Thursday, October 30, 2008

Palin, economy can’t scare people from Halloween

If on Halloween night you should find yourself surrounded by Sarah Palins, don’t be alarmed. It’s not an attack of the clones.

The Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate may or may not be a maverick, but she definitely is one of the hottest Halloween costumes this year. And you can take “hottest” in any sense you like.

Ricky’s Halloween Costume Superstore in New York City has come up with a “Miss Alaska” costume that is little more than a sash that says “Miss Alaska” on one side and “Miss Vice President” on the other. It does, however, include a facsimile pair of Palin’s stylish Kazuo Kawasaki eyeglasses. It’s up to the wearer to supply a star-spangled bikini like the one the model wears on the Ricky’s Web site. But what do you expect for only $22.99? It’s a costume priced for a sagging economy.

Somehow, I suspect most Palin impersonators this Halloween will stick with the standard-issue latex mask. At least I hope so, unless they happen to have a Miss Alaska figure.

As if Halloween night weren’t scary enough, the streets are sure to be crawling with people dressed as — shudder — politicians. And because this is a presidential election year, there will be plenty of Barack Obamas and John McCains to go along with such evergreens as Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton.

The proprietors of online retailer Annie’s Costumes claim that since 1980, the presidential candidate to sell the most Halloween masks at Annie’s has gone on to win the election. So, in case you’re wondering, Obama has a slight lead.

That leaves Joe Biden. Is anyone dressing up as the Democratic VP nominee? Anyone? Hello?
Even with the economy slumping toward a seemingly inevitable recession, Americans seem eager to spend money on celebrating Halloween. Of course, maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. The Golden Age of horror movies — Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” and Boris Karloff’s “Frankenstein,” among many others —occurred during the Great Depression. Economic hardship and the macabre seem to go together.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans plan to celebrate Halloween this year, according to the National Retail Federation, which expects $5.8 billion in Halloween-related sales, up from $5.7 billion last year.

Popular non-political costumes include the Joker (as played by Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight”) and Iron Man. But unfortunately the Iron Man costume you can buy off the rack isn’t as cool as the one in the movie.

And if you want something really scary, the most popular movie-related costumes for groups, according to, are the women of “Sex and the City.” Who hasn’t run in terror from Sarah Jessica Parker’s hats?

Everyone from Wal-Mart to Papa John’s is trying to cash in on Halloween, reported The New York Times.

“Halloween is a huge day for Papa John’s,” a spokesman for the pizza chain told The Times, “and having it fall on a Friday is a double benefit because we know there will be a lot of big parties.”
Of course, if your costume is a Sarah Palin bikini, you should probably steer clear of pizza until after Halloween.

Cable television always skews heavily toward horror programming during October, but this year offers more than usual. The Sci-Fi Channel, for example, has replaced its traditional “13 Days of Halloween” with “31 Days of Halloween” and has seen its year-on-year ratings rise as a result, The Times reported.

“With the financial turmoil, people want to escape and think about something else,” said Sci-Fi President Dave Howe.

“Something else” apparently means pleasant things like zombies, ghosts and masked serial killers. Just keep the slashers away from my 401(k).

Thursday, October 23, 2008

‘Cinematic Titanic’ invites you to go down with the ship

I love bad movies — the really bad ones that are so bad they’re good. But some are so mind-numbingly awful I can’t imagine watching them alone.

Thankfully, I don’t have to. I can board the “Cinematic Titanic” and go down with the ship, along with the creator and original cast members of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

What made “Mystery Science Theater 3000” so great was that no matter how terrible the movie, those three wisecracking shadows on the screen could make it not just bearable, but enjoyable. Along with Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and Joel Robinson (later replaced by Mike Nelson), I not only survived “Manos: The Hands of Fate” and “Red Zone Cuba,” I lived to watch them again and again.

When MST3K ended after 11 seasons, it seemed like all hope was lost. I was again left to watch the worst of the worst alone.

Eventually, Michael J. Nelson, along with fellow MST3K alums Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, would return with RiffTrax, a Web site that lets you download audio commentaries to play along with DVDs of recent movies. It’s an experiment in giving an old-style MST3K riffing to recent theatrical releases.

But Hollywood doesn’t make bad movies like it used to. “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” isn’t just bad, it’s sad. Watching it is like counting every penny wasted to produce it. A truly bad movie needs more than stilted dialog and dumb characters. It needs wobbly sets dressed in dime-store Halloween cobwebs or last year’s Christmas tinsel. It needs condiments standing in for blood and entrails. In short, it needs character. Also, with RiffTrax you don’t get to see shadows talking back to the movie.

