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Posts tagged “creatures

Riddick (2013)

RiddickReviews for this sequel have been pretty lukewarm, and while I don’t blame anyone for feeling as such, there are some high and not-so-high points.  This is not a blanket mediocre film, but the averaging out of the varied content can leave one feeling that way.  As documented recently here, I feel Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick are really strong films in their respective, specific genres, with my preference being for the latter movie.  Riddick does fall between the scale and premises of those films, but doesn’t live up to either one quite as well as it could have.

Betrayed by the Necromongers and left for dead on a desolate planet, Riddick (Vin Diesel) fights for survival against alien predators and becomes more powerful and dangerous than ever before.  Soon, bounty hunters from throughout the galaxy descend on Riddick only to find themselves pawns in his greater scheme for revenge.  With his enemies right where he wants them, Riddick unleashes a vicious attack of vengeance before returning to his home planet of Furya to save it from destruction.

There are three sections of this movie for me to critique which all have their distinct qualities.  The first act of the film feels very sparse as it is just Riddick fending for himself on this desolate planet.  There’s a few bits of narration from him and a flashback with the Necromongers that fill in some plot gaps from the aftermath of The Chronicles of Riddick.  It also contains the only and very brief appearance of Karl Urban as Vaako.  I had hoped for more from him here, but I figured it would be no more than a cameo.  Anyway, this first act didn’t do much for me.  It was kind of cool seeing Riddick wounded, vulnerable, and out in the wild getting back in touch with his animal side.  However, it is quite sparse not giving you much beyond the survival action set pieces to get involved with.  The film was starting to feel like an adventure that would play out in some prequel comic book – a very small scale transition piece story that is a stepping stone to something larger.

Thankfully, as I anticipated, once we get some bounty hunter characters injected into the mix, the film really started to entertain and engage me.  Sure, the premise is quite stripped down and basic feeling more in line with Pitch Black, but if you’ve got a couple of vibrant, enjoyable characters to fill out that premise, you’ve got enough to make it worthwhile.  It does take a few minutes to get them warmed up, but it’s the clashing dynamics between everyone that sparks it all off.  Essentially, there are two teams of bounty hunters, or mercs as they are called.  The first is lead by Santana, who is an enjoyably sleazy, down and dirty type with a very gritty, testosterone jacked team.  The other is a more clean cut operation lead by actor Matt Nable’s character who has personal ties to Riddick and the events of Pitch Black.  These two teams clash immediately causing a lot of conflict, and striking some very humorous, entertaining interactions.

Santana is portrayed very well by Jordi Mollà.  I found him the most lively and charismatic character of the film.  Mollà paints Santana as a very salacious individual with little respect for anyone else outside his team, and especially doesn’t like being ordered around by any of them when they’re forced to team up.  Santana has definite smarts, but his attitude surely digs his own grave with many characters, especially Riddick.  Also, former wrestler Dave Bautista is part of Santana’s team, and he does his part well, especially since Diaz doesn’t require much beyond being tough, formidible, and a little charismatic.

And color me majorly impressed by Katee Sackhoff.  She portrays the exceedingly tough Dahl, part of the opposing team of mercs.  She more than imposes her physicality upon Santana and others who try testing her, and has the attitude to go with that.  This isn’t some stereotypical tough chick routine.  Sackhoff kick ass as a bonafide hard edged, sharply skilled mercenary who has an extra distinctive flourish to her character.  I’m sold on the actress and the character completely.

Now, Matt Nable’s character, of Boss who does have a bit of a reveal that I’ll not spoil for you here, is fairly okay.  As I said, he adds a tether back to Pitch Black, but he’s really little more than that.  The character is confident, authoratative, and intelligent, but compared to the colorful Santana, the tough as nails Dahl, or the nicely fun muscle bound hired guns of Santana’s gang, this is a rather mild character.  He also sits on the fence never becoming an outright, reviled villain, and the ending reflects the reason why.  There’s some intended depth with this character, but because he is so much on the fence, you don’t know if you’re supposed to sympathize with him or view him as a vengeful enemy.  The film never galvanizes him into what kind of adversary he should be, and thus, comes off as quite forgettable and mild.

