Archive for the ‘Rating’ Category

For the last few years, I’ve stopped at the front of my favorite box stores where I search for Halloween supplies to peruse the array of digital and lighting effects. But, little friendly ghosts spinning around on the front of my house didn’t entice me. Then, a few weeks ago I received an invitation to take a gander at AtmosFX’s digital decorations. As I explored atmosfx.com, what came to mind was my childhood trip to Disney’s Haunted Mansion.  But, unlike the cheesy, friendly ghosts there, AtmosFX has created spectacular, realistic effects like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Few deliveries have been met with as much anticipation as my package from AtmosFX containing the 2017 Digital Decorating Kit.  The kit comes with an all-in-one projector, 14 digital decorations, a tripod, a remote, and a screen. It sells for $199.99.

DDK box 600 x 600

The setup was very simple.  Just pop the SD card into the back of the projector, screw on the tripod, put batteries in the remote and you are ready to go.  For a quick preview I hung the projection material in a doorway and looked through the included options.  I was surprised what good choices came on the SD card without buying one of the premium packages.  The image below is the “Beckoning Beauty” from the card.

screamer

It even included options for holidays other than Halloween.  I can’t say I’d be likely to use most of those, although I may add fireworks to my front window next Fourth of July and the general floating party balloons would be cool for a kids party

My only complaint with the equipment is that the ball on the tripod is not stiff enough, particularly when the projector is mounted vertically. It wouldn’t take much of a jar for it to come tumbling down.  It is also short, so you need a table to set it on.  Therefore, I swapped it out for an inexpensive standalone tripod that allowed me to easily adjust the height too.

Just a few minutes after opening the box I was ready to go.  I simply hung the included material from two plastic hooks stuck a few inches above the back of the hallway door frame with the projector set up behind it.  I also connected my computer to the television and played one of the selections from Unliving Portraits on it.  The below video shows Unliving Portraits‘ “Withering Heights – Trio” on my television and “Beckoning Beauty” from the included SD card in the hall doorway.

 

Hollusion is AtmosFX’s word for effects projected onto a special material creating the illusion of a hologram such as a ghost floating in the air or passing by a window. And, while they do have some family friendly alternatives like the Boo Crew or Jack-O’-Lantern Jamboree, it was the creepier collections that caught my attention. I choose three to try out. That wasn’t easy with all the cool options. But, hard as it was to pass up Zombie Invasion, Bone Chillers, Macabre Manor and others, I chose Phantasms, Blood Walls and Unliving Portraits to test.  You can also purchase individual scenes from each package.

Phantasms includes variations on four characters: the “Demonic Poltergeist”, the “Seductive Siren”, the “Sinister Spinster” and the “Wicked Wraith”. The siren and the spinster are both humanoid figures while the poltergeist is sort of a demonic skeleton like creature and the wraith more along lines of a reaper.

Each featured creature has clips optimized for different purposes such as using AtmosFX’s 3D form, creating a Hollusion, projecting onto a wall or showing on a television. The TV folders for example show clips from an old movie that becomes staticy and then the phantasm breaks into the scene.

For my cemetery by the pond I chose “Rise of the Wraiths” which features various reaper-like characters floating upward among whisps of glowing smoke as they wail and moan.

Blood Walls includes three options, “Bloody Massacre”, “Dripping Blood” and “Words of Warning”. The first two include blood splatters and drips while the third has various options for writing such as “join us” being written in blood.

joinus

To test how the digital decorations work outdoors, I set up the projector in my workshop projecting the window version of “Bloody Massacre” from Blood Walls onto the material hanging from the inside of the door so it could be seen through the window.

I then hammered two electric fence posts into the ground behind the plants surrounding my small pond and cable-tied a piece of bamboo to each.  I put clips on the projection material and cable-tied them to the bamboo. The video below shows the result. If you listen closely you’ll notice the effects include sound.

Note than the darker it is, the better the effect.  The wraiths in the above video appear to float up from behind my plants and the screen isn’t visible.  The indoor scene in the first video doesn’t appear to blend quite as well, because lights were on in the surrounding room so I could read the directions.  With the lights all off, the effect is amazing.  You can add lighting without showing the screen though.  The tombstones have spotlights on them and I actually forgot to turn the porch light off when filming the massacre inside in the lab, but it still looked good.

ghostlab

All in all, I was very impressed with AtmosFX products and can’t wait to choose a permanent place for them among my displays.  Visit atmosfx.com for some fantastic videos showcasing hollusions in action as well as instructional videos on setup options.

