Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Forgotten 90s horror comedy: Mute Witness (1994)

After last week's brief detour to celebrate John Carpenter's birthday we're back on track with Mute Witness, a deliciously clever thriller written and directed by Anthony Waller (An American Werewolf in Paris). The mid 90s saw string of “self-aware” horror films coming predominately (though not exclusively) from the lens of Wes Craven and the pen of Kevin Williamson. Scream, New Nightmare, Urban Legend, Bride of Chucky all played around with the conventions of slasher horror films and the mechanics of movie making. One of the least mentioned or remembered is Mute Witness, a low budget film that got swept under the carpet in favour of other films with bigger stars.

Mute Witness sees Marina Zudina play Billy, an American make up artist working on a horror film being made on the cheap in Russia. Apart from the director and her sister all of the crew are native Russians with little grasp of English. However this isn't much of a problem for Billy as she is mute anyway. One night, after getting accidentally locked in the studio and she stumbles on a tiny crew working in the basement making an illicit porno. However the situation turns deadly when the scene turns into a snuff movie. When the crew of burly Russians notice Billy they pursue her. Billy escapes the studio but who will believe her story and more importantly how can she tell it when she can't speak!

To tell more of the story would ruin it but rest assured there's many more twists and turns. Apparently Waller's original plan was to set the film in 1930s Chicago but budget restraints forced him to relocate to both modern day Russia. I've got to say the location really helps the atmosphere of the film. Much like An American Werewolf in Paris, the film plays on the inherent creepiness of being lost in the backstreets of a foreign city where you don't speak the language.

I've got to commend Waller on such a fantastic premise too. A witness who can't speak being pursued by group of criminals trying to silence her. It's the kind of thing Alfred Hitchcock would have loved to play around with. Considering some of the subject matter you'd be mistaken for thinking that the film revels in bad taste but actually Waller handles everything very tastefully and wittily. The first signpost is the opening scene in which we see a woman murdered in a bizarre fashion before panning across to see a group of men watching, then slowly revealing we are watching the making of slasher movie.

Maria Zudina makes a good female protagonist, having to use her face to do almost all of the acting. In slasher movies, the female protagonist is always referred to as the 'final girl' and Billy makes for a completely unique variation. One very surprising cameo is made by Alec Guinness, who plays the head of a criminal empire. Waller apparently filmed his cameo in 1985 (ten years before the film was made) in Germany in the hour before Guinness had to catch a plane. Look closely at his second scene and you'll notice that it's just the first scene again with the footage reversed!

The only thing I can say that's bad about the film is that the second half doesn't quite match the greatest of the first half. Hanging the film solely on Billy's muteness means the film has to go to ever increasingly ridiculous situations to keep the thrills going. But there are spots of ingeniousness still to be found such as Billy flashing her pervy peeping tom neighbour to get his attention to help her.

In summary, Mute Witness is a cracking little thriller; witty, scary and exciting in equal measures. It's a shame Waller didn't make more films like this. In terms of recommendations, I'd suggest that anyone who enjoyed the Scream movies or maybe the similar but non-horror F/X: Murder by Illusion would like this film too.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy Birthday John Carpenter

I don't usually do posts about famous people's birthdays but firstly I haven't had chance to re-watch this week's film (Mute Witness) and secondly I'll take just about any excuse to wax lyrical about my favourite director.

He's 64 years old today – I know, he looks at least double that.
Anyway, here's a few facts you may or may not know about John Carpenter.

- Everyone says all his films are westerns in disguise. In fact he did co-write a fairly straight-forward western – El Diablo – which was made into a HBO TV movie in 1990 starring Anthony Edwards and Lou Gossett Jr, directed by Peter Markel. The film sees Edwards play an school teacher who is forced to learn how to become a gunfighter in order to track down a cowboy who has kidnapped one of his pupils.

- It's a well known fact that John Carpenter has a band called The Coupe DeVilles who recorded the title track for Big Trouble in Little China. But they also recorded an album that was never commercially released called Waiting Out the Eighties. It's actually very good and recommended for anyone who's a fan of his scores. You can quite easily find it by searching on google.

- The Coupe DeVilles other members were Nick Castle (director of The Last Starfighter and Michael Myers in the original Halloween) and Tommy Lee Wallace (director of Halloween III and Fright Night Part II). They appear as the band in Nick Castle's The Boy Who Could Fly.

- The anthology TV Movie Body Bags he directed in 1993 was intended to be the first three episodes of a Tales From the Crypt-esque show. In it Carpenter's plays an undead mortician who introduces the stories in much the same manner as The Crypt-Keeper.

- Carpenter took on the job of directing Christine because the financial failure of The Thing had left him needing to take any gig that was offered (he did Starman for the same reasons). Also, at the time they started filming, the book hadn't been released or finished by Stephen King.

