Tuesday, July 1, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Films 12-16

George A. Romero wasn't exactly busy during the 1980s, and he was essentially unemployed during much of the 90s. Let's see if we can't cut through much of his slightly boring later career, non-zombie films, shall we? When he was asked to make another zombie film after Dawn of the Dead's unprecedented success, he believed he had too much on his plate to get down to it, costing him many, many dollars in lost revenue (Day of the Dead, released 7 years after Dawn, had nothing of it's box office numbers). So, with a screenplay for Knightriders, and a shiny new friendship with Stephen King, he said no to zombies, and yes to career malaise that lasted until 2005. Knightriders was not a horror film of any kind (though it does boast the entire cast of Dawn of the Dead in full renaissance garb riding motorcycles taking orders from Ed Harris, something I guess I didn't realize how badly I wanted to see. Seriously there's no reason why I love this movie as much as I do) and so won't be reviewed here, but everything else he touched between 1983 and 1999 was. They all also share a common theme: murdering people you've always harbored murderous thoughts about through some proxy or other, which gets old pretty quickly.

Creepshow
by George A. Romero

A horror anthology that takes it's cues from the Vincent Price type anthology pictures from the mid 60s, and from the EC comics the stories are all lifted from. Stephen King wrote the screenplay (and acted, god help us) and so the dialogue is ridiculous and the characters are all too over-the-top evil to be taken seriously, by me anyway; I never read EC comics, and I hate Stephen King like I do spiders and centipedes, so this film didn't do much for me. The segments (a bastard father comes back to haunt his ungrateful family from beyond the grave; a hillbilly finds an plant from outer-space that quickly makes itself at home; a jilted husband has an aquatic punishment in mind for his wife and her lover, but they've got one better; a man discovers an ancient crate from a forgotten dig (and it's pissed off cargo) that might be the end of his marital troubles; a neat-freak hates the cockroaches that have taken up residence in his apartment, maybe too much) are all weak enough without the emphasis on character development. The segment with the creature under the stairs is half-decent, but, like most of these segments, it takes too long to get going. When you have five stories to tell, it's best to let the editor do most of the work and not the screenwriter. The film gets so wrapped up in letting you know it's telling a story that it forgets to be scary.

Monkey Shines
by George A. Romero

What I like about this film is that if you didn't know it was made in 1988, there's a good chance you would never find out. What I didn't like was that this was clearly not enough to hinge a horror movie on, and I think Romero knew that. Alan is a law student who finds himself confined to a wheelchair without the use of his entire body, no girlfriend, and enough other problems to cause him to attempt suicide. Well his friend Jeffrey is a scientist and he thinks he has a solution. A helper monkey he's been doing freaky drug tests on. So, what happens? Well the monkey starts reading Alan's thoughts and carrying out murders to please her master. I liked this film as a drama, not as a horror film. I can't take a helper monkey with a razor blade seriously as something frightening. Romero proves once again that he can direct people, but, flounders a bit with his monster. I liked this movie, but, it wasn't scary (this, you'll see, is a trend in his non-zombie work).

Two Evil Eyes
by George A. Romero & Dario Argento

Made as part of an aborted Edgar Allen Poe horror television series, these two hour long films can be forgiven a bit of their trespasses, but not many. Romero and Argento were well into their forties, let's not forget. Romero's half, The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar, is an update of the story of a greedy wife and her sick husband. Adrienne Barbeau plays the doomed gold-digger who, after setting herself up to inherit a fortune (she has her lover hypnotize her ancient husband into signing everything he owns over to her), begins having second thoughts. First of all is the fact that Valdemar, the old man, must die of natural causes. Second is that once he does go, she and her lover begin hearing his voice. He keeps telling them he needs to be woken up, and that the others are trying to get through. Wonder what that's all about? Argento's story is the age-old Black Cat, which has seen more adaptations than the bible. Dickweed photographer Harvey Keitel, whose name, maddeningly is Roderick Usher, has a problem with his new-agey girlfriend's new pet cat. When he catches her with another man, he kills the cat and then his girlfriend. Neither thing will come back to haunt him, right? Argento's as usual suffers from a lack of understand human behavior, Romero's from his insistence on keeping the horror ambiguous. Argento gets major points for making good use of montage editing even if the whole thing is alternately flat and gross. Romero's film isn't really very remarkable, save for the few scares he gets out of the disembodied voices from the cellar. If the others were a little more concrete, we might be inclined to fear them, and if his zombies didn't look like the EC Comics zombies from Creepshow, the same would be true.

The Dark Half
by George A. Romero

Romero went back to Stephen King country for this unthrilling thriller about a writer who's nom de plume comes to life and starts murdering his critics. The film fails mostly because Timothy Hutton makes both a lumpy hero and a really lame villain. This is still a right sight better than Thinner or The Langoliers, but, it's still Stephen King, which means we have a few things: lame last names, really stupid insults and interjections, and a villainous force that is much more threatening on paper. Michael Rooker does a decent job as the sheriff who has to reconcile a Stephen King plot with the reality he lives in, but he's never been the weak link in any of his films. Romero's direction is competent, but ultimately he doesn't create any real tension because we've seen the film's conclusion unfold ten seconds after the first plot point. So, with a plot so very thin you could split it with Ella's straight razor, what we needed was a damn good conclusion. No such luck. There's a really tepid confrontation scene and then a process shot finale. And even for a King story, this film is jam packed with salt of the earth types. Maybe that's why Romero chose it? Who knows. All I know is I would have liked to see him try The Mist or some King story without mind-reading or magic. If you're looking to be scared, you're SOL.

Bruiser
by George A. Romero

By far the most interesting of his non-zom films, but probably the one with the least amount of Romero's style or humanity. A meek modeling magazine executive named Henry Creedlow hates his life and frequently escapes into hallucinations where he brutally murders the people in his life. This however isn't really important to the plot. What is important is that we're made aware that apparently he has no real identity. His girlfriend makes a point of telling him this after she gives his boss a handjob at a party. Then one day he wakes up with a white mask where his face used to be. This apparently is all he needed to go over the edge cause he strangles his girlfriend to death and starts killing other people in his life while leaving little hints leading to his identity. This film baffled the shit out of me. It's Romero's first with no ties to Pennsylvania and which featured exactly one of his stock company. It's loud and garish and has no real message, and yet Romero wrote and directed the thing. I suppose it's his statement about selling out to Hollywood, which he has yet to do, but I honestly don't get why he thought this was the most effective way to tell that story, or why he thought he needed Jason Flemyng to fake an American accent for the part of killer Henry Creedlow. I don't think he was even trying to scare people at this point, he was just trying to get his few remaining fans to think about why he had made the name for himself that he did (cause, I have to tell you, the ending of this film doesn't make a whole lotta sense). When you're fanbase thins and you have to defend your decision to remain a maverick to yourself, I guess it helps to have a film that proves your point. It just isn't very effective, is all. Romero had things to say, but he had no power with which to say them. It's like someone took away all his firepower and gave it to Edgar Wright, Danny Boyle, and Andrew Currie.

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