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The Omen (2006)

So, thirty years later comes the remake which had one hell of powerful marketing campaign.  Script wise, the film is practically a carbon copy, but does have a few minor alterations and better polished quality.  It’s not a perfect film, but if my opinions of the original weren’t polarizing enough, I can tell you that I liked this 2006 film more in the first fifteen minutes than I did the whole of the 1976 version.

When a Vatican observatory priest sees the appearance of a prophesized comet, the Church is sure that it confirms the eve of the Armageddon.  Meanwhile, the United States President’s godson Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) is informed in the maternity in Rome that his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles) has just lost her baby, and she had troubles with her uterus and would not have another pregnancy.  Father Spiletto (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) suggests Robert take another newborn child, who lost his mother, as his own.  Robert accepts the child and gives him the name of Damien.  After a tragic accident, Robert is promoted to U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, but years later, bizarre occurrences begin to center around Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick).  When his nanny commits suicide at his birthday party, a substitute, Mrs. Baylock (Mia Farrow), comes to work and live with the family, but Katherine has come to realize that Damien is evil.  Meanwhile, Robert is contacted by Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite), who tells him that Damien is the son of Devil.  Soon after, photographer Keith Jennings (David Thewlis) shows evidence to Robert that confirm Brennan’s prophetic statements.  Thus, they commit themselves to a journey to discover the truth about Damien, and how to ultimately stop him.

What so immediately engaged me into this remake more than the original is the depth of real emotion and humanity in the performances.  I really do hold Liev Schreiber in high regard.  I think he’s really a fantastic actor with a fine range of talent.  I love that you can see the deep concern he has for his adopted son, but also, the internal conflict he has over the secrets he hides from everyone about Damien.  That knowledge is always in the back of his head, and builds up a sense of guilt as the foretelling words of Father Brennan become truth.  While Schreiber surely doesn’t have the dramatic presence of Gregory Peck, Liev brings something more valuable with that depth of emotion and relatable humanity.  He feels like a man with realistic struggles that define him as a conflicted, sympathetic person who only wished to bring happiness to his family, but brought evil in instead.

This remake wisely strengthens Katherine Thorn’s role.  She is given so much more emotional turmoil to grapple with over her fears about Damien.  Julia Stiles does a hell of a fine job.  Where Lee Remick left me with nothing to say about her performance, Stiles brings a strong breadth of traumatic emotion.  You can feel her pain seep through the screen with a lot of sorrow.  The filmmakers added in a series of surreal and startling dreams for her which are very foreboding as manifestations of her fear.  She is so afraid that there is something grossly wrong with Damien that the thought of this child being born from her psychologically and emotionally damages her.  This creates further turmoil for Robert who does not know how to tell her the truth without damaging her or their marriage further.

The late and very great Pete Postlethwaite does a far more realistic job as Father Brennan.  Instead of coming off as a frayed crazy man, he shows the immense fear and dread in the character.  He’s very much a prophet of doom who sells that sense of doom with every fiber of his terrified being.  It’s not a big splashy performance, but more subtle and foreboding.

I also enjoyed Mia Farrow’s different take on Mrs. Baylock.  She’s very kindly and unassuming, but is actually so nice to the point where it seems like a mentally unhinged disorder.  She makes the character the perfect nanny, to a fault.  Farrow is much more subtle in how she plays the role, making her evil nature less obvious and more subversive.  The performances of both Mia Farrow and Billie Whitelaw are excellent in this role in their respective films, and both work equally as well on different levels.

Unfortunately, David Thewlis’ turn as Keith Jennings is about average.  It’s nothing tremendous, but it services the film decently enough.  Between Thewlis and David Warner in this role, I would certainly choose the latter, even with that bad 1970s hair style he had.  On the whole, the acting in the remake is more dimensional and real instead of the more surface level performances of the original.  With a film that’s more heavy on ideas than plot, it is ultimately the performances which have to carry the film, and convince the audience of the validity of everything that is occurring.

On the down side, it is rather distracting how much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the 1976 original.  I honestly would’ve preferred if the screenwriter freshened it up a little.  You can still stay true to the spirit of the original dialogue without making radical changes.  Say the same thing in a different way is all I suggest.  In fact, this screenplay differed so little from that of the original film, Dan McDermott was not awarded a writing credit by the Writer’s Guild of America for his work on the remake’s script.

One significant addition to this remake that I felt was very effective were the Vatican scenes.  There, a Cardinal recites lines from a prophecy which correlate with real world horrific events.  These events foretell the coming of the son of the Devil.  I would say it’s more than a little controversial to use images of 9/11 to this effect, but one cannot deny the weight those images hold.  It’s a very good sequence that really sets up an ominous feeling that something terribly evil is coming, and it is bookended at the film’s conclusion.

I also like that a scene I felt was poorly handled in the original, where Damien disappears on the Thorns as they take a walk, is revamped into a much more effective scene here.  This time, Katherine pushing Damien on a swing set when she gets pulled away by a cell phone call.  When she turns around a moment later, Damien is suddenly gone, and she realistically panics.  It’s actually Damien playing a mischievous prank on his mom, one seems to take a little pleasure in frightening her with.  It’s a much more realistic and tonally appropriate scene that also strongly establishes Katherine’s deep, motherly concern for him.  The music here appropriately goes for a tone of dread as opposed to the original’s melodramatic punctuation.

This remake of The Omen does look absolutely gorgeous using a rich but restrained color pallet of ambers, blues, and greens.  That coupled with some excellent, shadowy lighting creates a very moody visual atmosphere.  While it might look a little too polished at times, on the whole, it’s a very well shot film.  Director John Moore also made vibrant use of the color red as a signal of supernatural events which you can take or leave at your discretion.  It’s artistic symbolism which I am generally indifferent about.

The score by Marco Beltrami might not be iconic or especially memorable, but it is entirely new and original.  He goes for a more traditional score that enhances mood and emotion instead of bludgeoning you with bombastic music cues.  It highlights the horror very effectively, and solidly supports the various subtle tones of the film.  It is a very good piece of scoring by Beltrami which works immensely better than the overbearing Jerry Goldsmith score for Richard Donner’s original film.  While Goldsmith’s would probably be a rousing listen on its own, apart from the film, Beltrami’s does what a film score is meant to do, and that automatically gets my praise.

Another thing that is mostly quite improved are the death scenes.  The impalement might not yet be perfect, but it is far better executed with quicker timing and stronger impact through use of digital effects.  Katherine’s fall from the balcony, again while not perfect, is vastly improved with a greater sense of the height from and force of which she falls.  The decapitation death is pretty good giving us more gore, but it’s not as elaborate or prolonged of an effect.  I could’ve done with a little less CGI where some of the latter deaths are concerned, but for the dramatic size of them, there really wasn’t much of an alternative for the filmmakers.  Still, many of these deaths did hold more dramatic weight for me between the strength of the performances, and quality of the execution of each one.

On the opposite end of the critique spectrum from the original, the makeup design on this film’s Father Spiletto, the burned priest, is actually taken too far for my tastes.  The extreme look feels out of place in the film evoking some sort of freakish ghoul.  I can imagine it’s hard to present a burned flesh make-up design that is scary without it looking like Freddy Krueger.  However, there must have been a happy medium these filmmakers could’ve gone for that would’ve felt more realistic.  Still, what I can merit this version for over the original that the quality of the make-up is vastly superior.

Enjoyable so, this film actually delivered some suspenseful scares for me.  This is, again, due to the atmosphere director John Moore forged for this picture.  He is able to create some tension leading up to some frightening or traumatic moments.  The characters are genuinely scared, especially Katherine, and become more so as events unfold which solidify their fears.  Also, I mentioned before that there are a series of dream sequences.  They haunt Katherine early on, but eventually, Robert Thorn starts having his own.  I really, really liked these.  They progressively got more creepy and disturbing.  As most dreams do, they are a little hard to read into as what every image means, but on the surface, they showcase very occult and frighteningly evil acts which do feel in line with Damien.  The final one, seen by Robert, is probably the best with some very chilling faces and images startling the Ambassador onward to what he must come to grips with.

I also really like that this Damien seems to be more aware of the power he has as he appears to silently conspire with Mrs. Baylock, at times.  During the zoo scene, he’s aware that the animals are afraid, and likely of him.  He uses his power against a police officer standing guard while Mrs. Baylock is in the next room committing murder.  I will state that Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick doesn’t have as strong of a look as Harvey Stephens did in this same role.  He can appear a little too dour, but he is able to conjure up an eerie, unsettling expression when needed.  He does quite well in the role.  If the original film had been written with this more self-aware Damien, I think Stephens would’ve had an even more effective performance.  In comparison, I think this Damien is better written while the original’s actor just had a consistently better look.

Now, while this remake generally takes the same amount of time for the same series of events to occur, what makes it work better, in my opinion, is the development of emotional depth and turmoil which establish a foreboding atmosphere.  We get characters who are dimensional, and a director who knows how to create an ominous, foreboding tone.  This version of The Omen definitely has a more natural flow of events with the emotional weight carrying the drama and horror along with cohesion.  You feel the tragedy, horror, and emotion pile up from one scene to the next creating dramatic momentum.  It’s interesting that both the 1976 and 2006 versions have about the same runtime, but this remake seems to move along at a smoother, quicker pace.  There are even a few new scenes in the remake, and thus, this film is able to traverse a little more ground in the same amount of time.  While little extra substance is added into the pages of the script, it really are the performances that add the substance.  And while I criticized the 1976 original for taking just as long to develop its plot, the key difference here is that emotional depth which develops the characters, and creates that impending sense of dread that the original sorely lacked.  This film always feels like it is building towards something whether in plot, character, or emotion.  Robert Thorn has internal struggles he’s dealing with which show through in Liev Schreiber’s performance, and we see Katherine’s struggles very outwardly.  The film gives the audience something to invest themselves in as the plot gradually forms.

So, obviously, without question, I do honestly believe that John Moore’s 2006 remake of The Omen is much more effective than the original.  It’s better in vastly more ways than it is not.  Still, while I believe it is a good film, it certainly did not propel The Omen into greatness in my view.  I enjoyed watching this film, and I felt it delivered some very strong, well rounded acting with a real skill for atmosphere and horror.  Yet, if ever someone were to revisit The Omen again, I would really like more substance put into the script, and add in some new ideas that enhance what’s already there.  Develop things further to build more dire urgency into the plot, and make the stakes bigger or, at least, more real.  This remake took some good steps towards that effect, but I think there’s still room for improvement, if ever another filmmaker wants to re-fashion The Omen for a future generation.


The Omen (1976)

The Omen is one of those classic horror films that has received vast amounts of praise over the years.  It was widely heralded upon release, and gained a powerful reputation of horror since then.  It’s also a film that I have never paid much attention to.  I’ve watched it a time or two before, owned the DVD for years, but it’s never really stuck with me.  Six years ago, a remake was released that was almost a carbon copy, but I recall it having some things I liked about it.  Still, I always felt that both versions came off about equal, in their own ways, but that’s an old assessment.  So, on this Halloween, I have decided to take a fair look at both films to judge them apart from and against one another.  Which one do I prefer?  Which one does it better?  I hope I will have an answer at the end of these two reviews.

Robert and Katherine Thorn (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) seem to have it all.  They are happily married, and he is the US Ambassador to Great Britain, but they want more than to have children.  When Katharine has a stillborn child, Robert is approached by a priest at the hospital who suggests that they take a healthy newborn whose mother has just died in childbirth.  Without telling his wife, he agrees.  Years later, after relocating to London, strange events – and the ominous warnings of a priest – lead Robert Thorn to believe that the child he took from that Italian hospital is evil incarnate.  The Ambassador is approached by photojournalist Keith Jennings (David Warner) with startling evidence that supports the claims of Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton).  From there, both Thorn and Jennings must take a journey to uncover the truth.

After watching this, what I find striking is that, despite all the great talents and potentially ripe subject matter at hand, this film made barely any impact on me at all.  I can tell you that the film starts me off on the wrong foot with a score that is way too overbearing and obvious, but I will get to that, in depth, later on.  It sets the wrong mood for me right out the gate telling me this is not a film of subtlety, but one of shock moments and broad strokes.  Turns out, that’s exactly what I got.

Early on, there is an extreme lack of suspense or setup to dramatic or horrifying moments such as the nanny’s hanging.  It just happens without any buildup of anticipation or tension, and the traumatic potential is barely dealt with in the aftermath.  Events that should have adverse emotional effects on the characters don’t seem to have lasting impacts.  Even before that, there’s a wholly unnecessary scene where the Thorns are just walking along, and then, freak out when they don’t see Damien trailing behind them.  The score goes melodramatic for a few seconds before they find Damien unharmed just standing around.  The moment served no purpose whatsoever, and it was even handled in a very clunky manner.  The film doesn’t take its time to craft suspense to setup an audience for the chilling moments of horror.  It just sort of drops them in front of you like a bag of bricks.

The thing The Omen really seemed to not take advantage of is building a looming aura.  While there are moments which are strongly implied as being supernatural, that feeling is just fleeting.  We are never given a lasting sense that there is a subversive, sinister force weaving its way through the background.  The film also seemed to lack a natural flow of events in its long first act, and partly because of this, it takes nearly forever to build an atmosphere or sense of perceived direction.  It takes nearly half the film until there’s even a sustained sense of dread or momentum for more than one scene.  In the second half, for a very long stretch of time, Damien’s not even present for the threat of what he is to be sustained.  There’s a simple rule in good storytelling which is “show, don’t tell.”  The film takes more time telling us about what Damien is instead of showing us.  Anything we are shown feels too disjointed due to that lack of natural flow in the story.  Also, I certainly have no qualms about a slow burning film, but it takes until almost the one hour mark before anyone gets motivated into the action of the plot.  Until then, it sort of meanders along with mysterious and murderous things happening, but no one really doing anything in light of them.

This happens when Jennings begins to convey the foreboding details behind Damien.  The notes of Father Brennan about the child, and the startling evidence of the photographs are revealed to Robert Thorn.  These are interesting moments which actually do nicely give us insight into the truth of the matter.  Yet, it could have been used to actually create a foreboding atmosphere of terrible dread and urgency, but there’s barely any atmosphere in this film at all.  I never got a sense of impending doom or urgency at any point in time.  The film becomes so focused on the origins of Damien and what needs to be done about him, almost no time it spent exploring what he’s capable of.  While surely the son of Satan shouldn’t be allowed to live, no time is devoted to conveying what he himself will do if not stopped.  There are obviously forces around Damien causing all this death and tragedy, but he’s barely done anything threatening.  All we get are people repeating the Bible passage about “from the eternal sea he rises,” but no one bothers to translate that into terms a regular person can understand.  It is never put into a real world context.

The priest’s death is a tad ridiculous as he just stands there for several long seconds, waiting for the spire to fall and impale him.  There’s more than enough time for him to run away from it, but he just stands there.  If I look up and see something falling from several stories high about to hit me, I lunge out of the way.  This isn’t nitpicky.  This is challenging the intelligence of the filmmaking on display.  There are any number of better ways to have plotted out and edited that scene for more immediate impact.  At times, such as this one, the filmmakers try to overdramatize these death scenes.  Other times, they under dramatize them to where they have almost no impact at all.  If you want a better example of these sorts of deaths done better, just look at the Final Destination films.

I dearly love the work of the late Jerry Goldsmith.  He was a magnificent composer.  However, when it comes to The Omen, I don’t think I’ve heard a score more devoid of subtlety in my life.  Every single music cue is loud, verbose, and melodramatic to the point of it being obtrusive.  It treats nearly every moment as the biggest dramatic, climactic moment in the film.  It’s well composed, powerful music, but it’s just too over-the-top for my tastes.  It just bludgeons your ears with music.  Moments that are shot and executed with a lot of suspenseful tension are ruined by the blunt instrument of the bombastic score.  People have praised this score as having made the film more terrifying for them.  For me, it kills the mood time and time again, and tries to force more drama upon you than the scene calls for.

Gregory Peck was an immensely acclaimed actor, but I’m a little divided on his performance here.  He does have a very good presence conveying a hefty weight of drama.  However, I feel he overacts in a few too many scenes.  He exaggerates the drama or horror of the moment a little too much, pulling the film out of its grounded sensibilities.  It’s another aspect of the film that could’ve used some more subtlety.  Following further down that path, actor Patrick Troughton pushes his performance as Father Brennan way too over the top into bad B-grade movie territory.  It’s a one dimensional crazy man who is very hard to take seriously.

On the other hand, as always, I think David Warner is excellent.  He’s one of the finest character actors around, and he really handles the role of Jennings with grace and urgency.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen David Warner not give a good performance, and here, he really shows the value and quality he’s consistently brought throughout his career.  Also, Billie Whitelaw is exceptionally good as Mrs. Baylock.  She is effectively creepy with a definite psychotic edge, and a pair of fiercely evil, chilling eyes.  I wouldn’t want that woman roaming around my house.

Harvey Stephens does a fine job as Damien giving him a rather exhuberant fascination that implies his evil.  Although, that evil never really manifests in a knowing way.  It’s more of a screenwriting issue that Damien himself isn’t very active in the plot.  Regardless of that, Harvey mixes both the innocence of a child with an underlying, evil nature.  You can tell there is something not right about the child, and that is effective enough for what the filmmakers were going for.

Unfortunately, I was left with a blank impression of Lee Remick.  She has so very little to do as Katherine Thorn that I just have nothing to say about her performance other than it was okay.  Normally, if I have nothing to say, I say nothing, but I thought it was important to mention this as it ties into a lack of emotional depth in the movie.  That is something I will touch on, again, later.

The effects work is a slightly mixed bag.  Most of the death scenes have very impressive and somewhat elaborate effects.  The decapitation was especially well done.  On the bad side, while people were amazed by the shot of Lee Remick’s fall from the balcony at the time of release, today, it looks comical.  It’s more like something from a parody of the movie than an actual effect to take seriously.  It has absolutely no realistic quality or impact at all.  What would’ve improved it is shooting it at a slower frame to generate more motion blur, and thus, creating a sense of velocity and visceral impact.  Richard Donner might’ve been going for a slow motion approach, but it clearly wasn’t shot in slow motion, just performed in slow motion.  Also, the prosthetic make-up on the burned priest is very primitive by even the standards of the day.  It’s terribly unimpressive work.  These are only minor gripes, but the film doesn’t have a lot of make-up or visual effects to comment on.  That’s neither a good or bad thing, just a statement of fact.

Another real problem I have with this film is that no one is scared out of their minds at any point.  I mean, it is the Anti-Christ, the son of Satan they are dealing with, but never did I feel like anyone was in dreadful fear over this reality.  At least in The Exorcist, the characters were petrified by the fact that they were facing down a demon, and their fear really carried the weight of urgency and threat in that film.  Here, the closest we get is our final moments with Jennings as he tries to convince Robert Thorn that Damien is no innocent child, and that he should be destroyed.  Even then, it’s more a matter of conviction than fright  There is such a lack of emotional depth present in this movie which results in a very mild sense of fear.  This is aside from something like the dogs attacking Thorn and Jennings in the cemetery.  I’m referring to people having a deathly serious fear about Damien.  The characters are more afraid of Mrs. Baylock, the psycho nanny, than the actual spawn of the Devil.  To me, that seems really, really backwards.  He might only be a small child, but if the kid is supposed to be perceived as apocalyptically dangerous, I think our fear should be directed towards him, instead.

While the film does have its potentially shocking moments of brutality and death, I think the scary qualities are entirely religious based, and I have no such beliefs.  I watched this film waiting for it to give me something to be scared or tense about, but nothing ever came.  Even the climax, aside from the violent confrontation with Mrs. Baylock, lacks a driving sense of dramatic intensity.  It would seem that the subject matter is what scared audiences, not so much the execution of the ideas.  I don’t think the style of filmmaking holds up thirty-six years later.  While it’s rather well shot and edited, which I give much credit for to Gilbert Taylor and Stuart Baird, respectively, there’s just a lack of plot cohesion and momentum in The Omen.  This film had talents who were masters at their crafts from Taylor and Baird to Goldsmith, Peck, and Donner, but maybe, this wasn’t the right material for some of them to tackle.  Richard Donner tried to convince himself he was making a psychological suspense thriller instead of a horror movie, apparently because thinking of it as a horror movie made it uninteresting to him.  Obviously, I can’t help but take a serious issue with that point of view.  Yet, what he was trying to make was indeed a horror movie, and I don’t think it’s really his forte as a director.  He knew how to shock an audience, but demonstrated no ability to even attempt to craft suspense.  I think it just comes down to subtlety.  It takes no skill to shock an audience.  To genuinely scare them through atmosphere and suspense requires quite a lot.

Honestly, I didn’t expect The Omen to hit me as this blunt and shallow of a film, and I know there are going to be people reading this shocked at this severe criticism considering the film’s status as a “classic.”  However, no art should ever stand on reputation alone.  Time is not kind to all movies, and some do not stand that test of it.  Not to mention, for someone who has no religious beliefs, I need more than just the ideas this film presents to scare me.  You’ve got to work at it.  You’ve got to earn it, and this film didn’t try hard enough.  The only thing that did stick with me over the years about the movie were my issues with the score, and so, I did go into the film bracing myself for that.  Still, I was willing to give the score a chance to showcase some subtlety, some grace, but there was next to none where it counted.  I really wanted this film to give me something impressive, something that really grabbed me, but it gave me nothing.  I was almost wholly underwhelmed by the 1976 version of The Omen.  At this point, I cannot fathom why I even own this movie beyond the fact that I have it in a beautiful steelbook DVD case.  The creepiest thing in the movie is the last shot of the movie, and I do mean by a very wide margin.


The Hitcher (1986)

“There’s a killer on the road.  His brain is squirmin’ like a toad.  Take a long holiday, let your children play.  If ya give this man a ride, sweet memory will die.  Killer on the road.”  These are lyrics from The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” which inspired the story for this film for screenwriter Eric Red.  The Hitcher is a masterpiece of suspense and tension headed up by an intelligent and brilliant performance by Rutger Hauer, portraying the title character.  It’s a film that was never a major hit, but remains as a gleaming gem of a horror film.

Transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego, the young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up hitch-hiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) one rainy night hoping he might be able to saved off his own drowsiness.  However, this man soon reveals that he is a homicidal psychopath, having already butchered another driver, and threatens Jim with a knife to his throat.  Jim, fortunately, is able to eject this killer from his car, but the terror for him has only just begun.  Through this American southwest desert landscape, the cunning and methodical Ryder plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Halsey.  He even frames Halsey for his murders, forcing Jim to fiercely evade the police at every turn.  The only aid Jim receives is from diner waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually becomes caught up in this terrifying, blood-stained fight for survival.

The Hitcher is so effective for two major reasons.  Firstly, director Robert Harmon does an amazing job crafting a desolate feeling of isolation which creates an atmosphere of unease.  The desert landscape gives the film a sense of barren hopelessness.  It is so wide open, but offers no place for escape for Jim Halsey from John Ryder’s malicious intent.  It’s also a film that gives you degrees of suspense and tension.  Sometimes, it’s low key and subtle just unnerving you enough to setup for something horrifically gruesome.  Other times, it’s wrapped so tight, it might just choke you.

The other reason is Rutger Hauer.  His is a frightening performance on the most realistic level imaginable.  His John Ryder is a man of twisted charm wrapped up in the mind of a homicidal psychopath.  Those chillingly cold eyes show no soul or humanity behind them, and they are unflinching.  They offer no reprieve from his relentless insanity.  Yet, Hauer injects so much sadistic, insidious pleasure into this role, engrossing himself deeply and fully into the madness, showing just how much perverse enjoyment Ryder gets out of all of this.  There is so much multi-layered dimension constantly showing the sick, depraved gears turning in his head.  He’s not your ordinary psychopath who is going to murder everyone in sight.  After Jim gets the better of him, Ryder becomes intently focused on Jim, and decides to psychologically torment him relentlessly.  Ryder doesn’t want to kill him.  Instead, he provokes Jim repeatedly because he wants Jim to stop him.  Ryder is the one who wants to die, but suicide is not in his psychological make-up.  He needs someone else to do it for him, and he is entirely incapable of stopping his murder spree until someone does stop him.  It is a terrifying, riveting performance filled with immense intelligence by Rutger Hauer, and it is one of his best roles alongside Roy Batty in Blade Runner.

Likewise, C. Thomas Howell is amazing.  You can see and feel the intense, paralyzing fear that Ryder puts into Jim Halsey.  Howell pours so much into Jim’s desperation which drives him to further rash action.  There is even one powerful moment, after Ryder has murdered an entire station of police officers, where Jim contemplates suicide to escape what seems like an otherwise inescapable nightmare.  You can see the very average, decent person he was slowly get pushed further and further towards his limits.  The torment by Ryder forges a seemingly compulsive symbiosis between them.  The connection between Ryder and Halsey is brilliantly crafted to intertwine their fates, and build up to an absolutely shocking final twenty minutes.  Despite being very familiar with what happens in the truck stop scene, even after all these years, I was still horrified by its outcome.  Some might say that not showing the actual shockingly gruesome outcome actually detracts from the film.  I say that it works either way, but I can definitely feel the need to have that visceral image of horror going into the final confrontation between Halsey and Ryder.  Regardless, the moment still has powerful impact without it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an immediate charming impression.  She quickly endears herself with both a warm sensibility and a tough enough edge to give Nash some strength of character.  I think that sweet Southern accent really aids these qualities of her performance.  Leigh and Howell work very, very well opposite one another, and I think it’s refreshing that no romantic connection is forced into the story.  Jim and Nash are certainly bonded, to an extent, but their time together doesn’t give them the opportunity to get that deeply emotionally involved.  Leigh does plenty without that contrivance to build sympathy for Nash.

