Vernor’s Halloween Spook-a-thon: Favorite movie chillers

Vernorsticket note: Ten years ago I composed this little piece in honor of Halloween. I am offering it again, with one little change, adding a new movie to this listing.

Vernor’s Halloween Spook-a-thon

Having advanced well beyond the age of legitimate trick-or-treating, I turn to alternative ways to celebrate Halloween. I do not care much for donning costumes, and the most recent Halloween parties I have attended have been mega-blowouts like apartment complex hullabaloos featuring massively plastered people I barely know, if at all.
But the last few years I have carried on a tradition that has gradually lengthened in time as I expand it. Simply, I watch horror films. Because my collection has grown, I now must start viewing them, since I average three per week, in early September so I can wrap up the spook-a-thon by Oct. 31.
Here are some of my favorite chillers of all time.

“Frankenstein.” The original 1931 version. This is the classic. Although not as gory as other Frankenstein ventures, it is still the best. Other Frankenstein movies have been more faithful to Mary Shelley’s novel, but this one set the pace and gave us the most recognized, square-headed monster. Colin Clive and Mae Clarke ham it up as the Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his beloved Elizabeth. And Boris Karloff etched his name forever into the annals of horror moviedom with his portrayal of a creature constructed from the parts of dead people, and who is basically misunderstood. Dwight Frye, also a horror movie regular, was the good doctor’s hunchbacked, bumbling assistant, Fritz.
Yes, this movie wouldn’t scare anybody over age four, but for us aging boomers, it brings back memories of watching these old Universal monster movies on Saturday afternoon, and collecting the monster action figures and models.

“Dracula.” Also the original. Decades later, Bela Lugosi still reigns as the ultimate Count Dracula. His lusty, blood-thirsty leer still can send chills up the spine, and he delivered one of the great movie lines: “I never drink … wine.” Dwight Frye has his shining moment as the doomed Renfeld, allowing him a chance to unleash his crazed laugh. Edward Van Sloan, who appeared as a mentor to Dr. Frankenstein in “Frankenstein,” again plays a doctor here, Van Helsing, who correctly believes the classy count is really just a blood-sucking maniac. The eerie mood of this movie has rarely been matched in later vampire flicks.

“Psycho.” This was the original slasher film. It made taking a shower a dangerous experience and propelled Norman Bates and The Bates Motel into worldwide prominence. Not only that, it was directed by the master of suspense thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock.
This movie broke ground in several ways when it hit the theaters in 1960. It killed off a major star — Janet Leigh as Marion Crane — early in the movie. It was one of the first films that forced movie theater owners to agree not to let anyone into the theater after the film had started. It also paved the way with rapid-cut editing in the shower scene to imply a brutal stabbing without ever showing the knife actually penetrate flesh.
The late Anthony Perkins, like Lugosi and Karloff, would go to his grave known primarily for his portrayal in this film despite other movies. He WAS Norman Bates.

“Halloween.” While “Psycho” is the patriarch of slasher movies, “Halloween” stands as the film that ushered in the era of graphically violent horror films. Sure, Hammer Productions in England had been cranking out bloody vampire/monster flicks featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing for years, but these were not in the mainstream USA. “Halloween” became one of the first buckets-of-blood films to zoom to box-office heights.
A nice touch was Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of the first slice-n-dice victim Janet Leigh, as the star of “Halloween.” Curtis became the first “virginal” survivor in a spate of cut-’em-ups in which teenagers are dispatched by indestructible madmen. As the good girl, dedicated student and baby sitter Laurie Strode, Curtis finds herself in a deadly match-up with Michael Meyers, a young man who 15 years earlier chopped up his big sister Judith after she romped in bed with a boyfriend. Now escaped from the asylum, and pursued by Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), Meyers begins building a body count that grows to enormous proportions as this movie series spins out of control with several ludicrous sequels.
Stick with this one and forget “Halloweens” 2 through whatever. Those films destroyed what was one of the creepiest endings — after supposedly fatally shooting Meyers — who then falls from a second-story balcony — Dr. Loomis peers down from the second floor and sees the body has disappeared. Subsequent “Halloween” stab extravaganzas have spoiled that ending.

