Film Thought: The Tableau Vivant in Halloween (1978)

Each year I will revisit the original, classic Halloween at least once. This year, owing to the new Blu-ray box set I will be revisiting the whole series anew. However, the one I will likely come back to more than once, and always find new things to say about, is the first.

With very good reason there has been much made about the use of Steadicam not only in the film as a whole, but also during the opening sequence (one of the last shots in the can during principal photography) where Michael’s POV is taken as he stalks around the house and kills his sister, Judith (Sandy Johnson). Now in technical, artistic and production terms this shot is quite a feat. In the narrative terms it, of course, begins the film with some mystery, a thrill when the POV is broken and a great reveal. However, over the course of time that has obfuscated something of almost equal intrigue (if not anywhere near as hard to achieve as the prior sequence).

The shot that immediately follows reveals Michael to be a young child of six years of age (Will Sandin). Here again narrative shock may distract you from absorbing what’s happening in its fullest implications. The cut occurs when his mask is removed. We see his face and pull back. As we do, we are introduced visually to Michael’s parents. They look shocked, try to get his attention and the camera continues to methodically crane away. As the camera makes its move there is an unnatural lack of movement in the mise-en-scène, it can be argued, by all parties. Even if you’ll give a pass to the fact that Michael doesn’t move; owing that to some semblance of shock he may be feeling (which would be the last time he really, totally felt any sort of human emotion), then you still have to consider the parents who having found their six-year-old with a bloody butcher knife merely stand there befuddled and scarcely move or comment after having merely called his name a few times, mom crosses her arms and dad takes a step back. That’s it.

Previously, I believe I had dismissed such concerns owing to the fact that the shot needed to happen, and being a director that sufficed. However, the shot can still go on with some more movement by the players as the camera drifts away. So, what was it that was compelling this blocking? It’s a choice so conscious it cannot be dismissed as an oversight and has to be viewed as intentional on the part of the director.

Halloween (1978, Compass International Films)

As I watched it this time it struck me. It was so obvious I can’t believe I hadn’t considered it before. What is being created is a cinematic equivalent of a tableau vivant. This is a technique that is rarely implemented on film, however, it’s one I always felt a powerful to implement on stage, and when one considered some instances in which they are used (such as in fairly tales or religious stories) it starts to make sense.

The tableau vivant is described as:

Tableau vivant (plural: tableaux vivants) means “living picture”. The term, borrowed from the French language, describes a group of suitably costumed actors or artist’s models, carefully posed and often theatrically lit. Throughout the duration of the display, the people shown do not speak or move. The approach thus marries the art forms of the stage with those of painting or photography, and as such it has been of interest to modern photographers.

Usually the only times this has been approximated on film or television that I can recall off the top of my head is is in very obvious circumstances where a character would say “Freeze” or some other directive like it and rather than freeze framing the actors stop moving. One notable example of this was the children’s sitcom Saved by the Bell. Now here you have a far more subtle form and the reason I believe it is: one, is that it is allowing the events to sink in; two, building a legend; three, ending a chapter in the story prior to moving to another one. In the world of this film, in this town, this is the local legend; this is the boogeyman. Now that we the audience know what happened, have ruminated on it for 29 seconds during the shot (Yes, 29 whole seconds this shot runs uninterrupted; quite nearly unconscionable now) here is a story set in the present (1978) about the same town, and what happens when he comes home.

It’s the kind of time-taking and camera move that you wish was easier to get away with in the modern language of cinema. However, it is the way that this shot works, the way it so perfectly caps off the opening salvo of this film that has allowed it to stand the test of time and multiple viewings without even being subject to tremendous amounts of scrutiny. Although, as with most things in Halloween, added scrutiny only enhances the mastery of the work, and doesn’t diminish it in any way, shape or form.

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Mini-Review: The Ward

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

The Ward

John Carpenter’s latest film goes inside a pysch ward and tries to unravel why its newest inmate is there.

There are portions of this film which are tremendously effective and as a whole I think this is a very good film. The tension builds and is maintained throughout mostly thanks to the very good cast that is assembled in this film. This is so rare in a horror film that it truly is a sight to behold. The film also incorporates a twist which is not wholly inorganic and does elevate the film and answers a few of the elusive questions it had posed throughout.

8/10

61 Days of Halloween: The Fog (1980)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween and a list of previously featured titles please go here.

The Fog (1980)

The first time I saw this film was quite a special experience. It was so not only because it was on the big screen (sure it was off a DVD, but still) but because it was very many years after the film’s initial release. The film is quite a magical feat.

What’s impressive to consider upon revisiting this film, following its wonderful transition to Blu-ray by the fine folks at Scream Factory, is that at its core it’s a very simple tale. In fact, it’s much like a campfire story, which is one of the things that really kick the film off. It’s what Stephen King might’ve described in Danse Macabre as a “tale of the the hook.” There’s a simple but wonderful backstory to this tale that allows many of the pivotal moments to be purely visual.

