HALLOWEEN FAVORITES: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

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SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)

This Tim Burton directed classic is another of my Halloween Favorites and I like to watch it every year at this time, when I want a bit of a rest from the more intense horrors, but still want something with plenty of Halloween spirit and all the trappings…and this film has both.

Andrew Kevin Walker’s script, from a story by he and Kevin Yagher, takes a lot of liberties with the classic Washington Irving tale, but is still a lot of ghoulish fun. This version takes place in 1799 and transforms Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) from a meek local school teacher to a meek NYC detective with an interest in forensic science that annoys his superiors, who have a much simpler view of crime and punishment. His belligerent attempts at waking his peers up to the new age of police work earns him a trip up the Hudson River Valley to the small, remote village of Sleepy Hollow. A rash of decapitations has the entire town wrapped in a blanket of fear, as they are rumored to be committed by a headless fiend riding an enormous black steed. Upon his arrival, the skeptical Crane not only comes face to face with a very real headless horseman, but witches, black magic and a conspiracy of death and murder. Can Crane get to the bottom of who holds the horseman’s reigns and somehow keep his own head on his shoulders where it belongs?

Despite wandering greatly from the original The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton’s ode to Hammer horror films…with more than a few nods to the Universal classics…is, if nothing else, a stunningly spooky visual feast that oozes Halloween from almost every sumptuous shot of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. Burton also brings dollops of atmosphere and a lot of spine tingling action, with a touch of fairy tale whimsy, as Crane overcomes his own fears to solve the mysteries around him and take on the supernatural head-hunting juggernaut. He also spatters the screen with a generous amount of the red stuff as we get quite a few beheadings, stabbings and slicings, as the undead Hessian mercenary tracks down it’s assigned prey in Terminator-like fashion. The gore FX are very well executed and there are only a few spots of CGI here and there to enhance the live effects occurring on screen. There is a great Danny Elfman score to add to the atmosphere and it’s all a great deal of fog-drenched, blood-spattered fun!

Burton also has a great cast to help him tell his tale. Depp is channeling his inner Peter Cushing as Ichabod Crane and he is a delight to watch as he takes his arrogant yet cowardly police inspector wading into supernatural territory far removed from the comfort of his science. Christina Ricci is charming and pretty as both love interest and suspect, Katrina Van Tassel. She and Depp have a nice chemistry, though I do feel Ricci could have been a bit livelier at times considering how over the top the rest of the cast is. Miranda Richardson is perfectly cast as Katrina’s step-mother Mary and Michael Gambon is properly bombastic as her father and chief suspect Baltus Van Tassel. We also get Casper Van Dien as Katrina’s jealous suitor Brom, Michael Gough, Jeffery Jones, Ian McDiarmid, Marc Pickering and Christopher Walken as the Hessian mercenary whose loss of head creates a demonic legend. Add in cameos from Martin Landau and the great Christopher Lee and you have an almost perfect cast that gets the tone of the material ghoulishly well.

What can I say, I love this flick. It drips Halloween from every frame and while it may deviate from the classic tale considerably, it is a lot of bloody fun and it has a good cast that embrace the tone of the script perfectly. It’s a great flick to watch during the Halloween season, when you need a break from the more intense horror films, but still want a movie that has everything you want in a flick for this time of year. A really fun and deviously gruesome treat.

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) horsemen!

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and BEETLEJUICE

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This week’s double feature is one that not only works perfectly but, is a lot of fun. It pairs Tim Burton’s first two films together, the hilarious and delightfully surreal Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and the supernatural Gothic laugh fest that is Beetlejuice. Both films would introduce the world to Burton’s cartoonish visual style and have gone on to become cult classics in their own right. When stacked up against his body of work, they still rank as two of his best. So crack open your favorite beverage and enjoy this double bill of offbeat hilarity.
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PEE WEE’s BIG ADVENTURE (1985)

Paul Reubens’ Pee Wee Herman character became a sensation in the 80s. He started out as a more adult-themed comedy act and cable TV show and then became an all-out, though still pretty bizarre, hit children’s show. So, the transition to feature films was a natural and quirky new filmmaker Tim Burton was perfectly picked to guide Pee Wee to the big screen in this cartoonish and surreal adventure.

The plot is simple. Pee Wee’s prized bicycle is stolen and the strange man-child sets off on a cross country adventure to hunt it down and get it back. His travels lead him to some strange places, where he meets some equally strange characters as he follows a trail that takes him all the way to the Alamo and then eventually brings him to Hollywood.

Tim Burton was the perfect director for this project scripted by Reubens, the late Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol. It’s a colorful, yet bizarre, road trip populated by some very eccentric and equally colorful characters. And Burton’s Edward Gorey-ish visual style is perfect for the weird situations Pee Wee gets into such as his encounters with escaped convict Micky (Judd Omen), a rowdy biker gang, the phantom-like Large Marge (Alice Nunn) and the climactic chase through Warner Brothers Studios. Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman was brought in to score and his whimsical musical style was a perfect fit for the situations on-screen. Reubens, Burton and Elfman where so perfectly matched here, it’s sad the three have never, at least so far, collaborated again on another movie, unless you count Reubens’ small role in Batman Returns. Burton brings a sense of whimsy to the proceedings and has no problem indulging in the surreal such as two amusing nightmare sequences where Pee Wee fears about the fate of his bike. The FX are simple and quaint and even involve a little stop-motion animation and it adds to the film’s charm which it has lots of. It gives the film an almost demented fairly tale vibe at times, which fits the universe Reubens has already created for his character.

