Sunday, January 29, 2023

Reeling in the Years: Matinee at 30

Thirty years ago today, Matinee, director Joe Dante's nostalgic flashback to a movie saturated '60s childhood not unlike his own formative years spent in the '50s, was released. Ironically, this ode to the cinematic ballyhoo of a bygone era arrived with little fanfare of its own and failed to make an impact in the theaters, only to find its audience on home video. On the occasion of its anniversary I find myself thinking back to Maitland McDonagh's interview with Dante in her 1995 book Filmmaking on the Fringe. Specifically, Dante's description of a version of the film that was discarded in the script stage for being a little too bleak. As he tells it, "...In an earlier version of Matinee the main story was a flashback, and the script ended with the theater demolished to make way for a video store." 

Said Dante: "...It was just too depressing."

In 1993, that ending certainly would have been a downer, a grim reminder of how the theatrical experience was in peril of being sidelined, if not potentially wiped out altogether, by home video. Had they kept it, though, that ending would have hit very differently now in a way no one could have anticipated thirty years ago. A conclusion to Matinee that had a video store being built on the grounds of the old theater would now play more like a bittersweet elegy for the video age than a sad statement on the twilight of movie theaters. 

In 2023, even without the competitive edge of Atomo-Vision, movie theaters have only continued to prove their resilience. Not only did they outlast the threat of video stores but they've weathered a pandemic that kept them shuttered for months, with no guarantee as to when or if they'd reopen. In the meantime, streaming has pushed video stores into the tar pits and physical media itself is currently hanging on by its fingernails (hopefully due for a rebound as both consumers and media corporations come to realize that the intangible digital realm has its own set of limitations). 

Today, Matinee stands as a testimony to the durability of theaters rather than serving as a mournful lament to their fading hold. In 1962, John Goodman's William Castle-esque Lawrence Woolsey was a filmmaker fighting to keep the theatrical experience alive against the rise of television and while in 1993 we knew that particular battle had been fought and won, the then current battle against home video remained undecided. By now, though, we've seen that no matter how much technology changes, theaters will continue to endure, able to withstand the many threats that continually come their way. 

While the brand of showmanship that accompanied the likes of Mant! or its real life counterparts such as House on Haunted Hill or 13 Ghosts might be a lost art, the enduring desire to join strangers in the dark to enjoy that shared experience of watching a movie together seems more secure than ever. Even though today one can watch a movie on their phone if they choose, many still opt for the experience that only movie theaters can provide. As a love letter to the essential escapism that cinema offers, Matinee has only become more relevant - even as one has to ruefully acknowledge that a movie like Matinee would surely go direct to streaming today. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Horror's Big Night

I haven't followed the Oscars since 2000. I lost interest in all the hoopla and the older I got, the less the Oscars' sensibilities lined up with my own love of movies. Every time they come around though, and the usual round of outraged reactions to the nominations start to come in, I always wish that The Horror Hall of Fame had kept on rocking. 

Kicking off in 1990, The Horror Hall of Fame was a yearly televised special, hosted by Robert Englund, that honored the year's best in horror that ran for three years, ending in 1992. A fourth special was promised at the close of the third special but it never materialized and the HHoF quietly ended. 

These specials were very much on the hokey side but Englund was a perfect choice as host (with The Crypt Keeper popping in to lend his cackling assistance) and for all the corny banter on display, it never came off any worse on this front than the Oscars ever do. As with the Oscars, The Horror Hall of Fame indulged in the usual share of self congratulatory back slapping (it is still an awards show, after all) but the difference is that the Oscars never brought Chucky or Jason on stage so automatic points to the Horror Hall of Fame. 

Unlike with the Oscars, there was no confusion about what genre The Silence of the Lambs belonged to when it won the Best Picture in the 1991 HHoF special (handily beating out such competition as Misery and Jacob's Ladder). The early '90s were a very demoralized era for horror, both in its commercial fortunes and in its public estimation, so it was cool to see something that openly celebrated the genre's past and present. Horror was in need of some cheerleading then. 

