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Deep Rising (1998)

Deep RisingThe recommendation to see this film came from an odd source.  An internet radio show discussion about the biggest box office bombs of all time.  Deep Rising did just over $11 million on a $45 million budget in 1998 with a cruddy January release date.  This was undoubtedly a major failure on behalf of the marketing campaign because, for me, this is a fun, exciting, scary, and action-packed film that is designed as a crowd pleaser.  This comes to us from Stephen Sommers whose follow-up would be the massively successful and entertaining The Mummy, and if you enjoyed that film I really believe Deep Rising should work just as well for you.

The most luxurious cruise liner in the world, owned by Simon Canton (Anthony Heald), is on her maiden voyage when it is damaged and attacked from beneath the sea.  Meanwhile, John Finnegan (Treat Williams) and his crew, who have a policy of “if the cash is there, we don’t care,” transport what turn out to be a band of ruthless hijackers who intend to seize and rob the cruise.  However, when they all arrive, they discover the passengers have mysteriously disappeared, but they are not alone.  Something is lurking behind every deck and passageway, snatching the intruders one by one, and they all now must fight together to escape with their lives.

What pleasantly hooked me first is the good cast.  It’s not a stunning set of acting jobs, but these are actors who were having fun with the material and strike a solid chemistry.  I’ve been seeing Treat Williams lately in television guest spots, but as a fatherly figure.  Him as more of an action centric lead was really good.  He demonstrates a fun, lively charisma that keeps you invested in how this plot unfolds.  He felt very capable and comfortable in this role, which was originally intended for Harrison Ford.  If you can think of Air Force One Harrison Ford, I’m sure the idea fits fine in your head, but Williams really does a superb job in this lead role.  One might expect having him and Famke Janssen billed as leads would add up to a particular romantic subplot.  There is a relationship built up between them, but the film doesn’t slow down for them to develop it in a traditional way.  It’s more of a bond built out of the intensity of the situation, but there’s some nice pay-off with them at the end.  They work well together equally carrying the weight of the action nicely.

Famke Janssen’s character, Trillian St. James, is a thief who tries to use slight of hand to slip into Canton’s vault early on, and really only survives due to being locked in the brig.  However, the character doesn’t have much to her after the thief plot has evaporated, and is certainly doesn’t show off Janssen’s incredible talent.  So, it’s not a film that’s going to go deep into characters like Die Hard, but the action moves fast enough that you don’t really notice it.  I also enjoyed the humor from Kevin J. O’Connor’s character of Joey, Finnegan’s fun and quirky mechanic.  Stephen Sommers would use him very regularly in his films from here on out, and I think O’Connor is a very good actor showing a range from serious roles like in Lord of Illusions to outright comedy in The Mummy.  It’s possible that not everyone would enjoy him as the comic relief, but for me, he’s a little charming and surely funny.  I never found him obtrusive as he definitely works well with Treat Williams, but also has some good adversarial dynamics with the mercenary characters.

Wes Studi portrays the mercenary leader Hanover to great effect.  The actor should be known to Michael Mann fans as he had a supporting LAPD role in Heat and a prominent role in The Last of the Mohicans.  Here, the work as Hanover is not as demanding, but he portrays a solid adversary who holds a tenuous allegiance through this harrowing scenario with Finnegan.  At anytime, he can be strictly in command, but he can be, usually, smart enough to know when to work side-by-side in order to survive.  The actors portraying his mercenaries are very good especially Trevor Goddard who was Kano in the live action Mortal Kombat movie.  I enjoyed him being in the movie so much that I wish he was in more of it.

I’m actually a big fan of Anthony Heald.  I’ve seen him on screen a few times on Law & Order and Miami Vice, but my fandom is more from his great voice work on various Star Wars audio books.  He’s got a lot of sly, ingenious talent, and he portrays Simon Canton very entertainingly.  As the film progresses, you learn some unsavory, underhanded things he’s done, and Heald plays up that aspect more and more.  He takes what appeared to be a very refined yet charismatic and cowardly character and deteriorate him into a despicable, enjoyably sleazy adversary.  He was fun to watch, and the film deals with its less desirable characters with a lot of satisfaction.  Overall, I think all of the actors do a good job as they seemed to all put their best foot forward for this fun thrill ride.

The pacing right out the gate is really solid.  It keeps moving forward at a tight rhythm and pace to rarely ever linger on any one scene.  This is aided by some signature Sommers humor that is sharp and succinct.  The actors all have really good chemistry to make this work, and Sommers maintains the right balance to not sacrifice good tension and terror for laughs.  Still, I was thinking about halfway through the runtime how the film was going to keep up this survival / escape plan plot for another fifty minutes, but it throws in a number of smart turns, dangerous obstacles, and thrilling sequences to achieve that.  Sommers keeps the film rolling forward with a lot of momentum, and of course, people get picked off one-by-one escalate the peril.  Sommers gives us a fine melding of horror and action with enough to satisfy whatever you primarily desire more.  Plenty of people get killed and eaten in bloody fashion, and there’s more than enough gunplay and fiery explosions to amp up the excitement.  Yet, overall, it’s just fun without taking itself too seriously.

