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Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) – Review

When it comes to blending genres comedy and scares go hand in hand beautifully, the Abbott and Costello monster movies for Universal Pictures being classic examples of this, and it was in 1966 that Universal Pictures once again dove into the horror/comedy world when they enlisted the king of cowardice Don Knotts for their take on the “Haunted House” movie.


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was inspired by an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, funnily enough called “Haunted House” and featured Don Knotts who played Deputy Barney Fife entering a supposed haunted house looking for a lost baseball, so it's no surprise that years later Knotts would start a multiple-movie deal at Universal with a movie that would revisited that very premise. To make the whole project even more synergistic it was directed by Allan Rifkin who was one of The Andy Griffith Show’s most prolific directors, and along with him were two of the series writers and several cast members. At a glance The Ghost and Mr. Chicken could almost be mistaken for a theatrical version of that show and the town the movie takes place in could easily double for Mayberry RFD with the names changed to protect the innocent…or protect those guilty of copyright violations.

 

“You’re out of order, I’m out of order, and this whole backlot town is out of order!”

Like some of the best haunted house movies The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is more a mystery than it is a horror movie, no long haired ghosts crawl creepily down stairs in this movie, in fact whether or not there is even an actual supernatural presence is thrown into question. The movie follows the adventures of Luther Heggs (Don Knotts), a typesetter at small town newspaper who dreams of becoming a reporter, and his big break which involves staying the night inside the town’s notorious “Murder House” to report on his experiences there. Unfortunately for Luther he is pretty much the butt of many a joke to the town’s populace due to his excitable nature, hysterically reporting a murder when the supposed victim is standing behind you doesn’t help, and only local beauty Alma Parker (Joan Staley) has any faith in him; sure editor and owner of the paper George Beckett (Dick Sargent) seems to be on Luther’s side but when things look bad even he abandons poor Luther.

 

You’d think someone married to a witch would be more understanding

Central to the plot is the Murder House itself and its sordid history; twenty years ago Mr. Simmons apparently murdered his wife and then killed himself, jumping from the organ loft after playing one final refrain, and now two decades later Nicholas Simmons (Philip Ober), nephew of the deceased couple, intends to demolish the mansion once the lean on it from the bank is cleared. The one fly in the ointment is of course Luther Heggs, who after his chilling report of strange knocking on the walls, secret passages, the cobwebbed organ playing itself and the portrait Mrs. Simmons bleeding from gardening sheers stuck in her neck, has the town getting all caught up in Ghost Fever. Mrs. Halcyon Maxwell (Reta Shaw), the wife of head banker and holder of 51 percent of the bank’s controlling interest, is the head of the local spiritualist club called “Psychic Occult Society of Rachel” and she prevents her husband from signing over the bank to the nephew. Nicholas Simmons being very eager to see the place bulldozed sues Luther and the paper for libel citing that the article Luther wrote damaged his family name.

 

Is his family name Munster or Addams?

I’m not sure how you could sue a paper for printing a ghost story about your family’s decrepit mansion.  What kind of evidence would be allowed on either side is beyond me, but more importantly just how much damage could you cause a “Family Name” when said name is already connected to a notorious murder/suicide?

The courtroom scene in this movie is certainly not on par with such great courtroom moments found in films like Twelve Angry Men or even A Miracle on 34th Street but Don Knott's explosive crumbling on the stand makes it work and it's really quite funny.  Yet everything is made even more ridiculous by the judge (George Chandler) deciding that the only way to settle this case is to visit the Simmons mansion at midnight, apparently if the ghosts don’t appear for the judge and jury the verdict will be against Luther and the paper.  How does that make a lick of sense?  I think even a judge in a hick town full of rubes would get kicked off the bench after such a ruling. Of course this movie is a comedy and not to be taken as a serious look at the American Justice System in Middle America, it’s about world class scaredy-cat Luther Heggs and his night of terror.

 

To be honest I'm not sure I'd fare any better than Luther.

Comedy or not when I was a little kid the stuff with Don Knotts in that house terrified me; finding the secret passage way, heading up to the organ loft to discover Mr. Simmons bloody fingerprints still on the organ’s keys, and hearing the organ began to play its haunting refrain, it all scared the bejeebers out of me. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is one of those comedy classics that I can watch again and again; the direction by Alan Rifkin is pitch perfect, the cast of character actors led by Don Knotts are all wonderful (especially Playboy Playmate Joan Staley who is our heroes love interest), and the importance of the score by composer Vic Mizzy cannot be overstated. If you have little ones that want to watch something scary on Halloween, but you don't want a film that will give them nightmares, this could be what you're looking for.


Trivia Note: The film’s original working title was Running Scarred but it was changed to The Ghost and Mr. Chicken as humorous riff on the classic film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Batman vs. Two-Face (2017) – Review

With the success that Warner Animation had with last year’s release of Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders it’s no surprise that they’d give the classic campy world of 1960s Batman another spin, and back are Adam West, Burt Ward and Julie Newmar to provide voices to their most iconic creations. But alongside them an icon in his own right William Shatner joins are trio of television legends to lend his voice to one of Batman’s most dangerous adversary but also one who never got the chance to make an appearance on the original Batman series.


