Hypothetical Film Festival – Best Horror Remakes Evrrrrrrrrrrr!

With the remake of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street there is yet another horror film being “re-imagined” in theaters. But remaking horror flicks has been a mainstream trend since the 1960s and Hammer Studios buying up the Universal monsters. Here’s a film festival devoted to movies I think are the best among horror remakes.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, dir. Werner Herzog)
Starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz

Acclaimed German filmmaker Herzog decided to remake F.W. Murnau’s vampire film, believing it to be the best film ever produced by a German director. The original silent Nosferatu was made as a result of the inability to get the right to the Dracula novel. Murnau makes a few tweaks, such a dehumanizing the title vampire lord even more. When Herzog’s version came long Dracula was now in the public domain so he was able to absorb more elements of it into the story. Certain scenes are exact recreations of the original silent picture but Herzog also develops the title vampire’s personality further, causing him to become a sad, pathetic figure more than a completely menacing inhuman monster. Also, there are few actors who were as prepared to play a ghoul as Klaus Kinski.

The Thing (1981, dir. John Carpenter)
Starring Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur

The original The Thing From Another World (1951) was directed by genre jumping master filmmaker Howard Hawks and reflected a post-Hiroshima fear of science. Carpenter’s remake was much more faithful to the source novel and included the element of the alien’s ability to mimic the cellular structure and appearance of living matter. Kurt Russell plays a member of an Antarctic science crew who encounter a husky running loose and its Norwegian science expedition owners trying to kill it. They learn quickly that the dog is a microbacterial alien species bent on wiping out all life on earth to appease its evolutionary directive. The film has some of gnarliest special effects ever put to film and creates a pitch perfect tone of paranoia.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986, dir. Frank Oz)
Starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Levi Stubbs

Director/producer Roger Corman is known by the loving term of “shlockmeister”, meaning he makes cheap, exploitative genre pictures that have total cult followings. His 1960 flick The Little Shop of Horrors was turned in to a stage musical in the 1980s and that was how we got this wonderful horror-musical-comedy. Moranis is Seymour, a plant store employee who discovers a strange plant that feeds on blood and flesh. He’s able to satiate with pin prick from his finger until the creature grows larger and he must resort to murder. The picture balances the right level of black comedy with a satirical commentary on early 1960’s America. Ellen Green is definitely the musical highlight of the film, reprising her role on the stage as Audrey. The special effects for the evil man-eating plant Audrey II are also wonderful, particularly its final “adult” form.

Evil Dead II (1987, dir. Sam Raimi)
Starring Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi

In 1981, Sam Raimi released cult favorite The Evil Dead and it opened doors for him to work on some slightly higher budget crime pictures. As the 80s came to close he accrued enough funding to remake this first great film. I know I was confused when I started watching this and realized it functioned as both a remake and a sequel to the first picture. The events of the original movie are retold in the first 20 mins while a new parallel story involving archaeologists is introduced. But all you really need to know about this one is that it has Bruce Campbell in it. And he gets a chainsaw hand. I mean the entire Spider-Man trilogy has nothing on that. This picture ends on a cliffhanger that leads into 1993’s Army of Darkness.

The Ring (2002, dir. Gore Verbinski)
Starring Naomi Watts, Daveigh Chase, Brian Cox, Amber Tamblyn

This remake is much better than its 1998 Japanese original. Here the city and atmosphere of Seattle are used to perfection without ever naming the city or making a spectacle of its skyline. Instead, the soaked, rainy, bleak tone of the region underscores the looming horror. A videotape is passed around and comes with the warning that anyone who watches it will die seven days later. It ends up in the hands of a Ruth, a woman working in the media. She watches the tape and is now in a race against time to figure out the origins of this phenomenon and possibly how to stop it. The picture is full of incredibly disturbing imagery and is able to use CG effects without feeling like we’re staring at a green screen. It also has one of the best twist endings and earns every second of it. They rarely make horror this enjoyable these days.


Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Blow Out

Blow Out (1981)
Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz

Alfred Hitchcock passed away in 1980 and with him ended De Palma’s rather blatant homage/ripoffs of his work. With Blow Out, De Palma attempted an American remake of Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blowup. The picture leans much more in the direction of the big Hollywood pictures De Palma would go on to make in the 1980s and 1990s, yet it also marks his move away from the psycho thriller. Here the murders going on are linked to political conspiracy, not a mentally disturbed individual working on their own, though the murderer is definitely mentally disturbed.

