Tommy Lee Wallace Talks about ‘Halloween III’ at New Beverly Cinema

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PLEASE NOTE: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT THE MOVIE.

Tommy Lee Wallace dropped by New Beverly Cinema on October 30, 2010 to talk about his directorial debut, “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” This is the Michael Myers-less sequel of the long running franchise and it played as a double feature with “Trick ‘r Treat.” All the “Halloween” movie fans were in for a special treat as Wallace gave us more trivia about the making of it than we ever could have ever expected.

When Wallace was brought up after the movie ended, he admitted his reaction to watching it after so many years was that it resembled one of the strangest and most bizarre movies he had ever seen. The original plan for “Halloween III” was to work from an original screenplay by Nigel Kneale, best known for his work on the “Quatermass” series. What Kneale ended up writing was, as Wallace put it, “brilliant and deeply, darkly grim” and more of a cerebral, intellectual horror movie than your typical slasher fare. But it turned out everyone thought the overall story needed work, and Wallace said he and Carpenter wanted to make it more commercial and scarier for audiences. As a result, Kneale took his name off the movie as he felt the filmmakers would simply butcher all he came up with. Wallace did say that he really liked Kneale’s script and hopes to put it online someday in its entirety for all to see.

While making the movie, Wallace described himself and the crew as being under the gun as it was a low budget affair like most horror movies. Understanding how to do work on the cheap, he said all the “el cheapo” special effects taught him a lot about simplicity which turned out to be a great virtue.

As for Carpenter’s participation, Wallace said Carpenter gave him full autonomy as he himself always expected to have it on all his movies. Joe Dante, the director of “Gremlins” and “Innerspace,” was originally set to helm “Halloween III,” but he later turned it down when something else came up. Having worked on many of Carpenter’s movies, Wallace was originally offered the gig of directing “Halloween II,” but he turned it down as he saw no way to top the original. But upon being offered “Halloween III,” Carpenter and the late Debra Hill told him neither of them wanted to do a direct sequel as Carpenter hated “Halloween II.” With that in mind, Wallace jumped at the chance to direct it.

The only real barrier Wallace had to deal with before accepting the job was getting the blessing of Dino De Laurentis. Wallace had previously written the script for a movie De Laurentis produced called “Amityville II: The Possession,” and he said the one rule everyone needed to remember was “you do not fuck with Dino.” In response to Wallace’s request, De Laurentis begged him not do the film, but Wallace said he was determined to get De Laurentis’ blessing because he would have directed it anyway.

With “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” Carpenter and Hill wanted to turn the franchise into an anthology of movies about the occasion of Halloween. Looking back, the original was really not about Halloween at all (the original title was “The Babysitter Murders”). But when it came to releasing this particular “Halloween” movie, Wallace said Universal Pictures did not do enough to prepare audiences for it. Sadly, audiences did not want something new. They wanted Michael Myers back and breathing heavy while slashing over stimulated teenagers.

One of the biggest influences on “Halloween III” was the 1956 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” directed by Don Siegel. Like that one, this sequel was meant to be a pod movie and could not be mistaken as something nice. Wallace even wanted to shoot it in Sierra Madre where Siegel’s classic was filmed, but it didn’t look good enough. The production team had driven all over Northern California looking for the perfect small town to film in, and it took forever to find it. Wallace said they were never as lucky as they were with Carpenter’s The Fog.” Also, the town’s name, Santa Mira, is the same as the one used in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

But the big difference between “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Halloween III” is in the way each movie ended. Siegel wanted his film to close on a highway with star Kevin McCarthy screaming frantically, “THEY’RE ALREADY HERE! YOU’RE NEXT! YOU’RE NEXT!” Instead, “Invasion” ended the same way it began, in a police station. All this did was indicate to the audience everything was going to be alright. Wallace said the ending of “Halloween III” was dedicated to Siegel for what he tried to pull off, and it leaves the fate of the world up in the air which makes things far scarier as your mind was forced to imagine what could have happened. Universal Pictures, however, put pressure on Carpenter to change the ending to something more upbeat. When Carpenter asked Wallace if he wanted to change the film’s ambiguous climax, Wallace said he refused to do so and Carpenter defended Wallace’s decision to the studio.

Tom Atkins’ name in the credits as well as his first appearance onscreen generated a huge applause from the audience. When it came to casting “Halloween III,” Wallace said Atkins was already a part of Carpenter’s company of actors, and his performance in “The Fog” served as his audition for the role of Dr. Daniel Challis. Wallace then went on to explain how horror movies can easily be ruined by “pretty boy casting,” and he felt this didn’t need to be the case here. Atkins naturalistic performance is commendable considering much of what he has to deal with is utterly ridiculous. You also have to give him credit for wasting no time in bedding the main female character, Ellie Grimbridge, played by Stacey Nelkin.

Another actor who got a lot of applause was the late Dan O’Herlihy who portrayed the movie’s chief villain, Conal Cochran. Wallace described O’Herlihy as being perfect for the part, and he was always prepared and ready to go. He also said O’Herlihy was a man from the British Isle, Irish and was someone who was never afraid of getting sentimental. O’Herlihy’s performance was a fiendish mix of a friendly persona which is a cover for his grisly nature.

As for Nelkin, the first question from the audience was whether or not her character was a robot throughout the entire movie. Wallace said he honestly didn’t know and figured Cochran’s company was really good at making robots in the first place. Nelkin was a very appealing presence in “Halloween III,” and perhaps Roget Ebert put it best in his one-and-a-half-star review of the movie: “Too bad she plays her last scene without a head.”

Then there’s the movie’s commercial for the Silver Shamrock masks which features one of those annoying jingles which, like any other commercial, you cannot get out of your head. Alan Howarth, who composed the score along with Carpenter, was given credit for doing the jingle and putting it to the tune of “London Bridge” from “My Fair Lady,” but Wallace said it was his idea more than anyone else’s.

As for the voice on the jingle, it is Wallace’s. They were originally going to hire someone else, but when they found out the guy wanted $550, it was quickly determined they couldn’t afford him. Wallace got the job soon after and said he got into the mood by doing the smooth tone of a “stupid radio voice from the 50’s.”

Another audience member asked Wallace if there were any product placements in “Halloween III,” and he said there were not. Truth be told, this wasn’t really the kind of movie which would allow for that, and it was also clarified how no one was ever asked to move the can of Miller Lite closer to the camera.

“Halloween III: Season of the Witch” was designed to be a diatribe against consumerism, and it didn’t turn out to be a very elegant one. The movie cost $2.5 million to make and grossed about $14 million at the box office. While it did make a tiny profit, the sequel was considered a critical and commercial disappointment. Wallace said he fell into an abject depression for months afterwards as he felt he did a shitty job on the sequel and figured he would be consigned to movie hell.

Years later, however, Wallace discovered “Halloween III” had developed a cult following and a new generation of fans. He was stunned to hear a lot of people telling him they watch it every single year, and he said people continue to invite him to speak at annual horror conventions about it. Having been originally released in 1982, audiences have had plenty of time to reflect on the kind of movie it was and reevaluate it critically. While still not a great film by any stretch, it’s much better than its reputation suggests.

