A longstanding tradition of cinema is the sports movie, usually with that ageless tale of a scrappy underdog overcoming their limitations and defeating the big bad opponent. Within that genre is the ever-popular sports comedy, with such hits as Major League, The Waterboy, and Dodgeball, which tend to focus on the more violent aspects of their respective sports (of course, with Dodgeball that was inevitable). When it comes to hockey, there's Slap Shot, a 1977 screwball comedy with Paul Newman focusing on a ragtag, failing minor league hockey team that decides to go out with a bang and simply fight their way through their last season. The on-ice hijinks of the hilarious Hanson Brothers have made this a favorite with hockey fans and players, and some consider it the best hockey movie ever made. However, in 2012 the movie Goon hit the scene, based on the true story of hockey enforcer Doug Smith, and is a major contender for the best hockey comedy.
Goon was written by Canadians Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg, and directed by Canadian Michael Dowse (basically, this movie is one big Canuck-fest). It follows three characters, though we'll actually get to the main character last. French Canadian Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin) is a hockey prodigy on his way to the top when he gets creamed during a game by Ross "The Boss" Rhea (Liev Schrieber), a veteran enforcer who hits hard and plays dirty. Laflamme is traumatized by the attack, and can't seem to find his feet on the ice anymore, eventually getting booted down to minors to get his head straight, though instead he becomes a drug-addled washout. Rhea's ruthless tactics catch up with him and after a 20-game suspension for a particularly nasty foul, he gets knocked down to the minors himself, where he will play out the final season of his hockey career with his original team, St. John's Shamrocks. Amid all this, Doug Glatt (Sean William Scott) is a dim-witted nice guy working as a bouncer in Massachusetts, who attends a local hockey game with his hockey enthusiast friend (Jay Baruchel) and gets into a fight with one of the visiting players. Doug flattens the guy, catching the eye of the opposing coach, who recruits Doug to his team as an enforcer, trains him to skate halfway decently, and transfers Doug to the Halifax Highlanders where he is tasked with protecting Xavier Laflamme. Though he gets off to a rocky start with Laflamme, "Doug the Thug" comes to enjoy his role as bodyguard for the team, and starts leading Halifax to small victories. All the while, Ross the Boss looms on the horizon, as the Highlanders will eventually play the Shamrocks, and sooner or later Doug will have to go head-to-head with Ross Rhea. It will be a showdown for the ages!
With Baruchel and Goldberg at the helm, Goon really puts the "comedy" in sports comedy. The laughs come fast and loose, as does the profanity and sexual innuendos. The duo are Judd Appatow alums, and that wacky, raunchy style of humor carries over into Goon, which is often described as Slap Shot meets Superbad. The humor, vulgar though it can be, is delivered with such exuberance it's difficult not to get swept up in the fun and laugh along. Most of the humor comes from the Halifax Highlanders and their camraderie both on the ice and in the locker room. They really capture that "motley team of misfits" vibe, are all very well-characterized and funny, as well as a whirlwind of Canadian stereotypes and quirks that make them an overall joy to watch. In fact, one of my few criticisms of the film is that I wish more time was spent with these guys, because their antics could fill a whole movie, easily. Alison Pill plays Doug's love interest, Eva, and does a solid job. It's a good illustration of Doug bringing out the best in people, and they do have some sweet and funny moments, but in the end it feels a bit unnecessary and takes away more potential screentime from the Highlanders. It's also great to see actors show their comedic chops who don't often get to do so, like Liev Schrieber and Kim Coates, as the Highlanders' profane and perpetually angry coach. For the hockey fans, there's a cameo from real NHL enforcer Georges Laraque (twice, even), a hilarious turn by former announcer Curt Keilbach, and many other references to real hockey teams and famous incidents. This film also depicts hockey violence in all its glory, for better or for worse; in fact, I'd say it's one of the bloodiest films you'll see outside of the action or horror genres. It's meant to both celebrate the longstanding tradition of hockey fights, and question our consumption of it, and to that end the hyperviolence works.
Because of the focus on violence and fighting, the up-and-coming underdog story, and the heavy setup of Doug and Ross Rhea's showdown, Goon has been considered "Rocky on ice". There's even certain lines, scenes, and shots that seem directly inspired by the 1976 classic. Perhaps the biggest similarity, and the most beneficial, is the strength of its main character, and it must be mentioned on this front that Sean William Scott (yes, Stifler) gives an amazing performance, perhaps the best of his career. Like Rocky Balboa, Doug Glatt isn't the brightest guy, and is fully aware of the fact. Though he struggles to find his lot in life, Doug more than anything else feels the drive to protect people, and finds that outlet in hockey. This kind of characterization not only gives plenty of depth and charm to Doug, it also examines the role of enforcers in a more nuanced light. In this film, at least, it's not about barbarism or simple thuggery; Doug fights to protect and support his teammates and give them much-needed confidence. Even Doug's first fight, where he was discovered, was about defending his brother's honor. Ross Rhea is also a very compelling character in his own right and anchored by Schrieber's reliably strong portrayal; he's not just a foil for Doug, but a harsh look at the darker side of hockey. Ross is on his way out, and has come to the depressing realization that after everything he's done for the sport, "They just want you to bleed."
Goon is a treat; a film that knows its purpose and gets right to it, delivering a fun and fast-paced ride, while telling a surprisingly touching story about a dumb but sweet bruiser who finds his calling in hockey. For my money, this is a superior film to Slap Shot, which I find to be overlong, muddled, and let's be honest, painfully dated, in everything from its sexual politics to fashions. Goon tells a much more substantial and focused story, with a stronger examination of violence within the sport, and is much more consistently funny, especially when things move off the ice. That's not just to bash Slap Shot, but to point out how much Goon is worth your time. If you're in any way interested in hockey, sports comedies, or just really good comedies in general, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. Goon is available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video: free for Prime users, otherwise a $1 rental (!) or $10 purchase. The DVD purchase is only $7.50, though, and definitely a keeper. It will even make for some good Thanksgiving entertainment, once the food has been eaten and the inevitable couch-sitting sets in. Just make sure everyone in the audience is prepared for the violence and language, and have a good time with the Highlanders!