I only wish it had continued. Award shows are vapid by nature but they do serve a purpose in spotlighting excellence and spurring a greater appreciation of the medium and it would have been nice to see something as genre centric as HHoF continue to do that. Mostly, though, I would have loved to have seen how the HHoF would have changed over the years to reflect the shifting trends in the genre. It would have been cool to see the HHoF during the post Scream slasher era or the Saw spawned torture porn years. And it would have been highly amusing to see how a hokey program like this would have adapted to honoring A24's brand of elevated horror, with the likes of Heredity and The Lighthouse being recognized alongside The Meg and Annabelle Comes Home

Had the Horror Hall of Fame continued, on the morning the Oscar nominations were announced this year, fans wouldn't have had to lament the lack of recognition for films like Nope and Bones and All. We'd know they'd be getting their due in this year's HHoF, maybe with horror's newest superstar M3GAN sharing the stage with Robert Englund. 

I'd gladly take that over the Oscars any day.    

Friday, January 20, 2023

Magazine Dreams


Twenty years ago, Cinefantastique was relaunched with the first issue of the new volume proclaiming 2003 to be the "Year of the Superhero." The soon to be released Daredevil was front and center of CFQ's coverage with news of a multitude of other comic book related projects like X2, Hulk and Smallville also contained within. In early 2003, these projects represented the relatively new superhero trend hitting its stride. In the wake of the success of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002, live action adaptations of superheroes in movies and TV were gathering steam, maybe soon to hit a peak. The general expectation then was this was a fad and inevitably the bubble would burst and popular tastes would move on to something else in time. Cut to today where every year continues to be the Year of the Superhero. 

As much as it felt like the dam had finally burst on comic book adaptations, by today's standards 2003 looks like a dribble rather than a deluge. By comparison, in 2022 we had a new Batman movie, Black Adam's debut, and Thor, Black Panther and Doctor Strange sequels and in 2023 we've got third chapters for both Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, a Captain Marvel sequel that brings together three different Marvels - Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), Monica Rambeau (Spectrum), and Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), a Shazam sequel, a Flash movie (that includes Michael Keaton's Batman!), a Blue Beetle movie, and an Aquaman sequel. And that's not even mentioning all the Disney+ Marvel shows slated to debut this year. Basically we've gotten to the point where it's hard for even hardcore fans to keep up with all of it. 

As problems go, this difficulty actually represents cool news for comic book and superhero fans but the bummer is that Cinefantastique and genre publications like it didn't continue to thrive along with the type of movies that they covered (CFQ ceased publication in 2006). Sure, there's still a few magazines on the stands that cover the genre but it's not like it used to be. The idea of relying on print media to get the inside scoop on a movie - never mind reading an exhaustive cover story on one (this issue of CFQ devotes 19 freaking pages to Daredevil) - is an alien concept in 2023. As much as I love where the movies are at, I gotta say I miss the opportunity to read about them in the detailed way that Cinefantastique was devoted to. 

The fact that the rise of the types of films that Cinefantastique covered and celebrated for decades dovetailed with the magazine's own demise as a print entity has a certain poignancy to it. Behind the scenes features on Blu-rays and the Assembled making of docs on Disney+ that have accompanied each new Marvel production since MCU's Phase 4 began have taken the place of the coverage that used to be Cinefantastique's bread and butter. As valuable and entertaining as these studio produced docs can be, I do miss being able to hold a physical magazine in my hands that specializes in substantial genre journalism. 

It may be the pull of nostalgia that makes me miss that experience but sentiment aside, I do think it improved our appreciation of movies - whether those movies be good, bad, or mediocre (and CFQ covered all types with equal weight) - to really read about them, to sit for an extended period of time and absorb a well researched article rather than to just react to tweets scrolling past our timelines.  

