Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Comedy of Horrors, Part One: The Funniest of the Scary

Although they seem like polar opposites, there are a lot of intrinsic similarities between the genres of horror and comedy.  Both mine their appeal from very basic elements of the human psyche, fear and humor respectively, located at opposite ends of the same spectrum of emotion.  The reason why people enjoy being scared so much (when not actually in any real danger, of course) is because psychologically it provides the same type of excitement as a good laugh.  Naturally, many of the most enjoyable films classified as horror are the ones that manage to achieve that scare factor while simultaneously having a sense of humor about themselves.  The purpose of this year’s Noisepaper Halloween Series is to celebrate those flicks that find their audience laughing just as much as cowering behind squinted eyes.

For this first installment I’d like to focus on what I consider the “funniest scary movies”.  The following are horror films through and through, but have the great benefit of humor thrown in.  They are all rooted in stand-alone scariness, but never at the sacrifice of good fun!

1.  Evil Dead II

Sam Raimi broke new ground in 1981 with the original Evil Dead, but it was 1987’s sequel/remake that established the gold-standard of horror-comedy.  While the original found indirect humor in its over-the-top violence, it was always played straight as a horror film.  The followup retained all of the no-holds-barred terror, but reveled in its ridiculousness to the point of obliterating any barrier between scary and funny.  

A huge contributing factor of course is lead character Ash’s transformation into reluctant action hero.  In the original he is presented as a somewhat dweeby unlikely survivor; but by the halfway point of Evil Dead II he is a chainsaw-armed (literally), one-liner spewing demon killing machine of questionable sanity (but unquestionable awesomeness).  Bruce Campbell carries much of the film all by himself, and provides nearly all of the laughs via slapstick physical acting and hilarious reactions to the incomprehensible horror unfolding around him.  

Although the first film is unnecessary to understand the sequel, it does provide a recommended lead-in.  The first act of Evil Dead II basically re-caps previous events, but wastes no time getting into the real action as the screams, gross-outs and laughs pile up at breakneck pace and never let up.

Greatest Moment:  A mentally-broken Ash laughs manically along with the cabin’s possessed taxidermy.

2.  An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London is the only film on this list that I watched for the first time without realizing that it was a horror/comedy.  At the time I had no idea who director John Landis (of Animal House and Blues Brothers fame) was, and I went in fully expecting a straight-forward monster movie.  As it turns out, An American Werewolf in London plays as if Landis himself didn’t know whether he was making a comedy or a horror film, giving it a quirkiness that somehow benefits both sides of its personality.

As a stand-alone horror movie, American Werewolf.. is an incredibly worthwhile watch.  The vaguely ominous “werewolf country” atmosphere of the moors (which college-aged backpackers David and Jack are warned to avoid by some of horror’s best examples of the ‘gatekeeper’ archetype) is superb, and the legitimately scary initial attack scene pays off with some impressive gore effects- especially by 1981 standards.  From there we are treated to some of the most satisfyingly well-placed jump scares, more gore, and most infamously the incredibly gruesome can’t-look-away transformation sequences.  These qualities alone make American Werewolf an instant classic of the monster movie subgenre, but Landis is just getting started…

What brings An American Werewolf in London to unforeseen heights are the (many) splashes of comedy uneasily juxtaposed against the blood and carnage.  The two leads are entertaining characters from the beginning, but post-death Jack is really one funny dude.  After being killed on the moors, his cadaver makes periodic visits to Dave, dryly warning him that he needs to kill himself to avoid becoming a werewolf.  He still talks like a cocky college guy though, and his matter-of-fact attitude only increases along with the rotting condition of his body.  As a viewer, just like Dave, you don’t know when or where he’s going to show up (or how decayed and mangled he will look this time); but you know he’s going to have the same hopeless message and a snarky wiseass way of delivering it.  His existence at the story’s periphery gives the whole film a vibe that persists throughout, lightening up even the most violent scenes.  

Greatest Moment:  You can pick any of Jack’s visits, but I’m partial to the way that what should have been a super depressing anticlimax is directly thrust irreverently into the upbeat doo-wop of Blue Moon.  Jarring to say the least, in the best possible way.

3.  Re-Animator

In a movie that plays like a macabre roller coaster ride with mad scientist Herbert West at the controls, Re-Animator takes the dark humor of Evil Dead II to absolutely psychotic levels.  In 1985 this film was ahead of its time as a winking tribute to the genre.  The plot is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, which he had written as a parody of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  The theme music is a ramped up take on Psycho’s trembling and screeching strings, and the character of West could have come right out of a comic book.  

