One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Well, this is it. It's the last weekly teaser "clip" before my new online sci-fi drama, The House Between officially goes live in its premiere next Friday, February 16th. But before "Arrived" debuts here and on the web (watch this space!!!), enjoy clip # 5: "Violator!"
This is a clip from episode # 6, "Trashed." A mysterious and sinister visitor in the house (played by Florent Christol), makes serious trouble for Astrid (Kim Breeding).
"He ain't retarded. He's misunderstood," Sheriff Hoyt Hewitt says, describing his anti-social nephew, Tommy (a.k.a. Leatherface) in this prequel to the 2003 hit remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Uncreatively sub-titled "The Beginning," this is a hardcore horror movie. It's grim, dark, and completely lacking in fun of any kind. Yet, let's face facts: it gets the job done. It's a brutal, sadistic, efficient machine, and with a title like this, you pretty much get what you pay for.
Still, I had heard some very positive word-of-mouth about the film, and expected it to be more than just better-than-average. Truth be told, it's no better and no worse than the remake of a few years back, which I could liberally appreciate on a "scary" movie level, if not the artistic level of the brilliant Tobe Hooper masterpiece from the 1970s.
This film's storyline is simple, and familiar. In July of 1969, two young good-looking couples, Eric and Chrissie and Dean and Bailey, set out on a road trip just before the boys (brothers...) are due to ship out to Vietnam. In rural Texas, however, they run afoul of the Leatherface clan. In this incarnation, the brood consists of the not-very-evil Uncle Monty, the utterly cracked Mama, and the psychotic Sheriff Hoyt. Of course, I saved the best for last: Leatherface. In this "version" of the story, the iconic boogeyman suffers from a degenerative facial disease and a "tendency towards self mutilation." We know this because we see doctor's notes (over the opening credits) describing both conditions in detail, which I think is a laugh riot. The film makes a point of noting that the family is starving, that the town nearby is dead...that things are so bad cannibalism is necessary...but we're to believe that Hoyt took Tommy to a doctor? And to a psychiatrist too? Right. "So, tell me how you're feeling today, Leatherface..."
Sometimes a chainsaw is just a chainsaw...
Watching TCM: The Beginning, I was struck that - perhaps appropriately given the grand guignol subject matter - the franchise has truly begun to cannibalize itself. This time, a lot of what gets served up to the audience is leftovers. They're piping hot leftovers, put leftovers nonetheless. From the original 1970s films, for instance, we get some trademark Hooper homage shots of road kill on the highway, shots of the glaring Texas sun gazing down impassively upon the murders, and some impressive low camera angles creeping through the high Texan grass. There's even a window-jump near the climax that reminded me of Hooper's staging, not to mention a re-invention of the famous Alice in Wonderland "tea party" dinner sequence. Only not nearly so well done.
From the remake of the 21st century, I see we get the exact same plot dynamic: Leatherface hacks up the alpha male of the group, (Matthew Bomer's Eric) and wears his face while his girlfriend watches. The final battle even takes place in the same slaughterhouse.
At this point in my review, I guess Sheriff Hoyt (played with sadistic glee by Lee Ermey...) would probably remind us, "if it ain't broke; don't fix it." I can't argue with that axiom. This movie is beautifully filmed, operatically grotesque, and like its predecessor, generous with the jolts and jumps. And yet - I guess because I'm a longtime fan of horror, and especially of this series - I was left wanting a bit more. But more on that in a minute.
Let's talk some more about what the film gets right first. Texas Chainsaw: The Beginning does evidence a strong understanding of horror and horror history. In the tradition of the original (The Hardestys), Night of the Living Dead (Barbara and Johnny...) and even Jeepers Creepers, The Beginning knowingly casts siblings as our imperiled heroes. This is important, because guilt and horror is always magnified if you're sharing it with a brother or sister. Here, that dynamic is made even more fascinating by the central situation, that of two brothers bound for the horrors of Vietnam but discovering a different brand of horror right here in the home land and instead. In horror literature and myth, we might see this co-dependency of siblings in sources like Hansel & Gretel, I guess, but it still grants the situation here a feeling of immediacy. Even if subconsciously.
Like its predecessors, this is also "road trip gone wrong" movie, and like Hooper's 1974 movie, it commendably attempts to work in some economic subtext. Here, the closing down of the local slaughterhouse has a dire impact on the town's families, and it's literally a dog eat dog (or person eat person...) world. The film also gets right the sense of total isolation in such a backwater, rural setting. "There's no help to go for," Chrissie explains to Dean at one point, and she's dead right. The line of dialogue, though it may not sound like much in the recounting, is positively chilling in the film.