Certainly, there are other “Halloween” sequels that are far worse (“Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers” is the pits), and the moderator put it best when comparing the third movie to “Halloween: Resurrection:”

“Do you prefer this or Busta Rhymes?”

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Halloween II (1981)

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Sequels are usually beaten to a critical pulp, and it’s not hard to understand why. They are primarily made because the original made a ton of money, and heaven forbid that the money train stops there. It’s not enough to make a killing at the box office (no pun intended); you have to capitalize on what you made because greed still reigns supreme. Heck, these days studios are franchise crazy and are always on the lookout for the next one to start up. However, audiences these days are a lot more discerning and are quick to question why certain sequels were even made. They can tell when they are being scammed out of their hard-earned money, but the curiosity of what the sequel has to offer can be hard to ignore.

In a lot of ways, sequels are undone by the high expectations placed on them. Certain movies have no chance of living up to the brilliance of their predecessor, but maybe they can be enjoyable enough when you come to them with reduced expectations. Sometimes that can be enough.

Case in point is “Halloween II,” the sequel to, at the time, the highest grossing independent film ever made. “Halloween” was and still is one of the scariest movies ever made. The ending of the movie had Michael Myers disappearing from sight, and it was visual proof of how evil never dies. “Halloween II,” however, takes place at the exact moment the original ended with Michael still on the loose, and even while he moves a hell of a lot slower, he still proves to be a very deadly threat to everyone around him. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) continues to hunt for the man he tried to keep locked up, and Jaime Lee Curtis returns as Laurie Strode who is taken to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital to recover from the injuries she suffered a few hours earlier.

“Halloween II” was torn apart by the critics for being nowhere as good as the original, proclaiming it a rehash of what we saw before and for having nothing new to say about Michael Myers  or anyone else from the original. Even John Carpenter, who co-wrote the script for this one with the late Debra Hill but did not direct it, said he hated it, and the only thing which got him to finish writing this sequel was a six-pack of Budweiser. Even he realized he was making the same movie which is probably why he declined to direct it. The only really fresh aspect of this one is that we discover how Laurie Strode and Michael Myers have a closer bond than they realize, and it comes to explain why he made the long trip back to Haddonfield after waiting for years while staring out a window in total silence.

But despite its flaws, I still enjoyed “Halloween II” for what it was. Yes, it is a retread of the original, but what else are you gonna do with Michael Myers? Do you want him to win the Nobel Peace Prize? Get rehabilitated? Make peace with his sister after killing so many people? Don’t you remember? Evil never dies!

The one thing to note about “Halloween II” is how much bloodier and gorier it is than its predecessor. When this sequel came out, there had already been so many knock offs of “Halloween” with the psychotic and silent killer wearing a different kind of mask and using a different weapon which suits their murderous rages more than any other. “Friday The 13th” would not have existed without Carpenter’s original masterpiece.

At the very least, “Halloween II” tries to be more creative in the way Michael kills his victims as he proves to be  inventive with hypodermic needles, scalding hot water, and he even conducts a blood drive which doesn’t require anyone from the Red Cross to help out. If you run into Michael, you’re a donor whether you driver’s license says you are or not.

While “Halloween” only showed us so much of Michael and kept him hidden in the shadows for the most part, “Halloween II” pretty much shows everything. While it makes this sequel less effective than the original, I still got a kick out of it. Carpenter apparently came in to reshoot some scenes because he felt audiences would be demanding more blood and guts as horror movies have upped the ante in that arena since the original. Whether or not this was the right decision may be up for debate, but fans of Fangoria Magazine will not be complaining. The scene where Michael plunges Pamela Susan Shoop into scalding hot water is shocking and highly unnerving, and seeing a hypodermic needle get inserted into someone’s eye is very unsettling.

One thing this sequel has to its advantage is that is made by the same team which made the original. Director of photography Dean Cundey came back for it, and he gives “Halloween II” a dark and creepy look to where you want to keep an eye on what is hiding in those shadows across the hall. Michael could be anywhere, waiting for you to come out into the open.

At the very least, Carpenter and Hill do a good job of giving us characters who are as down to earth as those in the original. There’s a little scene where three of them are in a hospital lounge watching TV and talking about what just happened their previously quiet little town of Haddonfield. The young nurse claims she saw Michael, and one of the guys is a sexually frustrated prick who is more interested in having sex than the fact this force of evil is still on the loose.

The characters may come across as clichés after having seen the first one, but to me, they still felt real enough to where I wasn’t snickering at their actions. Among them is Jimmy, a paramedic played by Lance Guest, who ends up developing a protective crush on Laurie. After seeing Laurie being all shy in the first film, it was  nice to see her get something of a boyfriend in this one, and seeing him get hurt actually made me feel bad. If this were any other sequel to a slasher flick, I probably would have been cheering the killer on more than the victim.

There’s also the ever so serious nurse Mrs. Alves played by Gloria Gifford. She plays the boss you probably have been stuck with once or twice in your life, and one which you hope you never have again. Pamela Susan Shoop plays the well-meaning but always tardy Nurse Karen Bailey and, she is very good and appealing here and shows off the appropriate cleavage for a horror movie like this.

If there is a major weakness in “Halloween II,” it is the way Laurie Strode is written. She is not the same brave heroine we saw in the first movie. Here, she is drugged out after the doctor works on her injuries, and there is only so much she can do as a result. She is smart enough to run away when she feels Michael closing in, but she becomes utterly helpless instead of being inventive in the ways she protects herself. Regardless, I still liked Laurie Strode here, but it would have been better to see her kick more ass like she did the first time around. Perhaps she could have been much more vengeful towards Michael and much more eager to put an end to his rampage.

Donald Pleasance once again gives the demonic lines he is given a lot of depth to where they stay with you long after the movie has ended. His little speech on the festival of Sam Hain, the Lord of the Dead, and how we are all afraid of the darkness inside of ourselves is a great moment. The unconscious mind can be a very frightening place indeed.

I also have to say that when it comes Pleasance and Curtis, I have never really seen give a bad performance in any film they have ever been in. Put either of them into the worse movie ever made, and they will still be good.

But my most favorite thing about this “Halloween II” is the gothic score composed by Carpenter and Alan Howarth. It’s not any different from the score for the original, but I loved how it was done with synthesizers this time around. It feels all the more atmospherically consuming even after all these years, and I never get sick of listening to it. The piece of music where Michael  finally finds Laurie in the hospital and pursues her remains one of my favorite pieces of music in any movie ever.

Dick Warlock takes on the role of Michael this time around. I do agree that it would have been great if Nick Castle came back to play Michael again, but I imagine his own directing career must have been keeping him busy at that point. Warlock tries a little too hard to mimic Castle’s movements, but it is understandable why he moves so slowly in this one (he was shot six times). All the same, Michael still came across as a very threatening figure to me. Even if he moved so slowly, I was still terrified of him coming up on unsuspecting hospital employees, and it was excruciating to wait for that elevator door to open.

