Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 31 -- Halloween Episode Extraveganza

For my last night of Halloween themed reviews, I thought I'd cover the spate of Halloween themed sitcom episodes that have aired over the past weekAs a bonus, I'll also be mentioning my favorite costume of each episode.

The Venture Bros -- It was good to have the Ventures back on TV, even if for just one night; ready for the new season to start.  While not the show's strongest effort, it did feature a strange appliance faced Cennobite-esque creature intoning "Submit to my pleasure toast!" and you just can't beat that. Best costume: Pete White as "Thinner Whiter Duke"

Ben and Kate -- This has proven to be my favorite new sitcom of the year, and the Halloween episode highlights all of the show's strengths:  Ben and Tommy acting goofy, Kate somehow making being a total control freak seem totally cut, and plenty of BJ/Maddy interaction.  Highlight was Ben realizing that his past behavior of blowing in and out of town made him an "emotional carny"; I hope that signals more plots where Tommy acts as more than just Ben's yes-man.  I also hope that Geoff Stults will be around for a while as Kate's new potential love interest. Best costume of the episode:  Kate as "Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg"

The New Girl -- Before I watched this episode, I'd gotten a text from TopGun saying it was so funny, he had saved it on his DVR to watch later.  About 1/3 of the way through, I was thinking he had way oversold it.  Then we had Schmidt's repeated failed attempts at headbutting, and I began to rethink my assessment.  And then Nick entered the haunted house, and I laughed nonstop for several minutes; Nick's constant freakout was comedy gold.  Best costume:  Jess as "Zombie Woodie Allen"

The Middle -- Very little of the episode was actually Halloween themed, with the bulk of the plot revolving around Sue's attempts to learn how to drive and Axel's surprising excitement about voting, but the one Halloween themed plot -- Brick consuming monster amounts of sugar that made him act normal -- was the highlight of the episode, especially when he came down. Best costume: Frankie as "Raggedy Mouse"

Modern Family -- Overall, much inferior to the previous Halloween episode about the Dunphy's over-the-top Halloween traditions, but the episode was still worth it for the visual gag of Manny getting opposing advice from kids in angel and devil costumes.  Best costume: Luke as the aforementioned devil.

Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 -- I'm probably the only person who was disappointed that the plot point of James van der Beek hating the scary side of Halloween didn't result in June remarking that it was ironic since Dawson loved scaring people.  That irrational quibble aside, I loved this episode: James's positivity party was inspired, and the twists in Chloe's romance were both unexpected and hilarious.  Best costume: June as "female hobbit" because of the thematic resonance . . . and hairy feet, because if we're not being authentic, why are we even here?!?!?!?!

Suburgatory -- Normally I'm not bothered by how bizarre the people of Chatswin are, but the angry mob accusing the feminist of being a witch felt like it was stretching the premise a bit too much.  Best costume:  a group shout out to Tess and crew as Mystery Inc.

The Big Bang Theory -- I'll admit I was kind of distracted during this episode, and since a DVR log-jam forced me to watch it live, I wasn't able to rewind to catch any of the bits I missed.  Best costume: Bernadette as Smurfette.

Raising Hope -- "That is the definition of trickerish!"  Burt continues to be one of my favorite characters on TV. Best costume: Barney as "Buy in Bulk Hulk"

The Mindy Project -- Although I've enjoyed this series more than I'd expected to, this was probably the weakest episode so far, although I did enjoy Mindy's costume montage.  Best costume: Mindy's "Li'l Wayne on the Prarie"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 30 -- Remake Done Right: A Review of "Fright Night (2011)"

Since the original 1985 version of Fright Night has been one of my favorite horror movies since I was in elementary school, I was nervous about the 2011 remake, despite a solid cast (Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Toni Collette) and a script from former Buffy scribe Marti Noxon. But as I mentioned in my list of horror remakes that justified their own existence, it managed to be just as enjoyable as the original.

The 2011 shares the same general plot as the original:  high schooler Charley Brewster discovers that his neighbor Jerry is a vampire.  Charley tries to enlist help from entertainer/occult expert Peter Vincent, but Vincent turns out to have feet of clay.  Vampire Jerry turns Charley's friend "Evil" Ed and sends him after Charley, and then abducts Charley's girlfriend in order to turn her into his bride, forcing Charley to confront Jerry in his own lair. 

But within this plot, the filmmakers made numerous tweaks to keep it from feeling like a rehash.  Perhaps the most significant was the reimagining of Peter Vincent from an over the hill horror show host who doesn't really believe in what he's selling into a David Blaine-esque Las Vegas stage magician with a massive collection of occult items; in the remake, Vincent isn't so much a charlatan as he is a coward, albeit with good reason.  The remake also propels the plot forward more quickly than the original did, having "Evil" and Charley be more proactive in their hunt, and Jerry much less patient in maintaining his charade. All of these changes help bring them film into the 21st Century; it feels very much like a modern film, and not an 80s throwback.  Throw in some witty dialogue and some well constructed action scenes, and you have a remake that pays homage to the original but still manages to blaze its own trail.  I loved the 2011 Fright Night both times I've watched it, and would recommend it readily to anyone with a taste for a fun and funny vampire action flick.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Countdown to Halloween day 29 -- A Review of SyFY's "Face-Off"

I've mentioned before that I have a great love of Reality TV competitions based on artistic skills. One of my favorites is the SyFy Network's special-effects based show, Face-Off. It often embodies the best parts of the genre without the more troubling and annoying aspects.

The contestants on Face-Off are all professionals in the movie make-up business, mostly specializing in Horror and Science-Fiction effects. Each week the contestants are given a theme that they must build an original make-up around, ranging from straightforward (vampires) to the unusual (zombified Alice in Wonderland characters).  While there is a strong horror bias to the show's set-up, there are frequently challenges that veer off into less terrifying areas, such as super-heroes; however, if given the opportunity, the contestants tend to bring everything back to horror if they can.

The show has a large number of positive attributes. First of all, the sheer creativity evidenced by the contestants each week is pretty amazing, and provides lots of intriguing visuals. Secondly, the judging doesn't seem to be swayed as much by personal aesthetics as other competitions; in cooking shows judges might have different palettes, and on fashion shows judges might have different ideas of what is or isn't in style, but on the special-effects show most can agree if the look is sloppy or shoddy. And finally, one of the best aspects of the show is the the contestants actually help one another out. And this isn't the "oh, I will help someone out at the beginning of the show but at the end its every man for himself" spirit that might happen on other such programs, but instead is more a sense of professional courtesy that has pervaded every season so far. Yes, there are occasionally contestants with big egos, but on the whole there's very seldom been any big "villains" to cheer against on the series. And while conventional wisdom might hold that having a good villain is key to having a good reality show, my enjoyment of Face-Off tends to put that idea to the test.

The latest season of Face-Off is about to end this week, with one episode airing Tuesday night and the finale airing on Wednesday. This year they're switching things up for the finale: they're allowing the public to vote on who the winner is, a la American Idol. I'm not 100% sure I like that idea, as often the judges can see things up close that don't translate as well on TV; on the other hand, since the make-ups are usually designed to be seen on film, audiences judging by what we're able to perceive on screen does make sense. I just hope that voters are voting more on skill than on personality.  Of course, the lack of a "villain" makes fair voting more likely.

I would encourage anyone who's a fan of reality TV competition shows or who just has an interest in special-effects in general to give the last two episodes a try.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 28 -- Not Your Parents' Munsters: A Review of "Mockingbird Lane"

When I first heard about , Bryan Fuller's re-imagining of The Munsters, named Mockinbird Lane after their street address, I was not exactly enamored of the idea, never having been a big Munsters fan. However, I have loved most everything Bryan Fuller has been involved with (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, the all-to-short-lived Wonderfalls), so I was willing to give it a chance.  As more information about the project was released, the more excited I got, until I was actually depressed when it was announced that NBC was not picking the pilot up.  The subsequent news that they would at least be airing the pilot prior to Halloween lifted my spirits, since now I would at least be able to see the full show, and there was a slim chance that its ratings might be big enough to justify a series order after all.