That being said, what pulls everything together is that overall this is just a well-executed funny AND scary horror flick.  The characters’ motives become bafflingly dark as the bodies pile up and things spiral out of control into sci-fi weirdness, but the film never goes meta.  The director and audience are laughing, but these characters never realize how hilarious the parade of carnage is- and that is exactly what makes movies like this so much damn fun. 

Greatest Moment:  The "head" sequence...which is indeed everything that it sounds like.

4.  Stitches

Stitches is a relatively little known British-Irish gem that thankfully was brought to a wide audience via God’s gift to movie buffs; AKA the almighty Netflix.  After being harassed by a group of kids during a birthday party performance that ends in his death, Stitches the Clown returns from the grave to unleash karmic vengeance on the now-teenagers that once wronged him. The unabashedly convoluted story of an undead clown out for revenge, Stitches hits all the right notes as a horror-comedy cult classic in the making.  

The horror is of course derived largely from the grotesque imagery of the clown, portrayed by English stand-up comedian Ross Noble.  Clowns are creepy, serial killers are scary; combined they make for a horror goldmine that rarely seems to be done right.  Stitches does it right.  This clown (even before his zombification) is dirty, more than a little bit rough around the edges, of deplorable personality, and oozing with psychotic tendencies.  Upon rising from the grave he drops any facade of harmlessness, becoming a wisecracking slasher unlike anything seen on film since the heyday of Freddy Kreuger.  

Of course clowns are also an age-old icon of comedy, and Noble absolutely carries this film in the laugh department with his killer one-liners and the laughably disturbing glee with which he dispatches his victims.  Despite his rampage of increasingly inventive kills (more on this in a bit), Stitches retains his persona as a bumbling idiot, never making things easy for himself and leading to many opportunities to break out his “fockin’ ‘ell” catchphrase.  And about those kills- good ol’ Stitches takes full advantage of his arsenal of makeshift clownish weaponry, treating the audience to some of the most creative and darkly hilarious death scenes this side of the Final Destination series.  

Greatest Moment:  Without spoiling too much, characters meet their fates via the likes of balloon animals, helium pumps, and ice cream scoops; all callbacks to the ways that they picked on Stitches during the opening birthday party.  My personal favorite is an utterly masterful bang-bang sequence involving a particularly sharp umbrella.   

5.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2

The first sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre got a lot of semi-deserved flack for the complete 180 it took into horror-comedy territory, but really, where was there to go in following such a nihilistic exploitation masterpiece?  To its credit TCM2 pulled zero punches; when the very poster for the film features leatherface and family in a full-on Breakfast Club parody, you know exactly what you’re in for.  

While there is a sense that this sequel intended to capitalize on the huge amount of implied violence of the original, rather than falling into the trap of trying to one-up the disturbing factor (a temptation that this generations regrettable batch of sequels/prequels/reboots succumbed to) TCM2 instead makes caricatures of the cannibalistic Sawyer family; turning them into a band of larger-than-life lunatics.  Nowhere is this better exemplified than the character of Chop-Top, the motormouthed madman cousin of the previous film’s “hitchhiker”, portrayed perfectly by Bill Mosely (using a persona he would go on to revisit in Rob Zombie’s modern throwbacks House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects.)  

What ensues makes, in hindsight, for a bizarre parody of 80’s movie excess.  This is a flick that verges on cornball with its bright colors, elaborate set-pieces, mouthy characters, and of-the-times soundtrack.  The progression of lead character Stretch says it all, as she goes from charming southern belle to helpless victim to badass ‘final girl’.  She even manages to make Leatherface fall in love with her (yes, you read that right) on her way to full-blown anti-heroine status.  Her triumphant chainsaw dance during the final shot isn’t only a callback to the original, it also brings to mind John Bender in an almost too satisfying case of coming full-circle.  

Greatest Moment:  Leatherface’s movie-opening kill to the rockabilly soundtrack of The Cramps is brilliant, but I can’t help but go with Chop-Top’s introduction at the radio station.  Dog will hunt!!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

LOCAL Album Review: The Hussy - Galore

Longtime fixtures of the recently booming garage-punk circuit here in Madison, self-described “trash-rockers” The Hussy deliver what we’ve come to love while simultaneously expanding their sound on the fourth LP Galore (released June 30, 2015).  The most noticeable change is the addition of bass, which the former-duo incorporates through the entire album.  Their stripped-down aesthetic is further bolstered by layers of guitars and effects, percussive elements, and on some tracks creative instrumentation such as violin and lap-steel guitar.  Make no mistake however, this is still a band and a record built on no-bullshit charming scrappiness.  Even while delivering some of their most immediate, hooky material to date, the DEVO-esque cheeky pop is balanced perfectly with an aggressiveness and abrasion reminiscent of early grunge bands like Mudhoney.  Bobby Hussy continues to be one of the more exciting guitar slingers going, with fuzzed-out progressions and a ramshackle (though very proficient) soloing style that cuts through the mix like a lawnmower.  The boy/girl vocal dynamic is also on full display, with impressive harmonies and defiant, carefree lyrics delivered with a grin and a middle finger.  