I hope everyone had a great October! The skittish among you can remove your hands from over your eyes, we're done with the horror movies...for now. We'll be doing a new section of reviews, In Case You Missed It, focusing on hidden gems and films from recent years that probably passed under the radar for most people. There's so many movies released every year, it's darn near impossible to see them all, and many good ones fall by the wayside for one reason or another. So let's rectify that!
The Way, Way Back came out earlier this year, July 2013, after premiering at Sundance in January. It was written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who had success in 2011- including an Oscar- with their screenplay for The Descendants, starring George Clooney. The Way, Way Back follows Duncan, an awkward, introverted teenager who is reluctantly on summer vacation with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell), and Trent's daughter Steph, as they go to Trent's beach house in Cape Cod. Trent is pushy and emotionally abusive toward Duncan, who is still coming to terms with his mother dating again. After being continually ignored by the adults and shunned by Steph, Duncan starts exploring the cape and discovers the local water park, Water Wizz. There he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), an offbeat slacker whose entertaining antics and friendly demeanor Duncan finds oddly welcoming. As the situation back at home becomes increasingly uncomfortable, Water Wizz becomes Duncan's escape for the summer, as he makes new friends with the staff and finds a place he can finally fit in, and actually begins to enjoy his vacation.
The Way, Way Back doesn't break much new ground, with similarities to movies like Meatballs, Dirty Dancing, and Adventureland. The plot is neither very original nor all that complex, but it tackles these familiar stories with wit and presents a charming coming-of-age tale. Many elements of the script are taken directly from Jim Rash's own childhood, including Trent's opening monologue to Duncan (originating from Rash's stepfather), which has to be heard to be believed. The film was thusly intended to take place in the mid-80s, before being updated to modern day, and as a result has a very nostalgic feel, with 80s references all over the place. Amid the iPods and jaded post-modern youth, there's Pac-Man, REO Speedwagon and Mr. Mister (complete with misheard lyric "carry a laser"), and a water park that is mentioned to be intentionally stuck in 1983. The title itself refers to the back seat of an old family station wagon, the ones that faced backward, which is not only a nostalgic detail but dramatically relevant; Duncan is stuck back there as a means of being marginalized by Trent, essentially on a separate vacation from everyone else.
The star-studded cast does a great job in each of their roles; Liam James as Duncan captures the discomfort of adolescence and the misery of being stuck with unwanted company quite well. Toni Collette is solid as his conflicted mother, clinging to Trent to avoid being alone after divorce. Steve Carrell takes on a rare antagonistic role and really does his job, which is making you want to punch Trent right in the face. Allison Janney steals most of her scenes as the hilariously inappropriate and boozily obnoxious neighbor Betty, and AnnaSophia Robb plays her daughter Susanna, a sensible teen who is jaded by all the immaturity the adults around her display, and who is also a love interest for Duncan. Jim Rash and Nat Faxon themselves play supporting roles as two Water Wizz employees. The Oscar-winning writers are no strangers to acting; Nat Faxon is currently starring in Ben and Kate on FOX, and Jim Rash became a breakout star as the eccentric Dean Pelton in NBC's Community. They're both quite amusing in their roles, especially Rash with his extremely dry delivery of lines. Maya Rudolph even makes an appearance as Owen's long-suffering girlfriend. Sam Rockwell steals the show, however, as Owen. He is hilarious every second he's on screen, while bringing much warmth and moral support to Duncan's life. Rockwell's rapid-fire dialogue, improvisation, and "lovable sleazeball" persona evoke the classic roles of the great Bill Murray; indeed, Rockwell said he was inspired by Murray's head counselor character from Meatballs.
If this all sounds trite or frivolous to you- "Oh, this poor kid and his first world problems, dealing with boredom on his vacation to a beautiful beach town, boo hoo"- I can't argue with that too much; 12 Years a Slave this is not. But The Way, Way Back is more than that: it's about finding something in life you can really care about and excel at. It's about not letting jerks like Trent dominate the social sphere simply because they have a more forceful personality (something introverts have to deal with all the time). Above all, it's about finding love and acceptance and forming true familial bonds. Such themes are universal, and elevate The Way, Way Back above its modest beginnings, while Sam Rockwell's comedic performance is among his best. The film is available on Amazon Instant Viewing for a $5 rental, $13 purchase, with the DVD/Blu-ray price as $15/$20. It's rated PG-13 for language (the word "shit" is used a fair amount), so if you're looking for some family-friendly comedy viewing this Thanksgiving, give The Way, Way Back a look. The humor and nostalgia make it quite the feel-good film. And if you missed last year's The Descendants, check that one out, too. Rash and Faxon are emerging as quite the filmmaking team, and their sophmore effort here is an immensely enjoyable and heartwarming entry.
The final night of 31 Days of Horror! As tonight is Halloween, it only seems fitting that this entry be an actual Halloween movie. Trick 'r Treat was written and directed by Michael Dougherty in 2007, but for various reasons was not released theatrically at the time, with even the DVD and Blu-ray release being shelved for a couple years. As a result, the film is still fairly unknown, though it has gathered a strong cult following. This under-exposure is highly unfortunate, as Trick 'r Treat is not only a fantastic and fun horror flick, it's the quintessential Halloween movie, truly capturing the lore and flavor of the holiday.
