Ha ha!

You just never know what he'll review next!

Thursday 12 October 2023

Burl reviews Dark Night of the Scarecrow! (1981)

With a rustle of straw, it’s Burl, here to talk to you all about killer scarecrows! Ha ha, we’ve seen them before in pictures like Scarecrows of course, and everyone remembers the eerie dancing man o’ straw from The Wizard of Oz, but still, when you bring up the subject, everyone’s mind will instantly conjure up images from a television movie more than forty years old – ha ha, yes, I’m talking about Dark Night of the Scarecrow!

The teleplot is simplicity itself! Our setting is a small town in what I believe is meant to be the American South, although it’s patently California! Bubba, a jolly but soft-brained man played by Larry Drake from Darkman and For Keeps?, is playing in the fields with his friend Marylee, a ten year-old girl! Watching from the sidelines is venal postie Otis Hazlerigg, essayed with narrow eyes by Charles Durning from Stick and The Hudsucker Proxy! Otis impugns all sorts of unsavoury motives onto Bubba, but of course he’s projecting in the Bell & Howell style, and in fact the friendship between Bubba and Marylee is completely innocent!

The next thing you know the little girl is attacked by a yard dog and Bubba bursts in through the fence to save her, but initially he gets blamed for her injuries anyway, even though he protests that BUBBA DIDN’T DO IT! Otis rounds up a posse made up of good old boys like Harliss, played by Lane Smith from Night Game; Skeeter, who is Robert F. Lyons from Death Wish II and 10 to Midnight and other Bronsonfests; and Philby, essayed by Claude Earl Jones from I Wanna Hold Your Hand! (Ha ha, somehow I don’t think Claude is a part of the great Earl Jones acting dynasty, but as we know from pictures like A Family Thing, I may well be wrong!) The posse discovers Bubba hiding in a scarecrow and shoots the poor man to death, just before it’s revealed to them that he wasn’t only harmless but a hero for saving the girl!

Well, this hateful lynch mob is instantly acquitted in a highly unbelievable courtroom scene, and soon after this, the scarecrow vengeance begins! The stuffed anthropomorph appears in Harliss’s field and that night the beer-swilling redneck is chawed in his own wood chipper! It next shows up in Philby’s acreage and soon he’s found in his silo, drowned in grain! Panicky Skeeter gets a graveyard klonking from Otis, and there’s a pumpkin-crushing, pitchfork-poking climax wherein we discover that indeed it’s Bubba’s spirit inhabiting the scarecrow that’s behind all this vengeance! And a good thing, too – ha ha, what a disappointment if the killer had turned out to be a more corporeal presence, like the D.A., or the little girl, or Bubba’s rightfully angry mama, who’s played by Jocelyn Brando, older sister to Marlon!

Of course Drake played other soft-brained men in his acting career, most notably on the law show I never watched; and he also played a character called Bubba in his very first film role, in Herschell Gordon Lewis’s hicksploitation drama This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! He was a good actor, and he does fine work here – ha ha, he's a little broad here and there perhaps, but never unrealistic! And Durning is good too – he can play the most avuncular guy you ever saw in movies like Tootsie, but he has this way of just squinting a little bit and presto, he instantly looks evil and pædopheliac! Ha ha, and this is no small trick, given that Otis is for some reason always wearing his silly postal service outfit, complete with blue pith helmet!

So the movie has a couple of solid performances and some cornfield atmosphere (though it could have leaned harder into that I think), and there’s a Halloween costume-ball scene, which I always like in a movie – ha ha, remember Primal Rage? But it suffers a bit from a TV movie blandness, from the So-Cal locations, and also from the padding needed to fill it out to the length required of a movie in a two-hour broadcast slot! The affrights were decidedly muted this time around, but since it really did me a spook-up back when I was eleven, I want to give it some residual credit for that! Some added walking scarecrow action might have been effective, but since that one head-turn we get at the end really works, I’m not completely sure where I stand on that! So in the spirit of my somewhat confused and ambivalent feelings, I’m going to give Dark Night of the Scarecrow two flower leis!

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Burl reviews Night of the Living Dead! (1990)


It’s Burl once again with the shambling and the moaning and the munching – yes, it’s zombies all right, and not only that but it’s the same zombies, almost! Yes, last time I reviewed Night of the Living Dead, and now here I am with a review of Night of the Living Dead! Ha ha!

This is the one directed by trick effects makeup man Tom Savini, who did his gory necromancy in pictures from The Burning to The Prowler! Here he’s behind the megaphone and leaving the rubber wrangling to others, and ha ha, did you know what – he did a decent job of it! Like Stan Winston with Pumpkinhead and Tom Burman when he made Meet the Hollowheads, Savini seems to have picked up mostly the right things from being on so many movie sets before taking up the megaphone himself!

Well, it’s the same old story: Barbara and her ever-complaining brother Johnny pull up to the graveyard, a zombie man jumps them, Johnny gets a klonking, and Barbara finds a farmhouse! But this time it’s in color, and Barbara is played by Patricia Tallman from Road House and Army of Darkness, and Johnny is good old Bill Moseley from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2! And when Ben pulls up to the farmhouse, knocking over a zombie along the way and clutching a mighty hayer’s hook like he’s auditioning for Candyman, he’s played by Tony Todd from Enemy Territory!

Again we find cowering in the basement an objectionable slaphead, this time played by Tom Towles from Mad Dog and Glory, and even meaner, barkier and more crazed than the 1968 version! Ha ha, I thought this was a setup for when Ben shoots Cooper, as he did in the original – you know, make Cooper dangerously insane so we don’t consider Ben's action egregious! But that’s not where the movie goes with this particular relationship! And along with Cooper we again have the wife, the ailing daughter, and the young hayseed couple! The lad in this latter duo is played by William Butler from Friday the 13th part VII: The New Blood, and he has about the same luck in both movies!