The plot of the Mockingbird Lane pilot follows the Muster clan as they relocate to a new home in a new city after young Eddie has his first werewolf outbreak while camping with his old scout group.  While Eddie is aware that his parents and grandfather are all out of the ordinary, he believes that he is perfectly normal like his cousin Marilyn, and most of the episode is spend with Herman and Lilly debating on whether to fill in the gaps in Eddie's memory from his lycanthropic episode, since he doesn't remember a thing. Meanwhile, Grandpa Munster is determined to stop tip-toeing around the topic and help Eddie embrace his supernatural heritage; Grandpa is also tired of "not drinking," and keeps pushing against the constraints his daughter and son-in-law are trying to place on him.  When Herman's heart -- his last original organ -- begins to fail, Grandpa sees an opportunity to use that need to convince Herman to let him feed on a viable candidate.

The first thing to keep in mind when watching the pilot of Mockingbird Lane is that it takes a sort of Battlestar Gallactica approach to its source material, keeping names and the bare minimum premise, but revamping it into something that is barely recognizable.  For some this could be a detriment; for others, a move in the right direction, depending on your attachment to the original series and how receptive you might be to the new show's distinctive tone.  For me, the show's dark and twisty sensibility, which featured some nicely gruesome moments, made me a fan.  While I know some critics decried its shifting tone, I felt that it actually had a pretty singular vision, and that while it walked the line between comedy and horror, it never veered so far one was or the other that I felt pulled out of the story.  I don't know if there's any chance for Mockingbird Lane to go to series now, but I for one would be ecstatic if it did.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 27 -- Of Drinking Games and Blood Splatter:A Review of OhLook Theater's Production of "Evil Dead: The Musical"

On Friday night, Li'l Brother and I went to Grapevine, TX to see the Ohlook Performing Arts Center production of Evil Dead the Musical. While I don't know if I can say it's a great show, it was definitely quite an experience.

The play itself is a mixture of elements from all three Evil Dead films. Like the first film it begins with a group of five college friends going off to a cabin in the woods and accidentally unleashing evil spirits that begin to assault and possess them one by one. Later, it brings in characters from the second movie and its plot point of a spell to defeat the evil, and then ends with the S-Mart sequence from Army of Darkness. Some of the play's comedy is from meta-humor about the films, but the majority stems from shock value and crude comments, with some intentionally bad puns thrown in for good measure. I enjoyed myself at the play, but would be hard-pressed to say how much of that was due to the quality of the script itself, and how much was due to the overall experience.

When Li'l Brother and I got to the theater, there was a line of people outside all holding six packs and coolers and other forms of liquor in all shapes and sizes. Not exactly what we were expecting to see when going to a play. Once inside, we were surprised at just how small the venue was; I knew from purchasing the tickets that it would be a tiny theater, but the online seating chart didn't do it justice. Instead of regular theater seating, it was a series of four risers with regular meeting room chairs set up; plus, they sold "floor seats" which were exactly that: people sitting on the floor.  The "stage" was just the part of the room that wasn't taken up by the risers, which meant that the actors were treading all over the "floor seats" from time to time. As the play started, they announced that they like to do a special drinking game at the productions of Evil Dead: The Musical and instructed us to take a drink every time a character dropped an F-bomb, assuring everyone that if they followed this practice in Act I, they wouldn't remember Act II.

Once again, not like any theater production I've been to before.

One important aspect of the Evil Dead: The Musical experience is the "Splatter Zone"; people seated in the Splatter Zone are pretty much guaranteed to be drenched in fake blood by the time the show is over; people in the non-Splatter Zone aren't 100% safe, but are much less likely to get hit. The first bout of blood splatter doesn't happen till towards the end of the first act, but the second act had liberal doses of fake blood being sprayed into the audience from cast and crew wielding super soakers and plastic bottles filled with fake blood. As I learned from fellow theatergoers during the intermission, this show is an annual tradition at Ohlook, and the bulk of the people sitting in the Splatter Zone were repeat viewers, many of whom were dressed in white so that the blood splatter would show up better on them. Although Li'l Brother and I had purchased seats in the non-Splatter Zone, we both wound up getting small dribbles of fake blood on our clothing, which was better than the floor seats and first row audience, most of whom were dripping with the stuff by the end. The combination of a floor slippery with fake blood and theatergoers tipsy with inebriation led to several close calls and one flat-out pratfall from a girl trying to head the bathroom in the middle of the second act, causing the only actress on stage to pause and give the klutz some applause.

The cast was very solid on the whole, although I often had trouble telling if my inability to hear lyrics was due to the music being cranked too loud or to many of the performers not projecting out loudly enough. But while most of the cast did solid jobs, two of them did exceptional jobs which helped carry the rest of the show.  First, there was the hillbilly character Jake who, for reasons I'm not quite sure of, was portrayed by a butched-up female. And while her macho performance was part of her appeal, really it was just her flat-out comedic chops and frankly stellar singing voice that made her stand out in my mind. The other standout was the actor portraying our main hero, Ash, who also had a surprisingly good singing voice and a talent for physical comedy. He also managed to do a good job of ad libbing when things would go off track, from a malfunctioning curtain rod to people coming in late to taking his own tumble on the fake blood.  For both of them, I found myself wishing I could see other productions they were involved in, and that's not something I often find myself saying when seeing community theater.

Evil Dead: The Musical is not for the easily offended or squeamish, or even those with a low tolerance for self aware campy humor; but if none of that bothers you, and you're open to an unusual theater-going experience, it has potential.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 26 -- A Review of Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft's "Severed"

Set in 1916, Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft's mini-series Severed from Image Comics is the story of a 12 year old boy named Jack Garron who, after finding out he was adopted, sets out on the road to find his real dad.  After being taken under the wing of another young drifter named Sam, Jack and his new friend's journey takes a turn for the dangerous after they cross paths with a salty traveling salesman whose outward kindness and offer of help give not hint to the razor sharp teeth hidden behind his dentures, or his taste for the flesh of young, hope-filled children. 

Much like his runs on American Vampire and Swamp Thing, Snyder's biggest strength in Shattered creating engaging characters, whether it be the rebellious Jack, the streetwise Sam, or the mysterious razor-toothed salesman.  In terms of horror, the series is a slow burn; although the first issue of the series shows precisely what happens to the salesman's victims, much of the series hinges on slowly building tension around the salesman's ultimate plan for Jack.  While the narrative structure of having the story told by a much older, one-armed Jack might lessen the tension somewhat, the question of Sam's fate, and who else might become a casualty of the salesman's hunger, helps propel the story. In terms of gore, the series is fairly under-stated, with only a couple of panels featuring anything even remotely disturbing, which definitely helps the book be more accessible to the more squeamish reader.

While Severed didn't connect with me to the same degree that Snyder's other horror comics have, I did find it to be a solid story, and would be interested in learning more about the salesman's past if Snyder ever decides to tell the tale.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Countdown to Halloween day 25 – A Review of Scott Snyder's "Swamp Thing v.1: Raise Them Bones"

As I mentioned yesterday, I was a big fan of Alan Moore's run on Saga of the Swamp Thing, and a mild-to-medium fan of many of the interpretations that came after his departure... a feeling that was apparently shared by many, as up until recently it had been several years since there's been a an on-going Swamp Thing comic book. As part of DC Comics' New 52 initiative,  a new Swamp Thing series was penned by Scott Snyder of American Vampire fame was launched last year, and the first six issues have been collected in Swamp Thing v.1: Raise Them Bones.

This new series is notable for two reasons. First of all, it marks the return of Swamp thing from the silo of DC's Vertigo imprint to the mainstream DC universe, where he can now interact with superheroes once again. Secondly, much like Moore did, Snyder vastly redefines what you know about the origin and purpose of the Swamp Thing.

The first big change for this series is the fact that Alec Holland is back from the dead, something that is never fully explained in the book.  The resurrected Holland's last real memory is of his death, but he does experience flashes from the Swamp Thing's existence. He is visited by an emissary from The Parliament of Trees, the ancient order of former Swamp Things, who explains that the Swamp Thing we know and love was actually a huge mistake; it was supposed to have bonded with Holland during his accident, but due to his dying before the process was complete, it was never able to achieve its full potential.  Now Holland is being called on to accept the power offered the Parliament and become the Swamp Thing he was always meant to be so that he can face the new danger facing The Green, a force known as The Rot.  Holland resists at first, but is soon drawn into the battle when he encounters Swamp Thing's widow, Abigail Arcane, who is potentially The Rot's human host.

