Archive for October 2009

The Halloween Series

October 31, 2009

mm6asm375John Carpenter’s original Halloween is a masterpiece. It remains the gold standard of stalker/slasher films; no other film has gotten near it, and certainly none of the sequels or remakes have. Yet I have seen every last Halloween film. Why? Why didn’t I quit in disgust after Halloween 5 (which must be in the running for the worst sequel ever made)? Hope springs eternal, I guess. Also, Michael Myers is fun to watch looming in the shadows. Anyway, just in time for Halloween, here’s my take on all ten Halloween films to date.

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) – See full review

halloween2Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981) – “I shot him six times! I shot him in the haaaht!” As advertised, it picks up where the original left off (“More of the Night HE Came Home!”), and just about everyone is back, but this is little more than a pallid attempt to make lightning strike twice. (It did do well at the box office — better than The Fog.) There are some good bits plus a hilarious continuity fuck-up involving an innocent masked guy who gets squashed between a police car and an ambulance. The vehicles burst into flame, the corpse slumps over, we cut away, and when we next see the corpse it’s standing fully erect between the vehicles! This sort of thing really shows how much care went into the movie. Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence return, Dick Warlock is Michael, and Lance Guest is the kindly Jimmy, who lives or dies depending on whether you see the theatrical or network version. With Alan Howarth reworking John Carpenter’s original score and Dean Cundey returning as cinematographer, it looks and sounds like Halloween, but it ain’t. Director Rick Rosenthal later made Halloween: Resurrection.

halloween3Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1983) – This box-office flop was co-producer John Carpenter’s attempt to depart from the stalker-slasher genre, which by ’83 had gotten utterly out of control. An evil maskmaker (Dan O’Herlihy) puts computer chips from Stonehenge rocks into his masks to control and destroy the children who wear them. Tom Atkins is the would-be hero, who watches a commercial for the original Halloween on a TV in a bar. That marked Michael Myers’ only appearance in this extremely derivative sci-fi/horror film that suckered people into thinking that it was in fact a Halloween movie. (“The night no one comes home,” explained the ads.) This was to be the first of a series of unconnected films dealing with Halloween myths. It was also the last. A noble failure ripe for reappraisal among contrarian Halloween fans — what could be ballsier than admitting you liked it? (Admitting you liked the next five turkeys.) This killed the franchise for a while, until Halloween 4 slithered up five years later. “Eight more days till Halloween, Silver Shamrock!”

halloween4Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little, 1988) – As advertised. The dead Laurie Strode’s little daughter Jamie (Danielle Harris) telepathically lures the hospitalized Michael Myers (her uncle) out of a coma. For a guy with no eyes who’s been motionless for a decade, he’s awfully spry. He rises and kills lots of people. Donald Pleasence (looking real tired) shuffles around in burnt make-up, mentally spending his paycheck. With a decent scene involving multiple Michaels, a dumb shock ending, and stunt man George Wilbur as Michael (in a different, less scary mask). Enough people went to see this lame, belated sequel that another one came a year later, though I know of nobody who wanted it.

halloween5Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Dominique Othenin-Girard, 1989) – A drooling moron of a film. Absolutely the worst. This movie is why I didn’t get all that upset when Rob Zombie remade the original film. Danielle Harris returns, as does Donald Pleasence, who supposedly gets killed off (little did he know he’d be pressed into service again six years later). Michael (Don Shanks) shreds people until he’s caught and thrown in jail; then a mysterious man in black (his brother? uncle? Tommy Lee Jones? Will Smith?) sets him free. End of movie. Even undiscriminating horror fans were disgusted by the way this sequel (and series producer Moustapha Akkad) so cynically expected moviegoers to come back for Halloween 6 to find out who this guy is. A disgrace unworthy of its title. Coinciding with the film’s release was a special “Save Michael’s Next Victim” interactive hotline. Classy. I actually called it and it was scarier than the movie. You guided a terrified-sounding woman through a house and heard her discovering corpses: “Oh God, he…cut off…her head….”