“Halloween II” might not be a great movie, but I still enjoyed it a lot. This sequel in many ways marked the last time where these characters seemed relatable as just about all the other sequels in this franchise as they came to feature infinitely stupid characters played by mediocre actors. Perhaps the passage of time has been kinder to this sequel than others as the series soon descended into mediocrity, but it didn’t decrease in quality as quickly as other slasher franchises have.

I have no shame in saying I really enjoyed this sequel. Then again, why should I have any shame about like it? Other critics can bash it all they want. But for me, “Halloween II” still delivers.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

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What is there to say about “Halloween” which hasn’t already been said? It has been discussed ad nauseam, and even Carpenter must be sick of talking about it all the time. Granted, he did take the time to record a new commentary track with Jamie Lee Curtis for Anchor Bay’s 35th anniversary edition, but when the 25th anniversary edition came out it just had the same commentary track from the Criterion Collection laserdisc.

We all know the story, and this is in large part due to the countless imitators who rushed to create their own psychotic killer following “Halloween’s” astonishing success. At the time of its release, it was the most successful independent movie ever made. Made for about $300,000, it ended up grossing over $50 million. “Friday The 13th” would never have existed without “Halloween,” and that franchise is far more responsible for those clichés horror movies exploit to infinity.

What I love about “Halloween” is how down to earth it is. All of these characters come across as very relatable. The way the script is written and how the actors played their roles, they easily reminded us of people from our own lives we grew up with. The only character in the whole movie who is NOT down to earth is Michael Meyers as he is a killer who has no real motive for why he heads back home to kill. As the movie goes on, we eventually stop seeing him as a person and instead as a force of evil which cannot be easily stopped.

We have all lived in a town like Haddonfield, a small town where families can raise their children in peace, or so it would seem, and the problems they face there end up paling in comparison to those they were forced to endure in the city. The parents see small town life as a home away from reality, but for the children it is reality. It is all they know. So when multiple murders occur there, it threatens to define the town more than anything else. Was there anything interesting about Haddonfield before young Michael Meyers took a knife to his sister when he was only a boy?

I also love how “Halloween” was shot. Working with Director of Photography Dean Cundey, Carpenter creates truly unnerving visuals of a killer lurking in the shadows. One moment Michael appears in the frame, and in the next he is gone. Michael could be anywhere and there is no escape from him. How does one escape from evil anyway? One of Carpenter’s main themes with “Halloween” is how evil never dies. It is a force which is with us whether we like it or not, and it is always just around the corner…

One of my favorite shots is when little Tommy is fooling around with Lindsay as they watch Howard Hawks’ version of “The Thing.” But when Tommy turns around and looks out the window, he sees a man carrying a lifeless body from the garage to the front door. The bullies at school kept warning him about the boogeyman coming, and it is an unfortunate and infuriating coincidence that they are correct. It is one of the creepiest images from “Halloween,” and it is one which always stays with me. Don’t you wonder what your neighbors are up as you look at their houses across the street?

The other brilliant thing about “Halloween” is how it was edited in such a way where you cannot be sure when or where Michael will appear next. The best example of this is when Laurie Strode is running away from Michael. Carpenter puts us right in her shoes as she desperately tries to escape the madman who wears an altered William Shatner mask. The editing plays with your emotions beautifully. You want her to escape, but you soon feel as helpless as her as she yells at Tommy to wake the hell up.

The moment where Laurie is at the front door of Tommy’s house, screaming for him to let her in, is one of the scariest scenes I have ever seen in a movie. It intercuts with her banging on the door while the Shape approaches her, and Carpenter succeeds brilliantly in leaving us stuck in a place we are desperate to escape from. Like her, we are begging for Tommy to unlock the door to where we want to yell at the movie screen, TV set or whatever device you are watching this movie on.

And who could ever forget the music? Carpenter’s score for “Halloween” ranks among the greatest horror movie scores ever composed to where I would put it up alongside Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho.” Carpenter’s musical work has been done mostly in a minimalist style, very much unlike the bombastic orchestral scores from every other Hollywood composer. After all these years, the main title for “Halloween” is a piece of music I never get sick of listening to. The music succeeds in heightening the ever growing tension which never lets up even after the movie is ovr.

The final shot is unnerving and utterly perfect in the way Carpenter shows how evil never dies. We see images we have become familiar with throughout the movie, and they now have the stain of evil on them. The point is point he could be anywhere at this point.

This is definitely one of my all-time favorite movies, and the recent 35th anniversary edition Blu-ray reminded me of how I never get tired of watching it. Jamie Lee Curtis is great here as Laurie Strode, the only one who is the least bit observant about what’s going on around her. Then you have P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis as Laurie’s so-called friends who frolic around, completely unaware of the killer stalking them from a distance. And you have Donald Pleasance, and his Dr. Loomis is a character which pretty much came to define the latter half of the franchise.

Many say “Halloween” originated the undying cliché of how teenagers who have premarital sex and do drugs are the first ones to be killed off. In the Criterion commentary, both Carpenter and the late Debra Hill make it abundantly clear they were not trying to lay any sort of judgment on these characters. Religion was not intended to shoved down our throats by anyone involved with this movie. These characters don’t get murdered because they are sinners, but because they aren’t paying attention to what is going on around them. Laurie Strode, on the other hand, is always very suspicious of her surroundings.

John Carpenter’s “Halloween” will always remain the best of all the so-called slasher movies in my humble opinion. There is no way anyone can top what he did with the 1978 classic, and this is even though Rob Zombie’s take on Michael Meyers was better than people gave his “Halloween” movies credit for. It has reached such a high level of praise in the ever growing pantheon of cinema to where duplicating its power is extremely difficult to pull off. The fact it still has the power to unsettle generations of audiences is a testament to Carpenter’s brilliance as a director, and its amazing success led him to make many other great films which continue to stay with us long after the end credits have finished.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Greg McLean on ‘Wolf Creek 2’

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Australian film director Greg McLean returns to the scene of the crime with “Wolf Creek 2,” a movie which, supposedly anyway, is based on actual events. The original “Wolf Creek” came out in 2005 and introduced us to the relentless serial killer Mick Taylor (played by John Jarratt) who captures a group of backpackers and tortures them without any remorse. Now Mick is back to take on another group of tourists who make the mistake of crossing his path and have the serious misfortune of not being from his home country. If you are not a proud Australian and are not fully aware of the country’s rich history, pray you don’t run into Mick.

McLean also directed the killer crocodile horror film “Rogue,” and he is said to be a member of the unofficial “Splat Pack.” This term, which was created by film historian Alan Jones, refers to the modern wave of directors who make brutally violent horror films, and other members include Alexandre Aja, Neil Marshall, Eli Roth, James Wan and Rob Zombie. I spoke with McLean about “Wolf Creek 2” and he talked about how a sadistic psychopath like Mick Taylor can be strangely appealing, how this sequel differs from the original, and he pointed out the differences between making a film in Australia and the United States.

Ben Kenber: This was a terrific sequel, and it was great to see John Jarratt return as Mick Taylor. Mick is one of the most sadistic psychopaths ever put in a movie, and yet there is something about him which is undeniably appealing. Why is he so memorable and why are we drawn to characters like him?

