“The idea of an urban legend serial killer? That’s kind of a stretch,” notes one of the characters in this Scream derivative, which may be a self-reflexive way to absolve the filmmakers of blame for the concept. Actually, it’s not a bad concept in that serial killers are the stuff of urban legends. Further, a good horror movie can be even more effective than an urban legend in propagating a cautionary tale about the stuff lurking in the shadows. If Scream and Scream 2 hadn’t milked that post-modern angle first, it might seem like a novel idea, too. Continue reading
Let’s get one thing straight — Halloween H20: 20 Years Later is not great moviemaking. Hell, for the bulk of its 85 minutes, it’s not even very good moviemaking.
But H20 has two things going for it. One of them is a powerhouse performance by one of the great icons of contemporary horror film, Jamie Lee Curtis. And the other is the wordless presence of the bulky, bemasked heavy known as Michael Meyers.
John Carpenter’s Halloween suggested, more forcefully than any movie since The Exorcist, that unspeakable evil was lurking in the dark corners of the American suburbs. But while The Exorcist finally put the Catholic Church in control of unspeakable evil, suggesting that there was life after demonic possession after all, Carpenter’s film refused that reassurance. Few movies end on such a disquieting note as Halloween, with Donald Pleasance searching the darkness for evil embodied, but losing Michael Meyers to the shadows.
So the smartest thing about H20 is that it has a singular, humbling reverence for the original Halloween, the horror-movie equivalent to an enduring campfire tale. The film opens with a so-so preface that dispatches a handful of characters in low-grade slasher style, which may be a cut-rate reference to the phenomenally successful Scream movies. The director is the old horror hack Steve Miner, who helmed installments two and three in the Friday the 13th slasher cycle before finding respectability as a director of TV fare. His camera moves ape those of Carpenter, including the choice of the widescreen frame, but his eye is nowhere near as sophisticated. The original Halloween was a film of uncomfortable situations that were underlined by striking, disturbing imagery. The 1998 model is a pokey lead-up to a balls-out deathmatch that draws its stylistics from recent action movies as much as from horror film.
In the opening credit sequence, H20 establishes what it’s really about, showing us news clippings that recount the story of the first two films and running snippets of dialogue from those films on the soundtrack. Like the underrated Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, H20 is about resurrecting a demon from the past in order to put it down for good.
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the haunted one, the former babysitter so memorably terrorized in the first film in the series (and, to a less memorable extent, in the second). In H20, she’s changed her name, changed her identity, and become the headmistress of a private boarding school. Nice idea for a slasher film — Laurie is charged with protecting exactly the sort of teenage flesh that tempts these ageless, deathless slashers. She’s got a drinking problem that has its roots in her trauma. She’s also got a teenaged son, who’s getting fed up with her zealous protectiveness. It’s when she finally starts to ease up on her obsession that Michael Meyers crashes back into her world, threatening not just her life, but also the life of her son. Reprising the role she long ago left behind, Curtis turns in a very strong, utterly credible performance that will, if there’s a god, close the door on one of the most overextended franchises in contemporary horror film.
In the slow, mostly somber expository scenes, H20 treats the Strode character more carefully than you might expect, which is to its credit. But it also makes the mistake that the Scream movies avoided so effectively — it thinks that teenagers are boring. Four of the students, two boys and two girls (including Dawson’s Creek star Michelle Williams), scheme to stay home from a planned trip to Yosemite National Park for an evening of sex and alcohol somewhere on the deserted campus. While the actors are appealing enough, this time-honored slasher film device falls flat because, in time-honored slasher film fashion, the characters are too interchangeably vanilla to be worth caring about.
