Saturday, June 29, 2013

JOYLAND

It's been a long time since I felt compelled to read anything new by Stephen King, but I took a punt on his new offering Joyland and the early pages point to it being a very entertaining and engrossing read. A paperback original published by Hard Case Crime, Joyland is, at only 288 pages, one of King's less hefty tomes, and the plot seems to explore the author's common themes of youth and youth lost, small town mystery, violent murder and a touch of psychic horror. But the novel's setting - an archaic, grimy amusement park/carnival in 1973 North Carolina - gives it a real classic noir edge that certainly makes it delightful to digest. The great piece of cover art by Glen Orbik further conveys the novel's vintage pulp roots.
 
 

VALE RICHARD MATHESON

The world of fantasy fiction lost a true giant with the passing of Richard Matheson earlier this week at the age of 87. It's impossible to try and list all of Matheson's achievements and creative high points in a single paragraph, but amongst many other things he wrote the classic paperback novels The Shrinking Man (1956, filmed in 1957 as The Incredible Shrinking Man, with Matheson providing the screenplay) and the science fiction vampire tale I Am Legend (1954, filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, The Omega Man in 1971, and I Am Legend in 2007). Matheson also wrote 14 episodes of the original Twilight Zone series (including some of the show's best remembered stories), adapted Edgar Allan Poe tales into screenplays for Roger Corman (and Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out for Hammer), penned the script for The Night Stalker television pilot movie, and adapted one of his own short stories into the script for Steven Spielberg's legendary high-tension 1971 telemovie Duel.

Whew...one doubts that Richard Matheson will be forgotten anytime soon.
 
 

WORLD WAR Z

With all of it's production problems, last minute script rewrites and pre-release press pegging it as a likely big-budget stinker, it was a nice surprise to see World War Z turn out so well. I haven't read Max Brooks' acclaimed source novel, and like many others I feel like the zombie genre has pretty much exhausted itself, yet World War Z works by emphasising tension over horror, and adding a couple of little twists to the way the zombies are depicted - they move en masse and fast but often in strange, jerky motions, as if they are hurling themselves against people and things, and they make disturbing squawks that reminded me of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. They are also not the traditional gut-munching undead...they simply bite their victims to spread their infection and then move on.

The family who are at the focus of World War Z (headed by Brad Pitt) are a bit too sickly sweet for me, but the chaos and terror unfolds so quickly that it doesn't become an issue. There's a few sequences of rousing tension, a couple of genuine scares, some stunning and stark widescreen vistas and a nice, often moody, score by Marco Beltrami.

If you can imagine a coalescing of Contagion with 28 Days Later, you might have some idea of what to expect from World War Z. A sequel is inevitable (in fact, I believe Paramount have already announced they are moving ahead with one).
 
 

MAN OF STEEL

It’s not hard to see why Man of Steel has been met with such wildly divisive reactions from both comic book fans and critics (not to mention the average moviegoer). Zach Snyder’s ‘re-tooling’ of the Superman mythos (helped along by writer David Goyer and producer Chris Nolan) sinks on just as many levels as it soars, rendering it a fascinating but frustrating and very schizophrenic viewing experience.

The scenic vistas of Krypton have a wonderful sense of epic fantasy to them, even if they did remind me of Avatar a little too much. The moments in Smallville with Kevin Costner provide the film with it’s most emotionally effective moments, but the film bogs itself right down (and wears the viewer out) during an overlong CGI demolition derby between Superman and his enemy Zod, at the conclusion of which the city of Metropolis is left looking like the remains of New York in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

I was surprised at how little real story there was in Man of Steel. Plot points and dialogue seem to whiz by as Synder races from one big explosive set-piece to the next. It’s certainly not short on action (which, like most other things about this film, works spectacularly well in some scenes, confused and unimaginative in others), but action means very little if you aren’t really given a chance to know or invest in the characters involved first.

Henry Cavill makes a decent Superman, but watching him made me realise just how definitive and iconic Christopher Reeve’s interpretation of the character (and his alter-ego) was. It’s not a slight on Cavill - he has the chin, the blue eyes, and he certainly fills out that (slightly tweaked) red and blue suit impressively. Something about his Superman reminds me of those classic Max Fleischer animated shorts from the 1940s, and I hope he gets the chance to settle into and develop the role over the course of a couple of sequels.

Amy Adams is a terrific actor playing a rather bland Lois Lane, very little chemistry between her and Cavill, there is sadly no “You’ve got me...who’s got you?” moment for these two. But again, the final scene of the film suggests that their relationship could become something fun to watch as it progresses. Michael Shannon as General Zod was mostly empty bombast with the odd moment of genuine menace. He is much more intimidating on Boardwalk Empire. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe - two actors I’m no real big fan of - do decent jobs of playing Kal-El’s Earth and Krypton fathers respectively (Costner being the better of the two, even though Crowe has much more screen time).

