Saturday, September 29, 2007

#22: The Dead Pit (Brett Leonard, 1988)

In junior high and high school, my friends and I regularly hung out at Bateman's Trading Post, one of my hometown's three convenience stores. Everyone else hung out at Conoco. Idiots. A weird hodgepodge of anything one might need in a small town, Bateman's sold live bait, gas, beer, coffee, slushes, magazines, nachos, Little Debbie snack cakes, stale hot dogs rotating under a heat lamp and truck stop cassettes (Bon Jovi, Roger Miller, Roy G. Mercer, etc.). A stuffed bear stood behind the cash register. Fake gag photos on the wall showed the convenience store's owner putting Bill Clinton in a headlock. Bateman's also rented movies. To get to the porno movies, one would have to take a left at the beer, walk behind the cash register, then take a right behind the life-size wooden Indian sitting in a chair. In high school, we rented a porno film called "Hard to Hold," in which each sex scene contained some sort of challenging circumstance (gigantic breasts, menage-a-trois, man with two penises, enormously overweight women, etc.) My friends and I played a game we invented at Bateman's called "The Next Person Who Walks in the Store." We would take turns saying things like, "the next person who walks in just got done having sex with his dog" or "the next person who walks in doesn't know how to read" or "the next person who walks in just killed a man with his bare hands" etc. Then we would wait for someone to come in (and, since Bateman's was right on the highway, someone came in all the time) and then laugh hysterically. We sat there for hours, drinking Dr. Peppers and eating Little Debbie snack cakes. We befriended all the cashiers. Why would you want to hang out at Conoco? So many people in my hometown are such unimaginative, Conoco-hanging-out-at dullards. In high school, I browsed the VHS tapes often. The video store in town was a good source of Hollywood movies, but Bateman didn't know the slightest damn thing about movies, so he just bought whatever was cheap. Using this scattershot approach ensured a much more interesting collection of movies. I found some weird things at Bateman's mixed in with the usual stuff, and I got to see the occasional foreign, obscure horror, sexploitation, b-grade action, or art film that ended up in this 1,500-person town because it was cheap to carry. One VHS cover I often looked at but never got around to renting was The Dead Pit. I looked at it often because a three-dimensional zombie puffed out from the box cover, and when you pressed on it, his eyes lit up and blinked. Pretty sweet packaging, am I right? When I rented the film this week, the blinking, glowing eyes had long since stopped working. That was the first disappointment.

I mentioned in my last post that Dead of Night was the worst film so far on this list. However, once the terrible first thirty minutes ended, the rest of the film was skillfully made and never less than competent. The Dead Pit ends Dead of Night's one-week reign and is our new worst-film-on-the-list champion. This movie sucks in every way possible. I love horror movies so much, however, that I still enjoyed watching it. I can't recommend it to any living thing, though. It's about a "brilliant" doctor who goes nuts and starts experimenting on mentally ill patients' brains. After the patients die, he throws them in a pit in the hospital's basement. The head psychiatrist finds out about him, shoots him, and walls up the pit. Twenty years later, an earthquake and the arrival of a mysterious amnesiac woman trigger the doctor's return from the grave. He resumes his mad killing spree and raises a zombie army. The mental patients are left to defeat him. Makes perfect sense, right?
The faults are numerous: lousy acting, neither funny nor scary, cliched treatment of the mentally ill, inept camera work, gloomy, humorless, ugly to look at, and an incredibly stupid and incoherent script. I will give it a few kudos: One of the characters speaks exactly like Sean Connery, but he says things I've never heard Sean Connery say in a film, e.g. "We need to destroy these damn zombies!" or "What the fuck?" so that's pretty exciting. The woman playing the amnesiac constantly wanders around a co-ed mental institution in tiny hair-metal-era panties and a braless baby midriff nightie and gets her top squirted off by a firehose in a pointless dream sequence. Normally, I would pooh-pooh this sort of exploitative treatment of an actress (right?) but in a movie this terrible, it helps things considerably. She looks very nice. A neato melting zombie head effect probably used the film's entire budget, and the undead mad doctor looks pretty cool. Auteur Brett Leonard went on to direct that piece of shit The Lawnmower Man and one of the eight million Denzel Washington thrillers that came out in the mid-1990s.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

#21: Dead of Night (Simon Hunter, 1999)

In Dead of Night's country of origin, Great Britain, and most others, this film is called Lighthouse. In the U.S., the distributors decided the title would confuse us dumb Americans. We might think the whole movie was about a lighthouse! Who'd want to see that, hyuk hyuk? As it turns out, the whole movie is not about a lighthouse, but there is a lighthouse in it. What it is about is a ship transporting prisoners to an island prison, including unstoppable, sadistic serial killer Leo Rook. Rook escapes from the ship, takes a lifeboat to a nearby lighthouse, murders everyone there, and puts out the light. The prison ship crashes into some rocks, and from then on, the prisoners, wardens, and a psychologist band together to attempt to escape from the cuckoo-bananas killing machine stalking them. It's basically a generic slasher movie in a novel setting.
I had a sinking feeling when the movie started. Hunter, in his directorial debut, tries to fool you into thinking he's some kind of artsy-fartsy artiste, but he fails. The sub-par stylistic overkill is way too student film, including a cheap b/w intro, sideways angles, a camera that appears to be rocking from side to side like a boat, and an annoying scroll of words at the bottom of the screen, accompanied by typewriter clacking sounds. This is a pet peeve of mine anyway. If films are doing their job visually, they shouldn't have to tell you with words on the screen that they are set in London in such-and-such a year, but this film goes beyond that. At one point, the words on the bottom of the screen tell you that it's 4:07 p.m. Who gives a fuck? Why should I give a shit?
Fortunately, Hunter largely dispenses with the annoying film-school tricks after the film's mostly worthless first half hour, and Dead of Night turns into a highly suspenseful, though fairly routine, slasher flick. Characterization is nil, and the leads are mostly boring, but Christopher Adamson, as Leo Rook, is a great villain. He's a physically imposing, evil-looking man, and he makes an excellent serial killer. I love how his motivation for killing everyone in his path is never explained. This may be due to the script's laziness, but whatever. Less is usually more when it comes to behavioral explanations in art and entertainment.
There are three scenes of sustained suspense in the film's second half that are the best things in it, particularly the bathroom scene. I won't say anymore in case you want to rent it. This is probably the weakest film on the list so far, but if you have a soft spot for horror movies, and I obviously do, it's worth a look if you can trudge through the first half hour.

