Sunday, August 24, 2008

‘Prom Night' (2008) and ‘P2’: Studies in Obsession

Caught up a bit this past weekend on some recent slasher flicks that escaped me during their theatrical runs. After watching the much-maligned Prom Night remake and the parking garage thriller P2, I was struck by how one first-time filmmaker demonstrated an aptitude for suspense and how one missed the boat entirely.

Prom Night deserved almost all of the criticism leveled against it. Every aspect of this film screamed TV movie – from the CW-(un)inspired casting to its glossy music video dance sequences to its tamer than tame kills (and this was watching the “unrated” version, mind you!). The story is generic slasher fare: a student-obsessed psychopath kills his object of affection’s entire family, is institutionalized, and escapes just before the titular event to have at it one last time. Brittany Snow is the final girl and does a respectable scream queen turn considering J.S. Cardone’s insipid screenplay that strains plausibility and is riddled with more holes than a slice of baby Swiss. The cast of over-privileged teen characters are featureless, so bland at times that it’s difficult to keep them straight. The setting – a posh hotel – lacks any shred of atmosphere or isolation necessary to create tension. Even the setups are standard fare – killer hides in the closet, under the bed, behind the bathroom door. Worst of all, the action is reliant on the stupidity of all involved, making it hard to empathize, sympathize, or connect with the characters. Personal highlight: when one of the characters – who’s vying for prom queen and talks incessantly about how much she really, really wants the crown - leaves the ballroom for a make-out session with her boyfriend moments before the big announcement. Happily, she wins; sadly, her throat is slit before she makes it back for her coronation.

The supporting cast of television actors – ER’s Ming-Na, Melrose Place’s Linden Ashby, Boston Public’s Jessalyn Gilsig, and The Wire’s Idris Elba - is distracting at times, and one ends up playing an annoying game of place-the-face-with-the-TV-show.

In short, Prom Night offers nary a shred of originality. Veteran television director Nelson McCormick offers nothing new, nothing close to resembling an injection of innovation to the proceedings, and instead succeeds in creating a piece of celluloid drywall. If Prom Night is any indication of what he has to offer the big screen, then viewers had better beware his upcoming remake of The Stepfather.

Thankfully, I watched first-time director Franck Khalfoun’s infinitely superior P2 second. Scripted by Khalfoun with Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur (the writing duo behind High Tension, The Hill Have Eyes remake, the recent Mirrors, and the upcoming Piranha 3-D), P2 employs a simple set-up and gradually ratchets up the tension in this straightforward story of a businesswoman trapped with an infatuated psychopath in a parking garage on Christmas Eve. Rachel Nichols plays Angela, the fairly resourceful final girl, and Wes Bentley plays Thomas, the parking attendant with the major fixation who’s been secretly watching her every move via the office building’s high-tech security cameras.

One handily disabled car and some left-of-center suggestions of sharing Christmas Eve dinner and Angela is appropriately unnerved as she tries to make her way out of the office building. Adding to Angela’s growing sense of dread, kindly security guard Karl (Philip Akin) is nowhere to be found, the exits are all locked, cell phone service within the parking garage is spotty at best, and the holiday sidewalks are barren of passersby.

It isn’t long before Angela’s sniffing a chloroformed towel and wakes to find herself re-attired in a bodice-busting holiday dress and chained to a table in the security office. As Thomas slowly makes his intentions clear, Angela likewise reacts with equal parts horror and resourcefulness – first placating her captor by playing along, then trying to escape when the terror intensifies to the extreme. Nichols gets credit for conveying Angela’s internal struggle to remain calm and never allowing the character to succumb to her victimhood. Bentley deserves props, too, for his portrayal of Thomas’ gradual unspooling as he goes from composed, almost rational madness to over-the-top psycho.

What I enjoyed about P2 – that was sorely lacking in Prom Night – was the continuity and believability of the protagonist’s situation. Everything rings true and very little is left to coincidence. The screenplay is tight and there’s very little disbelief to be suspended. Whereas the characters in Prom Night are positioned illogically, the characters in P2 act realistically in response to their surroundings and circumstances.

The most telling difference between Prom Night and P2 is on the relationship between stalker and stalkee. In Prom Night, much needed back story is sacrificed for high school platitudes and systematic killing. Despite the chillingly cool calculation that actor Johnathon Schaech brings to his Richard Fenton, his behavior never feels grounded and comes off as random, despite a quick flashback in which we’re told of his long-standing obsession with Snow’s Donna. Conversely, the motivations and depths of Thomas’ fixation in P2 are slowly revealed throughout in seamlessly interwoven actions and reveals. His obsession with Angela feels authentic and the audience experiences a genuine sense of fear for the character’s safety. Even when P2 comes to its predictable vigilante, tables-turned climax, we’re actually cheering for Angela. When Prom Night’s Richard Fenton meets his maker, we’re left wishing that Johnathon Schaech had opted for the P2 script.

