Saturday, January 06, 2007

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Ark II: "The Slaves"

The fourth episode of the 1976 Saturday morning sci-fi series Ark II is called "The Slaves." Written by David Dworski, it recounts the adventure surrounding Jonah's entry numbered #405, in the Area designated # 64 by his people. In particularly, Jonah hopes to "put an end" to the "miserable" and "immoral" practice of slavery in a nearby village controlled by a ruthless dictator, Baron Vargas.

Unfortunately, after noting in disbelief on the intercom that he "is actually looking at people who have become slaves," Jonah himself becomes a slave after being captured by Vargas. He learns from a helpful fellow slave named Gideon that the Baron maintains his iron grip on his slaves by claiming to possess magic powers. He says he can turn men into animals, and in fact, claims that he has turned Gideon's sister into a rabbit. He threatens to turn Jonah into a chicken.

"Shrink before the power of Baron Vargas," he commands, using fear and terror to keep his populace cowed and meek. Ah, but Jonah sees through the facade!

Playing the role of a post-apocalyptic Spartacus, Jonah sets out to free the slaves, unaware that there is a traitor among the insurrectionists. "You must fight fear," he tells the dominated. "He [Vargas] keeps you enslaved through your own superstition." Yeah, well, they don't have the Ark II's nifty forcefield or rocket pack either, though...tools that come in handy taking down tyrants.

At the end of the day, all's well that ends well, and Jonah reports that "unlimited power in one man's hand makes him a tyrant...and slaves of us all." Right on, Jonah!

"The Slaves," like other episodes of Ark II, features one really strange segment. Adam (the damned monkey...) is part of a plan to make a distraction, a decoy. The other Ark II'ers (Ruth and Samuel), dress him up in a cap and slave attire, and when Baron Vargas spots him, he asks, "who is that little man?"

Uh...that's the monkey, Baron Vargas. EMBRACE HIM! No, but really, Vargas doesn't seem to notice that Adam's a monkey, not a man. What's that about? It's like that moment in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back when the stoners attempt to flee the Arena Diner with an orangutan in tow, and trick Will Ferrell (as Marshall Willenholly) by saying the simian's their adopted child.

Only this isn't a joke...

Friday, January 05, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Slither (2006)

Now this is more like it.

Slither, written and directed by James Gunn, is the horror movie that Feast only dreamed of being. Yesterday on the blog I wrote about the ways in which Feast attempted to ape the cheesy/scary/funny formula of many 1980s horror pics, and here I am today, discussing a film that has mastered that equation. Synchronicity, huh?

This is a good, maybe great horror film, and Slither may just become a classic like Tremors (1990), even though - at times - it treads perilously close to the turf of that forgotten 80s flick, Night of the Creeps. Fortunately, Slither is better than that two-decade old horror in just about every way imaginable.

Slither is the story of small town - Wheelsy, Texas - as a meteor crashes in the woods outside of the burg. While the Mayor, Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry), gets ready for Deer Cheer 2005, a local businessman, Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) discovers the meteor in the brush and is promptly infected by an alien parasite, a thing that the screenplay later terms a "conscious disease." The alien bug begins to re-shape Grant's mind and body (and we get a see-through view of Grant as the parasite burrows into his chest and makes contact with his central nervous system...). Consequently, before long, Grant is infecting the townspeople willy-nilly, including a mistress named Brenda, who becomes unwitting and unwilling host to about a billion parasite worms, each one sharing a hive mind with the Grant-host.

Investigating this odd happenstance is Chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), a laconic but square-dealing lawman who happens to harbor a Texas-sized crush on Grant's nubile young wife, Starla (Elizabeth Banks). In one night of terror, the Grant monster and his zombie minions lays siege to the town, and also an isolated farm belonging to an All-American family.

The synopsis above doesn't really do Slither justice. It may not sound like an original story (and it isn't...) but the tale is filled with surprises and quirks that make it a genuine treat. The humor arises, in particular from the colorful character moments, the dialect of the locals, and a careful reversal and undercutting of expectations in key moments. For instance, without giving anything away, watch for the punch-line involving a confiscated grenade that "just happens" to be stowed in the police station, and which we - as experienced moviegoers - know will play a role in the climax. Also, the sustained and tense set-piece in the farmhouse, in which a teenage girl, Kylie (Tania Saulnier) is attacked by worms in her cast-iron bath tub, is unexpectedly frightening...and visceral.