“The Bride of Frankenstein.” This was a rarity — a sequel that worked. James Whale, who directed the original “Frankenstein,” helmed this film, which provided a funny performance by Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius.
Picking up where “Frankenstein” left off, the seriously injured Dr. Frankenstein (Clive reprising his role), who was tossed from the windmill by the monster, is carted back home while the windmill is torched. Naturally, the monster survives (as he does in later films).
Dr. Frankenstein wants to put the ugly business of monster-making behind him and marry Elizabeth (who is played by 17-year-old Valerie Hobson here). But Dr. Pretorius has other ideas. In what were pretty impressive special effects for 1935, Pretorius shows Frankenstein miniature people he has created, including a tiny king so enamored of a queen residing in a neighboring jar, he keeps trying to escape and climb into her diminutive domain.
When Frankenstein hesitates to join in on the Pretorius project of creating a woman (“That should be really interesting,” Pretorius zestfully predicts), the monster kidnaps Elizabeth, thus forcing the tormented doctor to help build a “friend” for the monster.
Karloff offers some touching scenes as the monster, who now has a rudimentary vocabulary. This movie contains the scene so hilariously lampooned in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” wherein the monster is befriended by the violin-playing blind man living alone in the forest. In this scene we learn the monster is calmed by music. He’s lonely for companionship and soon develops a taste for wine.
Yes, Dwight Frye is here too, as a scummy guy contracted by Pretorius to rustle up body parts. In one funny scene, a guilt-ridden Frankenstein rationalizes the scavenging of anatomy bits and pieces by saying, “There are always accidents.”
“Always,” Pretorius chimes in with a smirk.

“The Lost Boys.” A variation on the vampire theme, with a band of teenage blood-suckers who take up residence in Northern California caves close to the fictional town of Santa Carla. Kiefer Sutherland is David, the leader the band of young vampires, who are seemingly just a group of bikers. Jason Patric and Corey Haim are teenage sons of a recently divorced mom, Lucy (Dianne Wiest). They move to Santa Carla to live with her father (Barnard Hughes, who steals the movie as the crusty grandfather).
Michael (Patric) is drawn to the vampires via his attraction to Star (Jami Gertz) and before long he’s sleeping by day, very sensitive to light and floating around. Meanwhile, the kid brother Sam (Haim) hooks up with a couple of other kids (Corey Feldman is one of them) who run a comic book shop but also know the deep dark secret of the town — vampires lurk.
Weird, funny and gory, this movie also has a wonderful soundtrack featuring Echo and the Bunnymen’s rendition of The Doors’ “People Are Strange” and Gerard McMann’s haunting “Cry Little Sister.”
This movie also has one of the great final lines, as Hughes, amid the gore and chaos of his once peaceful home, calmly fetches a soft drink from the refrigerator, takes a long swig and says, “One thing about living in Santa Carla I never could stomach. All the damn vampires.”

“The Monster Club.” Not to be confused with “The Monster Squad,” this is a buried treasure that I finally found on DVD. Originally I recorded it from an “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” program in the mid-’80s. Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) was the last of the ghoulish hosts-hostesses who introduced scary movies then made cutting remarks about the usually cheesy films as a lead-in to commercial breaks. These shows pre-dated “Mystery Science Theater.”
Occasionally, Elvira would feature a halfway decent movie, and “The Monster Club” was one of them. Based on the novel by horror writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes, this little flick features a couple of horror hall-of-famers, John Carradine and Vincent Price. Carradine plays Chetwynd-Hayes, who one night encounters a famished vampire, Eramus (Price), who feeds upon the author. But lightly so, thus not inflicting any lasting damage. Eramus then recognizes the writer, and in a gesture of gratitude, invites Chetwynd-Hayes to The Monster Club.
Inside the club, which is packed with various ghoulish creatures, the two older men take a seat at a coffin-shaped table. Displayed next to the table is a monster genealogical chart that Eramus explains. It goes like this (pay attention; there might be a quiz later): There are three basic monster primates — vampires, werewolves and ghouls. Now, mating of a vampire and a werewolf produces a werevamp; a werewolf and a ghoul produce a weregoo; a vampire and a ghoul produce a vamgoo.
Continuing: A weregoo mating a werevamp produces a shaddy; a weregoo and a vamgoo produce a maddy; and a werevamp and a vamgoo produce a vaddy. Now, if a shaddy, maddy or vaddy mate, they produce a mock (a nice word for a mongrel, Eramus explains.)
Basic rules of monsterdom: vampires suck, werewolves hunt and ghouls tear; shaddies lick and mocks blow. But a shadmock (when a mock breeds with any other monster hybrid) whistles, and the results of the whistling can be horrifying.
Thus this leads us into three vignettes that make up most of the movie, the first about a shadmock spurned by a beautiful woman and compelled to whistle.
The other two stories are about 1) a vampire, featuring Britt Eklund as the count’s faithful wife and Donald Pleasence as a vampire hunter-killer; and 2) a story about a humgoo (breeding of a human and a ghoul), starring Stuart Whitman as a movie director scouting for locations who finds a perfect secluded town, that he learns too late is inhabited by flesh-eating ghouls. He tries to escape, aided by the humgoo (Leslie Dunlap) but of course is doomed.
So, thanks to Eramus and The Monster Club, Chetwynd-Hayes has material for another book.