- The studio really didn't want Kurt Russell to play Snake Plissken in Escape From New York because at the time he was mostly associated with the Disney films like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. They were pushing Carpenter to choose Charles Bronson instead.

- Carpenter's musical skills are entirely self taught. To this day he cannot read music. For many of his films he collaborates with composer Alan Howarth.

- The original director of Memoirs of an Invisible Man was Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Twins). However the star, Chevy Chase, was looking to avoid doing comedies so asked for John Carpenter to come in and make it more dramatic. This ended up backfiring when audiences went to the film expecting the next Chevy Chase comedy and found a comedy drama.

- Big Trouble in Little China was John Carpenter's love letter to his favourite kung fu film Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain by Tsui Hark.

- Carpenter is also a fan of the Godzilla movies. He made a lot of what would today be considered fan films, with names like Gorgo Versus Godzilla and Sorceror from Outer Space.

- In 1970, John Carpenter edited and co-wrote an Academy Award winning short The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, a story about a teenager who keeps slipping through time to the wild west.

- Carpenter's first idea to continue the Halloween franchise after Halloween II was to make each entry a separate story, as seen in Halloween III: Season of the Witch. When franchise producer Moustapha Akkad asked him for ideas for Halloween IV, John Carpenter suggested that they bring Myers back as a ghost who is slowly brought back to life as the residents of Haddonfield struggle to suppress the tragic events of a decade earlier (similar to A Nightmare on Elm Street). Akkad however insisted that Myers be flesh and blood so Carpenter sold his remains rights in the franchise.

- Jamie Lee Curtis did push for Carpenter to direct Halloween: H20 but remaining bad blood with the producers and scheduling conflicts meant he couldn't contribute.

- Other films he had been approached to direct include Firestarter (1984), The Golden Child (1986), Top Gun (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Underrated 90s horror comedy: An American Werewolf in Paris (1997)

Following on from my last post about Freaked I thought it might be a nice to review another film written (at least in its original draft form) by the same writers - Tom Stern and Tim Burns. An American Werewolf in Paris is the very belated sequel to John Landis' landmark werewolf film An American Werewolf in London. Upon release the film was almost universally panned as being an inferior film but taken on its own terms, divorced from the earlier film, it's actually pretty good. Well, in my opinion anyway.

The film sees Tom Everett Scott play Andy, one of three American backpackers on a tour of Europe. The three guys have been doing daredevil stunts in every city they stop at and Andy plans to make Paris the biggest one yet by sneaking on the Eiffel Tower at night and bungee jumping off. However as he is about to make his attempt he sees Seraphine (Julie Delpy) try to commit suicide and ends up saving her life. As the two are drawn together Andy discovers that Seraphine is actually a werewolf and pretty soon he gets bitten too. Can they stop Seraphine psychotic ex-boyfriend Claude from unleashing his army of werewolves?

As I said reaction at the time was along the lines of “Why the hell are they cashing in on making a belated sequel to a classic movie that no one wants?” Little did we all know that one year later John Landis would do the exact same thing to his own Blues Brothers movie with the god awful Blues Brothers 2000. As far as the original American Werewolf in London goes, I'm not a massive fan. It's an okay movie but it feels very disjointed and doesn't really have much of an ending. Don't get me wrong the special effects work by Rick Baker is awesome but the story and acting are only so-so.

As I said, despite the similarities in plot - American backpacker falls in love with nurse, gets turned into a werewolf - you really need to take An American Werewolf in Paris on its own. It's far more of a straight forward comedy where the original film was very much long stretches of horror punctuated by comic overtones. For the most part I think the film succeeds, it's very much an over-the-top farce with werewolves. Don't be expecting the bleak ending of the original either, I don't think it ruins anything to say that the ending is very much a happy one.

Tom Everett Scott does a great job in the lead. He's very reminiscent of an 80s Tom Hanks (which is likely why he got cast in That Thing You Do). Julie Delpy looks a little lost by comparison but gamely gets topless in one scene. Best of all of them is Vince Vieluf who plays Brad, one of Andy's friends, who gets turned into a horrifically ripped up ghost corpse (like Jack in London). There's some brilliant visual gags where only Andy can see and talk to him but everyone else sees him talking to thin air. In one part Andy points at Brad and says “You're dead, they pulled you out of the river” but everyone around him sees him pointing at a cooked trout.

I'm not denying there's some bad points in the film. The CGI, which drew a heavy amount of criticism at the time, is quite ropey in some scenes but I don't think it ruins the film as a whole. It would have been nice for the effects to be practical models but with all the werewolf on werewolf action it would have probably looked even worse. Pick any one of The Howling sequels to see what happens when you try and do practical effects on a budget.

