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Archive for October, 2011

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

The problems with a prequel are many.  With Underworld, the biggest is that so much back story has already been detailed throughout the previous two films that we already know what led to what, and the motivations behind everyone’s actions.  All making a prequel can do is flesh out these ideas and show us something deeper, and possibly previously unrevealed to make it worthwhile.  Unfortunately, prequels are hardly ever that imaginative or worthwhile.

The other detractor is that we are already familiar with these characters at the end of their lives.  We’ve seen their emotional states after centuries of turmoil, conflict, and deceit.  So, in a prequel, one must strip all that emotional depth and history away.  These are not the characters as you’ve come to know or enjoy them, and that can make them far less interesting or entertaining.  Basically, in a prequel, there is less to explore because we already know the outcome, and that’s worst thing to go into a film knowing.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans takes place centuries ago telling the tale of how Lucian (Michael Sheen) came to be, and his eventual struggle to break out of the oppressive tyranny of the vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy).  Lucia is a lycan, the first of a new species able to retain human form, and change to a wolf at will.  As he is brought up under Viktor’s vampiric regime, Lucian becomes passionately in love with Viktor’s beautiful and strong willed daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra).  However, they must keep their love a secret as Viktor would never allow such a union to exist, but it is only a matter of time before secrets are uncovered and a lycan revolt is sparked.

Michael Sheen is clearly at the forefront of this film as Lucian.  It’s his story to ascension from slave to lycan leader.  He fills the role well as a strong, bold, and passionate warrior.  He is clearly a deeply talented actor with wide range that understands the character completely.  Sheen is able to take what Lucian was in the first film, and wrangle him back to a more impulsive, youthful man driven by his passions instead of being methodically driven by sorrowful vengeance.  Of course, Bill Nighy returns as Viktor, and is much more in the forefront of the story.  He commands his scenes with his usual intensity and venom, but also brings forth the pain of a hurt father when needed.  His subtlety of emotion gives Viktor his gravitas.  I couldn’t imagine anyone else bringing this much theatricality and impact to Viktor.  I just wish Nighy wasn’t so gung ho for those blue contact lenses.  They get to be distracting after a while.

The one thing this film allows us to freshly explore is Sonja, portrayed by the always fantastic Rhona Mitra.  She has spirit to spare.  Sonja won’t be held down by anyone as she is a brash, capable, and proud warrior.  She lacks no confidence, but is emotionally torn between the man she loves in Lucian and her beloved father, Viktor.  Rhona plays the heartbreak very well showing it troubling Sonja beneath the surface.  She is absolutely a strong lead, and entirely convincing as the kind of strong, bold woman that Lucian would devote his heart to.  Simply due to Sonja’s confidence, strength of character, and emotional context, she can prove to be an even stronger lead than Kate Beckinsale at times.  She is a finely textured character that makes it easy to see how a war could breakout over her by two men who deeply loved her.  However, it is Viktor who allows his disdain for the lycan species to eclipse his love for his own daughter.

Steven Mackintosh reprises the role of Tanis.  I absolutely loved his uninhabited weasely personality in Underworld: Evolution.  Here, it’s much more restrained because Tanis cannot risk Viktor knowing of his shady dealings.  So, Mackintosh never gets a chance to really flesh out the character.  He plays it quite straight and low key.  It’s a shame that is necessary since, as we’ve already seen, Tanis can be an immensely entertaining character.  It’s almost a disservice to the film and the actor to have him play the character as so subservient.  He was always a bit of a coward, but at least he had some bravado before.

On a side note, I had hoped that Kraven would appear in the film.  I had seen Shane Brolly in the IMDb credits prior to seeing the film, and expected his despicably deceitful character to grace this film.  Unfortunately, his credit is merely for the re-use of dialogue from the first Underworld at the film’s end.  While Shane Brolly did overplay Kraven at times before, I still enjoyed the character in general.  He was fun because, while surrounded by characters full of honor, dignity, and respect, he was an entirely straight forward self-serving, egotistical, and reliably disloyal delight.  What you saw was what you got, and he never wrapped himself up in a web of facades to cloak his dishonorable actions.  Truly a character you loved to hate.  Unfortunately, it is doubtful we’ll ever get to see him, again.

Patrick Tatopolous takes over the directing reins from Len Wiseman, and does a fine job.  He maintains a consistency for the franchise in all aspects.  To his credit, he handles every dramatic moment as if this was the first film in the series.  He doesn’t allow foreknowledge from the previous films to diminish the dramatic integrity of what he’s putting on screen here.  He surely makes it so that any newcomer can watch this film first, and still feel the weight it deserves to give the other films their proper context.  And quite seriously, the drama can be heart wrenching and deeply impactful.

The film does lack in the CGI area.  Where the previous two films had quite seamless effects, here, it’s not quite as smooth.  The first film had a $22M budget while Evolution had $50M.  This falls in between with $35M.  Still respectable, but with larger effects sequences featuring more lycans running amuck and so forth, the filmmakers probably had to stretch the dollar thinner to accommodate it all.  The practical effects are still consistent with the rest of the franchise, but the screenplay required CGI visual effects to take a more prominent role this time out.

The music here is an expectedly more traditional film score.  While that’s not entirely new for the series, it clearly wouldn’t be peppered with industrial rock remixes.  As with Tatopolous’ direction, the cinematography also maintains a consistent cinematic quality throughout.  It’s very well shot and edited.  Much of the same techniques are used with momentary slow motion action beats, and the desaturated blue tones.

Ultimately, what we have here is a hard film to sum up.  There’s solid talent up and down the line on both sides of the camera.  The screenplay is executed very well by deeply talented individuals.  The CGI is a bit dodgy here and there, but the real stinging point that damages the film is that there’s nothing new to be had here.  From the first film, we knew all of this story, and more importantly, the end results of it all.  The screenplay, while well conceived, offers nothing that we weren’t already told two films ago.  It simply takes that spoken back story, and shows it to us.  No new layers are added to the Underworld mythology, and no new perspective can be really had by watching this film.  Maybe there’s a little more emotional context seeing who Lucian was, and then, who he came to be centuries later.  So, you see it’s not a bad movie at all, but it just is a generally unnecessary one.  You can take it or leave it because, quite frankly, there’s very little to gain if you’ve seen the first two Underworld movies.  I like a good, solid back story to be fleshed out, but if a prequel isn’t going to flesh anything out to show us something new to the storyline, it fundamentally fails.  That could launch me into a whole different rant about another film franchise’s prequels, but who really has the time for that sordid mountain of madness?

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Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

Halloween 4 is probably the one sequel which most closely matches the original.  I would attribute this to a few factors.  The most significant, maybe, is that it was before each new film tried to introduce some new twist to the story.  Some new element to either explain The Shape, or just utilize a gimmick to sell the film as something supposedly worth seeing.  It stays closer to the spirit of John Carpenter’s original film, focusing on a simple stalk-and-slash idea coupled with relatable characters.

The film picks up ten years after the events of the first and second film.  Despite developments in later, contradictory sequels, Jamie Lee Curtis’ character of Laurie Strode died in a car accident, leaving behind a daughter – Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris).  She is taken in by another family, and raised alongside their older daughter Rachel Caruthers (Ellie Cornell).  Meanwhile, Michael Myers (George P. Wilbur) has been in a comatose state, and Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) remains persistent in his belief that Myers is indeed evil incarnate.  As Halloween approaches, The Shape stays dormant no longer, and Loomis must take chase of him before he claims new victims.  It is clear to the obsessed doctor that Jamie is to be his ultimate target, but it will be a Halloween night caked in blood before the horror is over.

After the fallout from the unsuccessful Halloween III, Moustapha Akkad wanted to bring back Michael Myers to revitalize the franchise.  After all, it was essentially his only meal ticket.  Akkad only produced five other (unsuccessful) films outside of this franchise in his 75 year life.  Thankfully, this was a solid sequel.  Nothing that tried to shake up the idea of the franchise, just inject new life into it, and be as faithful to the style and vibe of the original.  Dwight H. Little directs, and does a fine job at it.  It’s very difficult to rival Carpenter’s film, but Halloween 4 doesn’t try to be superior.  It only tries to be a respectful continuation, and it does succeed.  Little focuses more on atmosphere and suspense than gore.  While there is a decent amount of it, it’s not obscene.  It’s enough to give the film the needed deadly horror aspect, but stays away from being a splatter fest.  There’s a constant tension through the main meat of the film with little tinges here and there to keep the momentum going.  This allows the film to flow at a decent pace; not allowing it to grind to a halt anywhere, or get wound up too soon.  Dwight Little’s name has regularly appeared as a director on television series like Bones, Castle, Prison Break, and Dollhouse.  I’m always glad to see that his talent has taken him far with a steady career.

Alan Howarth’s score also helps to keep a strong connection with the first film.  The themes are slightly rearranged, but are more similar to those of the first film than the overly-synthesizer themes of Halloween II.  For me, that is a welcomed return to form.

