47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED (2019) – Shark Sequel Scary, Claustrophobic, and Unremarkable

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Shark movies have become a trope.

Throw a few sharks in the water, mix in some unsuspecting swimmers, preferably of the teen variety, have lots of screaming, and you’ve got the makings of a horror movie. Trouble is, like the slasher film before it, the shark movies have become carbon copies of each other, and most of the time, they’re not very good.

This is the biggest thing that 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED (2019) has working against it. Even though it tries to be different, it’s still a shark movie, which takes away from some of the solid scares it manages to deliver.

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED (2019) is also a sequel. The first film, 47 METERS DOWN (2017) was a movie I liked but didn’t love. The good news here is 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED has nothing to do with that first movie. It’s got all new characters and an all new story. The only connection between the two are the sharks, and the location. Both movies take place in Mexico.

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED is the story of two sisters. The movie opens when one of the sisters Mia (Sophie Nelisse) is pushed into a swimming pool by a group of mean girls at their all girl private high school. When the film starts off, it looks like it’s going to be CARRIE meets JAWS, which incidentally might have been a better movie, but that’s not where this one ultimately goes, as the bullies take a back seat to the two sisters.

Mia’s half-sister Sasha (Corinne Fox) doesn’t get along with her either, and to remedy this, their dad Grant (John Corbett) arranges for them to spend some quality time together on a glass bottom boat shark tour, where they’ll be able to see some great white sharks, which doesn’t really seem like the best parenting idea to me, thrusting two daughters together who really don’t like each other, but of course, this is a shark movie, so you know where this one is going. They’re going to have to put aside their differences once their lives are on the line.

Anyway, they don’t ever go on the tour because Sasha’s friends Alexa (Brianne Tju) and Nicole (Sistine Rose Stallone) show up to whisk them away on a private swimming date. For a moment I thought Sasha was going to ditch Mia, but at least she agrees to take her sister along.

The girls go swimming in a beautiful secluded area, which just so happens to be where Mia and Sasha’s dad has been diving and exploring some ancient underwater caves, as he is busy discovering an underwater city. The girls decide to dive there and explore the underwater city themselves, only for a few minutes.

But things go awry when they discover that inhabiting the underground city are a bunch of s-s-sharks!!! The rest of the film follows the girls as they have to battle the sharks as they try to find their way out of the underwater city.

In spite of this being yet another shark movie and a sequel, there was a lot in 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED that I actually liked. The underwater scenes in the submerged city are done very well. Director Johannes Roberts gives this one a claustrophobic feel with lots of attention given to confined spaces and dark narrow tunnels. The camera stays in tight as the characters navigate through the confining underwater caves.  Roberts also directed the first 47 METERS DOWN. I guess he likes shark movies.

Speaking of sharks, the shark scenes here were definitely scary. I thought they were handled better here than in the first movie. The fact that the girls are fighting off the sharks in underwater caves helps, and these just aren’t any sharks. Since they’ve been living in darkness for ages, they’re blind. So, if you’re real quiet, they won’t be able to find you. Hmm. Where have I heard this plot point before? (Hello A QUIET PLACE [2018], as well as DON’T BREATHE [2016]). Trouble is, for some reason, the girls are anything but quiet. They constantly make noise, and as a result, they are constantly under attack.

But that being said, the shark scenes are quite effective and provide the film with lots of tense moments.

Working against the movie is its poor pacing. With its brisk 89 minute running time, I wouldn’t call it a slow-paced movie, but it also has no sense of urgency. It doesn’t use pace to its advantage, as the film never really builds suspense.

It also goes to the well once too often, and its conclusion is nothing short of ludicrous.

The screenplay by Ernest Riera and director Johannes Roberts creates likable characters with the four teenagers and puts them in a dire situation, but it doesn’t do anything above and beyond to make this one stand out. And as I said, the ending is completely unbelievable.