In a pre-credit sequence we find Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) being asked by his friend District Attorney Harvey Dent (William Shatner) to oversee a radical experiment to be performed by Doctor Hugo Strange (Jim Ward); with the assistance of Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Sirena Irwin) Hugo Strange will attempt to use his "Evil Extractor" to remove the evil essence to be found in the volunteering criminals; Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Egghead and Mr. Freeze, but of course things go wrong when the supervillains begin to laugh maniacally which causes the machine to overload and explode. Quick action by Batman manages to spare his pal Harvey from the full blast but enough of the evil toxic cloud hits Dent and horribly scars one side of his face.

 

“Holy, new origin story Batman!”

Now this movie isn’t about the birth and rise of Two-Face, all that is brilliantly covered in a nice montage of Batman and Robin fighting Two-Face over the years, but the story really begins at the hospital where reconstructive surgery has not only restored Harvey Dent’s face but his sanity as well. Of course the years of terrorizing the populace of Gotham City cannot completely be overlooked so Harvey has to settle for being the assistant to the Assistant District Attorney. Bruce Wayne is happy to have his old college chum back on the straight and narrow but not so happy is Robin who is not only jealous of this rekindled friendship but also of all the time Batman spins visiting Catwoman (Julie Newmar) in prison.

 

The romance in this outing is one of the shows highlights.

Before Batman can sit back and relax he and Robin are called into action when King Tut and his Tutlings steal a valuable bi-plane and hi-jack a millionaire party on a double-decker bus, and then the Bookworm must be thwarted in his plans to steal rare editions of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde and A Tale of Two Cites. It doesn’t take the Caped Crusader long to realize that these arch enemies are committing crimes that all have duality themes to them and that of course spells Two-Face. Batman can’t believe his reformed friend is behind these dastardly crimes but Robin is more than eager to see his rival pushed out of the limelight, and this leads to Robin rushing off on his own and getting into double trouble. Turns out someone has taken up the Two-Face mantle and has teamed-up with disgraced Hugo Strange to use his “Evil Extractor” create a gas that will mutate people into Two-Face versions of themselves.

 

How this gas results in the deforming of only half of your body is never explained.

What mastermind is setting up Gotham’s top criminals? Is there a new Two-Face in town? Could the reformed Harvey Dent be involved? Will Batman and Catwoman ditch Robin and go on a well-earned romantic getaway? All these questions and more are answered in the exciting action packed entry. As in the previous film Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders director Rick Morales is at the helm and once again he manages to capture the vibrant madcap fun that made the original live action series so entertaining, and not only do Batman’s top rogues gallery show up as they did last time out we also get appearances of not only King Tut and Bookworm but Mr. Freeze, Egghead, Shame, Clock King all pop in to join Joker, Penguin and the Riddler in an auction for Batman’s secret identity.

 

How can they possibly get out of this predicament?

Batman vs. Two-Face has the campy fun of the Adam West television series but it also has great nods to the original comics from Batman’s golden age; with giant props and death traps that fill this film’s 72 minute running time to the brim with excitement. As to what the great William Shatner brings to the table...well he manages to readily hold his own against Adam West in giving a nuanced and tragic portrayal of a man tortured by his duality.  While all the other villains are camping it up Shatner’s Harvey/Two-Face plays it just as straight as Adam West does his Batman. The two worked very well together and I would have loved to see them in further entries, but alas with the passing of Mister West this will never come to pass and though this is a farewell to character beloved by millions it at least it went out with a BANG, a BOFF and a big KAPOW.

 

Adam West, you will be missed.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Burnt Offerings (1976) – Review

If something seems too good to be true it most likely is; this age old adage is no better exemplified in the horror genre, whether it’s a Monkey’s Paw or a cemetery that supposedly can bring back your dead loved ones you just know there is going to be a catch. Today we will look at the 1976 film Burnt Offerings, directed by Dan Curtis and based on the book of the same name by novelist Robert Marasco.  Both book and movie deal with a typical American family getting a sweet deal on a summer vacation home, needless to say it all ends in tears.


The broad strokes of the plot is about how this family moves into the big ole house and how the evil inherent in the structure possesses one of them and has that person try to kill the rest of the family. Now if you are thinking, “Hey, isn’t that the plot of Stephen King’s The Shinning?” Well you’d be right, but The Shinning wasn’t published until 1975 while Robert Marasco’s book came out in 1973 and Stephen King himself has listed Burnt Offerings as novel well worth checking out in his own book Danse Macabre. Now even though they do share similar premises there wasn’t enough to get lawyers involved so take that for what it's worth, and for one the house in Burnt Offerings is lot smaller than the Overlook Hotel.

