Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Brain That Wouldn't Die

Monday, 30 May 2011

Review: The Night Strangler

The Night Strangler (1973)

The art of horror lies in providing a suitably creepy atmosphere that draws the audience into a world touched by another, more terrible world.  As part of this, the setting is all important.  You need a graveyard covered in fog like a rotting shroud, a glowering medieval keep with a single light in a high window, or an oppressive village where every decaying facade masks a terrible secret.  Therefore, screenwriter Richard Matheson did the logical thing and set the 1973 sequel to the previous years hit teleplay The Night Stalker in the scariest spot of the decade:  Downton Seattle.

If you've ever been to Seattle in recent years, the city centre is a collection of bright, clean skyscrapers and gentrified old buildings with only a couple of streets suffering from the inevitable urban blight.  But in 1973 Seattle was about as scary a collection of dilapidated architecture, abandoned warehouses, general decay, and human squalor as any place you could find outside of the Eastern Bloc.  It was, and still is, notable as a city that rests on the remains of a previous city that burnt down in the Victorian era and was built on top of–a city that parts of are still there and can be visited like a New World version of the Catacombs.  If you needed any place in the United States were a Horror might lurk, then Seattle was it.

Enter Karl Kolchak, abrasive out-of-work reporter who still can't convince anyone that a vampire really did stalk Las Vegas the previous year.  Running into beleaguered former boss Tony Vincenzo, who is now editing a Seattle newspaper, Kolchak somehow manages to talk himself into a job.  His first assignment:  To cover a string of serial killings carried out by a strangler in the Pioneer Square district.  But these turn out to be something other than the work of a simple psychopath.  For one thing, there was a punture mark at the base of each victim's skull.  For another, they weren't just strangled, their necks were crushed.  Then he discovers that these murders are the latest in a pattern that goes back almost a hundred years.

Originally intended as the second in a trilogy of films with the last, and unproduced, one to be called The Night KillersThe Night Strangler makes a nice book end to The Night Stalker.  Seattle's atmosphere as a decaying '70s backwater makes a much better backdrop for Kolchak's activities and the sequel gives Matheson and actors Darren Mcgavin and Simon Oakland a chance to properly develop the formula as well as the characters of Kolchak and Vincenzo.  Here the chemistry between the two characters has a real chance to blossom as Kolchak and Vincezo argue in a way one usually associates with matrimony  Where in the The Night Stalker Vincenzo is merely annoyed by Kolchak's relentlessness and love of yanking authority's nose,  in this outing Vincenzo sees a repeat of what happened in Vegas and he becomes so angry that he literally ends up on the verge of hysteria.  Meanwhile, Kolchak manages to not only infuriate his boss, but also the local police, who Kolchak provokes to the point of actually arresting him.  That's not surprising because this Kolchak is often driven by something so close to monomania that he sometimes forgets that he's a reporter, which Vincenzo reminds him of at the top of his lungs.

The Night Strangler was inspired by Matheson's visit to the Seattle Underground (a portion of the buried city that's been excavated and is open for public tours).  This plays a pivotal part in the story and gives the climax a suitably eerie other-world quality.  Also, unlike in The Night Stalker, the villain, played by Richard Anderson, has not only lines, but extended scenes with Kolchak that reveal the killer to not only be something superhuman, but a deranged superman–which isn't a very pleasant prospect.

As McGavin pointed out in interviews, the Kolchak stories aren't proper horror films.  Being prime time television, the most they could manage was "playing with horror", but under producer Dan Curtis the performances of McGavin and Oakland combined with the script by Matheson that has the right leavening of comedy to horror makes for a lightly terrifying film that never descends into camp.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Time off

It's our tenth anniversary, so the wife and I are vanishing for a few days.  The weekend posts have been preloaded and I'll be back on Monday.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Review: The Night Stalker

The Night Stalker (1972)

There's a saying that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.  Let's hope so, because "what happened between May 16th and May 28th of this year" is a lot worse than waking up with a flat wallet and a hangover. Someone is killing young women in Las Vegas under increasingly strange circumstances.  Reporter Carl Kolchak, who is covering the story, discovers that the victims have been drained of blood and that the Las Vegas authorities are unusually nervous and tight-mouthed.  Kolchak is the sort of reporter who sees a stonewalling as a challenge and starts to dig.  He suspects that the killer is some sort of a psychopath who thinks he's a vampire. Worse, Kolchak is starting to suspect that the killer might be a vampire.