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The big surprise this Christmas was happening upon a body horror film that the whole group, including those who were not horror fans, enjoyed – American Mary.  It’s very unusual for the uninitiated to be drawn to movies from exploitation subgenres such as body horror and rape/revenge. American Mary certainly falls squarely into these groups, yet one guest deemed it “tastefully done”.  That perception is quite an accomplishment for a film from such highly criticized subgenres of horror.

American Mary tells the story of a smart, sexy medical student whose financial struggles lead her to perform underground body modification operations.  Though initially Mary Mason’s only interest is a financial quick fix, she accepts it as a new vocation after being disillusioned by the mentors she once admired and quitting medical school.  Like David Cronenberg’s Crash (James Spader, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette), the film concerns itself less with debating the ethics of such practices than portraying the perceived benefits to its proponents. But, like any mad scientist centered tale, dismissing the potential repercussions of messing with nature can have unforeseen consequences.  When her first client remarks “I don’t think it’s really fair that God gets to choose what we look like on the outside”, Mary doesn’t give it much thought.  She knows after all, she’s capable of performing the procedure and it is what the client wants.  Unlike most mad scientists though, Mary is steered by her circumstances rather than delusions of grandeur and is both surprised and unaffected by the celebrity status she earns.

Most body horror films are a sort of visual slapstick that pique the interest of only the most hardcore splatter fans.  But, American Mary has a developing story and unusual, damaged characters who fascinate the viewer.  One can’t help but recall Todd Brownings Freaks (1932) when watching the film. Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) delivers a strong lead as Mary.  Jen and Sylvia Soska (Twisted Twins Productions), who wrote and directed the film, had her in mind when they wrote the part. According to an interview with Mad Mike at Maven’s Movie Vault of Horror, they were introduced to her work in Ginger Snaps after being teased at school and called the Fitzgerald sisters.  They rented the film to see what their bulliers meant. Isabelle manages to nail it, portraying a woman who is both hero and monster, displaying strength and weakness, compassion and viciousness and creating a believable, sympathetic, albeit morally ambiguous character.  The character, who dons a black apron, gloves and heels during surgery is reminiscent of the lead in Audition (1999).

While Mary’s first bouts with illicit surgery leave her physically ill, her attitude changes as she learns more about the unethical arrogance of the surgeons she once aspired to be like.  When they invite her to a private party where she is drugged and raped, any line between mainstream surgical practice and the underground she has discovered disappear.  She captures her attacker for use in practicing and documenting procedures she is willing to perform including: genital alterations, amputation, teeth grinding and various other body revisions.  Soon, through the internet she becomes a revered celebrity, known as Bloody Mary,  for the body modification crowd.

The Soska sisters appear in the film as twins requesting some particularly extreme modifications, including the exchange of their left arms.  Mary’s other clients are freakish curiosities obsessed with expressing their inner selves through their physical appearance.  Mary becomes their savior through her willingness to do anything someone assures her they want.

A fascinating parade of clients is featured.  Reportedly, no computer effects were used in the film, which instead relied on makeup and actual body modification images and practitioners.  As Mary approaches her work as a professional, blood and gore is minimized, giving the film more the feel of a psychological suspense piece than a gore fest despite the subject matter.  However, the entire film is visually striking, seeped in deep reds and black.  I would assume that the twisted sisters were fans of Dario Argento (Suspira).  Whether consciously or not, certainly the masters of Japanese and Italian horror impacted the look of this film.

What is most horrific is the realistic obsession with body image the characters hold.  Beatrice, the sweet and likeable woman who has undergone over a dozen surgeries to make her look as much like Betty Boop as possible particularly stands out both for her performance and her chilling visage.

According to the Soska sisters, American Mary came about after they sent their first film Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009) to their favorite directors and got a response from Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) who wanted to see more scripts.  Though they didn’t have anything prepared they told him about several ideas and he requested seeing the one about the surgeon.  American Mary was written in just a couple of weeks and sent to him.  It was later filmed in only 15 days.  American Mary is the second of what the sisters call their “coming of age/adolescent triology” between Dead Hooker in a Trunk and Bob.  Stylistically they claim Bob will have more of a monster and reverse rape/revenge vibe with equal parts hilariousness and vulgarity.  Can’t wait!

Noir at its Best: The Window (1949)

Posted: November 22, 2013 in ****, Film Noir

At the intersection of horror and crime drama lies another of my favorite genres, Film Noir.  Recently I saw for the first time one that kept me on the edge of the couch more than any horror movie I’ve seen in a while – 1949’s The Window.  Like another favorite of mine, Night of the Hunter, The Window is centered around a young boy being relentlessly stalked.  Only in this case it’s not something he possesses his stalkers are pursuing, they are out to kill him because he has witnessed a murder they committed.