 
Note: The Dunsmuir House where this film was shot later became more famous as the funeral home in the horror film Phantasm.

The movie opens with Marian (Karen Black), her husband Ben (Oliver Reed), along with their son David (Lee H. Montgomery) arriving at this rundown neo-classical 19th-century mansion to see if it would be suitable for a vacation spot. They are shocked to discover this 37-room mansion though rundown is being offered insanely cheap and they at first can’t imagine being able to afford rent, and this leads to my first question, “What were they expecting? Are we to believe they drove all the way from the big city in response to an ad that didn’t provide a picture or even a brief description of the place?” I’m not saying these people deserved to get possessed and killed by an ancient evil force but a little due diligence on their part may have ended this all before it began. Yet things get even dodgier when they meet the owners; Arnold (Burgess Meredith) and Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart), a brother and sister team who if not a few bats short of a belfry are eccentric enough to ring warning bells in Ben's head. When questioned about the upkeep of the house Roz informs Ben that, “The house takes care of itself.” This kind of foreshadowing should get any sensible person running for the hills.

 

In the 70s you weren’t a true horror film if Burgess Meredith didn’t at least make a cameo.

When the prospective tenants are told that the rent would only be $900 for the entire summer Ben immediately suspects there must be a catch, and it being a definite fixer upper isn’t apparently an issue, but there is one stipulation as the Allardyces inform them of a particularly odd requirement for their rental; it seems their mother will continue to live in her upstairs room and the Rolfs will be required to provide her with three meals a day during their stay. Great rental deal or not the weird siblings and the idea of having the responsibility of an eighty-five year old woman is a deal breaker for Ben and he’s more than ready to walk away from the whole thing, but the house has already sunk it’s hooks into Marian and she is able to convince Ben to go along with it.

Now the Allardyce house isn’t your typical haunted mansion as there are no spectral figures roaming the halls, nothing goes bump in the night nor do the walls bleed, but instead it is more like a vampire in that it survives by sucking the life force from its inhabitants, feeding off their pain and suffering. When we first see the house’s large greenhouse it is full of dead plants but after young Davey skins his knee while playing in the yard suddenly one of the dead plants has a fresh green sprout, and of course that is only the beginning.

 

“It’s going to swallow our souls, isn’t it?”

Joining our little group is Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) who though elderly is full of vim and vigour, that is until the house slowly drains her of energy making her listless and tired all the time, but the real first shots fired is when Ben and Davey’s horsing around in the pool turns dark as Ben suddenly starts to try and drown his son. The kid survives by bashing his father in the face with his scuba mask, drawing blood and snapping his father out of his murderous fugue state, but what is more unusual than a father trying to murder his kid is that Marian tries to placate her husband by telling him that he’s fine and that there is nothing wrong with him.

It’s here that we really start to get indications that something may not be all right with Marian. At first we see her bit perplexed that the food she is leaving for Mrs. Allardyce is being left uneaten, but then once the food begins to disappear as if eaten she still doesn't seem all that suspicious that she still hasn’t met the woman face to face. That none of the Rolf’s have ever seen this old woman is beyond belief, even if the possessed Marian was okay with this oddity you’d think Rolf would at least demand to see the woman they are supposed responsibly for. Any connoisseur of horror films will at this point come to the conclusion that either Mrs. Allardyce is some kind of monster or she doesn’t even exist and as the summer days pass we see Marian beginning to dress in Victorian clothing while also shutting down her husband’s sexual advances, and this eventually leads up to the reveal that it is Marian herself who has been eating Mrs. Allardyce’s meals.

 

A little night time snack of evil.

The film enfolds slowly with us seeing Marian gradually becoming obsessed with the house and her possession by the demonic forces in a very Norman Bates spit personality fashion. As pain and tragedy continues to flourish the house begins to rejuvenate; after the pool incident Marian is shocked to find that the entire pool area has miraculously changed to a pristine condition but later when Ben remarks at the change Marian takes credit for the work. When Aunt Elizabeth suddenly takes ill and dies the greenhouse that was once full of dead flowers now explodes with its colourful bounty, and it is at this point that Ben finally confronts his wife about her obsession with the house, she wouldn’t even leave it to got to the funeral, and when he declares that tomorrow he and Davey will be leaving, “With or without you” the terror kicks into high gear.

While sleeping in an armchair next to Davey, who also survived a second attack by the house when the gas in his room mysteriously turned on all by itself and almost asphyxiated him, Ben is awoken by the sound of the house shedding its old shingles and sidings. He grabs his son and they flee the house only to have their escape cut off by a fallen tree, and when Ben tries to work the tree to the side he is attacked by the surrounding plant life.

 

Lucky for Ben these aren’t Evil Dead trees so they don’t try and rape him.

