Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

Halloween: H20 was mediocre, but it at least put a nice capper on the series, bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode and allowing her to get some closure by killing Michael Myers in a seemingly definitive way (by lopping off his head). It could have sent the series out on a dignified if unspectacular note. But obviously the producers couldn't leave well enough alone, and so they went back to the well four years later, tainting whatever meager legacy they had established with this lame cash-in of a sequel, and totally wasting Curtis in a throwaway opening. Not only is the ending of H20 invalidated with a stupid retcon (Michael actually switched places with a paramedic before he was beheaded), but Laurie is also killed off in a completely anticlimactic way after all she's been through. The first 15 minutes, with Michael tracking down Laurie at a mental institution, have essentially nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Maybe if that part had been fleshed out to feature length, and Laurie had been given a real storyline, Resurrection could have been okay.

Instead, what we get is a pathetic online/reality-TV storyline about six generic college students (apparently there is now a university in Haddonfield) being recruited to spend a night in the old Myers house while broadcasting it all over the Internet. The characters are fitted with cameras that make them look like they're on that old MTV reality show Fear, and director Rick Rosenthal (returning from Halloween II) intersperses the broadcast footage with the traditional narrative of people wandering around the dark and getting killed. Less than a decade later, the whole conceit already seems incredibly dated, and there's no effort made to use it to any sort of clever effect. Instead it's just a flimsy excuse to get these characters in one place so Michael can kill them.

After H20 erased all the convoluted mythology that had been built up in the fourth, fifth and sixth movies, Resurrection goes about trying to create some new, equally useless back story, while reinforcing the idea that those three past sequels are no longer part of the continuity. But unlike H20, this movie has no justification for its narrative; were it not for the opening sequence with Laurie, this could be a completely unrelated film that takes place in either version of the continuity. The storytelling is completely lazy, and the characters have no meaningful connection to Michael or his history. Although Resurrection moves the action back to Haddonfield, there's no sense of the town or how the location plays into the story. It's just a convenient place for Michael to show up.

And instead of the talented young actors of H20, Resurrection offers up Busta Rhymes, Tyra Banks and American Pie's Thomas Ian Nicholas, along with a bunch of other forgettable faces (although future Battlestar Galactica star Katee Sackhoff is amusing as a sassy attention whore). The acting is mostly terrible, and Rhymes brings it to a whole new level of awfulness; the movie's clear low point is when he attempts to use kung fu on Michael. No one seems to be putting in much of an effort, and Resurrection only escapes being the worst movie in the franchise by making at least a modicum of sense from moment to moment, as opposed to The Curse of Michael Myers. The movie ends on an obligatory cliffhanger setting up the possibility of yet another sequel, but that never happened. Five years later, the producers scrapped it all and started over with a remake, beginning the whole cycle again.

Bonus: Here's my review of the 2007 Rob Zombie Halloween remake.

Dead Set

I suppose Halloween is the time for zombies to invade pop culture, but it seems like every other thing I write about these days has zombies in it. There are the artsy zombie movies Colin and Make-Out With Violence, which I recently reviewed on DVD; there's the new AMC series The Walking Dead; heck, there was even a zombie-themed episode of Community. So I was a little wary of the 2008 British miniseries Dead Set, which had its belated U.S. premiere on IFC this week. It has a clever high concept, looking at the zombie apocalypse from the perspective of contestants on the U.K. version of the reality show Big Brother (which is much, much more popular there than it is here). But I was disappointed that it was still shot and structured like a traditional movie or TV series, not set up like footage from an actual reality show.

Once I got past that, though, I enjoyed the show's twist on the formula, which brings in bits of sly media satire but doesn't go overboard. The reality-show contestants are narcissistic and shallow, but they're also well-rounded characters who prove to be resourceful when faced with danger. The show's arrogant producer is by far the least likable character, and having an everywoman production assistant as the main protagonist balances things out. Media critic Charlie Brooker wrote Dead Set, but he doesn't short-change the horror in favor of social commentary or parody, even though he gets in plenty of ironic digs at reality TV (part of the series was filmed on the actual Big Brother set). Mostly this is just a satisfying zombie series, and I actually enjoyed it a little more than the two episodes I've seen of The Walking Dead so far. Granted, that show is open-ended while Dead Set comes to a clear conclusion, but it still has a bit more urgency and definitely more humor. The Walking Dead has been heavily promoted and is definitely worth watching, but even if you're sick of zombies you might want to give Dead Set a chance as well.