halloween6Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Joe Chappelle, 1995) – Painless but pointless, this universally reviled sixth entry is smoothly directed but suffers fatally from pre-release butchery. It really plays up the Celtic angle, to no good effect. Michael (hefty George P. Wilbur) is now controlled by some evil Druid sect and programmed to kill every last member of his family. He warms up by slaying his now-grown niece Jamie and spends the movie trying to destroy her baby son. One of the kids from the first film, Tommy Doyle, is now an unhinged twentysomething (Paul Rudd) who tracks Michael’s activity and finds the baby hidden in a public bathroom. He teams up with young unmarried mom Marianne Hagen (Laurie Strode’s cousin) and her little son Devin Gardner. Donald Pleasence, in an unworthy swan song, has what amounts to an extended cameo as Dr. Loomis. It’s rather sad to see this great actor reduced to hobbling around in meaningless scenes and sounding terribly tired.

After one bad preview screening, Dimension re-edited the film and made the ending even more incomprehensible than it already was. Series producer Moustapha Akkad denounced the result and swore to retain more control over future sequels. Kim Darby and Bradford English appear as Laurie Strode’s aunt and uncle — named Debra and John (ha ha, too funny). The sad part is that this seems to have been made not by uncaring hacks, but by hacks who love the original. This was apparently the best they could do, and Dimension’s meddling didn’t help. Handsome cinematography by Billy Dickson; score by Alan Howarth. Also with Keith Bogart, Mariah O’Brien, and Mitchell Ryan as the mysterious Man in Black from Halloween 5. I know I was breathlessly anticipating this revelation. Director Joe Chappelle later did the Dean Koontz film Phantoms.

halloweenH20Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Steve Miner, 1998) – Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the role that gave her a career in this sequel that ignores all the previous sequels after Halloween II. Hyped incessantly in the wake of the success of Scream, and eagerly awaited by horror fans, the movie turned out to be the kind of bland dud that killed horror back in the ’80s. Curtis’ Laurie Strode is now a traumatized alcoholic, but you wouldn’t know it from her lightweight performance; she had more gravity as a 19-year-old in the original than she has twenty years later. Laurie has a teenage son (Josh Hartnett) who throws a secret Halloween party with a bunch of dumb, expendable friends (including Michelle Williams, Adam Hann-Byrd, and Jodi Lyn O’Keefe). Michael, of course, returns and does his stuff until the absurdly abrupt finale. Obviously rushed, probably trimmed, and definitely dull. Score by John Ottman; cinematography by Daryn Okada. With Adam Arkin, LL Cool J, Chris Durand as Michael, cameos by Janet Leigh and Nancy Stephens, and a Donald Pleasence soundalike delivering the “evil” speech over the opening credits.

halloweenresurrectionHalloween: Resurrection (Rick Rosenthal, 2002) – Almost worth it for the sight (or sound) of Busta Rhymes dressed like Michael Myers and ranting “Got-damn, what I gotta do to get some decent help up in here?” (His voice coming out of Michael’s mask is so incongruous it’s probably the funniest thing in any of the Halloween movies — it looks like something off a gag reel.) Other than that, this is a fairly tired cyber-haunted-house affair in which a group of college kids with webcams strapped to their heads spend the night in the old Myers house for scholarship money. Michael shows up, does a lot of damage, takes even more damage. Does he die? Does Moustapha Akkad shit in the woods? The lengthy pre-credits prologue, with Michael tracking down Jamie Lee Curtis at a mental hospital, is deftly handled but seems to belong at the end of a different movie. Generally it’s the crap you’d expect, but those who called it the worst of the series obviously hadn’t seen Halloween 5.

Halloween (Rob Zombie, 2007) – See full review.

Halloween II (Rob Zombie, 2009) – See full review.

Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018) – See full review.

Halloween Kills (David Gordon Green, 2021) – See full review.

Halloween Ends (David Gordon Green, 2022) – See full review.

Paranormal Activity

October 24, 2009

A haunted-house movie is scary; a haunted-person movie is scarier. Katie (Katie Featherston), one of the two protagonists of the runaway video-verite hit Paranormal Activity, has been visited after dark by a strange entity since she was eight years old. The entity, or demon, or whatever it is, doesn’t do much: it clomps around in the dead of night, and sometimes it whispers her name or breathes on her while she sleeps. Katie is now living with Micah (Micah Sloat), an arrogant day-trader who’s never met a challenge he couldn’t bluff or buy his way out of … until now. Micah buys a camera with the intent of recording any unusual wolf-hour events. This seems to make the entity angry.

