Sunday, April 29, 2012

Horror Off-Season: 13 Ghosts 1960 and 2001 compared

13 Ghosts is one of my favorite movies.  It stars a post-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth and a pre-Monk Tony Shalhoub.  The movie is a remake of William Castle's 1960 13 Ghosts, which is interesting in itself in that it involved a pretty cool and specific gimmick: Illusion-O.

Rather than write a standard review, since even the remake is over a decade old at this point I thought it would be fun to sort of compare/contrast the two and see how the material was updated 40 years later.

So, first off, William Castle was famous for inventing tons of gimmicks to get audiences into his movies and get his movies talked about.  Just to name a few:
  • Macabre (1958): Lloyds of London insured each audience member for $1,000 in case they die of fright during the movie.
  • House on Haunted Hill (1959): Emerg-O, where a glow-in-the-dark skeleton was suspended over the audience for a climactic scene.
  • The Tingler (1959): Percept-O, where he had theaters install electric joy-buzzers in some seats to give people electric shocks during a section where the monster came off the screen and into the audience.  
  • Homicidal (1961): The Fright Break, immediately before the climax audience members who were too afraid would be allowed to leave the theater and be treated and calmed by a nurse in the lobby. 
Illusion-O was an early form of color filtering, where the majority of the movie was in standard black & white while certain scenes with ghosts in them where tinted blue and the ghosts were overlayed in red.  The audience could choose to either watch with blue tinted glasses or red ones, supposedly provided by the character Dr. Plato Zorba (Cyrus Kriticos in the remake).  The blue glasses would make the ghosts invisible and the red ones would make them stand out.  These glasses mirror the glasses in the movie the characters have to use to see the ghosts, and makes for a really interesting interactive element where you can choose how you want to see the scene.

Basic concept
The brief concept of the movie is largely the same as the original:  A rich relative dies and leaves his house to his nephew, who is struggling to financially support his family consisting of an attractive daughter and a son with an odd obsession.  In this house are 12 distinct spirits, and the nephew has been branded as the 13th.  In the original the supernatural happenings are more or less incidental to the main story arc, which is the lawyer's attempt to find the uncle's hidden fortune.  The remake obviously places a greater emphasis on the supernatural aspect making it the main focus and inventing a ghost-powered mechanism.  This is pretty obvious as the opening scene in the remake is Cyrus and Dennis in the act of entrapping a ghost named "The Juggernaut", a scene that establishes the uncle's character as a ghost hunter with massive resources and also a lot of the internal mythology invented for the movie.  The original opened with a short title sequence and then started the story with a short bit of Cyrus lecturing at an archeology museum.

The Family
The characters are pretty similar in archetype, as mentioned above but the remake differs slightly.  The original had a "complete" family of Cyrus and Hilda as husband and wife with son, Buck, and daughter, Medea.  The uncle is Plato Zorba and the lawyer is Ben Rush.  Elaine Zacharides is the maid at the house and Cyrus has a friend named Van Allen, they serve as exposition speakers.  The remake has a "broken" family, because the wife has died and the husband has to continue as a single father...something that wasn't nearly as accepted in 1960.  So the father is Arthur Kriticos with son, Bobby, and daughter, Kathy.  The uncle is Cyrus Kriticos and the lawyer is Ben Moss.  The remake invents the characters of Kalina Oretzia and Dennis Rafkin to serve exposition, but they are unfamiliar to Arthur and more closely related to the uncle, Cyrus.  They've also invented Maggie Bess to serve as Bobby and Kathy's nanny, although I think the motivation for the character's creation was really to have a sassy black female played by a popular musician.

What's interesting is that in the original, Cyrus was characterized much more as husband and family man.  He had a slightly adversarial relationship with his wife and seemed firstly concerned with the family unit as a nebulous whole and then his wife.  When the character becomes Arthur in the remake he's very much the father and is concerned with his kids over all else.  His emotions and reactions to any threats confronting his kids are much more powerful and immediate while Cyrus seems restrained and sometimes even uninvolved with the situation.