It is clear that Vin Diesel has a love for Riddick, and so do I.  I think he is very fascinating type of anti-hero that has so many avenues of expansion, but this film really takes no ambition with Richard B. Riddick.  The character is still written well by David Twohy, but that signature aura of mystique isn’t quite there.  That ambiguity of what kind of hero he might choose to be, or the cunning way he manipulates events and perceives deeper into others isn’t really utilized here.  Because the is a straight forward survival story with only bad guys and no potential good guys, you generally know how Riddick is going to deal with everyone.  There’s no one of morality or sympathy like Imam, Carolyn Fry, or Jack / Kyra here to sway or alter Riddick’s actions.  He’s out for himself, and will bargain however he can to escape this planet alive without being held captive.  So, there’s no place for a lot of those more complex elements of Riddick to exist in this story, and that’s unfortunate.  Diesel still does a really good job in the role, making him a fun, smart, highly capable, and entertaining protagonist.  It just doesn’t feel like we’re getting every element of the character that I love.  I kept perceiving something being missing from the performance or portrayal all throughout the movie, but couldn’t really put my finger on it.  There is more to this character that we have seen in both previous movies, but this movie is just a little too stripped down to allow him to develop or be fleshed out.  It also seemed like Vin Diesel didn’t wear contact lenses this time out, and instead, had Riddick’s “shine job” eyes digitally done.

I loved Graeme Revell’s score for both previous movies, but I wasn’t impressed with his work in this film.  The familiar main theme does make some subtle appearances, but we never get a full fledged crescendo of it.  Many of the action beats are scored appropriately well.  Yet, the rest of the score feels very different in many places from Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  There were a number of cues which just didn’t strike the right chord with me, same as some of the humorous bits of Riddick and the silly tricks with his dog-like pet.  Those were certainly there to forge an emotional bond with this animal, which seems to have a massive unexplaned growth spurt during the first act, but because it was such a poorly done CGI creation I just couldn’t care that much about it.

The digital visual effects are about on-par with those in The Chronicles of Riddick, but like with Pitch Black, it’s good that a large chunk of these effects appear during dark environments.  The creatures that strike at nightfall are considerably better rendered than Riddick’s pet, which is the only CGI that I cringed at.  Of course, there’s only so much you can do on a $38 million budget where entire landscapes are enhanced with digital effects, and thus, you’re stretching your dollars to their limit.  Thankfully, the CGI is pretty good in large part, and added to the film a whole lot more than it detracted.

I do like that David Twohy put forth the effort to build in connections to both of the previous movies.  Again, you’ve got some flashbacks with the Necromongers showing what happened after Riddick killed the Lord Marshal, and how it led to him being left for dead on this nearly barren planet.  Yet, I know this was not the film Twohy nor Diesel intended to make when they laid out their plans for The Chronicles of Riddick, and so, this is a smaller scale story intended to be a springboard towards a larger scale adventure.  As much as I absolutely want to see this franchise take off and allow these fimmakers to tell the Riddick stories that they want, I’m not sure this is the movie to get them there.  Like I said, this story is probably stripped down too much in terms of character and conceptual development, and focuses more on the entertainment value of action sequences.  While all of the action is very well executed making for a bloody, violent, and fairly exciting movie, it has one more major failing.

As I said, there are three sections of this film to critique, and the last one, clearly, is the ending.  Riddick is an action / horror survival story putting this character into increasingly treacherous and deadly scenarios where he must fend for himself.  People are going to betray him and attempt to kill him, possibly even stranding him on this planet to ensure their own survival.  I won’t detail the ending of this movie, but frankly, it is a terribly weak ending that is a copout to the entire premise.  There’s no dramatic punch to this ending, no rationale for the actions of the other characters involved with it, and leaves you hanging with an empty feeling.  The film builds to a tense, riveting crescendo, and then, fizzles out.  This film absoultely should have ended with a strong, impactful, emphatic statement for the character and franchise.  I even sat there through the end credits hoping for an extra scene to appear, but once those credits roll, that’s all there is.  Up until this point, I was enjoying myself, and was engaged in the excitement of the action.  I was interested to see how the machinations of these deceitful characters would manipulate the fate of Riddick.  It was a fun adventure with plenty of graphic violence pulling no punches, and just having a good, gritty time with itself.  It’s just those last few minutes of the movie where you just don’t know how Riddick is going to get out of this at all, and the entire movie cheats you out of even a decent pay-off.  I just felt letdown, and it’s worse yet because I know David Twohy can write something better than this.  He wrote Warlock, co-wrote The Fugitive, and co-wrote both previous Riddick movies.  It’s a whimper of a conclusion when it should have been amazingly awesome to re-energize audiences about the character of Riddick, and leave them wanting to see more bad assery from him.

