Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Halloween Redux

Photo by Bruce Canwell.

And so another Halloween accomplished.

It's always the high point of my year, and it always leaves me feeling sad on the day — perhaps because it is the highlight of my year, and suddenly it’s All Over. 

In some (but not all) Pagan traditions, November first is actually New Year’s Day; Halloween is the last day of the year. This makes eminent sense to me, as Halloween definitely represents a Closing Down, a Locking Up, Endings, The Past. I like the notion that the New Year begins with a full season of Winter ahead: we thus begin an actual New Cycle in Full Lockdown Mode, huddle through the bleak months, and by April we know that the worst of the year is fully behind us. By comparison, having New Year’s Day in January seems arbitrary to me: nothing is new and no cycle is beginning in that desperate month.

As is becoming my Halloween Tradition, I donned Full Costume and proceeded to haunt Burleigh Street. If Halloween happens anywhere else in Waterville, I don’t know about it — but on Burleigh Street they set up roadblocks at both ends and allow families free range to Trick and Treat. It’s a safe place, and a fun place because so many families come from all over town. For a couple of hours, I get to live vicariously and feel like I’m five years old again. I don’t hand out candy, and I don’t go up to the houses. I consider it my job to act much as a Theme Park character and provide a little Extra Entertainment for folks. 

This year I went as an Angel of Death, with folding wings that gave me a black wingspan of twelve or thirteen feet. My favorite bit is to move up right behind someone who is engrossed in a conversation or in taking pictures with their phone, and just stand there silently until they notice me. I usually get a good jump-scare out of them, without doing anything. 

I find that little girls of a certain age are so courageous; they aren’t scared of anything and they take pride in being able to walk right up to “the monster” and say hi. (Any parents of little girls out there ought to be really alarmed by this — there are a lot of Real Monsters out there who aren’t anywhere near as benign as me). On the other hand there’s a certain breed of Silly Girl in their late teens who actually scream and run — them I chase (up to a point). Little boys are more fearful, while in their teens they are more likely to give you a high five. 

Most adults get with the spirit of the thing (even after a jump-scare), but every year I run into a handful of them who just walk past me with dark, evil frowns on their faces. I figure they must be Republicans.

In four years of doing this (once I got rained out), I have never shown my face nor repeated a costume: but this time, someone actually recognized me from last year. “Are you the same guy who —” I gave a bow. When someone actually remembers your costume from the year before, that’s the best compliment they can give you. 


On the other hand, this year’s crop of Halloweenish Movies was largely dismaying. I blame myself for having done too well tracking down all the good stuff in the past — now it seems most of what’s available to me (with a couple of notable exceptions) are the dregs.

For the first time I sampled some Japanese Horror — or rather, American Remakes of Japanese horror. The Grudge and The Ring both left me cold, although the former was particularly unwatchable thanks to the presence of the egregious Sarah Michelle Gellar in the lead role. I find her almost physically painful to watch, and tuned out after ten minutes. On the other hand The Ring is slick enough that I was able to sit through it all, even though it seemed to make less and less sense (and consequently got less and less frightening) as it went along. I'm as willing to suspend disbelief as anyone, but I do require at least a semblance of Internal Logic. Sadly, nothing in The Ring adds up. By the time it was over, I just felt cheated and frustrated and angry… so much so that I felt compelled to track down the original Japanese version.

What a difference! — and the differences between the two versions are far more striking and profound than the similarities. “Changes for cultural reasons” doesn't begin to cover it, although the Japanese appear to have a cultural advantage in the sense that psychic abilities and phenomenon are just Accepted As Fact, requiring no explanation. The backstory is profoundly altered between the two versions, as are the main characters themselves — I found the Japanese characters to be deeper and more sympathetic. Especially disgusting to me is a scene in the American version in which Naomi Watts more or less wantonly and deliberately kills a horse, thinking nothing of it, concerned only for herself; no such scene exists in the Japanese version. I give Ringu high marks… the American Ring is best avoided.

The most unfortunate thing about A Series of Unfortunate Events is Jim Carrey. Somebody for crying out loud put a leash and muzzle on that guy! I think of it as insecurity on his part that he us unable to just play a single scene in character without dropping out for one inane ad-lib after another. He is more than enough actor to play Count Olaf straight, and the movie would be much better if he did. Meryl Streep slices the ham pretty thick here as well. It’s too bad, because most everything else about the picture is creditable, barring only a last minute Hollywood-Ending leap away from the source material.