The Ghosts
The original's ghosts are all fairly unique, and they explain some of them in the story.  None of them are particularly hostile towards the family, apart from one scene in which the ghost of a chef in the kitchen throws a kitchen knife at the wall and almost hits Cyrus.  The ghosts don't really serve any particular point in the narrative except to be spooky, and they don't even have particularly involved backgrounds.  The two that are explained the most are a lion tamer, who's head was bitten off by a lion (and the lion) and a chef who catches his love with another man and kills them both.

One of the things that I really liked about the remake is the ghosts were central to the story about the house being a machine, and they all had rich backgrounds which were alluded to in the movie itself and expanded upon further by a DVD extra.  The ghosts all are made to fit distinct archetypes from a "Black Zodiac" created for the film.  Since the whole story is more focused on the supernatural aspect they spend a lot of effort creating and showing this internal mythology with quicksilver flares, spoken spells on reel-to-reel tapes, written spells carved into the glass walls of the house, cubes, even the glasses take a more consistent and frequent role.  I noticed that in the original there was only a single pair of glasses, often worn by Cyrus.  Buck seemed to be able to see the ghosts pretty well without the glasses, as evidenced by him telling his parents to move out of the way of the knife before it was thrown in the kitchen scene. 

In Closing
Neither movie is particularly scary, but I think if you're in the right mindset and especially with the glasses the original has a lot more potential even though the entire story and supernatural aspects in particular are a lot weaker.  The remake suffers from everything being so well designed and just "Damn, isn't that COOL?!" to really get under your skin and unnerve you.  However, I think that also makes its production design and visual style strengths as entrance to Bro-horror.  Although I wouldn't call this bro-horror in the strictest sense because it does hit some very good emotional cues.  A lot of people absolutely hate Matthew Lillard, but I don't think he's that bad of an actor and the way his character, Dennis, grows attached to Arthur's family and even sacrifices himself in the end is quite touching.  It's also got a lot of depth to the universe because of the spell rules and the backstories given to each ghost, it all feels very solid and fleshed out.  I would almost want to see more movies that play around with the mythology established for this remake of a William Castle gimmick movie from 1960.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Horror Off-Season: Splatter Disco

I picked up a DVD of Splatter Disco at the Chiller expo a few years ago, and really wasn't expecting much except "enjoyably retarded".  The featured indie movie that year was heavily promoted at the show and was called Late Fee, which was trying to be a clever anthology but was just really bad and thrown together.

Splatter Disco markets itself as the first Slasher Musical and the DVD cover features a furry wielding a knife overlaid onto a disco ball, so it's easy to understand where my initial expectation came from.  However, it's actually a really cleverly written and well-crafted low budget genre movie.

Released in 2007, Splatter Disco was written and directed by Richard Griffin and stars Ken Foree, Trent Haaga, and Debbie Rochon.  It's got a decidedly low budget Troma-films feel and Trent even got his start with Troma.

The basic story is that Kent Chubb (Haaga) is the owner of the Den 'O Iniquity, a fetish dance club in a small New England town, and is forced to contend with the corrupt city government trying to shut down his club (for being immoral), his dying father Shank (Foree), and his wife (Rochon) running off with his drugged out lawyer.  All while a psychopathic killer is picking off his patrons.  There's also a terrifyingly endearing B-plot concerning one of the clubgoer's efforts to stand up for himself and win the affections of a cute girl who's dating a jackass.

It's a low budget movie so there is definitely some awkward acting and sets, but it's still really funny.

The musical numbers are often pretty tongue-in-cheek, including a really interesting rendition of Cole Porter's Let's Do It, Let's Fall In Love featuring a horde of yiffing furries.  There's also a number which is actually a drug trip in the mind of Kent's lawyer as he attempts to defend Kent in court immediately after dropping acid and includes a singing Angel.

Towards the last act of the movie the killer plot takes a more center roll with all the characters banding together to save themselves, which is a nice contrast to standard slashers which typically only include a single (female) survivor.