I had been waiting for this movie for a long time, and I really wanted this franchise to be very successful.  So, it really, honestly pains me to give any amount of negativity to jeopardize that success, but this really feels more like a movie many would rent instead of rushing out to the theatre to see.  Even removing the ending from the equation, it is a fairly average sci-fi / action movie without the same stylized visuals or scope of Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick.  However, it has some extra punch in the graphic violence and some pleasing female nudity, and has some entertaining and well portrayed characters to liven up the uninspired story.  You can potentially have a good time with this movie, but I don’t feel it’s a strong enough outing to give Riddick the new injection of box office life that he needs for David Twohy and Vin Diesel to do what they desire with him, unfortunately.

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The Monster Squad (1987)

You know, the video rental store was a glorious thing growing up in the 1980s and 90s.  It was better than any other place around.  Especially in the 80s, I believe I discovered more great films from VHS rentals and cable television than actually going to the theatre.  While the vast majority of my horror movie fandom was sparked off in the late 90s, I’ve been a fan of The Monster Squad since it came to home video.  It was always a rare treat either renting it or finding it airing on television some afternoon.  This was a greatly fun and frightening movie.

In the late nineteenth century, legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) led a siege upon the castle of Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr) with an amulet of concentrated good in an attempt to cast all monsters into Limbo.  They blew it.  One hundred years later, his diary comes into the possession of Sean Crenshaw (Andre Gower) who leads a group of pre-teens who idolize classic movie monsters.  They call themselves The Monster Squad.  Sean and his friends workup the courage to visit the “Scary German Guy” (Leonardo Cimino), who turns out to be a kindly gentleman, to translate the German text in Van Helsing’s diary.  They learn of the amulet and its power, and that they only have a few days before it becomes vulnerable to destruction.  However, danger approaches as Dracula reawakens joined by the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Gill-Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster to help the Count take control of the amulet and plunge the world into darkness.  Now, the Monster Squad are the only ones who can stand in his way, and save the world from his impending reign of evil.

I find it immensely pleasing that Fred Dekker, director and co-writer, created a film that fully delivers on high quality horror while still incorporating adventurous fun.  There is such a deep, rich respect for these icons of classic horror that it shows through in every frame of film.  The entire film is given fine dramatic integrity.  Nothing is ever farcical.  It follows in the style of a film like The Goonies which has very fleshed out, dimensional, and relatable young characters put into very dangerous and exciting scenarios.  There’s a fine balance between the serious story and the charming fun.  The characters nor actors ever treat their situation as ridiculous.  They hold up the dramatic weight of the story very well.  The film never descends into cheap silliness like I imagine a modern remake would.  It sets everything up as a very honest threat that our heroes take with earnestness, but the film is still able to inject smart humor at just the right moments.  It is a brilliant mix and balance that is not easy to pull off.

The entire child cast is absolutely excellent.  André Gower leads the group with a lot of conviction and emotional determination.  He naturally fits the role of a confident, inspiring leader as Sean.  I love that Sean feels he has sort of inherited the mantle of Abraham Van Helsing.  He is inspired by Van Helsing’s journal, and wants to fulfill that failed mission.  Ryan Lambert does a great job as Rudy, the older, tougher, cooler kid of the group.  His leather jacket rebel style attitude adds a nice sense of edginess and credibility to the team.  Rudy’s also given a fine action hero moment when he starts slinging arrows in the climax.  You’ve also got to love how Horace is used in the film paying off some smart and hilarious jokes.  He’s the one that gets picked on at school, but ultimately, gets his hard edged action hero moment by the end.  This entire youthful cast is as solid as it gets.  They endear themselves to an audience, and all have their own qualities that make them distinct amongst the group.  They all bring something fun and unique to the cast’s dynamics.

