Thursday, October 8, 2009

Halloween Movies #25 and #24 - When Bad Remakes Happen To Great Horror

I used to do this weird thing as a kid.

Immediately after my mother and father would leave the house, I'd pretend I was a camera in a scary movie. I'd roam the hallways and slow down when I got to a turn (which wasn't very long; we lived in White Trash Heaven so our hallway was 50 feet)...I'd extend my hand in front of me so it looked like I was the killer and the hand was coming from my point of view, searching for my next victim.

It was pretty cool. I felt like I was always in a movie.

It got sorta pathetic when I'd make heavy breathing sounds as I opened the refrigerator door for the gallon of milk inside, and grab it, pretending I was a killer who just happened to be really thirsty and needed some milk.

Whenever I did this, my mother would inevitably be right behind me, her hand on her bulging hip, her right eyebrow raised and her lip in a downward spiral. "You're a very creepy kid," she'd say. "You know that?"

I wasn't a creepy kid. I was imaginative and highly visual, thank you very much.

Which brings me to Halloween Movie #25, a forgotten classic from a great suspense writer.

Ladies and Gentlemen, whores and perverts and all those in between, the most disturbing image in all of horror cinema:

Run! It's a housewife from Connecticut! Agh!!!

When was the last time you saw The Stepford Wives? I'm not talking about that steaming pile of horseshit Frank Oz shat out awhile back...except for Glenn Close (who, let's face it, scares all of us silly - her cunt has teeth and we all know it) and some very funny lines from the always funny Paul Rudnick, the movie was a very weird collision of humor and was like Jewish Catskill Horror Humor minus the horror or the humor (and this is from the guy who directed one of the greatest screen comedies in years, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) --

No, the original is a very fucked up story and a great movie with a fantastic, chilling ending that pulls no punches.

Add to the mix how it's a great social commentary and you've got a great movie.

You know your in trouble in a horror movie when the opening shot is a beautiful house with birds chirping amidst the backdrop or green, overflowing trees; terrifying.

I have to tell you - sure, it was the fact they based the book on the twisted imagination of Ira Levin of Rosemary's Baby fame...sure, the producers made a genius move by hiring really smart guys to make it (really old and classy veteran British director Bryan Forbes and the God of screenwriting, William Goldman), but I have to tell you, it was in casting Katharine Ross in the lead they ensured they were at least halfway sure of making a good movie.

Check out the trailer:

The fact it turned out great is purely an act of the Movie Gods coming together and everyone agreeing they were making a full-out horror movie that would stick to the original text and not falter. Some think it's campy; I fully disagree. Read the book if you don't believe me. It's super short, very fun to read and the ending is the same as in the movie.

But Katharine Ross - I swear, she reminds me of that story about Brooke Shields when they were filming that delightfully absurd 1981 trash heap, Endless Love. Remember that?

Apparently, during one of the notorious sex scenes, 14 year old Brooke had to pretend she was having an orgasm. Director Franco Zeffirelli tried everything. Yelling at her, screaming at her, giving her a shot of scotch - nothing worked. In a fit of rage, he grabbed Brooke by the foot and shook her, screaming she was ruining his movie. Brooke screamed at him and cried. She said the way he held her foot caused her so much pain it made her cry.

Being the sadist motherfucker he was, Zeffirelli knew he had to seiz the moment. He crouched down by the edge of the bed, called 'action' and then filmed the scene of Brooke orgasming - all the while grabbing her foot and twisting it so she'd cry out in pain, and thus, 'orgasm'.

The point is - Brooke, like Katharine Ross, was a breathtakingly beautiful actress who couldn't act for shit. The only way they could show emotion was to have physical pain inflicted upon them.

Sick, but true.

So when the arc of the movie takes place (and I'm not giving anything away, well all know the finale but the cumulative effect is still shattering) and Katharine Ross goes through her 'transformation' to the perfectly shot and timed final image, it makes absolutely perfect sense and it's entirely believable, because in real life, Katharine Ross WAS a Stepford Wife.