The acting is fine. All four main actors do a serviceable job, Sophie Nelisse as Mia, Corinne Fox as Sasha, Brianne Tju as Alexa, and Sistine Rose Stallone as Nicole. Stallone is Sylvester Stallone’s daughter, and this is her film debut.

The sharks don’t actually look that bad, but they’re not great either. They’re helped by the fact that most of the time they’re seen in the darkness of the underwater caves. Still, I’ve yet to be impressed by a CGI created shark.

Since the bulk of this film takes place in confined spaces, it reminded me somewhat of this year’s earlier release CRAWL (2019) about a daughter and her father terrorized in the flooding basement of their home by hungry alligators during a monstrous hurricane. I liked CRAWL better. For one, it wasn’t about sharks, and it also told a more compelling story and featured stronger acting.

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED will barely register on the shark movie meter, but judged on its own merits, it’s really not half bad and does provide a decent amount of shark scares in a dark claustrophobic setting of underwater caves.

You can do a lot worse, so if you like shark movies, you may want to check out 47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED. Otherwise, don’t take the bait.

—-END—

 

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956)

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Hey, good lookin!

Huh, me? Are you talking to me?

If you are, you best mean what you say. The Gill Man is not known for having thick scales—er, skin.  And yes that is the Gill Man in the photo above, otherwise known as the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

We all know the iconic look of the Creature From the Black Lagoon, one of Universal’s classic monsters, but in the photo above, that ain’t it!  And that’s because in the third and final Creature movie, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956),  a group of scientists perform surgery on the creature, in a misguided attempt to make him more human.

There are three Creature From the Black Lagoon movies. The first and the best, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), was followed by two sequels, which while not as good as the original, were highly entertaining in their own right, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956).

The most memorable part of the third film is that the Creature’s look changes in the second half of the film, as seen in the photo above, and that’s because evil scientist William Barton (Jeff Morrow) attempts to change the Gill Man into an air breather for reasons which never make much sense, but that’s okay. After all, he’s an evil scientist. He’s not supposed to make sense.

The surgery also seems to give the Creature some bulk, and that’s because after the surgery, the gill man was played by the very large Don Megowan. And if you want to see Megowan without the Gil Man make-up you can check out the neat chiller THE WEREWOLF (1956) in which Megowan played the hero, the town sheriff. Anyway, this new gill man on land is a hulking figure who appears much more monstrous in size than when we saw him underwater.

I like all three CREATURE movies, and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US is probably my least favorite of the three, mostly because I prefer the classic underwater Creature. That being said, the on-land Creature is certainly scary looking, and I wouldn’t want to bump into him while walking along the beach at night, that’s for sure!

And while the Creature never perishes on-screen, it’s assumed that he finally dies at the end of THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, because the film ends with the Creature returning to the ocean, only now he doesn’t have gills anymore, and so most likely he will drown.

Then again, the Creature is not stupid. For all we know, rather than drowning, he simply turned around and came back ashore.

But where did he go afterwards, you ask?

For the answer to that question, let’s turn to the fictional side of this otherwise nonfiction article:

There are a number of theories. Rumor has it that he settled in the woods of North America and started the Bigfoot craze. Others believe he went on to enjoy a successful career as a Hollywood stuntman. And still others believe he simply settled down and opened his own seafood restaurant, Gillman’s Fish and Chips Shack.

Whatever his fate, he was never seen on the big screen again, and that’s no fiction!

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: TARANTULA (1955)

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Don’t you just love furry little critters like— tarantulas?  No?  Find them a bit scary and repulsive, do you?  Well, then you’ll just cringe at the colossal star of Universal’s TARANTULA (1955), a spider so big it can step on a house!

TARANTULA is one of the best giant monster movies from the 1950s.  It’s certainly the finest one produced by Universal Studios.

Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) is called to the coroner’s office in the small town of Desert Rock, Arizona, by his friend Sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva) to investigate the death of a man found in the desert.  The victim resembles a man they know, Eric Jacobs, but his facial features are swollen and contorted.  Hastings believes Jacobs’ symptoms resemble the disease acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland, but this doesn’t make sense to Hastings since the disease takes years to develop and Jacobs wasn’t showing any symptoms just days before.

When Jacobs’ employer, the eminent Professor Gerald Deemer, (Leo G. Carroll), arrives, he insists that Jacobs was indeed suffering from acromegaly, and he refuses to allow an autopsy on the body.  This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Hastings, who finds the diagnosis wrong, and Deemer’s behavior baffling.

Yep, Deemer is the town’s resident mad scientist, and he lives just outside Desert Rock in a huge mansion, complete with a laboratory full of oversized animals in cages, including a tarantula the size of a dog.  When yet another malformed insane human attacks Professor Deemer, the laboratory is set on fire and destroyed, but not before the tarantula escapes from the house.  This hideous human also injects an unconscious Deemer with some unknown drug, before collapsing and dying himself.

Later, when a new assistant arrives in town to work for Professor Deemer, the beautiful Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), Matt Hastings accompanies her to Deemer’s place, where he learns all about the professor’s research.  Professor Deemer is attempting to stamp out world hunger by using atomic energy to create a “super” food nutrient, which he has injected into various animals, and as a result they have grown in size.  Hmm.  Supersized fried chicken!  Yummy!

Deemer tells Steve and Matt that his lab was destroyed in an accidental fire, and he believes all his caged animals were killed.  He doesn’t realize that his tarantula is free in the desert growing bigger by the minute.  When next seen, the spider is gigantic, the size of a house, and it’s hungry, eating everything in its path, including horses, farms animals, and people.

Eventually, the giant tarantula sets its hairy sights on Desert Rock, and suddenly the town has to scramble to defend itself against the humongous marauding arachnid.

TARANTULA is one of my favorite giant monster movies.  First off, the screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley presents a story that is more creative than most.  There’s more going on in TARANTULA than just the basic “giant bug on the loose” storyline.  There’s all the mystery surrounding Professor Deemer’s research, and the strange misshapen men lumbering in and around his property, which adds some genuine intrigue to the story.  Screenwriter Berkeley also penned the screenplay for two other Universal monster classics, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957).

Director Jack Arnold, who directed several genre movies, including CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), is at the top of his game with TARANTULA.  He creates some memorable scenes.  One of my favorites occurs at night at a farm, when suddenly a group of horses begins to grow very nervous.  In the distance we see a darkened hill, and very slowly, onto that hill from the other side, creeps the massive tarantula.  It’s one hair-raising scene!

Another effective scene has Steve walking back and forth in her bedroom, not noticing the enormous tarantula through her window as it makes its way towards the house.  She doesn’t notice until the beast is on top of the house, literally!

And the tarantula looks terrific, as it’s menacing and scary.  I’m sure the special effects team was helped by the black and white photography, because with shades of light and dark, the tarantula fits into its scenes naturally and realistically.  The special effects team did a phenomenal job in this one.

The make-up on the acromegaly victims was done by Bud Westmore, and it reminds me a lot of the work he did on ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953) and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958), as his monstrous creations in both these movies resemble the folks in the desert in TARANTULA.

There’s also an effective music score by Herman Stein.

The cast is decent enough.  Though I’m not a huge fan of John Agar, his performance in TARANTULA is one of his best. He makes his Dr. Matt Hastings a very likeable fellow, and rarely has he seemed more natural in front of the camera.  I just want to know what he keeps inside his briefcase.  It must be valuable, because young dashing Dr. Hastings doesn’t go anywhere without it, even grabbing it before he runs out the door!

Playing Sheriff Andrews is character actor Nestor Paiva, who appeared in a ton of movies and TV shows over the years.  I’ll always remember him as Lucas, the captain of the Rita in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955).

Leo G. Carroll, another veteran of movies and television, is also very good as Professor Deemer.  Carroll appeared in many Alfred Hitchcock movies, including NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and SPELLBOUND (1945), and he played Alexander Waverly on the 1960s secret agent show THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).

