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A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Nightmare on Elm Street 2010When I see the name Platinum Dunes attached to a horror remake, I hang my head in a wholly disheartened state.  While I did enjoy their remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on its own merits, everything after that has been stuck in the mud sinking further and further into uninspired junk.  I’ve given them fair chances, but they have failed in such colossal ways.  The final nail in the coffin was this remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street.  A cluttered, drab, plodding mess is what this film turned out to be, and even not comparing it to Wes Craven’s original classic, it’s still a poorly executed film.

Five teenage friends living on one street all dream of a sinister man with a disfigured face, a frightening voice and a gardener’s glove with knives for fingers.  One by one, he terrorizes them within their dreams – where the rules are his and the only way out is to wake up.  But when one among them dies, they soon realize that what happens in their dreams happens for real and the only way to stay alive is to stay awake.  Buried in their past is a secret that has just begun to be revealed.  To save themselves, they must plunge into the mind of the most twisted nightmare of all: Freddy Krueger

Okay, remaking A Nightmare On Elm Street is not an outright terrible idea.  There are certainly ways to expand upon the original idea, enhance the effects, and execute it with a new, yet still effective style.  Surely, a sequel could just as easily do the same, but for whatever reason, despite the massive success that was Freddy vs. Jason and the fact that Robert Englund could easily reprise his iconic role, New Line Cinema chose to just remake the original.  However, no one involved in this film did anything to make this a film worth making.  I think it’s easier for a franchise to recover from a bad sequel than a bad remake.  With a bad sequel, you still have better moments in continuity and filmmaking efforts to build upon, and if the sequel is bad enough, like Highlander II bad, you can disassociate it from continuity.  A bad remake stops progress dead in its tracks because the beginning of this new continuity is not well received, fans don’t like the direction the property was rebooted into, and the general fan base doesn’t want to see more of it.  There’s next to nowhere to go, and that’s why you rarely see sequels to remakes.

Jackie Earle Haley is an excellent actor, and I have very much enjoyed him in a couple of roles.  There was a potential for him to deliver something impressive and unique here.  There are a few things he does that were new and original in terms of mannerisms.  However, by no fault of his own, neither the script nor director gave him anything worthwhile to sink his talent into.  Krueger is poorly developed as the filmmakers try to take him in a different direction, but the entire premise backfires in such a sloppy, brain dead way.  Trying to suggest that Krueger was wrongfully accused and unjustly murdered could work under more talented screenwriters and filmmakers, but it’s just handled stupidly and with no forethought.  However, the biggest issue, for me, was that Haley was too recognizable even under that very good make-up job.  When I saw this theatrically, I had just seen Haley regularly on the Fox television series Human Target, and so, his face was very familiar to me.  Even the voice he uses is essentially that of Rorschach from Watchmen with a slur.  It feels like a half thought out package, at best, which is an accurate blanket statement for this entire movie.

A problem arises with the performances by its young leads.  This film does quite a good job accurately portraying sleep deprivation with people being frayed, exhausted, drowsy, and essentially very drained of energy.  Unfortunately, that also creates a set of performances that are drab, lifeless, and generally disinteresting.  The thing is, in none of the previous Elm Street movies did I ever have a problem with the actors actually putting energy into their performances when they were meant to be sleep deprived.  For one, the make-up department did their jobs in weathering the young actors to look the part, much the same is done here, but secondly, energy and conviction are exactly what are needed to make these performances not just good but engaging.

Honestly, I don’t even think the lackluster acting is the fault of the cast.  There are some very strong talents here such as Rooney Mara as the film’s lead Nancy Holbrook and Thomas Dekker, who I know well from the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series.  I think the blame is entirely in the hands of director Samuel Bayer.  My point of proof here is Clancy Brown.  Let’s put The Kurgan aside.  Go watch Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, and you will see a charismatic, lively, and excellent performance by Brown in a very grounded role.  The main difference is that’s Kathryn Bigelow, an Academy Award winning director who has done increasingly incredible work over the years.  Samuel Bayer is making his feature film directorial debut here after almost two decades of directing nothing but music videos.  This movie does look fantastic, but beyond the great visuals, there is nothing here that impresses at all.  That’s what I keep seeing from all of these Platinum Dunes directors – movies that have excellent visuals and polished cinematography, but are very hollow, uninspired, and unimaginative.  Music video directors know how to make a good looking product, but have next to no experience working with actors to craft anything more than superficial performances.  Surely, sometimes you get a Russell Mulcahy or David Fincher, but there are far more directors like Samuel Bayer and Jonathan Liebesman that come around who just have little to no talent working with actors and drawing out a strong performance from them.  They are good visual storytellers, to a degree, but lack the multi-facetted skills required to be a full-fledged filmmaker.

I think the biggest shortfall of this film is the lack of genuine suspense and tension.  I was only afraid of another jump scare coming out of nowhere, and frankly, it kept me too on guard.  I kept bracing myself for another cheap scare.  This film just throws jump scare after jump scare after jump scare at you.  It takes no talent or skill to have someone jump out of the shadows with a loud musical stinger behind it.  It’s cheap and worthless.  And some of the gags are so blatantly setup that I called them before they even happened.  The result of all this is the fact that Freddy doesn’t feel built up enough.   He’s not a looming figure screwing around with you making you squirm.   He’s the boogeyman jumping out at the shadows every chance he gets like a kid on Halloween, and that’s simply a hollow, go-nowhere idea that shows the difference between a blunt, shallow filmmaker and someone like Wes Craven or James Wan who knows how to build up atmosphere, tension, suspense, and manipulate the nuanced aspects of a film to truly scare you.

Aside from the respectable, moody cinematography, I will give credit to the film in that the tone is kept serious.  There is no camp humor or jokey qualities to it.  The filmmakers try to keep it very solid, focused, and dramatic.  Sadly, the skill of the filmmakers is too thin to hold the weight that the film should have.  The entire film does feel like a product designed to grab dollars and be forgotten.  There is no artistic passion behind any of it, and the quality of the story suffers for it.

As I said in a previous Elm Street movie review, I do applaud that the various filmmakers always tried to introduce new, fresh ideas into the franchise, and never just laid back on carbon copy sequels.  The downside is that the new ideas haven’t always worked, and the entire plot of misdirection regarding Krueger’s possible wrongfully accused back story is poorly handled.  The way Krueger acts throughout the picture doesn’t lend credence to a man who was dealt a grave injustice, but an evil, sadistic man who enjoys torturing and slaughtering people.  All the while, our lead characters are running around trying to unravel a mystery that ends up being a red herring, and thus, it was all just a giant waste of the audience’s time and attention.  The idea is not executed well to misdirect an audience, and there is ultimately no pay-off for it, regardless.  Not to mention, it’s an extreme plot contrivance that every single one of these kids blocked out the memory of Fred Krueger and their time at that school.  So, it was a potentially interesting idea, but with how short-sighted every idea is in this film, it had no hope of actually developing into anything close to its potential.  That is another easy, blanket statement to apply to everything in this film.

The visual effects of this remake are really not very good.  For one, there’s no excuse whatsoever for CGI blood in an A Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  NONE!  It looks cheap and unconvincing.  There are a number of effects here that are passable, but the bad stuff really just jumps out at you.  Also, this movie proves that a simple practical effect and some artistic vision trumps digital effects.  The scene of Krueger pushing through the wall, which was achieved in the original with Robert Englund literally pushing himself against a latex wall above Heather Langenkamp, looks like flat, uninspired garbage in this film as a digital effect that seems like a leftover from The Frighteners.  And on a similar level is Platinum Dunes’ regular composer Steve Jablonski’s score.  Where Charles Bernstein’s score for the original was fresh and inspired with a perfect nursery rhyme style theme, Jablonski’s score is forgettable and entirely typical.  The original Elm Street theme appears only once, and that is when the film’s title card slams onto the screen.  It’s never heard again, and once again shows how little reverence these filmmakers had for the property they were dealing with.

And while the supporting cast is decently well acted, no one stands out.  No one really takes the stage and defines themselves apart from anyone else.  I do think it was a poor decision to not have a John Saxon style character here.  A mature adult character with compassion and a level head who could carry substantial weight with him.  Yes, there are actors here with that capability, but the writing and directing take no advantage of the talents that it does have to make these characters anything but mediocre, drab, and shallow.  The whole film does feel like it’s playing it a little too safe, including the acting.  If they pushed the boundaries further, maybe it would be more engaging and potentially scary.  Craven’s original film did things that were original, new, and innovative.  This remake just comes off as a tired, passionless piece of merchandise.

Quite frankly, there was no one trying on this film.  They followed the script like a blueprint and just created a film as flat as the paper that script was printed on.  One of Platinum Dunes’ big problems is that they keep getting music video directors who have no experience with a script, actors, or crafting scenes, only in creating a three minute long marketable image for a band.  They really need to get a real director who knows how to create an engaging ninety minute story with dimensional characters and coherent plotting.  Not to mention, a filmmaker who can actually make a suspenseful, scary horror film.


Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

Halloween ResurrectionSo, over twenty years later Rick Rosenthal would return to the Halloween franchise for this entry.  I honestly have never liked Halloween: H20 for a multitude of reasons, and I don’t wish to sit through it again to review it.  Thus, I was so immensely glad that this film promptly retconned the ending of that movie, and allowed for Michael Myers to live again and not die like a punk.  I know there are those who disagree with that feeling, but so be it.  While I do find this sequel enjoyable to a degree, it does have valid issues to critique about it.

For the first broadcast of the new reality website Dangertainment, a group of college students are hired to explore the ruins of the house of infamous murderer Michael Myers.  Six cash-strapped friends decide to explore the home, but what they don’t know is that Michael is on his way home back to Haddonfield after a fateful confrontation with his sister Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).  Now, being broadcast across the internet, these unsuspecting victims will fall prey to Myers’ methodical blade.

If this movie was made ten years later, it probably would have been a found footage horror movie.  Very little would have to change to accommodate that approach, but thankfully, that’s not the case here.  I can understand why this story idea was used.  This is the eighth movie in this franchise, including Season of the Witch, and a studio is going to feel like they need a fresh gimmick to drive in audiences.  Paramount felt the same thing when they made Jason Takes Manhattan.  The problem is that these ideas are usually not all that favorable with audiences.  I love slasher movies, but I do like someone doing something fresh with the formula every so often.  Frankly, I think Halloween: Resurrection executes this idea as well as it can be.  In fact, it has some strangely honest commentary on reality television.  Dangertainment mocks up the entire Myers house with false clues about Michael’s upbringing because they know actual reality is boring.  No one would watch a bunch of people wandering through an empty house.  The head of the company, Freddie Harris, has to dress it up and create an illusion and sell it as reality so to make it entertaining.  I like that the Freddie character does come around to denouncing that illusion and the using of Michael Myers as a sound bite to drive viewership up.  It shows an effort on the part of the filmmakers to make something of the premise, which is indeed dated.  Halloween: Resurrection might be far from the pinnacle of this franchise, but it’s far more consistent than the rushed mess of The Revenge of Michael Myers.

If you watched the trailer for this you might believe that Jamie Lee Curtis had a larger role in it than she really does.  Her story is confined to the opening sequence at a psychiatric hospital where she has her final confrontation with Michael.  A quick summation at the film’s start states that Michael Myers had switched outfits with a paramedic before the last film’s climax, and it was that poor soul with a crushed larynx that Laurie decapitated.  What ensues in this opening sequence with Laurie and Michael puts the storyline to rest.  I’m sure there are fans who did not like this at all, possibly as much as I hated the ending of H20, but taken on its own merits, it is a well done sequence that is to the point.  Laurie doesn’t go out in a blaze of glory, but really, you shouldn’t set your expectations that high for this movie.  It’s just not that ambitious.

I do really like the look of this sequel.  It makes great use of atmospheric lighting.  It has the polish of a major studio feature, but Rosenthal and his cinematographer just know how give it that shadowy, moody quality.  True to the John Carpenter roots, there’s some very solid use of blues and fine steadicam work.  The video camera footage of the internet broadcast is about what you’d expect in the pre-high definition digital era.  We get more and more of it as the film progresses, and you could take it or leave it depending on your disposition towards it.  It has some effectiveness in certain sparse moments for us to see things from the characters’ point of views, which is evocative of the found footage genre like The Blair Witch Project had already shown, but there’s nothing special to witness here in that regard.

The biggest highlight of this movie is that I absolutely LOVE the score by Danny Lux.  I honestly believe it is the best score of the sequels.  Lux adds a heavier punctuation to the familiar themes, and overall, he crafts a more haunting, partially gothic aura to the film.  It’s a score that really soars far above the quality of the film it is attached to.  Regardless of what you think of this movie, you should definitely give this score a standalone listen.  It is immensely effective.  Danny Lux does an amazing job with it.

Now, I don’t think this is a bad cast.  For the most part, they do come off as fairly standard slasher film fodder, but this cast does seem like they are putting forth an honest effort.  Each one tries to make their character enthusiastic, charismatic, and somewhat entertaining.  There’s no real standout, but everyone essentially delivers a performance of a consistent, equal level.  I wouldn’t say this new cast features anything approaching greatness, but it’s good for the expectations you would likely have.

Bianca Kajlich does well in making Sara a relatable and sympathetic lead.  There’s very little to the character, same with everyone, but there’s enough of a decent, vulnerable person in her performance for it to work.  She has this internet based relationship with the high school freshman Myles.  Through that, they’ve built a foundation of trust and friendship, and it plays fairly well into the movie near the climax.  Ryan Merriman is endearing as Myles.  He’s definitely the audience’s conduit into having sympathy for the victims.  He and his friends are at a Halloween party watching the online stream of the Myers house expedition, and witness the horror as it progresses with little to be able to do about it.  Despite Myles and Sara being strictly internet pals, Merriman does a fine job creating an emotional connection between both characters.  It’s almost a shame that the film never allows them to actually see each other face-to-face.

The role of Freddie Harris is indeed filled by Busta Rhymes.  Clearly, he didn’t need to be in this movie, but I will give him credit that he doesn’t slack off.  He portrays a role that’s within his ability as a charismatic salesman, but also does a fine job with the more fearful, regretful moments later in the film.  We surely could have done without the Kung Fu fight against Michael, but at least the filmmakers did enough to set it up earlier on.  In the fiery climax, he’s certainly played up for the sake of his fans, and it does feel rather out of place.  You might as well have Arnold Schwarzenegger charge in there for as much as its played like an action hero moment.  It would be essentially the same effect.

The role of The Shape is filled by Brad Loree who I feel does a decent job.  It’s definitely Dick Warlock inspired, but not quite so rigid.  His performance is simply okay.  It doesn’t standout, the same as the rest of the cast, but it works fine for the demands of this film.  Also, while he is listed as 6’2”, I think the baggy coveralls make him appear smaller in stature than he likely really is.  The mask for his Michael Myers could have done with a little less airbrushing detail, but really, no sequel has really gotten the mask to look right compared to the original film.  I’m not sure why that’s been so difficult.

The most important question, though, is if this film is scary.  Well, it has the potential to be depending on how weathered of a horror fan you are.  Rick Rosenthal really does a lot to set a strong visual atmosphere conducive to scaring an audience.  There are plenty of spooky moments of Michael Myers lurking in the shadows, only seen in glimpses.  It certainly has moments that could scare certain people, but generally speaking, it’s not going to do much for the seasoned horror fan.  Especially ten years on, with the far more intense films we’ve gotten in this genre, regardless of your preference, Halloween: Resurrection is fairly tame.  Even John Carpenter’s original is not really an effective horror film anymore to me, but I respect it immensely on every artistic level.  It is, after all, the movie review of mine that launched Forever Cinematic in the first place.

The Halloween franchise is kind of a mess.  There are a lot of subjective ups and downs depending on what storylines you enjoy.  For me, I really liked where things were potentially going with the sixth film, The Curse of Michael Myers, mainly in its Producer’s Cut form, but so much tanked that potential resulting in Halloween: H20.  I hated that film for killing the continuity and storyline that I loved, and intending to dispatch Michael Myers in an unimaginative, bullheaded fashion.  This sequel ultimately feels like a weak whimper trying to extend the bankability of the franchise just a little further without enough ambition or unique talent to elevate it.  It just tries to be a fun slasher flick, and if you take it as that, it’s fine.  I can sit down and burn ninety minutes with it on a whim, but it’s entirely forgettable and dismissible.  Aside from the potentially divisive opening with Laurie’s death, it really plays it safe with an either fun or lame premise.  Essentially, you can take this film or leave it.  If it’s on cable, and you’ve just time to kill, it’s a decent watch.  I would like to give it a better recommendation, but knowing that there are a some far stronger films in this franchise, I can’t give it any further credit than this.


Halloween II (1981)

Halloween IIThere has been one conspicuous omission from my reviews of the Halloween franchise, and it is this first sequel.  The reason for this is, one, I have never really written a full review of it before, and secondly, I’ve never really cared for it at all.  This stems from the fact that it has very little to offer me as either a fan of John Carpenter’s original or as a big slasher movie fan.  Simply said, so much of it just doesn’t appeal to me.  From the reworked score to the bland hospital environment to the clear shift from atmospheric horror to a reliance on gore, this isn’t the Halloween sequel that I want to see.  Even the ones that are technically worse films, they have an entertainment value that I can indulge in on some level.  There are many reasons why this film doesn’t even give me that much.

Picking up exactly where the first film left off, it seems the inhuman Michael Myers is still very much alive and out for more revenge as he stalks the deserted halls of the Haddonfield Memorial Hospital for Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). As he gets closer to his main target, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) discovers the chilling mystery behind the crazed psychopath’s actions

It might sound somewhat unfair, but the vast majority of my gripes with this film are in comparison to John Carpenter’s original.  However, with the fact that this film picks up exactly where the first left off, it demands that comparison because it is trying to convince us that this is a seamless continuation of that movie.  The problem is that it doesn’t feel seamless in many aspects, and they are largely on the technical side.  Still, there are issues with the quality of the script, and just the effectiveness of Halloween II as a horror movie that I wish to address.

To be straight up honest, I do not like the score for this movie at all.  Yes, they are the same themes with John Carpenter and Alan Howarth doing the score, but the overly saturated synthesizer sound has never been to my liking.  It doesn’t sound like a horror movie score to me.  It sounds silly and over bloated.  The first film’s score felt far more subtle and artistically applied.  To me, the score for Halloween II just evokes no sense of tension, suspense, or chilling atmosphere for me.  There are many instances where a strategic use of score could have been utilized to craft great suspense and nerve-racking tension, but instead, it’s dead silent.  This score relies more heavily on the musical stingers, and feels poorly implemented overall.  Carpenter’s scores usually craft a brilliant soundscape for a unique auditory experience, but there seems to be a significant lack of score in the moments where it should flourish.

Now, this is a very well shot movie, done so again by acclaimed director of photography Dean Cundey.  It has some very good lighting schemes in certain scenes, and the continued use of the Pana-glide camera work is excellent.  Director Rick Rosenthal does make an effort to emulate John Carpenter’s visual style, but I have always felt that the color palette of Halloween II was never quite right when compared to the first film.  The hospital interiors feature a terribly bland color scheme, as most hospitals do, and because of this, it doesn’t have any of the visual pop of the first movie.  There are no daytime scenes to soak in that late autumn feeling as this is all set at night, and really, it feels like it could be any night of the year.  The film also lacks the atmospheric blue tones that Cundey used in the original as well as several other films he’s shot.  Also, when I look at this film in certain instances, the lighting just doesn’t look quite right.  The feeling, the mood, the balance of light and dark, at times, doesn’t feel consistent with the first film.  This is especially evident when new footage is spliced into the revisited footage from the ending of Halloween.  It’s not even knowing that it is new footage married with old footage.  Back to the Future, Part II did this sort of thing seamlessly, and was also shot by Dean Cundey.  These issues, I think, also stem from the fact that the first movie was a late 1970’s independently produced film while this is an early 1980’s studio produced sequel.  It is inevitably going to have a slightly different visual feel due to extra money, studio mandates, a shift in filmmaking aesthetics, and a change of directors.

Even then, Rick Rosenthal’s film was tampered with by the studio and Carpenter as they felt it was too tame in comparison to other recent slasher films.  While I can see the clear evidence of that since there is a definite lack of suspense, although much of that is, again, due to the absence of a score in key scenes, this is a sequel that didn’t stay true to its predecessor.  Yes, of course, this is a slasher film that is going to follow many of the tropes of the genre which were originated in Halloween.  However, this sequel feels like it’s trying to fit in with the Friday The 13th style slasher film craze instead of staying true to the Halloween style slasher.  The genre exploded after the success of Friday The 13th, and it became very indulgent in gore and sexuality.  It essentially became exploitative in that regard, and this film embraced that mentality whereas Halloween was a film built entirely on suspense and atmosphere.  There is some suspense here, but it is especially sparse.  Instead of holding to what made Halloween successful and effective in the first place, Halloween II tries to conform to what was popular at the time, and thus, feels second rate to me.  Rick Rosenthal tries to match Carpenter’s style in many regards, but then, Carpenter comes in and tries to veer it away from what he originally did.  It’s certainly not a film that is one director’s vision, and even then, Rosenthal isn’t given much to work with to make this as good as the first movie.  I really didn’t get the feeling that there was enough creative effort put into this film to make it succeed in the creative vein.

One of the bigger problems here is that Halloween II feels scattered.  The first film had a distinct plot progression as elements gradually converged with one another in a tight, cohesive way.  This sequel is extremely loose in that regard.  Laurie is essentially a stationary target throughout the movie, spending a good chunk of it asleep or screaming, but Michael Myers roams about the hospital killing everyone else while Loomis is out scouring the streets for Michael.  No longer is Loomis in sync with his prey anticipating his psychology and instinctual impulses.  He’s tagging along with the police instead of driving the narrative forward.  Even the majority of his dialogue feels retreaded from the first movie as he re-explains the history of himself and Michael, and his talk about evil incarnate.  It entirely feels like it is only there in case someone watching this movie never saw the first one.  Even Donald Pleasance seems a tad monotonous delivering this reworked dialogue.  While his performance is still of a high quality, there’s just nothing new for him to do here.  The film also hardly feels like it’s building any momentum.  John Carpenter reportedly had a very difficult time coming up with a story for this film while writing the script, and it really does show.  Dr. Loomis and Laurie Strode have next to nothing to do here except uncover newly conceived secrets about Michael and Laurie’s past, which amounts to nothing.  There’s no mounting tension heading into the third act, and Laurie’s chase scene earlier on is very mild and slow paced.  This film doesn’t offer a sense of escalating threat until the last few minutes before Loomis engulfs himself and Michael in an inferno.  The pacing is very monotonous because the story is very loose and lacks directional momentum.

The supporting characters here are mostly a lot of interchangeable hospital staff going about their mundane duties getting killed, and an audience likely couldn’t care less about any one of them.  They feel like standard, hollow slasher film fodder, but without even the crutch of a stereotype to make them funny or entertaining.  Carpenter’s original was smartly and greatly cast filling out very lively characters, but here, there are just so many throwaway characters with very little personality that very little care was needed to put together a memorable supporting cast.  Even Sheriff Brackett vanishes from the film after learning of his daughter’s death, and so, we get new police officers who have really nothing fresh or pertinent to contribute to the story.

And it really is a shame that Jamie Lee Curtis got hooked into doing this film.  It is an utter waste of her talents.  She spends the majority of the film either laying in a hospital bed, running away from Michael Myers, or hiding in a parked car.  This is a sequel that brings people back to simply do nothing new or challenging.  To me, it’s another sign that there was a lack of creative drive behind this.  Every character feels either generic or wasted.  Also, since Jamie Lee Curtis had since adopted a shorter hairstyle, she had to be fitted with this blatantly obvious bad wig.  This just further adds to the nagging inconsistencies between the two films.

