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Posts Tagged ‘rubbish’

Complaining that some of the final films of the great old horror legends are a bit unworthy of their presence almost feels like missing the point, given that (arguably) one of the reasons these actors are so celebrated is because they were performers of genuine charisma, talent, and technical virtuosity, who happily put all that to work in the service of rather variable, usually low-budget genre movies. Nevertheless, of all these performers – and I am thinking, of course, of Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and perhaps Donald Pleasence – only Lee lived long enough to see many directors who grew up on his films become successful figures, and reaped the benefit of numerous great roles in his final years as a result.

Nevertheless, when it comes to a movie like House of the Long Shadows, your expectations understandably become higher, as soon as you see the poster (or failing that the credits). Pete Walker’s film achieves the notable coup of assembling Cushing, Price and Lee, together with John Carradine. All the lines on the map of classic horror movie acting converge here, one way or another – the only other film to come close is Scream and Scream Again, which had Price, Lee, and Cushing in it, albeit never all in the same scene.

However, it soon becomes clear that the great men are all playing character roles: the lead character, Ken Magee, is played by Desi Arnaz Jr. Magee is an American novelist visiting London to see his publisher (another veteran actor, Richard Todd). After a disagreement over the value and quality of some of the great old classic novels, particularly Wuthering Heights, Magee and his publisher make a bet – if Magee can produce the completed manuscript of a publishable gothic novel in twenty-four hours, he’ll win $20,000. So he can work undisturbed, and perhaps soak up a little atmosphere, the publisher offers him the chance to work at a remote country house in Wales known as Baldpate Manor (the actual name being in Welsh and thus unpronounceable by anyone else). So off he trots.

(Quite apart from anything else, I feel obliged to raise an eyebrow over the whole writing-a-novel-in-24-hours stunt. How long’s a novel? NaNoWriMo suggest 50,000 words is a reasonable word-count, which is still on the short side compared to the average book. Now, on the most productive day of my life, I managed to write roughly 15,000 words in about ten hours. So the idea of writing a whole novel, of any real quality, in twenty-four-hours, is surely bunkum. But there’s a sense in which this is amongst the least of House of the Long Shadows‘ problems.)

Magee arrives at Baldpate and soon discovers he is not alone: there are a couple of creepy old caretakers (played by Carradine and Sheila Keith) and an attractive young woman (Julie Peasgood) who says she’s been sent to warn him he’s in danger and should leave. (Who is Sheila Keith, you ask, and how has she blagged a way into the distinguished company of the other character performers in this film? Well, apart from appearing in Crossroads and various comedy shows, she was a regular in Pete Walker’s other horror movies: House of Whipcord, Frightmare, and so on.) Magee rightly twigs that at least some of this is a distraction organised by his publisher to ensure he loses the bet.

But soon, and many would say none too soon, other eccentric characters start showing up at the manor: Cushing arrives, supposedly as a lost motorist, while Price makes a grand entrance as the heir to the property and Carradine’s son (the dates don’t really work, but go with it). Price manages to deliver a fairly indifferent first line – ‘I have returned’ – so it’s genuinely very funny, and suddenly the whole film seems to be lifted onto a higher level for a moment. Finally, Christopher Lee arrives as someone thinking of buying the house.

It turns out that Magee has arrived in time for the reunion of the Grisbane family, for the first time since 1939 – Cushing turns out to be Price’s younger brother. But it is a not entirely joyous occasion: the family have reassembled to release the youngest Grisbane brother, who has been locked up in the attic for forty-odd years since committing a terrible murder as a teenager. However, it seems that he has already escaped, and is on the loose in the vicinity, intent on vengeance against his brothers and father…

Well, quite apart from all the gothic tropes – which are quite cleverly woven into the script – House of the Long Shadows contains no fewer than three significant twists, of which two are infuriatingly risible and one is so obvious you will see it coming a mile off. This film has a terrible ending. In fact, it has several terrible endings in quick succession. But in a weird way, the rotten ending isn’t as much of a joy-killer as it could have been, because the rest of the film is pretty dreadful too.

