Friday, October 31, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge


A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE
(R, New Line Cinema, 87 mins., theatrical release date: November 1, 1985)


After Hours, Better Off Dead..., Brazil, The Breakfast Club, Fright Night, Heaven Help Us, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Re-Animator, The Return of the Living Dead, The Sure Thing.

These ten films will all be celebrating their 30th anniversary next year. I bring up these titles in particular, deliberately setting aside the blockbusters (Back to the Future, The Goonies, Rocky IV) and the ball-busters (St. Elmo's Fire, A View to a Kill), because I devoutly appreciate every single one of them from past until present. This is not thorough, as I have failed to mention Mr. Vampire, Real Genius, Runaway Train, Lost in America, and several other gems I caught up with. Even trashier stuff like Commando, Death Wish 3 and Red Sonja I can understand getting some love. But 1985 was the year which gave us John Cusack, Stephen Geoffreys and Linda Fiorentino in heavy doses. I'll gladly stick up for 1985 as a good year at the movies for those three reasons alone.

One of the more interesting movies I can see getting the retrospective treatment is A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge. Yes, I'm talking about one of the most infamous horror sequels in history, in the same year, mind you, that spewed out Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. The film drove a wedge between series creator Wes Craven and New Line Cinema honcho Robert Shaye, sparked a deathless debate over its brazenly homosexual allegory and, like Halloween III: Season of the Witch before it, became a cinematic orphan in mewling need of a willing cult of sympathetic adopters. The comprehensive Elm Street series documentary Never Sleep Again is essential viewing in understanding these bones of contention.

The best thing about Daniel Farrands & Andrew Kasch's project was that it marked the welcome public appearance of NoES 2's long-estranged lead actor, Mark Patton. His entertaining, frank comments on the film's legendarily gay subtext are priceless, but the outtakes from his interview were even more revealing. Patton dropped out of professional acting when his integrity was challenged by the still-prevalent Celluloid Closet and the cattily competitive behavior therein, which was maddeningly trivial even without the real life horrors facing the gays of the world. Patton overcame multiple health concerns, including HIV-positive testing, and is currently living a fulfilling life in Puerto Vallarta. He has kept up a solid profile as an artist, activist and writer, with hopes for completing a documentary called There Is No Jesse which may as well prove just as candid and critical as Heather Langenkamp's I Am Nancy, if not more so.

Patton's character of Jesse Walsh is the new kid on Elm Street, freshly relocated to the same white house with bars on the windows wherein Nancy Thompson vanquished Freddy Krueger. Screenwriter David Chaskin and director Jack Sholder burden Jesse with the same all-too-real nightmares of the scissor-fingered psycho, but they've jettisoned one of the more resonant themes of the original Wes Craven film, the inheritance of the parents' sins. Mr. & Mrs. Walsh, played by Clu Gulager and Hope Lange, are interlopers with no understanding of their new house's eerie history, let alone aware of the mass show of vigilantism which loosed Krueger onto his killers' brood. They are your garden variety suburban caricatures, as are all of the other parental units, and serve no consequence on the ensuing teen angst.

Mr. Walsh, stern simpleton he is, is far from Craig T. Nelson's character in Poltergeist, reacting less plausibly to clearly supernatural phenomena and jumping to jokey conclusions at every opportunity. This type of skeptical, oblivious father who may as well be the absentee parent in many a bad teen sex comedy. Mrs. Walsh is stereotypically passive, and kid sister Angela (Christie Clark) has somehow even less of a personality. The crux of the story is specifically Jesse's gradual torment by none other than the goading spirit of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who makes it his crusade to possess Jesse Walsh and resume killing in a mortal coil.

If only that were Jesse's lone concern. He is simultaneously bullied and befriended by Rod Lane ringer Ron Grady (Robert Rusler), the two of them bonding over phys ed detention sessions under the sadomasochistic thumb of Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). There's also the matter of pretty Lisa Webber (Kim Myers), who isn't so well-off that she cannot rely on Jesse to get her to school every morning. Their peer-pressured romantic courtship is at risk thanks to Krueger's machinations, which turn dead serious when a supposedly sleepwalking Jesse makes the bizarre choice to catch Coach Schneider's eye in a gay bar and is taken back to the gym for punishment.

The combination of Chaskin's eccentric if hackneyed plot and Sholder's plebian proficiency as director pays dividends in terms of camp. Grady teases Jesse early on that his soft, pretty boy physique is exactly what gets Schneider's rocks off, but then the leather-vested martinet and his lanky prey turn up serendipitously at a watering hole for homosexuals?! When Schneider starts raiding the supply closet and pulls out a jump rope, all the while Jesse is taking a shower nearby, my brain tells me there's going to be some squat thrusts going on that I shouldn't even begin to contemplate. But then you get to Schneider's death, which involves racquets snapping, balls exploding off the shelves, towels becoming sentient and whipping Schneider's bare ass. Chaskin intended this as simple adolescent wish-fulfillment, but I'll be damned if it doesn't exacerbate the queenie absurdity of it all.

The audience had already gotten an eyeful of the Risky Business rip wherein Jesse dances around his bedroom to club diva synth-pop wearing gold lame sunglasses and closing drawers with his tuches. The production design is so shameless, that Nancy's journal is placed conveniently next to a board game named "Probe" and a "No Out of Town Checks" sign outside Jesse's door has an I pasted over the E. And in a twist on the original scene where Nancy asked her boyfriend Glen to watch over her as she slept, the frightened Jesse, foiled in an intimate moment with Lisa, begs Grady to protect him in much the same way, complete with wake-up call warnings and stoic recitation of "Don't fall asleep."

