Sunday, December 21, 2014

Top Christmas Movies of All Time

 This time of year always brings with it, at least it should, a certain magic. Halloween has it's own magic, as I have mentioned before. But Christmas has a different feel, a different magic, and it is, or at least it can be, a wonderful one. The lights, the songs, the food, the sweets, the candy, the presents, friends and family coming together for the holiday, it's all evocative of the better things about life. Not everyone has a "Merry Christmas", of course, and that is unfortunate. In these times, especially, it isn't always possible for some to feel the magic of the season, because life brings many harsh realities. But Christmas is something, I believe, for everyone. To me, it's a "secular" holiday, not a religious one. It isn't just for Christians, who celebrate the birth of Christ (though it allegedly happened in the spring, not December),  nor is it just for Pagans, who celebrate Winter Solstice or Yule (the far older, original holidays Christmas is based on). No, it's a time for everyone, no matter what their beliefs or background happens to be. And that is why I also believe that, hardships and harsh realities of life aside, that it's a season that so many find at least some sort of comfort in. But I digress.

Seeing as I've already done an entry (last year) on television Christmas Specials, and I will likely do one or more on additional specials in the future, as there were so many, with that in mind, this time I'm going to look at something that does not involve the popular, well-known holiday specials. Instead, this time I'm going to look at strictly films about or related to Christmas, that came out in theaters. That certainly shortens the list (as there are far more TV specials than there are theatrical movies that deal with the subject), but that isn't to say that there isn't some truly great material to work with.

As always, this list is composed of my own personal opinions on the matter, made up of what I personally feel are the best Christmas-type movies ever made.  And with that said, let's dive right in!

The coolest poster for the coolest Christmas movie ever filmed.

1. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

My personal favorite, and thus top pick for "Best Christmas Movie Ever Made", is Chevy Chase's "Christmas Vacacion", hands down. Not only is it one of the few movies (as in maybe 20 or so) that I can pretty much sit down and watch any time, but it also happens to be both the best movie Chevy Chase has ever starred in, as well as (at least in my humble opinion), the best Christmas movie that has ever been put to film. For one thing, this movie displays all of the myriad facets of the season: the "magical" spirit of the season, the madness of holiday shopping, the tacky commercial nature of modern day Christmas, the warmth of sharing the holidays with friends and family, the horror of having to be around your family for the holidays, the spirit of giving, the fun (and madness) of holiday decorations, picking out a christmas tree, the nerve racking agony of worrying over holiday finances, etc. etc. etc. It really covers everything, just short of actually showing "Ol' Saint Nick" himself.

The movie is chock full genuinely funny moments, memorable quotes, great characters, and a pervading sense of fun, which is exactly what you want in both a comedy, and a Christmas film. It covers all of it's bases so well, and deserves it's status as "perennial holiday classic".

"Shitter was full!" 

Silly poster, but it does it's job, telling you everything you need to know about the film.

2. Home Alone (1990)

On the surface, "Home Alone" is a silly kid's/family movie about a kid being left alone in his house, and using all kinds of pranks and traps to ward off some burglars. But delving deeper, it is also one of the best holiday/Christmas movies ever made, because like "Christmas Vacation", it too does a great job of encompassing the many facets of the season, including some that the former didn't show, such as the nightmare of holiday travel, the loneliness and sorrow some people have to face in a time of year where so many find happiness, etc. It's actually rather deep in an odd way, and in general is just very well done, as well as being a lot of fun.

It's no coincidence, either, that both Vacation and Home Alone were written and produced by John Hughes. They both have a similar feel, and he seemed to have a grasp of not only telling compelling human stories, but a grasp of the spirit of the holidays as well (which he also displayed, showing Thanksgiving instead of Christmas in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"). 

Is it wrong that I laugh so hard every time I even see a picture of this scene?

My personal favorite adaptation.

3. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1993)

The first Muppet movie to be made after Jim Henson's incredibly sad passing in 1990, and the first of many either directed or produced by his son Brian Henson, who admirably (and capably) tried to carry on his father's work, this also happens to be my personal favorite adaptation of arguably the most classic Christmas story of all time (not counting religious material), Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". The story has had so many great adaptions (which I will assuredly get into at a later date), and while I love many of them, this is my hands-down favorite, for many reasons. For one thing, Michael Caine happens to make a fantastic Ebenezer Scrooge, and the fact that he can do so, dramatically, and convincing, all while acting with a mostly Muppet cast, makes his performance all the greater. As for the Muppets themselves, considering this is the first film to portray Kermit the frog after Jim Henson performing/voicing the character himself for 45 years (from early TV appearances all the way through 1990), it's very well done. The "Three Christmas Spirits" are very well done original Muppet creations, and various Muppet characters make a lot of cool cameos, most especially Fozzy in the past flashback as Fozzywig, and the absolute best, Statler and Waldorf as "The Marley Brothers" (the made Marley into "Marley & Marley", specifically so the two characters could play them, which is fine, because they were awesome).

The hecklers almost steal the show as "The Brothers Marley".

A........Christmas movie? Yes. Yes it is.

