Posts Tagged ‘Wes Craven’

Shocker (1989)

October 4, 2019

Rated R for some gore, blood, and plenty of foul language.

No matter how one feels about capital punishment aka the death penalty, one has to admit that it is definitely pretty horrific. Whether people feel that it is justified or not, committing the actual deed is very scary. Pretty much every method we humans have thought of is absolutely terrible. We thought of beheading, which we know causes sharp pain and the head is often aware for moments after completion. Hanging breaks the neck when done right but causes a slow, painful death when done incorrectly. Firing squads are clearly painful with no question. The electric chair is absolutely brutal as it takes time for the body to overload with electricity and every pain receptor must fire off at once. The gas chamber is not only painful but has extremely unfortunate historical implications. We have recently learned that the method of lethal injection is both severely painful and extremely fallible. This is all coupled with must be the horrible anticipation and dread that being on death row brings.

As a former theater electrician, I developed a healthy respect for the awesome power of electricity. When I was first learning the trade for real in college, I had a lot of great teachers. I took to it immediately having had a little bit of experience already. Those who showed zero experience and zero instinct for the work were often nicknamed “Sparky”. Such was the case with a man who later became a friend who tried to loosen a lightbulb with a screwdriver. The mocking was not meant to be cruel. It was meant to make those who followed safety rules good and correct those who did not immediately follow the rules. I learned a lot from that gang of misfits. When I later worked with the audio department, I worked on a project where I learned what to do when somebody on a job site was getting electrocuted. All you had to do was loop your belt around their waist and attempt to pull and break the connection without completing the circuit with your own body. I was only shocked once and that is all it took to respect that force for the rest of my life.

The first thing I noticed was that this movie was very in line with Wes Craven’s other works of the time. As evidenced by the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Craven was definitely interested in dreams and weird imagery. The Scream and the Nightmare franchises show that he is very interested in getting meta. This movie combines the two concepts and ups the comedy aspects. It feels like Craven was cutting loose after producing two Freddy movies and being bombarded with the rest of the franchise. The movie knows exactly what it is and puts the pedal to the medal on how ridiculous things can get. Part of that is the crazy special effects they used. There are a lot of standard lightning effects but there were other things that surprised me. Including television into the mix makes for some great comedy and some inventive story beats. It feels like an answer to where the Freddy franchise had gone and maybe it was Craven stretching his legs a bit.

Part of the charm of this movie is the acting by Mitch Pileggi as the home-invading serial murderer who gets a brand new MO. He is so fun even as he murders people. He is like a cross between Freddy Krueger and Charles Lee Ray. He has a lot of the same snarky charm as Robert Englund and Brad Dourif portrayed too. Craven made a rare move and cast a male as the hero but still did a lot of the same beats as with a “final girl”. Peter Berg plays the dumb jock who suddenly finds himself with a psychic connection to the killer. Camille Cooper plays his girlfriend, a highly intelligent woman who I thought was going to be dismissed but she ends up being way more important. The rest of the cast plays their goofy parts to the hilt. There is plenty of pathos and drama but I really enjoyed the dorky comic relief in this movie. Horror fans will love cameos from Heather Langenkamp and Ted Raimi. Fans of goofy guys getting terrorized will love the cameo from John Tesh.

Overall, I really loved this movie. Like I said earlier, it definitely felt like a movie that knew exactly what it was and went for it. It was very much like Happy Death Day 2 U which I saw earlier this year. It is also the same spirit that the Fast and Furious franchise has where you cannot wait for the next ridiculous thing to happen and when it is all over, you understand everything that happened for a reason.

