Wednesday, April 02, 2014


"I lay a "carpet" under the scenes - it doesn't get in the way," -- John Carpenter (on scoring his own movies)
Horror has never been about moving forward, or being in the present, but about the past reaching up from our unclaimed freight basement to pull us back down to our graves, watching our future recede like  a reverse tunnel. And so it's always the simple, insistent, slightly-off scores that wow us. A simple repeating riff can send chills down the spine and make the blood run cold, neither phrase I never really understood or felt, in real life--until lately. Horror taps into our hidden closets, and spills them out into the hallway, so hopefully there's a nice carpet there. Alas, most filmmakers hire 'real musicians' for their scores, which means rather than a nice carpet there's marble and brocade and rococo trimmings, as in complicated strings micro-managing our emotional responses.

Let's look at these four films I've seen the last few days, united by badass 'carpet' music scores if nothing else.

1982 - Written and Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace

Halloween III: Season of the Witch's score is one of the great John Carpenter percolators, rich with the same kind of 303 cyclic rumblings and unease-producing synth drones that are so mind-blowing and ingeniously simple in Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York. That said, there are some shrill nail-on-blackboard sustains liable to aggravate your fillings, the worst being the diegetic TV commercial jingle for the Silver Shamrock mask collection (imagine "London Bridge is Falling Down" if remade by Raymond Scott); and in the big tertiary climax, a discordant composition that conjures a duet between a two year-old on triangle and a malfunctioning car alarm. Unsettling, atmospheric trick-or-treating shots as the sun goes down on Halloween (onscreen text declares they are other cities but they're clearly all the same L.A. neighborhood) cast a nice anticipatory mood, but are undone by the relentless jingle.

A lot of this film's detractors glide over all that to focus on the lack of Michael Myers. I have no problem with that aspect (he he does show up in a clip from the original Halloween playing during the 'Samhain Sacrificial Surprise'), but I do have a problem with being expected to believe anyone would complain if a giant plastic shamrock wasn't affixed to their Halloween mask like they were just down at the St. Patrick's Day parade. "Don't you have any Halloween spirit?" a bar patron asks when the proprietor changes the channel from the awful commercial. Has anyone ever said that, in the history of America? And what the hell does "London Bridges" with a bouncing shamrock have to do with goddamned "Halloween spirit"? Goddamn it. A commercial incessantly repeating to advertise only three different masks? Suspension of belief buckles.

Ho ho Ho! Merry Easter! 
Supposedly Nigel Kneale, the British sci fi writer genius behind Quatermass and the Pitstarted the script but wound up taking his name off the project. As England doesn't have Halloween, I blame him for the shamrock aspect. I doubt England has St. Patrick's Day either.  Here in the States, shamrocks are anachronistic in any month but March, and that London Bridges song anachronistic anywhere but a nursery school recess. Maybe Silver Shamrock could have sold Guy Fawkes masks in Britain? Or better yet, ditch the shamrock and the jingle.

Guy Fawkes Day (Nov. 5 also known as 'Bonfire Night') is, to my understanding, more like a pyromaniac kid parade hooligan thing where masks worn less for imaginative display and more so the bobbies can't recognize you when you run away from your amok fireworks disaster. But Halloween is much more complex. Costumes and masks come in an array of styles, and no one wants to be limited to three options. Further anachronisms occur with the idea that the shamrock is somehow a designer mask tag. One of the frustrated buyers at the motel complains that her four year-old was playing with the mask and the shamrock design logo chip fell off. Put the logo back on! Would you go to the Fruit of the Loom factory in Bangalore to demand they sew the label of your T-shirt back on? These guys would....

And our respect for the way Atkins handles himself in this weird mission dwindles when--after learning that the Shamrock 'people' monitor everything that goes in in their small town via security cameras and bugged phones--he seems genuinely surprised when his hotel lobby call to the cops doesn't get put through. America was depending on you, Atkins! You done blowed it.

Cliche'd supporting bits also drag the film down: the 'loud' American family (the dad doing a fine imitation of Max Showalter) and a couple of 'buyers' who all converge on the hotel at the same time, kvetching about the arcane business practices of the mask makers; the obligatory 'local drunk delivering backstory' and turning up dead a few scenes later; the Moneypenny-esque hospital pathologist with whom Dr. Atkins undergoes trite banter; the hissingly hostile ex-wife, so vile we can only pray she winds up killed asap. SPOILER AHEAD: And the 'big giveaway' lead up --the commercial on "all three channels" stretches credulity to the point of eye rolls and deep sighs, then trumped by the idea they'd all pull the plug based on some lunatic's frenzied phone call. I wouldn't mind if the film was surreal or relied on 'magic' or something but it tries just enough for a kind of de facto ominous conspiracy logic that nothing quite gels either way.

