The balance between horror and comedy is often difficult to maintain, because they are impulses that exist nearly on opposite ends of the spectrum. A skilled writer or director can use moments within a film to play as both horror and comedy at the same time, something which allows for both genres to stretch as a result. Writer/director Ethan Wiley is one of those people.
With a career that began working in special effects in films like “Return of the Jedi” and “Gremlins,” Wiley quickly rose from technical positions to creative ones when he teamed with writer/director Fred Dekker (known best for the 1980’s classics “Monster Squad” and “Night of the Creeps”) to create the script for the haunted house comedy “House.” Ostensibly a horror-comedy with an emphasis on the comedy, it still had some very dark elements, including the nightmare memories of a Vietnam vet who was newly single after the loss of his son. The performances from “Greatest American Hero” actor William Katt and “Cheers” alumnus George Wendt are inspired and perfectly pitched for the hybrid film directed by “Friday the 13th” parts 2 & 3 helmer Steve Miner.
The first film was a big hit, prompting a quick turnaround on the sequel, “House II: The Second Story.” Directed and written by Wiley this time, the second film was an inspired experiment to make a film franchise out of an idea (haunted houses leading their various owners into strange adventures) rather than sticking with the same characters from film to film. The second film tapped into Wiley’s previous experience with effects, boasting some great and wild puppet creatures and effects (many courtesy of Wiley’s effects friend Chris Walas, with whom he still works today).
After a hiatus from the genre, Wiley returned in 1998 to direct an installment in the Stephen King franchise with “Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror,” as well as writing or producing several projects with Rebel Films such as “Black Ops” and “Drifter.”
While he will probably always be best known for his work on the “House” series, Wiley is a versatile and talented writer/director whose career deserves a revisit from dedicated horror fans.
A jet black comedy unfortunately lost on audiences who saw the packaging for the film and expected a “Hostel” style torture film, “Brutal” is a surprisingly fun and crazy film that touches on many of the clichés of the slasher genre a la “Scream,” but without the more overt flag-waving about being a genre reinvention. Great performances from genre stalwarts Michael Berryman and the delightfully dense Jeffrey Combs anchor this low-budget but inventive slasher satire.
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Apparently, people expect that if you’re doing an exorcism film, you need to have hovering bodies, projectile vomit, and over-the-top visuals. Wiley’s direction on “Blackwater Valley Exorcism,” a film as much about sexual politics and the inescapable rumors of a small town as it is about exorcism, eschews the typical showmanship of a battle with the devil to play a psychological game with the demon and its victims. Almost more a drawing room Southern Gothic than a possession film, with another great turn from Jeffrey Combs as the Sheriff (who might be the same character he played in “ Brutal”), this film is quieter than most possession films, and it works.
A film about four teenagers stranded in the woods when a giant bear attacks them? Break out the “jaws” jokes, right? The big surprise with this film is that the sympathy begins in the right place for this film, as we watch miserable young twenty-somethings murder a bear for no reason, and then see them put through the ringer by the bear’s angry mate. A film with multiple sub-plots, audacity in its recognition of animals as creatures of emotion and memory, and a brilliant performance by the titular animal, “Bear” was a surprise in almost every way it was possible to be: a smart script that toyed with greater meaning, a tense chamber piece, and a fresh take on the ‘when animals attack’ sub-genre.