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Moderate spoilers ahead for everything that has aired so far.

Like many others, I remain incredulous that the "Hannibal" television series is airing on a national network. It's not just because of the violence and gore, which appears in copious amounts, but because the series so caters to a specific niche audience. "Hannibal" fans need to appreciate elliptical dialogue, artsy atmospherics, ambiguous plotting, and regular jolts of extreme horror movie imagery. It's so driven by aesthetics at times, you could mistake it for an European art film - except when it's also a sublimely macabre gorefest.

I wasn't all that enamored with the first season, though I appreciated what Bryan Fuller and his collaborators were trying to do with the property. I found the plotting too muddled for my tastes, and many of the characters weren't quite where I wanted them to be. Still, I saw a lot of potential so I came back for the second season, and promptly fell in love. Year Two of "Hannibal" is split up into two parts, the first with Will Graham in a mental institution, trying to clear his name after Dr. Lecter frames him for murder, and the second where Will and Jack Crawford are trying to bait Hannibal into revealing himself. The first half is where Will Graham grows a backbone, taps into the darker part of his psyche, and goes toe to toe with Hannibal in playing mind games. It is also much more tightly and explicitly plotted, with a couple of great twists.

And suddenly "Hannibal" was giving me everything I wanted from the show - lots of visceral thrills and chills without compromising the intellectual bent, and it started developing the major characters in the right directions too. Laurence Fishburne's Jack gets more interesting as he has to weigh Will and Hannibal's claims against each other. As Will becomes more self-aware and bolder in his maneuverings, Hannibal is put on the defensive. Their predator-victim relationship gets much richer and more complex with the two of them on equal psychological footing. Last year I watched the show largely for Mads Mikkelsen's take on Dr. Lecter, but now Hugh Dancy's performance is getting very close to the same level. I especially enjoy the recurring instances of role reversal, where Hannibal gets to play investigator or Will discovers his inner puppetmaster. The arc also makes great use of minor characters like Beverly Katz, Abel Gideon, and especially Dr. Frederick Chilton. Raul Esparza is a joy to watch.

Alas, Will Graham had to be let out of the straitjacket eventually, and the show had to move on to the second half of the season where we meet the Vergers, Margot and Mason, played by Katherine Isabelle and Michael Pitt respectively. There's too much story stuffed into this arc, and not enough time to adequately present it. I really got a kick out of the Vergers, but didn't feel we got nearly enough time with them to get the full impact of their twisted family feud. Will's attempts to entrap Hannibal also felt underserved, with too many pieces of key exposition missing. The final run of episodes wasn't bad in any sense, but it couldn't hope to match up to the intensity of the first half of the year, even with a wonderful finale. I'm hoping that next season fills in some of the gaps, and thank goodness there will be a next season.

"Hannibal" has distinguished itself by happily striking out on its own, borrowing characters, concepts, plot points, and imagery from the Lecter books and films, but being beholden to none of them. Characters have swapped genders, been killed off early, and positioned in different roles. Though the series is following the rough timeline of the books, specific events are ordered differently. Some of the dramatic license gets to be a bit much - there have been at least three fake-out deaths this year, possibly four - but the "Hannibal" creators have clearly become very comfortable with the material and are in a good position to start tackling some of the more famous stories coming up.

As always, I have a few reservations. Catherine Dhavernas still doesn't get nearly enough to do as Alana Bloom, and the most interesting female characters like Freddie Lounds, Dr. Du Maurier, and Bella Crawford have had fleeting appearances at best. Abigail Hobbs and Miriam Lass are really little more than plot devices, and Margot Verger's already gone. I'm hoping Clarice Starling is introduced sooner rather than later to help unskew things here. And while I'm all for letting the viewer figure things out on their own, there have been too many times where the writers simply aren't playing fair - nothing on the aftermath of the Chilton situation?

Then again, I'm getting worked up because "Hannibal" has really gotten its claws into me. I continue to adore the mad visuals, not just the death tableaux but the febrile sex scenes and the disturbing dream imagery. Directors like David Slade, Michael Rhymer, and newcomer Vincenzo Natali have been delivering excellent work week after week. The score and sound design have gotten weirder and and more evocative. The set design just keeps getting better. And the cast - even the one-off killers of the week have been landing actors like Amanda Plummer. It's fantastic.

"Hannibal" has survived despite the odds, and I hope it's around for a long time to come. I still find parts of it a little slapdash and problematic, but it's one of the most unique shows airing anywhere right now, and so well executed that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as any other prestige series you could find on cable or premium cable.
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My position on remakes has always been that they are not inherently a bad idea. There have been some great remakes over the years, where filmmakers have put their own spin on old plots and characters to wonderful effect, sometimes even surpassing the originals. However, too often you get remakes that fail to deliver, where the material proves too outdated, where the filmmakers don't bring anything interesting to the table, or where the execution just falls short. Worst of all are the remakes that are little more than retreads of the originals, where everything plays out almost the same, except in a modern, local milieu that is easier for mainstream audiences to connect to. Sadly both the recent "Carrie" and "Oldboy" remakes fall into this category.

Both of these were projects that sounded like they had potential when they were first announced. "Carrie" was in the hands of Kimberly Pierce, who made the well-regarded "Boys Don't Cry" and "Stop-Loss." The story had been revisited a few times already in recent years with a sequel and a TV remake, but this new project had attracted a stronger cast, including up-and-comer Chloe Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her mother. "Oldboy" was a more high profile project that had been in development for years, at one point connected with Steven Spielberg and Will Smith before it ended up with Spike Lee and Josh Brolin. Lee's track record hasn't been great lately, but he was coming off of the solid indie feature "Red Hook Summer," and had made very strong genre films in the past like "Inside Man."

Sadly, it's hard to think of two remakes with less justification for existing. They're both perfectly decent films, and even manage to do a few thing better than their predecessors. Some of the action scenes in the new "Carrie" are stronger, and the hotel sequence in the new "Oldboy" is a lot of fun. However, both clearly follow the templates of the prior movies, to the point where shots and dialogue are recycled verbatim. No attempt seems to have been made to go back to the source material, Stephen King's "Carrie" novel and Garon Tsuchiya's "Old Boy" manga. The influence of each director is fairly minimal, and what changes have been made are fairly cosmetic. It's hard to see Spike Lee's hand at work in "Old Boy" aside from the appearance of Samuel L. Jackson in a minor role and some of the set decoration.

I found "Carrie" the more egregious offender because it's so utterly rote. Aside from the introduction of cel-phone videos and internet bullying, almost nothing has been updated from the 1970s version. Also, much of the content has been toned down and the characters undermined. Moretz's Carrie is more assertive, which makes her less pitiable. Moore's religious fanatic mother is more humane, which makes her less monstrous and much less entertaining. The film is rated R, but it's fairly tame, and none of the horror is properly horrific. Pierce's direction is disappointingly workmanlike, and I found myself missing De Palma's campiness. The remake is such a toothless, lifeless piece of work, that stinks of good intentions and a total lack of guts. The last thing we need is a kinder, gentler "Carrie."

Now Spike Lee at least got his "Oldboy" off to a good start, giving his protagonist a little more depth and delivering some good early sequences. However, the Korean "Oldboy" was a pulpy, over-the-top action film with a really haphazard story that only worked because Park Chan-wook and his star, Choi Min-Sik were so committed to the high octane style and escalating insanity. Lee never manages to hit the same level of no-holds-barred energetic mayhem, try as he may, so the narrative in the new "Oldboy" doesn't work at all. Brolin plays it way too sane. The female lead played by Elizabeth Olsen doesn't do anything that makes sense. Sharlto Copley's nutball villain seems to be operating at about the right level of crazy, but since no one else it, he sticks out like a sore thumb.

Both films seem hampered by expectations and an unwillingness to depart from formula. They're both determined to give the audience what I guess the filmmakers and the executives thought the audience wanted. A new version of the hammer fight from "Old Boy." A new version of the bloody prom scene. Never mind that both end up feeling perfunctory and unsatisfying because they're so beholden to the originals. I would love to see what an uncompromised Spike Lee Joint version of "Oldboy" would look like, one where Samuel L. Jackson isn't just stuck playing a secondary tough guy with funny hair. Or a "Carrie" that really tackles modern high school bullying and religious fanaticism.

Because the remakes that Hollywood gave us are just a shameful waste of good material.

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Yesterday we took a look at the big studio pictures with real box office prospects. Today it's time for the more modest, but probably more rewarding films of 2014 that I'm looking forward to. Movies that were delayed from last year, including Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," are being left off. And here we go:

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" - Wes Anderson's latest is so obviously the work of Wes Anderson, there's no point in even pointing out the avalanche of aesthetic quirks or the presence of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson anymore. However, this time around Ralph Fiennes has joined the fun and the tone looks a touch zanier and more broadly comedic, which is hitting all the right buttons for me. There's also something about the color palette with its rich purples and candy pinks that really make the visuals pop. I'm sure the film itself will turn out to be all too familiar, but I can't bring myself to care one bit.

"The Cobbler" - Thomas McCarthy hasn't made a film that I've disliked yet, from "The Station Agent" to "Win Win." And though I dislike Adam Sandler's typical comedies, when he tries something smaller and more heartfelt, the results can be fantastic. These two sound like they would work well together, so I'm looking forward to "The Cobbler," where Sandler will star as a shoe repairman who discovers a magic MacGuffin that literally lets him "walk in another man's shoes." This is a premise that a big studio would happily turn into yet another idiot comedy, but with McCarthy writing and directing, I'm pretty optimistic.

"Ex Machina" - Alex Garland, the screenwriter of "Never Let Me Go" and many of Danny Boyle's films will be making his directorial debut with the science fiction film "Ex Machina," which has some similarities to last year's "Her." This time the AI is a female robot played by Alicia Vikander and the story is a psychological thriller instead of a straight romance. Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac also star. It's a low budget, small scale film that is being produced in the UK, so it might be a while before we get to see it stateside. The premise and the cast have me excited though, and I'm adding it to this year's ever-growing list of intriguing, ambitious science fiction films.