Paranormal Activity, shot a few years ago in one week by Oren Peli for around $11,000, has been called the new Blair Witch Project. This is an unfair comparison, since Blair Witch, for me and many others, was more irritating than scary; Paranormal Activity actually makes its premise work and delivers substantial creeps. It is not, despite some excitable claims, the scariest movie ever, not unless this is your first horror movie. But the more apt comparison is to 2004’s Open Water, another minimalist low-budget chiller that derived its tension from the terror of a young couple faced with a situation they could neither comprehend nor control.

On one level, the film is another supposed-found-footage event — it consists entirely of whatever Micah’s camera catches — and sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. There are more than a few scenes wherein you wonder why Micah doesn’t just put the damn camera down (and an exasperated Katie more than once tells him to shut it off). But I accepted this as Micah’s way of trying to shape and master the uncanny with technology, a passive yet invasive process that just makes things worse. He won’t listen to Katie or anyone else; he brings in a Ouija board over everyone’s objections. I was reminded of the dynamic in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, in which the know-it-all shrink’s power wilted before the ravages of nature and of female rage. Like Willem Dafoe, Micah wants to fix the situation; more, he wants to be, and feel like, The One Who Fixes It. But no one can, or will.

The money scenes happen in the darkness of Katie and Micah’s bedroom as they sleep (or are awakened). At one point, Katie gets out of bed and stands staring at the dozing Micah; the chill comes from the timecode on fast-forward — we realize she’s been standing there motionless for two hours. There are also the usual bumps, whispers, odd omens (a found photograph). The increasingly sleep-deprived couple start to crack at the seams, snapping at each other; they may as well be contending with noisy neighbors or rats in the walls. But the entity is getting bolder, more aggressive, and nobody seems to know what it wants from Katie.

Paranormal Activity lapses into cheese now and then — there’s internet footage of an ill-fated exorcism that seems to be there just to freak out young’uns who haven’t seen The Exorcist. A psychic (Mark Fredrichs), though well-played in a low key, is there essentially as a courier for exposition. And the version you’ll be seeing in theaters ends on an over-the-top note (suggested by Steven Spielberg) that sort of betrays the low-tech scares that precede it (I prefer the earlier finale, known as the 2007 Ending). But most of the film is legitimately eerie, working on our fear not just of the unknown but of the uncontrollable — the terror you can’t run from, because it’ll follow you everywhere until it dies or you do. 4


October 22, 2009

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a rarity: a great film that I will never, ever subject myself to again. The physical and emotional anguish on display here has not been exaggerated. Von Trier has used a story of grief — Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as parents devastated by the loss of their toddler son — as a jumping-off point for what I can only call gender horror. On a surface level, Antichrist is Don’t Look Now for the torture-porn era. Many will be content to leave it at that, and I do not blame them, for to apply a close reading to such a painful and disagreeable work is to grant it longer passage in one’s head than one really wants to allow. This movie hurts to watch and to think about.

Reporting from Cannes, where Antichrist got its share of boos and withering reviews, Roger Ebert broke out the religious metaphysics. The film, he theorized, unfolds in an alternate universe where Satan, not God, created the world. Therefore, the suffering the husband and wife (they are identified in the credits only as He and She) inflict on each other is par for the course in the movie’s reality. There will doubtless be other readings. Nice try, but what Ebert and future critics might seek to do is to flee from the film into the safety and rationality of interpretation and symbology. Anything can be made palatable if you abstract it enough.

The wife is practically insane with grief and guilt — the couple, you see, had been making passionate love when their little son climbed up onto a window and fell to his death. The husband is a therapist, and at first, encouraged by Dafoe’s soft-spoken and tender performance, we think that surely he will understand her; surely he will help her through her torment. But she accuses him of arrogance — he dismisses her psychiatrist as unseasoned and too quick to dump meds onto her pain. He may be right, or he may be jealous. She falls into anxious hysterics, and he deduces that her problem is fear. But fear of what? It would seem that the worst thing she could’ve imagined has already happened.

