The cleverest moments in Chernobyl Diaries come early: scenes of young American tourists enjoying the sites of London, France, and eventually Russia as seen through the digital camera recording them. But director Bradley Parker and scripter Oren Peli are just teasing us. This isn't, thankfully, a through-the-lens or found footage movie, although more professionally handled handheld cameras do follow the six Americans as they head to Prypiat, the ghost city near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Their tour guide is Uri, a beefy entrepenuer with special forces training, offering "extreme" tours through the abandoned, desolate buildings and less radioactive areas of ground. The cleverness stops somewhere between their boarding of Uri's rundown van and a little after its breakdown as night approaches, leaving them stranded in Prypiat.
Given this real and eerie environment, suspense builds for us while concerns mount for Uri and the six adventurers. Their this-is-cool mood, filled with playful banter and a few false-start scares that leave them acting giddy, filled with the sense of doing something special and naughty--like American youth traveling abroad, in horror movies anyway, are supposed to act--changes to recriminations, fears, and blame-gaming. The change is on a dime, so it surprises me; where do all these pent-up feelings come from? Not from the script: it doesn't pinch harder than necessary to line up the usual suspects for this phase of the movie, shifting everyone into last-one-standing mode.
Uri pulls a handy gun from the glove compartment as stray sounds and vicious, starving, dogs frazzle nerves. I would have put my money on Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) to bring this story up a few notches. He looks tough, acts tough, and is built like a brick wall. Perhaps it was too much to expect that the story would break out of the mold for parts unknown, but Uri, the biggest and baddest of the group is still written out early, leaving six bickering, frightened, American numbnuts to go find him or, at least, his gun while they figure out what to do next.
It's the figuring part that wears this movie like yesterday's fashion (which admittedly, for the majority of the horror movie industry, is worn everyday); shaky-blur "found footage" of an attack on the van; darkened interiors punctuated by flashlights to disorient us and tease at possible terrors lurking outside the light; phantom assailants we never see clearly, and a lot of screaming, shouting, and running away from them, leading deeper into ever tighter passageways, a maze of claustrophic, bunker-like rooms, and the Chernobyl Power Plant, still hot with radiactivity. If you've ever screamed through a haunt attraction with your friends (or a bunch of strangers), the overall effect is similar to watching Chris (Jesse McCartney), Michael (Nathan Phillips), Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), Zoe (Ingrid Berdol), Amanda (Devin Kelley), and Natalie (Olivia Dudley) be terrorized, although more usually happens in the haunt attraction.
Chernobyl Diaries is well acted, atmospheric, loaded with promise, but leaves a bland taste. Some people will find some scares (or recognize them from the trailer), but seasoned horror fans will find a well-worn roadmap to boredom with too few interesting stops along the way.
Director Brian Corder was kind enough to chat about his film Carnies, which follows the denizens of the Knuckles Brothers Show and their travails as a sinister force stalks the midway, leaving a bloody trail of "crumpled, torn, soulless bodies in its wake." With a talented cast that includes Reggie Bannister, Doug Jones, and Denise Gossett in a setting that automatically screams 'creepy'.
Carnies is set in the 1930s. What challenges have you experienced in directing the action and characters for a film set in this time period?
Thanks to my wonderfully talented cast, I don't recall a problem with direction when it came to it being a period piece. There is certain Carny terminology, like the words Rangy and Grouch Bag that had to be worked out in prior to the shooting, but it really wasn't any problem.
ZC Note: A grouch bag (circa 1908) was a hidden purse used by a performer to carry money, and was usually strung around the performer's neck. It is reputed that Julius 'Groucho' Marx got his nickname from using one to carry his poker money. BC Note: Rangy or wrangy (rhymes with "tangy") — Worked up, usually in a vulgar sense (possibly a variant of 'randy'). A show could be rangy ( a really 'strong' kootch show), or the patrons might be in a rangy mood (a very hot Saturdaynight, or being able to afford too much beer 'cause it's payday) or a patron may be rangy or ranged up (drunken, disorderly, disruptive, spoiling for a fight). "He's wrangin' the joint" would mean the customer is giving the jointee a very hard time. May also apply to an aggressive animal. From what I understand, the word 'rangy' is derived from the word 'orangutang'.
A peal of thunder echoed outside, followed by a flash of lightning. Rivulets of water started sliding down the narrow windowpanes of the library; a perfect setting in which to view one of cinema’s more outré movies, Freaks. Zombos passed the bottle of claret over to Uncle LaVey, the blackest of the black sheep in Zimba’s family tree, and I inserted the DVD into the player. Dressed in his black shirt and pants, and with his black widow’s peaked hairline and black goatee, he presented quite the look of the Satanist about town.
As we watched the movie I could not help but wonder what Tod Browning and MGM were thinking when they made this movie? Browning definitely wanted to shock and unsettle his audience, and MGM wanted a horror movie that would rival his earlier Dracula success; but what both eventually achieved was an exploitation styled B-movie with flashes of brilliance and disgust that has entertained, insulted, and outraged audiences since 1932. The story of little Hans (Harry Earles) and his futile infatuation with the considerably taller Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), set against the backdrop of the sideshow and its singular denizens, still manages to make one ill at ease upon viewing.