Stephen Macht and Mary Ellen Trainor turn in very solid and well-rounded performances as Sean & Pheobe’s parents.  While the strained marriage aspect wasn’t all that necessary, it added to the emotional dimension of these characters, and it resonated well where it needed to.  The relationship between Sean and his father is very strongly handled with subtle moments that go a long way.  Macht and Gower have a very heartfelt bond that penetrates the screen, and builds a depth with Sean that an audience can connect with.  It surely solidifies Sean’s stature as the lead protagonist.

The film’s Dracula is brilliantly portrayed by Duncan Regehr.  His is seriously one of my favorite interpretations of Count Dracula.  He has such an intimidating and theatrical presence which saturates the screen.  The cold blooded, violent aspects of his performance are very chilling.  He has absolutely no hesitation to kill, and you never doubt how genuinely threatening or dangerous he is.  However, he can also demonstrate a passionate desire at times when on the hunt.  The film doesn’t give him a lot of scenes to establish much character, but you can feel this is a fleshed out villain from this rich performance alone.  I have seen Regehr in a few other roles, and he has brought this same level of passion to them as well.  As Dracula, he never ceases to be terrifying and compelling. He is an immensely strong lead villain that I think should never be forgotten in the annals of great Dracula portrayals.

I know the amazing talent of Tom Noonan from Manhunter, and as Frankenstein’s Monster, he continues to amaze.  The touching, tragic humanity he pours into this role is heartbreaking.  He can truly capture an audience’s heart as he does with the Monster Squad kids themselves.  Noonan deserves special recognition for his work here.  I also love the portrayal of the Wolfman by Jonathan Gries.  He’s a guy frightened to death of what the full moon turns him into so much he goes crazy on the police to force them to lock him up.  However, as the wolf, he is Dracula’s willing ally who is entirely ferocious and terrifying.  The transformation effects from man into werewolf are some of the best ever committed to film.  You definitely get the sense of a violent metamorphosis into this vicious beast, and that is no surprise consider the brilliance behind these effects.

All of the monsters are magnificently brought to life by Stan Winston Studios.  In the same year he brought us the iconic Predator, Winston brings that same level of realistic, textured detail to the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the Gill-Man.  There are even impressive moments of seeing Dracula in mid-bat transformation.  This is a benchmark of quality realizing these classic icons of horror with stellar modern practical effects work, and giving them a very tangible and textured quality.  Stan created the absolute highest standards for creature effects that continue to be shining standard bearers to this day, and likely for all cinematic time.  It’s tragic to see a movie like Van Helsing, which contained many of the same classic horror monsters and had more than ten times the budget of The Monster Squad, indulged in horrendous looking computer generated effects.  It goes to show that a bigger budget doesn’t always equal a technically superior film.  Talent is what counts, and Stan Winston clearly provided that and injected a vast amount of quality with these iconic movie monsters.  He did them justice, and paid great respect to their legacies, as did Fred Dekker.

Considering all the amazing known talents behind this film, it’s no surprise how damn good it is.  Fred Dekker co-wrote the screenplay with the excellent Shane Black who has written Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which he also directed).  The film was also executive produced by Peter Hyams, a great director and amazing cinematographer on films such as 2010, Running Scared, Timecop, Sudden Death, and End of Days.  It’s just enough talent to keep the quality at a high level in every aspect of the film.  The Monster Squad is genuinely very frightening because of that talent and quality standards.  Plenty of imposing atmosphere with beautiful cinematography that showcases integrity and great production values make for a highly effective and fun horror movie.  This might’ve only had an estimated budget of $12 million, but it sure doesn’t look like it.  This looks big budget all the way.

