Thursday, November 17, 2011

Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later

After Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, the Halloween franchise seemed to have run out of steam, tangled in its own convoluted continuity. Was Michael subject to the Curse of Thorn? The result of a genetics experiment? It was unclear where to go with the story, and the box office receipts had been in decline for some time, while costs were rising. I suppose in 1996, it seemed doubtful Michael Myers would ever be given a chance to increase his body count. A couple of things happened, though, which brought him back to life, just as he always revived from whatever apparent death he suffered on screen.

First of all, Scream came out, which led to a brief revival of slasher movies. Secondly, Jamie Leigh Curtis became interested in doing a follow-up to the earlier films, something she had been deadfast against. I’ve always assumed this was partially because her career was slowing as she hit the 40-year-old wall that limits the opportunities of actresses, but that’s just speculation. The fact that so many A-list actors and actresses appeared in the Scream franchise probably helped remove some of the career stigma as well. Whatever the reason, with her involvement, a new sequel was prepped to take advantage of the twentieth anniversary of the original, with the somewhat kludgey title of Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later. Story ideas were supplied by Kevin Williamson, the writer of the Scream franchise. John Carpenter was approached to direct and was interested, but the studio balked at his $10 million fee, which seems to have stemmed from lingering resentment at being done out of a rightful share of the profits for the original Halloween. Instead, the movie was directed by Steve Miner, a producer on the original Friday the 13th, and director of the first two sequels in that series.

The movie opens in Langdon, Illinois, presumably close to Haddonfield. (At first, I thought the government might have just given up and nuked Haddonfield due to the carnage there, but I guess that wasn’t the case.) On the day before Halloween, a familiar person visits Nurse Chambers (Dr. Loomis’s nurse from the first two movies), killing her and two neighbor boys. Michael is back! We get one final look at the (cinematic) incompetence of Illinois policemen, as they take forever to respond to the report of a burglary, then go to the house next door to where three murders are being committed.

The scene shifts to California, the next day (finally, they won’t have to work around all the greenery at Halloween). Laurie Strode (Jamie Leigh Curtis) has faked her own death, changed her name to Keri Tate, and is working as headmistress at a posh boarding school, living with her son John (Josh Hartnett, in his first film role). No one knows of her secret, but she hasn’t exactly ended up well adjusted, and still suffers from various psychological problems centered on Halloween. Frankly, she’s a bit of a shrew, but who can blame her? At Halloween, the school is deserted except for Jamie, her boyfriend Will (Adam Arkin), her son, his girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams in another early role), two of their friends, and a security guard played by LL Cool J. Michael shows up to continue his life mission of killing his entire family, and soon various actors and actresses are being impaled by sharp things.

Although there was originally to be plot points that explained how this movie fit with the fourth through sixth installments, the decision was made that they would be ignored as if nothing had happened since Halloween II, although Laurie’s fake death remains as a remnant of that earlier version. No explanation is given for where Michael has been for the last twenty years, although I like to think he was working as a chef at Benihana. Poor Jamie from the preceding films never existed, although since she ended up spending most of her life being raped as part of a breeding experiment, that may be for the best.

Anyway, carnage ensues, many secondary characters die, and we get a face-off between Laurie/Keri and her big brother. Blood is spilled, although H2O continues the tradition of the series being less gory than most of its counterparts (never fear on that point, gore fans, Rob Zombie is on the way), and Michael is once again killed for good. Despite the seeming finality of his demise this time, having seen his previous five appearances, I’m betting he’ll get better soon.

So, what’s the verdict? Surprisingly good, to be honest. I’ve never been much of a fan of Steve Miner, but the film does a good job of building suspense, swapping a high body count for increased tension. The cast is pretty good, and film buffs will enjoy the small part played by Janet Leigh (Psycho) who is of course Jamie Leigh Curtis’ real life mother. She gets to repeat the “one good scare” line from the first movie, and give us an in-joke when she asks Laurie if she can “be maternal for a moment.” I think if you are a fan of the first two, you can segue right into this one without any real disappointment.