All five episodes air tonight starting at 7:30 p.m. on IFC.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween: H20 (1998)

After the severely declining quality of the Halloween sequels that preceded it, Halloween: H20 is a marked improvement merely by not being completely dreadful. But the return of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode is not as triumphant as it should have been; she comes back to anchor a pretty basic slasher movie, although it tries at times to deal with themes of trauma and letting go, in relation to Laurie's 20 years of fear that Michael Myers will return. That's right: As far as this movie is concerned, Michael's been missing since the events of Halloween II, and pretty much everything from the fourth, fifth and sixth movies has been erased from continuity. I'm sure the idea here was to connect H20 to the earlier, more well-regarded Halloween movies, and certainly ignoring the absurd mess of cultists and ancient symbols that the sixth movie tried to sell was a good idea. But it's a shame that Danielle Harris' Jamie Lloyd was written out, because she had flashes of being an interesting character, and Harris did a really good job with some really dodgy writing. She was consistently better than the movies she was in.

Curtis, despite having initiated this project herself, doesn't bring much of a new dimension to Laurie, who's now living under an assumed name after having faked her death in a car crash (that car crash being just about the only plot point that remains intact from the previous sequels). Grown-up Laurie is now the headmistress of a California boarding school, making H20 the first Myers-focused Halloween sequel not to take place in Haddonfield (it's also the first without Donald Pleasence, who died after completing work on the sixth movie). Michael hasn't been seen in 20 years, since the night he supposedly burned to death in the hospital in Haddonfield (Pleasence's Dr. Loomis is mentioned as having died as well, although it's not clear if he perished in the fire or lived a while longer). But suddenly Michael shows back up, with no explanation of where he's been for two decades or how he survived (say what you will about installments four, five and six, but they explained the shit out of everything).

Michael tracks Laurie down and sets about killing the people around her, of which there are a limited number since most of the school's students have left on an extended field trip. Like John Carpenter's original, H20 spends a good amount of time on character development before it gets to the hacking and slashing, and a number of young actors who went on to prominent careers have parts here, including Josh Hartnett as Laurie's teenage son John, Michelle Williams as his girlfriend and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the dude who gets killed before the opening credits roll. The teen characters are only mildly interesting, although writers Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg (working from an uncredited story by Kevin Williamson) create an intriguing dynamic between Laurie and John, who sees his mother's constant fear of Michael Myers as irrational and limiting.

Unlike Wes Craven's smart and suspenseful return to his signature franchise with 1994's New Nightmare, H20 doesn't actually have its original director on board (Carpenter was set to direct at one point but dropped out and was replaced by Steve Miner), and it's only superficially engaged with the themes of the original film and subsequent franchise. It's still scary at times and, like Carpenter's original, extremely economical. It scales back the excesses of the later sequels to focus on sympathetic characters running from a monster, and it does a decent job of it. It ends with a moment that was clearly meant to put a definitive end to the franchise, and if that had happened it would have been a respectable way to go out. Of course, very little about the Halloween series was ever respectable, and H20 ended up being just another movie for Michael to slash his way through on the way to the next.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

It's silly to expect these later Halloween sequels to be quality films, but at least there's some dumbass entertainment value to be found in the previous two installments. No such redeeming qualities show up in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, the sixth and possibly worst film in the series. It follows up on some of the plot elements of Halloween 5, but in a haphazard, nonsensical way, taking the mysterious symbol and black-shrouded stranger of that movie (which were annoyingly never explained) and making them part of some sort of mystical cult that worships or perhaps created Michael Myers (like everything in this movie, it's totally unclear). Curse is consumed with this idiotic mythology, which makes even less sense after all the on-set rewrites and reshoots that came out of creative clashes between director Joe Chappelle, screenwriter Daniel Farrands and producer Paul Freeman. And while Curse is gorier than previous installments, it's also almost completely suspense-free, thanks to Michael being on a killing rampage from the first scene, with no time to build up interesting characters or situations to care about.

Right away the filmmakers trash the work of the previous two films, with poor Jamie (now played by J.C. Brandy) getting offed early on, right after giving birth to a son who is apparently the new designated heir of the Michael Myers legacy (at least as far as the muddled cult is concerned). It's a shame that Danielle Harris didn't come back for even this brief appearance; it's clear from the disaster that is Curse just how vital her presence was to the previous two movies, and she's become nearly as much of a franchise icon as Jamie Lee Curtis or Donald Pleasence (she did go on to play a teenager in Rob Zombie's two remakes). Pleasence does come back, but his role is diminished, partially because Chappelle reportedly didn't like his work and cut many of his scenes, and partially because he died before the extensive reshoots took place. It's a sad way for this distinguished actor to end his career.