If there’s any negative mark to leverage against the film it would be the brisk 82 minute runtime.  The positive side of that is it moves at a very consistent, steady pace.  There are no lulls in the film.  It just keeps rolling forward, and flows exceptionally well.  Still, that 82 minutes hits you pretty hard making you wish there was a little more going on in that second act because you’re into the third act of the movie before you know it.  As I said, not much time is devoted to developing Dracula, and that’s certainly one area where they could’ve added in more content.  They quickly touch on an existing strong friendship between him and Frankenstein’s Monster, and that’s something which would’ve been interesting to see developed so to create more of an arc for Frank.  See him go from this brutish pawn of the villain to an ally of the heroes would be ripe for an extended setup and pay-off.

The Monster Squad seems to be a cult classic movie, and it’s sad and surprising that something of such high quality and solid entertainment value bombed hard at the box office.  Considering it opened two weeks after the vastly successful and more broadly appealing The Lost Boys, one could see it not having as much impact at the box office as Tri Star Pictures likely desired.  Still, making less than $4 million at the domestic box office is very harsh even for 1987’s standards.  Thankfully, time has been kind to this film, and it eventually got the treatment it deserved on DVD and Blu ray with a features loaded two-disc set that would satisfy any fan.  If you’ve never seen this movie, I give it an extremely solid recommendation.  You get a fine dose of adventure and fun with some solid, serious horror elements.  It is a PG-13 rated movie, but that is only because it lacks any serious gore or pervasive language.  It has plenty of suspense and unsettling moments that are greatly handled to where the rating is inconsequential.  It’s an exceptionally fun ride that shows deep respect to the icons of horror it showcases.


In The Mouth of Madness (1995)

What if you were nothing but a fictional character?  What if you were simply a figment of an author’s imagination?  What if reality, as you know it, ceased to exist?  What if you were the creation of horror writer Sutter Cane?  This is the premise for John Carpenter’s 1995 classic, In The Mouth of Madness.

Sam Neill stars as John Trent, a freelance insurance fraud investigator.  Trent is the best in the business, and has just debunked an insurance claim for his friend and colleague, Robbie (Bernie Casey).  After his job is done, Robbie wants Trent to investigate an insurance claim that has to do with the disappearance of best-selling horror novelist, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow).  Though, their meeting is cut short by an axe wielding maniac with a very bizarre look in his eyes.  This maniac nearly kills Trent, and he soon learns that this was Cane’s agent during a meeting with Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), the head man of the publishing company for Cane’s books.  Harglow introduces Trent to Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), who says that Cane’s writing tends to have a strange impact on its readers.  With the masses clamoring for Cane’s next novel, Harglow is desperate to find Cane, and more importantly, the complete manuscript for the novel, In The Mouth of Madness.  Grounded in reality, Trent believes this is all some elaborate publicity stunt by Harglow, and even concocts his own theory of it all.  Ultimately, he discovers a map built out of the Cane’s own book artwork that leads to the supposed fictional town of Hobb’s End, New Hampshire.  John is sent off with Linda to decipher this mystery, but slowly, reality begins to come undone as Sutter Cane starts to take control.  And no matter how much Styles tries to sway Trent’s perspective of everything that’s going on around them, he stands strong in what he believes to be real.  However, will this unraveling of reality around John Trent drive him straight into the mouth of madness?

Before I get into the meat of this film, I have to express my enjoyment of the film’s music.  As is well known, John Carpenter composes the music for his own films, and has a strong track record of excellent scores and main title themes.  Carpenter teams with Jim Lang to produce a fantastic score, and a very bluesy, yet extremely catchy main title theme.  If you like Carpenter’s score for Vampires, this theme will be right up there with it!  I have been a proud owner of the film’s original soundtrack album for many years, and that opening title theme is a true highlight for me.  Carpenter really kicks off this film right with this opening credits sequence, and really sets a great tone for the whole film.

Now, this final installment in John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (which also consists of The Thing and Prince of Darkness) features a fantastic cast!  In addition to Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, Event Horizon), Jürgen Prochnow (Beverly Hills Cop II), and Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes), you’ve got the great character actors in David Warner and one of my personal favorites, John Glover.  Warner starred in the late 80’s horror classic, Waxwork, has had several parts in the Star Trek film & television franchises, and worked previously with Carpenter on the anthology TV movie Body Bags.  John Glover you may know from the 1999 Mel Gibson revenge actioneer Payback, as the Devil on the short-lived FOX series Brimstone, from Gremlins 2, or more recently, his role as Lionel Luthor on Smallville.  Carpenter character actor regular Peter Jason also has an appearance early on in the film, and he brings out one of his best performances opposite Sam Neill as an insurance scammer.  It’s just a stellar cast that I think only Carpenter could’ve culled together.  Every single actor puts in a great performance, and Julie Carmen (Fright Night, Part II) is no exception either.

