Archive for October, 2005

Serenity (2005)


Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: Joss Whedon
Produced by: Barry Mendel
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, and Ron Glass

Joss Whedon knows a thing or two about resurrection. He brought Ripley back from the dead in Alien Resurrection, brought Buffy the Vampire Slayer to television after her box office death as a film, then literally brought her back from the grave when the show moved from The WB to UPN, and when Fox unfairly and wrongfully pulled the plug on his brilliant Sci-fi Western Firefly, Whedon worked his magic to bring it back too—not on another network, but on the silver screen. The result of his passion is Serenity—one of the year’s best films.

It’s the year 2507, and Earth has grown far too crowded. A new solar system was discovered—filled with planets and moons that were quickly teraformed so that they could support human life. As these settlements grew, a fascist interplanetary government called The Alliance waged a war against independence-minded Browncoats for control of this sector of space. The Alliance won and now rules with an iron fist. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, there are also nomadic ships of cannibal mutants called Reavers that go from planet to planet and massacre settlers.

Trying to stay one step ahead of this new government and these savages is the crew of the Firefly-class starship Serenity. Her captain, Mal (Nathan Fillion), is a former Browncoat. So is the first officer—a spunky fighter named Zoe (Gina Torres)—who happens to be married to the ship’s cocky but funny pilot, Wash (Alan Tudyk). Keeping Serenity flying and in one piece (not an easy job) is the young engineer, Kaylee (Jewel Staite). And then there’s a man named Jayne (Adam Baldwin) who hates Mal being in charge almost as much as he loves hand grenades and big guns.

The crew gets more than they bargained for when they take on some new passengers. One is a doctor, Simon (Sean Maher), whom Kaylee takes an instant liking to. The other is his psychic sister named River (Summer Glau). Simon has rescued her from an Alliance controlled laboratory where she was being programmed to be a martial arts master and assassin. It seems that key members of the government were in the same room with River and, fearing that she may have discovered a horrible secret locked in their minds, the Alliance sends an equally skilled killer (Chiwetel Ejiofor in an amazing performance) to bring her back dead or alive.

Whedon’s first foray into feature film direction is as ambitious as it is glorious. His writing is superb—giving us fully developed heroes and villains who must decide what it is they believe in, and whether or not these beliefs are worth dying for. In a typical Hollywood action or Sci-fi film, the audience knows that the stars are never in any real danger. But this is not your typical Hollywood film, and fans of the director’s Buffy and Angel know that no character, no matter how cherished, is ever safe. As he gives us mind-blowing space battles to rival anything in Star Wars or Star Trek, and a final stand-off that calls to mind John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, our eyes are glued to the screen, our hands are gripping the armrests, and our hearts are racing within our chests.

I’ll admit that I was a fan of the Firefly television series (I even bought the DVD box set), but you don’t need to have seen even a single episode to be drawn into Joss Whedon’s world. This film is a gift to the legions who have supported the director’s work over the years, but it’s so much more than that. This is a present to all movie-goers everywhere. Whedon knows that we go to the cinema to be entertained, and it is impossible not to be entertained by Serenity.

I hope this is but the first of many voyages to come.

4.5 out of 5 stars

John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980)


Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Produced by: Debra Hill
Starring: Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, and John Houseman

Bad remakes do serve a purpose. Don’t believe me? How many people purchased or rented the original House of Wax or Texas Chainsaw Massacre after they sat through the horrid retreads of the last few years? How many people discovered the Japanese versions of Ringu, Ju-on, or Dark Water because Hollywood decided to Americanize them? Yes, horrible updates make us seek out the source material—make us want to recapture the feeling that these retellings let slip through their fingers. And if ever a forgotten horror film deserved to be re-discovered, it is John Carpenter’s The Fog.

The film opens around a campfire on the beach. The late, great John Houseman tells a ghost story. It seems that exactly one hundred years ago, in the California coastal town of Antonio Bay, a group of men lit their own bonfire. A ship of lepers saw the light through a thick fog and mistook it for the lighthouse beacon. Their ship, the Elizabeth Dane, was drawn onto the rocks and sank. No one survived. The makers of the 2005 version felt they had to show us how the ship came to its horrible end. Why? Houseman’s distinctive voice gives us all the information we need to know. He has the children on film, and the audience at home, hanging on every word.