I would have been prepared to suggest that the whole script was assembled just as a vehicle to get this particular group of actors together – but oddly enough that isn’t the case. This is just the most recent of many adaptations of the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate, which may explain why the film feels so old-fashioned and chintzy in its plot and structure. As we have already noted, the premise is hard to take seriously, and it doesn’t get any more plausible as it continues. It’s just possible that the film might have worked better if it had really tried to emphasise the campness and archness of the story; the big-name quartet certainly have the talent. But maybe the constraints of the film – it’s clearly been made on a very low budget, with a tiny cast – precluded even that.

There is undeniably some pleasure to be had in seeing Lee, Cushing and Price together on screen – but these are essentially supporting roles, in the end, and too much of the film is given to Arnaz Jr and Peasgood to carry. Occasional diversions into the gory territory of early-80s horror effects are also a bit of an issue. The film is ultimately depressing rather than funny or scary – there have been many disappointing low-budget horror movies, but few which have made such little use of such tremendous potential.

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That leap beyond the second sequel is an important step for a young film franchise: you’re not just settling for being a trilogy, you’re potentially in this for the long haul. It is not surprising that many series take some time to reflect before coming back for a fourth instalment – Jurassic Park took fourteen years, the Indiana Jones series nearly twenty (and many people still feel the eventual decision may have been the wrong one in this case).

The Halloween series took a relatively brisk six year break between third and fourth outings – grit your teeth, but it also switched from Roman numerals (Halloween III) to the more regular kind (Halloween 4) at this point. Given that this series seems to have been a reliable income stream for the Akkad family, who were loathe to give it up, one suspects the delay was initially due to logistical concerns, and ended up having something to do with the value of releasing a film for the tenth anniversary of the original.

Apparently John Carpenter initially wanted to do a ghost story for the fourth film; whether this had anything to do with a proposed script about a spectral Michael Myers being summoned into existence in a fear-wracked Haddonfield, I’m not sure, but Moustapha Akkad opted not to take any chances and commissioned another screenplay much closer in tone and substance to the first two films. The result was Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, directed by Dwight H Little.

So we end up with Michael Myers, who has been comatose for a decade after being repeatedly stabbed, shot, and blown up in a gas explosion on Halloween night 1978, being transferred by ambulance from one institution to another. Unfortunately one of the medics overseeing the move makes the mistake of mentioning that Michael has one sole surviving relative, a little girl living back in Haddonfield. Needless to say this perks our man up, and soon he is ramming his thumb through someone’s skull like he’s never been comatose at all.

Yes, we are told that Laurie Strode has died off-screen in a car crash, leaving behind a young daughter named Jamie (played by Danielle Harris, who is nearly as cute as the in-joke behind her character’s name). She is living with a foster family, and has a dislike of Halloween (unsurprisingly, given it seems to be public knowledge that her uncle is ‘the bogeyman’). Her foster sister (Ellie Cornell) is Rachel, and she is one of those decent and virtuous but slightly dull final girls fairly and squarely in the lineage established by Laurie Strode herself. Rachel and Jamie prepare for Halloween, unaware as they are that Michael is coming to town.

Equally unaware that Michael was due to be transferred was good old Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who has made his own impressive recovery from being stabbed and blown up in Halloween II; Pleasence has some burn-scar make-up on one cheek that makes him look a bit like he’s still playing Blofeld, and also does a limp. When he learns that Michael has escaped again, Loomis delivers another variation on his usual ‘He’s not human… pure evil… they should have listened to me!’ speech and sets off in pursuit.

And you can probably write most of what ensues for yourself, given a passing acquaintance with the first two films in this series – in fact, whatever you come up with will probably be rather more imaginative and interesting. The cycle of slasher movies Halloween had inaugurated had arguably peaked by 1988, when Halloween 4 came out – Friday the 13th Part VII came out a few months before this film, indicating a certain degree of market saturation – and there is a definite sense of creative exhaustion about the film. It’s not so badly done that it’s completely risible, it’s just often very predictable and not especially tense, scary, or cinematic.

