Friday, June 19, 2015

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave: Joe Dante's BURYING THE EX

Joe Dante's BURYING THE EX, based on an original screenplay by Alan Trezza, is opening in select theaters across America today and also premiering on VOD. Whereas most Opening Day VOD slots are tagged for Rental Only, I found this one also available for purchase at iTunes - and buying it is advisable if you have any interest at all. Why? Because it's a Joe Dante movie and the set decoration is as densely packed with trivial referentia as the screenplay is fraught with in-jokes, so the treats for people who come back for additional viewings are part of its design. They aren't always on the level where you may be looking, either; some, like the title I've given to this review, in reference to the title of a 1971 Italian horror picture by Emilio P. Miraglia, had to be pointed out to me by my wife!

Anton Yelchin is Max, a young manager of a Los Angeles horror merchandise shop (a quality place, as they display VIDEO WATCHDOG right next to the cash register) who happens to be in a sexually gratifying but otherwise souring relationship with Evelyn (Ashley Greene), a pushy vegan environmentalist. Max is biding his time, waiting for the proverbial right time to tell Evelyn that it's over, but he's sympathetic and caring; she's mourning a recently deceased mother and looking for some permanence in her life. She's also looking to change Max, who finds his Monster Kid obsessions morbid, and she surprises him when he comes home from work to discover the apartment they share suddenly green and girly, with all his precious foreign horror posters ("They're not even in English!") folded (ARGHH!) and put in drawers. (When he shows just a hint of his carefully marshaled anger, the whimpering Evelyn has one of the funniest lines in the movie: "I'm sorry, but it was my mother's birthday and I wanted to have fun!") Their conflicts come into even greater relief one day when they visit a new ice cream store in the neighborhood called I Scream - yep, a horror-themed ice cream shop with many scary flavors - managed by the comely Olivia (Alexandra Daddario), who, unlike Evelyn, gets Max and all his references, and bumps into him again later at a Val Lewton double feature at the New Beverly. Max is on the point of cutting things off with Evelyn when life beats him to the punch: she's hit by a bus while running toward him. He's racked by guilt, nursed along by his horndog half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper, playing pretty much the same character he played on the last season of CALIFORNICATION), and starts falling for his perfect match, who is conveniently available - until somehow, either by a magic trinket in Max's shop or sheer will power - a zombified Evelyn claws her way out of her plot at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Though undeniably grisly, this is very much a comedy - the term "zom-rom-com" leaps to mind - and on that level, BURYING THE EX pretty much plays by the rules set by other rom-coms of the present era. The characters are for the most part teen comedy caricatures who speak and act outrageously, there's an emphasis on love that is expressed only through sex, and the women are treated pretty badly by the men - and still worse by the other women. This is not to say the film is misogynist, as a couple of critics have charged, because the roles of Evelyn and Olivia are beautifully detailed, sympathetic to the audience if not always to their fellow characters, and very well played. In comedy terms, it does its job and the target audience should be pleased.

That said, because this is a Joe Dante movie, you do get more. Max's torment in the wake of Evelyn's death is genuine and played straight by Anton Yelchin; when she returns from the grave, he is divided between the wish fulfillment and the bad timing of the situation. Ashley Greene is a believable zombie in all meanings of that word - the programmed health nut zealot she was while living, and the rotting reminder of lost love she becomes. Alexandra Daddario plays Olivia as a woman filled with self-doubts and real sexual hunger after surviving a bad relationship of her own, and she is particularly well-cast in contrast to Greene as a type; Evelyn may be green-friendly, but Olivia radiates a more down-to-earth, better match for Max. The success of the film really rides on Anton Yelchin, who plays the lead more or less as the comedy's straight man. After Evelyn is hit by the bus, he sells the wake of that accident with real sensitivity and emotional conflict, his deadpan underscoring the irony of the situation (hasn't she become what's he's always dreamed of, a monster girlfriend?) and a love for this crazy, and now dead, woman that simply cannot transcend their differences as people. Some may watch the film unsure of whether the situation is real or a projection of Max's survivor's guilt, but that's really irrelevant. The situation plays as a very apt metaphor for a love affair that has lingered on well past its expiration date, and the clever dialogue is constantly tossing up phrases that we've all heard or used at various times, which raises the question of why it took so long for this obvious metaphor to be played out in a comedy.

