Madison County (2011): A Southern Slasher on the Cheap

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Madison County is a low-budget “slasher” horror film that was filmed in and around Russellville Arkansas. Written and directed by local boy Eric England, the film looks good. The production values are incredibly good, no doubt because England shot the entire film on the Sony Red digital camera.

I’ve written about the Red before in an earlier post: Film-making, the Times they are A-Changing. Monsters (2010). I was most impressed with the ability of the film-makers on Monsters who used the Sony Red exclusively on their film and actually used common software to edit the film in their hotel rooms while on the shoot.

I have no idea whether England did the same, but his film has the same high quality look as Monsters. Also, for a low-budget horror film, the sound is outstanding. Phillip Bladh who was the production sound engineer did a superb job of not “drowning out” the actors with the soundtrack.

My only complaint about the sound was the ADR which sometimes did not completely match the actors when they were speaking. This did not happen often enough to be really noticeable but it did show, perhaps, some of the actors’ inexperience with the whole “looping” process.

The film opens with an homage to Tobe Hooper‘s 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This opening shot told me two things: 1) That the director was a horror fan, and 2)That this film was going to be a ‘cut’ above the rest of its low-budget peers. I was not wrong. While the film received mainly negative reviews when it premiered at the LA Screamfest; Dread Central gave it an overall favourable review with a 3 out of 5 star rating. *Screamfest and Dread Central information courtesy of Wikipedia.*

Uh-oh, wheres old leather face?
Uh-oh, wheres old leather face?

The film follows the story of a group of college kids who are travelling to Madison County to interview the author who wrote an account of a local serial killer.  When they reach the area that the writer lives in, they stop “in town” for directions. They go into the local general store/gas station/diner to get information on the writer.

The lady running the diner tells the kids that the writer doesn’t live there anymore and that local folks don’t care too much for outsiders. One of the funniest lines in the film occurs in this little exchange. One of the boys asks if the whole town suffers from “staring disease” as the full diner’s occupants all stop and stare unabashedly at the group when they enter the premises.

The scene outside and in the diner also seemed to give a nod towards another film dealing with the vagaries of the south and its denizens, Deliverance.

"We don't care much for outsiders here, young man."
“We don’t care much for outsiders here, young man.”

Once the group go off to find the writer, we reach the heart of the story and the action. Nothing too blazingly original here, but England’s choice of location serves the film well and the introduction of a “pig-headed” serial killer (with one eye staring off to the corner of its socket) is a great touch and the actor who played the killer Damien (Nick Principe) does a great job interacting with his victims.

And now that I’ve mentioned one of the actors, here is the entire cast list:

*Courtesy of Wikipedia.*

Despite an ending that was “signposted”, the actual end of the film did surprise me a little as it came from a quarter not entirely expected. This film definitely did not deserve the negative reviews it received, I’ve seen much worse (just in the area of production quality alone, we won’t talk about sound) and in fact watched two films prior to Madison County this evening that were pure unadulterated dross and this  was head and shoulders above these films.

The lead protagonist James is played by another local lad, Colley Bailey; this was his first feature film and he did a passable job. He must be doing something right as he is still working in the industry. The whole cast acquitted themselves admirably on a location that must have been full of ticks, poisonous snakes and spiders and incredibly rocky terrain.

That section of Arkansas has more ornery critters per square inch than most other locations in the US. It also has an overabundance of rocks; ask any farmer. I probably enjoyed the film more than most, because it was filmed in an area just 2 hours away from where I grew up. This “inside” knowledge of the surrounding area increased my viewing pleasure.

My final (and slightly biased) verdict for the film is a 3.5 stars out of 5. Mainly for the pig-headed killer and the excellent production values of the film. I could not find an estimated budget for the film, but I am very willing to bet it was way under the million dollar mark. Yet the film does not look it or sound it. A great popcorn movie of the southern slasher variety.

Body language.
Body language.

Poltergeist (1982): Too Much TV is Bad For You

Watching the Tobe Hooper classic again today, I was struck again about how “anti-television” the film is. The family in the film are your typical middle to upper level income family. They have a television in every room and they all watch the ‘boob tube’ until they fall asleep and the stations stop broadcasting.

