Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Their Later Films (Vol. 2)

Vol. 2 – Vampires.

Vampires, as a sub-genre of the horror cinema genre, is not an uncommon playground for genre film directors to flash their talents in at the beginning of their careers – George Romero gave us Martin at this beginning of his, Tony Scott bestowed the bloody arthouse supernatural opus The Hunger at the beginning of his, and even Tobe Hooper went all Stephen King on us with Salem's Lot – also an early novel for genre king King. Post-seventies and -eighties, Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino got into the toothy action as well, with their collaborative gore-a-thon From Dusk till Dawn. However, my recent musings on this is not about those early vampire films from these celebrated genre directors; instead, I'd been thinking about the later films of celebrated genre directors – filmmakers who decided, later on in their careers, to dabble in cinematic vampire lore, and how these films differed (apart from been more poorly received than their colleagues' early vampire movies). It's really no mystery as to why early-career vampire films were better received than later ones; in the horror genre early films in general have a wider and more boisterous cult following and cult reception than later films in genre directors' careers. But what's interesting about these receptions when it comes to vampire films is just how thematically different the vampire film can be depending on the directors' career trajectory and artistic disposition at that point in their careers. Martin and The Hunger were genius arthouse experiments, and completely different from each other aesthetically. Salem's Lot was a for-hire gig by Warner Brother produced fo broadcast television. From Dusk till Dawn was just a wild ride by two filmmakers at the hugely energetic start of their careers (and which was also a loose rip-of of Richard Wenk's freshman film, Vamp). Later on, though, the vampire film gets more creative, and a little more high-concept, and not always to the appreciation of the audience. Because, really, we're going to out-concept strippers and vampires?

A Vampire in Brooklyn came about in Wes Craven's career between his excitedly-anticipated masterpiece New Nightmare (a Freddy Kruger meta-re-boot) and his insanely successful launching of the Scream franchise. In fact, Wes Craven is the only genre film director I can think of who was so conceptually talented that he was able to start two successful long-running horror franchises, both of which even spawned their own television series. His vampiric collaboration with comedian Eddie Murphy was not exactly a commercial success, and unfortunately marked a personal low-point in Craven's career when Angela Bassett's friend and personal stunt double was killed when filming a stunt-fall on set. However, when looking at the film itself, few people realize that it was Craven's and Murphy's vision that really reignited the idea on not only the horror-comedy, but in having the lead character playing the oblivious straight-man to his far more comedic sidekick, taking the cue from Young Frankenstein. Since Craven's vampire film, this shtick has come back into style with a vengeance. Also moving in on the comedy-vampire territory was John Landis with his movie Innocent Blood, about a vampire who takes it upon herself to wipe out a mob family. When she fucks that up, the mob systematically goes about turning themselves into a gang of vampires. This high-concept guilty pleasure suffered for no other reason than the fact that horror fans would only be comparing it to Landis' masterpiece, An American Werewolf in London. No matter what Landis threw at us in Innocent Blood, he was not going to exceed the giddy excesses of his early horror-monster film. If anyone other than Landis had directed this movie, it would never have had the baggage of comparison attached to it – but on the flipside, really only Landis could have delivered this vampire movie. Stupid catch-22s. Tobe Hooper, who had helmed Stephen King's Salem's Lot, returned to the vampire sub-genre by going sub-sub-genre with his concept and bringing us an adaptation of Colin Wilson's “Space Vampires” under the moniker Lifeforce. Here, a group of astronauts discover, and bring back to earth, the corpse of a female space vampire, only to have her resurrected where her “Lifeforce” begins jumping from one victim's body to the next, until the entire story winds up caught in an apocalyptic-disaster scenario. Without a doubt, this is Hooper's wildest film, which was produced after his catastrophic collaboration with Steven Spielberg and before he signed his groundbreaking horror film work off to Michael Bay and the Hollywood-franchise circle of hell.

Some popular horror genre directors managed to go without touching on the vampire sub-genre at all, such as Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi, and for a long time it seemed Dario Argento would be avoiding the entire vampiric affair as well (although this was not ultimately to be), when in 1998 John Carpenter himself helmed his own vampire opus. Loosely based on the novel by the late John Steakley, John Carpenter's movie was the fist to associate the obvious themes of the vampire and the western movies, and it was also one of the only films to bring the intense idea to the audience that the vampire monsters are actually really hard to kill. This latter fact of the film is really what drives the interest in it, with the heroes constantly stressed and struggling to kill the supernatural beings in a dusty, down-to-earth way. The film unfortunately does come undone despite its stellar cinematic themes, due to the winding-down of Carpenter's career at the time, and the budgetary decision to utilize only the first three chapters of Steakley's clever novel and to extend those limited concepts into a feature-length story. It's a shame, as Steakley's novel (titled Vampire$) shows us the vampire-hunting team as what is really a glorified pest-control unit in the midst of a global infestation, and ultimately as a band of misfits who were clever enough to cash in on the world's situation. All of this was lost in Carpenter's filmed version, including the team's heroic arc, but Carpenter nevertheless left us with one of the meanest, grittiest, vampire scenarios ever put to film, in only a way that Carpenter could have done. In the end, this was probably the last great John Carpenter film. 