And for added fun, Clint Eastwood appears unbilled in one of his first roles as an air force pilot leading the attack on the tarantula, arriving just in time to save the folks of Desert Rock from the deadly arachnid.

Do you feel lucky, tarantula?”

—END—

(Originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association in July 2012).

 

CRAWL (2019) – Popcorn Horror Movie Has Some Bite

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If you’re looking for a summer popcorn movie with some bite, then look no further than CRAWL (2019), the new horror movie by director Alexandre Aja about two people trapped in the basement of their Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane while being attacked by some unusually aggressive alligators.

As horror movie concepts go, it’s a simple one, but sometimes simple is good, and that’s the case here. CRAWL succeeds in what it sets out to do, in that it provides some entertaining thrills and chills and does it all very efficiently in a nifty 87 minutes.

CRAWL is an interesting juxtaposition from last week’s horror release, MIDSOMMAR (2019). MIDSOMMAR was a meticulously crafted very adult horror tale that worked as a slow burn over its two and a half hour running time, not hitting its audience with jump scares, but rather getting under their skin and disturbing them with its unpleasant story. CRAWL is a much more traditional horror movie. Some will argue that MIDSOMMAR is superior horror, and it is, in terms of the maturity of its script and artisitic style, but in terms of execution, CRAWL is no less its equal. Both films work well, but for different reasons, and at the end of the day there is room for both these types of movies in the horror genre, as long as they are crafted well, and both of these films are.

In CRAWL, competitive swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) gets a phone call from her sister who expresses concern that their dad has not returned her calls. There’s a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on his Florida neighborhood. Haley decides to check in on him, even though her sister warns her against doing so since that would mean she’d be driving into the hurricane, but Haley does it anyway.

At the house, Haley discovers her dad Dave (Barry Pepper) trapped in the basement of their home, cornered by two aggressive alligators that have made their way inside through a storm drain. When she attempts to free him, she finds herself trapped as well, and with the hurricane bearing down upon them, bringing with it rapidly rising waters and brutally devastating winds, they realize they do not have much time before they will be completely underwater, along with those menancing alligators.

And that’s the premise of CRAWL. It’s a simple story but it works, as the concept of this woman and her father fending off alligators during a fierce hurricane is entertaining and thrilling.

There is some back story which helps as well, although the film doesn’t spend much time on it. Haley is a competitive swimmer who’s yet to find the success she’s looking for, and since she was a child, she’s had a chip on her shoulder for not being good enough, and so that element is with her as she fights to save her father. Plus, her father used to be her coach, and so it’s his voice she hears when she pushing herself.

Her parents are recently divorced, and it’s clear Dave is having a tough time of it. It’s why he’s back at the house in the first place, as it’s their family home, and they’re supposed to be selling it, but he doesn’t want to let it go since it contains so many memories.

Kaya Scodelario is very good as Haley, and she has to be, since it’s pretty much just her and Barry Pepper in this one. She makes Haley a likeable character, and you definitely want to see her and her father survive. She also makes for a believable competitive swimmer, and so in some key scenes where she has to pit her speed against the alligators, it works.

Barry Pepper is also likable as her father Dave, and the two make for sympathetic protagonists.

Director Alexandre Aja is no stranger to underwater creature movies as he also directed PIRANHA 3D (2010), a film a lot of people liked, but I did not. I thought that one was pretty bad, as there were a lot of stupid story elements present Not so here, as CRAWL is lean and mean.

The screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen is certainly not going to win any Oscars, but it succeeds in telling a riveting story. There are a few flaws here and there. For example, in general, alligators aren’t that aggressive and rarely attack humans. CRAWL briefly reveals a nest inside the storm drain, and so the implication is that these gators are protecting their young, but the screenplay doesn’t really make this clear.

