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The Best Horror Movies of the 90s: Scream

screamSome observations:

-Perhaps more than any other horror film of the 1990s, Scream acts as a fun history lesson.  In chiding and recycling the slasher film tropes of yesteryear, Wes Craven’s sleeper hit rejuvenated the genre—one that had gone stale; one to which the audience of the day had become inured.  In short, Scream was a good slasher film that inspired many a viewer to (re-)investigate the origins of the form.

-Some people may look at the movie now and see a hollow, dated film.  They may think its central gimmick (i.e., deconstructing slasher films in order to create one that epitomizes the genre for a knowing, jaded audience) a bit, well, gimmicky.  It’s not a perfect film.  Sometimes it strikes me as a bit too ironic for its own good; but I never understood the criticism it engendered, flak that eventually resulted in a global reversion to unrelentingly gory and straight-faced horror flicks like Hostel and Wolf Creek.  The mocking, go-for-broke mimicry is the reason Scream (and, to a lesser extent, its three direct follow-ups) remains fresh.  The movie is about obsessive self-referentialism, the extremity to which fan-boys and –girls can cling to their immoral fixations on a reality that exists only in their fucked-up little heads.

-Scream could not have happened before the 90s.  The premium channel and VHS wave of the 1980s laid the groundwork for it and the audience receptive to it.  Still, I think Scream has cross-generational appeal, if only because it offers a toothy, entertaining critique of slasher films (the worst of the lot glorify their antiheroes), and of broken homes and the way movies help to fill (or stretch) that void for the victims of said homes.

-Like the movie’s heroine, Kevin Williamson’s script hates the way characters in slasher films typically behave.  That said, Williamson, by “hanging a lantern,” knows it is these clichés, these tropes, which fuel the viewer’s interest in the story.  At one point, John Carpenter’s Halloween, the slasher pic nonpareil, scores the events onscreen, its diegetic presence instrumental in more ways than one.  Scream uses this point/counterpoint kind of approach well.  It wouldn’t matter, though, if the film weren’t serious about its subtext: the death of the nuclear family.

-For all its snarkiness, Scream is really about kids watching themselves watch themselves.  Nobody’s minding them; the parents are all but invisible (and the high school principal is a vicious little shit, a kid in a grown-up’s body).  The kids aren’t disaffected so much as unsupervised.  Movies and TV shows are the real role models here.  In checking out—in effectively behaving like kids themselves—the parents have abdicated their roles as protectors and confidants.  Bored, obsessed with horror films (and their sick displays of power and aggression), and having too much time on their hands, the teenagers of Scream (especially the narcissistic, sociopathic shits behind the crimes we see) resort (or fall prey) to violence all too readily.  This could happen.  The home has failed them.  All of this gives Scream real staying power.

-The movie has one of the best opening scenes, ever.  Not only does it set the tone for the rest of the film, it asks the basic question the story must answer:  Who killed Casey Becker, and why?

Rating: A-

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Disasterpeace – Fez

fezDisasterpeace composed the soundtrack to this year’s breakout horror film, It Follows.  His score honors the golden age of horror synth soundtracks by breathing fresh life into the sound (much like the movie itself takes off from, and adds to, an era of horror I remember fondly).  Fez is a soundtrack to a video game I know almost nothing about; but, with the same spirit that fills the score for It Follows, the soundtrack pays tribute to the chiptune-like music I heard on all those Nintendo and Atari video games growing up.  Retrofuturistic electronica is the term for such music, I suppose.  And, as it melds synth cheese with a balmy, Eno-worthy sense of wonder, Fez does the term proud.  It’s fun, haunting, and generous, the kind of background music that steps into the foreground melodiously enough to make you admire its beauty.

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The Omega Man

omegaman

Lame.  Fans of Richard Matheson’s classic novel, I Am Legend, and cheesy, early 70s horror may want to see this flick.  It’s not a faithful adaptation, though, and outside of a few striking moments (the early bits where Chuck Heston drives around a deserted L.A., and a post-transformation scene later on) the whole enterprise wafts by on a slow-moving breeze of banal lighting, glib, at times trite, dialogue, and (worst of all) inoffensive, ineffective scares.  Heston doesn’t sell the desperation, much less the despair, at the heart of his character; and the vampires of the novel have here become a glitter-robed cult of albinos, strangely unable to register much of a threat until the end of the film, by which time something has to give and the movie cheats on the basic imbalance between good guy and bad.

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Inferno – Making of the Expendables

InfernoMakingof ExpendablesWhere does it come from:
I believe it was an extra on some release – I do not know which, but it has its own IMDB page and was produced by Epix, which is a pay TV station. They produced the superior John Milius documentary that I reviewed at Cinema Sentries.

I saw it online at Daily Motion.

There is no uber-narrator. It’s all interviews, footage, and some Sly Stallone talking about what he’s doing, what he’s trying, what he sees himself accomplishing. This narration begins expansively, but quickly becomes much more nuts-and-bolts (and much more interesting).

Tone of documentary:
For this type of movie, surprisingly open-eyed, and eye-opening. It is only a documentation of the movie-making process – not press kit interview stuff, no one talking about how great everything is. It’s a real filmmaking documentary. There’s some talk about the intent of the movie (recreating the 80s action film dynamic, loading it with 80s stars) but Sly Stallone is clear-headed about the kind of film he is making, and about stardom in general. Kids crowd him everywhere he goes. He understands that, “It’s not me. It took me about 30 years to get that.”