But... if you can forget all the ridiculous nonsense, whole chunks of the film have the groovy Carpenter no-nonsense tick-tock momentum we love, like the motel hook-up between mystified Tom Atkins and cute little Stacey Nelkin. When it's just them driving to the strange town and hanging out in their room, or bluffing their way into tours of the factory with the aplomb of a pair of Hitchcockian lovers-on-the-run, the film takes wing. Even freaked out and scared as they might be, they're cool, rational, adult, and no drama. Atkins' shaggy Nick Nolte-ish charm in full effect: "It's getting late, I could go for a drink," how often do you hear a shaggy dog hero of a horror movie say that and have it not be a sign he's an alcoholic? I like that he's going out late to score a bottle of booze, just like I used to so often after checking into a room in a strange town. And remembering the ice bucket on his way back too? Damn, that's so rare. Even the nudity and showering is emotionally grounding, calming and nice rather than merely exploitative. And I love the cool dead isolation the Northern California town in the setting sun, its utter stillness at night recalling the wastelands of Assault on Precinct 13, They Live and Prince of Darkness. As the evil genius mastermind Cochran, Dan O'Herlihy exudes great Celtic charm that can oscillate to reptilian evil so fast that his whole countenance seems to shape-shift with each breath. He may plan to kill almost all the children in the USA but the way he says it ("It's the biggest joke of all - on the children") makes it seem like he's just arranging some gentle surprise ice cream party rather than mass sacrificial remote control murder. He even gets in a great creepy monologue about the 'real' Halloween, Samhain, and how the last time such a mass sacrifice occurred "the streets ran red with the blood of animals and children."

Now that I would have liked to see, but I can settle for weird termite touches like the way the dead kid's blonde hair coming through the ripped up pumpkin mask makes the whole thing appear to be rotting.

I suppose it's wishful thinking to hope for a 'producer's cut' that replaces the anachronistic elements and cleans up the illogic and clunkier cultural dysmorphia. Alas - you need to be a true Carpenter devotee to even bother wishing for such a thing. Fans only of slasher movies like the first Halloween, Friday the 13th etc-- will hate this movie on principle. Then again, a mute guy with a mask and knife walking slowly towards an unmasked, unarmed girl and/or kid will always scary but vice versa almost never. The kids here are all pretty one-dimensional cliches even before the masks go on. Afterwards they're just pixels watching pixels. If you really really need some Carpenter and have exhausted all the good stuff and are down to your Memoirs of an Invisible Man-Village of the Damned-Starman cottons, well, luckily, there's that carpet. It makes Halloween III a keeper.

(2011) Dir. Adam Wingard

Getting back to the idea of the right, simple but strong carpet being so integral to horror, You're Next has one of the best in recent memory (attributed to four different guys, including Wingard, Mats Heltdberg and Jasper Lee): eerie retro synth burbles and drones that are unnerving in a sweetly retro manner. It's enough to give one hope for horror's future-past, not that You're Next is exactly horror as opposed to a 'thriller' but it's certainly creepy, not least for the way we don't know whom to trust or root for and everyone is characterized in a way that's both sympathetic and the despicable, like real people are. A family who can devolve into shouting matches at the drop of a pin and be calm a minute later? Hey, that's like my family! The cast is great and I can't really tell you anything else without spoiling it. AJ Bowen, whom I did not care for in Ti West's otherwise nearly sublime House of the Devil, is pitch perfect here, and Ti West himself shows up as one of the heirs. Also appearing is Calvin Reeder who made the genuinely nightmarish and surreal grunge sublime masterpiece The Oregonian (review here), and Larry Fessenden, whom I did not care for as the smug hipster hotelier, chickenshit ghost-hunter in West's The Innkeepers. But I hear good things about his horror film, Habit (POST-SCRIPT, I saw Habit and did like it, and his performance)Scrappy Sharni Vinson is a great final-ish girl, full of wily Australian gumption. Her rise to action (her boyfriend didn't know she was raised by survivalists) is truly inspiring; she does none of the things that make us cringe and shout at the screen not to do stuff. As a result, though, it's not a horror movie. Is horror perhaps contingent on a girl not sensing and reacting aggressively and pro-actively towards sudden and very real danger?