Thursday, January 12, 2023

The King In Blue

With Avatar: The Way of Water's box office performance settling the question of whether or not there was an appetite for more Avatar after so many insisted that no one gave a shit about the sequel to the biggest movie of all time, I think it's worth asking: why are so many people so intent on doubting James Cameron? And not just doubting him but actively rooting against him? With Avatar, Cameron has created an entire world, a whole franchise, that is exclusively his own. He's a nerd who has the clout to write his own ticket. There isn't a single studio executive with the license to second guess him or strong arm him into going against his own instincts so why is every nerd not in his corner? You'd think they would be, right?  

The thing is, with just about every other big nerd property - whether you're talking about Star Wars or Star Trek, Marvel or DC, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, many fans feel like they have part ownership in all of it. Their prior investment in these things predates whatever new projects are happening so anyone that's making a new film with any of these properties is obliged (in these fan's minds) to win them over. Courting these fans and gaining the approval of the self-appointed gatekeepers of these franchises is practically part of a filmmaker's job if they're working on any major nerd property. Sure, there can be controversies and instances where a segment of fandom feels slighted but at least in the minds of disgruntled fans this only confirms their importance. They're a part of the process. With Avatar, though, they don't have any such leverage, they don't have the same kind of pull (whether it be real or imagined) as they do with other properties. They're shut out. They don't matter anymore than the next person buying a ticket, and I think they resent it for that reason. 

When it comes to Avatar, there's no aggressive subsection of fans that can attempt to drive the discourse about it. They can't say that Cameron isn't respecting the novels or the comics or the original trilogy or any of that. They have no ground to stand on. What's more, they also aren't ahead of the general public when it comes to Avatar and I think that gets nerds twisted up as well. Whether these nerds love or hate a new Marvel or DC or Star Wars movie or show, I believe they enjoy the satisfaction of being able to feel like their opinion is more valid because they're an OG fan. They feel like they can back up their bullshit by going into the lore and mythology in order to tell someone who enjoyed whatever the new thing is that, well, they're wrong about it. With Avatar, Cameron has taken that (imagined) advantage away from them. There's no way for them to feel superior to anyone when it comes to Avatar (except by trashing it).  

The whole complaint about the original Avatar not leaving any "cultural footprint" and thereby failing to matter is about a certain sub-segment of nerds believing that unless they've adopted something, that unless it belongs to them first and everyone else second then it's not valid and they so they feel obliged to minimize it. Nerds are territorial and I believe they enjoy feeling that when it comes to pop culture, that is the one area in life where they actually have some significant clout, where things must naturally bend to them. Avatar, though, is a sci-fi property that belongs to everyone equally. Cameron doesn't have to go on stage and play to the crowd at conventions, hoping the fanbase won't turn against him. Nerds can't school anyone about whether the latest Avatar movie is faithful to the source material. Everyone is coming to these movies on the same level and that is a rare thing with sci-fi properties, especially now when nearly everything is a pre-existing legacy franchise. 

Now that we know it's a certainty that Cameron will be able to complete his planned five film saga (with the possibility of more installments beyond that being in play, I'm sure), it'll be interesting to see what the reaction will be going forward. Will the fans that stubbornly insisted that Avatar was a fluke and that it could never be a franchise get on board with it or just continue to maintain the same preposterous skepticism with every new film? 

One thing's for sure - whether they do or don't, it won't make a damn bit of difference to Cameron.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

My Little Terminator


Even though it's absolutely clear from all the marketing for M3GAN that the titular doll is a robotic A.I. creation, it's still hard not to go in with thoughts of Chucky and killer dolls in your head. That all quickly evaporates, though, as M3GAN immediately establishes itself as a killer robot film rather than a killer doll one. Yes, this killer robot also happens to be a doll but M3GAN occupies the same space as the likes of The Terminator, Deadly Friend and Demon Seed - tales of technology run amok - rather than the killer doll realm of Child's Play, Dolls, and Annabelle. Honestly, as a movie monster, M3GAN has more in common with the haywire robots of Chopping Mall than with Chucky. 