The only odd thing in the film is that I do find it confusing why the local police immediately believe that Jim is the killer they are looking for.  As most of us have, I’ve watched plenty of police procedural shows over the years, and the last thing an experienced officer does is jump to conclusions without evidence to back them up.  Of course, after John Ryder has begun deliberately framing Jim for the murdered police officers, it becomes very easy to grasp this idea, but before then, the cops have no honest reason to dead-set accuse Jim for the murders on the highway and at the service station.

The car chase sequences are amazingly well done.  Each one is intense and exciting creating real imminent danger for our protagonists.  The filmmakers even go further when a police helicopter begins chasing after Jim and Nash, but the film never loses sight of its true focus.  These action scenes flow organically from the plot as Jim runs from the police, or John Ryder tries to run him off the road.  Also, the film doesn’t go for large amounts of gore, and thus, when something grisly hits, it has so much more impact.  The same goes for the violence Ryder inflicts.  We don’t see every death.  There’s a good amount that is chillingly implied, or we only see the bloody aftermath.  This shows what Ryder is capable of, and sets an atmosphere of impending dread and unpredictable horror.  Yet, we do get some gory, violent kills which have immense impact on both the audience and Jim Halsey.

The cinematography is absolutely superb.  There is excellent use of composition – both tight and wide – along with smart camera movement, mainly with steadicams, and well chosen angles, all of which complement and enhance the dramatic depth of the film.  Director Robert Harmon, his editor, and director of photography do a rock solid job with every shot to tell a competent visual story with plenty of tight suspense and tension.

Mark Isham’s primarily electronically based score is excellent as well.  It creates a subtle presence that complements the desolate atmosphere, and never oversells any moment of quiet terror.  It also deeply highlights the moments of emotional pain and despair with its light, ambient style.  The aforementioned action sequences are scored with frenetic intensity, and really ramp up the adrenalin and danger.

The Hitcher feels like a slow, psychotic descent into hell.  One would almost welcome death after half of what Ryder puts Halsey through, but Jim shows the will to survive and the desire not to die.  Even with cops trying to lock him up and even kill him, being psychologically tormented at every turn, Jim fights to break free of this psychotic web of madness.  This is what constantly pushes him forward to either find a way out this deadly game, or to combat Ryder himself.  Ultimately, he is pushed so hard to where, as the audience, we won’t accept anything less than an intense one-on-one confrontation between them.  And because this film is so brilliantly crafted and executed by so many magnificent talents, the ending does not disappoint at all.  Truly a fitting end which will leave you feeling the emotional impact straight through the film’s sobering end credits score.

Rutger Hauer absolutely plays one of the best villains of cinema here in a film that is one of the best examples of suspenseful terror I’ve ever witnessed.  John Ryder is immensely intelligent, but also a complete sociopath and psychopath.  The fact that the film builds that relationship between Ryder and Halsey is really what gives the film its strength and edge.  Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red did a phenomenal job The Hitcher assembling an immensely talented cast which grounded the film in deep, intense emotion.  The suspense couldn’t be more masterfully crafted, and the tension is so nerve racking and thick.  Every technical and artistic element works in perfect to make this one of the best, most effective psychological horror films I’ve ever experienced.  You will do yourself a real favor by giving this 1986 original a watch.  I never saw the remake because, like in so many cases, the original required no improvement or re-invention.  The Hitcher is a dead-on classic.

Transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego, the young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up hitch-hiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) one rainy night hoping he might be able to saved off his own drowsiness.  However, this man soon reveals that he is a homicidal psychopath, having already butchered another driver, and threatens Jim with a knife to his throat.  Jim, fortunately, is able to eject this killer from his car, but the terror for him has only just begun.  Through this American southwest desert landscape, the cunning and methodical Ryder plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Halsey.  He even frames Halsey for his murders, forcing Jim to fiercely evade the police at every turn.  The only aid Jim receives is from diner waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually becomes caught up in this terrifying, blood-stained fight for survival.

The Hitcher is so effective for two major reasons.  Firstly, director Robert Harmon does an amazing job crafting a desolate feeling of isolation which creates an atmosphere of unease.  The desert landscape gives the film a sense of barren hopelessness.  It is so wide open, but offers no place for escape for Jim Halsey from John Ryder’s malicious intent.  It’s also a film that gives you degrees of suspense and tension.  Sometimes, it’s low key and subtle just unnerving you enough to setup for something horrifically gruesome.  Other times, it’s wrapped so tight, it might just choke you.

The other reason is Rutger Hauer.  His is a frightening performance on the most realistic level imaginable.  His John Ryder is a man of twisted charm wrapped up in the mind of a homicidal psychopath.  Those chillingly cold eyes show no soul or humanity behind them, and they are unflinching.  They offer no reprieve from his relentless insanity.  Yet, Hauer injects so much sadistic, insidious pleasure into this role, engrossing himself deeply and fully into the madness, showing just how much perverse enjoyment Ryder gets out of all of this.  There is so much multi-layered dimension constantly showing the sick, depraved gears turning in his head.  He’s not your ordinary psychopath who is going to murder everyone in sight.  After Jim gets the better of him, Ryder becomes intently focused on Jim, and decides to psychologically torment him relentlessly.  Ryder doesn’t want to kill him.  Instead, he provokes Jim repeatedly because he wants Jim to stop him.  Ryder is the one who wants to die, but suicide is not in his psychological make-up.  He needs someone else to do it for him, and he is entirely incapable of stopping his murder spree until someone does stop him.  It is a terrifying, riveting performance filled with immense intelligence by Rutger Hauer, and it is one of his best roles alongside Roy Batty in Blade Runner.

Likewise, C. Thomas Howell is amazing.  You can see and feel the intense, paralyzing fear that Ryder puts into Jim Halsey.  Howell pours so much into Jim’s desperation which drives him to further rash action.  There is even one powerful moment, after Ryder has murdered an entire station of police officers, where Jim contemplates suicide to escape what seems like an otherwise inescapable nightmare.  You can see the very average, decent person he was slowly get pushed further and further towards his limits.  The torment by Ryder forges a seemingly compulsive symbiosis between them.  The connection between Ryder and Halsey is brilliantly crafted to intertwine their fates, and build up to an absolutely shocking final twenty minutes.  Despite being very familiar with what happens in the truck stop scene, even after all these years, I was still horrified by its outcome.  Some might say that not showing the actual shockingly gruesome outcome actually detracts from the film.  I say that it works either way, but I can definitely feel the need to have that visceral image of horror going into the final confrontation between Halsey and Ryder.  Regardless, the moment still has powerful impact without it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an immediate charming impression.  She quickly endears herself with both a warm sensibility and a tough enough edge to give Nash some strength of character.  I think that sweet Southern accent really aids these qualities of her performance.  Leigh and Howell work very, very well opposite one another, and I think it’s refreshing that no romantic connection is forced into the story.  Jim and Nash are certainly bonded, to an extent, but their time together doesn’t give them the opportunity to get that deeply emotionally involved.  Leigh does plenty without that contrivance to build sympathy for Nash.

The only odd thing in the film is that I do find it confusing why the local police immediately believe that Jim is the killer they are looking for.  As most of us have, I’ve watched plenty of police procedural shows over the years, and the last thing an experienced officer does is jump to conclusions without evidence to back them up.  Of course, after John Ryder has begun deliberately framing Jim for the murdered police officers, it becomes very easy to grasp this idea, but before then, the cops have no honest reason to dead-set accuse Jim for the murders on the highway and at the service station.

The car chase sequences are amazingly well done.  Each one is intense and exciting creating real imminent danger for our protagonists.  The filmmakers even go further when a police helicopter begins chasing after Jim and Nash, but the film never loses sight of its true focus.  These action scenes flow organically from the plot as Jim runs from the police, or John Ryder tries to run him off the road.  Also, the film doesn’t go for large amounts of gore, and thus, when something grisly hits, it has so much more impact.  The same goes for the violence Ryder inflicts.  We don’t see every death.  There’s a good amount that is chillingly implied, or we only see the bloody aftermath.  This shows what Ryder is capable of, and sets an atmosphere of impending dread and unpredictable horror.  Yet, we do get some gory, violent kills which have immense impact on both the audience and Jim Halsey.

The cinematography is absolutely superb.  There is excellent use of composition – both tight and wide – along with smart camera movement, mainly with steadicams, and well chosen angles, all of which complement and enhance the dramatic depth of the film.  Director Robert Harmon, his editor, and director of photography do a rock solid job with every shot to tell a competent visual story with plenty of tight suspense and tension.

Mark Isham’s primarily electronically based score is excellent as well.  It creates a subtle presence that complements the desolate atmosphere, and never oversells any moment of quiet terror.  It also deeply highlights the moments of emotional pain and despair with its light, ambient style.  The aforementioned action sequences are scored with frenetic intensity, and really ramp up the adrenalin and danger.

The Hitcher feels like a slow, psychotic descent into hell.  One would almost welcome death after half of what Ryder puts Halsey through, but Jim shows the will to survive and the desire not to die.  Even with cops trying to lock him up and even kill him, being psychologically tormented at every turn, Jim fights to break free of this psychotic web of madness.  This is what constantly pushes him forward to either find a way out this deadly game, or to combat Ryder himself.  Ultimately, he is pushed so hard to where, as the audience, we won’t accept anything less than an intense one-on-one confrontation between them.  And because this film is so brilliantly crafted and executed by so many magnificent talents, the ending does not disappoint at all.  Truly a fitting end which will leave you feeling the emotional impact straight through the film’s sobering end credits score.

Rutger Hauer absolutely plays one of the best villains of cinema here in a film that is one of the best examples of suspenseful terror I’ve ever witnessed.  John Ryder is immensely intelligent, but also a complete sociopath and psychopath.  The fact that the film builds that relationship between Ryder and Halsey is really what gives the film its strength and edge.  Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red did a phenomenal job The Hitcher assembling an immensely talented cast which grounded the film in deep, intense emotion.  The suspense couldn’t be more masterfully crafted, and the tension is so nerve racking and thick.  Every technical and artistic element works in perfect to make this one of the best, most effective psychological horror films I’ve ever experienced.  You will do yourself a real favor by giving this 1986 original a watch.  I never saw the remake because, like in so many cases, the original required no improvement or re-invention.  The Hitcher is a dead-on classic.


When A Stranger Calls (1979)

I really believe When A Stranger Calls has gotten an inaccurate reputation for being some terrifying classic of horror cinema.  That reputation merely applies to only part of the whole film – the opening and ending.  Suffice it to say, this thriller starring Carol Kane as your average neighborhood baby-sitter, Charles Durning as a determined, heavy-set detective, and Tony Beckley as the chilling voice over the phone, is not what one would hope for.  Even by the standards of a psychological thriller, this doesn’t offer you much to engage you outside of its opening and ending.

Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is hired by the Mandrakis’ to babysit their children while they go out for dinner and a movie.  It seems innocent enough, but sometime after the parents leave, Jill starts getting unsettling phone calls from a man simply stating, “Have you checked the children?”  This goes on for hours, and terrifies her more and more.  She eventually works with the phone company until they reveal the startling truth that there is a killer inside the house with her.  Curt Duncan(Tony Beckley) is soon arrested for the murder of the children, and he remains committed to a mental institution for seven years until he escapes.  He is soon pursued by Detective John Clifford (Charles Durning) through an urban setting until everything comes full circle in the finale.

The first fifteen minutes of this film are what earned this movie its reputation.  Despite knowing the full story, as it is a common urban legend, the entire sequence still came off as effectively suspenseful.  The whole film really comes together here from the great performances of Carol Kane and Tony Beckley to the direction to the musical score and more.  It is a simple, terrifying concept that was executed very well, and would’ve made for an excellent short film, which is exactly what When A Stranger Calls originally was.  However, the success of Halloween motivated director Fred Walton to expand the story into a feature.  So, he had to find a way to fill up a feature length runtime, and I think the lack of compelling ideas and disjointed tone blatantly show through.

When the film jumps ahead seven years is where the film takes a very lethargic and bland turn.  The hunt for the escaped Curt Duncan ultimately turns into a bad episode of Cannon.  Charles Durning is a very accomplished and acclaimed actor due to great work done throughout his career, but there’s really nothing exceptional for him to do in this film.  There is a decent chase scene between Clifford and Duncan through the urban streets and alleyways, but it is very far from being a highly dramatic sequence.  The film loses all strength of suspense and tension that it opened with when it switches gears in style and story focus.  Only when we return to Carol Kane’s character at the end, who is now married with two small children, does this film get anywhere near the level of tension demonstrated in the opening sequence.

Some praise this film, others say it’s only worth a few minutes of tension and suspense.  I say that anything that this film did with tension was done immensely better in the original Black Christmas.  In that film, the caller is exponentially more disturbing as there is no method to his madness.  The killer is deranged, and has completely broken from reality.  Of course, in actuality, Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls are two different styles of film.  The first is a bonafide horror flick.  It is the prototypical slasher film, the one that inspired HalloweenWhen a Stranger Calls is simply a thriller, and isn’t really horror.  So, partially why it’s featured during this month devoted to horror, both good and bad, is to correct a misconception about this movie.  It certainly had the base elements for a solid horror film with a psychologically disturbed killer on the loose after having terrorized a young woman and murdered two children.  Yet, when there are merely only two, justifiably, off-screen kills, a group of mildly disturbing phone calls, and basically, everything sandwiched in between is like some low grade, boring cue out of a second rate, dull crime thriller, you’re not gonna reach the level of a Halloween, Black Christmas, or Friday the 13th.

We follow the killer, Curt Duncan, around so much that, aside from one, late moment inside an apartment, he doesn’t seem very dangerous or disturbing.  Mostly, he’s just wandering the streets looking for food, money, and shelter.  Simply put, it’s boring.  There’s nearly no deep exploration of his character or psyche, as one would expect from a psychological crime thriller.  It really is a failure of the screenwriters and director that this lacks so much interesting material.  This film was certainly made long before we had multi-layered serial killers populating cinema such as Hannibal Lecter to inspire more fascinating mentally disturbing characters.  Still, I could imagine Alfred Hitchcock making this into a masterpiece of suspense with a better script and his remarkable direction.  It’s all about substance and context, both of which this film gets wrong for the bulk of its runtime.

The old VHS box cover for When A Stranger Calls once labeled it as “The Terrifying Classic”, but I certainly don’t agree.  Again, the first fifteen minutes or so of the film are suspenseful, but the concept had already been done immensely better in other films.  When a Stranger Calls just doesn’t cut it for me. You sit around, waiting for this film to pick up for so long that you may lose interest.  The ending is even shorter than the beginning, and isn’t quite as well done.  Basically, if Carol Kane isn’t involved in the scene, the film doesn’t work.  It’s not about her, it’s just the simple dynamic of the storytelling.  Curt Duncan has almost no one to prey on outside of her scenes, which obviously makes for a markedly dull thriller.  There was a cable television sequel made fourteen years later, and I do believe I saw it at one time.  However, that was certainly a very long time ago, and I don’t recall much of anything from it.  I’ve never seen the remake, and I don’t intend to.  I just don’t think this narrow concept has enough juice to sustain a full feature film without more substance added in, or given more variation from an unseen killer tormenting a babysitter by phone.


28 Days Later (2002)

It’s a strange thing to be very impressed by a cutting edge movie in the theatre, but then, not watch it again for nine years.  Such is the case for me with 28 Days Later.  I even purchased the DVD a few years ago, and only just now dedicated myself to watching it for this occasion.  Now, the common misconception about this movie is that it is a zombie flick.  While it does have the trappings of one, these people are not zombies, merely human beings who have been infected with a virus that turns them into rage-filled animalistic people.  This film presents a very interesting and clearly expressed departure from that classic subgenre while still baring some resemblance to it.

It has been twenty-eight days since Jim (Cillian Murphy), a young bicycle courier, was knocked off his bike and injured in a car accident.  When he wakes up from his coma, the world has changed.  London is deserted, litter-strewn and grim, and it seems the entire world has disappeared.  The truth, however, is even more horrifying – a devastating psychological virus has been unleashed upon the world, turning the population into blood-crazed psychopaths driven only to kill and destroy the uninfected.  Jim coincidentally joins up with the tough and strong-willed Selena (Naomie Harris), who has become accustomed to the hard reality of survival.  While out-running the savage infected, Jim and Selena add the father and daughter survivors of Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) to their struggle to get out of the city to a military encampment at Manchester, but there, their troubles are just beginning.

This movie was shot on standard definition digital video camcorders, and so, it offers a rather unique visual quality.  Director Danny Boyle even did post-production work to further degrade the picture quality to give it an even rougher look to reflect the film’s harsh reality.  I think this was an immensely successful artistic idea.  The Canon XL1 camera clearly performed well in low light situations allowing the filmmakers to create some strong contrast and atmosphere.  From that digital video quality comes a bleak appearance which dominates the movie, even in broad daylight.  28 Days Later is shot amazingly well with a lot of intense, kinetic camera work heightening the chaos and adrenalin pumping terror.  The cinematography regularly highlights the desolate landscape of London, and shows how isolated these characters are from any semblance of civilization.  The overall tone and visual style is unlike any film I believe I’ve ever seen, and in those dark scenes, this movie can look immensely gorgeous.

This movie doesn’t focus heavily on the intense fury of the infected.  While it does that exceptionally well creating many tense and violent sequences, and making them count when they do occur, it instead takes most of its screentime to focus on its characters, and make the story about their struggles for survival.  We are given strong character building scenes which create an emotional context for the audience.  It let’s us know how this horrific event has affected them, and invests the audience in the depth of those characters.  They are heartfelt and intelligent people that you can come to care about.  On the most part, this is a very well-acted movie with some strong recognizable talents.

This was my first exposure to Cillian Murphy, and he delivers a very grounded and human performance.  He and Naomie Harris really warm to one another as the film goes on, and create a very heartfelt chemistry.  Harris herself slowly peals back the tougher exterior of Selena to ultimately show the vulnerability deep down inside.  She had to be tough to survive, but Jim allows her to show her true self.  Harris displays a wide range of talent in this role that starts out as a self-minded survivalist willing to cut loose anyone at a moment’s notice to a strongly sentimental and hopeful person.

Brendan Gleeson does a fine job making Frank a very wholesome father.  He has a lot of heart, and rarely allows despair or desperation to creep into himself.  He keeps a positive attitude which really boosts the mood of the picture, and gives hope to all of the characters.  Christopher Eccleston turns in a hardened and off-putting performance as Major West, the leader of the military encampment.  He certainly has the presence and authority of a leader, and gradually creates an intimidating foil for our protagonists.

Composer John Murphy created a very aural, almost ethereal score that taps into the hope, sorrow, isolation, and humanity of the film.  It really elicits a wealth of heavy emotion from its ambient style, and never does exactly what you’d expect from a horror movie score.  It’s more about establishing mood than enhancing scares.  Case in point is that the climax is not scored with pounding drums or shrieking strings.  It has a very impending sense of doom with a slow, deliberate rhythm given edge by a rising electric guitar.  The horror is never telegraphed.  There is no musical warning that something terrifying is about the befall our heroes.  One such moment has almost pure silence as an infected child jumps down from above and creeps up behind Jim.  This creates a stronger and more unique suspense that has greater pay-off when the visceral violence hits.  The only other work I know from Murphy is his bleak and very heavy toned Miami Vice film score, and so, it’s nice to experience a different range in his musical abilities with something like this.

I believe that, from one perspective, you could call 28 Days Later a far more realistic and believable sort of zombie movie.  Instead of people rising from the dead, which is an extremely fantastical idea, humanity is being wiped out by a man-made virus that turns the populace into nothing better than mindless creatures.  They scavenge for food by attacking those who are still normally human, and can infect you with just a single drop of blood.  The change is near-instantaneous, and there is no cure, no way of fighting it.  So, while these are not actually zombies at all, this film does take the conventions of that genre, and apply it into a context that we can take with seriousness.  The concept is easy to comprehend and accept, and the imminent fear of infection is something we can all grasp onto.

As opposed to the slow, lumbering characteristics of the classic style of zombies, these fast moving, bloodthirsty infected create the heart pounding urgency and tension that this film required.  Screenwriter Alex Garland cleverly took only the base elements of the zombie movie template, and adapted them into a different sort of horror movie full of immediate danger and frightening excitement.  Again, the film is not about blasting away hordes of ravenous infected humans, but about these characters struggling for survival in a desolate landscape where even those they believe can save them turnout to be no more human than those who have been infected.

The movie does take a more unsettling turn when our protagonists join up with the soldiers.  The fact that they are welcomed there, not out of a pure humanitarian reasons, but for far more traumatic and frightening reasons creates a whole new style of danger and threat.  They are ultimately held captive by Major West, and will be forced against their will to do whatever these soldiers want with them.  Once Jim escapes execution, the film really ramps up the danger and suspense as it practically becomes a horror film version of First Blood.  While Jim is no soldier himself, he takes his fierce determination, and uses it to strategically strike back against these military men in merciless fashion all while more infected run amuck.  Cillian Murphy becomes greatly impressive handling the physical demands fantastically, and adding a fearsome quality to his performance.  Part of what makes the film so effective is that we are not following around a group of highly trained military professionals.  These are average people who do get frightened, and are pushed to their limits.  They are generally no more capable of surviving this situation than you or I, but they never give up on the chance of survival or rescue.  They continually trudge forward through whatever horrors they encounter.

28 Days Later is an excellent horror film that may not be for everyone.  It does have a slow, gradual pace that nearly fills up two hours of runtime.  There is plenty of gore and ravenous violence to go around, but it’s never an onslaught.  The characters are the central piece in the film, and the filmmakers want you invested in them with the horror and action being secondary.  That is not at all a bad thing, but it is something that might not be everyone’s appeal.  The cast features some names that have really come into wide prominence since this film was made such as Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, and I believe that should give you confidence in the quality of the performances and characters.  Danny Boyle really delivered something dark, intense, and innovative for its time that was creatively and commercially successful.  I’ve never been much into the zombie subgenre, but this film smartly took the right ideas from those films and injected them into a very effective and fresh approach.


The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

Based on the book by Andrew Neiderman, The Devil’s Advocate is an amazing supernatural horror film with a depth of strong thematic material.  The screenplay, adapted by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, is executed with extraordinary artistic skill by director Taylor Hackford.

Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a ruthless young Florida attorney that never lost a case that is recruited by the most powerful law firm in the world.  In spite of his mother’s disagreement, which compares New York City to Babylon, he and his beautiful wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) accept the offer and the money that comes along with it.  The firm’s senior partner, John Milton (Al Pacino), sees something very special in Kevin, and showers him with wealth and feeds his vanity.  However, Mary Ann just wants to have a baby, and becomes distressed by Kevin always being on a case and never at home.  A multiple murder case for reviled businessman Alex Cullen (Craig T. Nelson) tears them further apart as Kevin won’t leave the case for fear of hating Mary Ann for doing so.  Feeling homesick, she witnesses horrifying apparitions, and starts to lose her grip on reality – or so it seems.  As Kevin is lured deeper into a treacherous well of unholy evil and seduction, he will come to learn a startling truth that could claim his very soul.

Director Taylor Hackford delivers a very fascinating film where there is always something more subversive occurring beneath the surface.  The courtroom and law scenes are never just proceedings, but a test of morality and conscience in a bigger picture.  There is a strong sense that there is something larger at stake with everything that is going on.  The audience can always feel a supernatural, sullen presence presiding over nearly everything in the film.  This is achieved in many ways from the atmospheric lighting in key scenes to the shady religious themes to John Milton’s skillful seduction.  The film does use a generous amount of religious context to massively profound effect.  People are consumed by their own sins, and are given the means to embrace them without consequence, as long as they have no consciences to worry about.  This is where tying this story directly into the world of defense attorneys and a shady law firm is brilliant.  They are people dedicated to clearing offenders of guilt, regardless of whether or not they are guilty.  For these characters, that requires a certain absence of conscience, and a dedication to deception, which are strongly prevalent themes in this film.

The moral corruption in the film is magnificently showcased through Mary Ann.  She is a very wholesome woman who is thrust into a world of amoral people.  They are pretentious, arrogant people that severely test Mary Ann’s psychological and moral resolve.  She clearly is not comfortable around them, which is best displayed during and after the party scene, and just being around them begins to decay her mental stability.  As she and Kevin are further driven apart, she gets worse and worse where the nightmares and isolation psychologically break her down, but that is ultimately not the worst of it.  Kevin is corrupted differently as John Milton gives him the opportunities to feed his competitive edge and then some.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I really do like Keanu Reeves.  He’s a better quality actor than many give him credit for.  This performance is a fine example.  I like the dichotomy that Kevin is a very confident and in control person when he’s being a lawyer, but he sacrifices the stability and health of his marriage for it.  He is so deeply ensnared into Milton’s charismatic web of temptation and power that he cannot perceive the moral destruction of his life.  Reeves takes Kevin from those humble roots of a defense attorney who still has some conscience left to one who abandons it all for greater pleasure and glory.  He loved his wife dearly, but ultimately, he is turned against her as they both deteriorate in this “Babylon.”  Reeves shows early on that there is a humanity within Kevin, despite the unsavory things he does to secure a win, and that carries with an audience throughout the picture.  As he’s corrupted further in New York, he never becomes a bad guy to the audience.  We can see what’s happening to Kevin while he does indulge in the thrill of victory and hedonism alongside Milton.  This is also partially due to being intrigued by John Milton’s mystique, the same as Kevin.  We’re both following Milton down this dark path of temptation, and we cannot turn away from it.  Emotionally, Reeves can be intense with one scene showing a horrifying outpour of grief and horror.  Going into the climax, he delivers chilling conviction that ramps up the dramatic power of the film.  Beyond anything else, Keanu Reeves also solidly and consistently pulls off that southern accent.

