In-Depth Movie Reviews & High Quality Trailers

Posts tagged “psychological

Midnight Heat (2007)

Midnight HeatFor whatever reason, I just felt the need to review something of a different style, a different whatever from everything I’ve been doing lately.  I’ve come to find that what I most enjoy spotlighting here are films that are hidden gems.  Stuff that’s not too widely known, but is of a certain admirable quality.  I really like allowing others to discover movies through my reviews, and that’s not going to happen reviewing Star Wars or Terminator movies.  Showcasing something that also inspires me as a filmmaker on a more personal level is the other thing I gravitated towards with this review.  I’ve previously reviewed the film Paranoia from internet comedic personality and independent filmmaker Brad Jones.  Midnight Heat is a 2007 feature length effort from him that was made with a lower grade production value, but for me, the quality of the writing, most of the acting, and the direction really shines through the very rough digital video camcorder, micro-budget quality of the movie.  This is the type of movie that really inspires me and drives me to be a creative and ambitious filmmaker.  Seeing someone else achieve this with even less resources than I have today is further inspiration, but let’s breakdown the plot of this sleazy 1980’s exploitation film homage first.

Midnight Heat is a story of cops, hookers, killers, and pimps; all centered around one sleazy night in the late 1980’s.  A cocaine addicted homicide detective (Jake Norvell) is brought out of suspension in order to trail local prostitute Donna Diggs (Bianca Queen) who may become the next victim of The Scalper (Nick Foster), a serial killer who preys on the city’s hookers.  Meanwhile, her mentally unstable pimp Martin (Brad Jones) attempts to get out of the business while finding it harder to protect his girls from both the killer and from an abusive rival pimp (Buford Stowers).

I will make one preface about the technical quality of Midnight Heat and the relative standards of quality I judge this by.  I’ve both been an independent filmmaker for several years, and have watched these types of movies since the late 90’s.  In this realm, you make the best story you can make with the equipment and resources you have at your disposal.  Not every independent filmmaker has the cash to buy boom mics, pro lighting gear, or a high quality camcorder.   If all you have is a Digital Hi8 camcorder and a solid screenplay, you go for it.  It may indeed be difficult for some to acclimate themselves into the experience, but if you can get beyond the digital grain from the low lighting and less than perfect audio, there is a very entertaining and well written sleazy crime thriller waiting for you.  The film is only available, completely free, through Brad Jones’ website.  So, all it costs you is time to give it a chance.

This film is Brad’s tribute to 1980s sleaze flicks like Vice Squad, Savage Streets, and The Exterminator while taking strong vibes from Miami Vice.  This really translates from both the story being soaked in the nighttime world of sex, drugs, and murder, and the choice of soundtrack.  The reason the movie is only available for online viewing is because it features tons of unlicensed 1980s pop songs.  I greatly used these sorts of songs as temp music for my feature film The Fixer, and I wish I could commercially release it with those tracks because they perfectly capture the vibe I was going for.  Brad Jones was just interested in putting the film out there without a mind towards commercial release.  With it being specifically set in 1987, I couldn’t imagine Midnight Heat working without these era-specific tracks.  Songs from Glenn Frey, Phil Collins, The Cars, Scandal, Loverboy, Kim Carnes, Animotion, and many more pulsate throughout this movie.  They are the entire score, and it instills the film with energy and a very familiar emotional feeling for me.  At times, it would be preferable if the songs were lower in the mix so they don’t compete too strongly against the dialogue, but the music never drowns it out.  Brad Jones did the best he could with the actual production sound, as is stated in his intro video to the movie on his website.  Still, if there’s one thing that could’ve been improved, it is just the mixing of music and sound effects around the dialogue.  Often gunshots and other dramatic sound effects don’t have the sonic impact they should have, but I am able to forgive and move beyond that to understand the intentions on display.  If this was a multi-million dollar budgeted film with professional sound engineers, you could rightfully attack that with great zeal, but not in this case, not at all.

