Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Grim Prairie Tales

Grim Prairie Tales (1990) aka Hellbent
Dir. and written by Wayne Coe
Starring Brad Dourif, James Earl Jones, William Atherton

Somewhere in the American West during the only time period that movies about the American West are ever set in, a tightly-wound traveler in a city-slicker bowler (Brad Dourif, CHILD’S PLAY) encounters a bellicose bounty hunter (James Earl Jones, DR. STRANGELOVE, EXORCIST II, THE LION KING 2: SIMBA’S PRIDE) and the two end up around the campfire for a long night. They’re almost immediately at each others’ throats, but somehow can’t quite manage to get angry enough to part ways, and end up telling each other scary stories to pass the time. Their respective obnoxious characteristics mean that the more they tell, the more they provoke each other to taller tales. It’s a pretty standard setup for a horror anthology, but this extremely odd mash-up of Western iconography and anthology horror is anything but standard. It’s truly odd, its characters as one-of-a-kind as its weirdo genre mish-mash.

Dourif and Jones’s offbeat sniping is a thing of weirdo beauty, an unexpectedly enjoyable wrinkle for a horror anthology, which generally spend the minimum possible effort on both characterization and framing narratives. Both storytellers give deeply and proudly bizarre performances (particularly Jones, who gets most of the best lines. “I like to think of myself a philanderer,” he muses on the subject of marriage) and it’s a total joy to watch them go at it.

Man, how did they make it through this film without ever using "ghost riders in the sky?"

Unfortunately the stories they tell aren’t as interesting as the people telling them. I know, right? What kind of God allows a horror anthology where the framing narrative is the best part? In the first tale, an old man (Will Hare, who we encountered earlier in EYES OF FIRE) is ironically punished for desecrating an Indian burial ground. In the second, a young man (Marc McClure, Jimmy Olson in SUPERMAN II-IV)* tries to win over a shy, pregnant woman he finds wandering the wilderness, only to discover that things aren’t quite what they seem. In a third, a daughter (Wendy J. Cooke, “Alien” in COCOON) learns something about her loving father’s (William Atherton, for once playing a seemingly nice guy after a career playing assholes in everything from GHOSTBUSTERS to DIE HARD) darker side. Finally, a cold-hearted OCD gunslinger (Scott Paulin, THE RIGHT STUFF) is haunted by the ghost of a rival.

This would be an excellent cover for a Gordon Lightfoot album.

Usually with an anthology I’d go through and discuss each story separately, but there’s no need here because these stories each have the exact same strengths and the exact same problems. The strengths are good ones: they’re generally quite well appointed, with a more-competent-than-usual cast, a strong score (which ranges from classical piano to Carpenter-style electric drones to typical Western tributes to Morricone) and some lovely camerawork by frequent Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (in only his second film in that capacity, before he would move on to the likes of SCHINDLER’S LIST**). Kaminski in particular deserves some credit for painting the Old West with an unusually colorful palette; often Westerns are all about dusty earth tones and sepia nostalgia, but here we see the West in rich blues and greens, the first sequence in particular highlighting an eerie, alienly beautiful sunset which turns the impossibly huge sky into something surreal and mysterious. Oh! And the final section as a brief but really cool animated sequence, gotta like that. So everything looks nice*** and generally seems competently made. But these stories have one problem, and it’s a big one. They’re not very interesting.

Let me get that for you! People in the old west sure are helpful!

