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Cobra (1986)

CobraIf you love Stallone’s bonafide action films, then Cobra is absolutely one of his signature outings.  It also has an interesting origin.  It originally started out when Stallone was cast as the lead in Beverly Hills Cop, but instead of the action comedy we got with Eddie Murphy, Sly did rewrites to essentially change Axel Foley to Marion Cobretti.  When he and Paramount couldn’t agree on this, they parted ways, and Cobra was born.  This is also an adaptation of the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling, which was the basis for a William Baldwin film in 1995 of the same name.  I’ve never seen that film, but this one, it is a really damn good one.

Lt. Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) is a one-man assault force whose laser-mount submachine gun and pearl handled Colt 9mm spit pure crime-stopping venom.  Cobretti finds himself pitted against a merciless serial killer called the Night Slasher (Brian Thompson).  The trail leads to not one murderer but to an army of psychos bent on slashing their way to a “New Order”- and killing the inadvertent witness Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) to their latest blood spree.  Fortunately, Cobra is her protector intent on bringing down these brutal maniacs.

Very notably, Cobra was helmed by director George P. Cosmatos who also did Rambo: First Blood, Part II and the absolutely amazing Tombstone.  Under his skills, this is an excellent action movie!  Primarily, the quality of the cinematography and editing is amazingly superb.  I see a lot of good quality films of this sort on the filmographies of the editors and cinematographer that prove to me that this was not a one-off shining moment.  This film does have a gritty style with a strong sense of mood and atmosphere for the urban environment.  I took special note of just how well visualized this film was, which would have turned out very generic in much lesser hands.  With Cosmatos, Cobra has real bite and punch.  He also executes the high tension and suspense sequences with remarkable ability.  The parking garage scene where the Night Slasher is stalking Ingrid is a gorgeous example of this.

The Cobretti character is surprisingly understated in most cases.  Sure, when he’s in the heat of action, he’s bad ass and intense, but outside of that, Stallone plays it cool.  He’s calm and collected handling urgent scenarios with confidence and sharp action.  Stallone also brings his usual heart and charm, adding a little charisma and levity to Cobra, but overall, he’s a hard edged cop that’s ready to kick ass at a moment’s notice.  The entire look of Cobra with the five o’clock shadow, black overcoat, mirror aviator glasses, and the wicked cool 9mm just certifies the character as awesome.  Its not a character that jumps off the screen, but with that great look and a couple of cool one-liners, Marion Cobretti drives forward an entertaining film.

Brigitte Nielsen might be regarded very poorly today, but early in her career, she was particularly good.  Her performance as Ingrid is soft and gentle in the most part, but she also handles the terrified moments in the film exceptionally well.  Not surprisingly, she and Stallone have real good chemistry.  They would later marry and divorce within a few years.  Here, you can see their real life affectionate for one another shine through on the screen making for a heartfelt connection that adds more depth to both characters.

The use of Brian Thompson as the Night Slasher, our main villain, is just right.  I honestly have never felt he was a particularly good actor outside of his powerful physical presence.  However, the script and Cosmatos wisely utilize his imposing figure and psychotic killer look instead.  He has extremely little dialogue until the climax where he monologs his creed about his New Order, and he does an exceptional job with this dialogue letting his deep voice carry its weight.

And I love Andrew Robinson in everything I’ve seen him in.  He beautifully plays the smarmy Detective Monte who likes to throw his weight around, and dig his ego into Cobretti like a thorn in your side.  You can’t wait to see this guy get what’s coming to him by the end.

By no doubt, there is a lot of excellent action here.  Stallone gets plenty of chances to get physical with some hard edged fight scenes.  Then, there’s an adrenalin pumping car chase with some great car stunts and rapid gunfire.  Add in some tense, scary moments of Ingrid fighting for her life from the Night Slasher, and you’ve got a very intense, exciting action movie from a director who just knew how to film it with masterful vision.  The editing on these action sequences is so perfectly tight.  This is especially exemplified in the amazingly dynamic shootout and chase sequences that kick start the climax.  The rhythm, pacing, and impressive choice of angles are just excellence on display.  Cosmatos was a brilliant action sequence visionary, and everything in that climax is bad ass and awesome.  It starts out hard and fast, and then, gets tough and brutal inside the industrial factory.  The final confrontation between Cobra and the Night Slasher is really damn good.  This is a great, tense, climactic moment that Stallone and Thompson play dead-on-the-mark in this fiery, industrial setting aided by the excellent cinematography and Cosmatos’ razor sharp direction.  It’s wicked cool.

Further showcasing that this is an 80’s movie is the rock soundtrack.  It starts with a sweet montage sequence fueled by “Angel of the City” by Robert Tepper, who also contributed “No Easy Way Out” for Rocky IV.  We then get a couple of other tracks that are catchy, upbeat, and energizing to the vibe of the movie.  This helps keep the film lively and little more memorable.  The actual score by Sylvester Levay here serves its purpose right fine, but doesn’t standout as anything exceptional.