Also, in addition to Haley and Dave, the family dog is also trapped inside the house. Yet the story barely takes advantage of this, and strangely, the family pooch has little impact. So don’t expect teary-eyed scenes of the dog terrorized by gators or heroic sequences where she tries to protect her owners. She kinda just hangs out away from the action. Lassie, she ain’t!

CRAWL is relatively scary. The idea of being trapped in water with two very large and very hungry alligators lurking around you, that’s pretty scary! The film doesn’t have to work all that hard to earn its chills. That being said, it doesn’t drop the ball either. There are some bloody deaths, as there are lots of alligators in the waters around the house, and unsuspecting looters and law enforcement officers don’t fare all that well here.

The alligators themselves don’t look that bad. I was fearful that the CGI effects would be dreadful. They’re not. Of course it helps that the gators are often seen in murky shadows or undewater, and so it’s easier to hide the animated features. I thought they looked scary enough.

All in all, CRAWL is successful because it keeps its ambitions simple. It knows what it is— a thrilling summertime popcorn horror movie—  and doesn’t pretend to be anything more.

If you like your horror straightforward and compact, you’ll love CRAWL— as long as you don’t mind, of course, sharing these tight confines with two very hungry alligators.

—END—

 

THE MEG (2018) – Giant Shark Tale Ridiculous But Fun

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THE MEG (2018) is often ridiculous and about as scary as a Scooby-Doo cartoon, but this mega shark adventure is also something else: fun.

THE MEG opens with a deep-sea rescue mission gone wrong.  Rescuer Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is in the midst of leading a rescue team to save folks trapped in a damaged nuclear submarine, but when something seems to attack the sub, Jonas makes the executive decision to leave some of his team behind in order to rescue the few lives he has with him. It’s a decision that does not bode well with others on his team, as later no proof of a powerful sea creature which Jonas said was attacking the sub is ever found.

In terms of opening sequences, it’s not all that memorable and sounds more exciting than it actually is.

The action picks up five years later at a deep-sea station off the coast of China where a scientist named Zhang (Winston Chao) is leading an expedition to travel to the very depths of the ocean, and beyond.  See, Zhang believes that at the bottom of what is considered to be one of the deepest parts of the ocean floor, lies a gaseous barrier rather than a solid bottom, and he believes beneath that barrier is another world. And faster than you can say Jules Verne, a mini sub is launched from the station to prove just that.

The sub breaks through the barrier, but before anyone can celebrate, it’s attacked by a mysterious unseen creature. And of course, Zhang and company turn to the one man who has ever attempted a rescue that deep in the ocean, Jonas Taylor. Jonas, of course, says he’s done with all that, wants no part of it, and nothing they can say will change his mind. His resolve lasts all of two seconds before he learns that the woman commanding the sub and one of the people trapped inside is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee).

And so Jonas packs his bags and is off to the rescue, where of course he will come face to face with a massive prehistoric shark which may or may be the same creature which he encountered five years before. The film doesn’t really make that clear.

And this is only the beginning, because once the rescue is done, the mammoth shark decides he’s had enough of living so far below the ocean and comes up for a visit.

One of the main reasons THE MEG is so much fun is its story keeps evolving. It’s not just one long rescue mission tale.  Things continually change. As a result, the movie remains exciting throughout, and with some brisk pacing, there are very few slow parts here.

The screenplay by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber, based on the novel Meg by Steve Alten, also contains lots of lively dialogue which is sure to be a crowd pleaser. It also does a really good job developing its characters, which for a movie like this, is a pleasant surprise. In fact, that was one of my favorite parts of this movie, that its characters were all so likable.

But the story is not without flaws. A lot of things aren’t explained all that well. For instance, once the giant shark makes its presence known, everyone who doubted Jonas apologizes to him. Yet, at one point in the story, Jonas says the creature outside the sub in his doomed mission was destroyed in the subsequent explosion, so, just how the appearance of this prehistoric shark acquits Jonas is unclear to me. Just because there’s a huge shark around now doesn’t mean there was one that day Jonas left those people behind to die.