There's not a whole lot of gore, just suggestive blood effects.  There is some T&A, but being as low budget as the movie is it's not all good.  And really it's not often focused on, the movie is more interested in playing sex for laughs.  I like that they play fetishes lightly and laugh at the absurdity of it when you really look at some of it.  It's more judgmental of the "moral crusaders", while the people at the fetish club are just doing what they like and enjoying the acceptance.

I've seen this movie a few times since first watching it after Chiller that year, and it's still a really fun, campy, genre flick.  Well worth checking out.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Horror Off-Season: The Innkeepers

Sunday became a bit of a Ti West-fest.  After watching the nicely creepy House of the Devil, I just had to check out writer/director Ti West's follow up: The Innkeepers.

In contrast to House of the Devil, this movie is set in modern day at a Connecticut inn called the Yankee Pedlar.  Interestingly, this inn actually exists and the movie was even shot there...though how much varies depending on where you read.  The inn's site obviously claims the whole movie was shot there.  This is also the 2nd film he's shot (maybe set?) in Connecticut, so there might be a Stephen King/Maine style relationship developing between the New England state and Ti. (Update:  I just watched an interview with Ti West, apparently the crew stayed at the Yankee Pedlar during the filming of House of the Devil, and weird things kept happening at the hotel but he didn't have the idea to make the movie until a year later.  Interesting connection between the two movies.)

The story here is that the Yankee Pedlar is closing (it really isn't, feel free to visit), and the two remaining staff members, Claire and Luke, are keeping up a largely empty inn.  Outside of their rooms, there are only two rooms occupied at any given time.  To entertain themselves in the off time, the two innkeepers are performing a live-in paranormal investigation to uncover the inn's haunted past.  Specifically to confirm the haunting of the inn by a tragic widow named Madeline O'Malley who hung herself in the inn.

A lot of the movie is really just the two of them bantering and doing EVP sessions in various places during the night.  The movie really takes its time getting into things, spending a lot of time just watching the characters' daily lives...guests checking in, forgetting towels, fangasming at a famous actress, being creeped out by an oversharing barista, etc.  I really liked this, partly because I was expecting something to happen and when it never did, I started getting nervous.  Also partly because it was entertaining.  I liked watching the characters interact and actually got a feeling for them outside of the context of the movie.  It was really good that they didn't take everything deadly serious, and neither did the movie.  They felt real, which made it even better when the creepy stuff started to happen.

I really loved the way they approached the creepy things, because it was very suspenseful and discomforting.  You spent a lot of the movie tensely waiting for something to happen, and when something did happen it didn't jump out at you and then cut quickly because it wasn't actually something scary, it was presented slowly and deliberately.  You could see the thing coming into frame and KNEW that once you saw it, you'll wish you hadn't...but you just keep looking.

The ending sprint is a great, panicked payoff after the setup and development.

This whole movie was really well put together, it had some very funny bits and the characters were great.  The horror elements were carefully placed, but the build up and atmosphere made them super effective.  I'm definitely on the look out for more Ti West.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Horror Off-Season: The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil is a 2009 thriller written and directed by Ti West, starring Jocelin Donahue and Tom Noonan.  The story is set in the early 80's, and feels like it could easily have been filmed then.  Ti uses a lot of 80's techniques, and even shoots on 16mm film.  This sort of dedication really makes the movie.  When I first started watching it, I told people it was really good at being set in the 80s.  A Haunting In Connecticutt is one of my favorite movies, but it's terrible at being set in the 80s.  It felt so modern I just didn't get that it was supposed to be set in a different decade.

Between this movie, The Innkeepers(2011), and being on the horror anthology v/h/s Ti West has really been making a name for himself that is surprisingly unmarred by having directed Cabin Fever 2.  And he deserves it, man makes a mighty fine movie.  And this is his IMDB picture.

Where do I sign up to have Buckaroo Bonzai direct my movie?

The House of the Devil's premise is a pretty uninteresting throw back to the haunted house/slasher movies it's trying to emulate.  Our main character is Samantha, a "nice" college girl who's trying to find her own apartment because her roommate gets too much late-night nookie.  To pay for her new apartment she takes a babysitting job being advertised by flyer on campus.  The call is decidedly shady, but she takes the job any way.  Even after meeting the person placing the ad and having him explain in the creepiest way possible that everything he said about the job until now was a lie.

