Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.
Written by Charles B. Griffith. Produced & directed by Roger Corman.
Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors is probably the least “real horror” film I’ve done yet this month. I mean, sure, there are scenes of bloody body parts being fed to carnivorous plant, but the entire production is just so ridiculous, nothing can be taken seriously.
In fact, the only real horror in this movie is Jonathan Haze as the accident-prone protagonist Seymour Krelboyne. In my opinion, bad filmmaking is rarely worse than when it’s bad comedy, and Haze’s pratfalls are awful. Still, watching the pratfalls is not nearly as painful as listening to him speak. In fact, most of the characters in this film have grating voices.
This film was rough in the beginning. After a little while, I kind of understood the vibe a little better, and things evened out to the point I was actually enjoying it. I was certainly enjoying Audrey, and Audrey’s malapropisms, and Audrey’s outfits. A hearty thank you to the wardrobe department.
The detective characters in this film (Sgt. Fink and Officer Stoolie–the names of the characters are a lot of fun, too) are hilarious with their deadpan, world-weary, quickfire film noir-ish banter. Even a lot of the stuff involving Mel Welles’ exasperated outbursts of Yiddish and Dick Miller’s weird flower fixation turned out to be a lot funnier than I had anticipated in early scenes.
Basically, anything not involving Seymour turned into a source of enjoyment for me. But as most of this film focuses on him, a lot of this was a slog to get through. And the third act was a parade of increasingly WTF moments, and not in the good way.
Oh right, Jack Nicholson is in this too, for one scene, where he plays a masochistic dental patient. If I had seen this in 1960, I probably would have been surprised a decade later to see that guy’s career taking off. What a weirdo. (Still, I suppose.)
Final grade: C
My Flickchart ranking: #2553 (out of 3266, a relative 22/100) - This is probably the biggest disparity so far this month between my letter grade and Flickchart ranking. It probably doesn’t deserve to be quite that low.
Comic book movies have had a hard road to travel. Granted, most of the bumps and potholes along the way were of their own and Joel Schumacher’s making. Often, any step forward brought two steps backward. The recent endeavor by Marvel to create a film universe that parallels the comic universe adds a new level of legitimacy to the comic book genre, but I still don’t expect the Oscars to nominate X-Men: First Class for Best Picture (even though I think it’s deserving). One of the first comic book films to legitimize the genre was Tim Burton’s Batman. Burton took a superhero who had been bastardized into a cartoonish, so-bad-it’s-good schlock-fest, and brought him back to the dirty, gritty slums of Gotham.
Actual photo of Steve riding his bike home after the movie.
Batman holds a special place for me. Being a huge fan of the comics, my friend (who had incidentally never been to a movie before) and I rode our bikes several miles to the theater, through the scorching hills of Mission Viejo. Our parents knew nothing of what we were up to, and after we purchased our tickets with pockets full of change, we walked out of the 95-degree Southern California heat into the cool, stale butter-drenched air of the theater. One hundred and twenty-six minutes later we came bounding out, yelling “I’m Batman” to one another in our uneven attempts at a gravely voice. On our ride home, swooshing down the hills as the salt air screamed past us, we pretended our bikes were the coolest version of the Batmobile we’d ever seen. This film was everything we ever wanted Batman to be.
Watching it again recently with my daughter revealed that perhaps it wasn’t as close to perfection as my 12-year-old mind saw. Robert Wuhl, who plays the pushy Alexander Knox, easily gives the worst performance of the film. His character is supposed to be boyish and charming, but he comes off as an actor who can’t be boyish or charming. He delivers his lines like great lead weights he can’t wait to drop. Knox is a two-dimensional caricature of a reporter that stands out like a bad actor surrounded by well-rounded, interesting people.