Of course, the point of Miner’s Friday the 13th films wasn’t so much the cat-and-mouse games that they played with young, dumb teenage victims as the payoff — a gruesome, usually imaginative and occasionally spectacular make-up effects showpiece. (I still remember a showstopping scene in Friday the 13th Part 3 where a kid was literally ripped in half, cleaved into two pieces by Jason’s machete, and I know that the MPAA would never allow that to happen in today’s horror movies.) Looking back at Halloween, which has a reputation for inaugurating the whole slasher movies cycle, the big surprise is how little gore was involved. Halloween is a very violent film, but the violence is conveyed in the staging and editing of each murder scene, as well as in the gruesome tableaux that a malevolent Michael leaves behind. The Friday the 13th films, by contrast, were very gory, but hardly seemed violent at all. (They weren’t very good, either, but that’s another story.)
The murders in H20 might have benefited from a little more gore. Miner directs them in a casual, color-by-numbers fashion, like he’s making one of those Gap commercials where he’ll declare at the end, “This is too easy.” They’re anything but scary, and I didn’t even find them menacing. But the film rachets up little by little in preparation for the final showdown between stalker and stalkee. And from the moment when Laurie Strode finally locks eyes with her long-lost brother (the shot reminded me of those scenes in the Alien movies when Ripley comes face-to-face with the creatures), H20 becomes the hardest-working film of the year.
Particularly effective is the moment when Laurie decides not to make an easy exit from the scene. Instead, she blocks off the only egress and finds herself a big axe. The camera cranes overhead and an orchestral version of the electronic Halloween theme swells on the soundtrack as she strides back into the darkness, crying shrilly, at the top of her lungs, Michael! Michael! All the conversation earlier in the film about Laurie’s need to confront her demons is here given specific cinematic form, and it raised my gooseflesh. Evoking a sense of destiny and finality that harks back to the beginning of a 20-year-old nightmare, horror fans may well find it to be one of the most stirring scenes of the year.
Directed by Steve Miner
Written by Robert Zappia & Matt Greenberg and Kevin Williamson
Cinematography by Daryn Okada
Edited by Patrick Lussier
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Francesco Dellamorte has a bit of a problem. He’s the live-in watchman at Buffalora Cemetery in northern Italy, where the corpses are crawling back out of their graves after spending a mere week or so in the ground. As you can imagine, that’s something of a nuisance, but if he reports it to the authorities, he’s certain of one thing — they’ll shut down the cemetery to investigate, and Francesco will be out of a job. Since he can’t have that happening, he keeps a loaded pistol with him, which he carries to the door whenever he answers a knock. It’s usually just one of them coming back, and a single bullet blown solidly through the head — where have you gone, George Romero? — takes a zombie down easily enough. For a misanthrope like Francesco, it’s a pretty good gig.
Surrounded by death, and with only the clumsy and deformed Gnaghi for company, Francesco’s life is pretty stable until he falls for a mourning widow. Anna Falchi plays the object of his desire (known in the credits as “She”), whom he seduces in the Buffalora Ossuary (where the bones of the dead are deposited); the two indulge their strange affections on her poor husband’s grave. Naturally, the old man comes back. The woman dies in her spouse’s ensuing fit of jealous violence, and Francesco is stricken with despair. Naturally, She comes back again. And again.
That’s only the surface of the remarkable Dellamorte Dellamore. You might expect even a stylish horror director to milk these situations for all they’re worth, but Michele Soavi knows that zombie hijinks have been done to death by such precocious directors as Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Accordingly, the movie never stops moving, twisting and turning its way to an oddly existential climax. The scenario, written for the screen by Gianni Romoli from a comic book scenario by Tiziano Sclavi, concentrates on the human characters rather than the zombies, and gives as much play to turmoil of the spirit as it does to the carnage that spills from the body. The world of Francesco Dellamorte runs parallel to George Romero’s zombie apocalypse. Like Romero’s trilogy, and quite unlike many of its imitators, Dellamorte Dellamore is a zombie movie with character.
