Saturday 2 November 2013

Letterboxd: HALLOWEEN III - SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982); SPAWN (1997); THE KEEP (1983)

Saturday 2 November 2013
Timed for Halloween, below is an 'unholy trinity' of horror and supernatural film reviews...

★★ (out of five)

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH is essentially a middling instalment of a 1980s horror anthology (starring Tom Atkins from CREEPSHOW), unwisely stretched to feature length, and most damagingly branded as a sequel to HALLOWEEN.

It wasn't unreasonable for audiences to assume this film would have something to do with masked psycho Michael Myers (especially as John Carpenter remained involved as producer and co-composer), but HALLOWEEN III is entirely divorced from the murders at Haddonfield, Illinois.

If you watch this expecting a sequel to HALLOWEEN, you're going to be sorely disappointed and possibly extremely angry. The franchise's later sequels and remakes would return to the story of Michael Myers, burned by the fact HALLOWEEN III didn't manage to evolve the franchise into a brand that simply told scary stories every Halloween, which just makes this film even more of a black sheep in retrospect.

Looking past that perceived Myers-less weakness, SEASON OF THE WITCH (brace yourself for no witches either!) isn't a terrible film. The story of a doctor who uncovers a weird conspiracy to slaughter children on 31 October, via mass-manufactured Halloween masks that... um, kill the wearer and release insects and snakes, triggered by an irritating commercial, it's patently absurd. And while 'dream logic' has its merits in storytelling and can be particularly effective in horror, it's a problem when a story has no clear focus and motivations are hazy. I haven't even mentioned the androids and Stonehenge.

This film was originally written by famed British sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale (QUATERMASS, THE STONE TAPES), but he notably had his name removed from the credits when he realised they intended to increase the amount of gore and violence in his script. You can sense Kneale's hand occasionally (especially with the small-town under surveillance), but the pacing feels like it was written to be a four-part miniseries. When you distil the actual plot, I'm certain HALLOWEEN III could be better told in an hour.

A strange curio with some merit (good camera-work, a fun synthesized score), but most HALLOWEEN fans will feel tricked not treated.

★ (out of five)

One of the worst superhero movies ever made, SPAWN killed a promising comic-book character's big-screen ambitions stone dead. There's been talk of a reboot for over a decade from creator Todd McFarlane, but there doesn't seem to be much appetite for the Spawn character from audiences now. Maybe he was strictly a 1990s cult item.

I like the concept of SPAWN (essentially a mix of THE CROW, GHOST RIDER and ROBOCOP), about a government hitman who's murdered by his corrupt boss and returns to earth as a 'Hellspawn'--having made a deal with the devil to lead Hell's army, which he was worryingly quick to agree to if it meant seeing his fiancée Wanda again. (Seriously, he makes the Faustian Pact literally seconds after arriving in Hell. Snap decision.)

SPAWN was the directorial debut of Mark A.Z. Dippé, a special effects artist for Industrial Light & Magic who worked on THE ABYSS, TERMINATOR 2 and JURASSIC PARK. That set alarm bells ringing, as studios tend to assign F/X whizzes to such projects in order to be sure a deficient budget gets used creatively. SPAWN cost around $40m (in context, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK cost $73m that same year), so it probably was a good investment from that perspective.

Unfortunately, the effects are generally terrible when Dippé attempts anything too grand in scale. There are sequences set in Hell that are truly horrendous, featuring what can only be described as a 'slack-jawed CGI muppet' as the demonic Malebolgia (with the voice of Dr Claw from INSPECTOR GADGET). I know CGI was in its adolescence back in 1997, but it was still post-JURASSIC PARK, INDEPENDENCE DAY and only a few years away from THE MATRIX.

It's barely worth talking about SPAWN beyond its effects-work, which is all Dippé seems interested in half the time. The entire film is embroidered with pointless CGI, including screen transitions. The story's pretty straightforward and terribly clichéd, too: from the pet dog who recognises its burned master, to a homeless kid who befriends the antagonist. It's all very dispiriting, and even John Leguizamo's committed turn as The Clown can't rescue matters. Did I mention Martin Sheen plays a villain who resembles the Yorkshire Ripper? A reminder of how far he'd fallen before THE WEST WING rejuvenated his career on television.

What else to add. Michael Jai White at least has the honour of being the first African-American superhero at the cinema, but if you ask me Wesley Snipes deserved that accolade more for the following year's BLADE. And if you wondered what Dippé's up to now, he's directing straight-to-video Garfield movies. Now that is Hell.

★½ (out of five)

An early Michael Mann curio that doesn't deliver on its sensational concept about Nazis awakening a supernatural entity in Romania. That happens, sure, but the pacing is so languid all anticipation of an exciting and lurid spectacle soon wanes. After a decent enough first act, THE KEEP gets progressively more meandering and incomprehensible, although Mann's visual eye just about keeps things interesting to watch. There are also some early-'80s effects that have an indefinable freakishness about them, because you can't just hand-wave them as "CGI".

Early film roles for Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellen keep modern eyes amused--especially as the 44 year-old McKellen is playing the septuagenarian he's now become. The sound-scapes by Tangerine Dream should also be commended, for doing something that wasn't the norm in 1983. However, this is one of those cult films you wouldn't mind seeing a remake of, and I'd be surprised if said remake didn't improve matters immeasurably.
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