Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reminder: I'm on Untamed Dimensions in one hour!

Just a reminder, that, if you're around, I'll be talking Horror Films of the 1990s with Untamed Dimensions host Keith Hansen in one hour, at 9:00 pm EST.  Tune in if you can.

I'm on Untamed Dimensions, Tonight at 9:00 PM

I'll be the guest tonight on the second hour of Keith "Vyz" Hansen's Untamed Dimensions at 9:00 pm (EST) to discuss my new book, Horror Films of the 1990s, and other subjects related to the genre. 

You can tune in to the stream right here.

Long-time readers of the blog may also remember that Keith and I, a couple of years back, also did a four-part series on Chris Carter's Millennium -- a series which will be celebrating its 15th anniversary this coming Tuesday -- and you can listen to those episodes as well. 

Here are the links: episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, and episode 4.

Hope you'll tune to Untamed Dimensions tonight!

Friday, October 21, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

Week two of our Tim Burton Brief brings us to the director's first theatrical effort, 1985's Pee Wee's Big Adventure.  This nearly thirty-year old comedy remains a deft and amusing collaboration between Burton and Paul Reubens, a comedian who, in the early 1980s, created the character of Pee Wee Herman and saw that persona rise to national fame. 

If you're unfamiliar with Pee Wee Herman, he's essentially  a big-hearted but emotionally-stunted man-child dressed in a suit. Pee Wee is both charmingly innocent in nature and yet diabolically aggressive when he doesn't get his way. 

In other words, Pee Wee Herman is the Peter Pan Syndrome personified, or -- as Ralph Emerson described the mercurial child -- a "curly, dimpled lunatic."   

Although the Pee Wee Herman persona was originally aimed at adult audiences, the character increasingly became popular with children over the years, eventually starring in an Award-winning Saturday morning TV series, Pee Wee's Playhouse.  

Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure retains the character's spiky edges, and in doing so acknowledges the difficulties of the adult world at the same time that it reveals Pee Wee's essentially good -- with some lapses -- childish nature.

To one extent or another, all of Tim Burton's films involve quirky misfits or oddballs, and perhaps there is no protagonist in the canon more quirky, or more oddball than Pee Wee Herman.  He's desperately afraid of girls, holds down no job, and focuses all of his obsessive  love upon a single, perfect object or toy: his bicycle.  Pee Wee thrives in a bubble of self-indulgent childhood and play, and when he looks outside that bubble, gazes enviously at those who may appear "cooler" than he does.

In the course of Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Pee Wee meets hostility from the "real" (adult) world in the form of an escaped criminal, a biker gang, the jealous boyfriend of an acquaintance, and not least of all, Francis Buxton.  Francis is a rich, indulged man-child, a kind of dark reflection of Pee Wee.  In all cases, except for Francis -- who is truly incorrigible and thus irredeemable -- Pee Wee works his child's magic upon his enemies, transforming them into friends and supporters.

The inference is obvious: unless you're a monster (like Francis...) you just can't hate Pee Wee for long.  We also saw this quality in the character of Ed Wood last week.  Through his eternal optimism and enthusiasm, Burton's Wood successfully drew others into his orbit, into his world of movie-making.  Through his child-like kindness and friendship, Pee Wee often accomplishes the same feat here, permitting other characters to "follow" their dreams the very way that he does.  Whatever his failings in terms of fitting in, Pee Wee is indomitable, and people around him pick-up on that admirable quality.

So what audiences get here is, basically, a very funny commentary on childhood; or perhaps upon society's view of children.  What makes the film so unrelentingly funny, however is that Pee Wee is most definitely not all sunshine and roses, and, certainly, neither are kids in real life.  Like any child, Pee Wee can be abundantly vindictive, capricious, out-of-control, and even ego maniacal.  The film often attains the pinnacle of silliness when Pee Wee -- in pursuit of his perfect bike -- must call upon his juvenile "id" to attain his goal.

It has been widely suggested by critics that Pee Wee Herman is an acquired taste, or that one's "mileage" for the character may vary.   Yet to some extent, Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure thrives even beyond one's appreciation or approval for the central character because of the wild, visual flights of fancy evident here.  Even if Pee Wee fails to impress as a character or a comedic concept, his dazzling fantasy world of Rube Goldberg-esque inventions and colorful, strange misfits proves eminently memorable.  With Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure, you get just not Pee Wee himself to enjoy, but access to Pee Wee's world.  In the final analysis, it's a pretty wild and imaginative place to visit.