The real star of Curse isn't the top-billed Pleasence but Paul Rudd in one of his earliest movie roles, playing the grown-up version of Tommy Doyle, the little kid Laurie Strode was babysitting in the first movie when Michael attacked. Tommy has become a super-creepy loner obsessed with Michael (so where was he in the previous sequels?), and he somehow lucks in to finding Jamie's infant son, whom she has conveniently stashed in a cabinet in a bus-station bathroom before getting killed. Tommy is intense and weird, but Rudd's performance is so hammy that it seems like a constant self-parody. Although he's now known primarily for comedy, Rudd can certainly pull off dramatic roles. Here, though, he seems like he's about to bust up laughing the whole time, and it makes Tommy more goofy than creepy.

None of the acting here is any good; Pleasence lumbers through his role without any hint of the craziness that Loomis displayed in previous movies (he's even somehow lost his burn scars, although he retains his limp). And Chappelle's direction has none of the visual flair of Halloween 5's Dominique Othenin-Girard. There's apparently a radically different cut available in bootleg form, with more than 40 minutes' worth of different footage, and perhaps that version makes more sense, or is at least coherently edited (here, scenes often seem to be missing or cut before they've actually ended). Even so, I can't imagine there's actually a good version of this movie to be salvaged from this fiasco.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween 5 (1989)

Like Halloween II, Halloween 5 (its subtitle, The Revenge of Michael Myers, was used in promotional materials but isn't in the actual movie) was made soon after its predecessor and flows directly from the preceding story, even opening with recycled scenes from the previous movie. It doesn't take place later the same night (instead, a year has passed), but it does build on the characters and situations that were established when Halloween 4 reignited the franchise. Unlike Halloween 4, though, Halloween 5 isn't out to replicate the tone and style of the original film. It's much more lurid and over-the-top, and although it's pretty ridiculous, its exaggerated style makes it a bit more entertaining than the grimly functional Halloween 4.

Once again, it's young actress Danielle Harris who carries the movie and elevates it above the trash heap, with her expressive eyes and skill at portraying terror. She even goes half the movie without speaking, as her character, Michael's niece Jamie, has been rendered mute after the traumas of the previous movie. It's a little disappointing that the filmmakers backpedal on the twist ending of Halloween 4, in which Jamie donned the same Halloween costume as a young Michael and stabbed her foster mother to death, and seemed poised to become the new version of Michael. Here we learn that the foster mother is still alive and Jamie has not become evil, but is troubled enough to have stopped speaking and be placed in a children's clinic.

Jamie is pretty much the only character who gets any development, though; her foster sister Rachel (Ellie Cornell) has returned from the previous movie as well, but she gets killed off quickly, and the other teen characters are interchangeable fodder for Michael's knife. Donald Pleasence is back again as Dr. Loomis, and I did appreciate how Loomis seems to get crazier and crazier in each movie. Here he constantly berates young Jamie for not doing enough to help him catch Michael, since she apparently now has some sort of psychic connection to her uncle (whatever). At the movie's climax, he actually brandishes Jamie like a human shield to get Michael to follow him. The performance has gone from an intense depiction of a troubled man to full-on camp, but in the context of horror crap like this, it's pretty entertaining.

The camp factor redeems other parts of the movie, too, although Swiss director Dominique Othenin-Girard sometimes goes overboard, as with the pair of bumbling cops who have their own wacky sound effects that play whenever they do something dumb. But he shoots with lots of low angles and crazy camera movements, giving the visuals a sort of funhouse feel (he does use the trademark point-of-view shots for Michael as well, but relatively sparingly). Jamie's psychic freakouts when Michael prepares to kill someone are especially gonzo.

The movie is entertainingly stupid until the finale, which is just stupid, and hinges on a mysterious stranger whom we never see above the waist, who comes to town and apparently breaks Michael out of jail at the end. Combined with a series of unexplained symbols that appear on Michael's and the stranger's wrists, as well as in the old Myers house, it's a clumsy attempt at drumming up intrigue that only comes off as confusing and dissatisfying (although apparently it's addressed in the next movie). Halloween 5 is a mess, but I found that messiness preferable to another futile effort to copy the restrained effectiveness of John Carpenter's inimitable original.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

The failure of Halloween III: Season of the Witch may have killed the idea of the Halloween franchise as a sort of anthology series, but it eventually resurrected the idea of continuing the story of Michael Myers, albeit without original creators John Carpenter and Debra Hill, who bowed out and sold off their interest in the series after their idea for Halloween 4 was rejected. Instead the series continued under the guidance of producer Moustapha Akkad, who decided to go back to basics for the fourth installment: Michael Myers, killing a bunch of people on Halloween in Haddonfield.