Even the bits that are surprising aren’t necessarily positive features. There’s a definite sense that Michael Myers has transformed from a figure who is terrifyingly simply because his crimes are so inexplicable, to a single-issue monomaniac with a weird compulsion to hunt down his surviving family members. He also displays a surprising degree of tactical thought in this film, carrying out a de facto pre-emptive strike against the Haddonfield PD and also taking out the town’s power grid (needless to say, this is achieved by throwing a hapless lineman into the works).

While this is going on, we keep cutting back to the doings of Rachel and Jamie – particularly Jamie, who is mixed up in a teen soap-opera subplot where her boyfriend (who doesn’t exactly seem like a catch) takes the first opportunity to get a little jiggy with her friend, the sheriff’s daughter. Needless to say they meet the fate of anyone who gets amorous in a mainstream slasher movie, and even the T&A is unexpectedly tame (the whole movie is surprisingly well-behaved – apart from the thumb-through-the-skull scene and a bit where Michael tears a man’s throat out with his bare hands, there’s so little explicit violence in this movie it could almost have been made for TV). Soon enough Michael catches up with his niece and the stage is set for a low-octane chase.

Given the fact the film is silly, dull, and often not scary, I was quite surprised to learn that Halloween 4 is considered by some serious critics to be the second-best film in the series. To me it just seems the purest kind of knock-off, inferior in every way to the first film, and not as cinematic as the second one. Donald Pleasence remains a terrific presence – he’s the only reason to see the film, really – but he’s so much better than everyone and everything around him that in a funny way he’s the one who becomes incongruous.

The film’s one and only interesting idea is alluded to early on, when Jamie chooses a Halloween outfit suspiciously similar to the one Michael wore twenty-five years earlier, the night he killed his sister. This is setting up the conclusion of the film, which is a little too laborious to count as a twist ending, but is certainly striking and offers some potentially interesting new directions for future episodes. You can sense the series losing touch with all the things that made the original film so great, but such is the nature of the franchise business, I fear. Halloween 4 was not born out of a desire to do anything interesting or creative, but just to extract more money from a lucrative property. It may have made money back in 1988, but these days the film looks just about as bad as you might expect.

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How about this for a Christmas movie? It is almost instantly apparent that Jeffrey Mandel’s 1989 movie Elves is not one which is troubled with more money than it knows what to do with. The cheapo titles, synth soundtrack, and generally cruddy production values all instantly send a message that this is a movie which can only aspire to the bargain basement. A great cinematic experience this is not.

It would take an astonishingly witty, inventive and engaging narrative to distract the viewer from the effects of the micro-budget. This is what you get: three young women head into the woods, apparently intent on performing some kind of pagan ritual as a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas (I really wouldn’t bother trying to follow the logic of this). None of them actually seem like the kind of person who would actually be interested in paganism, as they are simply horror-movie-stock-girls, interested in shopping and boys. But there you go. Anyway, main character Kirsten (Julie Austin) cuts her hand by accident while doing the ritual, shortly after which they all go home. But something unearthly (not to mention rubbery and somewhat cheap looking) is stirring where her blood fell to the ground. Yes – it’s an elf!

(I must qualify this by saying that most of the characters describe it as looking like a troll, rather than an elf, and I have to say ‘elf’ is not the word that springs most readily to mind whenever the monster comes on. It’s probably also worth pointing out that for a movie called Elves, there’s only actually one elf in it. On the other hand, the elf – which appears to be some kind of puppet – is not as bad as you might expect, by which I mean it is just very bad rather than actually appalling.)