The film takes place in Warren Valley, a Halloween-o-phile's dream. The entire town goes all-out for it, with each house impeccably decorated, everyone wearing an elaborate costume, and even a Halloween parade! Trick 'r Treat is an anthology film, following the adventures of different characters all across town. A young couple (Leslie Bibb and Tahmoh Penikett) handles their yard clean-up, while the wife laments the holiday. Principal Wilkins (Dylan Baker) deals with a troublesome student outside of class in a rather severe manner. Laurie (Anna Paquin), a 20-something virgin, tries to find a date for a Halloween party, ignoring the taunts of her older sister and friends. A young group of trick or treaters string along their savant classmate Rhonda (Samm Todd) on a Halloween prank, while recounting yet another story, a local legend involving a school bus and a rock quarry. Finally, old man Kreeg (Brian Cox) is a Halloween-hating curmudgeon who gets a harsh lesson in appreciating the holiday. Each story has its own style and focus, but they are closely intertwined- quite cleverly, in fact- and all feature the same little orange-pajama and scarecrow-mask-wearing tyke, Sam (we'll get to him). These all take place on the same night- except for the School Bus Story, which is told in flashback- each end with some kind of horrific twist, and they each bring out a different theme related to Halloween.
The anthology format works quite well, allowing a broader focus on all things Halloween-related, and giving the viewer a bit of everything. The Principal's Story is funny, employing gross-out humor and black comedy mixed with a brand supsense from the likes of Psycho, as Wilkins has to deal with a messy problem despite much unwanted attention. Laurie's story is slower and more eerie, as she tries to find a suitable guy for the party, in a town apparently full of crazy and dangerous people. Her story also becomes more enjoyable on repeat viewings, as the twist brings to light a myriad of jokes and references that were missed the first time around.
The story with the young trick or treaters is the creepiest, and feels like a nostalgic throwback to childhood movies like Monster Squad or Hocus Pocus, with Halloween pranks and hijinks abound. The retelling of the School Bus legend evokes the age-old tradition of recounting scary stories around the campfire, and the School Bus story itself is a haunting tale with an ending that will chill you to the bone. Kreeg's story is most reminiscent of a classic haunted house or stalking monster flick, as he battles a mysterious enemy that won't stop until it's gotten what it wants, and is alternately scary and funny. Kreeg's story actually has two endings, but we won't spoil that here.
Trick 'r Treat has some grisly and gruesome moments, and it's notable that the punishable offense in this film isn't being "bad" or "mean", but rather being irreverent to Halloween and its customs. The character of Sam is there to enforce that theme. He is a fun little enigma, cute in his pajama costume but still somehow sinister. As noted above, he appears in each vignette, usually just making a cameo, but occasionally taking a more active role. He's a well designed mascot for the film, combining youthful innocence and malevolent mischief, two qualities that compose Halloween, and he's even named after the holiday's ancestor, Samhain. The film is also chock-full of references and homages to the horror genre. The anthology format and comic book framing device evoke Creepshow or Tales From the Crypt. Laurie and her sister Danielle seem to be alluding to Laurie Strode and her niece Jaime Lloyd (played by Danielle Harris) from the Halloween franchise. There's also a glimpse of a masked man who just stands and stares, just like Michael Myers in the original Halloween. There are even shout-outs to the likes of Pet Semetary, The Thing and Evil Dead. If the film didn't feel Halloween-y enough already, there are pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns in just about every scene, delightfully carved and possessing plenty of character themselves.
Trick 'r Treat is a wonderful ode to Halloween, and a criminally under-seen film. It delves into the traditions and history of Samhain with great respect, and the film is overflowing with spooky ambience, darkly funny moments, and some genuine frights. The cinematography is amazing, with beautiful, wide shots, and so many elaborately decorated locales and creepy settings. The School Bus Story is especially well-shot and absolutely gorgeous, despite the horrific events that unfold. This is the perfect movie for a Halloween party, with the absorbing atmosphere being properly thematic, and the anthology format allowing everyone to find something to enjoy in the film. Trick 'r Treat is available on Amazon Instant Video for a $2 rental, a DVD purchase available for $5 or a Blu-ray for $7. These are absolute steals, so don't hestitate! This one is destined to become a classic, so hop on board and enjoy the Halloween fun.... or Sam will get you!
It's the eve of All Hallow's Eve! Tonight, we take a look at Dark Night of the Scarecrow.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow was a television movie that aired on CBS in October 1981, written by J. D. Fiegelson and directed by Frank De Felitta. It follows the story of Bubba, a mentally retarded adult living in a small backwoods town that doesn't understand or accept him. In particular, the local postman, Otis Hazelrigg (how's that for a name?) has a deep mistrust of Bubba and his odd-but-innocent friendship with a young girl, Marylee. When Marylee is involved in a tragic accident, Bubba is blamed and Otis and his posse of good ol' boys take justice into their own hands. They track down Bubba and ruthlessly execute him while he stands hidden in a scarecrow outfit. After a somewhat goofy trial scene (with the defending lawyer repeatedly yelling "Objection!" with no legal context), the men resume their daily routines, living with the horror of what they've done. But not everyone is so forgiving, and as the men start seeing scarecrows appearing in the fields, they realize vengeance can go both ways...
Don't let the made-for-TV status fool you; this is a dark and spooky film, never lame or cheesy like so many of its brethren. For a movie made in 1981 that aired on television, Dark Night of the Scarecrow has some surprisingly edgy content, with the harassment of the mentally challenged, vicious vigiliantism, cold-blooded murder, and even allegations of pedophilia being central to the plot. The filmmakers used their low budget and minimalist structure to full effect, creating a sense of dread and tension that slowly builds throughout the film. The titular scarecrow is well conceived; rarely seen, but causing fear and panic whenever he does appear. Scarecrows are naturally creepy, always watching... and waiting... despite being made of straw, of course. The rural setting is also used brilliantly, with wide open, blustery fields and country roads making for some beautiful but eerie scenery, and farm machinery has never seemed creepier than it does here. The kills are all karmic (most of them, anyway), well-shot, and chilling. The film is quite violent, but wisely doesn't show much blood or gore. It couldn't, of course, being shown on broadcast television, but nevertheless it proves it doesn't take bloody carnage for a film to be frightening.