While I wasn't sure what to expect going in to Raise Them Bones, I have to say I was very pleased.  The "everything you know is wrong" twist manages to keep the past continuity in play (apparently; it's a little hard to tell with the New 52 books) but still take the story in new directions.  The relationship between Alec and Abby is an interesting one, since she he has vague memories of her from a life he never led, and he's a constant reminder to her of the love that she lost.  There are a lot of balls in the air, here, and Snyder manages to juggle them well for the most part.

My only real quibble is that it's not exactly new reader friendly, which is a bit of a problem since the whole point of the New 52 was to provide a great jumping on point for new readers.  And normally I wouldn't mind the fact that the book is referencing things that happened in other books -- after all, growing up half the fun of reading comics was tracking those reference down -- but by sticking to the horrible modern comic practice of no footnotes, a new reader has no idea where to track down where any of the story leading up to this point happened.  Not a deal breaker, but something that's symptomatic of the problems comic books have with gaining new readers.  It may have jumped out at me more because I am familiar with enough of Swamp Thing's history to know that Alec Holland was dead, but hadn't been following the series where he was resurrected --which, for the record, was apparently Brightest Day. I think; the Internet has been relatively unhelpful in giving me specifics.

All that being said, if you're a fan of The Swamp Thing or just well written horror tinged comics in general, you should probably give this first volume a try.

Countdown to Halloween Day 24 -- A Review of Alan Moore's "Saga of theSwamp Thing"

For many people, to mention Swamp Thing is to conjure up images of a cheesy movie, its even cheesier sequel, or the live action and cartoon TV series those films inspired.   But for comic book fans, Swamp Thing conjures up images of mature tales of horror that would help redefine what a mainstream comic book was capable of.   For years, Swamp Thing was one of the flagship titles of DC's Vertigo imprint, and that can all be traced back to the reinvention of the character that took place during Alan Moore's run on Saga of the Swamp Thing.

Prior to Moore, Swamp Thing was a relatively mild horror comic book about Alec Holland, a scientist whose experiment goes awry and turns him into a plant-based monster. But with Moore, the Swamp Thing was revealed to not be Alec Holland in the body of a monster, but a monster which had been fooled into thinking it was Alec Holland. Stripped of its illusion of humanity, the Swamp Thing searched for new meaning in its existence. Initially fighting against his longtime foe Anton Arcane who'd returned from the dead yet again, Swamp Thing eventually became a pawn in breakout character John Constantine's byzantine schemes to prepare him for a battle against a powerful force of evil. Towards the end of his run, Moore moved to a more Sci-Fi bent, having Swamp Thing untether his elemental consciousness from Earth in order to explore other worlds and times. But for the largest part of his run, Moore had Swamp Thing confront foes if a much more horrific nature: vampires, ghosts, werewolves, demons, and a vast force of anti-creation.

I can remember getting the first trade paperback of Moore's run on Saga of the Swamp Thing for Christmas in 1988 (along with Moore's Watchmen), and having it boldly redefine in my head what a comic book could be. With its mature storytelling, intelligent takes on the characters and beautifully disturbing artwork, Moore's Swamp Thing is a testament to the power of the art form. Unfortunately, along with other seminal works like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, many people misunderstood the real lessons to take away from these more mature books, thinking that cursing and graphic violence and partial nudity are all it takes to be a successful "mature" title, ignoring the fact that there has to be something more substantial behind it all in order for the work to really soar.

While I read Swamp Thing off and on during other writers runs following Moore's departure, none of them was ever able to perfectly recapture the magic of his tenure on the title.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 23 -- It Just Keeps Shambling On: A Review of "The Walking Dead"

Robert Kirkman's comic book series The Walking Dead has managed to inspire one of the most popular shows on cable TV at the moment, and the book itself doesn't show any signs of stopping, having just passed the 100 issue mark a few months back.

Much like the TV show, the comic book is chiefly the story of Rick Grimes, a police officer who awakes from a gun-shot induced coma to find that his family is gone and his home town has become overrun with zombies.  Rick sets out on a quest to find his wife and son, and along the way becomes the de facto leader of a small group of survivors.  As the series progresses, the burden of leadership and the constant horror he's forced to confront hardens Rick to the point where his only purpose is to safeguard the people he loves, and nothing's going to stand in his way, living or dead.

Like much of Kirkman's work, one of the strengths of The Walking Dead is the sense that anything can happen; at this point I've read up through #96 of the series, and very few of the original characters are still standing, and those that are have not emerged from their traumas unscathed.  Every time it feels like Rick's crew has finally found a place to be, if not happy, at least safe and content, as the reader you are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. At times that sense of foreboding can drag the book down for me, as the constant misery is wearying, but since the most recent home for the group has been in place for over 30 issues, it has given me enough breathing room to be ready for the next big tragedy -- which by all accounts takes place in issue #100.

While not a perfect series -- the decision to have one of the series strongest women characters by repeatedly raped and humiliated by a villain was a definite low point for me -- The Walking Dead still manages to keep me coming back volume after volume.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 22 -- A Review of "Locke and Key"

My first exposure to the writing talent of Stephen King's son Joe Hill was not through either of his novels, but instead through his comic book series Locke and Key.  Published as a succession of mini-series, the book follows the Locke family who have moved into the family estate known as Keyhouse following a tragedy.  In the first volume, Welcome to Lovecraft, the three Locke children, shaken by the death of their father at the hands of an unbalanced young man named Sam Lesser, struggle to make the best of their new situation -- a struggle that is complicated by the fact that their new home is host to mysterious forces, including a spirit in the well house which has helped Sam Lesser escape prison.  With their father's killer hunting them, the Locke kids have to figure out how to use the mystical keys hidden in their new home to battle the evil that threatens their family.  In each subsequent volume, the Locke kid slowly uncover more of their home's secrets, until the fifth volume, Clockworks allows them to use a time-travel key to witness the true origin of their mystical talismans. 

I cannot say enough good things about this series.  Hill has created an engaging world with complex characters and an intriguing mythology, and he does a good job of doling out the secrets of Keyhouse slowly enough to maintain interest, but not so slowly that the story drags on forever.  Enhancing Hill's scripts is the artwork of Gabriel Rodriguez, who manages to capture both humor and horror very well. 

I'm saddened to learn that the not-yet-published mini-series, Omega, will bring the story of Locke and Key to an end, but am glad that it has been popular enough to allow Hill and Rodriguez to fully tell the story they wanted to tell.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 21 -- Should Have Just Re-watched "Popcorn" : A Review of "Midnight Matinee"

Midnight Matinee is a 1989 slasher flick set in a small town in British Columbia where a horror movie festival two years prior had ended on its first night due to a murder in the theater.  Now, the theater is holding another horror film festival to help promote a new horror film starring a local actor, and the murders are starting up again.

Going in to this film, I was slightly optimistic; a horror movie set in a movie theater showing horror films has a lot of promise (see: Popcorn).  Unfortunately, the handful of times the film manages to take advantage of its setting are not enough to redeem the rest of the film which is guilty of the crime of being boring.  The characters were largely obnoxious, off-putting, or bland, and much of their behavior lack any logical basis.  Now, as this is a slasher film, the latter part isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, but with only a handful of murders spread throughout the film, it needed more engaging connective tissue between them.  Sadly, the only thing this film has going for it is bit parts for Don S. Davis (General Hammon of Stargate: SG-1) and William B. Davis (The Cigarette Smoking Man of The X-Files), and the novelty of watching their younger selves paled pretty quickly.