Think of her as the sassy younger sister to the out of control EVE VIII in 1991's Eve of Destruction

Killer doll movies are all about inanimate objects coming to life. They play on our childhood fears of innocuous toys actually having malevolent souls, committing dark deeds only when no one else is watching. M3GAN, however, belongs to that sci-fi horror sub-genre of technological terrors with M3GAN (the Model 3 Generative Android) being yet another cutting edge creation gone awry. 

After young Cady (Violet McGraw) is orphaned in a car accident, her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) becomes her guardian. Not naturally inclined towards parenting, Gemma's work as a roboticist and product developer at a toy company comes in handy as Gemma introduces Cady to her latest invention, M3GAN, still in the demo phase. Meant to be a companion to children, one that will bond with them, M3GAN quickly fills the emotional void in Cady's life that her aunt, as much as she does genuinely care for Cady, isn't quite equipped to. 

As bent on having a wicked good time with their premise as the makers of M3GAN are, Akela Cooper's screenplay also addresses Gemma's struggle to meet Cady's needs in real terms, acknowledging the anxieties modern parents face in wondering whether their children's interactions with technology are healthy. Earlier generations of time strapped parents struggled with having TV be a babysitter to their kids but the internet age has only exponentially added to the concerns that come with relinquishing large chunks of parenting time over to devices. While even the parents of today's most tech addicted kids don't have to worry about a robotic A.I. tucking their children into bed at night, the underlying dilemma that Gemma deals with in M3GAN still feels relatable  

Director Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) adeptly translates the humor and horror of Cooper's screenplay but also plays the drama straight, keeping M3GAN fun but not frivolous. Some reviews have pushed the notion that this is camp or a horror comedy but that's not the case. Yes, it's often funny and yes there is dark humor but it isn't some kind of send up devoid of emotional stakes. We care about both Gemma and Cady and the movie hinges on the question of whether they'll be able to connect sans technology as a go-between. 

As the embodiment of that technology, M3GAN is an instant entry into the evil robot hall of fame. Perfectly conceived, perfectly realized. The look, the attitude, the personality, it's all there. As the makers of The Horror Show, Brainscan, Dr. Giggles and many others will tell you, one of the toughest things to do in horror is to try and launch a new icon. It is something that rarely works out. Given that, it is genuinely impressive how sure footed M3GAN's debut is. Just as there is no doubt that we'll be seeing more of her it also seems certain that we'll be seeing much more of screenwriter Akela Cooper's work. With the last film she penned, 2021's gonzo Malignant, having been an undeserved box office miss even with James Wan directing (I blame Warners, who didn't know what they had and had no clue of how to market it), it's gratifying to see M3GAN 's success. 

The first genre release out of the gate this year, M3GAN bodes well for the genre's 2023 prospects, building on 2022's momentum. As a collaboration between Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions and James Wan's Atomic Monster, it offers proof (if anyone needed it) of what a fruitful partnership the rumored merge between their two production companies would be. Also, following the success of original crowd pleasers from last year like Smile, M3GAN indicates a shift from A24 type elevated horror to a rising appetite for more pop orientated frights. To that end, this living doll could prove to lead the charge to a more playful era for horror. 

As M3GAN would say, "it's insane, right?" 

Friday, January 6, 2023

The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror

When it comes to talking about what the best horror franchise is, I think we're at the point where we might have to say that, if we're talking about longevity and consistency of quality, Evil Dead is the hands down champ. What else can compete with it? Of everything out there, the Chucky franchise is the strongest contender. With Chucky you've got seven feature films, all of them at least decent, with several being classics, and then two seasons of a TV series (with hopefully more to come) that didn't hold back on the horror and also deepened and expanded on the series' mythology.

But then there's Evil Dead, which, like Chucky, has never stopped kicking ass. The slight edge that I feel it has over Chucky is that it is has become a double layered franchise. You have the aspect of it that was driven by Bruce Campbell as Ash and that alone would be enough. With that, you've got three classics films and a TV series that didn't have a single dud episode in three glorious seasons. 

Now there's also the latest feature incarnations - the 2013 reboot and the upcoming Evil Dead Rise - that go back to the roots of Evil Dead. Some fans balk at these, I guess because they can't wrap their head around Evil Dead without Ash, but I love that they've reclaimed the OG soul of Evil Dead.