Now, I know there are people who are fans of Dick Warlock’s Shape, but I have never liked his lethargic, robotic movements at all.  If this movie is supposed to pick up at the exact moment the first left off, there should have been a demand for consistency.  Nick Castle’s Shape moved with a relentless fluidity.  He felt like a shark hunting his prey with a fierce single-minded focus.  Warlock is so horribly stiff that I see no ferocity or cunning intellect here.  Before, Michael’s actions had a clearly evident intelligence and deliberateness behind them.  He stalked his prey with patience and purpose.  He observed them before striking.  Here, he just shows up and starts killing like a mindless machine, and to me, that’s just not interesting or intriguing at all.  Warlock is a great stuntman, but as Michael Myers, he does nothing good for me.

I can appreciate some bad slasher movies because many of them at least show that they are trying.  Their end result might not be creatively successful, but the filmmakers put forth a visible effort to make a somewhat effective horror film.  For me, Halloween II doesn’t even give me that much.  I find it to be a very dull, bland, and boring slasher movie.  It has none of the atmospheric tension or magic that John Carpenter harnessed for the first movie, and the story is very lazy even for a slasher film.  I think Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is the vastly superior sequel in every aspect.  Also, released the same year, I passionately believe that Friday The 13th, Part 2 is one of the best slasher films ever made.  I don’t hate Halloween II.  It just doesn’t do enough either way to motivate a passionate response from me.  Any other films in this franchise I don’t end up reviewing are simply because I don’t wish to subject myself to them again or even for the first time.


Howling II (1985)

Howling 2I don’t think any of the sequels to The Howling have a good reputation, and that’s quite clear from this very first one.  You cannot take this movie seriously, which goes under either the subtitle of Your Sister is a Werewolf or Stirba Werewolf Bitch, neither of which can be taken very seriously either.  However, you can have a vastly inferior sequel that is surely not a good film still be a greatly entertaining one.  If you want to trade scares for some stupid werewolf action then Howling II might be for you.

After countless millennia of watching, waiting and stalking, the unholy creatures known as werewolves are poised to inherit the earth.  After newscaster Karen White’s shocking on-screen transformation and violent death, her brother Ben (Reb Brown) is approached by Stefan Crosscoe (Christopher Lee), a mysterious man who claims that Karen has, in fact, become a werewolf.  But this is the least of their worries as to save mankind, Stefan and Ben must travel to Transylvania to battle and destroy Stirba (Danning), the immortal queen of all werewolves, before she is restored to her full powers!

I honestly don’t know how this film was approached as a sequel to The Howling.  Practically no effort is put into making it feel or look like a natural continuation of that story in that world with those characters.  Howling II can only be described as seemingly taking place in the B-movie alternate universe of the first movie to where artistic brilliance and visionary storytelling is replaced with as much “new wave” music inspired flash and cheesy goofiness as possible.  Just how they recreate the ending of the last film as a lost piece of news broadcast footage says enough with horrendous makeup effects and an actress who bares zero resemblance to Dee Wallace.  Sadly, that’s just a taste of what’s to come.

Some of the editing in this movie is just bad.  Certain sequences are choppy, have little coherence to the action that is occurring, and frankly, just comes off like a perplexed mess at times.  The plot is much the same.  Much of it is rather laughable changing werewolf lore for silly reasons.  These werewolves apparently have no vulnerability to silver, and titanium must be used.  Of course, stakes through the heart and holy water being some of the weapons of choice here clearly reek more of a botched up vampire screenplay than a werewolf one.  So, yeah, this wasn’t a screenplay with much thought put into it, but how stupid this thing is along with some of the performances simply turns this around to being entertainingly bad.  The first movie really did, reportedly, throw out a lot of what was in Gary Brandner’s novel, and if his work on the screenplay for this film is any indication, it was likely all for the best.  The quality of this sequel is not built on its execution, but the script itself and the ideas it conjures up.  You really can’t watch Joe Danté’s original movie followed by this and see any correlation of tone, concept, or artistic quality between them.  Howling II is simply pure 1980’s cheesy entertainment value.  Scares don’t factor into it, just a lot of jovial laughs because the movie is played so straight.

As ludicrous as the film makes itself out to be, when you have Christopher Lee unloading all of this exposition it’s hard not to buy into it all.  With Lee being as stoic and imposing ever, the silliness of the movie is simply enhanced to higher levels of awesomeness.  Whether he’s Count Dracula, a Dark Lord of the Sith, Saruman, or anything else, Lee sells every role he takes on with total earnestness and theatricality.  That is no different with his performance as Stefan.  Of everyone here, he plays it the most dead straight, and is the most awesome because of it.  However, when he was cast in Gremlins 2, Christopher Lee apologized to director Joe Danté for having starred in this silly sequel to his remarkable film.  That’s some class right there.

Mostly going for broke through his enjoyably non-dimensional acting talents is Reb Brown.  His reactions to Stefan’s exposition is probably the same as the audience’s – total, eye-rolling disbelief.  It makes for some funny moments, but it’s really when Reb delves headlong into his guttural screams as he blasts away with a shotgun at this film’s sad excuses for werewolves that his base level entertainment value comes to light.  A good performance?  Not by a long shot, but like so much here, it’s all a lot of bad junk that compiles into a raucous fun time.

Of course, rounding out the cult following cast is Sybil Danning who is here simply to add a busty sexy appeal, and she surely excels at that.  However, the werewolf sex scene in this film is purely gratuitous while being entirely unappealing to look at.  Whereas the first film made it a great melding of eroticism and primal terror, this sequel just throws in a sex scene for the hell of it and decides to glue a ton of cheap furry makeup on the actors.  Aside from Danning ripping off her top, there’s nothing worth seeing in this sequence, and you can stick around for the end credits to see that bare-breasted moment repeated a total of sixteen times.

The werewolf effects in this sequel are not close to being even second rate when compared to Rob Bottin’s amazing work on the first film.  They are cheap and often cheesy.  Most times, the filmmakers try to disguise them through all the terrible rapid fire, incoherent editing, or by having people be chased by a steadicam point of view shot.  Unfortunately, there’s no real hiding substandard quality like this.  These bad makeup effects, along with a couple of cheap visual effects, are yet another thing that makes this movie as enjoyably bad as it is.

I suppose the one genuinely good thing in Howling II is the new wave rock main theme by Babel, which is repeated every few minutes.  It’s a really catchy tune, and so, it’s not at all a burden to hear again and again and again.  However, what score there is beyond that isn’t much worth noting.  I’ll also say that the movie is fairly well shot with some good production values and art direction.  So, it’s not a poor film to look at.  It really is just some of the sloppy editing that makes so much look incompetent.

Like I said, there is nothing here that is remotely scary, but when the shotgun blasting, titanium stake stabbing, and magic wielding action begins, it’s quite enjoyable in all its over-the-top cheesiness.  Seeing Christopher Lee and Reb Brown standing back-to-back gunning down crappy looking werewolves is about as much fun as it sounds.  Howling II is a terrible sequel to the visionary original, but if you take it as it is in being a film that feels like it exists in an entirely different universe than the first, you can have a lot of fun watching it.  It’s just pure B-movie indulgence.


The Howling (1981)

The HowlingGood werewolf movies are difficult to come by.  Most just don’t find a way to make them interesting, alluring, or entertaining like vampire films are more easily able to do.  However, there are a few universally accepted classics of this subgenre, and this 1981 film from director Joe Danté based on the novel by Gary Brandner is indeed one of them.  For me, it’s a movie that’s taken some time to get into.  The first time I rented it on VHS I was working twelve hour shifts to the early morning hours, and fell asleep halfway through, same as with The Amityville Horror.  This time, I gave it my full attention and patience.

Severely shaken after a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer, TV newscaster Karen White (Dee Wallace) takes some much-needed time off.  Hoping to conquer her inner demons, she heads for “the Colony,” a secluded retreat where her new neighbors are just a tad too eager to make her feel at home.  Also, there seems to be a bizarre link between her would-be attacker and this supposedly safe haven.  And when, after nights of being tormented by savage shrieks and unearthly cries, Karen ventures into the forest to find answers, she makes a terrifying discovery.  Now she must fight not only for her life, but for her very soul.

The Howling is an extremely slow burn film.  Joe Danté gives you only the vaguest of teases early on hiding his ravenous creatures in the shadows and brief glimpses, which can be effective.  The best execution of this is in the first act of the film where Karen encounters Eddie, the supposed serial killer portrayed by Robert Picardo.  The use of darkness, suspense, and subtle backlight is a brilliant work of art.  However, my suspicions from way back on first viewing were right in that we don’t see a werewolf in all its full glory until well past the halfway point in the movie.  Until then, Danté takes the time to utilize some psychological aspects as Karen is haunted by her experience with Eddie.  She is hit with nightmares and startling visions that heighten her fear and paranoia.  This film is a bit of give and take.  You certainly go into this wanting to see the werewolves reeking havoc often, but you have to wait a very, very long time to get to that point.  However, once you do, the pay-off is excellent as Danté doesn’t hold back anything.

Many would know the special make-up effects work of Rob Bottin from John Carpenter’s The Thing, but that would be another year after this picture.  Here, he creates some of the most amazing werewolf effects ever.  Everything is so lifelike with very fine details and textures in addition to very elaborate methods used in the transformation sequences.  Today, it would all be digital effects, but in 1981, you needed a practical effects master to realize something of this stunning vision of horror.  The full size werewolves are wholly frightening as they tower probably at a good seven feet tall with every ferocious quality imaginable.  What Bottin accomplished here will truly unnerve and terrify many.  How he did it on a $1.5 million budget, even in 1981 dollars, just floors me.

This is also one of the absolutely most beautifully shot horror films I’ve ever seen.  Joe Danté and his cinematographer John Hora utilize some very inspired camera angles and compositions.  However, the most gorgeous aspects are the brilliant backlighting and the use of colored gels to create a wonderful haunting atmosphere.  There are films that are simply shot in color, and then, there are films that utilize color in remarkable ways.  The Howling is truly the latter as these reds, blues, and greens highlight the creepy and eerie moments like fine brush strokes of artistic inspiration.

The Howling does more than simply give you werewolves slashing and gnawing on humans.  Firstly, it has some satire on the entire self-help movement.  Trying to aid those afflicted with being a werewolf with therapy and a push towards integration into society is handled with the right kind of wit without being comical.  Joe Danté definitely has that talent to fuse horror and humor such as with Gremlins, but he keeps things on point with the horror and barely diminishes that at all.  Furthermore, this film gives us a strange but perfectly executed mix of sensuality and terror in one sex sequence.  Once again, the artistic beauty of the film is on display as two people engage in sexual activity at a campfire, but as the act becomes more virile, the beats within are unleashed and they begin to transform.  What begins as very erotic turns into a frightening, primal act that still gets the heart pumping.  This is a very tantalizing and compelling sequence melding these two things together in a very provocative way.

The cast of this horror classic is jam packed with excellent acting talents such as Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo, Noble Willingham, Dick Miller, and several others.  Every single one of them does a solid job bringing forth the distinct qualities of their characters’ personalities.  In particular, Dee Wallace leads the film with the right level of vulnerability and traumatic unease.  The fear the audience regularly feels is channeled through her performance, and the journey her character goes through in this results in a unforgettable conclusion.  Also very notable is Robert Picardo proving yet again that I know he’s a great actor.  What he does as the supposed serial killer Eddie is tremendous and dead-on-the-mark showing a very subtle intimidation factor with his restrained charisma and clear full fledged absorption of this character into himself.  He also acts through all the wickedly good make-up with exceptional ease.  He might have only a few brief scenes, but he really becomes one of the most memorable things about this cast.

The ending of The Howling is fantastic and frightening.  First off, the entire third act is just excellent every step of the way as we finally get our full helping of werewolf awesomeness in a hair-raising escape sequence.  However, what comes after that when Karen returns to the television studio for her news report is exceptionally tragic and clever.  What she sets out to accomplish with her live report is smartly turned on its head by these filmmakers.  Almost no one believes what they see and dismiss it as a high quality fabrication.  They believe it to be spectacle instead of the raw, chilling reality that it is.  The film concludes on a very signature Joe Danté beat of wit and humor.  He has always been a unique filmmaker infusing a special, unmatched blend of the bizarre and the humorous with excellent results.

Now, is The Howling a horror movie for everyone?  Maybe not.  I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t enjoy sitting around for fifty minutes before we get a real good look at a werewolf, which I honestly had an issue with.  After Karen’s early encounter with Eddie, there’s very little horror or suspense to engage you on the horror movie level until you’re more than halfway through the movie.  The characters and performances are perfectly fine to move the plot forward in the interim, but there’s hardly anything to get your heart pounding with terror in that time.  However, I appreciate the artistic brilliance of this film, and anything that doesn’t quite work for me is possibly more attributed to just not being quite my style.  I also wholly endorse teasing us with the werewolves, much like Ridley Scott did with his creature in Alien.  Build up suspense with it, and then, once you finally reveal it, you’ve got a great, startling moment of awe.  This is a remarkably well made movie, and one that absolutely has its rabid fan base that I entirely respect.  Whether or not the slow, slow build up and reveal is to your taste, this is one of those horror essentials you need to see.  The pay-off for that build-up is definitely well worth the wait, and seeing what practical effects could achieve back in the day will show you what CGI has almost never been able to replicate.


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.


Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

Freddy's Dead The Final NightmareTo me, there is no defending this movie.  It is the worst film of this franchise, and a terrible supposed ending for Freddy Krueger.  As the progression of these films showed, Freddy transitioned from being a chilling icon of horror into being a jokey, cheesy clown, and this film goes right off the deep end of comedy in the most wretched ways.  Worse yet is that that’s just the beginning of this movie’s problems.  It tries to do something quirky and new, but the ideas it runs with are just so stupid that I cannot fathom how anyone embraced them as good ideas.  What stuns me more is that this film was written by the same person, Michael DeLuca, who wrote my favorite horror movie of all-time – John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness.  Of course, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare has nothing at all to do with the horror genre.

Dream monster Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) has finally killed all the children of his hometown of Springwood.  One amnesiac teenage survivor, known only as John Doe (Shon Greenblatt), is allowed to escape so that Freddy may expand his power beyond the town.  John soon comes into the care of a youth shelter and Dr. Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane), who has a forgotten past of her own as Krueger’s own daughter.  This revelation is what can facilitate Freddy’s freedom to engulf the world in nightmares.  However, she discovers the demonic origin of his powers and meets him head-on in a final showdown.

This is a cluttered mess of a movie, but I’ll tell you what I like about it which isn’t much.  Since Freddy’s Dead is set a decade in the future, there’s obviously a detailed history that we are unaware of, and thus, it creates an inherent mystery.  It lays a foreboding mystique over Krueger’s motivations and schemes.  Of course, this film squanders all of that hint of potential by not exploring any of that untold history at all.  It concerns us solely with this bland, boring mystery about Freddy’s kid and Krueger’s origins.  The misdirection of who is Freddy’s kid is terribly weak and completely uninteresting.  John is a teenager, and it is stated in the movie that Freddy’s child was taken away from him in 1966 – thirty-five years before the time this film is set.  Even then, Freddy was probably already dead by the time John was born.  There was an early idea that John would have been Jacob, Alice’s son from The Dream Child, but that is clearly impossible as he’s too old.  Maggie being Freddy’s daughter is also a completely new thing that comes out of nowhere.  Obviously, this is a brand new thing created for this movie alone, but it doesn’t take into the thought that if Freddy had this child out there all this time that he would’ve taken advantage of her far earlier than now.

This is indicative of how this film presents ideas and questions, but the filmmakers put in no time or effort to think them through.  They don’t pull from the established continuity or characters we’ve connected with through the previous five movies.  While a few of the films have introduced new ideas to Freddy’s origins, they’ve been largely smart ideas that flow organically from what had come before.  These filmmakers also don’t rationalize the motivations or thought processes of its characters to have anything really make any sense.  Beyond that, it constantly embraces the ridiculous as if this was meant to be a horribly bad comedy.  The story has a very shaky foundation, and anything built upon it is constantly crumbling apart.  By the end, it’s an eye sore of a disaster.

Also, this film brings up an intriguing question of whatever happened to Alice from The Dream Master and The Dream Child?  This character that defeated Freddy twice, and clearly had the power to keep him at bay is never eluded to once in this movie.  Freddy’s wiped out the child population of Springwood, and turned it into a bizarre wasteland of delusional adults.  Did Alice get killed, or did she just runaway and let it happen?  If Freddy killed her, that would be an extremely pivotal thing for fans and audiences to know and actually see.  If she turned her back on him, that’s also a story I’d like to see explored.  Why would his biggest, most powerful nemesis not be there to combat him to the bitter end?  These questions have no remote answer to them.  Instead, we’re burdened with a couple of lead characters that I couldn’t give a damn about.

I cannot say that Shon Greenblatt was a very good casting choice.  He’s not terrible, but he just has nothing charismatic or special to offer in this role.  He has practically the same expression through every single scene regardless of he’s confident, angry, afraid, or confused.  He fails to elicit any sense of caring from me.  This is also due to how stupid and flat his character happens to be.  He exercises no perceptive intellect, and kind of comes off as arrogant once he thinks he’s Freddy’s kid.  He forms this conclusion based on nothing definitive, and just jumps around from one idiotic, self-important conclusion to another.  Neither Greenblatt nor the direction do anything to make this a character you’re going to care about one way or another.

Lisa Zane’s character is also someone I couldn’t really care about.  The film takes almost an hour before it starts going into any detail about Maggie, and even then, it’s extremely minimal stuff just to facilitate a weak connection between her and Freddy.  Beyond that, I ask myself the questions of why am I supposed to care at all about this brand new character that this film takes next to time to develop?  What’s so special about this character that she is meant to be the one to put the supposed final nail in Freddy’s coffin?  And again, why the hell aren’t we following Alice Johnson charge headlong into a final, epic battle with Freddy?  The filmmakers didn’t need to manufacture a child for Freddy in order to explore his back story, and even that idea is so lazily implemented.  No one puts forth any effort to make that anything an audience should invest themselves in.  Most importantly, Lisa Zane really does nothing with this character.  The performance is very hollow, and like Greenblatt, she essentially has one facial expression for every emotion in every scene.

The only cool and bad ass member of this cast is Yaphet Kotto, and that’s because he is Yaphet Kotto.  I don’t think it’s possible for him not to be awesome in any role.  They should’ve made the film more about his character, who is only named Doc.  He’s the one that figures everything out, and has the knowledge and perception to battle Krueger on his own ground.  Unfortunately, he probably has the least amount of screentime, and his talent is almost entirely wasted opposite such bland characters and cast members.  With this film, it seems that the less significant your character is, or the less screentime you are given, the better your performance will be.

For instance, this film’s new set of teens are pretty good characters filled by charismatic actors.  The most notable among them is Breckin Meyer in his first feature film role.  You can see all of his signature personality and talent on display here.  Lezlie Deane is the most proactive of them all as Tracy showing a lot of fight and toughness.  She doesn’t take much attitude from anyone.  Ricky Dean Logan has a nice dash of attitude while still being quite likable as Carlos, the kid with the hearing aid.  Freddy ends up screwing with him royally via his hearing aid by amplifying every little sound to deafening levels.  It’s too bad that it’s so undermined by the absolutely cartoonish behavior of Freddy.

Knowing that even Englund himself agreed to make this movie like a Bugs Bunny cartoon makes my head hurt.  Up until this point, he was able to maintain some integrity with the character, but here, it just all gets flushed right down the toilet.  There is no menace, no sense of a frightening killer anywhere within this movie.  Englund jumps the proverbial shark with this performance making Krueger a total, cringe inducing cartoon that really craps all over the entire franchise.  The make-up job also follows that mentality with a horribly cheap and rubbery prosthetics job constantly exposed in bright light.

The visual effects, in general, are largely bad.  They tried to use some low budget CGI, but it looks no better than mid-grade optical effects, at best.  There are a few shots that are fine, but the visual effects do take an obvious nose dive decline in quality from the last few films.  Mixed with the poor 3D sequence, it just becomes cringeable to look at.  The dream demons themselves are horrendous and laughable in their brief appearance.  The practical effects from master John Carl Buechler are very good in most respects, but the film is so terribly light on kills and good imagination that there’s hardly much of a showcase for Buchler’s brilliant talents.

I really like the soundtrack for this film to the point where I tracked it down years ago on CD.  It has many great tracks mainly from the Goo Goo Dolls, and a solid end titles track from Iggy Pop.  I can’t say I’m all that keen on how, early on, the film drives this soundtrack right into the blatant forefront.  Every few minutes another song kicks in undermining the score.  For certain types of films, this sort of thing works, but for what should be a horror movie, it doesn’t at all.  Of course, even the score that this film has is almost entirely dismissible and hardly noticeable.

The third act of this movie is such garbage.  First off, the horrible 3D gimmick of Maggie putting on 3D glasses to enter Freddy’s mind is face palmingly bad.  Again, Freddy’s a horribly bad joke in this movie, and so, I don’t give a damn about his back story at this point.  Maggie is a hollow, boring protagonist that I care even less about.  So, I simply don’t care about her traversing through Freddy’s memories, or seeing how he became a serial killer or a dream demon.  The only highlight is Alice Cooper appearing in a cameo as his father, but it’s nowhere near being a saving grace.  The entire fight between Maggie and Freddy is just crap.  It’s essentially a street fight with conventional weapons with absolutely no fantastical qualities whatsoever.  After all of the supernatural, paranormal, metaphysical ways they’ve defeated Freddy in the past five movies, these filmmakers resort to a damn pipe bomb.  Maggie pulls him into the real world, and blows him up with a pipe bomb.  You have got to be kidding me.  How creatively bankrupt must you be to go forward with that, and have it end with Maggie being all smug about it?  I’ll take the toxic waste bath in Jason Takes Manhattan over this insulting garbage.  At least that showed a semblance of imagination and effort.

Any of the lesser grade sequels could at least be chalked up to poor execution, but this movie is a disaster from the concept and script onward.  I don’t think this is a well directed movie by Rachel Talalay at all.  It’s not well conceived, not well written, and it’s not well acted where it counts.  Freddy’s Dead bares no resemblance to a horror movie at all.  It doesn’t even put forth the smallest effort to establish a mood or atmosphere conducive to scaring even the most timid audience.  There’s so much cartoony garbage stinking up the movie that you couldn’t break out of it if you tried.  This movie SUCKS SO FUCKING BAD!  I strongly avoid using that kind of profanity in my reviews, but when a movie elicits that strong of a negative emotion from me, there is no way I could express my vehement disdain any other way.  It’s like a middle finger pointed straight at the audience in crappy 3D.  This film also has no sense of transition.  There are a few scenes that just abruptly end, jarring us into the next scene without a single mind towards a segue.  You feel the scene is building towards something more, but it takes a sharp turn into a completely different scene.  This is bad plotting, poor pacing, and just sloppy editing.  Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare has no qualities that could possibly redeem it because it was so royally screwed from its inception.

From here, the only salvation for Freddy Krueger was Wes Craven and Jason Voorhees.  The first was a creative salvation, and the second was a financial salvation.  Sure, this movie was a box office success, but there is nothing within this film that deserved that success.  It is one of the absolute worst sequels I have ever seen, regardless of genre.  I would log it next to Alien vs. Predator because it is that insulting in its ideas, and piss poor in its filmmaking competency.  Also, this film absolutely did not need an obnoxious cameo by Roseanne and Tom Arnold.  They standout like a sore thumb, but thankfully, it’s only for a minute.  However, it’s just another stamp of the filmmakers not taking this film seriously or respecting where this franchise came from.  Even separated from the franchise, this is still a terrible movie through and through.  So many of those creatively involved with it should be ashamed that they did this to Freddy Krueger.  Instead of shifting gears and bringing the icon back to his serious roots of horror, they plunge off the deep end, and drown him in a comedy sewage.  I could go on and on calling this film every bad name in the book, but I think I’ve said plenty.  Thank goodness that Wes Craven would bring respectability back to the franchise with New Nightmare, which I did review last October.  Skip this movie and watch that one.  It’s a massively, exponentially superior film on every level.


