Halloween Special: The Straight to Video Extravaganza

It’s Halloween. The day everyone seems to go nuts for, but only because everyone else seems to be doing it. I mean, all Halloween really is is a trumped-up excuse to go out drinking. What do we actually celebrate on Halloween? Does anybody care? Of course not, but we pretend to because, fuck, everyone else is doing it and we don’t want to appear un-festive. The one thing that we can take from this bizarre obsession with dressing up as slutty nurses and zombies in Primark t-shirts is the fact that said obsession also puts the spotlight on some bloody good horror movies. Of course, now my embittered but roguishly funny opening paragraph has turned you against the very notion of giving money to The Man for some big-budget Halloween classic, allow me to turn your attention towards the slightly smaller Man, namely The Man Who Sells Straight-To-Video Horror Movies. I know, I know, paying for anything is so passé these days, but if you just want to spend Halloween solemnly chugging beer, ignoring the probably fat kids begging for chocolate at your door, and watching some low-budget horror movie, please avail yourself of the following straight-to-video classics that really didn’t deserve to be, well, straight to video.

 

Bad Biology

 

 

To begin our list of bargain basement horror movies, it’s only fair that we go back to the subject that brought us all into the world in the first place: sex. Specifically, sex between two mutant sex addicts who have innumerable clitorises (clitori?) and a detachable, vagina-addicted penis with a mind of its own. Guess they glossed over those minor details in sex ed lessons back at school, but luckily you can get the education you deserve with Bad Biology.

 

That’s basically all there is to this movie, but needless to say it is certifiably batshit and not afraid to show it. To say too much is to spoil some of the more entertaining shocks, although it’s safe to say this is far from the scariest movie on this list and one that you need to be firmly under the influence in the company of like-minded friends to appreciate fully. It’s as well-acted as you’d expect, with the tone set somewhere between ’11-year olds re-enacting a famous tragedy’ and ‘Willem Dafoe screaming FINISH IT at Aunt May in Spider-Man only much, much camper’. If you can put up with that, and the constant nudge-wink ironic humour of the shoddy special effects, Bad Biology is a memorable, fun ride, which is all you can ask for from a Halloween movie.

 

Splinter

 

 

If you’re after something a bit more serious than that film, you could watch Gamera, the Godzilla knock-off about a giant monster turtle with rocket boosters. In fact, just watch Gamera anyway, but forget I mentioned it for the rest of this article and focus on something that manages to successfully be altogether more spooky than the pair of them: Splinter. This is actually one of my favourite horror movies ever, and one I always encourage people to watch whenever possible. It’s the tale of a couple who are taken hostage by a pair of fugitives, and end up trapped in that horror movie staple, a deserted gas station, as they’re besieged by carnivorous spores.

 

Unlike Bad Biology, there is no camp in Splinter. It’s low-budget but extremely efficiently made, with top drawer cinematography, special effects and acting throughout. The splinters themselves are a surprisingly effective monster, and are creatively used throughout for some brutal, sickening scares. It’s reminiscent of The Thing in all the right ways, with an intense, claustrophobic atmosphere and a small but likable group of main characters who are virtually the only characters in this movie. A common failing of a low-budget horror movie is to make you actively root against the obnoxious characters, but Splinter effortlessly sidesteps this by making the characters actually, well, not pricks. However, “doesn’t contain pricks” is not really a good tagline to put on a DVD case, so I’ll just tell you to bloody watch Splinter instead.

 

Batman: Under The Red Hood

 

 

Probably the most well-known of the films on this list, Batman: Under the Red Hood holds this honour partly because it’s Batman but mostly because it’s absolutely flipping incredible. The signs aren’t good from the start, with none of the cast from the classic Batman: The Animated Series reprising their roles, but push that inner fanboy to one side and you’ll be treated to a gripping tale of loss and the quest for revenge that follows. If that sounds a bit heavy, it’s for good reason; this movie is certainly not for kids and is considerably darker in tone than the TV show. The opening scene feature Joker beating the shit out of Robin with a metal pipe, then blowing him up, for example.

 

To go into any much more detail about the plot is to spoil the journey of Under The Red Hood, so I’ll simply gush about it some more until you relent and watch it. The voice acting is top drawer, the animation is sumptuous, the plot is mature and gripping to the end, and why are you still reading this and not watching it right now?

 

Pumpkinhead

 

 

If, after Splinter and Under the Red Hood, you need something a bit lighter (you’re probably quite drunk by now and I’d love it if you didn’t break down in tears) you can always pop in another campy gem, only this one’s even more appealing because it has a hilarious title. Pumpkinhead is actually far better than any movie called Pumpkinhead has any right on Earth to be,  and it makes good use of a fairy rigid adherence to well known horror tropes. The main lesson Pumpkinhead teaches us is that you shouldn’t screw with hillbillies, particularly not when one of them is Lance Henriksen and he might literally summon a demon from Hell to chew on your face.

