Although I just couldn’t get into the idea of doing another horror movie marathon for last month’s column, I did at least try to come up with something different I could do. After all, it’s the only holiday I’ve managed to continue loving and looking forward to over the years. Another marathon didn’t really interest me, nor could I get into the idea of a top-five countdown of some kind, or running through the all-time favorites list as it currently stands.
But I did have ideas. My biggest temptation was to focus on one of my favorite things about horror films, which is also one of my favorite things about movies in general.
Most of my favorite horror movies have some kind of pronounced ambiance going for them. A few are almost suffocated by atmosphere, but avoid that route in such a way that you can’t help but admire their ability to find a place for the other things that generally need to help make up a film. You can say that about movies like Suspira, Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or28 Days Later. All of those movies created their own kind of atmosphere. Suspira was a fairytale with a serious Greyhound bus station drug problem. Night of the Living Dead built slowly on feelings of dread, and of everything collapsing all around the characters trapped in that farmhouse. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre dug the hook into our own backs, strapped us into a cinematic vehicle with a nice hounds-of-hell mentality going for it, and left absolute destruction in its wake. The remake failed to recreate any of that. 28 Days Later showed us a world in which people are forced to look at the end of everything with a sickening sense of clarity and resignation. All of these films created powerful atmospheres in their own way. Each created a place for the characters to inhabit, and more often than not, be destroyed in.
The Universal horror classics of the 30’s and 40’s get at least a portion of their status as classics from the foggy hills, crumbling castles, and black evenings that seem to exist for no other purpose than to be a place for terrible things to happen. Go back even further, and you can find enduring examples of atmosphere with the Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera, or with The Golem, Nosferatu, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Many of the best horror films get some of their bite from atmosphere, and I love the fact that it’s a broad enough concept to allow for a variety of ways of establishing it.
You can go beyond horror, if you want to. The richness of flawless cinematic atmosphere can be found in Driver, The French Connection, Seven Samurai, Gangs of New York, Badlands, The Apu Trilogy,Singing in the Rain, Punch-Drunk Love, and on, and on, and on. What I often look for in the world of a film I’m watching is a place and time that acts almost in a way that God would. It may not be obvious about the way it dictates what the characters will do, but its influence exists nonetheless. Atmosphere in films is always there, but it’s just more distinctive in some. When it’s done so well that it makes us that much more eager to meet the story and characters on terms set by the film, it’s a casual-yet-extraordinary kind of magic.
If there’s anything I still love about horror movies, it’s when I find films that create the impression that its world has lived in my heartbeat for years
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa: B+
I’ve been arguing for a long time that the Jackass films contain some of the most brilliant physical comedy to be found anywhere. I’ve also argued that Johnny Knoxville is an underrated comedic actor. I honestly didn’t expect Bad Grandpa to reiterate both of those points, but it did. In doing so, it wound up being what may well be in the funniest film I’ve seen in 2013. Johnny Knoxville as Irving Zisman is indeed a terrible grandfather, as he takes his grandson (the scene-stealing Jackson Nicoll) on a cross-country road trip to reunite him with his father. As anyone who has seen the bad grandpa character in previous Jackass ventures knows, Irving drinks heavily, swears at his grandson at random, abandons him constantly in favor of seeking out some equally-desperate tail, and isn’t shy about expressing how much of a burden the child is to him. A mediocre-to-terrible movie could run well enough on that concept. Amazingly, or perhaps not, Bad Grandpa gets fantastic, extremely funny material out of the very thin plot (which in of itself is a Jackass first). It even manages to be quite sweet at times, as Irving does in fact love the little bastard. And for those who are hoping for stunts and pranks in the tradition of the franchise, you’re not going to be disappointed. Bad Grandpa manages to mine new laughs out of a series that’s been around for about fifteen years now. With absolutely nothing to prove to anyone beyond the Jackass dedicated, Bad Grandpa is one of the most perversely enjoyable surprises of the year. That thought can extend to people who have never seen anything to do with Jackass before. Surprise yourself.