A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

Nightmare on Elm Street 5This is where the film franchise took a serious slip and fall misstep.  Someone realized that Freddy Krueger was on the verge of becoming a bad punchline, and so, steps were taken to make this a darker, more mature sequel.  Rushed out into theatres just under a year after The Dream Master, director Stephen Hopkins did all he could to deliver a solid film, but there was too many misconceived qualities to be what the studio desired.  This was the lowest grossing film of the series up to that point, and the reasons why are evident here.

Having survived and seemingly defeated him, Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox) finds the deadly dreams of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) starting once again.  This time, the taunting murderer is striking through the sleeping mind of Alice’s unborn child.  His intention is to be “born again” into the real world at the expense of Alice’s new circle of friends.  The only one who can stop Freddy is his dead mother, but can Alice free her spirit in time to save her own son?

For me, the biggest and most evident issue with The Dream Child is that it tries to tie campy, overblown humorous elements in with a gothic looking slasher film, and that just curls my upper lip in disgust.  Stephen Hopkins certainly directs a very well shot movie, but that gothic production design is soaked in so much brown that it’s not inviting to look at.  That visual style is really contained within the dream world, but that has always been the more fantastical and visually intriguing aspect of these films.  Hopkins does have a great eye for stylish visuals, but it is a very drab film to look at in most cases.  If it had a more subtle, realistic color palette like Craven’s original, or followed along the vibrant color schemes of Renny Harlin’s The Dream Master, this may have been a more visually exciting movie.

Lisa Wilcox is able to stretch out and expand upon her previous performance as Alice.  She’s able to take that strong fighter, and add the emotional touches of heart and depth into her.  It feels very organic from how she initially was in The Dream Master, but just melding that with her new found strength.  Wilcox also brings out the heartache and inner turmoil of Alice with endearing charm and sympathy.  She’s pushed to new limits, fighting to save not only her friends, but the life of her newly conceived son, which Wilcox embraces with a great deal of depth and motivation.  All around, she leads this film with a lot of confidence continuing on as an inspiring hero for this franchise.  I feel it’s unfortunate that she is never revisited again because Lisa Wilcox is such a solid and versatile talent, and really gave us a standout character to rival Nancy Thompson amongst fans.

Now, Alice’s new cast of friends are not filled by bad actors.  They are quite good, but the characters just aren’t that appealing or entertaining.  The closest we get is the comic book artist Mark.  He’s decently fun, but is definitely downplayed.  He has some good dramatic moments, and showcases some heart at times.  It’s a shame that actor Joe Seely has nothing more to work with here because he seemed to have the potential to really breakout with a more entertaining performance.  With Yvonne, I understand the idea of the friend that doesn’t always agree with you, but she is too abrasive too often.  There is too much friction between her and Alice for my liking to where I just didn’t like the character.  With all the teenagers that have been killed by Freddy in this town, you’d think she would actually wake up to the truth and start acting more open-mindedly.  Instead, she remains a stubborn minded person dismissing her friends claims instead of trying to help them through most of the film.  That’s a friend I wouldn’t care to have.  Greta, the more upper class type friend, just doesn’t have much going for her as a character.  The actress portraying Greta’s mother, however, is just terrible all the way through.  She overacts the part to horrendously cartoonish levels.  Her performance is very forewarning of some of what we’d get in Freddy’s Dead.

I found the kid who plays Jacob, Whitby Hertford, to be rather unappealing to look at and rather annoying.  There was nothing about his performance that made me feel sympathy for him at all.  Even worse is that the make-up department did all they could to make him look uglier, creepier.  Surely, that was the intent, but part of the purpose of Jacob is to make him sympathetic; to make him someone you want to see saved from Krueger’s clutches.  I couldn’t care any less about him if I tried.  I really feel he should have been played more innocently, and have Freddy gradually corrupt him more and more to motivate sympathy from an audience and put more urgency upon Alice to act quickly.

Ten years ago, I was able to do an email based interview with Robert Englund, and from that, I gained insight into the shift in the tone and portrayal of Freddy Krueger from scary and serious to cheesy and comical.  He said, and I quote, “I feel Freddy should be dark, but directors and fans like his dark humor.  In many cases during the filming of all the movies I would give a dark and a comical take for certain scenes.  Director liked the “button” that a laugh gives so they would often opt for the more comical take in the editing room.”  The choice to take Freddy into comical territory was indeed outside of Englund’s control, and he simply gave the filmmakers the best performance he could based on what they wanted.  This film delves deeply into the comical villain portrayal, and thus, the scare factor of Freddy Krueger is severely drained.  He was turned into a twisted clown that might make some people laugh, but is almost guaranteed not to scare you at all.  What is scary is that this is not the worst it would get to being.

The make-up work on Freddy does fall down in quality as he appears cheap and rubbery.  This is a byproduct of the rushed production schedule.  However, many of the various practical effects are impressive such as the motorcycle death sequence that seems straight out of Videodrome.  There are some cool visual effects used when Mark gets sucked into his comic books, but it was far from anything new.  It was mostly a retread of the classic a-Ha music video for “Take On Me.”  The climax features effects and designs directly copying from M.C. Escher’s famous artwork Relativity with all the upside down staircases.  It’s a fine idea, but it’s less surreal and just more whacky and silly.  I’ve seen it done in Looney Tunes cartoons before, and so, I would hardly associate it with a frightening, vertigo-like nightmare.  There are a number of very good visual effects in The Dream Child, but the ideas behind many of them aren’t all that great.  Plus, they seem even more dated than those of The Dream Master.

And of course, since this film deals with a pregnancy, I honestly don’t think that A Nightmare On Elm Street movie is the proper platform to debate the issue of abortion.  I am not going to inject my feelings on the issue here either.  This film brings it up as a serious issue for Alice to contend with, but she remains strong in her decision to keep the child.  People don’t go into a movie like this to have hot button socio-political issues debated.  They are there to have a fun time being scared.  Adding this sort of subject matter into the movie likely turned more than a few people off to it.  While it is not an aspect of the film that really bothers me, it’s just not something that needed to exist in a slasher movie.

This sequel also feels uneven in its plotting, and rather thin in certainly places.  The film is front loaded with establishing every element of this plot to where it leaves a lot of muddled meandering in the middle.  It probably rushes us into the thick of the story quicker than necessary.  Then, the film progresses past all of that to where it kind of goes through the slasher movie motions to rack up the body count.  It’s not until the final act that any of these plot elements are actively dealt with, and even then, it becomes very repetitive just in order to fill in the remaining runtime.  That’s odd to say since the film ends very quickly after Freddy is dispatched with, but still struggles to come in under the 90 minute mark.  The third act confrontation with Freddy runs around in circles, both literally and figuratively, to where it just doesn’t feel exciting.  Again, I didn’t care a thing for this creepy child Jacob to invest myself in Alice’s desire to protect him, and the filmmakers don’t really do anything to make him anyone to care about.  So, having Alice and Freddy chase him around the dream world for the whole third act was just tedious.  I generally like the further exploration of Freddy’s origins and bringing Amanda Krueger back into the fold from Dream Warriors.  I just don’t think all of these elements have enough impact on the climax as they likely were supposed to.  I understand not trying to close the door on Freddy, again, since he always comes back, but not trying to have a satisfying and solid ending to your movie is a terrible approach to have.

While Stephen Hopkins tried to take this into a darker, grittier look, it is the script that fundamentally sabotages that effort.  I’m even hard pressed to say if this is even a potentially good concept because it is executed so poorly from a clunky screenplay.  This is what you get when you rush the movie into theatres fifty-one weeks after the original.  Back in 1989, it took that long just to get a movie from theatres onto home video.  When you slow down, and take your time to find the right story and refine the concept, you will get a better movie in the end.  Instead, The Dream Child is enough of a mess to call this a major pothole in the steady road of success of this franchise.  While it was profitable, it did fall especially below expectations.  Thus, New Line Cinema decided to begin plotting Freddy’s supposedly ultimate demise with what would be the most horrendous movie of this entire franchise.  As for this sequel, ultimately, neither the attempt at a darker, more mature tone nor Englund’s best efforts could save it.  The film is watchable, but not especially satisfying.


A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

Nightmare on Elm Street 4With the strong success of the third movie, New Line Cinema struck their biggest gold with this 1988 sequel helmed by Finnish director Renny Harlin.  The Dream Master takes a lot of what made Dream Warriors marketable and entertaining and amplified it.  This is definitely the most mainstream film in the franchise with many pop culture sensibilities, and that resulted in the largest box office take until 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason.  For many years I had formed a much more negative opinion of this film, but now that I’ve watched it again, I can say that this is a very well made movie.  However, I cannot say that it’s a very effective horror movie.

Proving there’s no rest for the wicked, the unspeakably evil Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is again resurrected from the grave to wreak havoc upon those who dare to dream, but this time, he faces a powerful new adversary.  As her friends succumb one by one to Freddy’s wrath, telepathically gifted Kristen Parker (Tuesday Knight) embarks on a desperate mission to destroy the satanic dream stalker and release the tortured souls of his victims.  However, her power will have to be passed to her friend Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox) as she has the ability to overcome Freddy’s control, and absorb the power of her slain friends to end Krueger once and for all.

I do enjoy a couple of Renny Harlin’s movies.  The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Die Hard 2 are definite favorites of mine, and I am anxious to watch Cliffhanger very soon.  However, I don’t think horror really is his strong suit, despite how gory his early films are.  I will certainly hand it to him for having a great handle on gore effects, and his films usually look damn good on all levels.  Still, this film is a long way removed from the brilliant execution of chilling suspense and the masterful enveloping experience of terror of Wes Craven’s original classic.  However, on a technical level, this is probably the best made film of the franchise until New Nightmare.  Harlin just knows how to move his camera in smart, cinematic ways.  There seems to be more camera movement overall with some steadicam work, and smart, engaging camera angles.  This is a very polished looking film having nearly triple the budget of Dream Warriors, and it shows through in all aspects.  It has vibrant colors, but a good mix of light and dark.  The whole movie feels just a little more theatrical in its lighting as well.  Thus, the mood is a little more artistically crafted, visually, than Dream Warriors, but it does lack a good dose of suspense.  The film has its gore, its violence, and its imagination in high gear, but doesn’t make itself all that scary.

This film loses a lot of potential emotional resonance having to recast Kristen Parker with Tuesday Knight.  There was apparently a turbulent experience for Patricia Arquette on the previous movie, and for possibly other reasons as well, she chose not to reprise the role of Kristen.  Knight does an okay job, but it really feels like a filler role to motivate the plot along quickly to put Alice in the lead role.  It also comes down to how she is written.  There is no motivation given for why she’s convinced that Freddy’s coming back to get her, and it feels like a large step backwards for the character.  She seemed to evolve a little in last film to a stronger protagonist, and she feels regressed to a more timid, easily spooked person here.

Returning from Dream Warriors are Ken Sagoes and Rodney Eastman as Kincaid and Joey, respectively.  They still deliver perfectly to what they did in the previous movie, but their chemistry with Knight is not as good as it was with Arquette.  I really like that The Dream Master feels like a direct sequel by bringing back these surviving characters while segueing into a new cast.  We spend the first act with them, fearing for their lives from Freddy’s imminent rampage of revenge, but then, it shifts into another gear that once again builds upon the premise of the series.  It feels like Freddy is triumphing here as an nearly indomitable force, and we need a stronger hero with special powers to combat him.

This film greatly builds Alice up as our new heroine.  We get glimpses into her emotional and mental state, both affectionate and angered, from under her meek appearance.  The film nicely balances establishing her as a well rounded character in all aspects while keeping Kristen also in the forefront in a more troubled state.  Lisa Wilcox proves to be a solid actress with fine range.  We see her take Alice from this lowly, slightly introverted young woman to a vibrant, tough fighter.  Yet, we get moments of endearing sweetness and heart making her easy to sympathize with.  We follow Alice as she grows into this awesome character, and delivers in spades as an action hero that a film of this sort required.

I think the idea of Alice gaining the powers of her friends as Freddy kills them is great.  It creates a fresh dynamic in the story that while Alice suffers the grief of her dying friends, she becomes stronger by them so that she can battle Freddy.  He is savagely tearing through them at a fast rate making the situation all that more dire and seemingly insurmountable.  It definitely moves the film along at a tight pace, and makes for an entertaining and original sequel.  I will hand it to the A Nightmare On Elm Street movies for always seeking out new ideas so that no film feels like a carbon copy of another.  The ideas might not always work, but there’s at least an effort put forth most times.

Since this film amplifies all of the entertaining qualities of the previous movie, we get a Freddy Krueger who cracks more jokes, throws out more one-liners, and has significantly more screentime.  Robert Englund still does a very good job with this material maintaining his own standards of integrity as an actor.  Unfortunately, the portrayal of Freddy in this film just falls further away from that frightening figure that stalks the dark recesses of your worst nightmares.  For crying out loud, he is seen in broad daylight on a sunny beach with a pair of sunglasses on.  That’s one of my least desirable images from this franchise.  It’s the total stark opposite environment to place Fred Krueger in.  The scene in question has Kristen going into her own idyllic dream, and then, Freddy crashes it in a very Jaws homage fashion.  The better way to do this would be to have the sky go dark and stormy, and have Freddy invade her dream in a more ominous way.  Keeping Freddy in the shadows is where he is the most effective, and while there is some of that here, the liberties taken just don’t work to maintaining him as a scary figure.

The effects work here is amazing and rather ambitious.  The waterbed scene is great in both concept and execution as Joey tries to reach the naked beauty inside, but then, gets gutted by Freddy.  The most shocking and disgusting effects are when Freddy goes after Debbie, and she is transformed into a insect piece by piece.  Even for as much gross stuff as I’ve seen in horror movies, this sequence still makes me cringe and my stomach turn.  It’s no wonder I haven’t worked up the nerve to watch David Cronenberg’s The Fly.  The big ending to the climax where the souls are fighting to break out of Freddy is greatly elaborate and highly impressive.  Many different effects were used to pull this off, and they cut together seamlessly and to fantastic effect.  While some of the effects are dated and a little cheesy, they still work for the film’s overall style, and were certainly high grade for their time.

The music is very pop oriented with a mostly synthesizer style score creating a great ambient mystique.  It is a perfectly 80’s soundtrack with a number of really good rock tracks from Billy Idol, Dramarama, Vinnie Vincent Invasion, and Tuesday Knight herself performing the opening title track “Nightmares.”  I really like the sound of all of it because it gives the film energy, style, and a little bit of edge.  It helps to energize the movie and the audience as events unfold and build up to a really great climax.

I now do really like this movie.  It is fun, entertaining, exciting, and quite smart in a number of ways.  Renny Harlin does a great job with the well developed screenplay.  Unfortunately, where it fails is in actually in the horror department.  I’m not sure what to classify this movie as because it does have gruesome, nightmarish imagery, and great effects along with a solidly put together cinematic atmosphere.  There’s just not much here to scare an audience with outside of the graphic scenes of gore.  There’s very little effort put into building up tension or suspense, which are key to roping an audience in tightly.  It’s a fun, dark fantasy with a pitch perfect pop culture sensibility and excellent violent, gory moments.  The Dream Master is a largely fun time spent with a very capable and enjoyable cast, and so, it is easy to see why this was such a big box office success.  I just wish there was more to be potentially scared about in this tightly paced 93 minute runtime.


A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

Nightmare on Elm Street 3Sequels tend to be an inferior breed of movie, especially in the horror genre.  However, sometimes, when you get the right mix of talent together, and especially getting the input of series creator Wes Craven, you can create one the most beloved films in the entire franchise.  Freddy’s Revenge fell off-track with the ideas and mythos of Freddy Krueger, but this film, Dream Warriors, got it solidly back on track in stellar, awesome ways.

The last of the Elm Street kids are now at a psychiatric ward where Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) haunts their dreams with unspeakable horrors.  Their newest fellow patient is Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) who has the ability to pull others into her dreams.  Their only hope is dream researcher and fellow survivor Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who helps them battle the supernatural psycho on his own hellish turf.

From the beginning, you can see that this film is again embracing the atmosphere and surreal qualities of Craven’s original.  It feels directly in synch on numerous levels.  The opening dream sequence is very nerve-racking and visually captivating.  The first ten minutes of this sequel is better than anything in all of Freddy’s Revenge.  Overall, it features a great and imaginative collection of nightmare sequences that are all shot and lit in very interesting and moody ways to evoke mysterious and frightening feelings from an audience.  This is also a greatly paced film balancing its attention amongst this ensemble cast exceptionally well, and moving the story forward tightly.

Bringing back Nancy was a stroke of genius, and it continues her story purposefully and smartly.  She’s grown and matured to a point where she can truly help these troubled kids band together and fight Kruger and their own fears.  Heather Langenkamp does a lot of great work reprising this role bringing confidence and compassion to Nancy.  Teaming her with Patricia Arquette results in a strong pairing that work excellently off one another.  Kristen grows stronger through Nancy, as does everyone, but she is clearly the highlight.  Nancy fully passes the torch to Kristen in many ways, and Patricia Arquette does a truly standout acting job here.  I love that this movie isn’t just about Nancy.  It’s about all of these great, dimensional characters coming together to combat Krueger as a force to defeat him in grand fashion.

One of those notably great characters is Dr. Neil Gordon.  There is a lot of heart and compassion in Craig Wasson’s performance.  You can see how much Dr. Gordon cares for these kids, and even Nancy to an extent.  I like that he has an arc of sorts here having his mind open to new possibilities, and growing into a stronger character when he deals with Donald Thompson.  He becomes more than just a caring doctor.  He becomes one that will fight for what he believes in.  The subtle subplot with Sister Mary Helena helps evolve his character in clever ways so he can believe in more than just science to lay Freddy Krueger to rest.

Also returning is John Saxon as a much more down-and-out Donald Thompson.  No longer a Police Lieutenant, he’s a drunkard security guard who did go into a downward spiral after the events of the first movie.  It’s a stark contrast of a performance, but Saxon is such an incredible actor that he achieves it remarkably well.  The progression of the character is handled with appropriate weight and integrity.  This film takes its characters seriously and treats them with respect.  Thus, it makes for a film with serious weight and integrity on the whole, which I really respect.

The rest of this young cast is absolutely superb.  They embody each character’s distinct personalities with a great deal of dedication and talent.  It’s a golden example of putting together a great ensemble cast for a horror movie.  While each character has emotional weaknesses, they have greater strengths which are expertly bonded together to become the titular Dream Warriors.  It’s also a great treat seeing a fairly young and slender Larry Fishburne as the upbeat and charismatic orderly Max.  He is very charming showing great energy and enthusiasm.

Now, this film was where Freddy started to become a little lighter in tone and throwing out a few wisecracks.  Even the low, deep voice is not consistently present, likely to accommodate that variation in tone.  However, he’s still an effective, threatening villain due to Robert Englund’s performance.  He still commands the frame, and has a great, imposing presence.  While there seems to be less screentime for Freddy here, the fear of him permeates throughout the film, and the threat of him is almost omnipresent.  The movie builds him up, and in a way, gives him more impact when he does strike.  He is far more powerful than ever before, and that makes for much more elaborate dream sequences and scenarios.  Dream Warriors also begins to unveil a little of his back story in regards to being the “son of a hundred maniacs,” which is great stuff.

With the imagination back in full force, the practical and visual effects shine through excellently.  There is plenty of gore on display that is effectively designed to unnerve.  The most memorable work, both in make-up and visual effects, are when Freddy uses Phillip’s own tendons to walk him to his death like a marionette, and the full-on Freddy serpent that attempts to eat Kristen early on.  Even in the climax, we get some really good stop motion animation, and some all around solid visual effects composites.  Where the previous sequel was very lacking in imaginative nightmares, this film is packed with them, and they all tie in perfectly with the story.  They are all crafted with solid suspense and smart scares.  I will grant that this film has more of a fun factor than the first, and that does require a little loosening of the horror tone.  However, this movie still delivers on the horror and frightening visuals due largely to the excellent effects work, and the talent of director Chuck Russell.

We are also treated to a greatly shot film.  The cinematographer uses subtle camera movements highlighting poignant moments, and the dream sequences all have great visual vibrancy.  Shadowy blues are used for the more haunting or mysterious scenes, and fiery reds are utilized when in the depths of Freddy’s surreal boiler room.  The look of Dream Warriors is not as dark and frightening as the first film, but instead, uses visual atmosphere to great effect.  Director Chuck Russell really approached this film seriously, not deteriorating it into silly, indulgent territory, and how it is photographed entirely reflects that intention.

Dream Warriors also features some great music, starting with the score from Angelo Badalamenti.  He works in the Charles Bernstein theme very well, and builds a great atmosphere beyond that.  He reflects the tone of dramatic weight and chilling horror with exceptional skill.  It is such a damn good horror film score, as should be no surprise from David Lynch’s regular composer from Blue Velvet onward.

And of course, the classic songs from Dokken helped break the metal band into a wide audience.  This film entirely exposed me to them between Into The Fire and the title track Dream Warriors.  They are two excellent songs, and they complement this more MTV styled sequel that hits you with more vibrant and stylized visuals.  You can definitely tell that Dokken was involved early on as Taryn is wearing one of their T-shirts in her first scene.  Of course, there songs are a small part of the movie, and it is Badalamenti’s score that drives the atmosphere and weight of the picture.

This sequel is the proper follow-up to the original.  Beyond just bringing back Nancy and her father, this just builds upon the original core ideas, and progresses them into a very exciting new place.  Nancy learned how to overcome Freddy in the first movie, but now, she teaches others how to fight him with their own set of strengths.  Some do parish, but others live to fight in another movie.  Wes Craven did early drafts of the script, and thus, had some creative input on this sequel.  Regardless of how much or little of his ideas made it there, I think his presence is still felt.  It is a smartly written film with a great cast of stellar young talents, and it still delivers on the scares and horror aspects.  Certainly none of the sequels measure up on a pure horror movie level to the original, but in terms of doing what a sequel should do, A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors does exactly that.  It expands the ideas and universe to have a fuller, more imaginative experience that entertains in new ways while still being respectful of where it came from.  This is an undeniable classic to franchise fans, and is certainly one of the most well loved slashers of all time.


A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

Nightmare on Elm Street 2Horror film sequel subtitles are never all that clever, but it’s odd that this is called Freddy’s Revenge considering these are all brand new characters that Freddy has no past history with to seek revenge against.  Nor is there any theme or hint at a revenge ideal here.  That aside, this is a peculiar film in this franchise.  As is no surprise, it was a rushed production since the first film was so financially successful for New Line Cinema.  So, it really does lack all of the brilliance of Wes Craven’s film, but what makes it peculiar is a certain subtext that many are aware of by now.  There are certainly detrimental qualities to this first sequel, but it’s not a terrible movie.  Still, that doesn’t mean it’s particularly good or memorable.

Five years have passed since Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) was sent howling back to hell.  But now, Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton), a new kid on Elm Street, is being haunted every night by gruesome visions of the deadly dream stalker.  And if his twisted soul takes possession of the boy’s body, Freddy will return from the dead to wreak bloody murder and mayhem upon the entire town.

The subtext in question is a rather obvious homoerotic subtext.  It has been talked about at great length, and so, it’s nothing new I’m bringing up here.  The 1980’s did have this bizarre homoerotic sensibility in the air, but this film, if any at all, seemed to have galvanized that all into a single 87 minute runtime.  Screenwriter David Chaskin did write all of this into the script, but apparently, none were aware of it while making the film.  There’s the constant bare-chested, sweaty scenes of Jesse every few minutes, there’s the S&M bondage club, the gym teacher getting stripped bare by Freddy, and the all too close relationship between Jesse and Grady.  You’ve got, yet again, a bare-chested Jesse barging into Grady’s bedroom where he is asleep and mostly undressed to talk about Jesse’s sexual inabilities with Lisa.  It is very obvious like a punch in the face, and that’s just the start of it.  Jesse’s struggle with Freddy is supposedly a struggle with his own repressed sexuality.  I will say it comes across loud and clear, but that’s not at all what Freddy is meant to be about.  He’s not the manifestation of anything except your own fears, and this film doesn’t deal with that aspect of Krueger at all, ever.