While RiffTrax is a noble effort, leave it to the rest of the MST3K cast and writing staff to get as close to the old MST3K format as possible. The result is “Cinematic Titanic.”

“Cinematic Titanic” features MST3K creator Joel Hodgson (Joel Robinson’s civilian identity), Trace Beaulieu (the original Crow T. Robot), Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl and J. Elvis “Josh” Weinstein, who was the voice and puppeteer of Tom Servo when MST3K aired on Minnesota’s KTMA.

So far, the “Cinematic Titanic” crew has released four DVDs, and the response has been so positive that the plan is to release a new DVD just about every month, with each movie thoroughly eviscerated for your enjoyment. All “Cinematic Titanic” releases are available exclusively at, which also offers digital downloads via

And what a worthy batch of cinematic abortions it has been so far:

“The Oozing Skull”: The timely tale of a dictator who loves his people so much he wants his brain transplanted into a young, healthy body. He can’t just die and let any old strongman oppress his people, you know. Unfortunately his HMO doesn’t cover brain transplants, so the dictator must call on a mad scientist.

“Doomsday Machine”: It’s the end of the world, and the only survivors aren’t exactly the strongest swimmers in the gene pool. For starters, they’re on a spaceship to Venus, which isn’t exactly the most hospitable planet for refugees. Mike Farrell (“M*A*S*H”) and Casey Kasem appear in bit roles. (They needed the money, I’m sure.)

“The Wasp Woman”: A non-classic from Roger Corman, the king of B movies. This movie is why we now test cosmetics out on rabbits. A Wasp Rabbit isn’t nearly as big a deal.

“Legacy of Blood”: A dysfunctional family must survive a week in a creepy mansion in order to claim an inheritance. One of them doesn’t want to share. Stop me if you’ve heard this plot before.
Each film is a big, fat target for the put-downs the CT crew hurls at it. And best of all, we get to see the gang’s silhouettes on screen. For MST3K fans, it’s just like old times. And for everyone else, there’s no better way to watch lousy horror and sci-fi movies.

Trust me, you don’t want to watch these movies alone.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Infamous clone of ‘The Exorcist’ is due new respect

“The Exorcist” inspired its fair share of low-budget imitators, and probably the most famous — or infamous, depending on your point of view — is 1974’s “Beyond the Door.”

Warner Bros., which released “The Exorcist,” sued the makers of “Beyond the Door” for copyright infringement but lost, clearing the way for other Italian “Exorcist” clones like “The Antichrist” (1974), which added sex and exploitation to the mix. Released on DVD in 2002, “The Antichrist” is now, sadly, out of print.

Meanwhile, “Beyond the Door” became a hit, grossing about $15 million in the U.S. That may not sound like a lot of money now, but it was a respectable sum in the early ’70s for an independently produced, Italian horror movie.

A staple at mom-and-pop video stores during the heyday of VHS rentals, “Beyond the Door” is only now available on DVD, along with two commentary tracks, interviews and trailers. Best of all, the newly remastered film looks better than it did when it originally played to theater audiences across America.

At last, we can assess this blatant — but non-infringing — attempt to cash in on the success of “The Exorcist” on its own merits.

First, to be fair to “Beyond the Door,” it’s more than just an “Exorcist” clone. It’s also a rip-off of Roman Polanski’s 1968 shocker “Rosemary’s Baby.” If Linda Blair were not only possessed by the devil but also expecting his little bundle of joy, it would look a lot like “Beyond the Door.”

Jessica and Robert Barrett are a happily married couple in San Francisco. Robert (Gabriele Lavia of Dario Argento’s “Deep Red”) is a music producer, while Jessica (Juliet Mills, most recently seen in the TV soap opera “Passions”) is a housewife. They already have two children: a pre-teen daughter who never goes anywhere without a copy of Erich Segal’s “Love Story” tucked under her arm and a young son with a pea soup fetish.

Children didn’t have juice boxes in the ’70s, so I guess it was normal back then for a boy to slurp pea soup through a straw — and to have a Warholesque poster of a soup can hanging above his bed.
No, wait, there’s nothing normal about that at all. But the conspicuous, not to mention absurd, emphasis on pea soup does blatantly conjure images of a key scene in “The Exorcist.”

