Catching up with the Freak Show

The Saturday Night Freak Show is not dead… I just haven’t had time to devote to writing in this blog. But, we’ve still been watching movies on Saturdays, including one of my favorite ‘80’s horror movies, Fright Night; a pre-release version of the awesome 300; a Grindhouse-tribute double feature that consisted of The Beast Must Die and The Devil’s Rain; and one of my favorite ‘80’s sci-fi flicks, the remake of The Blob.

Fright Night is the story of an 80’s teen (William Ragsdale) who suspects that his next door neighbor (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire. Not just suspects – the bloodsucker catches the kid spying on his toothy cavorting with a topless hooker by the bedroom window. After the shapeshifting vampire has threatened his life, Charley enlists the aid of Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a character homage to Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, one time star of Hammer-style horror flicks, to slay the vampire. The pic starts off ribbing 50’s & 60’s vampire flicks before evolving into an 80’s era light, makeup and magic show (courtesy ILM/Star Wars vet Richard Edlund), featuring gooey transformation sequences and monstrous vampire makeup. Chris Sarandon puts in a suave, memorable performance as the head baddie and scores big in a memorable nightclub sequence wherein he hypnotically seduces Charley’s girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), to a pulsating 80’s disco beat; he’s matched only by McDowall’s charming, frightened turn as the old movie star called to action. The teen characters seem mostly miscast, especially future Married With Children star Bearse, who’s hardly the timeless beauty the script assumes her to be. Director Tom Holland would go on to create Chucky with the initial installment of Child’s Play.

300 comes from the imagination of Frank Miller, comic book author of Sin City and "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns", and is adapted for the screen by Zack Snyder, director of the Dawn of the Dead remake. The story tells of King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler) and his saga of leading 300 warriors into battle against the armies of the Persian empire at the battle of Thermopylae. Pic is full of unapologetic, chest thumping bravado, hyper-stylized visuals (mostly computer rendered as cast was filmed on a green screen stage), grotesque but striking character designs, and cartoonish but graphic violence. A movie that rallies support for soldiers as patriotic defenders of family, home and country for once, 300 is destined to be mandatory viewing at U.S. army bases worldwide. Butler capably carries leading man role yet again – maybe this will be the one that makes him a star. Tech credits are spot on, including metal-edged score by Tyler Bates. Director Snyder is said to be in negotiations to helm the long delayed adaptation of Alan Moore’s "Watchmen" graphic novel after his success here.

Although no one went to see the Rodriguez/Tarantino double feature Grindhouse, it still remains, next to 300, the best movie experience of the year – an ode to 70’s exploitation movies that get frequent play in Dr. Sinestro’s basement theater. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror plays like the best John Carpenter movie John Carpenter never made, a zombie opus that sees an ensemble cast led by Freddy Rodriguez (Six Feet Under) and Rose McGowan (Scream) take on the populace of Austin, Texas infected by a government warfare experiment gone awry. Best thrill of the movie is seeing Michael Biehn (The Terminator) and Jeff Fahey (Lawnmower Man) given substantial parts to work with again, and McGowan’s iconic turn as a stripper with a machinegun leg. Score, by Rodriguez, even channel’s early 80’s Carpenter synth scores. Trailers between movies, including “Machete” by Rodriguez, “Werewolf Women of the S.S.” by Rob Zombie (featuring a surprise appearance by Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu), “Thanksgiving” by Eli Roth are all hysterical in capturing the exploitation era, with Edgar Wright’s “Don’t” being the best of the lot.
Tarantino’s Death Proof has gotten a lot of guff for being too slow, but it’s a Tarantino movie, for God’s sake – and that means lots of dialogue about nothing. How well you weather the verbal wordplay depends on your appreciation of Tarantino’s ear for dialogue. The actual story involves a psycho stuntman (Kurt Russell) stalking two groups of young women with his tricked out, death-proof muscle cars. Climactic chase scene, involving real life stuntwoman Zoe Bell (who doubled Uma Thurman in Kill Bill) is breathtaking and gut churning, made all the more impressive by it’s reliance on real-world, on camera effects. Unlike Rodriguez’s homage to 80’s flicks w/ a 2007 sensibility, Tarantino actually went and made a 70’s grindhouse movie. It’s unusual structure (Death Proof is almost 2 movies in itself, Death Proof and Death Proof II) makes one wonder if Grindhouse wouldn’t have been served by programming this feature first – it’s slow build pays off with one of the great closing shots in recent cinema, a high point that would easily have kept audience excitement levels high through Planet Terror as 2nd feature.

As a tribute to Grindhouse, we had a grindhouse-style double feature. The Beast Must Die is a 70’s exploitationer from Amicus studios, the contemporary rival to Hammer that stars Calvin Lockheart (Predator 2) as a wealthy big game hunter who lures 8 people to his vast estate with the understanding that one of them is a werewolf. The estate is wired with all sorts of surveillance equipment installed with the hope of catching the lycanthrope in the act. Peter Cushing and Michael Gambon are among the suspected guests, and the film actually stops for the “Werewolf Break” – a one minute timer on screen allowing audiences to guess which one of the guests is the werewolf. Gimmick serves to keep audiences engaged in sorting through the red herrings to determine the wolf’s human identity and makes for a good time at the movies.

Our second feature was the so bad its good drive-in classic The Devil’s Rain, starring the incomparable William Shatner as a man searching for the Satanists responsible for his father’s death. That said Satanists turn out to be led by scenery chewing Ernest Borgnine only heightens entertainment value. Plot involves Borgnine’s interest in acquiring an ancient book that Shatner’s family possesses; the Devil’s Rain of the title refers to a big globe that houses souls of those unfortunates condemned to hell. Finale of the movie involves most of the Satanic cast turning to puddles of goo in the rain, showcasing effects (“by the team that brought you Planet of the Apes”) that go on and on and on. Pic is well shot (on location in Mexico & the Southwest), showcasing dusty landscapes and ghost towns that would feel at home in any Western. Great cast of B-movie stalwarts includes Tom Skerritt, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino and Keenan Wynn. The film was financed by Bryanston, the New York outfit that produced The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and famously turned out to be a front company for the mob.

Our most recent Freak Show included a screening of 1988’s The Blob, directed by one Chuck Russell who previously did A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and went on to give Arnold Schwarzenegger a migraine while making Eraser. A remake of the 50’s Steve McQueen vehicle, The Blob sees a gelatinous, blood drinking glop of goo fall to Earth from outer space and terrorize a small town. Local bike riding, mullet-sporting tough guy Kevin Dillon teams up with homecoming queen Shawnee Smith (later of the Saw series) to take on the ever expanding wad of snot after the authorities are revealed to be, in turns, disbelieving, inept, and later, once the U.S. Army shows up, corrupt. You see, in the 50’s the Blob was a visitor from space; this version plays with that conceit for a while before a 2nd act reveal explains how the Blob is actually a mutated form of germ warfare cooked up by the government, brought back to Earth on a returning satellite. Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile) contributed to the solid script for this remake that boasts high tech 80’s mechanical and makeup effects. A forgotten gem that’s light years better from most 80’s sci-fi (I’m looking at you, Night of the Comet.)

So, that brings us up to date. We’re trying to retool the FreakShow for the future so we can watch more unusual and offbeat fare – so stay tuned!