Propelled along by one of Hans Zimmer’s best and most rousing scores, Man of Steel is a rocky rebirth for one of pop-culture’s most enduring and recognisable icons. Taken on face value, it’s an entertaining and often impressive enough piece of commercial blockbuster filmmaking. But the character and his world has the potential to be so much more, and the talent involved are capable of so much better (though Goyer desperately needs a co-writer). If Snyder and Co. can lighten up a little on the sequel, develop the Lois/Clark dynamic and learn to take a ‘less is more’ approach to some of the effects and set-pieces, the great film that is potentially hiding somewhere inside Man of Steel might yet come out.
 
 

Monday, June 17, 2013

CHARLES B. PIERCE

 
 
Had a chance to catch-up with the new BluRay/DVD release of Charles B. Pierce’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) today. While the transfer itself looks great and Scream Factory have done their usual terrific job with the presentation and supplementary material, I found the film itself (the first time I have ever seen it) to be a little underwhelming, even within the forgiving confines of the 1970's B-movie drive-in market for which it was clearly made.
 
Based on the true story of a series of random and unsolved murders which took place in the small town of Texakarna, in the backwaters of Arksnsas in 1946, the material is certainly there to make The Town that Dreaded Sundown a tense little exploitation thriller, but Pierce and writer Earl E. Smith decide to inject too much (bad) humour in the story, which kills off a lot of the film’s momentum and frisson. Was nice to see Dawn Wells (Maryanne on Gilligan’s Island) pop-up briefly in an exploitation film (and still looking cute as hell), and it has a nice clever ending, but too little atmosphere or tension.
 
Far more successful is Pierce’s rather obscure The Evictors (1979), which is included in this release as a bonus feature (though strangely, only on the DVD). A gothic thriller with hints at (PG-rated) supernatural horror, the film is set in Louisiana in (mostly) 1942, and uses the location and period to convey tension and ambience, has hints of Penkinpah in its style, and a stronger cast (headlined by Vic Morrow and Jessica Harper) than The Town that Dreaded Sundown.
 
I would have preferred if The Evictors was the main feature on this release, and there were some special features devoted to it, but overall this is still a worthy set that will be welcomed by fans of 1970s backwater exploitation cinema.
 
 

FATAL VISIONS

Really been enjoying the recent compendium of the first six issues of Michael Helm's seminal trash film culture zine Fatal Visions, a great time capsule of what was happening in underground and exploitation cinema, video and television in Melbourne at the time (1988/89). Along with Crimson Celluloid and Betty Paginated, Fatal Visions was one of the few Australian fanzines that was required reading for me in the 90s, and I was fortunate enough to have some of my earliest writing pieces published in later issues. Was a sad day when it's run finally came to an end, let's hope Michael gets to eventually collect the entire run of the magazine in future volumes.
 
 

BURN, BABY, BURN


Scream Factory’s new Blu-Ray/DVD release of The Burning (1981) sees the label continuing its tradition of giving cult 1970s/80s genre films the love and respect they (usually) deserve.

At a summer camp in Western New York, a prank performe
d by a bunch of kids on the mean groundskeeper, Cropsy, backfires and results in him being burnt beyond all recognition and left barely alive. After being released from the hospital after five years of medical treatments and rehabilitation, Cropsy heads immediately for seedy Times Square and murders a horrified low-rent hooker (so much for that rehabilitation program!), before heading back to his old summer camp stomping grounds and slicing and dicing his way through a group of the usual over-sexed (and over-aged) teenagers.

One of the better (and first) of the Friday the 13th copycats, The Burning certainly follows the tried and true formula of the limited genre. There are certainly no real surprises on offer, but the direction by Tony Maylam is energetic, the make-up effects are some of the best of Tom Savini’s early career, and there’s a pretty cool synth score by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman that helps set it apart from its contemporaries. The Burning was also one of the first projects from Miramax Films (Harvey Weinstein produced and Bob Weinstein co-wrote the screenplay), and it marked the film debuts for future Oscar winner Holly Hunter, Fisher (Short Circuit) Stevens and Jason Alexander (who flashes his lilywhite ass and is already developing his obnoxious George Costanza personality).

