“Oh fuck yeah!” – that was my response several times during my initial viewing of this film. I know what many of you are thinking, “remake, ugh!” Drop the misconceptions, people! Let’s start fresh. This is produced by Wes Craven, who directed the original The Hills Have Eyes among other horror classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street & Scream. The director is Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension. And to be plainly straight forward, this movie is a brutal piledriver of terror and madness. This is, by far, the most intense horror film I have seen in years. A few years prior, I felt that Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was the truest horror film in years – this movie beats the living hell out of it. What you see in the opening moments of this film is absolutely NOTHING compared to what’s waiting for you later on.
This journey into a desolate landscape of hell starts with a family taking the long way to San Diego, California. The father / former police detective Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a bold man with a penchant for guns. His wife, Ethel Carter (Kathleen Quinlan) is somewhat of a religious woman, despite being quite the 60s hippie in her youth. Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford) is married to their oldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), and together, they have a newborn baby named Catherine. There’s also the other daughter, Brenda Carter (Emilie de Ravin) who’d rather be in Cancun than traveling through the hot, dry desert. Finally, there’s the son Bobby (Dan Byrd) who spends a lot of time chasing down the family dogs -Beauty and Beast. After stopping to refuel at the only gas station within 200 miles, the attendant gives them a “shortcut” back to the highway. Big Bob has no qualms about taking a dirt road detour, but that’s where things go wrong….very wrong. After a tire blowout, their SUV is totaled, and they are stranded. Attempts to find help are futile as this family is being watched from the hills of the New Mexico desert. These predators are inhuman results of nuclear testing done by the U.S. government in this very same desert from 1945-1962. They are savage mutants that feed off anything they can find – especially other human beings. The carnage, insanity, and stomach-churning bloodlust that ensues will leave only few survivors. The lucky ones die first.
This movie is a brutal masterpiece of racked up tension, grizzly gore, and relentless horror. Aja has delivered, in my purely honest opinion, one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life. There isn’t any particularly new twists to this story, it’s mainly the same as the original, but Aja executes a vision that only a rare few will ever match. As of late, horror film directors have attempted to push the boundaries of intense, cringe-inducing horror, but I don’t believe anyone has proven to be more effective or successful at it than Alexandre Aja. There is such power and visceral intensity here that it had a hardened horror fanatic in me jumping, cringing, and tingling in my seat. Aja so quickly established himself as a modern master of horror. A lot of other horror directors get a lot of hype built up around them, but their films continually fail to live up to it – Aja proves to be the genuine article here. By chance, I will use Rob Zombie as a perfect example. Zombie has done a lot to build hype for his own movies, promising just how far he’s pushing the envelope with them, and how grossly disturbing they will be. Unfortunately, despite some disturbing moments and such at times, Zombie’s movies fail to strike the correct chords or craft a powerful atmosphere with a coherent storyline. What makes Alexandre Aja different from Rob Zombie is vision, pure and simple. Aja knows how to create and rack-up the suspense and tension in a film. He knows how to vilify a group of savages, and how to elicit certain emotions from an audience. Some people have the talent, the natural gift for such filmmaking. Aja clearly and undoubtedly has it. Some other directors seem to require further practice to get even close to that skill level. Simply put, you don’t need hype when you’ve got the talent because it speaks for itself.
Now, while we don’t get a massive helping of these radioactively mutated cannibals (which can be a good thing), every time we do see them, they make a frightening impact. The most is made of their screen time, and it is not forgettable in the least. From their first attack scene, they catapult the film to a completely different level, and the tension and madness just continue to climb from there. These cannibals only become more feral, more animalistic as the film moves forward. The makeup work by KNB EFX Group is amazing, disturbing, and overall realistic. Their work here is worthy of major awards. I couldn’t imagine how many actors were unrecognizeably transformed by KNB’s complex and intricate makeup designs. You may know Desmond Askew from Doug Liman’s Go as the somewhat charming British fumbler Simon, but here, there’s no way you’d even know he was in the film without reading the credits. Michael Bailey Smith takes over the iconic Michael Berryman’s role of Pluto, and he is no stranger to complex makeup work. In his first role, he was Super Freddy in A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and later portrayed (among other creatures) Julian McMahon’s demon alter-ego of Belthazor on Charmed. Smith is really only 6’4″, but through whatever means, he seems even larger in this film. Smith appears monstrous, towering over everyone else on screen. He’s an intimidating physical force that makes the most frightening impact here.
