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An Aisle Seat Creature Double Feature

by Andy Dursin

Perhaps it should come as no shock that the success of SCREAM has renewed interest in not just slasher films but all sorts of horror tales. Old series like CHILD'S PLAY have been dusted off, new sequels are being produced, and the theatrical popularity of the genre is the highest it has been since the early '80s, back when FRIDAY THE 13TH and its countless ripoffs were making B-grade horror fare before the advent of home video. Even though this is a trend that will probably pass in the near future, there's no question that this is a fun time to be a genre fan, with a pair of new releases yielding intriguing--even surprisingly unexpected--results.

New in theaters

JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES (**1/2): Carpenter's latest excursion in the horror genre is an assured piece of directorial craftsmanship, from its scenes of empty Southwestern landscapes and open vistas, yet it's disappointingly derailed by a lackluster script and a ponderous pace.

James Woods gives it his all as the head Slayer of a Vatican-sanctioned collection of vampire hunters driving through the Southwest, disposing of undead creatures in their often grimy habitats. Before you can say MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, and unbeknownst to Woods and partner Daniel Baldwin (trying to interject some very Alec-like method acting), the Master Vampire (Thomas Ian Griffith) that the team couldn't find appears to slaughter Woods's entire group at a dirty desert motel. Who possibly could have double-crossed Woods? Perhaps it was none other than Jon Voight--sorry, wrong film.

After a series of decapitations that ends with bitten hooker Sheryl Lee becoming the hunters' psychic link to Griffith, Woods finds out from Vatican priest Maximilian Schell (if you have to slum in a horror film, it might as well be here) that this grungy fang is none other than the source for the vampiric plague itself that has quietly spread throughout the world--a former priest who was turned into a demonic creature after denouncing the church and an exorcism gone awry. Before you can say BLADE, it turns out that Griffith is now after a power source (here a black crucifix) that will further transform him into an even more powerful form of evil, which naturally Woods is out to stop.

There's a lot to like in VAMPIRES, particularly the western-like atmosphere of the film, and the sense of camaraderie between Woods, Baldwin, and the subsequent Vatican priest who aids the duo. The film is free of the unrelenting cynicism that Carpenter has brought to many of his past films, and the ending is surprisingly solid for one of the director's efforts.

Unfortunately, this is another case this year where a film has failed to live up to all of its pre-release hype (which made claims that this was one of Carpenter's best movies). Woods, in a rare heroic role, grits his teeth and has a grand old time, but too often he's saddled with lame lines like "die! die! die!" while Carpenter spends the first half hour filling the frame with too many dissolves and slow-motion shots of Woods maiming corpses and the heroes walking along the side of a highway. This may be "cool" but it's also boring.

Carpenter's "mood" movies, like PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THE FOG, greatly benefit from the director's keen sense of mounting tension--showing vacant backgrounds and using foreboding cinematography to create viewer apprehension without much happening on-screen--yet because VAMPIRES attempts to tell a linear story with a handful of different characters, the very distinctive atmosphere and deliberate pace that Carpenter brings to the table also holds this film back from being something more than it is. The movie should be quicker, smarter, and louder--too often it tends to downplay the action, using montages instead of full-blown set-pieces, all of which are accompanied by a leaden Carpenter soundtrack.

Most of the fault, however, ought to be placed on the screenplay. There should have been more development to Woods's role; aside from a few lines about his origins, he essentially plays a Bruce Campbell character without an arsenal of hilarious one-liners. Griffith's vampire also never becomes the sort of worthy adversary that Woods requires--he looks and acts like an aging member of KISS, and is about as scary as a badly attired Anne Rice fan at a horror convention. Don Jakoby's script, then, lacks the panache and wit of a typical episode of BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER or even BLADE, where the latter's stylish fight scenes complimented a better-than-average script (at least in that film the villain was properly developed and didn't act or look like a left-over nosferatu from a Full Moon movie). Worst of all, though, are the scenes involving Baldwin's explanations to Lee about her "condition"--these play like amateurish improv, eliciting unintended laughs at the expense of character development. Baldwin (who must have been the third Baldwin sibling down on the casting wish list) gives a performance that's funnier than anything else in the movie, especially when he finds himself burning his arm (and overacting), Rambo-style, to prevent the bad blood from spreading through his immune system.

I could also mention the routine quality of the special effects, which are essentially limited to bloody heads and burning bodies, but I think I've grilled JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES enough here. I do so, however, only because there was so much potential in the premise, the possibility for a great genre romp was certainly in place. It's a shame that the film wasn't tightened up and the script revised to bolster the dialogue, because Woods's performance is on-target, and the cumulative effect of VAMPIRES Is that of a moderately entertaining horror film with some clever touches. Too bad it wasn't more than that. (R, 107 mins, ** score on Milan Records)


BRIDE OF CHUCKY (***): Vile, ugly, repellent. These are all apt words to describe this absurd fourth entry in the CHILD'S PLAY series, but critics who thoroughly pan this film will only be telling you half the truth. As disgusting and downright mean as this movie is, it's also the most utterly outrageous and formula-eschewing horror film to come from a major studio this decade, something you certainly wouldn't expect from a sequel to a series that appeared to end its run over seven years ago.

This time around, Chucky the doll (still voiced by Brad Dourif) is resurrected by his old, human girlfriend Tiffany (top-billed Jennifer Tilly, who obviously didn't get a lift from appearing in the acclaimed BOUND), a piece of trailer-park trash who is promptly murdered by the Chuckster himself, and resurrected in the form of a squeaky-clean bridal mannequin. Before you can say, "let's rack up the body count," Chucky and Tiffany try to get back to Hackensack, New Jersey--the home of Chucky's mortal remains--to implant their souls in the bodies of two eloping teens, one of whom is played by budding former teen ingenue Katherine Heigel (she of the immortal Gerard Depardieu comedy MY FATHER THE HERO), whose guardian is none other than John Ritter (who obviously didn't get a lift from appearing in the acclaimed SLING BLADE).