Furthermore, while some secrets about the history of Lorenzo Bay are being unveiled there is opportunity to crosscut to the simultaneous chaos ensuing. Which leads to another great thing about the film the fact that we the audience are given all the pieces, but the multi-character nature of the film leaves many of them only partially clued in.

Then, of course, there’s the rather obvious element of the fog itself. As human beings we get used to having five senses quite quickly, and having one taken away or severely impaired by something can lend itself to horrific situations, which is why so many horror films do occur at night or feature fog.

To have a film like this at any point after making something along the lines of Halloween would be impressive enough, but to have it come two years later and right before a very successful sequel and The Thing is why John Carpenter is one of the legends of the genre.

With Dean Cundey as Director of Photography and a cast featuring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, John Houseman, Hal Holbrook and Tom Atkins there truly is little that can go wrong with a film such as this and hardly anything does. Carpenter and frequent collaborator Debra Hill here quickly frame a story with many characters that never feels rushed, confused or aimless and one that delivers many genuine chills. A true classic.

Considerations for the 2013 Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award

Originally I didn’t want to list considerations for either Entertainer of the Year Award or Neutron Star Award and the same goes for the Lifetime Achievement Award. The reasoning behind this was that these awards being for a body of work should’ve had their winners be rather apparent. However, owing to previous memory lapses, I reconsidered this philosophy.

Therefore, any and all eligible, worthy candidates for either award will be kept on this list. It will be one of the running lists that I update on a biweekly basis.

In essence, this will give those who stand out in these categories their due. For example, last year I felt remiss in not mentioning Matthew McConaughey in my explication for the Entertainer of the Year Award for 2013. In my reasoning behind Samuel L. Jackson’s win I had to talk about his year and how great it was and why Jackson’s superseded it. With this list, at year’s end I will be able to discuss each of the prospective candidates works.

Please note that unlike the Entertainer of the Year Award there are few if any set-in-stone pre-requisites. Having said that notable filmmakers or actors with works due out this year that I have not yet seen are eligible here.

Without further ado, the candidates…

Candidates

Michael Apted (Need to see the latest installment of the Up series.)
Alain Resnais (His latest is a must-see that should be added to My Radar.)
Max Von Sydow
Martin Scorsese*
Francis Ford Coppola*
Bernardo Bertolucci*
John Carpenter
Roger Corman
Terence Malick*
Oliver Stone*
Ken Burns
Woody Allen
Ridley Scott

*Would need retrospectives

5 Movies That Are Scarier When They’re Over

Recently, after having gone out with friends to see a very effective horror film (Sinister, which will feature here at some point soon) were exchanging anecdotes about our scariest horror viewing experiences. This concept came to me based on a comment left unsaid, and believe me this is a pure compliment, plain and simple. Nothing backhanded about it.

One of the films I was going to reference was Halloween, and the specific note I was to make on it was that not only is it a consistently, identifiably frightening film, but the end offers you no relief. In fact, the film is scarier after it’s over based on what occurs right before the end credits roll. I then proceeded to think about other similar films for this list.

The list may grow at some point in the future, but for now here are my five selections.

The Exorcist (1973)

This is the most visceral of the selections on this list. In every other selection the lingering effect has at least a little something to do with the way the story decides to resolve itself. With The Exorcist when the film is over, it’s over. The fact that there are sequels is a prime example of a studio meeting a demand that the story didn’t necessarily leave open. I understand that many horror films aspire, at least in a very small way, to leave the franchise opportunity out there. Being a horror “tentpole” is desirable, especially for studios who don’t have to spend much and get a massive return on hits, but the The Exorcist was over. Finished. What makes it such a lingering, troubling viewing experience is not only the steady intensity of the film that builds to a beautifully protracted, gutting, exhausting climax, but it’s a film that has you invest in all of its characters. All of them.

The Exorcist bravely eschews cutting to the chase in favor of character development. It could afford to do so, in part, because it was a new kind of tale at the time so you meet Reagan both before and after her possession; Chris, her mother; Father Merrin and Father Karras. The film raises the stakes for all those involved. All the characters have something to gain and lose in the final confrontation.

The film ends in a life-goes-on denouement, which other horror films have taught you not to trust, but why it really works is the overall power of the third act. The end is natural and makes sense, but you’re uneasy throughout due to all that transpired up to this point.

The Exorcist is the kind of film that wears on you and continues to do so long after it’s over.

Halloween (1978)

As previously stated, out of the three long-running slasher franchises that this one is the best overall. However, with regards to the first installment of the series, nothing in the subgenre comes close to Halloween. Few horror films are anywhere near it.

Halloween, like The Exorcist, is rather incessant, this time in the use of the stalking motif, some of the scenes leave you waiting and some of them lead to kills. That can be exhausting, but add to that how the film ends (You really should’ve seen it by now) that’s what makes it linger.