Beyond these touches, the characters act with admirable consistency (which was a factor missing from Feast), and the special effects stand up to close scrutiny. The latter point is a bonus, no doubt, and ratchets up the "ick" factor of Slither. It's a gory proposition at times (particularly in the macabre aftermath of a tentacle attack on one unlucky local...who splits right down the middle before our eyes...).

A movie like this must know and understand when to dole out tricks and when to give us treats, and I must say, Slither is adept at that. The humor, particularly involving the farmhouse and "Family Fun Day" is ghoulishly good stuff, and not so obvious nor over-the-top that it ruins the suspense. And believe me, this sequence, which starts in the bath-tub and goes out onto the roof, into the yard and finally into a parked car, is suspenseful as hell. This movie doesn't play favorites with the characters, but you don't sense the writers' mental wheels spinning in the background either (like in Feast, where they were trying to be oh so hip.)

A few of the great jokes in the film: there's a police map dotted with little squid icons to trace Grant's location, a Karaoke performance to the tune of The Crying Game, some funny slang for lesbianism, and a pocket-ful of genre homage that rockets by at warp speed and doesn't draw attention to itself. I caught references to Frank Henenonlotter (of Brain Damage and Basket Case fame), saw a town storefront called Max Renn's (after James Wood's character in Videodrome), and a few other touches. MacReady, after all, is the name of the hero in John Carpenter's The Thing...and that film also involves shape shifting.

In common with that Carpenter film, Slither explicitly concerns the pliability and corruptibility of the human flesh, as our bipedal form is twisted, perverted and ruined by an invasive species. Notice, for instance, how the transmission of the "conscious disease" is a deliberate (and bizarre...) parody of the human sex act. We first see it happen, by the way, to the strains of a country music tune...

And, in the tradition of such classics as Halloween (in which fate was lectured on to Laurie Strode...) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (in which Hamlet was discussed with Nancy Thompson...), Slither provides a similar high school class room sequence with a point. Here, Starla describes in detail Darwinism and the concept of survival of the fittest. This is Slither's playground, the battle of species, and impressively, the film even puts a cosmic spin on the material. At one point - and with dazzling special effects - Kylie (by biting one of the worms...) is granted access to the hive mind. She sees the billion year history of the parasite, and this chronicle unfolds before our eyes. We see alien vistas as strange, inhuman creatures on wild savannahs and under extraterrestrial skies wage war and fall before the parasite. This was an unexpected development in the film - an ambitious reach for greatness - and a welcome bit of explanation about where the creature came from. Not to be obnoxious, but again, Feast couldn't be bothered to "think" about the monsters it featured; they were just killers that could do anything the script required of them...at any point.

It's fair to state that Slither also benefits enormously from the presence of Nathan Fillion in the lead role. Yep, he's the Captain of the Serenity or Preacher on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the performer boasts an easy, comfortable way with this material. Fillion doesn't play the part of Pardy lightly, with tongue-in-cheek, nor try to make a joke out of the monsters. In fact, his situationally-appropriate sense of fatalistic humor is a boon to the material. I could have done without his wrestling match with an infected deer (the only lame scene in the whole movie...), but otherwise, Fillion walks away with Slither, and his presence amps up the fun aspects of the film.

Basically, I'm going to fawn all over any horror movie that can play the tune "Every Woman in the World" over its climax...and still prove scary, tense and utterly involving. Again, if you like your horror straight up and serious, rent The Descent. But if you like your horror with a dash of comedy, you can't go wrong with Slither.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Feast (2005)

All I can tell you is, they don't make 'em like they used to...

As a horror aficionado, I fondly remember the 1980s as the era of the slasher film, but also as the span in which the cheesy horror comedy reached its inarguable pinnacle. You remember the kind of movie I'm talking about here, don't you?

Evil Dead 2, Fright Night, Return of the Living Dead, The Lost Boys.

These were great (or in some cases, very good...) genre pictures that were able to scare viewers and make us laugh at the same time. These were films that - although funny and deliberately campy in spots - didn't sacrifice internal consistency for easy yuks. Go back and look at Return of the Living Dead for instance. The joke "send more paramedics" is earned, logically consistent, and damn funny. It also sets up a scary mauling...

Which brings me to a film I desperately wanted to like. John Gulager's Feast. If you watched Project Greenlight's third season on Bravo, you'll remember the director and the film. Gulager is a clunky, awkward guy who faced a gaggle of producers that questioned his vision and basically wouldn't let him make the movie his way. At the time, I completely supported him, because without his vision, the movie would have just been more dross like Underworld. The producers wanted to hem in his off-the-wall vision, which made his selection as director moot. Why choose a guy for his unique sensibility and then try to mainstream that very sensibility? (Answer: the almighty dollar.)

