Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Abominable Birthday

Vincent Price is probably the one celebrity I regret never having the chance to meet. His screen presence- a unique mix of gravitas and winking flamboyance - never really masked a genuine(if slight) creepiness. Yet he seemed so genuine, so pleasant, and he was always so much fun to watch. Today would have been Vincent Price's 99th birthday, and in honor of the occasion I plan on using my long Memorial Day weekend to catch up on a few of his many films that I haven't seen. I also plan on revisiting some old favorites, so for those interested in hosting their own celebratory film fest at home, here's a short list of personal Vincent Price favorites.

The Masque of the Red Death: Vincent Price was already a horror icon by the time he started making adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories with director Roger Corman, but it might be this pairing that most informed his popular image. In all, they made 8 Poe films together, and they proved immensely popular. They all hold something to recommend them-The Fall of the House of Usher in particular has some wonderfully spooky monologues from Price- but none of them quite reach the heights that Red Death does. Corman's horror films were always slightly campy, and usually had some experimental, psychedelics moments, but Red Death drops camp in favor of majesty, while still allowing for a trippy dream sequence. Vincent Price reins his performance- as a sadistic prince who throws a party while the plague ravages the countryside outside his castle walls- in to a level usually reserved for his non-horror films, and Corman matches that tone and allows the film to maintain a sense of creeping, mounting dread.

The Tingler: William Castle was a much better showman than a director, and once removed from the theatrical gimmicks his films often seem horribly creaky and dull. The Tingler miraculously escapes that rut with a nifty idea for a monster(one that kills and can only be thwarted by the sound of screaming) and a few in-film gimmicks that still live up, like the one shocking scene that utilizes color in an otherwise black and white film.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes: Not only my favorite Vincent Price films, but one of my favorite horror films period. Price plays Dr. Phibes, a disfigured man who is presumed dead, and uses this to his advantage as he systematically kills off the physicians who he believes allowed his wife to die, utilizing a series of complicated Rube Goldberg devices meant to mimic the biblical plagues. The film is ultra-stylish, and it maintains a pretty fun tone throughout, with an acidic sense of humor befitting the grand guignol style. Avoid the sequel, which is for completists only.

Laura: Price only plays a supporting character in this film, a top-notch film noir from Otto Preminger, but it's interesting to see him in a non menacing role. Aside from suave, menacing characters, Price excelled at sheltered, dandyish blue-bloods, which is what he plays in Laura, as the fiance of a murdered advertising executive. The film is all about police detective Mark McPherson investigating the death of Laura Hunt, and slowly falling in love with the woman the more he learns about her, but Price steals the show in every scene he's in.

The Baron of Arizona: A fatally flawed film, Samuel Fuller's second as director, The Baron of Arizona features a great performance from Vincent Price in the lead. The story(very loosely based on true events) is interesting, but the film repeatedly shows AND tells through a completely unnecessary voice over. Though the film ultimately fails, it has a standout performance and a couple great scenes to recommend it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Movie of the Day: Lake Mungo & Zombies of Mass Destruction

2010 marks the fourth year in the After Dark Horrorfest, an annual collection of 8 independently produced horror films grouped together to give them a higher profile. Previous years have seen the horrorfest in nationwide theatrical release, but these days the films usually get a week long release in one theatre and a quick DVD turnaround. In theory I love the idea of the ADHF; an attempt to give 8 struggling indie film-makers per year some well deserved recognition. In execution, though, the films leave much to be desired. Horror has long been the genre of choice for up-and-coming directors looking to make an impression; Sam Raimi, James Cameron, Joe Dante, Guillermo Del Toro and Jonathan Demme all got their start with low-budget horror or exploitation productions. The problem with ADHF is that while their motivations may be honest, the enterprise is ruled by economics. This leads them to pick movies that mimic or aspire to fit in with the big budgeted stuff Hollywood is putting out these days, so the lineup is usually a mixture of bland Saw knockoffs or bland zombie films. And yet I keep watching them, or at least a couple of them, every year, because you never know when you might stumble across the next John Carpenter.

But that act of slogging through the crap to get to the good stuff CAN be hellish. Most of my friends have given up entirely on the series, and these days I usually just pick and choose which films I watch(for the first couple years I tried to watch each of them). I have been uniformly disappointed by each entry in the series, with the exception of From Within, and even that film could only really be called successful when graded on a curve with the rest of that series. A few of my friends quite enjoyed Mulberry Street, but I felt that outside of the clever Were-Rat premise, the film was a fairly typical(and oddly humorless) zombie film. So this year, with 8 new films to choose from, I read a few brief rundowns and picked two of the most promising titles; Zombies of Mass Destruction and Lake Mungo.

It's clear that the makers of Zombies of Mass Destruction took most of the right lessons from Romero's zombie epics; a focus on flawed and disparate individuals standing against a zombie horde that can be seen as a metaphor for any number of perceived social ills, and a fairly healthy dose of gallows humor. I can not stress enough how much a little bit of humor can elevate a shitty zombie film. In this film, the zombies are a physical manifestation of the xenophobia and religious fervor that swept America during the darkest points of the Bush years, as a small secluded community is overrun by the walking dead. With a pretty healthy sense of humor, and a target ripe for satire, the writers(Ramon Isao and Kevin Hamedani, who also directed) drop the ball with their sense of timing. A gag that could have been hilarious, as when the rural pastor awkwardly and cheerfully welcomes his congregation to the apocalypse and is met by sporadic but ecstatic applause, isn't even chuckleworthy because of it's indifferent presentation. And this problem doesn't just affect the humor, but the horror and action scenes as well. There's no real visual style other than 'put camera here, lets get it on film, and go home.' Those problems don't always have to kill a film. Plenty of borderline inept films are much more enjoyable than ZOMD turned out to be, but in this case the slapdash execution smothers any of the modestly good ideas.

The second of this years ADHF films I rented was Lake Mungo, which isn't a title that really grabs your attention. To call Lake Mungo the best film of the entire ADHF run would be faint praise indeed, since those films can most generously be called 'aggressively mediocre.' But against all expectations, Lake Mungo turned out to not only be a good film, but maybe even a great one(I only say 'maybe' because I am easily swayed by the manner and circumstances in which I watch a movie, and this one was viewed in a manner very conducive to my enjoyment of creepy and sad entertainment)

Lake Mungo is an Australian film, fashioned like a modern documentary, chronicling what one family goes through when the eldest daughter drowns. Shortly after her death, the teenage girl begins popping up in the background of photos and videos taken at places she used to frequent, and her family begins investigating the possibility that their daughter may be trying to communicate with them. The film mainly avoids comparisons to the Blair Witch Project by not acting as sensationalistic 'found footage', but as an actual documentary you would see on the Discovery Channel, or PBS, complete with unseen interviewers and interviews with friends and neighbors. This of course means the film never becomes very scary; there are no moments in which you're filled with tension or nail biting fear. What the film has instead is tons of creepy atmosphere, and a mournful sadness that you rarely find in genre films of this nature. It's the sadness that gets you, as the unbearable loneliness of the family(and the dead daughter) grows and crystallizes over the course of the film. Lake Mungo is a bit like Twin Peaks rendered into a ghost story, with a family's investigations into their daughter's secret life revealing mysteries they might wish they didn't know. By the end, the point isn't to scare the audience, but to show what happens when the living(and dead) refuse to let go of each other.

I've just read that both films are due to be remade for a higher budget 2011 release. In the case of Zombies of Mass Destruction I think this might be beneficial, but a big budget remake of Lake Mungo will most likely ruin what made that film so special, turning a gentle little film into a hyperbolic Paranormal Activity