For all that, it's the prevalent Monster Kid culture underlying the story that comes across as its most profound idea. The conflict being played out between Max and Evelyn is foregrounded here in a world where horror has become culturally pervasive. If we look at the film objectively, the stores and shops that figure in its storyline - the  monster-oriented and the ecological - are both rooted in how we, as a people, learn to accommodate different forms of fear. We either fight it as best we can, or befriend it. This is the world pretty much 50 years down the pike from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis setting of Dante's MATINEE (1983), where horror has somehow become ubiquitous and such a touchstone of commonality that it's a touchstone of cool. Meanwhile, the naiveté that was pretty much universal in MATINEE - except for those involved in the sly world of show business and showmanship - is here reserved for "green" people like Evelyn who abhor horror and live under the delusion that their trendy life choices can move the equivalent of a mountain. Though Evelyn's living concerns are deliberately overplayed to look a bit silly, the problems posed by her return from the grave surprisingly touch on issues (more than that, nerves!) that are serious, committed and eternal - and a touch melancholy as well, because they are issues that were of capital importance to the people of MATINEE's time but which don't carry the same weight in today's uncertain world. Things like the importance of keeping a promise. In taking this story to its end, Dante and Trezza must take their characters to some unlikely extremes, sometimes actually cross-cutting between the human extremes of life (as Max and Olivia urgently take their relationship to the next level in a parked car) and death (as finicky undead eater Evelyn suddenly discovers her zombie appetite), but it deftly succeeds in zipping through some dark straits to arrive at a point of warm resolve and a hearty closing laugh.

All in all, this is that rare zombie movie outside the Romero universe to use the zombie concept to some serious ends, and it amounts to Joe Dante's best work since his two outstanding MASTERS OF HORROR episodes of a decade ago, "Homecoming" and "The Screwfly Solution." It is also his best theatrical feature since SMALL SOLDIERS some eighteen years ago, which is no mean achievement. Of course, Jerry Goldsmith isn't around to score for him any more, and his great HOWLING/GREMLINS cameraman John Hora is only on hand for a cameo as an actor, but BURYING THE EX has pretty much everything you could possibly want from a Joe Dante movie, including a welcome cameo by the (supposedly retired) character actor Dick Miller, who gets to say a couple of things that his fans will be quoting whenever they speak of him, for years to come. It is also delightful to see so many homages in the film to Christopher Lee, which are particularly sweet in light of his recent passing. But most of all, this film has that quality you really don't get anywhere else nowadays: that of a nesting doll form of cinema, where the broad comedy contains keen social satire, where the escapism contains reminders of our human (and humane) responsibilities, and where a palpable love for the sheer variety of people and their interests contains a just-as-palpable despair for the ways they sometimes treat each other.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Free Christopher Lee

In memory of Sir Christopher Lee, Donna and I have decided to offer everyone a free peek at two of our archival digital editions featuring this iconic star: VIDEO WATCHDOG issues 23 (reporting on the last reunion of Christopher and his co-star Peter Cushing) and 48 (Christopher's only VW cover to date, which includes coverage of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA and DRACULA AND SON). VW 48 has been out of print for YEARS, so by all means have a look.

Follow the link - log in with "digitaldog" - use the password "treats."

This offer is good for the next few days. Enjoy.

Cry For Gwangi

Has any movie monster died in greater agony than Gwangi, going up in flames in an ornate Mexican cathedral? This morning I watched the end of THE VALLEY OF GWANGI in HD on Warner Archive and the entire sequence of Gwangi's battle with the performing elephant, his escape from the circus arena, and his invasion of the cathedral (a location that pushes so many chaotic emotional buttons, as this atavistic yet magnificent beast intrudes upon a structure of such ornate civilized artisanship) is masterful, although Gwangi's color changes about three or four times as it unreels through a series of different process shots. (I am thinking now that "Gwangi blue" - an elusive shade between sapphire blue and midnight purple - just might be, with emerald green, my favorite color.) In a fairly short space of time, we see Gwangi kill a poor circus elephant and chew a screaming man to death, but when he cries out in those flames and shrieks so sustainedly, our hearts go out to him. We cannot help but share his confused misery at being laid low by a world he never made. I suspect the effect is multiplied by taking place in a house of God that has no sanctuary to offer one of his kind - he, in some ways, the noblest (or at least the purest) of God's creatures.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Soskas Behind Bars: VENDETTA