Al Pacino is absolutely amazing in this film.  He indulges full boar into the hedonism and charisma of this role.  It’s great seeing him cut loose, but he plays it very smartly, only letting the full measure out at the right times.  Milton is definitely a tempter, a guy who opens the door, but never closes it behind you.  He allows you to dig your own grave.  He never seals your fate for you.  Milton gives Kevin plenty of chances to back out, to walk away from the Cullen case to take care of Mary Ann, but he never takes it.  He manipulates no one into doing anything they don’t want to do.  He seduces your desires to the surface.  The film smartly and slowly las the seeds of knowledge that Milton is more than he appears to be.  There’s an unspoken power he has that gradually manifests in more and more dramatic ways as the film goes on.  At a certain point, who and what he is becomes undeniable.  Pacino’s performance is brilliant and vibrant.  The scenes between him and Reeves are the real meat of the film, and they are a powerful pairing that do make this film excell in many ways.

Charlize Theron takes a powerfully emotional journey from that sweet, wholesome, and spirited small town woman to a horribly traumatized and vulnerable one.  Mary Ann might’ve been a young lady to contend with in her small Florida town, but in New York, she is entirely overwhelmed by everything.  She is incredible, and very brave for embracing the challenging demands of this role.  She takes her performance into frighteningly dark places that she should be commended for.  This is definitely an early breakout role for her, and it shows the incredible talent she possesses.  Theron and Reeves have great chemistry, and are so deeply convincing from the passionate, happy couple to the terribly turbulent and fractured one.

The supporting cast has some solid performances from Jeffrey Jones as the gluttonous, arrogant, and abrasive firm partner Eddie Barzoon, Connie Nielsen as the intriguing and somewhat exotic Christabella, Craig T. Nelson putting in a heavyweight performance as the ruthless real estate developer Alex Cullen, and even a small role by Delroy Lindo as the goat sacrificing Phillipe Moyez, who has a dark mystique and implied supernatural power.  This is a fantastically assembled cast in every single aspect, from even the smallest role all the way to the leads.

It should be no surprise that the stirring, ominous, and moody score is the work of James Newton Howard.  It certainly has some gothic and choral elements giving the film a darkly cathedral sound.  It is plenty haunting, especially going into the third act when everything becomes very wicked and surreal.  It’s overall a striking and potent work that regularly maintains that unsettling and foreboding supernatural tone I mentioned before.

The film is also so damn well shot.  The cinematography gives the film such scope and foreboding atmosphere.  It brings profound grandeur and artistry to the thematic weight of the story.  While Andrzej Bartkowiak hasn’t shot much worth noting, he does a remarkable job on this film teamed with director Taylor Hackford.  That cinematography shows off the cultured and artistically modern, for the time, production designs.  John Milton’s office and especially penthouse home are designed with gorgeous vision by Bruno Rubeo.  The location shooting shows off the deep character of the city of New York.  The filmmakers even secured the golden apartment of Donald Trump for that of Alex Cullen.  This authenticity adds so much depth of detail to the film.

The Devil’s Advocate is definitely filled with an array of chilling images and grisly moments.  These are all handled with immense weight and artistry.  Digital effects are used greatly morphing one person’s face, subtly, into a demonic visage, or haunting Mary Ann with other surreal sights.  The climax has some ambitious CGI between the morphing piece of artwork and the explosive fiery effects.  However, the best moments of horror are more practical and psychologically based.  They tap into the unholy evil that looms over everyone twisting peoples’ lives into a tangled web of destruction, and it creates thick tension and taut suspense.  Something fearful has befallen their lives, and it is corrupting in ways they cannot comprehend.  This is all masterfully and intelligently crafted with a strong atmosphere that is like the rumbling of thunder on the horizon.  A dark storm is coming that none of them are prepared for, let alone can see.

The Devil’s Advocate has an amazing and stunning finale punctuated gloriously over the end credits by the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.”  This really is a magnificently conceived and executed film.  Backed by an immensely talented cast, this delivers strongly with strong thematic material and brilliantly realized imagery that chills and frightens.  Aside from some CGI that might not measure up to modern standards, there is nothing negative I can say about this film.  While the 90s where not the best decade for horror, this is certainly one of smartest and most dimensional horror films of that decade which brought us The Exorcist III, New Nightmare, Lord of Illusions, In The Mouth of Madness, and Scream.


The Dead Zone (1983)

Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is definitely one of the best films based on King’s work.  It has always been heralded with acclaim for many excellent reasons.  Not the least of which is an incredible lead performance from Christopher Walken.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young and charming school teacher with a bright future ahead of him with a woman he loves and intends to marry.  Yet, after leaving her home one night, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for five years.  Upon awakening, Johnny discovers he has gained the power of psychic visions where he see the past, present, and future with just the touch of a hand.  This frightens Johnny, and he feels only more isolated from the world when he learns that Sarah (Brooke Adams), the love of his life, has married another man and had a child with him.  After Johnny physically recovers from his coma, he becomes more and more reclusive until Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) enlists his help to find the vicious Castle Rock Killer.  However, when Johnny later shakes the hand of young and upcoming political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he is confronted with a frightening vision that shakes Johnny down to his core.

To say the least, Cronenberg has been a very original director with a unique perspective and style which comes out in science fiction or horror fare.  Although, what he gives us with this film is a much more subtly clever and psychologically powerful over overt strangeness.  Instead of going for the throat like he did with Scanners or Videodrome, he really hones in on the heart of this story, and he does it magnificently well.  Every element he brought together truly merged with the heavy, somber tone he was going for.  That was an excellent direction to envelope the film in as it puts us right into Johnny’s headspace.  I think it was a stroke of genius that he made Johnny’s visions fully enveloping.  He put Johnny inside the vision as if he was right there as it happened, but unable to affect change within the vision.  It created a far more strained experienced for the character than if it just appeared as a dream state.  With the first vision, he could probably feel the heat and flames just as if he was there in the burning house.  During the vision of the Castle Rock Killer, Johnny is adamant how he was right there watching the murder, but unable to stop it.  This forges Johnny into a darker, more reclusive state.

This is the earliest film I’ve seen of Christopher Walken’s career, and it shows that, no matter the age, Walken delivers his all.  Johnny starts out as a kind, lively man fully in love, but the accident forces a turbulent change in him.  He feels like a man out of sync with the world, and is now haunted by his new abilities.  He’s angry that five years of his have been taken away, and that the woman he loved moved on with her life while he has none to return to.  Walken is able to convey the deep emotional turmoil of Johnny with so much humanity that you can’t help but feel his pain.  The tragic sense of the character really comes through in such strong, brilliant ways.  Walken subtly mixes in the charm of the pre-accident Johnny underneath that somber, unstable exterior.  The well of emotion in his face and eyes honestly becomes heartbreaking many times over.  When the visions occur, Walken goes into an intense trance which is immensely riveting.  Walken actually had Cronenberg fire off a gun, loaded with blanks, to elicit his startling reaction in those moments, and that was greatly effective.  Walken can be very intense, at times, as the fear of his knowledge of the future boils over, but he’s always able to return to that heartfelt side.  I could really go on and on about all the nuances and profound qualities of Christopher Walken’s performance, as he is always so rich with, but suffice it to say, he is absolutely stunning in this role.

Another great talent on display is Tom Skerritt who brings his strong presence of authority and sense of compassion to Sheriff Bannerman.  He feels very authentic as the lead police officer of a small New England town.  He really invests you in Bannerman’s plight where he has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and is willing to put his faith in the extraordinary to protect the people of his town.  Herbert Lom does a very interesting and relatable performance as Dr. Sam Weizak with the genuine care of a physician.  I really like the candor and humanity he brings to the role as Johnny’s doctor.  He’s about the only one Johnny can confide in about his abilities, and that creates some very strong scenes which show Johnny’s pain and struggles.  It’s very strong and intriguing work.  Brooke Adams is very lovely and beautiful in the role of Sarah.  She is very sweet and smart showing a simple, very caring woman that would endear herself to the younger Johnny who was bright and full of life.  Adams does the same to an audience showing warmth and tenderness, and really striking up a genuine, heartfelt chemistry with Walken.  The great Anthony Zerbe has an admirable turn as Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny to tutor his son, and also, bridges Smith with Stillson.  Zerbe has a screen presence of respect, intelligence, and sophistication which serves the character excellently.

Martin Sheen is awesome as Greg Stillson.  While he is perfectly stereotypical of a politician, and seemingly an exaggerated one, it entirely works for the role.  Stillson is megalomaniacal, as is revealed to Johnny.  He’s full-tilt insane, and Sheen revels in that madness.  He has thinly veiled unhinged mentality which many voters would perceive as zeal, passion, and charisma, but Zerbe’s character perceives the danger he poses, which is a very nice touch to motivate Johnny’s and Stillson’s paths to cross.

While I have not read the novel, it seems like it had just a series of generally episodic events, which could have proven complicated to translate into a coherent screenplay, but I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving them together with Johnny’s plight being the through line.  How he goes from feeling angry and cursed to slowly realizing the potential good he can do with his powers is a fascinating approach.  Yet, he’s never really a man at peace.  There’s always an emotional or psychological turmoil swirling inside him.  Because of this, The Dead Zone is more a character-driven movie as there is no overarching main plot, aside from Johnny’s internal struggles.  The film gives us a series of otherwise unrelated events that deeply affect and mold Johnny towards a powerful ending.  While it could use a little more meat on the bone, in terms of a more rigorously involved plot in the Stillson centric segment, this really seems like the best approach to the material, and it is done exceptionally well.

The film’s score was done by the late, great Michael Kamen, who was a masterful composer and musician.  Here, he produced a brilliant score that is powerful and haunting.  It really has a strong presence which really digs deep into the emotions abound in the film, reflecting the sad, bittersweet feeling Cronenberg captured on screen.  Even in the beautiful moment, he still manages to keep that heavy, foreboding tone present.  It’s really a mesmerizing piece of music which is undeniably one of Kamen’s finest and distinct works.

The winter setting of The Dead Zone is marvelously brilliant.  It reflects the cold, lonely, isolated sensibility that come to define Johnny Smith.  It also perfectly Stephen King.  Cinematographer Mark Irwin shot this film amazingly well.  There are some sequences with wonderfully moody lighting such as the tunnel crime scene with the headlights reflecting off the ice, or the green tinge inside the Dodd residence.  Johnny’s visions are all very visually strong, especially the ice break sequence.  Overall, Irwin captures the power of this picture beautifully and compellingly.

The horror aspects in this film are very psychologically and visually based.  Certainly the most graphic and startling is the Castle Rock Killer segment.  We get violence and some disturbing imagery with this part which is very expertly executed.  The rest of the film focuses on the fearful knowledge that haunts Johnny, and creates a troubling foreboding tone which leaves the audience unsettled.  It’s a cerebral film built on a solid, somber atmosphere that can leave you saddened.  I do think it’s a film that goes beyond the confines of horror, and pursues something much more fascinating and deeper.  That was much of King’s intention.  He wanted to write a story that didn’t delve into creatures or spirits or other things that come out to scare you in the dead of night.  The Dead Zone was a sad, turbulent journey for a man that never asked for these extraordinary powers, but had to somehow cope with these experiencing jarring, haunting premonitions of death.  They lead him down a chilling path that would be frightening for anyone.

As is obvious, I really like The Dead Zone.  The only thing that pulls it away from a perfect rating is that I don’t think the build up to the climax is quite strong enough.  A bit more time taken for Johnny to deep down struggle with his decision, or to really reflect upon himself would’ve given it a more dramatic swell.  The ending is excellent, though.  It really hits the right, powerful emotional beat.  I wouldn’t change a frame of it.   Christopher Walken puts in a rock solid performance that runs through a wide array of emotions that he brilliantly wraps into a single package.  David Cronenberg had already proven he could go way far out with his concepts, and really deliver very bizarre, yet profound films.  Here, he proves he get deep into the soul of a story and character, and deliver something equally profound on a much more intimate human level.  I really, strongly recommend this film.  It is expertly crafted by a great team of wonderfully talented film artists.


Return of the Living Dead III (1993)

Okay, I didn’t have time to watch and review the first two movies for this month.  However, I feel this has generally been regarded as a markedly different entry to warrant being judged apart from them.  It’s a zombie film meshed with a teenage love story.  It’s no Shaun of the Dead, another film that I’m overdue in revisiting, but Return of the Living Dead 3 is a decent watch with one hell of a sexy horror femme fatale.

Colonel John Reynolds (Kent McCord) and his group of government scientists experiment on re-animating the dead for military use.  Meanwhile, his son Curt (J. Trevor Edmond) and his girlfriend Julie (Melinda Clarke) use the Colonel’s security pass card to sneak in and watch the proceedings, and are startled by the grisly sights they witness.  Later, when father and son have a disagreement, Curt and Julie take off on a motorcycle, but a little too much frisky behavior results in an accident which kills Julie instantly.  Grief-stricken, Curt takes her body to the lab and resurrects her.  However, she is now changed into an undead creature who craves brains to curb her incessant hunger, and self-mutilates herself to ease the terrible pain that now consumes her.  Yet, driven by his genuine love for Julie, Curt struggles to help her deal with her new existence as military agents and local gang members try to find them, who all have vile intentions.

The strong suit of Return of the Living Dead 3 is the love story between Julie and Curt.  This is mainly due to the very impressive acting talents of Melinda Clarke and J. Trevor Edmond.  Since the film doesn’t delve into the characters all that much, it really fell to the actors to make it click, and it does.  Julie is quickly established as a bit of a wild girl who enjoys a little bit of danger and risk.  She also has great sexual charisma.  Curt also has a wild spirit to him, but definitely shows he loves Julie dearly.  She’s really captured his passion and brings out the full life in him.  There’s never a point where their love isn’t strong or convincing.  When things take that undead turn, they both keep selling the emotional depth of their characters, but now, it’s a tragic pain and grief which they pull off amazingly well.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a horror comedy as it doesn’t go for parody, satire, or laughs particularly.  Yet, I wouldn’t say the film takes itself too seriously.  It’s really in that middle ground between true horror and gory comedy.  It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly it wants itself to be taken.   I think this is mainly due to a lack of a consistent visual tone.  It doesn’t always look like a tense, gruesome horror film.  Considering the very well executed love story concept, I think keeping it away from blatant laughter is best.  Yet, it does have its darkly quirky aspects which are just a matter of taste on whether its appropriate or not.  I would’ve preferred the movie go for straight horror, but the opposite fits better into this franchise.  Still, it doesn’t go remotely as far out with the comedy as its predecessors.

This was a release from TriMark Pictures, who I’ve mentioned before were mainly a low budget B-movie company in the 1990s.  So, a $2 million budget it was for this one, and while the production values are a little low, they are not bad.  TriMark really seemed to make the most out of what they had, even if there wasn’t much to work with.  The military base interiors are very nicely designed with a bunker mentality, and are brightly lit showing that the sets are fully constructed.  The sewers later in the film are filled with colorful production design, and serve their purpose just fine.  It’s certainly a film made within the means of the budget, but it does nicely make use of some practical locations.

All that sounds very tenuous, sort of like I’m straddling a line of light criticism.  This is because the problem is not in the budget, but in how the filmmakers present a film of this budget to an audience.  What I think the film really lacks is artistic and visual flare.  Just because this film has a low budget doesn’t mean it has to lack cinematic quality.  You’ve got lights, you’ve got a camera.  You just need to know how to use them both to create something that looks strong and compelling.  So, it’s a matter of talent, not budget.  An innovative filmmaker will use the restraints of budget to get more creative.  They can’t have the elaborate, mega-budget sets to really make the film look high grade, and so, they’ll use lighting and camera angles to create a striking visual appeal.  This film can be very well shot at times, but it’s usually in the more dramatic or horrific moments.  Many times, it’s just sort of point-and-shoot stuff with no sense of real danger or urgency in how it’s shot.  Aside from those big dramatic moments, the filmmakers don’t take advantage of tight framing to build up tension, or utilize lighting to create any kind of atmosphere.  They show the ability to create that kind of style at certain times, but the vast majority of the film just looks rather bland.  If the filmmakers could’ve maintained the stronger visual style throughout, I think the overall tone would’ve benefitted from it immensely, and made this a creepier, more tense horror flick.

Now, there is certainly plenty of blood and zombie gore done with fairly good results, but it’s just unfortunate that the unrated cut has not been released on DVD.  Despite the film passing through the hands of three different studios since its release, none of them decided to upgrade us from the VHS unrated release.  The horror level is pretty good, but certainly very tame by even the standards of the day.  Return of the Living Dead 3 is more a film focused on the tragic love story and a sense of gory fun.  While we get the brain eating undead arising throughout the runtime, the full-on zombie action really doesn’t materialize until the final thirty minutes of the film.  Still, it is quite good with a good helping of graphic imagery.  However, I couldn’t say it would satiate a modern audiences’ desires for zombie horror carnage.

What really gets gruesome is when Julie takes her self-mutilation to its fullest extent.  All manner of sharp objects are freakishly pierced through her skin, and it’s in every way terrifyingly imaginable.  She herself looks like something out of Freddy Krueger’s nightmares.  She’s both frightening and sensual at the same time.  The sensation gives her such a powerful rush that it transforms Melinda Clarke’s performance from tragic to absolutely ferocious and ghastly.  These make-up effects are immensely amazing.  It’s also lovely that Melinda Clarke had no issues with repeatedly appearing nude in the film.  We certainly don’t get enough sexual content in our horror films these days.

Notably, there is a supporting role of Lieutenant Colonel Sinclair portrayed by Sarah Douglas.  You would best know her as Ursa from Superman: The Movie and Superman II.  Her role here is nothing much to talk about, but it’s just a special casting note.  The rest of the casting is generally okay.  Not doing exceptionally excellent work, but not being exceptionally bad, either.  Although, Basil Wallace, who plays the homeless Riverman, does not put in a good acting job.  Every line is overacted.  It’s clear that there’s supposed to be an honest dramatic intention with the character, but this performance is just too silly to be taken seriously.

So, is the film all that good?  It’s okay.  It’s nothing I’ll ever rave about, but it’s worth a watch.  I definitely believe that a more dead-set tone of true horror would’ve strengthened the movie along with a darker, more atmospheric look.  They should’ve just gone for broke with intense horror all the way, and shy away from the strangeness or the low budget quirkiness.  There’s not much in the way of tension or suspense.  I will admit that zombies have never done all that much for me.  Slashers are really my favorite subgenre of horror.  Although, I do think Julie, in her fully mutilated state, comes off as an iconic image that wasn’t in a film of iconic status.  Her look is surely the one big impression that I’ve always been left with over the years from this movie.  I really think the tragic horror love story is greatly executed with two solid young lead actors.  It’s where this film shines the brightest, and with a more innovative visual style and tone, this could’ve been a really damn good flick.  As it is, I would say it’s generally all right.  If for nothing else, it’s worth checking out just for seeing Julie in her full horrific glory.


Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

Retrospect can bring clarity.  You see, back in 2003, I had never been more excited for the release of a movie than Freddy vs. Jason.  I could barely get to sleep the night before its opening.  I saw it twice on opening day and a third time later that weekend.  It was a massive experience for me, and I was even in contact with an executive at New Line Cinema while running Forever Horror at the time.  Posters, soundtracks, magazines, and the novelization quickly came into my possession because I was so enthusiastic and in love with this movie.  It was a monumental moment in time.  That was a long time ago, and even a few years after the film’s release I realized what this film truly was – a major disappointment.  The hype is dead and buried, the anticipation is a vague memory.  What I see and know now is that Freddy vs. Jason was a monument of missed opportunities due to a poor script “clean up” by David Goyer and the over-the-top comic book stylings of director Ronny Yu.  This film was barely what it should have been, and did not portray Jason to his fullest potential.

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is in hell, and can’t get out.  Everyone has forgotten about him, he has no power over anyone in the dream world.  He’s searched throughout hell for someone that could help him reignite people’s fear of Freddy, and he has in Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger).  Freddy, posing as Jason’s mother Pamela Voorhees (Paula Shaw), manipulates Jason into reawakening and doing Freddy’s dirty work for a time.  Jason goes to Elm Street in Springwood, Ohio to lay the seeds of fear that will re-empower Freddy, but when Jason becomes uncontrollable and continues to take Freddy’s thunder and victims – the two immediately come at odds and the battle for 80s horror icon supremacy begins.

To be plainly straight forward, Ronny Yu does nothing with this film to make it remotely resemble anything horror-related.  While we have monsters and gore and murder, he doesn’t even try to make anything scary.  He just turns this entire concept into a comic book adventure with larger than life action like a Michael Bay film.  It’s all ridiculously overblown action with absolutely no attempt at building tension or suspense.  Ronny Yu didn’t care to take these characters back to their truly horror-driven roots.  In fact, he demonstrates very little to zero knowledge of the characters at all.  Ken Kirzinger’s performance is forced by Yu to be a slow lumbering Frankenstein’s Monster at times, and then, as an animalistic enraged killer.  Kirzinger does the best he can, but Yu forced him into a very specific, narrow portrayal of Jason that does not display the character at his best.  Ken was Kane Hodder’s stunt double in Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, and so, he knows how to do Jason justice (even if it is Kane Hodder’s version).  Ronny Yu simply knew nothing about the best aspects of Jason’s character, about what worked best in previous interpretations – let alone display Jason’s creative diversity with different weapons.  He may look like Jason Voorhees, but there is little here that resembles the character fans have come to enjoy.  I also severely hate the comical context Jason is thrown into repeatedly throughout the film.

Robert Englund, on the other hand, is allowed to put in possibly the best performance as Freddy Krueger since the original A Nightmare On Elm Street.  Freddy is sick, sadistic, and just totally vile here.  Unfortunately, the wisecracks and one-liners still do pop up to form some very cringe inducing moments.  It seems as if the lame humor aspects of the character will never die, but compared to the portrayal in Freddy’s Dead – this is evil incarnate.  When Englund’s in the moment of the most terrible acts, he delivers something we’ve hungered for way too long – pure, serious villainy.  Freddy may have been given only one kill in this film, but it truly is memorable.  The entire sequence is vintage Elm Street.  The slur in Krueger’s voice is new, but it also adds a touch of sickening evil.  Overall, Freddy is given a far better treatment here than Jason.  I believe that’s mainly because New Line was still the ‘House That Freddy Built,’ and he was their icon.  There’s nobody on board this production that was just as devoted to Jason as others were to Freddy.  I can surely hear the cries for “Kane Hodder,” but he had some ego issues with the role that did not serve him well in the aftermath of his departure.  He certainly had great reason to be upset for being canned from the film, but at some point, you have to be a professional and let it go.

The weakness of this film lies with Ronny Yu and the script.  Screenwriters Mark Shannon & Damian Swift reportedly had a lot more Jason-centric elements in the story, but David Goyer came in, eliminated many good things about it, cheesed up the dialogue, and ultimately made it a worse script overall.  When I saw Blade: Trinity, I saw how bad Goyer’s screenwriting could be when there’s no one to fine-tune it.  The guy isn’t as great of a scriptwriter as we’ve been led to believe.  The level of cheesy, horribly poor dialogue is out-right obscene.  It is cringe inducing to sit through it.  Still, a really good actor can make bad dialogue workable, even tolerable, but the cast we have here was a long way off from winning any awards beyond a Razzie.  Jason Ritter is stiff, boring, and shallow.  Monica Keena has a very ample upper body that’s used to laughable ends, but she displays no decent acting skills whatsoever.  Also, don’t get me start on Kelly Rowland – terrible, horrible, a pure crime against cinema.  It’s acting like this that could make great and proud B-movie actors like Bruce Campbell or Jeffrey Combs ashamed to be associated with the genre.  Although, there are some good efforts here, but unfortunately, they’re gone all too early.  These performances come from Brendan Fletcher as Mark Davis and Zack Ward as Mark’s long-dead brother Bobby.  Freddy uses Bobby to haunt and torture Mark to creepy effect, and Ward does a fine job mimicking Englund’s mannerisms.  Fletcher does very well despite having the burden of tackling most of the exposition in the film.  His character is smarter than all the other teenagers combined, as is Fletcher’s acting talent.  Too bad he’s disposed of once all his exposition dialogue has been delivered.  Lochlyn Munro clocks in as Officer Stubbs, and while his character seems to have some bit of potential, at least in story development, it’s dashed halfway through the film when he’s made into another statistic on the body count list.  That’s the failing of the characters in this film – if you have exposition dialogue in this film, you’re going to die right after you’ve served that purpose.  If you have nothing at all to contribute to the film in character, story, or acting talent, you’ll survive to the final act.

The effects in this movie are decent, but there’s way too much CGI employed.  Visual effects have always been a major element in the Nightmare films, but this is more than enough and too cheesy.  The volume of blood here makes everything very silly and hardly scary.  Also, the fact that Freddy has always had green blood in all previous film entries, and he now has regular red blood shows how little anyone cared for continuity.  Plus, Jason is undead – he has no blood pumping through his veins, yet it all spurts out like geysers.  Ever since undead Jason debuted in Jason Lives, his blood has been a black, gooey substance that oozes out of his wounds, when he did bleed.  The design of Jason is different, and while I like the hockey mask, it becomes too battered by the end ruining the visualization of Jason’s moral blankness that it’s meant to symbolize.  The raggedy clothing he’s draped in makes him look like a homeless derelict.  Why they couldn’t stick with the coveralls or the classic green shirt and tan khakis is beyond me.  He really does look like Frankenstein’s Monster in this film, minus the neck bolts.

Also, the level of comedy here is just wrong.  Even when Freddy is beating down on Jason in the dream world boiler room, it’s all done comically.  Jason’s just hurled around like in a pinball machine complete with sound effects and wisecracks.  I just hate that they couldn’t keep Freddy as a sick, detestable bastard, but instead were so tempted to make a wisecracking “fun” villain.  Freddy Krueger is setup from the very first moment of this movie as a child killer and possibly something even more sickening, but not long after, he’s being played up as a jokey villain.  This doesn’t jibe with me.  Certainly, nothing should be taken too seriously with a film that pits a wisecracking dream demon against an undead killer wearing a hockey mask, but there are certain character traits that should be weighed in when dealing with the character overall.  As a human being, Freddy Krueger kidnapped, violated, and killed children – not a laughing matter at all.  Of course, if anyone had made any attempt to make the majority of the teenage characters in this film any bit real, let alone sympathetic, Freddy would seem more villainous by attempting to kill them all.  Beyond just the portrayal of Freddy, the quality of the comedy is horribly cheap and childish.  It’s just badly written puns that add to the pile of garbage dialogue that this film dumps upon us.  The fact that they blatantly ripped-off the character of Jay from Jay & Silent Bob in the form of Freeberg just shows the laziness of the writing and casting.  While stoners have been a slasher mainstay, I cannot condone them carbon copying a character from a comedy franchise for a few weak, cheap laughs.  It’s a blatant sign of being creatively bankrupt or simply lazy.