*Remember the old days before 24/7 TV?*

The littlest child in the family, five year old Carol Anne (the late Heather O’Rourke), is mesmerised by the static that transmits when a TV channel goes ‘off the air’. Towards the beginning of the film, before the family discover the ‘poltergeist’ that will plague them and their house, Carol Anne is watching the ‘mini’ TV in the kitchen. Face right up to the telly, she’s watching the static. Mom as she passes by says, “Dear you’ll hurt your eyes, don’t watch that.” She then turns the channel so that Carol Anne can watch a ‘proper’ program. A war film.

The film begins with the US National Anthem playing as the station that dad has fallen asleep in front of goes off the air. Static and flashing light from the flickering TV screen dominates the scene. The family dog roams around the house snacking on the bits of food that the family have left scattered about.

Carol Anne wakes up and goes downstairs to the family set that dad has fallen asleep in front of. Sitting right up on top of the static filled flickering screen she begins to talk to it. “I can’t hear you,” She says twice before ‘answering questions’ that are apparently coming from the static transmitting TV.

The rest of the family wake up and the conversation is cut short.

Steve and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams respectively) are a ‘modern’ couple. They are smoking pot while they simultaneously read, watch TV and discuss Carol Anne’s little conversation with the static filled screen.

The arrival of a storm ends with both the younger children sleeping with Mom and Dad. Son Robbie (Oliver Robins) sleeps soundly between his two parents. But Carol Anne is again drawn to the TV’s static filled screen and in the film’s most often repeated line says, “They’re here.” Light shoots out of the television and enters the wall over the sleeping occupants of the bed.

At  the beginning of the film Steve and few cronies are watching football on the family set. Next door neighbour Marty has a remote control television that is on the same frequency as Steve’s. The TV’s channel starts changing from the football game to Mr Rogers. Marty and Steve indulge in a battle of remote’s.

Carole Anne refers to the ‘ghosts’ as the” TV people.”  Later in the film when the ‘ghost-busting’ team film some of the spectral visitors and tell the couple that they will have to publicise their findings. Steve says, “As long as it’s not with 60 Minutes.” Debbie then chimes in with, “Or with Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”  Two very popular American television programs of the time.

The family communicate with Carol Anne through the television in most of the film. And at the end of the film when they flee their house for the relative safety of the local Holiday Inn, Steve removes the hotel room television and puts it unceremoniously on the balcony outside.

The Freelings represent the ‘Hollywood’ ideal of the average American family. Dad has a successful job selling houses for the very estate that they live on. Mom is a ‘stay-at-home’ mother who looks after the youngest Carol Anne. Robbie is the highly imaginative ‘middle child’ and Dana is the oldest. Dana (played by the late Dominique Dunne, who was tragically murdered by her boyfriend just five months after the films release) is a confident teenager who skillfully handles the amorous  attentions of the men who are putting in the family swimming pool.

They even have a few pets. One of which, Tweety the canary, dies at the start of the film only to be replaced with two goldfish. Another favourite line from the film occurs when Diane, upon discovering the dead canary, says, “Damn it Tweety couldn’t you have picked a school day?” The family’s other pet is the snacking dog we met at the start of the film.

Of course being Hollywood’s representation of the ‘all American family’ they love their televisions.

Tobe Hooper (who really never made anything else this good apart from his delightfully scary Texas Chainsaw Massacre) does a great job on this film. Unfortunately because it was written by Steven Spielberg, and produced by him as well, it seems more like a Spielberg film. I kept expecting E.T. and company to appear at any moment at the beginning of the film. The film’s soundtrack is also very ‘Spielberg-ish.’

Some of the special effects are a bit dated and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this film doesn’t get marked for re-imaging in the near future. But despite the apparent ageing of the CG, the film still works. The ‘child eating tree’ still manages to scare quite nicely and that damn clown; the type of toy that a well meaning (or cruel) relative gives children that is guaranteed to creep the kid out for years.

The rotting food, the bathroom mirror and the swimming pool scenes still work brilliantly and don’t require too much suspension of disbelief.

It was only upon viewing the film today that I realised that the, not-so subliminal,  message seemed to be that TV is bad for you. Or rather too much TV is bad for you. Too much in that you sit in front of the glass teat until you fall asleep and the stations all go off the air. This obviously gives any ghostly occupants of the house an entrance into our world.

Of course that was the old days, before twenty-four hour telly. I suppose that if ghosts and ghoulies what to find an entrance into our world via the TV nowadays, they’ll have to wait for a long commercial break.

