybe if the sequel ever gets made.

Sadly, the Kickstarter campaign to fund the already-scripted prequel/sequel didn’t succeed, and plans are currently in limbo. The filmmakers and cast – including Robert Englund – are all willing to return to the world of Leslie Vernon, and so is the small but dedicated fan base. So perhaps you’ll allow me to play advocate for a moment. If you’ve read this far into Lunatics and Laughter, I’m willing to bet this is exactly the kind of movie you’d be into. Unfortunately, you also probably never saw it. Do yourself a favor and hunt down the DVD or call it down from NetFlix. It’s a great movie that has everything you love about horror in a unique, incredibly entertaining package. Join us in Leslie’s legion, and help us bring Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon to life.

Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.

26
Oct
12

Lunatics and Laughter Day 15: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Director: Edgar Wright

Writers: Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg

Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Jessica Stevenson, Peter Serafinowicz

Plot: Retail employee Shaun (Simon Pegg) is having a rough time. His job is a joke, his relationship with his stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) is strained, and his roommate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) has had it with Shaun’s best buddy Ed (Nick Frost) sleeping on their couch. If that wasn’t bad enough, a chance encounter with his friend Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson) reminds him that it’s his anniversary and he’s forgotten to book a table at a restaurant. He tries to convince his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) to join him for a fun-filled evening at their favorite pub, the Winchester, but Liz has wasted one too many night at the bar. She dumps him and he returns home where he has one more spat with an agitated Pete (who was bitten by a bunch of crackheads) before going to bed.

In the morning, a tired Shaun schleps down to the local convenience store and home without ever noticing the few people around him are acting strange – grunting, stumbling, and covered with blood. Returning home, he and Ed finally figure out something is wrong they are attacked. The reports on the news and the ghouls outside their house make the situation clear. Although neither Shaun nor Ed wants to say it, London is overrun with zombies. The friends fight their way clear with vinyl records and a cricket bat, getting past Pete before escaping. Shaun plans to collect his mother and Liz and hide out at the Winchester until the crisis has passed.

His mother, Barbara (Penelope Winton) is nursing Phillip, who has been bitten. Shaun reluctantly loads them into the car then heads to Liz’s flat, where she’s hiding out with her roommate Dianne (Lucy Davis) and Dianne’s boyfriend David (Dylan Moran). Although they are reluctant to go with him, the encroaching undead soon change their minds. As they flee, Phillip succumbs to his bite and they are forced to abandon the car, trapping him inside. They encounter Yvonne, who has gathered her own oddly familiar group of survivors and who is planning to find help. Shaun insists on following through his his own plan. When they reach the Winchester, they find it surrounded by zombies, and struggling actress Dianne gives the rest of the group a crash course in acting undead. Remarkably, the ruse works and they march through the army of zombies unmolested, until Ed’s mobile phone rings and blows their cover. They barely get to cover inside the bar.

In the Winchester, Shaun discovers that his mother has been hiding a bite of her own. He and David begin sniping at each other as Barbara struggles against the disease inside her, but when she finally dies and rises, Shaun puts her down with the rifle hanging over the bar. As they continue to argue, raw emotions are exposed: David is in love with Liz, something Dianne knows fully well, but she has been settling for what little affection he gives her. As they fight, the zombies overwhelm their barricades and pull David outside. Dianne snaps and rushes after him, being consumed as well. The last three break for the basement, but Ed is bitten on the way. Trapped, the three of them contemplate suicide, but before they can do anything, they find a secret hatch. Ed promises to cover Shaun and Liz as they escape. Biddign his best friend farewell, Ed can’t resist sending a fragrant flume of gas his way one more time. Making their way to the surface, Shaun and Liz are met by Yvonne, along with an entire army battalion that has arrived to put the zombies down. Six months later, Liz has moved in with Shaun and the world has adapted, using the zombies for menial labor and cheap entertainment. Shaun goes out to the shed to relax a little while, sitting down next to his best friend. Ed is now a zombie, but that doesn’t mean they two of them can’t continue to enjoy their video games.

