Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Film Appreciation - The End-All Be-All of Halloween

Cody and Priscilla venture into The Hollow (2004) and stir up some Film Appreciation.

When it was first published in 1820, author Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was just one short story in a collection of thirty-four stories and essays. Something about it struck such a chord with readers that it has made a lasting impact on pop culture. It's still well remembered nearly two hundred years later, and has been adapted numerous times in various other mediums; live action films, cartoons, stage plays, etc.

Directed by Kyle Newman from a script by Hans Rodionoff, 2004's The Hollow uses Irving's 1790-set tale as the foundation for a story set in modern day.

Kevin Zegers stars as teenager Ian Cranston, whose family has recently moved to the town that was the setting of Irving's story, and supposedly the true events that inspired it. As Halloween approaches, Ian has gotten a job at a local haunted hayride attraction, where he tells the legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Like the legendary Ichabod Crane, the man who was chased by the headless horseman in 1790, Ian has found himself in a love triangle since arriving in town, attempting to woo cheerleader Karen (Kaley Cuoco) while douchey football player Brody (Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys) pursues her as well.

They play it up like Karen is out of Ian's league. She's a cheerleader, he likes horror movies and comic books. (Great interests to have, as far as I'm concerned.) But he drives a 1966 Mustang, he's not that uncool.

He's also into fencing. So, he's a whole different type of "nerd", if you can even call him that.

It's Ian's job to tell the story, but Brody is way into it himself. He takes the history of his town very seriously and feels that it should be celebrated more than it is. He takes friends into a graveyard to get them in the Halloween spirit and even goes so far as to scare Ian while dressed up as the headless horseman.

That same night, Halloween Eve, Brody's friends are murdered, becoming the first victims of a sword and jack-o-lantern-wielding killer that gets around on horseback...

I find that the death scenes sort of clash with the rest of the film. For the most part this is a very family friendly movie, but then there's bloody murder and bare breasts. It did premiere on ABC Family, minus those elements.

The only scenes that feel kind of out of place to me are the ones with Erica and Rob. Other than that, the tone of the movie is pretty coherent, including the death scenes.

Another local who takes the town's history very seriously is cemetery caretaker Claus Van Ripper (Stacy Keach), who fears that the real headless horseman has returned to town and will be going after Ian and his father Carl (Judge Reinhold). Van Ripper seems to know more about the Cranston family tree than they do, telling Ian that they are descendants of Ichabod Crane. Now the horseman wants to end the Crane bloodline.

Keach delivers a really fun performance as this film's doomsayer character. It's totally ridiculous - you'd assume this guy has lived in this town his whole life, but he sure doesn't talk like his neighbors.

Claus is a total weirdo, and the fact that he's a graveyard caretaker who doesn't seem to be very into showering doesn't help. I think the character is really amusing though. It gets borderline annoying sometimes, but it works and he ends up being right about pretty much everything.

The relationship between Ian and Carl is a bit strained. Carl is a jock type, he's the high school's football coach. His son has "geeky" interests and is in the fencing club instead of on the football team. Their personalities don't mesh well.

This explains why Ian doesn't go to Carl with the information Van Ripper gives him. The fact that Van Ripper sounds nuts is another reason.

Yeah, Ian didn't take Claus seriously at all when Claus approached him. Can't blame him.

Night falls on Halloween and, despite Van Ripper's best efforts, the haunted hayride goes ahead as scheduled, with Ian, Karen, and Brody all playing a part: Ian the storyteller/guide as the hayride makes its way through the woods, Karen as one of the "ghosts", and Brody as the ride's version of the headless horseman.

The murders continue as well, with victims including a pair of horny teens, Erica and Rob, who are messing around where they don't belong.

The actor playing Rob gives one of the most dry, lifeless performances I've ever seen in a movie.

And the actress playing Erica isn't all that great either. Plus, what an annoying character... not even her costume looks right. Have you ever seen a nurse wearing tall black boots? I haven't.

The murders tend to occur around the caretaker shack in the graveyard, making Van Ripper a suspect, and Brody's demeanor and fascination with the legend makes him a suspect as well, but the film isn't really out to be a murder mystery. As soon as the horseman is fully revealed on screen, it's clear that what Van Ripper has been saying is true - there is a supernatural force at work, and it's after the Cranstons.

Van Ripper's fears about the horseman are confirmed while he's being given an unwilling ride home by the town sheriff. From the backseat of the sheriff's cruiser, Van Ripper witnesses the undead rider kill the local lawman.

Van Ripper is trapped in the car for a while, leading to my favorite moment in the movie, courtesy of Stacy Keach. The way he mixes a dispassionate "Oh help" into the middle of his cries for "Help" is brilliant.

It's hilarious, and it never gets old. I don't think Keach himself realized how ridiculously funny those lines would sound.

Before Brody can perform his headless horseman routine for the last hayride of the night, the real horseman disrupts the good times. Faced with the character he's emulating, Brody rides off into the night with the horseman in pursuit.

Part of the legend says that the horseman will spontaneously combust if it tries to cross a certain bridge. It's lucky for Brody that he knows the legend so well, as he knows where to go and makes it across the bridge before the killer can catch him.

Brody is such a surprising character. You think you have him all figured out from the start. Jackass quarterback who's as shallow as can be. But no, as the movie goes on, we get to see a whole different side of him. He makes smart choices and ends up being a pivotal part of the plot.

Now that the existence of the horseman has been proven, Ian will need to step up and fight if he wants to survive long enough to watch the John Carpenter TV marathon he's recording. With the help of Karen, Van Ripper, and even Brody, he goes into battle to protect his family.

It's interesting how things go for the Brody character in this movie. Normally he would have been the jerk all the way through, the secondary villain that the audience is glad to see get killed. Instead, Brody gets redemption.