You have a rather lengthy, well-staged and fairly well-strategized final battle between Laurie and Michael. Then, finally, there’s no respite just escape.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Not dissimilar to the choice above, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a similar effect of an ending. The major difference being there’s no mystery element about how does Leatherface get away. Our last remaining hero merely manages to get away by the skin of her teeth.

A fuller reaction to the film, specifically the end, can be read here.

Insidious (2010)

As a fan of the genre, you can start to become desensitized the more material you watch. That is not to say that a horror film can’t really affect you. Sometimes they manage too. The really good ones do. What’s fairly rare is to not really know how much.

After having seen it, when it was already late, suddenly some very creepy music was heard by both myself and my brother. Neither of us immediately figured out where it was coming from. After a second, we realized he’d left his laptop on with his iTunes playing. He and I both took it as an additional indicator that we saw something pretty good because that unnerved us so. More effective, in fact, than we realized.

Inferno (1980)

Inferno is the second, and perhaps most overlooked, film in Argento’s Three Mothers Films. Suspiria gets a lot of love and is deserved, Mother of Tears…to be kind I’ll say it’s divisive, but I’m fairly convinced I’m in a small minority of people who really like it. Anyway, the reason Inferno ends up here is because it quite literally ends on a jolt, on its highest point and then its followed by the entire theme blasting through the credits. What more could you want?

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Seven)

De Laurentiis was the sole production company involved in the making of this film. They gave this movie a budget of $10 million dollars, which may have been risky considering their spotty past varying from Conan the Destroyer to Blue Velvet. Of their 22 productions four were released in 1986. The fact that they spread themselves so thin may have lead to the variance in the quality of the films and their financial success.
    

The distribution of this film is what really sunk it, as in almost no one saw this film. DEG didn’t have the distribution power even of a New World Pictures thus not many theatres ran the film. Even if they did get a decent amount of screens there was still the problem of bad timing. 
 

Maximum Overdrive got slammed financially and here’s why: it began slowly in June, (AIP would have called it I Was an ‘86 Blockbuster) and they rolled in: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to School, The Karate Kid Part II and Ruthless People. Then on July 2nd and 4th Disney attacked with The Great Mouse Detective and Flight of the Navigator. OK, so there are a lot of comedies and family films what’s to worry … (gulp) … Aliens, the follow-up to the original blockbuster comes out and becomes the dominant film of the next few weeks beginning on July 18th. With the horror market cornered a small unassuming film directed by a writer involving trucks comes out, what do you expect to happen? Well, as that dude Murphy would say, if he had lived in the 80s, “Yo, it gets worse!” 
 

A fortnight after the truck expedition Rob Reiner released one of the finest King adaptations to ever hit the screen, Stand by Me. It was a film that caught everyone by surprise, including Stephen King, who later remarked, “It seemed to me that Stand by Me was the first really completely successful adaptation of my work.” (Stand by Me). I believe part of that comes from a true filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to involve himself in the text in handling the film. It wasn’t just a studio picking up his latest offering, or struggling writer maxing his credits cards to get a shot or a no-name director getting his one chance. 
    

Ironically, the marketing of Stephen King is only an issue when it’s a horror film. When The Green Mile came out he was the author of The Shawshank Redemption, with Hearts in Atlantis  he was the author of The Green Mile. Dolores Claiborne was probably also thrown in the mix at one point. It’s as if they think he’s only good when he writes something other than horror.

I’d seen Stand by Me as a child and had always liked it. It was one of those things I came to later rediscover in adolescence/early adulthood and when I found that King had written that tale it confirmed his genius in my mind. King and Reiner seemed to have come from similar upbringings and it lead to probably one of his most fruitful collaborations. King commented in 1990 that “Rob Reiner, who made Stand by Me, is one of the bravest, smartest filmmakers I have ever met. I am also amused to note that the company Mr. Reiner formed following the success of Stand by Me is Castle Rock Productions … a name with which many of my long time readers will be familiar.”  (Midnight, xiii). 
 

   

Often the relationship has not been as chummy. King is said to have had many a feud with Kubrick and has publicly aired his sentiments about The Shining over the years. Yet, he is quite an admirer of DePalma’s Carrie, as am I, while he finds no real amusement in his own book which he once threw out, I agree with that instinct but am so very glad his wife saved it from the wreckage. While I know it’s true that it’s usually the studio/distributor that makes the decision to plaster a movie poster with “Stephen King’s” or “From the producers of Independence Day” I sometimes hope that he stipulated that it be removed if he was unhappy with something, like Christine.
    

John Carpenter’s Christine is a galumphing piece of crap about an unsympathetic nerd that never should have been made. The book, however, is a fascinating, ominous, well-developed masterpiece told from three separate points of view and you can sympathize with all the characters. And like the master he is, you believe this scenario somehow because he makes you. 
 