By no doubt, this is a fairly simple plot.  Deep Rising starts out as a covert heist mission on the sea, but intriguingly twists into a sea monster movie that requires everyone to fight to survive.  Why they don’t just haul ass out of there is handled well as Finnegan’s boat needs hull and engine repairs.  Yet, it’s not a simple task getting out of the luxury cruise liner as danger awaits at every turn and in every flooded deck.  Even then, not everyone between Finnegan’s crew and these mercenaries can trust one another, and that plays nicely into keeping the adventure treacherous.  This felt like a nice mix of The Poseidon Adventure and Aliens with a little dash of Die Hard for the thieves / mercenaries plot.  I just really liked the close quarters feel of the ship which also reminded me of Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, but achieved with better results.  There really is so much potential for a suspenseful movie set in that environment, and this film really delivered that to my satisfaction.

Still, as I was watching this I was waiting for something to pop up on screen to justify this film’s box office reputation.  Just something stupid or low grade.  I was enjoying it so much that I was expecting the CGI to be really bad, but quite frankly, in general, this is particularly good for the late 90’s.  It’s rather on par with the digital effects in The Mummy for the most part, and the sea creature itself is impressively designed.  That design is courtesy of Rob Bottin who was responsible for the groundbreaking and timeless creature effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing.  There’s some traces of that in here, but Bottin is able to make it its own distinct creation.  Tentacles are everywhere, and the long jagged teeth springing out from it are frightening.  The tentacles frequently slither out from nowhere, or bust out from the hull or metal corridors.  Sommers does a great job building up tension and suspense by gradually unveiling the creature.  We get small glimpses of it, and even when you think you’ve seen it in all of its slimy, ferocious glory, the climax gives you the Coup de grâce.  There are plenty of fun scares and thrills in how these dangerous scenarios unfold from well crafted tension to straight out intense action beats.

The action all around is just great with a really great, slick, high octane finale, and all of those thrills, tension, and intensity are well fleshed out with Jerry Goldsmith’s score.  It just has a great driving rhythm and rousing, dramatic momentum to it, clearly reflecting the movie right on the mark.  I didn’t expect Goldsmith’s name to be attached to this movie, but he really did deliver something solid that played up the strengths of it.  It’s never going to amongst his revered legacy of work, but he did his job perfectly with this score by giving it just what it required.

Held together by some solid cinematography that always keeps the geography of these close quarters very coherent, and editing that maintains that consistent rhythm and tempo, I really have to say Stephen Sommers did an excellent job here.  No one tried to make Deep Rising out to be more than what it was designed to be – a big, fun, suspenseful, action-packed ride.  The film does have this sequel tease at the end, and while that was probably a fun final moment back in 1998, it’s not so much fifteen years later.  Knowing the film bombed and no sequel was ever made, it just leaves you desiring a more proper conclusion to this adventure.  Regardless, Deep Rising showed a lot of potential to be a hit.  However, its failure was not the fault of the movie, but of a really underwhelming marketing campaign.  The trailer feels like a slapped together direct-to-video trailer which conveys none of the film’s suspense or wider plot elements, and instead, relies a lot on CGI shots of the monster.  That trailer sells this as a forgettable, cheaply executed movie.  The poster campaign had some good teaser style ideas but lacked a big eye catching poster to encapsulate the film’s overall excitement and scare factor.  It even resorts to promoting it as being “from the special effects team who made Total Recall and Star Wars.”  How is that supposed to sell the quality of the movie?  Beyond all that, a late January release was not a target for big box office success.  Stephen Sommers made a really solid crowd pleaser of a movie, but was marketed lazily.  That’s a real shame because this is a film I would’ve loved to have even seen back in 1998.  It would’ve been a long time action favorite of mine.  Still, I really like the tagline of “Full Scream Ahead.”  Anyway, you can tell that I give Deep Rising a really solid recommendation.  I thoroughly enjoyed everything it had to offer, and I think a lot of other people will, too.

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GoldenEye (1995)

GoldenEye is the first Bond film I ever saw.  My sister has been a big Pierce Brosnan fan since Remington Steele.  So, us and some friends saw this on opening weekend, and even if there wasn’t that sentimental value, I would still call this one of the finest James Bond films I’ve ever seen.  While it’s not perfect, it excels far beyond so many others that I’ve already reviewed here, and even Brosnan’s follow-ups.

Nine years ago, British Secret Agent James Bond 007 (Pierce Brosnan) infiltrated a chemical weapons facility in Russia with friend and fellow MI-6 Agent Alec Trevelyan 006 (Sean Bean), but the mission went awry when corrupt Russian military officer General Ourumov (Gottfried John) murdered 006.  Today, Bond is assigned by his new boss, a female ‘M’ (Judi Dench) to recover GoldenEye, an orbiting Russian radiation pulse weapon that can destroy any electronic device within its blast radius.  The GoldenEye has been stolen from the Severnya research station by General Ourumov and the lethal and deadly Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), where they also slaughtered the entire staff.  However, there was a lone survivor in computer programmer Natalya Siminova (Izabella Scorupco) who Bonds seeks out in addition to the criminal figure named Janus who Ourumov and Xenia are working for.  Yet, after navigating through the Russian criminal underworld, 007 soon comes face-to-face with the man himself, revealed to be a scarred but living Alec Trevelyan who now seeks to wipe out London with GoldenEye.  With Natalya’s help, Bond races to save London from destruction as well as combat a man that knows him better than he knows himself.