“Night of the Living Dead.” The original zombie movie. Yes this is the ultimate B-movie. Dreadful acting, pedestrian special effects. But chilling nevertheless. A cast of unknowns (Judith O’Dea, Russell Streiner and Dwayne Jones) fight off a seemingly endless army of dead people risen from the graves and craving living flesh. They are holed up in a secluded house as the relentless zombies try to break into the home and have a feast.
It’s a cult classic, and as John Carradine noted in an intro of one of the video versions, the most successful movie made in Pittsburgh.

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” I give a nod of approval to Craven’s “Nightmare on Elm Street,” the story of Freddie Krueger, a child-killer torched by a lynch mob who has become able to seek revenge and death through the dreams of children living on Elm Street. Krueger by far is the most colorful maniac in horror films, with his bladed-glove, gory complexion and sarcastic wit. “Nightmare,” like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” drove itself into the ground with way too many sequels. Just more ways for Freddie to kill people.
That’s why I found “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” so refreshing. Craven plays himself in this movie. Also playing themselves are original “Nightmare” stars Heather Langencamp and John Saxon, and of course Robert (Freddie Krueger) Englund.
It seems these entertainers are experiencing nightmares that reveal Freddie might be real after all, not just a fictional movie character. Heather’s blissful life with her husband, a special effects man, and her son, goes haywire, thanks to Freddie. Soon she is a widow and her son is haunted by nightmares, and Robert Englund has fled to parts unknown. Once again, but now for real, Heather must engage in a fatal battle of wits with Freddie.

“The Blair Witch Project.” A movie that proves you don’t need monsters or slashers or blood-suckers to be downright scary. Just noises and creepy ritualistic figures made of vegetation, and stacked rocks.
The movie is not a movie. Instead it is video recovered a year after three teenagers (Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard) disappear in the woods near Burkitsville, Maryland. Heather had planned on making a documentary, thus the video, on the Blair Witch, one of those spooky stories that survive for generations. The Blair Witch legend includes child abductions and mutilations.
The carefree teens take to the woods and soon find themselves lost and apparently stalked by some unseen person or force.
How effective is this movie? Well, it gave me nightmares, something I had not experienced from a movie since “Alien” in 1979.

“Paranormal Activity.” The “recovered footage” era that began with “The Blair Witch Project” received another boost with this 2007 cheapie that has become a franchise. In a nice Southern California suburb, a young couple, Katie (Katie Featherton) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are experiencing strange events. Micah buys a nice video camera and sets it up to record all night in their bedroom.
Written and directed by Oren Peli (although Peli admits most of the dialogue was improvised), this little movie is a master of suspense. You watch the recorded nighttime footage on edge with nervous anticipation, not knowing what to expect. The paranormal activity starts out benignly, like doors moving and lights switching on and off, but soon escalates. Katie begins to walk in her sleep. A couple of times she gets up in the middle of the night and stands frozen for a couple of hours, staring at the sleeping Micah.
Never has the video clock at the lower right-hand side of the screen created such anxiety. As it passes quickly on fast forward, you relax. But when it slows back to normal speed, you tense up, knowing something is about to happen.
“PA” has been followed up by “prequel” sequels and regular sequels, which do diminish the initial impact of the original story. But even repeated viewings of “PA” leave you feeling uneasy all the way through.

So … BOO! Happy Halloween.

Monsterpalooza returns in time for Halloween

To no surprise, zombies were out in force — after all they do like to roam in packs — the weekend before Halloween at the Marriott Burbank Hotel & Convention Center for Son of Monsterpalooza.

For fans of horror movies, Son of Monsterpalooza is one big rush. Nearly 180 exhibits offer the gamut of the genre, from masks to makeup, comics, DVDs, books, artwork, sculptures, life-size eerily realistic wax figures, puppets, jewelry and T-shirts, buttons and action figures; and for those who like to dress up, a costume contest.

For the movie buff, there is always a nice roster of stars from horror movies.

Accompanied by friend and colleague Michelle Mills (blog: Mickie’s Zoo), we arrived well in time Saturday for day two of the convention.

Once inside the hall, you can be overwhelmed by how far-reaching the horror genre industry has become. Just a leisurely stroll up and down the aisles for a quick perusal of the exhibits can take an hour — and naturally those exhibits that particularly grab your interest will force you to pause.

While I liked to stop at the tables that featured action figures, books and magazines and DVDs, Michelle loved the exhibits that featured pins — she was wearing two “Frankenweenie” pins — jewelry and T-shirts. We both were amazed at the detail that goes into the various sculptures and clay and wax figures.

Sculptor Ross Tallent was working on a clay zombie head and the little progress he was making as we cruised by several times was indicative of how much time these figures take to be formed into scary perfection.

Per usual I was scoping for the movie stars. I especially was eager to see Veronica Cartwright, who played Lambert in “Alien.” There is a scene in the extended director’s cut of “Alien” wherein Lambert viciously slaps Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), incensed that Ripley had refused to allow Lambert, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Cain (John Hurt) back into the Nostromo after the facehugger had attached itself to Cain. There had been an anecdote that the scene required several takes because Weaver kept flinching in anticipation of the slap, so director Ridley Scott told Cartwright just to do it without warning. Cartwright confirmed that story was true.

