Thursday, October 14, 2010

More old nightmares: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror!

At a time when too few television shows seem to bother with Halloween episodes anymore, The Simpsons long-running "Treehouse of Horror" anthologies are like a jack-'o-lantern beacon to all us Halloween nerds. While recent years' entries haven't been as strong (much like the show itself), I love revisiting the old classics. Some of my favorite segments...
"Lisa's Nightmare"/"Bart's Nightmare"(1991)--The second Halloween episode is centered around candy-induced nightmares had by all three family members (in Homer's, Mr. Burns harvests his brain for a worker robot who, natch, is extremely lazy); the first two are the best, with Lisa's involving a fabled monkey's paw: "I must warn you it carries a terrible curse; I myself was once president of Algeria" the middle-eastern shopkeeper warns, to which Homer replies, "I don't wanna hear your life story-- PAW ME!" The family's wishes lead to riches, world peace, and, inevitably, ruin, as Treehouse stalwarts Kang and Kodos arrive from outer space to enslave the newly docile planet. (The comic ET's have had at least a cameo in every Halloween special since the beginning.) Bart imagines himself into a pitch perfect parody of "The Twilight Zone" classic "It's a Good Life," in which little Bill Mummy had an entire town under his psychic thrall. Here, Bart uses his powers to turn Homer into a jack-in-the-box (a direct lift from the original), but also to play pranks like having Moe tell his bar "I'm a big stupid guy with a big butt, and my butt smells, and sometimes I like to kiss my own BUTT! Hey, wait a minute..."
"The Devil and Homer Simpson"/"Terror at 5&1/2 Feet"/"Bart Simpson's Dracula"(1993)--The first is a brilliant vignette in which Homer sells his soul to the Devil, who turns out to be none other than-- hi diddly ho!--Ned Flanders. Like the best "Simpsons," this is filled with tiny details and moments that are utterly hilarious... like Blackbeard the Pirate objecting to the high chair Marge gives him when he serves on Homer's "Jury of the Damned": "Aye! This chair be high, says I!" Meanwhile, "Terror" spoofs another classic "Twilight Zone" ep, with Bart subbing for William Shatner as the passenger (on a schoolbus, natch) who sees a gremlin no one else does. In "Dracula," the crew takes on Francis Ford Coppola's stylized adaptation in typically irreverent fashion (Homer to Bart: "His hairdo looks so queer"). It all ends with a musical homage to-- apropos of nothing-- "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
"The Shinning"/"Time and Punishment"/"Nightmare Cafeteria"(1994)--This entire episode is brilliant, from the pitch perfect "Shining" spoof to Homer's misbegotten romp through time (which keeps changing the future) and the grisly "Cafeteria," in which the staff of Springfield Elementary casually embrace cannibalism. Though funny, the second two segments contain some of the most disturbing material I've ever seen on network television, including lobotomies, the bloodthirsty teachers, and a sick finale in which the whole family's skin turns inside out... and they break into song.
"The Thing and I"/"Citizen Kang"(1996)--In an inventively disturbing segment, Bart and Lisa discover they have another sibling... Bart's "evil" former siamese twin, Hugo, who's been living in the attic and subsisting on a diet of fish heads. The bizarre tale is highlighted by a slew of priceless one-liners, like "A routine soul smear confirmed the presence of pure evil." "Kang" gives starring roles to the aliens, who take on the identities of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole before the '96 election. It's a testament to the show's brilliance that this political lark feels fresh and funny rather than dated.