Billed by Sam Raimi as the "ultimate experience in grueling horror," no one thought of The Evil Dead as campy or jokey before the sequels changed the tone of the series. As much as I love Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, I never liked that they had retroactively caused the original, which had been received as one of the most hardcore horror films of the '80s, to be seen in a mostly comedic light. 

Because of that, I love that Raimi, Campbell and Rob Tapert have been able to bring Evil Dead back to symbolizing full on, balls out horror. Had they tried to recast Ash as a way to keep the franchise going, that would have been a massive mistake. Much better to return to telling gore soaked possession tales and reestablish Evil Dead as a brand that isn't dependent on a specific character.

Had some shady corporate hands yanked the franchise away from Raimi, Campbell and Tapert, I would be vehemently against whatever was done with it but these guy are Evil Dead. This has been their baby for over forty years and if they want to pivot it back to what it initially was and shepherd some nasty new visions of that world, then cool.

With the MPA being much more horror friendly than it was in the '80s, R-rated Evil Dead movies can go every bit as hard as the unrated Evil Dead did back in the day. I'm still stunned by how much Fede Alvarez got away with with his 2013 ED and Lee Cronin looks to match it with Rise. I just hope Raimi and co. start to deliver these at a faster clip because ten years between Evil Dead movies is way too long. Now that Evil Dead Rise is set to move things out from the traditional cabin in the woods, I hope we can get an Evil Dead on a cruise ship or even Evil Dead on a plane. I mean, after all, ships and planes do have cabins of their own. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Saw vs. The Law: Texas Chainsaw 3D turns 10

I think the only slasher movie that was truly born to spawn a franchise was Friday the 13th, simply due to its crass, mercenary heart (the original only existed because Sean Cunningham cynically conceived it to cash in on Halloween's success) and its strict devotion to formula. Some tweaks were required over the course of the first few sequels to get it to where it fully needed to be but that was smooth sailing compared to just about everything else on the slasher front, which have all tended to offer not so easily overcome challenges - none more so than Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The fact that the series has gotten to nine movies by now would seem to be proof that Texas Chainsaw Massacre qualifies a successful slasher franchise. I mean, shit, they keep making them, right? But then you look at the movies themselves and the definition of "success" becomes more questionable so it's all in the eye of the beholder, I say (or in the eyes of the rights owners). All of this is to preface a "Happy Anniversary!" shout out to Texas Chainsaw 3D, released on this day in 2013. 

Ten years ago, Texas Chainsaw 3D was not greeted as a return to form for the franchise. But to be fair, it really should be noted that the Chainsaw franchise never really had a form to return to. If anything, the series has been so consistently uneven that quality-wise, Texas Chainsaw 3D was completely on brand. This is a series that never enjoyed a hot streak. Right from its first sequel it struggled to recapture the magic of the original and as many hands as the rights have passed through, no one has never quite cracked the code for turning it into a sustainable franchise. There have been entries that were better than others but it's never gotten to the point where they've been able to fully hit the gas on it. Rather than a series of chronological entries, Chainsaw has instead been more like a series of missteps and retries. 

In line with that, Texas Chainsaw 3D represented yet one more try at being a proper sequel to the original. The only person to actually do that well was, of course, Tobe Hooper with Part 2 in '86 but when that was released it was viewed (incorrectly) as a spectacular fuck up and in reaction to that, 1990's Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, despite the III in its title, became the first Chainsaw to start the trend of Chainsaw sequels pretending that the previous sequel never happened. People talk about the various branching timelines of the Halloween series but Halloween has nothing on the Chainsaw movies. With Chainsaw, outside of the remake and its prequel, every single sequel has initiated a fresh timeline from the original film. There's no Thorn trilogy in the Chainsaw universe, no string of connected movies. It's all just new attempts to figure out how to make a workable sequel to Hooper's original. 

