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Welcome to the Crypt!

Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.

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From the Desk of the Unimonster...

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05 June, 2010

Returning to Crystal Lake: Remaking FRIDAY THE 13TH

Once again, Hollywood has proven that there is a total dearth of originality in the film industry, by remaking a film that was hardly original when it premiered 30 years ago. Sean Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13th, while a breakthrough film for American audiences, was familiar ground for fans of Euro-Horror, especially the Italian Giallos. F13 freely borrowed elements from the work of such directors as Dario Argento, Antonio Margheriti, and Mario Bava, most notably Bava’s terrific REAZIONE A CATENA ~aka~ A BAY OF BLOOD. This 1971 film features several thematic similarities to F13… the isolated rural setting, the escalating body count, the inventive means of killing the various victims. F13 adopted these conventions, translating them into forms more familiar to American audiences. In many ways, FRIDAY THE 13TH is the quintessential American Giallo.

F13 also owed much to two North American films from the ‘70’s. A talented young director named Bob Clark, who previously made DEATHDREAM and CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, created the Slasher genre with 1974’s Canadian import BLACK CHRISTMAS, the best of his early films. Clark, who would become famous with Comedies such as PORKY’S and A CHRISTMAS STORY, had a talent for Horror that few appreciated at the time, primarily because he never had a budget to match it. In that respect, BLACK CHRISTMAS was the perfect film to showcase that talent: Cheap to produce; not reliant on special effects; and a better script than his previous outings. The caliber of the acting was also much improved, as he was able to move away from some of his stock performers he had been using since his earliest work.

This film went far in establishing the look and feel of the modern Slasher film, as well as several of the conventions that would become hallmarks of the genre. A small, isolated group, young, attractive, cut off from contact with the outside, menaced by a hidden killer from within what should be a safe and comforting shelter… all would become familiar to fans of the Slasher genre, and all started here.

The second film that inspired Cunningham, even more directly, was the surprise 1978 hit HALLOWEEN. Produced by Moustafa Akkad, and the directorial debut of soon-to-be Horror Master John Carpenter, HALLOWEEN introduced fans to a new concept in Horror, the Unstoppable Slasher. These nightmare creations, more than psychopaths, less than monsters, were relentlessly evil, indestructible, silently emotionless killers. Their only motivation, their only drive, was to kill. Not out of hunger, not for greed. They’re unstoppable killing machines, with absolutely no humanity whatsoever. No motive, no remorse, nothing to moderate the pure… EVIL of the monster. Michael Myers wasn’t some crackhead knocking off a liquor store to get his next fix; he’s not a mobster killing for profit. His only motivation is to kill. No food, sex, or rest. Just… Kill.

With F13, Cunningham took elements of both, and added a unique twist: the location. Camp Crystal Lake defined the franchise from the beginning, even before there was a Jason Voorhees. In truth, Crystal Lake was responsible for the “death” of the boy Jason, and the derangement of his mother Pamela, the killer in that first film. Crystal Lake was a prominent feature of each of the sequels until FRIDAY THE 13TH VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, easily the nadir of the series. This symbiotic relationship between Jason and Crystal Lake was explored in detail in Ronny Yu’s 2003 film FREDDY vs. JASON.

Recently, director Marcus Nispel helmed a return trip to the place where it all began. FRIDAY THE 13TH, the remake, was released on the 13th (a Friday, naturally…) of February 2009, and is now available on Warner Home Video DVD [DVD Review: FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009): The Killer Cut, see below]. Nispel, who directed the successful, if inferior, remake of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003), beat out Jonathan Liebesman, the director of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006), for the honor of helming this film. Platinum Dunes, the company responsible for that recreated franchise, partnered with New Line Cinema, who acquired the rights to the original series from Paramount following the dismal showing of the aforementioned FRIDAY THE 13TH VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN. New Line produced three films, JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY (1993), JASON X (2001), and FREDDY vs. JASON (2003) [DVD Review: FREDDY vs. JASON, see below], and while the first two were inexcusably bad, the third went a long way towards redeeming the franchise. Combined with New Line’s blockbuster NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise, and it’s star slasher, Freddy Krueger, the saga of Jason Voorhees underwent a renaissance, as well as a deeper exploration of it’s roots.

One characteristic of the recent ‘reinventions’ of some of our favorite horror franchises—HALLOWEEN, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES—is that the reinventions somehow can’t resist filling-in the ‘dark places’ in the originals… the unanswered questions, the voids in the narrative that we were allowed to fill in with our imaginations, creating scenes far more frightening than the filmmakers were capable of. They feel the need to answer every question, to expose every ‘dark place’ to light, and in the process ruin what made those original films so unique and memorable.

Those who viewed the Rob Zombie-directed 2007 remake of HALLOWEEN were given every possible insight into the creation of Michael Myers, the killer—but the result was the destruction of Michael Myers, the inhuman, unknown, unstoppable Slasher. As I discussed in my review of the film—

“Where in the 1978 film Michael Myers had been an enigma, a cipher, (he was even listed as “The Shape” in the credits…) here Zombie gives depth and humanity, albeit flawed, to Michael by exploring in great detail his troubled childhood and incarceration. What was only alluded to in the original is played out over the entire first act here, bringing us into Michael’s world, and letting us get to know him. It is not an equitable trade.

