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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.

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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.