Saturday, June 03, 2017

Their Later Films (Vol. 1)

Vol. 1 – George Romero.

At one point, several years ago, when The Dark Half was becoming an older film and Bruiser was still a developing thought in the mind of the director of Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero was my all-time favourite film director. His scripts, to me, were brilliant in their social and societal observations, and his knack for lively and down-to-earth characters resonated through nearly all of his films. Of course, the spectacular gore was a draw, and after all, this was one of the so very few horror movie directors that had actually managed to change the entire landscape of genre cinema not once, but twice in the first third of his phenomenal career that wove through maverick independent filmmaking and high-budget studio productions. In a strange way, those landmark films of Romero's – Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead served to set his own bar so high, it would become, sadly, impossible to leap over for a third time in his filmmaking career. That is not to say in any way that his other films are not worthwhile – in fact, exactly the contrary. Knightriders (1981) was actually the film that cemented him as my favourite director for many years (I'll nod to Martin here, as well), but what astounded me was that Romero's later films could not achieve the cult status as those films of the first two-thirds of his career. Post-Day of the Dead, with his moderately-budgeted studio films Monkey Shines and The Dark Half, Romero seemed to be letting his trademark visceral panache drain from his horror filmmaking ideals, which was physically changing the way he was making his genre films. Romero himself had even said, “Monkey Shines and The Dark Half were basically just exercises in style for me”, meaning he was fucking around with a studio's budget to experiment with horror storytelling. Fair enough. But when he seemed ready to implement these
studio stylings back into his own original horror tales, there was no longer the large genre audience he once had. Romero had changed just when the video market had changed (Bruiser going direct-to-video) and the tastes of the horror audiences had changed, and not in Romero's direction. Which is such a shame – upon reflection, it is actually two of his “Later Films” that boast some of his best, most energetic scriptwriting – I'm talking about the tragically ill-fated Bruiser and Land of the Dead. 

The overall premise of Bruiser is a cause for celebration in and of itself – put-down corporate dreg (Jason Flemyng) wakes up one morning without a face. His features have been seemingly permanently obscured by a plain white Venetian mask mould, which triggers off a series of revenge fantasies that Flemyng can finally act upon now that he doesn't have to look himself in the mirror any longer. He is the anonymous put-upon corporate dreg, now, visually and physically emulating how most of us wind up feeling after years through the corporate grinder. The script is insanely witty, but as per usual with Romero, also completely lacking any subtlety or subtext – everything is thrown right in our faces. A Romero fan like myself loved it, with nearly every actor chewing the scenery. But what is really different here, as with Land of the Dead, is that Romero is no longer relying at all on his indie-filmmaking maverick instincts, instead, he's relying heavily on his production staff, from the cinematographer to his editor to his art directors to his special effects team, something which he has become increasingly disconnected with since 1985's Day of the Dead. Bruiser is the new Romero, the Canadian Romero, the Grunwald-Productions Romero. But if Bruiser was an underappreciated piece of script-writing, Land of the Dead, Romero's next and final big studio movie, was actually something of an unheralded masterpiece. Now, before I get too far into the celebrating of Land of the Dead, I should note that after years of discussing Romero's films with many friends and colleagues, I have found that I am absolutely in the minority on my opinion here. If not the solitary holder of said opinion. Still, it's an opinion, and I do have it – Land of the Dead is one of the best horror scripts ever written. It's particularly amazing to me that it holds so many fresh zombie-movie ideas within after the author has already brought three cinematic zombie blockbusters to the big screen and had even re-written one of them for a 1990 remake. You'd think anyone would have been tapped out – instead, Romero brought out the big guns (literally, in the case of “Dead Reckoning”, one of the films' showpieces of anti-zombie weaponry and lead metaphor regarding the importance of war technology to the rich and the right-wing white people) and delivered one of the funniest, insightful, thoughtful, poignant, entertaining, and engaging of all of his films. The dialogue cracks and the action moves fast. Once again, apart form the scriptwriting, Romero is distanced from the technical aspects of his own film, leaving it up to the studio professionals to help him create a great zombie movie on-screen. But this distancing from the other creative aspect of making his film (the last time Romero cut one of his own movies was Creepshow and the last time he'd been involved in any sort of art direction or lighting was Dawn of the Dead. Land of the Dead was filmed nearly entirely in a green-screen studio, leaving computer graphics artists to render the settings, backdrops, and a lot of the special effects). Still, Land of the Dead stands up almost because it was also a studio production, adding on-screen value to Romero's dark vision and providing strong actors to handle and deliver his clever & ham-fisted dialogue. Land of the Dead also marked the closing of a gargantuan horror series that had been helmed by one of the genre's best and most groundbreaking directors, infusing zombie-dreams and ideas that Romero had been holding onto for a decade and a half; whereupon he was finally able to purge these final images from his mind onto the big screen for one last glorious time.