Specifically, Burton executes a number of  clever visual jokes that reveal the essence of the unusual lead character and his world view.  In other words, Burton finds way to express with the camera the inner workings of Pee Wee's childish but ultimately admirable psyche.  To some degree, this practice makes the inscrutable, juvenile Pee Wee more sympathetic and heroic. 

And, of course, that's the point.

"Life can be so unfair."

Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) sets out on one lovely day to pick up a new horn for his beloved bike at Chuck's Bike-o-rama. 

Unfortunately, Herman's nasty nemesis, Francis Buxton (Mark Holton) hires someone to steal his  bike.  But when Herman goes on the radio to detail his campaign to get the stolen bike back, Buxton re-hires his underling to get rid of it so he won't get into trouble with his Dad.

After visiting a fortune teller, Herman learns that the missing bike may be "in the basement of the Alamo," and sets off for Texas.  Along the way, he meets an escaped criminal, a waitress who longs to see Paris, a ghost named "Large Marge," a hobo on a train and even a biker gang.  Through it all, Pee Wee admirably keeps his focus on his bike...and makes friends in the process.

Finally, when he learns that a famous child star, Kevin Morton (Jason Hervey) has possession of the bicycle, Pee Wee goes to Hollywood and sneaks onto the Warner Bros. lot to get it back.  Pee Wee recovers his stolen treasure, and after a lengthy chase, becomes a star in his own right. 

As it turns out, a studio exec at Warners think that Pee Wee's big adventure would make a hell of a movie, especially if it starred James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild...

"Everyone has a big "but"..."

Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure works so well as a comedy because Tim Burton unabashedly forgoes any sense of realism, and instead allows the audience to feel (Heaven forbid...) what it would be like to live in Pee Wee's world for ninety minutes.

For instance, as Pee Wee learns of the criminal and shocking theft of his bike, the camera goes cockeyed, Danny Elfman's score turns portentous, and we get extreme close-ups of a sinister-appearing robot Clown.  The bike had been chained to that clown, but now the clown seems to mock Pee Wee with it's very presence.  It's an evil Leviathan, passing judgment; mocking him.

In almost the very next scene, Pee Wee grows despondent over his loss of the bike, and once again, we seem to peek directly into his fevered brain.  Suddenly, everybody (even a mime...) rides by on wheels, implicitly mocking Pee Wee's lack of conveyance.  This is a particularly funny scene, as Pee Wee can't look anywhere without being reminded of the amazing treasure he has lost.  And we absolutely know that bike is amazing, because Pee Wee is practically blinded by the bike's radiance on the first occasion it is depicted in the film.

Soon, Pee Wee's unhappiness turns him into something of a monster, a fact we see expressed visually during a sequence set in a rain-swept alley.  Pee Wee enters the scene first as a shadow, as a giant, hunched over monster.  This image reveals how (an unfair) loss has informed the character's view of the world.  Again and again, Burton's exaggerated use of mise-en-scene tells us something critical about the emotional context of Pee Wee's world and his thoughts.

The film's first scene, in fact, is a pretty terrific reflection of Pee Wee's universe and psyche.  It's a dream sequence in which Pee Wee envisions himself racing in the tour de France. 

As the movie and scene commence, Pee Wee -- on his beloved bike -- passes the other racers effortlessly.  At first, he does so with that trademark little giggle of his.  Then, as he increases speed and vanquishes all of his opponents, the giggle turns to a cackle of ego maniacal glee.  There's something driving and a little out-of-control about this desire to win the race, to be the best, and the escalating insanity of Pee Wee's laughter reveals that.

He wins the race, but as Pee Wee is about to be crowned victorious, his alarm clock rings, exposing the scene as a dream. Instead of ending abruptly, however, the dream continues to unfold, and the gathered attendees just sort of wander away and disperse, a moment which reveals how "deflating" an awakening from fantasy can be.  And indeed, Pee Wee's whole world is fantasy.  When he awakens from it -- as is the case with the bike theft -- it's devastating to him.  Without making Pee Wee's Big Adventure sound like deep social commentary, there's clearly something here about a child's first experience countenancing the world. Witness Pee Wee's disappointment upon learning that the Alamo doesn't actually have a basement.  Why don't they tell kids thing like that, he practically asks.

