Halloween III: Season of the Witch

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In the days leading up to Halloween, I’ve seen references to “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” (1982) on Twitter, with some people claiming that it’s “underrated.” I am forced to assume that the authors of these tweets are Russian bots bent on fomenting lies and discord.

The best praise that can be given for “Halloween III” is that it’s watchable. It is rarely boring and outrageously stupid, two qualities that can make even the most godawful movie fun to watch.

This film is the result of John Carpenter’s wish to produce a Halloween-themed anthology movie series. That’s kind of a great idea. One can imagine an endless series of films about ghosts, haunted houses, zombies, werewolves, poisoned trick or treat candy, urban legends, etc. And everyone wants to get scared at the movies in October. Seems like a sound business plan.

So what kinda story did they go with for their first installment in this Halloween anthology? Why, an action/sci-fi story, of course, with the starring role given to a doughy, mustachioed dad-type who seemed to have wandered off the set of The Rockford Files.

In the movie, Action Dad leaves his job to investigate a mysterious killing. His half-assed sleuthing leads him immediately to a supervillain with a grand plan to sacrifice children because of witchcraft, or something.

The villain’s name is Conal Cochran, owner of the Silver Shamrock toy company. His plan is as follows:

  1. Spend a lifetime creating a lucrative toy company to act as a front for Evil Plan.
  2. Steal a piece of Stonehenge and harness its magical ability to teleport flesh-eating bugs.
  3. Develop microchips that act as conduits for this magic.
  4. Develop a means of wirelessly communicating with these microchips via a television signal.
  5. Build an army of lifelike killer androids (just for fun).
  6. Create a line of children’s Halloween masks and secretly implant in each one a sliver of Stonehenge and an evil microchip.
  7. Create a marketing campaign to get children across the country to buy the Halloween masks.
  8. Continue massive ad campaign in days leading up to Halloween to convince all of these children to watch a television program while wearing their masks.
  9. During the appointed broadcast, activate the TV signal, which activates the microchips, which activates the Stonehenge magic, which teleports flesh-eating bugs into the children’s masks.
  10. The children’s heads are consumed from inside their masks. Nearby adults die of shock. Witchcraft reigns.

One thing is clear. The Silver Shamrock Corporation didn’t have a Board of Evil Directors, or they would have replaced Cochran for misappropriating funds for his pointless android obsession that had no real connection to the overall child-killing mission.

To be fair, Cochran’s plan is the saving grace of “Halloween III,” not because it’s scary or clever but because it’s so amusingly stupid that it makes the movie – kind of – fun to watch. It helps if you have some friends and an ample amount of intoxicating substances.

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Mommie Dearest

mommie-dearst“Mommie Dearest” (1981) is an uproariously funny film about child abuse and alcoholism. Much of the humor stems from the fact that it was largely unintentional.

Faye Dunaway stars as Joan Crawford, a fading star who decides to adopt some kids for a little extra publicity. Her motives aren’t quite as simple as that, actually. She is an independent woman who clawed her way up from the gutter and she’s convinced she can instill that same grit in her children while providing them with a luxurious upbringing.

Both of the actresses who play the daughter, Tina, do a fine job. The Young Tina especially conveys the developing rivalry with her mother with a subtlety that one doesn’t often see in a child actor. That said, this film would be utterly forgotten without Dunaway’s bombastic performance. Her Crawford possesses a madness that seeps through her very pores, into every gesture, every glance; it is either bubbling just beneath the surface or erupting into violence.

Dunaway famously disowned the film. Maybe she wanted to be taken more seriously. Maybe she never imagined that her portrayal of Joan could be interpreted as hilarious. Maybe its reception as a camp classic was embarrassing for her. It’s too bad she isn’t proud of it because it’s a spectacle to behold.

The opening sequence, where we see Joan wake up and begin her daily beauty regimen, illustrates how fully Dunaway embodied her character. Throughout the scene, her face is never shown but her mania is unmistakable. Dunaway became Joan Crawford, right down to her fingertips.