Thoughts: I’ve said that Ghostbusters is my favorite horror/comedy and I stand by that, but damned if Shaun of the Dead doesn’t come in a close second. This film is a flawless combination of things that I love: emotionally honest characters, dry British wit, zombies, Bill Nighy… Any one of those elements is worthy of being loved, cherished, and having praise heaped upon them. Putting them together makes for one of the best horror/comedies ever made.

This film came in near the beginning of the current zombie wave, which has actually gone on much longer than I would have expected. It wasn’t the first zombie/comedy hybrid, but it was without a doubt the most effective, and I doubt the later entries into this subgenre (Fido and Zombieland, for example) would have enjoyed their respective success if Wright and Pegg hadn’t come along first and done such a remarkable job with this movie. The zombies themselves are played perfectly straight, a Type-A horror threat. In fact, they could have marched right off the set of a George Romero movie. In truth, if not for the sort of happy ending at the end of the film, one could easily make the meta-argument that it showed the British side of one of the many zombie apocalypses (apocalypsi?) that make him his own films. He himself was enough of a fan of Shaun that he invited Wright and Pegg to make a cameo appearance in Land of the Dead. (They played zombies.)

The zombie stuff works really well, and the comedy is near-flawless. Nick Frost’s Ed ranks up there with one of the great comedic bumblers. He slows down the group, makes poor decisions, and nearly gets them all killed several times. He’s like Gilligan – anybody in their right mind would have left him to die ten minutes after the zombies attacked. But for all his buffoonery, there’s some sort of inexplicable charm that makes you want to keep him around. It’s probably this, more than anything else, that helps him last right up until the very end. Let’s be honest, if Shaun had walked into the shed to reveal Pete or David chained to the wall, it would have just felt creepy. Watching him chide Ed for trying to bite him, though? It’s weirdly sweet.

Pegg himself is successful as the harried everyman, the ordinary guy who is in way over his head and needs to find a way to rise above it all if he’s to have any shot at survival, let alone getting the girl. It’s that status that makes him such a successful protagonist. Virtually everybody has felt like Shaun at one point in their life. It’s just that few of us are lucky enough to have a plague of the undead come along at just the right time to help us snap out of our funk.

Shaun’s character is just the beginning of these very real characters, though. David’s bitterness comes across as very genuine, and Dianne is a terribly sad character that you can wholeheartedly believe in. The moment of Phillip’s death is a remarkable one as well, turning a character that could have been a cartoon wicked stepfather into someone with genuine heart who just didn’t know how to express his feelings until it was too late. Liz is, if you’ll pardon the gender-specific term, the film’s straight man. She’s not particularly funny, but she allows Shaun and Ed to play off her rather well. The core of her relationship with Shaun, though, is one of true love and legitimate concern for their life. You never think poorly of her in the movie, never imagine her to be the sort of bitchy ex-girlfriend that a lot of movies would transform her into in order to make Shaun seem more heroic. I’ve come to realize that the truly great horror/comedies, whether they’re Type A or Type B, can fall into two categories: either they’re remarkably funny or surprisingly tender. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, Shaun of the Dead presents us with excellent characters that we really feel for. Their deaths aren’t just plot points or gags like in Eight Legged Freaks or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Each major member of this cast has a role, a purpose, a meaning.

Not to say that it’s 100 minutes of zombies wrenching feelings out of you, not at all. The film is full of sharp running gags (Shaun has red on him, Ed is addicted to his phone, etc.) and Yvonne pops up just at the right time to lend some really successful levity just after Phillip’s crushing end. Shaun’s dream sequences about fighting to the Winchester are both really funny and highly relatable – unless you honestly expect me to believe you’ve never imagined your Zombie Apocalypse Contingency Plan beginning with thrilling heroics and ending with tossing back a cold one at your favorite hangout. Yes it has. You liar.

To put it simply, Shaun of the Dead is the perfect package of horror movie monsters, dramatic story beats, and rip-snorting laughter. If anyone tries to call it a parody of zombie movies, I feel the need to correct them right away. This isn’t a parody at all, this is a zombie movie. It just happens to be one where the prospective buffet left out for the undead is made up of some very, very funny people.

Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.




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