For such a deep-sea expedition, it seems to take only seconds for everyone to get down to the ocean floor and then back up again. And some of the later shark scenes are flat-out ludicrous but somehow don’t deteriorate into laughable material.

And while the story scores high on the adventure meter, it scores less so when it comes to conflict.  Nearly every plan our heroes suggest works.

Director Jon Turteltaub plays things safe. THE MEG is rated PG-13, so there’s not a drop of blood to be found. Yet, somehow, the movie doesn’t suffer for it.

The shark itself is okay.  CGI sharks just don’t cut it for me.  This one works best when we see it only partially, like shots from above where we see its massive form swimming beneath the waves. Those scenes are ominous, but seen up close, it’s nothing more than a frightening cartoon.

One of the strongest parts of THE MEG is its cast. Pretty much everyone in the movie is very good, and so that goes a long way towards making this film as enjoyable as it is.

Director Jon  Turtelbaub deserves some credit here for getting so much out of his actors in this one.

We’ll start at the top with Jason Statham, who’s been one of my favorite action movie stars over the past ten years or so. As he almost always is, he’s excellent here. He’s extremely believable in the part, except of course when he dives into the water for a hand to hand combat session with the supersized shark. Perhaps he should apply to become a Marvel superhero?

Even so, Statham does a good job making the ludicrous situations he finds himself in believable. His scenes with the little girl at the station, Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cal) are precious, and Shuya Sophia Cal is adorable and entertaining in the role.

Li Bingbing plays Suyin, Zhang’s daughter and Meiying’s mother.  She’s pretty much the lead scientist on the expedition, and she is definitely not a heroine in need of saving. She pretty much goes toe to toe with Statham’s Jonas Taylor, and the two of them lead the charge against the shark. She’s also very sexy.

Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight on THE OFFICE (2005-2013) plays the wealthy businessman who finances the expedition. He’s the guy you love to hate.

Cliff Curtis, who played Travis on FEAR THE WALKING DEAD (2015-17), is very good here as Jonas’ friend Mac. Likewise, Winston Chao is convincing as Zhang, as is Ruby Rose as the sexy engineer Jaxx who designed the deep-sea station.

Robert Taylor stands out as Heller, the doctor at the station who was there that fateful day when Jonas failed to rescue everyone from the nuclear sub, and for the past five years he had blamed Jonas for their deaths, claiming he had become unhinged. When the mega shark appears, Heller is quick to apologize to Jonas. Taylor, who plays Sheriff Walt Longmire on the TV show LONGMIRE (2012-2017), probably gives the best performance in the movie.

Olafur Darri Olafsson and Masi Oka are also very good as a couple of scientists, and likewise Jessica McNamee is memorable as Jonas’ ex-wife Lori.

Only Page Kennedy doesn’t  fare as well, as scientist DJ. He’s the one black character on the crew, and he’s also supposed to be the film’s comic relief, but a lot of the jokes I thought were cliché, and I think the one person of color in the movie deserved a better written role.

As shark movies go, THE MEG is one of the better ones. It’s a much stronger film than the recent 47 METERS DOWN (2017), and more fun than  THE SHALLOWS (2016).

That being said, it still pales in comparison to the Holy Grail of shark movies, JAWS (1975). It’s not intense like JAWS, and it’s certainly not realistic like JAWS. However, during the film’s third act, there are several nods to the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic.

THE MEG is a lot of fun, and as such, for a summer time popcorn movie, it comes highly recommended.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE FUNHOUSE (1981)

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Tobe Hooper, the famed horror movie director who passed away on August 26, 2017 at the age of 74, is mostly known for his classic horror movie, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).  Many horror writers swear by this movie and cite it as their inspiration for entering the genre.

Other fans prefer Hooper’s work on SALEM’S LOT (1979), the chilling made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel.

A smaller group opt for today’s movie, THE FUNHOUSE (1981), Hooper’s entry in the 1980s slasher flick craze, a genre which received a nice kick in the pants with John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).