Halloween 4 quickly goes about undoing the resolution of Halloween II: Despite being shot probably dozens of times and thoroughly immolated, Michael is alive but comatose, and has been held in a state hospital for the past decade. Dr. Loomis, too, is alive, the only signs of his own immolation being a limp and a scar on the side of his face that seems to change shape in every scene. Just as in the first Halloween, Michael escapes while being transferred between facilities, and he heads to Haddonfield to stalk and kill a relative of his. In this case, it's Jamie (Danielle Harris), daughter of original heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who is hastily written out as having died in a car accident along with Jamie's father. That means that teenage Laurie got married and had a daughter all within three years of the events of the first two films, since Jamie is seven years old in this movie.

So the continuity is shaky, but it's all just an excuse to get to the important stuff, which is Michael killing people and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence, the only actor returning from the first two films) ranting and raving while chasing after him. In that sense, Halloween 4 delivers, but only in the most rudimentary fashion. Michael has become so invincible and unstoppable at this point (he kills a man in one scene by literally pressing his thumb into the guy's skull) that there's virtually no suspense to the plot, and Loomis is a cartoonish figure played campily by Pleasence. The heart of the movie is Harris as Jamie, whose connection to Michael is contrived but imbued with real sadness. The one clever touch is having Jamie dress up for Halloween in the same clown outfit that young Michael wore when he killed his sister, which gets an extra level of creepiness when the twist ending has Jamie committing the same kind of murder her uncle did at her age, carrying on his legacy of evil. It's sort of unmotivated by anything we've seen the character do up to that point, but it's still a nice gut punch in a movie that is otherwise a parade of nothing but the expected.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

After the success of the first two Halloween films, John Carpenter and Debra Hill were only willing to work on a third film if it had nothing to do with Michael Myers, whose story they felt had come to an end. Instead, they decided to reinvent the franchise as a sort of anthology, with the intention being to release a different unrelated horror film each Halloween. Obviously that never happened, and so Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a curious footnote in the Halloween series, an anomaly that has nothing to do with the installments that came before or after. Something like that seems ripe for rediscovery and reevaluation, but it's clear on watching Season of the Witch that public interest in Michael Myers wasn't the only reason the anthology concept didn't take off; the main problem is that Season of the Witch is often hilariously bad.

Instead of a slasher movie, Season of the Witch is more of a supernatural thriller, with a doctor and a young woman investigating a sinister toy factory after the woman's father's mysterious death. The factory is producing three Halloween masks (the "Halloween three," a sort of lame tie-in to the title) that seem to have some dangerous intent behind them. The movie is known for being about killer Halloween masks, but it isn't until near the very end that the masks' actual purpose becomes clear, and instead of a movie about evil masks like I was expecting, it's mostly a movie about two people lurking around a small town trying to figure out what's going on. The suspense is minimal, and while the focus on atmosphere over gore is admirable, the story is so silly and full of plot holes that the gore is just about the only thing it has going for it.

There is some camp value, though, especially in Tom Atkins' performance as the doctor who's determined to get to the bottom of the mask situation. Atkins manages to make his Dr. Challis into both a douche and a hero. With his porn-star mustache and soap-star swagger, Challis seduces the vulnerable daughter of the man whose death sets off the entire investigation. She's 25 years younger than him, recently grieving and scared for her life, but the movie takes time out for an icky sex scene between the two of them in the midst of all the investigating. Meanwhile, Challis' ex-wife keeps nagging him because he's blowing off visits with his kids to drive to some scary small town and stop an evil toy manufacturer. It seemed clear to me that he really just wanted to bed the hot daughter.

It's probably best that there are sex scenes to distract from how much the plot doesn't make sense, because boy is it stupid. There's the fact that the villain has stolen one of the giant rocks from Stonehenge to carry out his evil plot (how'd he smuggle that into the country?). There's the evil plot itself, in which the magical masks will melt children's faces off and cause bugs and snakes to crawl out of them, accomplishing what exactly? Then there's the climax, in which the heroes must race to stop a commercial that triggers the masks' evil mechanism from airing at exactly 9 p.m.; never mind that they're in California, and that the movie has just shown a montage of kids across the country wearing the masks, and that kids in the Eastern time zone would have already had their faces melted off three hours before. You get the picture.

Writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace tries to throw in some sophisticated touches: There's a nice homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the name of the town (Santa Mira) that houses the evil factory, the pod-like androids who serve the villain, and the maniacal ending with Challis ranting directly into the camera like Kevin McCarthy warning that the body snatchers are coming for you next. And the original Halloween gets nods by being shown on TV in the background of a couple of scenes. Still, the stupidity far outweighs the sense of history, and Season of the Witch mainly lives up to its anthology ambitions by being like a dud episode of the new Twilight Zone that you'd skip past during an all-day marathon.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween II (1981)

Halloween II is a movie that's benefited from diminished expectations over the years. When it was released, most critics saw it as a disappointing follow-up to John Carpenter's original, but years of much, much worse sequels have made the second installment look pretty good by comparison. Being aware of the crap that is to come, I suppose I was a little more forgiving of Halloween II than its contemporary critics were, but I still found it largely forgettable.

It helps that John Carpenter and partner Debra Hill are still involved, as both screenwriters and producers. The tone here follows pretty smoothly from the first film, and the plot continues directly on from the original, even recycling the last few minutes of the first movie for its opening, and then taking place over the course of the same night. Michael Myers is still on the loose after being shot six times, and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is still after him, while Michael is still after teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). The problems with Halloween II were probably unavoidable: In order to continue the story, it has to build up the Michael Myers mythology (this is where we first learn that Laurie was Michael's sister), and in order to jolt audiences it needs to offer up more victims and more gore than the first movie did.

So Michael kills more than twice as many people this time around, mostly in the severely understaffed hospital where Laurie is taken following her initial ordeal. Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis roams around town acting increasingly hysterical about the need to apprehend Michael, and Pleasence tips his performance from creepy to campy. Director Rick Rosenthal apes some of Carpenter's signature moves, including effectively using point-of-view shots to depict Michael's perspective as he stalks his prey. But despite his best efforts, and a decent job of creating the same atmosphere of everyday foreboding, Rosenthal just can't capture what made the original so effective. There's little room for character development, since almost all of the characters are slaughtered shortly after being introduced. Even Laurie spends the first two-thirds of the movie mostly unconscious, and Curtis (wearing an obvious wig to approximate her hairstyle from the first movie) doesn't have nearly as much to do as she did the last time.

Still, there's some creepiness to Michael's relentlessness, and the eerily empty hospital is a good setting. But this feels more like an extended coda to the original story than a movie that stands on its own; I actually prefer Rob Zombie's 2009 version of this movie, which engages more with the idea of what it would really be like to be a slasher-movie "final girl." Here we just get the final moments of the story stretched out to feature length, and the padding really shows.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween (1978)

This week leading up to Halloween, I'm looking back at the original Halloween series of films, starting with John Carpenter's 1978 original. I've seen Carpenter's Halloween more than almost any other horror movie, and it impresses me every time I watch it. It's a model of economy and suspense, with every moment contributing to the overall sense of dread and discomfort. At the same time, Carpenter doesn't ever overplay his hand, and he spends plenty of time on character development, giving the main three teen girls real personalities before they come up against the horrors that await them. He and co-writer Debra Hill provide a low-key, realistic dynamic for the characters played by Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis, and the three actresses have a genuine chemistry that allows the audience to easily identify with them. Curtis' Laurie doesn't even face the homicidal Michael Myers until 15 minutes before the movie ends, but by that point we're thoroughly invested in what happens to her.

Although Halloween has plenty of iconic elements, including Carpenter's moody, minimalist score and the hulking, masked look of Michael Myers himself, it doesn't really have any lines or moments that have been repeated to death in various pop-culture venues, and thus it can feel a little fresher than, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street when watched from the jaded perspective of 2010. Michael himself is a deliberately blank, unknowable villain (in contrast to the overexplained victim of Rob Zombie's 2007 remake, or the convoluted mythology that eventually emerges in the sequels to Carpenter's original). Even the excellent opening sequence, shot from the point of view of the 6-year-old Michael, merely illustrates his actions without providing any explanation. As Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis says, he's "purely and simply evil." And that's a scientific opinion.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

New York Comic-Con round-up, part two

Here's the second part of my look at the indie and self-published comics I picked up at the New York Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago. The level of quality was surprisingly consistent and high, especially among the books I picked out and wasn't just handed for free. Check out the first part here.

