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Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: Stranger Things (Season 1)

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Stranger Things court NetflixOf all the TV shows that have debuted in recent years, nothing has compared to how much appreciation Stranger Things has gotten. Created by the Duffer Brothers, this grand throwback to everything 1980s feels more a time capsule of the decade. Coming from someone who is an easy prey for 1980s era movies, this series channels every 1980s pop culture trope/reference in existence and somehow weaves perfectly them together. One minute, it feels like Steven Spielberg is directing it, then it pulls something supernatural from a Stephen King story or includes teen drama from a John Hughes movie. For a series that offers so much, I didn’t think all these plot lines would somehow be tied together.

tumblr_inline_oac2ra1nhr1t6ym0o_1280Everything is centered on the disappearance of a kid named Will (Noah Schnapp) whose very vanishing triggers a domino effect of story. One minute, his mother (Winona Ryder) thinks found a way to communicate with her son through electricity, then suddenly the local police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) uncovers a bizarre conspiracy linked to Will’s disappearance. Even thought it all sounds complex on paper, this whole thing is easy to follow as we jump from one character to the next. Each plot thread either adds more clues to the odd things happening in town or helps the viewer get more acquainted with the people in the area.

boys-and-eleven-radio-roomThings get more complicated when a group of Will’s friends find a girl named “Eleven” (chilling performance by Millie Bobby Brown) who has telekinetic powers beyond belief and may hold the key to finding their missing friend Will. As expected, this is where most of the Spielberg-E.T. cliches kick in with the creature being hidden in the house as the thing tries to understand the world outside. But, there comes a set of fresh elements to keep it interesting. For one, Eleven looks like a normal girl and has the opportunity to hide within society. It gives the character more open freedom to act among people which is kind of a scary thought. Imagine if Carrie had the chance to mingle in a modern high school and you didn’t know she had these powerful abilities like channeling other worlds or destroying things with her mind. How would a normal human being be able to know she has the will to bend reality when they look like a normal person?

The John Hughes elements are centered around one of the boy’s sisters (Natalia Dyer) who pines for the hot jock and, you can sort of see where it goes. In laws of predictability, there is an outcast of some form she feels bad for, but believes he deserves help and it causes her boyfriend to act like a complete jerk about it-Again, you can clearly see where it goes. However, what you don’t except is the jock to actually turn around and even be some form of help at the end. At one point, he becomes useful in a fight against this bizarre monster near the climax and it shows that maybe he’s not that bad as you think.

21-stranger-things-steve-nancy.w1200.h630That’s what I love the most about this series. It keeps adding all these twists and turns keeping you second guessing about what’s coming next. For every new turn in the story, you just can’t help but wonder how it will all end. Even with things like the “big bad government agents,” which is a tiring cliche, Stranger Things knows how to use this well by showing how more devious they can be. Not since E.T. have I felt this trope can really pose as a huge threat. These are people that will do anything to keep a huge secret, even if it means faking a death or holding a family hostage.

There’s so much more I wish I could talk about, but it’s best for you to see Stranger Things for yourself. With season 2 around the corner, now would be a good time to catch up and see what everyone’s been praising about. For an 8 episode season, it’s really worth your time, If you like small tows with big mysteries like Twin Peaks or throwbacks like Super 8, this is worth the nostalgia trip. I’d go into deeper detail on why so much of it succeeds, but then I would have to ruin a good bulk of the plot your meant to discover. The best I can say is for anyone who grew up on a childhood diet of Spielberg, John Carpenter and Joe Dante with a small pinch of Stephen King’s writing, this is for the older crowd who grew up on those elements.

Stranger Things VHS Blu Ray DVD1On a side note, I should bring to light of the show’s recent Blu-Ray/DVD release. Target held an exclusive “special collector’s” edition where the packaging resembles an old VHS tape. Once the slipcover is removed, the discs are housed in a container that resembles a VHS tape with a “Be Kind Rewind” sticker for added nostalgia. It’s a nifty idea, but there is one major drawback. All you get is the entire first season on both Blu-ray and DVD in a fancy packaging…and that’s it. No audio commentaries from the Duffer Brothers, additional supplements or even a single behind the scenes featurette.