Director Carpenter and his cinematographer, Dean Cundey, excel at setting the mood early on—something the remake never does. During the opening credits, as clocks all around town strike midnight, the one-hundredth anniversary of the atrocity, strange things begin to happen. Windows shatter, radios suddenly come on, and objects move by themselves. Before the film even begins, we know something creepy is going on here.

Carpenter has the eye of a twisted painter and his shots of the glowing fogbank coming ashore to envelope the town are as beautiful as they are ominous. The visuals are even more incredible because no computers were involved. Compare these wonderfully composed frames of billowing mist to the horrid, pixilated, CG fog from the update. Wait…there is no comparison. The original fills us with chills. The new version makes us want to roll our eyes and laugh.

Special effects know-how and film budgets have certainly increased over the last 25 years, but not talent. Nowhere is this more evident than in the treatment of The Fog‘s ghosts. In John Carpenter’s The Fog, they are actors dressed like rotting mummies—including effects man Rob Bottin who would later create the unforgettable creatures in John Carpenter’s The Thing. They are kept in the shadows of the swirling mist and appear only as backlit silhouettes. When they come up to a house, they knock on the door with large meat hooks. In the remake, they are computer-generated rip-offs of the skeleton pirates from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. When these animated spirits approach a house, they knock with the handle of a cane. By his use of shadow, and the image of the meat hook, Carpenter makes his specters truly frightening. By showing rather than suggesting, the new version turns them into something comical.

The cast from the original film is also far superior to the retread. Tom Atkins’ “Nick” and Jamie Lee Curtis’ “Elizabeth” are strangers when they meet. Perhaps this detail was altered due to changing attitudes toward casual sex, but having them as old flames, as the new version does, takes something away from the story. Atkins has lived in the town all his life. He gives his character the air of experience at sea and he shows great intensity as he questions what is going on around him. Jamie Lee is new to town and we, as the audience, see things through her eyes. And then there is the great Adrienne Barbeau as disc jockey “Stevie Wayne”. She appears old enough to realistically have a ten-year-old child (unlike the remake’s Selma Blair who would have to have been a ten-year-old herself when she gave birth). Barbeau’s sultry radio voice is perfect for the slow jazz her lighthouse station plays. Later, as the fog isolates her, the fear she displays for her son, and her pleas for everyone to find safety, greatly add to the tension of the film’s final reel. The new version has the character leaving her lighthouse and driving out into the fog in search of her son. Strange as it may sound, this actually lessens Wayne’s role in the climax.

John Carpenter’s The Fog is a perfect little scare engine that was not in need of an overhaul. But as bad as the 2005 retelling is, I hope it will at least lead people to watch the original. Those who have seen it before can delight once more in its chilling atmosphere—an atmosphere the new movie sorely lacks. And those who have endured the remake, but have never had the pleasure of seeing the original, can now enjoy actually being scared.

4 out of 5 stars

Cry_Wolf (2005)


Directed by: Jeff Wadlow
Written by: Doug Liman and Jeff Wadlow
Starring: Julian Morris, Lindy Booth, Jared Padalecki, and Jon Bon Jovi

Remember the slasher movie? Ah…you’re probably thinking of Jason or Freddy right about now, aren’t you? They have become the face of this sub-genre, haven’t they? Well, before it turned into “the deformed, demented killer who can never die,” the slasher was simply another form of psychological thriller…albeit with a lot of blood and dismemberment. They were who-done-its rather than just how-are-they-gonna-do-its. These were films like Happy Birthday to Me, Prom Night, Terror Train, Night School, My Bloody Valentine, even the original Friday the 13th. The whole point of the film was trying to guess the killer’s identity. Sometimes it was obvious, but other times, the filmmakers threw in a lot of twists to keep us guessing. Cry_Wolf pays homage to these early days of the slasher film.

A young woman is found murdered in the woods—what was left of her body eaten by wolves. To fight boredom, a group of students from Westlake Preparatory Academy (led by Julian Morris and Lindy Booth) decide to frighten their classmates by creating their own brand of urban legend. They send out an email that states this was not some random act of violence, but instead the work of a notorious serial killer called “The Wolf.” Their goal is to get as many people as they can to believe the hoax is real. When the killing spree outlined in their email actually begins, however, the game becomes a terrifyingly reality. The students must now race against time to discover the identity of “The Wolf” before they become his next victim. Is it that creepy groundskeeper we keep seeing around campus? Then there’s the English teacher (Jon Bon Jovi) who loves his students…I mean, really loves them. Could it be him? Or maybe it’s someone from the group.

