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Creature Features in Review: Slither (2006)

 

Again I find myself mesmerized by the complexity of the creature features subgenre. And as a first, thus far in our little series, we find ourselves in the midst of a horror-comedy within the creature feature mythology. The gory ridiculous atmosphere of Slither (2006) is no doubt the responsibility of its creator, directed no less than by Guardian of the Galaxy symphonist James Gunn. Now, as most already probably know but I’ll mention it here again, Gunn has an interesting repertoire of cinematic exploits. He was the director who took on the remake to Dawn of the Dead (1978), keeping certain elements whilst still maintaining itself as a stand alone movie ALL THE WHILE pleasing not just audiences, but fans of George A. Romero’s beloved classic. But Gunn is not without question…he did have a hand in those live-action Scooby-Doo movies and the not so cult-classic Tales from the Crapper. This weekend, apparently The Belko Experiment, in which Gunn wrote the screenplay, will finally be released to theaters, having started playing trailers off and on as far back as November of 2016, has already come under fire from critics. So where does that leave Slither? Well…I think I’ll leave that explanation on the shoulders of our esteemed guest contributor, Jonny Numb.

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By: Jonny Numb

 

Universal’s decision to let James Gunn direct Slither was an act of faith that spoke to the studio’s appreciation of how his Dawn of the Dead screenplay – coupled with Zack Snyder’s direction – led that film to box-office success.

The result – a 1950s-styled creature feature that combined practical FX with CGI – was a pastiche with a disparate cast (including cult favorites Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker, and rising star Elizabeth Banks) that had a mercilessly short theatrical run.

I get it because I wasn’t a fan of Slither when I first saw it on DVD. I can’t remember why it didn’t click for me – maybe because it leaned on “backwoods redneck” character types too much (and that specific type of humor); maybe because my taste in sci-fi is maddeningly specific; and maybe – just maybe – it was because I had yet to be exposed to the wonders of Captain Mal on Firefly.

In any event, I revisited the film last year (for the first time in a decade) and was surprised that my feelings toward it had improved. While problematic in places (mostly in the wobbly, tone-setting early going), Slither grows into a bizarre and sneakily subversive take on the sci-fi it’s paying loving homage to:

The Blob (either version). The Thing (Carpenter version). Invasion of the Body Snatchers (mostly the ‘50s version).

There are also subtle-to-obvious references to the works of David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski, as well as Gunn’s former tenure as a screenwriter for Troma (including a Lloyd Kaufman cameo); and keep an eye on the Main Street storefronts during the opening credits for more sly Easter Eggs.

Grant Grant (Rooker) is a macho sleazeball in cheesy glasses who’s married to trophy wife (and elementary-school teacher) Starla (Banks). Spurned by his wife’s refusal to fulfill her duty as willing sex object one night, Grant meets up with local bar girl Brenda (Brenda James). In a bit of cosmic irony, they find themselves in the woods, and Grant has feelings of remorse before he can consummate any carnal desires. More ironic still, this leads Grant to the discovery of a translucent egg-sac with a symbolically vaginal opening, one from which something shoots out, infecting him with an extraterrestrial parasite. After the transformed, meat-craving Grant impregnates Brenda, she becomes the “mother” to the alien invasion.

Once the parasites explode (literally), Slither really kicks into gear. Gleefully grotesque practical effects – and some CGI that hasn’t aged as well – ensue.

To make a hard right turn: does anyone really talk about Kylie (Tania Saulnier), and how she’s probably the smartest, most resourceful character in the movie?