Stranger Things VHS Blu Ray DVD2Fans might be disappointed in the lack of extra material, but at least the first season can be seen in some physical form outside of the digital medium. The other additional plus is for people who don’t have Netflix can actually check this series out. Well for $24.99, it’s not a bad deal seeing this form of packaging is perfect for a show like this. However, it leaves you feeling there should be more to explore after binge watching a show like this. Considering there will be 3 more seasons (including the next one coming this Halloween) afterwards, it leaves one to wonder if there will be this “complete series” release. For now, I’m pleased to had this one in my collection, but this show deserves much better when housed in a grand box like this.

“Fantastic” dud

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.....no, I didn't hit anything on accident. That is how I feel about this one.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..no, I didn’t hit anything on accident. That is how I feel about this one.

I recall last year seeing a high school performance of the “Beauty and the Beast” musical with a friend of mine. It was a study for play performances and this was a last minute choice. Let me tell you, everything looked like an Ed Wood movie. 75% of the cast wore wigs, 75% of the cast was mostly female and the beast costume looked like the Cowardly Lion’s twice removed cousin. But you know what, it was entertaining. Something about seeing the cast trying to perform under all the bad make-up and cheap sets was far more entertaining then the junk I had to see today.

The plot (that is if you can call it one) involves a science prodigy named Reed Richards (Miles Teller) who creates a machine in his garage that transports matter to another dimension. A scientist named Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) notices this at a science fair Reed attends and uses not just the machine but Reed’s skills to perfect his similar creation. The craft in general looks like a bunch of radioactive barrels with two solar panels hovering above it. This is only a sample of how “fantastic” the look of this movie gets.

Upon learning some government executives plan to send other scientists in, one of the creators Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) convinces Reed and two other colleges to be the first to try it out. As one would expect, mayhem ensues with them gaining bizarre abilities after their disastrous visit. Again, its hard to say if there is a real story here as the rest of the movie has our main characters cooped up in an army bunker as Reed and the survivors of the accident are coaxed into working for the government.

The story as a whole meanders so much it makes me wonder how can you not deliver a single storyline with something like this. Then again, the Fantastic Four adaptions do have a strange history of their travels to the big screen ranging from Roger Corman’s produced and (as of this review) infamously unreleased affair to Tim Story’s two films. It appears the idea of taking a team of people getting superpowers and using something with them could make for an interesting film. But only this latest reboot proves that executives and writers make it hard for themselves thinking there is no material to work with when their could be.

Last year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” worked by having no origin story and only focusing on how the team members got together while delivering a fun and unique ride thanks to James Gunn. “Fantastic” seems to focus on the main characters and where they stand but it doesn’t go anywhere until the last 30 minutes when an actual plot happens but its far too soon. Most of time, the team is being manipulated by an evil government agent (or a possible scientist. either way, he’s dressed like an evil government agent so why not? Also he is played by Tim Blake Nelson) or trying to pick around for something to do. It appears there are ideas for spin-off films here and there as Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) is off fighting in other nations in news reports, Reed Richards is playing “Borne Identity” in Panama while trying to find a cure and Victor is very much forgotten in the other dimension until the last half-hour. The amount of space is at a waste.

The biggest crime of all has to be the acting performances. Not a single human being in this movie emotes or even acts interested. Most of the time, everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) talks in a robotic manner while keeping a hush tone. I barley remember a moment when one solitary person gave a smile or cared for another when in danger. Even the romantic chemistry between Reed and Sue Storm (Kate Mara) is interesting as toast as they try to share some interest of science but have odd John Hughes quirks. Some like Jamie Bell try but it feels like they know there is nothing to work with in a story that is so next to nothing. Reg E. Cathey gets a much deserved examination for how that actor never breaks his dull performance. I guess he’s trying to be Samuel Jackson-ish by being serious and dead pan. But when he carries this trait throughout the whole movie, it makes me want to cut every scene he is in to avoid such an annoying delivery. When words came out his mouth, I wanted to sleep.