 

Such is the plot of Pumpkinhead, which sees your common-or-garden teenage horror movie fodder accidentally run over Lance’s son while drunk driving (you know, for kicks), leading Lance to turn to the local witch for help. From there, it’s pretty standard stuff, but alarmingly well-acted and certainly much better than the many sequels in the franchise would have you believe. Ignore them, watch this.

 

Bubba Ho-Tep

 

 

To round off our list, we need something a bit weird. I mean, all these movies are pretty weird in their own way, but none of them feature a retired old Elvis living in a care home with black JFK. For those of you yearning for that oddly specific niche to be filled, yearn no more, and pick up a copy of Bubba Ho-Tep as soon as possible. It’s a pitch black comedy horror, starring Bruce Campbell as a decrepit Elvis. And, if you need more than that to tempt you into buying it (although you really shouldn’t) you can add in some delightfully icky monster effects that makes the film fun for all the family – at least, the members of your family with exceptional taste. Unlike many comedy horrors, Bubba Ho-Tep never feels like it’s unfairly targeting the horror genre or its fans for cheap laughs, and as such it manages to work as both a horror and a comedy, without feeling like some weird, ironic in-joke half-measure. It’s a film that absolutely has to be tried at least once – it certainly won’t be for everyone, but a film such as this deserves your time even if you end up not liking it.

 

That concludes our journey of the straight-to-video dungeon. There’s plenty more down here, such as my entire collection of Captain Simian and the Space Monekys, but that’s for another day. In fact, no it’s not. Captain Simian is all mine. At any rate, I’ll be sure to dip into my collection of video nasties again at some point, so stay tuned for more. Or don’t. Whatever. It’s your life, you sheep. End of article.

 

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Don’t Remake My Heart

On a recent episode of The Highlight Reel, myself and Matt got into it (and by ‘it’ I mean a discussion which only came to blows after we went off the air) on the subject of remakes. It’s a topic that’s been brought back into sharp focus by the considerable, still-churning backlash against the Robocop reboot. Yes, the one where they paint Robocop black for literally no other reason than to make him look cool. No, really, they explicitly say that in the damn trailer. It’s this kind of attitude that means remakes, much like sequels, are an often-unfairly maligned branch of cinema. They suffer from many of the same problems as sequels (needing to be different enough to justify being made without being so different that they alienate the fanbase), only these problems are exacerbated a thousand times by the fact that they are, well, remakes. You have literally seen it all before. So why bother?

 

Well, that’s an interesting question, and one with no easy answer. I know why they do bother, of course, because Hollywood is run entirely by moustache-twirling Scooby Doo villains, but from the perspective of the fan, the mucky-faced plebeian crammed into a cinema screen, the matter can be a delicate one to touch. As a film fan, whenever you watch a film, it is a unique experience to you. Any film is subject to your own personal checklist, and the more boxes it ticks, the more likely it is that you’ll remember it and take it close to your heart (unless of course, it is a truly terrible film, in which case you remember it in the same way you’d remember a bout of malaria). If a film that you like is being remade, then there’s absolutely no way you’re going to respond positively to it at first. How could you? It’s like Hollywood went right into that brain-checklist and fiddled with it, changing and tweaking everything about that film until it’s nothing like you remember. If you liked the actors in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there’s pretty much no reason you’d want watch the exact same film again with different actors in, right? Get the brain-eraser out and scrub that off the checklist. That’s one black mark against the film before you’ve even watched it.

 

But which remake am I even talking about?

 

What I’m getting at, in my own torturously metaphorical way, is that a remake is onto a loser from the start, purely because it takes something you liked anyway and then changed it. It’s adding tabasco sauce onto your favourite meal. Depending on what it is and how much you spice it up, your remake can be a disaster or a roaring success. Take The Haunting for example. The 1950s original was a brilliant exercise in horror, namely because it showed restraint. The plot begged questions of the characters and the audience because you didn’t know whether there was actually spooky shit going down, or whether it was all in the sleep-deprived minds of the characters. The 1990s remake, however, didn’t have any time for that subtlety crap. Didn’t you know? By the 90s, that shit was totally gay, man. Using the Babby’s First CGI brand of special effects that plagued films in the 90s as filmmakers took to this exciting new technology like a child would take to an annoying novelty ringtone , the rejigged version of The Haunting was like an exceedingly cheap ghost train. Gone was the creeping psychological horror, replaced by Owen Wilson doing awful comic relief and shoddy, shocking-but-not-in-that-good-way pixellated ghoulies that wouldn’t even scare Shaggy from Scooby Doo. It completely missed the point of the original, dumbed it down hopelessly and added things where they did not need to be added. This approach, used by many remakes during this time (and in present day, actually) is one of several solid reasons why remakes are treated with such scepticism by audiences around the world. Hollywood doesn’t care about you, and it certainly doesn’t get you, so if it can replace subtlety and craftsmanship with waving a shiny new toy in your face for 90 minutes, it will.