Set in Philadelphia during the 100th anniversary of the Liberty Bell’s last ringing, the film follows Jack (Travolta) a sound editor for B-horror/slash nudie pictures. Jack was once in the military and worked as a cop wiring informants to crack down on the mob. The end of his career came when one of the informants was caught and killed because Jack couldn’t get to him in time. One night as Jack is out at a local park recording some samples he sees and ends up recording the audio of a car accident. He rescues the girl inside, who is still alive, and finds the driver dead. Later, at the hospital he learns the driver was a presidential candidate and the police are very eager to make Jack and the girl, Sally (Allen) forget what they saw. Using the photos of a private eye, that happened to be at the park, and his own audio recordings, Jack makes his own film of the incident. What he discovers is that the car’s tire didn’t blow out as the police are claiming but that someone fired from the bushes and shot it out. However, there is a man (Lithgow) who has been hired to kill any and all witnesses to the incident.

The film is chock full of references to other pictures and while it is not one of de Palma’s best it still has those individual sequences that are amazingly put together. The opening of the film is a blatant reference to the popular slasher flicks of the time, in particular Halloween. One long take from the POV of a killer stalking a sorority is slowly zoomed out to reveal Jack and his employer working on the sound for their newest picture. The entire conspiracy set-up is a hodgepodge of real life historical assassination and plot elements from the mid-20th century. The film Jack puts together is a parallel to the Zapruder film. The car crash with the drowning girl inside a direct reference to Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. And the desperation of the powers that be to cover everything up is deeply linked to the still linger negative sentiments manifested by Watergate in the 1970s.

One of the best parts of the film is that de Palma keeps it simple. When dealing with political conspiracy it could be very easy for the story to spiral out of control as more twists and sinister figures are added. Instead we never really get the specifics of why this potential candidate was killed, we just keep focused on Jack and Sally and really only know as much as they do about what is going on. The cast is fairly small and its only Jack that we learn any real background about. The mysterious hired killer played by John Lithgow is given all the character development we need. His precision and adherence to duty hint at his past as a military man or a member of the CIA but we never need that spelled out to us. There’s no great speech at the end either where everything is spelled out to make sure the audience got it. De Palma seems to trust our intelligence that we picked up on the things he was saying.

While not my favorite of what I’ve seen so far, Blow Out is definitely one of the tightest, leanest pictures of De Palma’s. He delivers just enough of every element that it never sags in the middle. It’s definitely not something you haven’t seen before in terms of the plot but its those elements that have been retread presented by a master filmmaker. It’s also a perfect example of how to remake a film without copying it beat for beat. De Palma takes the almost wordless Blowup, where the murder is kept completely obscured and vague, and makes a truly American version that reflected the current mood towards the upper echelons of power at the time.

Shadows in the Cave Digest #04 – April 2010

Charlie Chaplin Month
Part I – The Life and Times of a Tramp
Part II – The Women
The Kid
A Woman in Paris
The Circus
The Great Dictator
Other Films

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma –
Dressed to Kill

Hypothetical Film Festivals
Ernest Saves The Film Festival
80s Comedies for Grown Ups
Working Class Heroes


Kurt and Courtney
The Nomi Song
Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth
Dirt! The Movie

Wild Card Tuesdays
Eve’s Bayou
Dead Silence
Last Days of Disco
Nightmare on Elm Street

Newbie Wednesday
How To Train Your Dragon
Clash of the Titans
Kick Ass
The Imaginarum of Doctor Parnassus

Import Fridays
Mother (Movie of the Month!)
Lilya 4-Ever
The Lives of Others

Next Month: 
Asian Cinema Month!
Orson Welles!
Movie Musings!
And a very special birthday surprise!

Charlie Chaplin Month – Limelight

Limelight (1952)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce, Buster Keaton, Norman Lloyd, Sydney Earle Chaplin

During Chaplin’s trip to Europe to promote this film, he had his re-entry to the Unites States revoked (he always legally remained a British citizen). It was the height of Red Panic at the time in the US and Chaplin had never been shy about voicing his personal opinions on the treatment of the working class. Chaplin’s long standing tensions with J. Edgar Hoover led to his re-entry papers being revoked and he decided to set up his home in Switzerland. This would be where he would live for the rest of his days and this film (while not his last) would stand as his symbolic goodbye to cinema.