Bela Lugosi Jr. was in attendance again, as he had been at Monsterpalooza in April, and unfortunately was the only person there representing the old Universal monster icons Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman. At the April event, Sara Karloff, daughter of Boris Karloff, and Ron Chaney, grandson of Lon Chaney Jr., had been on hand.

Other actors in attendance who had made their mark in horror movies included Clu Gulager (“Return of the Living Dead), Stephen Lack (“Scanners), David Hedison (“The Fly” and the television series “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”), Joe Turkel, (the ghost bartender Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrence  vents to in “The Shining”), George “The Animal” Steele and Lisa Marie from “Ed Wood,” Lance Henriksen (“Aliens,” “Pumpkinhead”), who also was signing his autobiography, “Not Bad for a Human,” Sybil Danning, star of numerous action and horror films, Kelli Maroney, Jewel Shepherd, and some of the newer stars of the horror genre: Natalie Victoria (“Dead Heads”), Gaylen Baker (“Whicked Lake”) and Brooke Lewis (“Hallow Pointe”).

I also stopped by to speak with Catherine Mary Stewart, from “Night of the Comet” and “The Last Starfighter.” I brought up her brief appearance early in her career in “Nighthawks.”  In this 1981 film she plays a sales clerk in a London store where the terrorist Wolfgar (Rutger Hauer), while pretending to make a purchase discreetly with his foot stashes a time bomb under the counter. Asking the clerk to wrap the purchase and that he will return in a minute to pick it up, he leans forward and says, “You’re really very pretty.” He exits the store just seconds before the bomb detonates.

Stewart nodded in acknowledgment of that role and said, “I was so young and innocent. But I got tough in my later roles.” Such as her Regina in “Night of the Comet.”

Also drawing people were the makeup exhibits where actual application of makeup can be viewed. These can be long and tedious processes. The people who were being made up had to sit still in a few for well over and hour, and longer. But the results were incredible. One young lady emerged from her makeup session a prom queen turned zombie, complete with her throat torn open.

Of the special events offerings, we attended the “MastersFX — Making Monsters and Mayhem”, featuring Todd Masters, who was celebrating 25 years of his MASTERFX  doing special effects for movies. The presentation was a disappointment because of technical difficulties. A CD presentation that was supposed to be projected onto a big screen was not functioning, so those of us in attendance had to close in and hover around a laptop computer screen. Masters and his guests, independent directors and writers, and twins, Jen and Sylvia Soska — founders of Twisted Twins Productions — and actress Tristan Risk, tried to compensate for the problem, but could not overcome the disadvantage of not having good visual aids. Nevertheless, interest was piqued on the Soskas’ latest film “American Mary,” a little horror film that delves into the world of underground surgeries — voluntary body alterations. It is scheduled for release in early 2013.

Monsterpalooza will return to haunt Burbank on April 12-14, 2013.

Prom queen emerged from makeup session as a zombie

Various masks offer all kinds of ghoulish possibilities for Halloween.

Life-like wax figures depict Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his creations, the monster and his possible bride.

More recycled chills in “Paranormal Activity 4”

It is hard to believe that in 2006 nobody had ever heard of “Paranormal Activity.” The original came out in 2007 and exploded mostly via word of mouth. Now, in the last three years, like clockwork, a new “Paranormal Activity” comes out.

There are drawbacks to making a series of sequels to a movie. The elements that were so effective in the original grow old and tiresome as they are repeated in subsequent movies. And as more information is revealed about the characters and events, it can diminish the impact of what were the mysteries in the original.

At the shocking end of “Paranormal Activity,” one of the most unnerving aspects was that the viewers did not know what was haunting Katie and Micah, eventually possessing Katie. All we knew was that Micah was dead and Katie was missing. That’s an ending that sticks with you.

Inevitably, given the success of “PA,” three more sequels have hit the theaters. Yes, we have learned more about Katie, but are we better off?

So, let’s recap: We meet the cute couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), unmarried but living together in a nice home in Southern California in 2006. Katie is a student and Micah is a day trader. Because of strange happenings in the house, Micah invests in a video camera he sets up in their bedroom to perhaps record any paranormal events. Per usual, the activities — at first benign events, like doors moving or lights switching on an off — escalate, and Katie, now possessed, kills Micah and disappears.

In 2010, “PA2” came out. It really was a prequel, taking place months before the terror seized Katie and Micah. “PA2” focuses on Katie’s younger sister Kristi, who lives in Carlsbad. She is married to a man, previously married — likely widowed — who has a teenage daughter, Ali. They have just had a son, Hunter. When their house is found ransacked, they have security cameras placed throughout the home. Once again, little bumps in the night soon become more intense occurrences. Kristi talks to Katie about the incidents, leading Katie to refer to similar experiences they had as children and how it is best not to goad whatever this entity is by investigating further. Daughter Ali’s online probes indicate that the hauntings may be the result of an effort to seize Hunter to settle an old family debt by claiming a first-born son.