“Part of what has made the original HALLOWEEN such a classic of the genre was that mystery, that air of the unknown that cloaked Michael Myers. When Donald Pleasance, as Dr. Loomis, describes Michael as a being of pure evil, it’s easy to understand, and believe, the good doctor. When Malcolm McDowell says the same thing in his performance as Loomis, the words sound hollow and overwrought, and we wonder whom he’s trying to convince.” [DVD Review: HALLOWEEN (2007) Unrated Director's Cut, 23 February 2008]

That first paragraph could be used to describe any of these recent remakes. All are guilty of that, and true to form, Nispel’s F13 doesn’t resist the urge to delve into Jason’s psyche, though to a much lesser degree than Zombie’s HALLOWEEN redo. Steve Miner’s (the director of FRIDAY THE 13TH, Pt. II…) Jason Voorhees, more than any of that generation of slashers save Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger, was a supernatural creature, an evil spawned by Hell and birthed by Crystal Lake. He killed because that was what he was—a killer. No motivation other than his own nature was required. That’s something that could be said for the other original Slashers… Michael, Freddy, Leatherface… their nature was to kill, and their creators wisely decided to remain silent on the state of their subconscious.

Not only is it unnecessary to attempt some manner of on-screen psychoanalysis on the likes of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, the humanization of such characters destroys that which makes them unique: Their inhumanity—the fact that they are inhuman, unnatural, unstoppable forces of evil, incarnate on Earth for the sole purpose of spreading death and terror. Without that to set them apart, there is no difference between them and Norman Bates—just deranged psychopaths, scarred, traumatized human beings, giving in to their twisted urges. The supernatural aspect of the killers who cannot be killed is gone. The characters are no longer the monsters of our formative years; they are now simply the garden-variety serial killer, albeit more prolific. The filmmakers ramped up the gore and violence, but in the process they lost the ability to instill terror in the audience. You can shock them with violence, and gross them out with gore, but only by creating something beyond normal criminal behavior do you create the sense of horror that keeps audiences coming back for thirty years. In thirty years, Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and Cunningham’s F13 will still be classics of the Horror genre. I doubt the same will be said about the remakes.

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One of the regular features of the Crypt, on the left side of your screen, is the Top 10 list, my personal best and brightest of the various genres and sub-genres of Horror, Exploitation, and Science-Fiction Films that we all love and enjoy. Occasionally I’m taken to task concerning my choices for these lists, or asked to explain why one film was chosen over another, more deserving (in the mind of the questioner) movie. My reply is invariably “my list, my rules.” It does occur to me, though, that perhaps I should expand slightly on just why I choose the films I do.

Unless I’m following some specific criteria, such as “most historically significant,” “most bloody,” or “most T&A in a non-X-Rated Feature,” my standards for selecting the movies for these lists are simple—they’re the films in that category that I enjoy the most. No secret formula, no voting… they are the movies that I love, and to which I keep returning.

A prime example would be the Top Ten category “Giant Bugs / Mutant Bugs.” The 1957 Universal film THE DEADLY MANTIS is by far my top pick, beating TARANTULA, THE BLACK SCORPION, and in fourth place, the 1954 classic THEM. Most objective comparisons of …MANTIS and THEM would agree that the latter is by far a superior film—better writing, better direction, better acting, better effects—better in nearly every category. Even I would concede those points. The one thing it doesn’t do better, however, is entertain me. As much as I love THEM, THE DEADLY MANTIS is simply more fun to watch. As is TARANTULA and THE BLACK SCORPION, for that matter. And that’s what truly matters.

One category that generates more than a few comments is “Slashers & Psychopaths,” those films featuring the bad boys and girls of Horror. The Slasher film is one of the strongest genres of Horror, and has been since the mid-1970s. Vampires and werewolves wax and wane like the lunar cycle; ghosts appear and disappear; alien invaders are here one minute and gone the next. But the Slasher has been with us continually since 1978. While their popularity may fluctuate, they’ve not gone away. It stands to reason that the more popular a genre is, the more variety of opinion there is to be found regarding that genre. Let’s face it, if you’re in a group whose Horror movie passion is giant carnivorous rabbits, the chances are that your pick for greatest movie ever is a unanimous one. But if the topic switches to “greatest Slasher Ever,” you’ll be lucky to find two out of ten who would agree.

So here’s a countdown, from #10 to #1, of my list of Top Ten Slashers & Psychos—no apologies for what made the list and what didn’t, or which film is number one and which is number ten. Just a brief explanation of why I love each.

FRIDAY THE 13TH, Pt. II—(1981): Not the franchise’s first outing, but the one that transformed it from just another Slasher movie to a Horror Film legend. The addition of Jason Voorhees, the drowned son of the psychotic killer from the first film, electrified the series and propelled it to a string of sequels that would last twenty years.

SE7EN —aka— SEVEN—(1995): David Fincher’s stylish, shocking homage to 1940’s-era film noir is notable for several reasons, especially the stellar performances from Morgan Freeman, as the scarred old veteran detective, just wanting to put in his time until retirement; Brad Pitt, as his eager rookie partner; and Kevin Spacey, as the psychopathic object of their hunt. The ending sells the film, and takes it to a higher level than most of this type.

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS—(1991): This film, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, accomplished what few Horror Films have, before or since—it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also captured four other Oscars®—Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director for Demme, Best Actor for Hopkins, and Best Actress for Foster. Not only was the film a critical success, but it was enormously successful at the box-office as well, creating one of the genre’s few bright spots in the Dark Ages of the early 1990’s.

THE HITCHER—(1986): Rutger Hauer may not be the first name that leaps to mind when one tries to think of good actors, but his performance as the mysterious John Ryder, the hitchhiking serial killer who plunges Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) into a nightmare road trip from Hell, is the best of his career. The film is a continuous duel between Ryder and Halsey, and everyone else is simply a distraction that Ryder must eliminate. The tension between the two is palpable, and drags the viewer along for the ride.