They got one of the great, all time DP's to shoot this fucker. The great Owen Roizman. Christ, before he shot The Stepford Wives this guy shot The Taking Of Pelham One, Two, Three (the original, not the remake which wasn't bad but it's no original), The French Connection and a little movie you may have heard of - The Exorcist. So, um, he sorta knew what he was doing.

The art of movie cinematography has never been rivaled since the 1940's and the 1970's. Ever. There was a visual texture to these movies that you could feel and taste. It's amazing.

If you look at the way shots are held in this movie and the composition between them, you'll see classic, minimal suspense. It's just great how it builds and builds and builds to this great finale. It all works. The sparse dialogue, the minimal photography, the fuzzy, perfect 'Hallmark' card look of the movie, the whispered dialogue, the side glances, the clothes - it's really great and creepy as hell.

The reason the 2004 version is so dreadful is because they were trying so hard to be something new. They wanted their cake and they wanted to eat it too. Humor in a horror film is extremely tricky. You have to respect and honor the genre and not mock it. In the 2004 The Stepford Wives they mocked the very genre they were making. Weird, bizarre and extremely insulting.

Plus, Nicole Kidman is only 43 and I'm very depressed at how many Botox injections she's getting; she's hard to look at and this woman can act. It's fucked up. Did you see her in The Invasion (so-so movie - do we really need another reinvention of Body Snatchers...let it go, people). Nicole is starting to look like those weird blow-up dolls you see in sex shops off of the highway (not that I've ever been in one - I'm a good Catholic boy).

In 1975, these guys were absolutely serious about making a creepy movie with a social commentary at the center (but first and foremost, a creepy movie) and they were not fucking around. Expertly directed and acted, with a tone and style that gets under your skin, the 1975 The Stepford Wives is one of the all time super Halloween movies.

Speaking of great originals and horrible sequels, I hope anyone who reads this blog has seen this tripped out little gem:

I'm always amazed when people tell me they won't watch movies in black and white. I get the usual reaction: "Oh my God. Black and white? How boring. I mean, how old is that? Seriously, they are so slow and boring. I mean, boring."

I get it. I do. I was raised in the 80's. I'm the same way. Old movies are old movies. They are slower, they don't move as fast as today's movies do and most of the stories we've seen before or the movie is (here comes that word again) boring.

This is an exception. This movie, The Haunting, based on the unnerving book The Haunting of Hill House by the unparalleled author Shirley Jackson, shared the living shit out of me one late afternoon in 1988.

Check out the trailer:

I was working in a video store in Seattle at the time. For a span of 9 years, I worked in 7 video stores which is why I know as much as I do about movies. For 9 years straight, I watched more movies than you can possibly imagine. But black and white horror seemed...dumb.

There was this girl I used to with with in Seattle...her name was Becky - (she was a true Becky - a hot, White Trash Becky - freckles, a big, round ass with looming tits which had the perkiest nipples I'd ever seen - you could have hung a coat on those nipples - straight boys were hypnotized by those tits while gay men just wondered what it would be like to have them)...she invited me over to her apartment for a night of scary movies.


We smoked a bowl, er, ATE A BOWL OF POPCORN and were about to turn in when she held up the box for The Haunting.

"Craig told us to watch this," she said, referring to Craig, the owner of the video store where we worked. Craig was the coolest boss ever. Even to this day Craig is still the coolest boss I've ever had and he still runs Video Isle in Seattle where Big Nipple Becky and I worked.

"He said it was scary," she said, shrugging her shoulders.

I sighed and agreed to give it a shot. But it was in black and white. Ew. How scary could it be?

Flashforward to 11:59PM.

Becky and I are crouched down in the couch. She's calling Craig a 'motherfucker' and 'asshole' and 'dickhead'.

She's so paralyzed with fear she can't eat. She can't drink. I haven't left the couch once and feel like I need to take a crap to release my tension.

The credits rolled and we stared at each other. A moment passed, and then we gave each a high-five and rolled on the couch in laughter.

The movie scared the shit out of us.

To this day, I can't tell you exactly why, but I will say this: I have never been so scared in a movie where I never saw what it was I was meant to be scared by.