Even more bizarre is the tone as the opening of the movie is reminiscent to Joe Dante’s “Explorers” as young Reed and Ben try out the homemade dimension jump device but then things keep changing throughout. First, it tries to be a serious science fiction movie then cranks up the intensity in spots that look more brutal than passable for viewers when its not needed.

Sure enough, it all ends in a climax that looks vaguely similar to “Man of Steel” as Doom shows up and plans to somehow destroy both Earth and the new planet in the dimension. How can such a travesty be averted? They have a fight scene on the uninteresting, CGI laden set while throwing debris and junk at Doom. Its formulaic and doesn’t have flair. Again, “Guardians” had risk with Star Lord, Drax and Groot making their way to stop the villain who was floating his way down to the planet to obliterate it. For support, you had Rocket and a team trying to prevent the ship from touching the planet and Gamora trying to shut down the security system while dealing with her sister. Sounds complex on paper but those two sentences described an energetic, engaging, on the edge climax that build and builds. Once the big fight happens, it evaporates like celluloid dust in hopes the film will end sooner.

Even prior to the release, “Fantastic Four” has been slammed by fans for being inaccurate to the source by changing certain things like the Human Torch being portrayed by an African American and certain character relationships. Most strange is how Sue Storm is adoptive but is never fully discussed. Something that wasn’t elaborated on that lead me to believe Doom and Sue were siblings when they weren’t. It was just information that wasn’t heavily addressed. Still, that didn’t bother me as much but what really did was the workings of the script, the performances and the overall movie in general. Why bank on Doctor Who and Rick and Morty with dimension jumping? Is outer space not interesting enough? Because that is how our leads got those powers in the process with the exception of Doom getting his from a lab accident. I went in with an open mind thinking this movie would be ok but it turned out to be worse than I imagined.

This is not an adaptation that reflects the source while giving viewers of new something to appreciate. It does the opposite by giving nothing to both parties in return. Even the character motives are standard and dull as an expedition to the new world is crafted from Doom’s drunk escapade as the evil government agent exploits the team for every other reason why this kind of guy would. Because this team has ultimate powers and as always in these kind of scenarios, the government wants control of that power. Yawn, yawn, yawn, double-yawn and deep sleep. I hope viewers who read this review are smart enough to see a more “fantastic” movie in the theater next door. At least “Howard the Duck” was far more inventive, creative and unique in comparison.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

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Truly the ultimate horror movie

Truly the ultimate horror movie

John Carpenter’s The Thing is by far one of my all-time favorite horror movies. Its the movie that got me back into the horror genre during college and got me thinking there is much more than a monster to make a movie scary. Its that good to the point I feel one single analysis can’t do it justice. It needs to be seen to be believed to know just how all the tension and craft is perfect. I can’t think of another time when I felt so satisfied with a horror movie like this. There’s a lot to talk about but I will try to cover what works so well.

I guess I should start by saying its based on John W. Campbell’s novella titled Who Goes There, which depicts a group of scientists in Antarctica that are trapped with a alien that can assimilate and mimic its victims. It was later adapted loosely into The Thing from Another World where the beast was humanoid but was able to grow limbs back and be something close to a walking vegetable. But the strange thing is that this adaption takes place in the North Pole as opposed to the novella’s South Pole placement. Unfortunately, I was unable to get time to view this version but I have heard before its been highly praised as a science fiction classic. Perhaps next year I will get the chance to bring a deep review but for now, let’s discuss the 1982 adaption.

Its funny how John Carpenter’s take really reflects the darker aspects of the novella by not only being set in Antarctica but also having the creature being able to assimilate its victims. The creature effects were done by Rob Bottin and he really pushes the limitations of what practical effects can do. When the Thing starts to shapeshift and “devour” what ever it comes into contact with, its absolutely disgusting. Instead of seeing its true form, we can a hint when it starts to consult its various forms. There are times when it forms into a blob of organs and times when it mutates into such nightmarish forms that are far too horrific to even mention here. In short, the creature is nasty while being a show stopper at the same time. You really have to admire just how much effort was put into the anamatronics. Gore fans won’t be disapointed.