Billy Drago (also a Charmed alumnus as the demon of fear Barbas) portrays the cannibals’ leader Jupiter, and despite his brief screen time, does an extremely sick job. This entire movie is filled with sick moments, sick villains, and sickening imagery. And man, is it great! Drago’s a great actor, and his work in The Hills Have Eyes is very ferocious. The same can be said of Robert Joy’s Lizard who teams with Smith’s Pluto in the most shocking scene of the film where the two mothers are assaulted inside the trailer – resulting in gruesome and dire situations. The rest of the mutated cannibals are just as vicious, creepy, and/or crazed as the main ones. They all make the film all the more disturbing, and all for the better. Tom Bower also has a unique and interesting part as the gas station attendant which he pulls off with a bit of slyness, sleaze, and desperation.
The “human” cast, as it were, are great. Enough time is given at the forefront of the film to flesh this family out, and allows us to relate to them. They are real people, very human, and when this murderous band of inhuman maniacs befall them, the shocking moments never stop. They are such a shock because we are so used to filmmakers pulling their punches for so many years, but this time, the punches connect – HARD! Aja does not hesitate to bludgeon us with the brutal realism that this film deserves. We crave it, and we get it in spades. Still, you may not be ready for this level of intensity, and that’s just exactly the idea. This cast is much more endearing in their own ways than some slasher film victims are, but this is much more intense than any slasher film I have ever seen. The one cast member who deserves praise more than any other is Aaron Stanford portraying Doug Bukowski. He starts out as the kind of person who would appear to be least likely to endure such horrific events, but Stanford evolves the character to the point where you believe in him fully – everyone in my packed theatre was rooting for him like MAD! He does an absolutely incredible job here, definitely a performance that should get him well recognized. Speaking of which, I didn’t even recognize him as Pyro from X-Men 2. He appears to have grown up quite a bit since making that film, and all in all, he appears to have great potential for the rest of his career.
Ted Levine, as the father “Big” Bob Carter, does an excellent job as well. Despite being somewhat of a jackass at first, I got to liking him more and more as things went on, and he has a fine night scene back at the gas station that Aja crafted beautifully. Even those who are supposedly “the lucky ones” by dying first put in strong performances that last. They stuck in my mind, and their fear only enhanced my own. Dan Byrd (‘Salem’s Lot) as the son Bobby Carter delivers a concrete performance filled with strength, immense fear, and powerful grief. A great piece of work by this twenty year old actor. On a further note, all the female actors here are down right AMAZING! I’ve never seen such genuine morbid fear captured on film!
And goddamn, how great was this score? Talking about tying your nerves up in knots, and then, shooting them apart! Tomandandy (aka Tom Hajdu & Andy Milburn) composed a score that demonstrates perfectly how valuable a score is to a horror film! I actually enjoyed the few brief heavy guitar bits, but the meat n’ potatoes here are in the gut-wrenching moments of suspense that explode in an instant. Just another masterful stroke on the canvas of this amazing motion picture.
Furthermore, the cinematography here by Maxime Alexandre is fantastic. Never has there been so much scope of so much nothingness. Working with this desolate landscape, there’s such a vast wasteland to capture and utilize. The massive scope used in key moments illustrates how very isolated our protagonists are from everything. The highly revealing shot in the crater scene is a perfect example. There’s not another decent human soul to be found for what seems like eternity. Even if you were to run away, there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to truly hide. It becomes a game of kill or be killed because of this. It’s also made clearly evident that cellular phone reception (as one would imagine) is completely non-existent out in the middle of nowhere. Maxime Alexandre also provides great cinematography when the physical intensity kicks in, and the editing allows for Alexandre’s photography to be appreciated instead of flashed across the screen in a nanosecond like many films do in this age of filmmaking.