Aside from being in colour (though Savini’s idea, nixed by unimaginative moneymen I assume, was to start it in monochrome and gradually bring in the colour), the most remarked-upon change from the original is to reconfigure Barbara from a shock-paralyzed nobody to an actual character with agency! This is of course an improvement – one imagines that for Romero, who wrote the screenplay, offering the more badass Barbara was a sort of mea culpa for the wimpy old Barbara in his movie, ha ha! There are other small misdirects for those familiar with the 1968 version, and other welcome changes here and there, especially in the third act! But one thing they’ve kept: the incessant hammering of boards across windows! Ha ha, this update has even more hammering, I think, and it makes the middle act awfully monotonous! I also have to say that the inky, eerie, spookshow atmosphere of the original is almost entirely missing!

Most of the changes are improvements, however, even if they feel fairly strategic! Equally strategic are the things kept pointedly the same, like an appearance by Chilly Billy Cardille as a TV interviewer once again, and the return of the sheriff who says “They’re dead, they’re… all messed up!” (Ha ha, and that new sheriff is played by Russell Streiner, who was Johnny in the original, and was one of the producers of the old one too!) And of course the new movie is gorier than the original, but not as much as you'd think a movie directed by beloved goremeister Savini might be!

Altogether it turned out better than anyone could have expected it would! There’s nothing very organic or sincere about it, and I think it was at least in part a reaction to Return of the Living Dead (or maybe to Return of the Living Dead part II, which had just come out a year or two before), and generally designed to reclaim ownership of the Living Dead brand; but at least it was made by people connected to the original, who were willing and able to put some effort into it! It’s no 1968 Night of the Living Dead, but I’m going to give 1990 Night of the Living Dead two pairs of old man pants!

Thursday 5 October 2023

Burl reviews Night of the Living Dead! (1968)


Ha ha, they’re coming to get you Burlbra! Yes, it’s Burl here, reviewing an influential classic of independent horror cinema! Before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, before Halloween, along came the cheap little horror movie that could, and did, give the world a new idea about where smash-hit movies might come from and what they might be like! So, in glorious black and white, here comes that all-timer Night of the Living Dead!

It’s a movie I’ve seen many times, but I showed it to my son the other day as a part of his general horror education, and was very pleased myself to watch it again! It’s a really solid piece of work, being as it is a low-budget first feature from a little Pittsburgh gang of twentysomethings whose usual line of country was commercials and industrial pictures! They went out into the rural areas on weekends, or into their jerry-built Pittsburgh studio, and made a movie that resembled almost nothing that had come before it! It was gruesome and boundary-pushing and eerie and dark, and entirely of a piece with the times into which it was released: the tail end of a decade of war, assassination, racial unrest, and riot!

Of course the lead beard on the picture (ha ha, before he even had a beard) was George Romero, “creator of the living dead,” as the mall PA system tells us in Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home! Romero later brought us pictures like Creepshow, and of course many further zombie stomps, including Land of the Dead! There’d been zombie pictures before, naturally, but so far as the whole modern walking dead cycle goes, ha ha, this is the wellspring!

We all know the situation and the characters! Barbara and her jerky hip-nerd brother Johnny have driven out to a remote graveyard to visit their father, and Johnny’s complaining and joking around is interrupted by a zombie man, with the net result being Johnny’s head klonked on a tombstone! Well, Barbara is immediately reduced to a shocked jelly, but, shrieking and falling down the whole way, she makes it to a nearby farmhouse, where she sees scary things and meets up with capable Ben, played by Duane Jones! They start boarding up the windows against the gathering ghouls outside - well, Ben mostly, with a little help from the near-catatonic Barbara - and after a lot of banging and nailing it transpires that there are people hiding in the basement: angry, frightened slaphead Cooper, his wife and injured daughter; and a young hayseed couple, Tom and Judy!

There’s a lot of arguing about whether they should stay upstairs or go hide in the basement, and then, during an attempt to gas up a pickup truck as a prelude to fleeing the scene, everything starts to go terribly wrong! Frankly, nobody comes out of the situation in very good shape, and the final, cruel irony of the finale feels monumentally unfair, but also consistent with the mood of both the film and the era! It’s still a real gutpunch, however, and reading Roger Ebert’s account of the weeping and crying children at the 1968 screening he attended – children who’d been dropped off by their parents on the assumption this was another silly childish horror movie – one wonders if it was the flesh-munching and other shocks that so upset them, or the atmosphere and downer ending!

As you’ve surely gleaned, I admire this movie greatly! It’s not perfect: there’s not much respect given to the character of Barbara, who’s just dead weight to the other characters and to the film itself, really! The characterizations in general can’t be called nuanced or profound, although I found the acting to be of a very high quality! Duane Jones in particular is good, and it’s interesting, given the times, that he’s black: this easily could have been a purposeful thing, a political statement from the progressive Romero, but in fact he says that Jones was simply the best actor they knew! This is borne up by his performance, and everyone else is pretty good too, or at least acceptable! This goes a long mile in a low-budget production!

It's rough in spots (which I don’t personally regard as a debit), and the characters occasionally do dumb things, and it probably all seems quaint and silly and overly familiar to today’s zombie-soaked audiences! But it still works for me, and I have every respect for its place in horror history, so I give Night of the Living Dead three and a half keys to the gas pump!