I haven't seen any of Missouri filmmaker Adam Wingard's other films, but they look like a grim lot. You're Next was completed in 2011 but wasn't released here 'til last year, which is a goddamned shame but at least it's too timeless to ever be dated, recalling not just the classics of the 70s and 80s, but classics of the 30s, i.e. the old dark houses full of secret panels, greedy relatives gathered for the will, lightning storms, scary masks, strong female leads and a refreshing lack of any moral compass. What else can I tell you that wouldn't spoil what may be the best thriller-chiller since The Descent? Or at least, Cabin in the Woods? And what a treat having 80s cult horror favorite Barbabara Campton as the mom. She still looks damn good. Maybe even hotter now than she was then!

2013 - Dir Robert Rodriguez

Hard to believe now, but there was a time I found Sofia Vargara shrill and grating --her deafening voice and exaggerated English enunciation brought back memories of my Argentine ex-wife making fun of Yankee accents -- but  not in Machete Kills! where Vagara tones it down (or at least modulates) as a violent madame of a high end Mexican brothel, inversing her usual approach and thus ably modulating a playful dominatrix simmer to a full roar. Even her sophomoric breastplate machine gun couldn't dampen my awe. But she's not even the best badass bitch in the bunch, that title goes to Amber Heard (i.e. the Mandy Lane that All the Boys Love) as a CIA double agent playing handler to Machete while he's on Mexican assignment, all while busy snagging the title of Miss San Antonio Texas at some never-seen beauty pageant. My god she's hot in her form-fitting pageant dresses and--far more than the wooden Michelle Rodriguez as the one-eyed leader of the Mexican-USA immigrant underground--she seems to be confidently--even brashly--living up to the character's full badass drive-in babe potential. Heard might well be our century's Tiffany Bolling! She's the most badass female in the film (and one of Rodriguez's biggest strengths is that he always brings a lot of them). She's so badass that, even in her glittering, gorgeous San Antonio sequined ball gown, sash and tiara, she's cooler and tougher than Michelle Rodriguez in all-black and eyepatch. I was rooting for her in their big final showdown, and Rodriguez--as in the Furious movies--just seems like she's trying to hide how weary she is of acting. 

So hell yeah Roberto Rodriguez is still in the game. Getting younger as he ages, he's at the point now where Carpenter hasn't been since Ghosts of Mars. I liked Machete, too, but Kills! is even ballsier; it has less to prove, throwing aside even the usual revenge boilerplate plot and going for a Machete in Space Part I angle (the second part being advertised in the opening trailer) and bumping up the psycho babe quotient. 

The plot eventually finds Machete recruited by the president (Emilio Estevez's brother Carlos) to kill some mad narco-terrorist with a bomb strapped into his heart; Lady Gaga is the assassin El Camale√≥n, with Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, and Walton Goggins playing some of her thousand faces; Mel Gibson is a light saber-wielding hybrid of Steve Jobs and Drax from Moonraker. Perhaps the coolest and most original angle is that the target (Damien Bashiro) has a split personality, only one of which is a suicidal psychotic killer, and to sweeten the pot he has a missile launch activator button attached to his heart, triggered to fire nuclear missiles at the White House the moment it stops beating, so Machete ends up going to ludicrous extremes to keep him alive, which all leads to high hilarity and ballsy greatness as every time Basharo's kingpin falls asleep or gets conked on the head he switches to his other personality: one has a suicidal guilty conscience the other is a madman megalomaniac. Que raro!

Like the marvelous Planet Terror (which had a great Mexicali blues-tinged 'carpet' score) there's great music by Rodriguez and collaborator Carl Thiel here, and countless nods to great trash films old and new: I noted tributes to: They Call Her One Eye, Skyfall, Live and Let Die, Rolling Thunder, High Risk, Escape from LA, The Professionals, Drive, Coffy, Switchblade Sisters, The Warriors, Enter the Dragon, The Five Deadly Venoms, and even Lucha Libre, Fantastic Four (the John Byrne-era comics, not the movies) and of course Star Wars, which Gibson's Drax-Jobs loves so much he even has a working X-34 Landspeeder to coast around his vast soundstage green screen factory. It's all here, Mexicanized and oh-so Texan, and like Planet Terror stacked with a hot girl cast rocking nice midriffs. If the blood splatter, explosions and--well, everything else--seems cheap-CGI shittier than the either Planet Terror or the first Machete--giving the vibe that the whole film is shot either in a green screen room or Rodriguez' own backyard, which happens to be stocked with lumber, weird custom-made weapons and science fiction props, cool buddies, badass Mexicans, cold beers, and tricked-out pick-up trucks with the hoods open-- well, that's not bad, son. That's just Texas. Invite me next time and I'll show you how we did it in 1997! 