It’s 1914,  and Calvero (Chaplin) is a former performer on the East End stages. He now comes home drunk out of his mind in the middle of the day, slowly weathering away in his flat. One afternoon he returns and finds his downstairs neighbor, Teri (Bloom) unconscious holding a bottle of pills and letting gas from her stove fill her apartment. He saves her life and afterwards learns she became suicidal when her dreams of performing ballet were slowly crushed. Calvero nurses her back to health as she suffers from psychosomatic paralysis. Eventually, she regains her confidence and becomes the prima ballerina of a great company. Teri meets and falls in love with composer Neville (played by Chaplin’s own son, Sydney Earle). She goes onto secure a part for Calvero in the show as a clown and he eventually gets his own showcase which is to be his final, great performance.

1914 is an incredibly significant year in the life of Chaplin. It was in that year he made a small appearance in the Keystone short Kid Auto Races at Venice. The character he played was called The Little Tramp. The birth of one of the most iconic film characters means the death of the stage variety that brought Chaplin up. As Calvero he recognizes both the twilight of his own career and how his rise to fame was responsible for the end of many East End performers’ careers. It’s made even more significant that Buster Keaton plays Calvero’s old partner who joins him in the final stage performance. Here we have the two men who birthed cinematic comedy taking one last bow in an era that no longer had room for their style.

Despite the symbolic significance of much of the film it is still a very self-indulgent picture. Chaplin made his film’s independently meaning he got to make final cut. Limelight clocks in at 2 hours, 11 minutes and it is a real stretch. Much like The Great Dictator, another over 2 hour picture, the middle sections sag painfully. The bits Chaplin performs are never all that funny either. The two man piece he does with Keaton at the end of the film is pretty decent but never lives up to his old films.

Newbie Wednesday – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009, dir. Terry Gilliam)
Starring Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare

After filming the first half of this picture, director Gilliam learned the tragic news that Heath Ledger had died due to an accidental drug overdose. Gilliam is no stranger to films having to overcome obstacles before their release. His 1985 picture Brazil was the victim of an unexcited studio and Gilliam had to break the law to get his version of the picture shown. His attempt to make a film version of Don Quixote at the beginning of the century was ultimately scrapped when financial and natural conditions fought against him. With Imaginarium Gilliam found a way that the film could continue without Ledger’s presence and it hinges on the movie’s core theme: Imagination.

The movie opens in modern day London and follows a old time traveling show made up of the ancient sage Doctor Parnassus, his daughter; Valentina, his right hand man; Percy, and the boy in love with Valentina; Anton. Their show is no longer captivating to contemporary audience and during the opening performance a drunk man stumble through a mirror on stage that places him inside his own imagination. Parnassus has been in a centuries old struggle with Mr. Nick, the Devil who is in a competition to see who can collect the most souls before Valentina’s 16th birthday. If Nick wins he takes Valentina from Parnassus. Into this scenario comes an amnesiac man found hanging underneath a bridge. The man slowly but surely takes over creative control of the show explaining he has Parnassus best interests in mind. As the date moves closer to the bet’s end more of this stranger’s secrets are revealed.

The film is better than much of Gilliam’s more recent films and I credit that to his choice of working with co-writer Charles McKeown. McKeown previously worked on the scripts for Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen which are two of Gilliam’s strongest pictures. The story here can be a bit straining on the brain but its able to keep up with Gilliam’s visuals the whole way through. I also like the use of CG effects here not in an attempt to replicate reality (see Avatar), but to make surreal landscapes feel tangible. In my opinion, that should be the purpose of using CG in films. While I didn’t care for the story of The Lovely Bones is also did an excellent job of created fully realized surreal worlds.

The subtext in the film seems to be Gilliam’s own examination of his profession. Parnassus starts out as a man sequestered in a Tibetan monastery where he and his disciples sit around telling the story of the universe. He makes a deal with the Devil and travels out to make his fortune with these stories, being told he will be immortal if he does. Valentina is a living breathing creation and the idea of turning her over to the Devil is what drives Parnassus to fight for independence. In his desperation he turns to a smooth talker who assures him he will be present the show in the way the doctor wants, but instead we see the integrity of Parnassus slipping away.

Like most of Gilliam’s work this will never appeal to a mainstream audience. He is very much an artist who makes the things that amuse him and its always coincidental if they appeal to anyone else. If you are open to a film that prefers to play rather than dictate and hit plot beats then I think you’ll enjoy this picture.

