Friday, July 03, 2009

Coming Soon...

Dear Readers,

I hope everybody has a happy and safe July 4th holiday. I'll be returning to blogging business come late Monday, and there's lots of good stuff in the works.

First, I'll be capping off my John Carpenter retrospective with an in-depth review of Prince of Darkness (1987).

Then, we'll pick up with my next director mini-series, this one focusing on Brian De Palma. I'm practically chomping at the bit to get to some of the director's great (and under-appreciated) works such as Carlito's Way (1993) as well as his acknowledged masterpieces, such as Dressed to Kill (1980). If you feel the urge to get started early, here's my Femme Fatale (2002) review.

Besides that, I'll be posting an analysis of the short-lived Chris Carter series Harsh Realm (1999) in the weeks ahead and even a review of the much-maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) too.

So stick around! The best is yet to come...

Happy July 4th!


A July 4th Refresher, Part 4

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Prey (1984)

As I wrote in my compendium, Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007) I've always enjoyed the "mountain man" variation on the 1980s Slasher Paradigm as seen in such films as Just Before Dawn (1983), The Final Terror (1985) and even Wrong Turn (2003).

You know the type of genre movie I'm talking about
: all the same Friday the 13th stock characters (bitch, jock, stoner, Final Girl, drunken Cassandra warning against trespass...) and all the same stock situations (the car won't start, vice-precedes-slice-and-dice, the false scare, the cat jump, etc.).

One significant difference, however is that the villain is a hulking sometimes-disfigured "mountain man" rather than a masked, faceless killer.

These "mountain man" slasher variations are often set in extremely isolated, picturesque settings -- meaning no rescue is possible -- and tread heavily into the transgressive realm of the savage cinema (which includes the territory of rape and revenge, among other things...).

A modest but noteworthy entry in this mountain man/slasher sweepstakes is Edwin Scott Brown's The Prey, a super-low budget film of the Reagan Era (though reportedly it was shot near the end of the 1970s..). It is not an elegant film and it is not a spectacular one...and yet -- in many important ways -- it accomplishes the primary mission of any good slasher: it terrifies. That terror is augmented by some good location shooting; shooting which tends to augment the leitmotif that the offending lead teens are not welcome in the domain of the wild forest. There, they must reckon with all sorts of predators...including the the wild mountain man. The mountain man is part of nature himself; nature's avenger even.

In The Prey, six young and irresponsible adults from the city, Nancy (Debbie Thureson), Joel (Steve Bond), Bobbie (Lori Lethin), Skip (Robert Wald), Gail (Gayle Gannes) and Greg (Philip Wenckus) hike into the thick woods at North Point, oblivious to the fact that a nice married couple was recently axe-murdered there while camping. Before long, the young adults are the prey of a monstrous assailant, a deformed gypsy (Carel Struycken). A heroic forest ranger (Jackson Bostwick) attempts to rescue the hikers, but the giant wild man is a savage foe...and looking for...a mate.

After an axe-decapitation (our first act coup-de-grace...) at the outset, The Prey next settles down into...stock nature footage. The audience gets long views of centipedes, frogs, spiders and more. There are long shots of impressive mountain ranges, babbling brooks, a spider's web and a majestic hawk overhead, searching for prey.

Then -- in direct opposition to the images of nature featured in this montage -- the camera catches sight of an unwanted invader: a modern van pulling into woods. All too soon, the van ejects bellowing, loud-mouthed, obnoxious teenagers, kids who clearly don't give a damn about the "natural" world around them. In fact, the film's protagonists treat the land as if they own it, committing transgression after transgression. One teenager turns up the volume on her radio in the woods -- literally replacing the call of the wild with rock-and-roll, and, well, you just know Mother Nature is pissed.

Many reviewers have concluded that the stock nature footage included The Prey is mainly just padding, a way to lengthen a film too short for feature release. Indeed this may be so, but in this particular instance, the nature footage also serves a point (even if unintended): it serves as an explicit reminder that the teens have tread into a domain where they are no longer in control, and furthermore that nature is a force to be reckoned with. The teens experience "push back" not just from the scarred mountain man, but from the combined forces of the nature itself, which seem to judge them as invaders.