Most prominently, Sam Neill puts in a superb performance, as he always does, and grounds Trent well into the bounds of reality.  Even when a normal person would’ve given into some form of dementia or hysteria, Trent continues to weed out the con, and Neill makes it truly convincing.  He inhabits the character beautifully.  He richly knows the character.  He knows his reasoning, and understands how the character’s mind works.  He’s so dead set on finding some level of a con in all that’s going on around him that to give into the illusion Cane is creating is not a possibility.  Of course, when Trent eventually does go past the brink of sanity, Neill sells it well, but not by playing it as a crazy, but as a fearful prophet of doom.  He knows the inevitable truth, can do what he wants to stop it, but knows that it’s all a futile effort – the world is going mad, the end is near.  Overall, it’s an amazing and deeply fleshed out performance fueled by a wonderfully written character.

That being said, I cannot overlook Michael De Luca’s fantastic script, and I give him monstrous praise for the imagination it took to conjure together such a well-woven story of surrealism..  He forges a very intelligent piece of horror storytelling with a smart structure and strong, memorable characters.  It’s an entirely compelling premise that is frightening to contemplate, and is the core reason why this is my favorite horror film of all time.  It’s not just the idea of reality as we know it degenerating into a horrific nightmare, but how it is masterfully woven together through Trent’s eyes that makes this such a brilliant piece of cinematic awesomeness.  Of course, bringing it to John Carpenter was simply inspired and perfect.

Some say John Carpenter had lost his style and talent by the 90’s, and there ARE examples of that – Village of the Damned, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and eventually, Ghosts of Mars in 2000 – but this is not one of them.  He directs and shoots this film as well as Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, or even Halloween.  Carpenter really entrenches you in the world of Sutter Cane, and presents Cane as the imposing, frighteningly powerful figure he’s been built up to be.  The cinematography by Gary B. Kibbe is fantastic here, and it fits well with Carpenter’s style.  It allows for dramatic tension, a foreboding atmosphere, and it nicely conveys the entire ‘unraveling of reality’ element that builds throughout the entire film.  This is one of John Carpenter’s best films ever, and it’s only a shame that it doesn’t get as greatly noticed or appreciated as it deserves to be.

The only detractor I find in the entire film are the ‘unspeakable abominations’ that are unleashed from ‘the other side’ late in the film.  Not to say anything bad about the usually fantastic makeup and creature effects of KNB EFX Group, but it may have played a little better if we never actually saw these creatures.  Keep them hidden, and left in shadow.  I just think that unspeakable abominations are better left to the imagination of the audience.  They just don’t sell well with me here, but their sequence is a quiet brief and only in quick cuts.  So, it’s nothing to ruin the film for you.  This is far too exceptional and frightening of a film to have such a minor thing like that overshadow it.  There are intensely horrific images within this movie that will disturb you, make you cringe.  One of the main influences for much of the film were the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  I have read a good deal of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and the imagery and feel of this film truly conveys much of what Lovecraft expressed in his work.  Thank KNB EFX Group for creating such dead-on creations that really hold to that influence.  They proved their cutting edge talent here with amazing and unsettling make-up effects which bring the horror to intense life.

In The Mouth of Madness is, without a doubt, a Carpenter classic, and is as deserving of all the praise as his other classics.  He takes De Luca’s superb screenplay, and realizes it with the skill of a master craftsman.  Every nuance in this subtle, intricate horror story is brilliantly executed with a dead-on perfect cast.  Carpenter and De Luca weave a chilling story that is strong, setting up characters, a reality, a plot, and then, slowly deconstructing it piece by piece.  What remains in the end is madness, and a thought-provoking, but still entertaining horror movie.  There is only one other thing to say here, and that is, you need to go watch this movie!