Being, as you know, one of their foremost fans, I stayed up late last night to catch VENDETTA, the new film by AMERICAN MARY's Jen & Sylvia Soska, as soon as it premiered on VOD (Hulu Plus, in my case). It is also opening today at a select number of theaters in cities around the country - Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Detroit, Tampa, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York.

I don't want to deprive the film of its surprises, so I'll just say that it's the raw story of a cop (Dean Cain) who commits a crime to get incarcerated, the better to avenge a more personal crime behind bars at Stonewall, an Illinois prison. It's not a horror movie and it's void of most fantasy aspects, which makes it not exactly my kind of movie - and, to their credit, the Soskas don't turn it into their kind of movie, either. Being a WWE production and co-starring Paul "The Big Show" Wight (7' tall and tipping the scales at 500 pounds), VENDETTA could have easily become a vehicle for a kind of outsized, cartoonish world of masculine fantasy - the male side of the coin to Russ Meyer's "Bosomania" pictures, if you will - but I don't think the propellents of this particular story (which include the murder of a pregnant woman) allowed the Soskas to take the material less than seriously.

The Soskas have been staking territory for themselves since the beginning as New Horror's foremost feminist filmmakers, but VENDETTA is pretty much wall-to-wall testosterone. There is nothing much here to outwardly signify that the Soskas were part of the project's DNA, apart from the presence of some key members of their most recent creative trust (DP Mahlon Todd Williams, production designer Troy Hansen, musicians the Newton Brothers) and some stylishly directed, wickedly violent fight and action sequences. While these demonstrate that the Soskas have grown considerably since their filming of similar scenes in 2009's maxed-out credit card debut DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK, it is otherwise as if they set themselves the challenge of making a picture while leaving their egos at the gate, or deliberately jumping into a project outside their comfort zone to discover how resourceful they could be in unfamiliar, Man's World terrain. In some ways, VENDETTA can be seen as a strategic calling card to Hollywood and the film business at large, as it proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the Soskas are not just quirky auteurs but stable workers for hire, able to color inside the lines when the work demands it - which would be great, if the the material was more original and interesting than what the Soskas themselves usually bring to a picture. This workman-like script, credited to newcomer Justin Shady (the IMDb also mentions Jacob Sullivan as a script contributor), isn't really worthy of them.

For the record, I had the same complaint when their fellow Canadian director, David Cronenberg, set his original screenwriting aside after VIDEODROME to test the more commercial waters of adaptation, as he did with 1983's THE DEAD ZONE. Some people love THE DEAD ZONE, but for me it's a film that any number of directors could have made, and one that some directors with far less talent than Cronenberg might have made even better. A more pertinent point of reference in this case might be Ken Russell's 1998 Showtime feature DOGBOYS, a prison drama starring none other than... Dean Cain. Russell, one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, took the assignment to have work, to prove himself competent and employable, and it's a well-made action film of a not terribly ambitious kind. Having Russell's name on it may unfairly raise one's expectations of it. While VENDETTA is no DEAD ZONE (and doesn't aspire to be), it's a more satisfying Dean Cain vehicle than DOGBOYS, which, working within these lines, is a commendable thing.

So what are this movie's strengths? The big plus, right up front, is Cain himself - he gives a dark, hard-edged and committed performance as vengeful cop Mason Danvers (curiously, a name that's half AMERICAN MARY's Mary Mason, and half Fred Danvers, the role Cain plays in the SUPERGIRL pilot) so that he more than matches his towering WWE superstar opponent The Big Show in terms of mean. Also, while the film glories in bloodshed, it refuses throughout to beautify or fetishize violence. Williams' cinematography is both sleek and gritty, the music gives the film attitude and glide, and the stunt choreography by Dan Rizzuto (WATCHMEN, MAN OF STEEL, TOMORROWLAND) is tense and exceptional. It's also well worth staying in your seat for the end credits - not because there's a surprise at the end, but because the Soskas have punctuated the scrolled names with little bits of business that serve as little after-mints of style.