I’m a sucker for films which take place at amusement parks or carnivals, and so, while THE FUNHOUSE is not my favorite Tobe Hooper film, it does capture what it’s like to be a teenager at a carnival on a sultry summer evening.  The sights, the sounds, and even the smells, as you can easily imagine the aroma of fried foods, hot buttered popcorn, sweet cotton candy, and of course the repugnant stench of full garbage cans, and the occasional sour sting of leftover vomit on the cement pathways.

As a result, THE FUNHOUSE is a guilty pleasure for me.

I mentioned HALLOWEEN, and one of the weaker parts of THE FUNHOUSE is its opening sequence, in which it pretty much copies the opening sequence in HALLOWEEN, complete with the child killer with a knife and the point-of-view shots from the child’s eyes as seen through a Halloween mask.  I’m sure Hooper intended it as an homage, but since this movie came out just three years after HALLOWEEN, it doesn’t come off that way.

This same scene also includes a shower sequence, and so there’s also an obvious nod to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960).  This homage works better than the nod to HALLOWEEN since it’s less derivative.

In THE FUNHOUSE, teen Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) can’t wait to get out of the house, away from her stifling parents, and if you spent five minutes with the folks playing her parents in this movie, you’d want to get out of the house as well!  They sit like zombies watching television and speak in monotones and spew parental clichés when they talk to their daughter.  With these parents, it’s a wonder that Amy isn’t the masked killer in this movie!

Anyway, on this particular summer night, Amy sneaks off with her friends and heads off to the local carnival, even after her father told her she was not allowed to go there, which, of course, is exactly why she decides to go to the carnival.  Well, actually, to her credit, she tries to resist at first, but her friends convince her to go, and she gives in.

At the carnival, since they’re crazy teenagers, they come up with the daring idea to sneak into the funhouse and stay there overnight.  Too bad for them the guy working the ride wearing a Frankenstein mask happens to be a murderous psycho.  It’s going to be a long night, Amy.

So, what was supposed to be a wild night goofing around inside a funhouse turns into a night of terror as this insane monster chases Amy and her friends through the funhouse with the intent of killing them in various nasty ways.

And there you have the plot of THE FUNHOUSE.  As horror movies go, it’s a fun enough story.

That being said, for me, THE FUNHOUSE has always been a poor man’s HALLOWEEN.  It comes off as cheaper, the acting isn’t as good, and the scares are nowhere near as effective, but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to watch, especially on a hot summer night.

One of the more memorable parts of THE FUNHOUSE is the Monster, played by Wayne Doba.  At first, he wears a Frankenstein mask, which is creepy enough, but when he takes his mask off, his face is hideous.  It’s a cool looking make-up job, which is no surprise since the man behind the make-up here is none other than Rick Baker.

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Wayne Doba as the Monster in THE FUNHOUSE (1981).

Actually, the creepiest part of THE FUNHOUSE isn’t the Monster. It’s Kevin Conway’s performance as three different ride operators.  He plays the Freak Show Barker, the Strip Show Barker, and the Funhouse Barker, and he’s effectively unsettling as all three.  He’s really creepy, and the funny thing is, he reminds me of a lot of ride operators I used to see at amusement parks and carnivals when I was a kid.  Yup, there used to be some pretty unsavory looking characters running those rides back in the day.

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“Come on, kiddos.  Ride my ride!  It’s fun!”    Kevin Conway operating a ride in THE FUNHOUSE (1981).

And Conway’s Funhouse Barker gets the most screen time as it’s revealed that he’s the stepfather of the Monster.  How about that for a family portrait!

Also working against THE FUNHOUSE is in spite of its premise, it’s never all that scary. The scare scenes for the most part involve the Monster chasing the teens through the Funhouse which sounds scarier than it actually is.

The best part about THE FUNHOUSE is the way Tobe Hooper captures the essence of a summer time carnival.  That’s the main reason I like to watch this one.