Midnight Matinee is neither well-done, nor bad enough to be entertaining; it's just a bland time-suck.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 20 -- "Dissidents" is the new "Zed-word" : a Review of "Juan of the Dead"

A Spanish-Cuban collaboration, Juan of the Dead is a zom-com about a gang of low level crooks in Cuba who see their country's zombie infestation as a business opportunity, becoming zombie slayers with the motto "We'll kill your family for you."  They are slightly hampered by the fact that they have no idea what zombies are -- the Cuban government insists that they are "dissidents" being corrupted by America, and an early scene derives its comedy from Juan and company trying to slay a zombified neighbor like a vampire or exorcise it like a demon before hitting on the whole "blow to the head" trick -- but soon they are making a killing, so to speak. Unfortunately, the enterprise begins to take its toll on the crew, and they begin to wonder if staying in a zombie-infested Havana is the best idea.

Despite my general zombie burnout, I was pleasantly entertained by this film. Some of that I ascribe to the setting, which allowed for some political commentary, but largely I think the film works because Juan and his partners are not the typical horror movie characters; they're not fighting for survival, they're fighting for a quick buck, and are not ashamed to fake altruism to do it. The film allows them to maintain their selfish and largely amoral actions for the bulk of the film while still somehow making one character's noble sacrifice at the end feel earned. They are a pretty unlikely looking bunch of action heroes, but that makes the battle scenes even more entertaining.

Only the slightly negative side, the humor is often a little on the crude side, and there are a couple of scenes where the character lose all common sense for no other reason than to further the plot. And when an "American" shows up, his English is so heavily accented that I was wishing that he was subtitled as well. These weren't game breakers, but they were enough of a distraction to keep me from fully investing in the film.

Juan of the Dead isn't going to rank up there with my favorite zom-coms, but it's definitely worth a watch for fans of the genre.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 19 -- Horrific, Maybe, but Horror ?: Areview of "Excision"

The blurbs for the recent film Excision paint it as a horror film about a morbid little girl obsessed with dissecting roadkill. And while that description is partly true, I feel that the blurb doesn't really capture the spirit of this odd little film.

The protagonists of the film is the morbid Pauline, a socially awkward girl whose parents not only don't understand her, but are often actively hostile towards her while heaping love upon her younger sister who is suffering from cystic fibrosis. Pauline escapes into sexual fantasies of a morbid (and often necrophiliac) nature. Scorned and rejected by everyone around her except her younger sister, Pauline begins to act out in increasingly disturbing ways.

For the majority of the film, Excision plays more as a dark comedy then as horror. As a matter fact, outside of some brief disturbing fantasy sequences, the only real moment of horror happens in the last 10 minutes of the film. I don't want to quibble about the movie's genre label; there have been many horror films which have not featured any true horror until the last reel. However, there is usually a sense of slowly building tension in such films that is largely absent from Excision; if I hadn't known it was being sold as a horror film, the finale would have been doubly shocking due to its escalation of Pauline's mental issues.

That being said, I enjoyed this film quite a lot, even if it wasn't quite what I was expecting. AnnaLynne McCord did a great job making the character of Pauline both engaging and offputting, and I'm curious to see some of her other roles for comparison's sake.  And, for film I've never heard of before it popped up on my Netflix "new releases" page, it had quite an interesting cast, including Marly Matlin, Traci Lords, Roger Bart, Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise, John Waters, and Ariel "Alex from Modern Family" Winter as the younger sister. I appreciated the films dark humor, even as I kept waiting for it to blossom into something worse.

Excision is not film I would feel comfortable recommending to too many people due to its offbeat feel and disturbing imagery, but if you have a taste for the dark and twisty, you might give it a try.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 18 -- And the Cautiously Optimistic Award for Most (Seemingly) Improved Series Goes To: A Review of the Premiere of "American Horror Story: Asylum"

As explored in yesterday's review,  my feelings towards the first season of American Horror Story were rather mixed, and yet I still remained intrigued about the radical shift in stories for the second season.  And, despite the fact that the cold open of the premiere of American Horror Story: Asylum was so jarringly edited that it made most music videos look like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and the inclusion of over-the-top sexually suggestive sequences, once the end credits rolled, I had to admit that I had thoroughly enjoyed it.

This seasons storyline is centered not on a haunted house, but on an insane asylum owned by the Catholic church which operates on the idea that all insanity is just people's sin nature running away with them, so there's no need for that psychology nonsense, just some good old fashioned prayer -- mixed in with a bit of punishment.  Once again Jessica Lange steals the show, albeit with a very different character.  Her Sister Jude is a true believer, except she seems to place her faith more in her monsignor (played by Joseph Fiennes) than in the Lord.  In the premiere her iron grip on the asylum is challenged by a creepy non-believing doctor (James Cromwell) who's performing some nasty experiments, and  a nosy reporter (the always excellent Sarah Paulson) who is hoping to get a scoop on the asylum's latest inmate, a suspected serial killer (Evan Peters) who has been assigned the all-too unfortunate sobriquet of "Bloody Face."

The reveal of the name Bloody Face was my first eye-rolling moment of the show; coming up with an appropriate name for your villain is doubtless a difficult task, but this probably homage to Leatherface just feels awkward every time it's mentioned in the show. However, when we finally get a glimpse of Bloody Face in full bloody-skin mask, I decided I could overlook the poor name when the accompanying visual was so powerfully disturbing. 

The show still has a bit of an overstuffed feeling, but it's not anywhere near the handicap now that it was due to the nature of the season's plots.  In season 1, it was ghost after ghost after ghost revealing themselves, a repetition that eroded interest even as the haunted house got more and more crowded.  But with season 2, each plot-line has a distinct stamp (alien abductions, serial killers, medical experiments gone awry, people wrongly imprisoned, an upcoming exorcism) that may lead to plot-overload-burnout, but probably not to boredom.

Although the show still struggles with restraint -- the violin sting when the doctor says "He died" was my second eye-rolling moment -- I have to admit that for many viewers that's part of it's appeal.  And as long as the show can entertain and disturb me the way this first episode did all season, I'm in for the long haul.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 17 -- Yup, That Sure Was a Ryan Murphy Show: A Review of Season 1 of "American Horror Story"

I have a little bit of a love/hate relationship with Ryan Murphy's TV work.  I love the tendency towards hyper-stylized worlds, like Popular and Glee, but hate the inconsistency of character development . . . like Popular and Glee.  Restraint and subtlety have never been Murphy's strong suits, and this was never so obvious as in the first season of American Horror Story.

Even before the series began, it showed promise through some intriguingly creepy promos, but at the same time the inclusion of a rubber suited man set off a few warning bells that the show might venture into the psycho-sexual territory that dragged down Nip/Tuck over time.  If only that had been the show's only issue.

The series centered on a dysfunctional family's move to a house that proves to be haunted by a multitude of ghosts, each of whom died while on the property.  While that concept might sound interesting in theory, in practice it lead to a muddled mess of a show; the overstuffed haunted house held little in the way of real scares or even creepiness, with the reveal of each spirit being a game of diminishing returns.  Add onto that the fact that the majority of the characters had no redeeming qualities, and you have a show that squandered its potential.

And yet, despite some obvious misfires, there was a kernel of a good show buried there.  The idea of Francis Conroy's spirit being viewed differently by different people was an interesting one, and some of the flashbacks to explain how the spirits met their fate were well executed. But in the end, not even some knockout performances from Jessica Lange (who won an Emmy for the role) and Connie Briton could fully redeem the show for me. 

But, in keeping with my complicated relationship with Ryan Murphy's output, I am actually looking forward to tonight's premiere of the second season.  Partly because they have decided to turn the show into a series of mini-series, so that each season is totally divorced from the plot of the one before it, which means that one of the biggest problem with the first season -- the overstuffed house -- has been jettisoned, and partly because they have kept several of the actors from the first season and plugged them into totally new roles.  Looking forward to seeing what Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson (yay! Sarah Paulson!) get to do.  So, be sure to check back tomorrow to see my thoughts on the first episode of American Horror Story: Asylum.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 16 -- From Scary to Slapstick : A Review of "Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead 2"

In preparation for (I hope) seeing Evil Dead: The Musical in a couple of weeks, I decided to re-watch the first two Evil Dead films back to back. 

The original Evil Dead tells the story of a group of 5 college friends whose weekend in a cabin in the woods goes bad when they play a recording they find which contains a summoning ritual.  One by one, the kids are attacked and possessed by evil forces, until only Ash (Bruce Campbell) remains. 