As I wrote above, Pee Wee's Big Adventure seems to work at its apex of humor when the character's dark side is allowed free rein.  Pee Wee tackles Francis in a pool, and nearly drowns the cad, for instance.  At another point, Pee Wee is debauched when other bicycle riders in the park perform riding tricks, and he can't match them. Suddenly, he sets about to do so.  And when he fails rather clumsily, he nonetheless triumphantly opines "I meant to do that."

The idea here is of a child's id unloosed in a man's body and it is the very thing that makes Pee Wee's Big Adventure so funny.  We all possess an inner child making demands on us, and yet we can't act on those demands or impulses if we wish to be taken seriously.  When confronted with a name-calling bully, we can't just say "I know you are, but what am I?"  No, we must act like adults, even when we are challenged and insulted. The funny thing about Pee Wee Herman is that he possesses no such restraints.  Perhaps, Pee Wee's persona, in some way, is based on wish-fulfilment.

Sometimes, the childish id we carry inside is just about being recognized; about being the center of attention.  With that idea in mind, witness the wondrous and very funny moment in which Pee Wee -- playing a hotel clerk in a movie of his life -- almost unconsciously inches his way to center screen, upstaging "stars" James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild.

Pee Wee is not making this attention-grabbing move out of malice.  Rather it's as if the gravity of his own unquenchable ego pulls him towards the camera, demanding he take center stage.  Aren't we all like that, some days? 

Perhaps most of all, Pee Wee's Big Adventure is a delight because of the whimsical world Burton creates for Pee Wee to inhabit.  Hollywood is littered with instances of successful comedians trying to make a go of it in the movie business and failing (think Tom Green, or Andrew Dice Clay).   In such instances, the comedians transplanted themselves to the silver screen, but did not provide a compelling world to alongside their popular "characters." 

In the case of Paul Reubens, the comedian was clever to collaborate with Burton, a man who could build a cinematic world from the ground up, and more that, assure that it would work in conjunction with Pee Wee's essential nature.   It's pretty clear Tim Burton "gets" Pee Wee, or at least understands the concept of being different from the rest of the world.  That act of sympathy -- as well as a sense of daring visual imagination -- underlines all of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and it is also the quality, that, in some circles, earn this movie the descriptor of "classic."

Next week: Beetlejuice!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

TV REVIEW: American Horror Story (2011)

FX Channel's new series, American Horror Story (from creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk) commences with the proverbial "crime in the past" (in 1978); one that looks very much like something out of the slasher film classic Prom Night (1980). 

And, of course, if you're a horror fan, that's a very good thing. 

As all genre admirers know, the crime in the past is the seed for terror in the present; a seed allowed to grow -- like an unnoticed weed -- until ready to blossom.

Here, in the series prologue, two nasty twin boys -- after being warned -- venture inside the basement of a classic Los Angeles Victorian, one built in 1920.  It's the home of one of the original "doctor to the stars," apparently, and the two boys meet a horrific, bloody end in one of the dark, subterranean rooms.

Cut to "Today," and this fully-restored home becomes the new residence of a 21st century American family, the Harmons. 

Having relocated from Boston, this family is dealing with some pretty serious turmoil. Mom, Vivien (Connie Britton) just had a traumatic miscarriage late in her pregnancy.  Worse, she recently discovered her psychiatrist husband, Ben (Dylan McDermott) engaged in a sexual liaison with a girl half his age.  Not surprisingly, Vivien and Ben's daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga) has little affection for either parent, and is very alienated.   Meanwhile, the Harmons' new next-door neighbor is the strange, faintly-sinister Constance (Jessica Lange), a Tennessee Williams heroine as if re-imagined through the lens of David Lynch.

Very soon, strange things begin happening in the Harmon's "happy" new home.  For one, their new maid, Moira, appears different...depending on who's doing the looking.  Vivien sees Moira as an older, matronly woman (Frances Conroy), while Ben sees her as a young seductress, an ongoing carnal temptation (Alexandra Breckinridge).   For another thing, the house seems to boast a personality and agenda all its own.  Fans of the haunted house genre will recall that most productions of this type (Burnt Offerings, Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, etc.,) feature a kind of "honeymoon" period where everything is good; before everything turns sour. 