Without getting into spoilers, Antichrist appears to be a dread-ridden meditation on misogyny and its deranging effects on male and female alike. Von Trier may be looking in the mirror here: he has long been accused of making his screen women — Emily Watson, Bjork, Nicole Kidman, Bryce Dallas Howard, and now Charlotte Gainsbourg — suffer for the delectation of the art-house crowd. (Is it relevant that none of these actresses have been better than they were under von Trier’s pitiless tutelage? Sexist or not, von Trier — like David Lynch — gives actresses roles they can hit out of the park.) The key here may be the subject of the wife’s aborted thesis paper: “gynocide,” or the systematic oppression, demonization and destruction of women over the centuries. The husband approaches the wife’s pain with the poor hegemonic tools of “rationality,” reducing her to a child by way of “games” and “role-playing” to break her out of her “fear.” But what she fears can’t be talked out in therapy. (Therapist = the rapist.)

Von Trier throws in many uncanny and bizarre touches, like “the three beggars” (pain, grief, despair) in the form of mutilated or self-mutilating forest animals. The husband takes the wife to “Eden,” a cottage in the woods where she had gone the previous summer with their child, hoping to finish her paper. The cottage seems constantly attacked by nature: there’s a steady hail of acorns thundering down onto the roof. The wind, in the wife’s mind, becomes the breath of Satan. She is in hell, for reasons we will slowly gather. The rumbling, ominous soundtrack and occasional camera fixations (a slow zoom into a flower vase in a hospital room, for instance) recall Lynch, but elsewhere von Trier uses his trademark handheld style and jump-cuts. The effect, as always with this provocateur, is to keep us unbalanced.

What does von Trier feel about women? I don’t know. He probably doesn’t either, which is why he keeps making films about them. By showing them in extremis, he may hope to get at some sort of female truth. His women are insane because they exist in an insane system, and by lashing out violently, like an R.D. Laing construct, they become purified in their madness. Von Trier makes deadly serious psychodramas with complex heroines who alienate us because we’re part of the system they’re rejecting. In Antichrist, the gender conflict reaches a particularly excruciating pitch. It is true philosophical horror, hard to shake off and harder, I suspect, for many to justify.

But here we are retreating into interpretation. Is the film, past a certain point, meant to be taken literally? I doubt it. Are the things we’re seeing actually happening? There comes a point in the narrative when we seem to be witnessing ancient hatreds and grievances acted out; the quotation marks around some of the events are almost visible. I’ve seen appalled lists of the various offenses to the flesh in Antichrist, but such a litany misses the point. It’s a film of ideas, not shocks. It’s also a nightmare movie, not subject to waking logic or the usual immediate, derisive response to challenging art. The film may have a maximalist meaning — He and She are all men, all women — or it may simply be a heightened emotional portrait of the aftermath of grief. Only von Trier knows for sure, except I’m not sure he does.

The movie is a workout, definitely. It will be condemned, praised, argued about. It feels like von Trier getting down to the distilled basics of what he’s always been driving at — it feels like a summing-up. It is also more frightening, of course, than most of the “horror movies” you snicker at in the multiplex. Those movies really just want to horse around, give you a good time, make you jump and laugh. Antichrist is the real deal. 5

Where the Wild Things Are

October 18, 2009

This is how we’re introduced to Max (Max Records), the little-boy hero of Where the Wild Things Are: he’s rampaging through his house, “hunting” the family dog — growling at it, finally tackling it. Max’s “hunt” reminded me of when my pomeranian does much the same thing to my cats. She isn’t trying to kill or even hurt the cats — it’s just play. So, too, with Max, who feels wildness in his soul, inchoate feelings of abandonment and rage he can only deal with by devolving. His mom is divorced and busy, his dad is never around, his older sister is growing away from him. There’s nothing much Max can do but growl and howl.

