Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Show and Tell: Evil Dead...With Music...In A Church!

Most Evil Dead fans are probably already familiar with the musical stage version that debuted Off-Broadway in the mid 2000s.  I was always bummed that I never got to check it out, so I was surprised and damn excited to find out that an acting group in my area called Bootless Stageworks was doing a limited run of their own.

Just having the chance to see Evil Dead: The Musical is already a treat, but I knew when I showed up at the entrance of this show it was going to be something special.  The picture below should give an indication as to why:

That's right.  I got to see an expletive-filled gorefest in the basement of a church.  Before the show, a representative from the company addressed that particular elephant in the room, explaining that the church was a new location for the group, and that the pastor had already seen and loved the show.

After having seen it myself, I can see why.  It was campy, low-budget even by horror standards, and it had terrible dialogue.  Here's the thing though:  all of those factors worked in its favor.  Any show called Evil Dead: The Musical would be foolish to take itself too seriously.  So, Bootless Delaware was smart in that they did the exact opposite of that by playfully poking fun at the source material and even at horror tropes in general throughout the show.

What's more, they didn't try to emulate the tone of the movies.  It definitely leans more toward comedy than horror (even more so than Army of Darkness).  And they make a very wise choice in having Ash play more like a typical Broadway hero than the anti-hero perfected by Bruce Campbell.  Hearing some of Ash's more iconic lines delivered sincerely rather than through 7 layers of sarcasm was actually kind of jarring, but I liked it too.

Then, of course, there's the gore.  You can't think about doing anything with Evil Dead in the title unless you're willing to have blood flow.  In this case, blood didn't flow so much as it literally showered.  Initially, I was disappointed to find out that they were out of tickets for the Pit area, where spectators are warned that they would definitely be splattered.  I was actually relieved to merely view the effects though, when I realized that they had literally rigged sprinklers over the audience set to spray them with red water for a good five minutes during the finale.  It was almost to practical joke levels, which was hilarious considering I wasn't the one being doused.

Unfortunately, the run of Evil Dead is done so even if you're in the area it's too late to catch this particular show.  However, Bootless Stageworks has a schedule lined up all the way through summer of 2016, including a Musical of the Living Dead planned for next July.  I think it's important, though, to find these little gems close to where you live.  The horror community can be found pretty much anywhere, and I've found that horror is better-enjoyed when you have people around you who get it and can experience it with you.  If nothing else, maybe you'll be able to see someone get soaked in stage blood.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Show and Tell: Frogs Is Ridiculous And Kinda Terrible. So Why Did I Love It?

Last week I was looking for a horror movie to watch before bed, and in my obligatory 30-45 minute search on Netflix, I landed on Frogs, a movie that has been on my radar ever since I stumbled on the last five minutes of it on TV a few years ago.  While I'd been circling it for a while, I was hesitant because, well...it's called Frogs.  I wasn't sure I wanted to risk starting a movie where the novelty would wear off within five minutes and I'd be bored off my ass for the next hour and a half.

Made in 1972, Frogs stars Sam "I really wish this man was my uncle" Elliot as Pickett Smith, a photographer/ecologist who is almost accidentally run over by a motorboat driven by a member of the extremely wealthy Crockett family.  They offer him a chance to spend time with them on their island by way of apology, but soon his time on the island takes a turn for the deadly as members of the family are killed one-by-one.  All the while, family patriarch Jason Crockett chooses to ignore the deaths in favor of continuing the family's birthday celebration, even as Pickett deduces that the killings are being committed by the animals on the island in response to the continued mistreatment of natural resources in the area.

If the above synopsis makes the movie seem a bit goofy, that's because it's pretty damn goofy.  What's odd is that the reason for the attacks are never clearly explained.  I'd expected some kind of mutation that would make the frogs over-sized, mutated...perhaps ill-tempered.  We get none of that.  Apparently these frogs are just pissed off because of pollution.  What's more, if you can believe it, Frogs is a bit of a misnomer for this movie as they are directly responsible for exactly one death in this movie.  But I suppose Frogs rolls off the tongue easier than Frogs, Spiders, Leeches, Alligators, Snakes, Snapping Turtles, and Moss (Yes, Moss).

As goofy as the premise and script are, I still found myself enjoying the hell out of this movie.  The
first reason is obvious:  anything starring Sam Elliot is worth watching.  In this case, it was particularly interesting for me to see Elliot without his trademark mustache and grey hair because I wanted to see how much his look contributed to his on-screen gravitas.  Happily, as Picket, Elliot still has all of his folksy charm even in a situation as asinine as this one.  Surprisingly, the other actors in the movie provide adequate support, especially given the script they had to work with.

I also really enjoyed the use of the setting.  The film was shot entirely on location at a mansion on the Emerald Coast in Florida, and the film is effective in heightening the menace of the swamps and wetlands in the area.  In particular, there are a few shots that utilize what I believe is supposed to be something from the point of view of the frogs of the frogs, where the edges lose their focus, and the light shining through trees in the swamp has an eerie fogginess to it.  The kills are also pretty effective for a PG movie, as people are poisoned, bitten, and mauled by all variety of Florida-native animals.  I'm certainly going to think twice about jumping into a lake down south after seeing this flick.