Scream Factory’s release includes an audio commentary by director Maylam and film writer Alan Jones, original theatrical trailer, making-of featurettes and more. The print sourced has a few flecks of grime and the odd scratch, but the 1080p transfer itself looks superb. Really crisp and sharp, surprised me how well the film was originally photographed, since I've previously only ever seen this film on the (butchered) VHS release. A must-have for fans of the genre.
 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

DRIVER'S ED TOP 5


As a tie-in for Blood on the Windscreen, my recent booklet on classic Driver's Education cinema, and to coincide with the interview with me discussing the subject which appeared in Fangoria #323, the Fangoria website have now posted videos of my Top 5 Driver's Ed shorts along with brief commentary notes. WARNING: some of these films are very graphic, containing an overload of real accident footage, and should be watched with extreme caution.
 

CREATURE FEATURE

An Interview with Artist/Collector/Monster Kid Dave Warren
 
 
Dave Warren is a Sydney based artist whose work reflects an influence of vintage tattoo design, garage rock & roll and classic movie monsters. When he is not sitting at his drawing desk in deep concentration, or working out his aggression on his drum kit, Dave is adding to his enormous collection of memorabilia based on the classic and iconic 1954 Universal horror film The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its two sequels (1956’s Revenge of the Creature and 1957’s The Creature Walks Among Us).
 
John Harrison: When did the collecting bug first hit you?
 
Dave Warren: Well, I have always been a monster fan, but I didn’t really start collecting seriously until I was in my early 20s. I had just moved out of home for the first time and was taking a walk one evening, when I came across a comic shop. There was a really cool display in the front window of model kits, comics and horror magazines. I went inside for a closer look, and found the Creature vinyl model kit released by Horizon. It was pretty expensive...but I had to have it!
 
 
JH: What was it about the Creature that struck such a chord with you?
 
DW: My earliest memories of the Creature go back to when I was a kid. Sometime in the 70s my Dad came home one afternoon with some gifts for my sister and I. My sister got a rubber shark and I got 2 rubber monster jigglers – a Wolfman and...a CREATURE! (I should add, I didn’t know this toy was called "The Creature", or who he was, or that these cool jigglers were produced by Azrak Hamway and would later in time become rare and highly sought after by monster collectors). The jiggler was my first introduction to the Gill-Man!
 
Another memory, from around the same period, was seeing a photo in MAD Magazine. It was the classic shot of Ricou Browning, as the Creature, creeping up on a log from the lagoon. That image was etched into my brain for a few years and soon after, I saw the movie on late night TV.
 
Seeing the movie for the first time as a young boy was an amazing experience for me. As much as I had always loved monsters, I had NEVER seen anything as cool as "THE CREATURE"! I was hooked from then on.
 
 
JH: You used to collect a wide variety of subjects, including Planet of The Apes and Mego action figures. What made you decide to focus all of your collecting energies on the Creature?
 
DW: There are many films, monsters and vintage toys that I dig, but the Creature is, and has always been my number one. I got to a point where I didn’t have the money or space to collect all the other subjects that I like as much as my favourite, so I made the only decision I could.
 
JH: What is your favourite piece of Creature memorabilia currently in your collection & what is the Holy Grail you most wish to add to it?
 
DW: There’s a variety of things in my collection, toys, model kits, masks, posters, t-shirts, 8 x 10" stills, comic books, jigsaw puzzles, magazines etc. I love every piece I own. Over the years that I have been collecting Creature memorabilia, I’ve been lucky to add pieces to my collection that I thought I may never own.
 
My favourite in the toy department is an AHI 8 inch "Male" action figure, and in my opinion, The Coolest Creature Toy EVER! (most of the original paint has worn away, but I love it anyway!)
 
 
I own the Don Post Studios’ Creature Hands (2nd issue from the early 70s). Rare, and awesome.
I have a small (but authentic) piece from The Revenge of the Creature Creature suit. It’s the rarest and most historical piece I own. There is nothing better than owning a piece of film history…that piece can’t be beaten.
 
On a personal level, some of my Creature highlights have been writing to Ben Chapman (who played the land Creature in the first movie); Ricou Browning (who played the underwater creature in all 3 of the Creature movies) and Julie Adams (who played the leading lady and object of the Creature’s affections in the first movie).
 
I sent Ben Chapman a fan letter, and a drawing I did of him in the Creature suit. A few weeks later, I received an envelope from Ben, filled with autographed photos of Ben and Ben as the Creature and a personal letter in which he thanked me for my artwork and for being such a fan of The Gill-Man. Receiving that response from Ben Chapman was such a rush!
 
I received similar letters and autographed photos, in response to my letters and drawings sent to Ricou Browning and Julie Adams. They are great caring people who acknowledge their fans worldwide.
 
Holy Grails? Well... there is a heap! The great Hasbro stuff from the 60s (The Mystery Game and Paint by Numbers Set) The Takara Inflatable Figure (from Japan), the AHI Squirt Gun and the Standard Plastics Monster Wallet...
 
JH: How does your collection inspire and influence your artwork?
 
