Welcome to the House of Crouse. World War Z, Zombie Women of Satan and The Walking Dead owe a debt of gratitude to Night of the Living Dead. In 1968, the story of story of people trapped in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse trying to survive an attack by reanimated ghouls dragged a bloody new horror genre into the marketplace. The film was directed by George A. Romero, man a kind and gentle man who became known as the King of the Zombies. He passed away this weekend at the too young age of 77. The House of Crouse pays tribute to the great man.
Horror fans must have an almost permanent feeling of deja vu these days. It seems that the horror films that we grew up with in the 1960s and 70s, like The Amityville Horror, Dawn of the Dead, The Fog and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, are all being re-made, which makes the new releases list in the newspaper occasionally seem like it came from the Twilight Zone.
The latest cult horror film to find a new life in 2006 is The Hills Have Eyes, the 1977 Wes Craven film that gave us the immortal line, “We’re going to be French fries! Human French fries!”
The 2006 version is directed by the French director Alexandre Aja who gave us the deeply unpleasant, but rather effective thriller High Tension last year. For the most part Aja takes his lead from the original film about an unfortunate family of vacationers who get stranded in desert of New Mexico, falling prey to mutant cannibalistic hillbillies. The bad guys are descendents of miners who worked in this remote location and continued to live there even after the government started testing nuclear bombs in their backyard. A generation later they have mutated into some very unpleasant creatures with bad tempers and a taste for human flesh.
Aja’s version takes one major liberty with the source material. In the original Craven established that the mutants, although they were evil, were a family. In fact they mirrored the poor family they were terrorizing—all American verses Americans all messed up by their own country’s experiments. I thought the contrast was one of the strong points of that film and lent a tone of social commentary about nuclear testing to the piece.
Aja forgoes social comment for shocks, and although he takes his time getting to the hard-core action, once the thrills arrive they’re worth the wait. This movie is not for the easily disturbed or the faint of heart, but if you like your scares gruesome and fast paced the Hills Have Eyes is for you.
“You may come and go, but you will not take people from the city. If I hear of it, a single time, I will destroy you without salvation.” — Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel)
Imagine George A. Romero going to a psychic early on in his career.
“There’s good news and bad news,” she might say, gazing into her crystal ball. “Which would you like first?”
“The good news,” the Dawn of the Dead director would reply.
“You will make many movies . . .”
“That’s great! What’s the bad news?”
“The only ones people will go see all have the words ‘of the Dead’ in the title.”
That didn’t happen of course, but the fact remains that zombie king Romero has had a rough time attracting audiences for his non-Living Dead efforts. Dig deep into the Romero bargain bin, though, and there are a number of films that deserve a second look. The Crazies is a spooky thriller about a manmade combat virus that causes death and permanent insanity in those infected while Knightriders is a wild romp that can best be described as The Legend of King Arthur meets Mad Max. Best of all is Martin, an arty 1977 movie about a young man who believes he is a vampire.
The eponymous creature of the night, Martin Matthias (played by Dawn of the Dead casting director John Amplas), is a shy suburban teenager with a blood lust, but none of the usual trappings of the Nosferatu. Instead of fangs he uses razorblades and needles to do the dirty work and he isn’t averse to garlic, sunlight or crucifixes. Despite no actual proof of his undead status, he is steadfast in his conviction.
Surprisingly he’s not alone in his belief. Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), an elderly old-world cousin believes that vampirism is a family “shame” and makes it his calling to save Martin’s soul by trying to arrange an exorcism with the local priest. He also takes the boy in and gives him a job at his neighborhood grocery store, but Martin can only control his cravings for so long.
Martin actually has more in common with Taxi Driver than it does with Dracula. Romero’s films have always brimmed with social commentary, but his 70s work is especially ripe with societal resonance. In Martin he filters the post-Vietnam ills of drug addiction and urban decay through the lens of a vampire film, focusing on the reasons why Martin behaves the way he does and not the behavior itself. Compared to other horror films this one barely qualifies as a shocker. There are just three violent scenes and while they are bloody, the gore is used more as a measure of Martin’s ineptness — his sloppy killing skills — than to scare.
Often labeled as horror, it’s more accurate to call Martin a psychological drama as Romero spends the entire film flirting with the question of whether Martin is really a vampire, or just a drug addict with a vivid imagination. Eerie black and white flashbacks portray him as an undead creature, but the reality is a much different story. With these black and white sequences Romero muddies the water, never settling on a definitive answer, preferring to let the viewers decide for themselves whether there are supernatural forces at work, or if this is all the product of a diseased mind.
In Romero’s world the notion that Martin might not be a vampire is scarier than if he was a certified bloodsucker. Romero uses the troubled mid-’70s and its products — drug-addicted youths, decaying cities and stultifying suburban life — as a catalyst for the kind of fantasy world Martin creates just to cope with his life. This reality, Romero seems to imply, is far more terrifying than a fanged man in a cape could ever be.
“I didn’t try to come down on one side or the other,” Romero said. “I like the lady or the tiger kind of thing. I tried to keep it ambiguous, but in my mind, he was a disturbed kid.”
Martin is dense with the kind of social subtext that Romero favors in his films. His zombie movies have been thinly veiled comments on consumerism and the media, and Martin is no less layered. On the surface it seems to be a simple story, but dig a little deeper past the garish lighting and Romero reveals a mixed bag of metaphors regarding drug addiction, mental illness and the evil that humans do to one another. It’s purposefully ambiguous. The director is asking the viewer to look inside themselves to decide what answer to Martin’s status they are comfortable with. Is he a vampire or disturbed young man? Drug addicted or mentally ill? The answer you come up with — what you chose to believe — Romero implies, says as much about you are as it does about Martin.
Why I am left nursing a nasty Hangover after drinking in too many movie sequels?
There is a great scene in Ken Russell’s 1971 forgotten masterpiece The Devils. Oliver Reed as the whiskey priest Father Grandier has been tortured by a church sanctioned witch hunter. His legs crushed, his tongue pierced, he refuses to confess to heresy. His tormentor leans in one last time to question the priest’s commitment to his faith.
“Do you love the church?”
After a long pause the broken and battered holy man says, “Not today.”
I bring this up because I have just read that 2011, with a sum total of 27 movie sequels scheduled to hit theatres, is the biggest year yet for sequels and I feel like my cinematic church has been defiled.
This weekend alone offers up two part twos, the imaginatively titled The Hangover Part Two and Kung Fu Panda 2.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with movie sequels. Arguably The Godfather 2 outstrips the original, and The Bride of Frankenstein is unquestionably a better movie than its predecessor. So are Aliens, Toy Story 2 and Dawn of the Dead. It’s possible to make sequels that improve on the source, so why doesn’t Hollywood do it more often?
Because they don’t have to, that’s why. Audiences get the movies they deserve.
Need proof. Look no further than last week’s box office. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which I called a “monstrosity” in this space just seven days ago, soldiered on despite my scathing review to gross $90 million domestically, $260.4 million world wide.
Hollywood wouldn’t spend the time or effort to make these photocopy quality sequels if we didn’t line up to see them, so the next time you’re wondering why you haven’t had a truly great time at the movies recently, think back to the amount of movies you saw with a 2, 3 or 4 in the title and hang your head in shame.
I love going to the movies, sitting with strangers and getting wrapped up in the images flying through the air, but when I leave the theatre after watching—or should I say, enduring—PotC: On Stranger Tides and its ilk, I feel like Grandier. I love the movies, but catch me on the right day, ask me the question, and my answer would be, “Not today.”
I get paid to watch these things, what’s your excuse?