While factors such as acting, setting, and creative kills make the movie more entertaining, I was surprised to find that the movie takes a stab at social commentary.  I suppose this shouldn't be as surprising when one considers that the movie was produced by American International Pictures, a production company with a history of addressing issues of the era.  But still, when you click play on a movie called Frogs, you're really not expecting a chance for discussion afterward.

Frogs, however, delves into not one, but TWO issues of the day.  The first, and most obvious, is the relationship between man and the environment.  The movie heavily implies that the impetus for the animals' wrath is the damage being done to the ecosystem, with the Crockett family business being a significant contributor to pollution.  What's interesting is that the movie never shows an explicit cause and effect between the pollution and the animal attacks.  There's no pool of toxic waste giving the animals superpowers, for example.  My first reaction to keeping this connection vague was that it was just lazy writing. However, keeping the catalyst vague keeps the issue broad in its scope.  The Crockett family (especially Jason) are rich, white, entitled assholes, but they're not evil monsters twirling mustaches and plotting world domination.  By keeping the characters relatively grounded, the movie implies that it's not a few devils causing such damage.  It's our culture as a whole.

The other theme considered by Frogs is race relations.  American International is no stranger to issues of race, as it has produced a number of well-known blaxploitation films of the era, including Blacula, Coffy, and Sugar Hill.  These are movies known for depicting strong leading black characters in an era virtually devoid of them.  In Frogs, we meet another such character in Bella, a fiance of one of the Crockett family.  She's confident, she doesn't conform to the hierarchy imposed by Jason and his family, and she's not afraid to confront Jason when he's being unreasonable.  While such a character may seem tame today, this kind of thing was not the norm in 1972.  I hesitate to delve much deeper into the topic considering it's already been terrifically covered by the Graveyard Shift Sisters.  If you want to read deeper into the topic, definitely check out their article here.

Now, don't let any of the above analysis fool you.  Frogs is silliness on celluloid and it's the type of movie you watch after midnight or when you have a group of friends to get drunk with while you watch it.  But while you're getting drunk, take a minute to acknowledge that it's got some flashes of greatness, and it tries to extend its reach slightly beyond its B-movie status.  And it also manages to be a damn entertaining watch.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Decidedly Non-Definitive History Of Music In Horror

Earlier this week I read on Daily Dead that Broadcast Music Inc. will be hosting a panel at San Diego Comic Con entitled "“The Character of Music: Classic Horror Special Edition."  A group of influential horror composers will be discussing the impact of music the genre and then doing some Q and A.  This is one of the many times that I've been bummed that I live on the east coast and can't make it to Comic-Con.  I love horror soundtracks and I think they are integral components of a great movie. The announcement of this panel got me thinking of the musical landmarks of the genre.

First, a disclaimer:  my entire musical education consists of one semester of basic music history as an undergrad in college.  I'm musically illiterate and I'm pretty sure the term tone deaf was coined specifically for me.  But that won't stop me from having opinions, because I'm an American.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Full Disclosure:  I have not seen Bride of Frankenstein.  My horror wheelhouse is really the 70s and 80s, and while I've seen a number of the Universal Studios monster movies, I've yet to catch this one, so most of what follows comes from some research that I did.  Composed by Franz Waxman, the score to Bride of Frankenstein is momentous because it came in a time when Universal Studios (as well as other studios at the time) were still tinkering with the whole notion of soundtracks.  Dracula, for example, only has music during the opening and ending credits aside from music playing during a concert in one of the scenes.  Bride of Frankenstein, however, presents a full, operatic score that blends the feel of classical music with the ominous tone of horror.

The Blob (1958)
I haven't actually seen this either, but screw it.  This is a movie about killer jello.  And as for the theme song...what in the holy hell is this? I defy anyone to listen to The Blob theme and predict that they're about to see a horror movie.  Although, given the fact that The Blob's "horror" element is a gigantic gelatinous mass from outer space, I suppose we can't really blame writers Burt Bacharach and Mack David for taking the song to a goofy place.

Blacula (1972)
The soundtrack for Blacula was composed by Gene Page, whose work outside of Blacula was more in pop music circles than in horror.  He's arranged music for artists ranging from The Righteous Brothers to Kenny Rogers.  He's worked with Phil Spector.  Hell, he loaned Barry White money when White was still early in his career.  This was not a guy that one would associate with the horror scene.  And frankly, I think if you listened to the Blacula album out of context, you could be forgiven if you didn't recognize it as a horror soundtrack.  It is, however, a very fun listen if you enjoy funk from the early 70s, and I think it fits very well with Blacula's tone.

Exorcist (1973)
The song most associated with The Exorcist,"Tubular Bells," is particularly interesting considering it wasn't written for the movie.  Written by Mike Oldfield in 1973, the song was released on an album of the same name with no connection to William Freidkin's horror classic.  It's difficult to separate the music from the film at this point, but I'd be interested to know if people would find it creepy on its own or if it's scary because you can't hear it without picturing Linda Blair's head spinning around on her shoulders.

