Saturday, October 31, 2015

House of Scary Movie Rankings

I have previously ranked horror movie herehereherehere, and here. So let's do another few. As per the rules, these must be movies I have seen in the past couple years and remember well.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
I watched this with my son last weekend. He was suitably scared/fascinated by this first of the modern zombie movies. I was afraid he'd be upset by the nihilistic ending (spoiler warning?) but it didn't bother him at all.

Story/Plot/Characters--Characters are thin and dialogue is functional, but it's well-acted and well-made for such a low-budget film. (2.5 points)
Special Effects--One of the first gory movies. Primitive by today's standards but still effective. (1.5 points)
Scariness--Yes. (1.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--I've mentioned before that one thing I'm looking for in horror movies is a sort of sense of isolation, like there's no escape from the situation. This has that in abundance, plus it's atmospheric in a more traditional sense as well (fog, cemeteries, etc.). (2 points)
Total=7.5 points

DAY OF THE DEAD (1978)
The sequel to Night of the Living Dead and no, I didn't show this one to my son. Maybe when he's older. Like 22. I have seen it as recently as last Halloween. One of the best horror movies ever made, and possibly my personal favorite. A genuinely scary movie but also a cogent satire of materialistic 1970s American culture.

Story/Plot/Characters--Good pacing, tight plotting, many complicated action scenes are presented clearly and coherently. Well-drawn characters. Dialogue a little less than sparkling but not actually bad. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--Cutting-edge effects at the time, possibly the goriest American movie made up to that point. Perhaps a little dated but grading on the curve gives it a full score here. (2 points)
Scariness--Some of the tensest, scariest scenes I have ever viewed. (2 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--So freaky. The scene near the beginning when the helicopter is taking off as the skyline of Philadelphia winks out behind it is one of the all-time great visuals. The scenes at the mall as zombies "shop" the corridors is unbelievably freaky. (2 points)
Total=9.5 points

MAN-THING (2005)
Here's a movie that counts as both a horror film and a comic book movie. I'll do it as a comic movie in a later post. I'm a big fan of the Man-Thing, especially his first comic series from the mid-1970s. It's set in a small town in the Florida everglades, where an ancient Indian site in the neighboring swamp has spawned a creature to protect it against the encroachments of modern industrialized society. I'll say right now this movie got some of the basics right but did not nearly capture enough of the weirdness of the comic in its heyday. By the way, this movie has nudity and gore and is not suitable for children

Story/Plot/Characters--One thing I really hate in movies is when Hollywood actors fake a Southern accent. The southern accents in this movie are terrible. Characters are thin (why did they do away with the nuanced characters in the comic?) and dialogue is god-awful. Still, the pacing moves well and the plot is mostly coherent. (1 point)
Special Effects--Some decent effects, but not anything to write home about. (1 point)
Scariness--If you rely on gore rather than suspense, you should really actually have more gore. (.5 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Actually some fairly atmospheric scenes in the swamp and the oil refinery on the edge of town. (1.5 points)
Total=4 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

There are plenty of strips with Charlie Brown striking out, but this one from June 1967 seems harsher than most:


I think it's the irony of the camp sign at the end that does it. Sure, that's the source of the joke, but it's also the source of the cruelty. It's not just that Charlie Brown struck out and the other kids mocked him, it's that so much more was promised to him that he didn't receive.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

What I'm Reading: The Martian

I admit I was a bit skeptical when someone loaned me The Martian recently and told me I should read it. The Martian? That new movie with Matt Damon? Isn't that an airplane book, not real literature? (Yes, despite my devotion to comics and genre science fiction, I am quite a snob in certain respects.) Well, I did read it, and am glad I did so, despite some reservations with the book.

The book that The Martian most reminds me of is The Da Vinci Code, although if that's unflattering, let me say I consider The Martian far more worthwhile. But what I mean by the comparison, is that The Martian relentlessly pushes its plot forward, leading to a sort of page-turning mania in the reader, and The Da Vinci Code is the only recent book I could think of that had this quality to such an extent. I don't read a lot of potboilers though, so forgive me if there's a more recent book I should be thinking of instead.

Yet, I think The Martian has far more value, because its tale of astronaut Mark Watney, stranded on Mars and forced to survive for years until a rescue mission can be mounted, is based in hard science, which Watney (and through him, author Andy Weir) shares with us in abundance. The Da Vinci Code, on the other hand, gave the impression of being based in fact but was actually mumbo-jumbo and conspiracy theory that no actual archeologists subscribe to. Watney's story, though, could practically be used as a manual, were any unfortunate astronaut actually to fall victim to a similar scenario.