Only on my most recent viewing did it occur to me that we see her not once (in the high-school classroom), but twice (in the crowd at the town’s “Deer Cheer” event) before being properly introduced around the family dinner table (where she makes reference to the “Japanese” design of her painted fingernails (tentacles much?). Her character is at the center of a great setpiece midway through, during which she’s taking a bath with her earbuds in, and winds up fending off a parasite with a curling iron. Even more so than the scene’s well-taken stylistic nods to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Shivers, notice how Gunn allows Kylie to react as rationally as the situation will allow, without turning it into an excuse for T&A or a gory money shot. When the tub parasite nearly shoots down her throat, Kylie briefly taps into the aliens’ shared consciousness – and the glimpses of havoc on an unnamed planet far, far away certainly foreshadows Gunn’s eventual segue into the world of high-budget comic-book blockbusters.

Rather ingeniously, the DVD cover for Slither – that of Kylie in the tub, being descended upon by thousands of squirming parasites – represents the film more accurately than most video-art concepts (which tend toward hyperbole). It’s unsubtle without really giving anything away, and Gunn subverts expectations for the scene itself by guiding it to a surprising conclusion. The sequence of events that follows the tub encounter is brilliantly rendered, and reminded me of Barbara’s full-moon escape from the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead (yes, the 1990 remake).

There are other things, as well:

The comic relief of Mayor Jack MacReady (played by Brian De Palma regular Gregg Henry), who – in look and demeanor – bears an eerie resemblance to a certain boorish ex-reality-TV star. He’s paranoid, perpetually angry, casually misogynistic, and at one point asks if the town’s being “invaded by the Russkies.” Gunn’s smart handling ensures that we’re always laughing at this clown, and Henry is definitely in on the joke.

Meanwhile, Starla transitions from Grant’s doormat to a model of marriage to, eventually, a woman who wakes up to the fact that her husband’s internal ugliness has manifested on the outside in a way that’s rather poetic. Their final confrontation is a fine demonstration of Beauty no longer tolerating the Beast’s shit.

So maybe, finally, the film resembles Bride of the Monster (but in title only. Thank God).

One nagging question, though: even with the padlock on the basement door, how did the stench of all those dead pets not make its way through the vents in the Grant household?

Jonny Numb’s Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Jon Weidler, aka Jonny Numb, is no stranger here on Machine Mean. He has contributed for us Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955) AND Clean, Shaven for our Fright Fest month back in October. Mr. Weidler works for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by day but is a podcast superhero by night. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast under the moniker “Jonny Numb,” and is a regular contributor to the Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird websites. His archived movie reviews can be found at numbviews.livejournal.com, and his social media handle is @JonnyNumb (Twitter & Letterboxd). You can read his review of A&C Meet Mummyhere.

Tune into The Last Knock for the best of HORROR movie reviews!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Sultan of Splatter

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If the title of this post doesn’t give away what we’ll be talking about, well…shit. We’ve got some work ahead of us. As any fan of horror, the one thing that we deranged nerds tend to appreciate, even more than the actors themselves, are the special effects guys (and gals). To be frank, why do we watch horror? To be entertained, fundamentally, correct? We’re not here to find enlightenment, though if it happens then all the better.  No, much like the poor bloodthirsty souls crammed into Rome’s gladiatorial colosseum, we cry out for escape from the realities of our plight. And what brings the greatest escape, the tastiest of entertainment? Gore. And all the horrible ways characters get done in by the monster, the serial killer, the freak in the castle, the alien invaders, the thing hiding the ice, whatever, we expect gore and lots of it and not just quantity but quality as well. For horror fans, special effects take front row. We critique effects just as harshly as we look at the screenwriters and even more so maybe than the directors. Who hasn’t sat through a terribly written and directed horror movie walking away loving it simply because it had awesome effects? It’s often the first thing we look at.

And with every decade, every generation, there are particular styles of special effects. In the 1940s and leading through the early 60s, it was what wasn’t seen that was supposed to scare you, and blood came from a bottle of Hersheys Chocolate. But starting in the late 1960s, following the advancement of technicolor, under the direction of guys like Alfred Hitchcock and Herschell Gordon Lewis, filmmakers began pushing those on-screen limitations and inventing new ways to entertain with effects. Dick Smith is rightfully the real pioneer of realism in special effects. His crowning achievement, realistic gore in movies such as The Exorcist, The Godfather, Scanners, and more. And Dick did more than pioneer the industry, he set the table for the rise of a new generation who would bring us even better work to the history cinematography.