"It's the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse" (2008)--While later Treehouse of Horror entries have been a letdown, I have to mention this inspired send-up of the ultimate Halloween special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." Everything about "Peanuts," from the dancing to the nonsense talking grownups, is spoofed, while in this version, of course, the "Grand Pumpkin" actually shows up... and he's pissed!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Old Nightmares

So when was my last post, 1982? Well, this being October, I am getting into the Halloween spirit and thought it'd be fun to do a rundown of some of my favorite seasonal movies, TV, etc. I'll start with Wes Craven's New Nightmare, the end credits of which are unspooling as I type this. It's not a Halloween movie per se, but I'll always associate it with the holiday because a.) it was released in October and b.) I bought the *novelization* at Spag's, the awesomely kitschy Worcester department store, on one of my family's annual "fall rides." See every year we'd take a daytrip to see the fall foliage (my dad goes nuts for that, as well he should) and wind up at the Halloween Outlet, an amazing store packed to the gills with costumes, props, and just about anything else a horror-obsessed kid like me could want. (They used to display those giant animatronic props, like the crazy electric chair that would go off every ten minutes or so, stopping everyone in dead silence while the dummy writhed in mock agony and smoke plumed outward. Rock on.) On one of these rides, circa 1994, we stopped by Spag's and I picked up the New Nightmare paperback. I was psyched about the movie, though we ironically didn't get around to it until the video release. (Lest you think my parents wouldn't let me see an R-rated horror flick in theaters, I was corrupted at a pretty young age by my dad, who showed me the likes of "Halloween" and "Evil Dead 2" when I was, I dunno, 9? "New Nightmare" is something we totally would've seen at an after school matinee. Why we didn't is a mystery.) It was a typical novelization, I guess, but I liked the meta movie-within-a-movie storyline and the cheesy interludes supposedly detailing the author's own close encounters with Freddy. Plus there were 8 pages of rad black and white photos. So before long I'd read and re-read it umpteen times and was running around pretending I was Heather Langenkamp, wearing her hot skirt and blazer combo and making important Hollywood phone calls on my remote control, er, cell phone. (And yet my parents *never suspected* I was gay? Talk about mysteries.) So when I finally saw the sucker, I already knew everything that was going to happen but loved it anyway. There's so much cheese in New Nightmare-- Langenkamp's melodramatic performance, the stereotypical villainous doctor out to prove that horror movies ruin young minds, dialogue like "Everything is NOT FINE!" to name a few. There are numerous gaps in logic, like the relentlessly unprofessional staff at the hospital (prone to stage whispering and grimly pantomiming about a patient whose mother is IN THE ROOM). But damnit if it doesn't work like gangbusters. The premise was so different at the time-- sort of "The Player" meets "Nightmare on Elm Street," with Freddy spilling out into the lives of the movies' cast and crew (Wes Craven even plays himself near the end)-- and there was some awesomely over-the-top imagery, starting with a cooly redesigned Krueger. For the first time in a "Nightmare" movie, an actual kid was a central character (Heather's on-screen son Dylan, played by Miko Hughes of "Pet Sematary" fame), which allowed for all sorts of connections with Grimm's Fairy Tales and parental fears of death and screwing up your kid. It's just a fun, fast-paced, visually striking movie (the freeway sequence is a stunner), and I still watch it about once a year. "Nightmare 1" is the original, and "Dream Warriors" is probably the best (major soft spot for that one, too), but "New Nightmare" will always be my sentimental favorite.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Every Dark Cloud...

I often find that even the worst movies have some redeeming factor. Sometimes, it’s the thing we cling to so we don’t feel quite so bad about wasting two hours of our life watching a turkey; other times, these saving graces are so fantastic that watching said turkey is actually kinda worth it. Perhaps inspired by the new film Valentine’s Day—which has a funny Taylor Swift, copious hunks, and little else to recommend it—and definitely inspired by re-reading The Book of Lists: Horror, I hereby present…
10 Great Things in Otherwise Terrible Movies
1. Uma Thurman in Batman & Robin (1997)—Joel Schumacher’s fourth Caped Crusader was so dumb, loud, and grating that it all but buried the franchise until 2005’s Batman Begins arrived nearly ten years later. The sole bright spot was Thurman’s hilarious and inspired turn as villainess Poison Ivy, who truly stole the show with her transformation from amusingly dorky botanist Pamela Isley to the green cat-suited temptress.
2. Jamie Lee Curtis’s death scene in Halloween: Resurrection (2002)—1998’s Halloween: H20 was a surprisingly heartfelt and clever sequel, but the next entry was just as awful (if not more so) than the rest. Added to a beyond contrived “explanation” for Michael Myers’ non-death were annoying teens, Tyra Banks, and a Kung Fu-fighting Busta Rhymes (?!). Curtis was contractually obligated to appear, and it’s her opening scene alone that makes this worth watching. Michael finally kills his beleaguered sister, but not before she plants a kiss on his lips and intones “I’ll see you in Hell!” It’s a great last line, and proved that Laurie had the smarts to exit with grace, unlike the rest of this crappy movie.