I don't know whose vision prevailed, John Gulager's or the producers', but I can say without reservation that Project Greenlight's third season was much more interesting than Feast, a failure on virtually every level imaginable.

Not that Gulager can't arrange shots or put up a nice composition now and again. The problem with Feast lays squarely with the utterly rotten script. This is clearly where the enterprise fell apart. The wrong script was selected. You can tell you're in trouble early on in the film, when the audience is introduced to the one-note characters with freeze-frames accompanied by "clever" on-screen factoids about them. These include "fun facts" and a "life expectancy" descriptor. For instance, Jason Mewes appears in the film as himself (!), and his life expectancy meter reads "already surpassed expectations."

These so-called fun facts are poorly worded, and too cutesy by half, and that's the problem with the script overall. The writers desperately believe they are edgy and hip and Tarantino-esque, but the movie isn't clever or even - on a rudimentary level - competent.

In fact, Feast is a winking, tongue-in-cheek, dopey pastiche of far better horror movies. For instance, we get the trademark Sam Raimi "blood flood" in one scene. Another sequence is a variation on the old "hammer and nails" montage, a staple of the siege genre that we associate with George Romero in which characters desperately hold up in a remote location and barricade themselves in. Then we get a comedic character named "Beer Guy" who is slowly but surely decaying...a kind of allusion to a character in An American Werewolf in London (1981).

Homage, you say? Beg to differ. Sloppy seconds.

Feast involves a host of poorly-fleshed out characters: Bozo, Harley Mom, Hot Wheels, Coach, Grand Ma, Beer Guy, Bartender, Tuffy, Honey Pie, Cody, Hero, Heroine, Vet, Bossman and Jason Mewes - fighting a desperate life-and-death battle in an out-of-the way hole-in-the-wall called The Bear Tavern. Their nemesis is a family of wild and woolly monsters so poorly visualized that they can only be shown in quick cuts and with fast motion photography.

The script is so impressed with itself that - get this - it introduces a character as "Hero" and provides him a grand speech as he enters the Tavern. He bursts in - bloody but unbowed - looking like Ash from Evil Dead II. He rouses the troops...and then promptly dies, mangled and murdered (and decapitated) by the monsters. The script wants this death to play as unexpected, surprising and funny. Instead, it's obvious and pre-ordained. It's called the Janet Leigh Psycho trick, and it's one that's been played out a million times in horror movies. Feast, apparently, believes this is a new twist. Like we don't remember that Captain Dallas died in Alien (1979). Or that Donovan Leitch died in The Blob (1988). No, this twist is treated like a major revelation and inspires...dead, crushing silence.

Another element that derails Feast so quickly is the film's total lack of internal consistency. For instance, a pint-sized monster breaks into the bar and begins to furiously hump a mounted deer head (you read that right...). It is then killed by the denizens inside. But later they learn, it's actually the "baby" of the clan. A baby that can have sex? I might accept that trait if the movie attempted to chart in some fashion (like Alien, Aliens...) the life cycle of the creature. Is it born an adult with reproductive capacity? But the movie is too "cool" for an explanation of any type. It's one of those films where there's no motivation for anything that happens on screen, because that's the hip thing to do. This means that anything can and does happen, and we're left to just think "huh?" "What?" "Why?"

The same lack of internal consistency occurs in the sequence in which Beer Guy is doused with the monster's green bile. In the very next scene, he is covered in maggots...though no maggots were visible during the actual "flood." It's spontaneous creation...the maggots miraculously appeared there. Again, I might let that one go, but then Beer Guy starts to disintegrate from his exposure to the green bile. Yet in the film's finale, Tuffy defeats a monster by choking it with her arm (a scene that looked inspired by the finale of Just Before Dawn, if you ask me...). She retracted her arm and it was covered in bile and goop too...just like Beer Guy.

But she doesn't disintegrate. Why? Either the bile is poisonous and toxic to humans or it isn't. In attempting to be unpredictable and edgy, Feast refuses to make a lick of sense. Even a movie that is "having fun" needs to determine such basic factors as the quality of the creature's blood/bile. Poisonous or not, but pick one. But Feast is schizophrenic...pandering. It wants to remind us of "greater" horror films as an apparent homage, but insults the very audience that would recognize those moments as such.