Greg McLean: I think that people are generally fascinated with evil and true crime. A character like Mick Taylor represents a very interesting way of peering into a very, very dark psyche. People are fascinated with the nature of evil, and I think the appeal of a character like Mick Taylor is to really get a chance to examine someone who is completely devoid of any sign of humanity. He’s really incredibly dark and twisted, and he’s very terrifying. I think people who like horror films and thrillers and like being scared enjoy coming face-to-face with really disturbing personalities. There is a long history of really fascinating, evil characters and I think people are intrigued at how their personalities work.

BK: When it came to doing a sequel to “Wolf Creek,” was it something you had planned on doing all along, or did you consider doing it after the original movie was finished?

GM: My plan was always to see if the movie worked and people liked it. If people embraced the character (of Mick Taylor), then there will be a chance for another film. So it was always in my mind to do it, it just took a lot longer to get around to it than I thought it ever would (laughs).

BK: Regarding John Jarratt’s portrayal, did you develop the character with him or was it largely his creation?

GM: Well we obviously did the first film together so we had a background to how to approach the character and a discussion on what the character is about. We had been talking about this particular draft of the screenplay (for “Wolf Creek 2”) for a couple of years, so there were certain things we wanted to explore and certain aspects of the character we wanted to bring up, and we kept evolving it on set. Obviously John makes choices as an actor, and then some of those things are in the script and some are developed in the moment. When we got together, we just kind of jammed and came up with cool things to do.

BK: Since the script was in the development stage for a couple of years, did that make it easier for you to return to the character of Mick Taylor and the original movie’s setting?

GM: It certainly enabled us to mine the thematic ideas that we wouldn’t have had if we didn’t have such a long gestation period. We had a script a couple of years ago and it was good, but it just wasn’t amazing. I realized that there was an element to it that was missing and which was making me not want to pull the trigger on it, and what it didn’t have was a kind of somatic investigation into the character that I thought we needed to have. Then once I locked into that concept, then there was enough new information we revealed about his character that I thought it be worth making the film. We also wanted to make a different genre film. The first film is very much a first-person, true crime, real terror film whereas this one I wanted very much to explore the thriller film, and it’s more of an action film. It has horror elements, but it certainly is a different structure in terms of what kind of film that is.

BK: I agree, it does have a different structure and feels more like a road movie. Speaking of that, how did you manage to pull off the sequence where Mick Taylor launches the big rig truck into Paul Hammersmith’s (played by Ryan Corr) car?

GM: We just found a big hill and dropped the truck off it (laughs). It’s much easier to do stuff like that in Australia than it is in the (United) States. Doing things over there is still a bit of the Wild West. It’s interesting because I’m doing a film right now in Los Angeles and I showed that scene to some people and they were just like going, “Wow! How did you do that?” And there’s a shot after the actual truck hits where the fire is just actually continuing to burn the hillside, and everybody was freaking out about that. I said, “Why is that so weird?” They were just going, “Oh my god, how did you let the hill keep burning?” The restrictions are very intense. Obviously there are rules and regulations here and there are in Australia as well, but they were just fascinated by the idea of just literally destroying a truck and letting it burn a hole in the hill. We had fire brigades in the back, and we were able to just do some really crazy stuff. We also wanted to do it in a very practical way. I love doing CG stuff and we used a lot of CG for the kangaroo sequence, but some things I feel are just better to get onscreen practically because you see the texture of things and the physics of moving in a particular way that’s kind of cool.

BK: Yeah, I think that’s what I liked most about that sequence because it really did look real. In most American films, filmmakers would more likely film a sequence like that with CG.

GM: Yeah, I think that part of that is kind of a budgetary thing as well. When you have a low budget you have to find more practical ways of doing things. Digital effects, if you want them to, can be ultra-photorealistic and necessarily expensive. The other way to do it is to find a location you can do something like that and ask to just do it. For all the driving stuff in that sequence, we just closed down highways and did crazy driving on them for two weeks and got all the shots. It was great fun doing a sequence like that.

BK: Looking at those empty highways reminded me of “The Hitcher” with Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell. You have this great open space, but still there’s something about it which is quite claustrophobic.

GM: Well I think the first movie had a very particular primary feed that it was drawing on, and this film to me was really about the fear of isolation in a desolate place. What most of the fear comes from is the primary idea of that which is quite different from the first film. The first film had a different emphasis which was more about the randomness of violence in the real terror that comes from believing someone is something and then suddenly seeing them transform. This one is really much more about exposing the audience to the real terror which comes from extreme isolation and being pursued by a character that is just relentless.

BK: What elements do you believe a horror movie should have in order for it to be successful?

GM: Two things. One, it needs to be based on a primary universal human fear that touches the psychic pressure point. Number two, the film has to have three, if not more, unique and believably memorable set pieces or things that people will talk about when they leave the cinema for hopefully weeks if not years, and that’s it.

I want to thank Greg McLean for taking the time to talk with me about “Wolf Creek 2.” The movie is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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Phantasm: Ravager

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Sooner or later the horror movie gods had to deliver this one to the fans. It took George Romero 20 years, but he finally followed up “Day of the Dead” with “Land of the Dead.” While we may have gotten an “Evil Dead” reboot instead of a third sequel to Sam Raimi’s original film, he and Bruce Campbell gave us the next best thing with “Ash vs. Evil Dead.” After giving us one of the most visceral and terrifying horror flicks ever created with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Tobe Hooper followed it up with a sequel 12 years later which has since developed a cult following. Although the filmmakers behind these movies are always keen to move on to other genres, something always seems to pull them back to horror.

So it only makes sense we would eventually get a fifth “Phantasm” movie in this lifetime, right? Rumors abounded from year to year of how another installment featuring Mike, Reggie and The Tall Man was in pre-production, but it never became a reality. Then in 2014 we got a teaser trailer out of nowhere for “Phantasm: Ravager” which nobody saw coming. Astonishingly enough, this sequel was filmed in secret, and after an equally agonizing wait it has now arrived in theaters and VOD and serves as a conclusion to a franchise which began back in 1979. Yes, these characters and those silver spheres have been with us for a very long time.

Does “Phantasm: Ravager” give us a fitting conclusion to this never ending series? Well, it may depend on the expectations you bring to the theatre. It’s no surprise series creator Don Coscarelli made this one solely for the fans, so those “Phantasm” virgins would be best to check out the previous films or sit through the short film “Phantasm and You” which will bring them up to speed. While we get the usual silver sphere action with hapless victims getting blood sucked out of their heads as Red Cross workers watch on helplessly, we can never be fully certain as to which direction the story will take.

This installment focuses mostly on Reggie (Reggie Bannister), the former ice cream man whom we last saw entering the space gate in “Phantasm: Oblivion” in an effort to save his friend Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) from the clutches of the Tall Man (the late Angus Scrimm). At the start of “Ravager,” Reggie is walking alone in the desert and telling us in a voiceover how he can no longer tell what is real and what is not. Still, he’s got his four-barrel shotgun and, with very little effort, retrieves his Hemicuda and drives on as those silver spheres pursue him with a vengeance.