But this propulsion of the plot also creates what I consider the book's greatest weakness: its lack of sensory detail, of scenery-setting and place-building, of any sort of evocation of the wonder of a distant planet. The book almost gets away with it, as its protagonist, who narrates much of the story via his mission journal, is a hard-headed engineer who probably would take little notice of the more poetic aspects of his situation. Yet, there's such a startling lack of place description, even as the book at a couple points goes into some detail on the 70s TV sitcoms he watches to pass the time, that Watney comes across as unbelievably superficial. A mechanical engineer, a botanist, with a great sense of humor and a genius for survival--but perhaps the dullest space explorer ever. Only his situation keeps us interested.

I've read plenty of Arthur C. Clarke in my life, whose stories were always grounded in hard science and who often emphasized plot and concept at the cost of characterization, Yet Clarke certainly would not have passed up the chance to convey to the reader the awesomeness of dwelling on a red planet with two moons. What do sunsets look like on Mars? What does the soil smell like? How about Watney's habitat? He tells us it smells bad, as he's reusing his own feces to fertilize his garden. But he doesn't make us feel it.

Still, I think I can recommend this book to anyone who would enjoy a page-turning science-fiction adventure solidly grounded in actual science and set in the near future. A reader can expect to be entertained and to learn a little, even if the book doesn't stick with you for more then ten minutes after you're done reading. This is Andy Weir's first effort at a novel, and before his next one, I hope he reads some Arthur C. Clarke, some Ray Bradbury, some Robert Heinlein, so he can see how to balance the science with the human.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

In his introduction to the first volume of the collected Peanuts, Garrison Keillor mentions this February 1954 strip as his favorite:


I can see why. That petty jealousy that you shouldn't feel, but you do anyway, seems like something a lot of Keillor's characters in Lake Wobegon feel. A quiet jealousy that worms its way into your brain and prevents you from finding real happiness.

What I like is that there's a real joke here, too. I laugh when I get to the end and I see Charlie Brown watching that pitiful little train go around in a circle. Oh, how we've all felt that way.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ghost of Scary Movie Rankings

I have previously ranked horror movie hereherehere, and here. So let's do another few. As per the rules, these must be movies I have seen in the past couple years and remember well.

NIGHT CREATURES (1962)
Another Hammer feature, this was our family movie last Saturday. Something of a rarity, and one of my personal favorites, with fine acting and a very clever script. Takes place in an English coastal town long known as a center for smuggling untaxed wine and spirits into England, as well as for its local legend about "marsh phantoms." When Captain Collier and his men show up to investigate smuggling reports, they find themselves stymied by the local parson, played by Peter Cushing, who is both a genuinely dedicated clergyman but also the mastermind behind the town's smuggling operation. Captain Collier disbelieves the local marsh phantom superstition and is determined to take his men out on the march at night to intercept the smugglers. This may not be a wise choice on his part!

Story/Plot/Characters--Well-acted, script fits together like a machine, great characters. Generally good pace except a couple scenes are a bit slow. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--Effective effects for what they are. The marsh phantoms are fine, although I don't think they'd bear pausing the screen. Some scenes feel a bit sound-stagey. (1 point)
Scariness--Not especially frightening, but some tense moments. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Very atmospheric, although it lacks some of the isolated feeling I like in horror movies. (1.5 points)
Total=6.5 points

FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
One of our movies last year, and a true classic. I don't need to recount the plot, do I? I will just say that upon rewatching, I was greatly impressed with how much pathos Boris Karloff pulled out of a role with no speaking parts, limited facial expression, and clumsy movements.

Story/Plot/Characters--As so often in these older movies, some drawing room-type scenes play a little slowly. But well-acted, tight script, untouchable plot. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--The effects were so well done that even still the popular imagination of a mad scientist's laboratory brings this movie to mind, and despite a number of subsequent Frankenstein productions people still think of Karloff when they think of the Monster. (2 points)
Scariness--Grading a little bit on a curve here, but for its era, some scary parts. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The castle, the laboratory, the mob with pitchforks, the foggy woods: dripping with atmosphere. (1.5 points)
Total=8 points

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
Another of our movies from last year, and one of the few horror sequels to actually top the original, with Dr. Pretorious an especially chilling addition to the list of characters and the Monster's attempt to make a friend truly emotionally affecting. Roughly covers the second half of Mary Shelley's novel.