This movie is not a special effects extravaganza, evil forces aren’t constantly grabbing our heroes and dragging them into the darkness, but instead the film’s almost two hour running time consists of no real showy horror moments as the film is more about the family being mentally destroyed than it is about ghosties and goblins. The closest the film gets to an iconic horror character is the introduction of a nightmarish hearse chauffeur (Anthony James) who has plagued Ben’s dreams since his mother’s death when he was a child.  His grinning visage of death will send chills down the heartiest of spines but as terrifying as he is, and the scene where he rams a coffin at poor dying Aunt Elizabeth is pretty great, he’s just a symptom of the house and not a real physical threat.

 

Well his appearance does eventually cause Ben to go catatonic.

Director Dan Curtis and screenwriter William F. Nolan were not interested in explaining how the house works, we don’t even learn if Roz and Arnold were even human as they could easily be just phantoms created to lure potential victims to the house, and Curtis and Nolan hated the ambiguous ending of the book where the kid drowns in the pool and the catatonic dad cracks his head on the cement poolside as the possessed mother looks on, instead the film has Marian shake off her fugue state when she sees her son drowning and despite the house trying to prevent her she manages to save him.

 

The house has a killer wave pool.

This incident awakens Ben out of his catatonic state and Marian finally comes to the conclusion that maybe it’s time for them to leave, but as they are loading up their family truckster she decides that it wouldn’t be right to leave without going up and giving Mrs. Allardyce their contact information. This is your standard horror movie moment designed to have your audience shouting, “What the fuck are you doing? Don’t go back into that house!” and of course when she fails to come back down Ben goes in looking for her. He heads up to the room of the mysterious Mrs. Allardyce and finds the old lady sitting in an old fashion wheelchair with her back to him. She fails to respond when he asks her where his wife is and when he demands that she answer he spins the chair around to discovers not some strange old crone but his wife, now aged and looking like an evil witch.

 

“I’ve been waiting for you Ben."

This may have some viewers wondering if there ever a Mrs. Allardyce but we never find out and though this ending is not quite the "Mrs. Bates skeleton reveal" from Psycho it's still pretty effective, but unlike Vera Miles in that movie Ben doesn’t fare as well as he is thrown out the window to crash face first into the windshield of their car. Poor Davey rightfully freaks out and races around the house calling for his mother but he's killed when the house’s chimney crumbles and crushes him under a load of falling brick.

 

Poor kid, took the house three tries but it finally got him.

Burnt Offerings is an atmospheric mood piece with the horror being more psychological than overt, and as in Stephen King’s The Shinning it is more about the destruction of the American family unit than it is about ghosts and supernatural nonsense, but it’s slow pacing and two hour run time may find modern horror fans growing a tad antsy. It’s really Karen Black who makes this movie worth checking out as her Norman Bates like split personality possession is pure cinematic gold, one crazy look from her and I’d certainly run screaming from that house, but as the movie doesn’t set any clear rules as to what the house can and cannot do we get the impression that the Rolf family never have stood a chance which does take some of the fun out of it. If you compare this film to Kubrick's version of Stephen King's book the film it's not going to hold up all that well but it is certainly worth tracking down if only to check out Karen Black’s stellar performance.

 

Who will be next?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Rings (2017) – Review

Do you think vengeful spirits hang around the afterlife sharing tips on how to be cryptic or what would be the best ways to annoy the mortal world? Back in 1998 Japanese director Hideo Nakata gave the world the chilling horror film Ring (Ringu) where an angry ghost would crawl out of television set to seek revenge, and then in 2002 Hollywood remade it as The Ring with Gore Verbinski at the helm and kick-started the J-Horror boom in North America, but then The Ring Two was released to poor critical reception as well as lacklustre ticket sales and almost killed it. Now thirteen years after the original film hit theatres we have a third installment which beats the dead horse of the series in ways that even Samara could never have imagined.


As in the first movie Rings has a cold open only instead of two girls discussing a creepy video tape we have a man aboard an airplane who has apparently watched the mysterious video and his seven day grace period is now up.  At first it looks like we are dealing with a guy’s fear of flying until he eventually confides to a fellow passenger that he had watched a spooky tape and then received a chilling call from a girl stating he would die in seven days. I’m guessing we are supposed to assume this idiot believes being 20,000 feet in the air will save him from the vengeful Samara and that no one briefed him on the “Make a copy and show it to someone else” escape clause, but of course Samara does arrive and she pops out of one of the cockpit monitors.

 

“Forget calling the Air Marshall, we need an Exorcist!”

The film jumps ahead two years where we find college Professor Gabriel Brown (Johnny Galecki) checking out a garage sale that apparently contains the property of the dearly departed idiot who died on the plane during the film’s opening. Gabriel purchases an old VCR which he later discovers contains a VHS tape simply labeled “Watch Me” and of course it is the “Death Tape” and after watching it Gabe’s phone rings and a voice tells him, “Seven days” and he then starts seeing weird shit like a fly crawling out his joint, rain falling upwards and the appearance of a stone well outside his apartment.