Hunter S. Thompson prefaced Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Samuel Johnson’s line “He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Johnson’s line could as well have led into Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, which has entranced kids and scandalized certain adults for generations. Spike Jonze’s film version may reverse the equation: adults may get more out of it than kids will, and indeed Jonze has spoken of it as more a film about childhood than a film for children. In the book, Max is sent to bed without supper, and imagines that his bedroom turns into a vast shaggy forest inhabited by “wild things” — massive creatures who at first want to eat him, until he convinces them to worship him as a king. In the movie, Max sees his mother (Catherine Keener) on the couch with her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) and loses it — he “acts out,” biting his mom on the shoulder and taking off into the night, eventually finding a boat and floating off to the island of the wild things.

Where the Wild Things Are was shot (beautifully, by cinematographer Lance Acord) in various parts of Australia, and the locale makes about as much sense as a boy’s fecund, capricious fantasy of the perfect place — it has a forest, a desert, and a sea. The forest is usually dark, though when Max and the wild things run out to the cliffs, it’s perfect orange dusk. This is an anomaly, an idiosyncratic art film with a big budget, psychologically dense yet emotionally transparent. Max’s pain is reflected by the wild things, a morose and grumbling pack, including the big destroyer Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), who may stand in for Max’s Id.

Essentially, the movie is about Max’s journey from childish solipsism (“Woman, feed me!” he bellows at his mom on her date night) to an awareness of situations and feelings outside himself. Max’s new responsibilities as the “king” of the wild things — he has promised to banish sadness from their land — bring him to a greater understanding of what his mom deals with. The bickering couple Ira (Forest Whitaker) and Judith (Catherine O’Hara) may represent Max’s divorced parents, while the distant but warm KW (Lauren Ambrose) may be both a big-sister and mother figure. The narrative is free-form enough to be interpreted any number of ways, none of which will be right or wrong.

This is a strange (and moving) heffalump indeed, a future cult classic if ever there was one, and to believe in it you have to believe in the unfocused anger of a nine-year-old who doesn’t understand much of anything until others look to him for guidance. He learns, as it were, on the job, and he is imperfect. The movie, on the other hand, strikes me as perfect on every level. Some will find it amorphous and even boring — it’s not the usual CGI razzle-dazzle we’ve been led to expect from movies based on children’s literature, with the latest hot comedian playing to the rafters through pounds of latex. At its best, it communicates the pain of being a boy who gets rid of that pain by making a beast out of himself, before learning to put childish — and wild — things behind him. 5


October 10, 2009

All the fanboys love Zombieland. It’s like Drag Me to Hell, only it’s actually making some money — it’s crossed over to the non-geeks. What do all those people see in it, though? They must’ve seen a different Zombieland, one that isn’t so slight and glib, one that has some decent characters defined by something other than clichés and traits. Some have compared it to Shaun of the Dead, which set the bar very high for zombie comedies. Zombieland doesn’t clear that bar; it barely even runs up to it. It’s a fundamentally lazy and witless film.

There are four (temporarily five) human characters in Zombieland; the rest of the population has turned into slavering, gut-munching zombies (they sprint, like the flesh-eaters in the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake). We have the nerdy Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the zombie-killin’ good ol’ boy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), and a pair of sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) who con the guys out of their vehicles not once but twice. But eventually they all band together, because this zombie comedy is about finding a family. This is explicitly stated at the end, for the slowpokes in the audience.

Zombieland is over in 81 minutes (including end credits), which I suppose is a mercy, because most of this road film goes nowhere. Entirely too much time is spent inside the mansion of a Hollywood star cameoing as himself, none too amusingly — a shock, given the star. Word is that this cameo was envisioned for various different celebrities, depending on who could commit to it, and that the star’s scenes were written at the last minute. It shows. I didn’t particularly need to see the guy re-enacting one of his big hits from a quarter-century ago, like some outtake from Be Kind Rewind. He just drops in for a few jokey scenes (I have to say, his cameo in a big-budget film last year was a lot more random, and a lot funnier); then he’s gone, and the characters hang out in his mansion a while longer.

There’s a lot of padding throughout, including an odd bit when the characters arrive at some tourist trap selling Native American souvenirs and gleefully trash the place. Why? Boredom? (I could relate.) Is this supposed to signal contempt for Native Americans or for the whiteys who profit off fake war bonnets? Somehow I don’t think the movie thought about it, or anything else, that much. There’s some weak meta-humor when Columbus, who narrates, tells us various rules for survival (always check the back seat; shoot zombies twice just to be sure). But most of Zombieland seems to deal with a generic post-apocalypse — there are long stretches where the zombies aren’t around at all.