Not only that, but to me he turns out to be more of a hero than Ian. He escapes the headless horseman by bringing him to the bridge, he helps Claus, he saves Karen. He could've gone home at any time, but he saves the day on more than one occasion.

By the end of the night, Carl may be glad that his son prefers fencing over football.

The Hollow was more than ten years old before I ever watched it. I might have heard of it before, but I would have avoided it in 2004 because a horror movie starring a boy band member wouldn't have sounded like it was for me, and I never encountered it in the years that followed. Until Priscilla mentioned that it's something she watches every year. So earlier this year, I watched it with her, and found that it was much better than I would have expected it to be.

People should stop being so hard on boy band members. Some of those guys/bands are extremely talented. Nick's presence doesn't compromise the movie in any way, quite the opposite actually. He made Brody likeable afterall, and I enjoy his performance throughout. 

I'm glad Cody was able to move past the boy band prejudice and gave it a try.

The fact that the movie works as well as it does becomes quite impressive when you take into account the shaky start the production had. As he revealed on an episode of the Movie Crypt podcast, Kyle Newman wasn't the first director hired for The Hollow. The first director quit "for personal reasons" four days into filming. Newman received a call from his friend Rodionoff saying to meet him at a Starbucks, Rodionoff presented him with the chance to be the replacement director there, and Newman was whisked straight from Starbucks to the set, where some of the cast and crew members were threatening to follow the previous director off the project. Things were so hectic that he had shot for three days before he even got a chance to read the full script.

I didn't even know that. I think Kyle Newman did a very good job. Not a lot of directors would've been able to make the movie work at all behind all that mess. I'm glad he took the job because the movie wouldn't be what it is without him.

Rodionoff's script isn't the best, there are some things in here that feel so random that even the other characters are baffled when Van Ripper brings them up - like there being vines growing out of Washington Irving's grave that are filled with blood and feed the horseman - but a complete understanding of that stuff isn't all that important to my enjoyment.

I'm always wondering about the blood-filled vines. And I do love the opening scene with Claus talking about and showing them. It sets up the tone for the rest of the movie perfectly.

The director troubles aren't evident in the finished film, but the different visions behind it are. The producers thought they were making a hard-edged slasher, but when looking at the cast he inherited - the kid from Air Bud, a Backstreet Boy, the girl from 8 Simple Rules - Newman realized he should make something with a lighter tone that would be accessible to the actors' established fans. So that's how you get an ABC Family movie with decapitations and boobs.

It's not a hard-edged slasher and that's what makes it work so well. Being able to realize what type of movie it should be is one of the things that made Newman the man for the job. And since The Hollow is not a straight up family movie or a hard-edged slasher, it makes it one of a kind.

The cast do well in their roles, with Stacy Keach being the standout for me, as I mentioned. The guys have so much to do - Zeger's Ian being the main character, Carter's Brody getting the redemption arc, Keach's Van Ripper delivering exposition and comic relief - that Kaley Cuoco's Karen does get overshadowed. Once the action kicks in, the love triangle element fades into the background and she's pretty much just tagging along.

Nick Carter stands out for me basically because like I said, it'd be very easy to hate Brody. And he managed to turn the character around into something different, and that's considering he didn't have a lot of acting experience. Stacy Keach is great. Without him the movie wouldn't be half as entertaining.

Now Kaley Cuoco and Kevin Zegers' performances could've been better. I love Zegers, but he's just really bland as Ian. The only scenes that are on the same acting level he usually brings are the ones where he argues/disagrees with his father. Other than that, it just falls short... and for someone who's supposed to be the hero, he just isn't. He is always needing help from either Brody or Claus, or both. Not to mention he made it possible for the headless horseman to go after his father by driving through the locked gate. Plus, both times the horseman is about to kill his father, he just stands there. Takes him a while to do something about it. It's almost like he was hoping he wouldn't have to do anything. "Oh, you didn't kill him yet? Guess I should try and save him then!"

The love triangle is handled pretty well up to a point, although the adults around them are very strange about Ian and Karen's relationship. They just met and people are already asking them about marriage and children. Maybe let them get to know each other and graduate high school first?

Everyone seems to love the idea of Ian and Karen being together, other than Ian. He really doesn't seem to want Karen at all at first. He doesn't seem to be interested. She's really pushy, and makes all the moves, "subtlety" is not in her dictionary. He ditches her to drive Claus home, he misses her pep rally. She just always seems to be the last thing on his mind. He's not even the one who saves her.

Newman didn't have the exact equipment he wanted for the lighting, but it appears he made a lot of use of the "chocolate gel" they had on hand, and that chocolate colored lighting ended up working perfectly for the film. Although it was shot during a California spring, it totally looks like a New York fall, and that lighting has a lot to do with selling the Halloween setting.

It's perfect, I'm glad he made it work. I also have to mention the score by Todd Haberman... not too loud, and yet inspired. That's how I like it. I also like that they used Nick's song "Blow Your Mind" from his first solo album for the end credits. Very fitting.

Newman says The Hollow is "not a good movie", but I would disagree with him. It is good, because it is very entertaining. A quick and simple Halloween horror story. Priscilla had the right idea, it's a movie worth revisiting each October, and I'm glad she introduced me to it.

I definitely do watch it every October, sometimes even more often. It's a must for me. Is it the best movie I've ever seen? No, but it's great, and tons of fun. I really love it, it quickly became one of my favorites. The tone, the super cool Halloween atmosphere... makes me wish everyone here in Brazil took the holiday as serious as you guys do in the U.S. Not many people seem to even know The Hollow exists, and that's such a shame. I recommend it every chance I get, and I always have the greatest time watching it.

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