The cast and acting of The Return of Michael Myers is indeed solid.  Everyone holds their own weight, and convey a realistic array of emotions.  The young Danielle Harris really stands out.  Where a lot of young actors tend to come off as annoying or phony, she showcases such wonderful innocence and vulnerability.  An audience can’t help but truly feel for her all the way through.  Danielle has gained a long, successful, and seasoned career birthed from this performance.  She’s helped along quite a bit by Ellie Cornell who is very likeable as the loving big sister, but also proves to have a lot of strength.  As Rachel, she doesn’t take anything lying down when she discovers her supposed boyfriend messing around with another girl.  As the film progresses, she’s put right into the thick of the harrowing danger with Jamie.  She maintains better courage under fire than Laurie did in the first two films, and certainly wins over the heart of the audience being Jamie’s sisterly protector.

Donald Pleasance, as always, is excellent.  He continued to bring a real credibility and dramatic weight to the series.  Some actors, if delivering a lot of the dialogue he had to, might come off as inauthentic or laughable.  With Pleasance, he had the talent to make you believe every word.  He gave it all the urgency and consequence of the grave.  The emotion in his eyes, the fear and the pain, transcend through the screen, and hit you deep within.  Where in the first film it was a weary doctor uncertain what Myers was entirely capable of, Loomis is now a man afraid of reliving the nightmare.  He has seen the carnage before, and is intensely adamant about preventing it this time.  With this in mind, Pleasance delivers a much less reserved Loomis.  He hasn’t time for reason or diplomatic talk.  Evil incarnate is loose in Haddonfield, and he needs people to take immediate action.

Beau Starr takes up the mantle of Sheriff of Haddonfield as Ben Meeker, and has a much more assertive and take charge personality than Leigh Brackett did.  Starr makes Sheriff Meeker a fine counterbalance to Loomis’ almost unhinged psychology.  He shows authority and urgency while remaining focused and calm.  And while I stand firm in that Nick Castle was the best Myers, George Wilbur does an admirable job, but he doesn’t get much chance to show his movement.  He tends to more just appear out of nowhere, figuratively, than stalk people over long distances.  However, he does seem less stiff than Dick Warlock’s interpretation (which I’m not very fond of as I prefer a more fluid Shape).  The rest of the cast, as I said, hold their own very well.  They create a solid and realistic community of characters that you don’t second guess their authenticity.  This is also due to Alan McElroy’s solid screenplay – writing intelligent characters with depth who don’t fall into the slasher film formula.  They make the choices that any one of us would in those situations.  When you would run away, they run away.  They don’t make stupid decisions or take foolish courses of action.  They may act, sometimes, out of desperation making not the best choices, but there is a realistic motive behind them.  Amazingly, McElroy wrote this script in eleven days, just before the writer’s strike of 1987 began.  Take it from me, a screenwriter myself, that’s not easy to do.

Again, I feel this is a very worthwhile sequel.  It does more to honor John Carpenter’s original film than any other sequel (or remake) in the franchise.  It retains a similar look and cinematography, despite the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and really stays true to Carpenter’s story and form of suspense.  It cannot rival that 1978 masterpiece, but Halloween 4 respectably holds its own.  While John might not agree considering his feelings on the franchise, from a fan’s point of view, I feel it is respectful.  After this, the films began to become either more bizarre, watered down, or just plain cheesy.  Overall, I believe this entry in the series is about as appropriate and proper as you could get.  I’ve never cared for Halloween II, feeling it suffered from seemingly lower production values, a badly reworked score, thinner characters, and less-than-inspiring direction.  So, with that mindset, Halloween 4 comes off as the better sequel, and the one I would’ve bettered expected to follow the 1978 film.  It’s not as intensely haunting or fascinating as John Carpenter’s Halloween, and quite as brilliantly shot (a 2.35:1 aspect ratio for this movie may have changed that sentiment more), but I believe it was more of a step in the right direction than anything before or after it.


Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

To say that the Halloween film franchise has been a very mixed bag with very debatable highs and lows would be putting it mildly.  Probably the blackest sheep of the family is Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  After burning Michael Myers alive in the second film, John Carpenter decided to take the franchise into an anthology format.  Each new entry would be generally unrelated to one another except for sharing a Halloween theme.  It failed, dismally.  Does that mean the film is particularly bad?  Well, that’s complicated.  The non-sequel was panned by critics and fans alike, and there is true reason to that.  In recent times, it has gained more respect apart from its franchise ties.  However, before I go further, let’s layout the plot first.

Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) is a physician at a northern California hospital.  One October night, a man named Harry Cambridge is carted into the emergency room in hysterics.  Grasping a Silver Shamrock Halloween mask and screaming “They’re going to kill us all”.  Naturally, he seems to have lost his sanity, but when Harry is murdered in his hospital bed later that night by a mysterious man (Dick Warlock) who shortly thereafter enters into a car & blows himself sky high, Dr. Challis becomes very curious as to Harry’s claims.  His interest is furthered when Harry’s daughter, Ellie, tells Challis what drove her father into hysterics.  Harry Cambridge was investigating the origins of the Silver Shamrock masks, and to why no orders were being taken for the following year.  Daniel & Ellie trek to Santa Mira (the home of the Silver Shamrock Company) to find the answers they seek.  They are horrified when they discover that the company owner, Conal Cochrane (Dan O’Herlihy), has implanted microchips, partially made from mysterious Stonehenge rocks, into the masks, and when the Silver Shamrock commercial plays with its special jingle, it will kill countless numbers of children across the country in a horrific manner.  As the night goes on, time draws short, and Daniel Challis must attempt to thwart Cochrane’s evil, sinister, dreadful plan.  Through relentless android assassins (who all look like Dick Warlock), a treacherous factory, and more, Dr. Challis desperately races against time to stop this living nightmare from happening.

This film is good, but not great.  It has a tense and suspenseful story that plays out with some shocking visuals and lots of android gore (they ooze yellow fluid).  It’s sort of clever that the film still maintains the opening shot of the jack-o-lantern, but as a video graphic, thus, supporting the film’s technology motif.  The film starts off with a suspenseful and mysterious chase sequence which sets up an eerie tone for the film.  However, while there are several strong moments of horror and unsettling atmosphere, they feel very far between with little going on in the meantime to maintain a driving plot.

While the score is very identifiable as a John Carpenter / Alan Howarth creation, I think its main shortcoming is a lack of an iconic theme.  The music is either a pulsating, rhythmic vibe or just eerie underscore to enhance the danger and creep factor.  When the original Halloween is playing late in the film on a television set, the music from that film more than overshadows the original music for this film.  Still, this is certainly far from being a bad score.  It’s perfectly creepy and ominous from two master composers, but knowing the other work they have done, it seems a little lacking in creativity.  The incessant repeat usage of the Silver Shamrock jingle surely becomes irritating very quickly, adding another negative mark against the film.

Director Tommy Lee Wallace doesn’t have the artist strength of John Carpenter, and while the cinematography of Dean Cundey goes a long way to boosting the visual quality of the film, there’s still a definite fall-off in suspenseful innovation.  Furthermore, several of the sets and props seem budget-starved. and the $2.5 million budget re-inforces that statement.  The lesser grade production values really damage the film’s potential for being taken seriously.  If the film had double that budget, perhaps such things would’ve looked better, but it wouldn’t have saved the film.  There are simply far more fundamental problems with Halloween III that could’ve been salvaged with the right person at the helm.  Thankfully, the special make-up effects are of an excellent gory quality.

Now, Tom Atkins puts in a strong, well-rounded performance here.  He shows the desperation of Challis well, and even more so, the intense fear at the film’s finale.  It’s a good performance as this womanizing doctor, but at times, you may feel as if he is is out-of-place.  Atkins is a big, tall guy, and having him play a less than physically capable man comes off as awkward on screen.  He easily does well with what he’s given, but there’s not much of a character on the page for him to appear unique or compelling.  Challis doesn’t have a particularly distinctive personality to really distinguish him strongly enough in the story.  This is pretty common with every character.

For instance, Dan O’Herlihy does a decent job as the insidious and sadistic Cochrane, but it’s not a great performance.  Granted, he’s convincingly evil, but barely more than that.  We are given a preview of Cochrane’s intended fate for the youth of the country, and it is truly shocking and horrifying.  Unfortunately, that alone doesn’t amplify the character of Cochrane.  I feel he needed to be more devilish, more demonic, more purely evil, but O’Herlihy’s performance does not reflect that.  His motives are horrific, but the man himself acts exceptionally casual.  He exudes very little emotion beyond a slight foreboding tone when he explains his motives and intention to Dr. Challis.  Cochrane shows no anger, no contempt, no vindictiveness.  Considering his motives, one would expect a more driven, more passionately evil character to come through on screen.  A casual evil can entirely work, but it needs more under the surface to make it truly disturbing.  One part of it is the script, but the other is the direction.  O’Herlihy might’ve been capable of more, but Wallace does nothing to motivate a stronger performance.  Basically, there’s no true depth to the performances.  You can look back at the wonderfully subtle work of Donald Pleasance in John Carpenter’s 1978 film to see what dramatic depth truly is, and how a great actor can inhabit a role well with the aid of a talented director.