Who participated:
Almost all of the footage is on-set, so anyone who was there at the time. And this means sometimes interviews with tired crew-members who don’t much want to talk, and a Sly Stallone who is in deep pain. During the movie he ruptured a tendon in his foot, needed neck surgery for a spinal issue, had shingles and all kinds of ailments. It doesn’t show in the times when he is actually doing the work.

Best bits:
I have not seen the Expendables movies, and I don’t much care to see them. The footage of the actual film didn’t look like anything I would go out of my way to check out. But this is a great documentary on the process of making an extremely complicated film. Action movies tend to go lower-rated by critics for a number of reasons, legitimate and illegitimate. But there is nothing easy about this type of movie-making. Filming people talking is infinitely less complicated and easier to do. The disrespect for action filmmaking, if it isn’t largely based in ignorance, is political. These movies are not useful (no good art is useful, and those who seek ‘use’ for art, and find art that is not directly useful ‘problematic,’ are friends of tyranny and enemies to all that is good). They advance few agendas, and are at least sympathetic toward, if not wholly laudatory of masculine values. And Sly is upfront about this. It’s a movie about men overcoming odds, very specifically men. I guess women filter into the Expendables series eventually – I don’t care, any more than I care about these movies. I do care about filmmaking, and feel I have a better understanding of it having watched this doc. It is not antiseptic, it is not boring, it is not hagiographic. It is illuminating, all that a doc should be.

Film nerd bits:
This isn’t a film nerd style doc. There’s no old trivia – the movie, I understand, is full of winks and the like, but this is just a nuts-and-bolts in-media-res show of moviemaking.

Grade:
Actual Documentary

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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

goodbadugly

This review is a discursive plug for Alex Cox’s book, 10,000 Ways to Die.  Cox synopsizes just about every Spaghetti Western ever made.  His estimations of the films themselves, though, are the meat and potatoes.  Everything else, including the synopsis and the full list of cast and crew for each film, is padding.  Having said that, I do in theory appreciate the synopsi, because I know how difficult it is for anyone to synopsize a story in so many words.  I digress, though.

Sergio Leone films are rough around the edges.  Of the Westerns he made, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly seems to me not only the quintessential one, but the most fun.  As to whether it is the quintessential Spaghetti Western—hey.  That’s the sort of superlative I just can’t vouch for.  After reading Cox’s book, I must confess my ignorance:  The films credited to Leone only represent about a fifth of the genre.  In addition to his films, I have seen a couple of Sergio Corbucci pictures, and The Big Gundown and Death Rides a Horse.  Lee Van Cleef stars in four of those titles, and I have a highfalutin idea to write a biography about him someday.  Still, I digress.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly nails the basic Leone approach.  Influenced as much by American directors (e.g., John Ford) as they were by Japanese directors (e.g., Akira Kurosawa) and Italian directors (e.g., Federico Fellini), Leone’s gun operas remain startlingly fresh to this day, and here are the reasons why:  Depicting the West as a veritable bed for bastards (a hostile desert terrain that, aside from a few breathtaking master shots of Monument Valley in Once Upon a Time in the West, looks unlike any American desert and so [if you didn’t know better] at least subconsciously jars you into feeling like you are watching a Western that was shot on another planet [but of course, it was Spain]), he gives you a riveting face for every character, and the leads are antiheroes.  At times, and for extended sequences at that, Leone eschews dialogue altogether.  He also stretches time constantly.  The effect excites you.  Making stark juxtapositions between the wide shot and the close-up—between the slow buildup of tension and the hair-trigger release of violence—between the proclivity for sentiment and the proclivity for a rich gallows humor—Leone brings the Roman circus, a carnivalesque thirst for the bawdy, crude and obscene, to the central, ritualistic idea of the standoff.  In one sense, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is simply a series of standoffs.  Detours, double-crosses, and head fakes abound, but Leone keeps raising the stakes.  And although TGTBATU is the best of the Dollars Trilogy, it does in its 180-minute iteration feel a bit too long, keen on being a masterpiece to rival anything David Lean was doing in that same decade, the 1960s.  The sheer novelty of Leone’s approach, though, bolstered here and never bettered, sustains your interest.  Applied to Ennio Morricone’s music on the soundtrack (Leone shot scenes to parts of the music), the film rises to greatness.

Anyway, I recommend the Alex Cox book to anyone with even a passing interest in the Spaghetti Western genre.  He writes well, and the praise he gives to some real obscure Italian oaters has inspired me to seek those films out.  The Christopher Frayling audio commentaries on the blu-rays of the Leone Westerns are detailed and informative, amounting to a kind of biography-by-commentary.  Better still are Cox’s critical yet loving reviews of the films, which comprise a slightly damning portrait of a director who changed the world.  So, you should see the films (TGTBATU takes the cake), you should watch them with the Frayling commentaries on, and you should read the Alex Cox book.

There was more to the Spaghetti Western than this one film; but I have a feeling it is the definitive example of the genre.  I aim to find out.