No other movie has embraced the participation of real-life freaks like Browning’s film does here: Prince Randian, the Living Torso; Pete Robinson, the Living Skeleton; Olga Roderick, the Bearded Lady; Martha Morris, the Armless Wonder; Joseph/Josephine, the Half-Man, Half-Woman; the Pinheads; the Hilton Sisters; Johnny Eck, The Half-Boy; Angelo Rossitto (Master in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and the others were well off the bell curve average. While Browning was heading down a less traveled cinematic road with movies like The Unholy Three and The Unknown, his need for showing the unconventional hit its zenith in Freaks.
Taking Tod Robbins’ story Spurs, Browning (who had already used Robbins’ novel The Unholy Three with critical and financial success), weaves a tale of murder and revenge that’s more unsettling and ends more horrifically than its source material. Adding a sexual overtone that undoubtedly offended his ‘normal’ audiences when it first hit theaters, and portraying his actors as regular people with incredible physical characteristics, then unleashing them as demonic angels of vengeance when mistreated, Browning makes you squirm and sweat watching it all unfold.
“Gooble, gobble!” LaVey chanted as the infamous wedding feast scene began. “Zombos, this scene always reminds me of your wedding,” he joked. Zombos was not amused.
Come to think of it, it reminded me of his wedding party, too. How odd.
The wedding scene is the highlight of the movie. It is here Cleopatra humiliates Hans and his friends, thereby sealing her doom. Falling back on his more comfortable silent movie direction skills, Browning even introduces the scene with an intertitle card announcing “The Wedding Feast.” While he may be comfortable, we aren’t as unsettling close-ups of the circus friends enjoying the festivities are juxtaposed with Hans’ growing realization he’s made a mistake. The drunk Cleopatra openly shows her affection for Hercules, the sideshow’s strongman. As Hans sits, humiliated, the oblivious revelers begin chanting “gooble, gobble, gooble, gobble, we accept her, we accept her one of us.” While the chant continues, Angelo Rossitto jumps on the table and passes around a large goblet overflowing with wine so everyone can take a sip from it. Cleopatra looks in horror as the cup comes closer and closer, eventually recoiling in terror as the cup is held up to her. She takes it and yells “No…dirty…slimy freaks!” and tosses the wine into Rossitto’s startled face.
In his book, The Monster Show, David Skal notes the wedding feast was heavily censored, and one particularly interesting element that would have intensified and justified Cleopatra’s horror at drinking from the communal goblet was removed; as the cup is being passed around, some freaks dribble into it. I leave it to you whether this possibly more nauseating visual should have been included.
Foreshadowing the horror to come, Browning uses more close-ups of Rossitto’s scowling face furtively peering into Hans’ wagon, watching Cleopatra slowly poisoning him, and again as he peers into Hercules’ wagon to see her and the muscle man conspiring against Hans. What follows is one of horror cinema’s more memorable series of scenes as Hans’ friends carry out their revenge.
As Tetrollini’s Traveling Circus prepares to get under way during a dark and stormy night (well, it was), we see Johnny Eck scampering beneath the wagons. As lightning and thunder play in the background, the camera follows him making his way to the huddled group of freaks patiently waiting, away from prying eyes, for their moment of reckoning.
With the traveling circus underway in the downpour, we cut to Hans’ wagon, rolling along in the muddy road. His diminutive friends, gathered by his bedside, quietly watch as Cleopatra once again prepares her poisonous medication. Only this time, Hans confronts her, asking for the bottle of poison. She looks down at Hans, then in horror at his friends who quietly pull out their knives to casually clean them. Cleopatra is understandably alarmed and the spoon of poison drops from her numb fingers.
Now cut to mighty Hercules who is also having a bad night. A knife flashes through the dark and slides into his side, bringing him down to the muddy road, down to their level, where he is relentlessly pursued by a swarm of freaks crawling through the mud and rain, brandishing weapons. The scene is nightmarish. I wonder how much audiences in Browning’s day squirmed in their seats watching it. The ending that was intended, but not used, has Hercules survive, but speaking with a much higher voice. You can draw your own conclusions.
Now back to Cleopatra: her wagon overturns and she briefly escapes the little demons by running into the nearby woods. We see her screaming one last time as they close in on her.
The original ending had a tree struck by lightning fall on her, crushing her legs, and the freaks swarming over her prostrate form to exact their hideous revenge. As shown in the final movie, after her scream we immediately move ahead in time to a sideshow where she appears horribly disfigured as one of the freak attractions. Dressed in a humiliating bird costume and unable to speak, she can only utter unintelligible sounds. The once proud and beautifully statuesque Cleopatra is now a hideous mute freak with a shattered mind and body.