I personally feel that this movie had potential, and if someone were to be bold enough to revamp it into a modern day production, I think it could meet that potential.  These days, one never knows what Hollywood will want to pillage next.  The premise of mixing mystical forces with a science fiction tinge sounds great to me, but it wouldn’t be an entirely new.  I simply believe that, with a proper budget in the hands of a talented director and an updated script, Season of the Witch could be an exponentially better film.  As it is, we’ve got a low budget B grade horror film with a fading stain of spite.

So, in the end, we are left with an intensely fearful cliffhanger as Challis screams at the television station over the phone to shut off the final commercial.  It’s a thrilling and suspenseful finale, and it should stick with you for sometime.  As I said at the start, we have a mixed bag.  The story worked, and the film had it’s frightening and thrilling moments.  However, the production faltered.  Tommy Lee Wallace isn’t a real visionary director, and the score was truly sub par for both Carpenter & Howarth (latter of which would do great scores for the next three Halloween films).  There are a couple of films I like just based on their potential despite the film not realizing that potential.  I believe this is one of them.  I can enjoy certain elements of it, but Halloween III: Season of the Witch just doesn’t captivate me all the way.  In the least, I suggest checking it out just so you can make your opinion of it instead of blindly buying into the scorn of decades past.


The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

“Oh fuck yeah!” – that was my response several times during my initial viewing of this film.  I know what many of you are thinking, “remake, ugh!”  Drop the misconceptions, people!  Let’s start fresh.  This is produced by Wes Craven, who directed the original The Hills Have Eyes among other horror classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street & Scream.  The director is Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension.  And to be plainly straight forward, this movie is a brutal piledriver of terror and madness.  This is, by far, the most intense horror film I have seen in years.  A few years prior, I felt that Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was the truest horror film in years – this movie beats the living hell out of it.  What you see in the opening moments of this film is absolutely NOTHING compared to what’s waiting for you later on.

This journey into a desolate landscape of hell starts with a family taking the long way to San Diego, California.  The father / former police detective Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a bold man with a penchant for guns.  His wife, Ethel Carter (Kathleen Quinlan) is somewhat of a religious woman, despite being quite the 60s hippie in her youth.  Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford) is married to their oldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), and together, they have a newborn baby named Catherine.  There’s also the other daughter, Brenda Carter (Emilie de Ravin) who’d rather be in Cancun than traveling through the hot, dry desert.  Finally, there’s the son Bobby (Dan Byrd) who spends a lot of time chasing down the family dogs -Beauty and Beast.  After stopping to refuel at the only gas station within 200 miles, the attendant gives them a “shortcut” back to the highway.  Big Bob has no qualms about taking a dirt road detour, but that’s where things go wrong….very wrong.  After a tire blowout, their SUV is totaled, and they are stranded.  Attempts to find help are futile as this family is being watched from the hills of the New Mexico desert.  These predators are inhuman results of nuclear testing done by the U.S. government in this very same desert from 1945-1962.  They are savage mutants that feed off anything they can find – especially other human beings.  The carnage, insanity, and stomach-churning bloodlust that ensues will leave only few survivors.  The lucky ones die first.

This movie is a brutal masterpiece of racked up tension, grizzly gore, and relentless horror.  Aja has delivered, in my purely honest opinion, one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life.  There isn’t any particularly new twists to this story, it’s mainly the same as the original, but Aja executes a vision that only a rare few will ever match.  As of late, horror film directors have attempted to push the boundaries of intense, cringe-inducing horror, but I don’t believe anyone has proven to be more effective or successful at it than Alexandre Aja.  There is such power and visceral intensity here that it had a hardened horror fanatic in me jumping, cringing, and tingling in my seat.  Aja so quickly established himself as a modern master of horror.  A lot of other horror directors get a lot of hype built up around them, but their films continually fail to live up to it – Aja proves to be the genuine article here.  By chance, I will use Rob Zombie as a perfect example.  Zombie has done a lot to build hype for his own movies, promising just how far he’s pushing the envelope with them, and how grossly disturbing they will be.  Unfortunately, despite some disturbing moments and such at times, Zombie’s movies fail to strike the correct chords or craft a powerful atmosphere with a coherent storyline.  What makes Alexandre Aja different from Rob Zombie is vision, pure and simple.  Aja knows how to create and rack-up the suspense and tension in a film.  He knows how to vilify a group of savages, and how to elicit certain emotions from an audience.  Some people have the talent, the natural gift for such filmmaking.  Aja clearly and undoubtedly has it.  Some other directors seem to require further practice to get even close to that skill level.  Simply put, you don’t need hype when you’ve got the talent because it speaks for itself.

Now, while we don’t get a massive helping of these radioactively mutated cannibals (which can be a good thing), every time we do see them, they make a frightening impact.  The most is made of their screen time, and it is not forgettable in the least.  From their first attack scene, they catapult the film to a completely different level, and the tension and madness just continue to climb from there.  These cannibals only become more feral, more animalistic as the film moves forward.   The makeup work by KNB EFX Group is amazing, disturbing, and overall realistic.  Their work here is worthy of major awards.  I couldn’t imagine how many actors were unrecognizeably transformed by KNB’s complex and intricate makeup designs.  You may know Desmond Askew from Doug Liman’s Go as the somewhat charming British fumbler Simon, but here, there’s no way you’d even know he was in the film without reading the credits.  Michael Bailey Smith takes over the iconic Michael Berryman’s role of Pluto, and he is no stranger to complex makeup work.  In his first role, he was Super Freddy in A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and later portrayed (among other creatures) Julian McMahon’s demon alter-ego of Belthazor on Charmed.  Smith is really only 6’4″, but through whatever means, he seems even larger in this film.  Smith appears monstrous, towering over everyone else on screen.  He’s an intimidating physical force that makes the most frightening impact here.

Billy Drago (also a Charmed alumnus as the demon of fear Barbas) portrays the cannibals’ leader Jupiter, and despite his brief screen time, does an extremely sick job.  This entire movie is filled with sick moments, sick villains, and sickening imagery.  And man, is it great!  Drago’s a great actor, and his work in The Hills Have Eyes is very ferocious.  The same can be said of Robert Joy’s Lizard who teams with Smith’s Pluto in the most shocking scene of the film where the two mothers are assaulted inside the trailer – resulting in gruesome and dire situations.  The rest of the mutated cannibals are just as vicious, creepy, and/or crazed as the main ones.  They all make the film all the more disturbing, and all for the better.  Tom Bower also has a unique and interesting part as the gas station attendant which he pulls off with a bit of slyness, sleaze, and desperation.

The “human” cast, as it were, are great.  Enough time is given at the forefront of the film to flesh this family out, and allows us to relate to them.  They are real people, very human, and when this murderous band of inhuman maniacs befall them, the shocking moments never stop.  They are such a shock because we are so used to filmmakers pulling their punches for so many years, but this time, the punches connect – HARD!  Aja does not hesitate to bludgeon us with the brutal realism that this film deserves.  We crave it, and we get it in spades.  Still, you may not be ready for this level of intensity, and that’s just exactly the idea.  This cast is much more endearing in their own ways than some slasher film victims are, but this is much more intense than any slasher film I have ever seen.  The one cast member who deserves praise more than any other is Aaron Stanford portraying Doug Bukowski.  He starts out as the kind of person who would appear to be least likely to endure such horrific events, but Stanford evolves the character to the point where you believe in him fully – everyone in my packed theatre was rooting for him like MAD!  He does an absolutely incredible job here, definitely a performance that should get him well recognized.  Speaking of which, I didn’t even recognize him as Pyro from X-Men 2.  He appears to have grown up quite a bit since making that film, and all in all, he appears to have great potential for the rest of his career.

Ted Levine, as the father “Big” Bob Carter, does an excellent job as well.  Despite being somewhat of a jackass at first, I got to liking him more and more as things went on, and he has a fine night scene back at the gas station that Aja crafted beautifully.  Even those who are supposedly “the lucky ones” by dying first put in strong performances that last.  They stuck in my mind, and their fear only enhanced my own.  Dan Byrd (‘Salem’s Lot) as the son Bobby Carter delivers a concrete performance filled with strength, immense fear, and powerful grief.  A great piece of work by this twenty year old actor.  On a further note, all the female actors here are down right AMAZING!  I’ve never seen such genuine morbid fear captured on film!

And goddamn, how great was this score?  Talking about tying your nerves up in knots, and then, shooting them apart!  Tomandandy (aka Tom Hajdu & Andy Milburn) composed a score that demonstrates perfectly how valuable a score is to a horror film!  I actually enjoyed the few brief heavy guitar bits, but the meat n’ potatoes here are in the gut-wrenching moments of suspense that explode in an instant.  Just another masterful stroke on the canvas of this amazing motion picture.

Furthermore, the cinematography here by Maxime Alexandre is fantastic.  Never has there been so much scope of so much nothingness.  Working with this desolate landscape, there’s such a vast wasteland to capture and utilize.  The massive scope used in key moments illustrates how very isolated our protagonists are from everything.  The highly revealing shot in the crater scene is a perfect example.  There’s not another decent human soul to be found for what seems like eternity.  Even if you were to run away, there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to truly hide.  It becomes a game of kill or be killed because of this.  It’s also made clearly evident that cellular phone reception (as one would imagine) is completely non-existent out in the middle of nowhere.  Maxime Alexandre also provides great cinematography when the physical intensity kicks in, and the editing allows for Alexandre’s photography to be appreciated instead of flashed across the screen in a nanosecond like many films do in this age of filmmaking.