Kristi soon seems possessed and husband Daniel, at the advice of their superstitious nanny, conducts a ritual that transfers the haunting from Kristi to Katie — with disastrous results. Katie appears, having already murdered Micah. She kills her sister and brother-in-law, abducts baby Hunter and disappears.

In 2011, “PA3” came out, exploring the childhoods of Katie and Kristi. It is the 1980s and the two girls are living with their single mother Julie, but she has a live-in boyfriend, Dennis. Kristi has an invisible friend named Toby. When strange things start occurring, Dennis, with the help of his friend Randy, set up what was then bulkier video equipment to catch on tape any funny things going on. Hence, the usual increase in paranormal shenanigans, terrorizing to the point the family flees to the home of Julie’s mother. There it is evident that Grandma might know what is really going on. In an intense but confusing ending, Katie and Kristi are soon rendered orphans but passively latch on to their grandmother. And there are hints of a coven.

“PA3” left us with a few baffling moments and had us wondering how Katie and Kristi, not only seemingly well-adjusted despite the terrors they endured as children, also are baffled when these hauntings resume as they become adults. You would think they would be accustomed to it.

So, on to “PA4.” The trailers show a new character, a teen girl, who through webcam chats with a friend, talks about a strange little boy in the neighborhood. Then the trailers show the usual “PA” ingredients, including people being dragged away by some unseen force.

“PA4” takes place in November 2011, in Henderson, Nevada. The teen girl is Alex (Kathryn Newton), who lives with her parents Doug and Holly (real-life couple Stephen Dunham and Alexondra Lee) and a younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). As “PA4” begins, a youth soccer game is in progress in which Wyatt is participating. Briefly seen is a young boy on the other side of the field, alone, watching the game.

The lone boy is named Robbie (Brady Allen), who lives across the street from Alex’s family but often wanders over to sit in Alex’s old treehouse.

Alex spends most of her time on live webcam chats with Ben (Matt Shively), who also seems to have ample access to Alex’s home, day and night. Meanwhile, Alex is concerned because Doug and Holly seem to be drifting apart.

One evening something happens at Robbie’s house and his unseen mother is taken away by ambulance. Even though Alex’s parents barely know Robbie, they take him in, as he apparently has no other relatives. Robbie and Wyatt soon become friends but coinciding with Robbie’s presence in the house are paranormal events. Robbie seems to have emotional control over Wyatt, who soon starts talking to unseen entities.

So, does this all tie in with Katie and Kristi? Well, that’s really the only intrigue about “PA4.” The thumps, doors opening, swinging chandeliers — that’s old hat now.

One thing the “PA” movies excel in is having pathologically irritating male characters that began with Micah. In “PA4,” Doug gets a little screen time, being the usual skeptical adult, but it is Ben who is the designated goof, the techno expert who helps Alex set up webcams throughout the house while pulling off dumb pranks and putting clumsy moves on Alex.

Like its predecessors, “PA4” revs up the action in the final minutes, where the real jump-in-your-seat scares occur. Of course, it leaves us wide open for a fifth entry.

“Paranormal Activity 4” was written by Christopher Landon — son of Michael — who has taken up the writing chores of the “PA” franchise from Oren Peli, who wrote and directed the original — although it’s generous to say Peli wrote that script. He has admitted he wrote only guidelines and had the actors mostly improvise their dialogue.

“PA4” suffers from redundancy but at least it is making an effort to branch out a bit, which does soften the impact of the original story but adds substance to the creepy tale.

In a sad postscript, Stephen Dunham, who played Doug in “PA4,” died on Sept 14, his 48th birthday.

“Seven Psychopaths”: Sometimes your nuttiest friends may be brilliant

You know you’re viewing a movie with truly offbeat people when the most stable character in it is played by Christopher Walken.

Welcome to writer-director Martin McDonagh’s nutty world in “Seven Psychopaths.” McDonagh follows up his wickedly realized “In Bruges” with a Los Angeles-based story of a mismatched trio of men who find themselves inadvertently at odds with a crime boss over a dog. But this character-based dark comedy is a mult-textured blend of this main plot mixed with a developing movie script.

Colin Farrell, from “In Bruges,” reunites with McDonagh, playing Marty, a man trying to compose a screenplay but in the throes of writer’s block. He is drinking too much and his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) is drifting away from him.

It is a testimony to Marty’s goofed up life that his most stable support comes from his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), a struggling actor who makes ends meet with a little dog-kidnapping scheme he runs with his partner Hans (Walken).