TARGETS —aka— BEFORE I DIE—(1968): Based in part on the Charles Whitman case in Austin, Texas, Peter Bogdanovich’s tale of a sniper terrorizing a Drive-In theater in Los Angeles succeeds beautifully, despite having had every chance of failing. Mandated to use existing footage from Roger Corman’s 1963 film THE TERROR, Bogdanovich creatively wove it into a story of a fading icon of Horror films, ready to retire, with one last personal appearance to make. His path to the appearance intersects with the sniper, and each confronts their image of fear. While the script and direction are excellent, it’s the exemplary performance of Boris Karloff as Byron Orlok, the soon-to-be-retired star, which transforms this film into something extraordinary.

FROM HELL—(2001): The Hughes Brothers take on the Jack the Ripper case, based on the Graphic Novel of the same title, is a surreal, visually stunning film, one that suffers only slightly from a less than stringent sense of focus. Johnny Depp turns in a tremendous performance as Inspector Abberline of Scotland Yard, assigned the task of running the Ripper to ground. Though one gets the impression that the filmmakers’ studied at the Oliver Stone School of Conspiracy Theory, or ‘if one explanation is good then ten must be fantastic’, the story’s never slow or boring. While historical accuracy is, sadly, little more than an afterthought to the filmmakers, it’s still easily one of the best “Ripper” films in recent memory.

SHADOW OF A DOUBT—(1943): This taut psychological Horror is one of Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s finest efforts, and in my not-so-humble opinion his finest, with the possible exception of REAR WINDOW (1954). Joseph Cotton is superb as the cold, calculating Uncle Charlie, and Teresa Wright is equally good as his niece and namesake, and the only person who can penetrate his veneer of civility to see the predator within. Hitchcock, here at the mid-point of his career, is the confirmed master of suspense, and the story of young Charlie, being stalked by the uncle that she loves, is the director at his most masterful.

M —aka— M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER—(1932): This German film, Fritz Lang’s first sound feature, is the progenitor of every psychological thriller since. The story of a pedophilic child murderer, played convincingly by Peter Lorre, hunted by both the police and the underworld, is one of Lang’s best films, and my personal favorite of his.

PSYCHO—(1960): Ask 100 people to name an Alfred Hitchcock film, and 90 will say “PSYCHO.” This film is universally recognized as the director’s greatest masterpiece, the film that defines his career. What begins as a typically suspenseful Hitchcock crime melodrama is shockingly, jarringly transformed into something else—something so much more. Featuring the most famous sequence of jump cuts in cinema history, PSYCHO revolutionized Horror.

HALLOWEEN—(1978): Before Jason, before Freddy, before the ‘80’s spawned a new Slasher film every other week, there was Haddonfield, Illinois—and the night Michael Myers came home. It’s impossible to overstate the impact this film had on the genre, from the birth of the Slasher craze, to the debut of one of Horror’s greatest directors, to the introduction of the decade’s top Scream Queen, to the film’s evocative and iconic score. Though the franchise would rapidly descend into mediocrity without John Carpenter at the helm, this initial film in that franchise remains the finest, best example of the art of the Slasher film.

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Something Weird on the Screen: The Wild, Bizarre, and Wacky World of Scare-Your-Children Movies, Exploitation Shorts and Stag Films

[Ed. Note] The Unimonster wishes to express his heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to Senior Correspondent Bobbie Culbertson of http://www.junkyardfilms.com/, without whose knowledge and assistance this article would not have been possible. As I stated many times during the writing of this piece… Thanks Bobbie, you’re the best!

As I may have mentioned a time or two (or forty…) in this column, I love cheesy movies… the cheesier, the better, especially if it cost less than the price of a new car to produce. Give me a movie that’s the celluloid counterpart of a twenty-pound block of Velveeta®, something that could put a deathgrip on King Kong’s colon, and was done on the cheap, and you have one happy Unimonster. And from THE BLOB to BUBBA HO-TEP, no type of film does low-budget cheese better than the Genre film—specifically the five associated genres of Horror, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Fantasy, and Exploitation.

Why is it that I enjoy these types of movies so much more than their mega-buck Hollywood blockbuster cousins? Well, one answer is lowered expectations. When a major studio pours $180 million into a picture, it had damn well better make me stand up and cheer; anything less is just a disappointment. Movies such as INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY, or THE DARK KNIGHT demand huge budgets, but the finished product is well worth the filmmakers’ investment. But when a big-budget film flops, it’s usually a disaster of biblical proportions, sometimes ending the careers of those involved. The best-known example of this was 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE, the boring, bloated, Box-Office bomb that sank the career of heretofore-promising director Michael Cimino. With a budget that ballooned to five times the original estimate, and a running time that was north of three-and-a-half hours, it was Box-Office death, earning less than three-and-a-half million on a thirty-five million dollar investment. However, when no one expects anything from a movie, it’s hard to be disappointed.

And that brings me to another reason for my love of cheap movies… they’re so much more entertaining. Let’s face facts—most people go to the movies to be entertained. Not enlightened, not educated, not indoctrinated… simply to relax and have a good time. That’s hard to do when the director is trying to beat some socially relevant message into your head; even harder when the beating lasts for three or more hours. There are people who enjoy that sort of thing; there are also people who prefer tofu to rib-eye. I have little use for either sort of person.