MacReady (Kurt Russell) tests to see who is truly the Thing in this classic scene

MacReady (Kurt Russell) tests to see who is truly the Thing in this classic scene

The characters we get are also interesting too. Carpenter regular Kurt Russell leads the team of scientists as MacReady who is not only anti-social but alienates himself a lot from the group. Is it out of fear for tolerance among the group or is he bad at socialization? That’s what makes his character interesting. As cold as the snows and ice of Antarctica gets, so does his thoughts on humanity and doomed he feels about it later. At the very least, he plays it smart knowing that anyone could be inhumane. Even himself. Expectations are played so much that we wonder if he’s truly alien himself or just to those around him.

The group looks at the charred corpse of the alien from the campsite

The group looks at the charred corpse of the alien from the campsite

Some viewers of today might be uneasy to see an all male cast instead of something more co-ed like Alien but I think it works. The fact these guys have been out of society for so long raises the stakes when the creature appears. Being out in the tundra could drive one insane seeing how little interaction there is out there. The pace of the movie is slow on first watch but on repeated viewings you start to realize its part of the atmosphere of the film. It sets you in the mood considering how chilling and cold a place like this can really be.

Its a much darker film and its a nice change of pace seeing the original 1951 version set in the suspense well. But it does make some reference to the original movie as some form of sequel which is more interesting itself when they discover the remnants of the alien are from a Norweigian camp site. This is a really great scene from the movie as our characters look through the burnt down base. We don’t need flashbacks or an explanation. The images of fozen corpses and a block of ice where the creature burst out of is all we really need.

The Thing in its true form. A bit of stop motion that sadly never made it in the final cut of the film

The Thing in its true form. A bit of stop motion that sadly never made it in the final cut of the film

Speaking of which, its interesting we never get to see the Thing in its true form. There are hints along the way with how huge and twisted it looks but we don’t know if its trying to form into what it really is or just constantly morphing. There was originally a bigger climax that alludes to its original form with the use of stop-motion animation by David Allen and it does look impressive But unfortunately, most of the animation was left on the cutting room floor when John Carpenter felt the effect was too obvious and less seamless with the Rob Bottin puppet. In the final cut, a few seconds remain but the full sequence can be seen on the DVD as a bonus.

Perhaps the less said about this one, the better because this movie is too good of an opinion. Its a pity it didn’t do well at the box office and I can understand why. With today’s movies and TV shows relying on darker elements, its fair to say that The Thing was way ahead of its time. Over time, it has grew a better appreciation with home video sales and given the audience it truly deserves. What else can I say but this one is a true must watch.

If its a prequel, why does it have the same name as its predecessor?

If its a prequel, why does it have the same name as its predecessor?

Now there hasn’t been a sequel to this outside of video games and comic books but there was a prequel that came out in 2011. There were many proposed ideas before then to give it a franchise feel like an abandoned Sci-Fi Channel miniseries. At first, I was hyped considering how much potential there was. This one was set before MacReady and the gang find out about the Norweigan campsite and also show what happened. I was even impressed to hear there would be English and Norwegian dialogue thinking it would get a foreign horror film feel. Well, I was unable to see it theaters but by the time I was able to rent it, I found myself to be really underwhelmed.

Not only does it answer questions and shows what happened at the campsite but it demystifies the Thing as a monster that is beaks and tentacles. It doesn’t explain its reason for being on Earth which is good but at times, it seems to appear too often than it should. In John Carpenter’s take, the Thing appeared not as frequent as the viewer was kept in suspense wondering who the alien would take next. In the prequel, the creature seems to pop out for no reason at times. Most notable is when a group is escaping in a helicopter and for no reason the Thing morphs out of its disguise and kills the crew. Why not wait till it goes to the base or why even bother transforming now? It doesn’t make any sense.