This approach fits into one of my primary theories about slasher films in general: we enjoy them because -- for the most part -- we all live in safe, artificial communities protected by layers of law enforcement and bureaucracy. We have no real predators, and we are perched at the top of the food chain. I believe some part of us --perhaps a prehistoric part of us -- desires a challenge; a test of our survival skill set. We suspect, perhaps subconsciously, that such a challenge might even emerge from the wild (that's where they came from in the past, after all...). That's why Jason lives in the woods and his approach is almost universally heralded by a crackling thunderstorm. He is, simply put, a Force of Nature.

In other words, we had to invent Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger as horror movie predators because our contemporary lives are so safe and, well, predictable. The slasher films -- as ritualistic and repetitive as a (bloody) sporting event -- provide us the opportunity to imagine ourselves matched up against these predators. I think it's a healthy response, frankly (and I love the slasher format.)

Anyway, getting back to The Prey, there's a point in the film in which Mark (the forest ranger) discovers a corpse. This gruesome find is inter-cut with -- again -- stock footage of vultures high up on a tree limb. The connection between the two shots is explicit: the dead body is no longer a "person" but has joined the food chain of the pitiless forest and shall be treated as such. Again, the "padding" serves a kind of unique purpose. It actually adds to the artistic value of the film.

The Prey's focus on natural images reminds the viewer at all times that the mountain man -- a nemesis who is comfortable in these surroundings -- has the home team advantage in any face-to-face battle. Nature is his ally, because he lives in apparent harmony with it. For instance, at the teens' campsite earlier in the film, nature seems to come to life and encroach on the young interlopers. Snakes slither towards camp, owls land nearby, and nature focuses on the unaware, the oblivious, just as the mountain man also approaches. Ultimately, it is an attack from several fronts, but all fronts have one commander: Mother Nature.

Perhaps the film could have down with fewer shots of "nature" and still made this point, but in this case, the inclusion of stock footage actually grants The Prey a kind of artistic perimeter to work within. The focus on the living forest also serves, after a fashion, as counterpoint to the Friday the 13th films, which, as they progressed, became increasingly lazy and couldn't be bothered to provide such crucial horror elements as atmosphere or mood, let alone character. By contrasts, it's clear in The Prey that this is not Jason's "silent," unoccupied Hollywood forest, but rather a living, breathing ecosystem teeming with life and vying agendas. That's an important distinction in a movie that is very much a man vs. nature story.

The character named Nancy serves as the film's Final Girl, the plucky lass who seems more insightful and aware than her offending friends. But what ultimately makes The Prey a rather daring variation on the slasher formula is the film's sting in the tail/tale following the final chase. Nancy suffers a terrible fate; one that is explained only with sound effects. I won't say any more about this coda, only that I had never seen (or heard...) this ending in a slasher film before, and that is told efficiently: a baby's cries linger over further images of the immortal forest. Yes, it's sort of sick, but also rather ingenious.

At times, The Prey reminded me strongly of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (though it is nowhere near that good). It's one of those modest, mostly forgotten low-budget 1980s horror films (like 1980's The Children) that is probably better than the film's reputation suggests. Yes, there's too much "wild kingdom" footage in The Prey, but somehow that seems entirely appropriate, given how the film uses it.

A July 4th Refresher, Part 2

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

This is a Message from the Year 1999...

Terry Wickham Reviews The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi

Author, journalist and filmmaker Terry Wickham has just posted a review of my 2004 Sam Raimi study, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi at MantaRay Pictures.

Here's a snippet:

"John Kenneth Muir does a masterful job of assembling the information shared in the book...Muir gives each Raimi film three hundred & sixty degree attention by covering the perspective of the audience, critics and box office. Many of the people who worked on the films share their experience and feelings about the director. What comes across is that Sam Raimi is a passionate, professional film director who has re-invented himself over the course of his career to reach the success he has accomplished today.

The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi is a book every film scholar, aspiring director, horror geek, deadite and Sam Raimi fan absolutely must have."

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"From Job's friends insisting that the good are rewarded and the wicked punished, to the scientists of the 1930's proving to their horror the theorem that not everything can be proved, we've sought to impose order on the universe. But we've discovered something very surprising. While order does exist in the universe, it is not at all what we had in mind."

- John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987)

Monday, June 29, 2009

A July 4th Refresher...