The house is creepy, all the characters except Samantha and her roommate are pretty creepy.  It's a little cheesy, almost, but still very creepy.

The movie builds nicely and then goes totally sideways with a great Satanic twist.  There's nothing really remarkable about the ending, but it is gripping to watch.  There's a lot that reminds me of Rosemary's Baby and When a Stranger Calls.  The ending would be completely ineffective, and downright silly, without the great buildup and characterization from the rest of the movie.

It definitely moves slow, which lends to some of the early atmosphere building feeling like it's laid on too thick, but it pays off because it involves you in the story.  This was a really nice throw back to early 80s movies, but with better quality and more interesting pacing.  I thought this was a great movie, but it could definitely come off as too slow or too dull or too weird to some audiances.

If you like the old school, or really appreciate a good creepy slow burn without a lot of jump scares or gore, this is worth checking out.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Beerening: Review: The Alchemist's Heady Topper

In 2011 Hurricane Irene struck the east coast, causing an estimated $2.6 billion in property damage.  Flood waters caused massive damage, and one of the casualties was Vermont's Alchemist pub & brewery.  Thanks to community and industry support and a massive amount of determination Alchemist was back in the business of selling beer barely a month later, using the profits from those batches to rebuild their business.  In February 2012 they began to export cans of their Heady-Topper double IPA to Massachusetts.  Although, it's still exceedingly difficult to find.

Heady-Topper is a pure and beautiful exploration of American hops, with almost nothing getting in the way.  The style, Double (or Imperial) IPA is defined as a strong malt backbone balanced by a high to absurdly high hop bitterness.  Heady-Topper is really neither of those things, as it is not bitter and not malty.  It's pure, unfettered hops.

The beer recommends drinking it from the can, so I had one from the can and then another a day later poured into a pint glass, and I can definitely understand the recommendation.

Even from the small opening in the can the beer is overwhelming fragrant.  Just a gorgeous collection of American hops, particularly the ones that smell like tropical fruits.  The beer smells like oranges, and mangos, and tangerines.  Very juicy.

Taking a taste of the beer is a cool, smooth, explosion of hops.  It's not sticky, or bitter, it barely tastes like beer.  There's a small amount of a light grainy maltiness to provide a slight sweetness behind all those fruity hop flavors, but it's barely noticeable.  The same flavor persists pretty much all the way through the can, albeit with a diminishing explosion each time you drink.  What's interesting is that it doesn't get sweeter as it warms up, which is often the case with beers with really strong flavors.  It keeps a surprisingly refreshing smoothness the entire can.  At no point does it hint at its 8% ABV.

The beer has a very light body but at no point does it feel thin or prickly.  The carbonation is very light and just lifts the hop aromas out of the beer but doesn't try to make the beer feel fuller than it is.

The next day I poured the beer from the can into a pint glass.

The beer is a little hazy, which is very unsurprising given how much hops are obviously in it.  What is worth noting is how light it is.  The color is a pale golden yellow more like a regular Pale Ale, or a Wit.

Flavor & Aroma - Part 2
When poured the effect of the beer is noticeably more subsided.  It's still a wonderful, juicy, hop bomb but feels a little more dull.  One advantage of pouring is that the aroma spreads out more, so it becomes a gift that keeps on giving.  Since the hops have calmed down a little bit, the malt character is a little more present.  It's still a very light flavor and is just slightly sweeter than from the can.

I am far more impressed with this beer than most other ultra-hoppy beers, which tend to feel very thick and bitter.  This is so clean and easy drinking while also having a tremendous amount of flavor and aroma, it offers me absolutely nothing not to enjoy.  It's not something to drink every day, besides its price point this amount of glorious hop aroma is too much to have very often.

But it's definitely worth it to find, haven't really had anything like it.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Beerening off-topic: The three tier system and the rise of a craft

I think it's time we sit down and have a bit of a serious chat.

A bit of background

From 1920 to 1933 the United States was under a period of alcoholic prohibition.  A result of the Temperance movement, the 18th amendment prohibited the production or sale of alcoholic beverages except for medicinal purposes.  After several years, and the rise of organized crime, the noble experiment was abandoned.