Our characters look clueless on the site

Our characters look clueless on the site

I expected the effects work to be CGI and was surprised to hear how at times they would use practical effects in certain scenes. Unless they blended the two well, all I say was mostly computer effects all the way. Shame seeing how great the effects in John Carpenter’s film were compared to this one which becomes more of a generic haunted house and less of an intense thrill ride. The characters are honestly forgettable to me. Outside of having a female in the group, that’s really about it. And the Norwegians I mentioned become easy “red-shirt” bait in the second half. Wouldn’t it been more interesting if they were all NOT American to heighten it? Its sounds ambitious but you never hear of a foreign film made by an American studio. It also doesn’t help we certain story elements that I feel harm the intense nature. Going inside the spaceship it came in really robs the mystery of the creature and I wasn’t a fan of seeing what many speculate as his “true form” near the end.

The spaceship in the original 1982 film. Sure its only a model but its a damn good one

The spaceship in the original 1982 film. Sure its only a model but its a damn good one

But the final nail in the coffin of crap is how THIS prequel is called The Thing. No subtitle or anything added on. Just “The Thing.” Its clear they wanted to cash in on the Carpenter classic and nothing else. Even weird is how at times I feel like I’m watching a remake of the Carpenter film and less of the prequel trying to be its own movie. It recycles everything from the dogs being assimilated to even the infamous blood test scene. Why bother labeling it a prequel when you do stuff like this anyway? Unlike how the original builds character and tension, this one just rushes the story to answer questions than give us time to take in the atmosphere or get to know a character before they are killed off. Its about as fast as how the Thing moves way too swiftly in this one.  Bottom line, skip it. Stick with the Carpenter film for something truly chilling and really on the edge of your seat terror.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980)

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Remember, watch for the fog!

Remember, watch for the fog!

Its about time I started to showcase John Carpenter. He is one of my all-time favorite directors who knows how to handle horror films to a perfect pitch in my opinion. And considering how much the B-movies of the 1950s influenced him, its no wonder why he’s so good. Most of his films take the cliches of the classic horror films but gives them a fresh new look and direction. Halloween was one example of taking something simple as a serial killer and making it terrifying. Carpenter’s career can be best described as up and down. Some of his work has success while others not so. But thankfully, most of his films have gone on to become huge cult classics and appreciated for how innovative they were at the time and the quality overall.

His film The Fog falls somewhere in-between. It was a box-office success when you consider it was made for only a budget of $ 1 million but was plagued with production problems and negative reviews at the time. True, its no Halloween but its an entirely different movie that does have some similar methods but its really meant to be a good old fashioned ghost story for the modern times. John took influence from The Crawling Eye and a visit in Stonehenge where he saw a huge amount of fog drift in the distance. A thought then came to him. What if something was in the fog? And that is where this movie comes in.

John Houseman tells kids a scary tale at the start of the film setting the eerie mood

John Houseman tells kids a scary tale at the start of the film setting the eerie mood

It opens on a cameo by John Houseman who tells a spooky ghost story to a group of kids by a campfire. Its the perfect opening to a film like this. We are not meant to matter about characters and story but more of the atmosphere and eerie feeling. He tells a legend that the coastal town of Antonio Bay and its six founders were behind the sinking of a ship. Why you ask? Well, I best not spoil it because its really quite a twist. The gold from the ship was somehow taken (don’t ask how. its never explained) and was used to build the small town that is celebrating its 100th Anniversary.

However, its not long till a heavy fog starts roaming about and creates all sorts of chaos. Machines go out of control as mini-tremors jitter up the town. With in the fog are the spirits of the crew that perished in the shipwreck and seek revenge on the six that plummeted them to their death. How is this accomplished but by killing six random strangers in the place of the six that killed them. Now I should address that this is scary but it makes half sense.

I understand why the ghosts are going around and killing but wouldn’t it make more sense if they were after the “ancestors” instead of six random people. Even though this idea was used in the novelization, thinking about it now by having six people who are the ancestors remain in the town is a bit unrealistic but at least it would make the killings clearer. Thought I should address that one person is revealed to be an ancestor of the six and its a good twist for the end but there’s not much effect when your motive is to randomly murder than have some meaning to it. One on hand, I get why they would go after six (or five) random folks but why not pillage the whole town instead? Maybe there wasn’t enough budget to cover that idea. The idea of a killer with no motive worked better in Halloween because Mike Meyers was a killing machine and had the advantage to ax anybody off. Here, it feels like they could just randomly choose six people and not much damage could be done.