GoldenEye features a great pre-credits sequence that is smart, suspenseful, and lays a strong emotional groundwork for the film, introducing two of its lead villains and our new Bond in Pierce Brosnan.  It also gives the sense of unfinished business amongst these characters which is greatly punctuated by the mysterious title song sung by Tina Turner and written by Bono and The Edge of U2.  The song feels like classic Bond with a gorgeous sound which fits Ms. Turner beautifully.  The title sequence is equally breathtaking with its fall of communism theme.  Making great use of digital effects, this is a title sequence that is able to be very ambitious with its ideas and make them pure reality.  It makes a fantastic splash to an audience that had been without new Bond for six years.

Pierce Brosnan’s Bond both embodies a serious sense of action and dramatic weight as well as a sly, suave, and fun mentality.  He’s a man that enjoys indulging himself in the finer things, and sharing some witty repartee with his friends or adversaries.  Brosnan gracefully balances the slightly immature or playful aspects of the character with the straight seriousness Bond must demonstrate as an agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  He’s sophisticated, charming, classy, and elegant.  Brosnan certainly had the charisma and sex appeal to make his portrayal exciting and fresh.  Beyond all else, Brosnan is clearly taking a lot of pleasure in his performance.

The screenwriters and especially director Martin Campbell do an excellent job of building up suspense in this story.  Plot elements are strategically and methodically laid out setting the stage for a very strong story and masterfully executed film.  It has plenty of atmosphere and dramatic tension as 007 weaves his way through the Russian criminal underworld.  What starts out seeming like a subversive plot by a man Bond harbors feelings of revenge against develops into something far more startling for 007.  Revenge is abandoned for betrayal, and the plot becomes a more dimensionally personal one for James Bond.  We get many strong moments of emotional depth from various characters.  Natalya especially shows sorrow, grief, and anger, but is able to connect with James on a very honest and passionate level.  She is able to give him perspective on his feelings of betrayal, and he is able to focus them into a very sharp and clear intent.  The script gives every featured character dimension and purpose with their own relationships.  Natalya has some payback to deliver to Boris, the Severnaya computer programmer who also works for Alec and Ourumov, and James has plenty of sordid business with Ourumov, Xenia, and certainly Alec.  It’s all woven together into a very smartly structured and interconnected plot.  No issues are left unresolved, and everyone has their moments of prominence and purpose.  Simply said, this is a great work of screenwriting with a fresh approach that brought Bond strongly and smartly into a post-Cold War world.

The filmmakers use a combination of digital, practical, and miniature effects work to create some absolutely stunning sequences.  The destruction of the Severnaya facility alone is spectacular.  While the mixture of effects are noticeable to my well trained eyes, they are still damn great.  They create a high quality look for Bond’s first foray into the 90s, and deliver on the standards that you’ve come to except from this series.

The cinematography is also excellent creating some strong atmosphere that gives the film some edge, but never gets especially heavy.  It greatly holds the dramatic weight and urgency of the story with gorgeous lighting and an expert use of angles and composition.  All of the action is shot superbly giving us a great sense of fast paced movement while never sacrificing a clear sense of geography.  This is a golden example of how to competently and thrillingly shoot an action movie.  Enhancing that is some tight, solid editing.  Further credit goes to director Martin Campbell for knowing how to assemble all of these stunning elements into an amazing, rock solid, and exciting film.

My favorite action sequence is indeed the tank chase through St. Petersburg in Russia.  Bond commandeering a Russian tank to chase after Ourumov, who has captured Natalya, is just pure Bond excess and indulgence which has its equal shares of thrills and humor.  It comes off as light-hearted and fun, but never truly silly.  Other sequences are immensely excellent defining the tone of Brosnan’s Bond, and building up a very rousing action film with plenty of consequences.  The climax is absolutely awesome with plenty of big action and fiery thrills to result in an excellent pay-off.  James and Alec battle on the satellite dish in Cuba at a very precarious height.  Both Brosnan and Bean show their immense physical condition and ability to create a very intense and dynamic fight.

GoldenEye features three very good and enjoyable villains.  I think my personal favorite is General Ourumov.  He’s perfectly underhanded and slimy.  Actor Gottfried John put a little bit of wit and humorous charisma into the role making him a lot of fun to watch.  He’s very entertaining during the tank chase where he’s drinking from a flask, obviously a little stressed out, but John maintains him as a cunning and threatening villain.  It’s only a little too bad he doesn’t make it through to the final act of the film, and gets a rather unceremonious departure.

Of course, there’s the incredible Famke Janssen as the very lustful Xenia Onatopp.  She is a very wild woman who gains sensual ecstasy, not from sexual pleasure, but from violence and murder.  Janssen puts so much vile, dangerous passion into this role that she is instantly memorable.  The fact that Xenia likes to kill men by squeezing the life out of them with her legs wrapped around them is only found in a Bond film, and enhances the sexual drive of the character.  This is the role that easily broke her career wide open, and she has enjoyed the subsequent success ever since.

This film also introduced me to Sean Bean and his fine acting talents.  I think it was a great idea to have a villain with a personal connection to James Bond, someone that was once his friend, and could be viewed as his equal in many ways.  Instead of it being a revenge motivation like in Licence to Kill, we get a story of betrayal.  Bean’s performance is almost a dark reflection of Bond, but with a more malicious, malevolent vibe instead of a sly arrogance.  The best part of Alec and James’ exchanges are how deep their words penetrate past their facades or personas.  Still, it seems Alec has the upper hand in bruising James’ soul, probably because he still has one to bruise.  Sean Bean gives us a solid Bond villain who doesn’t fall into the clichéd tropes of old.  He’s more modern and personal of a character that was a fresh, solid fit for this film.