Notably, there's no honeymoon period for the new homeowners in American Horror Story.  And yes, that says something about how fast our culture moves in 2011.  In today's real estate market, how many honeymoons are there, really?

In the first two episodes of American Horror Story, the Harmon family gets acquainted with its new home.  Upstairs in the attic is a kitted-up S&M den...left intact from the previous owner, right down  to some black creepy sex suit. 

Down in the basement is a kind of morgue or doctor's office, and in the first episode, one of Ben's patients, a school-shooter-in-the-making named Tate (Evan Peters) seems to unleash a demon down there.

In the second episode, "Home Invasion," a group of apparently drug-addled Mansonite cultists break into the Harmon home in hopes of reliving a famous murder that occurred there in 1968.  Delightfully, this episode opens with a violent prologue (another "crime in the past" transgression) that evokes not just that era of American history  (with clips of Laugh-In on the television), but the horror genre of that day too. 

Spcifically, the story of a psychologically-disturbed killer who breaks into the house and attacks two young nurses deliberately mirrors an  infamous (and suspenseful) Alfred Hitchcock Hour program from 1965 entitled "An Unlocked Window."  To cement the association to Hitchcock, this prologue actually re-purposes Psycho's soundtrack, making the connection to the Master inescapable.

Horror is notoriously difficult to do well on television.  David Lynch mastered it with Twin Peaks, and Chris Carter aced it with The X-Files and Millennium.  I suppose the trick is in how well you combine "terror" (an emotion  out of the ordinary) with a homogenized medium, one, essentially, for the masses.  

Because it airs on a cable station like The Walking Dead, An American Horror Story is able to showcase far  more disturbing imagery than a traditional series, such as Kolchak: the Night Stalker (1974), might.  But the talents behind this series, including vets Tim Minear and James Wong, seem to understand that the real key to vetting terror on television rests in creating raw, decorum-shattering imagery from words. 

Accordingly, the teleplays for American Horror Story are filled with words that reveal a raw, nasty, visceral edge. 

Vivien didn't just find her husband having sex with a young student; she found him "pile-driving" her. 

The Downs Syndrome girl who lives next door is described, disturbingly, by her own mother, Constance, as a "mongoloid." 

Here and in other instances, the caustic but descriptive words truly match the horrific visuals. And while censorious moral watch guards may complain about the overt lack of political correctness on display, the series is thus far living up ably to one of horror's most important ideals: to traumatize in both word and deed

Because in that very state of unsettled shock and discomfort we are vulnerable; able to be truly frightened.

Some of the stylish visual techniques in American Horror Story may seem off-putting to some too, a little bit like last decade's generally feeble PG-13 horrors. 

There's an awful lot of jump cuts and fracturing of space here, for instance, when suspense might be better generated through long takes.

But, considering this visual form from an opposite angle, the jittery, anxious composition of the program seems to work hand-in-glove with the show's theme. 

This is a series about an American horror story, after all, and one need only look at the national discourse to intuit that's exactly what we're living.  The economy's gone south, the political dialogue is mean and death-obsessed, with jokes about border fences electrocuting people, boasts about the application of the death penalty, and even applause for the uninsured dying.  When did we, as a people, become so mean?  And worse, so delighted in (and proud of...) our own meanness?

American Horror Story seems perfectly positioned to capitalize on this zeitgeist. 

The Harmon family is not about harmony, but the opposite: disharmony.  It is fractured (like the jump cuts themselves), lacking compassion, and unable to deal constructively with "the house" (America?), which seems to boast dirty laundry in every room and hidden skeletons inside every closet. 

Is American Horror Story hyperbolic in tone and form?  Absolutely, but one glance at the presidential debates will reveal the exact same quality in our "serious" discourse.  At worst, American Horror Story is guilty of reflecting back at us who we happen to be as a people at this particularly unpleasant juncture.  At best, it taps effectively into the culture to dramatize its macabre, twisted tale of  a house -- and a family -- that has taken a decidedly wrong turn.

