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Vamp Follower: Kate Beckinsale wards off werewolves in 'Underworld,' opening Sept. 19.

Halloween All the Time

The fall's movie roster reeks of gore and gore sequels

By Richard von Busack

Fall 2003 Arts Guide:
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AFTER LABOR DAY, it's said that the movies get smarter. But the Niagara of money horror movies made this summer argues that fright films aren't going out of style just because the weather's getting colder. Who ever thought Jeepers Creepers 2 would be the No. 1 at the box office? So a goodly number of gut-munchers and skin-rippers pack the theaters all the way past Halloween.

The horror trend may seem like the manifestation of the loathsomest urges of humanity. As a former gorehound, I'd say these movies are rarely as bad as they look. My former interest in grisly, crappy horror was tied to grindhouses, decaying downtown movie theaters, where the lights never went on at intermission, and the movies looked less like they were released and more like they escaped. Many of today's third-rate plexes are grindhouse in utero, complete with rats, roaches and patrons who might get a whim to murder you in the dark.

Still, today's teen-slaughterers are made by big studios and look it. The trend that started with Scream continues to flourish. I remember writing "No sequels, OK?" at the end of the Scream review just because it seemed apparent that Wes Craven's exercise in style could become a formula. When the horror-movie rules--as outlined in Scream--became law, that ended the chance for really outré behavior, narrative strangeness or tragedy interfering with the thrill ride.

In the upcoming Cabin Fever (Sept. 12), which I'm fairly sure will be a hit, flesh-eating bacteria strike a group of snotty college students who really deserve it, so the sight of them disintegrating into bloody mush isn't too hard for the sensitive to bear. The phrase that came to mind was one from Naked Lunch by William Burroughs: "Do you think I am innarested in your disgusting old condition? I am not innarested at all." Director Eli Roth (who worked on David Lynch's films) wrings some hideous laughs out of the subject, but there are a few instances in which pity intrudes in the theme of this movie--turning ordinary horror into something more moving, more serious.

Still, moviegoers in the Wal-Mart-struck areas of America can only see the pressures in their lives reflected in the form of blood baths and unstoppable killers. Supposedly, the ideal Hollywood movie is about likable people with likable problems. The horror movie goes against the ideal, violently, showing disagreeable people who have disgusting things happen to them. No wonder they're popular: it's a break from all the artificial optimism.

Today's horror movie wave goes against the conventional box office wisdom (but "box-office wisdom" is a contradiction in terms, just like jumbo shrimp). Supposedly, during wartime, horror film audiences dwindle. But we have a good-enough war going on, and people are still packing in to see Freddy, Jason and perhaps Leatherface (in what really ought to be the last remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Oct. 17). Does the new popularity of horror have something to do with the peculiar nature of the Iraq war, or is it linked to a bad economy--an escape from the horrors of the day?

In any case, the upcoming months are drenched with horror films. Expect a rerelease of Alien (around Halloween). Soon comes the werewolves vs. vampires picture Underworld (Sept. 19). The previews ask: "Which Side Will You Choose?" I'd choose outside. Outside the theater. Scary Movie 3 delivers a load of Cracked Magazine-level satire, with the usual load of celeb cameos. Suspended Animation (Halloween) tells a heartwarming story of two travelers kept captive by maniac cannibals. Two different haunted-house pictures contend for audiences: Cold Creek Manor (Sept. 19) and the film version of Disneyland's best ride, The Haunted Mansion (Nov. 26).

Not scary enough? For brain-roasting terror--Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath! EEEYYAAAAAAAGGGGGHHH! Unfortunately Freddy Krueger doesn't play Ted Hughes. (The film Sylvia opens Oct. 17; impressionable copycats will hopefully postpone until after Thanksgiving, a big day for ovens nationwide.)

The fall's nonhorror entries include:

Anything Else: Woody Allen's newest: Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci as dysfunctional young lovers in Manhattan. (Sept. 19)

Bad Santa: (Nov. 26) Terry Zwigoff of Ghost World directs a story of a thieving (Billy Bob Thornton) Santa on a rampage. Call it Thanksgiving holiday counterprogramming against Elf (Nov. 7) and The Cat in the Hat (Nov. 21).

Barbarian Invasions: The wise Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal) is the only filmmaker I can name who posits himself as if he were a late Roman writer, seeking philosophical consolation as he watches the decline of Western civilization. Odd that Arcand is the only one who works this specific terrain, considering what an appealing stance it is. Here, the director of The Decline of the American Empire watches a family in crisis. (Late November)

Big Fish: Tim Burton's newest. A dying father (Albert Finney) tells untrustworthy tales of his youth with the circus, as his son (Billy Crudup) listens skeptically. Sounds like something in the Ray Bradbury line, but the source book is by Southern novelist Daniel Wallace. Co-stars Helena Bonham-Carter and Danny DeVito. (Nov. 26)

Bubba Ho-Tep: Bruce "Mr. Incredulous" Campbell of the Evil Dead series plays the one and only Elvis, a king stranded in exile at an old folks' home, facing up to a deadly mummy. (Oct. 10 in San Francisco; other dates locally)

Bus 174: Topnotch Brazilian documentary about the true-life hijacking of a Rio city bus; the aftermath exposed public indifference to the plight of Brazil's street kids. (Oct. 18)