Okay, a lot of what I’ve said could also apply to George Romero’s 1979 classic Dawn of the Dead. But Romero worked the situation for social and political commentary, and the non-zombie scenes compelled us because the characters were fresh and had quirks and flaws. Zombieland doesn’t care about its people nearly as much. One character delivers a tearful revelation, then caps it with “I haven’t cried like that since Titanic,” which kills whatever pathos could’ve been built. (Remember, there were genuinely tragic moments amid the hilarity and Queen songs of Shaun of the Dead.) The troubling suspicion arises that people are enjoying Zombieland so much because its “heroes” don’t change much, never seem to be in much danger, and even get to hang out with a celebrity. There’s nothing at stake.

Is this the best Americans can do? France gave us Les Revenants a few years ago, and Canada produced the little-seen Pontypool earlier this year. Those films tried to run the zombie narrative through a different and intriguing filter. Zombieland adds nothing to the subgenre. It’s crude wish-fulfillment (yes, you World of Warcraft-playing nobodies can shotgun a bunch of undead and get the girl) best forgotten. 2

Good Hair

October 9, 2009

Hair is money. “I’m in the wrong business,” says Chris Rock when he hears how much money black women spend on their hair — styling, braids, relaxers, weaves. In Good Hair, Rock sets out to find out why. Short answer: Black women want white women’s hair. Which leads to a bigger, more disturbing “why.” In his autobiography, Malcolm X talked about getting a painful, burning conk put in his hair during his gangster days. It was one more way, he said, that black people poisoned themselves out of self-hatred. Do the women in Good Hair hate themselves — their blackness? That may be overstating it, but certainly the media glamorizes long, flowing, Caucasian hair and disregards natural “nappy” hair. In School Daze, Spike Lee staged a musical battle between the “Jigaboos” and the “Wannabes” over the virtues of “straight and nappy” — probably the first time many white audiences were even aware of the conflict. If hair is money, hair is also identity.

Rock follows the money. He visits with various black entrepreneurs and manufacturers of hair products; he tracks the progress of four contestants in the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, which seems to be more about razzle-dazzle than about actual hair care. He talks to various celebrities, female and male, about their experiences with straightening their hair, including, amusingly, Ice-T. Most revealingly, he takes a trip to India, where women shave their heads to offer to “God”; the hair is actually collected and sold at exorbitant prices so that women like Raven-Symone can have fabulous weaves.

Rock doesn’t really editorialize; he goes through the movie with his brow creased in bafflement over why women do this to themselves (and pay money they don’t have for thousand-dollar weaves), but he doesn’t get angry on behalf of his sisters. This is alien territory for him, though his inquiry emerges from a genuine curiosity about why his little daughter came to him in tears one day because she didn’t have “good hair.” He says he’ll have to add hair-straightening to the list of things he’ll tell his daughters never to do. One way to accomplish that — and he does, every day, he says — is to assure them they’re beautiful the way they are. But one father can only do so much, and what happens when they hit their teens?

Good Hair is an amiable and mostly funny spotlight on a part of black culture; if it isn’t as indignant as some may wish, that’s because, aside from his wishes for his children, Rock doesn’t really resolve his feelings about the whole thing, which puts this closer to a true documentary than to the usual Michael Moore op-ed. He simply asks, What is “good hair” and why is it a multi-billion-dollar industry? Rock doesn’t pose the hard question to the ladies in the film — Are you trying to be white? — because the answer is complex; many non-whites, including of course the Indian women whose locks end up in weaves, have long, flowing, straight hair, and many whites have curly hair they wish was straight or straight hair they perm into curls. It’s a puzzlement. Maya Angelou says it best: “It’s hair. As long as it’s on your head and not between your toes, it’s okay.”