Objectively speaking, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is simultaneously derivative and defiant of its immediate progenitor. Krueger is still a shadow demon whose favored tropical climes involve boiler rooms and power plants. The bravura opening sequence in which Jesse's school bus teeters over an infernal pit packs the same kind of sweaty, sleazy dread as Tina's inaugural nightmare the last time. The teenagers are elevated to nobility through investigation and open-mindedness, not just their sympathetic supernatural anxieties. And Jesse Walsh is every bit a solid central character as Nancy Thompson or Alice Johnson, relatable even as Krueger eats at both his will and his sanity.

The main problem is in reducing the Freddy mythos to just another slab of Amityville Horror/Poltergeist hokum. The worst offender is the famous scene where a spooked lovebird is loosed from its cage and flies around the living room dive-bombing Mr. Walsh, only to explode in flight. The ludicrousness of the scenario is hardly deflated by dad's dopey rationale for the bird's errant behavior: "It's that cheap seed you've been buying." Furthermore, dream logic matters little in the overall goal of Freddy Krueger being reborn in Jesse's place, especially when a pool party populated by hardly narcoleptic teens are beset by Krueger, who surrounds them in flames, turns the water to boiling and cavorts around, sticking his razors into the panicking herd. It's an equally embarrassing turn of events given the grim urgency of the original, which blurred fantasy/reality and life/death with resolute tragedy. Krueger feels strangely emasculated, saddled with a plan that saps him of his primal fear potential and makes him frightening only in mere context.

Whatever genuine pain this sequel conjures depends largely on Mark Patton's internalized, anguished central performance. The young man looks distressingly fragile, more so than a lot of female survivors in past slasher movies, and there's a glistening, grim pathos that is hard to deny. Whatever psychosexuality and gay repression themes rise up to the top of this milkshake are tempered by Patton's earnest, personal commitment to the role. There is a case to be made for Jesse Walsh as a more effeminate version of the Everyboy persona, and in the film's universe of adolescent confusion and foiled romantic desire, Walsh is well-rounded enough as a character to make the madness sting. The fortitude he lacks is ably compensated by Kim Myers as the concerned, brave female friend Lisa, and there is an innate tenderness to their scenes which is a welcome touch in a youth-driven market fueled by leery sexism.

Kevin Yagher, taking over the FX work begun by David Miller in the original, gives Krueger some distinctly gothic touches, especially in the amber-colored eyes which Sholder locks onto in one memorable close-up. And the film's coup turns out to be Jesse's on-screen rebirth of Freddy, impeccably crafted by Mark Shostrom and filmed with the utmost dread by Sholder. The eye peeking out of Jesse's mouth, the head indenting itself in Jesse's abdomen, the razors tearing out from Jesse's fingers...every shot counts.

The trouble with A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is that not everyone appears to be on the same wavelength, so the earnest qualities of Jesse's body horror/sexual orientation predicament and the micro-budget inanity fail to mesh together in a proper way. It's formless, jarring quickie product which doesn't quite bastardize Freddy in the same way later sequels did, but it doesn't really add much to the Gloved One even as it subtracts. It's not fully deserving of its disreputable rep, and I'll take this over Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare any day, every day. But there's a reason Wes Craven was allowed some input on the subsequent Dream Warriors. A lot of NoES 2's legacy appears purely incidental, as strange and senseless as any nightmare. But at least they spare us the parakeet's lucid dreaming.

Here's the rare red band theatrical trailer I can recall seeing on my old special edition VHS of A Nightmare on Elm Street.



Thursday, October 23, 2014

Wishmaster


WISHMASTER
(R, Live Entertainment, 90 mins., theatrical release date: September 19, 1997)

Nostalgia can be a cruel bitch sometimes.

Wishmaster, or Wes Craven Presents: Wishmaster as it was advertised, was the kind of processed comfort food a 13-year-old gorehound like my younger self had no qualms about scarfing down. Even in 1997, I could tell that the movie was directed by an FX wizard of great renown, written by the man responsible for milking Clive Barker's Hellraiser until the teat broke off and was populated by several "like, omigod!" horror icons for that extra dose of genre-mad glee. Not many pre-pubescent boys can recognize Phantasm's Reggie Bannister with the same kind of enthusiasm reserved for seeing their father come down the chimney clad in an Old St. Nick cosplay.

So what if the movie was met with critical indignancy and led to a string of bland, dread-proof movies (Carnival of Souls, Don't Look Down, They) which ruined the supposedly-legit "Wes Craven Presents" prefix? It was an homage, a throwback, an affectionate display of celluloid longing for the glory days of four years ago, when you had such AFI-worthy touchstones like Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, Warlock: The Armageddon and Leprechaun 2.

Wishmaster is cheeky enough company for those Cheetos-and-Corona-at-midnight blitzes which demand it. But it's also completely transparent if you stare at it too long, and is relieved of its tedium only by some extraordinary splatter set pieces and the reliably nasty twists on the Faustian adage of "Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it." Monkey's paws seem as lucky as rabbit's feet in this universe.