Word association: Prom Night = lifeless; P2 = surprising.

Monday, August 18, 2008

'Children of the Corn' Casting Video

Lest you think Hollywood moviemaking is all glitz and glamour and power lunches and red carpet premieres, here's a little clip from yesterday's open casting call for the Sci-Fi Channel's upcoming remake of Stephen King's Children of the Corn. My friend Jamie (who's an accomplished actress and acting teacher in her own right with roles in Just Before Dawn, TV's Falcon Crest, and myriad TV guest appearances including Two and a Half Men last season) is the casting director on the film, and you'll hear her speaking to the throngs of people who showed up at a hotel in Bettendorf, Iowa, on a Sunday morning. It's astounding how many Iowaians want in on this movie!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Doug Clegg's 'Attraction'

I love book trailers. Love the ingenuity of promoting the classic pastime of reading with the high-tech marketing glitz of video. From time to time, I'll be sharing one that catches my eye.

Here's the latest from author Douglas Clegg. While I'm not a huge fan of his fantasy works, I do enjoy his more straightforward horror stuff. The Attraction is a nifty little slasher story - its cinematic counterpart would place it in the sub-human slasher genre. Bunch of college kids on a road trip stop by one of those cheesy roadside tourist traps and end up stealing a little mummified corpse, tellingly called "The Flesh-Scaper." Good things do not ensue.

Book trailer is by Circle of Seven Productions.

You can pick up a copy of The Attraction at Dark Scribe Magazine's
virtual store.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Blogging Bits and Other Nibbles...

Bad blogging queen that I am, it's been a few weeks since I highlighted some of my favorite blog bits from around the virtual universe.

Before we grab our virtual surfboards and hit the blogs, my fellow brothers and sisters of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers (check out the spiffy new look of the group's homepage) recently offered up another insightful roundtable at Blogcritics Magazine. The topic this time around is the allure of of evil in horror.

Now here's a look at some of the more marvelous morsels that I've stmbled upon in recent weeks:

  • Over at The Vault of Horror, the topic of children watching violent movies is discussed following a recent study published in the August issue of Pediatrics, the official journal of the Academy of Pediatrics. The study documents widespread exposure of young US adolescents to movies with extreme graphic violence from movies rated R for violence and questions the effectiveness of the current movie-rating system. So how old is "old enough" to see the likes of Saw and Hostel? Jump into the Vault and discuss. (There's also a fun little poll about the hottest scream queen and a nice chance to vote for Jamie Lee!)

  • Pax Romano over at Billy Loves Stu (quickly becoming a favorite blogger of mine alongside the kiddies of Kindertrauma!) has a fun item or two that gave me more than a few gay giggles. First up is his lament over the cinematic demise of Glen Lantz. the character played by one-time teen heartthrob-turned-marauding pirate Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Those old images of young Johnny boy in his clingy gray sweatpants and teasing half-shirts caused a reminiscent sigh as I remembered late nights, cable TV, and the fantasies of a teenage slasher geek(!). A few more belly laughs followed with his examination of a dozen other lesser-know Camp Crystal Lake denizens. From grabby-hands Enos, the truck driver, to sassy Sandy, the diner waitress, you'll never look at Friday the 13th the same way again.

  • My favorite playmates over at Kindertrauma offer up a side-splitting take on some fantasy film casting. This time, it's Janet Leigh who's thrown out of the shower and replaced with...well, you just have to see it to fully appreciate their genuis.

  • Mark your address books because John Moorehead has moved his thought-provoking TheoFantastique to a new location. While you're there, I'll call your attention to a retrospective John did on the creepy 1981 film Dead & Buried a few weeks ago.

  • Over at Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire, hostess Tenebrous Kate delves deep into the camp-tastic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. She had me at the Josie and the Pussycats analogy and Wikipedia link(!).

  • The refreshingly cerebral Kim Paffenroth (that's Dr. Paffenroth to you!) posted the intriguing prologue to Valley of the Dead, his latest zombie-fied historical re-creation. This time he's visiting Dante's circles of hell where he finds cannibalism among the Christian discourse. And you know the old expression: Where there's cannibalism...

  • CRwm over at And Now the Screaming Starts visits Mulberry Street and Stuart Gordon's take on Poe's The Black Cat.

  • Finally, Final Girl offers up the latest installment of its popular film club, with a look back at 1977's The Car. Dinner with Max Jenke and Evil on Two Legs go along for the ride.
Nothing else doing. Finishing up editing and formatting the Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet anthology and getting ready to announce Dark Scribe Press' next project. Think non-fiction and feminine(!).