Rockwell’s Billy is a loose cannon, a slightly less overtly crazy version of his Wild Bill Wharton character from “The Green Mile.” He may seem aimless, but his focus is dead on. He is a keen observer of life, and a dedicated friend to Marty. He works to inspire Marty to get going on the screenplay. “Seven Psychopaths” is the name of the script Marty to trying to finish.

Meanwhile, Billy and Hans step into dangerous territory when they dog-nap a Shih Tzu named Bonny from a young woman, Sharice IGabourey Sidibe), but the dog actually belongs to Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a crime boss who will kill to get his beloved Bonny back.

While trying to stay a step ahead of Charlie and his goons — although Billy is hankering for a shootout with the gang — Marty, Billy and Hans collaborate on crafting the screenplay, with characters based on real people they have met — Tom Waits has a meaty role as Zachariah, a rabbit-loving man who with his wife went on a serial vigilante murder rampage for many years — and others they have made up — a Viet Cong soldier who comes to the U.S. post-Vietnam war to extract revenge for the Mai Lai Massacre.

They seek refuge in the desert near Joshua Tree but Billy undermines their plan to hide out, and he sets up a confrontation with Charlie.

Walken’s Hans is the most grounded character, a man worn down by tragedy in his life, sustained only by faith that briefly is seriously challenged. He supplies some key elements for Marty’s finished script and offers one of the funniest moments in the movie when, confronted by a shotgun-wielding henchman of Charlie’s, refuses to put up his hands, leading the befuddled gunman to stammer that this doesn’t make sense. Well, too bad, says Hans. This scene garnered the most chuckles during the movie’s previews.

Farrell’s Marty is mostly a ball of near hysteria as he begins to realize his pal Billy may be an actual psychopath. It is a credit to McDonagh’s writing that Marty does not fall under the influence of Billy and just stays his emotionally fragile self.

Harrelson could phone in his performance as Charlie — he has done this character enough times. You might think a guy who gets teary-eyed over a Shih Tzu might have some humanity, but then he commits an appalling crime, bringing us back to McDonagh’s reality.

“Seven Psychopaths” has its hilarious moments, but also its shockingly intense and violent scenes. Bad people die but so do good ones. That’s what puts the dark in effective dark comedies.

“Taken 2”: Do not mess with Bryan’s family

“Taken 2,” another good guy vs. way too many bad guys adventure, could be subtitled, “Bryan Mills Doing What He Does Best.”

When Bryan (Liam Neeson) is out in the field. gathering intelligence, thwarting illegal and covert operations, he is a precision machine, wasting little energy, acting swiftly and decisively. When it comes to his personal life, well, that is a different story.

Bryan, the creation of Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, is a retired CIA operative now doing freelance security work. The security jobs may seem satisfying, but they hardly tap into his vast capabilities when dealing with espionage and other messy entanglements with countries, enemies or otherwise.

Meanwhile, at home he is a wreck. His marriage to Lenore (Famke Janssen) failed, and she has remarried a successful businessman. Bryan’s daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) seems to be drifting away from him.

In the original “Taken” (2008), Kim decides, against Bryan’s wishes, to go to Paris with a friend, where she is kidnapped and doped up to be sold into prostitution. Bryan, with calculating and lethal efficiency, tracks down the helpless Kim and rescues her, leaving a deadly mess in his wake.

This leads us into “Taken 2,” which opens with several coffins containing the bodies of men Bryan killed in pursuit of Kim, being delivered to relatives back in Albania. There at the funeral, Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija), whose son Bryan interrogated then left to suffer a slow electrocution, vows justice.

Back in California, Bryan is again stumbling awkwardly in his role as father. Kim is having trouble passing her drivers test, so he is giving her lessons, and to Bryan’s dismay, Kim has a boyfriend. Meanwhile, Lenore’s marriage is falling apart. Bryan, who has a security gig pending in Istanbul, Turkey, invites Kim and Lenore to join him there in a few days when his job is wrapped up.

Murad has enormous intelligence resources at his disposal, and although Bryan did not seem to leave behind any living witnesses when he rescued Kim, he is fingered as the man who killed Murad’s son. And somehow, Murad gets word that Bryan is in Istanbul — supposedly by torturing Bryan’s former colleague Jean-Claude — who, given that Bryan shot his wife in “Taken,” might not be harboring a whole heck of a lot of allegiance to Bryan.

So, when Lenore and Kim show up in Istanbul to join Bryan, everything is in place for Murad and his thugs.

Once we get past the tender-funny moments of Bryan struggling with being a father to a young woman and being a supportive ex-husband for Lenore, the action picks up. Bryan and Lenore are seized, though not easily, and Kim is being tracked down.

This is where “Taken” movies excel, showing Bryan as he employs discipline and focus, setting aside his emotions and pain and continuing to calculate and grab whatever tools he can against horrible odds.

At least Kim is not reduced to a drugged out victim here, managing to elude her pursuers and serve as an ally for Bryan as he begins to turn the tables on his adversaries.