The boy is played by Disney’s Bobby Driscoll and he does an incredible job.  In fact, it earned him a juvenile Oscar in 1950 at 13 years old. Driscoll is one of Hollywood’s saddest stories.  Praised widely for his talent, he was released shortly after making Peter Pan, for which he was not only the voice of Pan, but the visage who inspired the animated character.  The story goes that he was released due to acne and soon developed a drug habit and legal problems which resulted in being boycotted on both film and stage. By 31 he was found dead in an abandoned building and buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave before it was realized who he was.  It has been claimed that Michael Jackson’s initial surgeries were an effort to create Bobby Driscoll’s nose.

While The Window has some in common with Rear Window, in that it opens with little Tommy witnessing a murder through a window, it is actually inspired by the fable Peter and The Wolf and the movie begins with a quote from Aesop.   Tommy has an active imagination and a propensity for tall tales.  So, when he recounts the atrocity he has witnessed to his parents (played by Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy) and the police no one believes him, leaving him on his own to face his evil neighbors.  Both Rear Window and The Window are based on short stories by Cornell Woolrich.  Woolrich had many of his stories and novels made into films, especially Noirs.  IMDb.com lists 100 such writing credits from movies like The Leopard Man to television episodes on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Little Tommy is frustrated by his inability to get the attention of the adults around him.  Worse, in an effort to prevent him from getting into more trouble, his parents, who due to their financial woes must leave him alone during the day, lock him in their apartment, nail the window shut and tell the neighbors what he has said about them.  He is cornered and at the mercy of the killers.  Joe Kellerson, played by one of Noir’s most prolific villians, Paul Stewart, is no holds barred in his pursuit of Tommy.  One scene in particular, when Kellerson and his wife (played by Ruth Roman) catch up to Tommy completely took me by surprise with it’s depiction of a violent act towards a child that is still shocking by today’s standards. And, the finale is one of the tensest chases and standoffs ever put to film.

The Window was actually made in 1947 but shelved by Howard Hughes when he took over RKO due to his opinion that viewers weren’t interested in movies centered on children.  But, when it was released it saved the studio and propelled the careers of all involved save Driscoll, including director Ted Tetzlaff who was more associated with cinematography from films such as Notorious.

The Window has been remade multiple times including as The Boy Cried Murder (1966), Eyewitness (1970) and Cloak & Dagger (1984).

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/579269/Window-The-Movie-Clip-You-ve-Had-A-Bad-Dream.html

There are few villains in horror that pack the punch of little 8 year old Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed.  Rhoda instantly solidified my love for what remains one of my favorite subgenres – children that kill. And, she has never been dethroned as the quintessential model for all those that have followed. Played by Patty McCormack, who was more recently seen as Pat Nixon in Frost/Nixon, Rhoda is a disturbing mix of perfect etiquette, grooming and intelligence with a vicious determination to get whatever pleases her with no regard for even the most basic human compassion.

Rhoda, herself is at times perplexed by what makes her different from those around her.  A victim of genetics, hopelessly detached from the human condition, she struggles to understand what keeps her mother perpetually on the verge of hysterics.  The audience learns with her mother just how deep her affliction goes when she discovers her latest victim’s medal in her trinket box and announces she will return it to the fallen child’s parents to comfort them.  Rhoda insists it would be useless, saying “Claude is dead. He wouldn’t know if he had the medal pinned on him or not.”.  Her mother tries to explain the devastation they have both just witnessed by the boy’s distraught mother and Rhoda responds by suggesting “If Claude’s parents want a little boy so much, why don’t they just get a new one at the orphanage?”

The memorable characters in The Bad Seed are actualized brilliantly by the original Broadway cast.  The use of theater folk adds to the over the top feel of the entire production.  Fans of melodramas like The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Night of the Hunter will enjoy the humor and wonder what is intentional and what is a product of an overly dramatic style of acting.

A distraught Hortense Daigle attempts to bond with Rhoda.

Case in point, Hortense Daigle, little Claude’s distraught mother played by Eileen Heckart.  She was an acclaimed theater actress who also starred in movies like Burnt Offerings and many television shows including as Mary Tyler Moore’s hardnosed reporter aunt which captured Lou Grant’s heart.  The scene mentioned above is one of the most memorable.  Hortense visits the Penmarks, three sheets to the wind in order to find some new memory of her lost son to hold on to.  What ensues is a drunken rant acknowledging her lower station in life and what her son meant to her.  Heckart earned a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as a result of the riveting performance.