"Whiplash" and "The Voices" - There are quite a few interesting titles that have emerged from this year's Sundance Film Festival that I'm keeping an eye out for, including "Skeleton Twins," "Life Itself," and "Dear White People." However, there are two in particular that I want to highlight. First, there's the "Whiplash," the tale of a young drummer played by Miles Teller that took home the Grand Jury and Audience prizes. Then there's "The Voices," the latest from "Persepolis" director Marjane Satrapi, where Ryan Reynolds plays a seemingly ordinary man who accidentally kills a woman, and now his benevolent dog and evil cat are both speaking to him, trying to persuade him of what he should do next.

"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" - Swedish auteur Roy Andersson makes bleak satires with painstakingly composed visuals, many of them incredibly elaborate. He's only released two films over the past fifteen years, but they've both been brilliant. "Pigeon" is expected to complete the trilogy. Production diaries have been slowly appearing on the internet over the past several months, and the project appears to be finally nearing completion. As it's been seven years since the last Andersson film, this is definitely going to be a cinematic event. Not much is known about the story yet, but it apparently involves salesmen, near brushes with death, and explaining why society is the way it is.

"Gone Girl" - David Fincher's been out of the game since his adaptation of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and I'm glad to see him back on the slate, even if he's decided his latest crime thriller should star Ben Affleck - I'm still not sold on him as an actor. However, the original author of the source novel, Gillian Flynn, is penning the screenplay and has apparently entirely rewritten the third act for the adaptation. This one's already gearing up for an Oscar campaign, with a release date set for October and an unusual bit of early marketing - a provocative "Entertainment" Weekly cover picturing Affleck and co-star Rosamund Pike referencing the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Rolling Stone" portrait.

"Inherent Vice" - Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Joaquin Phoenix. That's really all I need to know. Based on the Thomas Pynchon detective novel, this will be another period piece, set at the end of the '60s in Los Angeles. Filming was completed last year, so there's every likelihood that we'll see "Inherent Vice" in theaters by the end of 2014. The novel has been described as noir crossed with psychedelia, which might make me worried if this were any other director. Fortunately Anderson, coming off of "The Master," is more than qualified to handle the notoriously difficult Pynchon material. As the highest profile prestige project of the year so far, this one's going to get a lot more press in the months to come.
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Time for a little Halloween nostalgia, kids. "Hocus Pocus" and "Army of Darkness" are all well and good, but "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" (directed by Henry Selick, of course) is the kids' horror classic that really deserves some celebration for hitting the twenty year mark this season. Its rise in the pop culture pantheon is a classic underdog story, and one fueled almost entirely by its loyal fans.

In 1993, Disney was skeptical of the film. Everyone was skeptical. A stop-motion film? An animated horror musical? Where a gang of monsters kidnap Santa Claus and take over Christmas? I remember an LA Times article full of hand-wringing about the scary imagery and macabre themes that were sure to terrify unsuspecting children. How could Disney let Tim Burton do this? The ad campaign didn't skimp, but it couldn't seem to make up its mind - some emphasized the scares while others tried to hide them, pushing the Jack and Sally love story front and center. Afraid that there would be backlash from the angry parents of sensitive children, Disney released the film under its Touchstones Pictures banner with a PG rating and prepared for a flop. They also made the same mistake with Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" seventeen years later.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" wasn't a smash hit, but it did pretty well in theaters, impressed critics, and had enough exposure to attract a loyal base of fans. The returns were good enough for Disney to bankroll Henry Selick's next feature, "James and the Giant Peach," but they were still tentative about associating too closely with "Nightmare." For years, its media presence was scarce. Clips appeared in the intros to Disney branded programming for a while, but the film itself was rarely seen. Because of its short length and its PG rating, it didn't immediately join the regular rotation of Halloween television programming. I only saw it air on a broadcast network once, in the late 90s, during the early evening hours. Now ABC Family runs it every year around Halloween.

So what changed Disney's mind about the film? The adoring audience, primarily. Merchandise initially was scarce in the U.S. for years, though there seemed to be a ton of it available in Japan, where the film had been a much bigger hit. I remember finding fantastic Jack Skellington Christmas ornaments in an import shop, and wondering why they weren't in any of the Disney stores. Similar ones showed up there eventually, after specialty product lines proved to be very popular with the Hot Topic crowd, and by the late 90s "Nightmare Before Christmas" paraphernalia was a perennial bestseller for the company. This spawned a re-issue of the film and talk of a possible sequel in 2000, a 3D conversion in 2006, and more limited runs every subsequent year until 2009. New product lines, including video games and a tribute album followed. Soon Jack Skellington was everywhere.

But maybe the most symbolic sign of Disney's newfound acceptance of the property came in 2001, when they created the Haunted Mansion Holiday, a "Nightmare Before Christmas" overlay for Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, to go along with the Christmas versions of It's a Small World and The Country Bear Jamboree. Japan got one too, for its Haunted Mansion at Tokyo Disneyland. Now for a few months every year, you can find Jack, Sally, Oogie Boogie, and all the rest in the Disney parks. The U.S. version of the ride has proven so popular that FastPass machines have to be activated especially for it every year. The villain-themed store in New Orleans Square became devoted entirely to "Nightmare Before Christmas" merchandise for a few seasons. When I saw the place last, Jack Skellington was still sharing shelf space with Jack Sparrow.

Ironically "The Nightmare Before Christmas" turned out to be a perfect fit for Disney's collection of brands. It appeals to older children and teenagers growing wary of the squeaky-clean Disney image, but it's light enough to maintain broader appeal. Despite all the subversive touches, it's still a very traditional musical film underneath, and some fans have been asking for years for a stage production (unofficial ones keep popping up like daisies). While the film is scary and unsettling in places, it turns out that it hasn't traumatized kids any more than they can handle, and has become a holiday favorite in many households.

If you wondered why Disney bankrolled Tim Burton's passion project "Frankenweenie" last year, which most considered a very niche and very strange little animated film of limited appeal, you have to remember that twenty years ago, this was the same attitude that everyone had about "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Who knows what we'll think of "Frankenweenie" twenty years from now? It wouldn't surprise me if it became a cult hit. "Nightmare," having risen to such prominence, will probably still be around then too.
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It's always fascinating to see which initially ignored and panned films manage to endure the test of time to emerge as cult classics a few decades later. There are a heap of early 90s children's films that have become cult favorites, sparking a lot of recent discussion. Barely anyone remembers that "Hook," the 1991 Spielberg fantasy film, was met with mixed and downright hostile reviews. There hardly seems to be a Millennial out there who doesn't love it. Was "The Nightmare Before Christmas" too dark and scary for children, as the LA Time fretted back in 1993? Disney sure doesn't think so these days, with "Nightmare" merchandise now a ubiquitous presence at their stores and parks.

Usually I get why one of these old kids' films has become a perennial, but sometimes I don't. I watched "Hook" as a kid like everyone else, and while I love the score and a few standalone scenes, it's become all to clear to me over the years that the movie is a mess. But still, I can understand the appeal. It's a big budget spectacular, stuffed with action scenes and humor and kid-friendly thrills. It has endlessly repeatable one-liners, and Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman hamming it up with all they've got. The special effects still look pretty good, and the loud, noisy, raucous atmosphere must have been irresistible, for little boys especially. When you're ten, you're not paying attention to things like shoddy plotting and bad characterization.

However, the cult status of another 90s kid film that has re-emerged recently has left me scratching my head. Apparently there's a whole generation that has grown up loving the Disney live-action Halloween film "Hocus Pocus," which came out twenty years ago to absolutely dismal reviews. It didn't last long in theaters, though it did make its modest budget back. I remember the movie pretty well, because it was used as convenient holiday time-filler for much of the 90s, particularly on the Disney-owned networks. It also shared a couple of actors - Omri Katz and Jason Marsden - with "Eerie, Indiana," which I was a big fan of. I must have been too old when I watched "Hocus Pocus" for it to get a grip on my affections, because I remember it as a remarkably campy, silly, and all too often awkward children's movie that felt like it had been slapped together out of spare parts.

The witches, played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker are clearly the best the movie has to offer, playing a trio of goofy baddies with magnificent costumes, but they're so cartoonish that they never come across as a real threat. Everything is against them in the movie, from the insanely specific circumstances required for their resurrection to their unfamiliarity with the modern world. I know that they're supposed to be comedic figures, keeping it light for the littlest kids and amusing for the grown-ups, but the plot needs them to be at least a little scary by the third act. But good grief, the CGI "Casper" two years later was more intimidating.

The stuff with the teenagers running around, trying to stop them? Pretty dire. The actors aren't bad, but the characters are sketchy and the scenarios are bland. The teen romance was especially bad, and I cringed through a lot of the tin-ear dialogue about virgins and Vinessa Shaw's yabbos. For a movie meant to be safe for the very smallest tots, it's got some weirdly sexual elements in it that make me suspect that "Hocus Pocus" was initially a very different movie. Perhaps a musical of some sort, as this is the only movie directed by Disney regular Kenny Ortega, who made his name as a choreographer, that is not a musical.

I do like some bits and pieces of the movie. The talking cat is great. Doug Jones as a zombie is great. The best sequence is almost certainly when Bette Midler gets to sing "I'll Put a Spell On You," and vamp as only Bette Midler can. But those things aside, I can't work out what it is kids saw in this movie that stuck with them. "Hocus Pocus" looks like every other generic kids' Halloween movie from the same time. The effects are mediocre. The story isn't all that exciting. Were the Sanderson sisters really all that appealing to kids?

Familiarity is the culprit, I suspect. As I previously mentioned, "Hocus Pocus" has been a staple of Disney Halloween programming for years. Kids saw this movie over and over and over, until it became something nostalgic and fondly remembered, the same way that I got hooked on terrible old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies from the '80s. Young kids really have no sense of whether a movie is good or bad, but they respond well to bright colors and exaggerated characters, which "Hocus Pocus" has plenty of.