The set-up may seem routine at best, but the execution of this picture is anything but. The murders are gorier and more sadistic than anything I've seen in recent memory, making this the sort of movie that will never appear on network TV, while the direction by Hong Kong vet Ronny Yu makes the most of its modest budget with twisted camera angles and efficient editing. Tilly's death, which includes a tip of the hat to "The Bride of Frankenstein," is gleefully evil but effectively shot by Yu, who is able to display far more of his craft here than he did in his American debut feature, last year's kid fiasco "Warriors of Virtue."

However, the biggest surprise is how smart and self-satirical the script by series creator Don Mancini turns out to be. From the moment BRIDE OF CHUCKY starts (the police locker houses not only Chucky's remains but also Jason's mask, Freddy's glove, and Leatherface's chainsaw), you know you're in for one demented spoof. This is a script that is at best incisively witty and at worst gratuitous in every sense of the word, but at least it never plays by formula, never becomes the least bit pretentious like Kevin Williamson's SCREAM scripts, and goes positively over-the-top in every conceivable aspect. Mancini's dialogue runs the gamut from making fun of itself and excessively gory '80s horror to putting down relationships, marriage, Martha Stewart, long-running sequels, and virtually everything else you can think of. The interplay between the two possessed dolls is often hysterical and there's a memorable "intimate" sequence between Chucky and Tiffany that had my audience laughing so loud it was impossible to hear the dialogue. (It should also be noted that Kevin Yagher's make-up effects of the duo are superb and the doll animation will make some viewers think they're watching a show made by Gerry Anderson under the influence of some major stimulant).

Obviously, BRIDE OF CHUCKY is not a movie that is going to appeal to everyone. It's crass and gross, and there are a handful of sequences that make SCREAM and HALLOWEEN:H20 look like PG-rated kid pictures by comparison. But you have to understand that what BRIDE OF CHUCKY is trying to do, for all intense purposes, is turn conventions and expectations for this sort of movie upside down. Chucky, and this picture, know that they're a relic from a decade ago, and everything in the movie adheres to this--it's over-the-top and mindlessly violent, and yet there's a knowing nod to the audience throughout, as if to say, "hey, HERE'S something you haven't seen before, or at least not in a long, long time." The last shot is right out of a '70s schlock Larry Cohen movie, with an absurdly abrupt cut to the end credits--indeed, nothing could have been more appropriate for this film.

BRIDE OF CHUCKY is meant to be a fan's movie, allright, but unlike the unsuccessful later revivals of Jason and Freddy Krueger, this picture delivers a surplus of gags and gore that, years from now, someone will still be watching and using as a measuring stick for the mainstream horror genre at its most unhinged. If you're up for this kind of thing, don't miss it. (R, **1/2 by Graeme Revell with a lot of rock songs sprinkled throughout)


Aisle Seat Mail Bag: More CBS Logo talk and Halloween Origins!

From Jeffry Heise (jdh@socialstudies.com):

    I, too remember that "CBS Special" logo. But do you remember the other one they had for "A CBS Family Special?" It began with a few seconds of music that accompanied a line drawing of a family coming together, then the actual frame of a house would appear around them to the sounds of a xylophone. I only remember seeing this logo twice, but both times it appeared before an "educational" special for the family, rather than an "entertainment" one like the Peanuts specials.

    Anyone else remember this? The main reason I do is that it sounded so choppy and abrupt, that I'll bet after a few listens the program directors had it disposed of.

I don't remember this, but perhaps someone else will. Maybe you can find it at the Ultimate '80s TV Themes Website, which Eric Paddon brought to my attention. You can find the "CBS Special Presentation" logo there as a RealAudio file among some other, even stranger oddities! Check it out at www.webhangers.com/~tvthemes

From Simon Walmsley (simon@silverbrook.com.au):

    Andy, Maybe you can tell me, cause I sure as heck can't work it out, and I am being serious when I'm asking you this.

    Most cultures on the planet celebrate good things - a good harvest, some event in history, some famous person, a religious event etc. But Americans, at Halloween, celebrate evil. Why? What is attractive about evil to Americans? I can understand the notion that someone wants to make a scary horror story or whatever to scare someone, but to have a special celebration all over the country in honour of evil? Why? I don't know of any other culture on the planet (other than the Kali worshipers in the Temple of Doom) that have a celebration of evil.

Simon, this is a good question, and indeed there are articles that inevitably run in American newspapers around October 31st every year addressing this very subject. Without getting too much into religious or philosophical issues (which would require more space than we have here), I think it's pretty much an excuse for kids to go out, dress up, and eat candy. In other words, Halloween has become a lucrative day of the year for candy companies, costume designers, mask manufacturers, you name it. Very few "trick-or-treaters" understand the day's origins or much care about it except as an opportunity to have some fun and watch horror flicks.

If you have access to it, a good animated feature was made just a few years ago, RAY BRADBURY'S THE HALLOWEEN TREE, which addressed the various religious festivals and origins of Halloween around the world (or you can seek out Bradbury's book of the same name, which was originally written as a screenplay that he adapted to paperback form).

Halloween, by the way, has never been an "official" holiday in the United States, which does say something about its overall significance. Schools are always open, and our postal service--notorious for taking off any day even slightly warranting a holiday--has always managed to attempt delivery on October 31st. Anyone else care to join in this discussion? Mola Ram?

NEXT WEEK... A potpourri of reviews, talk about GHOST STORY, and more! Send all relevant comments to dursina@worldnet.att.net, and we'll see you then.

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