 

Or is it? See, within the sprawling hellmouth that is the modern Hollywood landscape, there lie a selection of noble artists. Sleeper agents, if you will, embedded, deep cover, within enemy territory, fighting the good fight for the simple moviegoer that they once were themselves. I have a lot of time for filmmakers who are obviously big movie fans themselves – I know all of them are probably big fans to some extent, but I’m talking the weirdly obsessive, student of the game sort of fan here – and that’s why I’m a huge fan of guys like Rob Zombie (I list The Devil’s Rejects among my favourite films of all time without shame) and his work in the Halloween franchise. Now, the two new Halloween movies he made are far from perfect, but they’re a hell of a lot more important than people give them credit for. You can hardly accuse Zombie of not getting his source material when the Halloween franchise itself had descended into campy self-parody over the years. It’s little wonder John Carpenter himself looked on Zombie’s remake so kindly, as he’d seen his creation bled to a more painful death than any of Mike Myers’ victims (and people who watched The Love Guru). Hallowee-make (shut up) modernised and reinvigorated the character of Myers and almost threatened to start a new franchise all of its own, for a time. It was never going to match the original, but what it did do was provide a gateway to a generation of moviegoers who knew nothing of the original classic, and instead might only know the character of Mike Myers from his pop-culture footprint, which had largely been spoiled and demystified by years of crappy, knock-off sequels. Hell, much of this could apply to horror films in general – as the best horror films are very much a product of their time, it makes sense that they might need to be updated from time to time. The need for a new lick of paint only becomes more vital after said horror film has suffered a series of dodgy sequels, which is ultimately the fate of every successful horror film.

 

And even most of the unsuccessful ones too!

 

At the end of all that, my not-very-revelatory conclusion is simply that, like all film (and indeed all art forms) remakes need to be made for the right reasons. If they’re made for genuine reasons by an artist who genuinely wants to add something to the original, then it at least deserves a chance. Take remakes on their own merits, and don’t tar them all with the same brush, and you could be in for quite a treat. Or, at the very least, you get to like a film that everyone else hates and get a smug feeling of superiority from doing so. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to defend the new Robocop on Youtube. You filthy mainstream casuals.

Remember My Name: Breaking Bad Final Season Thoughts

I’m a bad person. I admit it. If there is a Hell (although there isn’t) I’m going there, and chances are so are you. I mean, I like to hold doors open for old ladies with shopping and all that, but I’m still heading for a date with the horned one because, as I settled down with my blueberry crystal meth muffins (I actually did have these, by the way) to watch the last ever episode of Breaking Bad, I was firmly in the corner of Team Walt, something I later learned was not exclusive to me. Walt is, by some distance, the most sympathetic villain in TV history, with a whole armada of crazed wannabe meth kingpins cheering him on as he repeatedly lied, murdered everyone who crossed him, poisoned children and other such shenanigans. Hell, I found I actually liked Walt more as he trundled along the low road every time he got the chance. He started out as a slightly pathetic wimp with a bit too much pride for his own good, but as his moral descent worsened, he only got more compelling as he continued to forge genius master plans that nobody in the audience could even get close to. You know how everyone prefers The Joker to Batman just because Joker is way more interesting? Walt is like The Joker, only he actually gets to win. All the time. Walt lived his dream in a way us scrubs on our couches only wish we could do – it doesn’t matter that his dream just happens to be making really really good crystal meth and murdering like 500 people, the guy fucking earned that dream, and in the house of perversion that is TV-land, that’s something you’ve got to respect.