   
To successfully adapt a book one must realize what makes each medium unique in order to capture the book’s essence on film without ruining it like millions of misguided dorks have done in the past. Ira Levin author of Rosemary’s Baby commented on Roman Polanski’s adaptation in a letter to King stating “There is a reason for his fidelity to the book, incidentally…His screenplay was the first adaptation he’d made of someone else’s material; his earlier films had all been originals. I think he didn’t know it was permitted – nay, almost mandatory! – to make changes.” (qtd. in King, Danse Macabre, 296). It is always wonderful when a film can be made that follows the book as faithfully as Levin feels his was followed. However, it’s not always a success like a Harry Potter or a Rosemary’s Baby the words ‘slavish,’ ‘slow,’ and ‘boring’ often come up in reviews. People who want drawn out movies that give you two to two-and-half hours to really examine the characters and the situation their in are rare, more and more studios are reverting to the 90 minute film length as opposed to the 120 and above.
  


 
The issue of time is one reason that Stephen King has found such a comfortable home on ABC writing mini-series’. In 1999 and 2002 he made two originals called Storm of the Century and Rose Red. In the latter he had the luxury of waiting 100 minutes before sending his protagonists into a haunted house whereas, in a feature film most producers would’ve already wanted the story to be over.
    

In the end, making Maximum Overdrive was a valuable experience for Stephen King. Since 1986 it seems that he’s taken a more active role in some of his productions and has ultimately learned to pick his battles. He’s since found a medium in which he can write long screenplays filled with rich, rounded characters and he has since become a producer. Thanks in part to Reiner’s success more accomplished filmmakers have since been attracted to his projects. The high-end Kingflicks are more frequent and there isn’t as much junk inbetween. He’s been involved with Frank Darabont on two occasions on The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and Darabont has optioned the rights to a short story entitled “The Mist” [It has since been released], William Goldman has adapted three of his novels into films Misery and Hearts in Atlantis and the forthcoming Dreamcatcher. King wrote an episode for Chris Carter’s X-Files and is shopping an adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel Asylum to be directed by Jonathan Demme [This never came to fruition]. He’s also developing a television series based on Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom for which he will write pilot [This did happen].
    

Many readers who like to be scared by King, when they’re not going to court with Grisham or seeing the turbulence in Steel’s world, have fallen out of favor with King’s work. Stephen King is a writer who is constantly honing his craft. He is writing richer, more complex novels and has mastered other mediums along the way. A little over 36 years after his career in film began King’s legacy is only now beginning to show his true potency.

Horror Films and Stephen King (Part Five)

Note: What follows is a full analysis of the entire film, all other parts of this essay are fairly spoiler-free with regards to the film but this is not. You’ve been warned.

Maximum Overdrive begins with a title insert basically stating that the earth will be stuck in the tail of a rogue comet for about a week. The insert seems a extraneous to me and takes away from the story to a certain extent, however, King may have stated his reasoning in an earlier writing “…any horror film (with the possible exception of the German expressionist films of the teens and twenties) has got to at least pay lip service to credibility” (Danse, 156). One will note that even Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street give their slashers traumatic pasts they must exorcise. In this film the explanation comes early and removes a necessary suspense element I feel would’ve helped the story out. One may also notice that the picture of the earth used in this sequence is backwards meaning Egypt now looks out on the Atlantic. I don’t know how no one caught that.
    

The film is set in Wilmington, North Carolina for the duration of the story. The only other time King set a tale in the south was The Green Mile. He’s set tales in Nevada, Pennsylvania and had a few go across some states but usually relied on atmosphere or people he could sketch reasonably well, which is Maine. The characters in this tale while are sometimes sketched and drawn out by King, to the extent he could with the limitations of the film but they’re acted like caricatures in most cases.
 (Note: This geographic note was correct upon the original writing. Since then King has taken to wintering in Florida, thus his fiction goes there sometimes too).    

We first see the way that the comet affects machinery on the streets of Wilmington.  First, we see a news ticker over a bank that constantly displays the phrase “Fuck You.” Then we get the early King cameo in which, he’s a bumpkin who’s called an “Asshole” by his ATM machine, this is humorous but nowhere near as good as his role as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow.  These small details may add a bit of eeriness to the beginning but as is the theme throughout this film we get a lot more humor than fright. In this sequence all the laughs are intended.

After this we get what might be one of the more frightening sequences of the film, unfortunately no one really escapes this scene unharmed. There is no protagonist who makes their way out of this wreckage and moves on to where a bulk of the action takes place. Instead, what we get is quite an effective crash scene that shows that all machinery can now think and the drawbridge lifts even though all the cars got the green light. The bridgemaster and his assistant look befuddled and the bridge is a disaster area. Everyone is stuck at the base of the lifted bridge. A motorcycle rider flies off the edge, this is the source of the big continuity error one man slides of his motorcycle and we see him seemingly go in two directions, and also go out the gap which hasn’t opened as big as camera angles would have us believe later. This huge mistake is also surprising considering Evan A. Lottman, who edited The Exorcist and Sophie’s Choice worked on this film. This scene is somewhat freaky but is also a little extraneous.
    