Sexy and scary, violent and mean, American Horror Story is like Twin Peaks on steroids.  It's aggressively weird and authentically disturbing. 

I hope it lasts.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From the Archive: Buck Rogers Starfighter Command Center (Mego; 1980)

Last week for the retro toy flashback from the archive, I featured Mego's U.S.S Enterprise Bridge from 1980 and on a similar note, this week I'd like to remember another kindred Mego toy from the same year.

It's Mego item # 85022; otherwise known as the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center.

As you likely recall, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century starring Gil Gerard ran on NBC TV from autumn 1979 to the Spring of 1981. It was a fun and exciting sci-fi adventure and as a kid, I loved every minute of it. How could you not love a series featuring Erin Gray in spandex and Pamela Hensley (showing mid-riff)?  Buck Rogers in this incarnation was like James Bond in space; with neat spaceships, cool sets, and gorgeous ladies. The villains (which included Frank Gorshin and Julie Newmar), were also quite colorful.

Of course, I collected all of the Buck Rogers action figures of the day, though even my ten year-old mind rebelled at the lack of care that went into some of the marketing.

For instance, Princess Ardala was called "Ardella" on her action figure card. What, nobody could be bothered to spell check the character's name?

And why market a figure of King Draco, who was barely in the series at all? And Kane (Henry Silva) was called "Killer Kane." He was never called that on the series.  Instead, that name came from earlier incarnations of the space hero.

Anyway, Mego released a whole line of very cool Buck Rogers spaceships and toys, including the Directorate Starfighter (my favorite ship from
the show), the Draconian Marauder (known as a Hatchet fighter on the series...), a Land Rover, and a Laserscope Fighter (not a design from the series). So it only makes sense that the same company would market a place to dock these ships, the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center.

Christmas 1980 was the holiday of Buck Rogers for me. I'll never forget going over to my aunt and uncle's house in Summit, New Jersey and opening toy after toy -- all Buck Rogers models and action figures (though, as I recall, this was also the Christmas of The Empire Strikes Back and my giant AT-AT. But that's another story...).

Here, the toy box suggests: "Issue commands to Buck and monitor his flight pattern with this authentic replica of the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center!"

The toy also includes "2 level deck with radar screens and railings," "Cut-out landing and launch pad for Buck's Star Fighter," and "landing control console for use with Mego Buck Rogers 3 3/4 action figures and all other poseable 3 3/4 action figures."

What remains most interesting about this toy is that what you see displayed on the box is not necessarily the toy you get inside. On the box, for instance, the upper deck of the landing pad shows a chair from Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise bridge. In the actual toy, a different style chair is molded to the deck.

Also, the
decals on the box and the decals of the actual set are completely different. I know now that Mego was juggling a number of "space opera" licenses at the time, including Star Trek, Buck Rogers and The Black Hole, so there may have been some franchise confusion. Just a guess.

This just goes to show you that back in the 1970s and 1980s, even great toy companies like Mego weren't necessarily paying close attention to the exact details of their (admittedly wonderful and now incredibly collectible) products. This isn't really an "authentic replica" of the landing bay on the series.

But that's okay, it's still a fun toy.  And as you can see from the photos, Buck's Starfighter Command Center today holds a cherished spot in my home office, even today.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Scream 4 (2011)

The third sequel to 1996's box office juggernaut Scream works far more effectively as an amusing and trenchant social commentary than as a straight-up, frightening horror film.  However, perhaps at this juncture in the continuing Ghost Face saga, that development is  inevitable.

Creatively-speaking, it grows exponentially more difficult across the  long years, to make the same, familiar Bogeyman scary, and so horror franchises routinely lean towards comedy.

The good news is that as observational, gadfly commentator on the Facebook Generation, Scream 4 indeed impresses. 

In fact, the psychologically-depraved climax of the film -- which features the immortal line "I don't need friends...I need fans!" -- involves the most amusing (and most committed) talking killer in the franchise since Stu and Billy took turns stabbing each other. 

Thus the old sting-in-the-tail/tale cliche (in which the killer just...won't....die) gets resurrected and drawn out to ludicrous extremes here, and -- literally -- it becomes electrifying.  Between the dedicated commentary on a narcissistic youth generation in love with its technological reflection, some timely jokes about celebrity-for-the-sake-of-celebrity (think: The Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, and Paris Hilton), and the audacious, viscerally intense final moments, Scream 4 ends at least, on a high note of ingenuity and wit.