A teleplay produced by ABC, The Night Stalker drew the highest ratings in history up to that time.  It spawned a sequel, The Night Strangler, and a short-lived series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  It was also spawned a minor boom in horror films on American television, served as the inspiration for The X-Files and had an impact on horror and suspense cinema and television that carries on until today.

It also introduced the remarkable character of Carl Kolchak.   There have been plenty of reporter heros and anti-heroes, ghost busters, and even ghost busting reporters, but Kolchak is something different.  Once a reporter on a major New York paper, Kolchak is his own worst enemy.  Despite being intelligent, tenacious, resourceful, and charming when he wants to be, he has a problem with authority.  He doesn't just dislike authority, he delights in deliberately biting it until it explodes in anger.  Not surprisingly, Kolchak gets fired with remarkable regularity (he hasn't bought a new suit since leaving New York) and in The Night Stalker he's reduced to working for a Las Vegas daily.  When Vegas is hit by a string of what looks like vampire murders, Kolchak sees it as his ticket back to New York and nothing is going to stand in his way.  Except himself as he enrages the Vegas police and drives his editor Tony Vincenzo to distraction. 

Based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice, The Night Stalker producer Dan Curtis and screenwriter Richard Matheson put a spin on the vampire legend that's refreshing an believable.  The killer Janos Skorzeny isn't a suave Bela Lugosi, moody romantic, or exotic sex object.  He's an out and out predator living among his food supply.   Our glimpses of him are rare until the climax, but what we do see conveys a creature of immense power and raw appetite.  Even when fighting off an entire squad of  armed policemen, the only emotions he displays are open contempt and hatred for the lesser beings who dare to stand in his way.  And to drive the point home, Skorzeny's lines consist entirely of hiss, growls, and animal screams.

No wonder when Kolchak finally confronts him, our hero is doesn't exactly come off as Dr Van Helsing as he literally runs away screaming as he tries to escape. 

Darren McGavin wears Kolchak like a second skin as he brings the character to life and his comic touches make an otherwise harrowing story acceptable for prime time television audiences.  Simon Oakland makes a perfect foil as Vincenzo and he and McGavin have a chemistry that they would refine in the sequel.  Carol Lynley plays Kolchak's girlfriend and Watson, though she's peripheral to the action, and Claude Atkins comes across as a police chief who genuinely wants to punch Kolchak in the mouth if he gets the chance.  Last, but not least, is Barry Atwater as Skorzeny, who makes walking through a room scary, though legend has it that he once walked through the casinos in full make up on a bet and nobody so much as glanced at him.

Maybe things do stay in Vegas.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Iron Sky

Energia releases a new Iron Sky trailer. 

Space Nazis; I always knew it would come to this.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Review: 300

300 (2006)

"This is SPARTA!"

Just wanted to establish that.

The Battle of Thermopylae was one of history's great battles; one that could be argued was pivotal in helping to keep Western civilisation  from being nipped in the bud.  At Thermopylae, a small  Greek force lead by 300 Spartan warriors faced a many times vaster Persian army bent on the total conquest of Greece.  The Spartans all died in the battle, save for one man who, to his shame was sent home with an eye infection.  Though they lost, they threw back wave after wave of Persian assaults and were only defeated due to treachery.  What they did that day demonstrated what free men could do fighting against slaves and helped to preserve the civilisation that we enjoy today.

300, based on Frank Miller's comic book graphic novel is a stylistic tour de force.  Director Zack Snyder throws history to the wind, digitises and green screens what's left, tosses in a busload of leather speedos (no wonder the Spartans are so touchy), cranks up the contrast, and turns the battle into a simple, albeit overwrought, contest between buff freemen and an army made up literally of monsters and demons who couldn't make the cut at Mordor.  Snyder himself admits that everything was subservient to making the film "look cool" and one must admit that he does manage that.  The images are novel and the fight scenes are impressive, though for all the spurting blood they never really come across as believable.  At least Snyder has the good sense never to mention the name of King Leonidas's wife on screen.  If the audience learned that "Gorgo" was on the Spartan's side, they'd wonder what chance the Persians had against a 60 foot lizard. 