I sort of like the idea of Freddy using someone else as a conduit into our reality.  This is revisited in another way in The Dream Child and Freddy’s Dead, but it also doesn’t make a lot of sense for Freddy to transcend into our reality since he is essentially powerless outside of the dream world.  The problem here is that Freddy kills no one in the dream world, and instead, goes after them in a slightly surreal waking world.  Bringing Freddy into our reality, fully, feels wrong.  The scene where he finally does this was so ridiculous to director Jack Sholder that he couldn’t direct it himself because of how hard he was laughing during it.  The scene is not really scary at all, and is more silly than anything.  Freddy just running around and randomly terrorizing teenagers at a pool party even sounds wrong in concept, and doesn’t work in execution either.  Ideas like this are a big reason why Wes Craven stayed far away from this movie.

Even then, the kills are very forgettable and stock.  One guy gets whipped to death, and another gets stabbed with Freddy’s razor glove.  The rest are just slashed as the party.  This grossly pales in comparison to the brilliantly imaginative kills in Wes Craven’s original.  The innovative effects work created a darkly fantastical atmosphere of nightmarish deaths.  That showed Freddy’s power and enhanced his menace.  This film leans entirely on Freddy taking over Jesse as its sole hook of gruesome fantastical captivation, and it’s not remotely enough.  There are a few nightmares, but there is not really any haunting or chilling imagery to crawl up under your skin.

What you absolutely have to credit this film with is holding true to the presentation of Freddy even if the concepts behind him are altered.  Knowing how jokey and cheesy he became, it’s refreshing to see that this sequel didn’t start that trend.  He’s still masked in shadows, and his voice still has that low, salacious quality.  He feels concretely scary, and Robert Englund still puts his all into it.  This is the most highly admirable aspect of this movie, and becomes more apparent in retrospect looking at the franchise overall.  I just wish Englund had a better movie to complement that performance.

What make-up effects we do get are still great here.  The best evidence of this is when Freddy crawls and tears his way out of Jesse in gruesome, frightening fashion.  It is so excellently done.  Also, the make-up on Freddy himself is still fantastic.  Even in full light, it never appears cheap or rubbery like it would in later sequels.  It’s all very admirable work that doesn’t slack off anywhere, and while there’s not much use of visual effects, they are of a comparable quality.  I just wish there was a greater need for them to realize a more fiery imagination to rival the first movie.

The characters here are a divided issue for me.  I do feel that Mark Patton does a fine job as Jesse.  He’s fairly well written making him vulnerable and relatable.  He’s definitely the kind of teenager that doesn’t quite fit in, and is easily picked on.  Jesse has definite internal conflicts, but for a horror movie protagonist, he is terribly weak.  He is both the intended hero and the main victim.  That makes him difficult to invest yourself in because he is the furthest thing from a heroic figure.  He is not strong willed at all, and essentially, is the polar opposite of Nancy Thompson.  He’s not introverted like Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th, Part V, but it’s almost as bad having a main character who is nothing but troubled and full of angst when we’re looking for an inspiring hero.  The fact that Jesse is absent from the third act, and it is his girlfriend who releases him from Freddy’s control shows how out of whack the concept here is.  There’s really no one here to connect with as a hero or heroine.

Now, no one among this cast is really a poor actor, but the characters don’t really pop out at you.  They are fine, but they don’t have that special quality of personality and chemistry to really come to vibrant life.  Kim Myers is a potentially decent romantic interest, but despite a few moments of affection, she hardly feels like Jesse’s girlfriend and more like the best friend.  There’s no hot spark between Patton and Myers to sell this the way it’s supposed to be by the time they’re making out at the party.  The rest of the cast is essentially forgettable.  They’re not bad performances, but it all does just feel flat and disposable all on its own.  These just aren’t especially entertaining characters to spend time with.

The film deals with Jesse’s psychological elements very well.  Mark Patton does put in a solid effort selling the terror and torment that Freddy puts him through.  If this film kept true to Wes Craven’s ideas, I think it could have been a more effective and creatively satisfying movie.  Making the struggle psychologically based could be very intriguing instead of a physical or ideological battle.  Patton clearly showed he had the talent for the role, but even then, as I said, he’s never put into a position of strength to become our hero.  He never really fights back, and is constantly running away from every confrontation with Krueger.  Even at the film’s end, he’s still afraid and prone to Freddy screwing with him again.

Freddy’s Revenge is not a bad movie, and there are far, far worse entries in this franchise.  However, it really is a misconceived sequel taking things in the wrong direction.  It takes Freddy out of the dream world so much that you remove so much o the appeal of the original.  All of the dream-like qualities are downplayed with only a few nightmarish images, and extremely few actually occur when someone’s asleep.  The dream world is Freddy’s domain where he holds the power, and you want to see someone go into that world and battle Krueger on his own ground at his own game.  This is Fred Krueger royally screwing with the film’s lead character, and turning him into his own puppet.  That’s not very appealing.  It’s just an example of rushing a film into production with talents that didn’t have much reverence for Craven’s material or ideas.  It’s also not very pleasing that Christopher Young’s score does not include a single appearance of Charles Bernstein’s Elm Street theme, and is rather forgettable.  Even if this was its own standalone movie, and not a sequel to a horror classic, I don’t think this would be regarded as very good, regardless.


Predators (2010)

PredatorsFor whatever reason, the Predator film franchise lied dormant after the release of Predator 2 in 1990.  It wasn’t until 2004 that we got the highly anticipated Alien vs. Predator films.  The first one I hated, and I still consider it the worst overall movie I’ve ever seen theatrically.  The second film I did a rather positive review of as one of the last Forever Horror website reviews and one of the first Forever Cinematic reviews.  However, the general consensus of both movies was decidedly negative, and thus, someone thought it was time to bring the Predator franchise back into its own.  Such a person was producer Robert Rodriguez known best for making big scale action on tight budgets.  Thus, twenty years after Predator 2, we are given another proper sequel.  The question is, was it good enough to breathe life into a damaged franchise?

Awakening in freefall, a collection of strangers find themselves dropped into an unfamiliar land with danger awaiting them.  Royce (Adrien Brody) is a mercenary who reluctantly leads this group of elite warriors in a mysterious mission on an alien planet.  Except for a disgraced physician, they are all cold-blooded killers – mercenaries, mobsters, convicts and death squad members – human “predators.”  But when they begin to be systematically hunted and eliminated by a new Predator breed, it becomes clear that suddenly, they are the prey!

I will admit that I wasn’t sold on this film pre-release.  I thought the premise of Predators abducting humans from Earth and dropping them on another planet to be hunted was against the idea of what a big game hunter would do.  You don’t take a lion out of his natural environment and throw him in your backyard to hunt him.  However, a positive reaction from a strongly opinionated friend of mine motivated me to see it theatrically.  Indeed, I really liked Predators.  I would still rank it third in my list of favorites, but all three films are ranked very tightly together.  They are all extremely well made with their own unique ideas, visual styles, and approaches which all work superbly.

Much like with Predator 2, you must find it peculiar to cast Adrien Brody as the lead in an action movie.  This film will entirely change your perspective on that.  He delivers incredibly in this role.  Brody can play tough bad ass with the best of them.  He brings the charisma of a leader, but clearly shows Royce is a man of sketchy origins and doesn’t mind being a loner.  Royce is also very smart and perceptive.  He would be fine going at it solo, but he sees that even his own survival holds better odds sticking with them than without.  You also see that he’s not a cold-blooded man, but he can be a savage, hardened killer when he needs to be.  The film’s climax sells every awesome thing about Royce, and solidifies that I want to see more of him.

Brody has very touching and honest chemistry with Alice Braga, portraying the Israeli sniper Isabelle.  They surely butt heads in certain circumstances, but they connect on an emotional level that does resonate.  They build a mutual trust and respect as the film progresses.  The rest of these trained killers, including the Rodriguez obligatory Danny Trejo, certainly don’t measure up to Dutch’s elite team from the first film, but they are a mismatched group that are weary to trust one another.  My favorite, who has extremely little dialogue, is the Yakuza member Hanzo.  He creates a very intriguing mystique around him through some interesting actions, and demonstrates a unique sense of honor.  Topher Grace portrays the aforementioned disgraced physician Edwin, and surely, the film didn’t require the presence of this character.  He just adds an extra wild card element late in the game which may or may not be easy to spot early on.  I think I had this reveal spoiled for me before I initially saw the movie.  The concept behind Edwin is a clever one, but probably not executed nearly as smartly as it could have been.

Laurence Fishburne makes a wickedly cool appearance as Noland, a soldier whose been trapped and has survived this planet for several years.  The result of that is hat Noland’s gone quite crazy in a delusional, psychotic type of way.  He’s more than skillfully dangerous, he’s psychologically dangerous.  Fishburne is entertaining and awesome in this fairly brief, very off-kilter role.  More than anything, this character is designed to sell the futility of an escape from the planet, and the idea of two rival tribes of Predators hunting out there, making it all the more difficult to survive.

The film’s first act of sorts might seem a little drawn out to some.  I believe I felt that way upon first viewing.  The characters are exploring this world, trying to understand where they are, and even the first action sequence is not until more than twenty-five minutes in.  Strange alien animals are throw at these characters as a test first, and so, there is a prolonged wait before the first Predator is actually revealed.  However, once that occurs, the film settles into a very familiar feel and tone.  Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal studied the first Predator in great detail to nail the vibe perfectly, and I think they got it just about dead-on while still adding to it.  Antal focuses on building the atmosphere and tension so that there is a pay-off with the action.

The overall feel is great with some rich color schemes which still evoke a dark, ominous feeling.  The cinematography gives this film scale and scope while still maintaining the isolated feeling.  The night scenes look great with a more subdued color palette, but with an excellent use of light and shadow for a beautiful moody vibe.  This really is a remarkably well shot movie with an abundance of artistic merit and dramatic visual weight.

The way the action plays out is very intelligent focusing on tension and imminent danger.  There’s plenty of intense gunplay, but it’s definitely used in conjunction with smart tactics and strategies by these characters.  The ominous feeling of being stalked and hunted is executed with great skill.  It’s a whole package of the visual style, stellar editing, and a music score that stays true to Alan Silvestri’s work.  This film definitely takes the filmmaking style and techniques from John McTiernan’s movie, and gives it a little more polish.  Nimrod Antal definitely puts his own stamp on the film, but was able to make this feel cohesive with the rest of the main Predator franchise.  The action scenes definitely reflect this as there’s really none of that modern shaky cam mayhem.  It’s well plotted, shot, and cut together for an extremely coherent and effective experience.  Beyond anything else, this film enhances the ferocity and frightening quality of the Predators.  They feel even more merciless and relentless than before, if you could even imagine such a thing.

I can’t help but love two fight scenes in Predators.  The first has Hanzo squaring off with his katana against the Predator.  This is beautifully setup, and is shot so gorgeously with a lot of wide angles and a wonderful overhead shot showing the wind blowing through the high grass.  It’s a graceful work of art.  What trumps it on the bad assery scale is when the New Predator battles the Classic Predator, which is portrayed by Derek Mears.  While I didn’t care for the remake of Friday The 13th, Mears was an awesome Jason Voorhees, and he makes for an awesome Predator.  Two Predators ripping and tearing at one another is pure gold, and the scene doesn’t disappoint at all.  This is savage, gory, and everything you’d hope it to be.

And indeed, the creature effects are excellent.  Oddly, neither Stan Winston Studios or Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. – who were responsible for all of the previous Predator effects – returned to work on this film.  Instead, the impeccable talents of KNB EFX were tapped, and they delivered on an amazing level.  There are some familiar designs with the Classic Predator, but the newer, larger Predators are even more impressive.  They do feel like a different breed, but are given a much better approach than what we saw in Alien vs. Predator.  And of course, the gore returns in abundance, and no one better to also fill that task than KNB EFX.  They’ve been the standard bearers for physical effects, especially those in the horror genre, for the last twenty years, and that quality is vastly on display here.

Predators does a great job of taking cues from the first movie, and adding its own flavor and ideas to them.  The climax is a great example as Royce uses some of the same tactics as Dutch with the mud, but uses it in a different context.  Instead of giving the Predator nothing to lock on to, he overloads the senses, and takes him on full boar while retreading some of Arnold’s quotable dialogue.  It all really works greatly while delivering the graphic violence quota that fans crave from this franchise.  The film ends on an excellent note that left me wanting to see where yet another sequel could go.

And thus, I do believe that Predators was indeed good enough to potentially breathe life back into this franchise.  Everyone involved steered it back in the right direction where exciting new stories could be told, and even on its own, this is a very solid and satisfying science fiction action movie.  However, with the same budget as Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, it pulled in just about the same amount at the box office, but the reviews and reactions to this film were substantially higher.  Predators set a good foundation for the franchise to build upon, but three years later, no news of a sequel has surfaced from Twentieth Century Fox.  That is quite unfortunate, but I think there is a great deal of potential to tap with this series which is evident here.  Nimrod Antal and Robert Rodriguez did an excellent job bringing everything back to its roots, and while they chose not to acknowledge Predator 2, they did nothing to contradict it either.  Again, I’d love to see more of Adrien Brody as Royce.  He’s flat out awesome.  While I’m sure some will view the film as leaning a little too heavily on the first movie, I really believe that what it takes from that movie was largely to its benefit, and the filmmakers still injected their own ideas and creativity to allow the franchise to move forward.  They expanded the universe and possibilities in a lot of very good and intriguing ways.  I do really like Predators, and I give it a strong recommendation.  If this film has slipped under your radar for the last three years, definitely give it your attention.  This is a franchise that deserves to live and thrive again under the watch of some really sharp and talented creative individuals.


Predator 2 (1990)

Predator 2There seems to be an idea out there somewhere, I don’t know where it came from, that Predator 2 is a markedly inferior sequel.  This is wholly unjustified.  Surely, everyone has their own opinions on how this measures up to the original classic, but to me, this is a great follow-up which expands on the ideas and premise in exciting new ways.  Predator 2 contains numerous admirable qualities, and is helmed by a director with a great eye for sleek visuals.  Anything it doesn’t recreate from the original it replaces with a higher energy and larger scale action.

In the urban jungles of Los Angeles, Detective Lieutenant Mike Harrigan’s (Danny Glover) police force is at war with drug lords and gangs. But just as Harrigan admits he’s losing the fight, one by one, gang lords are killed by a mysterious, fierce adversary with almost supernatural powers – the Predator.  Before long, the vicious creature begins to hunt the hunters – Harrigan’s men.  Now, Harrigan doesn’t just want to bring the creature in – he wants to bring it down.  However, he is hindered along the way by government Special Agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey) who has a shady motive to his secretive investigation who knows more about this ultimate hunter than Harrigan even suspects.

Surely, you would think going from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Danny Glover would be a strange swerve.  I always imagined that if this was made a few years later that it would be Wesley Snipes as Mike Harrigan, but I’ll be damned if Glover doesn’t deliver here.  The character is designed as a seasoned cop who’s been fighting this unrelenting war on the Los Angeles streets for a long time.  He’s dogged, inventive, and is a cop who plays by his own rules, taking a backseat to no one.  Glover portrays this with the rugged determination of a consummate street cop.  He doesn’t like the politics that get rammed down his throat, and he slickly, yet passionately sticks it back in their faces.  However, he is wholly loyal to his team, and treats them with respect as comrades in arms because they are fighting a war.  Glover also demonstrates the emotional depth of Harrigan when his closest friend, Danny Archuleta portrayed by Rubén Blades, is gruesomely killed by the Predator.  The flashes of enraged vengeance, and the heartfelt moment at the gravesite show Glover had the talent and skill for this role, which also demanded a lot from him physically.  He greatly delivers on that end, too.  I think making him a distinctly different protagonist than Dutch was the right way to go.

Many will indeed enjoy Bill Paxton’s performance as the jokey Jerry Lambert.  He’s the newest member of Harrigan’s team known as “The Lone Ranger.”  He’s a guy that’s gotten a lot of ego stroking and glory, but he quickly becomes an enthusiastic team player.  This is Paxton at his full charismatic and comedic richness.  He adds the levity to break up the grisly heaviness of the film.  The rest of the supporting cast is filled out by Rubén Blades and Maria Conchita Alonso as the seasoned members of Harrigan’s team.  Both bring their top level enthusiasm and talent adding to the cast’s vibrancy.  Then, we get the late, great original king of trash television Morton Downey, Jr. as the appropriately cast tabloid sleaze-miester Tony Pope.  He’s puts in a fantastically entertaining performance.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to return for this film, but he turned it down to do Terminator 2.  Thus, his role was rewritten as Peter Keyes and re-cast with Gary Busey.  I think this was an equally beneficial turn of events.  The story works supremely better not knowing what Keyes’ agenda is, and allowing for him to be an adversary and foil for Harrigan.  Busey does an excellent job bringing forth his signature energy and leaning Keyes towards the smarmy, shady side.  He’s smart and cunning, but still a self-serving government agent who cares more about his findings for the military than Harrigan’s war on violent gang crime.

Also, I love the Jamaican gang here.  They are totally savage and chilling with King Willie being fantastically awesome.  He brings the mysticism into the fold with a wickedly cool scene opposite Harrigan, but also, a greatly visualized confrontation with the Predator.  Calvin Lockhart is so awesome in this role.  The theatricality, mystique, and powerful presence he brings entirely does justice to his Royal Shakespeare Company roots.  He delivers my favorite performance of the movie.  Knowing that director Stephen Hopkins was born in Jamaica, it doesn’t surprise me how rich and memorable these characters are here.

The visual effects are distinctly improved from the first movie.  The Predator vision is the most obvious example as the infrared and other modes have more distinct color separation and possibly are of a higher resolution.  The optical effects of the Predator’s cloak are used more dynamically and are integrated into more complex environments.  We see it in more motion and detail.  My favorite effects shots in the whole movie are when the Predator squares off with King Willie.  First off, the tracking shot of the cloaked feet walking through the water is brilliant work, and then, the reveal of the Predator in the rippling puddle is awesome.  Seeing how these are done in the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD are astounding and what I’ve always loved about movie magic.  These striking, innovative images are largely due to do director Stephen Hopkins’ great visual style.

Teamed with regular director of photography Peter Levy, Hopkins gives Predator 2 its own unique visual sleekness.  It has a great use of dynamic, intriguing angles.  The action is captured remarkably well, and we even get a few scenes of atmospheric, moody lighting.  Two of the best shot scenes are, first, inside the slaughterhouse bathed in blue light where the Predators assaults Keyes’ team, and then, the entire climax inside the Predator spacecraft.  Counterbalancing that blue with a largely orange color scheme there is another sign of Hopkins’ great visual sensibilities.  Beyond just the color schemes, these sequences have great use of sweeping cranes and steadicams shots enhancing the production and artistic value of the film.

This new Predator is recognizable, but has a bit different look and feel to him.  He feels more brazen.  He’s taking bigger chances, and taking on greater numbers.  Hunting in a major metropolitan area means he’s attracting more attention to his work.  So, he’s not as calculated, in general, but when he finds a prey he really likes, such as Harrigan, he takes his time to study him.  He also taunts Harrigan as if he’s issuing an honorable challenge.  I very much like that the filmmakers did this to show, even subtly, that this is another unique individual with his own personality, but with the same objective.  It’s also great seeing the arsenal expand with the telescoping spear, the projectile net, and the flying disc.  It gives the impression of a larger safari at hand where he’s equipped for bigger game.  Kevin Peter Hall, yet again, does an awesome, exceptional job overall.  He defined this role so perfectly, and it is a terrible shame that his life ended only a few years later.  However, what he did laid the template for others to succeed him in this franchise.

The strengths of Predator 2 is that it is much more energetic and diversely entertaining than the original.  The pace is faster as there is more going on here between the gang wars, Peter Keyes’ shady dealings, and Harrigan’s own dogged investigation.  The action sequences are bigger and more dynamic allowing for a higher body count, but not as much gore.  The film originally gained an NC-17 rating, but likely, Fox panicked and did more aggressive editing to secure an R rating.  There is still blood abound and plenty of violence, but far less cadavers begin ripped apart.  What we do see in that regard is obscured or done in heavy shadow.  So, it ups the energy and action, but reduces the graphic content a little.

I would agree that these characters are not quite as captivating as those in the original.  Neither film delves deeply into their characters, but it’s just the nature of battle hardened soldiers in a ominous jungle versus tough, seasoned cops on the streets of Los Angeles.  One if inherently more intriguing than the other.  There’s a little more levity in this film akin to a wisecracking John McClane in areas as Harrigan’s fear manifests in a few humorous quips.  Since the film focuses more on an energetic pace with a more divided focus, there’s little mystique about the Predator himself.  Again, he’s much more blunt and brazen, but you do lose that intensely dramatic build up to the third act.  The Peter Keyes subplot sort of veers the emotional drive of Harrigan off-track, and the climax just becomes about having to stop this alien one way or another.  There’s no more survival aspect, just hero versus villain.  There is some peril throughout the third act, but none of it rivals the dire lethality and immediacy of the first film.

Still, the little teases we get at the end with both the Alien skull in the trophy room, the reveal of the half dozen other Predators onboard the spacecraft, and the flintlock pistol with the engraving of the year 1715 on it lay big seeds for a follow-up.  However one might have felt about this movie, it surely left you intrigued to see how the next film could expand on these concepts further, but a proper third movie would not see fruition for another twenty years.

Predator 2 may not hit all the great qualities of the film first, but has entertaining trade-offs making it a more lively, faster paced action film.  It again has a solid cast filling their roles with vibrancy.  The violence and intense action are enhanced by stylish, sleek visuals and excellent editing.  The optical visual effects are stunningly impressive pushing the ambition further, and with more time to plan, Stan Winston Studios developed the Predator further with great new weaponry and a fresh look.  Alan Silvestri also returns adding some new flavors to his original themes, and adapting some of the feel to this film’s style and content.   I would like to pay tribute to Kevin Peter Hall, Calvin Lockhart, and Stan Winston who have all passed on since this film’s release.  All three did stunning work here that deserves notable credit and praise.  This franchise, outside of the AVP films, has maintained a fairly steady stream of quality.  The screenwriters of the first movie returned to expand on their own concepts, and it was executed very well by a competent and capable director.  Predator 2 s definitely worth your while.  It’s not as slam bang amazing as the first, but it’s a largely worthy sequel.


Predator (1987)

PredatorI think it goes without me saying that Predator is one of the best action films, ever.  More importantly, this is my favorite Schwarzenegger movie.  Smartly directed by John McTiernan, who would helm Die Hard the following year, this is an excellently plotted and cleverly devised concept utilizing a stellar cast to great effect.  With an alien hunter designed by the masterful Stan Winston, and backed by some of the best visual effects of the time, Predator was an instant classic that truly solidified Schwarzenegger’s career as a blockbuster action star.

Recruited by the CIA to rescue hostages held by guerrilla fighters in a Central American country, Major Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his elite team encounter an enemy unimaginably more deadly than any on Earth – because the Predator is not of this Earth.