So, I suspect the same thing might have happened with any number of other movies if Disney gave them the same treatment. The far superior "The Witches," perhaps, or "The Halloween Tree." But Disney had the rights to "Hocus Pocus," so they played "Hocus Pocus," and twenty years later it's a little scary how many twenty-somethings can quote it verbatim.

Ultimately it's all about distribution.
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My expectations for the second round of "American Horror Story" were not high. I'd enjoyed the first for being a campy, schlocky smorgasbord of shocks and squicks, that never got too graphic for basic cable television. I knew "Asylum" had a few more prestigious actors joining the fun, including James Cromwell, Chloë Sevigny, and Joseph Fiennes, but then the setting was to be a mental institution run by Catholic nuns in 1964. Surely we were in for more ham galore.

And boy is there ever a lot of material in "Asylum" to fuel the ostentation. Nuns and mental patients are just the tip of the iceberg. Storylines in this series include Nazis, alien abductions, demon possessions, a serial killer named Bloody Face, mad doctors, mommy complexes, nymphomaniacs, and the most terrifying Santa Claus you ever met. If you liked the unpredictability of the "Murder House" season of "American Horror Story," "Asylum" keeps it up, springing new surprises every week.

At the same time, "Asylum" is far more structurally sound and consistently watchable than "Murder House." The writers have embraced the notion of a limited anthology series and constructed "Asylum" to end with finality at the thirteenth episode. There are fewer characters who are developed more fully, and most of the action stays in one place and time, aside from a framing story that takes place in the present day. Also the actors are far better utilized, given a chance to really bring something to the macabre material.

The insane asylum at Briarcliff Manor is headed by Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), but run day to day with an iron fist by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). She clashes regularly with the facility's chief physician, Dr. Arden (James Cromwell), and bullies her meek underling, Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe). Among their charges are Kit Walker (Evan Peters), recently arrested for the Bloody Face killings, accused axe murderess Grace Borden (Lizzie Brocheré), and the sexually fixated Shelly (Chloë Sevigny). Rounding out the cast are psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), and an ambitious young reporter, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who lies her way into Briarcliff to chase a story.

One of these characters is a lesbian, and another is in a secret interracial relationship, two end up pregnant, at least three are killers, and several are in love with or at least in lust with one of the others. And then there's the Nazi, the demon possession, and the one who was abducted by aliens. Logic is constantly being thrown out the window as the plot convolutes itself into knots, and at a certain point you have to wonder if some of these poor characters are ever going to catch a break between disasters.

The show also does take some stabs at becoming a more thoughtful, serious piece of work, particularly in its ending, but mostly it's aim is to deliver scares and salaciousness in bulk. To that end, the show is sometimes a completely mess, with loose ends and too-abrupt developments everywhere. Some of its wilder conceits simply do not work, and there's too much going on. Many promising ideas are abandoned, like the things that inhabit the woods outside Briarcliff.

And yet, more often than not the show does manage to be compelling. The characters are strong and many have good arcs, particularly Sister Jude and Lana Winters. There's a lot of thematically interesting stuff going on when you dig past the genre scares, and "American Horror Story" remains one of the only shows on television that will look at issues like abortion, church abuses, mental health problems, and sexual deviance up close and personal. The show's treatment of them is fairly exploitative, but there's still some bite.

I found "Asylum" to be more sure-footed than "Murder House" in almost every way. Though there is still the feeling that the writers are dumping in a new abomination into the story every time things slow down, there is also a greater willingness to venture outside the normal horror story constructs to pursue good, solid character drama. There's hardly anything campy about the finale episode, where we get some real resolutions for the characters.

The production designs are gorgeous, with all the period sets and props, and there is a big upgrade in the quality of the cinematography. Some of the imagery in this year is just stunning. Performances are strong all around too, particularly Sarah Paulson, who I'll no longer immediately associate with "Studio 60" after this, and an irresistible Ian McShane as the evil Santa.

I find it strangely wonderful that "American Horror Story" is doing horror the way that horror movies aren't these days, giving us stories with some real substance, and characters we can care about. It's enough to make you wonder if the future of the horror genre might be the small screen.
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I'm still working up to that "Dads" rant, so let's tackle the new FOX supernatural show "Sleepy Hollow" first. A few spoilers for the pilot ahead.

Following on the unlikely success of high-concept shows like "Grimm," FOX has put together its own fantasy procedural with familiar genre names Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Len Wiseman. They've "reimagined" "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," so now Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a Revolutionary spy and soldier for George Washington, and his lovely wife Katrina (Katia Winter) is a nurse. After falling in battle, Crane is awoken from the grave after 250 years, to modern-day upstate New York to continue his fight with the also resurrected Headless Horseman, who Crane previously beheaded. Joining him is a black female police lieutenant, Abbie Mills (Nicole Behari), trying to solve a series of recent murders.

Torrents of exposition are shoehorned into the pilot to explain the increasingly silly scenario that the Headless Horseman is really one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Revelations, and the little town of Sleepy Hollow is the epicenter of a centuries-long battle for the fate of humanity between the forces of light and dark. Opposing covens of witches are quickly mentioned, who I'm sure we'll be spending more time getting to know in the weeks to come. Mills also had an encounter with a dark spirit when she was a child, giving her a personal connection to these events. However, the bulk of the pilot focuses on maneuvering Crane and Mills into their unlikely long-term partnership against the things that go bump in the night.

The first half of the hour is a lot of fun, introducing Mison's charming fish-out-of-water Crane, who everyone thinks must be crazy. However, he's so lucid and intelligent, and self-possessed, it's easy to be won over by him. So it's believable that Mills would eventually come around and start taking his ridiculous explanations seriously. Mison has all the fun stuff with Ichabod Crane, mistaking Mills for an emancipated slave and making observations about Starbucks, but Behari's performance is the vital one. She's provides a strong grounding element amidst all the fantastic silliness, a real person we can are about. Without her, the show wouldn't work. Katia Winter doesn't get to do much but look winsome in a low cut dress, and the only other regular so far is Orlando Jones as Mills' superior, Captain Frank Irving, a typical hard case.

There's a lot of action in the pilot, mostly in the second half, but it's so cartoonish and low-stakes that it's not much fun to watch. The Horseman bloodlessly chops guest stars' heads off, gravity-defying magic makes objects whiz through the air, and there are some pretty tame horrorshow jump scares. What's the point of broadswords and Biblical references if the violence isn't allowed to get properly medieval? We get a lot of the usual B-movie horror elements, but "Sleepy Hollow" is no "Hannibal," and isn't really interested in being frightening or pushing at network content limits. The show's attitude is far too slick for that, clearly more interested in coolness than creeps. In other words, it's exactly what you would expect from the man who made the "Underworld" movies.

Fortunately the writing's not bad, despite the ludicrous plotting. The main characters are established well, the banter's cute, Crane's commentary on the modern world is fun, and the humor is all-around more effective than any of the action or the thrills. The quips are just clever enough to pass muster, though Ichabod Crane handles the culture shock a little too well. I found the treatment of the existing "Sleepy Hollow" characters pretty terrible - wasn't Ichabod Crane supposed to be a coward? And they couldn't have worked in Brom Bones somehow? The series seems to be based on the 1999 Tim Burton "Sleepy Hollow" movie more than the original Washington Irving story, and many period details have clearly been fudged. Then again, I doubt Revolutionary War Era America is going to play much of a role in future episodes anyway.

I'm curious as to what a regular episode of the show is going to look like - the "Sleepy Hollow" pilot was full of expensive stunts they're surely not going to be able to pull off every week, and that Headless Horseman is going to stop being effective pretty quick if overused. The pilot was entertaining enough for what it was, but it's not sustainable. I wouldn't be surprised if this metamorphoses into a much smaller scale light mystery show, sort of a super campy "X-Files" lite. Considering all the talk about witches, we'll probably see "Sleepy Hollow" treading some of the same thematic ground as FX's upcoming "American Horror Story: Coven" this year. That could be fun week to week, but we'll have to see how it develops.

Happy watching.
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I am three episodes into the CBS summer series "Under the Dome," based on the novel by Stephen King, and I think it's time I wrote down some first impressions. I've been watching via the Amazon Instant service, which releases the new episodes for streaming every Friday after they broadcast.

One day at the end of summer, a little town in Maine called Chester's Mill is suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible barrier, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. After some time, the residents discover that the barrier is a dome of unknown origin. Among the stranded are Dale "Barbie" Barbara (Mike Vogel), an ex-military man who was passing through the area on sinister business, local reporter Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre), a teenager left home alone, "Scarecrow Joe" McAlister (Colin Ford), café owner Rose (Beth Broderick), radio station DJ Phil Bushey (Nicholas Strong), his engineer Dodee Weaver(Jolene Purdy), a disturbed young man, Junior (Alexander Koch), fixated on his childhood friend, the waitress Angie McAlister (Britt Robertson), and a lesbian couple, Carolyn (Aisha Hinds) and Alice, (Samantha Mathis) taking their troubled teenage daughter Norrie (Mackenzie Lintz) to a nearby reform school.

Finally, trying to keep the peace are Sheriff "Duke" Perkins (Jeff Fahey), Deputy Linda Esquivel (Natalie Martinez), and the lone remaining town councilman, "Big Jim" Rennie (Dean Norris). Duke and Big Jim, along with Reverend Lester Coggins (Ned Bellamy), are involved in a drug smuggling scheme and desperate to keep the truth buried. However, with the town in crisis because of the dome, and the residents being pushed toward extreme behavior, everyone's secrets are coming out and tensions continue to rise. After three episodes, these characters are all getting thoroughly tangled up in each other's lives and each other's lies. Violence has already reduced the recurring cast by a few members, and more are sure to follow in the weeks ahead. "Under the Dome" is yet another story about the secret dark underbelly of a small town being revealed by the supernatural, and the town is only getting smaller.