The performances are great and ground the film. Larry Drake is sweet and innocent (in contrast to some of his later, creepy roles) as the hapless Bubba, and Jocelyn Brando (sister to Marlon Brando) gives a fierce but touching performance as his protective mother. Lane Smith is solid as one of the good ol' boys, not as nasty as their leader but still corrupt, and Tonya Crowe really delivers as young Marylee, alternately portraying joy, fear, and hatred, all with a youthful innocence, but never falling prey to the typical pitfalls of child acting. It's a shame the actress never did much beyond Knots Landing. Finally, there's the film's villain, Otis. Charles Durning is an old veteran, and makes Otis Hazelrigg a truly awful character that you can't help but hate. He is small-minded, manipulative, and self-serving, a muderer and closet alcoholic (and possibly a closet something-else) who drives every bad thing that happens in the film. This is probably the most despicable role Durning ever had in his long, illustrious career, but it's still an amazing performance.
Dark Night is essentially a slasher, though less bloody and more subdued that the typical fare. While the kills are scary and violent, the movie is really about the horror of humanity, how ghastly people can be and how quickly and terribly things can spiral out of control. Otis is a horrid person, for sure, but he's also a scared man trapped by his bad decisions and desperately trying to find a way out. He only makes things worse, spinning a bigger web of lies and violence, and several people have to suffer by his hands before he's finished. When fate finally closes in on Otis, you'll find yourself spooked and satisfied in about equal measures.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow is an amazing little gem, a made-for-TV movie that transcends its modest stature and delivers the chills and thrills, with believable characters, a well-paced and absorbing plot, and a spooky autumn atmosphere that is perfect for Halloween. The score by Glenn Paxton is ominous and alluring, and plays a vital role, the cues used to accentuate the frightening scenes masterfully. On the whole, the film evokes the feeling of the seminal Halloween (1978), a creepy slasher that relied more on mood and subtlety than blood or jump scares. I don't usually review the actual formats of films themselves, but it must be said that the recent DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film are nothing short of fantastic, looking and sounding amazing for a TV movie from the early 80s. You can find the entire movie on YouTube, but if you want to experience it in full, buy or rent one of these releases; you won't regret it. If you want a slower, more atmospheric horror film, with a gorgeous rural setting and the perfect victims, track down Dark Night of the Scarecrow.
We're going to take a break from scaring ourselves today and have a little fun with another video game. Plants vs. Zombies is a tower defense game designed by George Fan and published by PopCap in 2009. For the uninitiated, tower defense is a type of strategy game in which you keep an invading army from reaching your castle (or whatever you're defending) by placing defensive units on the battlefield. These units differ in strength, purpose, and cost, and their placement on the battlefield is key to heading off the opposing army. To succeed, you have to balance your resources, ensuring good coverage of the field while not depleting your backup units or the currency you're using to purchase them. Plants vs. Zombies took this formula and adapted it, giving it a new theme, tweaked game mechanics, and a distinct personality, while making it accessible to gamers of all levels. Instead of a castle, you are now defending your house, and your neighbor, Crazy Dave, will guide you through the onslaught. The battlefield is now your front lawn (or your back lawn, pool, or even the roof!), and you must use plants- peashooters, cabbage-pults, and the like- to fend off endless hordes of zombies that are trying to reach your front door and eat your tasty brains!
The thematic overhaul is a welcome one, taking tower defense beyond the typical medieval/fantasy setting, and the plants and zombies fit into their respective roles quite well. Plants make sense as defense towers, being literally rooted to the spot you plant them, and the currency you use to purchase them is sunlight- collected from sunflowers or the sun itself. Zombies make a good invasion army, as they are literally mindless hordes that would make a suicide charge across your lawn with no regard for themselves. They don't pose much of a threat individually- at least not your garden variety types- but in great numbers can quickly overwhelm you, which is consistent with their portrayal in classic zombie movies.
Plants vs. Zombies has a wonderful visual aesthetic, as is to be expected from PopCap. The interface is clean and you won't have any trouble understanding what your different plants do. The zombies are well-designed; clearly zombies but with a cartoony look that is more appealing than scary. The violence is similarly inoffensive; as they take damage, zombies will lose an arm and then their heads (actually a helpful damage indicator), or they will be incinerated in explosions, Wile E. Coyote-style, turning completely black before disintegrating into a pile of ash. As such, if you feel comfortable explaining to your kids the basic nature of zombies, I would say this game is appropriate for all ages. On that note, the game's difficulty curve is extremely gradual, easing new players into the process at a good pace, introducing one new plant or zombie type at a time (and typically, the new additions go hand-in-hand; the new plants are needed to fight the new zombies).
The game isn't very difficult, but that doesn't mean you won't spend a lot of time with it. Plants vs. Zombies does a lot with its simple concept, and offers many innovative ways to play. The main game has a plethora of amusing zombies and even more plant types, giving you many different strategies and ways of using your army. There are many types of undead invaders, ranging from Football and Disco Zombies (disco is dead, get it?) to Pole-Vaulting and Pogo Zombies, which can bypass your defenses. My personal favorite is the Zomboni, who plows over your plants and leaves a trail of ice, soon to be followed by Bobsled Zombies. You are given different plants to cope with all of this, simple shooters and catapults, but also plants that attack from below or behind, and a hefty arsenal of explosives. For night levels- where sun is at a premium- you will probably want to use Mushrooms, which cost less but come with their own weaknesses. The game is never really scary, but can certainly make you nervous and panicked as your forces are overwhelmed, especially in the later levels.
Beyond that, Plants vs. Zombies has tons of modes, minigames, and supplemental content to keep you entertained, backed by a list of worthy achievements (that are actually fun and interesting to try) and a downloadable content system that is actually fair and smart- you don't have to spend a dime to unlock everything in the game. The minigames and different modes are brilliantly designed; they offer a completely different play experience while still remaining true to the theme and style of the game. Some of them could be entire games themselves, especially "I, Zombie" which reverses things and lets you be the invasion force, trying to bypass the plants and reach those coveted brains!