Prior to prohibition the limited ability to transport beer prevented national distribution, as such there were over 1,500 breweries in the U.S.  These breweries served small geographic areas and were often the only brewery in that area.  Also, bars in the area were often either owned or wholly supplied by a single brewery. 

In the 13 years prohibition was in effect, refridgeration technology improved quite a bit.  This meant that beer lasted longer and could be transported further.  When prohibition was repealed, the surviving breweries wanted to increase their range and influence, and also bars needed access to beer.

And so, the 3-tier system was created.  Effectively, the system created Producers, Distributors and Retailers.  A brewery was a producer and not allowed to sell to retailers, which is to say liquor stores and bars.  Bars could now buy whatever they wanted from distributors and sell that to their customers.  Neither bars nor brewers had to focus on distribution infrastructure as there was a whole other industry that was now dedicated to moving beer from brewer to customer.

What went wrong

Success, of course.  Of the 1,500 breweries, only 750 or so survived the prohibition.  By 1945 this number was down to 468 and in 1980 there were only 101 operating breweries in the U.S.  How do you consolidate an industry that much, that quickly without a few major winners?  It's simple economics: A product with less competition in a market does better in that market, and any company producing something invariably wants to produce more and sell more.  Since brewers had to rely on distributors to get their products to consumers, it became the brewer's best interest that distributors not sell their competition.

Think about the beer delivery trucks you see on the road.  How many have their own logos, and how many are just advertisements for "their brand".  These are Miller trucks, or Budweiser trucks...not really just beer trucks.  And they can do this because the effectively own the distributors.

Back in 2010 AB InBev, the company that owns Budweiser, tried to buy 70% of the distributor City Beverage.  This is pretty bad already, but is made worse by the fact that AB InBev already owned 30% of the distributor.  Luckily, this was widely regarded as a bullshit move and the state blocked the buy out.  The matter is still under review, but this is highly indicative of the way the large companies behave.

Why it matters

Check it:  Since the low point in 1980 the number of breweries in America has been increasing.  Craft breweries have gained a ~6% market share in 2011, up .71% from 2010 while the overall beer sales have gone down 1.32%.  Craft beer is still growing even while the industry itself shrinks.  In order to continue to do good business, even major distributors have begun to carry craft beers.  Obviously, a trend like this interferes with InBev's profits, and obviously they don't like that.

Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal have noted AB InBev's plans to recoup some of their lost U.S. market.  Some of their plans involve funneling money into craft labels like Shock Top, and making malt liquors that aren't even beer.  Disturbingly, is the decision to lean on major distributors that have begun carrying craft beer due to the increased demand for it.

The new head of Bud has said that since he shows 'loyalty' to Budweiser's distributors those same distributors should show 'loyalty' to dropping the craft beers that are on the rise to sell more InBev.

How do you show loyalty to a distributor as a brewer?  You're legally obligated to sell them your beer if you want to get it to people.  Apparently by allowing distributors to acquire other distributors.

That's perverse.  In the 3-tier system distributors are supposed to be the independent agents who provide the beers consumers demand.  A producer like AB InBev should not have a say in how a distributor runs its business.  If it does, how is it different than the brewery selling directly to the retailer?

If AB InBev does have this level of control over their distribution tier, it is unfair to the point that it should be illegal.  Smaller brewers, people I know personally, are not allowed to dictate how any other business is run and AB InBev should not be allowed to do so in order to save their brands.

If Budweiser is no longer profitable it should be allowed to fade without interfering with breweries like Harpoon, or Oberon, or New Glarus, or Real Ale Brewing Co., or Alesmith, or Goose Island, or anyone.  AB InBev should learn to make their money brewing beer people want to drink instead of punishing businesses who are providing that beer.

These small, local breweries are on the rise because they're making a product people are literally thirsty for and this massive international conglomerate is trying to legislate them out of the possibility of making a living just to protect a few fractions of a percentage of the market share of a company that sells 20% of all the beer sold on the entire planet.

Fuck that.