Cobra is a fun, entertaining, exciting film packed with action.  It has a moody, serious tone with the door comfortably open for levity, but it never gets especially cheesy.  This is a really good action movie that will satisfy even today.  The standard fare script by Stallone is entirely elevated by George Cosmatos’ stylish directing talents.  Cobretti himself is not all that fascinating as it’s the attitude and look that sets him apart including the cobra emblem Colt 9mm and the custom 1950 Mercury.  It’s not a character that puts a challenge on Stallone, but he likely enjoyed the experience.  I certainly would have enjoyed seeing a sequel, but this was also a time where Sylvester Stallone’s ego started swelling a lot.  So, I can imagine there could have been some behind the scenes conflicts.  Regardless, check out Cobra!  It’s a solid piece of action cinema!


Hellraiser (1987)

Reviewing this film is quite a pleasure.  Of all the masters of horror to come around in the last couple decades, Clive Barker seems to be the one you can always count on.  Even The Midnight Meat Train, while not directed by Barker, is a great film that I enjoyed quite thoroughly.  The man takes a lot of care and heart with his work, both written and on film.  He doesn’t rush every new novel or short story into a film adaptation like Stephen King.  While there were some missteps with Barker’s earlier film adaptations, it wasn’t directly his fault.  Still, you ask Clive questions about this movie, he’ll probably turn you down.  He’s sick of discussing it, and feels it is firmly settled in his past.  But never minding that, Hellraiser still stands as a horror classic.  It was a serious injection of true horror when the rest of the genre was turning campy and being drained of anything resembling a scary movie.  Written & directed by Barker, based on his short story, “The Hellbound Heart” this is possibly, the most gritty horror film since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but far gorier.  The gore quality is damn near off-the-chart.  I still find myself cringing at how gruesome Hellraiser is.  This film is truly an original piece of classic horror cinema.  As stated by Stephen King himself, “I have seen the future of horror fiction, and his name is Clive Barker.”

This film’s premise is certainly original in all aspects.  It starts out with a small puzzle box, seemingly harmless, but is said to unlock an experience where pain and pleasure are indivisible.  The man who seeks it is named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman).  He thought he’d been to the limits of human pleasures, but his fate is unimaginable.  He solves the puzzle box, and what it invites is hell itself, in the form of the Cenobites.  He dies in the third floor room of this house that is soon inhabited by his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) along with Larry’s wife Julia (Clare Higgins) and daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence).  After cutting himself trying to haul the mattress upstairs, Larry’s blood spills upon the floor that Frank died on.  Unknowingly to them all, that small amount of blood is enough to regenerate some amount of Frank’s living body.  He has escaped from hell, and hell doesn’t like that.  We learn of a past sexual relationship between Julia and Frank, and Frank uses her devotion to him to regain his full form through unsuspecting men.  Kirsty gets caught in the midst of this horrific conspiracy, and things rise to another level when the Cenobites come looking for more victims.

This is a dark, gory, and unbound vision of horror by Clive Barker.  In retrospect, it is easy for one’s focus to shift towards Doug Bradley and the other Cenobites as the star attraction.  For me, it is the performances of the human characters that are the real jewels here.  The emotional and psychological depth the actors bring to their roles are rich and real.  Clare Higgins is devilishly seductive, but also, presents an honest vulnerability and apprehension.  She is captivating and fascinating.   She shows a nice wide range in how Frank took a generally decent young woman and ensnared her into becoming the more deceptive and corrupted woman she is now.  Andrew Robinson is also a marvel.  While his portrayal of Larry Cotton is certainly what it should be, and doesn’t seem like much of a standout, he portrays it with a lot of heart.  It’s sincere and honest.  Although, it is his turn at the end of the film which really gets the juices flowing.  He becomes deliciously sadistic and sinister.  He really chews it up, and lets nothing stand in his way of delivering an insidious, lustful villain.  Robinson has repeatedly impressed me with his amazingly diverse and substantive performances, especially in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Our female lead, Ashley Laurence, really draws in an audience, firstly, with her fresh-faced beauty, but quickly becomes an immensely likable protagonist.  Where Kirsty is surrounded by people who are either morally corrupt or faced with emotional conflicts, she shines through as the most innocent.  She maintains strength of character with conviction, and remains an excellent conduit for the audience to experience the horrific fantasy that unfolds before them.  She is the moral center of the story, caught in the eye of the storm which she weathers greatly.  She loves her father deeply, and that motivates her actions throughout the latter half of the film.  Despite the disturbing and horrific things befalling her, she holds onto that love to carry her through in order to keep her dad safe.  Kirsty is an excellent heroine that an audience can really get behind, and feel true sympathy for.