(1980) Starring: Chuck Norris

There was a time when Chuck Norris was every kid's friend, instead of merely liberalism's enemy and a hipster objet d'curiosit√© ironique. Back in the 70s, we kids all wanted mom to take us to see Good Guys Wear Black. The TV promo spot showed him jumping up over a speeding car and kicking the driver right through the windshield, in slow motion, all in black. They played it constantly. We kids couldn't believe it. We all wanted to see it, and could -- it was PG. But those who saw it said it sucked - the cool parts were all in the commercial. So then came The Octagon, this time rated R and with more fights. I personally didn't care. Fool me once: shame on you, and there will be no twice, Bruce Lee taught me that, you mustached neo-conservative betrayer of ADD matinee attention spans. BUT NOW... All these years and hipster revivals later, Octagon has a certain cedar sauna charm. Currently on Netflix streaming and looking reasonably remastered for HD, it's dorky charms are just enough for a low key rainy Saturday afternoon or day off from work, while you clean your guns. 

Sure, it's Norris and there are moves to be demonstrated, Hi-YAA! - but where Octa pays dividends is in its deadpan funny-paranoia: the ominous lack of musical cues leaves us uncertain what we're supposed to notice in the mise en scene; the cryptic stares and close-ups of car keys all portend some dire action is about to erupt any moment and keys will factor in, but no-- the key inserts are just there, they don't foreshadow some later key mix-up. Genius. And the weird stares offer the same elliptical pointless fake-out: is it just that Norris is a terrible actor, unable to convey any emotion, or say anything of interest, and the car keys exchanged are the best he can do in his delicate fighting condition by way of Hawksian cigarettes and drinks with the Patty Hearst-ish composite heiress love interest, Justine (Karen Carlson, with more than a faint air of Ellen Burstyn)? Meanwhile, a roster of grizzled TV western veterans work for Lee Van Cleef's security firm as Justine's bodyguards and easily outpace Norris in both the acting and charismatic presence departments, never a good sign.

Other bad omens: Norris tries to help Justine, too, he hangs around and tries to spot the dangers the bodyguards miss, but since he can't smoke or drink he pays for all that wariness in stress: a mop handle looming into the foreground rattles him like it's a bo staff in some yet unseen assassins gloved hands; a car backfiring rattles Justine and therefore him. And he has a problem of stuttering even within his inner thoughts, a habit he keeps up all through the picture:
"A.J.-j-j-, Justine-ne-ne, you wouldn't even know each other-r-r-r if not for me-me-me- I'm the bridge-ge-ge..."

Dick Halligan's loping score, when it does show up, pilfers from Ennio Morricone but at least he's stealing from the best. It hints that there's decent paranoia pastiche is buried in this movie somewhere. The tragedy is that Norris never finds it. Instead he spends the bulk of the movie refusing to help various women who beseech his aid in killing a terrorist ninja trainer, just because said trainer just happens to be his own brother. Figures. The ninja trainees/mercs finally get weary of their evil trainer's behavior on their own, and when they see him being a coward in a one-on-one with Chuck-- needing four other ninjas on his side, plus an unfair weapon advantage--they turn on the guards and start kicking ass, led by the hot furry Palestinian trainee named Aura (Carol Bagdasarian) above. Damn right.

For all the hype, Norris turns out to be a slow fighter. We have to take his word, roundhouse kicks aside, that he's actually a black belt in anything but posing and 'stache grooming. Maybe he doesn't want to accidentally hurt any of his stunt men. Most of the fights take place on sand or in carpeted domiciles so no one seems to get hurt when they fall. They rarely fly through glass windows or windshields or smash furniture. Still, it's diverting to see the ninjas pop up out of the torch-lit outer darkness from sandy holes under freshly laid corpses and so forth, compelling me to wonder if they just hang out under dead bodies all night, just in case Chuck happens by. Sounds rather dull, then, being a ninja...especially in the age before smartphones.

The Octagon itself isn't anything to get mom to take you to the local matinee about. It's just a space where ninjas are trained in some deleted scene. Its sandy floor and wooden beams start out rough but are varnished by the time of the climax, giving everything a dusky woodsy look like the clinic in Cronenberg's The Brood. So if you like rustic wood finish and cozy exteriors, see them both, as a double feature, and spray some bleach and patchouli in the air, and you'll think you're soaking in a cedar sauna. And isn't that what good bad trash movies are all about-out-out?

1. Britain doesn't have Halloween - they have Guy Fawkes Day, as seen in V for Vendetta

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