Deadly Friend (1986)

October 10, 2018

Wes Craven was seen as one of the kings of horror especially when I was a teenager because his popular movie Scream had come out when I was 14. I was never really a fan of the Scream franchise because I felt like the meta elements fell a little flat. Although, I should probably revisit the franchise at some point and give it another try. The reason that I keep coming back to Craven because he is the man who created Freddy Krueger, probably my favorite horror character ever. I have practically worshiped that character for a long, long time. He returned to that franchise to make my favorite of the Elm Street movies, The Dream Warriors. His movies often have the right mix of horror and corniness that make Halloween fun. With New Nightmare, he first introduced the self-aware horror movie that birthed a new sub-genre in horror. Part of his innovative approach comes from the fact that after he broke into the film business, he did not want to be known as a ‘horror guy’. He also earned bachelor degrees in English and psychology along with masters degrees in philosophy and writing in my hometown at Johns Hopkins University. On a side note, I applied to JHU to get a degree in writing but never went down that path. He poured all of that into exploring horror and also exploring reality itself in his films.

Biomechatronics is a new field that integrates the fields of biology, mechanics, electronics, robotics, and neuroscience. In the real world, this means replacing damaged parts of the human body with machine parts that do their best to act like the part they are replacing. The biggest examples are prosthetic limbs that act very much like the limbs they are replacing, making them act and look like biological parts. These parts interface with existing nervous or muscular systems in order to function correctly. These are obviously a great benefit for veterans and other people who need help with movement or other bodily functions. It is currently too expensive for most people to afford. In fiction, this kind of thing is not comforting, it is frightening. In a world where killer robots and sentient computer viruses are a thing, putting robot parts in your body is a bad idea. Earlier this year, I reviewed the newer movie Upgrade where the concept was explored in depth. Cyborg parts regularly malfunction, get hacked, gain sentience, or find other ways to start killing people. It makes sense. Also, people are already disturbed by surgery so the idea of having surgery and purposefully leaving something inside is easy horror fodder. On top of that, many people are justifiably afraid of new technology. It is easy to see how this is an interesting element for a horror movie.

One thing that makes this movie special is that it is the film debut of Kristy Swanson at age sixteen. She does such a great job here in a pretty demanding role for a campy eighties horror movie. She would later tussle with vampires but here she is an innocent girl who gets caught up in some pretty twisted stuff. She basically plays two different characters and she plays them well. She is joined by Matthew Labyorteaux, a well-meaning boy who is smart about science but maybe not so smart about life. It may be a stereotype but I have met many scientists who lack social graces and knowledge about life. Their robot friend is played by Charles Fleisher who was Roger Rabbit but he was also a key character in the Elm Street franchise. The movie plays with the idea that it is the adults in a kid’s life that are allowed to be the real monsters. Chief among them is Swanson’s father who is played by Richard Marcus. There is also Anne Ramsey (of Goonies fame) who plays an angry neighbor. The movie has a strong cast who do great making it scary even without the horror elements.

The effects are strong for an eighties horror movie. There is one awesome gore effect in the movie which is famous but there is some unique stuff as well. The robot BB is absolutely fantastically built. He looks even more advanced than Johnny Five from the Short Circuit franchise. Like Johnny, the robot is expressive and exhibits a personality even without Fleischer’s voice acting. The puppetry is definitely on par with just about anything I have seen. The time we spent with BB made me think of how good the pacing is in the movie. We spend a lot of time with the characters before the horror and science fiction elements start. It gives the movie more heart and gave me an opportunity to like the main characters before things got complicated. This movie more than any other of Craven’s movies embraced non-horror elements while still being ostensibly a horror movie. In fact, it was only made into a horror movie by studio meddling which pisses off Craven to this day. However, I think Craven is a bit too hard on it and I feel like the movie has scares but it also has heart.