Overall, the editing is very well paced and consistent, the cinematography is beautiful and striking, the score is an excellent composition that enhances every single moment of every single scene, the performances are as strong as steel while others are as powerful as a sledgehammer to the face, and finally, the direction is tight, taut, unflinching, and immensely masterful.  Aja delivers a full-on balls to the wall horror film that aims to please, and for a great many, it truly has done that. My god, how long had it been since we were graced with a certifiable classic horror film on our hands?  Been way too damn long.  Alexandre Aja is definitely here to stay to scare the living crap out of us, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.


Warlock (1989)

Warlock is a film I have always enjoyed, but have also always felt a little let down by.  It’s a fantasy horror feature that had a great deal of potential with some fantastic performances and a good story behind it, but a low budget really hindered its potential.  Directed by Steve Miner (Friday The 13th, Parts 2 & 3), Warlock was produced by the struggling New World Pictures in the late 1980s.  It didn’t gain a release in the US until 1991 due to New World’s filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy soon after the movie was completed.  Trimark Pictures gained the rights to the series which have since been absorbed by Lionsgate.  Sequels were produced (one with Julian Sands, one with Bruce Payne), and while they had more impressive production values, they both were generally inferior on a screenplay level to the original.  Unfortunately, a proper widescreen DVD release has still not been made available by anyone who’s held the rights.  However, I have discovered an excellent quality widescreen presentation via FearNet OnDemand.  Seeing it only on VHS all these years, I am astounded by its quality, and that is going to factor into my revised review here.  Still, I have to hope that this transfer will become available in a new home video release in the high-definition digital era.

The film starts out in Boston, 1691 where Giles Redferne (Richard E. Grant) – a witch hunter – has captured the Warlock (Julian Sands), and is soon to be executed in a most ‘Salem witch trial’ sort of way.  Although, the Warlock escapes in a time warp via the forces of Hell.  He is transported to the year 1988 (the present) to locate the three parts of the Devil’s Bible which will give him the true name of God, and the power to destroy all of creation.  However, Redferne (Richard E. Grant) is able to follow him to the future, only one day too late.  The Warlock has a head start on him, and has already placed an extreme aging spell on Kassandra (Lori Singer), the young woman whose home the Warlock crash landed into.  So, now it’s up to Redferne to track down his archenemy before he destroys all of creation.

This is an impressively effective supernatural thriller.  That is due to several talented individuals putting a lot of skill and time into this.  It is a steadily paced picture filled with a good balance of suspense, action, light humor, dramatic moments, and horror elements.  Gore only minimally factors into the film.  It is the atmosphere and the deliciously evil, sinister performance of Julian Sands that helps land it near the realm of horror.  He truly turns the film into gold above its budgetary shortcomings.  He is the perfect evil disguised as a man – as the trailer states – “with the face of an angel, and the charm of the Devil.”  He is frightening with an amazingly chilling screen presence that pulls you in fully.  He can set a foreboding tone without saying a word.

Meanwhile Richard E. Grant delivers a fine performance bringing the pure-hearted, moral charm of the out-of-time and out-of-place Redferne to the surface.  Grant makes Redferne a very likeable character as he has a warm heart of gold without becoming sappy.  He maybe a bit naive because of him being a stranger in an even stranger land, but he remains dedicated to his purpose and oath to bring an end to the Warlock for all time.  Redferne could’ve come off as a rather campy hero, but beyond all the old word speech, the value of Grant’s performance shines through to present an honest, grounded protagonist.  Redferne is given a depth and history to give him his avenging motivations for hunting the Warlock to the ends of the world and time.  Grant inhabits those qualities with weight and conviction.  Redferne is also a worthy adversary as he is knowledgeable and experienced in hunting the Warlock, and is more than capable of not only combating him, but ridding the world of him.  Most importantly, Redferne has heart – which is something you don’t usually see in this sort of genre picture.  It’s a perfect contrast of good and evil where the performances of Grant and Sands are concerned.  One is a passionate man of virtue, and the other is an icy cold villain.  When the two occasionally share a scene, it is juicy, meaty content that fuels the momentum of the film.  Their final confrontation in the climax is very strong, and allows the characters to feed off of one another, fleshing out their sordid history.  It is a powerful and nicely crafted climax indeed.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing special or greatly important about Lori Singer’s character, but in the least, Kassandra is a decently enjoyable guide through the late 20th century for our kind-hearted hero from the 17th century.  She does build a nice chemistry with Grant which gives way to some charming humor at appropriate moments.

The few visual and makeup effects present in the film were decent for the time it was made and the budget it was allotted.  Still, some of the optical visual effects are severely dated by today’s standards.  They may even seem obsolete by the groundbreaking standards of the day (i.e. The Abyss, Predator, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4).  This really only applies to the optical composites of the Warlock flying.  Although, I doubt the low budget effects will hinder your enjoyment of the film greatly.  I have witnessed films, released before and after this one, with tremendously lower quality effects.  I did find a nostalgic appreciation for the animated magical fire the Warlock wields.  On the practical side, the old age make-up used on Lori Singer while she is hexed by the Warlock was far from being a crowning achievement, but it’s never been a serious detractor for me over all these years.

Steve Miner does as good of a job as ever here despite the film not being high on scares or blood – unlike his work on the first two Friday The 13th sequels.  However, Warlock is a worthwhile supernatural thriller, and Miner should be proud of what he was able to create here.  He handles the story with respect and care.  He provides suspense and tension where need be, and is able to ramp the intensity up at the right moments.  The screenwriter for this film was David Twohy (The Fugitive, Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick), and he definitely wrote a fine script that shows a rough, early version of his now well-known style.  If Twohy wanted to direct a remake, or a worthy sequel – I’d definitely be privy to seeing it.  With a more generous budget and little studio interference, he can churn out a really good film.

Looking at the credits of this film, there are a some notable names that would become horror veterans themselves.  Two I noticed were David R. Ellis (director of Final Destination 2 & 4) as stunt coordinator and second unit director, and special make-up effects artist Tom Woodruff, Jr. of Stan Winston Studios and later Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. (who have become responsible for the creature effects on all the Alien sequels).  It’s always interesting to see that such amazing talents worked on a film such as this early on.  It gives good context on where they’ve been, and how they’ve advanced their craft over the years.

The cinematography is fairly good.  There’s a nice choice of angles and movement, and in select scenes, very moody lighting that enhances the Warlock’s dramatic presence.  These elements come together quite well with the visual effects to create a darkly fantastical atmosphere.  I don’t know how well it all would work for a modern audience, but since I grew up through this era, I can appreciate it with a nostalgic context.

The one last thing to praise is the late Jerry Goldsmith’s score.  I have loved his work for years from his scores for the Star Trek franchise to an endless MASSIVE list of feature films.  His score for Warlock had haunting, mysterious elements, and an epic feeling at the film’s climax.  This musical master always delivered something memorable and wonderfully cinematic, no matter what the film or genre.  It’s a sad thing he is no longer with us.  I just hope that his legacy will be carried on by new generations of musical masters.

In the end, it really is the budget that holds down the greatness of this film.  It had some solid talent in front of and behind the camera along with a well written screenplay.  Not to mention, the title role was perfectly cast with an actor that envelopes the screen, and inhabits every scene with vile charm.  Warlock simply did not have the money to boost its production values to a level comparable to the talent involved.  It generally does not look cheap, but the dated and low quality visual and make-up effects damage it.  But where there are films that falter despite great visual effects and production values, this one soars to respectable heights despite lower grade effects and budgetary limitations.  This is due to the quality of talent injected into it, and the solid foundation laid down with David Twohy’s script.  It’s full of charm, suspense, mystery, intrigue, and subtle terror.  I thank the now defunct Trimark Pictures for picking up this film from the then defunct New World Pictures.  I just wish Lionsgate would do something special for this old gem because it honestly deserves it.


Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness is certainly one of John Carpenter’s stranger and more underappreciated films.  It’s the second installment in what Carpenter calls his “apocalypse trilogy” (which includes 1982’s The Thing and 1995’s In The Mouth of Madness).  Simply put, this film is about the coming of the apocalypse, and the arrival of the Prince of Darkness – Satan himself.  This is one seriously eerie and creepy film, but it has the slowest pace of any Carpenter film I have seen.  I believe this film comes as an acquired taste.  It can take multiple viewings to really enjoy it fully, as it did for me.

A group of scientists, students, and priests – led by Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) – have come to study a mysterious canister which has been sealed away in the basement of a Los Angeles church.  The eerie green liquid inside this canister proves to be supernatural as it defies gravity, leaking upwards to the ceiling, and soon, it’s discovered that it is self-organizing as part of a living intelligence.  This has made way for changes to occur in nature that herald the coming of something evil.  And those who come into contact with this liquid are transformed into mindless undead slaves of Satan himself.  Outside the church, the homeless and derelicts of Los Angeles become powerless against the influence of hell.  The few human beings inside the church are trapped – barricading themselves inside with threats all around them.  Theories are abound as to what is happening and philosophies about heaven, hell, and all of creation.  But whatever forces are at work, these few people must not only survive these servants of hell, but also prevent the coming of the Prince of Darkness from the other side.