While most of the cast are not professional actors, we are treated to some very strong and substantive performances.  Jake Norvell’s Detective Rick Wilson is the perfect sleazy 1980s corrupt cop.  A cocaine snorting, prostitute indulging, foul mouthed burn out that is distrusted by the police department, and is stuck with an assignment no one else cares about.  Norvell appropriately portrays him in an over the top fashion in a performance that really dominates a lot of the movie.  This is a character of ego and abrasiveness, but also has that tinge of emotional value.  Norvell intensely portrays the erratic, substance abusing behavior of Wilson making him an unpredictable wild card.  This repeatedly complicates matters with Donna, but there’s always that sordid emotional connection between them that really pulls them together.  Norvell’s performance grows and solidifies in the third act, and becomes damn near powerhouse in a very fun, indulgent way.  He’s really feeling the energy of this character throughout, but it is punched up in that last twenty-five minutes.

Bianca Queen is quite good as the female lead.  She brings a lot toughness and grit to Donna, but is not at all afraid to delve into the required sleaze of the role.  She holds her ground very solidly opposite Norvell, and the relationship they strike is combative, yet complicated.  She wonderfully conveys the sordid, argumentative history between Donna and Rick without ever backing down.  She also slinks very enthusiastically into the sexy, seductive aspects of the character.  Ultimately, by the end, we see even more depth from Queen that makes her standout beautifully next to her male co-stars of Jones and Norvell.

Obviously, I am a major fan of Brad Jones’ work, and for very good reason.  The man is exceptionally talented as both a writer and actor.  In the role of Martin, he is channeling something complex and intriguing.  He’s this pimp that tries to run a good operation, but just wants to find a clean way out of this life.  Yet, this is the night that everything is deconstructing around him.  The stress pulls at him too agonizingly, and he can’t help but crack over and over again.  Jones portrays this character with a strong wealth of sympathy that transcends all the irredeemable violence Martin inflicts, but also brings plenty of weight in a role that gradually slips into being an antagonistic force.  The trippy dream sequence Martin has really pushes the idea of the fracturing psyche even further.  Jones is entirely convincing as an intimidating presence, but that complex nature regularly comes back into play where Martin is not just on a violent rampage.  He can be a relatable character when baring his soul, but Jones’ performance is never too far removed from that psychologically messed up behavior.  By the end, both sides of the character mesh together greatly with some smartly written dialogue and ideas.  Overall, Jones’ performance is a major highlight of the movie.

Buford Stowers is a great heavy as the ruthless pimp Phil.  He carries himself with a weighty presence and a good measure of sleaze-laden charisma.  Every scene he has is punctuated with an aggressive authority.  Stowers throws his all into the role, but keeps it grounded and intimidating.  He feels like a serious threat that no one would risk crossing.  Stowers and Jones have excellent chemistry as rival pimps, and have some solid scenes together.

The remainder of the cast has some good performances including Kim West as Nikki, Phil’s premiere working girl.  Sarah Lewis always impresses me in Jones’ films with her best performance coming as the lead in The Hooker With A Heart of Gold.  Here, she has only a few scenes as Donna’s friend Mindy, but it is very well acted on all levels.  Alex Shyrock is very good as Detective Mike Nero who is a cop who doesn’t seem like he gives much of a damn anymore, and doesn’t enjoy having to screw around with Wilson throughout the night.  Shyrock has that right stressed out, frayed quality showing that Nero is sick and tired of this Scalper case, and just wants it done with however possible.

The most substantive scene is when Martin and Rick cross paths and have a lengthy conversation together.  Both men lay out their troubles, how they got to where they are now, and talking frankly about what has damaged them.  Jones and Norvell put in excellent performances here.  The two are great, close friends in real life, and that chemistry shows through.  It’s a fairly brief pair of scenes between them, but it is a solid turning point that motivates the characters into the third act..  Their confrontation at the film’s end is equally as good.

Handheld camera work is the standard here, as is Jones’ style.  He has said that he relies on this so much due to the fact of having only the built-in microphone on his camcorder to record audio.  So, he regularly needs to have the camera close-in on the actors to get consistent audio.  Still, while the framing can regularly be a little too tight when trying to pan between two actors, and the handheld being a little rough, there are many scenes with quite good camera angles and editing.  For the most part, the flow of the movie is very good with only a few rough transitions here and there.  I can entirely see that if Jones had the right equipment and the ability to refine his technical quality, this would be a greatly polished movie on all levels.