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Tom Savini was inspired, not by Dick Smith or Herschell or even Frankenstein’s maker Jack Pierce, though no doubt they each impacted him in some way. No. Tom credits his inspiration to legendary early silent film star, Lon Chaney Sr, aka, the Man of a Thousand Faces. Chaney had a reputation in Hollywood for coming up and developing his own props and makeup, most of it often extremely uncomfortable, for the characters he played on screen, some of the most notable ones being The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Norte Dame, and London After Midnight. In 1957, Universal released the biopic of Lon Chaney Sr., and young Tom fell in love and began experimenting with special effects makeup, first on himself and later his friends. Eventually, Tom attended Point Park University and later Carnegie-Mellon University (following his tour of duty in Vietnam). After enlisting in the U.S. Army, Tom served as a combat photographer in the Vietnam War. It is during this service Tom most credits his development of special effects, taking the harsh realities of war and applying it to his later work.

The true birth of practical effects, or the surge of gore, really started in the 1970s, in such movies as Dawn of the Dead, I Drink Your Blood, and The Incredible Melting Man, among others. And it was during this era Tom Savini started his career which would eventually award him such titles as The Sultan of Splatter and The Godfather of Gore (though to be fair, I think this title ought to go to Dick Smith, don’t you think?). In 1974, Savini worked on Bob Clark’s masterpiece (but oddly forgotten) Deathdream, the story of a Vietnam soldier who comes home after being killed in action. I’ve often wondered what Tom thought about this flick, having served in Vietnam himself. Deathdream doesn’t present itself as being either pro or anti war, though we can certainly guess. What it does present is an overwhelming sense of questioning of our individual involvement in the affairs of the nation, beautifully told from the simplicity of a small town family unit. I’ll stop myself there. I can go on for a tangent with Deathdream, in fact, I’ve got a review of the movie…if you’re interested, you can read it here.

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Next, Tom worked again with Bob Clark in the movie Deranged. Later, he worked with fellow Pitsburg allium, George A. Romero, in the underappreciated fright flick, Martin. Let’s slow down here before moving on with Tom’s other work. Whenever I think of George A. Romero I first think of…zombies, yes, it’s true, shocker, right? But I also tend to think of Tom Savini after thinking about zombies. While Tom was in Vietnam, Romero was making Night of the Living Dead, but thanks to their relationship developed in Martin, they were able to collaborate in Romero’s second of his Dead Trilogy, Dawn of the Dead in 1978. If you know me, you know I’m a huge fan. Dawn of the Dead is without a doubt one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Not only was the screenwriting, the direction, the acting totally above par, but the practical effects also shined. Even today, though the blood is certainly not realistic, it is still effective. When the zombie-fro dude takes a chunk out of that lady’s shoulder, it still gives me the creeps. That’s a 38-year shelf-life, and it’s still aging, still perfecting like a fine wine.

Dawn of the Dead also opened new doors for Savini. In a slew of films, he would eventually be invited by Sean S. Cunningham to work on a new project titled Friday the 13th. Clearly, I’m picking all of my favorite movies Tom was involved in, and why sudden I? I’m the one writing this dang article! That being said, I’m sure there are other horror nerds who tend to lean in other directions regarding the Sultan’s work. Some may prefer Maniac or Eyes of the Stranger or The Burning or The Prowler, all are fine films worth considering. But for me, one of his crowning achievements was Friday the 13th. It’s because of this movie I question why Savini hasn’t been given the nickname The Father of Jason Voorhees. It was Tom’s creation that would spawn into a long lasting and fruitful franchise. Loved by many; despised by some. And as any tragic greek tale, Tom would eventually be asked to destroy his creation in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.