If you choose to watch this film, I suggest you get things as dark and as quite as possible, put in the DVD, get that surround sound just right, and get ready to experience one of the most haunting, frightening films ever.  This is possibly the most taut and suspenseful Carpenter film of all-time.  The master of terror gives us a film that nobody should easily be able to forget.  The score from John Carpenter & Alan Howarth is absolutely mesmerizing and powerful.  Right from the beginning, it sucks you into a creepy and absolutely ominous world, and doesn’t let go until the end credits have finished.  It’s an absorbing, killer work of musicianship that compliments the film marvelously.

The effects here are great.  There’s nothing here as complex as in The Thing (which Rob Bottin really delivered something groundbreaking), but there’s plenty of scary makeup work and visuals to unsettle any audience.  There’s such apocalyptic biblical imagery here – including swarms of creepy crawly critters – that it will have you squirming and jumping from your seat.  John Carpenter wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym “Martin Quartermass,” and man, he does just such an amazing job eliciting such haunting emotions.  The film has such a suspenseful power that it could ONLY come from John Carpenter.

That pseudonym is only one of several that Carpenter has employed in his career.  He uses them because he feels uncomfortable with his name plastered all over the credits as if it’s an egotistical thing to take so much credit.  Me, I believe in everyone getting the credit they deserve for the hard work they do.  The fact of the matter is that I know who Martin Quartermass, John T. Chance, and Frank Armitage are, and it is still John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.

The cast is full of Carpenter regulars such as Donald Pleaseance (Halloween, Escape From New York), Victor Wong & Dennis Dun (Big Trouble in Little China), and Peter Jason (They Live, In The Mouth of Madness).  Also, Jameson Parker from TV’s Simon & Simon is in a lead role as well.  It’s very much a Carpenter style cast in that he doesn’t cast big stars, but a lot of strong character actors that give the film a textured diversity.  I really enjoy all their talents, and they all put in fantastic efforts.  John Carpenter has always been great in the casting department (probably best displayed in The Thing).  We even get a cameo from shock-rocker Alice Cooper, and he contributes the title song from the album of the same name.  The song only appears in a small scene, and via a guy’s walkman radio.  In any case, it’s always nice to see Alice appear in a horror film via an acting role or as a musician.  He has no lines, but appears creepy enough as one of the derelict servants outside the church.  Overall, this cast gives a lot of life and character to this slow-paced film.

In a way, this is different from most Carpenter movies, mainly in pace.  He’s always made very smart pictures, and his horror has never been something you can entirely shut your brain off for.  And while Prince of Darkness is full of atmosphere that drives every horror element forward, it is much more an idea and philosophy driven screenplay.  There are very few action set pieces as the danger and horror are played through tense atmosphere and chilling visuals.  It’s a film that crawls in under your skin slowly, and requires you to stay mentally aware of what’s happening for it to have the proper effect.

There’s a good deal of discussion in the film about philosophies regarding dreams, death, hell, religion, and so forth.  This adds to the psychological aspect of the film since it revolves around such supernatural or paranormal phenomena birthed out of an ancient evil covered up by the church.  With the film having such a wide ensemble cast, they have plenty of room for differing opinions and beliefs, but don’t let this make you think the film gets bogged down by it.  Not at all.  As they uncover more truths, it enhances the fearful and foreboding atmosphere of the film.  There is a haunting evil taking form in their presence, and it is slowly consuming them either physically or psychologically.

In everyone’s dreams, they see a transmission from the future of a dark figure exiting the front of the church they are all holed up in.  They get only bits and pieces, but they all share it getting a little more each time they fall asleep.  It is another piece of the foreboding doom that lies ahead of them, and it is immensely effective.

Prince of Darkness definitely has similarities to an old style zombie film where a group of mismatched people have to fend for their lives against an undead army.  However, Carpenter just pushes it further with so much more substance and unsettling visuals.  This really is a nightmare come to life.  A constant theme in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy is some sort of force consuming humanity and deteriorating it into something entirely inhuman.  In The Thing, it’s an actual alien life form that perfectly duplicates any organism it infects which could eventually wipe out the human race.  With In The Mouth of Madness, reality is twisted and distorted to where people become psychotic and homicidal in the wake of ancient evil reclaiming our world.  In Prince of Darkness, it’s sort of a bridge between the concepts.  As an ancient evil slowly claws its way back into our world, it also consumes nature and humanity until they become entirely mindless, inhuman servants.  Coming from three different screenwriters on three different films, that is an entirely fascinating conceptual arc.

This film is undoubtedly one of John Carpenter’s finest works.  Some don’t take a good liking to it because of its slow, slow pace, and its focus more on suspense than physical intensity.  Whatever the case, I find it to be a masterwork worthy of inclusion to anyone’s DVD collection.  The cast is very good, fun at times, but solid always.  The score is pure gold, a powerful accomplishment for Carpenter and Alan Howarth.  As in any Carpenter film, the cinematography is stellar, and the direction is absolutely phenomenal!  If you genuinely want to get creeped out to the max one dark, lonely night – this is the one film to watch!  I won’t say that Prince of Darkness is a perfect film as the pace can be a detractor to its potential.  Part of good tension and suspense is momentum, and it’s not entirely consistent here.  However, it is a great flick, and I will give it a great 9 out of 10.  If nothing else, the ending will grab you like only a John Carpenter film can!


Underworld: Evolution (2006)

For whatever reason, I chose to give this sequel a fair chance despite my very negative reaction to the first film.  It might’ve been my extreme absence from seeing new horror films in the last few years, or just that it may have seemed a bit more developed than the first (by way of trailers and such).  Whatever the case, on its opening theatrical weekend I caught a matinee showing of it, and yes, I actually garnered some enjoyment from it.  Before I get into the critique, let’s familiarize you with the premise of Underworld: Evolution.

Eight centuries ago
unknown to humanity, a blood feud raged
between a ruling class of vampires
and a rebellious legion of werewolves
known as lycans.

Legend tells that the war began with two brothers,
the immortal sons of Alexander Corvinus

Markus, bitten by bat,
became the blood leader of the vampires.

William, bitten by wolf,
became the first and most powerful lycan.

This sequel picks up just exactly where the first film ended.  The lies about the war between vampire and lycan have been uncovered, many former allies and enemies lie dead, and the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and the first hybrid of the two immortal species, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), are now on the run.  Meanwhile, vampire elder Markus (Tony Curran) has been revived.  He is the very first and most powerful vampire, and he shows it from the very first minute on screen following his resurrection.  He absorbs the blood memories of the lycan doctor that was slain in the crypt, and comes up to speed on all the recent betrayals and treachery.  He goes hunting down Selene to learn all she knows, more than even she is aware of.  Markus knows that Viktor deserved the end he got, as the pre-title flashback sequence shows, but the intentions of Markus are much more frightening, volatile, and lethal than those in the previous film.  As Markus tries to move his plans forward, Michael & Selene hideout wherever possible, and eventually become more intimate with one another.  More secrets and hidden truths begin to unfold, and Markus’ ultimate plan is unveiled as he wants to create a new race forged by the purest of both vampire and lycan.  Unknowingly, Selene holds one major key to Markus’ plans, but there is much vengeance for him to reap along the way.  Ultimately, our heroes must evolve to battle this new enemy or perish in its wake.

One of the things that I first enjoyed about this sequel were the more exciting and unique action sequences.  No more are we treated to shootout after shootout, but we have much more physical combat on top of some nice chase sequences.  Every action sequence is different from the last, whether in context or geography.  It made this film much more lively and intense.  Secondly, Scott Speedman really comes more into his “evolved” character of the vamp-lycan hybrid Michael Corvin.  He’s involved in more smash mouth brawls and chase scenes.  He’s a more active member in the story despite having much less pivotal importance to it instead of riding the wild wave carrying him along to unknown destinations.  Selene still does much to protect and guide him as he becomes more familiar with what he is, but he’s not helpless by a long shot.  Also, the design of the hybrid is more evolved as well, and yes, I am using the subtitle of this film a lot.  However, it is justified because there’s a lot of evolution with this sequel.  Anyway, with a bigger budget, but not an over inflated one, this film has some upgraded effects that truly benefit the characters and story.  Corvin’s hybrid creature design is more satisfying to me as it takes on a few more werewolf characteristics, and the creature itself tends to be more animalistic.

There are fewer characters this time around, but the depth of them is much improved.  There’s more emotion here, especially with Selene.  She’s no longer some cold killing machine, trying to fight back against everything and everyone.  She becomes intimate with Michael, opening her emotions to him, and there’s no denying their love for one another.  With no other allies, Michael is all she has, and Selene is the only one that Michael can latch onto.  Without each other, I doubt they could survive emotionally or psychologically for too long.  One of the new characters is Tanis (Steven Mackintosh), a vampire historian that has been exiled for about three centuries, or so it was believed.  He’s a weasel, a real piece of scum that shouts back to the majority of the cast of characters in the previous film, but is easily more enjoyable than despicable.  Not surprisingly, Tanis has interesting ties to Lucian .  Another new character is portrayed by Sir Dereck Jacobi, a revered British actor of stage and screen.  His character is wholly pivotal to absolutely everything, and is greatly responsible for cleaning up after the messes of both the vampires and lycans.  He helps keep their underworld as hidden as possible – mainly because he’s partly responsible for its existence – but none have been aware of his existence until now.