Overall, the editing is very well paced and consistent, the cinematography is beautiful and striking, the score is an excellent composition that enhances every single moment of every single scene, the performances are as strong as steel while others are as powerful as a sledgehammer to the face, and finally, the direction is tight, taut, unflinching, and immensely masterful. Aja delivers a full-on balls to the wall horror film that aims to please, and for a great many, it truly has done that. My god, how long had it been since we were graced with a certifiable classic horror film on our hands? Been way too damn long. Alexandre Aja is definitely here to stay to scare the living crap out of us, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.
Where do I start in reviewing such a masterpiece? Francis Ford Coppolla directed what is generally considered the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, and for most people’s money (including mine) Gary Oldman (JFK, Léon The Professional) delivers the most definitive and frightening incarnation of Count Dracula. This all can easily be attributed to James V. Hart’s screenplay being so rich in character, dialogue, and respect to its source material. Coppolla delivers quite the intriguing visual experience, and while many of the effects are dated by today’s standards, they fit in well with the style and tone of the film.
The tale of Dracula is one of love that endures through death. Dracula (Gary Oldman) was once a soldier fighting the Turks in war, and was a man of faith. Unfortunately, despite his victory over his foes, the Turks brought word of Dracula’s death at their hands, and his dearest love, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder) is stricken with such unbearable grief that she plunges to her death. When Dracula returns to learn this, he is driven into a maddening rage. He cannot understand how his God would allow this injustice to happen. He renounces God, shuns him, and practically declares war against him. Dracula vows that he will rise again from his own death to avenge the death of his beloved.
Flash forward to some centuries later, and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent out to meet with a mysterious Count in Transylvania after one R.M. Reinfield has gone wholly mad. The Count is set to move into a new estate in England, and Mr. Harker is there to deal with the final paperwork and such. Jonathan must leave his beautiful wife-to-be Mina (Winona Ryder), but the Count becomes aware that his beloved has been reborn as Jonathan’s own. Harker is very mystified and weary about the strange happenings at the castle all throughout this land of Transylvania, and soon, he falls prey to the Count’s evil. Dracula soon begins his quest to reclaiming his eternal beloved, but as he moves in closer and closer, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is brought into the mix. Dr. Jack Seward (who has been overseeing a clearly certifiable R.M. Reinfield) calls him in, being an old student of the Professor. Soon, Van Helsing deduces the supernatural happenings, and concludes it is the work of the undead, a nosferatu, a vampire. Soon, the hurt begins, and there is much carnage left on the path to the ultimate confrontation between the living and the undead. The story comes together in a very unique way, and very fitting for this strange tale of love that will never die.
The creature effects here are outstanding! The creatures of the night are given a massive life of their own, and will frighten you to a great extent. The makeup effects on Oldman are stellar as well, making him look to be a very elderly Count, or the wonderfully young Prince Vlad. The transformations the character goes through are simply amazing, and just on these levels, it beats out all other cinematic presentations of Dracula (or most any other vampire). From wolves, to giant man-bats, to god knows what other unholy abomination. Coppolla and Columbia definitely spent their money well on the makeup effects. As stated earlier, the visual effects are rather dated, but they fit well into the overall look and style of the film. However, they were all created practically, in-camera without any optical or digital composites. Coppolla details this well in the special edition DVD release.