Dinoman (Ben & Jeff Cohen/Jeff Cohen, BrainFood Comics) Now this is just awful. This eight-page preview book features terrible writing and amateurish art in its story of the titular superhero, whose nonsensical origin story takes up the first two pages. I guess this is supposed to be funny, with Donald Trump as the villain and his hairpiece as a sentient alien parasite, but it's just jumbled and unnecessarily vulgar. The character design is really ugly, and artist Jeff Cohen's spatial sense is completely off, making the art look flat and static. Definitely one to avoid.

King! (Thomas Hall/Daniel Bradford, Blacklist Studios) This comic about an Elvis-impersonating ex-pro wrestler who fights demons is basically a Hellboy rip-off, right down to its color palette full of earth tones and its jagged, angular art style. But it's an amusing little Hellboy rip-off, with a few good quips from the main character, a cool-looking demon battle and creative character designs. Daniel Bradford's art may owe a lot to Mike Mignola, but it's still quite good, and his storytelling is solid. The plot is silly and simple but entertaining. I could definitely see these guys doing a book for Image or Dark Horse.

Shocking Gun Tales (Various, Cellar Door Publishing) Like most anthologies, this is a mixed bag, although overall the bad outweighs the good. Based on the title, I was expecting a series of dark noir tales, but only two of the five pieces fit in that category. One, by George T. Singley and Ethen Beavers, has stylish art but a very confusing story, while the other, by Vinton Heuck, is overwritten in a pulpy way but captures the noir visual style in a way reminiscent of Sean Phillips' work on Criminal. The rest of the stories are a mix of one-joke gags and odd misfires, including a lame heavy-handed anti-gun control sci-fi piece by Mark Winters.

Toxicity (Victor Ochoa, Draw More Inc.) I read through this comic twice, and I am still completely baffled. It seems to take place in some dystopian future, or perhaps an alternate present. Something about the world is different, although it's not clear what. The main character gets carjacked, some woman is murdered and her organs are stolen (maybe?), and then the main character is behind it all somehow. I don't know. The whole thing is told with barely any dialogue, and while Ochoa's stark black-and-white art with no gray tones is appealing, his storytelling clearly leaves something to be desired. The end promises another issue to come, and perhaps things will become clearer at that point, but I won't be bothering to find out.

Wendover (Scott Malchus & Jeff Marsick/Jonathan Burkhardt, Double Cross) I admit I picked this up almost solely because it's set in Wendover, Utah, a little town on the Utah/Nevada border that I drove through once on a cross-country trip. Wendover is immediately adjacent to West Wendover, which is in Nevada and has a bunch of casinos. The two towns, and the two states, are divided by a giant white line painted in the middle of the main road, with "Utah" written on one side and "Nevada" on the other. They're also in different time zones, but are otherwise entirely contiguous. My friend and I amused ourselves thinking of the theoretical divide between the Wendovers, one with legalized gambling and the Pacific time zone, the other with strict liquor laws, no gambling and the Mountain time zone. Anyway, this comic has nothing to do with any of that, but it's still pretty good. It's a mix of vampire horror and pulp detective story, with a Los Angeles gumshoe headed to the titular town to investigate the disappearance of his nephew. Seems that Wendover is suffering from a rash of vampire-related disappearances, and the local police are helpless to do anything about it. This first issue is mostly set-up (the detective hasn't even gotten to town yet), but it's an intriguing mix of styles, and Burkhardt's scratchy art creates a nice foreboding atmosphere. The author's note at the back explains that this first issue took two and a half years to create; I hope it doesn't take another two and a half years to produce a second one.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

New York Comic-Con round-up, part one

Last weekend I went to the New York Comic-Con, which has been my go-to replacement for the insanity of San Diego for the past couple of years (although I might try to go to San Diego next year). This time around, instead of focusing on buying a bunch of trade paperbacks and graphic novels that I could easily get from Amazon for around the same price from the comfort of my own home, I made sure to spend a few hours wandering the small press and artist's alley areas, picking up comics that caught my interest thanks to eye-catching art or intriguing premises. Obviously a lot of these turn out to be crappy, but I think it's better to be a little adventurous at a convention and spend a few dollars on something completely new rather than (or at least in addition to) just buying back issues of the same old mainstream superhero stuff. So here's the first part of my look at the stuff I bought, plus some random free preview issues that were literally thrust into my hands. Part two coming when I have some more time.