The score created by Graeme Revell is grossly disappointing.  It sounds like he composed the thing during a ten minute coffee break in between films.  The same weak musical cues are used a dozen times over, and no real thought out themes exist here.  There was only one Jason “vocal effect” produced for the film, and any bit of Charles Bernstein’s Elm Street theme that appears in the soundtrack was injected in the aftermath of Revell’s scoring.  Knowing that Revell did the brilliant, beautiful, and very gothic score for The Crow made me hopeful that he’d deliver something equally as epic, but sadly, he phones this work in.  I would’ve preferred someone along the lines of Christopher Young scoring this as he did amazing work on the first two Hellraiser films and subsequent motion picture scores.  Regardless, whatever I had hoped for, this score is the most disappointing of either series.  Revell wasn’t even trying here.

The only good part of the film is the end when Freddy and Jason finally battle in the real world, but I’m only speaking of when they get hands-on.  Only when the two are chopping and tearing away at each other – ripping chunks of flesh from their bodies – does it get really damn good.  Everything previous to that is either a ridiculous WWE style brawl with flying elbows and such, or Freddy hurling heavy objects at Jason.  The real meat of the entire encounter is Freddy and Jason dropping the bullshit creativity, and just ripping each other apart!  This doesn’t last long enough, though, and it takes a third party to really allow for a winner of any kind to prevail, despite no one actually winning at all.

Again, another failing of this film is abandoning any sense of horror or suspense.  It’s just a monster movie meant to splatter blood across the screen, and that just doesn’t hold my interest.  There are a few frightening moments and a slew of excellent kills, but a little less time spent over indulging in comical farce and more time spent building up atmosphere and tension could’ve gone an exceptionally long way.  There are also numerous missed opportunities.  There could’ve been a great story with characters from both franchises coming together to deal with Freddy and Jason.  Shannon and Swift had mentions of Tommy Jarvis in the script, but he did not appear.  I think bringing together Tommy and maybe Alice from Dream Master and The Dream Child could’ve made a blockbuster combination.  In the least, we would’ve had a lead cast that could actually act.

On my horror movie website Forever Horror, I had an ever-growing article on the history of Freddy vs. Jason from the beginning of both franchises past the point of this film’s theatrical release.  It’s an insanely long article due to how long the film was in development.  It had been trying to get made since 1987, and for all the stacks of scripts, screenwriters, and directors that were attached to this film over those many long years, I cannot believe this is the best script New Line Cinema could come up with.  I cannot believe that Ronny Yu was the best director they could find to helm this.  There must’ve been a half dozen or more horror filmmakers out there craving to do this project that would’ve done an extremely better job with it.  Again, Yu essentially knew next to nothing about either character or franchise, and it just shocks me that New Line Cinema would hand this film over to someone like that.  I can understand wanting to avoid hiring someone with a bias towards Freddy or Jason, but the film still turned out more like A Nightmare on Elm Street sequel guest starring Jason.

I will admit that Friday The 13th is my favorite slasher film series, but even from an objective point of view, it’s easy to see the lack of Jason-centric elements here.  Crystal Lake doesn’t show up until the third act, and there’s a gross lack of creativity in Jason’s weapons and most of his kills.  Practically having that machete glued to his hand the whole film again displays the shallow knowledge the filmmakers had for Jason.  Also, claiming that Jason has some subconscious fear of water is preposterous.  We’ve seen Jason submerged in water numerous times in multiple films without so much as hesitating to do so.  He walked underwater halfway from Crystal Lake to Manhattan without a problem.  Also, regardless of the tone of the Friday The 13th movie, Jason was always portrayed as entirely serious and lethal, but this film pokes too much fun at him.  It puts him into comical moments that could’ve been reworked to be suspenseful.  It’s horrible direction and campy screenwriting like this which also turned Alien vs. Predator into such an abomination.  Both of these films could’ve had so much potential to be absolutely grisly, frightening, and intense films, but bad directors and screenwriters with no sense of respect for the material destroyed those hopes.  While AVP is undeniably the worst of the two, Freddy vs. Jason demonstrated you could get away with showing only little to no respect for the source material, and still be greatly successful at the box office.

What more can I even say about this in a summation?  The movie hit like a wild fire, but all that excitement and praise was just hype.  Today, I don’t buy into hype.  Either the film looks good or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t deliver on my more matured tastes, no amount of hype is going to overshadow that.  There are films I can admit are bad, but still gain some degree of enjoyment from it.  While Freddy vs. Jason is a more tolerable film than Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare or Jason X, I have not had the genuine urge to watch it in many years.  This is not a film to vehemently avoid, but it is one where your expectations need to be drastically lowered to avoid severe disappointment.  If for nothing else, the horrible, vacuous acting is something you need to brace yourself for because it will make you cringe.  Overall, this movie was a gimmick, plain and simple.  It wasn’t about being faithful to the characters, fans, continuity, or franchises.  It wasn’t about good acting, directing, scoring, or scriptwriting either.  It’s strange that a film built out of the idea of fan service really has little to offer the fans that know the franchises the best.  It’s even worse that after this film was such a huge success, New Line Cinema decided to inflict the curse of the remake upon both Freddy and Jason.  So sad.


Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

Paramount Pictures had run their course with Jason Voorhees, and gladly sold the rights to New Line Cinema for them to do with it as they pleased.  What they gave us was something that remains a mixed result for many fans.  Personally, I really love Jason Goes To Hell.  I believe it to be a great, original storyline that dared to do something drastically different with the franchise.  The filmmakers populated it with a very solid and impressive cast, and put together an inventive script.

An FBI sting operation at Crystal Lake succeeds in blowing Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder) to pieces, and all believe he is permanently dead, except for bounty hunter Creighton Duke (Steven Williams).  Interviewed on the news program American Case File by Robert Campbell (Steven Culp), Duke claims that Jason is not dead, and that he is the only one who knows how to send him to hell for all time.  He sets a bounty of $500,000 to paid for doing so.  Meanwhile, Jason’s demonic heart takes possession of person after person on a path of death back to Crystal Lake in the effort to be fully reborn in the body of another Voorhees.  Coincidentally, Robert Campbell is dating Jessica Kimble (Kari Keegan), the daughter of the woman Duke seeks out in Crystal Lake, but he doesn’t get far as he is locked up for insulting the town Sheriff.  The father of Jessica’s daughter, Steven Freeman (John D. LeMay), eventually encounters Duke after Diana Kimble (Erin Gray) is accidentally killed, and he learns the truth about Jason and what it will take to destroy him forever.

Many fans are content with just leaving all the origins and explanations for Jason being whatever he is unknown.  However, at a certain point, a franchise has to look back on itself, and realize that some sense has to be made of its menacing slasher juggernaut that continually comes back from the dead.  In this case, I believe Dean Lorey and Jay Huguely succeeded in conjuring a story that takes itself seriously while dealing with some fantastical ideas.  This film turned the franchise around from its campy decent into cheap horror, and back into a far gorier and violent direction.  It lays several implications upon Jason’s undead origins such as with the Necronomicon from Army of Darkness sitting inside the Voorhees house.  Granted, it was likely a prop happenstance due to the same effects company working on both films, but it’s presence alone enhances the occult and supernatural implications of the film.  It certainly helped spark the idea for a Freddy vs. Jason sequel, ultimately adapted into a comic book, featuring Ash Williams fighting against both slasher foes.

The addition of the Creighton Duke character was pure brilliance.  A hard edged bounty hunter with the secrets to what Jason is, and what became of his family lineage injects that air of mystery and urgency into the plot.  I have become a big fan of Steven Williams from 21 Jump Street to The X-Files.  He’s an incredibly talented actor capable of a wide range of characterizations.  As Duke, he’s got charisma that really grips an audience.  He can have an mischievous wit when he offers answers to Steven Freeman in the jail, but also has an intense, captivating energy when finally delivering those answers.  Duke’s a man with a dedicated purpose, and a confident, bold attitude backed by his rugged skill set.  He doesn’t offer trust easily, thus, reinforcing a sort of loner attitude.  He doesn’t back down from anyone, but has the intelligence to remain focused and level headed.  He’s not blindly obsessed with destroying Jason.  He knows he cannot do it by himself, and must come to trust that others will do what is necessary when the time comes.  Creighton Duke is one of my absolute favorite characters of the entire franchise, right up there with Tommy Jarvis.  Steven Williams’ performance is immensely entertaining and compelling.

On the opposite side of the hero spectrum is John D. LeMay as Steven Freeman.  He’s very much just an average guy with no special skills, but has his motivations.  He desires to see and hold the child he helped father with Jessica, and wants to see both of them protected from this murderous evil out stalking them.  LeMay starred in the unrelated Friday The 13th: The Series where he solidly played a similar protagonist, but Steven is even more unlikely.  He’s not at all a man of action, but when forced into extraordinary circumstances, he rises to the challenge by doing whatever it takes to survive and protect those he cares about.  LeMay gives the role plenty of light-hearted charm, and an audience easily feels for him when things go terribly awry.

This is undoubtedly the best cast assembled for a Friday The 13th movie.  There is just a wealth of credible talent throughout the ranks, and they are all handled excellently by director Adam Marcus.  For the most part, they project a grounded feeling that works towards the very serious dread and horror that is present in this film.  The diner owners, Joey B. & Shelby, are kind of comical, but in a way that sells Joey’s heartless exploitative nature and Shelby’s warmer sensibilities.  However, Steven Culp is probably the best of the supporting cast giving us a very sleazy, unscrupulous news anchor in Robert Campbell.  This is a guy who has deceived Jessica into a romantic relationship only for the chance to exploit her family for his own personal gain.  Culp puts in an excellent performance as a character you love to hate, but there’s more to it that I will touch on later.

This is undoubtedly the goriest movie of the entire franchise.  The filmmaker made the blood thick and plentiful.  The scene of the coroner consuming Jason’s enlarged heart is beautifully disgusting and graphic.  The gooey black blood oozes and splatters all over.  It’s an amazing effect, yet again provided by the masterful talents at KNB EFX Group.  They really went all out for this installment creating very elaborate effects which are seen in all their glory right there on the screen, in the unrated cut, of course.  New Line Cinema was the first to officially release an unrated version of a film in this franchise, and this couldn’t have been a better film to do that for.  The practical effects work is absolutely spectacular, and the visual effects are also highly impressive.  There is nothing at all that is just mediocre or sub-standard in this film.  Everyone was fully dedicated to making a high quality feature, and I applaud each and every one of them for that commitment and hard work.

Yet, this isn’t just a mindless splatter flick.  There is plenty of classic Friday The 13th style suspense.  Adam Marcus shows a talent for crafting solid atmosphere and tension.  The film has a dark visual tone creating a gritty feel that tells you this is going to be straight-on horror.   Lighting is quite moody with rich, deep blacks that really strengthen that hardened atmosphere.  It’s a hell of a great look for this film that really sets it apart from the rest of the series in a very good way.

What many fans count as a negative mark against the film is that Jason himself is barely in it.  He spends most of the runtime jumping from one temporary body to another in pursuit of a permanent resurrection.  However, this does allow for an unexpectedly menacing and kick ass performance by Steven Culp while possessed by Jason.  He tears through the diner massacre sequence savagely.  It’s absolutely awesome.  Of course, there is no discounting Kane Hodder, but he does appear lethargic in this film.  Possibly, this is due to the padding added to his costume to reflected a bloated and malformed Jason.  It definitely adds more bulk that works well in contrast to everyone in the film, but Hodder just seemed to have a harder time throwing himself into the end fight scene.  Regardless of that, he still delivers a performance up to his established standards for Jason Voorhees.

Now, Harry Manfredini’s score in this film is a split opinion for me.  It is quite good, and might be one of his best of the series.  Unfortunately, instead of using an orchestra, the entire score is synthesized.  He takes what he regularly would have done with an orchestra and apply it to a synthesizer, and it just loses far too much in that transition.  While the composition is very good, the sound of shrieking strings on a keyboard sound like the score to some cheap direct-to-video horror flick.  There are times it doesn’t sound that bad, but certainly from the opening credits and elsewhere, it has always given me that feeling.

I know I am not the only one who believes there are many places to take the Friday the 13th concept outside of its formulaic comfort zone, and to me, this film shows it can be done with the right ambition and talent.  It’s certainly a concept that you will either like or won’t, and it’s understandable if you don’t.  Many are happy to revisit the standard formula, and just see Jason killing innocent campers.  However, I find that many franchises could use an infusion of new ideas.  It’s only unfortunate that most times, those new ideas become bad ones that result in poor movies.  Thankfully, the right talents were employed that did love the series, and wanted to do something more supernatural, graphic, and demonic with Jason without betraying the core of his character.  Many would argue otherwise, but this is my opinion on Jason Goes To Hell.

I do hardly believe that even New Line Cinema was serious about this being The Final Friday considering they just picked up the rights to the character.  The ending of this film blatantly and cleverly sets up Freddy vs. Jason, so, there were obvious plans to keep utilizing Jason however they could.  Regardless of that issue, Jason Goes To Hell is one of my top favorite Friday The 13th films, and I feel it is one of the best and most successfully innovative of the series.  There’s a first rate cast here that really push the film towards that more serious, convincing tone instead of one of camp, which is refreshing.  The make-up effects are off the chart incredible giving us more gore than any other film in the franchise, before or after, but it has no lack of genuine suspense or terror.  If you care for a return to more serious horror for this franchise, and don’t mind more fantastical ideas injected into the concept, I strongly recommend giving Jason Goes To Hell an honest chance.


New Nightmare (1994)

After the horrendous Freddy’s Dead, New Line Cinema was willing to entertain ideas from series creator Wes Craven on a new entry to the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.  This film is partly a return to form for the series, but also ventures into a completely and radically new direction.  The entire film is set outside the realm of the franchise in our reality.  Many of the main characters and cameos are people playing themselves, to a degree.  Heather Langenkamp, the heroine from the first and third films in the series, plays herself.  We also have appearances by Wes Craven, John Saxon, and Robert Shaye – all playing themselves with some creative licenses.  Robert Englund is of course here, playing both a more eccentric version of himself and the demonic incarnation of Freddy Krueger.

Heather Langenkamp lives a content life with her husband Chase Porter (David Newsom) and son Dylan (Miko Hughes).  However, her sense of safety is compromised by a series of unsettling phone calls which Heather believes are from an anonymous stalker.  Coupled with this is some increasingly strange behavior from Dylan.  Heather gains little comfort from her former co-stars Robert Englund or John Saxon about either her paranoia or concern for her son.  While she does not allow her son to watch any of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, with her promoting the ten year anniversary of the original, she cannot escape its looming shadow.  She soon finds out that Wes Craven is planning on making the definitive Nightmare movie, and that he has been plagued by nightmares of his own.  It has practically become an epidemic as the same disturbing dreams have come to Heather as well as Robert Englund himself.  Craven eventually tells Heather that what is haunting them is an ancient demon that has been roaming from story-to-story since the beginning of time, but has come accustomed to Freddy.  Now, it wants into our world, and Heather is the perceived gatekeeper betweens the realms of fantasy and reality since she was the first to defeat Freddy.  Dylan is a key focal point of this demon’s plan to lure in Heather.  As all the elements begin to converge, the world around Heather starts to transform into the twisted existence of this guised Freddy Krueger.

New Nightmare is a creatively successful film that was not a financial success in 1994.  I don’t think New Line Cinema knew quite how to market this concept in a way that was concise to an audience.  It’s a far more cerebral concept than had been introduced into the series prior, but even then, it still requires a good amount of exposition to get a handle on.  It’s very strange that at the time of release I had never even watched any of these films, and hadn’t spawned my horror movie fandom, yet.  Still, I was entirely aware of this film while no one else seemed to be.  Thankfully, time has given it the respect and admiration it deserved.

Wes Craven absolutely wrote an ambitious and smart screenplay.  I think this shows a maturing of his artistic sensibilities.  This is very high concept employing ideas that could not be competently handled by just anyone.  There have been plenty of poorly conceived and/or executed reality-bending films, but only a special few that have done it with inspiring results.  While that’s mostly true of any genre, this is one that doesn’t have as high of an output, and is usually only tried when a filmmaker feels ambitious.  Most fail because they don’t have the right intellect behind them to pull it off without becoming pretentious, contrived, or fall into a style over substance trap.  The films that do succeed have visionary filmmakers behind them who know how to convey the concept smartly and effectively.  In New Nightmare’s case, it connects you directly with the characters, and invests you in their plights while methodically building up its premise with fine dashes of foreboding tension and suspense.  It treats its horror and gruesome deaths with real human emotion and grief.  These are real people experiencing real terror and pain.  Thus, it increases the dread and danger of their situation with a heavy weight that an audience can truly feel.

This film is exceptionally solid while it’s not so much slasher horror as supernatural, psychological horror.  Craven relies more on subtle atmosphere and a series of creepy, unexplained events, much like a haunted house story, to scare an audience.  There is some gore, but it is only in a few scenes.  So, on a slasher film level, New Nightmare does feel very starved for gruesome bloodletting, and that does detract from the film for me.  There’s not enough visceral pay-off for the building up of suspense and atmosphere.  Heather is truly terrorized by what this demon does to her life, tormenting her at every turn, and claiming the lives of a few people closest to her as well as traumatically manipulating her son.  Those elements are executed outstandingly well.  You can feel her fear and frayed psychological state increase throughout the movie.  Freddy has very restrained screentime, which is a pleasant change from his overexposure in previous sequels.  Wes Craven instead uses the screentime to intelligently and clearly setup the reality transcending premise before unveiling the revamped Freddy Krueger.

This ancient demon has decked Freddy out in a generous use of leather, and a frightening new glove of razors.  It’s no longer rusted, but very shiny and skeleton like showing off Krueger’s burned hand.  The new make-up design is certainly fresh, but still looks like prosthetics instead of an organic piece of burned flesh.  It’s certainly better than the very rubbery appearance we got in the last few films, but I’ve still seen better burned flesh effects elsewhere.  Generally, the redesign does give the character a darker edge which supports the premise of the film, and that this is not actually Freddy but a demon taking on his appearance and persona.

All the actors are as great as could be imagined.  Langenkamp is even more beautiful here than ever before, and her performance is very true to the situation, despite its fantastical nature.  I refer mostly in regards to the parent-child relationship, and how she does whatever is necessary to protect her child.  Now, while this film blurs the line between reality and fantasy, this applies to the presentation of the people.  Much of the stalking elements in the story were taken from the real Heather Langenkamp’s own experiences with a stalker, and so, there’s a personal element to this story for her.  Overall, she brings a great weight of maturity and strong emotion to a role that was likely challenging for her to grasp.  It was bold and brave of her to put as much of her personal life on screen like this as she did, and if it wasn’t Wes Craven asking her to do so, I don’t think she would have done it.  On a related note, Miko Hughes shows a wealth of talent, and is really endearing.  Most kids in horror films tend to be annoying or worse, but he managed to be very likable and endearing.

Robert Englund, as always, clocks in with all he has.  This time, his Freddy performance is intimidating and fearsome.  There’s not a wisecrack to be had, and he still remains engaging as a dark villain.  His screentime is quite limited until the final act of the film, but enough is done throughout the picture to increase his menace and power.  I know for a fact that Englund did prefer portraying Freddy as darker, but most directors preferred the comical approach.  Thankfully, Craven brought the character back to where he works best, and Englund did a great job there.

John Saxon also returns in a supporting role, and I’ve always had a fondness for him.  He’s just such a captivating and marvelous actor with a very fatherly or commanding aura about him.  He always inspires confidence, and consistently does solid work.  I thoroughly enjoy every bit of work I have seen of him.  Tracy Middendorf stars as Julie, Dylan’s babysitter, and really comes off as sweet and caring.  She’s definitely the ideal babysitter.  I could easily go on and on about the cameos and solid acting, but to sum it up, the acting in this movie is wholly satisfying and exceedingly far above slasher genre standards, as is everything with New Nightmare.

This is definitely one of Wes Craven’s best and most modern looking films.  Director of Photography Mark Irwin gave the film a lot of visual integrity, firmly grounding it in a dramatic reality.  There’s a nice use of blue tones that add to the atmosphere that Craven nicely crafted.  This looks like a serious, intelligent film for a more mature audience, contrasting the more juvenile sensibilities of previous Elm Street sequels.  Mark Irwin really showed a great ability to artistically shoot a suspenseful film, and it’s great that Wes Craven used him again on Scream.  It’s only a shame that most of Irwin’s filmography after this were comedies, many of them rather stupid comedies.

The story behind the inception of New Nightmare is also interesting.  The concept was spawned from a meeting between Wes Craven and New Line executive Robert Shaye.  He wanted to know, from Wes, what he thought was done wrong with the series, and if the company had offended Wes in anyway.  Craven made a number of valid points about Freddy becoming a comical buffoon, and Bob offered Wes the chance to rectify these errors.  I’ve always liked that cordial mentality from Mr. Shaye who never cared for burning bridges, only building a better company built on professional integrity and respect.  With that, New Nightmare came into being.

Even without comparison to the wreckage that was Freddy’s Dead, this film shines and soars high as one of the best of the series right behind the original film.  The only major drawback of the film, I feel, is that this demon-as-Freddy is not dispatched in a very clever way.  There’s really no fantastical element to it, as one would expect from such a fantastical concept.  It is more of a physical method of defeating him instead of a supernatural, metaphysical, or psychological one.  And even though I’ve never taken much note of J. Peter Robinson’s score, it is widely recognized as one of the best horror film scores around.  Ultimately, this is still one to highly recommend alongside the 1984 original and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.  Those are the definitive classics of the franchise, and those reputations are rightly earned.


A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

You didn’t think I could let Forever Horror Month go by without a look at old Fred Krueger, did you?  I think A Nightmare on Elm Street came out at just the right time.  The slasher film craze had exploded, but then, began to water itself down with all the imitators.  There were still good ones out there, but it was already time for something fresh to shake up the genre.  Something to bring it back to a terrifying and original concept that was conceived by a master in Wes Craven.  Where the effectiveness of some other horror films have diminished over time for me. A Nightmare on Elm Street still holds a chilling nerve in my spine.

In the town of Springwood, on Elm Street, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are experiencing violent nightmares where they are stalked by a badly scarred man with a clawed glove of razors.  When Nancy’s friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is brutally murdered in bed one night, Nancy believes that it wasn’t Tina’s boyfriend who killed her, but the man who terrorizes their dreams – Fred Krueger (Robert Englund).  Unfortunately, her claims are dismiss by her father, Police Lieutenant Donald Thompson (John Saxon), and her alcoholic mother (Ronee Blakley).  So, Nancy, aided by her boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp), Nancy fights to stay awake to discover the truth behind Krueger, and find a way to stop him for good or never sleep again.

Right from the start, the film sets a dark, gritty, frightening tone with Freddy’s construction of his bladed glove.  This film truly is a nightmare come to life with the shadowy boiler room being the perfect backdrop for Krueger.  It’s damp, steamy, and filthy – a dangerous industrial environment for a sleazy, twisted killer.  From there, the film haunts you with creepy, surreal images that touch your deepest fears.  Once you are in Freddy’s realm there is no safe harbor.  He wants you to know you’re trapped and ensnared in his sick, demented reality.  He’s the master of the domain that is your dreams, and that’s what’s most frightening of all.  He can violate you deep within your mind, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t go forever without sleep.  Eventually, you are going to fall asleep, and that’s all he needs to have his way with you.  Unlike other slashers, Freddy doesn’t just stalk and kill.  He gains vast pleasure by psychologically tormenting his victims so that when he finally goes in for the kill, it will be all the more sweeter for him.  Freddy is a glorious sadist.  He both literally and figuratively feeds off your fear.  It’s what gives him his power and pleasure.  The glove was also a brilliant idea by Wes Craven.  Most slashers just kill with whatever’s handy, but Freddy puts his own signature mark on his victims with a weapon custom built for himself.  It’s a direct and distinct extension of his twisted personality.

Robert Englund instantly created an icon here built off of Wes Craven’s imagination.  He absorbed himself into the weight and feel of this character through the amazing make-up effects, and the dingy, distinct wardrobe.  The body language alone conveys a sickening individual who takes perverse pleasure in everything he does.  Every little gesture with the blades, every wiggling of the tongue, every slinking movement creates a terrifying performance that burns itself into your psyche.  The fact that Craven keeps Krueger so secluded in shadow, and only highlights certain aspects of his figure or face, enhances the intimidating power of him.  This is the most vile rendition of Fred Krueger we have ever gotten, and I think it’s a real disservice to horror audiences that he became so campy and cheesy in the later sequels.  I know Englund preferred going the darker route, but most directors preferred the comical punch.  I cannot fathom why because Freddy proves to be his most frightening in his purest form.

Beyond just Robert Englund, the film is packed with a great cast.  Heather Langenkamp steps into a strong lead role as Nancy.  I love that the film sets up Tina as the potential protagonist, but swerves the audience when gruesome tragedy strikes.  This allows Nancy to overcome her own grief and build herself up to a confident, smart heroine.  Yet, she never loses her honest sense of compassionate emotion.  Nancy does feel fear, very intensely, but she fights to conquer it every step of the way.  Langenkamp looked and felt like a genuine fresh faced girl next door which made her performance vulnerable and realistic.  The strength she brought to Nancy was incredible making an audience believe in Nancy through every terrifying moment.