Lawrence Block wrote the screenplay, and the story it tells is compelling enough:  a group of teens spending the night in a creepy funhouse, and it has a frightening looking Monster, but pretty much everything else about this one is rather standard.

Tobe Hooper will be remembered most for his work on THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  But it’s always fun to look beyond an artist’s best or most popular work and look at those projects which weren’t the best things they ever did. It’s how we gain and understand the complete story of the artist.

With that in mind, grab a cotton candy or a candy apple, sneak past that guy wearing a Frankenstein mask, and when no one’s looking, hide.  Now, you’re all set to spend the night inside THE FUNHOUSE.  You’re sure to have a good time.

And with a little luck, you may even survive.

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In Memoriam: TOBE HOOPER

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Acclaimed horror film director Tobe Hooper passed away on August 26, 2017 at the age of 74.

Most known for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), Hooper directed a bunch of horror movies, but none more famous or influential than this 1974 classic.

I know a lot of horror writers who not only swear by THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE but view it as the best horror movie ever made.  While I don’t share this opinion, I agree that it’s certainly one of the most iconic horror movies of all time.

Just as many writers I know choose it as their favorite horror movie.  Others cite it as the movie that inspired them to write horror.  All this attention and love poured onto THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, that’s saying something.

But Tobe Hooper made more horror movies than just THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  Here’s a partial look at Tobe Hooper’s film career:

EGGSHELLS (1969) – Hooper’s first feature-length directorial credit, an allegorical fantasy involving hippies and a big house in the woods.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) – Tobe Hooper’s signature film, and the movie that introduced Leatherface to the world.  Some good old-fashioned fun in Texas when a group of teens run afoul a family of psychopathic cannibals.  Yikes!  Some folks call this the greatest horror movie ever made.  I’m not one of them. Still, it’s classic, iconic horror.

EATEN ALIVE (1976) – Murderous psychopath feeds his victims to his pet crocodile.  Yummy!

SALEM’S LOT (1979) – Hooper’s made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s frightening vampire novel might be my personal favorite Hooper film.  Scary in all the right places, it’s not as good as the novel and is somewhat dated today, but still worth a look.  James Mason steals all his scenes as the evil Mr. Straker.

THE FUNHOUSE (1981) –  a poor man’s HALLOWEEN, this slasher flick which takes place at a carnival is must-see summer viewing, even if at the end of the day, it’s really not all that scary.

POLTERGEIST (1982) – a huge hit back in the day, but not a film I ever liked all that much.  The debate rages on.  Who directed this one?  Hooper or producer Steven Spielberg?  I’ve read compelling evidence that it was Spielberg, and it certainly seems like a Spielberg-directed picture, which is one of the reasons at the time I was lukewarm to it.

LIFEFORCE (1985)- wild, crazy science fiction thriller about a female alien/vampire who spends most of her time naked and killing everyone she encounters.  A truly insane movie which I happen to like a lot.  Somewhat of a cult favorite today.  Written by ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon.

INVADERS FROM MARS (1986) – remake of 1953 science fiction movie of the same name tells the story of a Martian invasion seen through a boy’s eyes.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986)- Hooper’s sequel to his horror classic has never been well received by either fans or critics.

THE MANGLER (1995) – this one’s about a laundry folding machine possessed by a demon.  Stars Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund.

TOOLBOX MURDERS (2004) – Evil inside a historic hotel.

DJINN (2013) – Hooper’s final film.  This time it’s an apartment that’s haunted.

There’s no doubt that Tobe Hooper had an influential career, as I know writers and filmmakers who cite Hooper as inspiring their own horror careers.  I’ve never been a big Tobe Hooper fan, but he did make an impressive number of horror movies.  Regardless of how you feel about his movies, you’d be hard-pressed to watch them and not have a strong reaction to them, which for some folks, is what horror is all about.

Tobe Hooper – January 25, 1943 – August 26, 2017.

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