4. Gremlins (1984)

Now at first glance, most people would likely go "huh?" if anyone, like me, put the 1984 horror/comedy classic "Gremlins" on a list of Christmas films. But I will, and I am, because it is. While it is a "horror" film, in the most basic sense, it's also a comedy, and a family film, and a Christmas film, all rolled into one. As I understand it, it was originally written to be much darker, basically a straight horror movie, like it's contemporary 80s creature feature, "Critters". But you can all thank producer Steven Spielberg, who decided to have it changed to it's present form, which is good, because as a darker, straight up horror film, it would have been a kind of cool, but somewhat silly, and ultimately far less memorable movie. Whereas, as it turned out, it wound up being a surprise hit, and one of THE classic movies of the 1980s (a decade overflowing with now-classic movies). But the elements of Christmas are all here, including the main father and son's obvious love of the holiday, the miserly rich bitch who owns half the town, "Bah-Humbugging" and trying to ruin Christmas for everyone else with her greed, ala Scrooge, you name it. The only thing that could have possibly put this movie over the top as a "Christmas Film", but also would have made it far more ridiculous, would have been Santa himself, showing up at the last moment to kick the tar out of the little bastards with his Christmas magic.

But as it is, "Gremlins" is a amazing movie, a great scary film, but also a great holiday film.


This poster just screams Christmas. Nah, it just screams.

5. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

This movie combines three things I love the most: Halloween, Christmas, and stop-motion animation. A creation of Tim Burton, and directed by Henry Selick, this movie deserves it's status as a holiday classic, and it's the only film or entity at all really, off the top of my head, that actually bridges the Fall/Holiday season, all the way from Halloween to Christmas. Which is awesome. As a kid, I adored the shit out of this movie, for all the reasons mentioned above and more. It was full of magic, and wonder, and monsters, and great music, and captivating visuals, a great story, etc. I always wondered what was behind the other mysterious "Holiday Doors" that Jack finds in those lost woods, like a crazy Easter Town with enough bright pastel colors and cute bunnies to drive you insane, or a Thanksgiving Town where the Turkeys rule everything, and autumn leaves are perpetually falling.

The movie is brilliant from beginning to end, a master work, and the music is so catchy it should be outlawed. But I'm glad it's not, because I hum it to myself often enough.....

Poor Santa.

Speaking of Santa....

6. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

It bears mentioning that there is a 1994 remake of this film, that is perfectly good on it's own, and is highlighted by a great performance of Kris Kringle by none other than the late, great Richard Attenborough. But for my money, as with many films and their remakes, the original is, in general, far better. Starring Maureen O'Hara and John Payne, and featuring a fantastic performance by Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, a man who gets a job as a Macy's store Santa, but actually claims to be the real Santa himself, the movie is a classic for a reason. It tells a great tale, and does all of that "spirit of the season" stuff justice, without getting overly preachy. Santa, to me, is the true embodiment of Christmas, because he's a figure representing what the season and the holiday are supposed to be all about. Beyond religion, beyond semantics and rhetoric and all of peoples' differences, I think Santa is a pretty safe, "Universal" character that anyone can relate to this time of year, regardless of what their personal beliefs or affiliations are. And as far as Santa performances goes, while you can almost always want a bigger, crazier beard (I know I do), Gwenn's turn as St. Nick is awesome, and he really does the character credit. If you want a good Christmas/Santa flick, you really cannot do better than this.

The Holliest, the Jolliest.

The name's Ernest. Ernest P. Worrell.

7. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)

One of my favorite childhood/early teen comedy characters was Jim Varney's Ernest P. Worrell. My favorite Ernest film (out of the 9 total in the series), was the first official Ernest movie, "Ernest Goes to Camp". This movie came out a year later, and is probably the second best, at least to me. It's a unique sort of Christmas film, as you'd expect from Ernest, with his unique charm and quirkiness thrown in. This time around, the loveable, well-meaning dumbass, finds himself in charge of helping to save Santa, and thus save Christmas. In this take on the mythos, Santa is actually many different people over the centuries, and Santa is now looking for a new man to take his place, with Ernest's "help". It's a dumb, but dumb in a fun way, kind of movie, and it's got all the laughs and Christmas-ness that you could ask for. KnowhatImean?

One of the underappreicated greats.

Classic, all around.

8. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

I'd be remiss if I didn't include this. I actually, for some crazy reason, never saw this as a kid, and somehow I do believe I even managed to miss out on ever seeing it as a teen. I don't remember sitting down and seeing the whole thing, believe it or not, until last year, 2013. As it turns out, naturally, it is indeed a classic. Directed by the great Frank Capra, and his biggest star, James "Jimmy" Stewart, this movie has some real dark moments, but it also, like many others on this list, encompasses the spectrum of the holidays. And even though it was made in 1946, much of what it portrays is still relevant and relatable today. It tells the story of a man who, overcome with stress and depression over his financial troubles, attempts to take his own life by jumping off of a bridge, but is "saved" by a mysterious man who appears out a nowhere. Turns out he's an angel, and is going to give the man a chance to see what his life, and his town, would be like without him in it for real. It's not a pretty sight, and by the end of his wayward journey, he learns that he really does make a difference, most especially to his family, and not to spoil things, but everything turns out pretty swell overall. If I was given a choice between this, and 1983's "A Christmas Story", seeing as they're two films that people always point to as "the best Christmas movie ever", I would choose this one every single time. I don't DISLIKE "A Christmas Story", but I do think it's overrated, and I've seen it so many times on TV, I'm just over it.

But you can't go wrong with "It's a Wonderful Life", and it is one of those few films I'd argue you really do "need" to see at some point.

Good ol' Jimmy. He really did embody the ideal of the decent Everyman.

Finally, someone besides Rudolf gets a bit of recognition.