Michael Keaton as Batman & Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale
Although the other characters are not immune from the cheese that radiates from Knox, many lines of the film are just plain bad. Vicki Vale, played by Kim Basinger, delivers the worst line in the film when she is coming to terms with her new beau’s hobby: “I just gotta know, are we going to try to love each other?” I can see the screenwriter trying to finish the script, just wanting to be done with it, wincing as he is writing this line, but hoping that it will get fixed somewhere during production. Michael Keaton delivers a few flat lines as well, most notably when he exclaims, “I gotta go to work.” I think this was intended as a cute, audience-cheering moment that might work if the superhero were Green Lantern, where expectations are low; but not Batman.
Many of the sets are clearly models, and in the age before CGI came into its own, it’s obvious that they are working around some scenes so as to avoid having to show Batman moving the way he should move. There are several times throughout the film when you can see the wires on Batman, although it’s almost as though they aren’t even trying to hide it in the museum scene. Overall, the effects, although amazing for the time, haven’t aged well, and an audience used to more sophisticated effects will easily spots the flaws.
Jack Nicholson as The Joker
Nevertheless, this movie has brilliant moments and humanizes Batman (and the Superhero) in a way never fully accomplished before, and it manages to do so while presenting a backdrop of social decay and human decadence. A lot of credit goes to Michael Keaton (who would have ever picked that one?) for playing an incredibly charming Bruce Wayne. The amazing dinner scene where he attempts a formal dinner for the benefit of Vicki Vale but gives up after revealing he usually just hangs out with Alfred in the kitchen could only have been pulled off by someone of Keaton’s acting caliber.
The museum scene, featuring Jack Nicholson’s oft-cited, inspired performance as the Joker, seems to fortell the future of art with a Banksy-esque revision of classic pieces. It’s almost as though Banksy watched this film as a kid and decided to base his entire art career on that one scene. It is a brilliant insight into the Joker, an artistic genius trapped inside the mind of a psychopath.
This film has done so much for comic book films and has shown serious directors that the superhero was a worthy subject. If not for this film, I doubt we would have Spider-Man or Iron Man films that treat their subjects with respect. We certainly wouldn’t have an X-Men movie that could actually be nominated for Best Picture. Batman is a film leaps and bounds above its predecessors. It forced the genre to move forward. Unfortunately, it pushed so hard, it’s fallen behind. In the end, I guess that’s a tribute to the film itself.
“The Washingtonians” is yet another entry into Mick Garris’s Masters of Horror. As I wrote in my Day 5 review of “The Black Cat,” Masters of Horror ran for two seasons on Showtime from 2005 to 2007–two seasons of 13 episodes each, appropriately–and each of these hour-long episodes was a stand-alone horror mini-movie, helmed by a director known for previous work within the horror genre.
It's understandable that this poster might make you think this could be an interesting movie. It's not.
Apparently director Peter Medak’s claims to the title “Master of Horror” are Species II and The Changeling, neither of which I’ve seen. But if they’re anything close to the quality on display here, then they must be awful. Also, ”The Washingtonians” stars Johnathon Schaech, who also co-wrote the teleplay with Richard Chizmar. These two had previously written (and Schaech had starred in) the straight-to-video classic Road House 2: Last Call. Based on a short story by Bentley Little, the premise of “The Washingtonians” is that George Washington was actually a homicidal cannibal, and thus the entirety of our American history is a lie.
The weirdest thing about “The Washingtonians” is that I had no idea it was supposed to be a comedy until about halfway through. This was supposed to be a comedy, right? I mean, it wasn’t funny or anything, but I get that it was supposed to be. Actually, I’m really not sure if it was supposed to be a comedy or not. I do know that, as a horror film, it was supposed to be scary. At least, I think it was supposed to be scary. Okay, I’m not sure if it was supposed to be scary either. But it was supposed to make me stop and think about things–things like America, and history, and how much I should really trust the government. That is what they were going for, right? (As you can see, I have no idea what they were trying to go for.)