And so far, it's not bad. The show is well cast, and the scripting is decent. None of the performances stand out either as particularly good or bad, but the characters and their problems are interesting enough to hold my attention from week to week. The production values are great. Nothing about "Under the Dome" looks cheap or second rate. Though the special effects involving the dome are predictably limited to only a few instances per episode, they're a lot of fun. The dialogue is a little on the soapy side, and some characters go nuts a little too quickly for comfort, but not nearly as badly as I've seen other characters in Stephen King event miniseries fall to pieces in the past. I also appreciate that there's not too much emphasis on the supernatural elements yet. Doomsaying mystic characters are a regular fixture in King horror novels, but none have shown up yet. Instead, the show is keeping the focus on crisis management and deep dark secrets, only hinting at other forces at work. The residents of Chester's Mill and its visitors are doing a fine job of being their own worst enemies, and I hope it stays that way for the duration.

I haven't read the Stephen King book, but I know that there have been some complaints regarding the changes made to adapt it into a television series. New characters such as the lesbian couple and their daughter are a little too obvious, but they haven't been problematic so far. They actually help to keep the series feeling more modern, and not of a piece with the familiar Stephen King media of 80s and 90s. I'm more worried about how long CBS is going to try and keep "Under the Dome" going. Thirteen episodes have already been produced, but there are rumors that either the story has been changed enough that it will allow for additional seasons, or that they'll simply end with the story unresolved until the undetermined future. If the latter is true, there's a serious risk of the series wearing out its welcome, as I don't think this is a premise that can sustain multiple seasons. Thirteen episodes already feels a little long in the tooth.

So far, I think the show is worth keeping up with, as it's a well-made and entertaining mystery series. That's about all I want or expect from network summer programming. However, I can't help but be disappointed that this didn't ultimately end up on HBO or Showtime, as originally conceived, where I would know that it would reach a definitive ending within a finite number of episodes. Then again, CBS is doing a good job of maintaining a level of quality on par with cable, and I want to see how long they can keep that up.
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Spoilers for the first season ahead.

I've had such a love hate relationship with this show. On the one hand it's one of the most visually interesting crime dramas on television, thanks to the efforts of Bryan Fuller and crew. The cast is also to die for, with Mads Mikkelsen as an irresistible new version of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and good supporting work from Lawrence Fishburne, Caroline Dhavernas, and Gillian Anderson. Hugh Dancy is still not quite up to par, but his performance grew on me eventually. I like that the corpses of the week often make me physical recoil in a way that I hadn't since the weirder episodes of "The X-files." I like that the case-of-the-week format is largely abandoned by the second half of the season to focus on the interactions of the main cast and the fallout of a single case that had been solved in the first episode. And even when it is tracking down guest star murderers, it doesn't play by the rules, paying far less attention to working out the weekly mystery than exploring what the new mystery means for the increasingly tenuous mental state of Will Graham.

On the other hand, "Hannibal" is often a slog, featuring long, long dialogue scenes of Will in psychoanalysis and puzzling his way through the various motives of the murders. The show's cental conflict between the FBI and Hannibal is sometimes wonderfully tense and thrilling to watch, and sometimes feels like they are going around in endless circles, dragging things out. It doesn't help that nobody in this show talks like a normal person, not the agents, not the lab tech comic relief, and not even the teenage girls. Instead, it's reams of obsessive exposition, often in the form of repetitive arguments and interrogations. Aside from Hannibal, everyone seems eager to recite what they're feeling at any particular moment with hardly any cueing. This is necessary for a show that is so concerned with the inner workings of Will's mind and tracking Hannibal's manipulations, but sometimes they lay it on way too thick. Alana and Will's romance predictably goes nowhere because within a few seconds of making her attraction clear, Alana is reciting all the reasons why the pair wouldn't work together, providing a very professional self-diagnosis of all her neuroses.

More troubling are the constant logic leaps the audience is expected to swallow - Jack insisting that Abigail Hobbs should be investigated as an accomplice to murder with hardly any evidence, Will failing to get a second opinion after the mysterious death of his physician, and the remarkably rushed introduction and dispatching of Abigail's best friend who coincidentally looks almost exactly like she does. Lord Dark Helmet once declared that "evil will always triumph, because good is dumb," but this was pushing things. I'm usually pretty forgiving of genre shows, but I do expect the basic plotting to be more solid, especially when we're talking about a show where all the main cast members are highly intelligent FBI agents or doctors or both. I really dislike how Jack Crawford is too often about as perceptive as a brick. If I were to suggest any improvements for next season, it would be to ease up on the "Shining" references and pay more attention to ensuring that the characters' actions make sense.

Last night's finale episode was one of the strongest of the season, though, and provided some very satisfactory payoff to weeks of escalating tensions. I expect I'd like "Hannibal" better if I watched multiple episodes in one sitting, giving the febrile atmosphere more of a chance to work its way into my skull. I may have my reservations about the overly analytical dialogue, but it does fit this heightened, stylized world that "Hannibal" exists in, where the most horrific crimes are often rendered exquisite through Hannibal's dinners and the artfully arranged crime scenes. The show evokes the creeps on very visceral level, but often understated or intellectualized in a way that makes them much more effective. No other horror series I've seen, not even the more graphic "Dexter" and "American Horror Story," has been more consistently disturbing. And as often as it's dull, it can be very clever. I loved the final scene of last night's episode, with that wonderful reversal on the most famous Hannibal Lecter appearance.

And finally, it was all worth it for Mads Mikkelsen's version of Hannibal Lecter, who is one of the best television characters I've met in some time. I'm glad the show's creators haven't been afraid to depart from their source material and expand on the characters in such delightful ways. "Hannibal" is far darker and more daring that I could have every hoped for, and has turned out to be a very good fit for television. I'm not convinced it's as good as some of its fans insist, but I'm looking forward to next year.
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I'm not sure what I was expecting when NBC announced that they were doing a television show about the early days of Hannibal Lecter, but I didn't think that they'd go so far as to make "Hannibal" an actual horror program. We've seen some fairly intense and violent crime procedurals in recent years, like the early days of "Criminal Minds," but "Hannibal" pushes much farther, giving us shocking, yet tasteful blood and gore in amounts I don't believe I've ever seen on network television before. We're not in "American Horror Story" or "Dexter" territory, but it's pretty close.

This is only one of many interesting elements that "Hannibal" has going for it. However, this is one of those series that looks like it's going to need some time for the actors to settle into their roles, and for the writers to work out the dynamics of the characters' relationships. For instance, there's our main character, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a criminal profiler with the FBI, who has been reimagined as having unusually strong empathy that he can use to place himself in the mindset of killers and work out their motives and intentions. The price of this gift is severe social anxiety and other autism spectrum impediments. He has to be coaxed into participating in the FBI's latest serial killer manhunt by Agent Crawford (Laurence Fishburne). Dancy makes Graham nervous and awkward and a bit of a mumbler. He's not compelling yet, but he could be, depending on where his character arc takes him.

And then we have Mads Mikkelsen, the Danish actor who was recruited for a new take on Dr. Hannibal Lecter. His thick accent requires some sharp attention to penetrate, but he brings such a great presence to the screen. Lecter is not the subject of tonight's first manhunt, but rather a highly respected psychiatrist and forensic scientist who is brought in to consult on the case, eventually partnering up with Will Graham. The creators have a lot of fun hinting at his future depravities, showing multiple scenes of him eating servings of meat with carnivorous relish, and advising a nervous patient on the nature of fear. Lecter doesn't do much in the first episode, and doesn't even appear onscreen until the halfway mark. However, it is quickly established that his degree of moral turpitude is murky at best. He helps both sides in the case, exuding the appropriate amounts of charisma and menace as needed. No Anthony Hopkins impersonations here. None needed.

A few other characters are briefly introduced, including Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), another profiler who Agent Crawford goes to for help, and who the previews suggest will become Will Graham's major love interest. Hettienne Park, Aaron Abrams, and Scott Thompson (yes, from "Kids in the Hall") pop up as crime scene investigators, who provide rounds of helpful exposition with each new corpse. This is going to be a very dialogue-heavy show, as most crime procedurals are, and it's clear that our two leads haven't quite got the hang of delivering the usual verbal torrents of information yet. This is especially apparent when they're in a scene with Fishburne, a veteran of multiple seasons of "CSI."

This is where all the guts and gore really help. The snazzy technological tomfoolery of your average "CSI" episode has nothing on viscerality of the beautifully staged crime scenes and Will Graham's visions of bloody violence in "Hannibal." And this is where you really see the hand of the show's creator, Bryan Fuller, who was previously responsible for the whimsical worlds of "Pushing Daisies" and "Mockingbird Lane." "Hannibal" shows he's pretty handy with lurid Grand Guignol horrors too. I only wish that all the graphic content could have been put in service of a better script. For a first outing it's not bad, but there's plenty of room for improvement.

One thing to note is that "Hannibal" is being described as a limited series by NBC, which means only thirteen episodes to a season, faster payoff for major arcs, and hopefully a higher level of quality overall. It's a good sign that they're already pushing the envelope as far as the content, which means that we're more likely to see Dr. Lecter and friends get to the really dark and twisted places where they ultimately need to go. Bryan Fuller has mentioned in interviews that he wants to get to the events of "Red Dragon," the first of Thomas Harris' Lecter books, by season four.

I hope the series survives long enough to get there. The Thursday night 10PM timeslot has not been kind to NBC, having killed off several promising crime shows in recent years, including "Prime Suspect" and "Awake." Will it finally meet its match in Dr. Hannibal Lecter? Guess we'll have to stay tuned to see.
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It's pilot season in Hollywood, and we're about to get a new crop of television shows based on movies. This is a trend that has been around for decades, and has yielded plenty of classics. Some movie premises worked better as television shows, like "MASH" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." So I'm going to take a look at five of the movie-based series, currently in development, that may be coming soon to a small screen near you. I'm leaving out "Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D.," which is really a spin-off of the Marvel films, and will only be featuring one or two of the minor characters, existing very much on the sidelines of the ongoing movie franchise.