 

He’s academic so none of this fazes him.

The movie then jumps forward again (we don’t know how far this time but does any really care at this point?) and we are finally introduced to our main protagonists; Holt (Alex Roe) who is bound for college and his girlfriend Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) who will stupidly involve herself in these supernatural shenanigans. It’s when her boyfriend stops returning her calls or texts that she becomes concerned and when she gets a weird Skype call from a strange young woman (Aimee Teergarden) she decides to drive 500 miles to find out what happened to her man.

 

I wonder if Skype paid for this product placement.

When Julia arrives at the college her boyfriend is nowhere to be seen; she pops into a lecture being held by one of his professors and low and behold but it’s good ole Gabriel from our second opening and he denies even knowing who Holt is. Julia follows Gabe to a secure floor that can only be accessed by a private elevator key that she just so happened to have found in Holt’s dorm room.  The elevator opens onto what looks to be a standard office floor but at the end of the corridor there is a camera, a monitor and book titled The Samara Enigma: Neuroscience of the Afterlife. It seems that Gabe is leading a group of students in the exploration of the “Death Tape” and he hopes to prove that souls exist beyond death. We learn that students voluntarily watch the tape which they would then study and report on the weird effects that follow the viewing.  But Gabriel isn't a complete irresponsible idiot so he had set up a sort of "fail safe" where as the countdown to day seven approaches a fellow student would be assigned to the initial viewer and that person, or "tail" as they call themselves, would then watch a copy you made of the video thus allowing the curse to move on to them and spare you a gruesome death.

 

It’s basically a modern version of a chain letter only with the added bonus of possible death.

When Julia spots Gabe talking with the crazy woman from her late night Skype call she follows the girl out of the building, she confronts the woman and is told that she will explain where Holt is after Julia watches something. Three guesses as to what that is and the first two don’t count. Lucky for Julia she intercepts a phone call from Holt to this woman and is warned away from watching the video and thus Samara arrives and kills the idiot woman who was setting Julia up. Holt arrives shortly and explains he didn’t return her calls because he wanted to keep her safe, and I call bullshit on that. All he had to tell her is that he was working on some class project and that he'd be out of contact for seven days, mysteriously vanishing not required.

 

Instead his girlfriend arrives at the Samara party.

The rest of the movie works much in the same way as the original film did with our two leads trying to unravel the mystery of Samara; they study the video and try and deduce where the images came from, they will visit said locations and encounter weird people and dangerous situations and then Samara will try and kill them. The only added bonus here is that one of those people is a blind cemetery caretaker named Burke played by Vincent D’Onofrio and he brings a nice sense of menace to the proceedings, but overall Rings is a complete waste of time and is about as scary as an episode Goosebumps, and not a particular good episode I might add. Neither Julia nor Holt are particularly likable, Johnny Galecki’s attempt to escape his Leonard character from The Big Bang Theory fails miserably, and though the idea of people taking a scientific approach to Samara’s curse was intriguing the film quickly abandons that premise to have our heroes stumble around in the dark for the bulk of the movie.

 

Though seeing Samara climb out of a cellphone was kind of neat.

As a horror movie Rings fails on pretty much every level as it brings nothing new to the party.  When it comes to this kind of horror film rules are very important but in the case of the Ring series they keep changing them for the simple reason of being able to then churn out a couple more sequels. In conclusion if this phone rings don’t bother to answer it.

Final Thoughts and Spoilers:

• Did Samara crash an entire plane to get one dude? Talk about collateral damage.
• Julia’s copy of the video all of sudden has more video hidden in between the frames of the original so that we can get “new” creepy images for our heroes to investigate.
• An image of a burning skeleton leads them to believe that only burning Samara’s remains will lift the curse, but it doesn’t.  Sam and Dean Winchester will be so disappointed.
• Samara is the product of rape yet for decades she seemed “happy” to kill any random person who saw her tape. Someone has to tell her how vengeful spirits are supposed to work.
• The man who imprisoned and raped Samara’s mother blinded himself to escape the reach of his daughter’s powers but when he is confronted at the end of the film Samara cures his blindness so she can kill him. Isn’t this something she could have done years ago?
• Like the previous films it has a hook ending where it’s revealed that “The horror is not over” and in this case its finding out that Julia is now the vessel of Samara’s rebirth and her computer sends copies of the video to all her contacts.  Talk about your nasty computer viruses.

 

Samara will return in…Thunderball.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Burning (1981) – Review

The “Dead Teenager” subgenre is probably the biggest subset of the horror movie and though John Carpenter may have really kicked it into gear in the late 70s with Halloween it was in the 80s with the release of Friday the 13th that this particular subset exploded. Which brings us to today’s topic The Burning which came out a year after Mrs. Voorhees took her displeasure out on a group of camp counselors.


