Tim Burton’s first live-action film was a half-hour Disney movie intended to screen before the 1984 re-release of Pinocchio. That never came to pass, however, as Disney decided the film he turned in—about a boy who reanimates his dog, Sparky, after the pup gets hit by a car—was too scary for its intended audience. It was rarely seen until Burton’s first few feature releases made him famous. Now the director has returned to the material for an animated feature, expanding the story of Sparky and his escape after being raised from the dead.
This is Burton’s first stop-motion animation project since 2005’s Corpse Bride. Given the lackluster turn his career has taken in the ’00s, one hopes that this return to his roots will revitalize his creative juices. The project also reunites Burton with a number of collaborators from his best films, including voice turns from Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, and Martin Landau.
Nine directors, six stories, and some genuinely creepy pre-Halloween fun. I’ll be the first to admit I’m long over found footage horror, but a group of indie directors has come together to make V/H/S do right by the genre by removing one of the biggest logical barriers to entry in a lot of these films—namely that it makes no sense why someone would continue to operate a camera in a life-threatening situation. The short format and some inventive perspectives within the films of this anthology make this better than it probably should be, given the usual unevenness of omnibus-style films. The shorts come wrapped in a frame story that finds a group of unlikable dudes invading an old guy’s home looking for a particularly valuable VHS tape, only to find the old guy dead and stacks and stacks of tapes to look through. The individual shorts are the movies that they plug into the VCR looking for the right tape. Some are better than others, but since they’re brief, you don’t get stuck with something you don’t like for too long, and there are plenty of great scares to be found.
Director Corine Huq takes on the task of looking into the lives of Muslim women, seeking to both debunk myths about women in Islam and examine the realities. To this end, the director assembles a huge cast of experts, including Muslim feminist scholars and journalists, to look at how different translations of the Koran impact women differently in various parts of the world and trace women’s roles in Islam from as far back as Mohammad all the way to modern Islamic societies.
As it does every October, the AFI is hosting the Spooky Movie horror festival starting next week, a collection of new horror from around the world including some acclaimed titles coming out of recent film festivals. The opening-night offering, Excision, is one of those, a horror-comedy from locally bred director Richard Bates Jr. that premiered at Sundance earlier this year. Bates will be on hand for a Q&A for that screening. There’s also Resolution, a well-received film from this year’s Tribeca festival about one man trying to help his friend sober up by making him quit cold turkey in a cabin away from civilization. Things don’t go so well. Director Richard Lawson will be in attendance for a Q&A when that screens, as well. There’s plenty more, with more than 50 films once you count all the shorts in the mix (many of which screen before the features), making this the perfect kickoff to scary movie season.
The National Gallery of Art kicks off a two-weekend, three-film retrospective of the 1960s work of Czech director František Vláčil this weekend. His best-known works were made before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and this weekend has a double feature including one of his earliest works, 1962’s The Devil’s Trap, a historical allegory attacking the church via a story about a miller who’s accused of working with the devil when a church official suspects that his business is perhaps a little too successful. This is followed by 1967’s three-hour epic Marketa Lazarová, an adaptation of a 1931 novel by Czech author Vladislav Vančura about a woman in the Middle Ages kidnapped from a feudal lord by his enemies. The film was once voted the greatest Czech film ever made, and the National Gallery’s presentation is a brand new restoration of the film.
Blu-ray Pick of the Week: Dark Star
Four years before he helped redefine horror for the modern era with Halloween, John Carpenter was a film school dropout looking for a break, working with writer and actor Dan O’Bannon on a low-budget science fiction film. That film, although not much of a success, helped launch both of their careers, Carpenter as one of the preeminent action and horror filmmakers of the ’80s and O’Bannon as a special effects technician (on Star Wars) and, more important, as a writer (Alien was O’Bannon’s brainchild, even though much of his original vision disappeared by the time Ridley Scott took on the project).
The seeds for both of their careers can be found in that early bare-bones sci-fi film, Dark Star, which has tension and the electronic scoring Carpenter would be known for, and a story that has elements that would eventually find their way into Alien a few years later for O’Bannon. That includes a spaceship crewed by blue-collar workers, who in this case blow up nuisance planets that are in the way of space colonization. There’s a subplot about a beachball-like alien the crew picks up that fans of Alien will find familiar, but Dark Star’s defining elements are its throughly weird, deadpan black comedy and its tendency toward ’70s-stoner philophizing, nowhere more evident than in a section where the crew must attempt to talk a bomb equipped with artificial intelligence technology into disarming, which they do by having a discussion about existence and consciousness.
Special Features: A documentary on the making of the extended version of the film, an interview with science fiction author Alan Dean Foster, a 3D guide to the movie’s spacecraft, and a commentary track from “super fan” Andrew Gilchrist.