Alan Cumming also chimes in as the very funny and charismatic Boris Grishenko.  Cumming is a marvelously diverse actor who can do practically anything, and he does it amazingly well.  As Boris, he delivers a particularly salacious character who is so entertaining that it’s hard to entirely hate him.  While he is a traitor that left Natalya to die, Cumming’s too much of a vibrant source of laughs to condemn Boris fully, but you still enjoy it when he gets his comeuppance.

On the heroic Bond girl side, Izabella Scorupco proves to be a remarkable talent who shows a wide range of emotion as Natalya.  She can be fun and endearing as well as dig down deep with the pain and grief, such as in the ruins of the Severnaya facility.  What Scorupco puts forth in those scenes is very powerful and a bit heartbreaking.  The emotion really penetrates through the screen as it flows out of every fiber of her being.  She also has plenty of strength and fire as well as compassion and vulnerability to make Natalya a very well rounded and realistic person to invest our sympathies with.  Unlike some other Bond girls, she’s not just along for the ride.  She has a strong, personal stake in everything, and is willing to fight right alongside James at every step.  Her and Brosnan have great chemistry and rhythm between them sharing in the funny, dramatic, and heartfelt moments.  They were a beautiful fit that really gives this film even more strength and weight.

Also, we get a far more satisfying performance from Joe Don Baker here as CIA contact Jack Wade than with his Bond villain turn in The Living Daylights.  He uses his charisma and comic timing to great effect making Wade a genuinely funny personality that became a welcomed returning character in Tomorrow Never Dies.  Considering Felix Leiter got his leg chomped off by a shark in the previous Bond film, the filmmakers decided to change things up with a new CIA contact for Bond, and I think they created a very fresh and entertaining character that contrasted Bond while still complementing him.

Last, but not least, Judi Dench was a brilliant choice for this role, and the idea behind the character was brilliant as well.  Making the head of MI-6 now a woman made the old Bond concepts fresh with new perspectives applied to them.  Her “M” only has two scenes early on, but she really sets a tone that challenges James Bond’s misogynistic and cavalier attitudes.  Yet, for as much as she creates friction with Bond, she also shows her compassion by wishing Bond to come back in one piece.  Dench’s character is appropriately hard when she needs to be, but soft when it counts.  Through both Brosnan and Daniel Craig, she has really developed an excellent character who has become a welcomed highlight of every Bond film for the last seventeen years.

If there’s one thing to levy against GoldenEye is the lack of the classic Bond style scope.  The bulk of the film takes place inside Russia with the final half hour in Cuba.  There are not many exotic locales, or a wide spread canvas for Bond to traverse.  Because of this, the film feels a little narrow in scope.  This was definitely rectified in Pierce Brosnan’s subsequent Bond films, but I feel those films lost the edge this film had.  While Brosnan’s performances never went down in quality, the scripts or filmmakers could never quite hit the personal or passionate nerve that GoldenEye hit for the character.  While not all Bond films need to have plots of a strongly personal nature, I think that element helps to keep the films grounded.  Die Another Day certainly tried to walk the line of personal revenge and over the top indulgence, but the latter tended to dilute the former.  So, while the scopes of the following three films were certainly broadened, the stories didn’t quite have the personal drive of GoldenEye.  While it’s not the perfect or quintessential Bond film that Brosnan could’ve made, I do feel it’s his strongest, most consistent outing.  Although, this is just my personal taste.

After such a long absence from cinemas, many questioned whether or not James Bond was still relevant after the end of the Cold War.  GoldenEye dealt with that blatantly, and answered it with a resounding “yes.”  Director Martin Campbell brought together just the right elements to make this a refreshing, revitalizing success.  It’s no wonder that he was brought back about a decade later to reboot the franchise with yet another fresh approach and tone.  With this film, Pierce Brosnan made a big impact with a James Bond that instantly won over audiences.  It returned us to the suave and sophisticated sensibilities of the character while losing none of the intense action oriented excitement that we all desire from 007.  With a great cast inhabiting some solid and entertaining characters, and a solid foundation of talent behind the camera in all departments, GoldenEye still proves to be an excellent and highly satisfying entry in this franchise.  And yes, James Bond will return, again.


House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Back in 1999, the horror genre was a different game.  We were in the wake of the post-modern, self-referential Scream clones, but there was room for something a little more creepy and atmospheric.  Remakes hadn’t become an epidemic, despite a couple of reviled ones surfacing.  Then arose Dark Castle Entertainment who wanted to re-fashion several old William Castle black & white scare flicks for a modern audience.  In the long run, their attempts took a quick, steep decline in quality, but their first effort was House on Haunted Hill, which originally starred classic horror icon Vincent Price.  This was an interesting effort that left many critics of the day very cold, but I have always found it to be an effective, if slightly flawed film that did entertain.

Eccentric millionaire and amusement park thrill ride mogul Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) learns that his vindictive wife, Evelyn (Famke Janssen), twistedly chooses to hold her birthday party at the “House on Haunted Hill.”  The house used to be the Vannacutt Institute for the Criminally Insane until a violent mass murder marked its end decades ago.  Being an equally twisted master of thrills, Steven plans to alter his wife’s guest list, but the vengeful spirits of the house have other plans.  When the five guests arrive at the house, they are met by Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan), whose grandfather designed the house, and whose father helped build it.  After a bit of a scare to jump start them all, Steven Price reveals himself and his intentions in grand fashion – he knows no other way.  If these guests can all survive the night, they will receive one million dollars each, and if any should die, their money shall be divided up between the survivors.  Obviously, none of them know why they’ve been invited to this place, and neither do Steven or Evelyn.  However, when the house suddenly and mysteriously goes into lockdown, sealing off all exits, and further bizarre, frightening incidents occur, they slowly begin to heed Pritchett’s claims of the house being haunted by the murderous spirits of the inmates who were killed here decades ago.