Based on the urban legend/campfire story of Cropsey, the burned caretaker who apparently stalked the woods of upstate New York, writer/producer Harvey Weinstein took the germ of that idea to make his big foray into movie making, and as this film is about a crazed killer seeking revenge against a group of teenagers at a summer camp it has most often been discarded as being a simple knock-off of Friday the 13th, and even though Weinstein claims to have written the story before the release of that film The Burning will always remain in its shadow.

 

Though it does foreshadows the fate of Mrs. Voorhees.

If practical jokes in real life worked the same way they do in horror films most of us wouldn’t have survived to adult hood; in the case of The Burning we open with a group of campers planning a prank against Cropsy (Lou David), the camp’s caretaker who all of them hate. It of course goes horribly wrong. The group of young boys sneak over to the cabin belonging to Cropsy and place a worm riddled skull by his sleeping form, the poor sap is startled awake and knocks it over.  Unfortunately the skull just so happened to be lit from inside by a candle and Cropsy’s pant legs go up in flames in such a manner that one must assume he routinely washes them in gasoline, and then the fire spreads to a nearby can of gas (must be laundry day) which then explodes and he is completely engulfed in flames.

 

Note: The full body burn for this stunt is really quite impressive.

The film then takes a couple of unnecessary time jumps where we first find ourselves one week later at the local hospital where an asshole orderly and a new resident peek in on poor ole burnt Cropsy; this seems only there to give us a cheap jump scare when a horribly burnt hand reaches out and grabs the orderly. To be fair cheap jump scares is the bread and butter of this genre yet The Burning is particularly egregious in this area, in fact I’d say three-quarters of the “scares” in this movie are false jump scares, and which happen way too often. The film then jumps ahead five years to when Cropsy is finally being released from the hospital; where failed skin grafts have left him a horrible disfigured wretch of a man.  So what does a horribly scarred man do with his freedom?

 

Why he goes to find a prostitute to murder of course.

The failure here is that the film doesn’t apparently know what kind of killer they are trying to create; we are only told he was an asshole to the campers, and even if he was an asshole I'd say being burned like that is something no one deserves no matter how big of dick they were, but then once out of the hospital he stabs to death some poor prostitute who freaked out when she got a look at his scarred visage. I’m sure five years in a burn ward isn’t all that conducive to mental health but what kind of reaction did he expect from a five dollar hooker? So his stabbing and tossing out of the window of this poor woman is the film’s way of showing us that Cropsy is now a murderous animal, but was that really necessary or was it just a way to pad the film’s ninety minute run time?

In Friday the 13th the killer is an unknown adversary for the bulk of the film, we had no idea who the killer was or what their motivations were, but at the end when we finally learn that it is the mother of a child who was left to die by partying camp counselors we may not side with her but at least we understand what drove her to do what she did. In The Burning we know the killer is this burnt caretaker so we don't we really need to see him kill some random woman to establish that he's a potential killer of counselors, in fact it just establishes him as a murderous dick. That he wants revenge on the little shits that ruined his life makes sense while killing some random woman who freaked out at his appearance is completely unnecessary and muddies the character. His job is to kill teenage campers not urban victims.

 

Dammit Cropsy, stay on message!

The film then brings us to Camp Stonewater where we are introduced to our cast of potential victims; these include the head counselors Todd (Brian Matthews) and Michelle (Leah Ayres), who bicker over how to handle certain unruly elements among the campers, then we have resident goofball Dave (Jason Alexander) who is kind of the ringleader for the misfits, next is Woodstock (Fisher Stevens) as Dave’s chief sidekick, then there is Alfred (Brian Backer) whose response to being bullied is too stalk the bully’s girlfriend and watch her in the shower (not the most sensible tactic), the bully Glazer (Larry Joshua) is your standard lunkhead who is all brawn no brains, and finally there is Eddy (Ned Eisenberg) who is basically a sexual predator in the making and whose girlfriend Karen (Carolyn Houlihan) just screams "slasher victim" the moment she opens her mouth. The Burning is most notable for beginning the careers of some unknowns who would later become big stars such as Holly Hunter who also appears in a small part as one of the young campers, but it was Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens who stood out as actors that you could tell were going to go onto bigger and better things.

 

They make what is basically a paint by numbers slasher film quite entertaining.

The Burning has all the proper perquisite elements to make it a proper slasher film; there is gratuitous amounts of nudity, we will get an inordinate amount of teenage hijinks, and special effects wizard Tom Savini (who turned down Friday the 13th Part 2 to make this film) will provide a solid amount of on screen gore.  In fact there was so much gore that The Burning made its way onto United Kingdom’s “Video Nasty” list and found itself banned there.  Sadly the lack of originality in a genre that was just blooming is the major problem here and no amount of gore is going to give a film a lasting shelf life. The MPA even forced the filmmakers to heavily edit out some of that gore to avoid an “X” rating with the infamous “Raft Massacre” scene being the most affected.

 

Woodstock getting his fingers cut did not make the original cut.