For the trivia buffs, the two movies seen briefly on TV sets (a series trademark) are the legendarily awful Plan 9 From Outer Space, and writer Kevin Williamson’s Scream 2.

WITA #3: Greg F. Gifune

Resuming the series of reprints of interviews I did for Cemetery Dance, today we reprint an interview with author Greg F. Gifune which originally appeared on Cemetery Dance' website on July 7, 2010. As always, these reprints appear courtesy of Cemetery Dance, and the reader should remember the interview is over a year old, so if the subject says "coming soon", the book is probably already out there. So, fire up the old Wayback Machine...

The author we’re pulling away from work this time is Greg F. Gifune. A Massachusetts native, Greg is the highly-regarded author of such works as The Bleeding Season and Children of Chaos. His most recent book from Cemetery Dance is Catching Hell.

WITA -Your new release from Cemetery Dance is Catching Hell. Tell us a little about it.

Greg Gifune - It’s set in 1983, and is about three young actors and a stagehand from a summer stock theater who take off from Cape Cod to visit a resort in Maine as a kind of last hooray before they either go on to college or move to New York City to chase their dreams. On the way, they encounter a bizarre storm and wind up in a peculiar town that seems to be stuck in the 1940s. But the town is anything but the quaint and harmless little hamlet it appears to be at first glance, and once they become trapped there they realize the locals are harboring some horrible secrets and that they’ll have to fight their way out to survive the night, or risk falling prey to a cycle of depravity and violence at the hands of a demonic creature so horrifying few will even speak its name.

WITA -Compared to many of your peers, you are quite prolific (Your website shows 14 books written by you). How do you manage to be as productive as you are without sacrificing quality?

GG - Do nothing but work and have virtually no life? No, seriously, it may appear that I’m a bit more prolific than I really am, as I’ve been writing professionally now for more than a decade full-time, so when you spread my list of published novels out over a 10 or 11 year timeframe it’s probably not quite as impressive. And also, usually (not always but usually) my novels sit in my head literally for years before I write them, so by the time I’m putting them to paper I have a solid grasp of what I’m doing with it and what I want. Still, I have managed to produce a good amount of work, you’re right. Much of that has been because I’ve been in demand from the publishers I’ve worked with so I’m very grateful to them and the fans for that. I’ve learned how to juggle projects and to do the things required of a professional novelist these days, and to do them in a manner where quality is not sacrificed. I also work very hard at what I do and strive for that quality. The harder I work, the more it pays off.

WITA -Now that you’ve been writing for a while, how has your style changed over time? Does the process come easier to you now?

GG - Although it took time to find my voice and develop my style, because I wrote for years before I ever wrote a novel, I was able to have both established by the time I did. Since then I think my style has remained the same, more or less, but it has evolved, and continues to (hopefully for the better). The only thing is that I’ve had to speed my process up a bit, which is not entirely natural for me, but it’s a shift I’ve learned to live with because it’s a necessary.

WITA -Everyone wonders what the chef eats when he’s away from his restaurant, so what do you read for entertainment? Who are some of the writers who have had an influence on your work?

GG - Unfortunately I don’t have the time to read for pleasure like I used to, but when I do have the time I tend to mix it up between fiction and nonfiction. I have very eclectic tastes when it comes to just about everything, so it’s a wide range in both. I read The New Yorker too, have for years, and I enjoy that. As for writers who have influenced me, there have been many, but I rarely list them because I always forget some. Here’s a few: Virginia Woolf, Jim Thompson, Tennessee Williams.

WITA -Writing can be lonely work, and sometimes it takes a while to receive positive reinforcement for what you do. What made you decide on writing as a career?

GG - Very true, writing is very isolating at times and can be very lonely, and it’s also (at times) a very brutal business. I never really decided on it though, it decided for me. I’ve always known what I wanted to do, always wanted to be a writer and an actor, and from the time I was a little kid, I mean, I don’t ever remember not knowing what I wanted to do. I studied, worked in and pursued both for years. Sounds corny but it’s true, it’s who I am. The literal decision came in my early 30s, when I decided if I didn’t commit and really go after a career as a writer, I never would. So I did and fortunately it paid off.