Jauntily constructed by Kevin Williamson and capably directed by one of the undisputed greats of the genre, Wes Craven, Scream 4 boasts a surfeit of funny jokes, and also spotlights a copious amount of gore (more than any of the other sequels, in fact). And yet to the movie's detriment, it never truly proves emotional involving or very surprising.

The pace really flags in the film too, in part because Williamson's "next generation" of victims -- a tally that includes Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts, Marielle Jaffe, and Cory Culkin -- doesn't get the screen time that Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowan, Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich did back in the original.   As you might guess, this group scares center stage with Cox, Arquette and Campbell, and the final mix is somehow unsatisfying.

On one hand, seeing the hold-overs in action one more time will satisfy long time fans of the franchise.  On the other, it doesn't necessarily bode well for the future of the Scream films, which need fresh blood.  By the end of the movie, we're essentially back to square one, spending time with the exact three survivors we anticipated at the beginning of the film.  By the next sequel (if there is one), the events of this movie will be rendered pointless.

Scream 4 also makes relatively poor use of Dewey, who is so late for all the film's deadly action -- even after notified of an attack by phone -- that you'll want to hurl your remote control at the screen.  Comic ineptitude is one thing, but Scream 4's killer endures for so long mainly because Dewey is conveniently M.I.A.   Some folks may also complain about the fact that imperiled teens constantly text and phone one another when they should be focusing on escaping Ghost Face.  I don't necessarily have a problem with this aspect of the sequel, however, since we live in a culture in which people text while driving. 

Texting-while-dying is merely the next logical step.

The central conceit underlining Scream 4, and the quality that makes this entry smart enough to pass muster, is that this movie has arrived in the age of horror remakes.  So just as Scream obsessed on 1980s slasher movie references and Scream 2 involved the rules of sequels, Scream 4 notes, depicts, mocks and plays with the various and sundry rules of horror genre remakes.  The conceit is a good one, and the narrative focuses on a murderer (or a team of murderers) intent on "recreating" for a new generation the famous Scream (or Stab) crimes.

Specifically, just as Sidney Prescott (Campbell) returns to Woodsboro to promote her new self-help book and autobiography Out of Darkness, the Ghost Face killings resume.  For Gale, who has spent a decade absent from the limelight, the murders present an opportunity to once more become a star author.  With the help of two high school movie geeks who apparently live-stream their entire lives, Gale begins investigating the crimes.  She does so over the objections of her husband, Sheriff Dewey Riley. 

Meanwhile, Sidney's cousin, Jill, looks to be one of the prime targets of the tag-team killers this time around.  Could the culprit be her on-again/off-again boyfriend? A movie-obsessed geek? A new female deputy with the hots for Dewey, or some twisted combination of all of the above?

The Scream films are renowned for their bravura and dazzling opening sequences.  Drew Barrymore and Jada Pinkett headlined in previous first sequence gambits, and Scream 4 gives the audience a doozy (or five...) starring the likes of Kristen Bell, Anna Paquin and Aimee Teegarden. 

The film's opening salvo, however, illuminates both Scream 4's virtues and weaknesses.  It is amusing, inventive, and dead-on accurate in its observations about the state of the genre in 2011, and yet each character presented in the ever-escalating sequence talks in exactly the same voice and intonation, which quickly proves distracting. 

Then, when the actual story proper begins, the characters in that drama also express themselves in the exact same way. 

This famimliar banter may indeed represent the snarky, trademark and staccato back-and-forth of Kevin Williamson's canon and yet here -- with "film within a film" moments coming hot and heavy -- the movie simply doesn't play fair with its surprises. 

If every character speaks precisely the same way, dresses precisely the same way, and inhabits the same world of upscale, designer homes, even, how is it even remotely possible to guess which scene occurs in Scream 4 and which is happening in Stab 6 or 7

Also, it's worth remembering that the Drew Barrymore scene in Scream was deeply terrifying as well as amusing.  Wes Craven generated enormous tension and escalating terror from the familiar scenario of a girl at home alone in her house at night, stalked by an obscene phone caller...Ghost Face. 

