Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. Why ZOMBIES & SHARKS? Well, those are the two things that I’ve had the most nightmares about. It’s the reason I rarely swim in the ocean. It’s the reason I have an escape plan from my apartment just in case of a zombie apocalypse. Now if you’ve ever had those fears or fears like them, inspired mainly by nights upon nights of watching films of the frightening kind, this is the place for you. Look for AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS every Friday for the foreseeable future, horror hounds, where we’ll be covering horror in all forms; retro, indie, mainstream, old and new.
Well, I hope everyone is recovering from stuffing themselves with food for Thanksgiving. But even though it’s the holiday weekend, AICN HORROR never sleeps! We talk a lot about a lot of scary things here at AICN HORROR, but a true horror is being unleashed upon movie-goers this weekend…BURLESQUE. I know. I know. I can think of nothing more frightening than seeing Christina Aguilera yodel and swerve on stage. Ok, that’s not true, I guess Cher’s tight-as-a-Marine-bunk-bed sheet face is only a tad more frightening. But fear not, horror hounds, I’m always thinking of you and just so you don’t have too many nightmares from the thought of Cher’s puss and Aguilera’s acting, I’ve dug up three horror musicals for you to seek out as alternatives.
PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)
THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001)
REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (2006)
And finally… THERE WILL BE BLOOD (cute version)!
PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974)Directed and written by Brian DePalma
Starring William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, & Gerrit Graham
Retro-review by Ambush Bug
I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of musicals, but when one is good, I have to admit it. Brian DePalma took beats from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, FAUST, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, and THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO and married them in a BIG LOVE style marriage and put it to music and somehow it worked. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is probably my favorite of DePalma’s films. It’s pretty much a flawless mishmash of classic horror set to music.
Winslow is a struggling musician trying to make it big, so he goes to hit music producer Swan with his opera. Swan likes the music, but not Winslow, so he gets the nebbish bard arrested and in a daring escape Winslow suffers an accident in a record press scarring his face and driving the musician mad with revenge. Now Winslow haunts Swan’s rock music hall dubbed The Paradise and longs to see his music sung by the beautiful Phoenix and will murder anyone who gets in the way of making her a star. The story proves to be a relentless Faustian tragedy that surprisingly resonated with me deeply. It’s one of those stories that’s been told before, but with this director and with this cast, and especially with these songs, it all works so well.
How many musicals have you seen where the story is shit, but the music is good or vice versa? Here both are absolutely phenomenal. The soundtrack is written by Swan himself, Paul Williams, and the music proves to be both melodically haunting and lyrically tragic. Sure some of it proves to be a product of its disco era time, but most of the songs are surprisingly beautiful, my favorite being Williams’ shiver-inducing “The Phantom’s Theme”, which you can hear below (though at times the vocals remind me of SOUTH PARK’s Trey Parker). Check it out.
The cast is fantastic. Winslow is played by William Finley (who also appeared in DePalma’s haunting SISTERS) and though he’s not very likable as the whiney musician done wrong, he is absolutely fantastic behind the bird shaped mask of the Phantom. Though his kills are supposed to be comedic, his performance is seething with such intensity and seriousness that it still comes off frightening even when he’s killing someone angrily with a plunger. Another achievement in casting brilliance is placing musician Paul Williams (probably best known for songs like “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song”, “Rainbow Connection”, and “Rainy Days & Mondays”, but I’ll always know him as Little Enos from the SMOKEY & THE BANDIT films) into the role of Swan. He’s literally the Devil in this film, asking for contracts signed in blood. His smug and smarmy demeanor makes him one of horror’s truly memorable and original villains. Rounding out the cast is Phoenix played by Jessica Harper (best known for her starring role in SUSPIRIA) who is absolutely gorgeous and is surprisingly good at singing (although it is obvious she isn’t a pro at flexing the golden pipes). The way the three of these characters dance around with one another is operatic. Swan seduces Phoenix. Swan seduces Winslow. Winslow seduces Phoenix. Phoenix seduces the crowd. In the hands of bigger name actors, this wouldn’t have been so effective, but here, Finley is the born loser turned seething monster, Harper is the hollow eyed muse, and Williams is the devlish imp gleefully manipulating them both.
Many of the tricks one has come to expect from a DePalma film are front and center in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. There’s an over-attention to mechanics and the construction of intricately played out scenes. There’s the split screen communicating the sequence of events occurring all at once. There’s the operatic ending which takes much time to construct and all but moments to destroy. If you’re a DePalma fan, this is pretty much the perfect example of what he can do right. I have a friend who hates DePalma and even he admitted after seeing PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, that it was a good film.
I have nothing but praise to toss toward PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. It’s one of those films I can watch over and over. Though THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW has developed a massive cult following, this is the horror musical that deserves it. If you’ve seen PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, you know what I mean. If not, I’m jealous that you get to experience its brilliance for the first time.
THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001)AKA KATAKURI-KE NO KOFUKU
Directed by Takashi Miike
Written by Ai Kennedy (translation), Kikumi Yamagishi (screenplay)
Starring Kanji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Tetsuro Tanba
Retro-review by Ambush Bug
What do you seek out horror films for? Some for the perverse thrill of seeing others suffer instead of ourselves. Some as a release of tension. Some for fuel for nightmares. Even some look at it as inspiration. I can't say that I've ever walked away from a horror film feeling upbeat and chipper, but I sure did when the credits started rolling for Takashi Miike's masterpiece mash-up of all forms of cinema, THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS. You can say you've seen a boatload of horror films, but until you've seen this one, you definitely haven't seen it all. Miike is one of those filmmakers that make my ears perk whenever I hear about one of his projects. He's been a director known for taking chances and following a path all his own when it comes to characters and the stories he puts them through. AUDITION, ICHI THE KILLER, SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO, GOZU; the list goes on and in each of these films, Miike makes his presence known and you almost always walk away seeing something you have never seen before.
How do I describe THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS?
Well, on the DVD box it describes itself as THE SOUND OF MUSIC meets DAWN OF THE DEAD, and I guess that's about as accurate description as any. THE HAPPINESS OF KATAKURIS is a mix of animation, claymation, and live action. It borrows from horror, family drama, romantic fiction, and musicals. So in any given scene you could have a cute little Japanese girl licking a lollipop, a claymation bird snatching a white angel/demon who makes off with a woman's uvula when she screams upon seeing the angel/demon in her soup bowl, a family happily singing and dancing across a countryside, and a zombie sumo wrestler crushing a Sailor Moon lookalike under his girth. If this juxtaposition of imagery doesn't surprise you, then you are either Takashi Miike or in need of some serious meds.
A multi-generational family is destitute and their main source of income is to take travelers in as lodgers along a worn country road. But things seem to be looking up as a bigger road is going to be made and it runs right past the Katakuri household meaning mo' travellers and mo' money! Of course, folks have a tendency to move into the Katakuri household, but they rarely live past the first night. But it's not the family killing them. The lodgers, for one reason or another, just end up killing themselves or suffering from fatal accidents. Soon the family is doing all they can to stop people from staying at their place to prevent more deaths.
Did I mention this was a musical?
Throughout the entire film, folks bust out into huge singing and dancing numbers. Some of them are catchy, some not so much, but points for Miike pulling this off. If anything, the dance and musical numbers are the highlight of the film. Though the actors clearly are actors and not singers, all of them seem to carry a decent tune. The highlight number is a melodic exchange between the widowed daughter of Papa Kayakuri and a mysterious stranger she meets in a town restaurant. The sequence harkens back to 50's & 60's musicals with the music and dances chosen and showcases Miike's superior range behind the camera.
The use of claymation was the true highlight of the film for me. Remember the scene in I'M GONNA GET YOU SUCKA when the old black lady does the fight sequence and it is clearly a white guy with a moustache wearing an old lady costume doing the flips and punches? Well, think that, except when there is a call for something that requires the actors to do something dangerous, they switch to claymation instead. There's a perilous fight on the side of the cliff that switches from live action to claymation in a beat. The switch is both hilarious and ingenious making up for what looks to be a pretty small budget.
My main problem with this film is that it is somewhat disjointed. Did the angel/demon found in the soup at the beginning of the movie have something to do with the deaths? Maybe. Probably. But it's never really alluded to. Everything sort of just ends in a big dance number without answering many questions and upon asking specific questions about the outcomes of some of the characters, I found myself not knowing how their story ended. There is some kind of resolution in the end and with a title like THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS it's not a shocker that this is a happy ending. But with all of the different genres and scenes Miike squishes together, it serves more as a grab bag of fun and positive energy, where elements of story aren't as important as the fun you have watching the film.
And I challenge folks not to have fun watching THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS. It's the kind of film you see playing in a bar with loud music blaring in the background to make folks scratch their heads and say to their intoxicated friend, "What the fuck is this?" Shit like that thrills me. And so does THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS.
REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (2006)Directed by Darren Lynn Boussman
Written by Darren Smith & Terrance Zdunich (screenplay & play)
Starring Paul Sorvino, Anthony Head, Alexa Vega, Bill Moseley, Terrance Zdunich, & Paris Hilton
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Though REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA doesn’t really live up to the expectations that were unfairly placed upon it (or prematurely touted by its creators as a cult classic) upon its release, it still is a pretty interesting mix of horror, sound, and stage. More than any of our other films featured here today, REPO! actually is the most like BURLESQUE (the reason why I chose this musically horrific theme for today’s column) in that it plays much like a stage play, sports a cast of genre actors, and features a debutante that is often in the spotlight. Though many would prefer to see Aguilera squirm like she’s got a cube of dry ice in her body suit and Cher strain her cheek-skin to crack a smile, I’d rather see Paris Hilton’s face peel off on stage any old day. I don’t know. I’m just weird that way.
REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA is set in the near future, where corporations own everything, including body parts that are loaned out and usually paid off in a timely manner. But if you’re late on a payment, the Repo Men seek you out and remove the loaned out parts forcefully and without anesthetic. This is a nice and somewhat original concept to hang a horror musical on, but the problem with REPO! isn’t in the ideas it has, but with the execution. Much like a lot of goth culture, there’s a lot of interesting things to look at here, but not a lot of substance behind it. Looked at closely, the movie falls apart due to its desire to be edgy and unique. The problem is, as always, when one is trying to be cool, more often than not, you’re going to fail. I think that’s what REPO!’s main problem was—it was trying to be the next big cult hit, but the makers of this film just aren’t in the position to determine that. That duty lies solely on the shoulders of the audience. Had the director and the folks behind it tried as hard to just make a film that was technically and structurally solid instead of trying to be the ROCKY HORROR for the new millennium, I think they would have been onto something.
The other thing REPO! has going against it is that the songs aren’t that great or memorable. I watched it once when it was released and again about an hour ago and for the life of me, I honestly can’t remember one song. I’m not asking for some kind of cheesy jingle like “Memories” or “Music of the Night”, but with the talent behind this film, there should have been some better music. Rag on musicals all you want, but every successful one has at least one song that resonates beyond the stage or screen. When the most memorable song is the one Paris Hilton is singing, there’s a problem here.
But I can’t be too hard on REPO! There are a lot of folks that really hate the film, but I’m not one of them. Darren Lynn Boussman did a really good job of capturing the feeling of a stage play. The set design is fantastic, making the whole movie look pretty massive and imposing. Boussman shows that he can handle a production of this scope pretty well, in that he was trying to create an entire world, and pulled it off. The story may actually play better in the theatre rather than a movie theater as evidenced by the elaborate set pieces and moody scenes. Writers Darren Smith & Terrance Zdunich (Zdunich is also in the middle of writing a fantastic comic book called THE MOLTING which should be sought out by any fan of great graphically illustrated horror) should be commended for taking the road less traveled by not going the traditional route with vampires or zombies. The Repo Men are pretty horrific creatures and the wicked world around them is equally terrifying. Though the plot is often overly complicated with Machiavellian twists and Shakespearian tragedies, the horror basics of it are things we haven’t seen before.
The cast here is filled with genre heroes and obscure treasures, all of them trying their best. Paul Sorvino is given an opera to sing and does so beautifully. Anthony Head and Alexa Vega also do a pretty fantastic job with both acting and vocals. Even Paris Hilton gets to shine in a role where she pretty much plays herself taken to a horrific level. If anything, to see this fantastic cast of genre and obscure actors bounce off of each other is the reason to seek this film out.
REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA is a film I really wanted to love, but only walked away liking. The fantastic cast, the abundance of good ideas and technically interesting set pieces and scenes don’t make up for the fact that it falls short when it all comes together and the songs just didn’t stick with me. Many compared REPO! to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and said it fell short of that film. I’ve never been a big fan of ROCKY HORROR to tell you the truth because it felt like a parody—as if a bunch of folks were laughing at horror rather than with it. At least REPO! embraces horror and for that, I feel it is superior to ROCKY HORROR. But that’s just me. The folks behind REPO! swung for a homerun, and though it didn’t quite make it over the fence, it is a noble effort. For me, you can’t go wrong with PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and though REPO! fails to match that level of awesome and wanted to be a cult classic a bit too much, it has a lot going for it and is worth seeking out.
And finally, I remember seeing THERE WILL BE BLOOD when it first came out, but for the life of me I don’t remember it being this damn cute…Enjoy!
See ya, next week, folks! Find more AICN HORROR including an archive of previous columns on AICN Horror’s Facebook page!
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole / wordslinger / reviewer / co-editor of AICN Comics for over nine years. Support a Bug by checking out his comics (click on the titles for purchasing info)! MUSCLES & FIGHTS VOL.3 & MUSCLES & FRIGHTS VOL.1. VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS: THE TINGLER #1 and #2 (interview, interview, preview, & review). VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS #20 WITCHFINDER GENERAL (preview, review). NANNY & HANK miniseries #1, #2, #3, and #4(interview, interview, interview, preview, & review). Zenescope’s upcoming WONDERLAND ANNUAL 2010. THE DEATHSPORT GAMES miniseries #1, #2, #3, and #4 (in September Previews Order #SEP 100860, in stores in November 2010! Check out THE DEATHSPORT GAMES Facebook Page!).