I’m really eager to speak about the acting in this film, but not for the reason you may think – Keanu Reeves. Okay, I happen to be a Keanu fan. I’ve seen many of his films from Bill & Ted to Point Break to The Matrix to Constantine to Street Kings, but frankly, hearing Keanu trying to pull off a genuine English accent is bad cinema, really bad. And him working off of Gary Oldman for most of the film only makes him appear worse than he’s being. Keanu can deliver a fun and/or interesting performance in the right film, but this just doesn’t play to his style. Reportedly, Coppolla cast Reeves just so he’d have a “hot young star to appeal to teenage girls.” Why he felt that was required, I don’t know, and again, I have nothing but respect for Keanu, but this just wasn’t his kind of role. Anyway, onto the strong performances. Gary Oldman is where it all lies here. A Dracula film hinges on the power of the actor in the title role, and you couldn’t get any better than Oldman. The man has proven his diversity in countless films, and is absolutely one of the greatest actors of our time. He plays the infamous undead Count with such insidious charisma and lust. As the elderly Dracula, he is very creepy, eerie, and devious. He plays it up so well that it’ll make your skin crawl. As the young Dracula who attempts to illicit the love of Mina (Winona Ryder), he’s very mysterious, seductive, and still rather creepy. All in all, it’s a masterful performance, and it baffles me why Oldman wasn’t nominated for an Oscar or a Golden Globe. He did win Best Actor at the Saturn Awards, though. Joining him on the darker side of things is Tom Waits as the delusional and especially crazed Reinfield – a wonderfully satisfying performance. He certainly brings a special flavor to his few scenes acting as a prophet of doom (kind of like Crazy Ralph in Friday The 13th, only completely out of his mind).
On the protagonists’ side, we have the ever impressive Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Mask of Zorro) as the venerable Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Hopkins’ performance is quite lively and jovial, but overall powerful. It’s a clever and endearing performance, and despite the character’s unorthodox, verbose style, he really makes himself a favorite. He portrays a very interesting adversary for the immortal undead Count of Transylvania. While Hopkins easily has the hero lead, you also have great talents such as Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Saw), Richard E. Grant (Warlock), and the female lead in Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands, A Scanner Darkly). Winona does a fine job in this role which requires strength, fear, vulnerability, and simple beauty. She’s the object of obsession for Count Dracula, and she is the woman he has renounced God for, and has forced himself into eternal damnation over. All of these marvelous talents are well handled by the very seasoned Coppolla who is no stranger to star studded cast overflowing with sharp talent.
The score from Wojciech Kilar is absolutely awesome. It’s practically operatic, and very dramatic stuff. It’s grand, it’s powerful, and scary all at the same time. It’s an absolute wonder to experience, and makes the film even better than it was. This music is so haunting at times, and frankly, this is how a classic horror film should sound. I can’t say anything negative about it because it makes the film so much larger than life. It enhances everything on screen.
The costume design is as intricate and detailed as you would imagine. It has depth and character to it as well as grace, and in other parts, a very strange appeal. Oldman’s wardrobe is especially impressive and has become iconic. Every character is aided and enhanced by their wardrobe, and it helps breath further life into the picture. In addition to the fantastically exhaustive production design work, it gives the picture a sense of texture, personality, and history.
All in all, every part of this film makes it live and pulsate with power. Aside from Keanu, all the performances are masterful, the makeup effects are absolutely amazing, and I challenge you to find a more intense classic horror film score than this one! Overall, this is one solid, taut, and frightening film from a master filmmaker in Francis Ford Coppolla. If you’re looking for a genuinely scary, haunting, and chilling horror film – you absolutely cannot go wrong here. Frankly, I do not have the knowledge to compare this to every other Dracula film that’s come around, but general consensus has left this fine film with a strong reputation that has endured. I am glad to contribute to that with a solid endorsement for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
You know, the term ‘classic film’ is thrown around a hell of a lot. There’s a great deal of times where it is simply not justified. People jumping the gun the second a film is released, and saying it’s one of the all time greats. Let’s see how it endures after 10, 20, or even 30 years. Directors also get this treatment. For example, Rob Zombie. The man, in my brutally honest opinion, has yet to make a decently watchable film, but so many people hail him as some messiah because he makes dirty, ugly films. It takes more than simple visual style to make you a good, let alone great director. So, if you ask me who my favorite genre director is, who I feel has had the best run of things with the most diverse body of work? I would say John Carpenter. The Thing, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, In The Mouth of Madness, Vampires, Escape From New York…. all favorite films of mine. He demonstrates a brilliance in everything he does – writing, directing, producing, and music composition. When it comes to Halloween, there’s nothing quite like it. Every other slasher film in the world goes straight for the gore. After the years and decades have passed, filmmakers seem to have lost sight of what is truly scary in horror. It’s not shock gore, cheap jump scares, or splatter films with ten thousand gallons of blood. Taking the time to adequately build up an atmosphere of tension and suspense seems to become a dying art among the mainstream horror filmmakers. I’m not going to turn this into a comparison to other films, I’m going to tell you exactly why this film has remained a justifiable and certified classic for over 30 years.