This Chainsaw also understands another edict from its proud lineage: the true horror in any show like this emerges from the randomness of life. Take a wrong turn or run out of gas, and you're Leatherface fodder. Here, I particularly enjoyed the notion of army-bound brothers locked in a feud over their service, blind to the dead-end they were really driving into. Life threw them for a loop, one they didn't see coming. That's good stuff.
In the final analysis, what The Beginning, like 2003's TCM model, truly lacks is the thing that distinguished Hooper's two contributions as both works of genius and high cinematic art: black humor. A joy of Hooper's Chainsaw I and II is how he went for the gusto (remember Dennis Hopper with the dueling chainsaws in the 1980s sequel?) Today, Hollywood doesn't really value subtext or satire, and so a film like this one, though it has evidences some nice chops, doesn't ascend to the top tier of genre greats...like at least two previous entries in the franchise.
If you are inclined, after you watch this film, go back and watch the first fifteen minutes of Hooper's original. It's the scene with that unhinged hitchhiker in the van. Remember? He's a weird, Mansonite loonie, and these scenes are wrought with terror because you don't know what he'll do next. He's a wild card. The movie doesn't take the predictable road with the way the script treats him (or the teens)..and scares are generated because the audience is knocked off-guard. Likewise, in Hooper's film, he throws away traditional movie decorum and goes by the edict "no learning," which means that characters in the play don't learn from one another according to some writer's carefully constructed plot line. They just walk into that horrible farmhouse and get killed, one after the other. Again, this reflects the randomness of life. We don't always know the reasons why something happens to us, but movies - even horror movies - have the tendency to make everything neat and tidy. That works against something being truly scary.
The Beginning is not a great horror film because ultimately it would rather throw in little homages to previous entries or hew to some pre-ordained outline rather than surprise us and show us something truly spiky and original. But, the franchise must be fed, I guess. You don't go into the sixth film of a series expecting originality.
Also, you just know a movie is struggling when evil biker chicks are randomly thrown in as fodder for Leatherface. This reminded me of Friday the 13th Part III, wherein a motorcycle gang obligingly ended up in rural Crystal Lake so Jason Voorhees could murder them in horrible fashion. I'm still wondering what the bikers in this film were doing in bum-fuck Texas. (Central casting must have sent them; judging by their costumes).
Hey everybody, I've got a series of interviews about the 1970s TV series Land of the Lostin Filmfax Plus this month (the January/March '07 issue). The magazine is doing a nice series about one of my favorite disco decade shows, titled "Rediscovering Land of the Lost," which continues next issue.
Author Frank Garcia contributed an article, including an interview with Larry Niven and David Gerrold, and I submitted a series of interviews (from 2001 and 2002...) from series creators. I interviewed third season writer Sam Roeca, third season producer Jon Kubichan, series co-creator Allan Foshko, director Bob Lally, executive producer Albert Tenzer and theme song composer Linda Laurie.
The magazine is available now, so check it out. It's another great issue, which also features articles on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Twilight Zone.
David Seltzer's chilling tale about the Anti-Christ among us, The Omen, endures. The bicentennial year original has spawned two theatrical sequels, countenanced this re-make and even been remade as a TV movie called The Omen: The Awakening. At it's core, this durable franchise concerns a very deep-seated parental fear. In short, it meditates on the notion that your child, that little cherub you love so much, is not what he or she seems. That underneath the angelic smile are dark intentions, or worse -- pure evil. The concept of the film, about a changeling - a switcheroo between babies - also reflects the not uncommon terror that the child that you think is yours is actually someone else's progeny. If you're a parent, you know that can be potent nightmare fodder. Even if you're not one, I think you get it.
The original 1976 version of The Omen is a very good film, a strong horror picture. It starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as the unwitting, unsuspecting parents of that tyke, Damien, the growing Anti-Christ. The film also featured a stellar supporting cast that included Patrick Troughton, Leo McKern and David Warner. Perhaps more memorably, the film thrived on its intense and graphic violence. Anyone who has seen the film won't soon forget the plate glass decapitation sequence. Later films in the Omen cycle (1978's Damien: Omen II and 1981's The Final Conflict) came to rely more strongly on these violent set-pieces than upon characterization or internal consistency, but the original was nonetheless a potent fright-show. Like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, it was a brilliant crystallization of parental fears about children.
So along comes this Hollywood remake, with Liev Schreiber in the Peck role (as Ambassador Robert Thorn), and Julia Stiles as his prone-to-depression wife. In a bit of stunt casting that works splendidly, Mia Farrow (Rosemary herself...) plays the evil Nanny, Ms. Baylock This is supremely ironic casting not merely because of Farrow's association with the famous Polanski devil-baby film, but because of her own personal history with Woody Allen. She's a serial-adopter (meaning she adopts children willy-nilly, seemingly...) and is known to possess a temper (she sent Woody a scary Valentine, allegedly...) Here, with a straight face, she gets to say lines such as "caring for children has been the joy of my life." Wonderful! This adds a nice little bit of campiness to a dour, lugubrious picture.