Anyway, the elf has homicidal tendencies and follows Kirsten home, where it attacks her, scratching her before running off. Her callous mother (Deanna Lund from Land of the Giants) has none of this, and blames Kirsten’s cat (this sets up another winning moment when Lund attempts to flush the live cat down the toilet). Her wheelchair-bound, thickly-accented grandfather (Borah Silver) perhaps knows more about what’s happening than he’s letting on, though…

Well, it’s back to the old routine for Kirsten and her friends, which mainly involves working and hanging out at the local mall (which is very tiny and dimly lit). Needless to say the homicidal elf turns up here as well, and when the mall Santa Claus tries it on with Kirsten, the elf takes exception to this behaviour. The lubricious Santa is ambushed backstage and fatally stabbed in the crotch. (Am I giving you enough of a sense of what a really classy film this is?)

Well, they need a replacement Santa now, obviously, and the job goes to a character who’s an alcoholic former cop who’s down on his luck, played by Dan Haggerty. Haggerty is best remembered for playing kind-hearted mountain-man Grizzly Adams for many years, so at least he has the right kind of beard for the role. The new Santa is soon in post, taking the opportunity to sleep on the premises (which saves on rent).

So Santa is in the building when the three girls decide to get together with their boyfriends at the mall one night. Unfortunately, the boyfriends never turn up, for they are ambushed and dealt with by a squad of neo-Nazi agents who have come in search of the elf and the young women responsible for summoning it up.

There follows a protracted and surprisingly leisurely sequence in which there is a gun battle in the (small, dimly lit) mall between Santa and the neo-Nazis, while the rubber puppet elf menaces the young women. This does seem to go on forever and the most frightening moment in my viewing of the film came during it, when I looked at my watch and realised the film still had another forty-five minutes or so to run.

Well, anyway, Santa and Kirsty manage to escape the neo-Nazis and the elf, and the plot, such as it is, becomes clearer. This is all part of a long-in-the-works Nazi plan, which Kirsty’s grandfather is a part of, to create a true master race of beings who are part-human, part-rubber elf. Kirsty, apparently, is the last pure-blooded Aryan maiden the Nazis are aware of (this has involved a spot of inbreeding in her family tree, something the film casually drops in because… well, by this point, why not?). If the elf can get it together with Kirsty on Christmas Eve (again, such a classy and well-thought-through plot), nothing can stop the spawning of a world-conquering race of Nazi monsters…

So, just to recap: you’ve got pagan rituals, rubber elves, a gun-toting Santa, and a secret Nazi plan to conquer the world using hybrid monsters. And yet for some reason, people still go on about It’s a Wonderful Life as the archetypal Christmas film. That said, the Christmas-themed horror movie has a bit of a pedigree – the tradition includes Black Christmas, after all. ‘Pedigree’ is not a word you’d probably choose to describe Elves. It is more of an ugly mongrel.

It’s a bit like a slasher film and a bit like a monster movie and a bit like an exploitation film; if they’d actually had a decent budget this would either have ended up as something ridiculously camp and knowing or simply very nasty and unpleasant indeed. As it is, while the film often seems to be trying to play the knowingly-ironic card, it’s simply not accomplished enough on any level to make this work: it’s just too primitive and crude to play those kinds of games with the audience. Pretty much the only element of it which does not seem to be challenging the viewer to switch off with its sheer badness is Dan Haggerty’s performance, which is… well, the guy has presence, and seems to be taking it all much more seriously than it deserves.

In the end Elves has a sort-of coherent story (though the climax is confusing), even though the tone of the thing is wildly variable and never particularly convincing. When it comes to this kind of film, I feel that I’m not so much giving a review as issuing a warning: this is another case of a film which sounds like it might be mad, campy fun. It’s not. It’s just grim and crude and mean-spirited – nasty, brutish, and not nearly short enough. Happy holidays.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 3rd 2003:

It’s an intriguing question, isn’t it, for all that it’s been done to death by pub philosophers and lazy celebrity interviews in the media – what would you do if, for just a few days, you had all the powers and wisdom of Jim Carrey? Almost certainly something more worthwhile than what Carrey himself manages would be the uncharitable view, but it’s one that’s well and truly supported by Carrey’s latest vehicle, Bruce Almighty, directed by Tom Shadyac.