The sequel, Evil Dead 2, is actually more of a reboot than a sequel.  This time around, Ash and his girlfriend Linda  are alone when they travel to the cabin and play the recording; soon the cabin is also visited by the daughter of the man on the recording, her boyfriend, and a couple of hicks who helped them find their way to the cabin. Once again, the forces of evil attack and possess the group one by one.

Although there is a sizable difference between the plot of the two films, the thing that stands out most is the vast change in tone.  Evil Dead is a straight-up horror film with some funny moments, while Evil Dead 2 skews to the comedy side of the spectrum, featuring over-the-top comedy and slapstick.  The move towards slapstick would become even more pronounced with the third film, Army of Darkness.

I was impressed with how well the first Evil Dead holds up, especially considering its low budget.  The scenes with possessed Linda giggling maniacally still manage to creep me out, and the angry molesting trees sequence still disturbs me.  On the whole, I tend to prefer the first film; while I'm a self-professed lover of horror-comedies, I'm also a self-professed loather of slapstick.  Evil Dead 2 is able to walk that fine line between what I'll enjoy and what I won't for the most part, but its swiftly shifting tones and reliance on physical comedy make it harder for me to get into.  At the same time, the scenes with Ash losing his grip on sanity are well executed, and the sequence introducing the chainsaw hand is pure gold.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 15 -- Separating Themselves: A Review of the Season Premiere of "Walking Dead"

I have enjoyed the first two seasons of The Walking Dead quite a bit, although I was in agreement with most that the 2nd season's stay at the farm made it seem like the show had dragged on for years.  During the break between seasons I read all of the available collections of the comic book that inspired the show, and so was very much looking forward to the new season, which was promising to introduce three key aspects of the books:  Michonne, the prison, and The Governor.The season 2 finale had teased two of those aspects, and the season 3 premiere, "Seed," followed through on those two while leaving the third to whet our appetites in the "This Season on Walking Dead" promos.

The episode jumps forward in time a few months from the last episode, which I appreciated, and not just because it provided a good excuse for Carl's obvious growth spurt. The show really needed to find a way to distance itself from the endless trudge that had been the farm storyline, and the time jump facilitated that perfectly; we go from seeing a group that was battered and defeated, to seeing one that's moving like a well-oiled machine under their new Ricktatorship.*  The scenes of Rick barking orders and everyone following with no question demonstrate the new status quo better than anything else; he's kept them all alive throughout the winter, and they've come to trust his judgement.  Well, everyone but Lori, that is, but what else is new?  

I was less happy with the way the time-jump pushed all of Andrea and Michonne's getting-to-know-you time into the limbo of off-screen, and even less happy that TV Andrea continues to be horribly annoying.  I hope that they tone down her attitude soon, because right now I really don't relish watching any scenes with her.  Which is unfortunate, since the season is shaping up to have Andrea and Michonne's interactions with The Governor be half of the show.

While I wasn't quite sure how I felt about that direction at first, on reflection I think it's a smart way to go.  After all, the biggest complaint the previous season got was that the plot felt interminable at times, so by splitting the main narrative in half, the writers will be able to give us a break from the unrelenting horror of one scenario by letting us witness the unrelenting horror of the other.  Plus, a comparison between the benign dictatorship of Rick, and the not so benign dictatorship of The Governor could fit well into this parallel story structure.  My one hope is that the Governor story line avoids the unpleasant rape storyline from the books; that soured the storyline for me when I was reading it, and would probably be worse for me in live action. 

On the whole, "Seeds" gave me hope that this season was moving in the right direction, and I'm looking forward to see where it goes next.

*I wish I could take credit for that one, but alas, I cribbed it from some other Internet sage

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 14 -- Skinner's Still Not So Sweet: a review of "American Vampire, v.4"

In the world of writer Scott Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque's comic book series American Vampire, there are a myriad of different vampire bloodlines, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.   The series itself focuses on the newest vampire subspecies, Homo Abominum Americana, the titular American vampire sub-species, which can walk in the sun and is vulnerable not to wood or silver, but gold.  As the fourth collected volume (containing issues #19-27 of the monthly series) begins, there are three known examples of American vampire in existence:  former actress Pearl Jones, trying to live in peaceful hiding with her still-human husband Henry; Skinner Sweet, Pearl's sociopathic sire and the first known American vampire; and Calvin Poole, a vampire hunter/taxonomist accidentally turned by Pearl's blood in volume 3. 

Volume 4 contains three separate story arcs.  The first, "The Beast in the Cave," is a story about Skinner's human days as an infantryman in 1871, featuring more insight into his early relationship with Jim Book, and further evidence that it wasn't vampirism that made him act like a monster.  The story also shows that, contrary to popular belief, Skinner wasn't the first new breed of vampire sired on American soil.  The second story, "Death Race," moves the series into the 1950s, and follows an unstable juvenile delinquent of the Rebel Without a Cause mold who actually does have a cause:  hunting down the vampire he holds responsible for the death of his entire family.  The third story, "The Nocturnes," shows Calvin Poole straying from his latest mission for personal reasons, only to stumble across a species of vampire totally unfamiliar to him.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first three volumes of American Vampire, and am glad to say that the 4th volume continues the trend.  Of the three stories, "Death Race" was my favorite, largely because I was intrigued and entertained by the new teenaged vampire slayer.   The weakest story for me was "The Beast in the Cave," if for no other reason than Skinner's sociopathic behavior tends to work better for me (a) after he's been turned and (b) in small doses.  But while the Skinner portions of the story wore me down, the titular beast's story helped hold my interest.

If you've never read any of American Vampire before, then this definitely is not a good jumping-on point; there's not much time devoted to revisiting the events of previous volumes, so the brief appearance of Pearl and Henry or significance of Book's relationship to Skinner would be lost on new readers.  So, if you're intrigued by the premise, please check out the first volume, which was partially scripted by Stephen King along with Snyder; and if you're already a fan of the series, rest assured that volume 4 does the series proud.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 13 -- Give the Audience What It Wants, Dagnabit! : a Review of "Jersey Shore Shark Attack"

As someone who enjoys The MST3K Effect of "so bad they're good" movies, I'm always up to watch one of the SyFy Original Movies, a brand that screams crazy plots, sub-par acting, and wildly inconsistent visual effects. Granted, I tend to enjoy their giant-mega-super-mutant-[insert animal here]-asaurus films more than their freaky natural disaster or plague of killer animals pics, but when I saw the title Jersey Shore Shark Attack, I was struck with a morbid curiosity about just how Jersey Shore it would be.  Turns out the answer is:  too much.

Jersey Shore Shark Attack isn't just a generic shark attack film set on the Jersey Shore; no, it's a full blown Jersey Shore  parody, with characters sporting names like Nookie and The Complication, that just happens to have a mass of killer sharks thrown in for good measure.  And that was almost the death knell for my enjoyment of the film.  After all, for The MST3K Effect to fully work, there has to be a general lack of self-awarenes apparent in the film; once you realize the filmmakers are fully in on the joke, then you start to judge the film by how well they're exploiting this awareness.  It's a fine line to walk, making a bad film and winking at the audience to let them know that you know it's bad, because, on some level, it makes the audience wonder why if you're smart enough to know it's bad, you keep on doing it. 

Not that I think the creators of Jersey Shore Shark Attack demonstrate all that much self-awareness, mind you; but, the fact that it is a parody featuring caricatures of people who already come of like caricatures means we're suddenly out of the realm of regular B-grade horror films, and into some weird hybrid that can't decide what it wants to be.   And since one of the things that will almost always ruin a movie for me is an inconsistency of tone, I found this a hard one to make it through.