We then cut and see the Happy Toyz truck, it’s adorned with a huge demon face on the grill and has a slogan emblazoned across its broadside (“Here Comes a Load of Joy,” King’s ability to come up with clever and humorous slogans is uncanny). It is driven by Andy (J. Don Ferguson) who stops at the Dixie Boy Truck Stop. We get our first good shot here it comes when Andy’s talking to one of the gas jockeys, it’s a medium from the inside of the truck and we get a hint that soon there’s going to be some trouble.
 

We’re introduced to our protagonist next, Billy played by Emilio Estevez in his first role outside of “The Brat Pack.” Someone should have told Emilio that it is very difficult to flex your acting muscles and make a name of yourself from one horror film. Inside the Dixie Boy we now see that the pinball, coffee and cigarette machines are going crazy in the game room and we get a bad performance out of Videoplayer (Giancarlo Esposito) who is quickly killed off.

The first act’s pace is relentless as soon after Duncan (J.C. Quinn) is outside filling the Happy Toyz truck and the pump has mysteriously stopped. He removes the nozzle to check what’s going on and gets sprayed in the eye with diesel. At this moment we get our first sample of the score, the true score and not any sort of source music. While the score like so many is reminiscent of Hermann’s Psycho we only get this stabbing music on a few rare occasions. A few old AC/DC songs were used for this film along with a new one entitled “Who Made Who?” I happen to know that Stephen King is a big fan of AC/DC but I feel that he knows enough about horror to not have left most of the music track in this film dead. There is a lot of silence and it wasn’t very effective at all. AC/DC provided the wrong kind of mood with their high to medium Heavy Metal riffs. It makes me wonder if most of the budget wasn’t diverted towards pyrotechnics and Emilio’s salary further taking away from the film’s quality.
    

We’re later introduced to Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle) who shows himself to be the human villain in this tale. He is unscrupulous and uncaring. His character is quite well played. Then we see King’s first big touch when we see a headline about the comet. Prior Duncan and Joey (Pat Miller) had been talking and it was more subtle and many people won’t realize that the “Mickey Mantle” they were referring to is Deke (Holter Graham), Duncan’s son. In this film King had a little more than 90 pages and too many characters to deal with in that allotted time.
 
   
Our next two mechanical attacks work in different ways and introduce two more characters. A hand-held electric saw attacks the waitress Wanda June (Ellen McElduff) gets her forearm sliced into this is quite a gross moment and also establishes Billy as the protagonist. Then we cut to the baseball field and Deke’s team has just won and the coach is attacked by soda cans shot out of the vending machine. There is some great makeup work in this scene and it’s also pretty funny along with a shocking steamrolling shot that literally made my jaw drop. There are more characters to get to though.
    

We are in a car and getting a radio report about the odd occurrences a la Night of the Living Dead, but more subtle, and are introduced to the Bible Salesman (Christopher Murney) and Brett (Laura Harrington) a hitchhiker he has picked up. The Bible Salesman actually ends up being quite a good hypocritical character in this tale carrying a briefcase with has gold leaf on it and has “The Holy Bible” scrolled across it. Brett is going to be the love interest and this party like Deke are heading to the Dixie Boy. Laura Harrington should have gotten an Oscar…thrown at her, she was so terrible in this film. As a matter of fact the casting in this movie for the most part is rather weak; I wonder why in the closing credits the Casting Director got top billing. A director should know his actors limitations and should have reworked his characters accordingly.
  

Staying in the mode of less than satisfactory acting we switch over to Curt (John Short) and Connie who are a newlywed couple. Connie (Yeardley Smith) who went on to make a name for herself on The Simpsons as Lisa, is so annoying in this role it is nearly impossible to sympathize with her. John Short is one of the actors who ruins some of Stephen King’s great dialogue by having no idea how to deliver it. This is where King should have stepped in and altered the dialogue. It does pain a writer to change effective and intelligent dialogue for simple, pedestrian dialogue but it should be done when the actors sound stupid saying these lines.
    

Along Deke’s journey on bike to the Dixie Boy we see the wrath of the machines has left many dead bodies splayed all over the place. We get an eerie feeling again with a guitar riff for each corpse that is found. If there is one thing that can be said for this film is that all the effects are well done; as we see the trucks maneuver, drive and terrorize people. When these vehicles are on the move on their own they even drive better than real people in film they did quite an admirable job in that respect.
    

Perhaps the best dialogue King has to offer us in this film is when the Bible Salesman is trying to sell some editions in the Dixie Boy. This is also where we see Wanda June start drinking it may be the most well written scene of the film capped off by the salesman saying “This Bible has everything from the creation of this beautiful world to the fall of mankind.” This is the closest we come to seeing the implications that King had intended to impose, aside from a painting of the Last Supper we see for a few seconds, in the short story and there isn’t enough emphasis placed on this scene in my opinion. I also feel it’s a humorous commentary on how the salesman doesn’t know his scripture because all Bibles, regardless of denomination, include those tales.
    