 

Even as a fugitive, Walt couldn’t resist popping out for the Weezer fan convention

 

 

All of which leads me onto my thoughts on the final eight episodes of the fifth season, and, of course, that finale. After Walt committed arguably his most callous, sinister criminal act in the mid-season finale of season 5, when he ordered a hit on 10 prisoners who might inform on him, Walt ultimately decided to curtail his pride and call it a day. He was $80 million richer by this point, of course, but as we later establish, it wasn’t about the money by this point, if it ever even was. That, to my mind, is one of the big reasons why Breaking Bad is such a phenomenally good show; a lesser show might have been tempted to ramp up Walt’s evil genius tendencies even further, to have a good season or so of Walt being the king before deciding to wrap it all up with some generic shootout. The genius of Breaking Bad was to curtail Walt at just the right time, which made his fall and fall in the second half of season 5 all the more arresting to watch. Walt was trying to get out of the meth business, but unfortunately he was too far down the rabbit hole, and everything came crashing down. By giving Walt that one last shred of humanity, by allowing him to acknowledge his pride and attempt to rectify (some of) his mistakes for the sake of his family, they managed to keep Walt firmly in a shade of dark moral grey, as opposed to the black he was drifting towards.

 

Walt’s strong resistance to the meth trade during the second half of season 5 was no doubt intentional on the half of the writers, who have always done their best to muddy the moral waters. It added an extra tragic twist to what would have been, in essence, a basic rise-and-fall story (albeit one of the best ones ever told). The last 8 episodes seemed to largely be about penance, and about Walt attempting to get his affairs back in order before the death that was waiting for him since the very first episode. As Walt was trying to get out of the meth game, he immediately became a much more sympathetic character, with the writers wisely choosing to give him some very human moments, particularly with Walt Jr., but also with Hank, when Walt attempted to barter his entire fortune for his brother in law’s life. Walt’s previously unchecked slide into insane greed – often cleverly disguised amongst the impossible-to-refuse sums of money he dealt in – was at once discarded, and the fact that Walt’s attempt to save Hank was futile only helped make Walt all the more sympathetic. The genius of this moment was, if you think about it, the death of Hank was indirectly Walt’s fault anyway, but Breaking Bad is an emotive show, and in that moment the raw emotion of Bryan Cranston’s performance was enough to outweigh such rational, collected views.

 

Walt talks through his favourite Pacino scenes. “SHE GOT A GRRRRREAT ASS!”

 

Walt’s long but ultimately failed climb back to the moral high ground meant that the finale, which was probably about as close to happy as this twisted series was ever going to get, felt so fitting. I loved the Breaking Bad finale. It’s so refreshing to have a show that doesn’t feel the need to bombard you with plot twists and shocking reveals to make a statement. Breaking Bad was largely predictable but masterfully executed and provided a fitting reward for the audience and every character on the show (apart from all those who were brutally murdered, but who cares?). Walt Jr. and Skyler both got what they needed from Walt, with Skyler getting a shred of honesty and Jr. getting… erm, nothing. Jesse was freed, finally getting a clean slate to do whatever he wanted (oh, and he got to push Todd’s shit in, which was nice). And Walt got to die almost like a hero, taking a bullet for Jesse while brutally murdering his enemies, before peacefully dying in the one place he was truly happy, a meth lab. Happiness for Walt was never riding off into the sunset with his millions, because that would lead to a slow death from cancer. The clue to what Walt wanted all along was in the tagline of the final season: “Remember my name”. What more could an egotist want? He gets to die in the knowledge that he was never brought to justice, that he achieved both his goals of becoming drug kingpin and providing for his family when he was gone, and, following the deaths of Lydia and Jack’s gang, he got to go out as the only player in the game. He killed everyone who crossed him.

 

“Remember my name”. We certainly will, Walt. You win.

 

YO MISTER WHITE

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“Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up. Disappears! It ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I AM the danger! A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks! “

Breaking Bad: Final Season Thoughts, Predictions and More

A note before this article starts: this feature contains total, ruinous, catastrophic spoilers for the final season of Breaking Bad. Do not read this article unless you are bang up to date with everything and have caught up with the first two episodes of season 5.5, or unless you happen to have severe short-term memory loss. If you do, under no circumstances tattoo this article on your body like Guy Pearce in Memento.

 

Ok, ok. I take it all back. I get mid-season breaks now. That won’t stop me whinging next time Doctor Who has a mid-season break, because as a member of the online community it’s practically my birthright to change my opinion more often than I change my socks, but for now, I get it. And all it took to shake loose the seething hatred I feel every time I have to go months without watching one of my favourite shows was a single line of dialogue, made up of two words: “Hello, Carol.”

Yes, it is, of course, the return of what is inarguably one of the greatest drama serials of all time, Breaking Bad. Now, to say I was excited about this is something of an understatement. I was giddy about the return of Breaking Bad all day, bouncing up and down so quickly that my very molecules began to vibrate, turning me translucent and giving me the ability to pass through solid objects. You might think that’s good news for Bad, as it meant the show could have been Bryan Cranston attempting to tune a broken guitar for 40 minutes and I still would’ve loved it. However, I can assure you that in reality, the opposite is true: my expectations were so astronomically high that anything less than perfection from the word go would result in my crushing disappointment, and so invested was I in not being too disappointed that I waited until the second episode had aired to write this just so I had a clear idea of where the series was going.