As the movie ended, Zimba returned to snatch Uncle LaVey away. Zombos and I breathed a sigh of relief. Returning to our claret, we pondered the vagaries of moviemaking, and how a daring director got a major studio to produce one of the oddest classics of horror cinema. Forgotten for a very long time and almost lost to us, it was given new life and much needed recognition in the 1960s by photographer Diane Arbus’ successful efforts to bring it to the attention of the cinema art-house crowds.
So we can always remember that “But for an accident at birth, you might be as they are.”
Zombos Says: Very Good
Director Tobe Hooper, who did the unsettling Dance of the Dead episode for Masters of Horror on Showtime, as well as the family classic, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—insane family, that is—presents a not so pretty picture of carnival life, and a somewhat pathetic, definitely homicidal, disfigured monster with a penchant for temper tantrums.
The opening of the movie is a nod to Halloween and Psycho, and from there builds into a creepy story revolving around teen lust, sleazy carnival characters, and a ‘man-made monster that has needs like everyone else, but simply cannot satisfy them in more socially acceptable ways. A fascinating subtext running through the story is that it is a variation on the tragedy of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Here, the monster is one born of genetic mutation, as foreshadowed by the Freak Animals Alive tent exhibit, where the fetal brother of the monster floats in a jar as an abominable attraction for the hoi polloi.
In the movie’s opening sequence, the Frankenstein Monster is shown, first as a poster showing the Glenn Strange characterization (my favorite!), and then as a Mego doll—oh sorry, action figure—carried by the young Joey, whose sister soon curses him because of his bizarre prank that scares the wits out of her. Joey’s actions are also another subtext running through the movie: he dons a mask to become a monster that frightens his sister, and the actual monster wears a Frankenstein Monster mask to become less frightening to others.
It’s interesting to note that, unlike the current spate of horror movies that feature eye (popping)-candy and little else, in this movie the characters are presented with choices, yet consistently make the wrong ones. And as we all know, in a horror movie when you make the wrong choices someone—or more likely everyone—winds up dead.
Amy, Buzz, Liz, Ritchie, and Joey consistently make the wrong choices, and suffer the dire consequences. In the tale of Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation, wrong choices led to death and disaster; at least here we have the funhouse; iconic abode for numerous urban legends and rustic tales told over and over again around camp fires and sleep-over parties.
The funhouse is surrounded by the carnival, a seedy, grimy affair filled with seedy and grimy denizens. There is a bag lady that looks very much like Grandmama from the Addams Family spouting “god is watching you!;” a homeless man that wanders around like a zombie from Night of the Living Dead; a few bums; the past-her-prime fortuneteller and palm reader (Sylvia Miles); and the not so magnificent Marco the Magician and the carny barkers (three of them played by Kevin Conway as if he were a natural).
Properly toned by John Beal’s score and Andrew Lazlo’s moody cinematography, the loud and brightly lit carnival facade hides a darker, more primitive underbelly of murderous anarchy, repressed emotions, and dark secrets, with the funhouse as its nexus. Hooper’s use of two tracking crane shots, one at the beginning and one at the ending of the mayhem, emphasize this emanation of evil flowing first toward the funhouse, and then outwardly from it.
Our hapless group of victim fodder soon regrets their decision to stay the night in the funhouse, and Joey soon regrets sneaking out from his bedroom—down the trusty-trellis-by-the-window to visit the carnival. We also learn that the father of the monster has regrets about letting it live, in a scene that contains a wealth of hinted at backstory. Because of his decision he must share responsibility for its murderous actions, just like Dr. Frankenstein must share responsibility for his Monster’s subsequent actions.
Priming the coming mayhem, the fun-seeking and frisky teens decide to spend a night in the funhouse after closing time, and after the requisite fun-that-must-be punished-for scenes, they witness a murder, and promptly wind up stepping deeper and deeper into a big pile of no return. One of them makes another spur-of-the-moment bad decision, letting the wrong people learn about their presence in the locked funhouse. Scenes of carnage follow as one by one the teens meet their untimely and grisly death in 1980s horror fashion.
A particularly harrowing moment has our heroine calling to her parents through a large, wildly-spinning exhaust fan, but of course they can’t hear her because she is too far away—in the funhouse, where they specifically told her not to go. But they aren’t there for her; they are looking for their errant son Joey, who also disobeyed them. People who disobey or don’t listen or don’t read signs well in horror movies suffer dire consequences for their actions, and little Joey is no exception. His parents meet the shady and perhaps too-interested carnival handyman that found Joey sneaking around the tents. His actions are never quite clear, and Joey is strangely out of it so we never really know what happened between him and the handyman, but whatever it is it's hinting at unsavory.
The climactic confrontation in the mechanical belly of the funhouse is suitably horrific yet uses little gore, and unlike the requisite sequelization-antics of many fright movies today provides a definitive and satisfying closure.
Unlike the simplistic snuff-horror by the numbers approach in today’s movies, The Funhouse explores dark themes and provides a story depth that is worth experiencing, along with the thrills and chills.