If you like endless shots of people walking through the woods, seemingly hours of them paddling canoes down a never ending river, a very thin plot being broken up by the odd date rape moment, than this could be the film for you. The only thing that really surprised me was the sheer number of teenagers that survived Cropsy's killing spree, which really on qualifies as a killing spurt in my opinion.

The film even tries to go in a different direction by not even having a “Final Girl” but instead it’s kind of a “Final Boy” by having Cropsy kidnap Alfred as some kind of bait to lure Todd into an old abandoned copper mine for the final showdown. We learn that Todd was the kid who led the original gang of campers that burnt Cropsy in the first place, one must assume all this murdering of Todd’s fellow campers was some kind of mind game to mentally weaken the camp counselor for when they have their big confrontation, but when we do get to the final fight it’s really quite lame. After watching poor Alfred wandering endless through the ruins of the mine, and him getting captured and pinned to the wall by gardening sheers, we are then stuck watching Todd do even more wandering around looking for Alfred before finally encountering Cropsy.  The two then face off in a flamethrower versus axe fight because that is completely logical.

 

I guess that kind of makes sense in a E.C. comics payback sort of way.

What doesn’t make sense is how long this fight goes on; Cropsy has a friggin flamethrower for Pete’s sake! I may not be any kind of combat expert but I think that in the narrow confines of a mine a flamethrower would trump a dude with an axe. Cropsy does eventually gain the advantage but then Alfred frees himself and imbeds Cropsy’s own sheers in the killer’s back. In your standard slasher film it would have been the Final Girl stepping up at the last minute to save her boyfriend so it’s kind of neat that this film has a final showdown with no girls at all, it sadly just took to long to get to this point. We of course get the “He’s actually not dead” moment with Cropsy getting back up for a final jump scare (a jump scare drinking game for this movie would be lethal) but before Cropsy can get his much wanted revenge Todd buries the axe in his head. Then to add insult to injury Alfred picks up the flamethrower and torches the corpse.

 

This would have made a sequel tricky had the film been successful.

As slasher films go The Burning isn’t so much a bad film as it is forgettable one; the appearance of Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens in their early careers being the only notable element, and though the rest of the cast do fine work here there isn't anything you wouldn't find in other better examples of the genre.  It's Cropsy himself who is the film's biggest misstep as a slasher film is only as good as its villain and to stand the test of time your killer has to memorable and in that case of Cropsy it fails quite miserably. He isn’t as joyfully crazed as Mrs. Voorhees nor as imposing as her son Jason from Friday the 13th and their sequels, and he’s not as fun as Freddy Kruger from Nightmare on Elm Street or Chucky from Child’s Play, instead he is just a generic as the original campfire tale he was based on.

 

Certainly not helped by the rather terrible burn make-up that Savini devised.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) – Review

Dear Disney Studios, you are literally making billions of dollars off the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe movies so can you please let the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise die? It’s clear none of your writers have had an original thought since 2003 and have just been beating a dead horse ever since (or should I say a dead seahorse) but regardless you seem intent on dredging the lagoon again and again so that we must suffering through more of Johnny Depp’s rambling screen incarnation of a once beloved character. Sure the film grossed almost $800 million worldwide but with its $230 million dollar budget, and who knows how much was spent on marketing, couldn’t you think of better way to spend your money? Where’s that Jungle Cruise movie that was supposed to star The Rock? How about giving James Gunn some of that money and remake Howard the Duck? Sadly the success of this fifth installment of the Pirates franchise has about guaranteed a sequel, “Shiver me timbers, but that makes me weep.”


 Well let us batten the hatches and sail into the shit storm that is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales; the movie opens with a young Henry Turner as he ties himself to a bag of rocks and jumps into the sea, this all so he can have a talk with his good ole dad Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) who was cursed to man the Flying Dutchman for all eternity at the end of the third film in the series, and the kid informs his father that if finds something called Poseidon’s Trident he could break the curse and the family would finally be reunited. Will tries to dissuade his son by telling him that, “The Trident can never be found” but the kid insists that with the help of Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) he’s sure he can do it. The film then jumps ahead nine years and we meet the now older Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) who apparently joined the British Navy in the hopes this would lead him to Jack. I'm not sure of the logic in that but we'll let that slide.  The navy warship is currently chasing a pirate ship and against Henry’s advice they follow it into what the film calls The Devil’s Triangle, something that neither looks like nor is even located near the one in Bermuda, and while inside the Triangle they encounter Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) along with his undead and cursed crew.

 

So basically carbon copies of the villains from the first movie.

We later learn that Captain Salazar was once an officer in the Spanish Navy who had become obsessed with ending piracy because of the family he lost to them, and while chasing a particular pirate ship that just so happened have a young Jack Sparrow as a crew member, he was tricked into sailing into the Devil’s Triangle where his ship was sunk and he and his crew died. Now for some reason the Triangle has turned them all into vengeful ghosts but they are apparently ghosts that aren’t allowed to leave the Triangle while Jack Sparrow is in possession of his magical compass.