The cast have a lot of fun with this, too. Reubens is at his Pee Wee best and his reactions to things, such as his impatience with The Alamo tour guide, Tina are just as hysterical as is the broader physical comedy. 80s cutie and icon E.G. Daily plays the only, fairly down to earth character in the film, bike shop repair girl Dottie, who crushes on the reluctant Pee Wee. The rest of the characters are all cartoonish such as spoiled brat and bike theft suspect Francis (Mark Holton) and of course, Lou Cutell as Amazing Larry. And the actors all have a lot of fun with their over the top screen personas. Burton gets good work out of everyone for the gallery of oddball characters that inhabit Pee Wee’s world.

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is a comedy classic and rightfully so. It’s delightfully offbeat and amusingly surreal at times and Burton was the perfect choice to bring Pee Wee’s off-kilter world to the big screen. The movie is incredibly quotable and I still laugh heartily when I watch it all these years later and it definitely is one of my all time favorite comedies. And if that makes me a geek, fine… I know you are but, what am I ?

3 and 1/2 Pee Wees!

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BEETLEJUICE (1988)

Burton’s sophomore feature teamed him with another comic icon Michael Keaton, in this tale that puts a spin on the traditional haunted house story by having the ghosts trying to remove the humans from their house and not the other way around and turning in desperation to the demonic bio-exorcist Beetlejuice (Keaton) for help.

The story has young couple Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam (Alec Baldwin) Maitland, living a peaceful life in their large house in a remote New England town… until a horrible accident brings about their premature demise. But, things get worse for the dearly departed couple when, as they try to adjust to their new after-life, their home is invaded by the new owners, the new age Deetz family, Charles (Jeffery Jones), Delia (Catherine O’Hara) and their Goth emo daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). With their gaudy interior decorator Otho (Glenn Shadix) in tow, they begin to completely remodel the Maitland’s house. The ghostly couple try to haunt the new family out but, only wind up intriguing them and in desperation, they turn to the demonic entity known as Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to evict the Deetzes from their home. But, they have started to bond with Lydia and realize all too late that the funky phantom they have unleashed has a far more sinister agenda and becomes a far worse problem then the Deetzes and their plans to turn the house into a paranormal sideshow attraction.

Written by Warren Skaaren and Michael McDowell from a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson, this was another film perfectly suited to Burton’s gothic, offbeat visual style and his quirky sense of whimsy. Burton really gets to have some surreal visual fun with his presentations of the afterlife and in the design of some of the supernatural beings that inhabit it. His teaming with Keaton is also perfect as the actor gets to really chew up the scenery as the bizarre and slightly perverse Beetlejuice. The character comes across less an actual demon than your creepy, pervy, alcoholic uncle… on crack… and that’s kinda what makes it work. Keaton is completely over the top and it fits Burton’s over the top style directing style very well. While not all the bits work, most do and the film is not only flat out hysterical at times but, whimsically spooky at others. The climactic last act when Beetlejuice is loosed on the Deetzes dinner party and trying to wed Lydia so he can remain corporeal is an amusement park ride, almost literally, and it makes it worth the wait to see him finally and fully unleashed. The film also makes it’s ghost characters, The Maitlands, the only normal people in the movie which adds to the turning the traditional haunting premise on it’s head. The film is a lot of fun and Burton imbues it with some nice sentimental moments too. Here he still knew when to temper the outlandish with the subtle, something some of his recent films seem to have lost. The FX here are very inventive and not only include some very bizarre make-up and prosthetics but, some charming stop-motion animation as well. A time before CGI and it’s all the more charming for it. Despite a modest budget the quaint FX enhance the film’s atmosphere and add to the fun. Again Danny Elfman was brought into score and again his music fits the film like a spooky glove.

As for the human cast elements, despite not having as much screen time as you might think, it’s Keaton’s show and he takes the demonic ball and runs with it. He is completely and unapologetically over the top as the perverted and devious oddball demon that is Beetlejuice. He has a lot of great bits to chew on and while not every line is knee-slapping, Keaton gives them his all anyway and the film would not have worked so well without him. Davis and Baldwin make a very endearing couple of ghosts and they have a really great chemistry together and with Ryder. The fact that they are played as the most normal characters in the film adds to the charm and they both give very down to earth performances… pun intended. It really works as a nice contrast to the eccentric Deetzes and their weird friends and, of course, Beetlejuice himself. And as the Deetzes there is also a nice contrast here with Jeffery Jones’ more down to earth real estate developer and Catherine O’Hara’s delightfully eccentric new age sculptor wife. Add in the adorably gloomy Lydia brought to life by a cute, young Winona Ryder and the obnoxious and self centered Otho, made all the more amusing by a scenery chewing Glenn Shadix (who sadly passed away in 2010 due to injuries sustained in a fall in his home). A very well cast comedy with some very talented people doing what they do best.

I love this movie. Sure, not all the bits work and a slightly tighter script could have made it even more of a tour de force for the eclectic cast but, with Keaton creating an iconic character and some truly inventively designed otherworldly characters and sequences, you get a very original and now classic comedy and a film that is still, in my opinion, one of both Burton’s and Keaton’s best. A delight even close to 30 years later. Also features cameos by Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett.

3 and 1/2 Beetlejuices!

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