Right before Duncan goes out to be killed we see how the blood has escaped his burned eyes. It’s a rather creepy shot that reminds me of one of King’s favorite films X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes. This death occurs in minute 32 and already we’ve seen so many characters. The Bible Salesman is later sent flying into the sewer after he charged the truck that smashed his car. King, being one who doesn’t believe in any one Christian doctrine, throwing a Bible Salesman into a gutter is a great touch. The truck that decks him also rolls over his Bible briefcase which I liked. When the body is returned to the truck stop we get another good piece of dialogue Bubba says, “He’s dripping all over my floor.” to get the people moving.
    

Stephen King also usefully employs the sewer in the attempted rescue of the Bible Salesman who we find many minutes later is clinging to life in the gutter. This provides the film with it’s only truly good looking and dark cinematography. John Short also displays his inability to deliver a great off-color line written by King in the sewer sequence (“What happened to the people who peed in this?”). The salesman we see is ultimately not worth saving when Deke finds him and the salesman says “Help me or I’ll kill you,” very Christian.
     

Just after the trucks smash a phone booth, we assume in order to effectively isolate them, and begin to angrily circle the truck stop instead of attempting to build some tension we cut away to Curt and Connie, who are chased by an eighteen-wheeler, it’s literally a cut to the chase situation. King had the opportunity to have a situational and somewhat atmospheric film but I feel that was robbed from him by producers looking to imitate many of the 80s poorer films.
    

The way in which these massive hunks of metal are fought most of the times is through gunfire, this is aided by the fact that Hendershot has a huge armory in his basement, which seems to hold everything from AK-47s to Bazookas. The only way in which the special effects fail in this film, being no ballistics expert I’m not sure, but the bazooka’s missiles are never seen in flight we only see the truck exploding. With something that big I’d go to the optical lab and add it even if it is technically inaccurate. 
    

King touches upon the flying airplane mentioned in his short story but this also comes out as comical. Once again we have a nice shot from the inside of the plane and can see the plane operating itself. It is turned humorous by the employment of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
    

Aside from the seemingly incessant presence of the comedy in this film we are also pestered by the lack of darkness; we are bombarded by light. “The dark, it goes without saying, provides the basis for our most primordial fear.” (Danse, 182). Cinematographer, Armando Nannuzzi, had done plenty of films in Italy for years on end and had most recently done quite an admirable job with King’s Silver Bullet. The nighttime footage in that film was effective in deemphasizing the low-budget werewolf but he seemed to thrive on the use of daylight to make some of his more impressive shots in Maximum Overdrive. In all fairness, Maximum Overdrive is a bright, pretty to look at film with sporadic good shots but it’s not quintessential horror. With the positive affect of darkness being so obvious one must wonder if budgetary concerns or perhaps weakness in the lighting department played into it. Even though much of the story is at day time in prose King must have realized he’d need more nighttime scenes for the film. He also knows that not only is it needed but the dark and night time is often heavily used in certain films. “All but approximately eighteen minutes of John Carpenter’s Halloween are set after nightfall.” (Danse, 186). Whereas after sunset we have but 17 minutes in the dark, and then we also have the interesting situation in which most of the human deaths occurred in broad daylight. In this film, the first scene to be set in a darkened place is in minute 48 and the sun only sets three minutes later more than halfway through the movie. Later on in the sequence, the truck stop also loses its power but this is not used in any sort of dramatically moving way and it comes back on before ever having taken any sort of toll on the story. And we are made well aware of it by a beautiful shot of the sunset.

Afterwards, we get the weird green effect in the sky which is larger in some areas of the sky than others. It was used at the beginning to symbolize the comet’s tail. In a poorly acted moment yet again provided by Laura Harrington, in the role of Brett, assumes the comet must be causing all this. It’s in a way also King’s most unfortunate piece of writing because the title card shown from the beginning is practically reiterated for the audience.  At night it seems that only Wanda June and Deke have been affected negatively. Billy is courting Brett, all others are unmoved by the celestial oddity. It’s very unusual that King with the understanding of character he has wouldn’t have gotten on these actors and told them they weren’t driving home the suspense and claustrophobic elements that should have been what was carrying the film.
    

Billy and Brett dominate this section of the film with their nighttime romance which I can only describe as filler. While I understand people can cling to each other in such a situation there was too much focus on the romance for my liking while I do applaud King for not being afraid to implement it. Wanda June dies an overacted death, she was completely drunk and yells the lines I least liked from King’s short story “We made you.” and if a film such as this can have a subtext she just blurted out part of it and she made this little speech more than once.

    
Another thing which constantly plagued this film was that it was very heavy with incident in the beginning and towards the middle of the film the action begins to taper off. The story becomes diverted to an extent.
    