I'm guessing writer Peter Atkins hit the same snafu Wes Craven did when his Freddy Krueger creation turned as cuddly as E.T. and just as helplessly burlesqued. Pinhead essentially became a "genie in a bottle" baddie by the time the 1990s rolled around, so why not go literal or go home? Thus, Atkins concocted the Djinn, a mythical beast forged from holy fire and doomed betwixt the realms of angel and man. No, I am not rehashing my review of The Prophecy, for Christ's sake.

The Djinn feeds on wishes, or to be more accurate, those poor venal souls who make the mistake of confiding to the Djinn. This happened in ancient Persia, where a monarch demanded to be shown "wonders" and essentially got the Boiler Room bloodbath from Hellraiser III for his trouble. You say bazaar, I say bizarre, let's call the whole thing off, as a valiant sorcerer agrees after forging a fire opal and placing a spell on the Djinn which confines him within the ruby.

Earth, 1997-I need to stop repeating myself-America, 1997: The opal has found its way into the modern world after a drunken crane operator destroys a valuable sculpture. I want to stop right there and basically point out that this particular scene is like a guessing game for genre actors, three in particular essaying the roles of the antiques collector who ordered the damaged goods, the unctuous toady assisting him and the blitzed blue-collar buffoon himself. The best part is that you've got the beginners, intermediate and advanced levels all represented here. I'll spoil but one of them, mainly because he's given the prestigious boxed credit in the opening titles: "And Robert Englund as Raymond Beaumont."


But Englund, that eccentric oxygen tank of a man, is only 8% of this movie, the more substantial pie slice on the chart going to small-screen actress Tammy Lauren in her only leading role in film. Don't let the looks fool you, though, Linda Hamilton she is not. Although Atkins writes her a role as an athletic, independent woman who prefers every cross-gender relationship to be wholly platonic, he also wastes a tragic backstory on Lauren's Alex Ambrose which produces little triumph, and even when Alex is coaching her girl's basketball team, Lauren seems more bored than bold. If this is our plucky heroine, then why didn't Kurtzman bother to land Linnea Quigley, Jewel Shepard, Michelle Johnson, or some other recognizable B-babe who would've warmed to the material better?

Alex works at Regal Auctioneers and is tasked to appraise the fire opal once it arrives at their office. It is she who awakens the Djinn from his ugly sleep and thus inadvertently mind-melds with the creature, reborn after a thermal analysis laser prompts the demonic egg to hatch. But The Djinn needs souls to rejuvenate himself and wastes no time prowling about the city looking for impulsive suckers who require his perverted magic. They don't even have to phrase their requests in the form of a wish, the Djinn does it for them, so he never really strikes a hard bargain:

"Do you wish it?"
"Yes."
"Good."
"Aaaah!"

The Djinn eventually goes full-on Frank Cotton and slips into the skin of fresh cadaver Nathaniel Demerest, allowing for actor Andrew Divoff to finally shed those full-body Human Gremlin prosthetics. Divoff is a roguish character actor on par with William Sadler, best known for playing all manner of terrorists and tyrants in the likes of Stephen King's Graveyard Shift, Toy Soldiers, Air Force One, and Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Compared to the debonair villainy of Doug Bradley and Julian Sands, Divoff comes up short as a formidable foe. While deceptively handsome, his bluntly phonetic line deliveries make him sound as intimidating as Katy Perry. Atkins' dialogue, all boilerplate boasts and witticisms clearly indebted to the Cult of Krueger (or Chucky, or the Leprechaun, or even Dr. Giggles), do him no favors. Nevertheless, the grinning, gallant Divoff seems to be having more fun on the job than the perpetually nervous leading lady.

And the token Fangoria Hall of Fame one-offs in the cast all go head-to-maw with the monster, making for some delicious confrontations. Kane Hodder, the most beloved of the many incarnations of Jason Voorhees, lends his own brand of muscle as a security guard for Regal Auctioneers and is duly absorbed into the steel wall behind him. Perennial screen derelict George "Buck" Flower (of The Exorcist, Back to the Future and They Live) gets into a nasty battle of wits with Reggie Bannister's irate pharmacist, all the better for the Djinn to act as the kind of unfair referee seen in many a classic WWF grudge match. The underused but incomparable Tony Todd plays a bellowing bouncer who deep down wants to escape, although not in the way the Djinn allows.


Wishmaster has all the materials to make for a solid genre film, and I won't say Craven's own Scream ruined the ability to appreciate straight-up schlock without prejudice. But this has all the malnourished hallmarks of an also-ran, substituting grisly special effects for gut-twisting suspense, relying on reams of flat exposition instead of challenging the imagination and depending on the kind of exhausted tropes which had been run through the mill even by the late 1980s. You wish Kurtzman and Atkins had better sense than to lean on cliché jump scares, garden variety grotesquerie and tedious lectures on the limitations of the Djinn's dark dynasty (even if they are delivered by wry Jenny O'Hara, of amazingly no relation at all to Catherine).

It's no shock in a film devoid of them that Wishmaster is best appreciated as a showcase for Kurtzman's legendary effects shop, KNB EFX. There are not one but two crowded room massacres packed with showy if shallow evisceration, and in the Grand Guignol equivalent of throwing in the kitchen sink, there's even a random appearance by Jack the Ripper during the finale (see for yourself!). Yes, the scourge of England apparently reanimated by the scourge of Englund, who gets a "Paging Dr. Giger" comeuppance straight out of Poltergeist II: The Other Side.