Galore digs its claws into you right of the bat with standout opener Asking for Too Much.  Acoustic and electric guitars mesh together and Bobby cooly laments from a deep sea of reverb in a track that has all the makings of a garage rock classic.  Things only get better with follower Take You Up.  Bob plays the crooner for two verses, channelling the deep post-punk type of drone of Ian Anderson or Peter Murphy.  Punctuated by a vocal-less chorus centered on guitar interplay, the track finishes with a soaring wall-of-sound bridge. 

Following a very solid pair of snotty punk bangers in EZ/PZ and Made in the Shade, guest musician Justin Aten’s violin takes center stage in the exquisitely somber downtempo dirge Darkness.  What begins as a sparse psychedelic arrangement of delicate guitar arpeggios and Heather’s mellow brooding gets the garage treatment during it’s second half.  Like a breaking wave the track explodes into a noisey whiteout as guitar distortion kicks in and Aten wails away on the violin in such a way reminiscent of John Cale’s viola work with The Velvet Underground.  All the while the detached monotone vocals continue, washed all but out of the mix as Galore’s side one comes to a shoegazing close.

With such a high standard set by Galore’s first side, side two tends to sag a bit as repetition sets in.  Several tracks have the feel of a band that is still struggling to capture the intensity and passion of their live performance in a way that makes for a consistently satisfying at-home listening experience.  These tracks ride purely on the guitar work, and for the most part Bobby makes it happen with an absolutely in-the-pocket performance.  Through memorable riffs and volatile soloing, he commands his distorted, livewire sound like a rock n’ roll cowboy wrangling a mad stallion.  J Mascis is the very apparent influence on his style, and there is no doubt that this display would earn a nod of approval from the legendary Dinosaur Jr frontman. 

Closing track My Bad plays like a Vivian Girls-esque neo-shoegaze as Heather’s ethereal vocals float delicately over a raging sea of feedback and distortion.  The album ends with noisey psychedelic freakout that features Bobby’s most extensive soloing before gradually giving way to pure static.  It makes for a grinding finish, but fits the album’s tone awesomely.   

Overall Galore sees The Hussy craft an incredibly listenable record that not only maintains but builds upon their established identity as a band.  Some of the more straight-forward numbers leave a bit to be desired, but at its best the album delivers brilliantly ragged psychedelia without any sense of indulgence or pretension.  It isn’t until the final track that any song hits the three minute mark, but every song is packed with dense instrumentation and production that absolutely hits its mark as almost a grungy version of Pet Sounds.  Galore is not only satisfying for those familiar with the band, but has the authenticity and execution of an album that any rock fan can appreciate.  This is the kind of record that you immediately put on a second time, while you anxiously wait to see what the band does next.

To purchase your copy of Galore, swing by Mad City Music Exchange or visit Southpaw Records

*Catch The Hussy on night two of TurkeyFest; Saturday October 24 at Crystal Corner, as they play their first show back in the states following an extensive European tour!!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Throwback Track of the Week: Melvins - Revolve

Grunge pioneers the Melvins built their legacy on defying all preconceptions of what a metal band is.  They are fronted by a big dude with a ridiculous afro, their album covers feature the likes of swans and fruit baskets, and their love for all things absurd absolutely shows itself in the music.  The riffing is as good as you’ll hear anywhere and the heaviness is unrelenting, but everything has to trudge its way through knee-deep sludge. 

On 1994’s album Stoner Witch, they deliver their take on straight up classic rock with Revolve, which sees them at their most melodic and accessible.  The weirdness is still there; with lyrics that hardly make sense when they are even intelligible and an unforeseeable downtempo, whispered bridge section; but overall this thing just flat out ROCKS.  A dynamic start-stop rhythm opens things up for some gnarly riffing, the chorus is nothing short of gargantuan, and the guitar solo is well placed and one of their best executed.  As things lead into the aforementioned bridge it’s hard to not crack a smile at how satisfyingly overblown it all is.

Of course at the center of it all (particularly in the video- see below) is notoriously irreverent frontman Buzz Osbourne.  Despite never seeming to really try, and proudly relying on seeing what he can “get away with”, by this point he had truly become (and continues to be) a master of his domain.  On Revolve he employs phrasing and a vocal delivery that meshes perfectly with his voice, which serves the bands sound as well as absolutely possible.  Hell, even his persona and physical appearance seems to perfectly accentuate the band’s aesthetic as a whole. 

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