Friday, June 26, 2009

#64: The Night Flier (Mark Pavia, 1997)

I haven't read anything by Stephen King for 19 years. That makes me sound old, but I'm only slightly less fresh than the morning dew. Come on, people. Over the course of Thanksgiving break in eighth grade, November 1990, I read King's then-new collection of four novellas, Four Past Midnight, and that was that. I remember enjoying the book, but I also remember thinking that I had finally read enough King for one lifetime. My tastes were changing. I was turning away from King, Clive Barker, and Peter Straub, and turning toward the average young male misfit's canon of serious teenage literature: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Charles Bukowski, and biographies of Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and John Lennon. My musical tastes were changing, too. Instead of Metallica, Motley Crue, and Whitesnake, I was spending my time with Jane's Addiction, Fishbone, Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Living Colour. Not that much of an improvement, really, but I was taking my first baby steps toward my current aesthetic, which is loving every type of thing that exists but trying to be discerning within those types. My active interest in Stephen King comprised only five years of my life, but it seemed much longer. Between the ages of 9 and 13, I read about 75 kabillion King books. Most of these memories involve sitting in a car, for some reason. I remember reading The Stand in the car on the way to a family vacation in South Dakota. I remember reading The Dark Half in the car on the way to Colorado to visit my uncle. I remember sitting in my parents' parked car reading Christine in the summer heat while listening to top 40 radio from a boombox near a concession stand while my mother played in a tennis tournament. I also remember all the bicycle trips to the public library to stock up on King novels and pedaling them home in a paper bag draped across the handlebars so no one my age spotted me with books. Once branded a "reader," your playground cachet plummeted. In high school, on a band trip to Los Angeles, the teachers scheduled some R&R at a huge mall in Orange County. Back on the bus at the end of the day, a girl from my class saw some of my shopping bags and asked me, "Why do you have a bag from the bookstore?" "I bought some books," I said. "Why?" she asked. She wasn't being mean. She was honest to god baffled. Bill Hicks has a similar routine in one of his acts, and I'm sure his story is true, too. Some people, if they don't know, you just can't tell them.

Anyway, flash back to 1988. Two years before I lost the taste for Stephen King completely, I was still in the midst of King mania. I checked out the horror anthology Prime Evil from the library of a nearby much larger town, having tapped out the horror fiction from my own hometown's library. The first story in the anthology was a brand new novella from King called "The Night Flier." Having sampled some of King's writing again this morning, I am reluctant to admit that although he is an accessible and likable storyteller, he is also a pretty godawful hack writer. Another childhood hero destroyed. Thanks a lot, cardiac arrest and literary evidence. Anyway, King may be no William Gaddis, but he came up with a pretty nifty story idea involving a vampire serial killer, private planes, and tiny, isolated airports. I loved the story in 1988, and even though that love belongs solely to 1988, at least somebody made a movie out of it. Movies can turn schlock like this into something entertaining and fun in ways literature can't.

The only feature film directed by Mark Pavia, The Night Flier stars George Clooney's more attractive cousin, Miguel Ferrer (what a time he would have in Shelbyville), an actor I wish was used more often. I love this guy. He plays a great charismatic asshole. I love him in the Twin Peaks TV show and movie and in Robocop. He plays Richard Dees, a hotshot reporter for a Weekly World News/National Enquirer/proto-TMZ hybrid called Inside View. He's a completely unlikable asshole. I always like characters like that in movies, especially if they're played by Miguel Ferrer. The paper has just hired a fresh-faced upstart with that supremely annoying mixture of naivete and ambition, Katherine Blair. She's played well by Julie Entwisle, in one of her only two film roles and her only non-bit part role. Both her and director Pavia disappeared from films entirely after this movie, but the consolation prize is that they married each other.

Though Dees is the paper's star reporter, he's been slipping recently, so the paper's weaselly editor assigns the story of The Night Flier, a serial killer with a private plane who lands in rural airports and kills whoever's on duty, to both Dees and Blair, playing them off each other. This part of the story is a well-worn cliche, as is King's heavy-handed comparison of the vampire and the tabloid reporter, hammered home in a speech toward the end. (They're both bloodsuckers, get it? What a profound observation.) Pavia also isn't the most exciting visual stylist in the world. But he's not unnecessarily flashy, either, and he doesn't trick up the visuals in the fashionable modern sense, which is nice, because if he did trick up the visuals in the style of the times, he would have completely fucked up the movie.
This is not a great movie, by any stretch, but it's well-acted, nicely told, and fun. The special effects are convincing (no CGI, thank god), and the idea of a murderous vampire flying an all-black Cessna fills me with glee. I liked it.
The Night Flier experienced a limited, unsuccessful theatrical run after debuting as a TV movie on HBO. Many far more terrible King adaptations have enjoyed major theatrical runs for much longer.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

#63: Necronomicon (Brian Yuzna, Christophe Gans, & Shusuke Kaneko, 1993)

I'm a sucker for television horror anthologies. I own bootleg copies of the complete "Tales from the Darkside" and "Monsters" TV series. I avidly watched both of those shows as a child, as well as reruns of "The Twilight Zone," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," and "The Outer Limits," and the then-current 1980s updates of "The Twilight Zone" and "Hitchcock," and new series like "Amazing Stories" and "Tales from the Crypt." I've added "Tales from the Crypt" and "Masters of Horror" to my Netflix queue. I like seeing what a director and some actors can do with a genre storyline and a limited span of time. Sometimes the results are excellent, especially with a good cast or director, but I have a weak spot for even the terrible stuff.