Next thing we know, Reggie wakes up in a hospital where Mike tells him he is in the early stages of dementia. From there we watch as he switches from one place to another, be it another road trip where he picks up another beautiful lady, the hospital he is confined to or a post-apocalyptic future where The Tall Man reigns supreme. It’s a lot like the series finale of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where Captain Jean-Luc Picard finds himself traveling back and forth through time, but with Reggie it’s an even bigger battle to discover the reality he belongs in.

“Phantasm: Ravager” is billed as a horror film, but it is really more of a sci-fi action flick as this series has gone from sheer horror to something more supernatural. But more than anything else, the story here deals with aging, something Hollywood movies rarely, if ever, deal with these days. We see Reggie struggle to bring his friends together even as he is seen as a terminal case the doctors are impatiently waiting to see die. Who is the bigger culprit here, The Tall Man or Reggie’s deteriorating mind?

It’s a lot of fun to see Bannister, Baldwin, Bill Thornbury who returns as Jody Pearson and Angus Scrimm return to the roles they have long since become famous for. Bannister in particular is a gas to watch here as not even Reggie’s advancing age keeps him from trying to hit on any beautiful woman he picks up. As for Baldwin and Thornbury, it’s been fascinating to watch them grow up from one “Phantasm” movie to the next. It’s like looking at a photo album, albeit with a lot of blood and mortuaries.

Scrimm’s Tall Man remains one of the scariest characters to appear in any movie, and Scrimm gets a little more to do and say here than he has in previous installments. It’s great Scrimm got another chance to play this iconic character, but “Phantasm: Ravager” is tinged with sadness as he passed away earlier this year at the age of 89. This is the last we will ever see of The Tall Man as there is no earthly way he can ever be replaced by another actor. After all these years, Scrimm remains a frightening presence as he toys with Reggie endlessly and makes you wonder why anyone would dare to fight him when he’s so omnipotent.

An interesting move Coscarelli made here was to step out of the director’s chair and hand the reins over to another. When we first got word of this, many feared it would be a catastrophic mistake, but David Hartman, who has worked behind the scenes on other Coscarelli films like “Bubba Ho-Tep” and “John Dies at the End,” brings a fresh energy to this material, and he clearly relishes working within this franchise and with these actors. As a result, everything in “Phantasm: Ravager” feels more supercharged than I expected.

The “Phantasm” movies have come close to being perfect, but the fans never really complained much about that. Sure, this particular one relies on CGI effects a little too much, but then again the franchise has never had much money to work with (“Phantasm II” had the largest budget with $3 million). Everyone involved with “Ravager” did the best they could with the materials they were given, and like the others it is equipped with an imaginative storyline which keeps us guessing.

If “Phantasm: Ravager” is indeed the last “Phantasm” film of all, it certainly sends the series off with a strong emotional punch. These movies have always been a family affair, and it’s great to see everyone back together for another round with the Ball and the Tall Man. It’s also great to see how this series has been maintained by the same creators from start to finish in age where studios are always desperate to reboot a classic property. For myself, “Phantasm: Ravager” was a blast, and it serves as proof that there’s always a chance for another sequel no matter how long time has passed since the last one.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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Blu-ray Review: Shout Factory’s ‘Phantasm II’ Special Edition

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Over the years, “Phantasm II” has been treated like the illegitimate child of the “Phantasm” franchise. While Anchor Bay was able to secure the rights to the other three films in the series, they could never come to an agreement with Universal Pictures over this one. Eventually “Phantasm,” “Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead” and “Phantasm IV: Oblivion” got special editions filled with commentaries and special features, and yet “Phantasm II” still hadn’t seen the light of day on DVD. When Universal finally relented and released the sequel on DVD, all the fans got in terms of bonus features was the theatrical trailer. It looked like we would see “Phantasm V” long before any “Phantasm II” special edition became a reality, and the last “Phantasm” movie came out 15 years ago.

Well “Phantasm” fans can now rejoice because the good people at Shout Factory have come through for you with their “Phantasm II” special edition which proves to be well worth the wait. This cult sequel now looks and sounds better than ever, and we also get an audio commentary, various featurettes, a making of documentary, the theatrical trailer and a host of other goodies which fans can take their sweet time watching.

For many people including myself, “Phantasm II” was our introduction to the work of Don Coscarelli’s franchise, the Tall Man (played by Angus Scrimm) and those killer spheres which look like they’re designed to make forced deposits to your local blood bank. Even if you’re not able to understand most of what’s going on here, it was still loads of fun as “Phantasm II” proved to be far more imaginative than your average slasher movie. Watching it all those years ago made me want to check out the first film, and I became very eager to see the story continue on with a third movie which eventually came out (albeit straight to video) in 1994, six years after this one.

Unsurprisingly, “Phantasm II” looks wonderful in its Blu-ray incarnation. At the same time, I do have to point out there is a little of white noise at the top of the screen which comes and goes throughout the movie. I didn’t notice it right away, but it does become a bit of annoyance at times. This seems like a very rare error for the folks at Shout Factory to make as their previous special editions have more often than not given us pristine prints of various cult classics, and I wonder if this was something which happened on their end or if Universal Studios did something wrong. Still, the movie looks fantastic.

There is also a commentary track with Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister who plays Reggie. It’s a terrific track which starts with Scrimm speaking as the Tall Man, wondering why this guy Scrimm keeps impersonating him in the “Phantasm” movies. From there, the participants talk non-stop about the making of “Phantasm II” and what they managed to accomplish on a budget of $3 million (the highest of any “Phantasm” movie). There’s also talk of why A. Michael Baldwin, who played Michael in the original, was replaced by James LeGros. The reasons why aren’t fully explained here, but everyone says they had a great time working with LeGros who back then was known for appearing in independent movies.

For more information on why LeGros replaced Baldwin, check out the documentary “The Ball is Back!” which gives you just about all the information you ever need to know about the production of “Phantasm II.” It turns out Universal wanted to get rid of both Bannister and Baldwin as they had not acted much since “Phantasm” came out. Coscarelli, however, managed to make a deal with Universal to where he could keep one of the actors, so while Bannister got to stay on, Baldwin had to go as the studio wanted someone who was “hunkier.”

The documentary also features other actors like Paula Irvine, Kenneth Tigar and Samantha Phillips who played the bald man-loving Alchemy. Phillips is especially fun to listen to as she talks about how she got the role of Alchemy and of how she almost talked Coscarelli out of casting her in the movie. She even talks about the sex scene she did with Bannister and of how his wife was on set that day (as if she didn’t have enough pressure to deal with).

We also get to see why, despite it making a profit, “Phantasm II” was initially considered a box office flop. It turns out Universal Pictures decided to release the sequel during the summer movie season where it faced off against “Die Hard” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” As to why Universal thought it was good idea to release “Phantasm II” during this time, no one seems to have an answer.

There’s also an old featurette called “The Gory Days with Greg Nicotero” where he explains how he got involved in the world of movie makeup. These days, Nicotero is one of the best known people for doing makeup effects in film, and it’s great to see how he got his start. There’s also some vintage behind the scenes footage of makeup tests the crew performed as well as some on the set footage where they blow up a house. Seeing all the preparation the crew took in making sure the explosion, which they filmed with what seemed like a dozen cameras, anything but small makes me miss practical special effects which have since been overrun by CGI.