Johnny Depp, in his very first acting role, is also great showing off the charm and talent we’ve come to know from him.  As Glenn, he’s funny and sweet.  I also believe casting John Saxon is always a rock solid choice.  He brings a fatherly warmth to Donald Thompson showing concern for his beloved daughter.  He’s also entirely believable as a commanding police officer with a fine screen presence which just exudes strength and confidence.  Ronnie Blakley is quite remarkable as this drunken mother who is clearly unable to cope with the crime she helped commit.  Amanda Wyss puts in a great performance selling the intense fear of Tina, and showing the subtle terror that trembles underneath.  Overall, everyone in this cast does an immensely solid and greatly admirable job.  They make this a film filled with character you can genuinely cared about, and thus, seriously fear for.

Wes Craven shows such a talent for suspense here.  He carefully unnerves an audience with subtle sounds and glimpses of terror, firstly.  Then, when Freddy finally reveals himself, it’s a truly scary sight as he torments Tina with a grin and a despicable laugh.  Just as Freddy torments his victims, Craven uses those moments to freak out his audience to build up the suspense and tension.  He prolongs the fear with masterful skill so that the pay-off will be frightening beyond your imagination.  The kills are gruesomely brilliant with no lack of gore or blood.  The screen is soaked in crimson many times in the movie., and the violent impact of those four blades slicing into flesh is always terrifying and shocking.

All of the special effects in A Nightmare on Elm Street are absolutely impressive and truly ambitious.  Today, as the lackluster remake proved, a lot of these effects today would be done with severely unconvincing and unimpressive CGI.  Back in 1984, everything was done practically, and the results are just astonishingly excellent.  Even knowing how they did it takes away nothing from the viewing experience of the film.  The movie magic is still there, and it is still massively effective.  From Tina being dragged up the wall and ceiling of her bedroom to Freddy’s form pushing through the wall above Nancy as she sleeps to all the subtle tricks and slight of hand to achieve so much, these are timeless, classic images that are the result of talented, innovative minds.  They entirely sell the chillingly surreal qualities and power of Krueger.  It’s amazing that they achieve so much on a budget that was less than $2 million.  Compare that with the $35 million budget of the 2010 remake which couldn’t pull off the same effects with even a fraction of the artistic quality or effectiveness.

Charles Bernstein beautifully score this film with just the right approach.  The main theme is instantly recognizable with its sort of nursery rhyme melody, but has a haunting, foreboding quality lying behind it which is purely brilliant musicianship.  The score, in general, is purely enveloping with a wide, rich range using synthesizer in gorgeous fashion.  It disturbs and unsettles at nearly every dark turn.  The sound design works in tandem with the score by fully immersing an audience into Freddy’s world.  The sounds of the boiler room come to magnificent life in a full surround sound experience.  I think it’s one of the best audio presentations of any horror film I’ve ever heard.

Again, what really sets this film apart from its slasher brethren is the psychological aspect.  Freddy isn’t a killer you can simply outrun.  He’s lurking in the dark recesses of your dreams, waiting for you to fall into his clutches.  It’s amazing to me that Wes Craven is such a sweet, easy going, regular guy, but is able to delve so vividly into the chilling imagery and nature of nightmares.  Scary experiences from his childhood forged many of these inspirations, but so much touches a frightening nerve, such as the bloody corpse of Tina in the body bag beckoning to Nancy, that it demonstrates Craven’s creative brilliance.  He taps so deeply into the mechanics of horror, and is able to craft beautifully gruesome images that could dig their way into your own subconscious.  I think Craven is at his best when he’s pushing horror to a higher level beyond the visceral.  Whether it’s the psychological aspects of this franchise, or the mystery aspects of the Scream films, he has a unique quality to inject into horror films that I really enjoy.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror classic that goes beyond just the slasher genre.  It was created by a team of greatly talented and dedicated individuals in front of and behind the camera.  No other film in the franchise quite matches up to the dark, pure horror quality of Wes Craven’s original.  While there are sequels with their own enjoyable and respected qualities, there are many which simply lost sight of what horror was, and diluted the powerful and effective tone of fear the franchise was built upon.  Regardless of disappointing sequels or poor remakes, the 1984 original will always stand as an eternal horror classic.


Wolf (1994)

Good werewolf movies are very hard to come by.  That was until I came across Wolf a few years ago.  Fronted by two amazingly electric actors in Jack Nicholson and James Spader along with a very tantalizing Michelle Pfeiffer, I couldn’t love this film more.  It’s a different approach that is far more modern and character driven with these supernatural aspect slowly weaved into the plot.

Worn down and out of luck, aging publisher Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is at the end of his rope when his co-worker and protégé, Stewart Swinton (James Spader), snatches both his job and wife out from under his nose.  However, after being bit by a wolf on a snowy road, Will suddenly finds himself energized, more competitive than ever, and possessed with amazingly heightened senses.  Meanwhile, Laura Alden (Michelle Pfeiffer), the beautiful daughter of his shrewd boss, begins to fall for him – without realizing that the man she’s begun to love is gradually turning into the creature by which he was bit.

As should go without saying, Jack Nicholson is excellent in this movie.  He gives us a performance that is mostly low key with modest manner and sense of heart.  He’s a man living a less than stellar life, and that downtrodden feeling seeps into the cracks of the performance.  There’s also the increasing worry about his wolf bite that truly begins to affect Will adversely.  However, of course, Nicholson is able to turn on his mojo and even delve into a feral side that is fierce and primal.

It’s slightly humorous how the enhanced senses manifest in Will Randall.  There’s a few funny moments, like being able to smell the tequila on a co-worker early in the morning, or how he doesn’t even realize that he can read perfectly without his reading glasses.  However, it takes a more unsettling turn when he can start hearing far away voices throughout his office complex.  Still, the film is able to maintain an occasional sense of levity mostly from the charisma of Nicholson and Spader.  I love how the wolf instincts make Will more aggressive, able to take stand against his co-workers and boss.  He becomes a man of bravado and cutthroat actions instead of a weaker willed pushover that he was.  So, at first, this is all a good change in his character, but gradually, the wolf bite effects begin to take a more ferocious and bloodletting turn.

James Spader is wonderfully sleazy, as appears to be his regular strength, as Will’s apprentice / rival.  Stewart is conniving and deceitful with no ethical or moral compass.  He’s a real snake in the grass that will smile to your face while stabbing you in the back, and Spader makes it a richly enjoyable performance.  He really excels in these kinds of roles, portraying them pitch perfect to make the character detestable while still being wholly entertaining.  Awesomely, he gets the chance to just go full boar with it by the end with a very fearsome performance.  This really is all the vile, juicy Spader you could ever want.

It’s surprising how good the chemistry is between Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer.  There’s a nineteen year age difference between them, but that seems to work better for these characters.  Will Randall is a more worn out, tired career man while Laura Alden is young, vibrant, and intriguing.  Pfeiffer certainly has a seductive aura about her that creates a dangerous air to the relationship.  There’s plenty of sexual charisma to spare with both her and Nicholson.  Overall, she does a tremendous job with this character who does have a harder, jaded exterior with a more approachable, comforting core.

The supporting cast of Wolf is also stellar.  Most notably is Christopher Plummer’s gracefully egotistical, but also authoritative Raymond Alden, the owner of the publishing house.  He carries a substantial weight as this slightly ruthless boss who insincerely sugar coats things.  He has a great presence and a subtle way of acting that results in a lot of dimension coming out on screen.

The mystical ideas of the demon wolf are beautifully conveyed.  There’s a grounded sensibility from Dr. Alezais when he tells Will of the lore.  It’s not the ravings of some wild witch doctor, but of a man of science and research.  He believes in the possibility that this mystical lore is true, and he sells the dreaded reality of it very convincingly.  It comes at the right point in the film where both Will and the audience have experienced enough to believe that something supernatural is taking a hold of him.  So, we are all ripe to fully believe what he has to say.

I love the make-up effects from Rick Baker, a go-to master for werewolves from his work on The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.  While it is just some added facial hair, fangs, and yellow contact lenses, the visual of Nicholson in this make-up is frightening.  He looks like a wild animal that would stop your heart at the real life sight of.  Yet, he’s not the only one.  Although, I do not wish to spoil anything, but the make-up is extremely creepy upon the face of another actor.

Director Mike Nichols had this film shot in a way that was rather uncommon for the time it was made.  In many cases, it feels like a classic monster movie in its cinematography.  Preferring some dramatic camera zoom-ins over dolly shot push-ins, using rear screen projection during the driving scenes, and employing conservative editing resulting in some beautifully long takes, it partially feels like something from the black and white era.  Yet, it is such a brilliantly shot, composed, and executed film that it undeniably has a modern edge and beauty to it.  There’s a great sense of artistic horror and suspense to appeal to modern audiences.  There’s not much gore here, but there is a wealth of ferocious veracity that will satiate your desire for intense, horrific, primal violence.

The climax is absolutely wild.  Everything really converges in an animalistic confrontation that delivers in a hugely dramatic and savage high point.  How it all ultimately ends is tragically heartbreaking and powerful.  Yet, it still has a nice quirky and mesmerizing punch right at the end, too.  Mike Nichols’ ability to pull off these complex tones which mesh unsettling tension with a dash of quirky humor is really marvelous.  How this film progresses from a light drama about Will Randall’s inter-office politics and his developing romantic relationship with Laura to a full-on werewolf horror film is amazing.  That’s actually why this film works.  It builds these characters up into a realistic setting with convincing relationships and conflicts.  They are charismatic and entertaining characters that really invest your interest.  Then, the film gradually builds up the supernatural wolf element as it begins to affect Will’s behavior from a re-invigorated, confident man to a frightening metamorphosis that he deathly fears.  It’s a wonderful twisting arc that never loses credibility or its grounded sensibilities.  The conflicts it establishes, and the relationships it grows remain an integral part of the story all the way through.  It really is a stellar work of screenwriting by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick, and a brilliant directing job by Mike Nichols.

Add in an excellent score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and you’ve got one hell of a great film that I dearly love.  It’s a real gem I only discovered a few Octobers ago, and have really wanted to share my admiration for it for a long time.  Wolf was actually delayed into release by several months to completely re-shoot the entire third act of the movie. Whatever they did is entirely seamless.  I cannot see any deviation in quality or story to hint at what was changed.  There was no novelization, and no script available online to find out what the original third act was.  I’m certainly intrigued, but the film that was released is entirely amazing and I wouldn’t change a thing.  As I said, good werewolf movies are hard to come by, and I think Wolf is a surprising pleasure.  There was no shortage of remarkable talent behind this film, and that talent shines through in every moment.  I think it’s a great and original horror films with a lot of entertainment value to offer any audience.


Identity (2003)

This film, directed by James Mangold, is one that I was very impressed with in its original theatrical release, and revisiting it now, it still holds up as an effective thriller.  Supported by a remarkable ensemble cast and a brilliant screenplay, Identity delivers a mind-bending story that cleverly weaves its way around a classic murder mystery premise.

Strangers from all different walks of life are all trapped by a torrential rain storm on a Nevada road one night.  They are forced to take shelter at an old roadside motel, run by the nervous manager Larry (John Hawkes).  There is Ed Dakota, a limo driver, escorting fading television star Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay), the turbulent married couple of George & Alice York (John C. McGinley & Leila Kinzel) with their young son Timothy (Bret Loehr), Rhodes, a Department of Corrections officer transporting the dangerous convict Robert Maine (Jake Busey), a beautiful call girl (Amanda Peet), and a couple of young newlyweds (William Lee Scott & Clea DuVall).  None of them are at ease amongst these strangers, but circumstances become dire when someone begins murdering them one-by-one.  Accusations begin to fly as paranoia and fear escalate, but they will all begin to discover very strange truths about their supposed chance encounter here.  Meanwhile in an undisclosed location, in an eleventh hour court hearing, psychiatrist Dr. Mallick (Alfred Molina) tries to prove the innocence and sanity of his patient, Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who has been convicted of murder, and is scheduled to face execution in twenty-four hours.  How both of these stories connect is a mystery of identity.

This film will keep you guessing from one moment to the next as to many things.  Many twists unfold in plot and perception, and when you think this film has twisted your thoughts into many knots, it throws one final one at you.  Now, these twists won’t leave you lost, there’s plenty of breathing room and enough exposition to allow you to understand all that is happening.  It is very cleverly paced and structured to keep an audience ensnared through the entire mystery.  This film is tense, suspenseful, creepy, and haunting.  It is an excellent psychological thriller that has far more to it than just a group of people getting killed off in a very Agatha Christie fashion.  In fact, no other film I have seen has utilized this genre quite so well.  There is just as much psychological terror for the characters as there is for the audience.

Director James Mangold brilliantly builds suspense and paranoia with a troubling sense of unease.  A group of strangers stranded in a run down desert motel definitely lends to that feeling.  Considering one of them is a known violent criminal heightens that even more.  Subtle things are revealed to the audience that add to our apprehension knowing certain people are not who they claim or appear to be.  This creates plenty of clever misdirection.  Add in some volatile and emotionally distressed characters, and the tension is wrapped so a tight, unnerving level.  When that tension finally breaks, it’s heart pounding.  The film hardly never allows an audience to relax fully.  There’s regularly some form of urgency or excitement that propels the characters forward towards danger.

The style of the film is very original such as with the immediate flashbacks.  You’ll see a lot of them at the start and a bit near the end.  They show how certain events brought everyone together in a unique non-linear fashion.  It nicely punctuates certain plot elements such as it was Paris’ high-heeled shoe that flew out of her opened suitcase that caused the York’s flat tire later that night.  It’s a nice, quick storytelling tool that helps move the story ahead quickly without leaving even small questions unanswered.  I enjoyed that element quite a bit, and the direction and editing of them was very handled well.  The addition of the rain storm throughout the film is classically atmospheric, and adds to the treacherous, mysterious qualities of the plot.  Danger and paranoia are abound as things get stranger and stranger, and the torrential rain and thunder claps simply unsettle the characters and the audience further.

The surreal aspects are also subtly handled.  They forge an underlying peculiarity for the strangers at the motel.  They attempt to explain them in various ways, but eventually, these occurrences go far beyond mere coincidence or rationale.  They can’t make sense of it, but it truly freaks them out.  It creates a bizarre, twisted web for them all.  These aspects build up so beautifully to an absolutely mind-blowing revelation.

Identity is masterfully shot and edited.  Shooting in all that nighttime rain never muddles the visuals.  We always have a clear picture of what’s happening without sacrificing the dramatic, moody cinematography.  The film evenly balances between various indoor and outdoor scenes giving an audience enough variety in the visuals to keep our eyes interested.  There is such great atmosphere crafted into how the film is shot, and the editing really supports the lingering suspense expertly.  When things begin deconstructing in the third act, the editing creates an amazing visual style which perfectly represents the psychological chaos.  It’s all a superbly executed thriller with many gripping twists and turns that have an excellent conclusion.

This ensemble cast is magnificent!  There strong performances all around with John Cusack being the obvious trusting protagonist.  He brings his usual heart and wit along with a solid dramatic weight.  Ed Dakota is a very relatable character with a great depth of pain and desire to do what is right.  He’s given a strong back story that Cusack really grasps the emotional weight and guilt Ed carries with him, making him someone we can invest our confidence in.

Ray Liotta has a nice turn showing both a hardened strength and a shadier side that surfaces later on.  He is very intense, confrontational, and adversarial while projecting a presence of authority with a more temperamental edge.  Jake Busey is convincingly intimidating and dangerous with a crazed look in his eye coupled with his reliable charisma.  John Hawkes is another stellar actor who can deliver a deep array of emotions.  Here, he runs the full gamut ranging from nervous and skittish to violent and unhinged.  And I really have to say that Rebecca De Mornay is hotter here than I have ever seen her before.  She’s beyond gorgeous in my view, as I have an affinity for red heads, and she does a wonderful job as the somewhat egotistical actress Caroline Suzanne.  She’s definitely a pleasure.  And of course, I always expect nothing less than excellence from John C. McGinley, as many do these days, and he doesn’t fail here.  His George York is a very nervous man with little self-confidence who doesn’t cope with these violent, tragic situations well.  McGinley brings a lot of compassion and simple innocence to this caring husband and step-father.

Alfred Molina is perfect as Dr. Mallick presenting a soft-spoken, intelligent psychiatrist with a sense of empathy.  Pruitt Taylor Vince has always impressed me taking on some substantive and sometimes peculiar roles, and doing an exceptionally unique and standout job in them.  For what little time he has on screen, he brings that same level of talent to Malcolm Rivers.  That jittery eye trick he does seems to land him these off-kilter roles, and it is distinctly effective.

I really have to hand it to the screenwriting talents of Michael Clooney, and especially the directorial abilities of James Mangold.  Both crafted together a very solid, smart, and effective thriller that has plenty of genuine scares and suspense to entertain an audience.  Because of this, it still has re-watch value.  The film is so strong that it would still work just as marvelously without the major twist at the end.  The mystery thriller aspect with people being killed off at the motel is just expertly executed in every way.  The addition of said twist just ups the psychological brilliance of the concept.  I definitely give Identity a wholehearted recommendation, just as I did when it was theatrically released.


Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)

At one time, this was to be the apparent final installment in the original Hellraiser film continuity, and there was a very real reason for that.  Since the Weinstein’s have been unable to get their remake off the ground, they slap dashed another sequel together after this one which I will never see.  Hellraiser: Hellworld is like The Matrix meets New Nightmare crossed with the worse entries in this franchise.  Don’t be fooled by the presence of Lance Henriksen – he’s made plenty of bad movies.  While it is nice to see Lance and Pinhead share a scene, it’s brief and doesn’t save the film one bit.  In fact, it confuses the issue even further – what reality is this set in?

A young man named Adam (Stelian Urian) commits suicide after forging a deep obsession with the Hellraiser mythos and an internet game called Hellworld.  His friends fail to act when Adam was spiraling out of control, aside from Jake (Christopher Jacot), who ultimately blames them for everything.  This is all, supposedly, a reality where the films are real and everything else is fiction, but that’s not for certain.  Adam’s friends grieve his death, and two years later, are invited to a mansion-filled Hellworld party by The Host (Lance Henriksen).  They are greeted by the mysterious, cryptic gentleman, and are shown into his private, macabre collection to explore freely.  Though, what they see and experience soon horrifies them.  Somehow, they have entered into a manufactured hell, designed to take their sanity and their lives, but what is the true reality here?

What honestly drags the value of this film down into the dumps really is the story.  Setting it in a world such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare where Hellraiser is an actual film series and internet presence, and making it that the Cenobites, supposedly, are not real, they are just a device for which Henriksen’s character seeks revenge, sets itself up for failure.  While New Nightmare was a very intelligent and effective film with a cleverly crafted premise, Hellworld just doesn’t have that ambition or creativity to coherently make the concept work.  The story really has nothing to do with the mythology of the series, or anything of a personal hell.  If this was produced as a film with no connection of any kind to Hellraiser, as it originally was written as, it might have been pretty decent, but you cannot follow this film’s logic.  You cannot setup a world where the Cenobites, Leviathan, the Lament Configuration, and so forth are merely fictional creations, but then, turn around at the very end to show that they are completely real.  New Nightmare handled it differently, and had actual explanations for how it was possible for Freddy, or a demon in the guise thereof, was able to transcend the realities.  Hellworld’s ending has some satisfaction, but as I said, it’s too short-lived to make a real impact on the quality of the film.

Regardless of the plot or script, the film is as generally well-acted as any of the last few sequels – nothing spectacular, but just good enough.  Henriksen, obviously, presents a strong performance that helps to gravitate the film’s events and characters.  It’s pretty much what you’d expect from him in a villainous role.  It is sad that Henriksen is such a damn good and very dedicated actor, but he continually stars in such poor quality films.  I really think he should seek out new representation, and get himself back into better roles in better movies.  Moving on, we still get faithful Doug Bradley in his usual role.  Not much to say about it.  Same old, reliable thing, as expected.  Personally, I would have liked to see Doug Bradley have more to work with in this series, such as in the third film when the filmmakers were exploring Elliot Spenser.  Give him somewhere new to go with the character and his acting talents.  By this point, it felt like he was just playing it by-the-numbers, but at least he had enough sense to back out of Hellraiser: Revelations.  The supporting cast of Hellworld is your usual horror film youngsters all looking pretty, and ready to get ripped to shreds.  No one exceptional stands out, but they all hold their own well enough.  I don’t mean to be cavalier about it, but it’s mostly your standard horror movie performances.  There’s not a great deal of room for the actors to stretch their abilities, but it is comfortably above the cheap talent we’ve all occasionally endured in other horror films.

The effects here are about standard for the direct-to-video end of the series.  There’s very little that will jump out and amaze you at its awesomeness.  After watching all of these lower budgeted sequels, it’s difficult to conjure up anything substantive to say about the practical or visual effects.  At times with Hellworld, there is fast cutting, trying to give the film a more disorienting experience, but I can’t say it’s all that favorable.  It works as good as it can.  Unfortunately, it does little but to confuse an audience.  Computer generated imagery is, inevitably, made use of in this film.  You can’t escape it, especially on the lower budgets of these direct-to-video films.  It simply allows the filmmakers to do more while spending less, in comparison to practical, physical effects.

Now, despite the whole mixed bag of crap we have here, I do have to say that the cinematography and general look of the film is very good.  It is probably one of the better entries to establish a visual self-identity.  The use of dark and light along with a select color palette truly allow the imagery to pop out and be eye-catching.  Granted, we’re not talking Blade Runner here, but it certainly lends itself towards a workable and generally effective atmosphere.  While the production values are still rather sleek, the lighting helps to shadow almost anything that may, potentially, appear to be too cheap or fabricated.  That’s something to credit director Rick Bota for since he has a solid career as a cinematographer, but the film’s actual director of photograph, Gabriel Kosuth, deserves the credit for realizing this style.

While I have left two prior sequels un-reviewed at this time, I might get around to them eventually for compeltist’s sake.  In short, Inferno is one I’ve never liked at all, not one bit.  It turns Pinhead into a figure of moral persecution in the extremely little screentime he has, and gives us a fully morally corrupt and unsympathetic character as a lead.  I do own Hellraiser: Deader, but it’s been a long time since I’ve watched it.  I do recall it being very surreal, but it manages to tie itself back into the mythology with connections back to Bloodline.  I recall liking it enough to warrant a purchase when it was released, which was around the same time as Hellworld.  The summation of this franchise seems to be that it started out with brilliance and progressively got diluted into a mess of inconsistency and frequent incoherence.  It’s a very hit or miss franchise following Hellbound, but each entry, more or less, seems to have its fans.  Perhaps, some sequels would have been better films apart from the Hellraiser name, or simply judged in a vacuum.  However, it’s difficult to watch a lesser grade sequel knowing just how amazing and awe-inspiring its early predecessors were.

Taking all things into account with this sequel, there’s really too much going against it to make a recommendation for it.  The franchise just fizzled out completely with Hellworld.  Granted, there’s plenty of ways to rebound, but Dimension Films still seems like the wholly wrong studio to be controlling this franchise.  They don’t seem to care about making the best movie they possibly can.  They just want the most commercialized, wide appealing pile of incoherence they can put together.  In any case, there are worthwhile qualities within this film, but the negatives bog it down far too much.


Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)

The direct-to-video end of the Hellraiser franchise has not yielded very admirable results.  However, I found this entry to be a great surprise.  Granted, this one doesn’t have a lot of Hellraiser-style gore, but gore alone does not make a Hellraiser film.  Although, one early scene might spur thoughts from Hellbound, and  I feel this is the best sequel since Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  While this does share some elements with Hellraiser: Inferno, it blends everything together very nicely for a superior film.  It is a whole twisting story that wraps itself with past mythology and storylines featuring the return of Ashley Laurence.

We open to Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) and her now husband, Trevor (Dean Winters), driving down the road speaking vaguely of things we are yet to understand.  They start playfully fooling around, start kissing, but Trevor narrowly misses a head-on collision with an SUV which swerves the car off the bridge into the river.  Tthe car sinks, Trevor escapes, but is unable to free Kirsty.  Naturally, Trevor believes she drowned to death, but her body cannot be found.  Trevor wakes up to some amnesia along with several disturbing experiences, but he takes them as nightmares due to his head trauma.  Trevor is re-oriented to his peculiar surroundings including his sexually aggressive boss Gwen, his sexy young neighbor in his apartment complex, and his somewhat oddly-behaving co-worker and friend Bret.  Trevor is plagued by bizarre images and nightmarish experiences all the while more and more of his memory returns.  He can’t explain why someone dies in his apartment, but then, reappear alive with no memory of such events.  Or why he sees an image in the video camera happening right before him, but yet, it isn’t.  Why he feels he’s being watched or followed by a faceless, dark figure.  None of it makes sense to him.  One cop believes he’s done nothing wrong, but another believes he killed his wife.  The further it all progresses, the more it comes together like any sort of puzzle.  It’s all cleverly woven into a worthy sequel to the first two Hellraiser films.

I really have to say that I think Dean Winters is a severely under-recognized talent.  He’s an actor with a lot of charisma and emotional strength capable of being a major leading man.  He always puts everything he has into everything he does.  Hellraiser: Hellseeker is no different.  He carries this film excellently reflecting various states of confusion, heartfelt emotion, inquisitiveness, menace, and passion.  He embodies that wide range with ease and depth.  With both how the story is structured, and the honest quality of his performance, even in the end, I didn’t really despise Trevor despite what he tried to do to Kirsty.  You can come to feel empathy for Trevor as the man you’ve come to know over the course of this film instead of the man he really was.

The entire cast really is a solid mixture.  Detective Lange is given plenty of humanity and compassion by William S. Taylor, and conversely, Detective Givens is nicely hard edged and abrasive by way of Michael Rogers.  The ladies of the film are all very attractive, and handle the steamy, seductive aspects of their roles with a lot of passion and assertiveness.  There’s definite some stimulating sexually charged action in the movie that further throws Trevor into a whirlwind of confusion.