The film starts out wasting no time by keeping the exposition succinct, and allowing for this team to progress to their objective quickly while still relating these characters to us.  No one’s explored in depth, but you get a clear, personality rich snapshot of each man.  Blain’s a hard ass, Hawkins is kind of a joker, Billy’s the stoic warrior, and so on.  The entire first act sets up who these guys are, and what they are capable of.  We see this is an expertly efficient team able to wipe out a legion of about thirty Central American soldiers within a few minutes.  They are tactically sound striking hard and fast using the element of surprise.  When Dutch’s team is referred to as “the best” early on in the briefing scene, we see that is not at all an exaggerated statement.  They prove they are the elite, but even then, you can see these guys are spooked by this jungle.  “Makes Cambodia look like Kansas,” sets the tone for how unnerved they are by its terrain and ominous feeling.  Encountering the previous team’s skinned corpses surely rattles them a bit, but they never lose their wits.  In fact, it practically heightens them for the more lethal danger that is stalking them.

Schwarzenegger shines here as Dutch.  In addition to everyone else, this is possibly his most quotable movie.  Arnold’s got that charisma going here with energy and authority.  I love that Dutch is a soldier with a code of ethics for his men.  He states straight out that his men are not assassins, merely an elite rescue team, and we see that conviction arise when he learns of Dillion’s deception.  Schwarzenegger shows Dutch to be an honorable and sharply intelligent soldier commanding his men with precision.  He proves himself to be a cunning warrior gradually picking up on the Predator’s methods, and adapting to them in order to survive.  He’s perceptive and level headed, which is undoubtedly the sign of a great soldier.  I think this definitely one of Schwarzenegger’s finest performances demonstrating the ability to realize a very authentic, dimensional, and smart character.  Not to mention, I don’t think he’s looked so awesome on-screen without delving into a cheesy or campy tone.

Bill Duke especially does a touchingly effective job.  Early on, he is a hardened soldier, but after Blain is lost, you see the grief and turmoil wash over him.  Carl Weathers is great here as well portraying a man who was once a trusted friend of Dutch’s that has been corrupted by the “everyone’s expendable” mentality of a pencil pushing desk jockey.  He’s lost sight of the qualities of a soldier and the value of life.  However, we see him turning the corner as he rushes into his final battle, and I really like seeing that small character arc.  Overall, this is a rock solid cast flexing both their acting muscles and their real ones in pure 80’s action movie bad assery.  They all exhibit distinct personality that are vibrant, memorable, and straight up killer.

What it is that we lose with CGI monsters as opposed to a real life performer is exquisitely evident here.  Kevin Peter Hall inhabited that beautifully textured and crafted Stan Winston suit, and created a character to live and breathe through it.  Compare it to the personality deprived CGI creatures from Cowboys & Aliens.  They were, as I said in that review, “just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.”  They had no distinct characteristics that made them any better than the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars.  The Predator has nuanced qualities that reflect an intelligence and cunning behavior.  He’s a unique individual amongst a unique race.  How he moves, reacts, and assesses a situation bring a subtle and intriguing depth created by Kevin Peter Hall’s amazing performance.  It has all the traits of a talented performer crafting a character, and I am so tremendously glad that this franchise has never abandoned the performer in the suit approach.

As I’ve said in many previous reviews, the work of Stan Winston is legendary, and stands the test of time.  He clearly revolutionized the creature effects industry with his artistic craftsmanship and captivating imagination.  The Predator is an astonishing creation in all facets.  The original creature the filmmakers put together for this film was ridiculous and was quickly jettisoned after only a few days of filming.  Winston was called in, and with a little input about mandibles from James Cameron, this iconic, ferocious, and frightening creature was born.  Beyond that, this is a very graphic and brutal film showing you skinned human bodies, spinal cords ripped from carcasses, and a disemboweled Jesse Ventura.  Everything feels so grisly and textured for a greatly realistic feeling.  This is some of the best gore effects I’ve ever seen.

And these visual effects essentially still hold up to this day.  Certainly, the sequels have shown how digital effects can be used to improve and enhance them, but this is impressive work that hardly feels dated.  This is mainly between the Predator’s cloaking technology where he appears as transparent ripples, and the laser sighting and discharges from his plasma cannon.  There are some especially impressive shots featuring the cloak with more dynamic camera angles and motion where you get the real three dimensional quality of it.  You see it’s not some animated effect, but a real optical composite of a real performer.  These are all excellent visual effects.

This all blends perfectly with the gritty, sometimes smoky atmosphere of the film’s look.  I think John McTiernan’s great eye for composition, interesting angles, and well constructed action shines through.  In this jungle, we get the feel of the dangerous terrain and mysterious qualities of the dense foliage.  The grit grounds this science fiction premise in a visceral reality where consequences are severely violent and lethal.  Great camera movements and stylish, dramatic imagery highlight the artist merit of the cinematography, and it is all expertly edited together for a tight film which propels itself forward from the get go. .

Alan Silvestri put together one amazing score for Predator that has endured for the whole franchise.  He incredibly blends a militaristic march and drive with a primal tribal, jungle beat.  He builds a sense of ominous foreboding reflecting the reality that there is something out there stalking these men.  For the majority of the climax, there is next to no dialogue of any sort.  It is carried along by the action, the visuals, and the exhilarating score which enhances all of the tension, apprehension, and danger that is unfolding.  It is perfect, superb work.

The action hits you at a regular clip, and the first main sequence is majorly explosive.  It sets the bar high for the remaining runtime, and McTiernan is able to meet that challenge.  It’s the mix of tension, the unknown, and the sheer scale of this rapid fire, big gun toting, grenade launching explosiveness that makes that possible.  Yet, McTiernan knows how to build it up, and work the subtle strings of an audience’s anticipation.  The danger escalates, and the peril becomes more immediate as the Predator moves in closer and closer to its prey.  He starts out attacking from a distance, but gradually engages his ultimate trophy – Dutch – in close combat because the Predator views him as a highly worthy adversary

And that entire third act where it’s just down to Dutch and the Predator is a masterpiece.  The strategy and makeshift tactics that Dutch puts together play out brilliantly.  He uses the Predator’s own method of invisibility and striking from a distance to his advantage.  However, it all elevates when the two finally meet face-to-face in a straight physical confrontation.  Everyone knows that Arnold is a BIG guy, but next to this hulking seven foot tall alien beast, he looks small and nearly ineffectual.  It’s only by his smarts and wits is he able to survive.

Predator is filled with chest pounding action and excitement wrapped in a smart concept and script.  Backed up by an excellent action director, and a vibrant, colorful cast lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was a surefire formula for success.  This is why I love Predator.  It never lags anywhere as the pacing is tight and the rhythm is consistent throughout right from the start.  It’s really a near brilliant structure which constantly keeps you invested and intrigued by what’s developing here.  You also can’t not quote the living hell out of this movie.  It’s sharp, witty, but never betraying the serious tone of danger and lethality it sets from the beginning.  It’s an absolute success that holds up incredibly well over time.  I entirely intend to give you reviews on both Predator 2 and Predators sooner than later.  Until then, revisit this classic.


Marked For Death (1990)

Marked For DeathThe late 1980’s was the debut of a new action star – Steven Seagal.  By the dawn of the 90’s, he had already done Above the Law and Hard to Kill, but he was still finding his footing.  However, Marked For Death finds him successfully planting his feet and launching forward with a gritty, hard edged action blockbuster.  Helmed by Dwight H. Little, who I’ve found to be a very solid director starting with Halloween 4, this delivers qualities that I find severely lacking in modern action cinema.  Here, Dwight Little demonstrates his merit alongside Seagal in excellent fashion.  This is my best friend’s favorite Steven Seagal film.  So, I hope I do it justice for him.

Burned-out after losing his partner on the job, Drug Enforcement Agent John Hatcher (Steven Seagal) hopes to find some calm and serenity by returning to his hometown.  But things at home have changed and not for the better.  Jamaican drug lords, led by a black-magic high priest named Screwface (Basil Wallace), have completely infiltrated the small town.  But this gang soon learns that they’ve met their match in John Hatcher, and all the mystical voodoo in the world won’t be enough to stop Hatcher’s wrath!

I think this would be a great double feature with Predator 2 due to the Jamaican drug gangs in both.  The spooky ritualistic and mystical atmosphere around them is very compelling.  Screwface, a hell of a weird name if I’ve ever heard one, is a scary, psychotic bad guy.  He’s right off the deep end, and like something from your darkest, twisted nightmare.  His piercing eyes are haunting, and the fact that he almost never blinks when that fiery intensity is burning inside him enhances that quality.  He masterfully builds this aura of mystique around him with a very effective and authentic Jamaican accent.  This is a wickedly awesome villain that adds so much horrific danger to this film.

I will admit that Seagal has never been a very dynamic actor, but he carries the dramatic weight and emotional drive of this film well.  Along with Dwight Little’s direction, you see the subtle emotion surface when he sits at the hospital bedside of Hatcher’s niece portrayed by Danielle Harris.  Seagal can bring some charm and light charisma to the screen in the right moments.  Then, when he gets into the heat of the action you see that ass kicking wisecracking bad ass that made Seagal the action star that he was.  He’s entirely confident and sharp in this outing showing that this is his signature style, and it couldn’t have been showcased in a better, smarter action picture.

Teaming him up with Keith David just makes everything more bad ass.  He brings a wealth of charisma and weight to Max, Hatcher’s old army friend.  He’s a tough guy who is ready to take back his community because he cares for the children he teaches every day.  So, there’s the light-hearted friend, but also, the skilled soldier ready to unleash a maelstrom on these gangs that are decaying his neighborhood.  David’s wide range of talent from the tough bad ass to the heartfelt humanity makes Max a strong complement to Seagal’s more cool, calm, reserved, yet dead-set, bone breaking violent style.

If you want to see Seagal in his most violent, hard edged prime, this is it.  These Jamaicans are ruthlessly and graphically violent, and so, John Hatcher has to be a man who is equally as severe.  The action highlights are many, but I really enjoy the shootout and fight in the high end department store.  It starts as a car chase that crashes into an awesome assault with guns and martial arts violence.  And this film keeps upping the action, peril, and explosive caliber.  As Screwface becomes more dangerous, so does Hatcher.  This is sharp, sleek action with tons of punch that will leave thoroughly satisfied and then some.  It’s all evenly paced allowing the story’s momentum to build up tightly while delivering something fresh, dynamic, and exciting at a regular interval.  It’s really damn good stuff.

I also find it admirable that this film makes a point to show that they’re not making a stereotype out of Jamaicans.  There’s a Jamaican police assistant who is an honest guy that aids Hatcher later on.  The film even takes us into Jamaica where we see the people in their vibrancy and hardships.  While it was not necessary for the filmmakers to do this, I find it the mark of a well developed and fairly balanced crafting of ideas.  If they are going to delve so much into the culture for these abhorrent criminals and killers, it adds more depth and richness to show it in context to the reality of the Jamaican people.  The score by the incredible James Newton Howard blends those Jamaican sounds and beat into the film appropriately.  His music highlights and drives a fair amount of the action, and brings the flavor of the narrative to just as much life as the visuals.

It’s oddly appropriate that the director of photography on Marked For Death also shot the last film I reviewed, Cobra.  Here, Ric Waite gets the chance to work with the wider scope format, and he does a remarkable, rock solid job.  He crafts a great atmosphere when Screwface is in his element through smoke, candles, and just excellent moody lighting.  The action is perfectly framed with some occasionally intriguing angles, and all around, it’s a greatly lit and photographed film.

And this film has an amazing twist at the end with Screwface’s perceived magic.  Not at all would I spoil this for anyone because it’s stunning moment of awe when it happens.  Just when you think Hatcher has all things vanquished, it turns around on everyone, and results in another fantastically executed action sequence.  I mean, who doesn’t love a good swordfight?  It’s one bad ass ending the trumps even what came ten minutes before, and solidifies the hard hitting, take-no-prisoners action intensity of this picture.

Pack all of this in tightly to a 90 minute runtime, and you’ve got an action film that strikes out with killer excitement.  This is undoubtedly one of Seagal’s absolute best films, if not the best.  He pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, and delivers a performance that adds some sly wit in between the emotional fire underneath and the up front bone-cracking bad assery.  Adding further to that bad ass quota, the opening sequence features a small role by Machete himself Danny Trejo.  Backed by a director who I’ve always thought deserved a more high profile career because he is that damn good, Marked For Death delivers it all.  Today, you got a lot of ridiculously over-the-top action films that devolve into cheesy and even campy indulgences.  In this film, you get a lean, hard hitting movie that never softens the blow with those silly distractions.  They can have their place in the genre, but we do not get action films like this anymore.  Not this well made, and not going straight on for the throat leaving no blood un-spilled.  Just go watch it, now!


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.


Alien (1979)

AlienRidley Scott’s Alien is a remarkable classic that was kind of hard for me to appreciate fully until now.  I did see the director’s cut screening in October of 2003, but it didn’t have the intended effect at the time.  However, thanks the Cinemark theatre chain, I was given the chance to see Alien in its original theatrical cut.  I went into the screening consciously putting myself into the proper mindset intending to experience it the right way.  I have always appreciated the filmmaking and artistic talents of the movie, but now, I can connect with it on a level of beautifully crafted horror and suspense.

When commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, heading back to Earth, intercepts a distress signal from a nearby planet, the crew are under obligation to investigate.  After landing on this hostile planet, three crew members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), first officer Kane (John Hurt), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – set out to discover the origin of the signal which Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the ship’s computer soon decipher it as not a distress call but a warning.  Onboard a derelict alien spacecraft, Kane discovers a chamber filled with thousands of alien eggs, and in investigating too closely, he is attacked by a parasite.  When he is brought back to the Nostromo, the crew has no idea the danger they have brought upon themselves as this parasite soon gives birth to a vicious organism that is bred for only one purpose – death.

The strongest quality of this film that struck me was indeed the structure and pacing.  While for a modern audience it might be too methodical, Scott makes every slow burning moment count for something.  It’s all building towards something while establishing mood, atmosphere, character, or story.  The best result from this structure is that there are segments where Scott gives the audience a sense of false security.  This is best reflected in both after the facehugger dies and relinquishes its hold on Kane, and when Ripley has safely escaped aboard the shuttle at the end.  You feel as if the danger has past, but especially with the former, you feel like another shoe is waiting to drop creating this lurking uncertainty.  There’s still a long way to go in this film, and you know something much more threatening is waiting to emerge.  When the ship ascends from the planet, it’s signaling the elevation in threat for these characters and the audience.  And this film repeatedly elevates things to a new, unexpected level.

Scott also does an amazing job immersing an audience into the subtle sense of isolation and unsettling calm of the Nostromo.  This has as much to do with the cinematography as it does the amazing sound design.  The ship always has this ambient sound of probably the power running through it, which further unnerves an audience.  And when things get loud, it gets very loud to evoke the terror and visceral rawness of the moment.  This all creates a contrast of audio where Scott makes things extremely low and quiet when he wants to engage your attention and put you on the edge of your seat.  Then, he blasts something onto the soundtrack to jar you out of your seat.  I don’t find this to be jump scares.  This is an excellent manipulation of suspense and tension to effectively and skillfully scare an audience.  It’s putting you right in there with the unnerving feeling these characters are experiencing.

How Alien is shot is perfect in its use of wide compositions to reflect scope and solitude early on, especially during the excursion to the derelict spacecraft, and later on, how the cinematography moves in closer to highlight the claustrophobic nature of the Nostromo.  Even more intense is when Scott has the shot get right into the actor’s faces during the peak of fear and terror to where you can see every bead of sweat on their skin.  There’s some great and beautiful camera work from the large movements revealing the Space Jockey and using steadicams for sweeping movements.  Yet, I also love the subtle handheld work that creates a sense of unease and rawness at times.  The lighting schemes also create the signature Ridley Scott noir mood and atmosphere.  Light and shadow are used to stellar effect enhancing all the unnerving, heart pounding sequences, and Scott is known for immersing his films in thick darkness.  As the immediacy of everything reaches its apex as the self-destruct is counting down, the blasting exhaust vents and flashing lights intensely reflect the chaotic nature of the third act.  It’s shocking to me that director of photography Derek Vanlint has an extremely short filmography shooting only six films over a thirty-four year span.  Apparently, the bulk of his career was spent on television commercials.  What he did here would make you believe he had a largely notable film career because it was indeed the work of a master cinematographer.

Ridley Scott was very much inspired by the sort of “used future” production design of Star Wars.  Instead of the clean and polished aesthetics of a 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted something that felt gritty, textured, and lived in.  The Nostromo is a very utilitarian craft with very few sleek designs.  It was created to be functional and practical to maintain a sense of relatable realism for the audience.  It has the feel of a factory, oil rig, or submarine with all of its enclosed tight spaces and metal gratings.  And the design of the alien spacecraft and all things related to the Xenomorph by H.R. Giger are truly alien in all aspects.  It has a dark, gothic elegance to it.  Giger always meshes together this sexualized aesthetic with his fascinating and twisted designs, and it creates this unsettling undercurrent of sexuality to all of these creatures that victimize our characters.  Many have read a lot into these elements, but for me, it simply makes for a frightening and completely unique biology.  The Alien feels threatening in every way with all of its fanged teeth, exoskeleton design, and ultimately, it’s black as night sheen.  This is a creature meant to inhabit the darkness as an animalistic hunter.  How Ash describes it as the “perfect organism” has always struck me powerfully selling every single-minded quality about it.  It will use you to breed, and then, the others it will kill.  It has no other purpose to exist but to destroy.  I also love how the film constantly takes you by surprise as we witness the Alien’s life cycle.  First, it’s this tiny little creature, but next time we see it, it’s seven feet tall!  There’s an added shot in the director’s cut that I always liked when Brett goes looking for Jones the cat, and while he’s cooling himself off with the dripping condensation, there’s a shot of it hanging from the chains above.  This is before we know what the Alien now looks like, and so, you wouldn’t pick up on it unless you already knew.  Now, it did take a little bit of effort to put Prometheus out of my mind just to experience the originally intended mystique and fascination with the Space Jockey, but I was able to get there.  I still enjoy Prometheus, but I wanted to experience Alien in its purest form.

Now, despite this being a serious film of horror and atmosphere, the interactions of these characters portrayed by this excellent cast create some much needed moments of levity.  I constantly found what Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were doing to be immensely pleasing and funny.  Parker and Brett are these two jokers who maintain the ship’s functions, and feel quite underappreciated for their hard work who try to leverage that out with some delightful exchanges.  Kotto and Stanton have a great chemistry that brings some rich personality into the fold.

Tom Skerritt is very solid as Captain Dallas.  He has that sense of authority and responsibility which clearly has him stand out as a leader.  Yet, he’s fallible making decisions out of passion instead of adhering to regulations, but also, owning up to those decisions and errors.  At the end of it all, he’s just a guy who wants to do his job and get home, but is forced to deal with something beyond his experience that ultimately does terrify him.

Then, we’ve got Sigourney Weaver who was an unknown talent at the time, and that played to an audience’s surprise.  This one person that they are unfamiliar with in the cast is actually the heroin of the piece, and Weaver shows her stellar talent every moment she’s on screen.  She holds her own opposite everyone very well projecting authority, strength, conviction, and decisiveness as Ellen Ripley.  Yet, of course, the absolutely soul shattering terror that Ripley experiences is powerful through Weaver.  She is vulnerable, but she can fight through it for her own survival.

This is unlike the constantly panicked Lambert who paralyzes with fear in the face of the alien, but her fear is entirely genuine and real with Veronica Cartwright’s fantastic talents making it something other than a potentially annoying character.  Many would find themselves reacting like Lambert does, and it’s a testament to the characters that are able to keep their fear and emotions in check to carry onward.

Ian Holm’s performance is brilliant.  It’s one of those things where you pick up on more in repeat viewings after you know the twist of Ash.  You see the sinister probing eyes that observe a situation like it’s some lab experiment.  Once you know who Ash is and what his purpose happens to be you can see his secret intent, especially during the chestburster scene.  This twist is carefully setup throughout the movie in how he repeatedly enables the safe passage of the alien aboard the ship.

The great thing about these characters is that, despite the futuristic setting on a spacecraft, these are relatable people.  They seem plucked straight out of our time and lives as rugged, blue collar space truckers.  They’re regular people just doing a regular job, but it’s only that they’re towing ore across interstellar space instead of a highway or the like.  They have realistic relationships such as Parker and Brett having some friction against the bridge officers because they get paid less even though the ship wouldn’t work without them.  These people all have conflicts, friendships, and complicated dynamics between them, and this is further aided by very realistic and honest dialogue.  The film surely doesn’t take time to explore the depth of these characters, but it is their behaviors and interactions that inform us of all we need to know about each one of them.  That’s really how you write an ensemble movie, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing.  You don’t need to get their life stories, you just need fully realized characters portrayed by great, suitable actors.  And I would be remised if I didn’t mention John Hurt here.  While he has the shortest screentime of anyone here, he puts in a solid performance that has a few moments of levity, but overall, is as authentic and strong as anyone else here.

The late Jerry Goldsmith seemed to regularly have conflicts with the filmmakers he worked with on how his scores should be crafted.  Oddly, I find that in these cases, what it is that he’s pushed towards creating is ultimately the better choice for the film overall.  Here, we get some great cues with the main theme being the best which exudes an aura of mystery, intrigue, and spookiness.  It’s a subtle melody that does a lot to make things feel lightly ominous and dangerous without ever being overt.  Simplicity can sometimes do so much in conjunction with how a film is shot and plotted.  The music that Goldsmith composed here is exceptionally effective even if how most of it was used went against how he thought it should be.

Usually, when you know a horror film well enough, knowing where the scares are coming and everything, it tends to become less effective.  However, upon this theatrical screening, many moments were still startling and scary.  I really feel that experiencing Alien in the immersive environment of a movie theatre is the best way to do it.  Maybe if you have a large HDTV and a stellar surround sound system, you could achieve that effect, but seeing all of the visual mastery on that large cinema screen was more than I could have imagined.  It just gave me the amplified experience I was looking for with this movie, and why I was compelled and excited for this experience.  Now that I’ve had that experience, my home viewing experience will be richer and more engaging.

It is undeniable that Alien is an eternal classic, but now, I am able to hold it up to that level of awe and recognition myself.  Scott took what was a B-movie horror idea and turned it into an A-grade picture full of masterfully crafted artistry in all aspects with the cast being a glowing example.  Ridley Scott is known for taking great care in creating immersive worlds not just on film, but for the actors and crew to live inside of.  He locks you into this enclosed maze of a dark spaceship where the Alien could be hiding anywhere, and you feel the claustrophobic tension eating away at you.  It can be a haunting, disturbing film for many, and while it has violence and blood, it is strategically used to intense effect.  The same can be said about the Alien itself – only seen it shadows, in pieces.  Scott only once or twice gives you a full fledged look at it.  He keeps it like a startling nightmare – brief glimpses that horrify, much like Jaws.  Unlike Jaws though, it wasn’t out of a necessity of the creature not working or being well designed, it was an artistic decision that worked brilliantly.  There’s a lot of crap that was spawned from this film with bad sequels, poorly conceived crossovers, and a prequel that has proved divisive for many.  Still, I can watch this film as a self-contained entity, and when done so, you can immensely appreciate that Ridley Scott and his vast team of highly talented artists and filmmakers made a stunning and iconic piece of science fiction horror.


Evil Dead (2013)

Evil Dead 2013This movie boasts the tagline of “The most terrifying film you will ever experience.”  Frankly, that should be taken as merely a marketing idea used to generate interest and talk about the movie.  Still, it requires a response from pretty much every movie reviewer out there.  For me, no, it was not at all the most terrifying movie I have ever experienced.  My feelings on the film are mixed.  This has something to do with whether it is a good remake or not, and almost as much to do with if it’s an effective horror movie.

Five twenty-something friends become holed up in a remote cabin with the intent of allowing their friend Mia (Jane Levy) to undergo a full detox from her drug addictions.  However, when they discover a Book of the Dead, they unwittingly summon up dormant demons living in the nearby woods, which possess the youngsters in succession until only one is left intact to fight for survival.