Carrie (2013): C-
Although no one can batshit crazy it up as well as Julianne Moore can, and even though Chloë Grace Moretz creates a Carrie that is distinctive and memorable, without going into a Sissy Spacek impression for even a moment, Carrie still has no choice but to suffer the same fate that befalls most remakes. It’s true that the 2013 version of a high school misfit getting even with her tormentors is based on a Stephen King novel, and is therefore not subject to the same scrutiny one would give to a remake of a film based on original material. Given that the 1976 version of King’s debut book is widely considered to be one of the best horror films of the 1970’s, it’s impossible to not compare subsequent adaptations. Unlike the dismal TV movie version of the story that came out a few years ago, director Kimberly Pierce and company try to find a way to be the most faithful adaptation of all time, while admitting that nothing is ever going to top the first film. The movie is worth watching for getting as close to realizing that insight as any film could ever hope for, but in the end, if you are familiar with the original, every updated touch in Carrie smacks of desperation to top the 1976 film. Even if it wasn’t a remake, it is only partially successful as a movie that tries to say something about why kicking around the quiet kid probably isn’t the best idea in the world. If this version of Carrie really is a more faithful version of King’s breakthrough book, then perhaps there’s something to be said for whatever compromises the ’76 version made.
The Stunt Man: B-
Of the many Oscar nominations Peter O’Toole has received over the course of his career, his performance in The Stunt Man is perhaps the most interesting. With anyone else, this kind of performance in this kind of film would equal an Oscar as a way of apologizing for not handing one over sooner for more “deserving” films. For what I suspect is a wide range of intensely personal and political reasons, O’Toole would be denied again come award time. Honorary Oscar aside, he’s probably going to die having never won the “lovely bugger.” There are several films that indicate what a shame that is. His role as an arrogant, unfeeling, charismatic director simultaneously advising and abusing a con (Steve Railsback) who happens to become a stuntman in O’Toole’s character’s film, while on the run from the law, isn’t the best example of what a shame that is. It’s still a great performance by one of the best actors of the past one hundred years. It is the driving force for a film that in trying to parody the chaos of a movie set run by a madman, makes us think that it’s just as patched together by happenstance as the film-within-a-film that it’s making fun of. It’s not, and that’s pretty cool. A large part of the movie revolves around our ability to believe that a cynic like Railsback could be taken in by someone with the gift of deceptively-distracted charm. Peter O’Toole’s performance as a movie director supposedly based on Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean makes for the kind of character that could make suckers of us all. That’s because it’s not hard to imagine a film director who will do or say anything that will let them finish their latest masterpiece, if only so they can move on to the next one. O’Toole was the perfect egomaniac to play such a character.
Escape Plan (2013): B
If Schwarzenegger telling Stallone that he hits “like a vegetarian” does it for you, then you’re going to be right at home with the 1980’s popcorn silliness of Escape Plan. It helps to have a sense of nostalgia about these two guys. Even if you don’t have one, you still might enjoy Stallone and Schwarzenegger trying to break out of prison together. The movie acknowledges the throwback charm of these two doing a movie together (The Expendables doesn’t count) several times, and yet manages to find along the way a movie that’s moderately engaging on its own. If Escape Plan didn’t have the gimmick of two action movie icons going for it, and was cast instead with younger, more marketable actors, people would be hailing the film as a surprisingly solid thriller. It is indeed just that, and all you have to do to dig on that is move past the fact that its main intention is to appeal to aging yesteryear fanatics.
Starbuck (2011): A+
The American remake of this film, which is going to star Vince Vaughn (and I like that) is just about to come out, so it’s perhaps best to take a moment to appreciate the source material. Patrick Huard could indeed pass for a French-Canadian version of Vaughn, but saying so would be cheating the praise he deserves for a suitably low-key performance that’s entirely his own. A guy who can’t decide whether or not to be acknowledged as the father of hundreds of illegitimate children is an easy plot device for a film. Any humanity or sincerity in such a story is going to be found in how the protagonist performs. Huard is relatable across every single moment we hope he will be in a movie like this. Simplifying his work in Starbuck as the story of a slacker who has to turn his life around because life demands he does is like saying that Jack Nicholson is just playing Jack in As Good As It Gets. That might be true, but only up to a point. It disregards a lot of really good stuff from the actor.