And the new villain, Markus, proves to be quite an adversary for all, especially Selene & Michael.  He certainly has a swirl of emotions being manipulated and opposed by Viktor for centuries.  He seeks to free his brother William, the most ravenous and powerful lycan ever, and together, no one will be able to survive them.  Markus is truly frightening and indiscriminately lethal.  He knows what he wants, and will tear through whomever he must to achieve his god-like goals.  He’s not as intriguing a villain as Lucian was (who actually proved to not be the villain at all in the first film), but he still does not disappoint.  While Lucian was someone with more carefully laid plans (one part revenge, one part survival for his species) who had patience to carry them out subversively and work with a higher level of honor than those around him, Markus is purely about revenge, and has no use for being subversive.  He’s very upfront and direct with his approach to achieving his goals.  Being as powerful as he is, he has no fear, and thus, destroys whatever he wishes.  Tony Curran portrays him fantastically through and through.  I so enjoyed his performance – the strength, the confidence, the anger, the defiance – it was powerhouse.  He easily makes the movie, and he is definitely a marvelous actor I intend to pay close attention to.

The effects in this film are even more impressive than the first film.  There are a lot of effects here that you would swear are practical, but don’t seem logistically possible.  The visual effects department deserves major credit for their amazing work here!  There’s not a bad or cheesy piece of CGI here, if you can even decipher what is CGI to begin with.  In any case, this is a major visual effects achievement, and everyone knows that bad CGI can completely kill any movie (especially one with such a serious tone as this one).  Yes, the dead serious tone persists here, but there’s a couple of smirks to be had here and there.  Frankly, there’s enough depth and variation of emotion throughout the film to make it more lively and entertaining than the original Underworld.

The music of Underworld remains the same with the industrial rock remixes and such.  The score is also fantastic, and possibly a bit more dynamic than before (mainly due to the demands of the story and action).  We get a lot more action early on, and I would have to say that there is a higher degree of gore here.  It’s not a massive amount of gore, but more gruesome since Markus is a far more violent character than any we saw in the original Underworld.  There’s also less “technobabble” this time around because there’s nothing new to describe in relation to it.  Simply put, all the medical jargon and related exposition more or less applies here as well.  It’s already been established in the first film, and so, there’s no need to say it all again.  There’s ultimately less exposition overall, but there’s still plenty of back story to explore.

Basically, I found this movie enjoyable.  The action is far fresher than that in the first movie.  There’s easily much more emotional depth, allowing you to really feel more for these characters, and to become closer to them.  There’s not as much mystery this time around, and the scope of it all might seem smaller.  This is partly due having fewer characters than before, and this film takes place more outside in mountainous regions than inside the mansion where there was a lot of production designs to show off (as well as extras).  Although, I believe Underworld: Evolution makes up for it on many levels.  Also, after viewing the extended cut of the original Underworld, I believe both films are equal, but on different levels.  What one lacks, the other makes up for.  One film’s weakness is the other’s strength, and so, they even out in the end.  I believe if you melded both films together into one, capitalizing on both of their strengths, you’d have one bad ass movie, but instead we get two that are pretty damn good in their own ways.


Underworld: Extended Edition (2003)

After seeing and enjoying the sequel Underworld: Evolution on its theatrical opening weekend, I decided to give the original film a second chance with the extended edition.  It was clear then that I should’ve given Underworld a second viewing quite a while before then.  With that viewing, things became more enjoyable, and more importantly, coherent in a second viewing (even with two solid years between viewings).  Anyway, this version of the film has 12 minutes of additional footage with 11 minutes of replacement footage.  The audio commentary with director Len Wiseman and cast members Kate Beckinsale & Scott Speedman help to mark the new footage (quite important to me only seeing the theatrical version once).  More back story is revealed on our leads, and a few other tidbits are injected.  Now, there’s really no extra gore here, and so, don’t let the “unrated” moniker get you excited.  It’s just a marketing tool for horror fans, plain and simple.  Now, I will endeavor to make a far briefer synopsis this time out.

A war between vampires and lycans has raged for numerous centuries, but the reasons why there ever was a war is unknown to most everyone.  Digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires, and that’s just the least of what’s forbidden.  There are many unknowns that none question, but the vampire death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) soon raises all those questions.  After tracking a pair of lycans and subsequently engaging in a shootout in a subway station, she becomes convinced that they were after a human named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman).  She persists in unraveling this mystery, even more so when met with resistance from the decadent second-in-command Kraven (Shane Brolly).  He pushes so hard against her that she becomes even more suspicious, and goes to desperate measures.  She awakens elder vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy) a century ahead of schedule, and seeks his help.  With his power of command and physicality, he easily reaffirms control of things.  Meanwhile, the lycans’ plan slowly is revealed, but not fully until far later in the film.  In any case, this plan has everything to do with Michael’s bloodline, and with the survival of the lycan species.  Selene soon becomes Michael’s only ally when it seems all are gunning for him, and neither of them know why, not truly.  Ultimately, all the lies, deceit, deception, and secrets are made known, and the consequences of them all will change everything for both species.

When I first watched this film, it was very confusing and tiring on a mental level.  There were so many plot twists and turns that from one scene to the next I didn’t know who was a villain, an ally, or a hero.  I was completely lost on the geography of this plot, let alone where these characters stood within it.  By the end, nearly everyone you believed was a protagonist or an antagonist flipped sides, and it was all very confusing.  I felt like Michael Corvin wondering just, “what the fuck is going on?”  This time through, I was fully aware of where the plot was going, and everything made much more sense.  A second viewing allows you to be “in the know” about the intentions, schemes, and treachery of all.  It allows you to enjoy the film more since you are not trying to re-decipher the plot every few minutes.

Now, I still find the action sequences to be lacking.  A shootout is a shootout – practically every action flick has one.  Granted, it would be silly for the vampires and lycans to be doing battle with swords and battle axes since these are technologically evolved times, but after seeing the sequel, Underworld: Evolution, there are other ways to create multiple action sequences unique within one film and make them exciting and dynamic.  Since I had already seen this movie, I knew what to expect from the action sequences, and so, I was able to enjoy them more.  But still, they could have been much more impressive and unique.

I still give major praise for the effects in this film, both practical and computer generated.  They are exponentially better than the cheesy, third-rate CGI in Van Helsing, and nothing here comes off cheap.  It’s all wonderfully designed and executed.  After watching some of the featurettes on disc two of this set, I got to appreciating the development of this film even more than before.  I do retain the belief that this film could have benefited from a bit less dreary visuals.  The desaturated colors really bring down the potential beauty of this motion picture.  The Crow absolutely had an insane amount of darkness, and a heavily gothic look to it, but it is a beautiful film.  It didn’t use desaturated colors, but instead used the contrast of light and dark.  I believe the same could’ve been done here, and made the visuals much more compelling.  Still, the cinematography is fabulous, and the production design is deeply intricate.

The music as well as the costume design is directly in line with that of The Matrix – industrial rock remixes and tight black leather n’ latex.  Yes, it’s been done to death, but it certainly works fantastically well here.  Kate Beckinsale looks all the more beautiful and sexy the more you see her.  The lycans have a far more down n’ dirty look as they live a more low class lifestyle than the aristocratic vampires.  I guess leather attire will always be some indefinable symbol of coolness.  So, despite my previous negative attitude towards said choice in costume design, I really won’t knock it now.  It’s cool, and I’ll leave it at that.

The quality of the acting doesn’t change in this extended cut, we just get more of it.  I speak nothing negative about it, and knowing where things ultimately lead up to not only in this film, but the next, I truly understand the coldness of some characters.  Those that survive this film definitely show far more depth in the sequel.  Still, I still have to praise Michael Sheen for bringing such a great character like Lucian to life.  He does an incredibly intriguing job with him, and by far, proves Lucian to be the most in-depth and emotionally invested character here.  The rest of the cast has acting chops to spare, and while Speedman may seem miscast in this film, I think him coming into his own in the sequel really makes up for anything he may appear to lack in this film.

Again, what this extended cut gives us is more character moments.  These are nice extra elements, but don’t change the complexion of the story or characters much at all.  They just add some additional depth and back story.  The pace of the film was already pretty slow, and thus, this only elongates the existing pace.  There is a sex scene between Kraven and Erika, but there’s nothing gratuitous about it.  It’s sexy and lustful, but no real nudity  Beyond that, there are a few bits and pieces of scenes added back in that were likely just cut for time originally.

All in all, with two years later and a fresh perspective along with the knowledge of the sequel with me, I appreciate Underworld much more.  The story does drag in the middle (even more so in this extended cut), but it really picks up near the end.  I recommend that anyone who may have disliked or was disappointed with this film should give it a second viewing.  Being aware of the plot and its progression will allow you to appreciate the overall film much more.  Your mind is more free to enjoy it instead of trying to keep up with plot twists.  Simply put, you’ll spend much less time being confused, and more time enjoying yourself.  Checking out this extended cut should be an option for you, but it doesn’t offer anything greatly important regarding the plot, let alone the action, but does offer more on the characters themselves.  Theatrical or extended is perfectly fine for a second viewing.