9. Prancer (1989)

A neat little film, about a father (played by Sam Eliot) struggling to raise his son and daughter after the death of their mother, with a failing farm and hard financial times ahead. The daughter, Jessica, finds a reindeer in the woods, whom she believes to be the real Prancer, part of the lot who flies through the skies and pulls Santa's magical sleigh every Christmas Eve. The deer has been shot, and so she keeps it in the barn and secretly nurses it back to health. It causes quite a stir in their small town, as she asks a mall Santa to tell the "real Santa" where his missing reindeer is, and the whole town finds out, turning it into a spectacle. It's a great story about the spirit of Christmas, and echoes "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa", in that the little girl almost loses faith in Santa and Christmas, but later has that faith restored. It's a good family film, and if you want some real live reindeer action, then this is your best bet.

Sam Elliot, as always, starring as Sam Elliot.


10. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

So, seeing as I've already gotten to nine whole Christmas films, I might as well make it an even ten. And since I'm going to do that, I figured, you know what, even though it's not actually one of my personal favorite films, why not throw in an obscure, low-budget, crazy little number that most people (if they're even aware of it at all), only remember from a beloved episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000". So here I am, and here it is. This, as you can well imagine, is a very weird little movie. But in spite of it's ridiculous nature, it's very low budget, and the major "camp" factor oozing from it's every celluloid pore, I've got to say, it has some good things going for it. For one thing, it's got Santa, and that's already a winning element. For another, it's got a great big, cheesy Sci-Fi robot, and that is also a winning element. Throw in some crazy, hilarious Martians, who want to save their society by improving the moral of their children, and to do that they need Earth's Santa? Well, now you've really got something. I would not go so far as to say this is a GOOD film. But it's also not a BAD film, and it's is certainly interesting, and entertaining enough in it's own way, to justify giving it a look. If nothing else, you can at least say it's arguable the weirdest Christmas movie ever made.

Santa means business, dammit!

And with that, there you now have a nice, rounded "Top Ten" list, full of movies that are all perfectly good choices for you fine folks reading at home, to sit with your friends or family, or hell, even by yourself, and watch on this chilly Christmas season of ours. With the big day itself right around the corner, there is no better time to fire up the ol' "Boob Tube", and really get into the spirit of things with some great holiday flicks. So grab the popcorn, or the cookies, whichever way you prefer to fatten up around this time of year, and don't forget to spread the cheer!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Memories

The Countdown is over, and now it's Halloween once again.......

In the echoes of the past, the shape of the future can be found. What we now call Halloween, was once the pagan Celtic holy day "Samhain", a day in which they believed the veil separating the world of the living, and the "Other World" of the spirits, is at it's weakest. It was this day (or night rather), that they believed the spirits from the other side could cross over most easily, and thus they painted themselves up, both to ward off evil, and to be more recognizable to ancestors and deceased kin. Today, Halloween is more commercial, for kids it's about dressing up and candy, for adults (sadly) about dressing up and getting drunk (like every other holiday). But there still remain even amidst all of that, echoes of the Old Ways, and the old times in which the bonfires burned high and bright, as people told stories and played games and danced the night away. 

For me personally, Halloween has always been just about my favorite holiday. I say "just about", because Christmas, at least as a kid, was always right up there with it. But I think, getting into my early 30s now, that while there are still things about Christmastime I still am fond of, Halloween has been the most enduring. The imagery, the atmosphere, the celebration of ghouls and monsters, the great movies and cartoons that tend to get shown, the first sitings of pumpkin pie (my personal favorite), you name it. There's just a lot to love about the holiday, even as an adult, even if, like myself, you don't drink. I'd even go so far as to say that there is far more to enjoy during Halloween sober, but I digress.


Naturally, one of the things that stands out the strongest of my Halloween memories, are the costumes I wore. The earliest one I wore, or remember at least, was when I was about four or five years old, I went as "Spider-Man". I had a pair of Spidey pajamas at the time, and my grandmother made my face up in red and black web design (which is odd, because several years later, she decided she didn't want me partaking in comic book superheroes). I went around and trick or treated, likely for one of my first times. The following year, I do believe, I went as Superman, this time with one of those cheesy store-bought outfits, with the suit and the plastic mask. That was the only time I wore one of those. Another I remember, perhaps when I was about eight or so I suppose, I wore something similar to what the kid in the picture above is wearing: a cheeseball green dinosaur costume, though in my case my grandmother made it herself, and I painted my face green to go with it. I also went one year as a cowboy, even though I totally wasn't into them at all, complete with cut up carpet she had cut from little rugs to make chaps, and a cheap-as-hell plastic hat from a promotion Taco Bell had been doing in the late 80s.

The costume that probably became my favorite, even though it was never great, was two or so years in a row, my friend Harold and I went as Mario and Luigi, the Super Mario Bros., which to us was awesome, because we were both at the time obsessed with Mario and Nintendo. The first year wasn't much of a success, because all I had was some floppy brown hat she could find, and mis-matching suspenders, etc. But the next year, we did better, as we actually found red and green caps, and she sewed on "M" and "L" patches, and we came much closer to having matching red and green suspendered outfits. That was about the last time that I really got excited about dressing up, probably at the age of 12 I'd say. I still dressed up a bit in the following few years, but it became less of a big deal. When I was 16, three of my friends and I dressed up as weird, gothed-out versions of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalype". I was, of course, Death, complete with "The Crow" looking face-paint. That was pretty much the last time I have ever really dressed up for Halloween. I might again someday, but I just really kind of fell out of it.