Plants vs. Zombies is a superb game, offering an engaging tower defense experience with enough tweaks and innovations to stay fresh and fun. It functions perfectly as a portable game, allowing 5-minute game sessions whenever you have the downtime. Above all, the game is FUNNY! Crazy Dave is bizarre and has some great lines, the zombies and their animations are amusing, and all the little in-jokes and references complete the experience. Each plant and zombie have their own entry in the Almanac, and they are all hilariously written and quirky. The music is also fantastic, composed by Laura Shigihara. The tracks have a classic feel to them, infused with a little funk here and there, and are catchy enough not to be obnoxious when looped. Particular standouts are "Graze the Roof" and "Braniac Maniac" which accompany the final levels, as well as the game-ending track, "Zombie on Your Lawn", which is hilarious and actually has vocals. Plants vs. Zombies is available on just about every platform, including PC, Mac, Steam, mobile devices, portable systems and home consoles, and the app is currently $1 on iTunes. If you have yet to play this game, go out and get it! It is a wonderful experience and a fun, safe way to get some zombie action this Halloween.
In 1993, Chris Carter debuted The X-Files on Fox, about a basement division of the FBI that investigated cases "too weird" for the rest of the bureau, and television was never the same again. The show became known for its complex, season-long myth arcs and focus on the supernatural, and it paved the way for a new age of science fiction and horror television, influencing shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and later hits Lost and Fringe. It carved out its own niche of a timeslot, establishing Sunday nights as the evening for more cerebral, well-written programs (something still seen to this day on AMC, HBO, and Showtime). The main characters, agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, would become television icons, and even the theme song had a legacy, the tune being associated with the eerie and the supernatural in general. While the show waned in quality and popularity in its later years, its early seasons and several key episodes are still regarded very highly, and that's where we look tonight.
"Squeeze" is the third episode of the first season of The X-Files, written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed (mostly) by Harry Longstreet. It was the first episode to veer away from the aliens and government conspiracy and instead focused on an original, individual villain- a standard format of these types of shows, known as a Monster of the Week episode. When a string of grisly murders leaves no easy leads and no conceivable entry point, one of her old FBI colleagues taps Scully for her newfound experience with weird cases. It seems the victims were all missing one vital organ...their livers! Where's the fava beans and an Amarone when you need them? Scully brings Mulder in, and he finds evidence that leads him to believe the case is connected to other murders from decades ago. As they close in on a suspect, Eugene Tooms, they realize he is more wily than they could have guessed. Mulder is sure Tooms is responsible, but without evidence or an explanation, is his theory too much of a stretch?
"Squeeze" is a fantastic episode. It works as a stand-alone perfectly, and is one of the scariest hours of The X-Files, which is no easy feat. The murders are gruesome (though not graphic) and very creepy, as we initially don't know how exactly Tooms is committing them. Even when his method is revealed- in a brilliantly shot sequence- it is so unnerving it's difficult not to simply stare at the screen agape. Doug Hutchison portrayed Eugene Tooms, and did an excellent job, supposedly channeling Anthony Hopkins' performance from The Silence of the Lambs. He is just so off-putting and menacing even when he's claiming to be innocent, and when his rage really manifests, it's terrifying. David Duchovny does a great job as usual as Mulder, earnestly invested in his quest for truth, but still injecting plenty of humor into the proceedings- he loves screwing with the disbelieving agents around him, and they usually deserve it. This is Scully's episode, though, and Gillian Anderson fabulously portrays her dealing with divided loyalties- does she stand by Mulder and see the case through, past the point of credibility? Or will she choose her old colleagues and old career, and finally find a way out of the basement? It's a compelling dilemma that gives Scully plenty to consider while still dealing with the horrific case in front of her, and it touches on the themes that would persist throughout the seasons, of truth versus agency politics.
The pairing of Mulder and Scully is one of the defining elements of The X-Files. "Spooky Mulder" firmly believes in the supernatural, having seen many incidents firsthand, and has a conspiracy theory for every refuted instance. Scully is a scientist and the skeptic of the two, refusing to believe in the creepy stuff until she can observe and prove it empirically. This dichotomy was usually used within the show to explore the themes of knowledge vs. truth, the supernatural, and the malevolence of governement coverups. In this Monster of the Week episode, it is used to subtly heighten the terror and mystery, as we wonder whose theory disturbs us less. Is Tooms some kind of demon, abandoning or abusing his shell of a body to slaughter his victims and mutilate their corpses? Or is he a mortal man, part of some serial killer lineage, who has found some way to fool forensics, and can severely contort himself? Does he take the livers because he needs them, or simply because he wants to? Which answer is scarier? Sometimes it took these Monster-of-the-Week to dig up the real horror of The X-Files. The government coverups were almost comforting- it at least meant the government knew what was going on and were keeping tabs on it. Tooms, on the other hand, is an isolated, unchecked, terrifying threat. He can appear seemingly out of nowhere, kill you with his bare hands, and vanish from the scene without a trace, without anyone ever knowing what really happened.
Tooms was so frightening, in fact, and so popular that he actually made a second appearance toward the end of Season 1, in the appropriately-named episode, "Tooms". We will likely visit that followup in a future horror countdown, but for now, enjoy what "Squeeze" has to offer: an absorbing mystery, a creepy and well-paced investigation of answers, and a Monster of the Week that proved Monsters of the Week were a viable format. It offers significant character development for Scully and some great one-liners from Mulder. The episode ends on a wonderful note; the case is resolved but things are still open for more possibilites, something that X-Files was all about. Season 1 is available on both Netflix streaming and Amazon Instant Video (free for Prime users, $2 per episode otherwise), and "Squeeze" is episode 1x03. Stretch your mind and give it a watch this Halloween!