The aspect of the film that was most problematical for me was Michael Eklund's performance as Snyder, the prison warden. Sporting the worst, most distracting haircut I've ever seen in a movie, Eklund (a very good actor previously seen in SEE NO EVIL 2, and particularly effective in Xavier Gens' THE DIVIDE and BATES MOTEL) plays the warden like a skeezier Vincent Price with a suit and tie and an unfinished buzzcut. It's an impossibly eccentric performance, so people in search of a hoot may cotton to it; he plays the warden like the absolute last person anyone would put in charge of running a state prison, making the corruption of his office obvious from the get-go, while the script itself leaks such information in dribbles. I recognize that such obviousness would serve a point in the context of hipster satire, or the sort of male Meyeresque fantasy to which I alluded earlier, but in all other departments, this film puts itself forward as serious drama so I kept wishing the Soskas had reined him in.

If VENDETTA is fairly generic entertainment of its kind, we must remember that what is generic is the very essence of genre; it's where the word comes from. But the beauty of genre is commonplace material kissed by the presence of the extraordinary - whereas here I feel the Soskas were trying a little too earnestly to not intrude on the material, which is akin to a pair of Queens trying not to intrude on a winning hand. If the Soskas played this opportunity to show that they can direct a more mainstream kind of film as well as anyone, VENDETTA can be counted a modest success. Now that it has given them a better idea of their talent and its perimeters, here's hoping they hurry back to making those special films that only they can make. 


Thursday, June 11, 2015

RIP Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

The finale of Hammer's DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968).
The news of Christopher Lee's passing last Sunday, of accumulative respiratory problems and heart failure, at the age of 93 summons forth a flood tide of memories - most of them from a lifetime of sitting in darkened theaters, awed by his imposing presence. He was one of the true Titans of the screen. Even as a man, the people who met him often spoke of having been in the company of someone not only 6' 4" tall, but larger than life. "He was like a real lord," Daliah Lavi told me, while discussing their collaboration on Mario Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY (La frusta e il corpo, 1963).

In my audio commentary for Kino Lorber's TALES OF TERROR, I began by telling the story of my first encounter with monster magazines and how the three faces of Price, Lorre and Rathbone in that film (painted by the great Basil Gogos) were arranged on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #19, the first monster magazine I ever handled. Also in that short stack of issues was CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN #2, whose cover was a Robert Adragna painting of a handsome man with penetrating features seated at a desk in a densely book-lined study, illustratative of that issue's feature article "The Many Faces of Christopher Lee." So, on the same day I made the acquaintance of monster magazines and the stars of TALES OF TERROR, I made the acquaintance of Christopher Lee - a man whose multiple monster portrayals suggested him as Lon Chaney's heir to the title of the Man of a Thousand Faces. Little did I know at the time that Lee's personal acting idol had been Conrad Veidt, the star of the earliest famous horror film, Robert Weine's THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919), but in hindsight no other actor comes close to being, as he was, the Conrad Veidt of our generation. In one towering package, he was dashing, debonair, villainous, cultured, athletic (he prized a belt buckle given to him by the members of the Stuntmen's Association for stunts that he performed himself on the set of AIRPORT '77) and - being fluent in at least five languages - truly cosmopolitan. I wouldn't be at all surprised if a good deal of my early exploration of European genre films wasn't in some large part due to Christopher Lee's participation in them.

One of my favorite childhood memories is of attending the (for me) long-awaited 1964-65 reissue of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA with my cousin Cathy, who was visiting from out of town. I had not previously seen either of them, though THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN had become a television favorite and THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN had played not too long before at my neighborhood theater; I was told they were her first horror films period. Both films had the reputation of being modern classics - Warren Publications had commemorated the double bill by issuing a fumetti magazine of both films, which I had already memorized - and they certainly lived up to their advance publicity. My grandmother told me the next morning that Cathy had evidently been disturbed by the experience - and I suppose she was, considering that she went on to teach a college course in Gothic literature.