Just look at this guy. Don't let him machete your head off!

Sunday, September 2, 2007

#20: Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985)

It may seem odd, at first, for this movie to be on a list of neglected horror films. Most horror movie fans have seen it. However, there are a lot of good reasons for Day of the Dead to be there. George Romero's original script for the film was much more ambitious and expansive, but he was forced to scale it way down when a portion of the financing fell through. Compared to its two predecessors, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, which were critically acclaimed and financially successful, Day of the Dead was critically reviled and a box office flop (except in New York and Pittsburgh, the former Romero's birthplace and the latter the city in which he grew up and where he still lives). Why did this film initially inspire such a negative response? I don't know, but I have some ideas. First, the film's location is dreary and ugly. Set in an underground bunker, the location lacks the visual texture of the first film's graveyard and farmhouse and the second film's shopping mall. The characters are mostly cartoonish, stupid, loud, piggish, selfish, and/or weak. The film's overall tone is more defeatist and corrosively misanthropic than its precursors (though I would never call this film in its entirety either defeatist or misanthropic). Finally, it indicts American culture in particular, and humanity in general, as idiotic, destructive, and murderous. In effect, it is a film that says to its audience, "Hey dumbfuck, you're guilty." No wonder it didn't take mainstream America by storm. Honestly, it's possibly my least favorite of the three (excluding the fourth film, Land of the Dead, from a couple of years ago. It's still too new for me to consider alongside the others, and I need to see it a few more times), but since all three are among my favorite films, that's not much of an insult. I've seen it four or five times now, and it improves dramatically each time I see it. Only the late Ralph Marrero's performance as Rickles grates on my nerves (he overacts so dramatically he makes "D.C. Cab" look like a Bresson film). Otherwise, this is a great movie.
In this third installment, the zombies have almost completely overtaken the country. A small group of scientists, military personnel, and private civilians are working for the government in the aforesaid underground bunker, experimenting on the zombies and going out on reconnaissance missions to, so far unsuccessfully, find other living humans. The military commander has died, and his second-in-command takes over. He's a moronic fascist who hates the scientists, but he has a few good reasons. Several of his men have died procuring zombies for the scientists, and the chief scientist has gone a little nuts, engaging in bizarre and pointless experiments on the zombies' body parts. He's making progress rehumanizing one zombie, named Bub, but has mostly gone over the edge. The remaining military men are troglodytic bullies, excepting one, who is having a nervous breakdown and growing increasingly unstable. The only sympathetic characters are a female scientist, her male colleague, a Jamaican helicopter pilot, and his assistant, a smart and empathetic, though deeply alcoholic, Irishman. Looking over that laundry list of likable characters, you may think Romero is pounding your head with an unsubtle PC message, but you would be wrong. Romero is an old-fashioned lefty liberal hippie, but he is also a pragmatic realist who values common sense over everything else. He is deeply pessimistic about the direction the world has taken and the death of sixties idealism and failure of its political movements, but he has a lot of empathy for his fellow man and woman. His strong characters are almost always minorities: women, blacks, immigrants, gays, Latinos, intellectuals, the physically and/or mentally disabled, alcoholics, pragmatists, the damaged, the lost, the forgotten. These characters are never condescended to or made superhuman. They all have flaws, too. But the no-big-deal directness in which they're presented is respectful, honest, and thought-provoking. Few filmmakers have as integrated a group of actors as Romero consistently does in his films, though Romero never makes a self-serving point of it. There are plenty of ugly, hateful, and stupid characters in Romero's films, too, butting up against the others. It is this struggle between his innate pessimism, disgust, and negativity and his still-powerful utopian idealism that makes his films so damn interesting. If someone asked me what fictional films provided the best sense of what American life was like in the second half of the twentieth century, I would, without hesitation, point him or her toward Romero's living dead movies. He's not just a great horror filmmaker. He's a great filmmaker, period. And he's got a great sense of humor. (See, for example, the zombie checking his blood pressure in the mall's blood pressure machine in Dawn of the Dead or the clown-suit wearing zombie in this film, complete with big red nose and floppy shoes.)
Getting off the soapbox for a minute, I want to also mention that Romero's films also consistently have the best gore, blood, and guts in the genre. Special effects whiz Tom Savini outdoes himself in Day of the Dead. You get shovel decapitations, eyeball gougings, disembowelments, exploding heads and guts, and torsos ripped in half, all created with love by Savini and his talented crew. God bless those guys. George Romero for president!