Which, really, is just a testimony to how impressive The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is. It's such a singular achievement that, to this day, no one has figured out how to follow it, much less match it. Hooper made by far the best attempt with Part 2 but it took years for that first sequel to be appreciated and by the time it had been, the series had already long since blown itself up many times over. Given its many shortcomings, to enjoy TCM as a franchise is to learn to be in love with its imperfections and to find its failures to be fascinating and fun rather than dispiriting. 

That's definitely the only way to enjoy Texas Chainsaw 3D. It's not good. Not at all. But it is fun, if you are willing to take it in the proper spirit. I would say the spirit that it was intended to be taken in but, of course, that isn't really true. No one behind this movie intended it to be perceived as hilarious (although there is one shot of Leatherface watching a van of fleeing kids crash and flip over in the distance that I swear was meant to get a laugh) but, you know, once a movie is out there it's the viewers that decide what it is. 

I will say that it was a genuine thrill when this came out in theaters to see it in 3D, just to see footage from the original converted to the 3D format. That was undeniably cool. It was also pretty neat to see TCM 2's Bill Moseley stepping into the late Jim Siedow's role as "The Cook." Thumbs up, too, for the way the opening moments of this directly followed up on the ending of the original. I got a kick out of seeing the Sawyers (including original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen) in a stand off with the cops and a redneck mob. 

Past the opening, things don't quite improve. But at the same time, they become ridiculous so quickly that you don't have to waste any time wondering where you stand with this movie. In the decade since its release, Texas Chainsaw 3D hasn't aged particularly well but on the other hand, it doesn't look any worse for wear, either. If you thought it was ridiculous in 2013, no need to check back and see if you got it wrong. You didn't. On the other hand, if you had a ball with it in 2013, a rewatch won't let you down. If anything, you might have forgotten just how fucking bananas this was. 

"Do your thing, cuz!" might be the most quoted line, not just from this movie but from the entire Chainsaw series, but there's other gems, too, such as the adoptive father to Alexandra Daddario's character of Heather telling her "You came from a shit ape!" I'm also a fan of good ol' boy Burt Hartman (Paul Rae), the town Mayor, telling a cop "It's ok! It's ok! It didn't happen!" after the cop accidentally blows the brains out of a captive of Leatherface. The same cop's take on Leatherface's grooming choices - "Ladies makeup? What a fruitcake!" is hilarious as well. And Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry) telling Heather to "Clean this shit up" after he decides to turn a blind eye to Leatherface's slaughter of Burt at the end is a winner too. With no snark, I say that screenwriters Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan and Kirsten Elms have a way with words. You can say that the writing in Texas Chainsaw 3D isn't great but, you know, I say it takes skill to write memorable dialogue and TC3D has that in spades. 

Storywise, the most interesting, if also the most ludicrous, aspect of Texas Chainsaw 3D is how it makes Leatherface into a good guy. I feel that's a reeeal big stretch but director John Luessenhop goes for it anyhow. If nothing else, it does set this entry apart from every other Chainsaw. Rather than having to fear Leatherface, the real danger to the Final Girl here is from all the assholes looking to cover up their crimes. Leatherface essentially rides to Heather's rescue at the end, going to the slaughterhouse where Mayor Hartman and his dirty cops have taken her. Sure, Leatherface doesn't go there with the intention of helping her but once he realizes that he and Heather are blood, they become a team. When Heather tosses Leatherface his chainsaw, it's like Popeye getting his hands on a can of spinach. After serving justice to all the corrupt cops that wanted to sweep the Sawyer's under the rug, Heather and Leatherface return home to whatever weird new life they're going to have and I have to wonder what future movies that followed up on Heather and Leatherface together would have been like. 

Of course, all we can do is wonder because Texas Chainsaw 3D was yet another entry that was supposed to lead to more movies but didn't and was then subsequently ignored by the next film. I can't say that I feel it was all that much of a loss but at the same time, I do continue to sincerely enjoy this silly movie. Ten years since its release, Texas Chainsaw 3D still provides more chuckles than terror but I say that in the Chainsaw series there's room for many different flavors of BBQ.