This is essentially a really loose adaptation of HG Wells’ The Man Who Could Work Miracles, though of course all the great man’s wit and intelligence is slathered beneath a thick coating of Hollywood sentimentality. Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a local TV reporter who yearns to be a serious journalist but instead gets lumbered with feel good stories and the ‘local eccentric’ spot that older British researchers will remember from Nationwide. (This might be a not-very-subtle comment on the state of Carrey’s own career – the man clearly longs for critical recognition for his serious roles – The Truman Show, Man in the Moon, etc – but seems resigned to the fact that his audience is only really interested in Carrey the goofy, living ‘toon – but this isn’t explored.)

Bruce is certain that God is out to get him, because, hey, he gets to go on TV a lot, he has a fairly nice apartment, he drives a sports car, and his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) looks like Jennifer Aniston. Yeah, life can be a bitch sometimes, can’t it. But after a particularly protracted bout of blasphemy provoked by somebody else getting the news reading job Bruce wants, God gets sick of all the whinging and decides to do something about it. Not, as you might expect (or indeed wish), by introducing Carrey to a well-placed thunderbolt, but by appearing in the guise of Morgan Freeman and bestowing omnipotence upon our hero, so that he (or perhaps now He) may learn that being God isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

And, yea, Carrey learns that while it’s nice to be important, it’s more important to be nice. And that not everyone can get everything they want. And that every deed has consequences both good and bad. And that – oh, I can’t go on. It’s a load of predictable schmaltzy crap, as you can probably tell.

However it would be remiss of me if I were to give the impression that this is a film utterly without merit, because it isn’t – quite. Morgan Freeman seems quite incapable of giving a bad performance, and he invests God with warmth and wisdom and decency without making Him too irritating. Inevitably, of course, he’s not in the film nearly enough – I would much rather have had the film follow what God gets up to on His holiday while Bruce is in charge, even if this would just be seventy-five minutes of Freeman watching roller-hockey. Jennifer Aniston is sweet and rather touching as Bruce’s long-suffering girlfriend and does get some very funny scenes. Because, yes, there are some funny bits in this film – clever ideas, witty lines, unexpected sight gags.

But for most of the rest of the time the film abandons any attempt at subtlety or wit, Shadyac opting instead to favour big special-effects sight gags and the undulating anomaly that is Jim Carrey’s face. Carrey spends most of the film gurning and thrashing about like a man with a severe neurological condition. We are clearly supposed to find this loveably off-the-wall, but I suspect the urge to have at him with an axe will be the response of most right-minded individuals. He does get some laughs – a pre-omnipotence scene with him imploding during a live TV broadcast is actually very funny, while the scenes of him revelling in his new powers have a manic exuberance that’s rather winning (pity they just reminded me of The Mask, but never mind…).

And to be totally fair to Carrey, overacting aside, most of the problems are in the script. Bruce seems like such a totally self-centred ingrate at the start of the film that he’s almost impossible to like. The completely trivial and selfish way he uses his powers don’t help allay this impression much, either, and his eventual conversion to being a good and caring person just doesn’t ring true (watching Carrey trying to portray a man overcome with remorse, despair, and resignation is, in this particular instance, rather like watching Bruce Forsyth have a crack at King Lear).

In the end this is just a very lazy and uneven film, trying to vault nimbly from broad physical slapstick to touching romantic comedy to a fuzzy, feel good conclusion. It fails completely, and the different styles don’t mesh at all. The final act isn’t much more than a tidal wave of syrup which eventually sweeps away everyone concerned (yes, not even Morgan Freeman can stem the flow). I physically felt quite queasy leaving the theatre, and wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone (unless they were equipped with a blindfold and earplugs, and felt in desperate need of a nap). Bruce Almighty = bag of sh*tey. If I were God, I’d sue.

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