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
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
From Jeffry Heise (firstname.lastname@example.org):
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 (email@example.com):
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?
NEXT WEEK... A potpourri of reviews, talk about GHOST STORY, and more!
Send all relevant comments to firstname.lastname@example.org,
and we'll see you then.