"Beverly Hills Cop" (CBS) - The 80s action comedy series is becoming an hour-long police procedural. Brandon T. Jackson of "Tropic Thunder" fame will star as Axel Foley's son Aaron, a young police officer following his dad's footsteps. "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan is on bard as producer, and Barry Sonnenfeld is directing the pilot. No word yet on whether Axel himself will be stopping by the Beverley Hills Police Department to check up on his son. Interviews suggest that the tone of the show will stay light, but it won't be an out-and-out comedy. The original film series was heavily dependent on the charisma of Eddie Murphy, and new version without him might not work. However, between 80s nostalgia and the public's love of police procedurals, I can certainly see why the studios decided that a reboot deserved a shot.

"Bad Teacher" (CBS) - Remember the 2011 summer comedy starring Cameron Diaz? It did all right at the box office, but not well enough that anyone is clamoring for a sequel. However, CBS thought the premise has potential as a half-hour comedy, and is in the process of transmogrifying it into sitcom form. Ari Graynor will replace Cameron Diaz, and the new cast also includes David Alan Grier and Ryan Hansen. The raunch and the foul language of the movie is going to have to be toned way, way down for television audiences, to the point where I doubt the series will bear much resemblance to the film. Still, the concept of an immature, irresponsible female teacher looking for love should have plenty of legs. Television is generally friendlier to female-led comedies than the movies are, so the TV "Bad Teacher" may actually have a better shot there.

"About A Boy" (NBC) - A decade ago, "About a Boy" was a decent sized hit, but I have no idea what prompted writer-executive producer Jason Katims to decide that now was the time to revisit the property and convert it into half-hour sitcom form. Still, this is the guy who resurrected "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" as critically acclaimed television series, so I'm not inclined to question his instincts. FOX actually tried to turn "About a Boy" into a series way back in 2003 with a different creative team, but nothing came of it. This time, they’ve gotten as far as a pilot directed by John Favreau. No word on casting yet, but considering the scarcity of Hugh Grant over the past few years, and the rate that major movie stars have been doing television projects, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that he’d consider returning to the role.

"The Joneses" (Bravo) - This David Duchovny and Demi Moore indie was released in theaters in 2010, but hardly anyone saw it. That's a shame, because the idea at its core was a fascinating one. The main characters are employees of an advertising agency who are hired to live together as a fake family, push products to their neighbors, and encourage them to keep up with the Joneses (Get it?). Bravo has ordered a pilot as part of its first foray into scripted programming, after ABC took a shot at development. Considering how the movie ended, the television series will likely be a total reboot. Since so few people saw the original "Joneses," it should escape being called a retread. However, I'm not sure about Bravo's claim that it will speak "to the Bravo brand of great aspirational female-driven upscale worlds.” My irony alarm is going off.

"Zombieland" (Amazon) - And finally, Amazon is hot to catch up with Netflix in the production of its own content. It has ordered a half-hour comedy pilot based on 2009's "Zombieland." A sequel never quite came together though there was a lot of interest in one, and the possibility of a television adaptation has been lobbed around Hollywood for a while. Amazon finally took the initiative. The film's original writers have scripted the pilot, and three of the four leads have been recast so far. The zombie craze is still going strong this year, so I expect this one to have a high chance of success. On the other hand, Amazon's distribution system isn't quite where Netflix's is at the moment, and I'm not sure if they have the subscriber base to support a show like this. There are a lot of different factors that could affect this one, so stay tuned.

Happy watching!
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Alfred Hitchcock has been seeing a mild resurgence of interest lately with the recent release of movies about the director, "Hitchcock" and "The Girl." I haven't seen either of them yet, but I knew that I had to get this post written before I saw either. I've read enough about both films to know that they both advance their own heavily biased views of the director, and I'm more easily influenced than I like to admit, so I figured I should get my own thoughts about old Hitch down in words first.

Alfred Hitchcock was a great director but an even better showman and marketer, which fueled his legend and won him lasting fame, such that he's probably still the most well-known and well-loved director of his time. Though he started out in the UK, I think of him as perhaps the greatest American director, because he embodies so much of the entrepreneurial spirit and the inherently populist attitude of Hollywood filmmaking. He was a creature of genre films, but elevated that genre to dizzying heights. He outlasted the dismissive critics, multiple career slumps, and cultural shifts by coming up with something new and daring to show us, again and again. He was a director of endless invention, and some claim that he created the first real slasher film, the legendary "Psycho." The first time I saw the full movie after hearing years of hype, I sat down almost determined not to be impressed. And then the amazing title sequence with Bernard Hermann's jolting strings began, and it was useless to resist.

"Psycho" is about a series of intersecting crimes. First, a woman named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a large sum of money from her employer and goes on the run. She stops at a motel run by a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his sinister, unseen mother. And really, that's all the plot summary it needs, because the less you know about "Psycho," the better it plays. It's a film full of sudden turns and misdirection, constantly upending the viewer's expectations. Like so many of Hitchcock's other films, the story can be reduced to a series of basic gimmicks. In this case, we have the mystery of Norman Bates, and a few major narrative and POV shifts. However, the film is so cleverly constructed and well executed on a technical level, it is extremely effective at getting exactly the kind of response it wants: rapt attention, followed by screams.

Alas, the famous shower scene was ruined for me long before I saw "Psycho," after too many appearances in retrospectives and too many trips to Universal Studios. I knew from an early age that I was supposed to be shocked and scared by the sequence, but I always saw it apart from the rest of the film, so I never had the proper context to enjoy it as intended. Instead, I found myself much more engaged by the longer, steadier build-ups of tension. There was the initial robbery sequence. And Norman Bates tidying up the vacated motel room and almost overlooking the newspaper. And then there was my favorite shot, the very last of the film - not our final glimpse of Norman, but of Marion's car, being dredged slowly but inexorably up out of the muck to reveal the extent of our killer's crimes. I could feel the creeping dread in the pit of my stomach with every creak of the winch.

The effectiveness of "Psycho" as a thriller has faded a bit with time. It's no longer considered particularly racy or violent, and many of its innovations have become commonplace. Hitchcock killed off his biggest star halfway through the picture, a shock lessened by the fact that "Psycho" is practically the only thing that actress is remembered for . Then he got us to sympathize with the killer by showing the action from his POV. It was pretty daring in 1960, but these days there are whole television shows built around this conceit. The disturbing nature of Norman Bates has long been surpassed in both real life and in fiction. On the other hand, after over fifty years "Psycho" still works on a fundamental level. Norman and his mother are still creepy and fascinating. The viewer is encouraged to root for Marion to get away with her crime, and then encouraged to root just as hard for Norman.

Norman Bates remains a villain for the ages, perhaps the greatest screen representation of the irreparably damaged psychotic to ever find his way to the silver screen. He appeared in three largely forgotten sequels, and will be resurrected again this year for a television prequel series, "Bates Motel," starring Freddie Highmore as young Norman, and Vera Farmiga as his mother. But without Hitchcock providing his menace, it just won’t be the same.
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Finally finished all three of last year's animated horror movies. When I saw Sony Animation's "Hotel Transylvania" back in October I didn't think I had enough material for a whole post, so I resolved to wait until I'd seen the other two, and thankfully I didn't have to wait very long. Laika's "Paranorman" and Disney's "Frankenweenie" didn't do very well in theaters, and have popped up inother places pretty quick. It's a shame, because both are pretty solid little flicks, and deserved more attention than they got.

Ranking these three, "Hotel Transylvania" ends up on the bottom. This is not to say that it's a bad film. I think it's actually the best thing that Adam Sandler and a gaggle of his usual collaborators have been associated with in ages. Sandler lends his voice to Count Dracula, who has secluded himself in a remote castle far away from humanity to raise his little girl, Mavis (Selena Gomez). The castle doubles as a hotel for his monster pals, a vacation spot where they can get away without worrying about torches and pitchforks. I wasn't thrilled with the amount of crude humor and tired Sandler schtick that made its way into the film, but at least it's very restrained. The SNL alum-heavy cast dialed back considerably to keep this kid-friendly. This is also easily the least scary movie of the bunch, and the Dracula, Mummy, Werewolf, and Frankenstein we meet are all firmly in the middle-aged family man stage of life.

The result is a sweet little parent and kid bonding story, dressed up in the morbidly fun trappings of an old Universal monster picture. If you're familiar with the old Rankin Bass stop motion movie "Mad Monster Party," this is more or less the same thing, but updated for modern kids, with a little more plot to go with it. The big selling point is really the comedy, though I don't think the cast deserves much of the credit here. "Hotel Transylvania" is loaded with inventive little visual gags, like shrunken head doorknockers and a skeleton mariachi band. There's always something interesting to look at, even if it's only in the corner of the frame. We can thank veteran TV animation director Genndy Tartakovsky for the strength of the visual design work, and for keeping the proceedings very light and fun and energetic. It's hard to believe that this is his first theatrical feature, considering how deft a hand he is with animation.

"Frankenweenie" is another Tim Burton passion project, and thankfully a far more well-realized one than last summer's "Dark Shadows." It's a remake of Burton's 1984 live-action short film of the same name, where a little boy named Victor (Charlie Tahan) is so upset by the death of his beloved dog Sparky, that he finds a way to raise him from the dead. Both versions of "Frankenweenie" are loving homages to old monster movies, chiefly James Whale's "Frankenstein." I was a little worried about the new animated movie being entirely in black and white, when it's already retro stop-motion, but what Burton accomplishes with the visuals and the mood is absolutely worth it. There is some downright gorgeous cinematography in this movie, summoning an appropriate atmosphere of creeping dread. Also, Burton never lets you forget for a second that the revived zombie dog, energetic and lovable as he seems, is still a decomposing corpse.