Trick ‘r Treat

October 6, 2009

Like a lot of recent horror movies, Trick ‘r Treat comes burdened with more advance hype than it was designed to bear. Forget the hype and go into it cold. You’ll be rewarded with a richly fun tribute to Halloween and all the monsters it has to offer. A first feature by Michael Dougherty (perhaps best known for working on the scripts of X2 and Superman Returns for Bryan Singer, who serves here as a producer), Trick ‘r Treat is a candy bag overflowing with goodies for horror fans. In an extremely abbreviated running time (82 minutes with credits), the film manages to be a thick anthology of any number of tropes, legends, and all-around nasty stuff. Problem is, I can’t talk much about it without blowing it for you, since the fun is in discovering how the four stories herein are connected.

I can tell you that Dougherty, cinematographer Glen MacPherson (paying visual homage to all the horror masters), and composer Douglas Pipes (who delivers an entertainingly loud, Elfmanesque score) serve up an atmospheric feast that looks and sounds gorgeous — catch it on Blu-ray if you can — and earns the perhaps obvious comparisons to George A. Romero’s Creepshow. There’s a mysterious little character called Sam (short for Samhain, I’m guessing) who punishes people for not “following the rules of Halloween,” but Dougherty and his crew should feel safe in that regard; their film follows every rule.

Hate Halloween? Disdain costume parties and turn your lights off to dissuade begging tots in disguise? This isn’t your movie; indeed, people like you die in this movie. If, on the other hand, October is your favorite month, Trick ‘r Treat reminds you of why. There have certainly been, in recent years, enough reasons to forget why; the progressively insipid Saw series has owned Halloween weekend (at least until Paranormal Activity unseated it), and horror in general has trended towards grim, glum remakes from the Michael Bay factory. Trick ‘r Treat, among other things, restores the fun to horror movies. Why Warner sat on it (eventually consigning it to a direct-to-disc release) rather than popping it into theaters two years ago as a possible Saw-killer is beyond me.

I shouldn’t even really talk about most of the characters, though the eclectic cast includes Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker, and Brian Cox, all of whom (like everyone else onscreen) get into the spirit of the occasion, as if attending a terrific Halloween party, which, in effect, the movie is. Trick ‘r Treat is also not shy about killing the underage; I wondered fleetingly if that’s part of the reason it never saw a wide release. All bets are off; people you expect to survive don’t, and people you expect to die don’t. In some respects, Dougherty subverts the same tropes he deals in so lovingly.

Trick ‘r Treat did not “scare” me. I don’t think that’s really its game plan. It is a valentine to old-school horror fans, and it casually shuffles the supernatural into its deck after starting out like a typical slasher film. That might throw off some viewers expecting something meaner, more “realistic” and torture-pornographic. For those who grew up on Famous Monsters and Fangoria and Creature Double Feature, it’s a gift and a new perennial to take down and enjoy every October 31st. This movie loves Halloween so much you can almost taste the candy corn. 5

Whip It

October 4, 2009

Some movies share their directors’ personalities. Martin Scorsese’s films are excitable and jittery, like him. Jim Jarmusch is laid-back and inscrutable, and so are his movies. Whip It, the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, is friendly and fun-loving and nurturing, as she seems to be. It was probably inevitable that Barrymore’s first effort should be a you-go-girl tale of empowerment and sisterhood; what’s surprising is how deftly it avoids the clichés. The characters are allowed to be complicated and contradictory; even the villain of the piece is given a few lines that almost made me root for her.

Scripted by Shauna Cross from her amusing novel Derby Girl, which she based on her own experiences in roller derby, Whip It has an unlikely heroine for a female-jock fable — Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a disgruntled 17-year-old trapped in Bodeen, Texas. Bliss is being groomed for beauty-pageant glory by her mom (Marcia Gay Harden), but would rather shop for boots and hang with best bud Pash (Alia Shawkat). Beyond that, she doesn’t know what she wants, until she finds her way to an Austin roller derby and falls in love with the squalling, jostling chaos of it, and the spectacle of bad-ass women with trashy outfits and makeup, trashy talk, and trashy attitudes. Bliss lies about her age and tries out for the underdog team Hurl Scouts.