To round things out, there are movie trailers for the first three “Phantasm” movies, original TV spots, still galleries, additional scenes which were taken from the work print, deleted scenes from Coscarelli’s archive, and a rare short film which has Scrimm playing Abraham Lincoln.

This special edition of “Phantasm II” has been a long time coming, and despite some minor technical flaws, fans of the series should be very pleased with what Shout Factory has come up with. The cult of “Phantasm” remains strong to this day, and they are served well by this release which is evidence of this series’ enduring popularity. If things keep up, maybe we will see a “Phantasm V” in the future. Some say that’s wishful thinking, but anything is possible!

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2013 when “Phantasm II” was released by Shout Factory on Blu-ray. “Phantasm V,” titled “Phantasm: Ravager,” is finally about to be released in theaters after a long wait.

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Here Comes The New ‘Blair Witch,’ Same As The Old ‘Blair Witch’

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While watching “Blair Witch,” I kept hearing these lines of dialogue between Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum from “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” in my head:

“Don’t worry, I’m not making the same mistakes again.”

“No, you’re making all new ones.”

This particular “Blair Witch” movie came out of nowhere as it was filmed in secret under the title “The Woods,” but over this past summer it was revealed to actually be a direct sequel to “The Blair Witch Project.” With a couple of talented filmmakers at the helm and a cast of unknown actors in front of the camera(s), this third “Blair Witch” movie showed a lot of promise as the memories of watching the original all those years ago remain very vivid to me. But what we end up with here has me paraphrasing the lyrics of a song by The Who: Here comes the new Blair Witch, same as the old Blair Witch.

The movie opens up on James Donoghue (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather Donoghue, viewing some grainy footage which leads him to believe his sister might still be alive. As a result, he forms an expedition to venture into the Black Hills woods in Burkittsville, Maryland to search for her, and he is joined by Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez), an aspiring film student who wants to make a documentary on James’ search, and their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid). Also along for the ride are Talia (Valorie Curry) and Lane (Wes Robinson), local residents responsible for uploading the grainy footage James watched and who have forever been interested in the legend of the Blair Witch as they do not live far from the events of the original movie.

Once these characters leave their cars behind, we are pretty confident they will never be seen again. Still, we are intrigued at the possibility of James meeting up with Heather as her body, nor Michael’s or Joshua’s, was never found. As expected, this expedition starts with everyone having fun by the campfire, but we all know what will happen from there. Once again, Goldblum’s dialogue from “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” was playing loudly in my head:

“Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming.”

If there’s anything different about this “Blair Witch” movie, it is the technology. Whereas the trio from the original had video and film cameras at their disposal, these characters have GPS, walkie talkies, digital and DAT cameras, cell phones and a drone which can give them a wider view of the woods. But of course, they are in an area where their cell phones don’t get very good, if any, reception. As for the rest of their gear, it will only do them so much good as they venture deeper into the woods. I mean, we all know what curiosity did to the cat, right?

The beauty of “The Blair Witch Project” was that it never felt like a movie. Instead, it felt more like a unique experience we were not used to having. We were there in the woods with the characters as their situation became increasingly perilous and more terrifying as time went on. Unlike most horror movies, we were not inflicted with cheap scares every five minutes. We were creeped out by the ambiguity of the situation as our imagination ran riot over the things we could not see. This is not to mention the movie’s brilliant marketing campaign which included the fake documentary “Curse of the Blair Witch” and missing photos of the three filmmakers posted at theaters. I’m surprised the studio didn’t put their faces on milk cartons as well.

But “Blair Witch” is unable to match the original’s “you are there” feeling, and I could not escape the fact that I was watching a horror movie. Furthermore, it was a weak horror movie which takes us down a road we have traveled far too often. This time the filmmakers resort to jump scares, and only a few of them work. Also, the characters here are stereotypical ones we usually expect to see in movies like these, and they are none too bright to put it mildly. Then again, horror movies usually thrive on stupid characters because otherwise nothing interesting would ever happen. One character pleads for everyone to head back home, but no one is about to. Just as when Jon Voight suggested to Burt Reynolds in “Deliverance” that they go back home and play golf, we are presented with good advice which is not taken.

After a time, it felt like I was watching a mashup of a “Blair Witch” and a “Paranormal Activity” movie as the soundtrack gets overtaken by dark ominous sound and tents start flying up in the air which has our intrepid characters running for their lives while filming the action any which way they can. I mean heaven forbid they don’t get anything on camera because otherwise there would be no movie.

Let’s face it folks, the found footage genre has long since been beaten to death. It thrived for a time after “The Blair Witch Project,” and it was reignited to very terrifying effect with “Paranormal Activity” and a few of its sequel. But like anything Hollywood gets its hands on, it has been beaten to death to where we are left with diminishing returns in the form of “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” and “The Hollows.” There’s nothing new to be found in this genre with “Blair Witch.” Nothing.

When Artisan Entertainment, which later became Lionsgate, decided to make “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” they hired “Paradise Lost” director Joe Berlinger to co-write and direct it. What resulted was a mess of a movie with bad acting and a poorly conceived story. Either that, or Artisan kept messing around with the movie and recut it behind Berlinger’s back as he has constantly accused them of doing.

This time around, they hired Adam Wingard to direct and Simon Barrett to write this movie, and this had me believing audiences were in for a treat. This is the same duo who gave us the black comedy slasher “You’re Next” and the highly underrated action thriller “The Guest.” Both movies show how familiar they were with the genres they cheerfully exploited, and they succeeded in bringing a freshness to those genres which appeared to have long since reached their peak. With them behind the camera(s) for “Blair Witch,” I felt they could bring something unique and fresh to the found footage genre, but even they can’t help but fall back on tried and true tricks, many of which we can see coming from a mile away.

For what it’s worth, Wingard and Barrett do give us a thrilling climax as the characters run through that creepy house we remember from the original, and we keep guessing as to how long they can last before they are pulled away with only their cameras left behind, recording the floor from an obtuse angle. But this sequence is not enough to save the movie, and what we are left with is, if you’ll excuse the expression, the same old shit.

The directors of the original, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, had often talked about doing a prequel which would show how the legend of the Blair Witch came about. That would be an interesting movie to see. Or perhaps we could get one where we see things from the point of view of the Blair Witch herself as she toys with the foolish humans by scaring them silly before eventually doing them in. One thing is for sure; unlike Donald Trump supporters, she does not discriminate.

* * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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Exclusive Interview with Olga Szymanska on Marcin Wrona’s ‘Demon’

It was very sad to learn of Polish director Marcin Wrona’s passing on September 18, 2015. He committed suicide before a screening of his latest film, “Demon,” the last in a trilogy which began with “My Flesh, My Blood” and “The Christening.” Like those two films, “Demon” deals with the nature of evil and a fate the protagonist is forced to deal with. Itay Tiran stars as Piotr (a.k.a. Python) who is on the verge of getting married to the beautiful Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) and moving into a family home which has survived from one generation to the next. But on the day of his wedding, Piotr suddenly becomes possessed by a spirit which will no longer remain silent, and what should be a joyous day soon turns into the wedding from hell as the past will no longer remain buried.