Anyway, what I am positively sure about is that there are a lot of scary things in the world, and “The Washingtonians” was good enough to bring these things to my attention. So here is:
The Washingtonian Guide To Things That Are Scary:
1. Owls. If you want your movie to be scary, just open on an owl. It doesn’t matter what kind, or whether the sound it makes matches the species, as long as it hoots and is an owl.
2. Dark roads. Dark roads are scary, especially at night and especially if there is an owl.
3. Hitch-hiking. Never go hitch-hiking. It’s dangerous. Especially on dark roads at night. And most especially if there is an owl.
4. Hoofbeats. If you’re hitch-hiking at night, and you hear hoofbeats, run, because nothing good comes on horseback in the middle of the night.
5. Ice cream cones. They melt and get all over your face, and then your mom has to clean you up even though you’re ten years old and should be able to wipe your own face by now.
6. Guys talking politics on the radio. Never, ever listen to guys talking politics on the radio. You will lose brain cells.
7. Old houses. Especially old houses bathed in sunlight on a beautiful summer day.
8. Old dudes dressed in Colonel Sanders clothes asleep in rocking chairs. Why would you ever touch one of those?
9. Even scarier, an old dude dressed in Colonel Sanders clothes suddenly being jolted out of slumber because you touched him.
Trick or treat for toothbrushes!
10. A guy with huge teeth getting all up in your grill.
11. Southern accents. They may seem inviting…
12. Lollipops. If a stranger pulls a lollipop out of his pocket and offers it to you, do not accept. Even if it’s his favorite flavor, cherry.
13. Bathrooms. God help you if you have to use one.
14. Basements. Don’t wander into the basement, especially if you’re trying to find the bathroom which you were just told is down the hall.
15. Painted portraits of dead historical figures. They tend to hide in the dark with a swath of light across their eyes, just in case you ever wander down into the basement because you had to use the bathroom and have an extremely bad sense of direction.
16. Forks carved out of the bones of children. I know this one seems counterintuitive, but trust me.
18. Old people. Especially in packs. Especially at funerals.
19. Bowties. (“A cravat’s supposed to point down to accentuate the genitals. Why would you want to trust a man whose tie points out to accentuate his ears?” David Mamet knows what’s what.)
20. One-dollar bills. Especially in close-up. You can tell that dead president is hiding something behind his pursed expression.
21. This musical score, and every single scene and image it accompanies.
22. Pale men on horseback.
24. Waitresses who work at diners.
25. The entire State of Virginia.
26. The sound of a heartbeat. This always means something bad is about to happen. Or, possibly, that you over-exerted yourself and need to take some deep breaths and sit down for awhile.
27. Or it could mean there is an actual heart that has been cut out and is still beating, sitting on your kitchen table.
28. Being asleep. Never fall asleep or something horrible might happen.
29. Being awake. Never wake up or something horrible might happen.
"Arrr-rruff. Mad dog! Heh-heh!"
30. The acting in this movie.
31. Remembering that Johnathon Schaech was once upon a time in That Thing You Do!, and realizing that you might also only ever do one thing worth remembering in your career.
32. Bran flakes. Boxes of bran flakes occasionally come with things other than bran flakes inside. (In fact, as further evidenced in Arachnophobia, pretty much any box of food should be considered suspect at all times.)
33. Historians. They are just a bunch of filthy liars. Fear them. Fear facts. Fear history in all forms.
34. Virginity. It only means you taste better.
35. People doing impressions of Jack Nicholson from The Shining.
36. Dinner parties. Oh, those horrible dinner parties.
37. Ugly art.
38. Wooden teeth. They’re not just to make you look pretty.
39. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”–which is actually a Civil War song, but whatever.
40. People doing impressions of Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men.
41. Chinese stereotypes.
42. George W. Bush. He’s still out there. Somewhere.
43. This entire script.
44. Last, but most especially, George Washington and anyone who likes to dress up like George Washington. Hide your children. These people would like nothing better than to eat their flesh and carve dinner utensils from their bones. You’ve been warned.