I for one want entertainment from the movies I watch. If I want enlightenment, I play golf. If I want education, I read a book. And I scrupulously try to avoid indoctrination. All I seek from my hard-earned movie-buying dollar is a couple of hours of mindless entertainment… not a disguised thought exercise. I don’t think I differ greatly from the average movie fan in that regard, either. The average movie fan just wants a little something to take him or her out of their mundane, everyday existence—something that they can’t get in their normal lives. Sometimes that’s a thrilling adventure yarn, sometimes a historical drama, and sometimes, it’s something just a little further afield. Something strange, something unusual, something… weird.

For nearly two decades, there’s been a small company catering to those of us who share a love of the cinematic equivalent of a ripe wedge of Roquefort, movies that define the term, “So bad it’s good…” Something Weird Video is precisely that—something weird, indeed anything weird, that has been captured on film or video.

Say you have a fondness for 1950’s vintage High School hygiene films… SWV has you covered. You consider yourself a fan of the films of Harry Novak? They’ve got what you’re looking for. Need a Bettie Page or Tempest Storm stag reel for your next bachelor party? Something Weird is the place for that, and virtually every other type of low-brow, low-class, and low-budget film you can imagine.

Founded in 1990 by Mike Vraney, SWV has grown into a major distributor of classic, and unusual, genre films. They also specialize in the type of short films that collector’s love, but that every other distributor ignores. Industrial films, propaganda films, educational films—name an obscure form of video, and chances are they have it in stock. From a 1959 film produced by the Kansas State Board of Health on the dangers of Syphilis, to ‘60’s-vintage Police training films on how to spot signs of marijuana use, to a promotional film put out by Karo Syrup entitled THE ENCHANTED POT, virtually every taste and interest is catered to by the company. But by far, their stock in trade is the good, old-fashioned, Exploitation Film.

Precursor to both the Grindhouse films of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and the X-Rated adult features of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, Exploitations became big business as the silent era transitioned into sound. A small group of producer/distributors, part con-men, part Hollywood mogul, and with a stiff measure of carnival huckster thrown in, came to dominate the Exploitation circuits, playing in dingy downtown theaters and out-of-the-way rural Drive-Ins. Known collectively as “the Forty Thieves”, these showmen traveled the country exhibiting their films to curious crowds, always promising the raw, uncensored, unvarnished truth about a myriad of social ills, from child marriage to the dangers of sexual promiscuity and drug abuse… and delivering just enough to keep the rubes and yokels happy.

The Exploitations were the cinematic equivalent of a traveling sideshow; talk up the crowds, get them excited about whatever symptom of moral decay was the topic of that week’s film, get them to lay down their money for a ticket, and then give them pretty much what they were expecting—a little entertainment, a little skin, a little naughtiness, all wrapped up in a package that they could regard with a sense of moral outrage and indignation—while secretly wishing that they themselves could indulge in some of that naughtiness.

The kings of the Exploitation circuits made fortunes with these films, often recycling them over and over by splicing new title cards into the prints, or by trading them to other distributors in exchange for films that had already worn out their welcome on other circuits. Names like Kroger Babb, Dave Friedman, and Dan Sonney might mean little today, but in their era, and in their arena, they were as powerful and influential as Samuel Goldwyn, Darryl F. Zanuck, or Walt Disney. They were the moguls of Exploitation; the men who worked beyond Hollywood’s pale, creating films no “respectable” distributor would dare touch. In the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, they, and others like them, fought for an end to censorship of motion pictures and increased freedom for filmmakers, even if ‘mainstream’ filmmakers looked down their collective nose at them.

As the ‘50’s gave way to the ‘60’s, the Exploitations began to change. The moral message that had been such a prominent part of the “Road Show” era of Exploitation films fell by the wayside as the courts struck down, one by one, the draconian censorship laws on the motion picture industry. Without the need to justify their more salacious or risqué content, a new breed of filmmakers, people such as Harry Novak, Doris Wishman, and Mike and Roberta Findlay began producing a new breed of Exploitation film.

These were truly exploitative films, lacking any pretense of cultural or educational value. From Wishman’s ‘Nudie Cuties’ to Herschell G. Lewis’ gore-filled horrors, the early ‘60’s were an explosion of new trends in movies, and those on the leading edge of those trends were the Exploitation filmmakers. The same year that audiences were shocked by the sight of Janet Leigh dressed only in her undergarments following an afternoon tryst in PSYCHO, moviegoers in New York City’s 42nd Street grindhouses were watching Wishman’s NUDE ON THE MOON, a Sci-Fi “epic” filmed at a Florida nudist colony. Three years before Peter Fonda starred in the landmark film EASY RIDER, he starred in a not-so-vaguely similar movie, THE WILD ANGELS, directed by Roger Corman for American-International Pictures.

But the Exploitations would go where Hollywood dared not follow, and do so in ways that the major studios wouldn’t think of emulating. At a time when Hollywood was still struggling to come to terms with homosexuality, racism, drug abuse, and a rapidly changing cultural landscape, the Exploitations were treating all of these topics in an open, frank manner… even if that treatment was less than honest—or flattering. These were key themes for the “grindhouse” cinema, the infamous strip of theaters along 42nd Street in Manhattan. A few blocks away might be the bright lights of Broadway, but here all was darkness and shadow, and it was populated by those who shunned the light. The grindhouses of “The Deuce”, as the strip was christened by authors Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford in their book, Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square, were where the Exploitation film reached it’s zenith. There you could find an endless variety of perversion and prurient delights… if you were willing to risk your wallet, or perhaps your life, for the experience.