But make it through I did, holding on to one single hope the entire time:  that I would get to see one of the sharks devour one of the main characters.  After all, who among us hasn't yearned for the catharsis of watching the cast of the Jersey Shore mauled by wild animals?   Sadly, the answer is apparently "the filmmakers," as not a single one of the direct Jersey Shore parody characters gets so much as nipped by any of the sharks.  In the end, I think it was that refusal to pay off the implied catharsis of watching Nookie and The Complication torn to bits that sunk the film totally for me.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 12 -- Surrealist Screams: A Review of Lucio Fulci's "The Beyond"

Lucio Fulci's 1981 horror film The Beyond is the second of his unofficial "Gates of Hell" trilogy, each of which depicts one of the 7 gates of Hell being opened, allowing evil to walk the earth.  I wasn't a big fan of the first installment, City of the Dead, but since The Beyond is often cited as one of Fulci's best films, I decided to give it a try.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a dilapidated New Orleans' hotel which sits atop one of the aforementioned hell-gates.  A young woman's attempts to reopen the hotel accidentally reopens the gate, and soon there's a stream of random deaths whose causes range from animal attacks to zombie hoards.  Throw in some spooky blind girls, a disappearing/reappearing book of prophecy, enough creatively gruesome deaths to keep the gore-hounds happy, and one heck of a "Wait, what?" finale, and you have an entertaining, if disjointed, film.

Normally in an overdubbed film I'd write such disjointedness off as bad translation or poor editing, but there's something about the way The Beyond moves from one gruesome set-piece to another that drew me in and made me want to do some research on it.  Sure enough, the surreal, disconnected plot was all part of Fulci's design; in fact, he wanted it to be even more dreamlike and disjointed, but his studio made him rein it in somewhat.

The movie's biggest strength for me was the quality of the death scenes, which boasted some truly impressive prosthetic effects.  The fake animals, however, were a pretty steep drop off in quality, making it harder to stay in the moment during those scenes . . . well, the dog attack scene, anyway.  The spider sequence, which combined real and fake tarantulas, managed to be one of the more disturbing things I've seen, due to both the mechanics of the death and the unbearably long amount of time Fulci lets his cameras dwell on it.  I'm still not sure if the lingering shots of the spiders was a positive or negative for me, but I can guarantee it's a scene that will stick with me.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 11 -- Johnny Drama, Alien Hunter: A Review of "The Blob"

If you saw my list of 10 horror movie remakes that justify their own existence, then you know that I only included the 1988 remake of The Blob with the caveat that I hadn't seen it in a couple of decades.  And so, much like with Waxwork, I decided to revisit the film to see how it held up. The answer is it's a bit of a mixed bag.

To start with, the dialogue and plot are often ham-handed; it's bad enough when it's just focused on the local yokels, but once it gets to the eeeeeeeeeeeeeevil government scientist making his eeeeeeeeeeeeeevil speech about the expendability of said yokels it was really hard for me to curtail my eye rolling. On the other hand, the movie shows a great willingness to kill off characters that you might not expect, including a fake-out protagonist and a little kid, which helps to keep the viewer off-balance. 

The true strength of the film is the same thing that has made it stick in my mind for all these years:  the creature effects.  Where the original Blob was just a slowly shambling mound of goo, the 80s version is much more predatory and adaptive, shooting out tendrils, climbing ceilings, crushing evil government men with gross looking pseudopods -- this is a Blob that can't be avoided by a brisk walk away.  And not only is it more active, it's also much creepier, from its organic, veined appearance to the multiple examples of partially digested victims being viewed through the creature's translucent skin.  While the sub-par green screen moments do feel a little Z-grade, the bulk of the practical effects are inventive and well-done.

As a bonus, watching the film nearly 25 years after it was made allows for a lot of "Hey, isn't that . . .?" moments.  There's just something incredibly fun for me about watching 80s-rocker-haired Johnny Drama getting into an argument with mustachioed-and-still-mostly-fully-haired-Deputy "Rocket" Romano, while Sheriff Dale-from-Walking-Dead tries to referee. 

Although The Blob may suffer from clunky dialogue and a "did we really need that?" conspiracy plot, the creepiness and horror of the creature itself validates my initial assessment that the remake justified its own existence.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 10 -- Taking a Walk on the Dead Side: A Review of "AAAH! Zombies!!"

AAAH! Zombies!! (also released as Wasting Away) is a zombie comedy -- a mash-up which I've seen referenced as both "zom-com" and "zomedy" -- follows a group of friends who accidentally ingest some toxic goo which causes them to become zombies; the twist is, they don't realize it, still seeing themselves as normal, and everyone else around them messed up.  The film swaps back and forth between the full-color POV of the zombified friends, who can't understand why everyone around them is suddenly moving at super-speeds,talking in gibberish, and attacking them for no reason; and the black-and-white POV of the uninfected humans, who of course see them as the slow-moving, moaning precursors of the zombie apocalypse.

The humor of the film lies largely in the incongruity between how the zombies see themselves, and how they appear to the rest of the world, but also finds ways to play off of zombie tropes in a fun way.  While not as clever or well made as the pinnacles of zomedy -- Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland -- I found the film's unique take on the zombie story to be highly entertaining, and would recommend it to zom-com fans everywhere.

For those curious about it, the movie is currently available to watch for free on Hulu

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 9 -- I Prefer the Southern Accent: a Review of "The Barrens"

The Barrens stars Stephen Moyer (a.k.a. Bill from True Blood) as Richard Vineyard, a man whose trip with his family to scatter his father's ashes in the Pine Barrens where they used to go camping turns into a nightmare.  As the weekend progresses, he sickens, which leads to violent mood swings and hallucinations.  Soon, he is convinced that he and his family are being hunted by The Jersey Devil; as they stumble across mutilated animals and fellow campers go missing, the question arises:  is it the Jersey Devil, or is it him?

In terms of horror, this one was a bit of a slow boil; that's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the slow build manages to draw you in.  And while I appreciated the way the evidence of violence gradually ramped up, I have to say that the concurrent ramping up of Vineyard's unbalanced state was more off-putting to me than anything else; not even Moyer's natural British accent could make his tirades enjoyable to listen to. Between his fevered behavior and his teenage daughters teenager behavior, I found myself having a hard time caring about what was going to happen to them.

On the plus side, the staging of the origin of the Jersey Devil was well done, and the design of the creature itself was better than I had expected; unfortunately, those both counted for a very small percentage of the film.

In the end, while this isn't one I would feel compelled to warn anyone away from, neither could I recommend it; it's just sort of there.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 8 -- Tricks With Treats: A Review of "Halloween Wars"

I'll admit it:  I'm a sucker for Reality TV competition shows, especially the type that focus around contestants with a particular skill set, whether it's the chefs of Top Chef, the designers of Project Runway, the song writers of Platinum Hit:  if your competition shows creative people being constantly challenged to reach higher points of creativity week after week, I'll probably be watching it. That's why I was looking forward to the return of Food Network's Halloween Wars last night.

Working with a limited number of episodes due to its seasonal nature, Halloween Wars features 5 teams of 3 who compete against each other to create Halloween themed set-pieces; and, since this is a Food Network show, you know those set-pieces have to be edible.  Yes, each team is made up of a pumpkin carver, a candy maker, and a cake decorator, who work together to create some tasty, yet terrifying, works of art; at the end of each episode, one losing team gets sent home.  During the first season I was always impressed with the crazy creations they were able to come up with, like this cake devil riding a pumpkin cyclops with wings of spun sugar

So, although the show's abbreviated episode run forced it to focus exclusively on the competition itself, forgoing any type of "people stuck living together for weeks/months until they drive each other crazy" drama, the sheer talent and creativity involved in each episode made it well worth my time.

Due to a heavy Sunday line-up,  I had to set my DVR to tape a late night re-run of the premiere of the new season, which promised to have lots of set-pieces inspired by crazy killer clowns; unfortunately, the air-time coincided with a power-outage in my apartment complex, so I'm going to have to catch a re-run later this week.  But if you're also a fan of Reality TV competitions and can stomach some mild horror-themes -- this is Food Network after all, so nothing too stomach turning -- then I'd suggest you seek it out and give it a try.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 7 -- "Hellarious Halloween" Might Be a Misnomer On a Couple of Fronts

Since Fox actually aired its animated shows' Halloween episodes before Halloween this year, I thought I'd go ahead and do a quick write-up on each of the "Hellarious Halloween" line-up

The Cleveland Show -- Although set during Halloween, outside of a brief digression where the Cleveland and the gang put on costumes to hide their identities, the holiday is incidental to the A-plot of them accidentally igniting a war between Stoolbend and their rival town Goochland; at the same time, the final confrontation between the two had some horrific moments; the mole-eyed Stoolbendians was probably my favorite bit of the whole episode.    The B and C plots both revolved around some costume-related mistaken identity, one intentional, the other not; neither was really worth the effort.  All in all, a pretty mediocre half-hour of TV which, to be honest, is what I've come to expect of The Cleveland Show.