I go into these remakes with the intent of judging them on their own merits because do so otherwise almost dooms you to hating it outright.  However, even though it has been a while since I’ve last seen The Evil Dead, it’s not a complicated movie to remember.  Partially, I feel this is a movie best experienced if you haven’t seen the original because I found myself sort of just waiting for it to get to the point.  I saw it going through a couple of the motions from the original as well as setting up its drug intervention plot, and I was just waiting for it to get the new, good stuff.  This is just the first act of the film, but the film does feel a little uneven in never really giving you a sense of distinct plot progression.  This is partly due to knowing the original as well as I do.  Knowing how the original was plotted out, where the story turns were, and how and where it ended caused a problem for me here.  This remake lead me down the same path that the original took for long enough to where I anticipated it continuing down that same path, but then, only after I began to believe that did it throw a major swerve at me.  My knowledge of the original film worked against my enjoyment of the remake because it kept making me believe it was going to do the same thing when it wasn’t.  In the second act, there’s enough familiar material with a new spin on it to make it interesting, but it’s still familiar material that will stir up memories of what made those moments classics in the first place and how they are just here for fan service.  They are surely well done moments, never betraying the severely serious horror tone, but yeah, they were just better back when they were original ideas instead of retreaded concepts.

This movie surely has some frightening scenes and definitely one terrifying moment.  I did get some serious chills running through me at various points, but it took until all hell broke loose before any of that happened.  Up until then, it was cheap jump scares of dark figures just lurking in the distance not actually doing anything, or having any relevance to what was going on.  Even the reprise of the tree rape scene just felt monotonous because it was nothing new to me.  Again, it’s an example of being familiar with the original being a detriment to experiencing this remake.  I’m sure someone seeing that cold would be very frightened and unsettled by it.  Ultimately, the film is a mix of creepiness, skin crawling sickening imagery, jump scares, and shock horror.  I can get into the first two, but the latter two mostly left me a little lukewarm.  As I’ve said in many previous horror movie reviews, it takes no talent to just soak the screen with gore, or have something jump out at you abruptly.  I give more credit to well crafted suspense and tension, which there is some of that here, but mostly, Evil Dead wants to be shocking and creepy.  There are a number of effective moments of frightening gore, but the movie didn’t keep me wrapped up in tension and fear.

The make-up effects are indeed top notch.  The people responsible really did a fantastic job creating a very raw and visceral look to all the gore.  This all looked like practical blood splattering everywhere, and the make-up work on the possessed characters was well done, even if it lacked originality.  Frankly, their make-up design was more akin to Linda Blair in The Exorcist than any Deadites we saw in the original Evil Dead trilogy.  The self-mutilation also follows more along those lines instead of the demon possession simply disfiguring each person by default.  Frankly, yes, the self-mutilation is simply there for more shock value, which is fine, but it only carries the film so far.  What worked better in the original was the severe whirlwind of insanity the characters were caught up in, but I never felt like this film jacked itself up to that level.

The film is nicely cast with a few good talents, and a few that were just forgettable.  My favorite was Lou Taylor Pucci, who portrays Eric the very 1970’s looking friend who does unleash the evil, but is ultimately the one guy with his head screwed on straight to understand what’s going on.  You have to respect those characters in a horror movie.  The guy that knows what has to be done, and doesn’t disillusion himself about any of it.  Everything’s gone to hell, and he’s ready to do whatever it takes to end it.  Jane Levy is also stellar.  She takes Mia on a very wild ride from the troubled addict to the psychotic and manipulative demon possessed girl to a completely different turn in the final act.  She’s got some excellent talent, and she shows some special diversity with all she is saddled with in this role.  Shiloh Fernandez is fairly good.  He doesn’t standout too greatly, but he does a good job that services the role well.  As David, Mia’s brother, he has moments of compassion, conflict, and conviction with the latter two being his strong suits.  Those are the aspect where he becomes a stronger presence on screen.  The other two ladies on the cast are the forgettable ones.  Jessica Lucas’ Olivia, the friend with some kind of medical knowledge trying to ease Mia’s withdrawal symptoms, just came off as heartless and unlikeable.  For a friend trying to cure Mia of her addictions, she felt a little too much like a borderline bitch than a caring friend.  Elizabeth Blackmore as David’s girlfriend is even more bland to where she might as well have blended into the cabin’s woodwork.

Where the original movie was a very rough quality movie shot on 16mm film, this remake is extremely polished.  I’m sure that might turn some people off who feel the remake should adhere to that same quality, but for what it is, this Evil Dead is magnificently well shot all around.  There’s some very moody and atmospheric hazy lighting in the daylight scenes.  The woods are covered in this low hanging fog that just creates a beautiful grim visual.  There is a great use of darkness to unsettle you, and even create the most terrifying moment in the film for me.  There are things jumping out of the shadows, and then, there’s something frightening creeping out the shadows in the most unreal way possible.  The chills hit me worse than a subzero winter breeze.  The color palette of the movie is also very dark, dreary, and grounded.  It has its own gritty quality despite the polished production values.

Now, I almost think the movie is too ambitious for its own good.  I like that the film does throw serves at the fans of the original, and gives you an entirely different third act.  It is well setup earlier on, but is entirely unexpected.  It’s an intense and excellently done climax with plenty of blood soaked mania, but it’s almost being so severely different because it has to be.  In order for this to be a distinctly different film in concept and execution, it had to do something very ambitious and extreme.  In execution, this unexpected climax is amazing, but I’m not so wowed by the concept of it.  Again, this is a point where being a fan of the original is a mixed bag.  Yes, you get surprised when the film begins to take on its own path, and throwing ideas and twists at you that you didn’t expect.  Yet, when they happen, it took me a while to actually accept them at face value, and bend my mind a little more to follow their creative direction.  It’s hard to explain my reaction in detail without delving into spoilers, which I try to avoid in reviews of newly released movies.  Simply said, a new form of evil emerges after there is a near polar shift in fate for one character, and it seems like such a severe story twist that I’m not sure it’s really earned.  While these ideas and elements are all setup earlier on, it takes a bit to really accept them as reality in this story.

I’m sure there will be people who find this to be a very frightening theatrical experience.  Those that do get scared to death by shock horror and a few jump scares will love this.  The creepiness is not as abundant as either of those or the sickening display of gore.  This is surely far from being a bad horror movie or remake.  I just think that if a remake is going to take things down its own path, it should stay on that path and not try to constantly throw swerves at you.  Either be original or be a retread.  I don’t like a film that does half-and-half.  There are nice tips of the hat to those that love Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic that are subtle, but the direct carbon copy story beats when it repeatedly shows the capacity for original ideas did detract from my experience.  If you do have an open mind, you should go see this as it is a well made horror movie, but it is far from being the best or even most terrifying one I’ve ever seen.  For those that do go see it, there is a post-credits scene that is indeed “groovy.”


Savage Streets (1984)

Savage StreetsI’ve been looking for this movie on DVD in stores for months now.  Today, I went out looking for one exploitation movie at the re-sale shop and came home with another.  Savage Streets is a cult rape-revenge exploitation film from the late director of Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning, Danny Steinmann.  As previously documented, I have a low opinion of that sequel, but Savage Streets looked really good and promising via the trailer.  I’ve heard some good things about it, and was very dogged about finding a copy of it.  Sometimes, a good word of mouth is enough to convince you to take a impassionate chance on a movie.  But now that I’ve seen it, does it live up to what I had hoped for it?  Was it worth the months of anticipation and hunting I put into it?  Well, let me impart a synopsis on you before answering that question.

Brenda (Linda Blair) is bad, bold and brash, but she absolutely dotes on her deaf-mute kid sister Heather (Linnea Quigley).  After nearly being rundown by a gang known as the Scars, Brenda and her friends trash the car of their leader, Jake (Robert Dryer).  Shockingly, he chooses to exact his revenge by getting his cohorts to gang-rape Heather.  Caught up in her rivalry with the cheerleaders, Brenda is at first unaware of the Scar’s involvement, but is eventually shocked with the full truth.  She then vows deadly vengeance in a skintight black suit as she searches out the gang members one by one.

Doing a blind buy of this movie was certainly taking a chance because I’ve had blind buys bite me in the ass before.  However, that was not at all the case with Savage Streets.  I did indeed greatly enjoy what I saw here.  It is quite a low budget picture with only $1.2 million to its credit, but this was definitely a time where most filmmakers knew how to make an effective movie within their limited means.  They could create something genuinely entertaining and worthwhile without needing a major budget.  While his Friday The 13th movie came off like a cheap direct-to-video outing, director Danny Steinmann pulled off a really solid genre movie here that I’m glad he had been commended on long before his 2012 passing.

The main thing that I was impressed by on this film was Linda Blair’s performance.  She strikes that perfect balance of a tough, attitude rich, yet still vulnerable and compassionate young woman.  You see her make those subtle shifts early on as she defends her sister from an ill joke, but then, lightens the mood a moment later with some well place charm.  Brenda will not back down from a fight, and doesn’t take any crap from anybody.  She stands up to everyone from bitchy classmate Cindy to the sleazy school principal to, of course, this malevolent gang.  She’s genuinely tough with the courage and mouth to back it up.  Yet, these tragedies that befall her sister and friends have deep, emotional impact upon her.  She cries, mourns, and grieves in her own harsh way while never veering away from her determination to find those responsible.  Brenda is someone who has a surplus of strength to pull her through this violent series of events, and Linda Blair puts her all into this performance to make Brenda that great heroine.  She’s also quite sexy and beautiful in this film, and her hard edged attitude is very attractive and exciting.  Blair packs a lot of charisma and passion into what she does here, and she really makes Savage Streets the excellent piece of work it is.  There’s not enough I can say about what she does in this role.

In the role of Jake, Robert Dryer does an exceptional job.  This is the dead-on perfect villain for this film as Jake has zero redeeming qualities about him, and is a full fledged sleazy, violent, womanizing, severely intimidating thug.  Just the look of the character gives you a very edgy impression with his slick backed hair, leather jacket, intense physical presence, and especially that razor blade earring.  Dryer has some dark charisma which amps up the character to the utmost vilified levels.  He definitely looks like someone who could snap your neck right after stabbing and slashing you to bits.  Just as much as Linda Blair invests you in the story, Dryer invests you in the need to see Brenda exact her revenge.  After all you see Jake do, and without an ounce of regret or mercy, you crave that violent comeuppance, and that is so much earned from Dryer’s performance.

The rest of the cast is very good putting a lot of enthusiasm and dedication to their roles.  You’ll certainly find some over-the-top dialogue and line deliveries, but it wouldn’t be an exploitation film without them.  John Vernon is excellent with his deep, intimidating, dramatic voice as Principal Underwood.  He has this underlying sleaze factor that surely hits with a peculiar impact, but it’s all great.  Johnny Venocur does some good work as Vince, the one guy in the gang who has a semblance of a conscience.  You can progressively see the humanity taking a hold of him, and it adds a nice dash of remorse into this story.  Lisa Freeman brings her own strength and spirit to Francine which shows she’s no pushover either, but you also get the tender side of her bride-to-be aspects.  Genre star Linnea Quigley makes Heather very wholesome and sweet without ever saying a word.  Linda Blair plays very sweetly opposite her bringing out that touching sisterly warmth and heart.  On the darker side, Quigley achieves the moments of silent terror with visceral intensity.  The entire sexual assault scene is powerful and disturbing, as it should be.  The film does not glorify it at all as it is depicted as a traumatic, frightening experience, which is commendable.  This is the darkest point in the film, but we are thankfully treated to some very enjoyable, entertaining elements throughout the rest of the movie.

What makes Savage Streets distinctly 80s is the awesome pop soundtrack.  There are no big names that stick out for me, but the songs generally hit that excellent 80s vibe with strong vocals, vibrant keyboards, and a driving intensity.  It also kills me that this soundtrack is available only on the original vinyl or audio cassette releases, and are rare collectors’ items.  The only CD release was done independently in a very limited capacity.  So, if you want these songs, you’ll have to turn to YouTube.  The one notable track is “Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way,” which is performed here by John Farnham, would later be covered by Canadian band Kick Axe (aka Spectre General) for Transformers: The Movie in 1986.  The soundtrack for this movie really enhances the vibe all around making it a very rockin’ experience, but the original score is also very effective especially during the film’s climax.

The cinematography of Stephen L. Posey is very good and solid.  It’s nothing amazing, but what he does entirely suits the gritty nature of this movie.  The editing is also very tight never allowing the film to lag anywhere at all.  The pace is kept consistent throughout, and has plenty of well put together sequences.  On a technical level, this is a well shot, well made movie that is competently executed by knowledgeable talents.  Furthermore, director Danny Steinmann does all around impress me with what he did here.  There are a few minor critiques still pending, but on the whole, Savage Streets is a well written, well directed film for this genre.  Steinmann really brought out a lot of strength and vibrancy from his cast, and crafted together an effective revenge movie that has emotional weight to it.  It’s surely not one dimensional in the least, and I commend Steinmann and his co-writer Norman Yonemoto for that.

Now, the one thing that threw me off about the movie is that the trailer would make you believe that Brenda would be hunting these guys down through most of the movie.  Instead, her armed quest for revenge begins in the final third of this 93 minute movie.  I do not state this as a criticism, just as an expectations adjustment.  The first hour of the movie is consistently and solidly paced as the Scars repeatedly terrorize Brenda’s friends and other unfortunate individuals.  The film takes the time to build these guys up as increasingly more sickening people, and that’s saying quite a lot since their first act against Heather would be more than enough already.  Yet, it layers the crimes and tragedies upon Brenda and the audience.  It develops her character and her friendships so that you understand the importance these people have on her life and the lives of others.  It also uses this escalation of violence to further drive a wedge between Vince and the other gang members, which is a smart idea.  Now, once Brenda moves into full-on revenge mode, decked out in a sleek back jumpsuit and crossbow, I absolutely loved it!  A great little montage ensues with a solid rock track behind it, and we’re into a pretty damn good final act.

The only criticism I have towards that final act is that while we do get blood and gore, it is not all at the right moments.  Some of the deaths don’t have the desired satisfying impact because we don’t witness them in graphic or explicit enough detail.  However, we do see the bodies displayed with their bloody wounds minutes later, but it wasn’t quite enough.  Considering how explicit the film had been already up to that point with violence, language, and nudity, I figured we would get some graphic gore where it counted the most.  Thankfully, this is not so for all the kills in the climax.  It’s about fifty/fifty, but I really wanted to see those despicable scum meet some gruesome ends.  Watching Brenda squaring off against Jake was thick with tension and emotion as that rage and pain within her really penetrates in this sequence.  She is being blatantly sadistic, and you are really reminded of why she wants him to suffer so badly through her dialogue.  Ultimately, we get a very tight climax with some great moments of suspense and dramatic pay-off.

Savage Streets is damn good!  It’s especially gritty with visceral violence and a strong core of emotion by way of some solid performances.  Linda Blair definitely stands out as an excellent lead giving us both the heartfelt compassion to be sympathetic and relatable as well as the brash attitude and confidence to be a convincing action heroine.  I love the dialogue she gets on both ends of the spectrum which really reinforce the strength of Brenda.  My favorite is the “double jointed” quip near the climax, which is also Linda Blair’s favorite.  It hits me as one of the best lines in an action film, ever.  Overall, Blair is just bad ass and awesome through and through.  She delivers on all demands of the role in a very satisfying and entertaining performance.  There’s a lot to enjoy in the tight 93 minute run time, and I really have to hand it to Danny Steinmann for the work he did here.  This is a kind of movie that just doesn’t get made anymore, and even if they are, I imagine they aren’t made as good as this.  I can entirely see here what brought Steinmann to doing a Friday The 13th movie.  It’s only too bad that film was not remotely as cool and good as Savage Streets.  This certainly may not be a film for everyone.  As I said, it is very explicit and casual with its profanity, female nudity, and violence, but if that fits your tastes, I highly and strongly recommend checking out Savage Streets.  While it was tough finding it in a store, it is easily obtainable on Amazon.com in a 2012 digitally remastered special edition DVD set.


Urban Legend (1998)

Urban LegendUrban legends in general are quite fascinating to me.  I’ve spent many late night hours reading through whole websites dedicated to these modern day myths, and they are a fertile ground for an imaginative horror movie.  Of course, this movie came out in the wake of Scream and does a lot to follow in that style.  Unfortunately, it was an extreme rarity that any of those types of trend cash-ins were any good.  I clearly remember seeing this on opening weekend and regarding it as not scary at all.  In no way do I expect that sentiment to change after fifteen years.  I’m reviewing this because it was high time I got back to some very critical reviewing, and nothing’s better than a disappointing post-modern slasher film for that task!

When New England college student Natalie (Alicia Witt) finds herself at the center of a series of sadistic murders seemingly inspired by urban legends.  Natalie and her friends are all involved in the Folklore class being taught by Professor Wexler (Robert Englund).  Wexler regales his class with urban legends, which include Pendleton’s own urban legend about a Psych professor who murdered six students at Stanley Hall 25 years ago.  As the fraternities prepare to celebrate the macabre anniversary, and Natalie’s friends fall victim to this axe wielding murderer, she discovers that she is the focus of the crazed killer’s intentions in the ultimate urban legend – the story of her own horrific murder.

This is not a badly made movie.  It has respectable, polished production values and top notch gore effects.  Cinematography is wholly competent with solid compositions and smart camera moves punctuating the dramatic moments.  The editing is mostly great, side from the gimmicky flash cuts.  So, I think the problem with the effectiveness of this movie is that these urban legends are so terribly familiar to us that the movie becomes damn predictable.  There’s little tension or suspense when you know how the kills are supposed to be plotted out.  While playing them out verbatim perfectly fits in with the killer’s ultimate motives, creatively, it would have been more effective to put a fresh twist on them.  Have them play out not exactly as you would expect them to, but still be evocative of the classic tales.  Of course, the various false jump scares don’t help matters either.

The red herrings we get as to the identity of the killer are also quite underwhelming.  They are dashed about as quickly as they are brought up.  This sort of thing worked better in Scream where no one was ever entirely absolved of potential guilt in the eyes of the audience.  Everyone was an equally viable suspect, but here, the suspects are not very credible nor are they main characters.  They show up for two or three scenes total.  The main characters are not implicated as the potential killer, and that evaporates a lot of heightened tension and paranoia that could have existed in the movie.  As it is, there’s not much focus put on who the killer is, but more the methods that this killer uses.

And one last negative critique would be that the look of the killer is not all that intimidating.  A relatively small statured person in a hooded parka leaves a lot to be desired in the realm of chilling imagery.  All the great, iconic slashers have not only a instantly recognizable, unmistakable look to them, but they also have a distinct personality in how they move and act.  This slasher, which doesn’t even have a name to its credit, comes off entirely generic with no distinct personality in its movements.  This takes away a lot of the menace this killer could have had, and thus, further adds to the lack of effective horror in this movie.  While Ghostface was a different person in each Scream movie, the image of Ghostface was iconic and carried a strong weight of horror with him.  The Urban Legend slasher is just terribly forgettable.  If this killer wasn’t wielding an axe, you wouldn’t feel any serious imposing threat from him/her at all.  I think my critiques hold weight with the makers of the sequel Urban Legends: Final Cut since they entirely revamped the look of their killer.

Still, the film has a few exciting sequences such as when the killer is chasing Tara Reid’s Sasha.  It’s fairly intense and suspenseful as Sasha tries to evade this axe wielding maniac.  Shortly thereafter, the climactic chase sequence in the storming rain is pretty good with some good tension and strenuous physicality for Alicia Witt.  Proving my point, this is when the killer turns away from urban legend themed kills, and just starts going after people full boar.  These are the scenes that work because they’re not so predictable.  They keep an audience more on edge in the midst of random peril.  They’re surely not wholly original inventions in the slasher genre, but they are staples of it because they are effective.  So, it is that final 20-30 minutes which actually become intense and suspenseful, but for a 100 minute horror movie, that’s not very adequate.

On the acting end of things, Alicia Witt delivers a solid leading performance making Natalie sweet, vulnerable, smart, and tough.  I like when she punches Joshua Jackson’s Damon Brooks right in the face after a bad come-on in a parked car showing there’s some assertiveness in her.  Witt is a strong actress with a lot of talent to her credit.  Plus, she’s a beautiful redhead, and I absolutely adore redheads.  Jared Leto has a decent performance here as college newspaper reporter Paul Gardner, but his character just doesn’t have much personality on the page to speak of.  Paul’s constantly trying to pry information out of everyone for his news story, but he doesn’t come off as the least bit imposing or ethically objectionable as that statement would suggest.  Rebecca Gayheart is a fine talent working well as Natalie’s best friend Brenda, but offering little more, initially, than the qualities of the supportive friend.  The latter end of the film gives her a lot more juicy material to work with that she really sinks her teeth into, and does an excellent job with.

Now. Michael Rosenbaum is plain awesome.  After seeing him for so many years as Lex Luthor on Smallville it’s great seeing his comedic charisma in full swing here as the fun loving Parker.  He’s charged up with energy and personality to spare, but Rosenbaum has enough charm to shy it away from becoming obnoxious.  Tara Reid has a great promiscuous role as the saucy, sexually charged radio talk show host Sasha.  Halloween franchise alumnus Danielle Harris clocks in as Natalie’s Goth roommate Tosh.  It’s a good minor performance, and she looks quite hot in all that black garb.

Urban Legend features some notable horror legends in Robert Englund and Brad Dourif.  Both of which put in solid performances.  Dourif portrays a stuttering gas station attendant at the film’s start, and he’s sufficiently creepy.  Englund gives Professor Wexler plenty of dignity and a little bit of theatrical edge for a strong, respectable performance.  Both actors put a good measure of enthusiasm and quality into their roles here, and are small highlights that gave this film particular notoriety upon release.

The film’s score is provided by Christopher Young, who also did the music for the first two Hellraiser movies and last year’s highly effective horror film Sinister.  Here, he does a far more understated but still admirable job.  It has plenty of strong, tense cues throughout, and is probably a notch above the standard slasher film fare.

Now, I do really like the dark, shameful secret that Natalie has in her past, and how it ties into the motivation of the killer.  It is all smartly and realistically put together.  It makes for a nice twist in the climax that does get setup from Natalie’s story earlier on.  The climax itself is pretty decent and typical for a slasher movie, but it’s surely far from terrible.  It delivers some satisfaction, but it’s nothing that will stick with you like the endings of Halloween or Friday The 13th.  The somewhat quirky coda fits for the movie, but also, doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It could’ve used a better resolution that was more pertinent to the actual characters and story.  It kind of goes with the half-baked feeling of the movie.  It had good ideas, but just didn’t do anything worthwhile with them.

Ultimately, this is a real disappointment of a slasher film that just isn’t scary at all.  They had a very talented cast to work with, and a premise that could’ve worked very well if it injected some original thinking into it.  Instead, it just comes off as generic and predictable.  The killer is entirely forgettable, and offers no menace or threatening presence.  Director Jamie Blanks does a respectable job with Urban Legend, but the script is just devoid of ambition.  He handles his cast exceptionally well, knows how to shoot a film very cinematically, and shows some talent for suspense.  Yet, the film fails because the script uses a gimmick purely at face value without trying to add anything fresh or innovative to it.  A killer offing people using urban legends is a clever idea, but screenwriter Silvio Horta progressed it no further than that.  I know Jamie Blanks can make a good slasher movie because he did it with his next film Valentine, which I think is quite underappreciated.  Given a stronger script, he can certainly deliver a much more effective product.  It certainly won’t hurt you to watch Urban Legend, but it’s nothing special you’re missing out on.  It did spawn two sequels that really were rather horrible that I would strongly advise avoiding.  I saw them each once, and that was more than enough for me.  This film is decent enough if you just need a mild way to kill 100 minutes.  It likely won’t make you cringe, depending on your slasher film tastes, but it likely won’t excite you either.


