Saturday, May 30, 2020

Modern Horror Classic Remakes Challenge

     Late one rainy spring pandemic night, while scrolling through social media, the Ghost recently came across a post asking horror fans what modern film remakes-- from the 1970s through the 1980s-- were the best. For an even less discernible reason, I decided to marathon watch those I had not seen, to be able to answer such a curious question.

     The films listed were "Halloween," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Friday the 13th," "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Child's Play."

     Previously, I had seen the remakes of  Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. How did they all fare? What worth could there be in determining how well films that remade modern horror classics over the last decade or more had succeeded, failed and everything in between? I could not answer the question-- so I set out to find answers.

"Halloween" (2007)

     John Carpenter's 1978 film Halloween is, without hyperbole, my favorite horror film. It links the spirit of more old fashioned, Universal monster movies with very modern fear and horror, and does so, beautifully, to the backdrop of All Hallow's Eve. There is a reason why it has endured, and been imitated so often, and will continue to be so for years to come. No fear film holds up better for me; no matter how many times I watch Michael quietly stalk Jamie Lee Curtis and her friends in the waning afternoon before dusk falls on Halloween, I will always have my anxiety surge and heart beat fast as Laurie tries to run away after darkness falls and her friends have been killed.

     This is all to say that I avoided seeing the remake of Halloween for a long time. I did not see it when it first came out at the theater. I remember seeing a DVD for sale at a now long extinct Blockbuster shortly after it was released on video, and I snatched it up and put it on my shelf, where it stayed for a long time. I don't know how long I waited to watch it. But when I finally did, it was not what I was expecting, and it was not good.

    For me, Rob Zombie took everything that worked for the original film, and made it the opposite. The anonymity of Michael in the original, not knowing him, his motives, or even seeing him for much of the film, gave such a build up of dread and wonder; the kind of fear that lasts long after the last shot. In Zombie's film, Michael is given a paint by number sympathetic backstory, which is as predictable as it is ridiculous. And the charismatic actors of the first film-- the teens in Curtis and PJ Stoles, as well as the adults anchored by Donald Pleasance-- are replaced by unmemorable actors who struggle to stay with us as the characters and events of the first film did so beautifully.

     I only saw the movie once, and I have no desire to ever watch it again. The updated score is worth listening to as Carpenter's brilliance is timeless, but other than that, Rob Zombie's Halloween is something of an unsuccessful elseworlds story that I am comfortable leaving in the discount bin for all the years to come.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

     Since first appearing in 1984, Freddy Kreuger has had a long and varied legacy terrorizing teens in the A Nightmare on Elm Street films. He's fought Jason Vorhees from Friday the 13th, had offspring and even been brilliantly reinvented in 1994's New Nightmare. The one constant, however, until 2010's remake, was that the character of Freddy was played, always, by Robert Englund.

     I went into the remake of Nightmare with as much of an open mind as I could. I have long enjoyed the series and Englund's performance, but it had been many years since I saw a Nightmare film. Obviously, the most divisive thing about this remake is the recasting of Englund. Jackie Earl Haley's casting was blessed by Englund himself-- and, I found, the casting is actually the least of the film's problems. I didn't find Haley's performance problematic, and it is one of the reasons to see the film. This version of Freddy is darker (in terms of lightning, performance and story), and Haley's performance extends that, and works incredibly well. This Freddy is darkly menacing, and the fine line the production walks between having Freddy appear more like a burn victim but not too boldly associated with real-life burn victims is walked reasonably well. Freddy, like Michael Meyers and Jason, are our modern day monsters, and they will be recast for years to come, as Count Dracula and Frankenstein have been-- and will continue to be, as well.

      The script is good to average. There are some lines to be cringed at, but the younger actors are competent, and the older actors who add some weight to the production-- we're looking at you, Connie Britton-- do the best with what they can. The controversial decision to make no qualms about the fact Freddy was a child molester is not a bad one. It increases his malice and evil a great deal, and makes the actions of the parents more understandable.

     The end result is not a bad film-- and it is actually an affecting horror film in parts. The shadow of the original looms large, however, and it is never quite lived up to. If all we had was this remake, it was be hard to imagine we would have been given one sequel, let alone a whole film series spanning over thirty years. For fans of horror and the Nightmare series, this remake is respectable, and well worth watching. It is a shame we have not-- yet-- been given a proper sequel with Haley returning.

 Friday the 13th (2009)

     When the remake of Friday the 13th was first announced, I had every intention of going to see it. And I always meant to. When I embarked on my journey into the remakes, I knew it had been a few years since the movie had come out, and I'd had every intention of getting around to seeing it sooner or later.
     I was somewhat shocked it took me more than ten years. 2009's Friday the 13th, for apparently legal reasons, straddles the line between remake and sequel interestingly-- if not always deftly. The remake proper, or the rehashing and re-shooting of the story, happens in the first several minutes, before the title sequence. It wouldn't take much to have the script refer to the happenings of the first two films, and jump off from there as a sequel.