Unlike the strapping goddesses-on-wheels in past derby films, like Raquel Welch in the moribund Kansas City Bomber and Claudia Jennings in the anarchic Unholy Rollers, Ellen Page stands five-foot-one and seems built to get bumped around the track. But Bliss, it turns out, has powerful little legs, and once she gets the hang of wearing skates again, she’s incredibly fast. Barrymore (who also appears as the terminally out-of-it skater Smashly Simpson) and the great cinematographer Robert Yeoman shoot the matches as close in as possible, enough to see the pain and pleasure of the sport. Bliss weaves in and out of the thick cluster of opponents, while burlier “jammers” like Smashly or the maternal Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) throw legs and elbows to bounce their foes out of play. It’s terrific fun, and Barrymore never lets us feel protective towards the females getting bashed around — such a feeling would run counter to the mood of rowdy sisterhood.

The generous-hearted Barrymore even gives us a fine bad girl — Iron Maven, severe and mean as a blade, played by Juliette Lewis in what deserves to be a comeback performance (where has she been?). Iron Maven seems out to get Bliss personally, but then we find out why in a few simple sentences that bring her into focus. It’s not about Bliss, it’s about Iron Maven’s own life. Whip It likewise doesn’t caricature Bliss’s mother (who has weird little pockets of rebellion herself) or her father (Daniel Stern in a nicely calibrated amiable-daddy turn). Off the track, Page’s scenes with Alia Shawkat have the bumps and spikiness of real friendship, and a subplot featuring a rock dude Bliss falls for doesn’t distract too much. Barrymore, 34, already has a lifetime of acting behind her (and she’s having a great year, which began with her brilliant Little Edie in Grey Gardens), and as a producer and now director she seems interested in small-scale stories about women that wouldn’t fit comfortably on Lifetime. I don’t see the downside.

A Serious Man

October 2, 2009

Joel and Ethan Coen have always been predictable in their unpredictability. They followed their bleak Oscar-winning drama No Country for Old Men with the star-studded goof Burn After Reading, and now they have made A Serious Man, an unclassifiable, vaguely apocalyptic tragedy-farce with hardly any name actors. The film’s closest antecedent in the Coen portfolio is probably 1991’s Barton Fink, another bizarre, deadpan-surreal account of the nightmares of a hapless, bespectacled Jew. This time, though, the Jewishness is right out front — the movie is about man’s insufficient understanding of the unknowable God. “Accept the mystery,” advises one character.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Minnesotan physics teacher circa 1967, seems to have taken on the modern version of the suffering of Job. His wife is dumping him for another man (and kicking him out of the house); his teenage kids are obnoxious; his brother (Richard Kind) sits around working on some incomprehensible mathematical theory when he’s not draining his sebaceous cyst. (My first thought: pus was also a motif in Barton Fink. My second thought: only in the Coens’ work would pus be a motif.) Larry wonders why all this is happening to him. His (and others’) agonized refrain is “I haven’t done anything.” Visits to various rabbis bring no relief. Neither does a brief, fruitless flirtation with a next-door neighbor who sunbathes nude and offers iced tea, pot, and maybe herself.

The title is, naturally, ironic. The slick old man who’s cuckolding Larry is referred to as a serious man, and Larry says he’s tried to be one. But truly, nobody can be serious in such a capricious universe as the one the Coens present. The atmosphere and milieu — the bland furnishings, the usual razor-sharp sound design and immaculate photography by Roger Deakins — are gracefully evoked. Even here, in their mystical-obscure mode, the Coens work cleanly and rigorously. The cast, mostly unknown to moviegoers, blends into the slightly heightened reality. We get a sense of fragile order barely holding off disaster. Sometimes, like Barton Fink, the style is like nothing so much as a high-toned intellectual horror movie.

The prologue sets the tone: an old Jewish fable (made up by the Coens) involving a dead man, or dybbuk, who comes calling one snowy night. It has nothing to do with the rest of the film, but thematically it prepares us for the uncanny. Later, a rabbi tells the supposedly true story of a dentist who discovered “Help me” engraved in Hebrew on the back of a patient’s teeth. Larry briefly takes that admonition to heart, for all the good that does him. In A Serious Man, omens appear from nowhere and seem to signify nothing. So why are they there? It’s probably no accident that Larry teaches physics and is first seen lecturing on Schrödinger’s Cat, the famous quantum-mechanics paradox illustrating the uncertainty principle: the cat in the box is simultaneously alive and dead. So is Larry; so, maybe, is God, or at least the God in the movie.