Dredd (2012)

DreddMy summer movie season last year mostly sucked, and by the end of August, I just didn’t want to step foot inside another theatre for a long while.  That was unfortunate for when Dredd was released in late September.  I couldn’t get enthused for anything despite all the rave reviews this film got.  Fortunately, I don’t seem to be alone in discovering this on the home video format as its sales and rentals have been on fire in the last two weeks.  Thus, in the frigid icy winter weather, I dashed over to the Redbox outside of the CVS Pharmacy and rented it.  So, what’s the simplest statement I can give to this film?  It’s that I have no criticisms to levy against it. Dredd is AWESOME!

The future America is an irradiated waste land.  On its East Coast, running from Boston to Washington DC, lies Mega City One – a vast, violent metropolis where criminals rule the chaotic streets.  The only force of order lies with the urban cops called “Judges” who possess the combined powers of judge, jury and instant executioner.  Known and feared throughout the city, Dredd (Karl Urban) is the ultimate Judge, challenged with ridding the city of its latest scourge – a dangerous drug epidemic that has users of “Slo-Mo” experiencing reality at a fraction of its normal speed.  During a routine day on the job, Dredd is assigned to train and evaluate Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie with powerful psychic abilities thanks to a genetic mutation.  A heinous crime calls them to a neighborhood where fellow Judges rarely dare to venture – a 200 storey vertical slum controlled by prostitute turned drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her ruthless clan.  When they capture one of the clan’s inner circle, Ma-Ma overtakes the compound’s control center and wages a dirty, vicious war against the Judges that proves she will stop at nothing to protect her empire.  With the body count climbing and no way out, Dredd and Anderson must confront the odds and engage in the relentless battle for their survival.

Dredd is just full-on hard R-rated action that is brutal and relentless.  Yet, it is not dumb by any means.  Alex Garland wrote a very smart screenplay that keeps things rather simple, but has its own dramatic depth and character strengths.  We don’t get long sit-downs with the characters to pine over their emotions and back stories.  Instead, we get insights into them in solid, succinct moments that work towards the momentum of the film.  Dredd himself remains hardened throughout never allowing anything to crack his weathered, tough exterior.  However, the depth we get from him is in what he does, not so much what he exudes.  He is a strict enforcer and abider of the law.  He follows it to the letter, and doesn’t just kill someone because this is a graphic action film.  His intentions are clearly stated making us aware of who is suited to be executed and who isn’t, and Dredd’s threats carry grave weight.  He’s also calm, collected, and confident.  He never lashes out.  He’s calculated in everything he does.  This guy is a bonafide bad ass who has been very weathered by this post-apocalyptic world that needs order more than anything else, and he’s deadest dedicated to that ideal.  The situation that he’s in here, it’s just like every other day to him.  For instance, when told to put Anderson in the deep end of the job, he says, “It’s all deep end.”  This guy’s been through the worst this world has to offer, and he’s not afraid of any level of danger.

Karl Urban was a perfect fit for Judge Dredd.  I’ve enjoyed him in every role I’ve seen him in from The Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Riddick to The Bourne Supremacy.  He always seems to dedicate himself fully to all his roles, and he has some impressive talent that will carry him far.  It also takes a special actor, dedicated to the character, to have his face almost entirely covered for the entire film.  Dredd never removes his helmet, and we never see his face.  Just that mouth and chin area is all we get, and some actors simply wouldn’t allow their face to never be seen on camera either by ego or principle.  Urban doesn’t have that problem, and that quality of Dredd works to his advantage.  It’s reflective of his attitude.  He’s not the type to open up about himself, or allow any glimmer of weakness to show through.  That aggressive visage of that helmet and visor create his ill-tempered demeanor, and Urban entirely absorbs himself into that mindset.  Putting on that harder, gruffer voice mixed with a little bit of beard stubble and his grim expression creates a great heavy, gritty presence.  He gives us the kind of bad ass, hardened character that I’ve not seen in a long time.  It follows in the tradition of Snake Plissken and the Punisher, but it is that vehement dedication to law and justice which separates him from those sorts of anti-heroes.  Urban sells this role with everything he’s got, and delivers on every level.  This is a role that could easily become cliché in the wrong hands, but with Urban, Dredd is a serious force to be reckoned with that never fails to be interesting.

The character of Anderson is really handled greatly.  She’s a fine counterpoint to Dredd in that she does have anxieties, apprehensions, and an emotional core to struggle with throughout the film.  Carrying out an execution is not easy for her, but she does her job, regardless.  The little details about her past are dropped in very comfortably, and work into the story seamlessly.  Her psychic abilities make for an excellent cog in the plot, and even makes for some appropriately humorous moments.  I think the best action films know how to drop in a little bit of humor and levity without it betraying the tone of the overall film.  Dredd is no exception.  Her psychic abilities even give us one very whacked out sequence where she goes into the head of Kay.  It’s sexy, graphic, and frenetic in the most schizophrenic way.  The beautiful Olivia Thirlby is truly excellent as Judge Anderson.  She inhabits that very green rookie sensibility without falling onto clichés.  There’s a genuine weight to what she brings to this role showing that Anderson is highly capable, but does not yet have the experience to hone her skills and emotions properly.  Anderson has an excellent arc that has some fine pay-off in the end from Dredd himself.  It’s a big learning experience for her that really fleshes the character out.  She doesn’t get lost in Dredd’s shadow at all, and I think the filmmakers did an excellent job at that.

Also, Lena Headey portrays one deranged, depraved villain.  She’s not “off the walls” crazy as the performance is rather subdued, but Ma-Ma does some crazy random violence that would require an R rating just to mention it.  She’s a total sociopath, and really enjoys her torture to a grisly degree.  She isn’t just going to kill you.  That’s not enough.  She’s going to send a message with your body, and make it loud and clear with a giant splat on the concrete!  She’s sick and twisted complete with a scarred face, and it’s a glorious villain for a gloriously graphic action movie!  The rest of the cast is rock solid with no one giving anything less than a top notch, full force performance.

The cinematography on this movie is really amazing.  What stands out the most is the design of the “Slo-Mo” sequences.  The high speed photography makes everything appear to be running in ultra slow motion, creating a gorgeous spectacle, aided by some CGI enhancements, that is simply stunning.  It makes for a very enveloping experience along with the very aural, ethereal score to mimic the sensation this narcotic stimulates in its users.  Conversely, everything beyond that is very gritty and textured.  The sprawling landscape of Mega City One is very epic, and a desaturated color palette is used to set the grim tone right from the start.  Dredd avoids making this some Blade Runner clone, and adopts its own realistic style for this industrialized and economically crumbling metropolis.  The cinematography gives this film weight, scope, and depth that elevates its above your expectations.  The action is all shot superbly showing full competence in how to stage and photograph even the most blisteringly intense sequences.  Anthony Dod Mantle deserves an exceptional level of credit for the work he did shooting this picture, and giving such a solid and powerful visual style.

The action itself is bloody and brutal with people regularly getting shot in the face!  If Dredd’s going to pass a sentence of death upon you, he’s going to wipe you out in the most explicit way possible.  Maybe he’ll burn your skull from the inside out, set you ablaze, or maybe he’ll just pound some bullets into you.  He does not hesitate, and he never wavers in his job.  And of course, the villains dish out their own heavy duty warfare as well.  Their biggest attempt at taking out Dredd and Anderson is when they unleash not one but two hardcore Gatling guns that rip through concrete destroying an entire level of the complex.  It’s wicked awesome!  There are numerous diverse sequences here that keep the action always interesting and immensely intense, and they are all handled superbly.  One of the coolest sequences is when Dredd and Anderson bust in on some guys who are doing Slo-Mo, and thus, nearly all the action unfolds in that ultra slow motion style.  Bullets rip through flesh in the most stunning way possible to where it’s practically gruesome artistry.  I am just amazed at the depth of vision injected into this movie with sequences like that.

Dredd features an excellent, hard edged score by Paul Leonard-Morgan.  He makes excellent use of driving, pulsating synth beats and some stellar distorted rock guitar.  This is essentially a heavy metal synth score that actually works insanely well because of the hard hitting, gritty style of the movie, but also, it never bombards you.  It flows along with the action and momentum of the film.  The synthesizers really give the film more of an ominous, foreboding, relentless tone that build up the tension and anticipation while the guitars are there to kick ass.  It’s almost 1980s like in its musicianship, and it’s always able to bring itself down to a more subtle place, when appropriate.  Overall, this is one masterful, edgy, exhilarating action film score that entirely suits the futuristic, post-apocalyptic grit of Dredd.

What I think is most amazing about this movie is that it had only a $45 million budget, but looks like a far higher grade feature than those numbers would suggest.  This demonstrates a team of filmmakers who knew about to get the most out of every dollar, and not waste their resources.  There is not a single thing that looks cheap anywhere in this film.  The sets, costumes, action set pieces, and visual effects are all high caliber quality showcasing amazing craftsmanship and artistry.  And for those who care, this was shot in digital 3D, and from what I hear, Dredd looks fantastic in 3D.  That is no surprise considering how stunning it looks in 2D.  Everyone who worked on this film clearly put everything ounce of effort and passion they had into it, and I believe it exceeded all expectations.  Still, I also like that the film doesn’t try to over stretch itself by becoming more than it needed to be.  The film is ultimately quite ambitious, but the filmmakers didn’t push the proverbial envelope any further than they needed to with this story.  All of the elements are smart and fit together beautifully.  There’s a lot of subtle context and ideas within the film between the characters and ideas of justice, but all of it works towards the action centric plot.  It’s very focused without being narrow, but never becomes broad.

Flat out, Dredd is an ass kicking, hard hitting bombastic action film that never hesitates to go all out, but never degrades itself with camp value or cheesy set pieces.  It’s totally hardcore all the way, and should satisfy the hunger for any true action movie fan that’s desired a return to classic hard R rated films.  I’m very impressed by Karl Urban’s performance, and if this were to become a franchise, I believe he could carry it to very exciting, riveting, and intriguing places.  Director Pete Travis doesn’t really have much of a track record to speak of, but I hope that Dredd is the beginning of a very successful and notable one for him.  This is really a visually magnificent film that brings all of its dynamic elements together into an intense cohesive whole.  He has shown me something awesome and amazing with Dredd, and he’s not the only one to credit for it all.  A whole team of excellently talent filmmakers came together to really nail this adaptation of the British comic strip.  It is creatively successful without a blemish, in my view, and I hope that time will prove Dredd to be commercially successful as well.


Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Punisher War ZonePoor Frank Castle.  He can’t get a film franchise started to save his life.  It’s just reboot after reboot.  However, out of the three that have been made, I believe this is the one that gets the most right in the right places.  I did see this theatrically, twice in fact, and I was really blown away by it.  Regardless, it did poorly at the box office due to a lackluster marketing campaign by Lionsgate and an untimely December release date.  Conversely, this was the same year that gave us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight.  So, there was high caliber benchmarks set in 2008, and I would say that Punisher: War Zone did not disappoint, in most part.  To me, Ray Stevenson is the best Frank Castle to date, but there are some glaring problems with the villain of Jigsaw that impact the quality of the overall movie.

Ex-Special Forces officer Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) wages a one-man war on two fronts.  While targeting the vicious mob boss, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), Castle horribly disfigures the gangster in a firefight that also claims the life of undercover FBI Agent Nicky Donatelli.  Seeking terrible vengeance, Russoti takes the name “Jigsaw” and begins recruiting the underworld’s most notorious criminals while Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) joins with the sole member of the NYPD’s Punisher Task Force, Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), in order to avenge his partner’s murder.  However, Frank’s lethal mistake weighs on his conscience, and he is nearly ready to pack it in until he realizes the danger Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz) and her daughter are in.  Now, The Punisher must find a way to elude the law and decimate a deadly crime army before more innocent lives are tragically ended.

First off, I really like that the filmmakers didn’t make this film another retread of the Punisher’s origin story.  They instead chose for the Punisher to have already been operating for five years at the time of this story.  Although, they surely weren’t going to gloss over that origin considering this was another reboot.  We get tragic flashbacks to the aftermath of the Castle family’s slaying, and the story is briefly, yet poignantly told by Detective Soap to Agent Budiansky.  We get the details on what happened, and even more impactful is noting the Punisher’s track record and body count.  The entire basement of the police station is filled with files on every case, every murder involving the Punisher.  There are literally thousands of them.  This was a brilliant direction to go in to join Frank further down the road, and allow some perspective and reflection to enter into the equation of his character.  This is no longer a man in the heat of his passionate revenge.  This is a grim, weathered individual who is driven by his disdain for injustice, and has buried his soul deep down underneath all that pain and grief.  That’s a fascinating route to go, and it works directly and purposefully into the story.

Fan reaction was that this film was very faithful to the Punisher MAX and Marvel Knights comic series with its gritty, yet over-the-top violence and vibrant color scheme.  While I cannot comment on the accuracy of that sentiment, what I can say is that this is really what I’ve always felt a Punisher film should be.  It is unrelentingly brutal with a generous helping of blood, gore, and violence, but with proper depth to its characters.  The action sequences are slam bang amazing, even if they can tend to defy the laws of physics, at times.  However, Punisher: War Zone is clearly geared towards a very comic book style, just based on the gorgeous cinematography.  It is so vibrant, moody, gritty, and saturated with all the right colors that it often looks like it came straight off the pages of a comic book, and the action is indeed jacked up with that mentality.  Just in the opening sequence, we’ve got a good dozen mobsters getting shot, slashed, and just laid to waste in graphic fashion.  It sets an awesome, aggressive, relentless vibe for the whole movie which never disappoints or eases up.  It puts you in the world of Frank Castle, and delves you right into his bleak, graphic state of mind.  This is an action film that pulls no punches, and goes straight for the hard R rating all the way.

I also love how Castle moves and operates in the action scenes.  It’s all very militaristic, but exceptionally nasty.  No mercy, no prisoners – everyone dies.  While the previous Punisher films had plenty of action and unique use of weaponry, this film employs tactics and strategy that feel very authentic.  This is even more appropriate since this Frank Castle is actually revealed to have been a Marine.  Dolph Lundgren’s was a former police officer, and Thomas Jane’s was a federal agent.  I don’t know why it took a group of filmmakers so long to actually get Castle’s background correct, aside from the Vietnam aspect, but thankfully, it is well realized here in very subtle and clear details.  It is very much ingrained in Frank’s mentalities and disciplines.  Even his body armor reflects a man of vast wartime experience as it covers his torso up over his neck, and appears to be very heavy duty.  Frank looks like a man waging a war as he’s always prepared with another weapon at hand, and has precise, razor sharp reflexes.  This is a guy you’re going to have to massacre in order to stop, and he is not going to make that the least bit easy to do.  I love the moment early on when he uses a pencil to reset his broken nose.  That’s hardcore right there.  Frank himself is immensely intimidating just by the sight of him.  The slicked back black hair, beard stubble, and the obvious wear and age on Ray Stevenson’s face create a grim visage that says more than words ever could.  And the signature white skull on the body armor is the final glorious touch to put the fear of death into any criminal.

Of course, I stand very firm in that Ray Stevenson was a brilliant casting choice for this character.  I know Lundgren’s version had some sense of self-reflection, but I’m not familiar enough with Jane’s Punisher to know what he brought to it, depth wise.  I just know that the film he starred in is one I cannot sit through.  Here, Stevenson gives us every dimensional quality that could exist for Frank Castle.  Yes, he is a hardcore bad ass that is unwaveringly lethal.  Unlike most superheroes, The Punisher has no lines he won’t cross.  If you’re a criminal, you will be punished.  There is no gray area.  It doesn’t matter if the cops are right there to arrest the criminal, he exacts his own brand of justice every time.  The level of violence and carnage is absolutely appropriate for The Punisher.  It is necessary to have in order to understand the emotional and psychological mindset of Frank Castle.  The graphic violence he dishes out is the same which claimed the lives of his family.  It explains why he is such a grim figure, what the definition of a vigilante truly is, why the cops and criminals fear him, and why neither want him on the streets.  He is a man alone, and no one can truly understand him without seeing and feeling what it is he has gone through.  Still, you see that he does feel things, and that he has a morality and a soul.  Frank’s been emotionally shattered by the violent murder of his family, and that has resulted in a grim man with a lot of deep seeded pain, torment, and disdain.  Ray Stevenson brings those powerful, realistic qualities to the surface, and it creates the real solid core of this film.  The action, violence, and brutality are givens for a Punisher film, but it’s that serious depth of character which sets this film apart from its predecessors.  You see the fractured remnants of the caring family man Frank once was, and it really penetrates for me.  The story aspect of Frank accidentally killing an undercover cop instigates that deep exploration of his soul and heart, and creates an emotionally moving arc by the end with Julie Benz’s Angela Donatelli.  Stevenson is absolutely everything that you’d want from your Frank Castle thespian.  He handles the role with serious weight giving it credibility and humanity.  It is the most three dimensional Punisher I have yet to be exposed to, and shows that the character is more than just a vigilante with a bad attitude.  He has depth to spare, when put into the right creative hands.

Julie Benz is truly excellent as the grieving widow as she is not a wholly trembling mess.  Angela is a cop’s wife, and has strength and conviction within her to survive through all she endures.  There is a deep well of pain and emotion that pulsates through her performance.  While she is strong, she is vulnerable nonetheless, and it’s a great mixture she puts together that can really be felt by an audience.  I know Benz from her work as Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, and so, her range of talent is not a surprise to me but is a great pleasure to witness.  She shares some substantive scenes with Stevenson, and they both work beautifully together.  The same goes for Stephanie Janusauskas who endearingly portrays the young and innocent Grace Donatelli.  Stevenson’s scenes with her bring out Frank’s adoration he had for his own daughter, and is the most tender insights into Frank.  Stephanie is wholly sweet showcasing some genuine talent that really forges an audience’s empathy for Grace.

Now, this film is easily divided up into two separate sections of quality.  Everything that does not involve Jigsaw is tremendously bad ass and awesome.  Unfortunately, almost everything that does involve Jigsaw is really ridiculous and silly.  Now, Dominic West did a superb job with Billy Russoti.  He was charismatic, threatening, a little intimidating, and a perfect fit for an Italian Mafioso.  He had all the elements just right for this slick, underhanded villain.  If he had remained as this character throughout the film, I think the tone would have been much more consistent and balanced.  However, after he’s disfigured at the hands of the Punisher, that’s when we’re subjected to a very comical villain that poorly contrasts with the dark, heavy, serious tone of the film.  Jigsaw becomes almost cartoonish in his behavior, attitude, and look through most of his screentime.  He’s clearly overacting through those facial prosthetics, and it’s nothing but detrimental.  There are better moments here and there, but in general, it’s the one major element that brings the film down for me.  It’s not even like a Jack Nicholson Joker where he’s at least morbidly comical in his homicidal tendencies.  Jigsaw is very much plucked out of a twisted cartoon concept where it’s difficult to take him seriously after a while.  His criminal recruitment montage sequence is almost enough to force a face palm reaction.  It’s not a purely bad performance, but there’s far more bad than there is good from Dominic West once he adopts the Jigsaw persona.

There is one semi-saving grace amongst the villains, and that’s Doug Hutchison as Looney Bin Jim.  It’s a character strictly created for the movie, but his psychotic qualities really do help boost the threat level.  He’s immensely agile and brutal, and thus, is able to take the fight right to Frank Castle near the film’s climax.  In the least, the character gave Jigsaw someone to bounce off of, someone who feels like a trusted and capable right hand man, and that’s commendable for the filmmakers to have done.  Hutchison is surely over-the-top in his own right, but for the character, it does work immensely better than for Jigsaw.  It would have worked better had Jigsaw been a much more serious character and threat to create that contrast of Jim appearing far crazier.

The remainder of the cast is solid starting with Wayne Knight as Frank’s arsenal securing friend Micro.  Knight does a fine job keeping the character enjoyable, but still dramatically poignant and sympathetic.  He and Stevenson work very well together creating an honest, open relationship between Micro and Frank that feels genuine.  Dash Mihok also does an exemplary job as the enthusiastic, innocent minded Detective Martin Soap.  I liked the twist with the character about midway through the film.  It’s very comical but terribly appropriate as it makes a fun kind of sense, and makes Soap appear more capable than he tends to appear.  I really enjoyed the character, and Mihok made him endearing.  On the more bad ass side, Colin Salmon is excellent as Agent Paul Budiansky.  He’s a very take charge type of guy who doesn’t shy away from danger, and is deadest determined to haul in the Punisher no matter what.    Salmon brings a lot of heart to the role, and the script gives him depth to work with as he owes Nicky Donatelli his life and career after Budiansky got hooked on narcotics.  There’s a debt to repay, and he’s not going to take a backseat to anyone.  Budiansky throws down with Frank, and with a guy of Salmon’s size at 6’4”, he absolutely looks like a guy who could hold his own against real bad dudes.  Overall, this is a film with some mostly solid and dimensional performances that not enough comic book films strive for, but should.  It’s easy for a lesser grade screenwriter or filmmaker to gloss over character depth in favor of spectacle or action, but that’s exactly when they’ve already failed.  This film succeeds, and in many different ways.

I mentioned the cinematography a bit already, but I’d like to elaborate on it.  While the film does have a very vibrant color palette, it is soaked in dark, shadowy environments.  It has plenty of moodiness and atmosphere to spare.  Even the daytime scenes are a little washed out to enhance that bleakness.  The richest visual feast occurs in the church scene where Frank meets with Budiansky before the climax.  This location is filled with brilliant colors, but has the added beauty of numerous lit candles.  The scene has some exquisite depth of field and artistry to it that, while it fits solidly with the rest of the picture, gives this scene a special aura all its own.  The action cinematography is excellent.  There is absolutely zero shaky cam quick cut editing.  The camera work is wholly competent going regularly for fluidity instead of chaotic motion.  That shows there were some smart filmmakers behind this.  They were able to give this film a unique style that is very comic book in nature while never becoming cliché or showy.  It’s clever, sharp, and beautiful all around.  Cinematographer Steve Gainer deserves a load of credit for making this film look so stunning, and director Lexi Alexander deserves credit for pushing for many of the stylistic composition choices.  It all works to amazing effect.

And while this movie was shot in Québec, Canada, the filmmakers had enough perspective on the material to seamlessly integrate some excellent stock footage of New York.  My favorite bit of this is when Frank’s standing on the rooftop and the Chrysler Building is over his shoulder in the distance.  It was surely some sort of green screen shot, but when I saw this theatrically, I couldn’t tell that this movie wasn’t shot on location in Manhattan, New York.  So far, this is the only Punisher film to actually have the film blatantly set in New York, and actually go to the extra effort to sell that illusion.  That is something I cannot commend them enough.  Nearly every Marvel superhero is based out of New York, but if there’s any one character from Marvel Comics that is a tonally perfect fit for the urban grit of New York, it is the Punisher.

Now, the music of the film is a bit divided for me.  While I am a big heavy metal fan, I admit that it rarely has an appropriate place in a film.  Most times, like in this film, it tends to be intrusive and a bit overblown.  Maybe if these were songs from bands I actually liked, perhaps I’d be more welcoming of them.  However, there is some great score performed by Michael Wandmacher.  It brings out the dark, dangerous tone of the film, but also, highlights and enhances the moments of emotional depth and turmoil.  It’s a very well rounded piece of work that perfectly complements this stellar film.

Aside from the comical elements of Jigsaw, I think Punisher: War Zone has a very solidly put together story and script.  Every Punisher film that ever has and ever will be made is always going to have Frank unleashing an all-out assault on organized crime, but it’s what’s beyond that which makes such a film standout.  Beyond the action and violence, this has some very strong emotional plot threads and character arcs.  There are elements of guilt, grief, forgiveness, responsibility, revenge, and trust running through Frank, Angela, and Budiansky.  These arcs are handled exceptionally well, and really flesh these characters out in a great way.  Even Soap and Micro have their say in Frank’s struggle with his murder of Agent Donatelli.  These aspects are treated with great care and are executed wonderfully.  It’s also great seeing everyone’s different viewpoint on the Punisher.  Some see him as a menace to be thwarted and condemned.  Others consider what he does a service.  The NYPD put together the “Punisher Task Force” as merely a public image joke as they mostly couldn’t care less about what trash the Punisher executes on the streets.  This is evident by the fact that Detective Soap is the sole member of the task force, and the NYPD dumps Budiansky there just to brush him aside.  How all these elements and characters converge and end up relying on the Punisher is smartly done, and really develop organically from the plotlines and character motivations.