Apparently it’s going to a Mastodon fan club meeting.

Fortunately, that first episode was arguably one of the best in the history of the series and seemed to set up the finale perfectly. We were once again treated to a flash-forward (the narrative device, not the tragic and long-winded US serial starring Joseph Fiennes) showing erstwhile meth kingpin Walter White, now sporting a head of hair and a full beard, visiting his home to once again collect the ricin he’s had stashed there for approximately 100 years. His house has fallen into disrepair, is fenced off, and, tellingly, has the word ‘Heisenberg’ spray-painted on the wall. This hints at a lot, but actually tells us very little, one of the genius trademarks of Bad. Presumably, Walt’s secret is out (see the reaction of poor Carol when she spots Walt) and, given the presence of the graffiti and the pesky kids skating in the back yard, has already been passed into a kind of urban legend. It’s the same reason why kids are always daring each other to visit haunted houses (so I’m told). In the space of a few months, Walt has become a ghost, his story exaggerated but also diminished by Chinese whispers throughout the neighbourhood, with only the chosen few knowing the truth. Presumably Hank is still one of that number, and presumably he is also closing the net around Walt, but the how any why of this situation are still tantalisingly out of reach.

Walt is clearly in a desperate situation, which was clearly highlighted by the second episode which aired last Sunday. Hell, everyone is in a desperate state of mind. The first episode packed a hell of a lot of plot into its runtime, and, as a result, was a constant bombardment of intense scenes. It was awesome to finally get the sweet, sweet release of Hank and Walt finally squaring up, but the question had to be asked: where the hell do you go from there, with seven episodes left? Pleasingly, even with only so long left in its life, Bad still takes time out to focus on the characters we’ve come to love so much. If the first episodes was about actions, the second was all about the consequences of those actions, and it adds a richness to the universe that’s sure to mean whenever the action ramps up (as I’m sure it will next week) it’ll be skin-peelingly intense.

Nothing more intense than a good middle-distance stare, you know.

The acting was nothing short of incredible this week, with just about everyone looking haggard, fraught and desperate, perfectly conveying that theme of decline and decay that was hinted at in the pre-season trailers. Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt in particular have really stepped up so far this season, with Hank’s near-psychotic hatred of Walt driving every move he makes, while the uptight Marie finally snaps on Skyler. It’s incredibly powerful stuff that really hits home just how sinister the character of Walt (or should that be Heisenberg?) has become by this point.

Except, of course, he isn’t really, is he? I mean, look at him. Breaking Bad is rarely simple, and here we see Walt once again reduced to the sickly, pathetic character that he started out as in the first season. His cancer has returned and he’s decided to pull out of the meth business, meaning that just a couple of episodes after Walt organises the brutal prison stabbing of 10 men, he has our sympathies once again. Walt is more frail in last week’s episode that he has ever been at any point in the series, which was no doubt a calculated move by the writers. After seeing that, it’s hard not to hope the guy just gets to leave the meth business and keep his money, living out the rest of his days with his family like he always wanted to. Prison shankings and child-poisoning be damned, we’ve spent 5 years with this guy and we hate to see him suffering like this. Or, at least, I do. After everything he did, he tried to make it right in his own way and he arrested his ego before it completely consumed him. I feel a genuine pang of regret that it was almost certainly too late.

So then, where does the series go from here? The first two episodes have been almost exclusively about the Walt vs Hank war that is steadily escalating, so it seems a little too convenient that the two wild cards, Jesse and Lydia, have been given minimal screen time. It would be typical Bad if one or both of them played a major part in the finale after the show practically begs us to ignore them while apparently sneakily setting up something big for the both of them. Both of them are on very clear story arcs, but where those arcs lead is what I predict will be the downfall of Walt, not Hank. Jesse, easily the most complex and tragic character in TV right now, appears to have big things ahead of him next week in his interrogation from Hank. With poor Jesse in the state of mind that he’s in, anything could happen. Meanwhile, Lydia is picking up the pieces of Walt’s meth business and cutting a bloody swath through the competition  while she does so. Lydia’s character is simply far too unstable not to have some sort of collision with Walt, particularly when she seems so desperate for her new product to live up to the same standard. Everyone is desperate and unstable, and it all seems perfectly poised for a combustible finale. Exactly where the series goes is tantalisingly hard to predict, but I feel confident in predict that Breaking Bad will be that rarest of beasts: a TV series with a finale that lives up to the hype.