Ah the memories.....and the cavities....

One of the other big things, of course, was the candy. Just about all kids who live in any country where Halloween (or one of its ethnic analogs) is celebrated, loves the candy part. It is a part of it that I now, as an adult, can no longer really enjoy much, as I developed diabetes in my late 20s, but as I kid, I literally ate it up. I loved Reece's Peanut Butter Cups, Hershey bars (especially the dark chocolate ones), the little Mr. Goodbars, Butterfingers, M&Ms, Skittles, you name it. There were very few candies that I really didn't care for, one of them being those damn, stale orange marshmellowish "circus peanut" things. Another was candy corn, which I don't hate, and would eat, but didn't love. I also remember the only vaguely sweetened, chewey "wax lips" and other such allegedly edible wax "candy" things that used to exist when I was a kid. I don't really see those around anymore, so perhaps people wisened up and thought to themselves "maybe kids shouldn't be eating this shit", but as a kid, I for some stupid reason liked them. I guess it was just the novelty of it, more than anything.

When it comes to decorations, the more creative the better.

Trick or Treating in and of itself was something to look forward to. It was an adventure. Even with a parental figure or adult with you for supervision, it was this whole big thing of "we get to walk around at night", and it had this wild and exciting feel to it. The coldness of an autumn night, the crisp, almost tangible energy in the air (Perhaps from the Veil being thin? Perhaps from spirits being out and about?), just the whole ambiance of it. It was also a roll of the dice, and a somewhat scary proposition, going up to each house, to each porch, to each door, and knocking. You never knew if you were going to get candy, what KIND of candy, what kind of people they'd be, whether they'd have a dog, etc. etc. Some houses were dark, obviously not wanting visitors. Others would be totally made up, with people going all out, having haunted decorations and lights and whatever else, really getting into it all and trying to enhance the experience for the kids. It was fun, in a way that few things in life ever truly are. Yet, like many fun things, it also had an air of slight mystery and danger to the whole thing. And I guess that fit the Halloween feeling all the better.

The timeless classics.

And before I draw this to a close, I can't talk about my Halloween memories without talking about another part of it that was always important to me: the television specials and movies and cartoons that would play every year. I've already written a fairly in depth article on the subject of Halloween specials, but it needs to be embellished, for completions sake. As a kid, every year around different holidays, they always used to show many of the same specials around Christmas, Halloween, Easter, etc., and the Halloween ones were some of my favorites. Whether it was Disney's old 80s "Trick or Treat" special, or the classic Garfield special (arguably the best), or random other shit that would show like the hilarious "Mr. Boogedy", it was something I looked forward to almost as much as the dressing up or candy. Those specials, those shows and cartoons, and when I was a bit older, the cool classic horror/sci fi movie marathons, etc., all of those things helped shape me as a child, and I still love them to this day. From the still-amazing early Disney classic "Dancing Skeletons", to the Charlie Brown "The Great Pumpkin" special, it was all golden to me.

Awesome, but scared the bejesus out of me at a young age.

My strongest memories of Halloween growing up, were more of senses and feelings, than of specific events or candy or things. Much like Christmas, I was always bummed out the next day, after Halloween was over. Though Halloween was easier to get over, because I always had Thanksgiving and my birthday and Christmas to still look forward to. But that build up to Halloween Night, every year, was something genuinely special, no matter how hard other parts of childhood might have been, there were always certain times you could still find respite and joy within. Halloween was one of those special times. It was a culmination of elements, that combined to make real magic, if you were open and eager enough to see it, to feel it happening.

Whatever your plans are this Halloween/Samhain, make sure you take some time, for my sake, for your sake, to watch some old cartoons, or movies, or whatever. Make sure to stop when you're out after dark, and just stand there, take a deep breath, look up at the moon, look all around, and just drink it in. Even as one of us numbed, stupid adults, you can still feel "it" if you try hard enough. Even if just for a fleeting moment. And whatever you wind up doing for your Halloween, I hope you have a great time. Cheers!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Unnecessary Sequels: Fright Night

Here comes Round 3, and boy is it a doozy...........hold onto your butts........

So, usually, I would take a movie that I like, that is somewhat obscure, like the one I'm about to talk about, and put it in the "Silver Screen Stories" series, because it really is a great little film that more people need to know about. However, I am unfortunately compelled to place it in this series instead, because it also suffered the wretched fate of Hollywood trying to unnecessarily cash in on it's modest success, with a super-craptacular sequel that in many ways almost ruins the first film. And with that, let's dive right in!

Film: Fright Night
Year: 1985
Director: Tom Holland
Unnecessary Sequel: Fright Night II (1988)

Fright Night was one of many films from the 80s that can absolutely be labeled as an "80s film", because not only did it come from the 80s, but it embodies the 80s and belongs to the 80s. It wasn't quite as successful nor quite as famous as it's "teen vampire movie" counterpart, Joel Schumacher's 1987 hit "The Lost Boys", but it certainly was a success in it's own right. And I must say, in several ways I would venture to state that it's a better film, though Lost Boys was certainly a good movie. I'll say right away, that like many other things, the 80s knew how to do "teen vampire movies" right, as Night and Boys were both filled with clever dialogue, tight writing, and human characters you actually cared about. Unlike, basically, Twilight, or pretty much any other modern take on vampire nonsense.

In the 80s, vampires wore awesome Cosby sweaters.