The entire climax is just a magnificent onslaught.  It’s the Punisher set loose massacring probably half the street criminals in New York, working his way through the Bradstreet Hotel to rescue Angela and Grace from Jigsaw’s clutches.  The stunts are spectacular, and the sound design of all the different styles of gunfire and explosions as well as the crunching of bones and the splat of blood is just absolutely brutal.  This is hardcore action all the way through.  It is as unforgiving and merciless as the Punisher himself.  Still, this climax has some emotional turmoil for Frank, but I won’t spoil a thing for you.  Simply said, it has resonance and weight to it that add to the dramatic realism that the film is so rich with.

All in all, this is definitely the Punisher movie that strived to do the most with its characters and concepts, and it succeed in nearly every regard.  I do love the movie very much, but the fact that Jigsaw is a ridiculously comical villain you can almost never take seriously does negatively impact the film.  It doesn’t kill Punisher: War Zone, however, because everything outside of Jigsaw is so amazingly good that it’s near impossible to topple it with one bad performance.  Ray Stevenson is hugely blockbuster in his portrayal of Frank Castle.  He brings so much depth and pure bad assery that it would be a steep mountain to climb to top or rival him.  He makes the Punisher a character that could thrive on the big screen, and that is also largely due to director Lexi Alexander.  She showed a massive wealth of talent here as well as the ability for a vibrant, hard-hitting, and compelling vision.  So many action films today come off as lackluster carbon copies of the last big theatrical hit that it’s invigorating to see someone inject some fresh style and depth into the genre.  We’ve been treated to many great comic book movies over the last several years, and so, the standards have gotten pretty high.  In my mind, I truly believe that Punisher: War Zone just about reaches that standard.  The only major element that a Punisher movie needs at this point is a rock solid villain that’s worthy of squaring off against the Punisher.  So far, I don’t feel we’ve gotten that, and it is the only real failing of this movie.  For my parting words, let me just say that the last moments of the film are just flat out bad ass!  The very final shot is perfectly iconic and foreboding.  Ray Stevenson is my quintessential Punisher, and there is just not enough I can say about his detailed and awesome performance to do it justice.  Punisher: War Zone gets a damn strong recommendation from me.


The Hitcher (1986)

“There’s a killer on the road.  His brain is squirmin’ like a toad.  Take a long holiday, let your children play.  If ya give this man a ride, sweet memory will die.  Killer on the road.”  These are lyrics from The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” which inspired the story for this film for screenwriter Eric Red.  The Hitcher is a masterpiece of suspense and tension headed up by an intelligent and brilliant performance by Rutger Hauer, portraying the title character.  It’s a film that was never a major hit, but remains as a gleaming gem of a horror film.

Transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego, the young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up hitch-hiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) one rainy night hoping he might be able to saved off his own drowsiness.  However, this man soon reveals that he is a homicidal psychopath, having already butchered another driver, and threatens Jim with a knife to his throat.  Jim, fortunately, is able to eject this killer from his car, but the terror for him has only just begun.  Through this American southwest desert landscape, the cunning and methodical Ryder plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Halsey.  He even frames Halsey for his murders, forcing Jim to fiercely evade the police at every turn.  The only aid Jim receives is from diner waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually becomes caught up in this terrifying, blood-stained fight for survival.

The Hitcher is so effective for two major reasons.  Firstly, director Robert Harmon does an amazing job crafting a desolate feeling of isolation which creates an atmosphere of unease.  The desert landscape gives the film a sense of barren hopelessness.  It is so wide open, but offers no place for escape for Jim Halsey from John Ryder’s malicious intent.  It’s also a film that gives you degrees of suspense and tension.  Sometimes, it’s low key and subtle just unnerving you enough to setup for something horrifically gruesome.  Other times, it’s wrapped so tight, it might just choke you.

The other reason is Rutger Hauer.  His is a frightening performance on the most realistic level imaginable.  His John Ryder is a man of twisted charm wrapped up in the mind of a homicidal psychopath.  Those chillingly cold eyes show no soul or humanity behind them, and they are unflinching.  They offer no reprieve from his relentless insanity.  Yet, Hauer injects so much sadistic, insidious pleasure into this role, engrossing himself deeply and fully into the madness, showing just how much perverse enjoyment Ryder gets out of all of this.  There is so much multi-layered dimension constantly showing the sick, depraved gears turning in his head.  He’s not your ordinary psychopath who is going to murder everyone in sight.  After Jim gets the better of him, Ryder becomes intently focused on Jim, and decides to psychologically torment him relentlessly.  Ryder doesn’t want to kill him.  Instead, he provokes Jim repeatedly because he wants Jim to stop him.  Ryder is the one who wants to die, but suicide is not in his psychological make-up.  He needs someone else to do it for him, and he is entirely incapable of stopping his murder spree until someone does stop him.  It is a terrifying, riveting performance filled with immense intelligence by Rutger Hauer, and it is one of his best roles alongside Roy Batty in Blade Runner.

Likewise, C. Thomas Howell is amazing.  You can see and feel the intense, paralyzing fear that Ryder puts into Jim Halsey.  Howell pours so much into Jim’s desperation which drives him to further rash action.  There is even one powerful moment, after Ryder has murdered an entire station of police officers, where Jim contemplates suicide to escape what seems like an otherwise inescapable nightmare.  You can see the very average, decent person he was slowly get pushed further and further towards his limits.  The torment by Ryder forges a seemingly compulsive symbiosis between them.  The connection between Ryder and Halsey is brilliantly crafted to intertwine their fates, and build up to an absolutely shocking final twenty minutes.  Despite being very familiar with what happens in the truck stop scene, even after all these years, I was still horrified by its outcome.  Some might say that not showing the actual shockingly gruesome outcome actually detracts from the film.  I say that it works either way, but I can definitely feel the need to have that visceral image of horror going into the final confrontation between Halsey and Ryder.  Regardless, the moment still has powerful impact without it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an immediate charming impression.  She quickly endears herself with both a warm sensibility and a tough enough edge to give Nash some strength of character.  I think that sweet Southern accent really aids these qualities of her performance.  Leigh and Howell work very, very well opposite one another, and I think it’s refreshing that no romantic connection is forced into the story.  Jim and Nash are certainly bonded, to an extent, but their time together doesn’t give them the opportunity to get that deeply emotionally involved.  Leigh does plenty without that contrivance to build sympathy for Nash.

The only odd thing in the film is that I do find it confusing why the local police immediately believe that Jim is the killer they are looking for.  As most of us have, I’ve watched plenty of police procedural shows over the years, and the last thing an experienced officer does is jump to conclusions without evidence to back them up.  Of course, after John Ryder has begun deliberately framing Jim for the murdered police officers, it becomes very easy to grasp this idea, but before then, the cops have no honest reason to dead-set accuse Jim for the murders on the highway and at the service station.

The car chase sequences are amazingly well done.  Each one is intense and exciting creating real imminent danger for our protagonists.  The filmmakers even go further when a police helicopter begins chasing after Jim and Nash, but the film never loses sight of its true focus.  These action scenes flow organically from the plot as Jim runs from the police, or John Ryder tries to run him off the road.  Also, the film doesn’t go for large amounts of gore, and thus, when something grisly hits, it has so much more impact.  The same goes for the violence Ryder inflicts.  We don’t see every death.  There’s a good amount that is chillingly implied, or we only see the bloody aftermath.  This shows what Ryder is capable of, and sets an atmosphere of impending dread and unpredictable horror.  Yet, we do get some gory, violent kills which have immense impact on both the audience and Jim Halsey.

The cinematography is absolutely superb.  There is excellent use of composition – both tight and wide – along with smart camera movement, mainly with steadicams, and well chosen angles, all of which complement and enhance the dramatic depth of the film.  Director Robert Harmon, his editor, and director of photography do a rock solid job with every shot to tell a competent visual story with plenty of tight suspense and tension.

Mark Isham’s primarily electronically based score is excellent as well.  It creates a subtle presence that complements the desolate atmosphere, and never oversells any moment of quiet terror.  It also deeply highlights the moments of emotional pain and despair with its light, ambient style.  The aforementioned action sequences are scored with frenetic intensity, and really ramp up the adrenalin and danger.

The Hitcher feels like a slow, psychotic descent into hell.  One would almost welcome death after half of what Ryder puts Halsey through, but Jim shows the will to survive and the desire not to die.  Even with cops trying to lock him up and even kill him, being psychologically tormented at every turn, Jim fights to break free of this psychotic web of madness.  This is what constantly pushes him forward to either find a way out this deadly game, or to combat Ryder himself.  Ultimately, he is pushed so hard to where, as the audience, we won’t accept anything less than an intense one-on-one confrontation between them.  And because this film is so brilliantly crafted and executed by so many magnificent talents, the ending does not disappoint at all.  Truly a fitting end which will leave you feeling the emotional impact straight through the film’s sobering end credits score.

Rutger Hauer absolutely plays one of the best villains of cinema here in a film that is one of the best examples of suspenseful terror I’ve ever witnessed.  John Ryder is immensely intelligent, but also a complete sociopath and psychopath.  The fact that the film builds that relationship between Ryder and Halsey is really what gives the film its strength and edge.  Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red did a phenomenal job The Hitcher assembling an immensely talented cast which grounded the film in deep, intense emotion.  The suspense couldn’t be more masterfully crafted, and the tension is so nerve racking and thick.  Every technical and artistic element works in perfect to make this one of the best, most effective psychological horror films I’ve ever experienced.  You will do yourself a real favor by giving this 1986 original a watch.  I never saw the remake because, like in so many cases, the original required no improvement or re-invention.  The Hitcher is a dead-on classic.

Transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego, the young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up hitch-hiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) one rainy night hoping he might be able to saved off his own drowsiness.  However, this man soon reveals that he is a homicidal psychopath, having already butchered another driver, and threatens Jim with a knife to his throat.  Jim, fortunately, is able to eject this killer from his car, but the terror for him has only just begun.  Through this American southwest desert landscape, the cunning and methodical Ryder plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Halsey.  He even frames Halsey for his murders, forcing Jim to fiercely evade the police at every turn.  The only aid Jim receives is from diner waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually becomes caught up in this terrifying, blood-stained fight for survival.

The Hitcher is so effective for two major reasons.  Firstly, director Robert Harmon does an amazing job crafting a desolate feeling of isolation which creates an atmosphere of unease.  The desert landscape gives the film a sense of barren hopelessness.  It is so wide open, but offers no place for escape for Jim Halsey from John Ryder’s malicious intent.  It’s also a film that gives you degrees of suspense and tension.  Sometimes, it’s low key and subtle just unnerving you enough to setup for something horrifically gruesome.  Other times, it’s wrapped so tight, it might just choke you.

The other reason is Rutger Hauer.  His is a frightening performance on the most realistic level imaginable.  His John Ryder is a man of twisted charm wrapped up in the mind of a homicidal psychopath.  Those chillingly cold eyes show no soul or humanity behind them, and they are unflinching.  They offer no reprieve from his relentless insanity.  Yet, Hauer injects so much sadistic, insidious pleasure into this role, engrossing himself deeply and fully into the madness, showing just how much perverse enjoyment Ryder gets out of all of this.  There is so much multi-layered dimension constantly showing the sick, depraved gears turning in his head.  He’s not your ordinary psychopath who is going to murder everyone in sight.  After Jim gets the better of him, Ryder becomes intently focused on Jim, and decides to psychologically torment him relentlessly.  Ryder doesn’t want to kill him.  Instead, he provokes Jim repeatedly because he wants Jim to stop him.  Ryder is the one who wants to die, but suicide is not in his psychological make-up.  He needs someone else to do it for him, and he is entirely incapable of stopping his murder spree until someone does stop him.  It is a terrifying, riveting performance filled with immense intelligence by Rutger Hauer, and it is one of his best roles alongside Roy Batty in Blade Runner.

Likewise, C. Thomas Howell is amazing.  You can see and feel the intense, paralyzing fear that Ryder puts into Jim Halsey.  Howell pours so much into Jim’s desperation which drives him to further rash action.  There is even one powerful moment, after Ryder has murdered an entire station of police officers, where Jim contemplates suicide to escape what seems like an otherwise inescapable nightmare.  You can see the very average, decent person he was slowly get pushed further and further towards his limits.  The torment by Ryder forges a seemingly compulsive symbiosis between them.  The connection between Ryder and Halsey is brilliantly crafted to intertwine their fates, and build up to an absolutely shocking final twenty minutes.  Despite being very familiar with what happens in the truck stop scene, even after all these years, I was still horrified by its outcome.  Some might say that not showing the actual shockingly gruesome outcome actually detracts from the film.  I say that it works either way, but I can definitely feel the need to have that visceral image of horror going into the final confrontation between Halsey and Ryder.  Regardless, the moment still has powerful impact without it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an immediate charming impression.  She quickly endears herself with both a warm sensibility and a tough enough edge to give Nash some strength of character.  I think that sweet Southern accent really aids these qualities of her performance.  Leigh and Howell work very, very well opposite one another, and I think it’s refreshing that no romantic connection is forced into the story.  Jim and Nash are certainly bonded, to an extent, but their time together doesn’t give them the opportunity to get that deeply emotionally involved.  Leigh does plenty without that contrivance to build sympathy for Nash.

The only odd thing in the film is that I do find it confusing why the local police immediately believe that Jim is the killer they are looking for.  As most of us have, I’ve watched plenty of police procedural shows over the years, and the last thing an experienced officer does is jump to conclusions without evidence to back them up.  Of course, after John Ryder has begun deliberately framing Jim for the murdered police officers, it becomes very easy to grasp this idea, but before then, the cops have no honest reason to dead-set accuse Jim for the murders on the highway and at the service station.

The car chase sequences are amazingly well done.  Each one is intense and exciting creating real imminent danger for our protagonists.  The filmmakers even go further when a police helicopter begins chasing after Jim and Nash, but the film never loses sight of its true focus.  These action scenes flow organically from the plot as Jim runs from the police, or John Ryder tries to run him off the road.  Also, the film doesn’t go for large amounts of gore, and thus, when something grisly hits, it has so much more impact.  The same goes for the violence Ryder inflicts.  We don’t see every death.  There’s a good amount that is chillingly implied, or we only see the bloody aftermath.  This shows what Ryder is capable of, and sets an atmosphere of impending dread and unpredictable horror.  Yet, we do get some gory, violent kills which have immense impact on both the audience and Jim Halsey.

The cinematography is absolutely superb.  There is excellent use of composition – both tight and wide – along with smart camera movement, mainly with steadicams, and well chosen angles, all of which complement and enhance the dramatic depth of the film.  Director Robert Harmon, his editor, and director of photography do a rock solid job with every shot to tell a competent visual story with plenty of tight suspense and tension.

Mark Isham’s primarily electronically based score is excellent as well.  It creates a subtle presence that complements the desolate atmosphere, and never oversells any moment of quiet terror.  It also deeply highlights the moments of emotional pain and despair with its light, ambient style.  The aforementioned action sequences are scored with frenetic intensity, and really ramp up the adrenalin and danger.

The Hitcher feels like a slow, psychotic descent into hell.  One would almost welcome death after half of what Ryder puts Halsey through, but Jim shows the will to survive and the desire not to die.  Even with cops trying to lock him up and even kill him, being psychologically tormented at every turn, Jim fights to break free of this psychotic web of madness.  This is what constantly pushes him forward to either find a way out this deadly game, or to combat Ryder himself.  Ultimately, he is pushed so hard to where, as the audience, we won’t accept anything less than an intense one-on-one confrontation between them.  And because this film is so brilliantly crafted and executed by so many magnificent talents, the ending does not disappoint at all.  Truly a fitting end which will leave you feeling the emotional impact straight through the film’s sobering end credits score.

Rutger Hauer absolutely plays one of the best villains of cinema here in a film that is one of the best examples of suspenseful terror I’ve ever witnessed.  John Ryder is immensely intelligent, but also a complete sociopath and psychopath.  The fact that the film builds that relationship between Ryder and Halsey is really what gives the film its strength and edge.  Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red did a phenomenal job The Hitcher assembling an immensely talented cast which grounded the film in deep, intense emotion.  The suspense couldn’t be more masterfully crafted, and the tension is so nerve racking and thick.  Every technical and artistic element works in perfect to make this one of the best, most effective psychological horror films I’ve ever experienced.  You will do yourself a real favor by giving this 1986 original a watch.  I never saw the remake because, like in so many cases, the original required no improvement or re-invention.  The Hitcher is a dead-on classic.


28 Days Later (2002)

It’s a strange thing to be very impressed by a cutting edge movie in the theatre, but then, not watch it again for nine years.  Such is the case for me with 28 Days Later.  I even purchased the DVD a few years ago, and only just now dedicated myself to watching it for this occasion.  Now, the common misconception about this movie is that it is a zombie flick.  While it does have the trappings of one, these people are not zombies, merely human beings who have been infected with a virus that turns them into rage-filled animalistic people.  This film presents a very interesting and clearly expressed departure from that classic subgenre while still baring some resemblance to it.

It has been twenty-eight days since Jim (Cillian Murphy), a young bicycle courier, was knocked off his bike and injured in a car accident.  When he wakes up from his coma, the world has changed.  London is deserted, litter-strewn and grim, and it seems the entire world has disappeared.  The truth, however, is even more horrifying – a devastating psychological virus has been unleashed upon the world, turning the population into blood-crazed psychopaths driven only to kill and destroy the uninfected.  Jim coincidentally joins up with the tough and strong-willed Selena (Naomie Harris), who has become accustomed to the hard reality of survival.  While out-running the savage infected, Jim and Selena add the father and daughter survivors of Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) to their struggle to get out of the city to a military encampment at Manchester, but there, their troubles are just beginning.

This movie was shot on standard definition digital video camcorders, and so, it offers a rather unique visual quality.  Director Danny Boyle even did post-production work to further degrade the picture quality to give it an even rougher look to reflect the film’s harsh reality.  I think this was an immensely successful artistic idea.  The Canon XL1 camera clearly performed well in low light situations allowing the filmmakers to create some strong contrast and atmosphere.  From that digital video quality comes a bleak appearance which dominates the movie, even in broad daylight.  28 Days Later is shot amazingly well with a lot of intense, kinetic camera work heightening the chaos and adrenalin pumping terror.  The cinematography regularly highlights the desolate landscape of London, and shows how isolated these characters are from any semblance of civilization.  The overall tone and visual style is unlike any film I believe I’ve ever seen, and in those dark scenes, this movie can look immensely gorgeous.

This movie doesn’t focus heavily on the intense fury of the infected.  While it does that exceptionally well creating many tense and violent sequences, and making them count when they do occur, it instead takes most of its screentime to focus on its characters, and make the story about their struggles for survival.  We are given strong character building scenes which create an emotional context for the audience.  It let’s us know how this horrific event has affected them, and invests the audience in the depth of those characters.  They are heartfelt and intelligent people that you can come to care about.  On the most part, this is a very well-acted movie with some strong recognizable talents.

This was my first exposure to Cillian Murphy, and he delivers a very grounded and human performance.  He and Naomie Harris really warm to one another as the film goes on, and create a very heartfelt chemistry.  Harris herself slowly peals back the tougher exterior of Selena to ultimately show the vulnerability deep down inside.  She had to be tough to survive, but Jim allows her to show her true self.  Harris displays a wide range of talent in this role that starts out as a self-minded survivalist willing to cut loose anyone at a moment’s notice to a strongly sentimental and hopeful person.

Brendan Gleeson does a fine job making Frank a very wholesome father.  He has a lot of heart, and rarely allows despair or desperation to creep into himself.  He keeps a positive attitude which really boosts the mood of the picture, and gives hope to all of the characters.  Christopher Eccleston turns in a hardened and off-putting performance as Major West, the leader of the military encampment.  He certainly has the presence and authority of a leader, and gradually creates an intimidating foil for our protagonists.

Composer John Murphy created a very aural, almost ethereal score that taps into the hope, sorrow, isolation, and humanity of the film.  It really elicits a wealth of heavy emotion from its ambient style, and never does exactly what you’d expect from a horror movie score.  It’s more about establishing mood than enhancing scares.  Case in point is that the climax is not scored with pounding drums or shrieking strings.  It has a very impending sense of doom with a slow, deliberate rhythm given edge by a rising electric guitar.  The horror is never telegraphed.  There is no musical warning that something terrifying is about the befall our heroes.  One such moment has almost pure silence as an infected child jumps down from above and creeps up behind Jim.  This creates a stronger and more unique suspense that has greater pay-off when the visceral violence hits.  The only other work I know from Murphy is his bleak and very heavy toned Miami Vice film score, and so, it’s nice to experience a different range in his musical abilities with something like this.

I believe that, from one perspective, you could call 28 Days Later a far more realistic and believable sort of zombie movie.  Instead of people rising from the dead, which is an extremely fantastical idea, humanity is being wiped out by a man-made virus that turns the populace into nothing better than mindless creatures.  They scavenge for food by attacking those who are still normally human, and can infect you with just a single drop of blood.  The change is near-instantaneous, and there is no cure, no way of fighting it.  So, while these are not actually zombies at all, this film does take the conventions of that genre, and apply it into a context that we can take with seriousness.  The concept is easy to comprehend and accept, and the imminent fear of infection is something we can all grasp onto.

As opposed to the slow, lumbering characteristics of the classic style of zombies, these fast moving, bloodthirsty infected create the heart pounding urgency and tension that this film required.  Screenwriter Alex Garland cleverly took only the base elements of the zombie movie template, and adapted them into a different sort of horror movie full of immediate danger and frightening excitement.  Again, the film is not about blasting away hordes of ravenous infected humans, but about these characters struggling for survival in a desolate landscape where even those they believe can save them turnout to be no more human than those who have been infected.

The movie does take a more unsettling turn when our protagonists join up with the soldiers.  The fact that they are welcomed there, not out of a pure humanitarian reasons, but for far more traumatic and frightening reasons creates a whole new style of danger and threat.  They are ultimately held captive by Major West, and will be forced against their will to do whatever these soldiers want with them.  Once Jim escapes execution, the film really ramps up the danger and suspense as it practically becomes a horror film version of First Blood.  While Jim is no soldier himself, he takes his fierce determination, and uses it to strategically strike back against these military men in merciless fashion all while more infected run amuck.  Cillian Murphy becomes greatly impressive handling the physical demands fantastically, and adding a fearsome quality to his performance.  Part of what makes the film so effective is that we are not following around a group of highly trained military professionals.  These are average people who do get frightened, and are pushed to their limits.  They are generally no more capable of surviving this situation than you or I, but they never give up on the chance of survival or rescue.  They continually trudge forward through whatever horrors they encounter.

28 Days Later is an excellent horror film that may not be for everyone.  It does have a slow, gradual pace that nearly fills up two hours of runtime.  There is plenty of gore and ravenous violence to go around, but it’s never an onslaught.  The characters are the central piece in the film, and the filmmakers want you invested in them with the horror and action being secondary.  That is not at all a bad thing, but it is something that might not be everyone’s appeal.  The cast features some names that have really come into wide prominence since this film was made such as Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, and I believe that should give you confidence in the quality of the performances and characters.  Danny Boyle really delivered something dark, intense, and innovative for its time that was creatively and commercially successful.  I’ve never been much into the zombie subgenre, but this film smartly took the right ideas from those films and injected them into a very effective and fresh approach.