Whether this character called Joan Crawford has any relation to the real person is almost immaterial. The character Dunaway created has a separate and arguably more iconic existence than the real actress of the same name. I feel like Faye Dunaway deserves more credit in the drag community because whenever a drag queen does “Joan Crawford,” she’s really doing “Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford.”

“Mommie Dearest” is one of those movies that seems to have always been present in my head. It must have played on television in the early 80s because in my family we quoted it regularly. This seems odd at first glance since we experienced alcoholism and abuse first hand, but I think that was part of the appeal for us.

When you’re a kid, this film plays like a horror movie where Joan is the monster. Her children live in fear because their mother is perpetually on the brink of violence. The filmmakers seemed to understand the horror of being a little kid and living in the dominion of an unpredictable tyrant twice your size. When she gets angry, the tension ratchets up. You hold your breath, anticipating an explosion.

The scenes where she does lose her shit are the film’s scariest, most memorable, and ultimately, funniest because Joan exposes herself as an unhinged clown. No less terrible or dangerous, but a figure so ridiculous that mocking her becomes irresistible. And if you’re a little kid who’s experienced abuse for real, laughing at Joan Crawford makes you feel a little powerful.

It was cathartic for us, I suppose, because Tina is saner, calmer, and braver than her mother. She repeatedly defies this monster, sometimes with just a cold stare, sometimes with outright disobedience. This is, ironically, exactly how Joan raised her to be: strong, independent, and resilient.

There is material here for a straight dramatic interpretation of the relationship between Joan and Tina Crawford, and perhaps that was their intention, but if that’s the case, I’m glad they failed. Faye Dunaway’s performance was a gift to drag queens and scared little kids alike.

Friday the 13th Part III

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The original “Friday the 13th” (1980) was fascinating because it was so unlike what I expected. It had a mystery plot in which the killer wasn’t revealed until the shocking twist ending; just enough cleverness to elevate what would otherwise be a cheap rip-off of “Halloween” (1978). The “Friday” sequel from 1981 offered a sympathetic (or at least humanizing) portrayal of Jason and a likable main character who used her education, of all things, to trick Jason in the end. Who would have predicted that?

And throughout both of these films, nary a hockey mask appears.

Enter “Friday the 13th Part III” (1982). Here is the film that fulfills my initial expectations for this franchise: horny camp counselors getting picked off by a Man In A Hockey Mask, cheap production values, bad acting, and some creatively over-the-top kills.

“Part III” has the feeling of a quick cash-in. You can almost sense how eager the filmmakers were to make more money off this franchise. What was in the film was incidental. As evidence, I offer the shot where two characters get into a car and no less than three crew members can be clearly seen reflected in the windows.

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That said, “Part III” played an important role in the evolution, or at least the endurance, of the franchise.

The last installment developed Jason as a character, but here’s he’s just a “force of nature.” This is sometimes how people describe Jason. He’s relentless, he has no apparent goal or purpose, and he just kills whoever is nearby him. According to “Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th” (2013), the director (Steve Miner) told the actor who plays Jason, “Don’t ever ask me what your motivation is.” Jason is just a killing machine.

Jason’s transformation from a character to an Iconic Horror Movie Monster was necessary though. Necessary in the sense that “Friday the 13th” wouldn’t have become an enduring series of films otherwise. The characters of Jason and Mother Voorhees had been substantive enough to sustain, barely, two films. At this point, the series needed a new hook.

So, they could have developed the camp counselors into more complete characters and tried to make a real movie or they could have pushed the camp factor and reveled in the franchise’s inherent stupidity. They made the wise choice.

For extra protection, the filmmakers turned to Hollywood’s favorite money-making gimmick, 3D, which had the nice effect of inspiring some creativity, as each kill had to be exploitable in 3D somehow. A simple machete to the face wouldn’t do for this film. Here we have harpoonings, eyeballs being ejected from their sockets, and one very clever shot filmed from below a glass floor in which a young man is cut in half while walking on his hands.