House on Haunted Hill is an immensely creepy film.  There is a wealth of frighteningly chaotic and psychotic imagery that will have most audiences jumping out of their skin.  It has a very classic haunted house ghost story, but with a modern intensity.  There’s a mix of subtle, ominous moments, and intense in-your-face, bone rattling scares.  One of the best chilling moments is when one of the characters, toting a video camera, comes across a room of ghosts who are only visible via the video camera.  She observes them for a moment before they all become aware that she is watching them.  The scene is then punctuated with one of the film’s biggest exclamation points.  It’s a deeply effective scene on multiple levels with a creepy setup and startling conclusion.

The film really incorporates plenty of dark, eerie atmosphere and a chilling sound design to keep an audience rattled and on edge.  The cinematography by Rick Bota is very powerful with an abundance of shadows and clever, moody lighting which set a very rich tone throughout the picture.  There’s a very effective score by Don Davis who incorporates some dark, heavy compositions that really drive home the imminent danger and ominous, haunting qualities here.  His score never allows you to feel very safe at any moment in the film, but still is able to strongly punctuate the right scares at the right times.

Making the house an actual former asylum for the criminally insane run by a madman was a great idea.  It opened the film up to some extremely disturbing visuals such as when Steven Price is locked in the “saturation chamber” which causes sensory overload, and forces him to become delusional.  All of that archaic, jagged medical equipment really added a creepy feeling to the bowels of the house.  It just has a very hard edged industrial look that brings out a very primal fear.  The Dr. Vannacutt character himself comes off as immensely disturbing without ever speaking a word, and seeing his ghost stalk the house always sends chills up and down my spine.  The bizarre, jittery motion of Vannacutt presents something so unnatural that it is downright creepy.  Not only is this place haunted, but it’s haunted by the mentally disturbed.  The creep factor couldn’t be richer in that regard.  It’s a very smart creative direction for this remake.  It adds something new to the mix without altering the base concept.

The cast here is all gold all the way through.  You can never deny the wonderful charismatic work of Geoffrey Rush.  He leads the film with a very sly, venomous quality and a rich helping of enthusiasm.  He was having a lot of fun playing this role.  Steven Price will do anything for a good scare.  That makes the character both very interesting and entertaining, but also, a cutthroat foil for certain characters.  Being so cunningly manipulative and dastardly egotistical, he is easily viewed as shady and coldly villainous.  Overall, Steven Price is a showman, and there couldn’t have been a better actor to bring those elegant, classy qualities to life than Geoffrey Rush.  Also, the mustache was a nice touch to his appearance emulating the look of Vincent Price.

There is a dark, spicy performance here from Famke Janssen who is right up to Geoffrey Rush’s level as a conniving, devilish woman.  There’s no lack of a dangerous edge to Evelyn as she proves to be capable of wicked, devious turns.  The love-hate relationship between the unhappily married Prices is a juicy bit of conflict in the film, and provides a lot of fine material for Rush and Janssen to work with.  Their chemistry is deliciously vile, and creates an enthralling, passionate fire to keep the film lively.

Chris Kattan has great comedic energy, as always.  He plays up Pritchett’s skittish fear in a very entertaining way.  He’s the one person that knows the dreadful reality of the house, and that frightful knowledge really manifests in a very funny yet prophetic performance.  It adds levity where needed while bolstering the grim threat that the house does possess.  Kattan’s performance really sets a foreboding tone that plays nicely off of Geoffrey Rush’s more mischievous, enjoyably despicable style.

The always vibrant Taye Diggs plays the strong heroic type in the ex-pro baseball player Eddie Baker.  Diggs is a bright talent with a lot of charm and charisma who never fails to endear himself to an audience, and that’s no different here.  The beautiful Ali Larter from Final Destination fame gives us a solid, assertive performance as Sara Wolfe that really drives her into the forefront by the end.  Bridgette Wilson does nicely as the ambitious Melissa, but has the least amount of screentime of the main cast to really breakout.  Of course, the wonderfully talented Peter Gallagher brings a subtle, engaging intelligence to Donald W. Blackburn, M.D., and showcases a fine tinge of humor and a perfectly seedy dark side.  He has a nice twist in the film that fits comfortably into the treacherous, scheming ways of the Prices.  Capping it off is genre great Jeffrey Combs who puts in an excellently psychotic and spine-tingling performance as Dr. Vannacutt.

Granted, aside from Steven and Evelyn Price, the characters aren’t given all that much to work with.  They’re essentially one-note characters, but in a lively, entertaining B-movie style with high quality talents behind them.  The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and basically just wants you to have fun scaring you in the most effective ways possible.  With a solid cast that has very natural chemistry together, it makes that approach work very well.

The film does have some highly effective visual effects, and the practical effects are yet again done by the standard bearers of the industry – KNB EFX Group.  You’re likely to see them pop up in a lot of reviews I’m doing for Forever Horror Month because of that fact. While House on Haunted Hill is not very heavy on splatter effects, it does have its generous helping of blood, a few graphic images that required only the best to achieve them.