American Corpse (Mike Desjarlais/David House, Big Bone Studios) This free preview book contains just the first eight pages of the forthcoming American Corpse series, about an American soldier in Vietnam who dies and is resurrected 40 years later as a member of the undead. Or at least that's what the description on the back says; the actual timeline of the story was extremely confusing. I found House's art too cartoony for the grim subject matter, although it would probably work on a more kid-friendly book, and while it's too early to tell in eight pages how the concept will play out, the dialogue was pretty stilted and awkward (and, as is often the case in indie comics, in need of a copy editor). Based on this sample, I wouldn't bother picking up a whole issue.

Beloved (Ben Philippe/David Habben, Draw More Inc.) This is probably the best book I've read so far, and certainly the most visually appealing. Habben's art is stunning, with simple, bold lines, a muted color palette that uses splashes of red to accent danger and the supernatural, and creative panel structure that mirrors the chaos of Philippe's story. That story, a sort of fable about a woman who inspires suicidal/homicidal devotion in nearly everyone she meets, is sometimes a little rushed and hard to follow, but the art easily makes up for the shortcomings. The combination of the surreal images and the pulpy dialogue gives the whole thing a very creepy edge. I'd be curious to see what else Philippe can do, but I'm much more eager to check out more of Habben's sequential work.

Funrama Presents: The Mutant Punks (Ryan Kelly, self-published) Kelly is a penciller and inker known mainly for his work on Vertigo books like Lucifer, American Virgin, DMZ and most recently The Unwritten, among others. The Mutant Punks is a sort of playful, goofy lark about a team of super-powered nihilists, who certainly aren't heroes but aren't exactly villains, either, since their goal seems to be to wreak havoc just to keep from being bored. Kelly designs a bunch of appealingly silly characters based on typical superhero types, and his writing is clever and snappy. There isn't much here beyond random mayhem, so I don't know if the Mutant Punks could really sustain a whole series. But for a one-off (although it ends saying "To be continued"), it's pretty fun reading.

The Haunting House (Sam Girdich/Mark Gonyea, Strongarm Labs) Strongarm had a bunch of different books at their booth, and I asked Girdich to recommend one for me. Based on what I said I was interested in, he suggested this brief one-shot about a pair of friends investigating a haunted house. It proceeds along the lines of pretty much every haunted-house story ever, and the dialogue is a little heavy with exposition and philosophical musings. Gonyea's art, done entirely in scratchboard, has a nice creepy feel, though, and reminded me a little of the simple illustrations you might find in a children's book of ghost stories. This is a bit too intense for children, making it sort of balanced in an awkward place, but it's an interesting little experiment.

Penny for Your Soul (Tom Hutchison/J.B. Neto, Big Dog Ink) Three issues of this series have been released, although I only bought the first one. It's a sort of supernatural/pseudo-religious thriller set in Las Vegas, which was what drew me to it. The idea is that the devil's daughter (who is of course super-sexy and well-endowed) has set up her own hotel-casino in Vegas, where she is literally buying people's souls. Mary Magdalene (also super-sexy and well-endowed) is her second-in-command, and Jesus is apparently doing a religious radio show. It's a little overly self-conscious about its religious taboo-busting, but generally approached with good humor. I also appreciated that Neto got a bunch of architectural references to Vegas right, although of course the story's understanding of Vegas is based on obvious cliches. Neto's art is full-on cheesecake, and as such his women all look pretty much the same (like lingerie models). The whole thing is trying a little too hard, but it shows glimmers of promise.

The Saga of Pandora Zwieback (Steven A. Roman/Eliseu Gouveia, Starwarp Concepts) This is another free preview issue, and when I opened it I discovered it wasn't even an actual comic book. Well, there are seven pages of sequential art, drawn by Gouveia, but they're literally just the title character talking to the audience about how awesome the upcoming series of prose novels starring her (written by Roman) will be. Then there's a preview of the opening pages of the novel, a painfully "hip" story about a disaffected teenager who discovers she can glimpse the world of the supernatural that others can't see. I actually liked Gouveia's clean, eye-catching art and the goth-punk look of Pandora, and a comic about this character could be fun. But the prose writing is ridiculously strained, with lame pop-culture references and a clueless approach to teen angst. I could barely make it through the seven sample pages.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Vanilla Ice Project

Yeah, okay, I have a soft spot for Vanilla Ice. I was roped in by his white kid-friendly rapping when I was in middle school, and I still have To the Extreme and his 1998 rap-metal makeover album Hard to Swallow on CD. I even saw Ice live in concert a few years ago and had a pretty good time. It was part of a festival and thus full of people who hadn't specifically bought tickets to see Vanilla Ice, and I was worried everyone was just there to make fun of him. But the crowd was surprisingly enthusiastic, and Ice was so friendly and genuine that I think he won over any of the skeptics. By the end of the show, he had half the audience on stage with him, sharing shots of Jagermeister and the microphone.