I really like movies with intercutting stories.  They inherently create an energy that propels the narrative forward with great rhythm.  Midnight Heat regularly cuts between Martin’s descent into self-destruction and Rick and Donna’s turbulent night together.  Both stories parallel one another until they eventually intersect and collide.  This structure works beautifully, and maintains a streamlined flow throughout.  Jones writes very vibrant and interesting characters with some excellent dialogue.  Midnight Heat is an exploitation film through and through, but the quality of the writing is comparable to that of a Michael Mann film like Thief or Collateral.  Characters are dimensional and feel quite real and textured.  This is the real strength of the movie, and it is what immensely impresses me about it.  As I said, beyond the rough, low grade technical qualities there is a wealth of talent on display fueled by Jones’ amazingly written script.  There is substance in this story.  It never falls back on letting the sleaze weigh down the film for a fun, cheap thrill.  Jones absolutely was putting his best dramatic effort forward, and it shows through.  That’s what I think makes for a great independent filmmaker – to have the quality of your talent and vision shine through even the most rugged of technical shortcomings.

While I believe Brad has stated that directing isn’t his favorite part of the process, I do believe he put together a cohesive and well directed movie here.  While everyone cast in the movie is part of his wide circle of friends, he is able to make the best use of them in key roles, and they gave him their best.  The compressed time frame of the film also creates an energy and momentum not too unlike Michael Mann’s Collateral.  Everything occurs over a single night, and that creates a compact, compounded intensity that builds as the film progresses.  I used to have many extremely late nights out to where I didn’t know late night from early morning anymore, and Midnight Heat gradually captures that feeling in its third act.  The film narrows out its cast of characters, and focuses in on its leads of Rick, Donna, and Martin enhancing the sense of isolation and loneliness of those hours of the night.  The climax is not action based, but character based.  It brings everything to a head in a very solid and satisfying way.

I strongly believe Midnight Heat to be one of Brad Jones’ best films.  The writing is excellent and the full cast really puts their all into it.  I love the neo noir style of it all taking place at night.  It soaks you deep into this grimy, dark world, and that’s just perfectly my style.  There’s very little action in the movie as it is built and driven by its characters, which are excellently developed and realized.  At nearly an hour and forty minutes, I think this is a well put together independent film that was made with a lot of passion and enthusiasm.  At the time he posted this on his website in July of 2011, Brad stated this to be his favorite film out of all the ones he had made up to that point.  Knowing him as well as I do through his website, this really is where his love of film is the strongest, and I’m intrigued to know that a sequel is planned, likely for this year.  It was a combination of seeing this movie and Brad’s v-log movie review of Drive that got me to see that brilliant movie which is now one of my favorites of all time.  Coincidentally, the opening credits to Drive are nearly identical to those of Midnight Heat, same font and all.

As I said, you can exclusively watch Midnight Heat on Brad’s website for free.  Clearly, I give the movie a very strong recommendation for anyone that enjoys neo noir crime thrillers or the sleazier side of 1980s cinema.  You can watch the rather low quality trailer here.  Give it a few minutes of your time, and see if it appeals to your interests.

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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.


When A Stranger Calls (1979)

I really believe When A Stranger Calls has gotten an inaccurate reputation for being some terrifying classic of horror cinema.  That reputation merely applies to only part of the whole film – the opening and ending.  Suffice it to say, this thriller starring Carol Kane as your average neighborhood baby-sitter, Charles Durning as a determined, heavy-set detective, and Tony Beckley as the chilling voice over the phone, is not what one would hope for.  Even by the standards of a psychological thriller, this doesn’t offer you much to engage you outside of its opening and ending.

Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is hired by the Mandrakis’ to babysit their children while they go out for dinner and a movie.  It seems innocent enough, but sometime after the parents leave, Jill starts getting unsettling phone calls from a man simply stating, “Have you checked the children?”  This goes on for hours, and terrifies her more and more.  She eventually works with the phone company until they reveal the startling truth that there is a killer inside the house with her.  Curt Duncan(Tony Beckley) is soon arrested for the murder of the children, and he remains committed to a mental institution for seven years until he escapes.  He is soon pursued by Detective John Clifford (Charles Durning) through an urban setting until everything comes full circle in the finale.

The first fifteen minutes of this film are what earned this movie its reputation.  Despite knowing the full story, as it is a common urban legend, the entire sequence still came off as effectively suspenseful.  The whole film really comes together here from the great performances of Carol Kane and Tony Beckley to the direction to the musical score and more.  It is a simple, terrifying concept that was executed very well, and would’ve made for an excellent short film, which is exactly what When A Stranger Calls originally was.  However, the success of Halloween motivated director Fred Walton to expand the story into a feature.  So, he had to find a way to fill up a feature length runtime, and I think the lack of compelling ideas and disjointed tone blatantly show through.