The digital effects near the end when the full dark spirits are unleashed are arguable if they’re up to the standards of 1999 era CGI.  Regardless, they still come off as very lacking, in retrospect.  To my eyes, they just seem rather typical and not exceptional in conception or execution.  They seem more akin to what you’d see if this were adapted into a video game at the time, but for the big monstrous evil to cap off the film, it is a definite nose dive.  While some effects in this climactic sequence are a little better than others, the CGI apparition just doesn’t do much at all for me.  It’s a failure in design, primarily, and quite lackluster in execution.  For a film that showed some strong creativity in its scares and production design, this feels like someone running out of good ideas at the last minute.  This digital creation definitely could’ve used more creative thought put into it for a more unique impact.

The ending overall is not the best it could have been.  It just sort of shifts into high gear racing to the end credits in the last ten minutes discarding with much of the plot and suspense it had built up, and it dispatches of its characters very swiftly.  The richly enjoyable characters just don’t have a conclusion befitting their performances, and are disposed of like ripe smelling trash.  While the “darkness” is setup early on, the creep factor of the film is so focused on the Vannacutt spirit and the other twisted ghosts that it just goes a little off-kilter when it takes a turn into that full-on CGI creation stalking the characters.  The film could’ve used a far smoother and natural transition into its final act, and had a more prolonged climax to allow for a more graceful resolution for each member of this stellar cast.  As it is, a great scene of Steven and Evelyn literally at each others’ throats is cut short to unleash this manifestation of evil.  It’s an abrupt shift in the momentum and direction of the film, and in this case, it works against the better strengths of the film.  It’s not a bad ending, just one that disappoints when the build up had more potential.  A better setup would have been showing this darkness slowly leaking out throughout the film until it finally forms out in the open, thus, allowing for an underlying foreboding tension to build as the film goes on.  It would allow the knowledge that this darker, more powerful evil is soon to befall these characters instead of springing it onto an audience in sudden fashion.

I do like the reveal of why the ghosts chose these people to invite to the party.  It fulfills the vengeful spirit angle smartly, and gives a purpose to collecting an unlikely group of strangers here.  How it pays off at the very end is rather cheap, and adds to the weakness of the film’s conclusion.  That whole ending just feels like a different screenwriter took over without a fraction of the ambition for creativity as the rest of the movie.  I will give credit to how the Steven Price character continually enhances the danger, tension, and distrust as the film goes on.  Giving everyone a handgun is the first unsettling step.  The fact that he has the house wired up with video cameras, and likely has plenty of wild tricks setup throughout the house, heightens that shady air of distrust.  He establishes the intense, sly situation with a devilish smirk so that everyone can easily accuse Price of these strange occurrences, and they constantly do so throughout the film as people die or go missing.  This creates a strong conflict as Price sees the ghost of Vannacutt stalking through the house, knowing exactly who is responsible, even if he doesn’t believe what he is.  It’s a smart dynamic which maintains a level of heightened tension, paranoia, and suspense amongst these diverse personalities.  There’s enough uncertainty circulating amongst these characters to constantly question what to believe.  It keeps them nicely off-balance for an exciting, intense ride.  Generally speaking, the premise is nicely laid out with a tight pacing that keeps the thrills coming at a regular interval.

The direction of William Malone is superb as he easily gave us the best film from Dark Castle Entertainment.  Obviously, it has its flaws near the end, but up until then, it is a film of solid, spine chilling scares with plenty of creepy atmosphere.  It has plenty of fun thrills that will satisfy a late night desire for a haunted house tale.  The film is worth seeing just for the entertaining cast with Geoffrey Rush and Chris Kattan the most enjoyable among them.  House on Haunted Hill was a decent success for Dark Castle that I think holds more entertainment value than most critics gave it credit for.  It’s certainly not a great horror movie, but it’s definitely a good one that delivers on the scares.  I do recommend it, but just don’t expect much from the ending.  Enjoy the good while it lasts!


Lord of Illusions (1995)

While I have only ever seen two films directed by macabre horror writer Clive Barker, he is actually one of my favorite filmmakers.  Hellraiser was the first reason, but this film, Lord of Illusions, is the biggest reason.  Released in 1995 in the midst of a bad stretch of time for the horror genre, Clive Barker was ambitious in telling a film noir detective horror story.  Theatrically, the film was not well represented with a lot of pertinent, quality scenes cutout for a tighter runtime, and box office was not very lucrative.  I cannot find a record for the film’s budget, but I’m sure it exceeded the box office gross of $13 million.  Thankfully, the home video market allowed Barker the opportunity to release his definitive director’s cut of this excellent film, and I can’t imagine anyone watching this film in any other way.

New York private detective Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) finds himself repeatedly drawn into disturbing supernatural events, much to his strong reluctance.  He takes an insurance fraud case in Los Angeles as a change of pace, but soon, he finds himself in the world between illusion and true magic.  The world’s greatest illusionist Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) is killed in a graphic on-stage accident, and Harry is driven to discover the truth behind it.  Hired by Swann’s gorgeous wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen), Harry delves deep into the secretive world of magic, and encounters dangerous foes including the peculiar, yet lethal Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman).  What Harry uncovers is that a cult leader named Nix (Daniel von Bargen), who could perform real magic and taught Swann to do so as well, is feared to be able to defy the grave that Swann and Dorothea put him in, and will return to exact horrific revenge upon the world.  What Harry D’Amour may come to realize is that death is the ultimate illusion.

