Flowing Through Nostalgic Horror

I’ve been sick with a wretched head cold for the past few days, hence the delay, but the time in bed (and dizzy spells) allowed me to gather a handful of films for this update which collectively illustrate the levels of originality, imitation, and nostalgia in contemporary horror.

That’s a big statement, but it can be distilled into something very simple, if not streamlined.

Last week I interviewed composer Douglas Pipes and writer/director Michael Dougherty for their film Trick ‘R Treat, as well as the soundtrack CD. It was actually a great idea to pair the two in a phoner because Dougherty is, as you’ll discover in my Q&A, a film music fan, and he used his knowledge and affection for certain scores to establish the mood of the script he was writing.

Like many horror directors, he’s also a horror film buff, but prior to his directorial debut, Dougherty also wrote with co-writer Dan Harris Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005), Sony’s vain attempt to further an existing franchise. Now, big studios aren’t always run by bright bulbs, because while they may aspire to keep a brand name going (it only takes two films, and voila! You have a franchise!), they often figure as long as it rents or sells to stores and ancillary broadcast outlets, it need not be good.

MGM’s garbage Species 3 (2004) is perfect evidence of this mindset, and you know that at some point there will be another. Species 2 (aka ‘Species Duh’) was a theatrical film in 1998, but as director Peter Medak (PETER MEDAK, for Pete’s sake) stated quite clearly in his commentary track, the studio kept mucking around with the script and film until what was left was an incoherent and laughable blob of celluloid crud. (When alien babies are born with accompanying tear-away loin cloths, you know the studio brass involved with the film were smoking puddle fumes.)

UL3 actually had some pedigree. Dougherty and Harris were the writing team behind X2 (2003) and would soon co-write Superman Returns (2006), and director Mary Lambert has a background in classic music videos, as well as the horror film Pet Sematary (1989), so what went wrong?

UL3, if watched after reading our Q&A and seeing Trick ‘R Treat, was an opportunity for Dougherty to create a self-referential sequel ten years after the incessant Scream knock-offs had run their course. (Remember Sony’s I Still Know What You Did Last Summer? No? This is the film that sent Danny Cannon into TV land after a promising theatrical career.)

There are flashes of smart dialogue, and kill scenes harkening back to some classic films, if not creative kills of vintage slashers, but the script just doesn’t work, and Lambert’s direction is a key problem with the film.

That’s probably one stressor that motivated Dougherty to direct his own horror film, and realize his own vision of a nostalgic story that’s told with style – something completely lacking in UL3.

Rue Morgue magazine has an extensive interview in Issue #94 (October 2009) with Dougherty regarding the film’s long period in studio stasis after an early sneak preview in the fall of 2007, but the film is finally out, and people can judge for themselves as to whether Dougherty’s goals were successful.

Part of the film’s charm comes from a strong orchestral score by Douglas Pipes (Monster House), and he was given a broad canvas to write a dynamic score that wasn’t curtailed at key points for bad source music, a common trend in horror films because of that daft hope one song will somehow sell millions of music-from-and-inspired-by-albums.

In any event, in our Q&A, Pipes provides some career background info, and his score is now widely available on CD via La-La Land Records. My CD review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Rue Morgue, but it’s an excellent score with plenty of fine theme variations, and moody, low-key suspense cues. A solid hour of grisly fun.

While Dougherty indulged in his own kind of nostalgia, Sam Raimi went small scale and switched from the big budget chaos of Spider-Man 3 to Drag me to Hell (2009), a decent but somewhat ‘meh’ attempt to recapture the zest and wetness of his Evil Dead films. He’s a bit crazier here compared to the Spidey films, but there’s that midsection where not much happens… and you realize all the gross teasing is just padding to compensate for a weak screenplay and uneven lead actors.

Like Trick ‘R Treat, the Blu-ray for Drag contains more extras, whereas the standard DVD lacks the goodies that used to be standard on a studio-released horror film. The trend is clearly to get people to buy BR – and I’m working my way towards that, once player prices dip around Xmas – but the Trick ‘R Treat DVD may be the worst mastered disc, in terms of concept. Read the review to find out how Warner Bros. wasted 4.2 GB of space on some irrelevant material.

Lastly, one of the original slashers from the eighties makes its proper debut on DVD. Back in 2004, Sony released Happy Birthday to Me with an alternate score, and with the video rights now in Anchor Bay’s hands, the film’s back with its original score by Bo Harwood and Lance Rubin.

The first time I saw the film was via the Sony DVD, and having no point of reference, I was stunned at the music score’s awfulness, and regarded the composers as hacks. Apologies to the duo, as AB’s DVD validates them for writing a gem that deserves its own commercial release. (and those curious about Harwood’s intriguing background and working relationship with John Cassavetes should check out Criterion’s John Cassavetes Collection. The Woman Under the Influence DVD includes a commentary track with Harwood, and he also appears in the excellent documentary A Constant Forge, as detailed in this old column for Music from the Movies.)

I’m trying not to let non-horror material take up the bulk of October’s release roster, and coming shortly will be some CD reviews, a tally of recent scores of note on CD, as well as another composer interview.

Also coming shortly will be more material related to the fall of the Berlin Wall (meaning more Petzold, and some overlooked films you might want to check out as the anniversaries of various historical Berlin footnotes creep up).

Also on the way is an odd angle on Iran in film – not Iranian directors, but American and European films shot in unique Iranian locations prior to the Revolution.



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