Many times we are shown that Deke is the best drawn of all the characters. In the beginning we see him check on his injured coach, he’s then scared off by the salesman. He breaks down upon hearing about his father’s death, then the next morning has apparently regressed and is blowing bubbles. Not only that but when the trucks start beeping he not only realizes it is Morse code but translates it. What would have made this a better film was some more focus. At the end, when the great exodus of the Dixie Boy begins, we see eleven characters running, three of which I don’t think ever had their name uttered in the film but were perhaps named in the script.
    

The Morse incident is where the trucks admit that they need to be refueled. Billy’s reasoning eventually wins out. They pump gas for the truck because the dried out ones might call for one or many that can destroy them. A few more vehicles do show up including what appears to be a mini-flatbed with a machine gun set on a tripod, which in the end seems a little too beatable. During this sequence Emilio Estevez’s performance, which was nothing earth-shattering to begin with, also slips when we see him yelling at the truck, the Happy Toyz one with the Green Goblin face.
    

Towards the end we get an escape. The truck stop blows up. The Evil Truck which has been harassing the people and is the villain gets a bazooka in its open mouth. This moment is somewhat effective as we think for a moment maybe that one can’t be beat but then it explodes. We end with another annoying title card with a sappy finishing touch and some odd Soviet involvement in destroying a “weather satellite.” And the film closes on a comedic note with the last line of dialogue being Connie saying “Ooh, I think I’m gonna whoops my cookies.”
  
 
Maximum Overdrive is a film that has a few shocking and jaw-dropping moments. All the effects are well done and the cinematography is well-composed. What King ends up providing is a movie that ends up being a pretty good comedy/adventure, which is probably why he didn’t like it all that much. He should definitely give it another go because despite the bad casting there were some good performances in this film most notably those of Holter Graham as Deke and Pat Hingle as Hendershot. One thing King can be thankful for is that his film doesn’t ever tread into the so bad it’s good region.
 

61 Days of Halloween- Halloween (1978)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Halloween (1978)

At times it can be almost more difficult to write about a great movie than it can be to write a mediocre or terrible one. That, however, is not the case when it comes to John Carpenter’s Halloween.

So much in this film works to absolute perfection. It starts right off the bat with the theme. It is not only one of the best themes in the horror genre but in cinema and furthermore there are variations on it such that the entire score is fantastic.

The film starts, of course, with the brilliant prologue which shows Michael’s genesis. There is tremendous use of POV in this scene and also silently the character is being built. Many a horror villain are too chatty. What separates Myers and Voorhees is their silence which amplifies the fear factor. What sets Myers apart is that he never has anyone acting on his behalf he is always “evil incarnate” as Dr. Loomis calls him. Which helps make the prologue more shocking and why it lands high on this list (don’t follow the link if you haven’t seen the film).

The prologue ends in a near cinematic tableau as we are allowed to absorb the awe of what we just witnessed. The story recommences 15 years later. Loomis is introduced and immediately another brilliantly staged and crafted scene breaks out where you see Michael in his present state.

Following this is where Haddonfield and its characters are introduced. The first two sections are played in darkness but then Loomis chasing Michael, Loomis talking to authorities, Laurie Strode’s day and Michael’s following are played in daylight. Night falls for good in the 35th minute of the film and from thereon in horror film history is made.

It can not be overstated that what makes the most effective horror films nine times out of ten is building character and concept. Loomis both in trying to get people to understand what they’re dealing with reveals some of what his experience has been and how he’s become not so much jaded as aware.

What should not be overlooked is all the talk about the boogeyman. It may be too easy to slough this aside as childish nonsense, however, the film makes it perfectly clear by the end that it’s as good a description as you’re likely to get.

Part of what makes Michael Myers such an iconic figure is that he really does get under your skin. He watches you when you don’t realize it, when you think you caught him he vanishes and he comes out of nowhere with some of the best entrances you can ask for in cinema. It truly is spine-tingling stuff. Furthermore these entrances while accompanied by SFX and music don’t crank the volume up so loud that that’s what scares you. That’s what I call a false scare. In this film music and effects underscore what is scaring you which is Myers.

It’s hard to think of a third act in a horror film which has more memorable, shocking and iconic moments. There is Judith Myer’s tombstone, the double-scare corpses and the shadow lurking. Yet it doesn’t stop there. Right at the end there are four extraordinarily memorable moments which to not give too much away I will similarly label: He is the Boogeyman, The Unscored Moment (where the silence makes the visual even more frightening), Vanish and The Breathing Montage.

It’s about as well-crafted as a film, regardless of genre, can be. It spawned a slew of imitators and it attacks primal fears on so many levels. There’s not much like Halloween and even with the ups and downs of the franchise it is likely the best horror series ever.

10/10

Mini-Review Round-Up #3

This is something I’m going to do periodically. Basically, I will employ many means to qualify films for the BAM Awards be it either seeing the film theatrically acquiring a DVD either through purchase or on Netflix. This could lead to an influx of several new titles being seen in a short span of time which would be difficult to write full reviews for. At least this way the film gets some of its deserved attention and you get some notion of my thoughts on them.