Even the technical credits fail to live up to expectations of old-school horror, with Nightmare on Elm Street cinematographer Jacques Haitkin and Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini on low-budget autopilot. Not a single frame or musical sting is on par with either of those beloved films.

Maybe I'm suffering from lapsed nostalgia, but the truth is that I've seen Wishmaster done better many times before. I gave Dr. Giggles, Warlock and the original April Fool's Day positive reviews, and I thought the spotty Hellbound: Hellraiser II brought out some interest elements in regards to character and imagery. I can even find the entertainment in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth even after 22 years. Wishmaster, though, doesn't have much going for it in the long run, except to have lazily exploited my wildest wish for a simple good time.

Djinn-Genie, let yourself go!


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Remote Control (1988)


REMOTE CONTROL
(R, New Century/Vista Film Company, 88 mins., theatrical release date: April 7, 1988)

In 1977, writer/director Jeff Lieberman made Blue Sunshine, a cult classic in which a group of domesticated, distraught ex-hippies who dropped the titular strain of acid a decade earlier lost their hair and their marbles simultaneously. It was made back in the amber-colored days when soft-core writer Zalman King was just another fledgling B-actor, and Lieberman, having previously directed Squirm, was establishing himself as a quirky genre hero on par with Larry Cohen despite a stunning lack of prolificacy.

Ten years later, Lieberman cloned that film's concept of homicidal mass hypnosis as well as its Hitchcock-style "wrong man" thriller elements for the VHS era with Remote Control. This is most certainly not a feature film version of the MTV-produced couch potato trivia show, but another trendy homage to the science-fiction cheapies of yesteryear. Lieberman didn't exactly conjure up by lightning twice, as after Remote Control was consigned to cable-channel obscurity, his already sporadic film credits proved fewer and further between; there was a co-writing claim on The Never Ending Story III here, the swan song-seeming Satan's Little Helper from 2004 there. His career squittered to a halt, and with the advent of digital home video, Remote Control was officially branded his "lost" film.

I actually found a VHS copy at a garage sale pitched by the I Can Smell Your Brains podcast team. Two years after that acquisition, Lieberman secured the rights to self-distribute the film on limited-edition DVD and Blu-Ray himself, complete with a fresh 2k transfer and feature-length commentary track from the filmmaker. One can only hope that the film gains enough momentum for a wider release via Shout! Factory, who recently re-issued Squirm. But I did revisit Remote Control when the news of its re-emergence broke, and as a card-carrying fan of its 1986 contemporary TerrorVision, I was eager to receive whatever it was transmitting.


Remote Control and TerrorVision have quite a few things in common, starting with the requisite joke at the expense of inept wannabe swingers living in their thoroughly-modernized (read: blindingly 1980s) pleasuredome. The husband in this case, bemoaning the lack of anything good on TV, had sent his wife out to rent a videocassette called "S&M Made Fun." As she suits up in her New Wave dominatrix costume, loverboy puts on another rental to pass the time, an obscure chestnut from 1957 called "Remote Control." The movie begins with another jaded couple, Milo and Eva, finding the same relief in modern technology that the present day lovers do, complete with an early form of VHS called "View-o-Vision" that Eva uses to play her own copy of a film titled "Remote Control." Alas, Eva is literally under remote control, as subliminal messages overpower her mind and she mutilates Milo with her knitting machine. But things sometimes have a way of bleeding out into the real world.

Meanwhile, a rundown movie theatre has been renovated into Village Video, where our hero Cosmo DiClemente has a job at. Kevin Dillon plays Cosmo, a couple of decades before his Victory on HBO's Entourage but in the nostalgic wake of breakthrough roles in the likes of Heaven Help Us and Platoon. His boss, Georgie (Christopher Wynne), has received a new promotional display for "Remote Control," and a dozen copies for inventory. Cosmo, however, is more interested in French films, or at least the woman who wishes to rent them, beautiful Belinda Watson (Deborah Goodrich). Belinda is seeking a copy of Truffaut's Stolen Kisses because, like Cosmo, she is a hopeless romantic, her current boyfriend being a possessive douchebag named Victor (Frank Beddor). Georgie is also pining for dizzy brunette Allegra James, played by fellow celebrity sibling Jennifer Tilly.

Victor and Allegra argue over a copy of "Remote Control," and Georgie tips the scales in her favor. He also agrees to hold a copy of War of the Worlds for her, but is so lovestruck that he and Cosmo decide to drop off the tape in person at Allegra's house. They aren't alone, as Victor has become so butt-hurt by the snub, he tracks down Allegra as she is watching "Remote Control." Cosmo and Georgie are chased off by a neighbor, but Victor stays to strangle Allegra and subsequently murder her returning parents.

Policemen Artie (Mike Pniewski) and Pete (John Lafayette) arrive at Village Video the next day to arrest Cosmo and Georgie based on the eyewitness' testimony. Cosmo pleads to Artie to let him try to find the "invisible evidence" that proves Victor was the culprit, believing that the murder was recorded on camera, but the "Remote Control" tape plays as normal until Artie becomes brainwashed and turns his gun on Cosmo, killing his partner and eventually getting shot in self-defense by Cosmo.