Now, apologists may claim that Feast is simply what Stephen King would call a "moron movie." My response: let's educate the morons. Even morons have a right to films with stories that make sense. Feast remains, as Mystery Science Theater 3000 would term it, "Short Attention Span Theater." Forget anything that happened in the movie a minute ago...and just look at the pretty pictures that are happening now, okay?

I forgive the fact that Feast is incoherently cut. I forgive the fact that so much of the film is shot in herky-jerky, fast-motion style that you can't tell what's happening most of the time, and thus get no sense of the bar's geography. Why can I let these elements go? Well, disorientation can often work well in a horror film, and this is a low-budget movie, after all. I like low budget films, especially ones that challenge me or boast a go-for-the-throat zeal. I don't need expensive production values if I have characters I care about, a good script, and an interesting central scenario.

Well, taking these one at a time: there are no characters you can care about here. Tuffy, the ostensible lead, loses her son in an early scene. And yeah, that's supposed to a surprise too...killing the kid. Only The Blob remake already did that too. We're supposed to care about the boy's death, but there are no scenes that establish the relationship between Tuffy and Cody. No scenes that establish the bond. So when the death comes, it means nothing. And it's positioned awkwardly between jokes and gags. Kathryn watched the movie with me and she observed - rightly - I don't think you can go for laughs in one instant, and then try for tragedy the next. It doesn't fit together.

The other characters are - in totality - the sum total of their score cards. Less well-rounded than your typical Jason victim in a Friday the 13th sequel. And sorry - the acting is terrible, especially by Henry Rollins, playing a Tony Robbins-type motivational speaker.

Lastly, the central scenario could be from Near Dark (since there's a scene in the Bigelow picture about an attack on a bar), Night of the Living Dead, Tremors or Evil Dead. Feast contributes nothing to the siege sub-genre, so even the set-up fails to tantalize. I wanted to love Feast. I wanted to be introduced to the next Sam Raimi - a guy with vision and bronze balls who could take a simple story (like demons attacking a cabin in the woods) and turn it into a "grueling" experience in style and gore. I wanted him to transcend the "scenario" and make a movie I couldn't forget.

That doesn't happen here. And again, I primarily blame the script. It wants to wink and nudge at us throughout, and then have us take seriously the threat and the pathos. Which...doesn't work. In the slightest.

I forgot who said it, but someone wise once noted that "when the tongue is in the cheek," it is "impossible" to speak in anything but a garbled fashion.

That should be Feast's epitaph. If the movie is too cool to give me an internally consistent narrative, I'm too cool to give it a good review. In fact, let put this in a way that Feast's "intended" audience would understand. This movie sucks (severed...) monster dorks.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

CATNAP 2007: The Cat Next Door



Okay, so this isn't one of my cats. This is Isabel, as Kathryn named her. She's one of the (several...) cats who got left behind by some neighbors who moved from our street last year. Like her buddies (Blackie, L.J. Fuzzie #1 and Fuzzie # 2 as we call 'em...), Isabel has taken up residence in and around our front and side yard.

We have quite a feline crew now (and I feed them all..), but this means that out our kitchen window - while we're eating breakfast - we now often see vistas like this. It also means we're slaves to the cats. One morning, when I forgot to feed them, one of the Fuzzies came up and crapped on our porch swing as a reminder...

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy 2007!!!

Well, the holidays are over, and it's back to the blogging here! Hope you all had a happy holiday season and didn't party too hard on New Year's Eve.

Anyway, if you woke up this morning and decided you'd like to make 2007 a very John Kenneth Muir year (and let's face it, who wouldn't?), lots of interesting stuff will be happening in the months ahead. Both on the blog, elsewhere on the Net, and in bookstores too...

First off, my Internet sci-fi series The House Between will be premiering soon, with clips showing up here - on the blog - first. The show's first season (and yes, there will be a second season...) consists of seven half-hour dramatic episodes. The pilot episode is "Arrived," and naturally, it will "arrive" on the Net first. You can read more on the topic, and see pics at The House Between web site.

If books are more to your liking, I have three new film books coming out in 2007.

First off, there's my 800+ page goliathon called Horror Films of the 1980s. This heavyweight creepozoid should be published any day now. I spent my holidays indexing the book and proofing the manuscript (which was over 1500 pages). Fun! Anyway, I'm hoping this is my film book masterpiece...but that's for critics and readers to decide.

Here's the description from McFarland
: "
John Kenneth Muir is back! His Horror Films of the 1970s was named an Outstanding Reference Book by the American Library Association, and likewise a Booklist Editors’ Choice. This time, Muir surveys over 300 films from the 1980s. From backwoods psychos (Just Before Dawn) and yuppie-baiting giant rats (Of Unknown Origin), to horror franchises like Friday the 13th and Hellraiser, as well as nearly forgotten obscurities such as The Children and The Boogens, Muir is our informative guide through 10 macabre years of silver screen terrors.