Doug Bradley puts in one of his best performances here.  Of course, he portrays Pinhead, and does so with a lot of chilling, intimidating vigor.  He seemed very amped up for this script as it gives him a very juicy role that he sinks his teeth into very deeply.  The film puts in just the right amount of Pinhead to keep him compelling with just a few poignant scenes.  Since they avoid over indulging in the character, those scenes have strong impact which had been missed in the last several entries.  The previous film, Hellraiser: Inferno, had so little Pinhead in it that he had nearly zero impact.  Hellseeker gets it right.  Bradley also portrays a sort of second character which he brings a different, yet similar quality to.  He’s more cryptic and tempting in a subtle fashion that is very effective.  His performance as this Merchant really sets a foreboding, mysterious tone for much of the film.  The scene is very nicely interspersed throughout the film as Trevor flashes back to it every so often to reveal more of it.

The structure used here to build up these very vivid and terrifying hallucinations, and slowly reveal the darker truths surrounding Trevor is, dare I say, very brilliant.  While it’s not all that original of a structure, the execution is just so exceptionally effective.  The hallucinations are startling and constantly unnerving to an audience who must regularly question the reality of the situation.  The mysterious aspects are greatly interwoven for a very compelling story that moves at strong, steady pace.  Overall, this is just an exceptionally well written and executed script that has a strong punch of a twist ending.

The film was directed by Rick Bota, who had previously been an amazing cinematographer on a number of movies.  So, it’s no surprise that he makes this film look far above its direct-to-video status.  He clearly worked extensively with director of photography John Drake to create a very textured and moody look for Hellseeker with its blue and green tones.  It creates a hardened, cold aesthetic that benefits the story very well.  There is plenty of grit in the darker visuals and a rich depth of contrast that enhances the moodiness.  The visuals really have a lot of weight and integrity, and the camera work is very solid.  There’s plenty of dramatic angles, used sparingly, and competent camera movement to give this film production value and artistic quality.  Overall, this is a film that is shot very solidly.

While the Steven Edwards’ score is definite departure from the classic Christopher Young style music, it suits this film nicely.  There are some electric guitar pieces mixed in with the orchestral work, and I think that gives this Hellraiser film a bit more respectable self-identity.  The score of Edwards surely supports the unnerving and startling tone that is so very well executed by Rick Bota.

Hellseeker still unsettled me after several years since my last watch of it.  There were plenty of graphic sequences that made me squirm and wince.  These are great story beats that weave into the overall plot smartly by the end.  Nothing’s ever gratuitous.  It all has a purpose once understood in retrospect.  The effectiveness of this nerve twitching moments are a testament to both the amazing make-up effects work of Gary Tunnicliffe, and the digital effects work headed up by Jamison Goei.  Regardless of a direct-to-video budget, the results of both are greatly impressive.  Tunnicliffe really raised the standards of practical effects back to the first two films of the franchise.  I will admit that the Cenobites still have the same quality as they do in the other later sequels, they are surely photographed better.  The visual effects of Goei are very admirable on this kind of level.  I’ve seen big budget summer blockbusters with horrendous CGI, but here, it’s quite good.  It’s not Jurassic Park quality, but for a horror franchise of this budget, it’s superior to what you’d likely expect.

All in all, this is a damn good sequel.  While I do feel this is the best sequel since Hellbound, don’t go thinking that this is a comparison to the first two films because it’s not.  Those are different styles of stories than this.  It’s a far more suspenseful, creepy, and mysterious film.  It’s not so dependent on the Cenobites to drive the story forward.  It has its surreal, bewildering qualities as Trevor’s own perception of reality is increasingly distorted.  This is what Hellraiser: Inferno should have been, but failed greatly by detaching itself from any backstory or mythology that the series had been built on.  That’s what Hellraiser is, it’s a story built on mythology as well as inner and outer conflicts.  To lose the mythology and the backstory really doesn’t make it feel like Hellraiser.  From the very beginning of the original Hellraiser, we’ve got mythology and history that was rich with depth.  That’s what gives this series its strength.  Pinhead and the rest of the Hellraiser mythos have so much that is yet to be known.  There’s so much fertile ground that can still be harvested for further stories such as this one.  With something as vast and as dark as Leviathan’s realm, there has to be much more that can be told about it.

While this was another original script re-written and adapted to be a Hellraiser film, I believe those writers did a solid job doing so.  Tying the entire story into Kirsty was exciting and smart.  Seeing her and Pinhead square off yet again was awesome, and acknowledged some substantive history with the franchise.  On the DVD, there is an extended version of that scene which is very well written re-treading their back story that better explains why Pinhead sought her out.  It’s only too bad that Ashley Laurence reportedly said Dimension Films only paid her enough for a single payment on a refrigerator.  That stings, a lot!  Regardless of that, she still put in her all for this performance, and it was a great stronger, edgier side to the character which fit perfectly into this excellent story.

This film really stands up, and it’s good that you learn things along with Trevor.  You’re about as confused as he is as these bizarre, horrific, and startling events keep intruding on what he believes is reality.  It’s all a puzzle that both you and Trevor discover together.  It’s a film that really pays respect to the origins of the franchise, and continues on Kirsty’s story in a very intelligent way.  Rick Bota proved he could be a solid director of horror with the right script.  The film has a great level of grit and harden atmosphere that sets a perfect unsettling and creepy tone.  Simply said, Hellraiser: Hellseeker is one to see for any Hellraiser fan!


Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)

When your movie’s opening credits end with “Directed by Alan Smithee,” I think it’s best to not have opening credits at all.  That name used to be a placeholder credit for directors who had disowned their movie.  While this sequel moved away from the slasher film stupidity of the previous film, it traded it for another kind of a stupidity.  Studio interference once again ruins what could’ve been another fantastic film with a frightening story.  If you ask Clive Barker, this turned into a disastrous mess.  Beyond just what Dimension Films rejected of Barker’s far more visceral and satisfying story, special makeup effects artist Kevin Yagher was the original director of the film, but after Dimension Films decided to cut down the film for time constraints and creative differences, he disowned the film.  They brought in Joe Chapelle, the director of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, to re-shoot several sequences.  Beyond just new scenes being shot, a vast number were cutout entirely, and the film was fully re-structured as being told in flashback instead of the original, fully linear storytelling that was intended.  What we were left with is an excessively watered down concept with a lot of problems that are more examples of why Dimension Films never should have been given this franchise.  Clive Barker even filed a lawsuit to get his name removed from the film, among other things.

We start out in the year 2127 on the space station Minos with Dr. Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay) using a remote controlled droid to open the Lament Configuration in a sealed chamber.  The droid succeeds only to be blown to pieces as “a most unsatisfying victim,” as Pinhead puts it.  Meanwhile, the station is stormed by a small group of Marines sent to capture Dr. Merchant for hijacking the very station he designed.  He’s captured before he can put his potential plan into action, and thus, pleads with them to allow him to finish his work.  After enough pleading, he convinces the female marine to hear his story.  Merchant tells of how his ancestor, Phillip L’Merchant (also played by Bruce Ramsay), created the puzzle box in the eighteenth century based on the specific instructions of the most famous magician in France, Duc De L’Isle (Mickey Cottrel).  Phillip never could’ve imagined what it would unlock.  De L’Isle used the box to bring forth a demon in a woman’s skin, and named her Angelique (Valentina Vargas).  Paul says that Phillip witnessed this devilry and attempted to undo it by designing the Elysium Configuration – something he would be incapable of implementing as it had to do with the reflecting of light beams to be a counteracting prison for these demons…the Cenobites.  The design was passed down through the family’s bloodline (hence, the subtitle), and eventually, the twentieth century descendant, John Merchant (Ramsay, again), a architect / computer designer, had potentially built what could become the Elysium Configuration, but Pinhead states that it could be a very large doorway (the office building featured at the conclusion of the previous film).  Angelique attempts to seduce its secrets from John, but Pinhead states that seduction is useless as pain and suffering are the way of hell now.  Pinhead attempts to trap John by holding his family prisoner, but in the end, both sides lose.  In the twenty-second century, Dr. Paul Merchant believes that he can destroy the Cenobites once and for all, but the marines’ untimely arrival have prevented that.  Naturally, no one believes his elaborate story, but he must find a way to destroy the Cenobites or else the bloodline will end with him.

There was vast potential to make this an immensely amazing film.  Clive Barker’s original ideas had so much of his macabre sensibilities in it including Phillip being a gruesome serial killer instead of a humble toymaker.  It would’ve had far more depth than this shallow, tamed down commercial film we were given.  I’ll admit that the story they give us holds together decently well, but it’s just not gripping or all that interesting.  I think the narrative would have been more tense, interesting, and suspenseful if not told in flashback.  The scenes in eighteenth century France are probably the best in the film as they are the most Hellraiser-like with grisly gore in abundance.  It also has the richest art direction, and actually contains no Pinhead.  To me, it is the most fascinating segment of the film.  Although, as the film goes on, we see the further divergence from the original, established mythology.  Pinhead once again creates his own Cenobites despite not having the power to do so.  As stated in my review of Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth, Leviathan is the only one with that kind of power as he is a god.  Pinhead is merely a minion who has been granted a leadership role amongst the Cenobites.  Also, there is a conversation between Pinhead and Angelique in the present day segment that creates a confusing continuity problem.  They act as if they know each other even though Angelique has been outside of Hell for centuries, and Pinhead has only been a Cenobite for a few decades.  It’s also a little odd that Pinhead refers to her as Angelique as if that’s her name in Hell, but that name was seemingly given to her by Duc De L’Isle.  The film also fails to explain how Jacque happens to be immortal.  He’s still alive in the late twentieth century not having aged a day in two hundred years alongside Angelique.

Performance wise, Doug Bradley seems quite comfortable here, playing Pinhead somewhat less outrageous than in the last film, bringing back the coldness, but it still lacks the fierce intimidation of the first two films.  Valentina Vargas is nicely seductive and dangerous as Angelique, and creates some stimulation with her character.  Bruce Ramsay shows a good flexibility as he portrays Phillip, John, and Paul.  Each one is a different type of character.  Phillip being the naive “little man,” John being the protective father, and Paul being the intelligent and cunning one of the lot.  I hand it to him for showing the diversity of his acting abilities.  However, it is a bit of a cheap idea using the same actor to portray three different people in three different time periods.  There’s no artistic merit to have them look identical except to stupidly remind the audience that they’re all related.  It would’ve added more uniqueness to Philip, John, and Paul if three different actors had been cast to play them.  Each one would bring their own distinct qualities to the roles to make them feel more authentic and poignant, but instead, we just get one actor doing only a decent job playing all three.  It just makes the characters bleed together, not making one really standout over another for an audience’s sake.

Sadly, we are subjected to another team of space marines that lack a sense of realism or intelligence.  They were not conceived as a capable, powerful, and competent force to contend with.  They are simply shallow cannon fodder.  They are just meat ready to be ripped apart by Pinhead’s chains, and that is another crippling sensibility carried over from Hellraiser III.  This is not a slasher film franchise where a high body count of dumbass stereotypes equals a fun movie.  This was a franchise started on deep thematic ideals of human evil and dark desires.  It was amazingly well written material that captured a macabre imagination that could run wild.  Almost all of these sequels from Dimension Films either severely lack coherent imagination or the competency to properly execute a smart idea.  Stupid characters like these marines are a strong example of the creative forces involved not understanding the property they are working with.  Many studios don’t seem to understand that you will probably make more money in the long run by producing a solid, smart, high quality movie over a stupid, slap dash amalgamation of commercial garbage.  This is why so many franchises end up in such a lower grade place than where they started.  They want to make it more commercial by stripping away everything that made it successful in the first place, which clearly is the dumbest thing you could possibly do.

The overall style and look of the film is very slick and smooth.  It sets the style for the following direct-to-video sequels, but it’s not very favorable over the earlier films.  There is a definite lack of artistry and ambition displayed here in exchange for more commercial sensibilities with the cinematography and direction.  It just looks like your generic Dimension Films production with a lot of soft blue tones and often times, gimmicky camera work.  I think the low budget tends to show through the most in the future space station scenes.  They’re all very small sets with shadowy corners hiding parts of the set which don’t exist.  There’s just a very generic design to this space station, and no budget to create a complete or impressive environment.  Atmosphere is very light, working more off of stylized lighting and camera angles than solid directing to create anything truly captivating or chilling.  A film from around this time that actually took this sort of futuristic Hellraiser concept and did it well was Event Horizon.  And that’s giving praise to a film directed by the man who gave us one of the worst theatrical films I’ve ever seen – Alien vs. Predator.

The make-up effects are quite good, as one would expect from a film partially directed by a special make-up effects master.  The majority of the gore is contained in the France sequences, and definitely serves up some solid Hellraiser visuals.  As the film goes on, there is still blood and gore, but it feeds back into that bad idea of a gratuitous body count which is not suitable for Hellraiser.  The Cenobite make-up and costumes are still at a decent theatrical release level, but as with everything else, lack that gritty texture that was such a powerful element of the first two movies.  This film features numerous digital visual effects, and they generally fall in that average low budget range.  They’re never wholly awful, but they certainly are a very long way from exceptional.  With a budget of $4 million, I think you can easily forge an accurate expectation of the quality of mid-90s CGI contained within Hellraiser: Bloodline.

For anyone seeking a reprise of the essence of Hellraiser, this film won’t do it for you.  My opinion of this film has probably gone down a little over the years.  Beyond just building up better filmmaking standards, I have gotten more worn down by studios corrupting franchises.  They have something very good to start with that has a lot of potential which has proven its success, but then, squander it by over commercializing it to where it’s counteractive to them making money off of it.  That’s not a very artistic statement, but one that the studio machine understands.  Dimension Films has constantly screwed over and brushed aside Clive Barker’s creative input on this franchise, and that couldn’t be a worse idea.  Hellraiser is a distinctly original property that has a vast wealth of ideas and stories to be intelligently told about it, but Dimension has tried so hard to make it an indistinguishable franchise that blends into all the other half-baked horror franchises out there.  After this film, Hellraiser was a direct-to-video franchise with no consistency because the studio constantly took original scripts that had nothing to with Hellraiser, and re-wrote them to be Hellraiser movies.  Hell On Earth was the first misstep, but there was a chance to rebound strong with Bloodline.  What we got slipped up far too much by embracing sleek mediocrity instead of visceral innovation.  Considering, in this same year, New Line Cinema released the deeply gritty and grisly crime thriller Se7en, proving that something that disturbing and grim could still capture a wide, mass audience and critical acclaim, there was little reason to believe that Hellraiser: Bloodline needed to be so tamed down from a very dark, violent, and fascinating concept.  Now that I think of it, Clive Barker’s original premise for Philip L’Merchant’s story was essentially Hellraiser crossed with Se7en.

This had the basis for a great installment, but the execution was flawed throughout production.  There are several cut scenes, mostly from the eighteenth century segment, that would have helped enhance the Hellraiser style and feel of the film.  A workprint bootleg is out there somewhere featuring a number of these sequences in a very rough form.  That’s the best you’ll likely ever get of Kevin Yagher’s vision for the film.  As it stands, Hellraiser: Bloodline fails in some places, but has some shining moments in its climax.  Ultimately, the film does feel too short for its conceptual potential.  It does get really compelling in the last ten minutes when Paul Merchant is squaring off against Pinhead.  Both actors do an exceptional job building up apprehension for the climax.  There was clearly a better movie that was filmed than what Dimension Films gave us, and somehow, that simply doesn’t surprise me one bit.  In the end, this sequel still delivers some good story, great makeup work, and good visual effects.  While others would disagree, I do feel this is a better film than Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth mainly due to only a few flashes of inspiration and effectiveness.


Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992)

Something went wrong with Hellraiser III.  Clive Barker might be credited as an executive producer, but it essentially means nothing.  He proposed a storyline, but then, was relegated to a back seat executive producer’s credit.  I can’t perceive any of his influence here, but that’s not what’s really wrong with this sequel.  This sequel had workable elements for a thoroughly fascinating story, but what might seem to have some potential eventually degrades into sub-standard horror movie cheesiness.  The execution of Hell on Earth diverges far away from the style of the previous two films.  Part of the problem is that the franchise was now in the hands of a Hollywood studio who wanted to push a far more commercial appeal.  The script needed an overhaul, and the quality of acting is akin to a jokey slasher flick, which is exactly what this film descends into.

Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell) is a failing television news reporter in search of that story that will break her out of obscurity.  While finishing a report on some go-nowhere story at the hospital one night, a young man is carted into the emergency room with chains ripped into his flesh and dangling from his body.  Then, before the eyes of many in the emergency operating room, the man’s body is torn apart, and of course, Joey believes this is the caliber of story she’s been seeking.  She tracks the young woman, Terri (Paula Marshall), that accompanied the man to the hospital and finds that her boyfriend is night club owner J.P. Munroe (Kevin Bernhardt), who owns a familiar pillar – the pillar of souls which now contains an imprisoned Pinhead who became trapped there after the confrontation with the Channard Cenobite in the previous film.  After the spilling of blood on the pillar, Pinhead begins to reawaken, and with more blood, he can be fully regenerated.  Meanwhile, Joey comes into possession of the Lament Configuration through Terri., and details of Pinhead’s mortal, human life as British Captain Elliott Spenser are soon revealed.  Elliott exists apart from Pinhead now who is a free being, separated from Leviathan and Spenser, and thus, has become a far more lively and sadistic being. There is no more reasoning, no more hesitation, and no more bargains.  Elliott believes he can defeat Pinhead, but Joey must bring the two together within Elliott’s realm to do so.  Therefore, Joey is sent out on her mission to lure Pinhead into a trap, but Pinhead proves to be a more cunning adversary than she anticipates.

There was a very good Pinhead origin story buried underneath the second rate qualities of this sequel.  It follows a logical story progression from the first two films, but the script they put together and the execution thereof just crashed and burned so hard.  At the start, it doesn’t seem like a bad movie, but the garbage just continues to accumulate to turn it into a bad, cringable entry in the Hellraiser franchise.  Instead of carrying on an ambitious, intelligent, and bold storytelling mentality, the film constantly takes the soft, cheap, or thinly developed route.  Worse yet is that so much of the Hellraiser mythology and atmosphere is abandoned here that measuring up to the first two films becomes hopeless.  For one, aside from Pinhead, all of the other Cenobites we’ve seen are gone, and new ones are created by Pinhead for his own convenience.  That alone contradicts the mythology.  Leviathan creates Cenobites, and only those that solve the Lament Configuration have the potential to become one.  Pinhead and other Cenobites do not have the power to create other Cenobites at will.  Where this new power comes from for Pinhead is a complete mystery, and it only gets worse in the following film.  Granted, Pinhead does say that these new minions are a mere shadow of his former troops, but that’s a thin consolation for giving us such jokey trash.  Hellraiser III simply bestows a wealth of powers upon Pinhead including gaining psychic abilities as well as creating illusions and dream-like realities without ever explaining how he or even Elliott Spenser obtained such powers.  Captain Spenser says he and Pinhead have been unbound from Hell, but since all the power they had was derived from Leviathan, shouldn’t that mean being cutoff from Hell would leave them powerless?  That would seem logical.

The characters and acting are a mixed bag.  Being a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fan, I know Terry Farrell is quite a good and capable actress, but her performance as Joey Summerskill is very unimpressive.  She’s supposed to be this driven journalist frustrated at her obscure status trying to crack open this riveting case, but what’s on the page doesn’t come out on screen.  There’s no intensity or hard hitting motivation in Farrell’s performance.  It’s almost all very soft and bland.  I was continually struck by how flat her performance was throughout this movie.  She makes what was an underdeveloped character on the page, and made it terribly yawn inducing.  One would expect something along the lines of a Margot Kidder Lois Lane who is assertive, aggressive, and driven to prove herself.  Instead, Farrell seems to put the minimum amount of effort into this role.  The dream sequences about Joey’s father are meant to make her a sympathetic character, but they just came off as cheap, forced, and uninspired.  They have almost nothing at all to do with the plot except for a very thinly veiled deception near the end.  Between the lazy screenwriting and the lackluster acting, this is not a character or performance that could carry this film at all.  Ashley Laurence has more depth, life, and emotion in her momentary cameo on a videotape than Terry Farrell shows in the entire movie.

Thankfully, Paula Marshall puts in a much better performance as Terri.  Although, some of the stuff they write in to give the character depth is rather ridiculous.  It would be one thing if Terri had nothing to aspire to, no ambition or direction in life, but to not have actual dreams when she sleeps would actually result in severe health problems.  Maybe I’m taking things a little too seriously here, but it’s clearly something would’ve worked better as a metaphor instead of a literal statement.  Regardless of this off-the-mark idea, Marshall really brings some viable depth and vulnerability to the role.  She comes off as vastly more dimensional than Joey by way of a more grounded and relatable emotional portrayal.  I would’ve preferred her being the central protagonist in the film picking up the reins from Kirsty Cotton.  She seems to have more fertile emotional ground to explore than the uneven and uninteresting character of Joey.  Being a drifter with no home or family, Terri automatically has a wealth of potential for a screenwriter to delve into, and Paula Marshall clearly had the talent to handle such material.  It’s sad that this movie was constantly ignorant towards the potential it had on-hand, and made no effort to utilize that potential to its fullest effect.

Kevin Bernhardt’s J.P. Munroe is the most one dimensional, cheap sleaze as it gets.  He’s just a cog in the story, and the script doesn’t do anything with the character.  Likewise, Bernhardt doesn’t do anything worth noting with the role.  He has no more to him than any low grade slasher flick, and that’s what this seems to span out to in the third act.  Bloodbaths, senseless killings, and a high body count – none of which are in the Hellraiser style.  The studio took Hellraiser, and turned it into a cheesy slasher franchise, eliminating anything innovative, thematic, or chilling about the mythos.  The filmmakers turn Pinhead into the new Freddy Krueger with one-liners, over the top moments, and a group of seriously lame Cenobites.  Pinhead loses his coldness and his seemingly heartless passion for hell.  Some fans say that the appeal of this film is seeing Pinhead unleashed, but for me, that becomes its least intriguing quality.  The character was far more fascinating when there was still a chilling air of mystique to his personality.  On the whole here, he has been written as a completely different character that is bad enough on its own, but in the guise of Pinhead, it becomes excessively ridiculous and continually cringable.  Pinhead becomes a deceiver, manipulator, and tempter of desires.  He comes off more like a standard, melodramatic portrayal of the Devil than a logical progression of Pinhead.  You’ve got Doug Bradley just going for broke like it doesn’t matter.  He does a good job early on, but once the film does begin to “unleash” the character, his performance just becomes terribly uninteresting.  Pinhead becomes another schlocky, cackling, dumb villain who’s there just to chew up scenery.  Conversely, Bradley does a fine job as Elliott Spenser giving him both a strong sense of will and determination with a subtle humanity.  It’s a decent performance, but it’s only too bad that it wasn’t in a better quality film to allow the Spenser character to be more fleshed out with a stronger dynamic with Pinhead.

Further contradictions to the established Hellraiser universe come with all the religious references and quips.  Beyond just the betrayal of tone, one would swear that screenwriter Peter Atkins didn’t understand the franchise he was writing for, but he also co-wrote the incredible Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  So, it entirely baffles me how he wrote this weak, uninspired script.  What Hell really is in this fictional universe has no connection to religious interpretations or beliefs.  It’s not a place for sinners or where your soul goes after death.  It’s another dimension accessed by the solving of the Lament Configuration in conjunction with one’s desires to be subjected to the indivisible experiences of pain and pleasure that Leviathan offers.  Atkins shows no respect to the established mythology or tone of these films.  The scene of Pinhead in the church is one of the absolute worst scenes of the entire franchise because it exemplifies every downright horrible aspect of this movie.  It is gratuitous in the extreme, and puts Pinhead in a setting he has no necessity to ever be in.  The film is simply going as over-the-top at this point as possible not caring about story or character relevance, and just indulging in whatever the filmmakers want to do on a whim.

Thematically or visually, Hellraiser III isn’t really dark at all, let alone macabre, and repeatedly delves into a completely out-of-place self-parodying style.  It conforms to the trends of the time, and thus, loses a lot of credibility for the future of the franchise.  The cinematography is generally gimmicky and frenetic at times relying on a cheap early 90s MTV style.  It’s definitely something that would be more enjoyable in a B-grade action movie than a horror film.  Lighting schemes that might have potential just come off as ineffective due to a lack of vision and talent to create proper atmosphere.  Unlike the previous two Hellraiser movies, there is no thematic material here, and instead, the movie simply gratifies itself with cheap gore and sexual content with no substance to justify any of it.  An unrated cut was released on VHS and Laserdisc including extra gore and some other minor additions, but apparently, this version has not been released on DVD in North America.  The film, as it is, is obviously cut down for gore as there are numerous quick, bad cutaways from the bloodier moments creating a quite tame and unsatisfying experience.  However, an unrated cut is nothing that could salvage this film as a whole.  A lack of substantive gore is the very least of this film’s problems.

Director Anthony Hickox demonstrates no better handle on horror than he ever has before.  It’s a cheesy, jokey film with a light, commercial tone that is more interested in silly, cheap entertainment than offering up a chilling, intelligent vision of horror.  The entire third act of the movie is just wretched for a Hellraiser movie.  It couldn’t be any more of a betrayal and insult to what the series had stood for up to this point.  It’s horrendously schlocky, terribly cheap, and stupidly over-the-top.  It demonstrates no respect for the franchise by having Pinhead cackling like a brainless third rate villain, and throwing loads of gratuitous violence and action set pieces which have no relevance to horror.  This is where those aforementioned poor excuses for Cenobites are revealed, and they are even given bad dialogue with cringable one-liners.  This is not a Hellraiser movie, but it is quite expected for an Anthony Hickox movie.  Warlock: The Armageddon had many of these cheesy qualities which indulged in underwhelming characters, some bad acting, and a severe lack of horror related content.  Where that film is essentially disposable and dismissible, Hellraiser III ultimately develops into a giant slap in the face of the franchise.  It’s hard to believe that Clive Barker would still want his name associated with this movie because he surely didn’t want it with Hellraiser: Bloodline.  This is a mid-to-late 80s slasher film made in the early 90s when horror was on a very steep decline in quality and popularity.  Between terrible handling by Dimension Films, and helmed by a cheap director, Hellraiser III easily falls short of all its potential.