While Wrona is no longer with us, his “Demon” is a tremendously well-made horror film which allowed him to leave his mark on the world of cinema, and it provides us with an interesting take on the Jewish legend of the dybbuk. It is a beautifully filmed movie with incredible vistas and an all-encompassing darkness as a bad situation gets even worse, and that’s not just because the wedding guests have drunk far too much vodka. Watching “Demon” also reminds us of the power of ambiguity as not all questions are answered here, and this forces the viewer to think more deeply about what they have just witnessed.

I got to speak with Olga Szymanska, the producer of “Demon” and Wrona’s widow, while she was in Los Angeles to promote the film. I applaud her for supporting her late husband’s work while dealing with a loss which is still hard for many to accept. She talked about what went into the making of “Demon,” how it relates to Wrona’s previous two films, if she was ever worried about people not understanding the legend of the dybbuk, and of how Wrona and his cinematographer Pawell Flis gave the film such a striking look.

Please check out the interview above, and be sure to check out “Demon” which is playing at the Nuart Theatre through September 15.

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Tippi Hedren Looks Back at ‘The Birds’ and Working with Alfred Hitchcock

The Birds Tippi Hedren

Fans of Alfred Hitchcock were in for a treat when they packed the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood for a screening of his 1963 horror classic “The Birds.” The movie was being shown in honor of its 50th anniversary, and among the evening’s guests were two of its stars: Tippi Hedren who played the confident socialite Melanie Daniels, and Veronica Cartwright who had one of her earliest roles as Cathy Brenner. Much of the Q&A which preceded the movie, however, was directed at Hedren who talked about how she got cast in “The Birds” and of the overall effect Hitchcock ended up having on her career.

There has been this misconception about “The Birds” where many assumed it was filmed in black and white and not color. A lot of this had to do with people first watching the movie on their black and white television sets at home, and this understandably made the experience of watching it a bit different for them. Hedren reflected on what people have told her regarding this issue.

“I’ve had people say oh, I am so delighted that they colorized ‘The Birds,’ and I said uh no, we filmed it in color.’ And they said no, no, no, I saw it in black and white. Soon the argument kept growing, and I finally said no, you saw it on a black-and-white TV! And they went, yes’ Case closed” Hedren jokingly said.

Even today “The Birds” continues to pack movie houses all over the country and Hedren admitted she remains astonished at how it has a life of its own. She still does publicity for the film and talked of how it can still draw a crowd after so many years. Some of the other screenings she spoke of actually happened not long before this one.

“It took a little while for me to realize that this movie really has something that’s unique and powerful,” Hedren said. “We had a screening at a theater in Detroit, Michigan that sold out, and it didn’t have many seats in it. In Texas I was at a theater that was built in the 30s in El Paso, a beautiful, beautiful theater with 2500 seats, and there was a film festival there. Just before the screening of ‘The Birds,’ the director of the festival came to the stage and said ‘ladies and gentlemen, this theater has been sold out four times: once for ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘E.T.’ and tonight ‘The Birds.’”

“The Birds” actually marked Hedren’s film debut as an actress, and she previously had a very successful career as a model which later led her to do commercials. Hitchcock saw Hedren in a diet soda commercial, and this led him to cast her in the movie. This opportunity came at a crucial time for Hedren as she had just moved back to Los Angeles with her daughter Melanie Griffith and was experiencing some problems.

“I rented a very expensive home in Westwood thinking I would continue my career as a fashion model and doing commercials, and it wasn’t working and I’m thinking okay, what do I do now? I don’t know how to type,” Hedren said. “Shortly after that on Friday the 13th of October 1961, I received a phone call from Universal asking if I was the girl in the diet soda commercial, and I said yes. So I was put through a four or five-day suspense thriller of who is the producer who was interested in me. Finally, I was asked to go to MCA, a big organization or agency, and it was there that the agent said, ‘Alfred Hitchcock wants to sign you to a contract. If you agree with the terms and sign it, we will promote you.’ So we went over to his office, and he (Hitchcock) opened the door and stood looking very pleased with himself. It literally changed my life.”

One audience member asked Hedren about the very strange birthday gift Hitchcock gave her daughter Melanie. Many have heard this story over and over, and it has always sounded tremendously creepy. The question, however, gave Hedren the opportunity to set the record straight about what really happened.

“My daughter was presented with a box when Hitchcock took us to lunch, and it was a wooden box and Melanie opened it and it was an incredible doll of me in the green suit that I wore in ‘The Birds,’” Hedren said. “The face was so perfect that it scared her to the point where she kind of freaked out. Everybody made it sound like it was Hitchcock playing a dirty trick or doing something really nasty to Melanie and that wasn’t it. It was supposed be a very, very beautiful gift and it just went awry. She was so affected by it that it was put away somewhere, and I unfortunately don’t even know what happened to it.”

But the one thing which has cast a heavy shadow over the legacy of “The Birds” is the fact Hitchcock sabotaged Hedren’s career after she starred in “Marnie.” During that time, Hitchcock became deeply obsessed with her, but she kept refusing his advances which led to him exerting a control over her no director should have over anyone. Hedren explained what happened between her and Hitchcock very calmly and without a hint of regret.

“As you know, I became the object of his obsession,” Hedren said. “It started later in the filming of ‘The Birds,’ and then by the end of filming ‘Marnie’ it was to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was tired of being followed around all the time. It all came about when I was asked to go to New York to be on ‘The Tonight Show’ to accept an award, and I asked for two days off. There was a demand put on me if I chose to take those two days off, and I was so offended with it and I said I have to get out of this contract and I have to get out of it now. As soon as ‘Marnie’ is over, I am done. And he (Hitchcock) said, ‘Well you can’t. You have your little girl to support, your parents are getting older…’ And I said anybody who loves me doesn’t want me to be in a situation which I’m unhappy. I want to get out!’ And he said, ‘I’ll ruin your career,’ and he did.”

“He didn’t let me out of the contract,” Hedren continued. “He kept paying me my $600 a week, and I wouldn’t hear for a very long time after that that many directors had asked to have me in their films, and it was so easy for him. All he had to say was she isn’t available, and it was that easy and it was done. It was hurtful, but at the same time I walked away with my head held high. He ruined my career but he didn’t ruin my life.”

The audience at Grauman’s Chinese applauded her last sentence, and it was clear to everyone she never lost her pride or self-respect in spite of what Hitchcock did. While her career was never the same after “Marnie,” she still managed to keep working in both film and television.

While we may have come out of the evening very upset at the cruel way Hitchcock treated Tippi Hedren, we could not deny “The Birds” still remains a very effective and unnerving horror movie a half a century after its release. The fact it holds up so well speaks volumes of not just Hitchcock’s brilliant direction, but also of Hedren’s beautifully confident performance. She remains such a sublime presence to watch in this classic film, and she deserves as much credit as Hitchcock does for its enduring success.