The Simpsons -- The 23rd installment of "Treehouse of Horror"  -- man, does that make me feel old -- highlights one of my problems with the direction the annual Halloween episode has moved over the years, as only one of the three stories could be considered even remotely horror themed.  I don't know that the reliance on generic Sci-Fi tropes rather than Horror tropes would bother me so much if the show actually made me laugh as much as it used to.  But, outside of the gag about Homer's black-hole deformed appendages, most everything in this episode fell flat for me.

Bob's Burgers -- The most explicitly Halloween-centered show of the group was also the funniest, which wasn't too surprising to me, since I generally find BB to be the cream of the Animation Domination crop.  What was surprising to me was that almost all of my big laughs came not from my favorite character Louise, but from her brother Gene.  I guess dressing up as Queen Latifah (during her U.N.I.T.Y. phase) brought out the funny in the middle child.  When confronted with the idea of taking on teens wielding balloons filled with pee: "I can pee myself, I don't need any handouts."  After being slapped by Louise:  "I banish you from the land of Latifah!"  On hearing his sister compare the country club to a extra large miniature golf course: "The windmills are going to be GIGANTIC!" The parental-focused B-plot couldn't help but pale in comparison, but the sheer number of great moments in the kids' plot carried the episode.

Family Guy -- Despite being billed as part of the "Hellarious" line-up, this episode had zero connection to Halloween. The Nielsen-based plot was a little more nonsensical than usual, but I have to admit, I'm kind of sad we didn't get to see Breaking Bad on Roller Skates.

American Dad -- Another non-Halloween episode to finish out the night, but at least it has the excuse that Fox's weird stock-piling of episodes -- they have about two seasons worth sitting around waiting for air--  means that the writers try to avoid any sort of topical reference.  Regardless, it was easily my second favorite show of the night, if for no other reason than the suicidal lemur sequence.

Random observation tally

# of shows to reference The Warriors' "Come out and play" scene:  2
# of shows featuring jokes about fat guys having breasts: 2

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 6 -- The More Things Change . . . : a Review of the Season 8 Premiere of "Supernatural"

Although Supernatural fell off my viewing schedule in its 2nd season due to an over-stuffed time-slot, it's been on my "I need to catch up on that" list ever since. Recently, thanks to Netflix Instant, I was able to marathon through the first 7 seasons in time to watch the Season 8 premiere, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," this week. I was curious about how the premiere was going to shake out since it would be the first episode under the command of new showrunner Jeremy Carver, who is taking over after the somewhat critically panned two-season stint of Sera Gamble. Carver was on staff with the show during the reign of the original creator/showrunner Eric Kripke, and in interviews has made statements to the effect of wanting to bring the show back to its roots.   As someone who feels the last couple of seasons have been slightly more miss than hit, I was hoping this wasn't just lip-service. Having now seen the episode, I have mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I do like that the quest that's set up in the episode is of a less apocalyptic nature  than the last few seasons; the Winchesters are being proactive rather than reactive, which is a nice change of pace.  Now there's no ticking clock by which they have to succeed or watch the world end; instead, they're on a mission to make the world a better place by ridding it of one it's more persistent plagues.  Whether this quest is truly a through-line for the season remains to be seen, and it's possible that at some point a new and world devastating Big Bad will rear its ugly head.  But for now, I remain hopeful that with a somewhat lowered threat-level, the Monster of the Week episodes won't feel as shoe-horned in.

On the other hand, the show has already started to rely on one the the series' most irritating tropes:  having the brothers lie and keep secrets from each other.  This is the sort of story that is irksome to me at the best of times, and having watched the bulk of the series back to back, the constant rehashing of it season after season (under both Kripke and Gamble) wore on me, especially in light of the fact that it always ends badly.  I will try to reserve judgment until I see how it all plays out, but I have a feeling things are going to get ugly once Castiel pops up again.

And speaking of attempting to reserve judgment, there was one aspect of the pilot that rang totally false to me: Sam giving up completely and living a normal life.  It's not Sam giving up hunting or not searching for Dean that bothers me; after all, Sam was the original Winchester who tried to break ties with the world of hunters, and he really had not reason to believe that Dean wasn't vaporized when Dick died.  No, what bothered me was that Sam just left Crowley walk off with the new-found prophet Kevin without trying to hunt him down at all.  As much as Sam might have been devastated by his loss of his last surviving relative, I just can't see him ignoring something like that happening to someone he knows.  Now, Carver has said in interviews that viewers shouldn't be too quick to judge either of the brothers for what they did during the missing year, as things might not be what they appear, so I'm going to chalk this up to misdirection for now.  But still, it took me out of the show, and damaged Sam's character for me.

In the end, it's hard to say if Carver's tenure as showrunner will correct the show's course, or if it's really just a case of the show outstaying its welcome.  Still, I enjoyed the premiere on the whole, and am willing to see how it all plays out.

Plus, they've brought back the Impala, which is a step in the right direction.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 5 -- Silent Call: A Review of "The Call of Cthulhu" (2005)

Andrew Leman's 2005 short film The Call of Cthulhu is a fairly faithful adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's 1928 short story about a man who is driven to the brink of madness while investigating the depraved Cult of Cthulhu and the Old Ones they worship.  The most interesting thing about the movie is Leman's decision to film it as if it were made contemporaneously with the story, so that Call is actually a silent film -- a fact that the Netflix blurb neglected to mention. 

While initially put off by the discovery when I first tried to watch the film -- it's much harder to multitask when you have to pay so much attention to the screen -- once I settled in and gave it my full attention, I realized just how well suited the format was for the story.  Some of Lovecraft's more purple prose might have sounded strained if spoken aloud, but felt perfectly in place being flashed on screen as intertitles. Similarly, the stylized minimalist sets (reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) used for the dream sequences and the city of R'lyeh perfectly captured the surreal and inhuman quality of each.  My only quibble would be with the stop-motion animation of Cthulhu itself, which felt less like a product of the silent film era, and more a reject from a Gumby short; the film would have been much better off keeping the creature in shadow, since the end result only diluted the atmosphere the rest of the film managed to conjure.

I would recommend this movie to fans of Lovecraft or silent films; most anyone else could probably skip it an not worry about having missed much.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 4 -- Watch This Movie! : a Spoiler-Free Review of "The Cabin in the Woods"

I have made no secret of my love of the works of Joss Whedon:  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog, The Avengers, and, yes, even Dollhouse once it found its footing.  Yes, he has his quirks, and no, his style is not for everyone, but there are only a handful of writers out there whose name in the credits guarantees I will see a film, and Joss is one of them.  Which is what made the two year delay in releasing The Cabin in the Woods so frustrating; knowing that somewhere out there was sitting an honest-to-goodness Horror movie co-written and produced by Joss, and that it might not ever get a release due to studio problems killed my inner fanboy a bit.  So when it was announced that Lionsgate had bought the rights to distribute the film and it was actually going to get a full theatrical release, my inner fanboy did a dance of joy*.

 Of course, after years of anticipation, there was always the fear that perhaps I had built the movie up too much in my mind, and that the weight of my expectations was going to drag down my enjoyment.

Instead, it was better than I had imagined.

Since a lot of my enjoyment of the film came from the surprises along the way, I don't want to get into to much detail of the plot.  At its core, it's the story of five college friends who go on a weekend retreat to the titular location, where they unwittingly awaken something evil; at the same time, from the very first scene the audience has been let in on the fact that there's more to this evil than meets the eye.  

At this point, I would like to refer you back to my opening "I love all things Joss" disclaimer; if you are not a fan of what he does, then more than likely this movie isn't going to work for you.  As both Joss and the director Drew Goddard (who also co-wrote) state in the DVD commentary, much of what makes this film work is its tone, which manages to balance horror and humor in a very Whedony way; if that tone doesn't resonate with you, then the film itself won't click for you either.  

That being said, I implore any horror fans out there who haven't seen this movie yet to go out and rent it; I'll be back later in the month to give a more detailed, spoiler-laden review.