While those who frequented the theaters that made up the “Deuce” profess fond memories of the experience, the truth is slightly different. The grindhouse area was, in fact, a filthy, crime-ridden, two-by-eight block section of the city that was a breeding ground for prostitution, assault, robbery, and disease. The only reason fans of these movies traveled to such a blighted zone was because that was the only place that you could see these films… and despite their low-quality and frequently tasteless subject matter, many of these films were worth seeking out.

New York City’s efforts to remake it’s public image led to the end of the “Deuce”, as theater after theater was razed upon the altar of ‘urban renewal’. For the most part the fans of Exploitations weren’t displeased… with the growth of Home Video and the newfound freedom to watch whatever you might choose in the privacy of your own home, why brave the dimly-lit alleyways of 42nd Street? And as Hollywood’s standards changed, the line between what was “mainstream” and what wasn’t began, first to blur, then to vanish altogether. This began as early as 1969 when an X-Rated film, John Schlesinger’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY, won the Oscar® for Best Picture. Ironically, this film examined the lives of two Times Square hustlers played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, and their struggle to survive as denizens of the “Deuce”. This led to a spate of semi-respectable adult films—DEEP THROAT and BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR were two notable titles—that were shown in first-run theaters. With Hollywood now free to explore many of the topics that were previously the sole province of the Exploitation filmmakers, many of them moved into the final stage in the life cycle of the Exploitation filmmaker—hardcore pornography—and the true Exploitation film died a slow, lingering death. But the movies that made up the more than five decades of the Exploitation period haven’t died, though it was only the efforts of a dedicated few who kept the memory of these films alive, people like Mike Vraney, Bill Landis, Michelle Clifford, Dave Friedman, Harry Novak, and others who have worked to preserve these films, and history of the Exploitation Cinema.

While it’s easy to dismiss these movies as trashy, lewd, and without redeeming value, I believe that is far too harsh a judgment. Yes, these films were trashy, designed primarily to titillate and tease their audiences… and to that, I say, “So what?” Could not the same be said for most of the motion picture industry? The goal of producers and distributors hasn’t changed since Edison screened his GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY in the 1890’s—to put asses in seats—at whatever ticket price the market would bear. If the Exploitation filmmakers hadn’t given the movie-going public what they wanted, then they wouldn’t have accomplished this. And if they hadn’t accomplished the task of selling tickets, then they wouldn’t have lasted as long as they did. Trashy—yes. Lewd, lascivious, exploitive, prurient, pandering, coarse, vulgar, bawdy… yes, they were all of the above.

But they were also entertaining. Sometimes that’s good enough. Sometimes, that’s just what you’re in the mood for. And thanks to Mike Vraney and his Something Weird Video, we can indulge that mood whenever it strikes. And not in some run-down, flea-ridden, rat-infested den of iniquity with a movie screen, but in the comfort of our own homes.

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Tribute to Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

Tribute to Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

Dennis Hopper was the epitome of the 1960's rebel with a cause. During a decade of an unpopular war in Vietnam and the hey-day of the hippies and the drug culture, he brought to life the angst of living outside the box. When moviegoers think of the bad boy of the 60's free-style thinking, his name easily pops to mind.

Dennis Lee Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, and at the age of 13, moved with his family to San Diego, CA where he discovered an interest in acting while in high school. He studied at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and the Actors Studio in New York City. While in New York, he struck up a friendship with actor Vincent Price whose passion for the art greatly influenced Hopper.

Hopper made his film debut in James Dean's film, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and also appeared with Dean in the actor’s last movie, GIANT (1956). Hopper claims Dean was the finest actor he had ever worked with and Dean's 1955 death in an auto accident deeply moved Hopper. During shooting for FROM HELL TO TEXAS, he fought with veteran director Henry Hathaway with Hopper refusing shooting directions for the next several days, gaining the reputation of being a difficult actor with whom to work. Studios shied away from hiring him and he found himself playing mostly one-shot TV shows for the next several years.

Moved by Hopper's claim to be Margaret Sullivan's son-in-law, John Wayne helped Hopper get hired for the role of Dave Hastings in 1965 SONS OF KATIE ELDER. In a 1994 interview on the Charlie Rose Show, Hopper credits John Wayne with saving his career and acknowledges that his insolent behavior made it difficult for him to find work for several years. However, Hopper was mostly confined to westerns usually playing the villain.

Hopper's next big break came in 1967 when he was cast with Peter Fonda and Susan Strasberg as the LSD-pushing Max in THE TRIP (1967). Contrary to the roles Fonda and Hopper would play in EASY RIDER (1969), it's Fonda who plays the role up-tight while Hopper is calm and under self-control. This would be Hopper's introduction to American International Pictures (AIP) and director Roger Corman. The film was to be one of America's first peeks at the hippie counter-culture of body painting, black lights and premarital and extra-marital sex. The film was wildly profitable and, made on a budget of $450,000, has made $10 million (Jan. 1970) at the box office and $5 million on rentals to date. The phenomenal success of EASY RIDER caused studios to jump on the counter-culture bandwagon with movies about hippies, drugs, draft dodgers and motorcycle gangs.

COOL HAND LUKE (1967) was next on Hopper's agenda, playing egg-eating contest bet-taker Babalugats. However, it would be later that year that Hopper would make the movie that made him an American icon... EASY RIDER. Hopper again teamed up with Peter Fonda and with Terry Southern and Jack Nicholson. With EASY RIDER, Hopper won critical acclaim for his directorial debut. However, Hopper's behavior alienated co-stars Fonda and Nicholson and Hopper's increasing drug use, his refusal to leave the writer's desk and his divorce from Brooke Hayward caused delay after delay in the shooting schedule. Hopper began experimenting heavily with drugs and alcohol both on an off the set. The final Hopper-edited version of EASY RIDER ran nearly three hours. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards. (A bit of trivia—Rip Torn was originally chosen for Jack Nicholson's role of George Hanson. However, before shooting began, Hopper pulled a knife on Torn. Hopper later claimed Torn pulled the knife on him. Rip Torn later sued for defamation and won.)