DW: I’ve been drawing monsters since I was a kid, and I don’t see myself stopping! These days, I basically eat, sleep and breathe the Creature, so he does make regular appearances in my artwork, he inspires my subject matter, and he’s just so much fun to draw! I use my existing collection for reference, and I use images/photos of my sought after holy grails for reference as well. My artwork features many things I own and love, but also sought after items I may never own, and my artwork draws me closer to those holy grails.
 
 
JH: Having amassed such an impressive collection of Creature memorabilia, with presumably a lot more to come, do you have any long term plans to put your collection on display anywhere for other fans to enjoy?
 
DW: I will definitely be adding more to my collection. In relation to display, we will see what the future brings....
 
 

All original artwork Copyright Dave Warren.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

JAWS 2: THE SEQUEL WITH BITE


"Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.."

If for nothing else, Jaws 2 should be considered a landmark film just for the that classic tagline, which when it began appearing on blood-red teaser posters in early 1978 had cinema patrons excited at the prospect of once again being confronted and terrified by one of our most primal - and very real - fears. The Great White Shark.
 
Thankfully, Jaws 2 turned out to be a fair bit more than just a clever tagline. Living up to the original Jaws (1975) was always going to be nigh-impossible, and in truth Jaws 2 does not come close to matching the tension, action and character dynamics of Steven Spielberg’s undeniably landmark production, a film which changed the way films were marketed and established the enduring Summer Blockbuster template.

When Spielberg announced he had no intention of helming a sequel, director Jeannott Szwarc came into the film with little preparation after original director John D. Hancock was booted off (Hancock, who helmed the cult 1971 shocker Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, was apparently unable to handle the action sequences to the satisfaction of Universal Studios). What Szwarc ultimately delivered was, I have always felt, a mostly satisfying and at times rousing action-adventure-terror yarn that embraces a lot of low-budget exploitation elements yet still has a big enough budget and studio sheen to give it an epic ‘blockbuster’ feel. And the return of actors Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gray and Murray Hamilton, along with composer John Williams and co-screenwriter Carl Gottleib, help provide the film with both a layer of class and a sense of continuity.
 
In Jaws 2, Szwarc, Gottleib and his co-writer Howard Sackler combine the horror genre with the teen melodrama, creating an archetypal slasher film of a kind that would dominate the horror film in the early-eighties via the likes of Friday the 13th and it’s many sequels and copycats. And of course, another prototypical slasher film, John Carpenter’s Halloween, was released later in the same year as Jaws 2. The only real difference is that in Jaws 2, the stalker doesn’t wear a hockey mask or wield a knifed glove, just razor-sharp teeth, vice-like jaw muscles, and an innate, primal drive to hunt and kill.

Co-starring as the Amity Island teens, a daggy but mostly likeable lot of typical WASPy Americans who end up alone on the ocean facing off against Bruce the shark, are Ann Dusenberry, Keith (Christine) Gordon, Donna (Angel) Wilcox and other young faces that may have been familiar on the odd television show or commercial at the time. Scheider, reprising his role as ocean-fearing sheriff Martin Brody, is once again terrific to watch, injecting a real sense of energy, apprehension, paranoia and humour into the role, not to mention the chemistry he creates on-screen with co-star Gray (playing his wife, Ellen).
 
Although it lived in the shadows of a more illustrious predecessor, and received a mixed critical response, Jaws 2 was still an immense box-office success in its own right, becoming the third highest grossing film (worldwide) of 1978. Unfortunately, the significantly lesser quality of the following (and until this point, final) two sequels in the Jaws saga, Jaws 3D (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987) has helped to perhaps tarnish the reputation of Jaws 2 to a certain extent. But it’s an unfair stigma as the film is much closer in overall quality to the original film than either of the subsequent entries, delivering some great set-pieces and one genuinely terrific shock (involving Brody wading out into the surf to investigate a piece of driftwood). Jaws 2 was also more heavily merchandised than Jaws, spawning a series of Topps bubble gum cards, Marvel Comics adaptation, film tie-in novelization, soundtrack LP and the making-of paperback The Jaws 2 Log.

I first saw Jaws 2 as a kid at a packed Forum in Melbourne on it’s weekend of release. I have watched it many times on television, video and DVD since, and am looking forward to experiencing it on the big screen once again when Cinemaniacs present it at Cinema Nova in Carlton on Sunday, 16 June 2013 at 6.30pm as part of their Scream and Scream Again season of modern horror sequels. As with their recent Amityville II: The Possession screening, a video introduction featuring interviews with some of the cast and crew will be preceding the film. Contact Cinemaniacs via their Facebook page for ticketing and further information:

Review by John Harrison/Copyright 2013