And at some point, someone put a hockey mask on Jason. It just looked neat.

While “Part III” pushes the franchise into campier territory than its predecessors, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s great fun. Most of this movie is bland and forgettable.

But “Part III” was a bridge. In a way, the series needed to regain its footing now that Jason was transitioned from a character to a Monster. At the very least, it set the stage for future installments to use Jason the Monster to greater effect.

Blade Runner

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Disclaimer: I assume herein that Deckard is a human being, not a replicant. Ridley Scott’s attempt to retcon this film is too stupid for further discussion. The original intention that Deckard is human is evidenced most notably by the repeated avowals of the screenwriters.

“Blade Runner” (1982) is all about the visuals. Here is a proper sci-fi movie with a complete, fully realized, lived-in world. Los Angeles 2019 is utterly convincing. It’s a masterpiece of special effects. This, above all, is why “Blade Runner” deserves to be seen and appreciated.

I think some might be tempted to construe it in loftier terms than it deserves because of its obvious religious and existential themes, and its eyeball motif seems designed to inspire film student thesis papers. But themes and motifs should only underscore a good story and good characters, and therein lies the problem with “Blade Runner.”

Deckard, the main character, is a cop who’s been assigned to track down and kill a group of synthetic humans called replicants. His main character trait is his lack of empathy. The replicants he’s chasing were used as slave labor on an off-world colony but they killed their masters and escaped to Los Angeles. Deckard doesn’t care about any of this. He doesn’t want to take the case but his boss makes some vague threat and forces it on him.

Deckard doesn’t have any grudge against replicants motivating him to track down these fugitives. He doesn’t sympathize with their plight as slaves. Instead, we have a main character who doesn’t care about what’s happening in the story and is only going through the motions because he “doesn’t have a choice.”

Hm, okay. Maybe this will pay off, we think.

Later he meets a pretty replicant named Rachael. She’s been given false memories to help her cope with her burgeoning emotions. This has had the side effect of instilling in her a belief that she is human. True to his character, Deckard doesn’t care about her feelings. He calls her “it” and casually reveals to her the horrible truth that she is a bioengineered product, not a person. His only apparent motivation for this is boredom or cruelty.

But Rachael forgives him. She even saves his life later. She brings him back to his apartment and he awakes to the sound of her playing piano. She says she remembers lessons but acknowledges that these must be false memories. Deckard says, “You play beautifully,” meaning, it doesn’t matter whether the memories are real or implanted; you are you now.

He’s beginning to see her humanity.

Or at least, he’s seeing her as human enough to think of her sexually. By that I mean he attacks her and forces her to say she wants him. He gives her this order as if she’s bound to obey him as a superior being, like the way Asimovian robots relate to humans. She complies, but she does not convey sincerity like a proper robot would. Her resistance is the strongest indicator of her humanity.

 

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Sean Young as Rachael the Replicant, “Blade Runner” (1982)

 

Deckard still sees her as inferior at this point but what is unclear is whether this is because she’s a replicant or a woman. Seriously, it is conceivable that the assault scene was meant to be sexy in 1982, meant to convey not his complete disregard for her as a person but the opposite, that he was falling in love with her.

Later Deckard faces Roy, the leader of the fugitive replicants. It becomes clear that Deckard is no match for the physically superior replicant. Roy could easily kill Deckard, but he doesn’t. He injures him and terrorizes him.

Deckard desperately jumps out of a window and tries to climb to the roof. Roy looms over him and says, “Now you know what it’s like to live in fear. That’s what it is to be a slave.” And there it is, finally, Deckard’s chance for empathy.

We’d like to assume that this experience changed him. What evidence do we have of this? He goes back to his apartment, finds Rachael there, and tells her he loves her. They escape together.

Okay… What?