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And his career continues. In 1985, Tom was given the Saturn Award for Best Make-Up Effects in Geroge A. Romero’s third “dead” installment, Day of the Dead (1985). And he moved on to contribute to too many movies and television shows to mention here, working as not only a special effects guru but also as a director and an actor/stuntman. Without a doubt, his love for horror movies is very evident. He even started his own school for special effects by opening  Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, Pennsylvania and authored several books, including but not limited to Grande Illusions I and II and Horror F/X. For fans of the late 70s and 80s horror, it’s difficult not knowing his work and the work of other legendary special effects artists. It’s what we wanted most, the gore. Today, though, I have to wonder, are the makeup artist and gore masters even thought of. If I asked your typical The Walking Dead fan who did the practical effects for the show, would they know? I seriously doubt it. The answer is Greg Nicotero, BTW, who also worked on The Evil Dead 2 and Day of the Dead, and who is also from Pitsburg, which makes me seriously question what exactly does Pitsburg put in their drinking water. Maybe this is something we should start doing. No, not the drinking water, the “other” people who make movies possible. Even I do not know all the names of the effects or prop masters and all the other behind the scenes people working tirelessly to bring us our horrific entertainment. This is especially worse for TV as the credits flash by to make time for more commercials. So, if you’re a fan of horror, if you indulge to be entertained by the grotesque, after the show, after the movie, look up the effects team, the writers, the props, the composers, and read their names. you may be surprised to find a lot of these people have been involved in a lot of work you happen to be a fan of.

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Born November 3rd, 1946, today marks Tom Savini’s 70th birthday. And I wish him many more birthdays to come. Thank you, Tom, for your work and bringing not just me but countless others hours and hours of wonderfully sadistic entertainment. Cheers!

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Universal Monsters in Review: Son of Dracula (1943)

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Whenever you see a “Buy War Bonds” ad at an end of a classic Universal Pictures movie, you know you’re in store for a good time. And suffice to say, in a nut shell, Son of Dracula was certainly entertaining. The whole War Bond thing, I thought, was pretty classy of Universal to leave in the DVD formatting of the film. I’m not sure if any of the others have it as well, but of the movies we’ve reviewed thus far, Son of Dracula is the first. I’m actually really surprised Invisible Agent didn’t have a War Bond ad, given how propagandic the movie was (and yes, I totally just invented that word). And this in part is what gives these Universal Monster movies a particular glamour, the fact that we know historically that while folks were lining movie palaces at the Roxy or the Oriental or the Million Dollar Theater, their loved ones were gathering into training camps to ship off to war. For two years before Son of Dracula’s release, following December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, America was at war with the Axis Powers. Entertainment became not just a distraction but also a means of communicating support and moral. But there are also other themes going on as well, other than entertaining a war time audience. And we’ll discuss some of those themes here.

Before we begin, as per my custom, here is a rather decently written synopsis of the movie I found over at IMDb:

“Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr.) finds his way from Budapest to the swamps of the Deep South after meeting Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), of the moneyed Caldwell clan that runs a plantation called Dark Oaks. She’s obsessed with occult matters. Who better to guide her through this supernatural world than Count Alucard, whose name no one bothers to spell backwards? No one, that is, except the wily Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven), an old family friend. He’ll join Professor Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg), a specialist in the occult, in fighting this ‘Alucard’ and the woman he’s influenced. Or has Katherine influenced him? Meanwhile, Katherine’s fiancé, Frank Stanley (Robert Paige), will find his courage and his sanity sorely tested when he accidentally shoots Katherine to death, yet finds that she goes on living.”