Underworld (2003)

I have become a fan of this franchise based on its potential.  I don’t think any entry, so far, has really been great overall.  One entry excels in areas that others fall short in.  It’s hard to do a straight update on my old review of this film.  There are two reviews I did.  One from my initial viewing of the theatrical version, and one from the extended edition which serves as a more informed second viewing.  So, what follows is merely a polished up version of my original 2004 review of Underworld.  Bare in mind that this is a first reaction review, and does not reflect my current sentiments on the film after multiple viewings.  For that perspective, check out my review of Underworld: The Extended Edition.

When I first heard about the premise for this movie, I thought it was gonna be one to watch.  A must-see, even.  Simply put, that premise was the dynamic of Romeo & Juliet set in the world of vampires & werewolves.  I was so very excited to see this movie!  Through all the trailers and TV spots.  With all the months passing by, I only became more anticipatory of this film’s release.  But in the week of the theatrical release, I starting reading the reviews.  They were bad.  Even the horror sites were saying it was a dull, boring, unoriginal, unimaginative movie.  Bloody Disgusting, Diabolical Dominion, and Creature Corner all gave it BAD reviews.  After that, and numerous visits to RottenTomatoes.com, I chose against going to see this film that I had been so anxious to see all year long.  However, after its release on DVD, I finally decided to plunk down some bucks to rent it, and all I can say is that all the reviews were right.  But before I go any further, let’s TRY to lay down the plot for this quite dull and highly non-innovative film.

Kate Beckinsale plays the vampire Selene, a Death Dealer whose job it is to hunt down and kill off the Lycans (aka ‘Werewolves’).  At film’s start, she gives us a nice expositional voice over to help with the film’s general setup.  A war between the two species has raged for 600 years, and despite the fact that no one truly knows how it all began (digging into the past is forbidden amongst vampires), the war continues.  Though, the vampires believe that the war is soon to end, it would leave Selene’s kind, the Death Dealers, as an obsolete faction among the decadent lifestyle the vamps have adopted.  Meanwhile, two werewolves are shadowing the footsteps of a mortal man, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), but for what purpose, that is not revealed for another HOUR, maybe more!  A shoot-out goes down in a subway station between the vamps and the ‘wolves, amongst humans.  We get our first look at the werewolf transformation, and it’s not half bad.  Now, at this point I would like to rush the plot synopsis quickly along, but there is too much to simply sum in one paragraph, but I’ll try.

On the vampire side of things, it is only a short time before they are to reawake one of their elders from a centuries’ old sleep.  These elders are held in a tomb of sorts inside the Victorian-esque mansion all these vampires live in.  In the meantime, their acting leader is Kraven (Shane Brolly), a very self-minded bloodsucker who is Selene’s greatest obstacle.  This becomes even more evident when Selene’s interest is peaked as to why the Lycans were following Corvin, and she ultimately is forced to go against everyone’s orders to discover the truth.  While investigating Corvin at his apartment, a small pack of Lycans come looking for him, including their leader, Lucian (Michael Sheen).  During this encounter, Lucian takes a heap of a bite out of Michael’s shoulder, and damning him to become a werewolf, in time.  At the tail end of this encounter, an amazing stunt is performed where Sheen chases after Selene’s luxury import car, and just runs up atop of it.  How it’s performed, I’ll tell you later, but no wirework was involved.

Anyway, to find guidance and wisdom as to what plans the ‘wolves might be forging, Selene awakens the one who made her into a vampire: Viktor (Bill Nighy).  He is awakened in a manner not far off from Hellraiser.  He must be regenerated via the absorption of blood, but they throw a nice twist on it.  Now, even though Viktor has been awakened, Selene STILL is faced with adversity where she believed that she would have an ally.  It only forces her into an even more rebellious state to uncover what treachery has occurred amongst these immortal enemies.  There is, of course, more to this film, but I will not divulge such spoilers to you.

Yes, I know, that was more than one paragraph, but I tried.  I guess the first thing that I realized with this movie was that the action sequences are really nothing new.  How many shoot-outs have we seen in movies?!  Far too many to even consider counting, I’m sure.  And that’s basically the only way the vamps and the lycans fight.  They pull out guns and a few other weapons.  Both sides now have bullets designed specifically to kill their rival species.  The lycanthropes have irradiated ultraviolet bullets that burn vampires alive.  From that idea, the vampires invent a bullet that releases silver nitrate directly into the lycans’ blood stream.  Lycans themselves are allergic to silver.  Most have the ability to force a silver bullet from their body, but the liquid silver injected into their veins is a near instant death.  However, a lot of other rules are tossed completely out the window such as vampires now have reflections, don’t seem to have any bit of flying ability, and well, don’t really have much powers at all.  They are undead bloodsuckers that are incredibly agile, nothing more.  And any charm or veracity that have become characteristic staples of vampires are certainly drained from these vampires.  The filmmakers were going for a more biological, scientific angle, but in the process, eliminate much of the powers of the creatures.  Of course, the werewolves don’t seem to have much of a change, except for the fact that they can now switch between their two forms at will, but it takes a full moon to initially trigger their transformation after they’re first bitten.  Also, no one has ever survived a bite from both vampire and lycan.

Now, since the action sequences are tired and bland, the next question has to be, “is the movie fun at all?”  No.  Everything and everyone is taken very seriously here.  Not a singular joke is cracked, not one witty play, nothing humorous of the sort makes its way into this film.  Which makes for a very dull 121 minutes.  I don’t even think anyone in this movie even cracks a damn SMILE!  Also, the film never really delves much past the surface of these characters to give us any sort of emotional involvement with them.  And in fact, the only character I really, really liked was Lucian.  Michael Sheen has a lot of charisma and sharp theatrical sense to give the lycan leader a strong gravitas.  His is the only one with a heartfelt emotional motivation for his actions that are not wrapped up in lies and deception.  Lucian also has a great look which supplements the feral lycan quality.  Despite Sheen’s shorter stature, he really is a strong presence that commands respect, even next to his hefty second-in-command Raze.  Kate Beckinsale IS quite seriously sexy in her skin-tight PVC leather / rubber cat suit and corset, but it’s a hard thing for an attractive young woman to NOT be sexy in such an outfit.  Her character is the heroine, but despite the script’s best efforts, she’s rather mono-emotional (as practically all of the characters are).  It’s not an issue of acting quality, but the tone of the film and characters that creates such a heavy, dry movie.  Bill Nighy is fantastic as Viktor bringing his always intense emotional sense to the vampire elder.  He also commands his scenes with theatrical breadth and subtlety.  Shane Brolly as the snake-in-the-grass, short tempered vampire Kraven can feel a little over-the-top at times.  The character is wonderful as it becomes refreshing to know that, at the end, he is just as vile and self-centered as he first appeared to be.  Still, the rage and shouting could’ve been turned down a few notches to make him a little more intimidating.

Now, we hit the assessment of the plot (and yes, the film feels, at least, as long as this review).  The plot is very tiresome.  Not that it’s repetitive or anything like that, but because we keep getting more and more elements added to this plot without reason.  Well, without reason until the last 30 minutes of the motion picture.  And by that time, you really don’t know who to root for.  Those who you believed to be the villains aren’t really doing anything villainous, but some of the despised characters are despised for a reason.  Although, some of the protagonists become deserving of all that they have coming to them.  So, through the whole film you’re acting like Michael Corvin after being bit saying, “What the HELL is going on?!”  You get tired of waiting for the plot to progress to a point where you actually know WHAT the real plot is.  And once you get there, there’s not much left of the film to hold any bit of interest in you.  The fact is, the screenplay is structured in such a way that you have no clear understanding of the plot’s landscape, or where any of the characters stand in that landscape until the final act of the film.  Selene herself doesn’t know who to fight against either until that point.

And for the final bit of assessment, the special effects.  I am so very glad that director Len Wiseman chose to do as much of the effects practically as possible.  The werewolf designs are very impressive, and that certainly helps to inject much to the feel of the film, keeping it as grounded as possible.  Though, the werewolves don’t happen to showcase much movement or flexibility in this form, but when they’re crawling rabidly along the walls, they are very animated (not in the CG sense).  Also, remember that stunt I mentioned earlier involving Michael Sheen running up atop an accelerating automobile?  That was executed using a tarp of sorts attached to the back end of the car, and Michael Sheen simply ran up that tarp while the car was in motion, and thus, making him seem like he was actually running at 35 miles per hour.  Very cool, yet simple stunt.  You can catch that on the DVD.  Now, the vampires don’t have much makeup of effects work aside from their fangs and contact lenses, but Viktor is a whole ‘nother story.  As he goes through a regenerative process, a series of progressive effects were designed for him.  They were full body casts, no suits.  This is well documented on the DVD’s featurettes, and it is a make-up effects process that was well worth the time and effort.  However, what was very disappointing was the design of the vampire-lycan hybrid.  It seems highly underdeveloped as it does not work as a pay-off at all.  There is nothing special or intimidating about this design.  It showcases nothing of feral strength or creative ingenuity.  Basically, it is a vampire with a more pronounced rib cage with deep, dark blue skin.  His abilities are more impressive, but it’s still a grave disappointment on both counts, to me.  Nothing impressive at all, as is practically everything with this movie.