     Nevertheless, this is a remake the succeeds more than it fails. With Jason almost entirely masked by makeup or his iconic hockey headgear, the problems of recast actors that plague other films like Nightmare have never faced the Friday  films. There is not much original in this film-- younger people at a lake camp being butchered by Jason-- but there's also not much that is terribly bad. For the most part, the film feels like an unsteady, near return to form, that should have set off a few more modern sequels.

    Why it's been more than a decade and Jason has appeared in movie theaters is something I find curious.

Child's Play (2019)

     I have many opinions on the Child's Play films, and they are all over the place. The original trilogy decreases in quality, from an admittedly cheesy but effective starting point. The image of a killer's soul possessing an already creepy child's toy doll and running a murderous muck is a winner. In the 1990s, the later sequel  Bride of Chucky embraced the camp in a way the previous films hadn't-- to great success. The addition of a Frankenstein's monster's bride for Chuck in the way of Jennifer Tilly's character is a brilliant success, the kind of which the films in the franchise which came after never quite achieved.

     I was interested to see what would be done with the first legitimate remake of the Child's Play films. When your iconic horror star is an actor's voice in a doll, it doesn't seem to make sense to recast that voice; but, if you have to, you can't do much better than Mark Hamill. I was also excited to see what the comic talents of Aubrey Plaza, as the mother, would do in such a campy horror film.

     Apart from Rob Zombie's Halloween attempt, Child's Play was by far the worst of this crop of remakes. It swings big, often lazily, and misses all the same. I was willing to be game for this effort, but the film makes it nearly impossible to stay game. Done away with is the possessed serial killer angle, and in its place is a smart technology turned sentient and/or evil story, straight out of (but nowhere near the quality of) the Netflix television series Black Mirror. There may have been opportunities for a Bluetooth Chucky to be scary and entertaining, but this film does not find them.

     The script is at points laughably bad, such as when an entirely wasted (in terms of talent) Aubrey Plaza tells her son to go play outside, in the very urban city, at night under the street lights. This film also makes use of one of my least favorite horror tropes-- the murder of a family pet as an early sign to the threat's danger. The way in which this is done is so tasteless it turned me off from the film completely. Mark Hamill pardon the pun hams it up and tries to chew every last piece of scenery, but there is nothing in this film worth watching. Especially poorly done is the climatic brawl in a department store.

 Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

     Disclaimer time. Of all the horror franchises here discussed, the one I maintain the least fandom in is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films. I first saw Tobe Hooper's 1974 original film when I was a kid, and the impression wasn't a lasting one. I remember being disturbed by the images of slaughtering people as farm animals are (and worse), and how images of people being placed on hooks were not one I would want to relive by re-watching the films every October, as I do with many of the original films on this list. However, the original TCM movie remains a titan in horror and has spawned countless films that have attempted to do what it did.

     Which brings us to the 2003 remake, which I did see at the time of it's release. Without having a huge love for the films or the character of Leatherface, I found the film a surprisingly effective horror movie in its own right, managing legitimate scares and gross outs that rivaled the original; or, at least, stood on their own from the original. I found it incredibly interesting that the original's cinematographer returned to work on the remake. While Daniel Pearl's work in the original is realistic and almost documentary like for the 1970s time in which it was made, his take on a darker, more stylized cinematography for the film in 2003 adds intriguing dimensions of fear to the work.

     All in all, I still find the Chainsaw remake the most effective remake of this lot. Keep in mind the original I am not a huge fan of, and I appreciate passionate fandoms, as I myself am a part of many of them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Scary Stories: "Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein"

 Perhaps it has been the pandemic (well, very likely), but the Ghost has been reading more of the long to read list which awaits him on his shelf. I have finished a book.

 "Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein" is a beautiful, haunting and primal look at writer Mary Shelley's life. I have to admit, that I have been a lifetime lover of horror, and "Frankenstein" has near biblical status in my person canon-- but reading this book was the most personal and informative account of Mary's life that I have experienced.

 A graphic novel, the text here is often prose, resulting in a long form poem that would work on its own but excels with the beautiful, ghostly yet alive illustrations showing the complexities of Mary's life, her loves, her sadness and her creation.

 In both film and literature, the story of famous writer creating their renowned creation has become almost a genre in itself. From Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" to the film and subsequent stage musical "Finding Neverland," there is an appetite out there for stories that show how literature's immortal came to be. In this graphic novel, Lita Judge does a fantastic job at not just showing the elements of Mary Shelley's young life that culminated in the novel "Frankenstein," but showing the complexities of how her life and experience led her to the ideas and philosphies her Doctor Frankenstein and his monster have played out for readers across the years-- and forever. will.

From her time as a neglected young girl, with a mother she never knew who would have been so proud of what she accomplishd and persevered through, Mary's life faced constant abuse. Her father, step mother, and later the poet Percy Shelley were all extremely volitale and abusive relationships through which she endured-- and managed to create. Life, in the form of her children and her writing. And this is all captured beautifully in this long form graphic novel. In beautiful black and white. 

The amount of research that went into this piece is daunting, and beyond the limits of commendable. The author's notes and bibliography at the end are worth reading in and of themselves. This is a must read for any lover of Shelley and her monster, and a brilliant piece I am sure I will often find myself returning to. Highly recommended for lovers of scary stories, and lives, art and work that goes in to creating them.