WITA -What should we be looking for in the near future from Greg Gifune?

GG - More novels coming later this year and next, and recently I’ve had quite a bit of interest from Hollywood (and some indi filmmakers as well) regarding several novels of mine, so we’ll see what happens there. My website is probably the best way to stay on top of things:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers

Although this is the sixth film in the series, it is the first not to have the number in the title (some of the home video releases do call it Halloween 6). This was done so that when you put them on your shelf, you have to look closely at the production date to figure out which order to place them. You don’t shelve your movies by category, sub-category, production dates, etc.? Oh, well. I have a touch of CDO, which is OCD but with the letters alphabetized, they way they should be.

It’s six years after the events of Halloween 5, and a strange cult attends a young woman giving birth. When the baby is born, it is taken by the Man in Black from the preceding film for a ritual involving painting a rune on its stomach. With the help of a sympathetic nurse, the girl escapes and takes the baby, only to be pursued by Michael Myers. We eventually learn the girl is little Jamie from the preceding two films, that she was kidnapped along with Michael, and that apparently the cult has been breeding her with her uncle Michael. (May I say: Ewwww!) She heads back to Haddonfield, with Michael on her trail.

Back in good ol’ Haddonfield, there isn’t any of the Myers family left, but relatives of the Strodes, Laurie Strodes’ adoptive family, are now living in the old Myers house. That’s convoluted. Meanwhile, next door, there is a boarding house where Tommy (Paul Rudd, in his first film), the little boy Laurie baby-sat back in the first film, now lives. Tommy has grown up to be a little weird, which is understandable, and is watching the Myers’ house for the inevitable return of MM.

It seems that Michael is as Michael is because of the ancient Curse of Thorn, which causes one person in the village to become a mad killer so that…something or other. The cultists want the curse to be passed from Michael to his son/grand-nephew because…they just do, that’s all. Michael kills everyone he meets, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) shows up once again to save the day, the Man in Black is revealed to be anti-climactic, and there is another open-ended ending.

By this point, the series had degenerated into a twisted mess. The production was famously complicated, and delayed by various lawsuits. Endless re-writes and changes meant the “Curse of Thorn” angle which is the main plot point of the early part of the film disappears at the end, and the cult is revealed to be doing genetic experiments instead, for some unknown reason. There are several bootleg alternate versions of the film floating around, and many claim they are better. They would almost have to be.

Casting was a problem. Danielle Harris was willing to come back, but producers supposedly wouldn’t meet her salary demands, which were for the amazingly low price of $5000, which shows how seriously the production company took the project. The producers wanted to bring back the actor who played Tommy in the original, but apparently couldn’t find him, although I doubt they put that much effort into it. Instead Paul Rudd got his first part. I’ve never been a fan of Rudd, and feel he is the opposite of charismatic, but he doesn’t do a bad job here as the damaged-to-the-point-of-weirdness Tommy. Donald Pleasance has been the heart and soul of the series to this point, but here he seems old and weak, and with good reason, as the legendary actor would pass away before the film was released.

The movie was savaged by critics, and with good reason. It also opened on the same weekend as Se7en, which was a much more sophisticated look at a serial killer movie, and suffered in comparison. Despite this, the sixth installment of the franchise did surprisingly good business, drawing a box office about three times its production budget. Thank Thorn they saved that five grand.

Oh, and everyone still mispronounces “Samhain.”