The Birds movie poster

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: The Birds

The Birds movie poster

I spent a large portion of my youth growing up in Northern California, and we were always reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when we saw a flock of them fly by. I’ve been to a number of the locations in San Francisco and Bodega Bay where this classic movie was made, but I have never actually seen it all the way through until recently. Still, it was one of those films we felt we all had seen as we are aware of its story and are constantly reminded of its existence when we see birds in the sky or in a park feeding on leftover crumbs.

It took a 50th anniversary screening of “The Birds” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to finally give me a reason to actually see it. Seeing the movie at the world famous theater made it all the more entertaining as this Hitchcock classic probably hasn’t looked this good in years. But I was especially impressed with the movie’s sound design which proved to be of an assault on our eardrums. It made you wonder if the birds were going to kill the humans by pecking them to death, or if their insane chirping and screeching would be the end of us instead.

Tippi Hedren is absolutely sublime as Melanie Daniels, a socialite who strikes up a conversation with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a lawyer who “mistakes” her for a salesperson at a bird shop. When it turns out Mitch was just teasing Melanie as he knew all along she wasn’t an employee but instead someone he remembered from a court case, she gets all pissed and looks to one up him. So she drives out to Bodega Bay, a small coastal town in Northern California where Mitch spends the weekends with his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and his sister Cathy (a very young Veronica Cartwright). And that’s when the birds start to attack…

Bodega Bay is really a perfect location for a horror movie; a small seaside town which looks so peaceful and isolated from the rest of the world. But it’s this isolation which dooms the humans in “The Birds” as many of them can’t see outside their little town for any possible escape. Many people come to these small towns to get away from big city life, but if it’s bad in Bodega Bay when these birds attack, imagine how bad it must be in San Francisco with them all perched over the Golden Gate Bridge, just waiting to launch another bloodthirsty assault.

The first bird attack actually doesn’t happen until about a half hour or so, and I don’t imagine any filmmaker, even Hitchcock, getting away with this today except Steven Spielberg. Studio executives would probably be saying, “Can you introduce the bird attacks any sooner?” But this is okay because Hitchcock is clearly having fun with Melanie and Mitch as they play cat and mouse games with each other. The scene where Melanie sneaks into Mitch’s home so she can secretly give him a present is very suspenseful as I kept expecting Mitch to pop up in the doorway at any second. His reaction to what Melanie has gotten away with is priceless.

When a seagull attacks Melanie while she is on a boat, it completely catches us off guard as we have become so wrapped up in the chemistry between her and Mitch. Indeed, it’s the human characters I wondered more about than the birds themselves. Each person Melanie comes into contact with appears to have some sort of hidden agenda you are itching to figure out before the movie ends. With the birds, it’s not hard to figure out what their agenda is.

Hitchcock made “The Birds” a few years after “Psycho,” and it shows him still having a thing for overbearing mothers. Tandy is wonderful in portraying her deep-seated suspicions about Melanie without words, and I kept thinking she had some evil plan going on behind those eyes of hers. Like Mrs. Bates, she’s a little too overprotective of who her son goes out with.

Then there’s the local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (the alluring Suzanne Pleshette) who was once in a relationship with Mitch, and she keeps eyeing Melanie ever so seductively when talking about him. Annie tells Melanie she and Mitch remain the best of friends as she smokes a cigarette (which, like it or not, still looks glamorous onscreen), but what does Annie really mean? Pleshette makes Annie a very enigmatic character, and it’s like she’s daring you to look deeper into those beautiful eyes of hers.

Granted, the special effects in “The Birds” these days look a bit campy and haven’t aged well. Then again, they still look better than anything in “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” Hitchcock shoots the bird attacks in the same way he shot the shower scene in “Psycho;” with a lot of quick cuts which gives you the illusion you’re seeing more than what’s onscreen. This is especially the case when Melanie ventures upstairs to the room which the birds have broken into. The editing is all over the place, and it makes the attack seem all the more painfully brutal as a result.

I loved how Hitchcock just strings the audience along throughout and manages to stay one step ahead of them. M. Night Shyamalan has been desperately trying to do this with many of his movies, but Hitchcock remains the master when it comes to generating suspense. He’s careful not to give too much away, and he always keeps you wondering what will happen next. At the movie’s end, many questions are left unanswered and the fates of certain characters remain up in the air, but this makes the experience all the more terrifying even after the lights come up in the theatre. Hitchcock is not interested in giving the audience an easy way out, and “The Birds” stays with you long after it has ended.

One image which will forever stay with me is the scene at the school where Melanie waits outside as the children sing “Wee Cooper O’Fife,” and she doesn’t notice the dozens of birds which are perched on the jungle gym behind her. You want to yell at her and say “look behind you,” and when it is revealed just how many birds are there, you feel her sheer terror as she sees for herself the danger everyone is in. Keep in mind, this movie was made long before CGI effects were even a tiny thought in somebody’s head, and this makes Hitchcock’s work with the birds all the more impressive.

Actually, looking back at the scene makes me wonder what would be more horrifying. Could it be that those birds are ready to fly up and attack the children at any given moment, or that someone is going to have clean up all the bird shit that you know will be covering the jungle gym after they fly away? With so many birds, that piece of equipment is never going to get fully cleaned. Once the kids find out what happened, you will be lucky to get any of them playing on it again!

I loved the movie’s last half where Melanie and Mitch are hiding in his family’s home which has been completely boarded up to keep the birds from getting inside. It’s at this point the film becomes a master class in sound design as the birds’ screeching (much of it created with an electroacoustic Trautonium) becomes far more unnerving than seeing them attack humans. We don’t see many birds, but we hear them and see all sorts of holes being poked in the doors as they fight their way inside. It’s one of the many brilliantly staged scenes Hitchcock has ever put together as he sticks us right inside the house with the characters to where we feel their isolation and terror over what will happen if the birds find a way inside.

I also loved how cool Hedren is as Melanie Daniels. She gives this icy blonde a seductive confidence which makes you want to follow her to ends of the earth, and it’s easy to see how this type of character came to inform many of Paul Verhoeven’s movies (“Basic Instinct” in particular). It’s a tragedy Hitchcock ruined Hedren’s career out of his unhealthy obsession with her, and his treatment of her casts a dark shadow over the legacy of “The Birds.” Needless to say, Hedren still walks through life with her head held high which says a lot about her.

It’s also a kick to see Veronica Cartwright here as it helps to certify her status as one of the great scream queens in horror movies. These days we know her best from her terrifying turns as Lambert in “Alien” and in Philip Kaufman’s remake of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but this was the first horror movie which she appeared in, and she was only 12 years old at the time (she turned 13 during its making). After all these years, Cartwright remains a fascinating actress to watch.

Perhaps “The Birds” would have had a stronger effect on me had I watched it on its 25th anniversary instead. But the fact it holds up so well after half a century says a lot about Hitchcock’s brilliance behind the camera, a brilliance many filmmakers still pray to have in their own careers. Still, more than thirty years after his death, there is still no topping Hitchcock as the master of suspense. To those who wish to try, all I can say is good luck. You’re gonna need it.

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