The set-up of the film, is that young teen geek Charley Brewster, is a huge fan of classic horror movies, especially the "gothic horror" vampire films starring his favorite actor, Peter Vincent (played by the amazing Roddy McDowall). In fact, the movie gets it's name from Charley's favorite TV show, "Fright Night", which is hosted by Mr. Vincent (who himself is send up to both Vincent Price and long-time Hammer Films horror star Peter Cushing). So one night, while getting friendly with his high school sweetheart, Amy, he notices that a neighbor has moved in next door, and he spies some people carrying what looks like a coffin into the basement of the house. Being the horror geek that he is, he automatically assumes something is up, and sets about spying on his neighbor over the course of the next couple days, eventually discovering to his horror that, not only is his neighbor a real live (metaphorically speaking) vampire, but he's also responsible for the murders that have been plaguing his town recently. Left with no other recourse (so he feels) after his neighbor Jerry Dandridge discovers that his secret is known, and the vampire makes it clear that Charley is on his shit list very soon, he decides to go and seek help from the only man he believes can solve his little problem.

There's no mistake, this man makes the movie.

So now we get down to it. Peter Vincent, the character who, played so brilliantly by the tragically under-recognized and under-appreciated Mr. McDowall, completely makes this movie on his own. Don't get me wrong, if his role had been played by someone else, it might have still been decent, and this film on it's own would have still been a fun, interesting slice of the 80s. But WITH McDowall, the movie becomes, at least in my mind, a classic. Not only is he great in this role, but I also love this movie for the fact that it is one solid (and sadly rare) instance I can point to and say to people who have no idea who Roddy is, "There, THAT guy!". See, the thing is, most people do know about Mr. McDowall's work, he's just one of those guys where they aren't totally aware of it. He was/is fairly infamous in the role of Dr. Cornelius in the "Planet of the Apes" movies, though he is behind make-up and ape-mask. Fans of the widely known 90s cartoon "Batman: The Animated Series" would also recognize him as the voice behind the brilliantly played "Mad Hatter" villain. But in both cases of course, he's known more for his voice, not his face. But this was one role in a fairly successful film where his face IS shown, and he's really allowed to shine.

To make a long story short, Charley confronts Mr. Vincent as he's leaving his film studio where the "Fright Night" show is shot, and he tries to convince him that his neighbor is a vampire, and that he needs his "expert" help, as a long-time slayer of film vampires, in killing the fiend, before he kills Charley instead. Peter of course thinks the kid is bonkers, and gets out of there as fast as he can. Later on, after Charley has announced his fate to his girl Amy, and his kinda-sorta-pal "Evil" Ed, that he is going to try and kill Jerry Dandrige all by himself, if he can, they approach Mr. Vincent themselves. Fearing for Charley's sanity (not to mention his future jail-time), they convince him (with money) to come with them and "prove" that the nice neighbor isn't really a vampire at all. Problem is, after the faux test of proof to show Charley that Mr. Dandridge is just a normal dude, Peter Vincent accidentally sees no reflection when looking at Jerry in a mirror. He realizes then and there that vampires are real.

She's a hell of a wicked kissah.

So without giving too much away, after a further series of events, Mr. Vincent finally becomes convinced to attempt to play the role of "vampire killer" in real life, and he and Charley team up to take on the vile menace and his disgusting disciples. All in all, like I said before, it's really a great little film. In fact, while Tom Holland would go on to direct other well known horror films like the original "Child's Play" and a 90s adaptation of the Stephen King story "Thinner", I think his first movie (this one), was his best.

Even the poster sucks.

To me personally at least, the wholly uncalled for, unasked for, and unnecessary sequel that Fright Night received, is easily one of the very worst examples I can think of. Yes, it's even up there with the Jaws and Neverending Story sequels. It's that bad. The short version goes, the film was directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, who had previously done another unnecessary sequel in the form of "Halloween III: Season of the Witch". So that's already a bad start. But while the movie does retain it's top two stars from before, Roddy McDowall and William Ragsdale (Charley), the entire thing just screams "Why did you make this?" from beginning to end. Much like the many other films I've already brought to your attention in this little series of mine, the original Fright Night, had a rather well put together ending, and it was a very nice, self-contained story. This film undoes just about all of that, either directly, or indirectly. For one thing, it pulls the frequent Hollywood trick of "we couldn't get that actor back so we wrote her out and gave him a new girlfriend". That's exactly what happens, as Charley is now in college and no longer with his cute high-school sweetheart, instead now with a new girl, for convenience's sake. Not only that, but the writing and dialogue aren't snappy and memorable as in the first film, the plot and characters are no longer interesting, and the new villain, a shitty, "euro-trash" type vampire (a prototype for the modern era maybe?), named Regine, and her trashy, hipster, "New York party scene" reject crew, are incredibly uncompelling and lame.

The movie sucks to a degree that not even the Peter Vincent character can save it. Everything that was cool about the first movie, pretty much sucks in the second. The plot is incoherent and uninteresting, the pace of the film (unlike the original), is plodding and honestly boring for much of the film, etc. It really is just one of the worst examples you could ask for in a sequel that just never should have happened, as it tarnishes (to some degree) the legacy of the original film. But if that weren't bad enough, it isn't just that Fright Night got fucked by a shitty sequel. Nay, more recently (2011 to be precise), it got fucked even further, with a brand spanking new remake/reboot treatment. The only thing in film that is honestly worse than an unnecessary sequel to a great or even just decent film, is an even more unnecessary remake. And, not surprisingly, like most modern horror (or sci fi, or fantasy) remakes, from what I understand, the new film, starring none other than Colin Ferrel as the vampire, really sucked. In fact it sucked so bad that it got a direct-to-video sequel that totally ignores it and re-remakes the original with an all-new cast. Yup.