Cry_Wolf is the end result of a contest sponsored by Chrysler. Aspiring writer/director Jeff Wadlow was awarded a $1 million budget to make this film in exchange for prominently featuring the automaker’s product on screen. The screenplay he delivered with co-writer Doug Liman is hardly original. The teenagers all speak in that too-intelligent-to-be-real manner that plagues anything written by Kevin Williamson. The adults are all by-the-book authority figures who don’t understand kids and certainly don’t believe them. And the “is it real or prank” aspect of the story calls to mind such films as Killer Party and April Fools Day.

As routine as the plot may be, the film remains surprisingly unpredictable thanks in no small part to the editing by Seth Gordon. He keeps the action moving and the suspense mounting. Some of his montages are a bit overdone (as in the scene where the email spreads and we see characters talking on the phone to one another in multiplying split screens), but at the end of the movie, when the killer is finally revealed, Gordon shows us clips from earlier in the film—clues that we may have missed or overlooked, and it makes total sense. For the first time in a long time, the big twist is not a cheat.

Unlike the slasher films of old, Cry_Wolf keeps on-screen violence to a minimum (this is PG-13 after all). What it does have in common with those earlier films, however, is a great sense of fun. It’s suspenseful when it needs to be, and it keeps you guessing right up until the appropriately ironic finale.

3 out of 5 stars.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005)


Directed by: Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
Written by: John August, Pamela Pettler, and Caroline Thompson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, and Christopher Lee

I love stop-motion animation. You take a figure and move it by hand one frame at a time—24 frames for one second of actual film. Then, when you run the film through a projector, you get an illusion of actual movement…the illusion of life. As a child, I thrilled to the work of Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Clash of the Titans), but then came the “Go-motion” rod puppets of Dragonslayer, followed by the computer-generated dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and the artform—like those dinosaurs—became all but extinct. Enter director Tim Burton. Burton, like myself, loves the medium and used it to great effect in the 1993 film The Nightmare Before Christmas. Now, more than ten years after that film achieved a huge level of cult adoration, the director has once again turned to stop-motion to realize his new vision: The Corpse Bride.

Victor Van Dort (the voice of Johnny Depp) is to enter into an arranged marriage with Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). It seems Victor’s parents (Paul Whitehouse and Tracey Ullman) are wealthy Fishmongers who are embarrassed that young Victor can’t seem to find a wife, and Victoria’s parents (Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley) are an aristocratic family that has squandered its money and will go to debtor’s prison without the merger…er, wedding. Despite the fact that they have never even seen each other, Victor and Victoria have a wonderful first meeting on the eve of this ceremony and find—surprise, surprise—that there is real love there.

This revelation does not help to calm Victor’s nerves, however, and the rehearsal is an utter disaster. He runs from the church to a nearby cemetery. There, he practices his vows again and places the wedding ring on what he thinks is a twig. No such luck. It is actually the hand of Emily, the Corpse Bride—a young woman who was murdered on her wedding day. She rises from the earth and whisks Victor off to the land of the dead as her new husband.

Burton (Batman, Sleepy Hollow) proves he hasn’t lost his love of gothic imagery. One of the great things about stop-motion animation is that you can light it just as you would a normal live-action picture. As a result, you get true shadows. Burton plays with this, filling the world of the dead with light and bright color. The world of the living, by contrast, is dark gray and purple. It’s a cold, boring place. The world of the dead is where you’d want to be if you had the choice.

The voice actors give wonderful performances that really bring these puppets to life. Depp’s nervous stammering gives way to confidence. Watson’s shyness turns to despair. And Bonham Carter creates great sympathy for Emily and her situation. In fact, the screenplay by John August, Pamela Pettler, and Caroline Thompson deserves much credit for its approach to this love triangle. They could have made Emily a terrifying specter. But no, she is someone you care about. You like these three characters, and you want them each to somehow find happiness.

If the film has one weakness, it is in the songs written by Danny Elfman. Unlike the memorable work he did for Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (I still find myself humming those songs from time to time), these little ditties seem to be there just for the sake of having songs. They don’t really add anything to the story and are quite unnecessary. If Pixar and Shrek have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t need to make every animated film a musical. Burton could learn from their example.