Now fugitives, Cosmo and Georgie kidnap Belinda in an attempt to convince her of Victor's guilt, but that necessitates playing the damn movie again. Belinda picks up a hammer and lunges at Cosmo, but the hand-cuffed Georgie manages to stop the tape and break the spell. With Cosmo finally hitting upon the truth, the three of them make an effort to destroy all copies of "Remote Control," eventually leading them to the headquarters of distributors Polaris Video in typical invasion movie fashion. And sure enough, Bert Remsen, the grandpa from TerrorVision, plays a low-level baddie who is easily disposed of in a fit of conflicting emotions.


TerrorVision wasn't just a movie about aliens, it was alien in every aspect of its execution, from the screenplay to the performances to the set design. It was chock full of cheap stereotypes and low-hanging satire, but it was consistent and vicariously weird enough to stand out amongst Charles Band's endless B-movie Empire in the same way Stuart Gordon did with his Lovecraft spin-offs. Remote Control doesn't feel as loose and lawless as that Ted Nicolaou film, as Lieberman is going for a more self-aware, meta tone in which the fictional plot of "Remote Control" is re-enacted in contemporary Los Angeles. The movie plays itself incredibly straight once the mystery is unraveled, yet it doesn't quite work as a direct thriller because it is so unassuming and clearly meant as a pastiche.

The character motivations are confusing even without the mind-control shenanigans. Victor, for instance, is a such a psychotic goon that you keep expecting him to be some kind of a mole, or a clearly-defined satire of 1980s arrogance, but it doesn't shine through in Lieberman's script. He's just a bland nuisance and obvious straw villain who lacks the charisma to even convince Belinda that his actions are innocent, when he comes off as such a robotic creep from scene one. As a result, it also impairs the credibility of the damsels in distress, be they Allegra, who is distressingly unperturbed by his intrusion into her house, or Belinda, whose naivety doesn't change an ounce in the face of clear and present danger.

Deborah Goodrich, coming off a spunky, sexy performance in April Fool's Day, is let down by the material. Ditto Jennifer Tilly, who would go on to riff on her buxom bimbo image with more wit and invention than her minor role here affords her. Leading man Kevin Dillon, though, is convincingly tough and tender, navigating the peril with workaday integrity.

Lieberman is a talented writer who is not below crafting smart dialogue or displaying sardonic wit, but aside from simply rehashing his previous Blue Sunshine or leaning on the DayGlo chintz as a means of poking fun at the concept of futurism, Lieberman lets the playful tone of the first half peter out. A scene where an entire nightclub falls prey to the cathode craze doesn't make particularly memorable use of the indelible image of Eva's demented stare watching over a crowded dance floor, and is staged rather poorly until the pyrotechnics kick in. The conflict involving Victor is perfunctory enough that the showdown has no convincing stakes, and it has no real bearing on the conspiracy plot.

Better to appreciate Remote Control for its minor virtues, mainly digressions such as an offbeat fight between Cosmo and the manager of a competitor store as well as Kevin Dillon's affably heroic presence, especially when the film intercuts his forklift-piloting derring-do with the similar antics in the 1950s film. Moments like these give Remote Control its forgotten glory as a reliable schedule-filler on old school USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel listings. It's entertaining enough that it kind of blends in with its real environment, not so much videocassette as it is the Saturday Night Movie, where real "remote control" is wielded like Excalibur.

video


Friday, October 17, 2014

The Prophecy (1995)


THE PROPHECY
(R, Dimension Films, 98 mins., theatrical release date: September 1, 1995)

Imagine John Milton writing a B-noir screenplay taking off apocalyptically from the Angelic War premise of Paradise Lost. Lo, you have just foretold the coming of The Prophecy, Highlander and Backdraft author Gregory Widen's 1995 feature debut produced for the mid-1990s Weinstein boutique label Dimension Films. The Prophecy seems to have been lost in the shuffle coming from the cash-cow indie company who also gave you countless DTV sequels to Children of the Corn and Hellraiser, but if you were there in the '90s, The Prophecy remains engrained in your memory banks even if only for one reason:


Before he caught the fever only more cowbell and Fatboy Slim could subside, Christopher Walken was drafted to play a modern-day incarnation of archangel Gabriel, a roguish castaway from God's graces who seeks a mutiny in Heaven (that's not a half-hearted reference, as Walken could plausibly resemble an aged, American ringer for Nick Cave). Looking suspiciously like a character from Mirimax's hottest non-horror property, Pulp Fiction (in which he, Amanda Plummer and a still-unkempt Eric Stoltz also appeared in), Gabriel doesn't do as much hovering as he does strutting through the landscape. With a magnified sense of smell as well as a sardonic nihilism to his decrees, Gabriel may be mortal (angels on Earth aren't exactly invincible) but is possessed of a jubilantly swollen Godhead. Also, when he plays his trumpet, best to keep at least 100 yards away from him to avoid the debris.

Walken's continual cachets to his cultism also managed to include The Prophecy, whose modest success at least allowed Dimension to bring him back for the film's initial, non-theatrical sequels. But does The Prophecy work without him? Well, sort of...

The Prophecy is as graven and sunken-eyed as its antagonist, hinging on the brutal loss of faith, the animosity towards the Almighty for man's ascension, the dark soul of a war criminal imprisoned within an Indian girl's body, and the appearance of Lucifer himself, played with equally dangerous zeal by a pre-Tolkien Viggo Mortensen. The central character isn't even a celestial being, but a fallen man named Thomas Daggett, played by another major indie film star of the time, Elias Koteas (Exotica, Crash). Daggett was once set to be ordained into priesthood until grim visions caused him to break down on the pulpit and drive him into working as a detective. But his doubts will be put to the test when a crime scene investigation turns up evidence of an anatomically-incorrect cadaver and an unabridged copy of St. John's Revelations.