Unfortunately, I don't think there's quite enough story to support a whole movie. Burton got some parts right, building up the relationship between Victor and Sparky, and making Sparky a more sympathetic character. However, the expansion of the plot to include a controversial teacher, the machinations of Victor's science fair rival, and Victor's crush Elsa van Helsing, didn't do much for me. The windmill sequence at the end of the film feels tacked on, and it looks an awful lot like the one at the end of Burton's "Sleepy Hollow." Then again, there's an earlier sequence involving a gang of the neighborhood kids, their pets, and the misuse of science that is one of the most entertaining pieces of creative mayhem that I've seen in a while. "Frankenweenie" has some flaws, and I expect it's always going to be a hard sell to most audiences, but it's very successful at being what it wants to be, and affirms that Tim Burton has some creative spark in him yet.

Finally there's "Paranorman," which is also stop-motion animation and also contains homages to older horror movies, mostly of the B-movie variety. The story follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a gloomy little boy who can see ghosts and other supernatural things that no one else can. This makes it hard for him to relate to his family and get along at school, where he's bullied for being different. I like how gently subversive the story is, the way that it takes common horror tropes and finds news twists on them that help to get its point across. Laika is an independent studio, and not afraid of going to places where the big studios won't go. So it's not afraid of tackling topics like bullying and prejudice, and yes, this is the movie where it turns out that one of the characters is gay. "Paranorman" has some story issues, and isn't quite as focused as it should be, but in the end it's a movie that has something to say and isn't afraid to say it.

I think one of the reasons "Paranorman" didn't do as well as it should have is that it's kind of funny looking, and I mean that in a good way. All the character designs are awkward and slightly grotesque, making Norman and his friends look very different from the cuddly heroes you see in most CGI kids' films these days. It takes a little whiel to get used to the style, but once you do, you really appreciate how well-done the animation is. The attention to detail in this movie is extraordinary. It's easy to get forget, in some of the more mundane environments like schools and bathrooms and neighborhood streets, that everything we see was specially constructed in miniature. However, that impeccable craftsmanship really comes to the fore when we come to the stunning, intense finale scenes, which have some of the best special effects work I've seen all year. Of these three movies, "Paranorman" is easily my favorite.

Looks like we're quickly filling up that deficit of animate Halloween movies. Here's hoping we get more like 'em.
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At the beginning of the year, I noted that found footage films were getting more complex and starting to make their way into other genres besides horror. “Chronicle,” for example, was a refreshing take on the superhero film, and “Project X” was a raunchy teen comedy. Both did well in theaters and are expected to spawn sequels in the near future. Since then, there have been a couple of other interesting additions to the genre I thought deserved some discussion.

First, we have the critically acclaimed police drama “End of Watch,” which is partially found footage, comprised of material shot by the characters themselves supplemented by regular photography. Director David Ayer, best known for “Training Day,” uses the found footage to create a greater sense of verisimilitude as we follow the day-to-day lives of a pair of Los Angeles policemen. The film was originally conceived to be entirely found footage, and easily could have been done that way. The conceit made sense for the story, as the actions of the police are frequently recorded, and the technology has progressed to the point where it would be plausible for criminals and other participants to be taping themselves during the events we see depicted.

Another major director took the plunge with found footage in the eco-horror film, “The Bay.” Barry Levinson, veteran writer and director, frames the story as a Skype interview being conducted with the protagonist, one of the survivors of a recent disaster that decimated a small East Coast town. Footage of the Skype call is interspersed with video evidence from various sources that she has collected, which she often narrates for the audience. I thought “The Bay” had a lot of very strong ideas, but the actors were pretty poor and there was too much reliance on traditional horror movie gimmicks and scares. Apparently its distributor thought so too, and “The Bay” was stuck with a limited platform release and was mostly viewed through VOD services.

Found footage continues to flourish in this year’s horror films. “Paranormal Activity 4” and “REC 3” were the latest films in their respective series, both showing some signs of fatigue. “Chernobyl Diaries” scared up a decent profit during a crowded summer season. In the fall we had “V/H/S,” an anthology horror film where the various segments are presented as the contents of a stash of video tapes discovered in the film’s framing sequence. Then there was “Sinister,” which is similar to ‘The Ring” in that the main character literally finds the footage – a series of gruesome Super 8 home movies that show the POV of a disturbed serial killer.

What I like about this latest batch of found footage movies is that they have grown beyond the original concept of recovered footage from a single film camera, like we saw in “The Blair Witch Project.” Instead, the recovered footage often comes from a variety of sources, providing the opportunity for a larger scope and more complex storytelling. As the subject matter of these films has become more diverse, it also reflects the growing reality of a modern world where the cameras are everywhere, and all you need is a kid with a smartphone in the right place as the right time to place a camera on any scene.

What we haven’t seen much of yet is the exploration of how easy it is to edit and manipulate this kind of footage to create serious distortions of the truth. Thinking on the antics of James O’Keefe, I wonder if we might see a more critical crime or political thriller in the near future, contemplating the ability of film to mislead us. One of the reasons I think that found footage is so compelling is that we unconsciously react to the footage as being more real and believable than regular film productions, to the point where we ignore shoddy production values and bad acting. However, it also means we can be more easily fooled.

There’s been vocal consternation that the studios are stuck in a rut and only seem to want to finance either outrageously expensive CGI spectaculars or the microbudgeted found footage films. However, I think found footage does have a lot of potential as a genre that is being overlooked. Some of the most creative and interesting films in recent years have been very low-budget features, and the aesthetic of found footage and commercial video recording is becoming one of the defining ones of this era. Along with the mumblecore films, this is filmmaking getting back to basics, and that’s not a bad thing.

I hope we see more major directors trying out this genre, and finding more novel things to do with it. Found footage has proven itself surprisingly versatile, and this year has seen two major films, “Chronicle” and “End of Watch,” that have elevated it to new heights.
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I don't particularly want to write this review, but since I committed to doing it in a Tim Burton post I wrote a few months ago, I feel that I have an obligation to fulfill. I only regret that I have posted this resulting screed so late, when most people curious about the film have probably already seen it.

"Dark Shadows," based on a '60s television soap of the same name, is about a vampire named Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp). Originally a wealthy gentleman in the 1700s, Barnabas spurns the affections of the witch Angelique (Eva Green) for his true love Josette (Bella Heathcote). The vengeful Angelique kills Josette and turns Barnabas into a vampire, who is quickly trapped in a coffin and buried. Barnabas is not unearthed until the 1970s, and finds his descendants still living in Collinwood Manor. They're an odd bunch with a lot of secrets, and have lost nearly all their money and influence to the still young and vengeful Angelique, now a major business rival.

The cast of "Dark Shadows" is terribly impressive and includes Michelle Pfeiffer as Collins matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Jonny Lee Miller as her slimy brother Roger, Chloë Moretz as Elizabeth's hostile teenage daughter Carolyn, Gulliver McGrath as Roger's glum 10-year-old son David, Jackie Earl Haley as Collinwood's caretaker, and of course, Helena Bonham Carter as a live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman. Bella Heathcote also pops back into the picture to play Victoria Winters, David's mysterious new governess, who understandably attracts Barnabas's attentions. And what does director Tim Burton do with this varied and talented cast? Extremely little worth talking about.

"Dark Shadows" seems like it would be perfect material for a Tim Burton film, full of supernatural characters and soap opera kitsch. However, Burton chose to turn it into a pure comedy by making Barnabas a fish-out-of-water in the 1970s. I can find little fault with Johnny Depp's performance, a broadly foppish turn accentuated by elaborate makeup and clothing. The problem is that he's a very limited, one-note character stuck doing variations on the same goofy joke for the entire film. And it's the same joke he was doing as Edward Scissorhands back in 1991! Here's this oddly-dressed anachronistic horror movie character trying to get along in the modern day! Ain't that a gas? Well yes, briefly, but you can't build an entire movie on one joke. So "Dark Shadows" rolls out a tragic romance and a family-in-peril story to go with Depp's hijinks, and neither of them remotely work.

This is one of the worst written movies I've seen this year. There are potentially interesting characters who are never properly developed, story threads that go nowhere, random events that don't seem to connect to anything else in the movie, and too many of the major revelations are not set up properly at all. I was trying to give "Dark Shadows" the benefit of the doubt, but it just kept getting more ridiculous. I suspect that Burton was trying to parody the soap opera conventions of the original show, but he never managed to get the tone right, which was nowhere near as campy and satirical as it should have been. Instead, the movie comes off as very colorful and eccentric and typically Burtonesque, with no substance to speak of and no laughs to be found. It was too much "Alice in Wonderland," and not enough "Mars Attacks."

When the film does manage to get something right, it feels like a mistake. Eva Green is a bright spot as the craven Angelique, who at one point aggressively tries to seduce Barnabas in romp that destroys her office and sends the camera spinning. The scene is pretty amusing and a lot of fun visually, but it also makes it clear that Depp has far more chemistry with Green than he does with Heathcote in their tepid courtship scenes. Helena Bonham Carter's psychiatrist subplot turns out the same way, cut off just as things were getting interesting, in favor of something far duller.

The only thing particularly praiseworthy about the film is that it has some nice art direction and cinematography. It's not hard to see where the budget went, as the sets and costumes are gorgeous, playing with vintage styling and Gothic touches. However, the abuse of CGI visuals is becoming a common problem in Burton films, and this is no exception. Frankly, all the common criticisms that are usually lobbed against Tim Burton films are true of "Dark Shadows." It's indulgent. It's style-over-substance. It's weird for the sake of being weird.

The sad thing is, I think Burton was trying to do something different and stretch himself. "Dark Shadows" is perhaps the closest thing he's done to a straight comedy in a long while, and the humor's a little more adult than we usually see from him. A few more tweaks and rewrites, and this could have been a very different and much more interesting film. In its current state, though, it's barely watchable and not worth defending.