Funny thing, Colin Ferrel, while a good actor, who has played a few pretty strong roles in his time, also around the same time-frame starred in yet another unnecessary (and from what I understand, shitty) remake, this time of Total Recall. But you know, as this series of mine points out, among other things, Hollywood just never seems to learn. They figure that if something made money in the past, it might make money again now, and hell, that's a lot more secure of a proposal than taking a risk (like Hollywood used to do all the time decades ago), on totally NEW properties. But especially with movies like this one, the problem with remaking something like Fright Night, is that, as I stated at the beginning of this article, it was a product of the 80s. It embodies the 80s, it is every bit an "80s movie", and that is part of what makes it so great.

Remaking Fright Night? That would be about as dumb as, I don't know, trying to remake Gremlins. Oh..................wait....................

Till next time, keep your windows locked, and don't invite any neighbors in the house. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Forgotten Gems: Demon's Crest

Time for more Halloween madness! Kick the tires and light the fires, big daddy......

The definition of hard.....

There have been many video games over the years that I would say fit into those classic Halloween themes, such as the one I covered last year, Monster Party. There's also the almost-always-awesome Castlevania series (which I will cover at another time, for sure), or the old Resident Evil games, etc. etc. However, one series that really stands out, is the Ghosts n Goblins series, both for it's own cavalcade of monsters, as well as it's screen-punchingly hard difficulty. One of the coolest monsters, and one of the most frustrating enemies in any of the games (Ghosts n Goblins, Ghouls n Ghosts, Super Ghouls n Ghosts), was the flame-red gargoyle called Red Arremer, otherwise known as Firebrand. That motherfucker would float and dive at you, at the worst times, killing you right when you're near the end of the game, and haunting your nightmares. Well, in their once upon a time seemingly unlimited well of wisdom, ol' Capcom decided to give the little bastard his own game.....

BEHOLD!............hey why's he green?

So in 1990, on the Game Boy no less, out came the eponymous spinoff, dubbed Gargoyle's Quest. As with many Game Boy games of the era, it had a cool but questionably odd cover art (white Kirby, anyone?), as RED Arremer, the new anti-hero Firebrand, was depicted as GREEN. Who knows....

One of the first games to allow you to play the "bad guy" from a previous game.

In the game, you play (obviously) as the demon Firebrand, who serves the ruler of the Ghoul Realm, King Darkaon, and strives to become the "Red Blaze" of legend, to thereby save the land from the armies of the King of Destruction, King Breager. The game was a unique mix of side-scrolling action/platformer, as well as having light rpg elements. You explore towns and maps from an overhead view, ala rpgs, and collect items and grow more powerful throughout the game. But the main action, as seen above, took place in that traditional side-scrolling view, and was definitely action oriented, with a mix of fighting monsters, floating on your gargoyle wings, and utilizing your cool wall-clinging ability. One of the elements that lends itself to the challenge of Gargoyle's Quest, is the fact that while you have wings, you cannot simply fly all over the screen as you please, the game instead allowing you to float for limited amounts of time, gauged by the little "W" bar at the bottom of the screen. The game sees you travel through various areas, fighting the five game bosses and collecting items to improve your abilities. In a rather fucked move on Capcom's part, the sixth and final boss battle, with King Breager, gives you an option before the battle, and depending on which option you choose in the dialogue, you either get to keep all your items and fight the boss normally, or are totally stripped of all your items, making you incredibly weak and virtually unable to actually beat the boss. A fine example of some of the total dick moves that certain classic games used to pull on players, though I'd label that one of the worst. If you beat Breager, you save the Ghoul Realm, and all is evil.....I mean GOOD again. That is until..........

BEHOLD!......that's more like it, eh?

In a somewhat surprising move that reversed the trend of the early 90s (along with Kirby's Adventure), of NES games getting sequels on the Game Boy (Kid Icarus, Metroid, etc.), in 1992 Capcom released a sequel on the NES, in all of it's full color 8-bit glory. In all honesty, while the first Game Boy game is awesome, I'm not really sure why they didn't just make it an NES game itself, as it certainly would have benefited, or at the very least, they could have released both games on both systems, as they did for certain other games, like Duck Tales.

Color suits him well, don't ya think?

Gargoyle's Quest II is very much the same type of game as the first, an rpg-like game where you travel around an overhead-view world map, and go to areas ("dungeons") in a regular side-scrolling manner. It would seem that while it's numbered as a sequel, the game is actually somewhat a prequel to the first, as it's supposed to feature a younger Firebrand, who is in training. While he is away training, a dark force called the "Black Light" comes and destroys his home, and naturally, once he returns, he must be the one to set off and find out what the hell (literally) is really going on. Again, it's a fun, though very challenging game, with various different landscapes to explore, and giant monster bosses to fight. Though I will say, one thing that the Gargoyle games have over Ghosts n Goblins, is that while both are very hard in their way, in the GnG games, half the difficulty comes from the awkward jumping mechanics. Whereas, in the Gargoyle series, you actually do have a much greater degree of control over your character, whether it be jumping at varying heights, floating in midair for limited time (which your bar increases, seen in the screen above, as you progress and get more items), or clinging to walls, which can and will really save your bacon innumerable times throughout the game. In another odd turn, GQII was ported to the Game Boy in Japan only, in 1993, and surprisingly, it was even given two extra levels. They were supposedly going to bring this "enhanced" version of the game to NA as well, but cancelled it. To me, even if they had, that's a rather cheap move on any game company's part, to release a game, and then just a year later release a "better" version of the game with more levels? I think a lot of people in NA would have been pissed if they'd done that. Though in all fairness, it wasn't unusual for Capcom of all companies to do things like this. Just look at Street Fighter II.......