Overall, I really liked this movie. It was not exactly my normal fare when it comes to horror movies but it is kind of in a pretty small category. It has the same kind of feeling that I get from movies like Gremlins, Fright Night, Once Bitten, and Monster Squad. There is good camp but also genuine characters with fleshed out personalities. It is also rare to have likable protagonists in horror movies. I definitely recommend it for a more casual Halloween experience after watching some of the rougher films I tackle this year.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

October 5, 2018

I have had the misfortune of being in a car that broke down. In my teens, my parents had at least two cars that developed electrical problems and would shut down at traffic lights. Thankfully, I was able to get the car started again before the people behind me got too pissed. However, much later I was driving a Mazda that had been recovered from a police auction that had been wrecked once before. One day, the vehicle just died in traffic and I coasted off to the side of the street (thankfully) due to a faulty alternator. Coincidentally, the battery on my cell phone was dead too so I had to walk to get it handled. Even worse, I once completely totaled a car in a ditch up in Vermont and I stumbled my way to a pay phone to get help. The thrill of the thought of ‘I survived!’ was immediately replaced with ‘Now what do I do?’ while I was in shock. I cannot even imagine doing all of that in the dark. Both of my big events happened while the sun was still up so I was not scared of bad things happening. Also, both were at least relatively near civilization. If both of those things had not been true, I am sure I would have been scared as hell.

Many horror movies were written around using the rural citizens of the United States as villains. This has happened so much that I was easily able to find the term ‘hicksploitation’ on the Internet. Hick, of course, is the derogatory term for the uneducated rural people who exist far outside of urban centers. They make good horror movie villains because their world is so exotic to people who live in or near cities and towns. I grew up either in or very close to Baltimore City so whenever I ventured farther out, it was culture shock. How can they hunt in a world where I can walk to the grocery store? Why do they have to use a well when there are utilities? It was not a matter of rich vs. poor, I knew what city poor was. I did not grow up with people out in what is more or less the wilderness. Most people who go to movie theaters did not either. That is why we get movies like Wrong Turn, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, and a whole host of movies you probably have never heard of. We will forever fear what we do not understand and we will be anxious in environments we are not familiar with.

The movie is from the seventies and very much matches the look of films from that era. Think Texas Chainsaw Massacre mixed with a desert locale and you will start to imagine the right look for this movie. I cannot imagine ever driving through that landscape by choice and definitely not onto back roads. The movie is a brutal horror movie, which you would expect from the director, Wes Craven, who had already brought us Last House on the Left. Like that movie, the blood effects are almost too realistic in that they are shown sparingly. By that, I mean that when somebody is cut or shot, a geyser of blood does not erupt from them. They bleed slow and painfully which is scarier to me. The landscape is desolate and that adds to the desperation that runs through this movie. Like a lot of effective horror movies, the movie deals well with sound. If there was any music, I do not remember it but I remember the silence. The silence is eerie and then that silence begins to be punctuated by weird and horrible sounds and you start imagining things. There are two dogs in the film and their noises mix with the noises of the desert and of the family and it creates a tense soundscape.

The cast boils down to the Family, the antagonist weirdos, and the Carters, a family on vacation. The stars of the show are the Family as the antagonists in a horror film are the ones getting showcased. Papa Jupiter is the lead and is played by James Whitworth as basically, Jaws made into human form. His three sons are similar but all a little bit different. Mercury and Mars are very much like their dad but I was instantly fascinated by Pluto. Pluto is played by Michael Berryman and he is simultaneously goofy and menacing, like a homicidal Marty Feldman. Ruby, the only daughter, is played by Janus Blythe and she is vulnerable and lost. Of the Carters, I liked Bobby the most. He is played by Robert Houston and is the youngest male but he is brave and smart but far from perfect. I also liked Doug, played by Martin Speer, who is the levelheaded and likable goofball who is forced to take the lead. Also, Suze Lanier-Bramlett plays the young and shrill Brenda which normally would have annoyed me but her screaming performance worked really well here.

Overall, I really loved this movie more than I thought I was going to. I originally watched it because it is considered a classic and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. The movie is nothing like most of Wes Craven’s other movies that I have seen as it is straightforward and brutal more like Last House on the Left than the Elm Street movies. It lacked his usual surreal touch but sometimes that is not exactly a bad thing. The thought I had after the movie was over was that it felt like it came from a similar place as Spielberg’s Jaws.  Almost like a mix between Spielberg and Tobe Hooper.  Violence is combined with a lot of tension where you wait for something bad to happen and a lot of time is spent on the impact of the bad times.


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