The corpse in question is the angel Uziel (Jeff Cadiente), and he was murdered in self-defense by another not-quite-ancient figure, Simon (Eric Stoltz). Simon sets out to the economically-depressed town of Chimney Rock, Arizona, to guard the spirit of local hero/Korean War occultist Colonel Hawthorne, but transfers it into the body of orphaned Mary (Moriah "Shining Dove" Snyder) as a contingency plan. This doesn't prevent Gabriel from tracking Simon down and slaughtering his nemesis, finally leading Gabriel to terrorize Mary, Daggett and schoolteacher Katherine (Virginia Madsen) in pursuit of Hawthorne's soul, which he needs to ensure his victory in the second war on Heaven.

The rationale is that even though angels may carry savage weapons, they are still novices in the ways of wickedness compared to some of God's most beloved creation. And yet here is Christopher Walken, who as a Bond villain (Max Zorin from A View to a Kill) mowed down an entire swath of henchmen with sick glee as well as pushed Sean Penn to the brink of madness in the domestic crime drama At Close Range, needing to possess someone else's power. Even as a dejected seraphim, Walken is already a master in cool menace. He relishes every threat to tear apart little Mary like a human Cracker Jack box just to get his prize, and his many matter-of-fact taunts about his "talking monkey" enemies are believably bitter.

Gregory Widen could have stood to put some more soul into The Prophecy, which, while not completely humorless, is still weighed down by a portentous essence, circling the action regularly like buzzards might swarm the desert scenery. Elias Koteas and Eric Stoltz are not without charm, as anyone who can remember Some Kind of Wonderful can attest for sure, but they play the roles with a solemnity that is stoic to the point of wooden. It doesn't help Stoltz's case when he has to finally unload Hawthorne's soul into the virgin Mary, a moment which will leave many scraping their jaws off the carpet. Virginia Madsen brings earthly sex appeal and pluckiness to the undervalued role of Katherine, making for a less oppressive form of gravity. Also in the cast are Adam Goldberg and Amanda Plummer as Gabriel's homosapien slaves, suicide cases stuck in depressed limbo to carry out the angel's every destructive whim.

It should be noted that Widen's story, whilst a peculiar and perverted twist on religious iconography which often stares at its own navel for long stretches, is not completely stupid, just not fully convincing. There is black humor in Walken's every scene and a sense of integrity to Daggett's conflicted ideals. Furthermore, as a director, he makes great use of angelic sculptures, Native American scenery and the ever-reliable special effects team. Most major studio genre films are not known for being ambitious and imaginative, mostly because of dollar-chasing skepticism, but Widen gets his vision across in mostly unfettered terms.

The trouble is that without the canny casting of Christopher Walken or the charmingly nefarious Viggo Mortensen ("God is love. I don't love you"), you'd be hard-pressed to call The Prophecy particularly entertaining or involving. Widen doesn't quite find a satisfying middle ground between intellectual and inessential. Maybe it's for the better as this is not exactly a bad movie, and it fits snugly in the middle ground between Dimension's more rewarding Scream series and the shameless schlock of those endless Leprechaun flicks. The premise is also fresh enough to make those later Prophecy sequels, even the ones which resurrect Walken as Gabriel, seem more cynical and dopey in contrast.

The Prophecy, meanwhile, isn't as sacred as it takes itself to be, and it's a shame Walken's irreverence didn't bless the rest of the film. This could have sincerely been manna from Hell.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Zombie High


ZOMBIE HIGH
(R, Cinema Group, 93 mins., theatrical release date: October 2, 1987)

No, Virginia...just no! Bad Virginia Madsen!!


Oh, I can't be too hard on you, sweetie. Hell, I'd be in the fetal position, too, if my rising star led to this.

Zombie High features no zombies, nor is it set in a high school. We had Killer Klowns from Outer Space, a Teen Wolf (Too), even a Monster High by the end of the 1980s, but whatever huckster who threw the darts landing at those two words clearly didn't watch the same film as I did. When plucky heroine Andrea (the staggeringly overqualified Virginia f---ing Madsen) uncovers the occultist malfeasances of her shady boarding school, she even explicitly calls them vampires. This is an October 1987 release, keep in mind...was there a sort of foolish pride which kept the producers from wanting to be associated with the likes of The Lost Boys and Near Dark?

That blatant misnomer of a movie sets the tone for Zombie High, which unspools like a generic facsimile of a factory-tooled B-movie (Charles Band isn't even gone, but consider this a token to his eventual grave-rolling) and is every bit as dead in the head as the pod people preppies spewed out from the hallowed halls of Ettinger Academy.

I've got it...Brainwash Academy! Not only is that a more apt title, but it works as a nice pun, as well, you know, B.A. Oh, this is going to be a pain.

The combined forces of Madsen, soft core siren Sherilyn Fenn (nothing to see here, boys) and Paul Feig, the future creator of Freaks and Geeks and the director of Bridesmaids, cannot conceal the student film-caliber pedigree behind the scenes. The film even credits as co-writer and co-producer one Aziz Ghazal, a notoriously irritable USC film school equipment manager who bungled a major motion picture deal with both Oliver Stone and Jodie Foster, eventually murdering both his ex-wife and daughter before taking his own life after a manhunt was formed. Zombie High resembles a hurried class project (note the certain allergy to close-up shots) more than a passionate, D.I.Y. magnum opus on the level of The Evil Dead or even The Deadly Spawn.