Better luck next time, Tim Burton.
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I wanted to write up a post on the first season of TNT's "American Horror Story" for Halloween, but didn't quite make the deadline. However, I enjoyed the show so much, I still want to recommend it for all your non-Halloween horror needs.

What I like about "American Horror Story" is that it's so unrepentantly exploitative and trashy, every opening shot slapped with a TV MA rating. The content level goes beyond anything else on basic cable. Adultery! Crimes of passion! Devious maids! Burn victims! Children with birth defects! The pilot features a kinky sex scene set to music lifted from Hitchcock's "Vertigo." And of course there's the show's mascot, the guy in the black rubber gimp suit. Every episode has some juicy twist, or some licentious new secret to reveal. The characters are completely over the top, but so much fun to watch, you don't want to stop. So while "American Horror Story" is often a spectacular mess, it's also immensely entertaining. It's also one of the only properly horrific pieces of horror television currently on the air.

The bones of the plot are as follows: The Harmon family, comprised of psychiatrist father Ben (Dylan McDermott), mother Vivien (Connie Britton), and teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), move into their new Los Angeles home, a palatial Victorian with a dark history. Their new neighbors include the very friendly, manipulative Constance Langdon (Jessica Lange) and her daughter Addie (Jamie Brewer), who has Down's Syndrome. Ben is treating a troubled teenager named Tate (Evan Peters), who takes a liking to Violet. Other regulars include a horribly burned man named Larry (Denis O'Hare), who claims to be a former resident of the house, and a maid Vivien hires named Moira, who appears as a sweet old woman (Frances Conroy) to Vivien and Constance, but men see her as a provocatively dressed young woman (Alexandra Breckinridge).

The series borrows bits and pieces from dozens of horror stories and murder mysteries. The history of the "Murder House" spans nearly a century, and the series spends a lot of time tracking what happened to the various inhabitants who met terrible misfortune within its walls. Home invasions, school shootings, tragic accidents, mad doctors, and a few monsters all make appearances, and the series even recreates a few famous, real-life slayings. Even though the creators didn't know at the time that "American Horror Story" would continue in an anthology format, the first season is a compendium of different horror tales all by itself. The early episodes are the most bizarre and the most intriguing, because you never know what you're going to see next. We learn the origins of some things, like the guy in the gimp suit. Others, like the thing in the basement, are never really explained.

I want to reiterate that the series is really not very good on a fundamental level. The writing is wildly uneven, and the characters are little more than cyphers. All the women are prone to hysterics. All the men have roving eyes and are easily provoked. Ben and Vivien end up in shouting matches about every other episode. The wild twists and salacious content often comes at the price of bad characterization and shoddy logic. I don't think I've seen a show with so much convenient amnesia since "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It often feels like the writers take the kitchen sink approach, just dumping more and more characters and horrible events into the mix every time things slow down. It's only well into the second half of the season that we start getting decent chunks of character development and proper through lines.

In many episodes, the biggest saving grace is the performances, particularly of Jessica Lange as the tough old Southern Belle, Constance Langdon. She's a twisted woman who does monstrous things, but it's hard not to sympathize with her. Constance could have so easily been another caricature, but Lange imparts her with a steely, knowing awareness and aura of tragedy. No matter what she claims, there's never a doubt that she knows better than anyone else what's going on. The kids, Evan Peters and Taissa Farmiga, are also very good. In a show where all the emotion is cranked up to operatic heights, it makes sense that the hormonal teenagers are the ones who seem the most emotionally genuine.

The only thing I did not like at all about the first season of "American Horror Story" was the ending, which felt like the creators were leaving things open-ended for another season with the same characters. This didn't happen, as the new "Asylum" storyline started over with an entirely new setting and characters, though several of the actors stuck around to play new parts. So I'm really looking forward to the next chapters of "American Horror Story," since the creators don't have any reason to hold back this time.
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I feared the worst when I learned that NBC was rebooting "The Munsters," especially when I heard that the concept was to do a prequel series featuring Herman and Lily Munster's early days. Apparently I wasn't the only one with misgivings, because over the summer reports on Brian Fuller's pilot indicated that it was going the more traditional route and following the template of the original series, with Eddie and Marilyn appearing as part of the family. NBC decided not to pick up the show, but was stuck with an expensive pilot for "Mockingbird Lane" on their hands. So they decided to repackage the pilot as a Halloween special, which aired Friday night. And it wasn't nearly as bad as I had expected.

Directed by Bryan Singer, "Mockingbird Lane" looks a lot like Fuller's "Pushing Daisies," full of bright storybook visuals and old fashioned whimsy. The Munster family members no longer resemble the old Universal classic monsters. Instead, Herman is played by Jerry O'Connell, and has a couple of visible scars from where he was stitched together from different pieces, but otherwise looks like a perfectly ordinary man. His lovely wife Lily (Portia de Rossi) has no Bride-of-Frankenstein white streak in her hair, and their son Eddie (Mason Cook) only has werewolf features during the full moon. Marilyn (Charity Wakefield) looks exactly as she always has, but this time she doesn't stand out. Only Grandpa (Eddie Izzard), with his continental fashion sense, appears to have stepped out of another era. However, it's made perfectly clear that the Munster family is still very monstrous. Herman's heart, his only original part, literally breaks when he becomes too emotional. Lily appears in a cloud of swirling smoke and enjoys lounging on the ceiling. The move to the new house on Mockingbird Lane is prompted by an unfortunate incident where Eddie's werewolf side manifests for the first time during a Boy Scout camping trip.

Telling Eddie that he's a werewolf is the major dilemma of the first episode, illustrating how "Mockingbird Lane" swaps out 60s sitcom family dynamics with the considerably more complicated and self-aware ones of the present day. The Munsters understand that they're different, even if it's less apparent on the outside, and this is treated as something that they all struggle with to different degrees. The running joke about Marilyn being the oddball normal of the the clan is translated into simmering resentment between her and Grandpa, who disapproves of Marilyn's very existence. Izzard steals the show, as Grandpa wholeheartedly gives into his wild side, wasting no time in turning the neighbors into blood slaves with spiked cookies and playing mad scientist when Herman's heart goes bust. The horrors are more goofy than scary, but they have much more bite to them than in the old days. In spite of the cuddly family angle, I wonder if the show is a bit too macabre to be considered family friendly. There are some tonal issues that need ironing out, especially the humor, which is a little too light on the suburban satire and awfully glib with the one-liners.

I suspect that this is why NBC didn't pick up "Mockingbird Lane." The pilot is perfectly decent with some good ideas, but it has all the earmarks of a cult show. It's not easygoing enough for families, not sophisticated enough for grown-ups, and not ghoulish enough for horror fans. The original "Munsters" is hardly even shown in reruns anymore, so there's not much nostalgia to count on either. I suspect that the price tag also had something to do with it. One of the big selling points of "Mockingbird Lane" is its gorgeous production design, which incorporates lots of stylized visuals and special effects, which we know cost a fortune. But cut out those effects, and what's left? O'Connell and De Rossi are a little bland as Herman and Lily, without much chemistry between them. De Rossi in particular doesn't get to do much in the pilot, never given a chance to show off her formidable comedic skills. Charity Wakefield and Mason Cook are more solid as the kids, and Izzard is a lot of fun, but leaning on him too heavily would be disastrous.

There is a small chance that NBC will move forward with more episodes of "Mockingbird Lane," but I think the people in charge made the right call in turning the show down. The pilot made for some good season-appropriate spectacle, but I don't know if I'd want to tune in every week for something like this. The end product could have been a lot worse, though. We could have ended up with something like the 80s reboot, "The Munsters Today," or the 90s TV movie version. "Mockingbrid Lane" at least tried to do something original with the "Munsters" concept.
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If you're a fan of animated films, you might have noticed that we're in the middle of a glut of horror-themed cartoons. Laika's "ParaNorman" arrived last month, Sony Pictures Animation's "Hotel Transylvania" came out this past weekend, and Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," based on his 1984 live action short, is due in theaters tomorrow. Of course, this could all be a coincidence. Looking at the producing studios' prior output, Laika's last film, "Coraline," was horror-themed, and all of Tim Burton's animated work has had more than a tinge of the macabre. "Hotel Transylvania," which is really more comedy than horror, spent years in development hell before finally emerging as a finished film, and no one could have predicted it would be at the same time as the other two. And it makes sense for all these projects to be released close to Halloween to take advantage of the spooky holiday spirit.

But still, it's a heck of a coincidence. We've had a "Monsters vs. Aliens" here and an "Igor" there, but rarely more than one or two animated horror titles a year, and usually spaced well apart. I have a couple of theories, one of which is that more than one creative genius decided to try their own spin on a kid-friendly horror cartoon, as it's a promising little genre with plenty of material waiting to be explored. There are so many animated films being released now, and it can be a struggle to make any single picture stand out from the crowd. There's definitely an increasingly famiiar pastel-hued, children's picture book aesthetic that a lot of recent CGI films have adopted. Horror films are a license to get away from that, with a more extreme color palette and wilder designs. It's no surprise that "ParaNorman," "Hotel Transylvania," and "Frankenweenie" are all very visually distinct, tell completely different stories, and are difficult to confuse.

Or maybe it's something a little deeper than that. The American feature animation industry has blossomed in recent years, and we have multiple studios that are thriving financially. The competition among the major players, including PIXAR, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, Sony, Disney, and Illumination, has really heated up, and we keep seeing the bar for quality pushed higher and higher. PIXAR landed two Best Picture nominations at the Oscars in 2010 for "Up" and 2011 for "Toy Story 3," which were lauded for being more thematically serious and challenging. And yet, American animated features have always been limited to very family-friendly, mainstream pictures. We saw some experimentation with more adult ideas for a while, when animators were still seeing what CGI was capable of. This lead to some interesting features like the dystopian "9" and action-adventure "Beowulf," but none of these did particularly well. However, foreign animated films for grown-ups have had more success, and we're regularly seeing gems like "Persepolis," "Waltz for Bashir,” and "Chico & Rita" in the art houses.