Son of Dracula is a charming movie. Familiar scenes play out that will later be used in Abbot and Costello movies, such as Dracula arriving by train in the luggage department. The curious nature of Dr. Brewster, and the obedient naive fiance, Frank, summoned to the train station to fetch Katherine’s guest, are classic tropes used in all sorts of horror stories. The anagram, “Alucard,” was perhaps unnecessary. But maybe in a universe in which Dracula legends are real, then I assume the writers knew what they were doing. Speaking of which. Son of Dracula gets a double dose of Siodmak! Curt Siodmak wrote the screenplay while his brother, Robert Siodmak directed. We’ve reviewed thus far lots of movies penned by the talented Mr. Curt, however, Son of Dracula is the first film in which Robert directed. Robert will go on to direct many amazing films, most notably Phantom Lady in 1944, however, Son of Dracula will be his only fling with Universal Monsters.  I can only imagine what the stage looked like with both Robert and Curt working together. The first film that I know of that the brothers collaborated on was People on Sunday, a 1930s German silent picture during the interwar period, just before they both fled Europe for the coasts of California.

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But I digress. See what happens when I start rambling!

Back to the film at hand.

As I stated before, Son of Dracula is a very charming movie. The actors were excellent. The early 1940s special effects were actually rather good, I especially liked how Dracula kept his coffin in the swamp, and as the sun set upon the Bayou, it rose from its watery grave, and then walking upon the land in a wisp of smoke. I loved the part of Katherine who was not your typical “woman in distress” character. In fact, the woman in peril was played up only to fool audience and character expectations. Katherine was wonderfully not the hero nor was she the victim. Naive as she may have seemed, she was certainly in control. She wanted to live forever, consulting a witch she’d brought over from the old country, hardly second questioned when the hag turned up dead and she’d been seen fleeing the woman’s hut. No one was going to stop her or get in her way. Katherine was deviously two-faced. Towards the end, I actually stopped to ponder if Dracula was the antagonist, or if he was simply a vessel in which Katherine used to obtain immortality? Watch for yourself. It does seem as if Dracula was nothing more than a pawn, duped into coming to the swamps of America on the temptation of richer soil and life and of course, Katherine. Though, honestly, I don’t think Drac cared much for her, in fact I’d be so bold as to say he was using her as much as she was using him. And still, the camera rolled as if this stoic and powerful presence was in control when in fact it was the woman behind him that was pulling the strings.

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Given that this is a 1940s picture, its a rather fresh breath of air to see a woman playing the part of mastermind.

Certainly something we haven’t seen since the 1936 film, Dracula’s Daughter.

The real victim in Son of Dracula is gullible fiance Frank, who’s played more cruelly than the fiddle that Georgia boy played against the Devil. Catering to Katherine’s every need, pleading with her, lapping up her fawned morbidity. Man, the more I think about her character, the more cunning she seems. She brought Drac to America knowing what he was. She allowed the Vampire to slay her father, knowingly changing the will to suit her needs, all the while pretending some sort of family honor in keeping the estate. She coldly watches her boy-toy lose his mind and then temps him with life-everlasting, prodding him to destroy Dracula. Why? Because she got what she wanted out of the “monster.” Eternal life. After the cards have been played on the table, we are still uncertain what Frank will do. Will he destroy Dracula and return to his beloved to live forever. Or will he himself become destroyed? Or perhaps he will kill both Dracula and Katherine… Despite the fact that this movie is 73 years old, I’m still not going to give away the ending. I feel something this movie’s conclusion is something that needs to be discovered firsthand and not through a review, especially not by the likes of me. I will say though, I was surprisingly satisfied.

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My only qualm was the always lovable Lon Chaney Jr., who will eventually go on to play not only the Wolfman, but also Kharis, from the Mummy movies, and Frankenstein’s creature. And while he played an excellent mummy, best in The Mummy’s Ghost, and a rather decent Frank, I did not really care much for his role as Dracula, not even as a quasi fleshed out decedent of Dracula. He was…okay in the part as Chaney is an excellent actor, but still…his maleficence seemed too forced and very Larry Talbot-like. Also, towards the middle, the movie dragged on a bit. For Universal Monster classics, about an hour is perfect; an hour and twenty is pushing things.

My rating: 4/5

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Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel,Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Lanmò His new Subdue Series, including both Dwelling and Emerging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics.

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