Scream-queen Jamie Lee Curtis in another Carpenter film? What are the odds?

Scream-queen Jamie Lee Curtis in another Carpenter film? What are the odds?

Aside from that, the rest of the movie holds up very well. Jamie Lee Curtis returns as a hitchhiker named Elizabeth who seeks romance in her next ride Nick Castle (Tom Atkins). The chemistry between the two is almost like Sherlock and Watson but a tad romanced. Though I should address they don’t talk like lovers or even have a hint of being together at the end which I think is a good call. It would have been too obvious and its more interesting seeing them trying to work out the reason behind the murders. Hal Holbrook joins in as Father Malone who just might have the answer to everything in a journal he discovers in the church walls. Not only is it the key to the fog but even we find out he might be part of the reason as well.

This movie is also notable for the first film debut of Adrienne Barbeau who plays a radio

Adrienne Barbeau in his first on-screen appearance and what a delight she is.

Adrienne Barbeau in his first on-screen appearance and what a delight she is.

jockey/lighthouse attendant that gives the weather and plays tunes for the ships at bay. Her storyline feels tagged on at times but I can’t help but appreciate a good performance from a great actress who would later go on to Swamp Thing, “The Crate” segment in Creepshow and Argo. She is neither too feisty or too soft. I want to say her character could have been easily dropped but I guess the town has to get its knowledge of the fog’s movements and its nice to see an old-fashioned radio station in a lighthouse. Overall, she’s one of the best things in this movie and one of the many reasons to see it.

As I said, this is not a movie that is driven by narrative but more by emotion and atmosphere. When the fog appears, its a creepy sight seeing a force of mother nature move about and swallow up buildings and ships into its path. In today’s age, it would be CGI but here its practical all the way and very carefully done. The ghosts themselves are scary too. On first watch, I was disappointed seeing we never get to see what these ghoulish creatures look like aside from a few glimpses of rotted green skin in one scene and limbs that look mummified. But after seeing it a few times, I think the idea of having these creatures remain in the dark is a good choice. It would ruined the mood having to see swashbuckling zombies and its effectively creepy having nothing but glowing eyes and the shadowy figure aboard. I do wish I had a chance to see what they would look like in the light seeing the effects were done by Rob Biottin and he even plays the leader of the ghosts too. He would later go to do amazing special effects work in other Carpenter films like The Thing, the fantasy creatures in Ridley Scott’s Legend and even the Martian inhabitants in Total Recall.

The ghosts that are out to kill six in place of the six that killed them....makes about as much sense right?

The ghosts that are out to kill six in place of the six that killed them….makes about as much sense right?

Interestingly enough, John Carpenter viewed a rough cut and felt the film wasn’t working or felt scary enough and thus decided to film extra scenes at the last minute to raise the stakes. At first, I thought it was just simple gore effects but as it turns out whole sequences were replaced with material that was far more intense. I won’t detail each alteration but I will say Carpenter made a good call as some of these scenes really helped add to the fear factor and some of them I personally consider memorable like the first kill with the three fisherman and a scene where a corpse tries to kill Elizabeth at the morgue. Its funny how such a small scene can really make an impact.

The Fog is what John Carpenter considers a minor horror classic. Its not the best but it does have some material that keeps it unique and interesting. The characters are good, the horror elements are really effective and the chilling atmosphere it produces are enough for me to give a high recommendation to. Its not a perfect movie but I feel I know what the intent was. It was to take a B-movie idea and give it a grander and frightening feel. Even John Carpenter filmed the whole thing in a wide lens so it wouldn’t have that low-budget feel. In many ways, The Fog succeeds but I can’t say its something iconic like The Thing or Big Trouble in Little China. Its really a ghost story of a different kind that is meant to be enjoyed not for its plot and characters but by how eerie and intense it can get.