Madsen's Andrea is one of the several new lady freshmen studying at Ettinger Academy, formerly exclusive to males, and her annoying jock boyfriend Barry (James Wilder) frets over the prospect that she'll become just another pencil-necked geek (Chill, bro, you aren't dropping her off at Adams College!). She is committed to her studies, though, rooming with a boy-crazy ditz named Suzi (Fenn) and befriending lanky quipster Emerson (Feig). Their biology teacher, Dr. Philo (Richard Cox), becomes the most enamored with Andrea, inviting her to a meet-cute at his apartment residency (nice pin screen!), but he gets nowhere with her. Tough luck, but he can always leer at her as she goes swimming.

Andrea's new classmates, also including an unruly senator's son named Felner ('80s geek magnate Scott Coffey), start exhibiting wild swings in personality. This sets her on the path of breaking into the campus infirmary and uncovering the shocking truth, one which her possessive boyfriend warned her about from day one. The faculty, led by Dean Eisner (Kay E. Kuter), have been surgically harvesting their students' brain tissue for a serum of immortality, with the not-so-secretive Philo implanting a crystal which allows for the kids to continue living, learning and leading productive lives.

Gonna get their Ph.D.s, they're all Teenage Lobotomies!


The script itself seems eager to devolve into a go-for-broke Troma movie (oh, how I wish, for then we'd get some real cheap but blessed thrills), but one flick wonder Ron Link hasn't the disreputable heart for the material. Whenever a scene threatens to become satirical, like the school social where the students clod and waltz to the vamping sounds of a bad Ready For the World cover band, the equally lock-step filmmaking and easily-distracted editing stifles the hilarity. The only consistently funny element to the film is Paul Feig's performance of hapless joker Emerson, a supposedly straight man who is played like a coded gay character out of 1950s cinema.

Virginia Madsen, meanwhile...My heart always breaks whenever I watch intuitive, intelligent actors forced to sell dumb material. The same feeling occurred when I saw Rosario Dawson in Eagle Eye, for the record. And Madsen, who would give a career-best performance in Candyman prior to her Oscar nod for Sideways, is constantly left stranded. When Andrea demolishes the wine cellar wherein the death-defying elite keep their precious serum, the choreography is slapdash and Madsen resorts to blatant Sarah Connor-isms in the dialogue. In fact, a lot of her line deliveries seem to land with a wet flop, especially the aforementioned revelation scene ("You can't replace human emotions with a crystal!").

A lot about Zombie High feels oppressively fourth-rate, from the leaden campiness to the many stalking set pieces (the kids all look like they might graduate to work for Silver Shamrock, if anything) to the plot contrivances involving Muzak and eerily skeptical cops. Even the requisite car accident is treated with workaday indifference. The soundtrack doesn't help things, either, with random songs (all from the same three hired gun composers) that try to sound like Journey, Timbuk 3 or B-boy rap/rock. The movie's closing tune, "Kiss My Butt," (see, there's your truth in advertising the title fails to honor!) is a bald rip-off of Anthrax ("I’m the Man") and The Beastie Boys ("Fight for Your Right") with lyrics that are both asinine and non-ironic. And it drags at the end just as interminably as Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda."

Zombie High has a clever premise, one which prefigures 1998’s Disturbing Behavior (which would have at least been halfway right if it were named "Zombie High"), but it's handled in such a trite, dopey manner that I would just as soon get a crystal in my skull and lurch onto the next Netflix watch. On a side note, I will point out that the bogus romantic entanglement between Andrea and the 102-year-old Dr. Philo, so creepily infatuated that he jeopardizes the Dean's Brotherhood of Eternal Knowledge ("What are you going to do? Cut off my serum dosage? You would, wouldn't you?"), makes Stephanie Meyer look like Shakespeare by comparison.

Your homework: Watch Class of 1999, instead. I couldn't find the trailer for Zombie High, anyway.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Witchboard




WITCHBOARD
(R, Cinema Group, 98 mins., theatrical release date: December 31, 1986)

Kevin S. Tenney has quite the propensity for possession, what with his two initial cult hits, both franchise fodder, focused on disturbances in the spiritual realm casting dire palls on the material world. Maybe he must have felt tired of the slasher conventions from his collegiate beginning, although his most famous film, the sophomore effort Night of the Demons from 1988, has definite influences from its early 1980s body count brethren. Tenney's debut Witchboard, however, doesn't wait too long to get to the conjuring even as its dials down on the carnage, certainly an intriguing comparison point given the E.C. Comics-friendly madness of his next project.

Like Sam Raimi before him, Tenney had a fairly kitchen sink drama sensibility which gradually was renovated into a blood fountain. Witchboard is distinctly character-oriented for undemanding shock cinema, its male leads being estranged best friends who harbor an ever-festering resentment based on their love for one woman. It's a soap opera for gorehounds, where confrontations and consolations coexist with bodies thrashing against walls, demonic POV tracking shots and the occasional ax murder. But mostly it's driven by a string of séances dependent on that reliable of slumber party excursions into the supernatural, the Ouija board.