The actors have the thankless job of racing after the over the top production, but they all put in an effort.  Gerard Butler's Scottish brogue is so thick that you imagine that when he dines in Hell it'll be on haggis and Lena Headey tries to ground the story in some sort of emotional sanity, though without much success.  At least they are spared David Wenham's having to carry an interminable narration and Rodrigo Santoro's thankless task of playing Xerxes as a nine-foot tall drag queen who makes Ru Paul look like Clint Eastwood.

300 is visually brilliant and a daring experiment in style, but it's comic book script and overwrought seriousness makes this a film to only see once.  Watch it twice and you'll know why it makes such good Rifftrax material.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Review: Thor

Thor (2011)
Odin, King of the "Asgardians", as the Æsir are called in this film, is on the verge of handing the throne over to his eldest son, the Eponymous Thor, when his hotheaded actions against their ancient enemies, the Frost Giants, brings Asgard to the brink of war.  Banishing Thor to Earth, Odin throws Thor's hammer Mjollnir after him with the command that "Whoever wields this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor".  Meanwhile, Thor's brother and closest friend Loki learns some unsettling things about his past that send him on the road to villainy.  So the stage is set for an arrogant, selfish thunder god to learn humility and self-sacrifice among the mortals of Earth while Thor's friends must deal with war and intrigue on the other end of the Bifrost Bridge.

In 1962, Marvel's Comics' Journey into Mystery No. 83 introduced a new superhero; one with a twist.  Instead of an alien from another planet or a man exposed to radiation, this one cut to the chase and made the hero literally a god.  It was certainly a way to out-super Superman, but Marvel suffered both the misfortune and the luck that very few of its superheroes stuck in popular culture like their DC counterparts and even fewer gained the status of archetypes.  This meant that even non-comic book readers knew who Superman or Batman was while the likes of Thor and Iron Man were obscurities, but it also meant that when they were brought to the big screen Marvel characters didn't carry as many expectations, so it made adaptation that much easier.  

Where the first three features in Marvel's grand Avengers series were earthbound stories dealing with the origins and problems of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (AKA Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk), Thor goes more for the epic as we're whisked off to Asgard to join Thor and the other Norse gods.  Word of warning here:  If you, like me, had a Norwegian grandmother and were raised on the Icelandic sagas and the Eddas, then this film will be extremely confusing because of the astonishing liberties it takes with the myths.  It's the reason why I didn't care for the original comic books–that and the fact that Thor's hair looked better than his girlfriend's.  But if you keep reminding yourself that this is a comic book movie and suspend disbelief to maximum tolerance, it's a lot of fun.  

And let's face it, this is a comic book movie.  That isn't a slam; it's merely a statement of fact.  If Iron Man was a good movie, this is a good comic book movie.  Kenneth Brannagh's choice as director may have seemed odd at the time, but it's one that pays off.  Once the Wunderkind of the cinema, Brannagh at age 50 hasn't had a directorial success in over a decade, so he has a lot riding on this film and his background as both a Shakespearean actor/director and a fan of the Thor comics pays off.  Understanding full well that this is pure action/adventure fantasy, Brannagh understands the balance between needing to take the comic book world seriously on its own terms so it doesn't descend into camp, yet he never loses sight of the fact that the entire premise of the film is absurd.   His Shakespearean background allows him to give the stilted Asgard dialogue (my eight-year old daughter calls them "speeches") a believability.  This is particularly important because if the pseudo-Shakespeare of the comics had made it to the screen unchecked, it would have been laughed out of town.

The look of Thor is impressive.  Brannagh is clearly a fan of the late comic book artist Jack Kirby (Inventor of ink and paper).  Asgard looks very much like what Kirby would have drawn in 2011 and the action scenes have many Kirbyesque touches, such as when Thor whirls his hammer so quickly that all you can see is a wispy circle in the eye of all the havoc it's causing.