Animation fans have often traded theories about how to make Americans more accepting of more adult animation, which would allow for a wider range of stories. However, the conception of animation being children's media is so deeply ingrained, I think any change in attitude is going to be incremental over a long period of time. So how do you push at the boundaries and do something challenging if you don't have PIXAR level talent, and you want to stay kid-friendly enough to attract a paying audience? You make something scary. You create something that parents have to think twice about bringing the littler kids to see, because the warnings are implicit in the choice of material. If you're a smaller studio like Laika, you make "Coraline," a stop-motion horror film that was genuinely frightening. Horror is one of those few genres that can straddle the line between kid-safe and truly adult, that can tap into some very dark themes while still maintaining a friendly exterior. "Coraline" has lots of great visual spectacle, but it also features a sinister doppelganger of the young heroine's mother, who lures the girl into a fantasy world full of disturbing doubles of people from her real life. And when "Coraline" does well, you follow it up with the ghosts and zombies of "Paranorman."

In 1993, Disney took a major gamble backing "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," which has become a cult classic and probably the defining Halloween-themed animated film of this generation. All the other horror cartoons that followed since owe "Nightmare" a major debt. It's fitting that Burton's back with "Frankenweenie," which looks to be another very risky film. It's a monochromatic homage to older horror flicks that its target audience probably won't be familiar with. But then again, who can resist a new spin on the classic boy and his dog story? As we go into opening weekend, the box office forecasters are predicting that "Frankenweenie" is going to get crushed by "Taken 2" and the much more accessible "Hotel Transylvania," but there's a lot be said for he fact that the "Frankenweenie" feature actually got made. And there's always the chance that like "Nightmare," it'll find its audience over time, because it's been established that the audience for these slightly older-skewing films does exist.

I doubt that there are many people who want to see all three of the latest animated horror films in such quick succession, but there are clearly a lot of people who are game for one or two of them. And that's enough.
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There have been many television shows about the agents of the Devil, including procedurals like "Brimstone" and "Millennium," and more lighthearted takes like "Reaper." The Devil is never explicitly mentioned anywhere in the first hour of "666 Park Avenue," but all the earmarks of the genre are apparent. The unsuspecting residents of the luxurious New York Upper East Side's fictional 999 Park Avenue are tempted and seduced by the building's owners, Gavin and Olivia Doran (Terry O'Quinn, Vanessa Williams), into committing some capital sin in exchange for their heart's desire, and then the pair collect on the price with the aid of supernatural forces, usually manifesting through the building itself. In the pre-title sequence, we see a violinist unsuccessfully trying to flee the scene, but he only gets a few feet away from the beautiful residence before being literally sucked back inside.

The show's protagonists are a young couple, Jane Van Veen (Rachael Taylor) and Henry Martin (Dave Annable), who have been hired as the new on site co-managers of the building, responsible for day to day upkeep. Henry keeps his day job as an attorney who works for the mayor's office, while Jane is an unemployed architect who takes an interest in the building's history. As soon as they move into their posh new apartment, delighted at their good fortune, Gavin and Olivia start working their claws in. This is clearly a long con, and we are only in the very early stages of the seduction phase, but the Dorans' tactics are clear. Henry has political connections they wish to exploit while lovely Jane has caught Gavin's eye. Jane is positioned as the show's central figure, who not only digs up several ominous historical documents during the hour, but gets a major supernatural warning as well.

Meanwhile, other residents are a little further along in the process. Among the show's regulars will be another young couple, playwright Brian (Robert Buckley) and fashionista Louise (Mercedes Masöhn), who are headed for a dangerous love triangle when Brian's roving eye lands on Alexis (Helena Mattsson), Louise's new assistant who is also a resident of the building. Then there's the thief in the building, Nona (Samantha Logan), a teenager who lifts small trinkets, but is clearly courting big trouble. Finally, two characters who we may never see again after the pilot are John and Mary Barlow (James Waterston, Lucy Walters). Mary is quite dead from an apparent suicide, but Gavin brings her back for John on the condition that he kill a few people on the Dorans' behalf. This arrangement is brief and doesn't end pleasantly. However, from the long list of future recurring characters on the show's roster, the vacancy should be filled pretty quickly.

"666 Park Avenue" is going to follow the format of a late evening soap, full of illicit betrayals and other bad behavior by beautiful people, except with supernatural consequences. Unfortunately, I don't think the horror elements really do much for the show. They're not campy or toothy enough to be much fun, and not scary enough to offer any real thrills. Though they feature heavily in the promos, the special effects are a bore, and the atmosphere is sorely lacking. I like seeing Terry O'Quinn and Vanessa Williams as an evil Mephistophelean power couple, but you don't need to be an agent of the Devil in order to pull that off. The rest of the cast is going to have to hustle to catch up to them, though. I'm already far more interested in how the Dorans met and got themselves into this soul-collecting racket than I am about the Barbie and Ken doll hero and heroine who have stumbled into their little web.

However, there is something fascinating about seeing a parade of hapless, weak-willed television creatures fall victim to their own worst natures week after week, and I can see this series becoming something like a gleeful "Touched by an Angel" in reverse. With so many anti-heroes running around these days, it is nice to see a show with more old-fashioned definitions of good and evil, of right and wrong, where we know the comeuppances are coming. That element, more than any long-simmering romantic tensions or any murky series mythology, is going to be the show's best chance at attracting and keeping an audience. At this point most of the show's regular players are simply too generic, and are going to need a few more shades of gray if their fight to stay uncorrupted is going to actually be a proper fight worth watching. It'll probably take a few weeks of spotlight episodes to tell one way or the other.

I think I'll stick around for another episode or two, at least long enough to see if Vanessa Williams will get to cast a few people into Hell the same way that Terry O'Quinn did in the pilot. I admit that was the part I was really looking forward to.
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Since I saw the trailer for "Beyond the Black Rainbow," a trippy Canadian science-fiction thriller directed by Panos Cosmatos, it's been high on my "to see" list. More than the psychedelic visuals or the wonderfully strange dystopian plot, it was the soundtrack and sound design, heavy on thrumming synthesizer instrumentals, that caught my attention. It perfectly captured this wonderfully sinister mood I associate with science-fiction films of the late 70s and early 80s like "THX 1138," "TRON," and "Altered States."

"Beyond the Black Rainbow" deliberately evokes these films and others, setting its story in the year 1983. The first thing we see is a delightfully kitschy promotional video introduced by Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), founder of the Arboria Institute, a commune promising a new-age path to psychic and spiritual enlightenment. Then we meet Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), who runs the Institute, in reality a cold, sterile place cut off from the rest of the world. A beautiful young girl named Elena (Eva Allen) is being held captive there, under constant surveillance. She has mysterious mental powers that Nyle uses heavy sedation and a strange glowing device to keep in check. He delights in tormenting Elena in daily sessions, obsessing over her development to a disturbing extent. However, Elena's powers are growing stronger and more dangerous while Nyle is quickly losing control of himself.

There is only a very, very basic story holding together what is essentially a mood piece. I think it's fair to say "Beyond the Black Rainbow" is very much like "Drive," except with a mad scientist and even less dialogue. Long hypnotic shots show off a production design heavily influenced by "2001: A Space Odyssey," with its rigid, severe geometric decor and retro color palette. There are a couple of really impressive sets, but others reflect the low budget of the production. This is clearly meant to be an homage to not only the science-fiction of the 70s, but the filmmaking techniques of the day. So we see the use of a lot of practical effects and older film tricks like superimpositions and double exposures to convey the volatile emotional and mental states of the characters. Dr. Nyle's surreal self-discovery sequence late in the film recalls "2001" travelling beyond the solar system in its use of bizarre abstract imagery. Meanwhile, the aural side of the film is an old school analog wonder, lending depth and dimension to simple visuals, giving a sense of strangeness and intensity to even the most innocuous objects.

Deciphering the film's myriad metaphors and untangling its obtuse narrative doesn't matter nearly as much as enjoying the rare atmosphere of paranoia and possibility that it manages to create and sustain. There are multiple, prolonged shots where almost nothing is happening onscreen, but the tension builds and builds, until the film is practically pulsating with menace. Unseen forces figure heavily into the story, driving Nyle's madness and Elena's need to escape her captors. There are many elements that are never explained at all, like the Arboria Institute's imposing, helmeted sentries that are unleashed to subdue Elena. Who are they? What are they? And where did Elena come from? The esoteric pronouncements of Dr. Arboria and Dr. Nyle's taunts provide some hints, suggesting something deeper, grander, and madder at the heart of the Arboria Institute that can never be fully understood by mere, untranscendant mortals.

Or perhaps not. Where "Beyond the Black Rainbow" falls apart completely is in the final ten minutes, when suddenly it becomes a very different picture and tries to give the audience a very concrete, conventional ending. This does not work at all. Suddenly the scintillating mood is gone, and the film concludes with something straight out of a bad horror movie. Up until those last ten minutes, however, "Black Rainbow" is a really interesting mix of experimental art film, drug trip, dystopian thriller, and Cronenbergian psychological science-fiction. I especially enjoyed the skin-crawling performance of Michael Rogers, who is both creepy and campy in all the right ways. Surprisingly, this seems to be his biggest film role to date.

"Beyond the Black Rainbow" is obviously not for everybody. I'm sure many viewers who will be put off by its alienated outlook, extreme stylization, and the slow pace, but I think it should also have great appeal for genre fans of a certain age, or really anyone looking for something a little weird and out of the ordinary. It just screams future cult film. This is Panos Cosmatos's first feature, and I'm interested to see what he does next, and if he can move beyond this particular style and sensibility. Given the lushness and immersiveness of what he accomplished with only a little more than a million dollars, you have to wonder what he could do with a bigger budget and a real script.


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