All the staples of the action movie are here, including a car chase down narrow streets with people diving out of the way, rooftop pursuits, massive gun battles — and even a few grenades tossed, but not for the usual reasons.

Neeson, though not a muscle-bound specimen, still has good moves for a 60-year-old guy, and really captures the essence of Bryan’s superior skills and stoicism. Grandstanding bad guys should take lessons from him. Unlike these guys who waste time, telling their vanquished foes their motives for killing; strutting around, milking their advantage, Bryan gets whatever information he needs then shuts his foe down — permanently.

“Taken 2” is a guilty pleasure all the way through, and yes, a possibility arises for a third movie in this series. Only one question is left unanswered: What became of Kim’s singing aspirations?

“Looper” toys with the past, present and future

Time travel has been a staple of science-fiction, given that it opens the spectrum of moral and ethical issues of tinkering with the past to alter the future, along with other concepts such as people getting an opportunity make right an old wrong in their lives. Essentially, it presents the temptation of altering and even cheating fate.

Writer-director Rian Johnson (“Brick”) tackles the time-travel idea with an interesting twist in “Looper”: only the criminal element has access to time travel, and of course uses it in a nasty way. In the 2070s, organized crime has devised a way to dispose of those it wants eliminated. These out-of-luck targets are sent back 30 years in time, where they are greeted by a professional killer, who shoots them and gets rid of the body, thus erasing any evidence this person ever existed.

I know, I know. Do not get too caught up in trying to decipher the logistics of this. Eventually it just becomes a sidebar to the main story in “Looper,” a plot that also can be picked apart if you think about it too much.

So, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has been busy the last few months with “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Premium Rush,” plays Joe, who is a looper. He is paid in silver bars to go to a designated rural area, where a person pops up from the future. Joe blows the person away, disposes of the body and then parties and gets wasted.

The loopers are managed by Abe (Jeff Daniels), who has been transported back in time for this particular management position. Abe is one of those scary guys who speaks softly but has a low tolerance for incompetence and wields a big stick — or in Abe’s case, a hammer.

A big drawback to being a looper is that you know too much about this person-elimination program, which makes you a liability. Thus all loopers are told that sometime down the road, they will be zapped back in time and shot.

Now, here’s where it gets goofy. With this clever method of erasing people, why would those in charge, when dealing with the problem of closing down a looper, opt to send him back to be shot by the younger version of himself? Even the coldest of killers might have pause when they are confronted with the challenge of killing the older, paunchier versions of themselves.

But this is a key element of Johnson’s story. Inevitably, Joe shows up for a job, and yep, you guessed it, the older Joe (Bruce Willis) is the mark. To make it worse for younger Joe, this guy knows what is happening and in fact sent himself back in time because he has a mission.

It seems that in the 2070s a nasty character named the Rain Maker has taken over everything, and instituted a program to wipe out loopers. Old Joe’s young wife (Qing Xu) is killed by accident when the thugs come to round up Joe. Thus Joe is intent on going back 30 years to track down the Rain Maker as a child and end this kid’s life before he becomes such a destructive force.

The two Joes meet in a diner for some macho posturing, and Old Joe reveals his intentions, which puts young Joe in a bind. Not only is he on the run from Abe’s enforcers because he let Old Joe get away, he now feels compelled to foil Old Joe’s plans.

Old Joe has narrowed down the young Rain Maker to three possibilities, including Cid (Pierce Gagnon), the son of a single-mom, Sara (Emily Blunt) who owns a farm, where young Joe stakes out, waiting for his senior self to show up.

In another plot element, Sara has telekinetic abilities, something she passed on gene-wise to Cid, who presents the scariest TK kid since Carrie White.

There is the cringe element here of young boys being targeted by a man capable and willing to kill them.

Johnson does a good job of keeping us guessing just how all this will be resolved.

Gordon-Levitt is excellent at presenting Joe, who learns compassion thanks to a single mother and a little boy. Willis provides the paradox of a man who found redemption later in life and now is desperate to alter things so that his younger self can look forward to more years of true love that the older one would have.

Blunt has some good moments as a mother trying to make up for a past of irresponsible behavior that almost cost her a relationship with her son.

And little Pierce Gagnon is a revelation, a young actor able to be both tender and vulnerable one minute and terrifyingly enraged and powerful the next.

“Looper” is a multi-textured story that dishes up several issues in a thought-provoking and entertaining way.

October birthdays: Fontaine, Lansbury, Ross, Dee, Plowright look beyond 80.

Joan Fontaine, an Oscar winner for “Suspicion” in 1941 who made her screen debut in 1935, celebrates her 95th birthday on Oct. 22.
Some notables in their 80s include: Chuck Berry, 86 on 10/18; Ruby Dee, 88 on 10/27; Lee Grant, 85 on 10/31; Dick Gregory, 80 on 10/12; Glynis Johns (“Mary Poppins”), 89 on 10/5; Angela Lansbury, 87 on 10/26; Roger Moore, 85 on 10/14; Joan Plowright, 83 on 10/28; and Marion Ross, 84 on 10/25.