The Barretts already are stuck with a daughter who swears like a sailor and a son who is just plain weird. So, the last thing they need is another child, especially one who is the spawn of Satan. But if the devil wants a baby, he’s not going to let a little thing like birth control get in the way. So, Jessica unexpectedly finds herself pregnant. And worse still, the fetus is growing at an unnatural rate. Satan, it seems, is in a hurry. Plus, the movie is only an hour and 40 minutes long.

To make matters worse, Jessica’s ex-boyfriend Dimitri (Richard Johnson of Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie”) is lurking in the shadows, occasionally emerging to intone, “The child must be born!” He is not exactly a disinterested party. Having let Jessica escape from his satanic cult years earlier, he’s now once again doing Satan’s bidding.

As the devil’s baby grows inside her, Jessica goes from wanting to abort it to threatening to kill anyone who tries to take it from her. She levitates above the bed, turns her head 360 degrees and occasionally speaks in a demonic voice. Pretty much, it’s all the same stuff we saw in “The Exorcist,” only with ridiculous dialog and those two annoying children.

But you can’t dismiss “Beyond the Door” that easily. Mills delivers a chilling and, at times, grotesque performance, and director Ovidio G. Assonitis is no slouch behind the camera. While he filmed the interior scenes in Italy, Assonitis shot most of the exteriors in San Francisco, and he makes good use of that gorgeous backdrop.

Even if Assonitis set out to do nothing more than hop on the “Exorcist” bandwagon, he did so ably. It’s no surprise “Beyond the Door” was such a success when it was first released. And now it’s a welcome addition to any horror aficionado’s DVD collection.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Horror master Dario Argento concludes 30-year-old trilogy

Just in time for Halloween, the final installment of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy has hit DVD. So, the question is: Was it worth the 30-year wait?

“Mother of Tears” completes a cycle that began with Argento’s 1977 masterpiece “Suspiria” — a film that routinely makes most “scariest horror movie” lists — and continued in 1980 with “Inferno.” Inspired by “Suspiria de Profundis,” a 19th century “prose poem” by English essayist Thomas de Quincey, the trilogy tells of three witches known as the Three Mothers.

Hundreds of years old and leaving only misery and death in their wake, the three are the Mother of Sighs, based in Freiburg, Germany, and the oldest of the Mothers; the Mother of Darkness, based in New York City; and Mater Lachrimarum — the Mother of Tears — who lives in Rome, Italy.

“Suspiria” and “Inferno” dealt with the Mother of Sighs and the Mother of Darkness, respectively. Now, it’s the Mother of Tears’ turn to unleash chaos on unsuspecting mortals.

And that’s just what she does, when she reawakens after an urn containing her relics is unearthed in a church graveyard and opened by two unsuspecting museum curators.

As he did in “Suspiria,” Argento opens with a grizzly murder that makes everything that follows seem almost tame. Without cataloging the — ahem! — gory details, it’s a new height of carnage even for Argento, who has never exactly been shy when it comes to gore and bloodletting.

One curator’s death scene is so brutal, it would probably be more at home in a Lucio Fulci film. If Argento is Italy’s answer to Alfred Hitchcock, Fulci was Italy’s George Romero, except his films are even gorier than Romero’s.

The other curator, Sarah, played by Dario’s daughter, Asia Argento (“Land of the Dead,” “The Last Mistress”), escapes the slaughter only through the supernatural intervention of her dead mother, played by Asia’s real-life mother, Daria Nicolodi (“Deep Red,” “Tenebre”).

As Mater Lachrimarum’s influence spreads, Rome descends into chaos. People randomly commit acts of murder and destruction, while witches from around the world converge to celebrate the Third Mother’s rebirth.

Meanwhile, on the run from the witches and their minions, Sarah learns her mother was a white witch who died, not in an accident, but during a failed attempt to kill the Mother of Sighs. (She did, however, weaken the First Mother, leading up to the events in “Suspiria.”) Now, having inherited her mother’s supernatural abilities, only Sarah can stop the Mother of Tears before she can plunge the world into a new Dark Age.

While not perfect, “The Mother of Tears” is a satisfying conclusion to Dario’s saga. His films have always been more about visual flair than plot coherence, and this one is no exception. (If you’re looking for a flawless Argento story, you’ll have to go back to the one he co-wrote for Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.”) The script relies heavily on coincidence, starting with the urn just happening to be opened by someone already connected to the Three Mothers.