The Omen 666 is a beautifully-mounted production. Despite Ms. Farrow's presence, it's remarkably less kitschy, exploitative and fun than the 1970s version, and is in every way possible a product of its context, the early 21st century. This means that the production values are absolutely, utterly sterling...there's perfect lighting, a menacing soundtrack and the colors are rich and vibrant. The reds are redder, the blues steelier and the gold as shiny as gold can possibly be. No expense has been spared to make the film appear beautiful. The cast is "A" list all the way too, and Seltzer's screenplay moves with supreme confidence. So it should...this is essentially a rewrite. But back to the supporting cast: Michael Gambon has replaced Leo McKern, Pete Postelthwaite has taken the role of the doomed priest originally played by Troughton and David Thewlis subs for David Warner as the curious photographer. Those are all decent trades, I'd warrant (though I'm an unrepentant Troughton admirer; still my favorite time lord...). Finally, the death scenes here are - as in the original - clever, ruthless mousetraps. A sequence of unlikely events (like a hammer falling from a roof...) cause bloody deaths, and it's pretty impressively filmed. The Omen films were doing this kind of thing before Final Destination made them fashionable again.
I realize this is likely sacrilege, but I also prefer Liev Schreiber in the role of the ambassador. The late Gregory Peck is a terrific actor, no doubt, but his gravitas often translates on screen as CERTAINTY. He's a stolid, dependable fellow; the hero type. It's hard to feel that he's ever truly in danger, or physically jeopardized and I think his casting in the original film often worked against the enterprise. Liev Schreiber is a different breed all together, a little weaselly, a little wussy....but more human and recognizable as "one of us." He expresses more emotions in the role than Peck did, and that's a good thing. In some senses, this Omen feels more immediate (and heart-wrenching) because of his performance. Schreiber has a great scene when he discovers that his son - his real son - was murdered, and tossed thoughtlessly into a grave. His expression - his breakdown - perfectly captures the feelings of loss his character feels at that moment, as well as the regret over being a part of the "conspiracy" that killed the baby.
What the new Omen clearly lacks (besides the warm glow of nostalgia we apply to all our favorite 1970s horrors...) is any real sense of surprise, innovation or inspiration. This is pretty much a note-by-note remake of the '76 film, but with a bigger budget and more remarkable production values. I don't know that just those improvements are enough to merit the remake of a classic. At times, this remake goes beyond being faithful and actually feels slavish. That's not good. And hey, I'm a guy who likes my remakes faithful.
Oh, some modifications have been made to be sure. The destruction of the twin towers on 9/11, the space shuttle Columbia disaster and the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina have now been added to the prophecy that heralds the birth of the Devil's Child. This makes the movie feel timely again, and I particularly enjoyed the notion that the Anti-Christ rises in the world of politics (a sea of politics, the film suggests), and in the process separates man from his brother. In the current blue state/red state divide, this passage reads as more relevant than ever. No doubt the Anti-Christ thinks he's a uniter, not a divider, but I'll trust the Church's prophecy on that one...
Of course, it's a truism that every generation thinks it's the very one that will see the End Times. I'm old enough to remember Ronald Reagan and Secretary of the Interior James Watts testifying in People Magazine and before Congress respectively that they both believed the 1980s would be the "last' generation before Armageddon. I bet if you asked George W. Bush and other evangelicals, they'd tell you they see the signs of the End Times happening today. Still, with war raging in the Middle East and climate change threatening the future, I guess a case could be made today that the end of the world is nigh.
We've sure seen many remakes of 1970s horror recently. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, and The Hills Have Eyes leap immediately to mind. Maybe we go back to these stories, and to The Omen, because we're in an analogous time period today. I can see many parallels to the disco decade in post-911 America. The nation is divided and involved in an unpopular war (Vietnam in the 1970s/Iraq now) and we're saddled with an unpopular president (Nixon in the 70s/Dubya now). Or, conversely maybe Hollywood is just bereft of original ideas. In the years to come, I suspect that it will be the original The Omen that continues to get the most play. This remake isn't terrible. It's not bad even. I harbor no hate in my heart for it, and rather enjoyed spending time with the effort. It was better than I thought it would be.
Nope...it's just an entirely unnecessary movie. It's true that if you've seen the first Omen, you probably have no compelling reason to see this one. Nothing new or unexpected happens. However, I do recommend the movie. It's worth the cost of the rental fee if for no other reason than to see Mia Farrow run over by Liev Schreiber, her body thrown into the air like a rag doll, landing on concrete with a thud.