So, to sum it up.  Underworld is a mix of Blade and The Matrix (maybe a bit of The Crow woven in), but it lacks any of what made those such entertaining films.  There’s no fun, no excitement, or character depth to be had in Underworld.  A whole boat load of never ending plot developments that just weigh this film down far, far too much.  Add that to the fact that the characters’ emotions are practically as flat as a board.  Also, I agree with a few others that the role of Michael Corvin was miscast.  Scott Speedman just doesn’t play it with anything but weakness.  And when the finale comes, he is not one bit convincing as the bad ass that he should’ve been.  While the cast is full of talent, there’s very little to nothing for them to showcase that talent, aside from Sheen.  And as I’ve said many times, great creature and makeup effects do not a good film make.  And as strange as this may sound, I stick with a quote by George Lucas, circa 1983: “Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”  That is very true.  The makings of a good film start in the screenplay.  If you don’t have that solid foundation in place to build upon, it doesn’t matter if have the best special make-up, visual, or creature effects ever in the history of cinema.  The quality of your film will falter.

Now, wrap ALL of this together and add in the most obvious and cliché of sequel segue endings, and you’ve got Underworld.  A greatly disappointing film that could’ve been a great, fun ride with fabulous creature effects, stunts, and at least, somewhat interesting characters.  The script was done all wrong, and it never opens itself up for some fun.  Everything is played with such earnestness and grim drama that it’s hard to gain entertainment value out of it.  We get so much plot, a good deal of back story, but belated answers and no character depth.  Plus, the look of this film is tired as well.  All blue and gray filters that make the film’s look as grim as everything else in it.  The whole movie takes place at night, in shadows, indoors, or in subterranean environments.  It makes the film feel very visually dull and bland.  And I’m not even gonna BOTHER critiquing the leather-heavy costume department as this has been a BIG trend since The Crow, or even more so since The Matrix.  Can’t seem to outlive this trend, can we?  Simply put, this is a painfully derivative film that takes ideas, production designs, costumes, action set pieces, and pretty much anything else you can think of from other sources.  And other, better ideas that could’ve injected some life into this rather dead film are jettisoned for bland, tired ones.

So, you think this review has gone on long enough, huh?  Well, now you know how long this film feels.  In the very conclusion, Underworld – a disappointment?  Indeed.  Greatly.


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Where do I start in reviewing such a masterpiece?  Francis Ford Coppolla directed what is generally considered the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, and for most people’s money (including mine) Gary Oldman (JFK, Léon The Professional) delivers the most definitive and frightening incarnation of Count Dracula.  This all can easily be attributed to James V. Hart’s screenplay being so rich in character, dialogue, and respect to its source material.  Coppolla delivers quite the intriguing visual experience, and while many of the effects are dated by today’s standards, they fit in well with the style and tone of the film.

The tale of Dracula is one of love that endures through death.  Dracula (Gary Oldman) was once a soldier fighting the Turks in war, and was a man of faith.  Unfortunately, despite his victory over his foes, the Turks brought word of Dracula’s death at their hands, and his dearest love, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder) is stricken with such unbearable grief that she plunges to her death.  When Dracula returns to learn this, he is driven into a maddening rage.  He cannot understand how his God would allow this injustice to happen.  He renounces God, shuns him, and practically declares war against him.  Dracula vows that he will rise again from his own death to avenge the death of his beloved.

Flash forward to some centuries later, and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent out to meet with a mysterious Count in Transylvania after one R.M. Reinfield has gone wholly mad.  The Count is set to move into a new estate in England, and Mr. Harker is there to deal with the final paperwork and such.  Jonathan must leave his beautiful wife-to-be Mina (Winona Ryder), but the Count becomes aware that his beloved has been reborn as Jonathan’s own.  Harker is very mystified and weary about the strange happenings at the castle all throughout this land of Transylvania, and soon, he falls prey to the Count’s evil.  Dracula soon begins his quest to reclaiming his eternal beloved, but as he moves in closer and closer, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is brought into the mix.  Dr. Jack Seward (who has been overseeing a clearly certifiable R.M. Reinfield) calls him in, being an old student of the Professor.  Soon, Van Helsing deduces the supernatural happenings, and concludes it is the work of the undead, a nosferatu, a vampire.  Soon, the hurt begins, and there is much carnage left on the path to the ultimate confrontation between the living and the undead.  The story comes together in a very unique way, and very fitting for this strange tale of love that will never die.

The creature effects here are outstanding!  The creatures of the night are given a massive life of their own, and will frighten you to a great extent.  The makeup effects on Oldman are stellar as well, making him look to be a very elderly Count, or the wonderfully young Prince Vlad.  The transformations the character goes through are simply amazing, and just on these levels, it beats out all other cinematic presentations of Dracula (or most any other vampire).  From wolves, to giant man-bats, to god knows what other unholy abomination.  Coppolla and Columbia definitely spent their money well on the makeup effects.  As stated earlier, the visual effects are rather dated, but they fit well into the overall look and style of the film.  However, they were all created practically, in-camera without any optical or digital composites.  Coppolla details this well in the special edition DVD release.

I’m really eager to speak about the acting in this film, but not for the reason you may think – Keanu Reeves.  Okay, I happen to be a Keanu fan.  I’ve seen many of his films from Bill & Ted to Point Break to The Matrix to Constantine to Street Kings, but frankly, hearing Keanu trying to pull off a genuine English accent is bad cinema, really bad.  And him working off of Gary Oldman for most of the film only makes him appear worse than he’s being.  Keanu can deliver a fun and/or interesting performance in the right film, but this just doesn’t play to his style.  Reportedly, Coppolla cast Reeves just so he’d have a “hot young star to appeal to teenage girls.”  Why he felt that was required, I don’t know, and again, I have nothing but respect for Keanu, but this just wasn’t his kind of role.  Anyway, onto the strong performances.  Gary Oldman is where it all lies here.  A Dracula film hinges on the power of the actor in the title role, and you couldn’t get any better than Oldman.  The man has proven his diversity in countless films, and is absolutely one of the greatest actors of our time.  He plays the infamous undead Count with such insidious charisma and lust.  As the elderly Dracula, he is very creepy, eerie, and devious.  He plays it up so well that it’ll make your skin crawl.  As the young Dracula who attempts to illicit the love of Mina (Winona Ryder), he’s very mysterious, seductive, and still rather creepy.  All in all, it’s a masterful performance, and it baffles me why Oldman wasn’t nominated for an Oscar or a Golden Globe.  He did win Best Actor at the Saturn Awards, though.  Joining him on the darker side of things is Tom Waits as the delusional and especially crazed Reinfield – a wonderfully satisfying performance.  He certainly brings a special flavor to his few scenes acting as a prophet of doom (kind of like Crazy Ralph in Friday The 13th, only completely out of his mind).

On the protagonists’ side, we have the ever impressive Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Mask of Zorro) as the venerable Professor Abraham Van Helsing.  Hopkins’ performance is quite lively and jovial, but overall powerful.  It’s a clever and endearing performance, and despite the character’s unorthodox, verbose style, he really makes himself a favorite.  He portrays a very interesting adversary for the immortal undead Count of Transylvania.  While Hopkins easily has the hero lead, you also have great talents such as Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Saw), Richard E. Grant (Warlock), and the female lead in Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands, A Scanner Darkly).  Winona does a fine job in this role which requires strength, fear, vulnerability, and simple beauty.  She’s the object of obsession for Count Dracula, and she is the woman he has renounced God for, and has forced himself into eternal damnation over.  All of these marvelous talents are well handled by the very seasoned Coppolla who is no stranger to star studded cast overflowing with sharp talent.

The score from Wojciech Kilar is absolutely awesome.  It’s practically operatic, and very dramatic stuff.  It’s grand, it’s powerful, and scary all at the same time.  It’s an absolute wonder to experience, and makes the film even better than it was.  This music is so haunting at times, and frankly, this is how a classic horror film should sound.  I can’t say anything negative about it because it makes the film so much larger than life.  It enhances everything on screen.

The costume design is as intricate and detailed as you would imagine.  It has depth and character to it as well as grace, and in other parts, a very strange appeal.  Oldman’s wardrobe is especially impressive and has become iconic.  Every character is aided and enhanced by their wardrobe, and it helps breath further life into the picture.  In addition to the fantastically exhaustive production design work, it gives the picture a sense of texture, personality, and history.

All in all, every part of this film makes it live and pulsate with power.  Aside from Keanu, all the performances are masterful, the makeup effects are absolutely amazing, and I challenge you to find a more intense classic horror film score than this one!  Overall, this is one solid, taut, and frightening film from a master filmmaker in Francis Ford Coppolla.  If you’re looking for a genuinely scary, haunting, and chilling horror film – you absolutely cannot go wrong here.  Frankly, I do not have the knowledge to compare this to every other Dracula film that’s come around, but general consensus has left this fine film with a strong reputation that has endured.  I am glad to contribute to that with a solid endorsement for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.