Yuppie vineyard heir Brandon Sinclair (Stephen Nichols) has been using it routinely to speak to the ghost of ten-year-old David Simpson. At a party hosted by former flame Linda Brewster (Tawny Kitaen), Brandon invites her to make contact with David as her newest beau, working class prodigy Jim Morar (Todd Allen), stews in drunken jealousy. Snarky Jim agitates David so much, the specter deflates the new tires on Brandon's Cobra convertible. Linda takes it upon herself to communicate with David solo for a peaceful resolution, but she develops a fixation with the Ouija which puts her at risk when her naivety allows the apparition to wreak violent, vengeful havoc on Linda, Jim, Brandon, and their friends.

The result is strictly run-of-the-mill as far as possession stories go, with "accidental" deaths, pregnancy scares, nightie nightmares (shrouded in mist, of course), and the mercenary services of a medium, in this case a wisecracking, rainbow-haired space case named Zarabeth (Kathleen Wilhoite) who uses adjectives like "gnarly" and quotes Tigger for that extra shot of forced whimsy. Also as insufferably eccentric is the town's single detective, Lt. Dewhurst (Burke Byrnes), who suspects Jim as the suspect based on solely his missing hatchet from his construction job. Every one of Dewhurst's shakedowns involves his manchild preoccupation with magic tricks, so much so that he's juggling oranges at one point apropos of nothing. That he doesn't arrive for the demonic showdown dressed like Bozo the Clown and wielding an oversized mallet is as baffling as it is merciful.

Tenney employs these touches to lighten the mood, undoubtedly, but they don't gel at all with the embittered melodramatics between Jim and Brandon. The movie hinges on repairing the camaraderie between these absentee ex-friends, who come across as catty right from the start only to eventually reconcile in a motel room, where they learn to laugh again. Oddly enough, atheistic Brandon is the movie's expository mouthpiece while loutish but loving Jim bears the so-called redemption arc which works about as well as you'd expect. Some viewers may actually be cheering for him to pull the trigger on himself in the climax.


But what about 1980s vixen/human hood ornament Tawny Kitaen? Between the poles of Tom Hanks and David Coverdale, the B-actress is touted in the vintage on-set interviews included with this special edition release as playing more than just a reactive piece of eye candy. In a word: HA!!! Linda Brewster is far from Final Girl material, as she needs to be rescued by not one but TWO love interests, bears the brunt of the film's many otherworldly torments and is even rendered vulnerable in that old standby, The Shower Scene. At no point does she ever come across as in control of her own destiny, nor does she effectively will out her inner demon at the end like even Mark Patton's Jesse Walsh did in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2. There isn't even an attempt to de-glamorize Tawny as she is invaded by the movie's ethereal bogey, the final stages only serving to make her look like a model on a photo shoot than anywhere else in the film.

To be fair, Tenney proves himself a workable horror craftsman at times even at this early stage in the game, and puts a lot of thought and effort into not only the framing, camera shots and cinematography, here handled by Roy Wagner, but his screenplay. Tenney's wit can be generous, as is his attention to character development, and the film does unfold as an engrossing enough mystery, at least until a ridiculous anti-climax/coda evokes an unwelcome "WTF?" reaction. Even though he leans too heavily on jump scares (a particularly annoying habit for Jim) and telegraphed close-ups of dangerous objects (Chekhov's sundial!), Tenney does hit some nerve-tingling strides involving one victim's sudden demise (think Final Destination) or a typically Raimi-esque chase sequence.

His touch with the actors, however, is particularly amateurish, especially compared to his deployment of the surprisingly large ensemble in Night of the Demons. If Tawny Kitaen fails to come across as convincingly possessed, then watch daytime soap star Stephen "Patch" Nichols and comic relief Kathleen Wilhoite try (and fail) their best to channel the spirits of James Spader and Annie Potts, respectively. The only performer with the decency to underact, the top-listed Todd Allen, could be seen as a grungy Andrew McCarthy, in that he is a pleasant enough non-presence, although Tawny is no Molly and, thankfully, there's not a Duckie in the gallery.

Because Witchboard is often released on home video in tandem with Night of the Demons, an audience has grown to such a degree that some have championed Tenney's debut film as superior. I don't buy that at all. Witchboard can only come across as a nervous cackle compared to Demons' disemboweling belly laugh. The dirtier system proved the better conduit for Tenney to let loose his puckish spirits, whereas if you used the disc of Witchboard as a planchette, you might end up as lucky as Morrissey did in his own song about Ouija boards: "P-U-S-H-O-F-F." Indeed.

Scream Factory, though, get a "P-A-S-S" for the deluxe high-def treatment they afford Witchboard. The movie looks like it's been preserved in that unmistakably 1985 amber and while the audio is of rougher quality, it's miles better than VHS. But it's the extras, of course, where the company outdo themselves. The Anchor Bay commentary track with Tenney and the film's producers remains enlightening and lively, about as perfect a rundown of the production as one could hope for, but is complemented by an equally cheerful new session with Tenney and a trio of the film's stars. Of course, you will want to see the video retrospective Progressive Entrapment to catch the still-adorable Tawny Kitaen giggly crushing on her male leads, but stay for more anecdotes involving O.J. Simpson and Parker Brothers. A B-roll bouillabaisse collects nearly two solid hours worth of candid on-set footage including more interviews, outtakes, effects tests, and a treasure chest of goofiness. All these plus he theatrical trailer, TV spots and a pair of still galleries to ensure you won't be able to spell right for a week. T-R-U-F-E.