Sugar Hill (1974)
I'll be honest, I don't remember any of the rest of this soundtrack other than The Original's "Supernatural Voodoo Woman."  But frankly, that's all that really matters.  I'm gonna leave this here, and you enjoy having it stuck in your head for at least the next week.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Director Tobe Hooper worked with Wayne Bell to create the film's soundtrack.  It's funny, though, because before I started writing this article I could have been easily convinced that Texas Chainsaw Massacre didn't even have a soundtrack.  The only aural cues I remember from the movie are the creepy faux-camera noises used at various points in the film (and, of course, a revving chainsaw).  But there is indeed a soundtrack, and it's one that some, including The Guardian's Stephen Thrower, count among their favorites in the genre.  I suppose the reason that I don't recall it myself is that it's almost not music, but rather a collection of off-putting yet barely melodic sounds that lend themselves well to the documentary vibe of the movie.

Suspiria (1977)
I'm sure that the members of Italian electronic rock band Goblin are normal, well-adjusted fellows.  However, when I listed to their work, especially the music from the soundtrack for Dario Argento's Suspiria, part of me believes these dudes are actual goblins who make their music so that they have something playing in the background during their many sacrifice rituals.  But damned if their weird ass shenanigans don't come together for some fun music.

Halloween (1978)
Making movies must be an exhausting process for John Carpenter.  In addition to writing and directing his own stuff, he also composes the score.  Such was the case with Halloween.  I'm quite sure any horror fan reading this is very familiar with the simple yet extremely effective hook of the main theme.  And I wonder, would this movie have been half as scary without its score?  I suppose the same could be said of most horror movies, but I think it's particularly true in the case of Halloween.  Every note foreshadows impending doom, yet somehow also remains easy to listen to and darkly beautiful.  Not a bad feat from a guy who can't read or write music, but rather finds his hooks through improvisation.

Phantasm (1979)
Fred Myrow's score to Don Coscarelli's cult-classic is my favorite horror soundtrack of all time.  It screams 70s.  It screams low-budget.  But fuck it's so damn good.  The hook of the main theme has a hypnotic effect on me that fits perfectly with the movie's tone.  This is a film where we don't know what's real or what's a dream, and it seems like the soundtrack was created specifically to put the viewer in that frame of mind.  I found out recently that a company recently released the soundtrack on vinyl, but of course they've already sold out.  If anyone is looking for a good Christmas present for me, just help me track this thing down because it must be mine.

Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Here's a soundtrack to rival Halloween in its iconic status, as just like with Halloween, it's nearly impossible to separate the movie from its classic music.  Composer Charles Bernstein, like Carpenter, makes use of a synthesizer, but Bernstein's tracks are much more busy and layered than Carpenter.  Not to say that it's necessarily better, because Carpenter was clearly going for simplicity.  But Bernstein shows how dynamic a single musician can be when given the right tools.

It Follows (2015)
After the 80s, horror movies tended to either A) forgo original compositions for slapping together a half-assed mixed tape to sell as a soundtrack or B) settle for generic, vaguely scary music-like tones.  That's why I was so happy to see this year's horror darling, It Follows, extend it's throwback vibe to the soundtrack.  Composer Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpiece) has a decidedly Carpenteresque vibe in his soundtrack, with a synth-heavy playlist that ramps up the tension of the movie significantly.  I can only hope that this ignites a trend to put some real focus on music in the horror genre, as I feel like it's been lacking as of late.

OK, so now that I've given my abridged history, here's the part where you comment on my glaring omissions.  No, seriously,  Please do.  I'm not going to pretend that the brief list above is in any way exhaustive, and I'd love to hear comments about anything that I've excluded.  Shoot a comment below and let me know about some of your favorite music from the genre.  

Further Reading

"Interview: Charles Bernstein on His Score for 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.'"  Man in the Warmest Place to Hide.  May 21, 2012. http://manisthewarmestplacetohide.com/blog/interview-charles-bernstein-his-score-nightmare-elm-street.

Masters, Marc.  "First Listen: John Carpenter, 'Lost Themes.'" NPR Online. January 25, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/01/25/379336431/first-listen-john-carpenter-lost-themes

Perrone, Pierre.  "Obituary: Gene Page."  The Independent Online.  September 21, 1998. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-gene-page-1199645.html

Rosar, William H.  "Music for the Monsters:  Universal Pictures Horror Film Scores of the Thirties."  The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress.  Fall 1983.  http://www.academia.edu/769153/Music_for_the_Monsters_Universal_Pictures_Horror_Film_Scores_of_the_Thirties

Stewart, Craig.  "Ten Best Horror Scores in Cinematic History." What Culture.  Feburary 11, 2013. http://whatculture.com/film/10-best-horror-scores-in-cinematic-history.php/7

Thrower, Stephen.  "From Goblin to Morricone: the art of horror movie music."  The Guardian Online.  August 18, 2011.  http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/aug/18/horror-film-movie-music