By the end of Curse, it was difficult to see where the franchise could go. The last two installments had strangled themselves trying to create an overly complicated mythology, and it was going to be hard to continue the story and deal with the sometimes contradictory subplots that had been created. Not to worry, though, this would be dealt with by retconning the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth movies out of existence. The next movie would pretend nothing had happened in the story since Halloween II.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers

When last we left the Halloween franchise, Michael Myers was finally dead, due to being shot a lot, and lovable moppet Jamie had turned evil, icing her adopted mother with a knife. So, Halloween 5 would be the first in the series without Michael Myers (omitting Halloween 3, which is part of the series, but not really part of the series. Continuity, I mean. Oh, you either know what I mean or don’t care, so let’s move on.) and would feature a pre-teen girl on a rampage with a knife, right? Not so fast, my friend…

The movie opens with a recap of the ending of Halloween 4. Everybody shoots Michael Myers repeatedly until he falls down a mine shaft. They then rush forward and drop explosives down the shaft, blowing everything up real good. They do everything they can to insure that MM is dead, other than, you know, checking to see if there actually is a body. There isn’t, because we see MM crawl out of the bottom of the shaft and exit in a nearby river. His body floats downstream until he is found by a hermit, who takes his comatose body to stay at his shack with him and his parrot. This is too obvious an homage to Bride of Frankenstein to be unintentional.

Meanwhile Jamie (Danielle Harris), who only managed to wound her mom, is institutionalized, rendered completely mute by her experiences. She is frequently visited by creepy Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and big sister Rachel (Ellie Cornell). She also has a friend at the institution, Billy (Jeffrey Landman) who stutters. If the stutter fascinates you, please listen to the commentary on the DVD, because Landman and Harris go on about how much of it was scripted longer than you would imagine possible.

On October 30th one year after the events of Halloween 4, Myers wakes up in the old man’s shack and kills him. I couldn’t help wondering why someone would live with a stranger in a coma for a year, but I guess hermits are supposed to be that way. The fate of the parrot is unknown, which is surprising since this series is very hard on canine pets, with the fourth death of a pet dog coming in this installment.

Back in Haddonfield, where I guess people continue to live because of low housing prices, Jamie has developed a telepathic link with her uncle Michael, which would be more helpful if she could talk, since MM is soon butchering a brand new crop of the town’s teenagers. (Graduation ceremonies at the local high school must have felt like a wake.) There is also a mysterious man in black stalking around town, although we never see his face.

Finally, we reach the climax, when MM confronts Jamie, who has regained the ability to talk now that it’s too late. Before he can kill her, Loomis rushes in and saves the day. For a change, Michael doesn’t “die” at the end of this one; Loomis just shoots him with a tranquilizer gun and beats the crap out of him with a two-by-four. Jamie is saved and Michael is taken to jail, which seems like a Really Bad Idea. As it proves to be, when the man in black shows up at the station, kills all the cops, and releases MM. This is the end of the movie, which is an obvious setup for the next one, where hopefully we’ll find out who the man in black really is. I’m betting on Johnny Cash.

Up until now, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the series, but it begins to go off the rails here. It’s too much of a generic slasher movie, and probably seemed tired even when it was released. Most of the characters exist only to be killed, and many of them are the types who seem to deserve it. One of the girl’s boyfriends is supposed to be a “bad boy” type, but comes off as a sullen version of Fonzie from Happy Days. In keeping with the tradition of showing everyone in Haddonfield as a moron, there are two bumbling cops who are useless even by the Haddonfield PD’s dubious standards. They even have their own “clown music” musical cue, which is supposed to be an homage to the original The Last House on the Left.

Danielle Harris does a commendable job with what she has to work with, since she has no lines for most of the film, and has to show some variation of the same frightened face throughout the first two-thirds of the movie. Donald Pleasance does a good job of chewing the scenery, which is what his role calls for. Overall, though, I don’t feel very confident as I move on to the next installment.

Halloween 5 did reasonable business at the box office, but it was obvious the slasher genre it had spawned was running out of steam at the end of the 80s.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dark Score Stories

Yes, I'm going to finish the Halloween movies, hopefully before next Halloween. In the meantime, check out the website A & E Television has launched that serves as sort of a prequel/backstory for their upcoming miniseries of Stephen King's Bag of Bones, starring Pierce Brosnan and Melissa George. It's called Dark Score Stories, and is fairly creepy. King fans can have fun finding the King references in the background of the photographs.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

I intended to finish my recap of the Halloween series on Halloween day. I also intended to be rich and handsome; that didn’t work out either. Even though the holiday itself is over, it lives on in the hearts of each of us, whether those hearts still beat in our chest or sit in a jar on the desk of the local serial killer. So, we continue on with Project Halloween. No more Roman numerals!