When the film jumps ahead seven years is where the film takes a very lethargic and bland turn.  The hunt for the escaped Curt Duncan ultimately turns into a bad episode of Cannon.  Charles Durning is a very accomplished and acclaimed actor due to great work done throughout his career, but there’s really nothing exceptional for him to do in this film.  There is a decent chase scene between Clifford and Duncan through the urban streets and alleyways, but it is very far from being a highly dramatic sequence.  The film loses all strength of suspense and tension that it opened with when it switches gears in style and story focus.  Only when we return to Carol Kane’s character at the end, who is now married with two small children, does this film get anywhere near the level of tension demonstrated in the opening sequence.

Some praise this film, others say it’s only worth a few minutes of tension and suspense.  I say that anything that this film did with tension was done immensely better in the original Black Christmas.  In that film, the caller is exponentially more disturbing as there is no method to his madness.  The killer is deranged, and has completely broken from reality.  Of course, in actuality, Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls are two different styles of film.  The first is a bonafide horror flick.  It is the prototypical slasher film, the one that inspired HalloweenWhen a Stranger Calls is simply a thriller, and isn’t really horror.  So, partially why it’s featured during this month devoted to horror, both good and bad, is to correct a misconception about this movie.  It certainly had the base elements for a solid horror film with a psychologically disturbed killer on the loose after having terrorized a young woman and murdered two children.  Yet, when there are merely only two, justifiably, off-screen kills, a group of mildly disturbing phone calls, and basically, everything sandwiched in between is like some low grade, boring cue out of a second rate, dull crime thriller, you’re not gonna reach the level of a Halloween, Black Christmas, or Friday the 13th.

We follow the killer, Curt Duncan, around so much that, aside from one, late moment inside an apartment, he doesn’t seem very dangerous or disturbing.  Mostly, he’s just wandering the streets looking for food, money, and shelter.  Simply put, it’s boring.  There’s nearly no deep exploration of his character or psyche, as one would expect from a psychological crime thriller.  It really is a failure of the screenwriters and director that this lacks so much interesting material.  This film was certainly made long before we had multi-layered serial killers populating cinema such as Hannibal Lecter to inspire more fascinating mentally disturbing characters.  Still, I could imagine Alfred Hitchcock making this into a masterpiece of suspense with a better script and his remarkable direction.  It’s all about substance and context, both of which this film gets wrong for the bulk of its runtime.

The old VHS box cover for When A Stranger Calls once labeled it as “The Terrifying Classic”, but I certainly don’t agree.  Again, the first fifteen minutes or so of the film are suspenseful, but the concept had already been done immensely better in other films.  When a Stranger Calls just doesn’t cut it for me. You sit around, waiting for this film to pick up for so long that you may lose interest.  The ending is even shorter than the beginning, and isn’t quite as well done.  Basically, if Carol Kane isn’t involved in the scene, the film doesn’t work.  It’s not about her, it’s just the simple dynamic of the storytelling.  Curt Duncan has almost no one to prey on outside of her scenes, which obviously makes for a markedly dull thriller.  There was a cable television sequel made fourteen years later, and I do believe I saw it at one time.  However, that was certainly a very long time ago, and I don’t recall much of anything from it.  I’ve never seen the remake, and I don’t intend to.  I just don’t think this narrow concept has enough juice to sustain a full feature film without more substance added in, or given more variation from an unseen killer tormenting a babysitter by phone.


The Dead Zone (1983)

Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is definitely one of the best films based on King’s work.  It has always been heralded with acclaim for many excellent reasons.  Not the least of which is an incredible lead performance from Christopher Walken.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young and charming school teacher with a bright future ahead of him with a woman he loves and intends to marry.  Yet, after leaving her home one night, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for five years.  Upon awakening, Johnny discovers he has gained the power of psychic visions where he see the past, present, and future with just the touch of a hand.  This frightens Johnny, and he feels only more isolated from the world when he learns that Sarah (Brooke Adams), the love of his life, has married another man and had a child with him.  After Johnny physically recovers from his coma, he becomes more and more reclusive until Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) enlists his help to find the vicious Castle Rock Killer.  However, when Johnny later shakes the hand of young and upcoming political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he is confronted with a frightening vision that shakes Johnny down to his core.