But this is a minor gripe. The film is a feast for the eyes. It’s a great big gothic wonderland that brought back wonderful memories of late night monster movies from my youth. It’s truly a film for the young, and the young at heart. The MPAA has rated the movie PG for “frightening images,” but you know your own kids. I watched it with my two boys and they sat there, eyes filled with wonder and amazement, and enjoyed every single frame.

4 out of 5 stars.

The Fog (2005)


Directed by: Rupert Wainwright
Written by: Cooper Layne
Starring: Tom Welling, Maggie Grace, Selma Blair, and DeRay Davis

“In loving memory of Debra Hill.”

Nothing in the remake of The Fog chilled me as much as these words that appear during the closing credits. The late Debra Hill was a producer who worked with the giants of horror, producing a superb adaptation of The Dead Zone for director David Cronenberg, as well as John Carpenter’s HalloweenEscape From New York, and yes, the original 1980 version of The Fog. And, after such a distinguished career, to have this huge pile of excrement dedicated to her memory made my stomach turn.

Some would argue that remakes, by their very nature, are always bad. I’m not one of them. I loved Chuck Russell’s take on The Blob. Cronenberg’s The Fly was a true masterpiece of drama and horror. John Carpenter’s update of The Thing is still one of my top ten horror films of all time. And, as much as it pains me to admit it, the upgrade of Dawn of the Dead was a great bit of gory fun. So why did these remakes work when so many others have failed? First of all, they treated their source material with respect. Second, they did not try to tell the exact same story. They took the idea of the original work and went in new and different directions.

So where does the retelling of The Fog go wrong? Well…lets begin with the story. Carpenter’s original tale worked, by and large, because of its simplicity. It is the centennial celebration in the California coastal town of Antonio Bay, and all hell has broken loose. The town founders sank a ship of lepers in a thick fog exactly one hundred years ago by lighting a bonfire on the beach. Blake, the leader of the leper colony, mistook the fire for a lighthouse beacon. His ship, the Elizabeth Dane, then crashed on the rocks and sank. The founders—these 6 conspirators—recovered Blake’s gold and used it to build the town. Now, a hundred years later, the ghosts of these murdered souls return for revenge and they will not stop until they have claimed 6 lives.

In writing this remake, however, Cooper Layne has decided that we need much more information about the ghosts and what happened to them. He moves Antonio Bay to an island town off the coast of Oregon. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. However, it seems that just lighting a bonfire on shore is no longer considered enough of a crime. Layne has the conspirators actually taking a rowboat out to meet Blake’s ship. Once there, they rob each of the lepers at gunpoint and set fire to the Elizabeth Dane, burning everyone alive. What’s worse, there’s no fog during these events, which—in Carpenter’s tale—is the whole reason the ghosts come back in a fog now! And because it is 2005, there can’t be anything as neat and clean as a one hundred year anniversary to resurrect the spirits. Instead, we get the unveiling of a statue to the four founding fathers of Antonio Bay. Also, the ghosts are now out to kill just the descendants of the original conspirators, all of whom happen to still be living on the island. Then, for good measure, Layne throws in a ridiculous twist at the end that makes you wonder just what the ghosts were after all along.

Carpenter’s original movie used fog machines to create the atmosphere. His ghosts were actors dressed like rotting mummies. They were kept in the shadows and used swords and meat hooks to claim their prey. Perhaps this is the reason someone wanted to do a remake. Surely, with the advances in special effects made over the last 25 years, the filmmakers can now make these ghosts look far more frightening than the original! Wrong. The Computer Generated fog looks like the rejected test of a video game element. And the CG spirits are see-through knock-offs of the skeletal pirates from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. In fact, Disney appears to have been a major influence here. The climax of the film takes place in a cemetery and, with all of the transparent ghosts standing around; it’s like visiting the Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion. By keeping his spirits as shadowy, mysterious figures, Carpenter made them scary. By bringing them into the light as badly rendered special effects, Rupert Wainwright has turned them into jokes.

These problems would be bad enough by themselves, but the film does not stop there. In Carpenter’s film, when odd things started happening, his characters talked about it the next day and compared notes with other characters. Here, you could cut the ghost scenes out of the picture entirely, because Wainwright’s characters act as if they never happened at all. And Maggie Grace shows us that it is a bad idea to walk on a wet board over seawater while carrying a video camera—a camera that, by the way, has the only evidence that can clear her friend of murder.