I set out at first to be an artist, not a writer, so I initially expressed my appreciation for Christopher Lee in drawings. Looking back, there was a time of life when I spent a LOT of time drawing Christopher Lee - his face, his stature, his uniquely expressive hands, in different portrayals. This is his Rasputin, of course - one of my earliest surviving drawings, dating from 1972 when I was 15. I was by no means the only fan doing this. I can remember a somewhat earlier time, no later than 1967 or thereabouts, when my mother and stepfather took my little sister and I across town to visit some members of his family - we never met again, and I don't recall the exact nature of the relationship, but there was a boy there, slightly older than me, who had a stack of monster magazines and a bedroom wall covered with drawings that he had done of Christopher Lee. It was the damnedest thing I'd ever seen.

As much as I loved horror films as a kid, I felt myself moving away from them in the early 1970s. To my surprise, I was pulled back in by a preview screening of an unpromising-sounding Spanish picture called HORROR EXPRESS (1973) that co-starred Lee and his longtime partner Peter Cushing. I was prepared to be disappointed but something about the film reinvigorated by passion for the genre and I submitted my second review to CINEFANTASTIQUE, a couple of years after my first, which I had figured to be a one-shot. I haven't stopped writing about horror films since.

In the 25 years that VIDEO WATCHDOG has been extant, Christopher Lee was a good friend of the magazine and our extracurricular efforts. He provided an enthusiastic and welcome blurb for THE VIDEO WATCHDOG BOOK, promptly responded to my all of my questions with a personally-typed document of several pages when I was researching MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, and he was sent every issue we ever printed. When issues went astray, we heard about it! He even appeared in our Letterbox department, a department we first introduced with a drawing I had done of his familiar hand reaching out of a letter-lined coffin.

I must channel most of what I have to say about Christopher Lee as an artist, an icon and correspondent into the eulogy that demands to be written for our next issue. But I didn't want this day to pass without saying something in acknowledgement of how much he was loved.

In closing, a brief story: On the occasion of Peter Cushing's death, my late friend Bill Kelley called Christopher Lee (a personal friend whom he called "the Old Man") to express his condolences and commiserate. Bill expressed to Chris how moved he was to see how warmly and personally Cushing's fans were taking the loss of "St. Peter", which prompted Chris - who must have reflected on his own deep shyness, his formality around people he had newly met, and his own nervously talkative nature - to sigh with deep-seated certainty, "Well, they won't feel that way about me."

I thought of this often today as I was scrolling down my Facebook news feed and seeing so many outpourings of affection that proved the Old Man wrong. He was more loved than he knew.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Zulawski's L'IMPORTANT C'EST D'AIMER on Import Blu-ray

I recently learned, while cruising Amazon, that Andrzej Zulawski's THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE - one of my favorite movies - was available on Blu-ray as a German import under the title NACHTBLENDE. Naturally, even though I have both the standard and deluxe editions of the domestic Mondo Vision DVD, I had to acquire it.

Sadly, it's a disappointing disc - the transfer is soft and pale, not at all what one expects from 1080p, with a greenish bias. The worst part is that the triple audio options (German, French, English) are not accompanied by subtitle options. So tonight I watched the film as I prefer not to do, in English, which at least reminded me that Howard Vernon dubs Klaus Kinski's performance on this track - which, along with the onscreen presence of Kinski, THE DIABOLICAL DR Z's Guy Mairesse and LORNA THE EXORCIST's Guy Delorme, made it feel like something of a Jess Franco reunion, which is far from the almost uniquely moving experience driven home by the (for the most part, live) French audio.

On the plus side, Georges Delerue's soundtrack is included on the disc in lossless 2.0 audio and sounds spacious and ravishing. Nevertheless, those five cues are not quite enough to compensate for the disappointing and limited presentation. This is not the upgrade it appears to be, and there is bound to be a better one sometime further down the line.

Here are some uncropped grabs from the VZ-Handelsgeselschafft disc, which is labeled Region B (PAL) but is in fact playable on domestic Region A players and available from