His bad-boy reputation preceding him, Hopper found it more and more difficult to find work. Limping from one small role in mostly European films to the next, his drug and alcohol problems increased and began to affect the quality of his work. He also married and divorced four times during this period, including an eight-day marriage to Mamas and Papas singer, Michelle Phillips. After staging a 'suicide attempt' in a coffin with 17 sticks of dynamite, Hopper disappeared into the Mexican desert. However, after several extravagant drug and alcohol benders, his career in tatters, he checked into a rehab center in 1983.

The Eighties saw a resurgence of interest in Hopper who by then had exorcized his demons of alcohol and drug abuse. His talent once again able to shine, he returned to the thought-provoking roles and stellar performances for which he was once known. He turned in a memorable performance as the pot-smoking photographer in Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and was superb in RUMBLE FISH (1983).

Hopper returned to directing with the controversial gang film COLORS (1988). However, acting was his first love and he once again returned to the front of the camera in SUPER MARIO BROTHERS (1993), SPEED (1994) and WATERWORLD (1995). In the new century, Hopper also returned to the small screen with on-going roles in FLATLAND, 24, E-RING and, at the time of his death from prostate cancer at age 74, was starring in CRASH.

During his career, he was a life-long fixture in Hollywood and his resume included some of the best and well-remembered roles of the five decades. He is recognized as one of the true enfant terribles of Hollywood. He fought with, and overcame, his own personal demons both in private and in public. With his death drawing nearer, Hollywood honored him on May 26, 2010 with a Walk of Fame star. His old friends Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson were at his side to honor him. Three days later, Dennis Hopper was dead. Rest in peace, Easy Rider. You earned it.


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DVD Review: FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

Title: FRIDAY THE 13th

Year of Release—Film: 1980

Year of Release—DVD: 1999

DVD Label: Paramount Home Video

In the world full of Horror Franchises, none have stood the test of time as well as the FRIDAY THE 13th franchise. Twelve films, a TV series, video games… for 29 years now, Sean Cunningham’s iconic slasher Jason Voorhees has dominated the modern Horror scene, outdistancing even his closest competitors, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger. However, few remember that, when it all began, before there was a killer named Jason, there was his grief-deranged mother Pamela, and the first blood-bath at Camp Crystal Lake.

Following the success of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, which major studios ignored but went on to earn millions—in a series of regional releases—for Cannon, the heads of the various majors began to reconsider their objection to distributing Horror Films, especially Slasher films. Paramount was the first out of the gate, with a low-budget film written and directed by Sean Cunningham. Cunningham, who made a name for himself producing Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT in 1972, took a different approach to the Slasher Film than Carpenter had with HALLOWEEN. While Carpenter had built his movie on suspense, minimizing the blood and gore, Cunningham hit the viewer head on with them, in new, imaginative ways.

The plot, what there is of it, is almost superfluous. It exists merely to place the characters into the situations that lead to their violent, gory deaths. Decades after two camp counselors were brutally murdered at Camp Crystal Lake, the son of the original owners decides to reopen it for the Summer season. With the help of some teen-agers from the city, he begins to ready Camp Blood, as the locals have christened it, for a new group of campers. However, soon his counselors start to disappear into the woods surrounding the camp, as Camp Blood begins to live up to its ominous nickname.

There are many reasons that this film became the standard-bearer for the Slasher sub-genre—the inventive, over-the-top death scenes, the huge body count, the copious amounts of blood, gore and nudity—all no doubt contributed greatly to the film’s success. The film is very much an American Giallo, sharing many features and plot devices with those staples of Italian cinema. Indeed, many similarities exist between FRIDAY THE 13TH and Mario Bava’s classic 1971 thriller REAZIONE A CATENA ~aka~ A BAY OF BLOOD. The setting by the water, the creative modes of inflicting death upon the ever-growing body count, and the shock ending are only a few of these similarities.

Paramount Home Video’s 1999 DVD has been superseded by a newer release with additional materials, nice to have but not really necessary. The original presentation is adequate for viewing the movie, and, as it came in a set of the first three films in the franchise, for less than $10, I have no complaints about the paucity of features on the disc. Paramount Home Video seldom goes overboard on bonuses for it’s customers, and this disc is certainly no exception to that rule.

Still, as I said it is sufficient for viewing the film, and that film is one of the seminal movies of the Slasher genre. Not as good as HALLOWEEN certainly; and we wouldn’t gain the series’ iconic “man in the mask” until the sequel a year later, in the person of Jason Voorhees. That sequel would transform its predecessor, a little, low-budget summer movie that defied critics, astounded studio executives, and amazed audiences, into a franchise that is still going strong today. The importance of FRIDAY THE 13TH, Pt. II notwithstanding, the original is by far the better movie. It’s also a film that every Horror fan must own in some form.

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DVD Review: FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009): The Killer Cut


Year of Release—Film: 2009

Year of Release—DVD: 2009

DVD Label: Warner Home Video

The latest in Platinum Dunes’ line of resurrected Horror franchises, Marcus Nispel’s retooling of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise, the most successful of the Slasher genre, is quite frankly mis-named. More properly, it’s a remake of FRIDAY THE 13TH, Pt. II—with elements thrown in from most of the other films in the series. That this jumble works at all is a wonder; that it actually managed to entertain to some slight degree is a miracle.