Before we go any further into this countdown, I should make something clear: I am TERRIFIED of ventriloquist dummies. They are among the creepiest things ever invented, and if it wasn't for the great respect I have for the difficult and underappreciated art of ventriloquism, I would throw every dummy I came across into a woodchipper and then set it ablaze. It may be due to the Goosebumps book Night of the Living Dummy, which, despite Goosebumps' later reputation for repetitive formula and lameness, was actually a pretty frightening book for young me- Slappy and the other dummies were surprisingly evil. It may simply be due to the Uncanny Valley, and how unnatural dummies look and feel. Or it may just be the fact that every time I see one of these glassy-eyed, slack-jawed, wooden-headed freaks, I can't shake the feeling that it actually might BE ALIVE (ahh kill it with fire!) Imagine my fear, then, my unbridled terror when I saw the trailer for Dead Silence. Oh boy, here it is. A slasher film revolving around ventriloquist dummies and dolls and the crazy old lady who owned them, by the guys behind Saw! What could possibly be scarier?
Dead Silence was written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan in 2007, the creative team behind Saw and Insidious. The film opens with a young couple receiving a mysterious package containing a ventriloquist doll. If I was the protagonist, the movie would end immediately because that thing would go headfirst down the garbage disposal, but I'm not and so here we are. When the husband- Jamie- steps out to get some Chinese food for dinner, the wife experiences an eerie moment where every sound in the aparment goes completely silent...right before she meets her grisly end. The police like Jamie for the murder, but he has a different theory, and takes off with the dummy (who's named Billy, by the way) back to Ravens Fair, his hometown and the source of a spooky legend, summarized in the nursery rhyme above. As Jamie investigates Mary Shaw's grave, her performing theater, and stories about her from the mortician (Michael Fairman, giving the best performance in the film), he learns that Shaw was killed by locals after being implicated in the death of a boy who heckled her on stage during her ventriloquism act. Ever since then, the men involved in Shaw's death and all their descendants have been dying mysterious and gory deaths, and Jamie and his father may be the last in line.
Dead Silence gets a few things very right; the eerie atmosphere is quite well done, with a creepy, decaying feeling all about Ravens Fair. Though the film is given an overbearing blue tint throughout, overdoing things a bit, the production design is generally fantastic. The abandoned theater is a great set, decrepit and dusty, holding secrets and evils unknown within its walls. The ventriloquist dolls are scary enough to be effective simply on principle, and the scenes of everything becoming silent right before an attack are quite terrifying, superbly conceived and realized. The film even opens with an old Universal logo from the silent era, which was a nice touch. "Throwing one's voice" has such wonderful potential in a horror film, and while it is used to good effect in Dead Silence, so much more could have been done with it, particularly in lieu of less effective sequences. The performances are generally lacking, though as mentioned Michael Fairman does a great job as the mortician, and Donnie Wahlberg gives an amusing if undercooked performance as a sleazy detective. There is a twist ending, something apparently mandatory in horror these days, and while you may see it coming, it's actually a pretty great twist, thematic and interesting in its own right.
For all it does right, though, Dead Silence still comes up short. There's just no getting around how boring this film is; too many characters are stiffly acted, too many scenes of dialogue poorly written, and the plot is so riddled with holes and problems it's tough to even separate them. Suffice it to say that the Mary Shaw legend- the one the film hinges on- could have used a lot more work. The mechanics of her "curse", her motivation in killing a particular character, and her start of darkness are all pretty ambiguous; Mary Shaw's rage doesn't really frighten us because it doesn't fully make sense. Hell, even the nursery rhyme itself is weak- "Shaw" and "dolls" do not rhyme, and the cadence just feels off. I wouldn't normally harp on such things, but it reflects the half-assed manner in which this film's villain was realized. Finally, the gore is fairly subdued (for the Saw guys, anyway) but still unnecessary. *Mild Spoilers* The filmmakers also went with a disasterous production choice and decided to give Mary Shaw an enormous CGI tongue late in the film. The idea is that Mary steals the tongues of her victims and keeps their voices, but the thing is just so ridiculous it completely took me out of the film. The film forwent its subtle scares- the creepiness of a dummy's eyes moving to stare at you, or the eerieness of hearing a voice from somewhere you shouldn't- and opted for a ten-foot-long, obviously fake monstrosity pieced together from stolen tongues. It completely kills the spooky tension built up in that scene, and just looks silly. *End Spoilers*
Dead Silence is a disappointment, but it's an enjoyable disappointment. It's a good illustration of what works and what doesn't in the horror genre, and it has style and spookiness to spare. The ventriloquism theme and the device of total silence are brilliantly devised, but they could have used a much stronger script surrounding them. It seems even the creators knew the turkey that they made- screenwriter Leigh Whannell cites the film as a cautionary tale of pitch-selling and working with studios, so it is likely not even his fault that the script ended up feeling so patchwork. It's not a lost cause for a Halloween party viewing- the dummies provide the scares and the characters and plot will provide the laughs. However, the film is unavailable on Netflix streaming and is a whopping $10 on Amazon Instant Video (not worth it), so unless you'd like to own the DVD or catch it in the TV lineup, you probably won't be seeing this one anytime soon. Or hearing it!
As Leonard Maltin would put it, we are going "into the vault" today for an old classic, the oldest movie on our list. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a 1920 horror film from Germany, written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, and directed by Robert Wiene. Caligari is important for a number of reasons, considered one of the greatest horror films of the silent era (or all time, for that matter), the first psychological horror film, and one of the first films to feature a twist ending, something that has remained a major element of the horror genre to this day. The film's influence can be seen all across the industry, from film noir and other German Expressionist works, to Alfred Hitchcock, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, zombies, and even modern creators such as David Lynch and Tim Burton, and films like Dark City and Shutter Island. Caligari is claimed by many to be an allegory of the political climate of post-war Germany, and its themes applicable to the rise of Naziism and mob mentality leading up to WWII, but the film still works wonderfully as a horror film, with an eerie atmosphere, a macabre mood, and a surreal, hellish vision of a mysterious world.