CULT TV FLASHBACK #82: Night Gallery: "Camera Obscura" (1971)

Although dwelling often in the shadow of the better-known The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-1973) offered quite a few masterpieces during its three-season run on network television.

I’ve highlighted some of these triumphs on the blog before, among them Serling’s award-winning “They’re Tearing down Tim Riley’s Bar,” the gruesome earwig show called “The Caterpillar,” and a poetic little terror about the onset of schizophrenia, entitled “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.”

But today, I want to focus attention on a different Night Gallery favorite: “Camera Obscura.” The tale was adapted for TV by Rod Serling and based on a short story by Basil Copper. Viewed now, this creepy 1971 segment boasts a high degree of relevance to our contemporary era; the age of bail-outs, bubbles, and the Great Recession.

Set in London during the early 20th century, “Camera Obscura’s” morality play depicts a prissy money-lender named Mr. Sharsted (Rene Auberjonois) as he makes a collection house call on a “shrewd old dog,” Mr. Gingold (Ross Martin). Gingold is an eccentric collector, and his loan – accumulating 13% interest – has come due.

But Gingold wants to discuss something important with his creditor before he gets around to “payment.” Accordingly, he demonstrates for Mr. Sharsted an instrument called a camera obscura – a device consisting of prisms and lenses – that can view (and then broadcast…) the whole panorama of London on a circular table.

In particular, Gingold focuses this arcane instrument’s lens on the image of a foreclosed home belonging to a 76-year old man. Sharsted charged the old man “injurious interest” on a loan and when the sick man couldn’t keep up with the mortgage payments, Sharsted re-possessed his house.

“I charged the legal rate!” Sharsted insists.

Gingold replies that “what is legal is not always just.” He bemoans Sharsted’s lack of humanity.

But Sharsted remains unrepentant. He notes -- in signature Serling cadence -- that “humanity applies to funeral eulogies and Valentine cards,” but most assuredly not business.

Realizing that Sharsted has irrevocably forsaken decency, Gingold utilizes an occult camera obscura (located in a secret chamber…) to exact moral payment from this emotionally-bankrupt money lender. He uses the instrument to trap Sharsted in a Dickensian-style personal Hell, one depicted in a green, lurid lighting scheme.

This Stygian snare is the City of London as it existed in the 1890s. But more than that, it’s a twilight world populated by the greedy, the avaricious. The souls who congregate there have turned into monsters; their faces twisted by the greed and inhumanity they once carried only inside.

Sharsted attempts to flee these creeps, but no matter where he turns…he ends up right back where he started. Director John Badham deploys slow-motion photography and jump cuts to visualize the idea of an inescapable Tartarus and the segment builds to a fever pitch.

Surrounded by the grinning ghouls, Sharsted finally begs for mercy, though he himself has never shown mercy to anyone. He insists to Gingold that these cretins are not his kind. That they are “ghouls and grave robbers, bloodsuckers and users…”

Gingold’s final comment on the matter is that, yes, indeed, Sharsted is correct. That’s exactly what they are. And so Sharsted is finally with his colleagues and peers. And there he shall remain for all eternity...

Rod Serling always boasted a real affinity for the “shadow people,” for the little guy who just couldn’t catch a break in an increasingly impersonal and heartless world. “Camera Obscura” is perfect material for the author since the outline of Copper’s story permits him to mete out cosmic justice against a man who preys on the weak, the desperate and the hopeless. As the script establishes, Sharsted “backs people into the corner of despair” and so richly deserves his nasty fate.

As is noted above, “Camera Obscura” pointedly notes that what is “legal” is not always “just,” an argument that some people still don’t seem to get, even today. If the rich and powerful are the ones who lobby for laws, and Congress is in their pocket…then how, truly, can a society arrive at “just” and fair rules?

In the news today, credit card company executives whine that laws favoring the consumer are unfair, or anti-business. We hear health insurance companies jabber about the terrors of the public option in health care, even as 46 million Americans (many of them children) go uninsured. We see price gouging at the pumps every holiday season, and then – inevitably – watch as gas companies brazenly announce record profits at the end of each quarter.

Maybe Mr. Gingold needs to pay those folks a visit too. Come on guys: smile and say cheese for the camera (obscura…).