Maximum Overdrive (1986): Maximum Schlock

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

I still remember getting quite excited when I heard that Stephen King was going to make a film adaptation of one of his own books. Well, the short story Trucks, to be exact, and I also remember thinking, “At last. An adaptation of a King book that won’t deviate wildly from the source, like Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining for example or John Carpenter‘s Christine.

Of course the pinnacle of the most laughable adaptation has to be the abysmal Salem’s Lot by Tobe Hooper.It’s still hard to believe that the same man who brought us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so totally ‘balled up’ Salem’s Lot. I won’t go off on a tangent about the casting or the asinine decision to make Barlow look like Nosferatu.

But the winner of the all-time worst adaptation ever goes to the execrable The Lawnmower Man (1992). This film really didn’t bear even a passing resemblance to the short story it was adapted from.

When you consider the amount of adaptations that have so totally missed the mark it boggles the mind. And apart from the surprisingly good film version of  King’s novella The Mist, most of the film versions of King’s books have, in a word, sucked.

I will not get into a discussion of how ‘good’ Kubrick’s The Shining worked as a horror film. There’s no question that the film was good, but the casting alone (which worked for the film) was a polar opposite of the characters that King created. This changed the feel of the story so much that Kubrick could have changed the names of the characters and the film. Saving the studio the money spent on movie rights to the book.

I also won’t allow myself to waste time on the old argument of, “But King’s books are so cinematic! How can they be hard to transfer to film?” We all know that there are a lot of things that just don’t transfer well, character’s thoughts for instance. Perhaps the best example is from The Shining itself and those problematic hedge animals.

As for Maximum Overdrive with it’s AC/DC soundtrack and it’s slightly schlocky script, I will stand right up and say I liked it. When I found out that King was such a novice that he did things that didn’t follow cinematic rules, I loved it. Because the film still works. And yes, I know that King himself has admitted that he was so strung out on coke that he doesn’t really remember much about filming it. In answer to that I will trot out the highly popular movie ‘The Blues Brothers.’ If there was anyone out of the entire cast and crew who weren’t strung out on coke, I’ll eat my metaphorical celluloid hat.

The film looks like it sounds; bright, harsh, shiny and metallic. In fact the cinematography ‘looks’ like it was filmed in the 1970’s. I don’t know who had the final edit, but overall the film fits together well enough and it is entertaining despite what the nay-sayers will tell you.

The plot is pretty straight forward. The earth passes through the tail of an comet and all mechanical and electrical machines develop a mind of their own and turn against their makers. The results are a brilliant mixture of hilarity, (King, in a cameo at the beginning of the film, is called an asshole by an ATM machine) black humour and irony.

Stephen King, Maximum Overdrive (1986)

A group of disparate people get trapped in a truck stop  and are forced to work as slaves to the various vehicles that stop to be re-fuelled. Stalwart character actor Pat Hingle plays a suitably nasty bit of work who employs ex-cons at slave wages to increase his profit margins at the truck stop. Emilio Estevez plays the latest jail-bird who works for Hingle and who has big enough cojones to fight his opportunist boss every step of the way.

The acting jewel in the crown though is Lisa Simpson herself, Yeardley Smith. Smith’s distinctive voice and her diminutive stature has always been a comic attribute and her performance in Overdrive is both comic and a little touching.

The film did pretty good upon it’s release, although arguably it was  probably down to the fact that ‘maestro of horror’ King was the helmsman of it. But the film is darkly humorous. It is more interesting to note that even the original author had to deviate a bit from his own ‘cinematic’ short story.

Although the film garnered two Razzie award nominations for worst actor (Estevez) and worst director, King did a pretty good job, coked out or not. It would be interesting to see how a King directed film would fare now since he’s conquered all his personal demons. King himself has stated that he wouldn’t mind trying it (directing) again.

Like I said, I love the film. Just the novelty value of it being a  “King does King” vehicle (if you’ll pardon the pun) makes it special and worth a look. If you manage to catch it on late night television or stumble across it in a sale bin at your local DVD store give it a try. It will at least make you chuckle and might even make you think a little about machines and their effect on us.

I will happily admit that it’s the only time that a ‘Green Goblin’ outside of the Spiderman universe kind of freaked me out. I still think the HAPpY ToYZ truck is a little scary, how about you?

Maximum Overdrive (1986)