 

I’ve got a few problems with this magic compass and where this series took the whole “piracy” aspect.

• The film demonizes Captain Salazar for being a pirate hunter but aren’t pirates bad guys? They are kind of known for thieving, murdering and raping their way across the Spanish Maine so how is someone wanting to end that a villain?
• In the first film it was a charismatic goofball pirate up against a bunch of evil undead pirates, and that worked perfectly fine, but by the third film Kiera Knightley is giving speeches to the Pirate Brotherhood about fighting for their freedom. What kind of freedom? To rape and murder? You wouldn’t expect Disney to take a pro-rape stance.
• Let’s now talk about Jack Sparrow’s magic compass which supposedly points in the direction of your true desire; Henry Turner wants to find Jack because with the compass he can locate Poseidon’s Trident and free his dad, but why does Jack’s possession of the compass keep Salazar and his crew trapped in The Devil’s Triangle?  This is never explained.
• The film even screws up series continuity by having the dying pirate captain, the one on the ship being chased by Salazar, giving the compass to young Jack Sparrow, but it was clearly stated in the third film that Jack got it from the sea goddess Calypso. Regardless of where Jack got the compass it’s only magical property was in telling the user where to find his heart’s desire with no previous connection mentioned to The Devil’s Triangle.
• Later in this film Jack gives a local bartender the compass in exchange for a bottle of rum, this giving up of the compass in such a fashion somehow allows Salazar and his crew to escape The Triangle.  But hadn’t the compass changed hands multiple times over the course of this series? Captain Salazar should have been freed years ago.

 

Young CGI enhanced Jack Sparrow seen here with magic compass.

So in this film we have the ghost of Captain Salazar seeking Jack Sparrow to pay him back for all those years being trapped in The Devil’s Triangle, and we’ve got Henry Turner looking for Jack so the drunk pirate can help him find Poseidon’s Trident so Flying Dutchman curse can be lifted, but that’s not all this film has going on as we are also introduced to Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a woman sentenced to death for witchcraft, which according to this film includes astronomy for some reason, and she wants the Trident as well...for reasons.

Historic Note: The Witchcraft Act of 1738 completely abolished the practice of executing witches all over the British Empire and this film takes place in 1755. Also the Royal Navy pretty much had a handle on astronomy by this time and would certainly not have considered it witchcraft.

Carina wishes to use the diary her father left her to search for the Trident and she needs Henry’s help to achieve this; which will of course involve jail breaks, mutinies and fighting the undead to accomplish said goals.  And exactly why is she after the Trident in the first place? Sure the diary has sentimental value to her but throughout the first half of the film she proclaims to be a woman of science, not believing in ghosts or curses, so what the hell does she want with a mythical weapon of a Greek god?

 

I found Poseidon’s Trident parting the seas in this movie a little too Old Testament.

Storywise Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a nonsensical mess; characters are given motivations that make little to no sense and then for whatever reason a few moments later they will most likely contradict those for some even dumber reason, and the action itself is beyond over-the-top with one particular action sequences that was pretty much a blatant rip-off of Fast Five when the Fast and the Furious gang dragged a vault through the streets of Rio, but where as Vin Diesel and company used muscle cars to pull a large steel vault this film has Jack Sparrow’s men pull the ENTIRE BANK through the city streets with a team of horses.

 

Ghost pirates I can buy but this is utter bullshit.

That all said the film is a visual feast with even the dumbest moments of action at least looking pretty neat; I particularly liked the scene where Jack Sparrow and Salazar hopped from canon to canon like one of the trickier levels in Super Mario, and at 129 minutes it’s at least the shortest in the series.

The film then dredges up poor Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbosa because it’s not a Pirates of the Caribbean movie if you don’t stuff in all your fan favorites (at least the "Where's the rum gone?" joke has been retired) and the result is another pointless and embarrassing performance.  Worse is the fact that the writers had the nerve to force a connection between Barbosa and one of the new characters that made little to no sense. Johnny Depp was quoted as saying, “Everyone involved wants the script to be right and perfect.” I guess we can assume after a week-long bender the writers gave up on “right and perfect” and just worried about fitting ghost sharks into the script.

 

Note: I’ll admit the undead shark scene was cool, rock stupid but visually still pretty cool.

The movie of course ends with a credit cookie hinting at which direction the franchise is going next and as neither Orlando Bloom nor Keira Knightley are doing all that hot career wise we can expect to see them in the next installment in something other than glorified cameos.  Unfortunately by this point in the series we have moved so far into the realm of cynical cash grab that I can’t see anything other than a full reboot working. That the series is still making so much money is a greater mystery than the Devil's Triangle, Stonehenge and the Loch Ness Monster combined...oh, maybe in the next film they can go after the Loch Ness Monster and it's connection to Stonehenge.

 

Jack Sparrow will return, as long as Johnny Depp still has alimony payments to make.