I could spend all day discussing why this remake is a waste of celluloid (like the hilarious shower scene that plays like Cinemax porn edited by soccer moms), but here’s the bottom line: John Carpenter’s The Fog is a movie that all horror fans should rent or buy and add to their collection. Rupert Wainwright’s The Fog, on the other hand, takes its title far too literally: it is murky and you can’t see anything in it worth recommending. One hundred years from now, the descendants of these filmmakers had better beware: the ghost of Debra Hill might want some payback.

1 out of 5 stars.

The Loss of James Helkowski

Due to the sudden and tragic death of artist “Mean” James Helkowski, the  Halloween Special Edition of  Wicked Karnival, featuring Michael West’s short story “The Bridge,” will not be available until  October, 21. As soon as it is up for order, we will post a link here on by Michael

Please keep Mr. Helkowski’s family in your thoughts and prayers.  The staff of  Wicked Karnival will dedicate this wonderful issue to his memory.

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)


Working title: The Babysitter Murders
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Produced by: Debra Hill
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards, Arthur Malet, David Kyle, and Nick Castle

I’ll admit it: I’m a creature of habit…of tradition, if you will. Every year, I must watch It’s A Wonderful Life sometime on or shortly after Thanksgiving. Call me sappy, but it just doesn’t seem like the Christmas season unless I’ve seen that flick at least once. The same is true about my beloved All Hallow’s Eve. Sure, I can carve a pumpkin and put graves in my front yard, but I’m just not fully into the festive spirit of the holiday until I watch John Carpenter’s Halloween.

This film is terrifying from the very first frame. The camera slowly pushes in on a Jack-O-Lantern—the only light on an otherwise black screen. Names flash around the blazing pumpkin, and we hear music. Chilling music. Carpenter’s main theme is one of the most memorable in motion picture history and sets the stage for the terror that follows. After the last credit appears, we are welcomed to Haddonfield, IL. It is Halloween night, 1963, and the camera rushes toward an innocent looking house—beginning a single, continuous POV shot that rivals Orson Welles’ opening to Touch of Evil. We see what Michael Myers sees as he grabs a butcher knife from the kitchen, creeps up the stairs, and slips on a clown mask. We then watch helplessly through the eyeholes of the mask as he walks into his teenage sister’s bedroom and stabs her repeatedly. His act of murder complete, Michael walks out the front door and onto the lawn where a man and a woman wait. They remove the mask and we see that this killer has been a six-year-old boy.

Fast forward to October 30th, 1978. Myers is now an adult and must appear before the court. When his psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) arrives to escort him, Michael steals the car and heads back to Haddonfield. He arrives on Halloween, finds three teenage friends to stalk—Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Annie (Nancy Loomis), and Linda (P.J Soles), and picks up where he left off 15 years before.

John Carpenter’s Halloween was a terrifying experience in 1978 and it remains just as frightening today. If you have never seen it in the widescreen format, however, you have never truly experienced it. Carpenter knows how to use the scope aspect ratio to the fullest. Characters will be walking or talking calmly in the foreground while something lurks off to the side or in the window behind them. Sure, the slasher films that followed have copied this technique, but none have been able to duplicate the artistry and execution Carpenter achieves here.

The writing in the film is also key to building suspense. Debra Hill and Carpenter have fashioned real teenage girls with strong friendships and real-life problems. We grow to care about them, and that makes the danger they are in far more palpable.

Acting is often the sore spot in a horror film. Not here. Despite the fact that Christopher Lee was originally offered the role, it is impossible to imagine anyone but Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis. He delivers Carpenter and Hill’s long soliloquies on the nature of evil with a soft voice that draws you in. Like Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis story in Jaws, you are riveted to every spine-chilling word. Pleasence also uses his eyes to great effect. They are always looking—always searching for his elusive foe. And Jamie Lee Curtis is perfect as Laurie. She is shy and vulnerable, but she is strong when she has to be. There have been countless “virginal” heroines in slasher movies. They are all trying to be Jamie Lee, and they all pale by comparison.

John Carpenter’s Halloween is simply flawless. This is what every horror movie aspires to: atmospheric, fun, frightening, and relentless. Required viewing for everyone who considers themselves a fan of the genre. Light the Jack-O-Lantern, grab a bowl of candy corn, turn out the lights, and let the season begin!

5 out of 5 stars