Here’s the issue: director Wayne Coe (no other credits of any kind, but his IMDB bio claims he’s primarily a storyboard artist and credit-sequence designer to some major films, including SEVEN, ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, and ARGO. Oh, and that he designed the poster for BACK TO THE FUTURE) either doesn’t understand or chooses to deliberately ignore how horror shorts usually work. Short fiction is the perfect format for a setup and payoff: a brief introduction to the characters and world, a hint of conflict, and then, WHAMMY, they pull the rug out from under you. There’s an unexpected twist, or a character is ironically punished, or the context abruptly shifts -- in other words, a conclusion that plays off the setup in some unexpected thematic way. But these stories here, by and large, simply do not have those elements, and to the extent they do, the tone and the structure is all wrong. A few characters do get punished, but the things that happen to them seem unsatisfyingly unrelated to their sins, there’s no real payoff for the setup and the details of their respective stories. There’s not a narrative structure that leads to a cathartic conclusion, it’s just a short tale of someone who seems to more or less randomly encounter a strange death. And in the case of Atherton’s story, there seems to be no ending at all. The story finds nice-guy dad Atherton unexpectedly drawn into a lynch mob, which horrifies his daughter when she catches sight of it. He swears things aren’t what they seem, that he had good reason, that she just doesn’t understand. Very interesting, so what’s actually going on here, what, are these guys vampires or something? Well, they never tell us. Daughter decides she loves him anyway, and that’s the end of the story. Wha? Was that the conflict we were looking at here? Fundamentally, the problem is that Coe seems to misunderstand the way narrative conflict actually works, and so the stories all feel formless and unsatisfying, ending abruptly just when it seems like thing might be getting interesting.

On the other hand, look at these frames from the animated sequence in the last segment and try and tell me you don't want to see this:

So, I dunno, I kinda enjoyed them anyway. They’re narratively sloppy but they also feel unexpected and sort of intriguing, even if they don’t really pay off. They’re mostly not really scary as much as strange and macabre, and you definitely miss the usual denouement part of a horror short where they drop the other shoe and make you realize how clever they’ve been. They have their moments, though; several have some strong atmosphere (mostly courtesy of the fine photography) and they generally take themselves fairly seriously, an odd decision in contrast to the hilarious framing story but welcome nonetheless (the big exception being the second, shortest tale, which ends up being a ridiculous and tastelessly amusing shaggy dog). I don’t blame the world for finding this a hard one to love, but as a strange little genre experiment it offers plenty of offbeat charm if you can overlook its narrative shortcomings. And even if you can’t, at least fast forward through it and check out the parts with Dourif and Jones. Come on, when are you gonna see that pairing again? His IMDB bio claims Coe wrote a sequel, maybe someday there’s a chance, I mean, DUMB AND DUMBER just got a sequel, so you never know. Maybe ditch the horror anthology format next time and just make it a buddy-cop comedy in the old West, with Dourif and Jones mismatched buddies riding around solving mysteries, searching for a better set of stories than they have at their disposal here.

*Also Dave McFly in BACK TO THE FUTURE, which had a small role for Will Hare as well.

**Haha, I just noticed he was also the DP on COOL AS ICE, the Vanilla Ice movie. That’s gotta be even more embarrassing than GRIM PRAIRIE TALES.

*** Slight proviso: I watched this on a VHS fullscreen version that looked like it was playing directly from a potato. That seems to be the only available version so be warned, the transfer is terrible and sometimes so dark as to be literally unintelligible. Presumably it looked good on film, though.

The Hunt For Dread October

  • SEQUEL: None, although IMDB say Coe wrote one.
  • REMAKE: Ha. Not likely.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: James Earl Jones?
  • BOOBIES: None.
  • MONSTER: None
  • THE UNDEAD: Nope
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: nah
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: During the animated dream sequence, a guy imagines himself transformed into a bullet.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Extremely high. No official DVD release, quickly forgotten at the time.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If James Earl Jones starts to tell you a story, you fucking shut up and listen to him, even if he gets to rambling.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: The cringy pun notwithstanding, these Prairie tales are indeed grim, if not necessarily terrifying.
I was almost tempted to go with four, since there's plenty of fun to be had here, especially with Jones and Dourif. But I cannot in good conscience do it, the stories here are just slightly too weak for that to feel right. Still, call it a strong 3, a C+, nearly a B-.

No comments:

Post a Comment