The character of Frank Cotton is brilliantly brought to life by Sean Chapman, who handles the human half, and Oliver Wood, who appears as the skinless Frank.  Chapman establishes the lustful and dangerously seductive man who desires to experience the extreme limits of human pleasure.  Wood creates a man who has been beyond those limits, and is now a darker, more threatening creature.  However, he still has seductive qualities as demonstrated by the fact that he gets Julia to lure in and kill unsuspecting men so he can regenerate himself.  However, he is a man motivated by fear of the Cenobites ready to use and abuse anyone necessary to escape them.  Julia is so blinded by her overwhelming desire to be with him again that she will do anything for him.  Larry is such a lightweight man, cringing at blood, and being a generally decent person that Julia feels her life to be rather bland.  Frank offers the wild erotic excitement and danger that she craves.  Getting a woman to murder for you in order to resurrect yourself is an amazing feat, and shows how psychologically warped Frank has made Julia.  This is the true villain of the film, and demonstrates what kind of twisted evil can lurk in the human heart.

Of course, Doug Bradley does need to be addressed.  In conjunction with Barker, Bradley creates a character that is beautifully dispassionate.  He has a cold zeal regarding the transcendent experiences of Hell.  He has tasted them, reveled in their indescribable sensations, and has been tamed by them into perfect order.  Bradley sinks his teeth into what is best described as a standout supporting role.  The Cenobites are used, essentially, as a plot device, same as the puzzle box.  They are background characters here, but powerful ones.  The full contingent of the Cenobites are well played by their respective actors aided by their deeply detailed prosthetic and make-up designs.  With Bradley, you clearly can’t help but be taken aback by his appearance in this film.  Pinhead, or “Lead Cenobite,” is an instantly iconic character with a more direct and identifiable design than his fellow Cenobites, but they are all memorable to the franchise’s fans.

The look of the film is very dark and grainy, but is shot excellently despite its budgetary limitations.  There is a clear vision of artistry here born out of Clive’s own dense, dark imagination.  The film showcases how rawness and grittiness can create a certain macabre beauty.  The gore of Hellraiser is intense and in abundance.  For the weak of stomach, it could get overwhelming, but the skinless Frank is a genuine work of gruesome art.  Barker has a way to make horror beautiful, in a twisted, demented fashion. The Cenobite makeup, while in a rawer form than later on, truly adds to the texture of this film. Tortured, twisted, and mutilated to hellish perfection, they are amazingly well conceived and designed.  I rather prefer this look over later installments which got cheap in the costuming department, and sleeker in the makeup design.  By the direct-to-video entries, their appearances became more fake and soft than anything else.  In this film, all of the make-up effects work is groundbreaking, in my eyes.  They hold up amazingly well in tight close-ups as hooks dig into prosthetic skin, and lend to the realization of great overall nasty creations.  The only dated piece of effects work comes with the visual effects, which were simple rotoscoped cell animation, but it’s all kept to minimum.  It’s really apparent in the climax, but it hardly diminishes the enjoyment of the film as a whole for me.  However, for a modern audience used to more sophisticated digital effects, it might certainly come off as terribly primitive and jokey.

On the higher quality end of the things, the score by Christopher Young is wonderful and powerful.  It is highly orchestral for a horror film, but that aspect creates a far grander canvas for this film to exist upon.  I have always liked that Hellraiser was a more epic horror franchise presenting operatic visuals, themes, and characterizations with the Cenobites.  That’s where Barker’s imagination lives and thrives.  While the story is more personal in nature, the fantastical elements are always grand and sweeping.  Christopher Young’s gothic stylings really would spark off many similar scores such as Danny Elfman’s Batman themes, and Graeme Revell’s The Crow compositions.  The gothic aspects take the operatic qualities and tones them towards more haunting, atmospheric, and chilling aspects.

Now, despite Clive Barker’s belief that this is an uneven film, I do feel he did a highly admirable job.  Barker had directed a few short films before this in the 1970s, but this was his feature film directorial debut.  I believe a director can be his own harshest critic, and I wholly understand that.  Regardless, the storytelling is tight and solid.  There’s a lot of tension of varying kinds throughout the film, and Barker delivers it all quite well.  I have been a large supporter of Clive Barker as a filmmaker.  Lord of Illusions is one of my all time favorite horror films because of the brilliant genre blending work he did there.  It is unfortunate that studio conflicts and interference soured him towards continuing on as a director, but he has continued as a producer for adaptations of his written work.  I believe Hellraiser to definitely be something for him to be proud of for his first feature length directorial work.  This is a classic for a reason.  In a time where B-level slasher films were the dominant sub-genre in horror, this film came out and changed the standard for horror films.  Fortunately or unfortunately, in my eyes, nothing has yet to equal to Hellraiser, except for its first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  It is an excellent mix of an intelligent, original, and ambitious story with that classic Barker macabre horror.   It has solid, powerful performances all around creating a very diverse, rich set of characters, and a great gritty beauty enhanced masterfully by the score.  This has allowed Barker’s 1987 film to standout still, to this day, as a bonafide horror classic.  You really cannot afford to pass this film up.