The film sets a very dangerous, foreboding tone right from the outset.  A series of grim images of a decrepit, desolate wasteland open the picture telling you that dark, evil forces await us.  This opening sequence shows Swann and his friends confronting Nix and his followers in the Mojave Desert thirteen years prior, and sets the stage for where Harry D’Amour will enter their unsettling lives in the present day.  It clues you in on exactly what horrors Nix was capable of, and why Swann and his estranged friends now fear his return so gravely.  The production design of Nix’s stronghold is perfectly macabre and disturbing.  It has that dead-on Clive Barker dark, gritty style with a sort of grotesque beauty.  It is photographed with a generous amount of shadow using the light to accentuate only certain sections of the environment.  This style carries over into all the visually darker scenes creating a gorgeous film noir style.  This is just a beautifully shot movie in any condition of light or shadow.  While cinematographer Ronn Schmidt doesn’t have much in the way of high profile films to his résumé, I can surely tell he had a major wealth of artistic potential when coupled with the right director.

Clive Barker magnificently proves his talent and worth as a filmmaker here.  I think Lord of Illusions really is a masterpiece of supernatural noir horror.  It’s a greatly intelligent film that blends two very comparable genres together in a beautiful way.  The film sets up the horror elements first with that amazingly chilling opening sequence, but doesn’t really explain anything to the audience.  So, as Harry D’Amour is pulled into this plot, we still have questions that need answering, and it is a dangerous path for Harry to walk to reach those answers.  There are plenty of secrets that many would kill to have or to keep hidden, but Harry is an intelligent enough hero to see through the spook tactics and walls of deception to get to that truth.  The moments of horror are powerful such as the flashes Harry has of the exorcism he was involved in.  The sight of the stark white demon is nightmarishly striking.  Dorothea also has visions of blood and death which tell her that Nix’s return is soon to come.  Butterfield’s strange lackey Miller also provides much in the way of savage gore and violence.  How he survives a third story fall to the pavement enhances the bizarre nature of the film’s foes.  Clive Barker knew how to use film as a canvas for brilliant brush strokes.  Melding so many different complex aspects of this story would not be easy to do, but he had a clear and vibrant vision which he was able to realize.  Not to mention, he brought us one of his absolute best creations ever.

I really love the Harry D’Amour character as portrayed by Scott Bakula.  He is endlessly fascinating to me.  A hardened private investigator who gets caught up in all manner of supernatural danger is so ripe with potential.  The fact that he is reluctant to be wrapped up in this world, but is inevitably drawn to it makes for a great character dynamic.  He’s a man that has subscribed to many faiths in his day, possibly to attempt to find answers or solace for the evil he has faced.  It shows he’s a man of a wide open mind, but not without his skepticism.  True to being a detective, he accepts nothing purely on face value alone.  He has a probing mind with a keen intellect that makes him an interesting hero to follow.  He’s intent on unraveling a mystery in a world built upon secrets.  Scott Bakula gives a warm, soulful quality to D’Amour that comes to life opposite Dorothea.  He also shows Harry to be a capable and confident man of action making him a very well-rounded character.  He’s smart and perceptive as well as having a good heart that contrasts the darkness he’s engulfed in.  Bakula did research the role, and helped add in more traits of what Barker had previously written for the character.  The tattoo on Harry’s back resulted from that research and collaboration.  Scott Bakula does an excellent job with this role that I wish fortunes could’ve allowed us to be exposed to beyond this film, but nothing is ever truly impossible.  One can still hope for another prime opportunity to arise for Bakula and Barker to reunite.

When Clive Barker saw the headshot of Famke Janssen during casting, he knew he had found Dorothea.  Her air of class and elegance truly shines through in this role.  When Harry first sees her its in the golden late afternoon sunlight, and she couldn’t be more captivatingly beautiful.  She easily captures Harry’s heart, and that leads the two down a very passionate path.  Bakula and Janssen have a seductive chemistry that is captured magnificently by the camera.  Their love scene is gorgeous.  I like the fact that Lord of Illusions came just before Famke became a villainous Bond girl in GoldenEye.  Thus, it gives Barker some special credit for recognizing her talent and beauty before her breakout role.  As Dorothea, she is both vulnerable and strong creating a fine mix to make her a damsel in distress, but not one that’s afraid to fight for herself when the opportunity arises.

I have to admit that I love the character of Butterfield.  He’s perfectly androgynous with a slinking quality that makes him very serpent like.  Barry Del Sherman uses his body language fluidly as he slipped into the skin of this peculiar villain.  It’s wonderfully written as a dangerous, off-beat character that one might not take seriously at first glance.  However, Butterfield quickly demonstrates a lethal, sadistic quality that he uses in calculated fashion.  He truly takes deep pleasure in the torturous methods he uses, and Del Sherman absorbs himself fully into that mindset.  He portrays a wonderfully charismatic and juicy villain.  It’s also an interesting dynamic that Butterfield aspires to be Nix’s one and only apprentice, but even Nix acknowledges that there is no one else worthy but Swann.  While Swann gets to bask in the limelight of fame, Butterfield slinks his way through the dark underbelly of the world to prepare for Nix’s return, and he gets no respect for his loyalty or hard work from Nix.