The acting is up to what the film requires with lead Chris Hemsworth not being called upon to do more than deal with standard heroics and basic character development.  Anthony Hopkins walks Odin home in a role where he claims he was essentially playing himself and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson is finally getting the sort of screen time that his performance deserves.  However, as always, Natalie Portman is upstaged by any potted plant or chair that happens to be on the set at the time.  The surprise was Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who takes a role with very little to it and manages to convey a complete character without chewing the scenery or padding his part.  Instead of a simply sly and malicious creature, Hiddleson's Loki has a believable progression from loyal brother to villain that has neat little airs of emotional complexity that comes across as a sort of stripped-down Edmund from King Lear.   His appearances were always welcome and the revelation in the post-credits teaser indicate that the producers were aware of this as well.

Whether there is a Thor sequel depends on the box office, but at least we'll get to pay another visit to Asgard in next year's Avengers however it turns out.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Review: Star Trek

Star Trek (2009)

I've never been a Star Trek fan. True, I've seen the original episodes so often that I can recite the dialogue a split second beforehand, but that's only because I grew up in an era that suffered from a sci-fi deficit so severe that I watched anything even tangentially to do with the genre. Since Star Trek seemed to be what the BBC and every other broadcaster fell back on, it was either that or repeats of I Love Lucy. I will admit that I enjoyed the original. It was space opera, derivative of all the other science fiction that came before, and an only recently acknowledged rip-off of Forbidden Planet, but in the 1960s, that was a positive boon. Furthermore, it was the first space opera with a decent budget aimed at a family audience rather than the under-twelve horde. Though the third series stank to high heaven, the first two marked a real high point for American television and the fan reaction had a huge effect on popular culture–a crime for which Roddenberry was never brought to justice.

I've always been very open about the later incarnations; looking forward to each one with a genuine hope that it would recapture the spirit of the original. However, with the exception of the animated series and the second film, they all turned out to be as disappointing as discovering that this month's Playboy centrefold is Gordon Brown. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by the newest film, called simply Star Trek, and must admit that it is a very good popcorn movie. J J Abrams, who ranks as my 378,465th favourite director, had the good sense to essentially jettison the entire franchise to date and start over again with the '60s series updated for modern times with a story about the first gathering of the original Enterprise crew. It was a controversial, but in the end wise decision, since the franchise up until now has been so lumbered with a bulging continuity and the results of two generations of timid writers and producers stamping on anything conducive to good storytelling that making any plot move at more than a snails pace would have involved gelignite.

How much you enjoy Star Trek depends on how forgiving you are, becauseAbrams clearly has no understanding of internal logic, much less plausibility. If you treat the film as a roller coaster ride, you'll enjoy one of the most entertaining action movies of the year. However, after the house lights come up, you have to have a lot of tolerance for what is called "'fridge logic". That's the sort of cinema logic that allows you to accept that Cary Grant is in real danger by being chased across an empty field by a biplane, but when you're getting a snack in the refrigerator at 2 AM the scene comes back to you and you realise how ridiculous it is. That's pretty much this movie. There are plot holes so large that you could shove the Death Star through and Abrams focuses so closely on interpersonal relationships that an act of planet-scale genocide gets kicked to the B list of thing to do against the question of will Kirk and Spock end up friends, but everything moves so fast that you don't get a chance to notice it until a couple of hours after the credits role. I was willing to put up with a bit of science involving a supernova threatening to destroy the galaxy that was so stupid that my brain wouldn't process it. I was even willing to believe that Spock, with the rank of Commander, was having an open affair with Uhura, who is only a cadet, despite the fact that such a liaison is a major court martial offence. However, it's axiomatic that while the impossible can be believed, the implausible cannot, so one of the few bits of rubbish that broke my suspension of disbelief while I was in the cinema was Uhura leaving her post whenever she felt like it. Though I shouldn't be so harsh, since the Star Trek series has always suffered from a maddening lack of understanding or curiosity about how a quasi-naval service would actually work (does no one care what a flagship is?), in sharp contrast to the vastly superior Horatio Hornblower book series and its moving image incarnations that had the good sense to make the exotic life aboard a Royal Navy ship during the Napoleonic wars a major part of its attraction.