Evelyn Varden is likewise a jewel in this film, playing basically the same self indulgent, incessant talker she does in Night of the Hunter.  As Monica Breedlove, the Penmark’s landlady who adores little Rhoda, she breezes in and out chattering away and offering her armchair psychoanalysis, blind to the impending doom that surrounds her.  Her commentary and discussions with Reginald Tasker a writer friend, provide the context of the movie – the debate between nature and nurture.  While perhaps a bit over discussed for the modern viewer, the debate still rages on today and at the time these were brand new questions.  1950’s audiences were shocked by the idea that a child could ever become a criminal, much less a cold blooded murderer, especially if they grew up in a good home.

Leroy taunts an unaffected Rhoda.

Much of what we learn about Rhoda comes from her interactions with Leroy (Henry Jones), the handyman.  Leroy is one character which no doubt will be taken up a few notches if Eli Roth (Hostel) ever does his planned remake of the movie.  Several scenes hint at a much darker character than is shown on screen.  He fantasizes about Monica Breedlove’s death as well as his sexual attraction for Mrs. Penmark and he finds pleasure in taunting and scaring children.  Rhoda, who doesn’t scare easily, becomes his primary target and the two share several scenes where he repeatedly tries to rattle her.

In one, he directly accuses her of purposely harming her school mate, who was found drown at the school picnic and he tells her that the police have “stick bloodhounds” who can sniff out blood, and no matter how much someone has tried to wash it away the police have a powder that will make it glow blue.  When the confident murderess retorts that they don’t execute children, he assures her they have a little blue electric chair for little boys and a little pink one for little girls.  Our first view of Rhoda’s coldness comes whilst Leroy is taunting her for not being more effected by her classmate’s death.  As she skates off Rhoda proclaims, “Why should I feel sorry, it was Claude Daigle that got drowned, not me.”

Christine Penmark talks with Monica Breedlove

Finally, there’s the star of the show, Christine Penmark, played by Nancy Kelly.  At the movie’s opening Christine has already begun to question her idyllic life, wondering about her own origins and the “disturbing maturity” of her daughter.  While presented as the perfect daughter, wife and mother, Christine annoyingly whines her way through the movie, gesturing overdramatically with her hands.  Early on she appears to be reaching out to console, particularly Mrs. Daigle or to beg for help from her landlady and husband.  Midway through the picture she spends most of her time hugging herself as if to protect her womb.  By the end, her hands are spasming all over the place, pounding on furniture and clawing at her stomach as if to claw out the source of evil.  But, luckily for Christine, her oblivious husband will stand by her without question, no matter how extreme her actions become.

Unfortunately, The Bad Seed suffered at the hands of the Hays code which stipulated crime could not pay, particularly murder.  The ending of the book and the play before it remains intact, but a new Hollywood version is tagged on so that nature can protect itself and true love prevail.  The result is a completely implausible disappointment.

The murderess Besse Danker who is mentioned repeatedly by Reginald Tasker is said to  have been inspired by real life murderesses Belle Gunness and Jane Toppan.  Both women killed dozens, the former for money and the latter in part, for sexual gratification.  Both also inspired other characters.  The Bad Seed likewise inspired future pop culture references, such as a spoof of Hortense Daigle’s breakdown by Kenny’s mother in South Park after one of his many deaths.  The movie is also quoted in 1993’s Without Conscience,  a book by a psychologist arguing for genetic links to behavior.  According to Wikipedia, “Robert D. Hare argues that March’s novel is a ‘remarkably true to life’ portrayal of the development of psychopathy in childhood, illustrating both Rhoda’s callous use of others to serve her own ends as well as Christine’s growing helplessness and desperation as she realizes the extent of her daughter’s behavior.”

The Bad Seed was actually remade for TV in 1985 with Blair Brown as Christine Penmark, Lynn Redgrave as Monica, David Carradine as Leroy and Carrie Wells in the title role – though that time as Rachel.  The result was disappointing.

Reports in 2004 proclaimed an upcoming remake by Cabin Fever director Eli Roth.  Unfortunately Hostel became a megahit before this came to pass and he shelved it to do a sequel to Hostel.  At the time Variety quoted Roth concerning the upcoming project, “Roth promises a new take with a modern horror sensibility. ‘The original was a great psychological thriller, and we are going to bastardize and exploit it, ramping up the body counts and killings,” said Roth. “This is going to be scary, bloody fun, and we’re going to create the next horror icon, a la Freddy, Jason and Chucky. She’s this cunning, adorable kid who loves to kill, but also loves ‘N Sync.’  Also involved was Luke Janklow as producer.  He was the grandson of the 1956 director Mervin Le Roy and great grandson of Warner Brothers studio co-founder Harry Warner.

Remakes are a shaky thing, more often than not totally missing the mark and disappointing.  But, there are exceptions and Roth’s take on this classic is one that would interest me.  A good remake can have the effect of not only bringing an old story to modern audiences, but introducing them to the original as well.

Rhoda in the 21st Century.