Elephant: Gus Van Sant's follow-up to Gerry is, again, about two people in a wilderness. But this time, the wilderness is a high school, and the two are students planning to take their guns to it. This allusion to Columbine was a high-scorer at Cannes. (Late October)

The Fog of War: Impressionist documentary maker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) examines the life and times of Secretary of Defense--and later penitent--Robert McNamara. (Christmas)

The Human Stain: "Never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own," advised Nelson Algren; Anthony Hopkins plays a professor embroiled in academic trouble who commences an affair with a townie (Nicole Kidman) who has a rabid husband (Ed Harris) lurking about. (Oct. 3)

In the Cut: Meg Ryan plays it raspy as a harsh lit professor who gets wrapped up with a police detective (the reliable Mark Ruffalo). Ryan's a contraindication, but the director is Jane Campion (The Piano), who's never made a boring movie. (Oct. 24 in New York and L.A., later elsewhere)

Intolerable Cruelty: The previews for the new Coen brothers film seem to blow all the surprises, but apparently what's revealed is only the setup: a Preston Sturges-style war between the sexes in a story of a slick divorce lawyer (George Clooney) vs. a rich woman (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has burned through more than one husband. (Oct. 10)

Kill Bill: Volume One: Quentin Tarantino's unquestionably berserk Sonny Chiba-style action picture, with a dangerous bride (Uma Thurman) picking up the bushido blade to avenge herself on an international gang. (Oct. 10)

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is prepared, despite his will, to take the throne of Gondor; meanwhile elves, men and the riders of Rohan assemble for a last stand against the forces of Mordor, at the gates of the White City (which looks derived from Mont St. Michel). The finale to the Lord of the Rings trilogy includes maybe the largest assembly of horsemen ever in a movie, as well as the continuing drama of the travels of one schizophrenic fisher-thing (Andy Serkis) and one hobbit irradiated with the power of the ring (Elijah Wood). (Dec. 17)

Lost in Translation: Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) directs the comedy of the friendship in Tokyo of a bored actor (Bill Murray) and a younger and calmer girl (Scarlett Johansson of Ghost World). (Sept. 19)

Mambo Italiano: Fast, funny, mean and good-looking Montrealaise comedy that's a lot closer to the writing of Paul Rudnick than it is to Kiss Me Guido. A gay Italian guy (Luke Kirby) deals with his closeted lover (Peter Miller, quite the hunk), while his immigrant Sicilian parents (Ginette Reno, Paul Sorvino) do their best to make him miserable. (Sept. 19)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany as Aubrey and Maturin of the Royal Navy in Peter Weir's much-awaited film version of Patrick O'Brien's novels. (Nov. 14)

The Matrix Revolutions: Bad helicopters vs. the omnipotent Keanu Reeves (who seems to be both Superman and Green Lantern at this point) and millions and millions of Hugo Weavings. Eventually, the Wizard (Frank Morgan) turns out not to be terrifying, and Neo, Trinity and Morpheus learn that there's no place like home. Start formulating ideas about why it's not really so bad, why it's only superficially or perhaps deliberately dumb to prove a point about the illusory nature of the world. (Nov. 5)

Mystic River: Tim Robbins plays a once-molested, still-shaken denizen of an insular, poor Irish Boston neighborhood where they never forget a misstep. Sean Penn stars as his former chum, a professional thief. Kevin Bacon turns up as the homicide detective assigned to discover who killed a girl. Clint Eastwood directs from Dennis Lehane's superb novel; the adaptation is by Brian Helgeland, who cracked the problem of filming L.A. Confidential. (Oct. 10)

Pieces of April: Katie Holmes as a Manhattan alterna-girl whose irascible mother (Patricia Clarkson) is perishing of cancer. Bonding ensues. What's Eating Gilbert Grape? director Peter Hedges helmed this Sundance favorite. (Oct. 17)

The School of Rock: Let's agree that Jack Black gives better Belushi than anyone since Belushi; his director here (another plus) is Richard Linklater, of Waking Life, Slackers, etc. Black plays a rock musician by night and substitute teacher by day who manages to mix both job and avocation. (Oct. 3)

The Singing Detective: The remake of the legendary BBC series by Dennis Potter, as directed by the intelligent Keith Gordon. Robert Downey Jr. plays the playwright immobilized by a skin condition, who imagines himself as a hard-boiled denizen of the world of film noir. (Oct. 24)

21 Grams: The title refers to the legend that a dead body weighs (minus the soul) 21 grams less than a live one. Like director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu's previous film, Amores Perros, this is an episodic drama of different lives connected by fate; cast includes Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Clea DuVall and Benicio Del Toro. (Nov. 14)

Under the Tuscan Sun: Ex-San Fran scriptwriter turned director Audrey Wells did The Truth About Cats and Dogs, as well as the Stephen Rea/Sarah Polley romance Guinevere (problematic, but a huge step up from Truth ...). This is Wells' adaptation of S.F. author Frances Mayes' memoir about the impulsive purchase of a falling-down villa. Stars the watchable Diane Lane and the underused Canadian actress Sandra Oh. (Sept 26.)

For people who remember a better time, this fall, the Castro Theatre and the Pacific Film Archives are hosting a 12-film series by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. With long takes and unparalleled sensitivity, Ozu (1903-63) crafted acute dramas about the crumbling of Tokyo families after World War II. And India's Satyajit Ray is slated for a two-dozen retrospective at the Stanford Theater this fall.

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From the September 11-17, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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