The vast majority of these passionate gripes are focused on the final half hour of the movie.  This is when Pinhead is released from the pillar of souls, and becomes this over-the-top, uninteresting villain.  Before that, there are some good qualities in the film such as Paula Marshall’s performance, and the more subtle moments with Doug Bradley as Captain Spenser and Pinhead.  Despite having a new composer, it retains Christopher Young’s iconic themes, and they are used throughout the film.  However, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is barely passable as a horror film.  Atmosphere, suspense, or proper tone have nothing to do with this film, and the majority of the acting is simply devoid of passion or is embarrassingly over-the-top.  There are a lot of duds in this franchise, and it’s hard to say exactly which is the worst.  This is more like another bad, cheesy A Nightmare On Elm Street sequel instead of a chilling and intelligent Hellraiser sequel.  Barker’s involvement seems non-existent here as Pinhead is forced into too much of a foreground, dominant character instead of the ominous, looming figure in the background where he seems to work best.  His limited screen time in the first two movies made his presence and character seem more powerful.  He does tend to do more in a limited time capacity than he achieves in a lengthy role here.  Basically, this is sad excuse for a sequel to the brilliant and macabre masterpieces of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  Maybe if this was not a Hellraiser movie, something entirely separate and unrelated, one might be able to view it in a better light and actually gain some cheesy entertainment value out of it.  However, as a part of this franchise, it’s just downright embarrassing  The only consolation you have at the end of this movie is that the excellent track “Hellraiser” by Motörhead from their March Or Die album blares over the end credits.  The music video, directed by Clive Barker, actually features Lemmy Kilmister squaring off with Pinhead in a game of cards.  The song, lyrically, has nothing to do with the Hellraiser films, but this film at least gave us something worthwhile in that very cool music video.  It’s just about the only worthwhile thing it produced.


Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

It is rare for a movie sequel to equal or exceed the original film.  In the realm of horror, there’s always that formulaic trap, but for a film so brilliantly original and powerful as Hellraiser, it becomes a challenge of artistic ambition and macabre thematic imagination.  Hellbound: Hellraiser II is that sequel which takes what the first film unleashed upon us, and built upon it for a fully enveloping vision of masterful horror.  Before, you were only teased at the temptations and horrors of Leviathan’s realm.  Now, you are plunged fully into this experience which will tear your soul apart.  Welcome to Hell, and the 100th review posted to Forever Cinematic.

Picking up just about where the previous film ended, Larry, Frank, and Julia are all dead.  Meanwhile, Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) is being held within the Channard Institute of Mental Health for observation.  She speaks of the Cenobites, the dead returning to life, the opening of a gateway to hell.  Of course, people believe she is psychologically traumatized by the death of her father.  Although, one thing gains the attention of Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham).  Kirsty mentions that they must destroy the mattress that Julia died on for she can return just as Frank did.  Channard put his hands on the bloodstained mattress where her stepmother Julia (Clare Higgins) died, Channard decides to resurrect her, killing his patients and offering them to Julia to quicken her regeneration.  The twisted doctor is shown to have much research into a familiar puzzle box, properly called the Lament Configuration, and via the puzzle-solving talents of one of his patients, Tina (Imogen Boorman), a speechless young girl, the Cenobites are summoned once again.  Soon, all of our main characters venture into hell, Channard and Julia to explore it, Kirsty and Tina to stop the aforementioned duo.

If you haven’t seen the first Hellraiser, this sequel smartly brings you up-to-speed with a few carefully placed flashbacks and expositional sequences.  Still, there’s no excuse these days not to watch that amazing film.  However, back then, it took about a year for a movie to go from theatrical release to home video.  So, audiences needed a little refresher in 1988, and it’s done very smoothly here.

This film treats the Cenobites with the respect they earned in Clive Barker’s original movie.  Flashbacks aside, they don’t make their first appearance until fifty minutes into the picture, but when they do, we get an introduction of majesty.  Pinhead is given a truly iconic moment stepping out from the blinding white light alone, and the music is at its operatic best here.  The Cenobites are still generally background characters, but are given the opportunity to step forward into a more fascinating and revealing role.  It’s one of the many ways this film builds upon the ideas and mystique of the first Hellraiser.  It knows you’re intrigued by all of this boundless imagination, and it reels you in further with enticing insights that do not disappoint.

Dr. Channard is a fascinating new character that pushes the film beyond its smaller, more intimate beginnings.  He is a man of no conscience, and is driven towards exploring the twisted, despicable, dark depths of the human mind.  Where Frank was a sexually charged character, Channard is more cerebral.  He’s psychologically stimulated by the gruesome horrors that he witnesses and even inflicts upon others.  He’s a sociopath, sadist, and psychopath, which is exactly what Leviathan craves.  Channard is in amazement and wonder at the sight of Hell, as if it is his Promised Land.  What he gets from it is more than he ever anticipated, but ultimately, does not regret it.  Actor Kenneth Cranham does a fantastic job with this character, and he restrains nothing when Hell finally gets its way with the Doctor.  It takes a lot to rival Pinhead in the eyes of the fans, but many have long taken a strong liking to Channard.  That’s all due to Cranham’s excellent performance.

Hellbound is absolutely grotesque.  There’s not a drop of blood spared at any moment in this unrated cut.  The violence is as gritty and graphic as you could imagine and then some.  What you witnessed in Clive Barker’s film is multiplied in Tony Randel’s sequel.  The most disgusting and horrific sights come from the Channard Cenobite, who is Leviathan’s most powerful creation.  Channard’s twisted, sickening psyche combined with Leviathan’s power and domination give birth to a frightening monstrosity that ups the stakes in the final act.  This is not a film for the weak of stomach.  This is a heavyweight horror film loaded with terrifying, disturbing imagery, and gore in abundance.  There is nothing held back from the dark, macabre imagination of Clive Barker, screenwriter Peter Atkins, or the magnificent direction of Tony Randel.  The special make-up and creature effects do not fall off one bit from the first film, and are possibly more refined in some places.  It’s more of that signature Clive Barker repulsive beauty that is brought to glorious life.  His imagination delves into places that are far too forbidden for others, but it is where he thrives, creatively.  Barker finds an attraction and an elegant artistry in these dark corners of the human psyche, and the creative forces on these first two Hellraiser films were able to embrace and realize that so marvelously.  The special make-up effects artists employed for both films were clearly masters of their craft bringing gritty, ghastly realism to everything they did.

While the visual effects are still rather low budget using strictly grainy optical techniques, stop motion photography, and animation, they are very ambitious.  They really push the boundaries of anything you’d expect from a generally low budget horror film of this time.  The filmmakers had a bold vision to realize, and they were going to commit every bit of it to film.  For a modern audience, yes, these effects come off as primitive, but it’s something these filmmakers had to work hard to accomplish.  It took a wide imagination, and a commitment to a rigorous process to put them up on screen.  For that alone, I respect these visual effects immensely.

This is truly an exceptionally well shot film creating a masterpiece of horror.  Tony Randel allows this sequel to seamlessly blend with the first Hellraiser.  While that film is incontrovertibly iconic in so many ways, Hellbound simply goes more ambitious with its visuals along with the story.  Once inside Hell, we are treated to powerful, nightmarish images of blood, fire, sexual desires, and epic scope.  Leviathan’s realm is a vast labyrinth of torture and pleasure indivisibly merged as one.  Delving into Frank Cotton’s personal hell shows him tormented by temptation unable to satisfy his desires.  This scene is ultimately a great moment that ties up a little bit of loose ends from the previous film.  Seeing Frank, Kirsty, and Julia confronting one another again is an awesome moment with plenty of pay-off.

Above anything else is Christopher Young’s bold, more expansive score.  The first film was more intimate with a smaller scope, and Young punctuated that tone and atmosphere beautifully.  Here, it’s verbose and operatic.  It’s grand and sweeping matching the film’s broader, more ominous scope.  Hearing the powerful gothic theme crash into the film following the opening flashback just gets my blood pumping.  It makes an immediate statement that Hellbound: Hellraiser II is bigger and bolder.  It sends chills up and down me.  This music is frightening, dark, and gorgeous.  It’s a masterpiece all on its own, but coupled with the film, it’s indelibly iconic.  It’s possibly the best and most beautiful horror movie score I’ve ever heard.  This film in particular is why the name Christopher Young holds so much eternal respect with me.  What he achieved here became inevitably influential in various gothic styled scores in the years following this film such as Batman and The Crow.

Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II are so seamlessly blended together and the latter builds so perfectly on the ideas and aspects of the former, that they can feel like two halves of a single whole story.  This sequel takes the logical progression of plot forward, and expands on everything  While they do both powerfully exist apart from one another, they are immensely stronger as a single entity.  You get a fuller story with wider scope and deeper insights into the themes presents in these stories and characters.  It is an absolutely brilliant piece of work that demonstrates exactly what a great sequel is meant to do.

The returning cast members also push themselves further.  Julia has definitely changed having gone to Hell and back.  She is still a conniving and devilish woman, but now, her motives are far more insidious and grand.  She is no longer than one being manipulated.  Julia is now the one leading the mesmerized Channard towards a dreadful fate.  Clare Higgins takes that strength to a much more imposing and dangerous level.  Doug Bradley is given a great opportunity here as both Pinhead, and his human alter ego British Army Captain Elliott Spenser.  The film offers up a stunning revelation about the Cenobites, and we see who Pinhead was before he was tortured and twisted by Hell.  With only a few moments of screentime in his human form, Bradley gives us a strong sense of humanity and compassion which sets up for a better story than what he got with the next sequel.  His opening scene is shockingly powerful showing the creation of Pinhead himself with each nail being hammered into his skull, and him screaming in agony.

Ashley Laurence evolves with the role of Kirsty.  She’s more aggressive and assertive now.  No longer is Kirsty cowering in fear, trembling at the carnage she sees.  She is motivated forward with a new found courage as she charges straight into Hell on a search to find her father, and does not let her encounters with the Cenobites, Frank, or Julia deter her from attempting this.  Kirsty has become a far stronger person now, and becomes an even more confident hero for the audience.  Yet, there’s still that solid core of warmth and heart that made her so relatable and endearing to begin with.  She has done a remarkable, standout job in this role, and it is thankful that she would get the chance to reprise it once more in Hellraiser: Hellseeker.

There is just no weak link anywhere in this film.  It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the first film as a bonafide horror classic.  I really do love what Clive Barker has brought us in the medium of film.  His imagination seems boundless and always fascinating.  While he believes, same as with his own written and directed Hellraiser, that this is an uneven film, there is nothing I can ever take away from it.  Any technical aspects that haven’t stood the test of time still display an amazing depth of vision that startle the senses.  Tony Randel did a stunning job as director of this picture.  He has said that the film reflects the dark mindset he was in at the time, and while that might not have been favorable for him, it benefitted this film immensely.  This is a dark, intriguing, and revealing journey into an expansive, macabre world that would not have been easy to achieve without that mindset.  Every talent involved was clearly committed wholeheartedly towards this challenging vision, and it resulted in an undeniable masterpiece of horror.  Hellbound: Hellraiser II is one of the best horror films ever made, and many consider it superior to the first film.  Both are different enough in their stories and scopes to offer you something distinct while also complimenting one another beautifully.  With this film, the Hellraiser franchise seemed as if it could have limitless potential for original, innovative stories with the right minds behind it.  Unfortunately, subsequent sequels would be a severely mixed bag with more bad than good in the hands of Dimension Films who would ultimately run it into the ground.


Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I haven’t been a loyal follower of Tim Burton’s career, but the films I have seen from him, I very much do enjoy.  Sleepy Hollow is a very pleasant entry in his career, collaborating with Johnny Depp, that strikes the right balance between Burton’s quirky humor and dramatic gothic storytelling.  It’s fun, exciting, and scary all at the same time.

Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) of the New York police arrives in the small village of Sleepy Hollow in 1799 to solve a mystery of murders. With all the victims found with their heads missing, everybody in Sleepy Hollow is talking about the ghost of the “Headless Horseman.”  He is supposedly out in the woods seeking revenge for his murder many years ago.  Crane, believing only in logic, refuses to believe the public’s theory about the horseman and begins his investigations, only to find his faith shattered when he himself encounters the headless horseman.  Yet, he is compelled to resolve his investigation after falling deeply in love with the beautiful young Katrina (Christina Ricci).  Their fates intertwine as Ichabod attempts to unravel the supernatural and wicked mysteries that threaten everyone’s lives in Sleepy Hollow.  It’s a magical tale of sense against myth.

While I think general audiences today are a little worn out on the repeated Burton-Depp collaborations, Sleepy Hollow is an excellent piece of work that’s worth your while.  Depp does a brilliant job as Constable Crane.  He brings a certain young naivety to the ambitious investigator.  He has bold new ideas about using science and intellect to deduce crimes that his superiors lightly dismiss.  The contrast of everyone’s grim, fearsome attitudes to Crane’s more upbeat mentality creates an amusing dynamic.  Crane is definitely intelligent and educated, but Depp’s clever, delicate balance between the serious and the tongue-in-cheek tone of Crane makes him such a delight.  True to the source material, Ichabod is somewhat cowardly, but he can muster up courage when it counts.  Beyond all else, he’s determined to resolve this twisting mystery that seems to have an air of conspiracy about it.  That’s what makes him a character to invest yourself in.  Despite his own trembling fears, he picks himself back up and pushes forward to finish what he began.  Depp shows a lot of sweet charm and humor making Ichabod a pure hearted hero that both amuses and inspires.

I will absolutely admit that I once had a fascination with Christina Ricci.  She’s a beautiful and highly talent actress who doesn’t shy away from challenging material.  What she gives us as Katrina is a lovely, graceful young lady that is indeed bewitching.  She carries an ethereal aura about her reflecting Katrina’s depth and purity of soul.  Ricci and Depp have a gorgeous chemistry that really lights up the screen, and enraptures an audience with their magic.  They are such an excellent fit that I’d love to see more of them together.

At the time of release, it was kept a secret that the Hessian Horseman was portrayed by Christopher Walken.  It was an added pleasant surprise when I first saw the film in 1999.  Aside from some animalistic grunts as he slays his victims., the Horseman has no lines of dialogue, and doesn’t need any due to how he is portrayed and presented.  It was a great idea to tell the Horseman’s story early on to have the bloodthirsty psychotic face embed itself in the audience’s minds.  The Horseman filed his teeth to a razor sharp point that made him appear more frightening in his enemies’ eyes.  It’s an amazing, ferocious design that sends a chill up your spine, especially in conjunction with Walken’s charismatic physicality.  It’s also great that the Horseman is not the ultimate villain, but a weapon used by a treacherous conspirator.

Tim Burton really culled together a magnificent cast with several veterans of stage and screen as well as some fine young talents such as Casper Van Dien.  Adding in some Hammer Films alumnus like Christopher Lee and Michael Gough was a very nice touch.  Miranda Richardson has a wonderful turn in this film that she seemed very enthusiastic about throwing herself into.  Her overall performance is marvelous.

The visual effects of Sleepy Hollow are astonishingly good.  Just getting the Headless Horseman to become a reality on screen was a big challenge, I’m sure, and there is nothing but top notch quality on display here.  The various decapitations and other gory slayings are phenomenally done.  What else would you expect from Industrial Light & Magic?  The effects never cease to impress throughout the entire movie.  The film has a generous helping of blood and gore to make some squirm or jump in their seats while others will simply relish its exquisite glory.  The practical effects are seamlessly integrated with the digital effects for a visually amazing experience.  I cannot praise this work highly enough.  While there are some silly moments with the visual effects, they are perfectly at home in a Tim Burton movie.

The gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton are realized in a magnificent way.  The film has a slightly desaturated, gritty look giving way to a more grim feeling of looming danger.  Sleepy Hollow is shot beautifully, strongly maintaining that dark tone of horror and tension.  Yet, there are plenty of picturesque sequences, such as a series of dreams Ichabod has which further enrich the fantastical, and sometimes, enchanting aspects of the movie.  This truly is a visually gorgeous film in a style that could only come from the imagination of Tim Burton.  And of course, Danny Elfman created a powerfully grandiose score that fits perfectly with Burton’s gothic stylings.  It is a stunning, sweeping piece of work that enhances all the dark, lovely, and magical atmospheres of Sleepy Hollow.

This movie really is a lot of fun.  Burton doesn’t take it too seriously as he applies his own dark comedy to the more violent, gruesome moments.  So, while the Horseman is chasing down and chopping off the heads of hapless victims, there’s usually a humorous quirk in there, but Burton keeps it in check.  He never allows it to compromise the dramatic integrity of the story, and instead sort of does it at Ichabod’s expense, which is entirely fitting.  Said story has plenty of mysterious aura and thrilling moments of tense horror and suspense.  The Horsemen, head or no, is very scary and intimidating.  He’s mercilessly violent and very smart.  There are superbly executed plot twists that are never cheap.  This is a smartly crafted screenplay which weaves its way around these solidly conceived characters.  The secrets and manipulations abound under the surface of this quiet village make for a fertile ground for this sort of story.  How everything is unraveled in the end is quite wicked.

That said, this has a hell of a great climax with plenty of fiery action and dramatic revelations.  Characters are kept in serious peril as it becomes a race to save lives while the Horseman in unleashed once again.  Action and suspense build up to a highly energetic and exciting level, and the pay-off is quite ironic and fitting.  It is all very satisfying tying up all the plot and character threads with that classic Tim Burton wit and charm.

This is a beautifully crafted film in every aspect.  It’s a visual masterwork backed by an excellent script written by the deeply talented Andrew Kevin Walker with a story co-developed by Kevin Yagher.  The latter of the two also worked on the creature effects here, and doing a remarkable job at it, too.  There are many tried and true Tim Burton talents who were involved with this film which instilled it with an amazing depth of artistry and talent.  The film definitely delivers on exciting tension and fearsome scares with a light air of dark, quirky humor.  It also weaves an enchanting love story through its haunting and startling mystery.  I really, really like Sleepy Hollow because, beyond everything else, it’s just a fun watch with plenty to take pleasure in.  This is truly one of Tim Burton’s finest outings, and I’m glad that Johnny Depp was along for the ride.  They both do a brilliant job through every frame of this film.  I give Sleepy Hollow my full recommendation.  It’s more than worth your while.


From Hell (2001)

The benefit of doing Forever Horror Month is that it has forced me to watch films that have been collecting dust in my DVD collection for about a decade.  I saw From Hell theatrically at the discount theatre with a number of my friends in 2001.  I do recall general impressions and plot details from back then including a slight letdown of the film’s conclusion.  Of course, my tastes have certainly matured since that time, and so, it will be interesting to see if my opinion of the film has altered any today.

Set in London of 1888, Jack the Ripper has been running amok in the Whitechapel district murdering and dissecting prostitutes. Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), aided by his partner, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), are on the case to figure out who this serial killer is and why he is killing these women in such a brutal manner. Abberline is an opium addict and when “chasing the dragon” he is able to have visions of the future, a certain psychic ability that allows him to solve cases. As Abberline and Godley investigate the crimes, they become acquainted with the prostitutes who were friends and colleagues of the victims. Abberline begins to fall in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), one of the prostitutes, or as the nobles called them “unfortunates”, being hunted down by Jack the Ripper.  Abberline digs deeper and deeper into the conspiracy and attempts to solve the case before Mary Kelly is the next victim.

This was adapted from the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell by the Hughes Brothers – Albert & Allen.  It’s not one I’ve ever read, but the comic book visual aesthetics occasionally show through.  There are striking moments of heavy reds or sickly greens that are very stylized, and do work with the editing approach to those gruesome moments.  The rest of the film is competently shot maintaining a natural look to the time period.  The identity of Jack the Ripper is kept artistically hidden through shadows, shots from behind, and smart framing.  It doesn’t get gimmicky.  It plays scenes out with the Ripper with an imposing, mysterious quality that builds up the threat of him.  It’s very solid work from a director of photography who started out shooting Evil Dead II and later occasionally working with surreal filmmaker David Lynch.

Now, this is a genre that kind of hits me in a pleasant place.  Mixing crime drama with a suspenseful, bloody horror genre just feels like my kind of taste.  The Jack the Ripper case is an iconic one in many peoples’ minds, and this film crafts the investigation and mystery very smartly.  It incorporates some great forensic knowledge which further enhances the quality of Inspector Abberline’s abilities.  This is very important as Jack the Ripper happens to surgically remove various organs from his victims, leaving behind a sickening and horrifying sight.  While the film inevitably takes liberties with the known truth, and hypothesizes about the unknown truths, what we get is tightly and sharply crafted.  It’s a very good script realized by some richly talented filmmakers.

The production design and wardrobe departments did an amazing job.  They seem to have realized the late nineteenth century with beautiful detailed realism.  The wardrobe is especially impressive with the distinct styles given to each character.  This extends to hairstyles and the overall grooming of the actors.  It’s elegant craftsmanship through and through which gives the film its grounded texture.  The filmmakers took great care to reproduce the sights of the murders and the wounds inflicted upon the victims.  While the film lays back on its graphicness for most of its runtime, it does have visceral impact through sharp editing styles and some impressive practical make-up effects.  There is one very graphic throat cutting scene that would likely have many squirming in their seats.  As the film chillingly drives towards its climax, the violence becomes immensely more graphic and disturbing.

Getting down to the performances, I believe Johnny Depp does a very fine piece of work here.  I like the accent he adopts for the role.  Very different from the one he used in Sleepy Hollow or as Captain Jack Sparrow.  He clearly worked on the details very meticulously to bring this intelligent person to life.  While, Frederick Abberline was a real life Inspector for Scotland Yard, the clairvoyance and drug use was reportedly not true about him.  Regardless, the character that is Abberline here is given a good measure of charm and perceptive intelligence.  Depp cautiously balances out Abberline’s assertiveness with the manner of a gentleman.  While he is a man that indulges in less than respectable vices and beliefs, he is still a man that is respected in his profession.  It is an impressively strong and dimensional performance.  Depp leads this film excellently.

Depp also displays a subtle heart and passion opposite Heather Graham.  She inhabits this particularly lower class woman with a lot of spirit and compassion.  While the love between Mary and Frederick is not a major part of the story, it is developed through the building of trust and charm between them.  The chemistry of Graham and Depp is solid and genuine.

Robbie Coltrane does very well as a Police Sergeant who takes his job with a lot of serious weight.  Sergeant Godley is written well as both a consummate street level investigator, and a trusting confidant for Abberline.  It’s a very well rounded performance that instills credibility and faith in Abberline’s unconventional methods for the audience.

The highly revered Ian Holm is also especially strong as the former surgeon Sir William Gull.  He shares some solid scenes with Depp throughout the movie, and delivers a fine dramatic performance that also offers up an intimidating quality late in the film.  He really portrays all facets of the role remarkably well.  All around, this is just a stellar cast with a great depth of talent creating an array of fascinating and realistic characters.  They all make a distinct impression upon an audience.

The affluent pretentiousness of Abberline’s superior, portrayed by Ian Richardson, strikes me funny.  His assertion that no Englishman would be capable of such an act shows how much sensibilities have changed in law enforcement over the decades.  Today, everyone’s a viable suspect, no matter who you are, but back in the 1880s, an educated or even sophisticated person would never be thought of as a violent criminal.  It was preposterous.  Furthermore, his arrogance impedes Abberline’s investigation to the point of obstructing justice.  Unlike Sergeant Godley, he has little faith in Abberline’s deductive abilities.  He cares only for the perception of the investigation, not the truth that it should uncover.  It’s simply another fine detail which exemplifies the era this is set in, and what struggles Abberline has to surmount and combat to prove his theories correct.  It sets a treacherous path that he must walk to expose this gruesome killer.

Ultimately, the Jack the Ripper plotline is resolved in a ghastly psychological manner that has a sort of fitting quality.  Considering, in reality, he was never publicly, definitively identified, the ending to this has to have an air of secrecy.  There’s really no way around that.  So, it couldn’t have ended as a standard crime story with an arrest and conviction.  Still, it lacks any sort of dramatic gratification of justice.  Grisly, unspeakable murders are committed, and for an audience, it demands something equally harsh. It’s sort of a subjective feeling.  If for nothing else, this conclusion just lacks a real punch.

Again, the romantic aspect is gracefully handled, but it can get a little lost amongst the main plotline.  Abberline becomes deeply invested in Mary’s well being, but it’s more of an ancillary story.  It comes and goes in the film never really dominating the characters’ actions too much, but it does surface every now and then when it has relevance.  It possibly could’ve been developed into a fuller part of the film to have more substantive impact.  The conclusion to this story is also a little downbeat.  I’m not sure it was necessary for it to end as it did, but it’s definitely not a bad ending.

So, yes, I think my initial impressions about the film remain about the same.  It has a very good story with plenty of suspense and intelligence, but the pay-off is quite lacking.  Maybe there are those that can appreciate it more than I can, perhaps those that have read the comic book series.  There was more than enough rich talent involved making this a very well made and slightly stylish horror crime mystery.  The Hughes Brothers did a very high quality job with this material, and Johnny Depp puts in a very satisfying lead performance.  While it’s not as quirky as some of his better known roles, this is a nice departure into more serious ground that I did enjoy.  “Do I recommend From Hell?” is the pressing question.  Sure.  While it’s ultimately not as wholly satisfying as desired, it’s still a worthwhile watch for many reasons.  If for nothing else, it’s a respectably well executed moody and chilling piece of horror cinema.


Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

It’s difficult to explain what this sequel is.  It apparently exists in a world where The Blair Witch Project was just a fictional movie, but the Blair Witch herself actually does exist.  That’s very hard to wrap your head around.  This is one confusing movie which is nothing at all like the movie that preceded it.  This script seems like it was never finished as if the screenwriters came up with all these clever little psychological plot twists, but never had the time to conjure up any answers to them.  The film is certainly creepy, but I really don’t know what it is about it.  There are a good number of surreal events in this film.  It’s like a very large dream that no one wakes up from until the very end.  And it’s not about perspective, it’s about the illusion of reality – did it really happen that way or not?  Everyone swears that it happen like this, we saw it happen right there on the screen, but then, we have undeniable proof that it happened completely differently.  Don’t know what I’m talking about?  Well, that’s how the film has left me feeling all these years.

The movie starts out documenting the phenomenon that was The Blair Witch Project with television clips of movie reviewers, news casts, and fans talking about the film.  One of these fans is Jeffrey Patterson (Jeffrey Donovan) who was inexplicably an ex-mental patient, a fact that is never truly explored.  Jeff now runs The Blair Witch Hunt, a tour guide of everything Blair Witch – including merchandise.  We learn that Jeff is not a fan of Burkittsville, and they are no fans of his – especially Sheriff Cravens (Lanny Flaherty).  The two seem to have a degree of implied history with one another that strains many events throughout the film.  Regardless, Jeff gets four people to sign up for his inaugural tour – Kim Diamond (Kim Director), the hot goth chick, Erica Geersen (Erica Leerhsen), the real-life witch and a student of Wicca, and Tristen Ryler (Tristen Skyler) and her boyfriend Stephen Ryan Parker (Stephen Barker Turner).  The five venture out into the wilderness, and spend a night on the foundation of Rustin Parr’s house.  Strange things happen that night, and when they wake up, they have no knowledge or memory of those events which leave many baffling questions for them.  Although, it is only the beginning, and things are going to get much more bizarre and surreal before it is all over.  As the movie goes on, each character’s sanity unravels in unique fashions in the face of bewildering paranormal events.  Some are paranoid, some are hysterical, some are in denial, and some become very, deeply disturbed as they ultimately cannot discern what truly is reality.

The confusion with this film stems from a jumbled mess of editing and structure.  At times, you will inevitably be disorientated simply by the flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flashes back to the present.  It destroys any cohesion the film might have had, and of course, this was all studio imposed.  The directors original cut was entirely linear, and I would like to see that version.  However, that is merely one element of the larger mess.  The latter half of the film takes place in Jeffrey’s isolated warehouse in the woods where he lives and works.  That’s where all of the hallucinatory and reality bending hysteria takes place.  Everyone suffers from it with some horrifying imagery, and there are a few revelations, but only one that really explains anything at all.  Simply stated, we are presented with one reality as we watch events unfold on film, but video footage from Jeffrey’s camcorder and security camera footage reveals an alternate series of events occurring.  Neither of which are given any more credibility as being truer than the other.  What this movie gives us is a massive load of strange questions without so much as an attempt or even a hint at an answer.  This is a film which leaves you bewildered at the end.  I don’t demand that a film blatantly answer every question or explain every little detail, but to leave an audience with absolutely zero evidence as to a theory of the truth is simply insulting.  You have just wasted an audience’s time on a completely nonsensical film that simply throws contradictions at them without a resolution.

This movie was directed by Joe Berlinger, the same man who brought us the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three.  Those films really hit me hard, and made me a long time supporter of the three men who were wrongly convicted.  Berlinger captured every bit of emotion there was to capture, and allowed the audience to come to their own conclusions regarding this crime and the three youths that had been convicted of it.  Berlinger chose to do the same here, and he states as much on his audio commentary.

In Book of Shadows, he presents everything entirely objectively as he wanted the audience to make their own decisions on what was reality.  Unfortunately, there is such a lack of substantive information or theory presented to us on how or why things happened to form any sort of conclusion as to what did truly happen.  We have absolutely every reason to believe what these characters swear to as the truth because we’ve spent the whole film witnessing it with them.  However, the video tape evidence is shown to fully contradict all of that.  One has to be the truth, yet both are equally, undeniably true, and the film ends offering you no reasoning as to why this is.  This concept can work if prefaced correctly.  A filmmaker has to respect his or her audience by telling a complete story which is cleverly structured and plotted to offer enough intelligent content for answers to be formed from them.  There can still be some mystery or ambiguity at the end, as I praised The Usual Suspects for doing, but a film or story needs a point of view for an audience to latch onto so that they can understand where it’s coming from and where it is going.

There is just so much left unanswered it heavily hurts this movie.  If the filmmakers had attempted to craft a smart and effective story, things surely would’ve been better.  Whether the revelations had been acceptable or not, it’s far better than not trying at all.  If you’re going to craft a reality bending, perception twisting film, you need to pay-off these surreal elements at some point.  Anyone can throw a series of strange and contradictory images up on a screen, and not explain any of it.  It takes talent to make sense of them all, and have them connect in a cohesive and intelligible story.  There’s no drama or tension in being left hanging with a question you cannot even guess at an answer for.  It’s like a joke without a punch line – it turns into a waste of everything good that was put into it.  You build everything up, and then, you just let it hang their at the top of the peak.  I could imagine someone like David Lynch doing this film, and while it would inevitably be far more bizarre, it would have the artistic depth and nuance to eventually discern a hypothesis as to the truth.

However, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is well acted, very well shot, and well directed in certain aspects.  It is not a frightening film or a splatter film, it’s a creepy, eerie film.  It’s got atmosphere and tone to spare, and the production values and design are quite engaging.  I think that’s part of my intrigue for the film.  It looks absolutely gorgeous with its distinct autumn colors, and the tall, long afternoon shadows.  Autumn is my favorite season, and this film captures the atmosphere and look that I love so much about the season.  This deeply permeates through the entire movie.  There are numerous chilling moments throughout the film which are greatly executed.  Despite its storytelling failings, Book of Shadows delivers on some solid horror content which proves there were some skillful talents involved.  There’s a definite psychological element which chillingly surfaces every so often, but since none of it amounts to anything purposeful or substantive, it’s just there for atmospheric effect.  The same goes for all the weird ghostly images and strange occurrences.  They’re effective in creating a very haunting and surreal experience, but ultimately have no meaning.  This film proves that it doesn’t matter how talented you are in creating suspenseful, atmospheric horror if you don’t have a good story to tell.  I can give a film more credit for having a great story and script even if the technical aspects aren’t all that good than the reverse.

This was the movie that introduced me to Jeffrey Donovan who I have enjoyed heavily the last few years on Burn Notice.  Despite how bizarre the film gets, Donovan still stands out as a strong and interesting lead.  He handles all of the unusual demands of the role well, and he makes his character very entertaining while still dark and off-beat.  He’s backed up by a cast that is equally as capable even if there’s a lot of poor dialogue to trudge through.  This could’ve turned out as a worse film due to the nonsensical layers of strangeness present, but the acting talents involved keep it solidly on-point in terms of tone.  There was definitely strong artistic and creative potential here.  Unfortunately, studio interference from Artisan Entertainment forced numerous editorial changes to the film that Joe Berlinger was not pleased with.  It altered the structure of the film with the various flashbacks and flash-forwards along with some added graphic imagery and the asylum scenes with the Jeff character.  Again, Berlinger’s cut was an entirely linear story that might’ve played better, but surely, would have offered no more explanations than the ultimate release version did.  Another critic that I know has called the ending to this film “mean.”  It’s like a big middle finger to the audience because the film bombards you with all this bizarre imagery and mountain of questions, and it vehemently refuses to answer any of them for you.

I think this is another film that I’ve always liked for its potential.  I used to think there was something vastly intriguing about it, despite its confusing flaws.  However, I think my fascination with it was based mostly on the visual quality of the film along with the pieces of a potentially very good twisting and mysterious plot.  This is a very prime example of a film that was not fully developed or well managed during its scripting or pre-production stages, and then, was mangled up further by a studio that just wanted more blood and shock imagery.  Berlinger had the talent for taut suspense and heavy atmosphere creating an exceptionally creepy horror film that a studio simply couldn’t appreciate.  I’m sure his director’s cut is probably a more coherent watch to an extent, but it’s still a heavily flawed film from concept to execution.  Not even Joe Berlinger’s audio commentary offers a haven for a single answer.  The film is presented too objectively, and that’s its real major flaw, too bad it practically overshadows the entire movie.  And no, the title’s Book of Shadows appears nowhere in the film, nor is it ever mentioned.  It is a Wiccan book containing religious texts and instructions for magical rituals.  As I said, the movie is very well made on a technical and tonal level, and the cast is filled with some very fine talents.  It had a some good things going for it, but it failed to provide a pay off.  Any great mystery requires a great reveal, but no attempt at one is present here.


Stir of Echoes (1999)

This film was based on the novel A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson, and David Koepp, the screenwriter and director, made a hell of solid and smart thriller out of it.  Koepp has plenty of fine credits to his name ranging from generally good to great films.  While there are a few black marks on his filmography, he showcases a vast amount of solid talent with this nicely crafted supernatural thriller that is Stir of Echoes.

Tom Witzy (Kevin Bacon) lives with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and his son Jake (Zachary David Cope) in Chicago.  They live in a neighborhood with a good reputation, but at a party with a bunch of his neighbors, the narrow-minded Tom dares his open-minded sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), to hypnotize him.  She does, but when she implants a post-hypnotic suggestion for him to ‘open his mind’, he begins to see disturbing and confusing visions.  His son has an imaginary friend called Samantha (Jennifer Morrison), but Tom soon realizes that she is not imaginary.  She is the ghost of a young girl that is now terrifying and driving Tom towards strange ends.  As the horrific visions intensify, Tom realizes they are pieces of a puzzle, echoes of a crime calling out to be solved, but when his other-worldly nightmares begin coming true, Tom wants out.  He desperately tries to rid himself of his eerie, unwanted powers – only to be seized by an irresistible compulsion to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery that is consuming his life.

Kevin Bacon absolutely does an incredible job in this role.  He really absorbed himself into it adopting a subtle Chicago accent and a textured blue collar working man appearance.  His physicality is very raw, and it helps that he seemed to be in excellent, lean shape for this film.  He pushes the performance through every fiber of his body with a powerful nervous energy and charisma that is electrifying.  Bacon portrays the increasing obsession and near psychotic behavior amazingly well.  His manic intensity becomes scary like he is going off the deep end, which is quite the truth.  On the flip side, he shows the heart of Tom Witzy with a lot of genuine depth.  Beneath this crazed obsession, he is a deeply caring husband and father with a touching levity of heart.  It’s good to see the real man before this psychic awakening occurs, and thus, we get full context on how drastically he changes and what he’s jeopardizing with his crazed behavior.  There’s ultimately a lot of compassion and humanity in this man who starts out with a bit of an abrasive attitude.

Playing perfectly off of Kevin Bacon is Kathryn Erbe.  She also shows a strong range from loving, bright wife and mother to woman of fire and conviction when Tom goes further out of control.  Erbe and Bacon have very honest and heart-filled chemistry which is a main strength of the movie.  Zachary David Cope was a fine young actor here.  While he has an appropriate innocence and cuteness, he proves to have a mindful intelligence to portray the nuances of the role.  Acting opposite thin air to an unseen ghost is definitely a challenge, but Cope really showed a lot of promise here.  Sadly, it was only second and last film acting role.  The remainder of the cast does equally fine jobs building up a realistic community of dimension characters that ground the film very firmly.

Stir of Echoes is definitely a spooky and startling film with a tight pace.  It keeps a nice unsettling atmosphere going as Tom is very unnerved following his hypnotic awakening.  As the visions begin inflicting more graphic images upon Tom, the more freaked out he gets, and the more the tension of the film rises.  It’s an entertaining and fascinating descent into manic hysteria which just drives the film’s suspense and danger to a more chilling height.  When the film hits those peaks, it gets the heart pounding very strongly.  It winds itself up to a frightening full head of steam once the third act slams itself upon the audience.  While it’s not a rousing climax that is practically horror-based, it definitely resolves itself properly.  It builds upon the more underlying qualities of the film, namely the characters and the community they inhabit.

Thus, I really like the character driven strength of this supernatural thriller.  It’s a ghost story that doesn’t boil down to defeating an evil specter, but instead, helping find justice for an innocent soul.  Showing the quality of this seemingly tight knit Chicago neighborhood plays an important role in the story, and it’s nicely developed and demonstrated to ultimately explore the heart and soul of these people, no matter where they might lie.

Admirably, this film boasts some very good visual effects.  From the ghoulish effects to make Samantha a frightening apparition to the hypnosis sequence in the theatre, these are all consistently top notch effects.  The ghostly make-up effects work done on actress Jennifer Morrison are very haunting and unsettling.  She did a fine job in that aspect as well as the living Samantha in the flashbacks late in the film.  She was a very sweet, shy young woman that is a worthy of the sympathy and tragic value put on the character.  While the “shot in reverse” movement is a clichéd trick to give a creepy quality to her ghost, it is still very effective.

Now, I also have to admit I find a bit of pleasing notoriety from the theatre scenes when Lisa hypnotizes Tom.  They were shot at the Rialto Theatre in Joliet, Illinois where my high school graduation was held the year before this film’s release.  I really love that the filmmakers shot on location throughout the Chicago area bringing a real authentic feel to the neighborhood and other locations.  There’s one shot where Tom’s up on a telephone pole making a call to Lisa, and it pulls back to reveal the Chicago River and Metra trains rolling by.  It’s a location I am very familiar with, and it just creates an honest sensibility that I commend.  Chicago really is a diverse and beautiful city that deserves to be shown off more prominently in film and television, and this is a small gem that takes pleasant, if small advantage of that.

While David Koepp is the sole on-screen credit for the screenplay, there was some work on it done by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en).  So, I would like to share my praise for the quality of the script with them both.  I’ve never read Richard Matheson’s novel that this was based on, but Koepp and Walker clearly had an intelligent foundation to build upon.  The story never goes for cheap clichés of the genre, and instead, stays focused on its smart supernatural thriller path.  The film makes it a point that it is very focused on Tom Witzy from early on, and the script follows that path very steadily.  It keeps the audience in tune with what he’s experiencing, and we are able to relate to him even when he becomes more irrational and brazen.  He’s intensely driven to uncover whatever it is he needs to in order to shut these psychics visions down.  He himself becomes connected with Samantha, even if he doesn’t entirely know what his purpose in all this is.  So, we follow him on this haunting journey that is exceptionally well executed by David Koepp.  It surely helps this film that there was a highly effective score put together by the immensely talented James Newton Howard.

While this turned out to be a bit shorter review than I usually post, I think the quality of Stir of Echoes has been well conveyed.  It’s not a very complex story, but it lacks no depth of character or scares.  It won’t slam bang you with horror, but it has a solid atmosphere, some startling, graphic imagery, and air of compelling supernatural mystery that is very satisfying.  Seeing the film is worthwhile for Kevin Bacon’s exceptional and amazing performance alone.  He really showed a very wide breadth of talent and commitment here that I find incredible.  The only iffy aspect is that I’m sure the climax would feel stronger if there was an actual supernatural element added into it instead of a straight physical confrontation.  However, I’ll say again that it suits the more character based sensibility of the story, which is somewhat refreshing to see, and does support the idea of needing a living person to resolve things instead of a vengeful spirit stalking and killing people.  So, I certainly do not knock the climax one bit, but an audience could feel like a little extra punch was desired after all the spooky paranormal happenings throughout the film.  There’s just not much of a climactic pay-off for the scary elements in the film.  Overall, I do highly recommend Stir of Echoes as a smart and suspenseful film that has some refreshing turns on the old ghost stories premise.


Sinister (2012)

I rarely go see horror films theatrically because, mostly, today’s horror genre just hasn’t been my style.  The few times I go, it’s usually a general letdown.  However, the trailers for Sinister were effectively suspenseful and scary to where I had to work up some courage to see it.  And now, after having seen it, yeah, I wasn’t courageous enough for it.  This is a damn good horror movie, one of the scariest I’ve ever seen.

Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true crime novelist who has moved his family into the house where a grisly family murder once took place.  He hides this fact from his wife and two children, but the locals know the home’s history, especially law enforcement.  The town’s Sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) even attempts to convince Ellison to pack his things up and leave right away, but he is not deterred as writing this book maybe the one big paycheck he needs to get his family back on their feet, again.  When Ellison discovers a box of mysterious, disturbing home movies depicting a series of family murders dating back to the 1960s, he believes they are all connected to the one he intends to write about.  However, what he doesn’t realize is that he has just plunged his family into a nightmarish experience of supernatural horror.  The evil that claimed the lives of these families is now threatening them.

I just have to start out with the fact that this film choked me up with tension and suspense so much, my heart was damn near pounding out my chest.  Even as the end credits rolled, I needed a few minutes to calm back down before standing up and leaving.  Sinister delivers on scary.  Usually, I view the word “scary” as a lightweight term, but here, I want to give it a full heavyweight treatment.  The film has a methodical pace.  It sets up the creepy atmosphere from the very first shot, and it sent chills up and down me, as much of the film did.  I like that it slowly eases the audience into a supernatural ideal.  Ellison is repeatedly skulking through the darkness of his new house at increasingly louder and more overt noises.  While it got to being that I just wanted him to flick on a light switch, as most anyone would do in near pitch black chasing weird sounds around the house, the sequences are just hair raising suspense at its finest.  These sequences gradually build upon one another until the supernatural element is impossible to deny, and becomes far more intimidating as they occur.  The biggest chill probably hits when Ellison is tracking the creeks around the house, and what he can’t see are the ghosts that are stalking him everywhere he goes.  Even the few false scares serve a purpose for the characters, and overall, every scare is sharply effective.  Sinister scared the hell out of me.  No other film has done that since The Strangers.

The story is smartly crafted setting up Ellison Oswalt’s situation hiding the truth of the house from his wife, his own struggles with whether he’s doing this for the financial security of his family, or just to bask in the spotlight, again.  There are nice moments where Ellison is watching old TV interviews from when he clearly had a more optimistic and altruistic attitude.  His younger self talks about how he writes these books for the sense of justice instead of money, and it shows just how desperate Ellison’s point of view has changed.  The decline his career has taken forces him to do something far more deceitful and amoral by moving his family into the house of a murdered family, and hiding that from them.  It puts more stress upon him, and eventually, coupled with the strain these snuff films put on him, he begins to drink quite frequently.  It pushes the inner turmoil to the surface, and further enhances the outer conflicts of the film.  Everyone can see there’s something troubling him beneath the surface, but he’s so hesitant to speak of it for fear that it will ruin his efforts with this book.  He might be selfish in that regard, but he’s not without conscience.

As Ellison views these Super 8mm films, we are right there with him feeling the gruesome, unspeakable horror that he is witnessing.  He is clearly disturbed by these films, and you can see the recoils and reluctance he has in sitting through them just for the sake of his book.  Beyond just seeing them, there’s the knowledge that every frame of film was shot by the murderer.  The killer wanted someone to see these as a foretelling omen of what will happen to them, and ultimately, the plot works this into the supernatural elements smartly and perfectly.  Ellison’s investigation is very smart as he uncovers more and more clues, revealing more detailed evidence as he digs deeper.  The film keeps the mystery alive all the time, and sucks you into it every step of the way.  As more is discovered, the more frightening everything becomes, and the danger increases with every passing night for the Oswalts.  The addition that their son Trevor has had night terrors for most of his life, and that it is acting up more than ever just builds upon the unsettling nature of the house, and the evil that is haunting and stalking them.  Of course, since Ellison is intent on keeping the truth of the house a secret for as long as possible, he refrains from taking more rational action to keep the family safe.  I also like that, early on, he has the impulse to call the police after watching the films, but backs away from it thinking about the best seller book he needs to write.  If he hands everything over to the cops, his book is inevitably done for, and he shies away from pursuing that course.  These actions never made him unlikable in my view as he is trying to do something that will financially put his family at ease, but eventually, he’s gone too far down this ill path for the police to realistically do anything.

Ethan Hawke really is damn good as Ellison Oswalt.  He’s in essentially every single scene, and gives a lot of dimension and relatability to the character.  Ellison is a caring father to both his kids showing deep concern for their well being, and always thinking about them, most of the time.  When it comes to his wife Tracy, portrayed strongly by Juliet Rylance, there is definite conflict.  She worries about his well being, fearing that he will become an emotional wreck, and fall down an ill path they’re both familiar with.  He tries to reassure her, and keep her away from the disturbing truth.  However, when the truth eventually gets out, the confrontational scene between them is immensely realistic.  The argument has a few bits of levity as Ellison spouts out pithy excuses for putting them into this situation, but ultimately, it’s a very emotionally visceral scene.  Hawke conveys the fear, turmoil, and horror of the character with powerful realism, and carries this film greatly, without a doubt.  It’s just an exceptional performance all the way through maintaining the humanity of the character, and Hawke keeps the tension and terror alive through his performance.

Juliet Rylance holds up equally well.  While she doesn’t get much chance to encounter the fear and horror of the film, she is a solid actress who has excellent chemistry with Ethan Hawke.  They both bring realistic depth to the history of their marriage, and the emotions that she puts in the role couldn’t be stronger.  Both child actors, Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley, do an amazing and commendable job.  Every single performance in this film is very sternly rooted in reality, and both Michael and Clare bring likeability and a strong dramatic foundation to their characters.  As a whole, this family feels solidly cohesive and real with their own sets of unique problems and personalities.  It’s excellent casting and stellar acting through and through.

Fred Dalton Thompson’s always impressed me with his authoritative presence, and he brings some of that with a dash of genuine fairness that a Sheriff should have.  He only has two scenes, but he makes a solid impression on an audience.  He tells Ellison that he’s not much of a fan of his books, and doesn’t appreciate the criticism and ill attention he brings with him.  Yet, he proves his fairness in his second scene with a concern for the Oswalt family’s safety.

I also want to acknowledge the performance of James Ransome as the local Deputy.  What starts out as an awkward and somewhat star struck character becomes a guy you can take more seriously with a show of intelligence.  Being a fan of Ellison’s work, the Deputy offers to assist him with some research, and as he does, he becomes more wrapped up in the gruesome reality of these murders.  He notices the patterns of the crimes, and shows his worth as a capable police officer.  Ransome offers up a fine balance of low key charm and heart with an honest seriousness.  He becomes concerned for Ellison when things start to become more stressful and disturbing for him, and gives him some sound advice while never disputing the validity of anything Ellison has recently experienced.  It’s a surprising highlight of this film, and getting those few moments of perfectly pitched levity are very welcomed.

Beyond just the dark scenes at night, this is a visually dark film all the way around.  I’m not sure of why even the daytime scenes are masked in heavy shadow and even silhouettes, but it sure adds to the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of the film.  Nearly all of the film takes place in that house, and it hardly ever feels warm or inviting.  Every scene is given just enough light for the purposes of that scene, but does lack a natural quality since almost none of the indoor lights are ever used.  When it gets very dark, it’s only highlights to make out a face, a figure, or a doorway.  It’s highly effective, but again, it is a little bothersome that Ellison Oswalt never does just switch on a light to see what’s going on.  At least one scene has the power go out entirely, and he has to navigate via his cell phone flashlight.  Overall, it is an amazingly well shot film with just the right compositions and framing to service the various moods and tension.  The editing is damn good as well allowing shots to linger in order to build up that choked up suspense waiting for the next chilling moment to unfurl itself upon your senses.

All throughout the movie, the score was shockingly powerful and effective.  When I saw the end credits, I knew why the score so fucking good.  It was done by Christopher Young.  This is the man who created the powerful and iconic scores for the first two Hellraiser movies.  For Sinister, he cranks up the nail biting, skin crawling, electrifyingly suspenseful music higher than ever before.  The tension gets so thick because of his prominent and intense score.  This is a masterwork of horror soundtracks that enhances every moment exponentially by its presence.  While a few of the clicks and clacks in certain scenes were a bit distracting, overall, this is nerve racking brilliance.  It’s especially effective over the Super 8 film clips which have no sound of their own.  So, it’s just the gritty visuals with this verbose score playing over them, and it just couldn’t be anymore heart pounding than it was.

This really is a horror film that treats its audience with maturity and intelligence.  The investigation aspect doesn’t have Ethan Hawke explaining every little detail to you.  It trusts in your attention to detail and intellect to put the pieces together.  Thus, it never gets redundant.  It keeps moving forward, and gives you enough information to keep you in sync with Ellison Oswalt.  You process things as he does, and the pace of the film allows you to do so.  Vincent D’Onofrio uniquely portrays Professor Jonas, a local expert on occult crime at the local university, and he is able to shed light on the occult symbols Ellison discovers in the film footage.  He explains what they all mean, and possibly what supernatural entity is stalking his family and is responsible for all these murders.  This aspect of the film is very smartly conceived and executed.  It’s another part of that gradual building of the supernatural elements.  You’re not bludgeoned with them from the start.  They subversively creep into the film until it saturates it completely.  It’s beautiful work that not enough horror filmmakers strive for these days.  There’s practically no gore, but plenty of graphic imagery to have you recoiling in terror.

Sinister is frightening to no end hitting you with shocking imagery and chilling sequences that are still sending a shiver over me as I type this.  The very last shot of the film is a very unnecessary jump scare, and I imagine it was just the filmmakers wanting to get that extra punch in at the end.  Still, that could’ve been done with a strong music cue, but I won’t fault the film over that cheap bit.  In a horror film so well crafted, I can afford them that much.  I am quite surprised that this was directed by Scott Derrickson who, a long time ago, directed the direct-to-video failure that was Hellraiser: Inferno.  Oddly, I caught a few minutes of it on cable the night before seeing Sinister.  It’s a gigantic leap forward in talent and skill that I couldn’t admire more.  Derrickson also co-wrote the Sinister screenplay with Christopher Robert Cargill, who is actually a movie critic.  So, it’s quite pleasing to see this sort of combination work so successfully.  Simply said, this is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time, and I strongly encourage you to go see it!  I don’t think you could at all be disappointed in it.  It’s likely to scare you right out of your skin.