To say the least, Cronenberg has been a very original director with a unique perspective and style which comes out in science fiction or horror fare.  Although, what he gives us with this film is a much more subtly clever and psychologically powerful over overt strangeness.  Instead of going for the throat like he did with Scanners or Videodrome, he really hones in on the heart of this story, and he does it magnificently well.  Every element he brought together truly merged with the heavy, somber tone he was going for.  That was an excellent direction to envelope the film in as it puts us right into Johnny’s headspace.  I think it was a stroke of genius that he made Johnny’s visions fully enveloping.  He put Johnny inside the vision as if he was right there as it happened, but unable to affect change within the vision.  It created a far more strained experienced for the character than if it just appeared as a dream state.  With the first vision, he could probably feel the heat and flames just as if he was there in the burning house.  During the vision of the Castle Rock Killer, Johnny is adamant how he was right there watching the murder, but unable to stop it.  This forges Johnny into a darker, more reclusive state.

This is the earliest film I’ve seen of Christopher Walken’s career, and it shows that, no matter the age, Walken delivers his all.  Johnny starts out as a kind, lively man fully in love, but the accident forces a turbulent change in him.  He feels like a man out of sync with the world, and is now haunted by his new abilities.  He’s angry that five years of his have been taken away, and that the woman he loved moved on with her life while he has none to return to.  Walken is able to convey the deep emotional turmoil of Johnny with so much humanity that you can’t help but feel his pain.  The tragic sense of the character really comes through in such strong, brilliant ways.  Walken subtly mixes in the charm of the pre-accident Johnny underneath that somber, unstable exterior.  The well of emotion in his face and eyes honestly becomes heartbreaking many times over.  When the visions occur, Walken goes into an intense trance which is immensely riveting.  Walken actually had Cronenberg fire off a gun, loaded with blanks, to elicit his startling reaction in those moments, and that was greatly effective.  Walken can be very intense, at times, as the fear of his knowledge of the future boils over, but he’s always able to return to that heartfelt side.  I could really go on and on about all the nuances and profound qualities of Christopher Walken’s performance, as he is always so rich with, but suffice it to say, he is absolutely stunning in this role.

Another great talent on display is Tom Skerritt who brings his strong presence of authority and sense of compassion to Sheriff Bannerman.  He feels very authentic as the lead police officer of a small New England town.  He really invests you in Bannerman’s plight where he has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and is willing to put his faith in the extraordinary to protect the people of his town.  Herbert Lom does a very interesting and relatable performance as Dr. Sam Weizak with the genuine care of a physician.  I really like the candor and humanity he brings to the role as Johnny’s doctor.  He’s about the only one Johnny can confide in about his abilities, and that creates some very strong scenes which show Johnny’s pain and struggles.  It’s very strong and intriguing work.  Brooke Adams is very lovely and beautiful in the role of Sarah.  She is very sweet and smart showing a simple, very caring woman that would endear herself to the younger Johnny who was bright and full of life.  Adams does the same to an audience showing warmth and tenderness, and really striking up a genuine, heartfelt chemistry with Walken.  The great Anthony Zerbe has an admirable turn as Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny to tutor his son, and also, bridges Smith with Stillson.  Zerbe has a screen presence of respect, intelligence, and sophistication which serves the character excellently.

Martin Sheen is awesome as Greg Stillson.  While he is perfectly stereotypical of a politician, and seemingly an exaggerated one, it entirely works for the role.  Stillson is megalomaniacal, as is revealed to Johnny.  He’s full-tilt insane, and Sheen revels in that madness.  He has thinly veiled unhinged mentality which many voters would perceive as zeal, passion, and charisma, but Zerbe’s character perceives the danger he poses, which is a very nice touch to motivate Johnny’s and Stillson’s paths to cross.

While I have not read the novel, it seems like it had just a series of generally episodic events, which could have proven complicated to translate into a coherent screenplay, but I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving them together with Johnny’s plight being the through line.  How he goes from feeling angry and cursed to slowly realizing the potential good he can do with his powers is a fascinating approach.  Yet, he’s never really a man at peace.  There’s always an emotional or psychological turmoil swirling inside him.  Because of this, The Dead Zone is more a character-driven movie as there is no overarching main plot, aside from Johnny’s internal struggles.  The film gives us a series of otherwise unrelated events that deeply affect and mold Johnny towards a powerful ending.  While it could use a little more meat on the bone, in terms of a more rigorously involved plot in the Stillson centric segment, this really seems like the best approach to the material, and it is done exceptionally well.