Caligari starts with a man, Francis, relating to his story to an old friend of his of how he and his fiancee came to be betrothed. The story involves a traveling mystic, Dr. Caligari, who has all the trappings of a mad scientist, and his patient Cesare, a somnambulist- a man who has been asleep for years, but will awaken to amaze the crowd and answer any questions they have about the past, present, or future. When Francis' friend Alan asks how long he has to live, Cesare tells him he won't see the next dawn and Alan leaves in terror. When the prediction comes true, though, Francis and the police take the mysterious threat more seriously, and start an investigation. But even if Cesare is the killer, he may not be acting of his own will....how many secrets does the enigmatic Dr. Caligari keep?
Despite being an old silent black-and-white film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari communicates its horror through vivid expression. As was common in the silent era, the acting is all very exaggerated and melodramatic. This serves to emote feelings of dread and terror when screams and gasps weren't available tools. The zombie-like, lumbering movements of Cesare lend him an exotic, other-wordly air, and Caligari's short, hunched stature and troll-like motions and expressions give him a swarthy appearance, fulfilling the archetype of the standard old villain- he's even got a top hat! His designs to manipulate the "sleepwalking" Cesare are seen as a metaphor for the manipulation of the public by a forceful leader, something that was becoming increasingly relevant in post-war Germany, and lends itself to much analysis and discussion today. What is especially striking about the film, though, is its set design. The architecture in Caligari is extremely bizarre, very geometric and abstract, obviously fake and with sharp, hard angles jutting out in all directions. It accentuates the film's dream-like quality, and makes even more sense in context of the entire film, once the ending is revealed and the flashback is taken into perspective. The town of Holstenwall is a surreal, monstrous landscape, resembling a kind of Hell the protagonists are trapped in. This has influenced such later works as Halloweentown from Nightmare Before Christmas, and even the ambiguous purgatory of Limbo. The set design is one of the film's defining aspects, and accounts for the majority of its striking visual style.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available across many platforms, available for streaming on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video (free with Prime), and even on YouTube, as the film is in the public domain. It's a foreign film AND a silent film, which seems like a double whammy of a hurdle, but the combination actually works well for today's audiences- you're going to be reading intertitle cards anyway, so the subtitles don't detract from focusing on the film itself. There are many versions of Caligari out there, of varying quality, but the version on Netflix, and most of the versions on Amazon are nicely restored and translated versions; the version on YouTube is predictably of lower quality (but still subtitled). This is a masterpiece of a bygone era, a hugely influential and innovative film that reflects the interesting cultural attitudes of its time, and yet maintains its surreally chilling atmosphere to this day. Step into the past this Halloween to try an old German film from the pre-sound era, and see for yourself if the horrors of yesteryear still resonate today.
Many television comedies (and a fair amount of dramas) have a tradition around this time of year- the Halloween episode. Typically, this would involve some kind of festive party, amusing costumes, and a goofy subplot about the main character getting hints that his date could be a vampire, or another character is seemingly stalked by ghosts until it turns out it's all a big misunderstanding or practical joke. Community is a not a typical show, however, and while they do have the party and the costumes, their Halloween episode decides to take things in a spookier, crazier, and much more hilarious direction.
When Community premiered in Fall 2009, it was riding on the combined star power of Chevy Chase and Joel McHale, and settled right into NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup. By the end of its first season, though it still struggled with getting viewers, Community had not only garnered critical praise for its witty humor and well-developed characters, but had proved wildly popular with a small but devoted demographic of geeks and film buffs who appreciated the copious allusions and homages to their favorite shows and movies, some even culminating in full, episode-long parodies ("Contemporary American Poultry" for Italian mob movies, especially Goodfellas, and "Modern Warfare" for just about every action movie ever made). Community's real talent, though, was not just doing these references, but implementing them in a way that made sense canonically, was appropriate to the characters involved, and actually had dramatic impact on the show's narrative; they had a POINT to them. For Halloween 2010, Community takes on the classic archetype of a zombie invasion, indicated by the episode title- "Epidemiology"- and takes it as far as it possibly can within the realms of the show.
"Epidemiology" is the sixth episode of the second season of Community, written by Karey Dornetto and directed by Anthony Hemingway. While Greendale students are gathered in the "Liscary" for the annual Halloween dance, the Study Group notices Pierce acting more sick and feeble than usual, and fear an outbreak of food poisoning. When Pierce takes a big bite out of Starburns' arm, though, they're pretty sure something else is up, and declare a "ZOMBIE ATTACK!". Turns out Dean Pelton went the predicatbly cheap and creepy route, and the party's "taco meat" is a hazardous substance from an Army surplus store. The group retreats to their study room and cycle through the various zombie survival situation tropes; bitten people hope they might be "special", Jeff finds no help from 911 ("Flava Flav was right!"), and Chang panics like a little girl, appropriate as he is wearing a skirt (we'll get to that). The group is overrun and has to fight their way down to the dark basement for a hilarious spoof of the standard "cat scare". The group has a plan that might save their friends and classmates, but can they survive long enough to see it through?
"Epidemiology" works not just by being uproariously funny, but by using the horror standard of zombies in a new way to explore and poke fun at its many cliches. There are homages to tons of zombie movies throughout, and the party soundtrack is stuck on the Dean's ABBA playlist, so the zombie outbreak is accompanied by the likes of "Dancing Queen", "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" and "Mamma Mia", pretty much defining "soundtrack dissonance". The episode also manages to keep zombies- ZOMBIES- actually plausible within the show's universe. Greendale is a wacky place, and this isn't even the craziest thing to have happened there. Using military rations at a party is completely within character for Dean Pelton, as is quarantining the entire building because someone on the phone told him to. I won't spoil the ending here, but it's also admirable that they managed to conclude the story just as plausibly, not resorting to "it all being a dream", or a story Abed was telling. Furthermore, events from this episode (and the unorthodox way this situation is resolved) actually has real ramifications later in the season. Yes, this episode works perfectly as a one-off, particularly for a Halloween viewing, but it still maintains the show's strong sense of continuity.