So I like the guy, even if his music is lame and he's kind of dopey. His inherent likability is about the only reason to watch The Vanilla Ice Project, an extremely banal reality series on the DIY Network featuring Ice's home-flipping business. The show follows Ice and his associates as they work to fix up a damaged house and sell it for a profit, which I guess is what he does with most of his time since his music career has pretty much dried up. Ice is clearly knowledgeable about fixing up houses, but that doesn't mean it's interesting to watch him lecture on different kinds of palm trees or the best way to pressure-clean a roof. This is like standing outside talking to your landscaper, except your landscaper is a washed-up one-hit wonder who constantly finds new ways to extend his fame. My goodwill only stretches so far.

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on the DIY Network.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: Dementia 13

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Francis Ford Coppola's 1963 first mainstream feature (after a pair of what nowadays would be known as softcore films), produced by Roger Corman, probably wouldn't get much attention today were it not for Coppola's name attached to it. It's a rather incoherent but sometimes effectively atmospheric horror movie, with a plot that makes little sense and characters whose personalities sometimes seem to change from scene to scene. Corman wanted Coppola to give him something in the vein of Psycho, and Coppola does just that, right up to offing what appears to be the main character about halfway through the film. The problem is that he takes Psycho's focus on criminal psychology but not its expert crafting of suspense, so the dialogue is a combination of meaningless psychobabble and muddled exposition.

Still, Coppola manages to create a nice foreboding atmosphere in the cavernous old Irish castle where the movie takes place, and his characters are all so screwed up that they can't help but be a little interesting. It's difficult to see a future master filmmaker in here, although the visuals are confident and the opening sequence in particular (in which a woman disposes of her husband's body over the side of a boat) is eerily effective, with an inventive use of music to heighten the creepy mood. That woman is trying to wrangle an inheritance out of her husband's eccentric family, who congregate in the spooky castle, but despite the ax murderer lurking about, her efforts don't have much of a sense of urgency.

Corman was displeased with Coppola's original cut and had another director go in and add a subplot about a bumbling poacher who gets killed, and maybe the director's true vision is more intense and more coherent. For what it actually ended up as, though, Dementia 13 is valuable primarily as a footnote in a great director's biography.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Bette Davis Month Bonus: The Star (1952)

My monthlong series of posts about Bette Davis movies may have ended, but I'm still recording every Davis film that I haven't seen that airs on TCM and writing about it. And I'm still finding some duds, although I was kind of eager to see The Star since it was Davis' only Oscar-nominated performance that I hadn't already seen. The Star came right on the heels of Davis' magnificent, Oscar-nominated comeback in All About Eve, and maybe the Academy was just excited to see her playing another aging actress, this time a movie star rather than a stage legend. But The Star pales in comparison to All About Eve, not to mention plenty of other Davis movies. It's an awkward combination of romance, melodrama and showbiz satire, and it doesn't really succeed at any of them.

Davis' Margaret Elliott is broke and unable to find work, and the first part of the movie depicts her overwrought downward spiral, culminating in a DUI arrest. It's more than a bit overdone, and not amusing enough to be campy, but it's more entertaining than the next part, which finds Margaret seeking redemption with a simple shipbuilder played by Sterling Hayden. Hayden and Davis have no chemistry, and Hayden, who was known for playing thugs, looks uncomfortable and awkward the entire time. The movie can't seem to decide whether Margaret deserves redemption and a return to Hollywood or should be punished for her vanity and made to become a housewife to this boring square-jawed guy.

In the end, Margaret acts in rather illogical ways to twice sabotage her potential movie comeback (including in a scene in which a screenwriter essentially pitches her the movie she's currently appearing in), but instead of rock-bottom despair, the movie closes with an abrupt happy ending that finds Margaret reuniting with the boring shipbuilder, and bringing her annoying preteen daughter (played by Natalie Wood) along with her. In between, Davis gets a few chances to be gloriously bitchy, but for a character who's supposed to have such a monstrous ego, Margaret is more whiny and insecure than haughty. It's entertaining to see Davis play with her image, but The Star really fails to live up to the potential of its premise.