That’s a nice, quick resolution to the story but it feels wrong. The movie wants us to feel happy that Deckard and Rachael both survived and they’re together. This gives the impression that they were not fully aware they were telling a story about a despicable character. And that is the problem with the story.

Deckard, now enlightened with empathy, should have realized how horribly he’d treated Rachael and arranged a passage for her to someplace she’d be safe without further burdening her with his miserable presence. Being woke doesn’t erase all the harm he caused.

The happiest ending this film deserved was one where Rachael was safe and Deckard was alone and repentant. And, of course, the last shot should have been an eyeball, its iris contracting in a bright light, to satisfy all those film student papers.

The Fox and the Hound

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“Darlin’, forever is a long, long time. And time has a way of changing things.”

Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound” (1981) was the first motion picture I ever successfully watched in a movie theater. It promptly became my first Favorite Movie and it held that title for many years to come.

This was before the days of home video, at least in my home, so for nearly a decade, my only memories of the film itself were the vague fragments of that first and only theatrical viewing. Thankfully, someone gave me the read-along storybook/record combo pictured below. I was too young to read but I listened to the record incessantly, flipping through the book to follow along with the pictures.

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photo via eBay user benfounditforme

I’ve often wondered why I became so transfixed with this story at such a young age. It certainly isn’t a magical adventure like so many other Disney films. In fact, one of the things people remember most about it is how sad it is.

“Sad” doesn’t begin to cover it, actually. The theme running through this movie is that when you love someone, you think it will last forever, but it won’t. It’s about the process of learning this truth, and how after you learn it you just have to carry on living, knowing that Time will erase everything you hold dear.

What the hell, Disney?!

No matter how many times I listened to that record, I always cried at the part where Widow Tweed says goodbye to Tod, her pet fox. The two meet at the beginning of the story after Tod’s mother is killed. Widow Tweed and Tod have both lost someone close to them, but now they have each other. The Widow says, “I don’t think I’ll be so lonesome anymore.” Then later in the movie it becomes clear that she has to return Tod to the wild, and as she’s driving him out to the forest, she drops a spoken word poem, “Goodbye May Seem Forever,” that encapsulates the gut-wrenching emptiness you feel when you have to say goodbye to someone you love.

And yet, I continued to put on that record and taste those tears, time and again. I don’t think I was just a bottomless well of sadness as a child. This movie tapped into a feeling of insecurity that was buried in my subconscious. Not about myself, but about my world.

In the early 1980s, I had what I thought was a happy little life. I had two parents who loved me, my sister, a best friend, lots of cousins, aunts and uncles, my grandparents. I had birthday parties and Christmases and a troupe of stuffed animals. But when I went to bed at night, I would hear my parents fighting, their voices twisted in anger, almost unrecognizable. I’d hear crashes and my heart would race. I think I must have known, on some level, that my world was on the verge of breaking down.

Then along came this movie.

I think I related to Tod at the beginning when he first meets Copper, a hound dog puppy. They play together, they wrestle, they go swimming. They vow to be best friends forever. They have a happy little world.

But Copper belongs to a hunter, Amos Slade, and a friendship between a fox and a hunting dog can’t last forever. Tod’s friends keep telling him this. They show him the dead bodies that Amos has hung up like trophies. They warn him that Copper will eventually turn into “a real killer.”

Tod can’t fathom it. He says, “Not my friend Copper. He won’t ever change.”

When you’re a little kid and your life has only ever been one way, you can’t imagine it being any different. That’s how I felt, and that’s how Tod felt. By the end of the movie though, Tod has grown up, he’s been exiled to the wilderness, and Copper has become just as bloodthirsty as his master. As a little kid watching it, you get a glimpse of what it looks like when a happy childhood turns into a depressing nightmare.

I wonder, did they sell Happy Meal toys for this?

The character Big Mama, the wise old owl voiced by Pearl Bailey, delivers the movie’s thesis statement: “Time has a way of changing things.” Somehow, I knew that she wasn’t just talking about Copper and Tod. This concept applied to me.