If you have questions or comments feel free to respond. I always get back.

As always please refer to My Rating Scale for an indication of what the scores mean and if you’re curious where these films might make a dent in my personal awards please check my BAM Considerations.

The Ward

John Carpenter’s latest film goes inside a pysch ward and tries to unravel why its newest inmate is there.

There are portions of this film which are tremendously effective and as a whole I think this is a very good film. The tension builds and is maintained throughout mostly thanks to the very good cast that is assembled in this film. This is so rare in a horror film that it truly is a sight to behold. The film also incorporates a twist which is not wholly inorganic and does elevate the film and answers a few of the elusive questions it had posed throughout.

8/10

Heartbeats

Heartbeats (2010, IFC Films)

Director Xavier Dolan’s sophomore effort about a love triangle where a young man is the prize for a gay man and his girlfriend is a rumination on unrequited love and love in general.

I can see why this didn’t get the fanfare that his first film, J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), did but in it Dolan proves himself to be a flat-out artist. He not only acts in it but directs it with a steady hand. The only things that hold it back is a conceptual/intellectual disconnect with how the material is rendered but there is an absolute certainty to how he does things. The cinematography is brilliant and vibrant throughout; the framing precise, the edit is good. The use of slow-motion is at times inspired and his affinity to source music rivals Tarantino. It’s not the greatest script but it is perhaps the best treatment that script could’ve gotten.

7/10

The Suite Life Movie

The Suite Life Movie (2011, Disney Channel)

A funny and silly sci-fi tale wherein twin brothers face off against a mad scientist.

I believe in judging everything on what it is and what its goals are. Therefore, a DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie for the uninitiated) cannot be judged against Citizen Kane. Each are doing very disparate things. Another caveat for those who will point out that this is a TV movie I’ve allowed them to be eligible before both for the good and the bad in my awards (Note: Only winners are linked to) therefore I should try and see a few each year or bar them and essentially the aesthetics are the same, the commercial break on streaming merely turns into a fade to black and then fade in.

Having said all that this film really works for what it’s trying to do and I was surprised that I enjoyed it quite a bit. Both Cole and Dylan Sprouse, who are no strangers to film acting, have far more naturalistic interpretations of their characters in this film than they do in a typical episode of the show. The film also manages to be rather self-contained and doesn’t require one to be overly-familiar with the show to enjoy and appreciate what’s going on. The mad scientist involvement is one not seen much these days but can definitely still be employed to great affect.

It’s funny, silly and even gets emotional with a point to be made. I’m not saying it’ll be in the year end fray but I was pleasantly surprised by it as it is one of the most enjoyable DCOMs I’ve seen in some time.

10/10

Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure

Spinning off from the High School Musical series, Sharpay movies to New York to try and make it on Broadway.

As opposed to the DCOM above this one for the most part misses the mark entirely. The High School Musical craze has come and gone and this is a perfect example of going to the the well one time too many. Sharpay, of course, starts this adventure off as cartoonishly spoiled and through the course of it will transform into a person who does things for herself and is a real person and has real emotions. It’s just one of a list of things in this film that’s asking a bit too much to be believed. The shame of it is that Tisdale is charismatic when just playing someone closer to herself but she’s rarely allowed to do that. The outlandish, ridiculous and wrong also overshadow a humorous and engaging turn by Bradley Steven Perry better known from his role on Good Luck Charlie.

There are things to like about the film but there are many more that will annoy you to no end. Hopefully, this is the swan song for the franchise because it really is running on fumes now.

4/10

13 Assassins

A group of assassins join forces to kill an evil lord in 19th century Japan.

There is a lot that is technically impressive about 13 Assassins. The cinematography is very impressive, some of the acting is very strong a lot of the make-up work is good. Other things just fall terribly flat. There are a lot of characters introduced at the start such that the film even includes titles to tell you who they are and the overall plotting is slow to unfurl. It leaves you wanting and begging for the “heist scene” so you know what the endgame is. Then the battle just goes on practically forever, such that after a while I really was no longer interested in the outcome only that the movie would in fact, as rumors had it, end.

5/10

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

This is actually one of the first films I saw this year and after a little research I decided that I would include it for consideration in the 2011 BAM race.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is the story of punk rock icon Ian Drury over a long and tumultuous career.

This is a very unique and creative film and there are a lot of interesting narrative and directorial choices made throughout the course of it. Upon these decisions your opinion will hinge and they are totally open to interpretation some work, some don’t and some work with mixed results but at the very least there are chances taken in this film. What stands out most in the film are the performances of Andy Serkis and Bill Milner. Both are faced with enormous challenges in this film as actors and both succeed. Serkis has a massive arc to play and many different notes and Milner has to play his character from a youth and ages with him over many years quite impressively.

Aside from that it will introduce you, if you are unfamiliar with it as I was, to a lot of good music throughout.

7/10