Milestone birthdays:
40: Eminem (10/17)
50: Joan Cusack (10/11), Esai Morales (10/1), Daphne Zuniga (10/28)
60: Harry Anderson (10/14), Roberto Benigni (10/27), Jeff Goldblum (10/22), Annie Potts (10/28)
70: Britt Eklund (10/6), Annette Funicello (10/22), Bob Hoskins (10/26), Alan Rachins (10/3). David Ogden Stiers (10/31)

Other birthdays:
F. Murray Abraham, 73 on 10/24; Karen Allen, 61 on 10/5; Julie Andrews, 77 on 10/1; Lorraine Bracco, 58 on 10/2; Jackson Browne, 64 on 10/9; Kirk Cameron, 42 on 10/12; Nancy Cartwright, 43 on 10/25; Chevy Chase, 69 on 10/8; Chubby Checker, 71 on 10/3; John Cleese, 73 on 10/27; Sacha Baron Cohen, 41 on 10/13; Peter Coyote, 71 on 10/10.

Matt Damon, 42 on 10/8; Charlie Daniels, 76 on 10/28; Pam Dawber, 61 on 10/18; Catherine Deneuve, 69 on 10/22; Richard Dreyfuss, 65 on 10.29; Zac Efron, 25 on 10/18; Jesse Eisenberg, 29 on 10/5; Carrie Fisher, 56 on 10/21; Dennis Franz, 68 on 10/28; Zach Galifianakis, 43 on 10/1; Harry Hamlin, 61 on 10/30; Paul Hogan, 73 on 10/8; Lauren Holly, 49 on 10/28.

Hugh Jackman, 44 on 10/12; Kate Jackson, 64 on 10/29; Peter Jackson, 51 on 10/31; Spike Jonze, 43 on 10/22; Margot Kidder, 64 on 10/17; Kevin Kline, 65 on 10/24; Jane Krakowski, 44 on 10/11; John Krasinski, 33 on 10/20; Linda Lavin, 75 on 10/15; John Lithgow, 67 on 10/19; Christopher Lloyd, 74 on 10/22; Penny Marshall, 69 on 10/15; Rachel McAdams, 26 on 10/7; Dylan McDermott, 51 on 10/26; Michael McKean, 65 on 10/17; David Morse, 59 on 10/11; Viggo Mortensen, 54 on 10/20; Joe Morton, 65 on 10/18; Dermot Mulroney, 49 on 10/31.

Clive Owen. 48 on 10/3; Katy Perry, 28 on 10/25; Luke Perry, 47 on 10/11; Tom Petty, 62 on 10/20; Joaquin Phoenix, 38 on 10/28; Randy Quaid, 62 on 10/1; Helen Reddy, 71 on 10/25; Ivan Reitman, 66 on 10/26; Ryan Reynolds, 36 on 10/23; Andy Richter, 46 on 10/28; Tim Robbins, 54 on 10/16; Julia Roberts, 45 on 10.28; Tony Roberts, 73 on 10/22; David Lee Roth, 57 on 10/10, Winona Ryder, 41 on 10/29.

Rob Schneider, 49 on 10/31; Liev Schreiber, 45 on 10/4; Seann William Scott, 36 on 10/3; Rufus Sewell, 45 on 10/29; Tony Shalhoub, 59 on 10/9; Elisabeth Shue, 49 on 10/6; Alicia Silverstone, 36 on 10/4; Paul Simon, 71 on 10/13; Jeremy Sisto, 38 on 10/6; Grace Slick, 73 on 10/30; Jaclyn Smith, 65 on 10/26; Snoop Dogg, 41 on 10/20; Suzanne Somers, 66 on 10/16; Sting, 61 on 10/2; Keith Urban, 47 on 10/26; Usher, 34 on 10/14; Jean-Claude Van Damme, 52 on 10/18; Mia Wasikowska, 23 on 10/14; Ken Watanabe, 53 on 10/21; George Wendt, 64 on 10/17; Demond Wilson, 66 on 10/13; Henry Winkler, 67 on 10/30; Kate Winslet, 37 on 10/5; Stephanie Zimbalist, 56 on 10/8.

Classic monsters and laughs via Fathom Events
Fathom Events will be presenting on consecutive nights a look at two classic Universal horror movies and a not-so-classic scary flick laid out to be ripped on.
On Oct. 24, Fathom will be offering big-screen presentations of “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein,” starting at 7 p.m. locally. On Oct. 25, our favorite Mystery Science Theater guys will be back as RiffTrax presents “Birdemic,” with the usual cutting-edge commentary, at 8 p.m.
See for theaters showing these programs.