In the film’s climax, Tod saves Copper and Amos from a bear, prompting Copper’s redemption moment where he steps in front of Amos’s gun and saves Tod’s life. In the end, everything is reversed; Copper and Tod have been separated but they’re happy in their respective homes, and Widow Tweed and Amos have a budding playful friendship. Even the caterpillar character, Squeeks, changes into a butterfly.

“The Fox and the Hound” tells us, yes, everything will change, and some of it will feel awful, but some of it will be unexpectedly beautiful. And you’ll be okay in the end.

That may just be the reason I wore out that record.



Notice the clever way they marketed this movie to look like normal family entertainment. And below, some lovely person recorded the actual read-along book from my childhood. The Internet has everything…

Escape from New York

escape-from-new-york-posterA lot of people love John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (1981). I’m not one of those people.

Half in the Bag, the movie review show on YouTube, features the two most important voices in film criticism today: Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman. Jay has said that if he had to choose only one movie to watch for the rest of his life, this would be it. That baffles me. Of all the movies filled with excitement, humor, pathos, mystery, wonder, spectacle… Why, Jay? Why “Escape from New York,” which lacks all those things?

He articulates his love for this film quite admirably, and it does have some good qualities. I guess if you’re only going to watch one movie for the rest of your life, it makes sense to pick one that has a rich atmosphere and a slow pace, giving you plenty of time to ponder little details and contemplate all of its dark corners.

Also, that was probably just an off-hand comment, not meant to be taken literally.

But anyway, that slow pace is my main problem. How is a movie called “ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK” not an action-packed adventure? Here, I agree with Mike, who does not share Jay’s reverence for the film.

“Escape” tries to trick you into thinking it’s an action movie. The title conjures a feeling of adventure. The poster (a work of art) depicts the main characters escaping from a mob, the head of the Statue of Liberty having crash-landed, somehow, in the middle of Fifth Avenue. The main character’s name is Snake and he wears a guerilla-like costume complete with eye patch.

But this movie is slow. It’s moody. The scenes that do contain action aren’t that spectacular and they’re undercut by Carpenter’s low, droning score.

About that score: it’s a fine piece of music. I’d very much enjoy it apart from this film. But as the score for an action movie, it’s totally wrong because its sluggish tempo underscores the film’s slowness. If you don’t have the budget to orchestrate great big action sequences, you can disguise that a bit by adding an exciting score to amplify the action.

The editing has the same effect. The multitude of long, unbroken wide shots exacerbates the film’s languid pace, whereas some more lively editing could have helped create the illusion of excitement. There’s a scene early on that illustrates how the editing and music drag this movie down and drain it of excitement. It’s this one, where Snake flies into Manhattan:

Considered on its own, it’s a fine sequence. The graphics in the cockpit are cool and the music has an ethereal quality. It’s “dreamlike,” as Jay puts it. That’s all very well, but is this really how you want to start your action movie?

Why did they make this sequence so dull? It’s almost as if they were trying to make a slow, dramatic take on an action movie premise. Almost.

The fact that this film doesn’t rise to the level of a typical action movie would be fine if the intention were to subvert the audience’s expectations, as some sort of commentary on the genre, the way “Scream” (1996) did for horror movies. Yet, even with the music and editing, I still don’t get the feeling that the final product was intentional. Throughout the film, you get the feeling that Carpenter tried to make a “cool” action movie, but just made a lot of sad choices along the way.

Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Melting Face

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“Don’t look at it.”

For the first 20 years of my life, I was haunted by the memory of seeing a man’s face melt off. Okay, I saw it happen in a movie, but I was only about four years old, and when you’re that little you don’t really understand what a special effect is. So for all I knew, I saw a man’s face melt off.