The film opens much as F13-II did, though instead of a flashback recap of the final confrontation between Pamela Voorhees and the final survivor of the massacre at Camp Crystal Lake, Alice, we see it take place as it happens—as does a young Jason Voorhees. This forms the basis of Nispel’s attempt to humanize Jason, to reduce him down to just another serial killer, rather than the inhuman supernatural creature the original Jason was. This humanization of Jason was, according to interviews with the director and screenwriters contained in the documentary featurette “The Rebirth of Jason Voorhees,” a conscious decision on their part. It was not a good one.

As the film transitions to the present day, we meet a group of hikers wandering the woods near Crystal Lake, searching for a stand of marihuana plants rumored to be in the area. What they find is an adult Jason (Derek Mears), still nursing a grudge over his mother’s death, and blaming it on anyone he sees having sex. He immediately begins slaughtering the hikers, in a variety of inventive ways, including bear trap and being roasted in a sleeping bag.

Six weeks later, another party of generic yuppie spawn is on their way up to the area, to a parent’s cabin for the weekend. They encounter Clay (Jared Padelecki), a young man searching for clues in the disappearance of his sister Whitney, who was with the earlier group. He’s passing out flyers with Whitney’s picture, only the locals seem a little resistant to his efforts. As he heads up to the lake to continue his search, he again runs into the yuppie spawn; this time, he and Jenna (Danielle Panabaker) go off together. The stage is set, and no one who’s ever watched more than five minutes of any Slasher film will be surprised at what follows.

If it sounds as though I’m less than enthusiastic over yet another in the endless stream of reimaginings, reinventions, and reworkings that Hollywood excretes as though they were a waste product, well you, dear reader, may go to the head of the class. I’ve seen enough of Nispel’s work to believe that he could be a good director—if the people who write the checks would let him have an original thought. And no, making the iconic Slashers of my formative years more “human” doesn’t qualify as originality.

I can only say that unless you, like the Unimonster, simply must own every Horror film imaginable, then pass this one by. This travesty actually managed a nomination for “Crapfest of the Year” in my 2009 in Review piece [2 January, 2010], and came damn close to winning the Golden Turd. It’s not that it’s a necessarily bad film—just an insulting, needless one.

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Year of Release—Film: 2003

Year of Release—DVD: 2004

DVD Label: New Line Cinema

As a confirmed fan of the FRIDAY the 13th series of films, (less so of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. movies) I’ve been hearing rumors, and rumors of rumors, of this project for a full ten years, ever since the rather obvious clue at the end of JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY (yeah, right… where’s truth in advertising?). When it became clear that it was finally coming to fruition, I must admit that I felt no small amount of trepidation; Hollywood does not have a sterling record of managing such projects either wisely or well. While the two franchises had admittedly fallen into disreputable circumstances long before this was a gleam in Sean Cunningham’s eye, they had, more or less, managed to remain true to their core fans. The thought of the potential disaster that this could become certainly wasn’t a pleasing one.

Those feelings were amplified as the early reviews of this film began to come out. Though there were scattered positive opinions out there, most of the fan reviews I saw were decidedly harsh, doing nothing to improve my outlook at this movie. But the box office numbers were very impressive, and I felt that there just might be something worth checking out. As soon as the DVD was released, I quickly, though with some measure of reluctance, bought my copy and sat down to see just which camp was right.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I must be totally honest. I did not expect to like this movie. In fact, I expected to hate it. I had myself all worked up to deliver a true grade-A rant about this one. But I won’t be delivering that rant, because something unexpected happened while I was watching it.

I enjoyed it. And not just a little—I really liked it.

Ok, so it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. The story is very good, though, better than the norm for both series. Though Freddy’s dialogue sometimes goes a pun too far, it’s nothing that we’re not used to by now; indeed, Krueger’s wisecracks are as much his trademark as his glove or ratty sweater. The plot is tight, coherent, and logical, for the most part. Though there are holes here and there, it’s certainly not your average Campers go to lake; have sex; get drunk; get slashed… style of plotless, formulaic, stock-footage montage of murder that the last few examples of both these series (barring WES CRAVEN’S A NEW NIGHTMARE, which I felt was a tremendously original concept, very well done) provided. The story actually serves to lay new foundations for both characters, especially Jason. To discover new ground in characters this long-established is amazing, something akin to discovering an unexplored island in the middle of Lake Michigan.

The casting, though decent, is about average for the F13 series of films, and actually below par for the NIGHTMARE… franchise. The actors show up, and do their jobs, but, with one exception, there are no standouts among the supporting cast. That lone exception is Katharine Isabella, late of GINGER SNAPS fame. She has a unique, intense look that really comes through on the screen, and a gift for being the ‘bad’ girl. The rest are standard, typical “central casting” stereotypes, adequate, but not impressive. But let’s be honest. They’re only here for Body Count fodder. Everyone knows who the stars of this film are.

Though he’s stayed very active in the genre apart from the NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. films, Freddy Krueger is as much Robert Englund’s signature role as Dracula was Lugosi’s. And Englund was at the top of his form in this outing, his eighth as the wisecracking, throat-slashing ghost of a sadistic child-murderer. Not a likable character; Englund has, nonetheless, made him a thoroughly enjoyable one to watch. Though this series never captivated me to the same degree that the F13 series (or even more, the HALLOWEEN franchise) has, I’ve always enjoyed the character of Freddy Krueger, one of the true icons of the modern Horror Film.