*For those not in the know, the joy dancing Numfar there was played by Joss himself

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 3 -- A Sinister Set-up: A Review of the "666 Park Avenue" pilot

This past Sunday, ABC premiered their new supernatural soap 666 Park Avenue, starring Rachael Taylor and Dave Annable as Jane and Henry, an unmarried couple who have just been hired to be the managers of the luxurious Drake apartment building owned by Gavin and Olivia Doran (played by Terry O'Quinn and Vanessa Williams), a sinister couple with a penchant for entrapping the Drake's tenants in Faustian bargains. By the end of the pilot, two souls have been claimed by The Drake, Jane and Henry are ensorcelled by the lavish lifestyle their new position is providing them, and the Dorans inch closer to whatever mysterious plans they have for Henry.

I appreciated the way the pilot wasted no time setting up the "deal with the devil" aspect of the show, utilizing the cold open to spotlight a resident whose deal's time limit runs out in the middle of his orchestra performance -- a performance being watched with cold interest by the Dorans.  I also liked that the second example of a doomed soul had a bargain that operated on vastly different rules, hinting at there being enough freedom in structuring them so that if the show does follow a "bargain of the week" format there can be enough variety in the bargains to keep it from getting stale.

The real highlight of pilot is, without a doubt, Terry O'Quinn's turn as Gavin.  Long-time Lost fans know that O'Quinn can do creepy well, and here he manages to instill his character with a subtle menace that helps ground the show.  There may be scenery-chewing to be had in the near future as we learn more about what makes the Dorans tick, but if does come to that, the build-up could make it more worthwile.

My only real complaint with the first episode was that the special effect of the violinist suffering his fate was a little cheesy; it reminded me a bit of the fate of Nancy's mom at the end of Nightmare on Elm Street, an effect which amused more than horrified me even as an adolescent.  The second bargain-maker's fate was more effective, but still straddled that line of cheese; if this show is going to be truly successful for me, they'll really going to have to find a way to stick the creepy landing on scenes like that.

On the whole, the pilot did a good job of establishing the show's premise and setting up a couple of plot-lines to carry through at least the first handful of episodes; only time will tell if future episodes manage to maintain the quality.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 2 -- Breakneck Bloodsuckers: An Overview of "The Vampire Diaries"

In the fall of 2009 I, against my better judgement, watched the pilot what I had suspected was just an attempt to cash in on the Twilight craze:  The Vampire Diaries. The basic plot revolved around the burgeoning relationship between a vampire named Stefan and a high school girl named Elena, said relationship being threatened by the appearance of Stefan's more ruthless vampire brother, Damon.  While the pilot wasn't as terrible as I had feared, neither did it do much to dispel my belief that it was going to be a straightforward teen-centric vampire romance.

So although my policy is to give any show that doesn't immediately cause me physical pain a full three episodes to catch my attention, the fact that my TV viewing schedule was already over-flowing, and that The Vampire Diaries was up against Survivor and Flashforward, another new show which had struck me as much more promising, led to my discarding the show from my schedule after one episode.

Jump ahead 3 years: Flashforward remained in people's minds largely as a punchline or cautionary tale that surfaces each fall when some new show feels poised to become the "new Lost", whereas The Vampire Diaries , deep in its 3rd season, maintained a vocal following praising its breakneck pacing and willingness to take risks-- a following that included several TV critics whose opinions I generally respect.  So, when Netflix obtained the rights to stream the past seasons of all current CW shows, I decided one weekend to retroactively give The Vampire Diaries at least the three episode trial I had deprived it of back in 2009.  What I quickly discovered was that if I had given it a full shot back in the day, I probably would have been hooked by the 2nd episode, which had started to flesh out the character of Damon to something deeper a more complex than just "generic evil vamp," and definitely hooked by the 3rd, where Damon's unpredictability and impetuousness created the first of what would be many "holy crap, did they just do that?" moments in the series.
I spent the whole weekend mainlining the first two seasons, and was sad that I would probably have to wait until August or September to catch the 3rd season, if for no other reason than I knew that avoiding spoilers was going to be difficult.  Indeed, by the time Netflix had the episodes available to watch, I already knew of one major character death and one major character un-death. But thankfully, the show is filled with more than enough twists and turns to make even this foreknowledge trivial in my enjoyment of seeing exactly how it all unfolded.

Watching The Vampire Diaries in a marathon format was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting:  exhilarating due to its relentless forward momentum, and exhausting due to the relentless shifting allegiances between characters. But even though one of the show's greatest strengths is its willingness to change the status quo at the drop of a hat, even that wouldn't be enough to keep me invested if the show wasn't populated with characters that I care about. Sure, there are a couple of character I wish would take the dirt nap sooner rather than later, but on the whole the series has managed to take characters that started off as broad, teen soap stereotypes and develop them into complex, likeable people.  And by making me care about characters like Caroline and Tyler -- two of the aforementioned broad stereotypes who have grown into two of my favorite characters -- the show manages to squeeze even more tension out of every dangerous situation.  Because if three seasons of the show have taught us anything, it's that while the core trio of Stefan, Elena, and Damon aren't going anywhere, the same can't be said of anyone else. 

Because so much of the enjoyment of The Vampire Diaries is tied up with twists and turns and surprise deaths and rebirths, it's difficult to get into too much detail about what I do and don't enjoy.  But I can say that the show has definitely transcended the "vampire teen romance" label and I am eagerly awaiting the 4th season premiere next week. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 1 -- Double Feature Review

Welcome to the first of my Countdown to Halloween themed reviews. To kick us off, you're getting two review in one.

Recently, while indulging one of my semi-regular horror movie binges via Netflix Watch Instantly, I stumbled across an 80s horror movie that I had rather fond memories of from my youth, but which I hadn't seen in ages. Feeling a mixture of nostalgia and curiosity, I decided to re-watch the film to see if it (and later, its sequel) lived up to my happy recollections.

The plot of Waxwork centers around a mysterious wax museum which has opened up in the middle of a residential neighborhood.  When a group of high school friends receive an invitation to a special midnight sneak peek, they find themselves the victims of sinister magic which entraps them within the wax tableaux starring famous figures of evil; everything from wolfmen and zombies to Jack the Ripper and the Marquis de Sade.  Each tableau serves as a mystic portal to the world of the featured villain, which means that the film gets to serve up a variety of settings and creatures to keep the plot moving and hold the audience's interest. 

With Waxwork, you have one of those quintessential 80s horror/comedy mixes, a la Fright Night, Night of the Creeps, House, etc.  And although few would argue that Waxwork truly ranks up with the aforementioned films in terms of quality, I found that it managed to maintain the balance between the horror and comedy more often than not.  The cast of protagonists, lead by Zach Galligan of Gremlins fame, manages to be fun and relatable, and while the final battle between the forces of good and evil threatened to swerve into slapstick, it managed to stay just grounded enough to keep me from losing my patience.

Unfortunately, its sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time did not.

Picking up directly where the previous film ended, the surviving heroine is followed home by the sole surviving creature from the destroyed wax museum.  When the creature kills her alcoholic father, the heroine is arrested for the murder.  Since nobody will believe her story, she and her fellow survivor from the first movie go on a quest for proof.  Sadly, the quest is powered more by impulsiveness than logic, and the two find themselves bouncing through time portal after time portal, which leads to horror movie parody after horror movie parody. 

It's here that the sequel lost me.  While the first film did play around slightly with the styles of the different worlds visited through the wax tableaux, each world was still grounded enough to create a sense of danger.  But with Lost in Time, the worlds visited are often played more as an excuse for over-the-top gags.  Instead of letting the humor service the story, the humor overpowered the story; the climax of the Haunting of Hill House parody sequence was especially egregious in that respect.  The balance that existed in the first film was sadly missing in the follow-up, and the change in tone poisoned the film for me. 

This isn't to say that Lost in Time was a bad film, per se; even with the tone skewing more towards slapstick than in the first movie, there are still some nice and entertaining set pieces sprinkled throughout. But by the time the movie was through, its open ending made it feel more like a backdoor pilot for a fantasy-adventure series than a horror flick.