Bad ass.

So now we come to the article's namesake, and my personal favorite entry in the series, in fact one of my favorite SNES games of all time, Demon's Crest. It would have made more sense for them to name the game "Gargoyle's Quest III: Demon's Crest", but instead they just dropped the original title completely, adding to the confusion of those who do not pay attention to such things. But make no mistake, it is in fact the third, and thus far last Gargoyle's Quest.

Well would ya just look at that......

Demon's Crest was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of those games that really showcased just what the SNES could do, when it released in 1994. Hell, '94 was already a bad ass year for SNES, what with the releases of Super Metroid (Metroid III), a great port of Mortal Kombat II, Final Fantasy III (VI), and Donkey Kong Country. Demon's Crest just added to that glut of awesomeness. And in all honesty, just as much as Super Metroid, FFVI, or DKC, Demon's Crest really displayed the height of the kinds of graphics and sound that it's games could be capable of. As you can see above, for its time, the level of graphical detail was rather incredible, and while you can't hear it by reading this article, the soundtrack was also bad ass, and featured some really fittingly creepy and mood-setting tunes.

The game starts off with a real bang, again as you can see above, that is the very first opening area of the game, and you immediately encounter this enormous, undead zombie/bone dragon. When I first rented this game, and fired it up, pressed start, and got into this area, and this thing just tramples on-screen, I was literally like "Holy Shit!". The battle itself, being the first of the game (and a clever way of getting you familiar with the controls by just throwing you in the water, unlike most modern games that force you through this painfully slow gameplay "tutorial"), isn't all that hard, but you are presented with a rather clever "psych-out" moment, as you beat this guy, he crumbles, and you exit stage right, feeling awesome about yourself, to the next screen, only to immediately have the even-more-crumbled bone-dragon head burst through the wall, and you kinda-sorta have to fight it a second time! Really a great way to start a game! One of the coolest openings to any game ever, really.

One of the cooler features of the game.

So the set-up of this game seems a bit different, to be sure. In the previous two games, Firebrand is presented more as an almost straight-up hero of his (admittedly "evil") monstrous Ghoul Realm, saving the day and such. In the third outing, the focus sees Firebrand seemingly growing beyond just serving demon kings and saving lands and such, instead showing him almost rather as a would-be conqueror in his own right. It seems that there are six magical Crests in the Demon Realm (what they call the Ghoul Realm now, which, as if it weren't clear in itself, is the place where the monsters Sir Arthur fights in Ghosts n Goblins/Ghouls n Ghosts come from), and anyone who attains all six, can basically wield god-like power, and "conquer all realms". That bit really reminds me somewhat of the six Infinity Gems in the Marvel Universe (which were, ironically enough, the focus of several big Marvel Comic cosmic story arcs in the early-to-mid-90s, around this same time).

At the outset of the game, it seems Firebrand has already come into possession of five of the crests, Fire, Earth, Water, Air, and Time. By defeating the demon bone-dragon in that opening battle, he collects the sixth, Heaven, but is left in a weakened state from the battle, and is set upon by another demon, Phalanx, who attacks you and takes them for himself. Somehow those damn things wind up getting scattered across the realm again, and it's up to you to go beat some ass and find them.

That son of a bitch.....

The game again features much the same gameplay, though the overhead rpg map style exploring is now replaced by a streamlined "Mode 7" 3D-ish flight around the world map, similar to the SNES Final Fantasy games (once you get an airship, that is). However, one major new addition, as can be seen above, is that as you collect the different elemental crests, you also gain the ability to transform into other gargoyle forms, which give you differing abilities. Your normal fire form, of course, allows you the same floating/wall clinging powers, as well as your fire breath. As you get the other crests, you can at will change into Ground Gargoyle (smashing stones), Aerial Gargoyle (can fly much better), Tidal Gargoyle (seen above, can breath/survive under water), as well as later Legendary Gargoyle and lastly Ultimate Gargoyle. It's a pretty cool new feature, and really livens up the gameplay. The game, much like the previous games, only features about six levels, though in this you have to backtrack to earlier levels with new powers to access hidden areas.

If I had one real complaint about Demon's Crest, that would be it: that it feels a bit too short. If it even had, say, one more full-length, seventh level, or better yet eight or more, it might feel like a bigger adventure. As it is, if you know what you're doing, you can kick some serious ass and the game will be over before you know it. That was the feeling I was left with upon beating the game all those years ago (the only one in the series thus far that I have beaten, without Game Genie), was that the fun ended too quickly. It's a really enjoyable game, and the controls and gameplay are even more fun and finely tuned than they were in GQI and II. So if it had been a bit longer, that would have made it more or less perfect. As it is, it's still one of the best SNES games in an already excellent catalog, by this man's estimation. And it, as well as the series as a whole, is totally "Halloween Material". So if you find yourself here in October, leading up to Halloween night itself, wanting to play some games that really fit the season? Then find yourself a copy (somehow....there are ways), and play these great games! And if you can only play one, make it Demon's Crest. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Silver Screen Stories: It! The Terror From Beyond Space

Well, it's that time of year again, and so without further fanfare, here is the first in the 2014 Retro Revelations Halloween series!