Perhaps the most recognizable Horror icon of the past thirty years, however, is Jason Voorhees. Almost a direct antithesis of Krueger’s garrulous style, the ever-silent Jason has hacked, slashed and carved his way through eleven films (though his appearance in the original film was admittedly brief). While he’s been played by several different actors, and though his look has altered over time, this is the same living-dead unstoppable slasher that we first met in FRIDAY The 13th: PART II (1981). Sure, he’s aged, he’s been to Hell and back, with a little detour to outer space, maybe he’s mellowed a little, right? Wrong. He’s still the silent, relentless, killing machine, out to punish teen-agers for indulging in sex, drugs, and/or rock and roll.

Yu’s direction, though very good, is nothing too original. He manages the action very well though, and doesn’t let the flow of the film bog down too much. Some of that is inevitable; very few films can maintain a frenetic pace for long. But the pauses are kept to an acceptable minimum, and the pace doesn’t suffer. Some of his directorial choices aren’t what I’d have liked, but that’s not totally bad. It would be difficult to be specific without revealing too much of the plot; suffice it to say that he leans a little too much to the safe, conventional side of the coin. While that’s probably for the best, it would have been nice to see something really daring for this movie.

The Special Effects are good, about average for a medium-budget film like this one, though nothing about which to get excited. They are well done, though, and the CGI effects are blended smoothly into the physical shots, making for very convincing FX sequences. No Academy Award nominations here, but you won’t feel cheated, either.

The DVD is superb, packed with extras, including interviews, commentaries, deleted scenes, behind-the-scene segments, and more. While I seldom make use of all those extras, they are nice to have, and do make recommending the purchase of the DVD easier.

To sum it up, this is one of the best movies of 2003, and is a definite buy. A lot of you may have the same preconceived notions that I had; abandon them, and give this movie a shot, you won’t be sorry. Your opinion of the ending may depend upon who you’re a bigger fan of, Freddy or Jason; but give it a try. While nothing, in my opinion, can beat out HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES as the Movie of the Year 2003, this one runs a close second.

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DVD Review: HATCHET (Unrated Director's Cut)

Title: HATCHET (Unrated Director’s Cut)

Year of Release—Film: 2006

Year of Release—DVD: 2007

DVD Label: Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment

Everyone who’s into film dreams about getting a bunch of buddies together and making a movie of their own. Adam Green and his friends actually did that, in a process that began with two guys going to New Orleans and surreptitiously shooting footage for a trailer while on a swamp tour; it ended with a kick-ass old-fashioned Unstoppable Slasher movie that involves some of the biggest names in Horror.

Set in New Orleans, the story revolves around two buddies in town for Mardi Gras, Ben and Marcus. (Played very well by Joel David Moore and Deon Richmond) They separate from their friends to go investigate a haunted swamp tour, and wind up as part of a group consisting of an older married couple; a “producer” shooting a girls-gone-wild type video and his models, who conveniently flash their considerable assets at every opportunity; a mysterious local girl; a Chinese tour operator; and our two heroes.

The tour boat winds up sinking in a part of the bayou that’s closed off, supposedly due to the presence of an undead boogeyman by the name of Victor Crowley. Crowley, the deformed son of a bayou fisherman, burned to death years before as a result of a Halloween prank. Now, he haunts the bayou, killing anyone who lingers near the burned-out shell of his home.

The story is adequate for the purpose, and borrows freely from such Horror standards as the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies and the HALLOWEEN films. Still, it’s done well, and the viewer doesn’t come away with the feeling that it’s just a rip-off of better movies. First-time director Adam Green demonstrates a thorough understanding of the genre, as well as a grasp on how to mix the comedic and horrific elements of the plot into a (mostly) seamless whole.

The film is helped along in large part to the casting of a couple of genre veterans in small roles, and one, Kane Hodder, in a major role as Crowley. The experience and fan appeal that Robert Englund, Tony Todd, and Hodder bring to the production overcomes the admittedly miniscule star power of the lead cast.

If writing these reviews has taught me anything, it’s which distributors know how to package a movie for DVD release, and which don’t. Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment definitely belongs in the former category. I’ve yet to see a poorly-done DVD from them, and their discs are usually so well-done that I can’t help commenting on that fact. HATCHET is no different, and even the most jaded videophiles should be pleased with the quality of this release.

This disc has a full range of Special Features, including commentary tracks, interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and the original trailer that gave the film it’s start. The best of these features is ANATOMY OF A KILL, an in-depth examination of just how one of the movie’s signature “kills” was conceived and carried out, without the use of CGI… and without a visible cut in the film! The scene in question is one of the best in the film, and knowing how it was done only makes the viewer marvel more at the ingenuity of the filmmakers.

Another feature worth watching is the genesis of the film, from Green’s childhood nightmares to finished movie. The story of how a small group of friends came together with a dream of making a good, old-fashioned Horror Film, and succeeded, is inspiring to those of us who share similar dreams.

Though it got scant attention from the mainstream press, the Horror community really sat up and took notice of HATCHET, conferring several important awards upon it. I can only agree with that recognition, as it’s easily one of the best movies of the year; certainly the best shot independently, for less than $15 million or so.

Of course, it does have flaws… every movie does. But given the limitations the filmmakers were working under, these flaws aren’t any real obstacles to enjoying the film. They’re the same problems you’d encounter with virtually any Low-Budget movie, and true fans of B-Grade Horror Films won’t be bothered by them.

Still, I wouldn’t pay full price for it, not that there are many movies that I would go full boat on. Fortunately, I found my copy in the $9.44 Bargain Rack at Wal-Mart. I have no qualms about going a ten-spot on an impulse DVD purchase, and believe me, I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t think you will be, either.

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