Horror anthologies for the big screen don't often fare as well as their TV counterparts. I'm not sure why. The charm often disappears. For every success like Creepshow, there are a handful of failures like Creepshow 2. Maybe the problem is that the filmmakers usually don't have enough television experience, so the strain of truncating a story appears onscreen. Necronomicon, a Lovecraft-inspired anthology film, is no cinematic masterpiece, and sometimes suffers from the pitfalls of the anthology film, but is ultimately a lot of fun for fans of horror and Cthulhu. It occasionally suffers from truncation and flat, perfunctory direction, but it's full of enough slimy-tentacled occult beasts, face-melting, and bone-marrow eating to bring a big smile to my face. Plus, lots of mentions of Cthulhu and the Necronomicon. They're both fun words to yell out, especially if you also happen to like metal.
The film opens in 1932 with H.P. Lovecraft, played by Re-Animator's Jeffrey Combs, visiting an incredibly awesome and heavily guarded library of occult books, overseen by a group of creepy monks. Lovecraft, who insists he writes non-fiction, pretends to be researching a project but is actually on the hunt for the Necronomicon, the ancient occult book of the dead, which he believes is secretly being housed in the freaky-deaky weirdo monk library. He swipes some keys and unlocks some doors, and finds the thing. This, of course, sets up our anthology film, as Lovecraft reads through the Necronomicon and we see what he reads.

An aside: I'm so glad Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon have adapted so many Lovecraft ideas because it's so much more satisfying to see his ideas realized than it is to slog through his turgid prose. Like so many 12-year-old horror and metal fans, I went through a Lovecraft phase. That summer, my father bet me 12 dollars that I would have a cavity at my next dentist's appointment because I had been eating so many sweets. I knew the old man was going to be 12 bucks lighter. I won the genetic lottery in the tooth department. I have ridiculously strong teeth, and I have yet to get a cavity in my almost 32 years on earth. I also inherited a crappy thyroid, but what can you do? With my winnings fresh in my pocket, I went to the bookstore in the mall and bought a Lovecraft anthology with a sweet cover I had been eyeing for three years. Excitedly, I went home to read all about the call of the mighty Cthulhu. After struggling through the first three stories, I gave up, and I hardly ever give up on a book. "Holy shit," I thought. "This guy's a boring fucking writer." He was also a bitter, asexual white supremacist, whose racism was so intense that he alienated all his buddies, despite the style of the times dictating that a white person's patriotic duty included harboring racist beliefs. He still has a small army of rabid fans, however. In one of my college English classes, the professor asked the students mid-semester to each pick an author to cover for the remainder of the class. One of my fellow students shouted out, "Lovecraft. Either Lovecraft or John Updike." After suppressing my laughter, I soon started daydreaming about a Lovecraft anthology with the following blurb from a prominent literary critic: "Lovecraft. Exactly as good as John Updike."

Anyway, the Lovecraft library segment sets up three Lovecraft-inspired tales, each directed by a different filmmaker. "The Drowned," directed by Frenchman Christophe Gans, who later made the period werewolf movie The Brotherhood of the Wolf, opts for the flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback approach, which is maybe not the best idea when you only have twenty minutes to tell your story. The character development is thin, the story tries to do too much in too short a time, and the visual style is flat, but the horror elements are top-shelf, with bizarre squid-like creatures coming out of reanimated dead people's faces, and Cthulhu himself makes an appearance. Cthulhu! The next segment, "The Cold," directed by Japan's Shusuke Kaneko, is a better piece of storytelling and benefits from the thespian skills of David Warner, but also contains flat, anonymous direction. Also, there's a gratuitious boob closeup in a gratuitous shower scene. I don't really have a problem with that, but it's pretty shameless. Kaneko could not speak English at the time, so he's an odd choice for the most dialogue-heavy part of the anthology. I don't know much about him, but they still make Godzilla movies in Japan, and he directs some of them. I had no idea. The final segment, "Whispers," is the funniest, goriest, and most visually interesting. Directed by American Brian Yuzna, who also produced the whole shebang and directed the library introductory segments as well, "Whispers" contains the satirical message that Satan's minions might just be pro-life, not pro-choice. Current events certainly give support to that suggestion. Also, bone marrow tastes like candy to flying Satanic creatures in the bowels of the city. Yuzna produced many of Stuart Gordon's films, wrote the screenplay for From Beyond, and directed the killer dentist movie starring Corbin Bernsen entitled The Dentist, as well as its sequel. As a director, he seems to specialize in sequels in franchises started by other people. He's tackled sequels in the Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead, and Silent Night, Deadly Night series. He also produced and came up with the story for the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids movies, oddly enough.
Necronomicon! Cthulhu!