The movie-centric riffs -- what's your favorite scary movie? -- during that Barrymore sequence did not undercut the suspense or horror in any way.   We were convinced of Casey Becker's reality and the reality of her world, and the horror movie references proved delightful.

By contrast, the rapid-fire scene changes in the opening of Scream 4 (showcasing moments from multiple Stab movies) actively prevent audiences from investing in any one particular character or any one particular horror scenario.  Again, you can commend the film for its abundant cleverness while simultanously regretting that it did not set out, once more, to really scare its viewership.

Despite the amped-up levels of gore in the film (a reflection, according to the dialogue, of the "torture porn" age), Scream 4 also noticeably lacks the killer instinct when it comes to the disposition of its long-standing and beloved characters.  The film would have been edgier, more unpredictable and perhaps a gerat deal scarier had Craven and Williamson set out to violently and permanently eliminate at least one of the film's three hold-over stars in the manner that the franchise eliminated Randy (Kennedy) back in 1997. 

Now, I love and enjoy Gale, Sid and Dewey as much as the next Scream fan (and yes, I am a Scream fan...) but this new sequel, despite the gore, doesn't feel as dangerous as perhaps it could.  At their best, the Scream movies are cynical, wicked, calculating and heartless.  Scream 4 is cynical, wicked and calculating but has too much heart.   Bring on the slice and dice!

I must admit that as a longtime horror aficionado it's almost silly to criticize Scream 4 too deeply, however, because it is,  after all, a  pretty solid "fourth" entry in a long-lived slasher franchise. 

And truthfully, how many of those have we gotten over the years? 

(The answer: almost none).

Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and just about any other horror franchise you care to mention certainly couldn't keep their franchise continuity straight throughout four films, or otherwise maintain film-to-film quality, either.

In other words, Scream 4 is definitely more of the same, but not a blatant or brazen cash grab.  With Scream 4, the franchise remembers its history and its metaphorical raison d'etre (social commentary on the rapidly-changing pop culture landscape), even if it doesn't make a rousing or dedicated effort to keep Ghost Face terrifying.  Still, at least one quirky  death scene involving a police officer, a knife to the head, and an unusually lengthy duration of survival is probably worth the price of admission for the horror faithful.

In terms of the Scream series, Scream 4 is much better than Scream 3 (2000), but not as good  as Scream and Scream 2.  "One generation's tragedy" is not exactly "the next generation's joke," to misquote Scream 4, but I'm not certain that this acceptable-but-not-always-inspired sequel will necessarily stand the test of time, either.

Toy Art: The Brave Fighter of Sun Fighbird Edition

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: A Little Song and Dance

Identified by Doug La Lone: Bonnie Beecher and Gary Crosby in The Twilight Zone: "Come Wander with Me."

Identified by Dave: Will Robinson (Bill Mumy) in Lost in Space: "There were Giants in the Earth."

Identified by Claudiu: Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in Star Trek: "Charlie X."

Identified by Dave: Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) in Mission:Impossible.

Identified by Claudiu: Space:1999 "The Troubled Spirit."

Identified by Claudiu: Lindsay Wagner in The Bionic Woman: "The Road to Nashville."

Identified by Dave: Shaun Cassidy in The Hardy Boys: "The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula."

Identified by Doug LaLone: Will Marshall (Wesley Eure) in Land of the Lost: "Ancient Guardian."

Identified by Claudiu: Diana Prince (Lynda Carter) in Wonder Woman: "Amazon Hot Wax."

Identified by Dave: Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) in Buck Rogers: "Awakening."

Identified by Claudiu Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) in Moonlighting: "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice."

Identified by Claudiu: Wanda Detroit (Terri Hatcher) in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

Identified by SGB: Cher (body double) in The X-Files: "The Post-Modern Prometheus."

Identified by Sci-Fi Fanatic: KISS in Millennium: "Thirteen Years Later."

Identified by SGB: Angel (David Boreanaz) in Angel: "Judgement."

Identified by Claudiu: Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) in Buffy: "Restless."

Identified by Claudiu: Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) in Lost: "Live Together, Die Alone."

Identified by Will: Lois Lane (Eric Durance) in Smallville: "Exposed."

Identified by Will: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) in Veronica Mars: "Clash of the Tritons."