Muir introduces the scope of the decade’s horrors, and offers a history drawing parallels between current events and the nightmares unfolding on cinema screens. Each of the 300 films are discussed with detailed credits, a brief synopsis, a critical commentary, and where applicable, notes on the film’s legacy beyond the 80s. Also included is the author’s ranking of the 15 best horror films of the 80s.


Also included in the book are interviews with director Tom McLoughlin (One Dark Night, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives), Thom Eberhardt (Night of the Comet, Sole Survivor), James L. Conway (The Boogens), Kevin Connor (Motel Hell, The House Where Evil Dwells), Lewis Teague (Cujo, Cat's Eye, Alligator), Fright Night editor Kent Beyda, and "final girls" Ellie Cornell (Halloween IV, V), and Rebecca Balding (The Boogens, Silent Scream).

Next up, in May of 2007, from Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, is The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia. Here's how Applause describes this one: "One great rock show can change the world” says Jack Black's character Dewey Finn in the 2003 Richard Linklater comedy The School of Rock. This exhaustive, highly-detailed, yet reader-friendly A-to-Z encyclopedia takes that lesson to heart by gazing at half-a-century of rock 'n' roll films, big screen epics both celebrated and obscure.From the 1950s and the age of “juvenile delinquents” in films such as Blackboard Jungle to more intimate, twenty-first century rock band portraits such as Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, this book by noted film authority John Kenneth Muir also features entries on rock documentaries such as Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, movies starring rock stars including the Sting vehicle The Bride, and even films boasting extensive rock soundtracks, for example George Lucas's paean to the age of cruising, American Graffiti.

The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia
includes 230 film entries from 1956 through 2005, including cast list, creative personnel, M.P.A.A. rating, running time, and DVD availability. Entries on the familiar conventions of this unique cinematic form, such as the Vietnam War, the ubiquitous press conference (in which band members wax philosophical), the rampant destruction of property (hotel rooms, specifically) and even the Yoko factor (meddling girlfriends).

Biographical entries on players who made significant impact on the silver screen, from Elvis Presley and the Beatles to Alice Cooper and Prince. Interviews with rock movie directors Allan Arkush (Rock 'n' Roll High School), Martin Davidson (Eddie and the Cruisers) and Albert Magnoli (Purple Rain). Peter Smokler, the cinematographer who shot the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter, the Jimi Hendrix film Jimi at Berkeley, and This Is Spinal Tap is also interviewed.

In addition to pure rock 'n' roll, the films included cover all genres of popular music, ranging from Johnny Cash to Madonna, rock-influenced musical theatre (Jesus Christ Superstar), tejano (Selena), disco (Can't Stop the Music, Xanadu), and reggae. Whether your “one great rock show” is a beach movie starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, a misbegotten horror/rock fusion like The Horror of Party Beach, or a rib-tickling, heavy metal mockumentary like This Is Spinal Tap, you'll find all your favorites remembered in the pages of The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia.

Finally, come June 2007, the first installment of my brand new book franchise premieres, TV Year Volume 1, 2005-2006. TV Year also arrives under the auspices of Applause and Hal Leonard, and here's the skinny on it:

Here is the inaugural edition of TV Year, a new survey of the most recent complete season of over 200 drama, comedy, reality, and game shows, and more, from all the major networks. Readers will now be able to make up their own minds as to whether or not we've entered “the new golden age of television,” as Jon Cassar remarked upon accepting his 2006 Emmy Award for best director for a drama series for 24.

This book includes: Every significant prime time (8 to 11pm) broadcast series, both new and returning, that aired on television from August 2005 through July 2006; complete credits and detailed, opinionated summaries of each show with excerpts of reviews and behind the scenes gossip. Initial air date and closing date, cast changes, and notations about cancellation. Each entry also notes the DVD availability of each series.

TV Year includes the season's mini-series and TV movies and lists the nominees and winners of the Emmy Awards. Film and TV expert John Kenneth Muir also can't help but add a few non-prime time shows as well that have become cultural events in their own right, including “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.

Also, and I'm thrilled about this facet, TV Year features a foreword from Hollywood screenwriter and TV legend, my friend Larry Brody (Automan, Star Trek: The Animated Series, etc.).

So there you have it, Muir-a-thon '07, coming your way...