Story/Plot/Characters--From start to finish a memorable classic, with only one minor, but extremely annoying flaw: a shrill, obnoxious old woman played by Una O'Connor, who mars several scenes near the start with her whiny antics. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--The effects are even better than the already excellent ones in the first movie. (2 points)
Scariness--Just as scary, or slight more so, than the first. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--All the atmosphere of the original, plus the sinister and freaky Dr. Pretorious gives this movie the full number of points on this score. (2 points)
Total=8.5 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

Here's one from April 1953.


Very noir-ish. Charlie Brown looks like he's ready to walk back to the office and wait for a dame to come to him with a new case. I think the lack of dialogue is what really sells this one. We're all alone in the universe, aren't we?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Son of Scary Movie Rankings

I have previously ranked horror movies herehere, and here. So let's do another couple. As per the rules, these must be movies I have seen in the past couple years and remember well.


PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962)
This was our family movie last Saturday. Scary enough my son had to leave the room at one point! This was the version done by Hammer, and according to Wikipedia had an unusually large budget for a Hammer film, including renting out Wimbledon Theatre in London for on-location filming. The movie reflects the extra money, as it's beautifully done. The music the Phantom plays is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which seems natural, although apparently this is the only movie version that uses Bach.

Story/Plot/Characters--Great acting, all the characters are well-motivated, pacing is natural and moves well, though with a couple slow scenes. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--Not an effects heavy movie, but a fire scene and the various theatre scenes are well-done and effective. Bonus points for great period costuming and sets. On the other hand, the Phantom's face, when we see it, is...less than horrific. (1 point)
Scariness--Some frightening moments. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Highly atmospheric London settings. (1.5 points)
Total=6.5 points


CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)
We watched this movie during our Halloween film series last year. Kids liked it a lot, and I found it entertaining if cheesy. Follows a team of anthropologists and their Brazilian crew as they explore a remote Amazon lagoon where a previous team disappeared after a major fossil discovery--a well-preserved specimen of an ancient amphibian man. Unfortunately, the species turns out not to be extinct!

Story/Plot/Characters--Acting is wooden, characters do a lot of stupid things because it moves the plot forward rather than out of believable motivation. Drags in parts.  (1 point)
Special Effects--One of the first movies to use SCUBA gear for underwater filming. The Creature's costume is rather laughable today but credible compared to other movies from the period. (1.5 points)
Scariness--Not really. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Some sense of isolation as the team finds themselves trapped in a remote Amazon upriver area. (1 point)
Total=3.5 points
______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points

Friday, October 2, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

Of course, Peanuts was all about the psychological hang-ups of its characters, but usually this was expressed in a pretty humorous way. Sometimes, though, the veneer of humor didn't quite take, revealing the underlying bleakness. Here's an example, from November 1961:


I feel for Charlie Brown, here. I've been in this situation before. Not much of a joke in this one, is there?

I'll probably do some more of these strips in the future. Let's call this feature "Bleak Peanuts."

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bride of Scary Movie Rankings

We came up with a method to rank horror movies here and ranked some more here. So let's do another couple. As per the rules, these must be movies I have seen in the past couple years and remember well.

KING KONG (1933)
Surely I don't need to describe the plot, right? A giant gorilla, discovered by the obsessive Carl Denham on mysterious Skull Island, whom he takes back to New York in chains, only for the big guy to escape and carry Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) up the Empire State Building?

Story/Plot/Characters--It starts off a little slow and some of the dialogue is less than sparkling. The overall plot, however, feels natural, even mythical. It's hard to believe there was a time when this story didn't already exist. (3 points)
Special Effects--The effects at the time were groundbreaking, and hold up well enough that my kids were riveted, even 80 years later. I must say the effects hold up well even in the age of CGI. (2 points)
Scariness--I wouldn't say this is a really scare movie, but there are some moments of real horror: the villagers offering Darrow up as a sacrifice to Kong, Kong breaking free of his chains before the audience in New York. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The ship's voyage, Skull Island, Kong flipping over cars in streets and climbing skyscrapers. (2 points)
Total=8 points

THE WOLF MAN (1941)
My daughter really likes this one for some reason, so we've seen it the past two Halloweens in a row. I, however, found it to be the most disappointing movie included in Universal's two-volume classic monster collection.

Story/Plot/Characters--This movie is so. slow. paced. And everybody keeps repeating this dumb poem about werewolves throughout the whole thing. And the dialogue is cheesy. (1 point)
Special Effects--I was convinced by the "making of" featurette included with this film that the make-up and costuming were really groundbreaking. (1 point)
Scariness--Nope. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--I guess there's some nice fog and the gypsy camp is pretty cool. It all feels very sound-stagey, though. (1 point)
Total=3 points
______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points