pregaming the October Horror Movie Challenge

OctoberChallenge2010
The last few days of September are hard. I get antsy for October to be here, so I can get cracking on celebrating Halloween for 31 days. It’s not even about the October Horror Movie Challenge at this point; it’s just time to get spooky. I try to avoid watching horror films for all of September, because I know what it’s like to get burned out on the genre by the time 31 October rolls around. But I was weak this year! I was weak.

A couple weeks ago, I saw that Dead Silence (2007, dir. James Wan) was added to Netflix. I can’t say I’m a big fan of Wan’s films, although I’m keen on the Saw series (understanding that he only directed the first) and I like Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013) despite some of their obvious flaws. I thought Dead Silence might have a shot of entertaining me, and although I tried to wait until October so I could officially count it as a first time view, I couldn’t do it. I was weak! Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t wait until October to watch this one; it’s dreadfully boring and one of those horror films that’s shot almost entirely with blue filters, so everything looks vaguely like it’s underwater. When and why did that cliche ever get started?

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The basic idea behind Dead Silence is that Mary Shaw, a ventriloquist who cannot bear children, is revenge-killed and buried with her collection of dolls by a mob of townsfolk when they discover that she is responsible for the murder of a young boy. Before dying, she curses the children of Ravens Fair to die if they see her in their nightmares. Over the years, this becomes little more than local legend, but when a young woman is killed by having her tongue ripped out from her mouth, her husband goes back home to Ravens Fair to try and break the curse.

This movie should have been a lock for me. It’s got creepy dolls and puppets, legends about curses, scary old biddies, and Bob Gunton. However, Dead Silence is a total slog, playing like a PG-13 horror film that isn’t entirely sure of its audience and featuring an inexplicable performance by Donnie Wahlberg as a detective who only exists to kind of sort of move the plot along and also to constantly shave his face with an electric razor. I don’t know why that particular bit was written as part of his character; is he always so hairy that he needs to shave all the time? Wouldn’t that dry out his face? Does he carry a spare battery for it? These are questions I don’t think anyone asked before making that his character quirk. Annoying and pointless.

Anyway, for die hard Wan fans (Wans?) and maybe the teenage set, Dead Silence is a tidy little mess. Not bad for a way to kill some time, but you can do a whole lot better, and so can James Wan to be honest. Unfortunately, Dead Silence feels like it was cobbled together from other, better films. If you’d like to watch a film about a ventriloquist and madness, you’d do best to watch 1978’s Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins and directed by Richard Attenborough.

Since Dead Silence didn’t do much to sate my hunger for horror, and I just COULD NOT wait for the first of October to roll around, I dug out my copy of Planet Terror (2007, dir. Robert Rodriguez) last night for a long-overdue rewatch. I forgot how fun and funny it was, and how although it establishes this amazing, mysterious and almost mythical male character in El Wray, it ultimately ends up fridging him in place of two badass women — go-go dancer Cherry Darling, and anesthesiologist Dr. Dakota Block.

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Planet Terror is an infection-style zombie film, featuring a pretty significant cast with four interlocking storylines: Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), who quits her job as a go-go dancer to become a stand-up comedienne even though she insists she isn’t funny, and her ex-boyfriend, the aforementioned El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez); Drs. Block — Dakota (Marley Shelton) and her creepy spouse Bill (Josh Brolin) — whose marriage is disintegrating as fast as the rash of infected patients bombarding their hospital on the night shift; BBQ cook JT (Jeff Fahey) and his sheriff brother (Michael Biehn), who are constantly bickering over the price of rent and JT’s soon-to-be-award-winning sauce recipe; and a chemical weapons dealer (Naveen Andrews) looking to get his most deadly product back from the hands of the Army lieutenant (Bruce Willis) responsible for killing Osama bin Laden.

All this could be more convoluted or unintelligible in anyone else’s hands, but Rodriguez has some kind of knack for almost seamlessly looping the characters in and out of each others’ situations. On top of that, he manages to maintain a breakneck pace with a gory and occasionally hilarious script that brings its female characters to the forefront. That these characters rarely ring false (see this film’s counterpart, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, for a comparison) is almost a miracle. Cherry and Dakota are cut of a similar cloth as Pam Grier’s eponymous characters in Coffy and Foxy Brown; tough women who own their bodies and fates, answer to no man or woman, but who love deeply and rise to the occasion to protect the ones they love.

Long aside: I loved the Grindhouse theatrical experience, comprised of Planet Terror and Death Proof. I saw it alone, on opening night, with a packed house. Typically, I try to keep a one-seat buffer zone between me and anyone else, but it was unavoidable that night. Not long before the movie got underway, a woman and two friends sat directly next to me. I tried to make myself a little invisible, but almost as soon as she sat down, she asked me if I was seeing the movie alone. I said yes, but it was no big deal, that I go to the movies alone all the time. She was sweet, but gave me the “oh honey, that’s so sad” line, and then the theater went dark. As we sat there, taking in Planet Terror (which frankly should have been the second feature instead of Death Proof), we both laughed, jumped, and otherwise reacted at the same times. And when Bruce Willis showed up on screen for the first time, she jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow and loudly whispered, “BRUCE WILLIS…MMM-HMM!” I had to fight not to bust out laughing so hard. It was pretty magical.

Anyway, all this to say that Planet Terror may not work very well as a genuine homage to exploitation film (this is where I feel Death Proof has just a slight upper hand), but it does take a lot of 70s horror elements and hodge-podges them together into one of the most entertaining genre films of the late 2000s. If only Rodriguez had left well enough (read: Machete) alone, though…

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Come back in the next few days, as I’ll be starting the October Horror Movie Challenge, blogging along the way. Not sure exactly how I’ll structure my posts, but that’s part of the fun, right?

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