The film’s score was done by the late, great Michael Kamen, who was a masterful composer and musician.  Here, he produced a brilliant score that is powerful and haunting.  It really has a strong presence which really digs deep into the emotions abound in the film, reflecting the sad, bittersweet feeling Cronenberg captured on screen.  Even in the beautiful moment, he still manages to keep that heavy, foreboding tone present.  It’s really a mesmerizing piece of music which is undeniably one of Kamen’s finest and distinct works.

The winter setting of The Dead Zone is marvelously brilliant.  It reflects the cold, lonely, isolated sensibility that come to define Johnny Smith.  It also perfectly Stephen King.  Cinematographer Mark Irwin shot this film amazingly well.  There are some sequences with wonderfully moody lighting such as the tunnel crime scene with the headlights reflecting off the ice, or the green tinge inside the Dodd residence.  Johnny’s visions are all very visually strong, especially the ice break sequence.  Overall, Irwin captures the power of this picture beautifully and compellingly.

The horror aspects in this film are very psychologically and visually based.  Certainly the most graphic and startling is the Castle Rock Killer segment.  We get violence and some disturbing imagery with this part which is very expertly executed.  The rest of the film focuses on the fearful knowledge that haunts Johnny, and creates a troubling foreboding tone which leaves the audience unsettled.  It’s a cerebral film built on a solid, somber atmosphere that can leave you saddened.  I do think it’s a film that goes beyond the confines of horror, and pursues something much more fascinating and deeper.  That was much of King’s intention.  He wanted to write a story that didn’t delve into creatures or spirits or other things that come out to scare you in the dead of night.  The Dead Zone was a sad, turbulent journey for a man that never asked for these extraordinary powers, but had to somehow cope with these experiencing jarring, haunting premonitions of death.  They lead him down a chilling path that would be frightening for anyone.

As is obvious, I really like The Dead Zone.  The only thing that pulls it away from a perfect rating is that I don’t think the build up to the climax is quite strong enough.  A bit more time taken for Johnny to deep down struggle with his decision, or to really reflect upon himself would’ve given it a more dramatic swell.  The ending is excellent, though.  It really hits the right, powerful emotional beat.  I wouldn’t change a frame of it.   Christopher Walken puts in a rock solid performance that runs through a wide array of emotions that he brilliantly wraps into a single package.  David Cronenberg had already proven he could go way far out with his concepts, and really deliver very bizarre, yet profound films.  Here, he proves he get deep into the soul of a story and character, and deliver something equally profound on a much more intimate human level.  I really, strongly recommend this film.  It is expertly crafted by a great team of wonderfully talented film artists.


Identity (2003)

This film, directed by James Mangold, is one that I was very impressed with in its original theatrical release, and revisiting it now, it still holds up as an effective thriller.  Supported by a remarkable ensemble cast and a brilliant screenplay, Identity delivers a mind-bending story that cleverly weaves its way around a classic murder mystery premise.

Strangers from all different walks of life are all trapped by a torrential rain storm on a Nevada road one night.  They are forced to take shelter at an old roadside motel, run by the nervous manager Larry (John Hawkes).  There is Ed Dakota, a limo driver, escorting fading television star Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay), the turbulent married couple of George & Alice York (John C. McGinley & Leila Kinzel) with their young son Timothy (Bret Loehr), Rhodes, a Department of Corrections officer transporting the dangerous convict Robert Maine (Jake Busey), a beautiful call girl (Amanda Peet), and a couple of young newlyweds (William Lee Scott & Clea DuVall).  None of them are at ease amongst these strangers, but circumstances become dire when someone begins murdering them one-by-one.  Accusations begin to fly as paranoia and fear escalate, but they will all begin to discover very strange truths about their supposed chance encounter here.  Meanwhile in an undisclosed location, in an eleventh hour court hearing, psychiatrist Dr. Mallick (Alfred Molina) tries to prove the innocence and sanity of his patient, Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who has been convicted of murder, and is scheduled to face execution in twenty-four hours.  How both of these stories connect is a mystery of identity.