Daniel von Bargen is a hell of a diverse actor that I have gained immense respect for over the years.  He can do drop down hilarious comedy, but also, put in a frighteningly charismatic performance as Nix.  What he does in the first few minutes of the film resonate throughout the rest of the picture.  His horrific power haunts Swann, and that fear translates over to the audience very sharply.  He is an awesome villain full of commanding presence and intense malevolence.  The power von Bargen throws into this role is masterful creating something that could truly haunt your nightmares in terrifying fashion.  He clearly had a fun time portraying this intense, chilling character.

Another amazingly diverse actor is Kevin J. O’Connor.  You may know him from his turn as the cowardly Beni from Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, or from the Patrick Swayze television drama The Beast.  As Philip Swann, he gives us a very unique performance.  I like how the film opens without presenting a clear hero to you.  Swann is not a confident or particularly stable person, and not the type to gravitate to as a protagonist.  He is very shaken by fear, and later on in life, he’s not a content man.  He has fame, wealth, and a beautiful woman at his side.  However, it’s the creeping knowledge of what Nix vowed he would do, defy death, that endlessly troubles him.  If he can do that, Swann cannot imagine what greater terrors he could unleash.  Even with all the power Swann possesses, he knows that Nix is more powerful, but most importantly, he has the will to do things Swann never would.  Nix messed with his mind once, and he’s never been able to shake that.  O’Connor passionately displays the depth of those turbulent emotional and psychological elements so well.  He makes Philip Swann a greatly fascinating and fractured character that maintains the foreboding tone of the film.

The supporting cast really put their all into their roles.  They add to the eclectic flavor of these textured and distinct characters.  Joel Swetow makes Valentin a very sophisticated but shady character.  He furthers adds to the mysterious and treacherous aspects of the plot.  All of the characters appearing in the Magic Castle sequence, portraying illusionists of all sorts, also really boost those spooky and colorful qualities of the film.  It’s just a damn solid cast that Barker put together.  There’s not a single weak link anywhere at all.

Clive Barker turned to the absolute masters of special make-up effects in KNB EFX Group for this film.  Their work has been unparalleled.  Whatever they do, big or small, severe or subtle, it always hold weight on film.  What they did here is bring the gory and challenging imagination of Clive Barker to perfect life.  The make-up on the resurrected Nix is purely, excellently disgusting, as it should be.  The protrusion in his forehead is something I still cannot stomach to look at.  Conversely, the digital visual effects are damn well up to standards.  The early scene of Nix juggling fire is seamless and convincing, and the effect of Swann levitating a car over Harry’s head is quite well handled.  Of course, I’m sure many would contend with the later scene of the apparition that attacks Harry and Dorothea late in the film, but Barker wanted it to look as it did.  He did not want those effects to be dead-on realistic.  He wanted a dream-like, unreal quality to them, and to a point I believe it worked.  I’m sure something a little more refined could’ve benefitted the sequence better, but I generally have no criticism about it.

The film has a very strong, haunting score by Simon Boswell.  It’s an excellent piece of work that regularly keeps the tension and ominous qualities present, but it also has its moments of beauty as with the Harry and Dorothea love scene.  A sensual saxophone chimes in to delve into that seductive passion.  The music during Swann’s stage show is marvelously theatrical.  In its most climactic moments, the score is powerful and darkly operatic.  Overall, it’s an immensely effective composition for a film with such diverse qualities.

Lord of Illusions has its generous share of heightened tension and frightening danger.  The opening and ending sequences with Nix bring the full boar horror in all its macabre glory.  In the bulk of the film, though, we have action based excitement with D’Amour, and some gory visuals that re-instill the haunting, chilling aspects of the story.  This is not a splatter film with some brutal threat stalking the characters.  It’s very supernatural with a more ominous threat stirring up their deepest fears.  The atmosphere is very strong regularly keeping an audience on edge, and keeping them enthralled as each new layer of the mystery is pulled back.  With lives being lost as he gets deeper into this and becomes more invested in Dorothea, Harry can’t just walk away.  It’s a great way to wrap the hero up in the story, and drive him forward in the face of ungodly horror.  Harry never gives into fear, and remains determined in even the darkest moments of the film.

The final act is powerful and amazing.  It serves as the proper climax to this story which pits apprentice against master in a chilling and grotesque confrontation that still manages to keep D’Amour relevant to the outcome.  It bookends the film smartly bringing Nix back in a far more chilling state than before.  The disturbing cultist aspects of the movie really are driven home by this point, and have an ironic, vile pay-off here.  It further sells the grave lethality and power of Nix.  This entire prolonged sequence is like a slow decent into the horrific depths of hell, and there is no one better suited for the task of realizing that than Clive Barker.  This ending will leave you still unsettled as the end credits roll.

If there’s one horror film that has inspired me as a screenwriter more than any other, it would be Lord of Illusions.  This would be the genre I would want to play around in because Clive Barker realized it so well here.  There’s a vast untapped potential for this supernatural noir genre, and this film is a prime example of that potential.  Barker wrote a brilliant screenplay based on his short story The Last Illusion, and turned it into one of the best, most original and intelligent horror films I have ever seen.  Thus, it is one of my favorite films of all time.  This film far exceeds expectations realizing every element and aspect with amazing, top notch quality.  It is only a shame that the studio difficulties Barker faced with this film caused him to turn away from ever directing another film again.  Fortunately, it has not ceased him being a producer on a number of film adaptations of his written work.  I think Clive Barker is one of the best masters of horror because has never let me down.  If this turns out to be the final film he ever directs, no one could ask for a better final bow than Lord of Illusions.