It could very well scare DEATH!

So I figured I'd kick off this year's Halloween countdown with a nice little slice of classic cinema. And for this, I decided to introduce you to none other than, while it may not seem like it on the surface, what would quietly become one of the most important science fiction/horror films in history, along with "Forbidden Planet". While not as widely or highly regarded as that bonafide classic, nor as successful in it's day, "It! The Terror From Beyond Space", is not only a pretty decent film, but also very important, if nothing else, for one major reason: it's massive influence on the genre, or more specifically, one key movie in the genre. Just as "Forbidden Planet" was a major influence on Star Trek and many other future sci-fi properties, "Terror" was, in point of fact, a direct influence on many films, but most importantly, 1979's "Alien".

An ill-fated rescue attempt on a dark, desolate planet.....

Whether screenwriter Dan O'Bannon or director Ridley Scott have ever fully admitted such, their 70s classic was absolutely inspired by "Terror", and even directly mirrors the film in many ways. In "Terror", the film starts as a spaceship has landed on Mars, on a rescue mission to look for survivors of a previous expedition that went "missing". Now in "Alien", the crew of that ship is responding to a strange, alien distress call (or so they thought, SPOILERS), which they assumed might be a ship in need of rescue as well. In "Terror", unlike Alien, they find a survivor of the wreck they explore, astronaut Col. Edward Carruthers, whom they assume has killed his crewmates to steal their rations to survive, though he refuses to admit it and insists that they were all killed by a mysterious force from the planet itself. Like "Alien", however, the crew decides to leave at once, unknowingly taking a very special, and very deadly stowaway with them as they leave...

Still pretty damn creepy......

The similarities don't stop with the setup though. The pace of the film is very slow and menacing, the film spends much of it's time in very dark, very isolated, very claustrophobic scenery, as the crew spends it's time hiding from/fighting their uninvited guest. The creature moves about the ship seemingly at will at times, hiding and traveling in air ducts, etc. At a certain point, a crew-member goes climbing into the ducts, hoping to drive the creature out. All things that in some way directly happen as well during the course of "Alien". The two films even employ the use of what were, for their time, hardly "big name" actors. All in all, I merely wanted to make it known the profound influence this film had on "Alien", as well as perhaps other films like the Italian "Planet of the Vampires", a movie itself that also had some influence on "Alien". The influence is a good thing, certainly, as there have been many great "send ups" to previous generation's films throughout movie history, and "Alien" is a great example of that.

Fighting for their lives.

Back to the movie at hand though. I remember seeing this on TV as a kid, most likely as part of TNT's MonsterVision, and at that age, naturally, it scared the shit out of me. Not as bad as some other movies did, but it was still damn spooky. The crew figures out early on that poor ol' Carruthers was innocent and telling the truth about the monster. Turns out, because water is scarce on Mars, this creature absorbs the fluids around it, including bodily fluids, and even bone marrow. And this is how it takes out crew member after crew member, always catching them alone, dragging them off into the air ducts or some other dark corner, and draining their bodies totally dry. That alone is, especially for a kid, a pretty frightening concept, and the movie does a great job with setting a scary and tense tone, taking the subject matter very seriously and not "camping it up" as some 50s films wound up doing.It presented the struggle to survive against this alien predator (see what I did there?), in a very convincing light (for it's time).

Seemingly unstoppable.

Another way in which the later "Alien" would seemingly mirror this film, is the way in which the crew of the ship seem terribly ineffective in their efforts to stop the creature. Of course, in "Alien" (SPOILERS) it doesn't help that there's also a psycho, sabotaging robot to contend with, but still, the crew in "Terror" try absolutely everything at their disposal to hurt or kill the creature, from axes, to guns and grenades, to fire, and even trying to trap the creature in the ship's nuclear reactor. But it seems to remain largely unscathed from every attack, and eventually chases the crew up the rocket, level by level, as they try to lock it out through a series of hatch-locks, which it is strong enough to eventually break through, one by one, till finally the crew is stuck up at the very top level, the ships control room.

The desperate, final confrontation.

So it winds up that the few survivors are about to become lunch for this horrible beast, just like the lone survivor in "Alien" (Ellen Ripley, oops, spoilers), and just like in that later film, again, it all comes down to a last ditch stroke of human ingenuity. In "Alien", that meant tricking the monster into getting sucked out the airlock, and then blasted by the ships thrusters. In "Terror", in the control room, as they are waiting for the beast to break through the final hatch and kill them, they realize that the ship's oxygen has been depleted at a rate far higher than normal, which they then deduce is due to the creature's large lungs. So, in desperation, donning their space suits to survive, they decide to flush all the oxygen out, suffocating the beast right as it's about to get them. (again....spoilers)

My memories of this as a kid, in spite of it scaring me, were pretty favorable, and upon watching it again as an adult, it holds up. It's not one of my very favorite classic sci-fi/horror films, but it is very good, and worth watching if you're a fan of those kinds of movies (which you totally should be), or even if you're just a fan of "Alien" and it's sequels, and are curious to see where some of it's major inspiration came from. It's very good taken either way, and I would highly recommend it as a nice, classic "chiller" to watch in this Halloween season.

Cheers, and stay tuned!