Some of the casting is also suspect. Unless ghosts continue to age, which would make the afterlife suck even more, Nicolodi is 30 years too old for her role. As for the Mother of Tears herself, Israeli model-turned-actress Moran Atias spends most of the movie naked, which makes up somewhat for her deficiencies as an actress.

But nobody watches Argento’s films for their plots, and “Mother of Tears” has everything you could want from the master director, from gorgeous cinematography to meticulously staged death scenes. Of course, the film also gives Argento’s critics plenty of new ammunition — especially critics who believe Dario really, really hates women.

Even if it isn’t a masterpiece like “Suspiria” or “Deep Red” (1975), “Mother of Tears” is still probably Argento’s best film since 1982’s “Tenebre.” And that makes it well worth a rental on a cool October night.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Lone Ranger gets a new faithful ‘Indian’ sidekick

Johnny Depp is a busy man.

Last week, Depp announced he has signed deals to reprise the role of Capt. Jack Sparrow in a fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie and play the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s new version of “Alice in Wonderland.”

Unlike the latter tale’s Queen of Hearts, I have a difficult time believing six impossible things before breakfast. Actually, I have a hard time believing six impossible things before lunch. So, when I read about a third role Depp is undertaking, I didn’t believe it. Not at first, anyway. I checked with at least a half dozen sources before it finally sank in.

Depp has also agreed to portray Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s “faithful Indian sidekick,” in a new version of “The Lone Ranger” to be produced by “Pirates” producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Just repeat it to yourself: “Johnny Depp is Tonto.”

All three films are Disney projects, and the executives at Disney no doubt hope their take on the Lone Ranger is more successful than the last one, 1981’s “Legend of the Lone Ranger,” which starred two nobodies as the Lone Ranger and Tonto and was a colossal box-office flop. At least Michael Horse, who played Tonto, went on to better things, like a supporting role on “Twin Peaks.”

This is a big risk for Depp. The question is, will Native American activists be more upset that a white actor is playing a Native American character, or will they be more upset that Tonto is in the movie in the first place? I understand that in some circles, Tonto is viewed as a negative stereotype.

This could be the worst case of Native American miscasting since Burt Reynolds starred in “Navajo Joe” or William Shatner starred in “White Comanche.” Take your pick.

Actually, Depp has played a Native American before, in 1997’s “The Brave,” which he also directed.
Fun fact: Iron Eyes Cody, who portrayed “the crying Indian” in a famous 1970s public service announcement, was actually Italian. Jay Silverheels, however, who played Tonto on television in the 1950s, was actually a Native American — and also a Canadian.

While nothing is official yet, George Clooney is reportedly in negotiations to wear the mask, white hat and powder-blue cowboy outfit. Hopefully, this turns out better than the last time Clooney played a masked crime fighter. Otherwise we can look forward to Christian Bale resurrecting the Lone Ranger franchise 10 years from now in a film titled “The Lone Ranger Begins,” to be followed by either “The Lone Knight” or “The Dark Ranger.”

So, let me get this straight: The actor who killed the 1990s Batman franchise might star in a new franchise based on a character who flopped in his most recent movie outing. And the casting of another actor could lead to angry protests. Who greenlights these projects?

Still, I’ll admit I’m interested in seeing exactly how Depp plays Tonto, if for no other reason than it’s certain to be weird. Keith Richards inspired Depp’s portrayal of Capt. Jack, while Depp based his performance of Ichabod Crane in “Sleepy Hollow” on Angela Lansbury. Who will Depp channel for his portrayal of Tonto? Whoever it ends up being, I expect Depp to blow Clooney off the screen. And Depp has, on occasion, made even bad movies watchable — like “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.”

The Lone Ranger was created for radio by Fran Striker, who also created the Green Hornet. In fact, the Green Hornet is the Lone Ranger’s grand-nephew, which I guess makes it appropriate that the upcoming “Green Hornet” movie also involves an odd casting decision.

Stephen Chow is set to direct as well as co-star as the Green Hornet’s partner, Kato, taking on the role that the legendary Bruce Lee filled in the 1960s TV series. If anyone can stand in for Lee, it’s Chow. He’s not the issue.

What I want to know is, who thinks of Seth “Knocked Up” Rogen when casting the Green Hornet?
Of course, this means that in a weird, only-in-Hollywood way, Seth Rogen is related to George Clooney. And that may be stranger than anything Depp can come up with.