Wild Card Tuesday – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. Wes Craven)
Starring Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Johnny Depp, Ronee Blakely

I remember the first time I ever heard about Freddy Krueger. I was 8 or 9 year old and sitting in my backyard in Smyrna where a neighbor kid was describing the R-rated horror films his parents had let him watch. Nothing stood out about Freddy that was too frightening to me, I do remember the description of the glove sounding creepy. Now it is twenty years later and I am finally seeing the film that was described to me all those years ago. So how does Wes Craven’s 1980s horror classic stack up?

It takes barely any time for us to jump right into the thick of the plot. Nancy and her friends, Tina, Glen, and Rod are all suffering from nightmares about the same evil figure. He’s a man with a burnt face, in a fedora and striped sweater who wears a glove with blades on each finger. All four spend the night at Tina’s house and their slumber is interrupted by Tina’s brutal disemboweling by an invisible force. Tina’s thug boyfriend Rod is the only suspect and ends up in jail. But Nancy thinks otherwise and has her own face to face encounter with the man who calls himself Freddy. Nancy chooses to forgo sleep as she searches for answers about why this man has targeted her and her friends. But how long can she go without giving in to her exhaustion?

One of the things I noticed right away was how muted Freddy was. I was so used to the personality later films had developed of him as a wisecracking murderer that it was off putting to see him only have a few pieces of dialogue in the picture. Craven also chooses to keep Krueger’s face in the shadows most of the time and the make up effects are fairly simply, just a face damaged by fire and turned to scar tissue. I could also see the novelty of how Freddy kills. Figures like Jason and Michael Meyers are fairly one note. They stalk you and stab you. The added twist that you are in danger in your dreams does come across as a greater threat. There’s no authorities to go to that can save you in this instance.

Overall, the film doesn’t feel very frightening. I think having so many of its scenes used in specials detailing iconic horror and the Freddy Krueger character having been milked for all of its worth harms the ability of the film to still be affecting. I really liked Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, she felt like a real teenage girl who wasn’t a huge breasted pin up. The normality of Nancy definitely made her a much more sympathetic character than your typical horror scream queen. The acting was weak for the most part but the film is based on the premise that you will see gruesome kills, not great performances.

I was left with the desire to go back in time and see this film in the theater with an audience who was unaware of what they were getting. I have a feeling it would have been extremely fun. Now horror has become so clich├ęd and trite that its hard to have that jump in your seat experience anymore. Hoping the remake of Nightmare can find some way to reintroduce Freddy and give us surprises rather than a retread.

DocuMondays – Dirt! The Movie

Dirt! The Movie (2009, dir. Bill Benenson, Gene Rosow, Eleonore Dailly)
Narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis

There’s is something about the smell of healthy soil that is unlike anything else. My father got his degree in wildlife biology and worked for the Illinois Department of Agriculture for many years so soil and gardening and nature were a big part of my early years, whether I liked it or not. As I have gotten older I’ve become interested in nature from a global perspective, particularly the way our agriculture has slowly shifted into the hands of a few private corporate interests and away from typical citizen run farms. This documentary focuses on the impact of these practices on our soil and where this practices will inevitably leads us. It doesn’t sound all too excitement but the style of the film’s presentation keeps your attention.

The film begins with metaphor of soil as a living skin to the earth and goes on to talk about the amount of living microbes in a handful of soil. The film can come across fairly dry at the beginning and sags in moments that feel a little lesson oriented. It’s saving grace are the well educated group of interviewees who come from all over the world and present well thought out and reasoned ideas about how to create more sustainable systems. I particularly enjoyed Vandana Shiva and Gary Vaynerchuck.

Shiva is an Indian physicist whose focus has been on fighting against the corporatization of genetics and push towards stronger bioethics. Her experience growing up in India has helped her see the plight of farmers who are forced into working the land as dictated by corporate agricultural firms. The result is that many farmers end up in debt and kill themselves as the land dies around them. She also emphasizes that cultures where women are moving out of a subservient, second class role and into a more active role in their local agriculture are proving themselves to be incredibly sustainable and productive environments. Vaynerchuck, the host of a internet series about wine, is able to provide a poetic look at soil and its intricacies. He talks in length about going to vineyards where he tastes the grapes and the soil to get a better sense of the wine produced there. He has a lot of enthusiasm on the subject which helps pull the audience in.

Dirt! is by no means the greatest documentary made and it does definitely feel didactic in some sections. However, it is a topic that, if given a chance, will pull people in and teach them a lot about the complexity of their environment. I found the portion on mountain top blasting my mining companies to be particularly relevant to situations here in Tennessee. I think its our responsibility as socially conscious human beings to be informed about these topics and ideas.