Monday, November 5, 2012

Our Texas Halloween

Thanks for a great Halloween, Houston. The pumpkins we carved at The Orange Show are long since collapsed. I can't let any more days go by without journaling out the rest of our cinema experiences during this, our favorite time of the year.

On Wednesday night we wrapped up our annual marathon diet of horror with a screening of A Bucket of Blood at 14 Pews, a microcinema/community center in a former chapel in the Heights with a beautifully kept interior (rich wood from floor to ceiling). The programming looks really interesting- Q&A sessions here are just as likely to be with neurosurgeons or beekeepers as with filmmakers. Sometimes I think you can keep searching in Houston and never stop finding great places like this.

We loved Bucket of Blood. Something about its design- slasher movie with a beat artist theme- suggests a Tales From the Crypt episode, but it transcends its B-Movie trappings with a startling sophistication. The actor Dick Miller, who plays the lead role here, has had over a hundred bit parts and relatively few roles with substantial screen time. He's one of these lifer character actors who we always yearn to see in bigger parts (I especially love him in Gremlins 2. "What do you mean you heard it too? Of course you heard it too!").

His performance in this film as busboy Walter Paisley (a name that has re-emerged throughout Miller's career) is a knockout. It's big and broad, but there's no room for subtlety if we're going to believe a story this ridiculous, and to my surprise I completely believed it. Miller's pleading, screwed-up face never lets us forget his total enslavement to his most basic emotional needs: he desires friends, validation, and external approval, not to mention female companionship, which he views as the ultimate provision of the former three. The film worms into our psyches by making Walter repellent while asking us the upsetting question of whether we aren't all really just like him- whether he's anything more than an unchecked human being. Artists routinely explain that great art is made to satisfy the soul of its creator, not to gain the approval of others, and professionals across the spectrum of human endeavor often make analogous claims; but we have to wonder at their sincerity when we confront Walter.

Other films we got to this year:
Kaidan- A rather dull samurai ghost story. We bailed on this after about forty minutes. Probably needed to get the original.

The Sentinel- A late seventies supernatural thriller, too hammy to sell the elaborate fantasy it spins. In spite of the effort and imagination, there were no chills here. It's kind of lovable anyway- the supporting cast is full of surprises (Jerry Orbach, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D'Angelo, Christopher Walken... maybe this guy on the right is an unbilled John Hurt?)

Army of Darkness- Something occurred to me, while watching this film for the first time in at least a decade, about the history of movie special effects- something that I'd forgotten and that this movie illustrates better than any other I can think of.

Army of Darkness came out in 1992, a year after Terminator 2- the first film to make heavy use of CGI- and a year before Jurassic Park, which was the single greatest catalyst for the CGI revolution. Major advances in the art of movie special effects had occurred before, of course, but each new technique and innovation had been an addition to the craft- a contribution to the box of tools and tricks, to the discipline that had kept growing richer from its first days, a field of old pros who could make anything happen through pure engineering. The way that special effects changed in the nineties, suddenly, was different: the computer replaced over half the toolbox, and it was the only time this has ever happened. Veteran technicians, people like Richard Edlund, with his resume full of blockbusters and awards, were suddenly living in a world in which many of their skills were obsolete.

When we watch Army of Darkness today, and we see the rear projection and the animated skeletons, and we see that it was made around the same time as Jurassic Park, we might assume that Sam Raimi was being consciously retro and willfully analog in his choices. We may forget that at the time, these were simply practicalities; that as late as 1992, there really wasn't any kind of special effect you could use that would be considered old fashioned. Low budget, maybe, but not retro. Stop motion animation, a technique that had seen numerous cosmetic improvements but hadn't fundamentally changed in decades, was still good currency in a Hollywood film.

So was this the last gasp of analog special effects? Not really- decent looking CGI was unaffordable for another ten years, so most 90s films had either awful CGI, or some combination of awful CGI and bad analog (see John Carpenter's Escape from L.A.).

The Eye-
American horror films never stray from their primary objective of scaring the audience; the horror itself is always at the center, and everything that happens is shackled to it. That's why I'm so surprised when I see a Hong Kong film like The Eye, in which some pretty effective horror is woven into a story that seems a lot more like a romance or a drama. The love story made the film seem not so menacing or bleak as horror films often are- yet the feeling of being pursued by ghosts certainly stayed with me later.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors-

Speaking of analog effects, it's hard to think of a better showcase than this film. It's already been written that it's full of imagination, amazing sets and brilliantly twisted dream sequences, and I agree- I would add that the chilling music, by Angelo Badalamenti, is first rate. Some of the plotting is a little lazy, but there's still a tremendous amount of love put in here, and there was never a moment when I wasn't invested. It's a tough call this year, but I think Dream Warriors takes the blue ribbon.

P.S. When we were in L.A. we made a point to visit the Elm Street house. The people who live there now probably hate tourists doing this, but our friend took Jamie's picture in front of it. It was a great picture, but later, it vanished from the memory card, and everyone swears they didn't delete it and had nothing to do with it.


No comments:

Post a Comment