Ten years have passed since the night Michael Myers “came home” in the original Halloween. Contrary to what we saw at the end of Halloween II, neither Myers nor Dr. Loomis died in the fiery climax, they just picked up some interesting new scars. Michael is in an apparent coma at an insane asylum, while Loomis continues his new career of telling everyone that Michael is going to wake up and kill them all. He is the Cassandra of this series. Naturally, he is proven right when Michael wakes up, kills a few attendants, and hits the road back home to see his family.

Meanwhile back in Haddonfield, life has gone on. Laurie Strode grew up, got married, had a child and was killed in a car wreck along with her husband. (Don’t worry, in about three movies she’ll get much better.) Her daughter, Jamie (Danielle Harris), is now Michael Myers only living relative, and therefore his principle target. Jamie lives with her foster family, including Rachel (Ellie Cornell). Jamie is getting ready for Halloween by picking out her costume – a clown costume nearly identical to the one l’il Michael Myers wore at the beginning of the first one. This won’t end well. Donald Pleasance, who plays Dr. Loomis, is the only cast member to return from the first two movies.

A brief digression: I mentioned the incompetence of everyone in my review of Halloween II, but in this movie I was really struck by what a miserable place Haddonfield is to live, even if you discount the periodic spree killings. Jamie is teased mercilessly for having a dead mother; a group of teenagers taunt an old man trying to get a ride, and a bunch of local rednecks grab their guns and take off after hearing word of Myers’ escape, managing to shoot innocent bystanders in the process. The police are as clueless as in the rest of the series. In short, if I lived in Haddonfield, I’d move.

Once MM reaches Haddonfield, he goes on the usual massacre, including killing the only teenager who has sex, as is the custom. After being thwarted for several movies by the fact that Michael is impervious to being shot, the townspeople find the way to kill him: shooting him a lot. It seems the not-so-good people of Haddonfield can get back to the lives they lead between bloody massacres. After being suspiciously absent during the chaos, Jamie’s foster family picks her up and carries her home. All is well until we hear Jamie’s mother give a blood-curdling off-camera scream, and Jamie emerges in her clown costume, holding a bloody knife. It looks like Halloween 5 is going to be a nine-year-old girl on a rampage.

After the semi-failure of Halloween III, the Halloween franchise set dormant for a few years, while Michael Myers’ “offspring” such as Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger went on regular, money-grabbing, killing sprees. This inspired the studio, led by Moustapha Akkad to revive the series and get it back to its roots. John Carpenter and Debra Hill were contacted, and, with noted horror author Dennis Etchison, produced a treatment that dealt with the psychological aspects of a town such as Haddonfield dealing with the aftermath of tragedy. Supposedly, Akkad read it, pronounced it too cerebral, and said he wanted a guy in a mask running around stabbing people with a knife. Carpenter and Hill sold their rights to the franchise, Etchison was canned, and the series re-started. I’d love to know what Carpenter and Etchison intended for the movie, but that dwells in the realm of Things That Were Not Meant To Be.

Supposedly, the producers felt there was too little gore in the completed cut, and the bloody scenes were re-shoots, added later. One of the things that have surprised me in re-watching this series is how relatively bloodless it is, and Halloween 4 isn’t that gory even with the new scenes. The franchise was at its best when it suggested bloody horror, not when it was shown.

So, how is Halloween 4, after all that? Surprisingly decent, in my opinion. It is very low on originality, but as a by-the-numbers slasher film, it is well put together. The cast does a good job, the clothing and hairstyles have as little 80s embarrassments as possible, and the script and direction are solid. If you like slasher films, you should like this one.