3. Every song in Xanadu (1980)—Why did one of Hollywood’s most notorious bombs still manage to gain a cult following? Apart from its oodles of kitsch, Xanadu had one great strength: its music. The fantastic songs by Electric Orchestra, Olivia Newton John, et al are what make the interminably bad writing and wooden acting worth suffering through. Thank Zeus someone had the presence of mind to graft these stellar songs onto a cheeky and clever Broadway script, giving this career-killing oddity a new lease on life.
4. Ryan Reynolds’ body in Van Wilder (2002)—Sometimes it’s a profound performance or artful sequence that makes a bad movie less awful. Other times it’s something less sublime. Ryan Reynolds’s hot, impossibly chiseled physique is the only reason anyone ever wasted their time on this dreadful college “comedy.” Lucky for us its star was as talented and charming as his bod was smokin’.
5. The musical sequence in Not Another Teen Movie (2001)—Brainless teen flicks were ripe for the plucking in 2001, but this spoof was every bit as uninspired as the easy targets it was mocking. All except for one bravura scene in which every character sings their heart out in advance of the prom. It’s clever, hilarious, and creative—everything the rest of the movie wasn’t.
6. The decapitation scene in Midnight Meat Train (2008)—This Bradley Cooper horror flick (adapted from Clive Barker’s story) was barely released to theaters, and it isn’t hard to see why. Slick, slow moving, and repulsive, it was unlikely to find a large audience beyond hardcore gore hounds or perhaps those curious about the state of Brooke Shields’ “career.” One moment is pure brilliance, though: the titular fiend lops off a woman’s head, and the camera acts as her POV—as she flies through the air and sees her own dismembered body. It was the only rewind-worthy bit in an otherwise forgettable flick.
7. The closing credits in The X Files: I Want to Believe (2008)—Faithful fans of Chris Carter’s groundbreaking genre series waited five years for this wholly unremarkable, borderline offensive piece of drivel that was worse than the lamest TV episodes. Ironically, only those who sat through the credits saw anything remotely enjoyable: our heroes, Mulder and Scully, waving goodbye from a paradise-bound sailboat to the cool strains of UNKLE’s “Broken.” Unfortunately, this coda all but defined “too little, too late” for frustrated X-Philes.
8. The costumes in Psycho (1998)—There was no good reason to remake Hitchcock’s classic thriller shot for shot—and plenty of reasons not to. (I’d put Anne Heche’s desecration of Janet Leigh’s character near the top of that list.) At least we were treated to costumes more startlingly original than almost anything else onscreen at the time. From Norman’s vibrant print shirts to Marion’s shower curtain patterned buttons, it was a feast of funky, fabulous frocks. Too bad the “Emperor” in this case wasn’t really wearing clothes at all.
9. Lindsay Lohan’s stripping scene in I Know Who Killed Me (2007)—This ridiculous Lohan “thriller” acted as the red-haired starlet’s Xanadu, effectively killing a once-promising career (along with endless tabloid stories and drink-and-drug fueled antics). The loony tale of “stigmatic twins” entangled with a serial killer is so ineptly made it crosses the line from awful to so-bad-it’s-good. But one sequence is so artful it feels like it came from another director and movie entirely: Lohan’s highly sensual, meticulously lit and photographed strip tease, set to Out Hud’s groovy “How Long.” Maybe if the film had spent more time on the strip club and less on rotting fingers (!) it would’ve turned a profit—and kept L.Lo from fading into gossip column oblivion.
10. Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey in Superman Returns (2006)—For a movie with so much promise, Bryan Singer’s reboot of the Man of Steel was dishearteningly lousy. The half-baked storyline (some nonsense involving a Kryptonite-made rock planet overtaking Earth and Supes’ potential love child) and terrible leads (pretty but bland Brandon Routh and pretty but bland Kate Bosworth, whose groaner “I forgot how warm you are” belongs in the Bad Movie Line Hall of Fame) sank this polished looking but feeble attempt to relaunch its eponymous hero. Relief from this self-important hooey arrives in the form of Spacey as Lex Luthor and Parker Posey as his fag hag—er, “girlfriend” Kitty Kowalski. Posey, who performed similar scene stealing in the lackluster Scream 3, is hysterical in every scene she’s in, while Spacey hits just the right balance of wit and menace. It’s casting so good, it makes you long for a movie that deserves it.
Well, those are mine: how about you guys? Remember anything awesome from movies that otherwise sucked?