But so long as you take it on its own terms, Star Trek is a winner. It looks beautiful, this Kirk can actually act without chewing the Captain's chair to bits, the story telling is very economical with the plot points established in good order, the unlikelihood of so many characters whose ages span from 17 to about the mid-30s all being in the same place is neatly explained without being laboured to death, the dialogue is snappy, the plot moves along nicely with only a couple of sentimental stumbling blocks, and there's even a Red Shirt who meets his inevitable fate.

The cast also does a solid job with Christopher Pine and Zachary Quinto giving a rendition of Kirk and Spock that are true to the characters without imitating the original actors, Karl Urban does a very good McCoy and when he snarls his line explaining how his divorce forced him to become a thirtysomething cadet, you believe it. Zoe Saldana is a credibly sexy Uhura, though, like all the younger cast members, she lacks gravitas. And, not surprisingly, Simon Pegg, carries off Scotty in a perfectly created bit of comic relief that reimagines the wonder engineer as an insane genius forever shouting at his alien sidekick to "Get down off of there!" Oddly enough, the only poor performance is from Leonard Nimoy, whose Mr. Spock seems to have gone to the well once too often.

Not surprsingly, Star Trek has had a good weekend, pulling in $ 75.6 million, which is well above expectations, so a sequel is only going to be prevented by a Klingon invasion. Though apparently, even they seem to have liked it.


Reposted from Ephemeral Isle.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

Two of the Pevensie children, Edmund and Lucy, return to Narnia, this time with their toxic cousin Eustace reluctantly in tow. Only this time, they land in the middle of the sea instead of dry land where they're rescued by King Caspian and his ship The Dawn Treader, whom they'd help to reclaim his thrown three years (in Narnia time) earlier.  As in the book, Caspian is seeking the seven Lost Lords, whom his uncle had banished.  However, director Michael Apted eggs the pudding by adding an overarching menace.  While doing so, the crew of The Dawn Treader must battle a mysterious evil from the Dark Island that is sending out a mist to capture people.  Meanwhile, Eustace, who doesn't believe that any of this is real and that his shipmates are insane, is as odious as ever as he becomes the foil of the valiant mouse Reepicheep.  Along the way, Eustace's shiftlessness and greed causes him to steal a magic bracelet from a dead dragon's hoard that turns him into a dragon, forcing him to confront himself while the rest of our heroes must face temptations that may lead them to spiritual destruction.

Not the best of the Narnia Chronicles films, the making of Dawn Treader was something of a tightrope walk, with the poor box office returns of the previous film sparking Disney's decision to pull out of the production.  This forced Walden Media to find new partners and Apted to work under a much tighter budget.  Apted also felt that the book didn't lend itself very well to the screen, so much of it was condensed with some elements left out and others borrowed from The Silver Chair.  This kept the running time to a manageable 115 minutes and tightened the narrative line, though for some reason, Apted kept in the pointless device of having the White Witch manifest herself again (despite being firmly established as being as dead as a doorknocker) and inserted a climax where a giant brine shrimp attacks the ship.  Since this is manifested out of Caspian's fears, my reaction was, "It's the Stay-Puf marshmallow man". 

Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes do a credible job as the Pevensie children, though they are aleady showing signs of getting too old for the series, while Will Poulter is suitably repellant as Eustace.  It's unfortunate that Apted couldn't find a way to show us his point of view as the dragon, because in doing so one of the best parts of the story is lost.  Special mention should also be made of Simon Pegg, who takes over from Eddie Izzard as Reepicheep.  Despite (or because of) his powers as a comic actor, he is able to bring a proper sense of nobility to the role while keeping the character humourous rather than comic.

Finally, Apted kept the ending more or less intact and included this line that the PC brigade missed:
But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.
Even as a greying, middle-aged man that line always, like hearing the hymn Jerusalem, makes me cry. In fact, the Narnia books generally have that effect on me despite the years and revisiting the books again with my daughter.

Or perhaps it's because of it.