I have to wonder what American audiences are expecting on the way into this picture, given that the normally staid October Films has created a mild cheeseball of an ad campaign to push the film into U.S. theaters. “Zombies, Guns and Sex, OH MY!” reads the tagline, stripped across poster art that may lead audiences to believe that Cemetery Man is actually a cheap horror flick from the 50s or 60s. I find it hard to believe that this campaign will actually attract a discriminating audience, but stranger things have happened, and we’ll just have to see. Rest assured that Cemetery Man/Dellamorte Dellamore is a confident, creepy little horror film with a winning sense of humor, a sure feel for outrageous imagery, and a healthy mean streak.
As played by Rupert Everett (Ready to Wear), Francesco is a misfit and a nihilist. (The main character in the Dylan Dog comic book series originated by Sclavi is based on Everett, and his casting here is something of a coup.) He’s also a remarkable Everyman who commands our attention and our sympathy as he slouches toward the inevitable. Francois Hadji Lazaro’s Gnaghi is by turns irritating and pathetic. (You may have seen Lazaro as the meanest-looking cyclops in City of Lost Children.) By the time he develops a decidedly unhealthy crush on the mayor’s daughter (and the mayor’s daughter’s disembodied head), Lazaro has invited viewers to inhabit his character, and the results are unsettling. The relationship is consummated at the end of the film, but these two are shown early on to be classic codependents. Along those lines, the movie exhibits a well-developed sense of humor that goes a long way toward eliciting the viewer’s sympathy. The characters aren’t very pleasant, but you start to identify with them in spite of yourself. By the time the movie is over, their predicament almost seems to take on mythic proportions.
Herein seems to lie the problem for many American critics, who have been less than impressed with what may be a vigorous political allegory. I guess I’m a little slow, but I didn’t understand right away that the Italian citizens who are zombified — a disquietingly fascist troupe of boy scouts, Buffalora’s highest ranking incompetent bureaucrat — may represent the dead archetypes of Italian society come back to haunt the living. Instead, I fell for the grisly comedy and the sharp cinematic style, which references such influential pictures as Vertigo and Once Upon a Time in the West (on which Soavi’s progenitor Dario Argento received a story credit). And while that bastion of genre reporting, Cinefantastique, had decidedly unkind words for the film’s alleged misogyny, I read it instead as a look inside poor Dellamorte’s head. Francesco, as noted above, is an equal opportunity curmudgeon, and if She is treated as the most maddening of all the characters, it’s because she is the object of Francesco’s most maddening obsessions. At the same time, I think these critics complain a little too much. Stephen Holden, writing in The New York Times, criticized the film’s decision to make Francesco impotent — missing the important joke, which is that he’s really not impotent at all, despite the rumor around town (you have to wonder if Holden left partway through).
The cemetery itself is a triumph of production design, an inhabited world with curious nooks and crannies (the Ossuary, Gnaghi’s cellar in the watchman’s house). It’s also a representation of Francesco’s state of mind, and the essence of the movie rests in the ways he discovers to break away from it. Gory and playful, darkly humorous and flippantly bleak, Soavi’s film is a joyride through a sullen state of mind. After Francesco takes his revenge on the world outside, and sets himself to escaping from the life he’s made, Dellamorte Dellamore finally offers up its own definition of madness.
David Cronenberg’s debut feature prefigured both Alien and AIDS with its tale of parasites — a metaphorical sexually transmitted disease — that turn humans into nymphomaniacal zombies as they move from host to host, infecting the residents of a Canadian apartment complex. Like other early Cronenberg films, the movie has a low-key immediacy that makes the perversions of its milieu all the more distressing. Shivers is the original Canadian title of this film. If you’re looking for it in the U.S., the title is They Came From Within. The movie was originally edited for U.S. consumption, but as far as I can tell, the most recently released TCFW videocassette (Vestron Video VA4403) is identical to the Canadian cut of Shivers except for the title.
Update 09/18/10: In the intervening decade and a half since I originally wrote this paragraph, Shivers has come into wide, easy availability on DVD and then gone back out of print again. Cronenberg deserves better distribution.