As an added Halloween treat and an ode to the amazing sound design in the movie, here is the scene that scared the shit out of us in all it's old time glory (please, try to watch this in the dark and with your sound turned WAY UP)...


The director, Robert Wise, was a pretty cool guy. And busy. The Haunting was made in-between his gigs directing a few movies you may have heard of: West Side Story and Sound of Music.

Sure, the guy made two of the most famous musicals of all time, but he loved the dark stuff. He directed the so-so 80's horror reincarnation flick, Audrey Rose and original The Day The Earth Stood Still. His work after the late 80's was pretty much nill, but his work in the 40's, 50's and 60's is fairly staggering.

This guy knew what he was doing and it shows.

The story of The Haunting is fun (and it's been ripped off countless times) - a well-meaning but wacko doctor wants to investigate the theory Hill House is actually haunted. Rumor has it is and no one has yet been able to prove it. He brings along a group of people with certain abilities (some supernatural; some not) and the entire movie is a set up to see if the house is haunted or if it's simply legend.

The star of the movie is the house itself*. Filmed in black and white, you never quite know if the shadows are simply shadows or filled with demons. Every angle of the house is off. Faces blend and open and close. And in the one spectacular, terrifying scene (see above), the two lead actresses fight off an invisible force which is fantastic scene of great photography, sounds and acting. These kinds of scenes proved to me, once and for all, money never, ever makes a good movie - ever. Artistry and imagination always does.

*Truly, the real star of the movie was Julie Harris. She won 5 Tony's in her time and let me tell you, she deserved every single one. She may not have made a ton of movies, but in each and everyone she was in she was spectacular, and The Haunting is no exception. She is perfect, absolutely perfect in the lead role. As they say, casting is everything...

Returning to my last note above where I wrote money never makes a good movie...perfect case in point was the remake of The Haunting by Jan De Bont in 1999...

If I were to teach a screenwriting class again on what NOT to do, I'd force my students to read Shirley Jackson's original novel, then I'd screen The Haunting from 1963 and The Haunting from 1999 back to back.

It would be clear, after the screening, what a mound of egocentric, desperate, studio-driven dreck the remake is. It's so bad as to defy description. It's what a group of 20-something, male studio executives would make.

I can hear snippets of the development meetings for the remake so clearly it sorta scares me:

"No one seen the original. You kidding me? Who the fuck watches TCM? Old women and welfare babies. Please."

"I just got off the phone with Spielberg. He said we can use the Universal backlot for the interiors. Here is what I think - big. I mean big. Big house, huge, mammoth. It's great. And he said we can coordinate with the Director or New Theme Ride Development at Universal Corporate to develop The Haunting, The Ride. Gotta call Zeta-Jone's agent to see if we can use her likeness."

"Lili Taylor? Really? See, I won't fuck her. I'd fuck Catherine Zeta-Jones --"

"You know she's, like, 50."

"Lili Taylor?"

"No, man. Zeta-Jones."

"No way."

"Please. You think she'd be with Michael Douglas if she was 30?"

"Damn. She looks good."

"Dr. Adams on Wilshire. Amazing guy."

"And that's why we got Liam. He'll keep it in place. He's our anchor. But he's gonna shoot Jan."

"He can't direct actors."

"He hates actors."

"Okay, let's talk demographic. We got Lili Taylor. She'll bring in the independent crowd and the lesbians. Check. We got Jan directing. All the guys who loved Speed will line up around the block. Check. Liam will make us look like we give a shit and are serious. The old guy and old women like Catherine. She's hot but not really hot. Like sorta Mom hot, but not really. Owen Wilson is great. Funny guy. I love that guy. But keep him away from that PA, okay? I heard he's a major coke head. Not good. So got the dudes and the young professionals with Owen. Check. And it looks like 90% of the budget is all on the FX. We're good. Oh...has anyone hired the writer yet? Oh, shit. We forgot to hire a writer. Oh, well. Let's just wing it."

Showbusiness. Gateway to Hell.

Until next time...

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