If you aren’t familiar with the film’s plot, I’ll give you a lean and mean version. Michael Myers, fifteen years ago, murdered his sister on Halloween night. Afterwards, he was put into a psychiatric sanitarium, overseen by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), but on October 30th, 1978, he escapes back to his hometown of Haddonfield. Come Halloween, he is stalking a group of teenage girls for reasons unknown. Among these is Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a sweet, caring, and decent girl. Loomis himself is in pursuit, fearing for what might indeed happen with Michael loose. After fifteen years of treating the young man, Loomis is convinced he is purely and simply evil. Someone without conscience, compassion, humanity, or any grasp of good or bad, right or wrong. In clinical terms, a sociopath. Donning a pale white mask of blank expression, Michael proceeds to methodically kill people throughout Halloween night. Can the evil be stopped before too long?
You talk about film direction? This should be shown to every aspiring filmmaker. Even if they are not interested in the horror genre, this film gets everything right. Music, cinematography, staging, acting, tone, pacing, editing….the list goes on. Certainly the most impressive and crucial technical element is Dean Cundey’s high caliber artistry as the film’s Director of Photography. Before Halloween, I don’t think any film had been shot in this fashion. The beautiful, genius composition is the main element which crafts the horror so effectively. You could take a still from about every scene, and you’d have something special and effective. The composition creates striking images that serve the tension and terror. How Michael seems to materialize out of the darkness just before slashing Laurie around the 76 minute mark is beyond known words to describe that brilliance. Don’t forget all the steadicam work. Very impressive for a film of this scale, and it adds so much to the production values. Even these days, the lower cost ones will cost you around two grand, and back in ’77, they were brand new technology. How shots glide from one place to the next, in and out of rooms, panning ever so smoothly around the action – it is masterful. Where now, everyone’s gotta shake the camera so much, it makes you puke, it is a breath of fresh air to see filmmakers shooting a film like this. Slow reveals, shots pushing in, pulling out, and oh lord….the gorgeous lighting. Lighting creates atmosphere. Subtle fills and key light. Patterns across the walls and ceilings. It helps to direct the eye, and envelope you within a certain mood. Dean Cundey is a masterful cinematographer, and continues to showcase his artistry to this day. He would also work on Carpenter’s The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, & Big Trouble in Little China.