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Listening Booth: Adele

Next to great literature, it's music that fuels my soul. I'm passionate about music. I love when I "discover" a new voice, a singer who's orginal and who moves me. Music loosens inhibitions and frees the muses. It relaxes, it resonates, and it touches upon abstract aspects of ourselves with each note, each vocal nuance.

So, in my never-ending quest to organize and bring shape and consistency to this blog, I introduce the newest weekly feature - which is neither about horror nor Jamie Lee Curtis. Welcome to The Listening Booth where I'll give you a taste of what massages my ears, what melodic marvels pump inspiration through my writerly veins. File this under getting to know the man behind the writer. My musical tastes run the gamut - so much so that a peek inside my CD collection (numbering in the thousands now) might indicate schizophrenia to the casual observer. That said, I have a penchant for female vocalists...the throatier the better. I like big 'ole voices on big 'ole diva songbirds.

First up is one of my newest discoveries. Adele is a 19-year-old songstress hailing from London whose honest, textured voice belies her tender age. This UK marvel - who strikes me as a cross between the incomparable Alison Moyet and Amy Winehouse - combines elements of jazz, pop, and folk to create a sound that she describes as "heartbroken soul." Her debut album - appropriately titled 19 - was released this past June. Three clips to introduce you to this latest one-named wonder...

From a June 2008 appearance on The Letterman Show, Adele sings her debut single, "Chasing Pavements":

One of Adele's influences is the legendary Etta James. From a live performance at The Mission Theater in Portland, Orgeon, here she is singing "Fool That I Am":

Here she is again performing "Hometown Glory" during an appearance on the BBC 2 in October2007:

For more information about this fabulous UK singbird, visit her official website.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Writerly Stuff: The Case for Characters

I’m a prologue and a few chapters into The Renewed now, with characters starting to take shape and gel into my new fictional landscape. One of the most rewarding aspects of the feedback I received for Lit6 was the almost universal applause for the characters. Characters are the backbone of the story – without them, the suspense and plot and outcomes are meaningless. Characters are more than mere game pieces meant to track progress across a literary game board. They’re the story-bound couriers of the author’s words – the messengers that deliver the plot and action and dialogue. Through them, the conflict arises and emotional investment is made.

Characterization need not be bogged down in wordy exposition to
be effective. In fact, some of the most effective characters in horror fiction are painted with the subtlest of strokes. Take Jack Ketchum’s brutal Off Season, for example. Six tourists meet a tribe of ferocious cannibals in the Maine woods - nothing particularly innovative or groundbreaking plot-wise there. A literary derivative of 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, right? So why, then, has this book remained so wildly popular with horror fans since its 1981 debut? Is it the visceral descriptions of cannibalism? The ruthless brutality?

No. It’s experiencing these things through the eyes of Carla and Jim and Laura and Nick and Marjie and Dan - Ketchum’s characters who we come to either love or loathe, but always root for. It’s the sign of remarkable characterization in horror when a thoroughly unlikeable character elicits our sympathies. What happens to the characters in Off Season is so unnerving because it appears to the reader to happen to real, flesh-and-blood people, not cardboard cutouts of stock fictional characters. Therein lies the genius of Ketchum’s book.

In The Literary Six, the basic story of revenge would essentially be a lifeless exercise in inventive kills without the reader being invested in the main characters of the titular group. By bringing the characters to life, by imbuing them with faults and imperfections, strengths and weaknesses, they connect with the reader. Once the reader is interested in and emotionally connected to a character or two, he or she wants to read on to find out their fates. Sure the slasher references are fun, the kills gory and inventive, and the sense of isolation suitably nerve-wracking. But it’s the characters that made the story resonate. On a side note, Jack Ketchum – a longtime idol of mine who’s as brutally honest in real life as he is in his fictional worlds – once told me he couldn’t get past the first few pages of Lit6(!). Ouch. Fortunately, the same week I received his email, Bentley Little sent me a fabulous letter saying that he loved the book and promised a blurb for the next one, taking the sting out of JK’s rejection just a smidge. (Don’t worry; still love ‘ya, Dallas. Just more determined to make sure the next one knocks your socks off!)

For the decidedly more supernatural The Renewed, the believability of the characters will be essential for the story to work. It’s tricky to coax readers into suspending their hardwired beliefs enough to make the more paranormal elements seem plausible. But without characters well-grounded in reality, it’s impossible. We’re wading into territory that’s got a haunted nursing home, after all – complete with killer plants, a dense fog as the harbinger of death, and a plot that features botanical regeneration as a twist on the fountain of youth idea.

It’s a tall order, but hopefully my characters will help me pull it off.