The director Anthony Waller, who also co-wrote the script, keeps everything moving at a great pace. The whole film saturated in that yellow-y glow that all European cities have. It's disappointing that he didn't take advantage of more of the city's locations to give it more of a French flavour. Waller stages some nice thrilling sequences though, such as a rave club that turns into a werewolf attack (not unlike Blade) and a creepy bit with a paraplegic werewolf. There's also a very witty bit where one of Andy's friends who escapes the evil werewolves having been crucified by dragging this huge crucifix on his shoulders.

In the end, I think this is one film that got a bit of unfair press on release that is actually pretty enjoyable. I'll be looking at Anthony Waller's earlier film Mute Witness next, which again shows his penchant for witty horror comedies.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Forgotten 90s Horror Comedy: Freaked (1993)

It's weird that after Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves' movie careers went on very different trajectories with the latter becoming a huge star and the former just sort of disappearing. Looking back at both Bill & Ted movies, there's nothing to suggest that either was the better actor. I guess that Reeves pretty boy looks were just more suited to crossing over to action flicks like Speed and the occasional art house film like My Own Private Idaho, while Winter really only suited comedies.
In the early 1990s Alex Winter, together with Tom Stern, directed a number of bizarre comedy skits for MTV under the title of The Idiot Box (most of which can be found on youtube) and not long after they signed a deal with 20th Century Fox to write and direct a feature film in a similar vein. However neither Winter or Stern had any directing experience and the film was further compromised when Fox exec Joe Roth who was very keen on the film, was replaced by Peter Chernin who hated the film and cut its running time and budget. Freaked received very poor test screening and eventually got a tiny release in 1993. Needless to say it destroyed Winter's career as an actor but he's since bounced back with a career in film directing.
  The film sees Alex Winter plays Ricky Coogin, a dislikable sell out actor who travels to a South American country, with his equally dislikable best friend Ernie in tow. He's been sent there by a company called EES to do some endorsement adverts for Zygrot-24, a deadly toxic chemical. Almost as soon as they arrive Coogin picks up an attractive young activist Julie (Megan Ward) and the three of them head out on the road where they come across a sign for a carnival freak show. When they arrive the find the place deserted except for the owner Skuggs (Randy Quaid) who beckons them into his tent for a private show. However, there is no show, and all three turn out to be new recruits. You see Skuggs is using Zygrot-24 as a chemical to mutate ordinary people into hideous freaks for his show. Will Ricky and the rest of the freaks be able to escape their captor, and will they ever be able to turn themselves back into normal people again? 
That's the essence of the film's plot but I've left out a lot of details. And that's sort of the problem, the film feels stuffed with ideas but not all of them are well articulated. Part of the problem is the directing – though the gags are great, the structure of the movie is all over the placed. The film does feel at times like a comedy skit that's been drawn out to 80 minutes. There's little set up to the story or the characters, you're very much thrown in at the deep end and forced to keep up. Most disappointing is that despite all the exciting sets, costumes and make-up, the film rarely feels cinematic.
  Anyone going into the film expecting Bill & Ted 3 are going to be slightly disappointed. Winter and Stern's humour is far more twisted and dark (but just as funny). There's lot of satire about how shameless and shallow movies stars are and how evil big business is. They make Coogin's character very narcissistic and mean, much more than any usual studio film would. Freaked is clearly heavily influenced by Monty Python and Mel Brooks with the focus being on the gags and weird characters rather than the story. The most funny character is probably Stuey, a little ginger boy who continually gets violently hurt trying to get Coogin's autograph.

Like Brooks' films, Freaked is a
very self-aware movie at times commenting on how silly it all is. At one point Coogin, who has been ousted by the freak group, comes up with his own scheme to escape by dressing as a milkman only to later meet all the rest of the freaks who have independently planned to escape dressed as milkmen. When Quaid spots them through his window rather than be suspicious, he brushes it off and says to himself “A lot of milkmen on the same route! No wonder they fight.”
  The effects work is stunning and all practical. All the freaks are great designs, particularly Coogin's deformity which is that half of his body looks like Stripe from Gremlins. You've also got Mr T as the bearded lady, Bobcat Goldthwait as a man with a sock puppet for a head, John Hawkes as a literal Cow Boy and even an uncredited Keanu as Ortiz the Dog Boy. The funniest though is probably Frogman who despite his name is just a guy in a diver's outfit (“There's no hope for you Frogman”). The look of the film and the costumes feel very reminiscent of early 90s punk rock CD covers of cartoonish demons with bulging eyes. There's also a stunning but nightmarish opening credit sequence done entirely in claymation. 
Freaked is tough film to sum up, there's a lot of good stuff in it but you need to wade through quite an uneven story. Having a different director would have probably ensured a more coherent film but would have also likely stifled Winter and Stern's bizarre imagination. Anyway, given it's subject matter and gross out effects Freaked would have flopped even if it had been a wide release but I think that's fine. If ever there was a film destined to become a cult classic from day one, this is it.