While most might not take conscious note of Cundey’s work, everyone knows the value of Carpenter’s score. His themes have become legendary and iconic. No other film in the entire franchise has a score this prominent or effective. It drives so much of the film, creating a taut, nerve-racking strain of suspense. There is one theme that I call the “Stalking Theme” because that’s when you hear it. Michael begins to stalk Laurie through the Wallace house, across the street, and all throughout the Doyle home. This is a relentless theme which accurately and powerfully reflects the intentions of The Shape. I continue to firmly stand by my belief that Nick Castle was the absolute best Michael Myers. While the direction and camera work make the Shape truly effective, making Myers appear to move like a ghost – appearing and disappearing in a heartbeat – I want to specifically address Castle’s performance. Where later Michaels were more thoroughly rigid and mechanical in their movements, Castle brought a fluidity to The Shape. He moves like a man, reacts like a man, but has a quality which is simply unsettling. He’s creepy. He feels like a realistic homicidal maniac, but with a clear, calculating intelligence allowing him to stalk and kill at the most opportunistic moment. He’s not just running around like a nutcase, screaming and wildly slashing up people. He’s conscious of his actions, and acts deliberately. In addition, Castle injects a violent intensity to the role. He is relentless, and continues to come back with increased violent ferocity. It can tend to seem like he needs to kill Laurie, that he is compelled to make sure she dies. Compare how he strangles Laurie at the end to any other time Michael chokes someone later in the franchise. In those later instances, it’s very cold and empty. Here, there’s an apparent rage that cannot be satiated. Some twisted, unwavering obsession at work, it would seem. Michael actively and endlessly pursues Laurie. He is the living embodiment of death. He is inevitable and unstoppable. And yes, this specific mask adds so much that subsequent ones lack – it has very human features, but clearly, they are fabricated. He appears to have human features, but what he appears to be is not what he really is.
Speaking of performances, you would be hard pressed to find a substandard one here. Everyone fits their role just right, slipping into it like a finely crafted glove. Jamie Lee’s acting really shows what she was at the time – fresh, young, and eager. I would take her performance in this film over what she offered in Halloween H20. She showed genuine vulnerability, compassion, and emotional innocence here. The performances throughout this film just feel authentic, believable, and tangible. No one feels out of place or over the top. Everything is very grounded and honest. Charles Cyphers holds his ground as Sheriff Leigh Brackett, offering up a very real perspective against Dr. Loomis’ “fancy talk” about pure evil. You could see any small town Sheriff thinking and saying the same thing in reaction to such claims. All of the ladies really bring energy and life to their roles. The youthful enthusiasm, again, feels purely authentic. Makes a lot of the “teenage” performances of today seem flat and cliché.
As I say in reviews for the sequels, Donald Pleasence is the glue that binds the film together, and provides it with a weight and urgency it needs. His performance in this first film is more low key than his incensed sequel appearances. You can see Loomis’ fear surfacing as he speaks about his escaped patient. Michael frightens him down to his core, and it is his own fear which motivates him. He knows the hollow, emotionless, indifferent monster that Myers is, and cannot bare the thought of what will happen now that he’s loose. I believe, in the sequels, it drives him rather mad. His obsession is enhanced by the volume of bloodshed spilled by Michael, and is why he becomes so deadset and crazed later on. Pleasance demonstrates a real brilliance in this role. The dread and fear in his voice gives every last one of his words credibility which is so crucial to building up Michael to being more than just a mentally ill murderer. He is the boogeyman, a presence, an indomitable, elemental force that cannot be reasoned with or destroyed. The final look that Loomis gives, which came from Donald’s own brilliance, conveys to the audience, “I knew this would happen.” It does not shock him, only frighten him further. What he has believed all these years has been proven true – you cannot kill pure evil.
It is refreshing to watch the original film after weeding through the sequels. John Carpenter’s Halloween is like a revelation, and reminds me how none of the sequels measure up. It was never simply one element that made this film so great – it was every element. The cinematography is worthy of awards alongside the direction and music. The acting is, mostly, understated and firmly based in reality. Characters like Loomis and Brackett keeping cool heads instead of either going way off the deep end, or being complete buffoons. This film is an undeniable and justifiable classic. I can’t say it’s the most frightening film I’ve ever seen, that honor goes to The Exorcist (which I still can’t pull myself to watch again), but this film will keep you rattled and unnerved to significant degrees. While, I’m sure, there are minor technical gaffes here and there, it’s nothing that you will pick up in a casual viewing. No film is perfect in all aspects, absolutely, but what this is, is an excellent piece of cinema that should continue to endure for all time. There is no reason not to give this a full ten out of ten rating.