Way up high in the “Oh My God Calgon Take Me Away” category is Burnt Offerings, directed by Dan Curtis from a ‘70s “thriller” so trivial that it’s no longer remembered by anyone. Nothing happens for the first nine hours of this picture: then Bette Davis starts to roll around in bed and scream, and I must admit that's a little scary, though not for the reasons Curtis intended. She dies when a smirking hearse driver pushes a coffin into the camera lens. Go figure. Then a swimming pool tries to eat a young boy. That's what I said. He is saved by Karen Black, who made a career by looking slightly cross-eyed all the time. Meanwhile, Oliver Reed sweats a lot and grunts and groans and flops about on the ground. Then he goes up to the top floor of the house where Karen Black has put on a bunch of Old Lady make-up. This scares him so bad that he jumps out the window. His body smashes head-first through the windshield of the family car where his son just happens to be sitting. Son is appropriately freaked out by all the stage blood, and goes running into the yard, where the house chimney falls on him. He hears and sees it coming and has plenty of time to get out of the way, but he stands there like a typical '70s movie character and lets the damn thing fall on him. Having taken pictures of Bette Davis and Oliver Reed and the boy and neatly installed them next to a few dozen other photos, the house is magically restored to its former glory. Oh, the humanity!

The best thing that I can say about Robert Wise’s Audrey Rose is that it’s a heckova lot better than Burnt Offerings. Wise is a notably more assured and experienced director than Curtis, but his movie is adapted from an equally inconsequential ’70s book that wasn’t very good in its day and never stood the test of time. Marsha Mason adds some weight to the thing with her performance, while Anthony Hopkins just looks as if he wants to be somewhere else. What starts as a spooky tale of reincarnation turns suddenly into a courtroom drama in the third act. Here it takes on the aspect of a made-for-tv movie, lumbered with a host of TV actors, especially including Magnum, P.I.’s John Hillerman, Lou Grant’s Robert Walden, and St. Elsewhere’s Norman Lloyd, the latter of whom plays a psychologist who single-handedly brings the whole story to a tragic end with his incompetence and bad decisions. Well — at least with Audrey Rose dead, we don’t have to watch any more of her horrible acting.

When MAD magazine did their parody of Roman Polanski’s most famous movie, they called it “Rose-Mia’s Boo-Boo.” Once again we have a novel best described as a piece of tripe being adapted for the screen — but Polanski makes the damn thing work. Although its depiction of witches is at best soft-headed and at worst a perpetuation of Salem hysteria, it effectively capitalizes on the notion that those Perfectly Nice Neighbors of yours may be Up to No Good, and is genuinely freaky for much of its runtime — until it leaps over the top in the final scene. I do love the heavy 1968 vibe and atmosphere, reminding me of a world I grew up in that has gone the way of the Dodo. Meanwhile, Ruth Gordon made a whole second career out of playing this part over and over again for the rest of her life.

Better still was The Woman in Black — a completely different animal from the stage play bearing the same name, although both are based on a novel by Susan Hill (a writer Worth Reading, which makes her unique among the novelists mentioned here). Both adaptations are good, creepy fun, both rely (and perhaps over-rely) on jump-scares, both tell approximately the same story — but best thing about both of them is to have seen them both, if that makes any sense. They accomplish their minimal goals in very different ways; taking them as closely together as you can will give you a textbook lesson in the differences between film and stage technique. 

Meanwhile, although she is advancing in age just like the rest of us, Janet McTeer is still a Goddess.

From Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors through Blacula, from Corpse Bride to Paranorman, from Murders in the Zoo to The Old Dark House, the better pictures that I watched this Halloween Season proved over and over again that Horror and Comedy walk hand in hand. This leads me to the best and smartest Halloween Movie that I watched all season: last year's vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. To say much about the movie would spoil it. Just know that it’s Spinal Tap for the vampire set, written, shot and performed by a canny gang of New Zealand comedians. I watched it early in the season, and now I wish that I’d saved it, so that I could have ended on this extremely high note. If I could have had three other pictures during the month that were this good, I’d have been a happy camper indeed. But it just goes to show — how hard it is to make movies at all, and how much harder it is to make good ones. 

Well, now. This post has gone on an awfully long time. I’ll end it with the scariest observation of all: They are already putting up Christmas Stuff in the damn stores. 

Sigh. Is next Halloween really twelve months away?

— Frede

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