On a final note, the costumes are hilarious themselves, fitting for the characters' personalities, and in one case, actually dramatically relevant. Jeff is preoccupied with looking "accidentally handsome", as usual, in a $6,000 suit as David Beckham. Annie is Little Red Riding Hood, representing her surface innocence and naivete, but smoldering sexuality. Britta of course shirks the "sexy girl costume" cliche, but overcompensates with a amorphous "dragon-turtle" costume that she can't even use her hands while wearing. Pierce is a sweaty blowhard as Captain Kirk, Shirley is ambiguous again ("Miss Piggy?" "I can't stop seeing it!"), and the Dean is ambiguous in his own way as Lady Gaga. Chang is his usual loony self, dressed as Peggy Fleming and daring people to name Asian ice skaters when he asks them to guess his costume. Troy and Abed worked hard on their Aliens-themed costumes, a joint effort in which Abed plays the Xenomorph and Troy plays Ripley in the loader suit. These costumes represent not only their immense geekdom, but the strength of their friendship, working as a pair. Troy fears he may be losing his coolness, though, and quits the gig to be a "sexy Dracula" (He doesn't know what kind of Dracula he is, though). Troy, the high school quarterback, is emerging as a nerd and is struggling with this new college identity, something a lot of students go through. Troy goes through a fair amount of character development throughout the season, and this doesn't stop in this episode simply because they're dealing with zombies.
Community doesn't take the easy way out, and it doesn't give up on its characters just because it's a Halloween episode. "Epidemiology" is one of the best episodes of the series; funny, thematic, chock-full of homages and little in-jokes, and still possessing plenty of heart. So many little touches make this episode great, from the redesigned spooky opening credits, to the Dean's bizarre voice memos that sprinkle the party playlist ("add 'Eat, Pray, Love' soundtrack to workout mix"), and a voiceover from the Master of Awesome himself, George Takei. "Epidemiology" will make for a great Halloween viewing, managing to present a zombie outbreak with wit and sincerity, while never seeming out-of-place. Community is not currently available for streaming on Netflix, but the episodes are on Amazon Instant Video for $2 apiece. However, the entire season can be purchased on DVD for about $12, and is very worth it. Grab you friends and get ready for the End of Days like you've never seen it before!
Lullaby was written by Chuck Palahniuk. That's pretty much all you need to know.
What's that? More? Oh, fine, then...
Throughout his career, Chuck Palahniuk has established a very distinct voice as an author. With such works as Fight Club and Choke, he became known for featuring protagonists on the fringe of society, with offbeat preoccupations or hobbies, trying to break out of societal norms, "fight the man", and becoming caught up in really, REALLY messed up situations of their own creation. Palahniuk's not exactly a horror author, but his stories are on their own separate level of "frightening". His is the kind of horror that you absorb slowly and really contemplate, long after you're done reading, until you can't shake the disturbing implications.
Lullaby focuses on Mr. Streator, a journalist investigating a recent series of unexplained crib deaths, while mourning the loss of his own wife and child. The only detail linking these incidents is a library book, containing rhymes and songs from around the world. Streator soon learns the ghastly truth: one of these songs is in fact an African culling song, a chant used by tribes to mercy kill their old, sick, or wounded. Parents are unwittingly euthanizing their infant children with an evening lullaby, and Streator resolves to track down every copy of the book and see them destroyed. He finds himself joined by an amoral realtor, her Wiccan secretary, and the secretary's anarchist boyfriend on a bizarre cross-country trip to do just that. Along the way, Streator must control his own impulses, as his knowledge of the culling song can (and repeatedly does) prove deadly for those around him.
Palahniuk has a knack for making horrific things seem mundane, and the mundane seem horrific, all somehow wrapped up in a veneer of dark humor. Lullaby is a good illustration of this, as the prologue introduces us to Helen, the realtor, who knowingly sells haunted houses, on the grounds that they will be continually bought, vacated, and resold, and the constant turnover will turn a hefty profit. Eerie hauntings- complete with faces appearing in bathtubs, phantom screams and disembodied crying babies, the kind of hauntings that could be the focus of an entire horror novel themselves- are reduced to a bizarre punchline, an unscrupulous but ingenious method for one of our protagonists to make money. A few chapters later, Palahniuk explains to us that most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the 1950s, and so these days when we watch a typical sitcom, we are hearing the laughter of dead people. It's such a simple, peculiar inference that doesn't terrify us up front, but unsettles us slowly, and sticks with us the next time we hear that dead laughter.
On a grander scale, the real horror of Lullaby comes from considering the full ramifications of the culling song. As Streator discusses at length, it could literally mean the end of humankind. In this world of constant and pervasive connectedness, once the culling song got out, there would be no stopping it. People could yell it at you on the street, ring you up on your telephone and whisper it in your ear, or blare it through the radio and wipe out thousands of people in ten seconds. Lullaby was published in 2002, and this connectivity has only increased since then; the Internet would quickly become a slaughterhouse via the culling song. Throughout the novel, Streator laments the modern public, addicted to noise and polluting it everywhere, always seeking new distractions and never really stopping to think and listen to each other. Society's technological progress has created a second Tower of Babel, so to speak, and with the culling song, humanity will be the cause of its own undoing.
Lullaby is a different kind of horror novel. This isn't about ghosts, vampires, or fanged monsters, but rather the horror of the human condition- what we have done to ourselves, our planet, and our society. We are capable of some truly horrible things, and can't bring ourselves to care. Unfortunately, these themes become overly depressing and the novel really drags in the middle, during the road trip segment where Palahniuk's penchant for lists and non-flowing dialogue makes several chapters feel repetitive and ultimately, somewhat pointless. There some late-novel twists that shake things up and keep the proceedings compelling, and the story's structure makes more sense once the final chapter sinks in. Lullaby has a unique and intriguing premise, fascinating and off-kilter philosophical ruminations, much black comedy, and that distinct Chuck Palahniuk flavor. If you want something new and different to read, but still ostensibly horror-themed, try opening Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby this season.