While that image lingered in my brain, the movie it came from faded into oblivion. I always assumed I’d seen that melting face in some obscure horror film. Then sometime around Y2K, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) was reissued on VHS. I was an admirer of Spielberg but I’d never really sat down and watched the original Indiana Jones film until the release of this remastered, widescreen edition. Like many a film nerd before me, “Raiders” would go on to earn a spot on my all-time favorites list.

(Continued below…)

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Towards the end of the movie, there was a line of dialogue that ignited a memory. It’s when Indiana and his companion are tied to a post, at the mercy of the Nazis who are about to open the Ark of the Covenant. Indy yells, “Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens.” It was my first time watching the movie, but I knew I recognized that line…

All my life I’d remembered that melting face but forgotten everything else about the movie it came from. Everything except one line of dialogue: “Don’t look at it!” That man’s face had been melted by some ghastly magic that couldn’t hurt you as long as you didn’t look at it. That’s a kind of kid logic; that if you just shut your eyes you’ll be protected from all manner of evil forces. To a four-year-old, this scene works as proof of the eye-shutting theory.

So when I heard that line again, I realized what I was watching. This must be the face-melting movie from my childhood… 

*  *  *  *  *

I was about four years old, innocently enjoying a sleepover at my grandparents’ house. They didn’t have much in the way of toys but I always found neat things when exploring far-flung corners and cabinets. And always, out of nowhere, my grandma would produce a plate of cinnamon toast as a late-night snack. Not the cereal of the same name but actual toast slathered in butter and coated with cinnamon – one of her specialties.

My grandpa was in charge of the TV, as usual. He never watched anything worth seeing, but mercifully it was too late for bowling or golf, so at least he’d put on a movie. Notably, he was playing it on what had appeared to be an iridescent record, although the machine he was using had no needle. He just slid the disc inside – completely baffling!

The movie wasn’t animated and didn’t feature any puppets, so I found it boring. After I finished my cinnamon toast, I returned to the Barbie I’d been playing with. My discovery of this item had been miraculous. After all, it was almost an action figure. She could easily be, say, Teela trapped on Earth and forced to work as a nurse to make ends meet while she searched for a portal back to Eternia.

I was deep into this storyline when the tension in the movie started to ratchet up. The heroes had been tied to a post and the leading man warned his girlfriend, “Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens.” Suddenly it had my attention. What was going to happen? What could be so terrible that this hero couldn’t even look at it? I needed to see it.

I held my breath, bracing myself for a scare. In the movie, one of the villains spoke an incantation over some kind of magic chest, and from its seemingly infinite depths flowed misty, glowing spirits. Not too scary. I relaxed, momentarily.

One of the spirits looked like the ghost of a young woman. She floated up to another bad guy, named Toht. He studied her for a moment from behind his glasses. Then: her pretty face transformed into a screaming skull, and the film’s score abruptly changed to a startling, clanging rhythm.

Before I could summon the wherewithal to shut my eyes, several things happened in a series of quick shots: the leader of the bad guys burst into flames, lightning shot from his body and electrocuted the evil army to death, one guy’s head shriveled gruesomely, and then, all of the flesh on Toht’s face melted. As his ears and nose liquified, his glasses slipped off his bloody skull.

That did it. My instinct for self-preservation overrode my terror and I regained motor control, shutting my eyes tight and covering them with my hands.

*  *  *  *  *

That image just parked itself in my brain for the next couple decades. It gave me a chill every time it resurfaced.

The magic of that face-melt is that it’s a single shot that lasts only four seconds. The special effects artists behind it painstakingly took a cast of the actor’s face and used it to create a realistic dummy, molded from a substance that they had carefully engineered to melt a certain way.

Untold hours of work for four seconds of film. Lesser filmmakers would have taken a shortcut, but Spielberg and the artists at ILM knew that with enough care and craft they could make four seconds of film last forever.

As long as you can stand to keep your eyes open.


Below: The original theatrical trailer for “Raiders,” the Ark scene in its entirety, and an analysis of the special effects used for the melting face.