This film will keep you guessing from one moment to the next as to many things.  Many twists unfold in plot and perception, and when you think this film has twisted your thoughts into many knots, it throws one final one at you.  Now, these twists won’t leave you lost, there’s plenty of breathing room and enough exposition to allow you to understand all that is happening.  It is very cleverly paced and structured to keep an audience ensnared through the entire mystery.  This film is tense, suspenseful, creepy, and haunting.  It is an excellent psychological thriller that has far more to it than just a group of people getting killed off in a very Agatha Christie fashion.  In fact, no other film I have seen has utilized this genre quite so well.  There is just as much psychological terror for the characters as there is for the audience.

Director James Mangold brilliantly builds suspense and paranoia with a troubling sense of unease.  A group of strangers stranded in a run down desert motel definitely lends to that feeling.  Considering one of them is a known violent criminal heightens that even more.  Subtle things are revealed to the audience that add to our apprehension knowing certain people are not who they claim or appear to be.  This creates plenty of clever misdirection.  Add in some volatile and emotionally distressed characters, and the tension is wrapped so a tight, unnerving level.  When that tension finally breaks, it’s heart pounding.  The film hardly never allows an audience to relax fully.  There’s regularly some form of urgency or excitement that propels the characters forward towards danger.

The style of the film is very original such as with the immediate flashbacks.  You’ll see a lot of them at the start and a bit near the end.  They show how certain events brought everyone together in a unique non-linear fashion.  It nicely punctuates certain plot elements such as it was Paris’ high-heeled shoe that flew out of her opened suitcase that caused the York’s flat tire later that night.  It’s a nice, quick storytelling tool that helps move the story ahead quickly without leaving even small questions unanswered.  I enjoyed that element quite a bit, and the direction and editing of them was very handled well.  The addition of the rain storm throughout the film is classically atmospheric, and adds to the treacherous, mysterious qualities of the plot.  Danger and paranoia are abound as things get stranger and stranger, and the torrential rain and thunder claps simply unsettle the characters and the audience further.

The surreal aspects are also subtly handled.  They forge an underlying peculiarity for the strangers at the motel.  They attempt to explain them in various ways, but eventually, these occurrences go far beyond mere coincidence or rationale.  They can’t make sense of it, but it truly freaks them out.  It creates a bizarre, twisted web for them all.  These aspects build up so beautifully to an absolutely mind-blowing revelation.

Identity is masterfully shot and edited.  Shooting in all that nighttime rain never muddles the visuals.  We always have a clear picture of what’s happening without sacrificing the dramatic, moody cinematography.  The film evenly balances between various indoor and outdoor scenes giving an audience enough variety in the visuals to keep our eyes interested.  There is such great atmosphere crafted into how the film is shot, and the editing really supports the lingering suspense expertly.  When things begin deconstructing in the third act, the editing creates an amazing visual style which perfectly represents the psychological chaos.  It’s all a superbly executed thriller with many gripping twists and turns that have an excellent conclusion.

This ensemble cast is magnificent!  There strong performances all around with John Cusack being the obvious trusting protagonist.  He brings his usual heart and wit along with a solid dramatic weight.  Ed Dakota is a very relatable character with a great depth of pain and desire to do what is right.  He’s given a strong back story that Cusack really grasps the emotional weight and guilt Ed carries with him, making him someone we can invest our confidence in.

Ray Liotta has a nice turn showing both a hardened strength and a shadier side that surfaces later on.  He is very intense, confrontational, and adversarial while projecting a presence of authority with a more temperamental edge.  Jake Busey is convincingly intimidating and dangerous with a crazed look in his eye coupled with his reliable charisma.  John Hawkes is another stellar actor who can deliver a deep array of emotions.  Here, he runs the full gamut ranging from nervous and skittish to violent and unhinged.  And I really have to say that Rebecca De Mornay is hotter here than I have ever seen her before.  She’s beyond gorgeous in my view, as I have an affinity for red heads, and she does a wonderful job as the somewhat egotistical actress Caroline Suzanne.  She’s definitely a pleasure.  And of course, I always expect nothing less than excellence from John C. McGinley, as many do these days, and he doesn’t fail here.  His George York is a very nervous man with little self-confidence who doesn’t cope with these violent, tragic situations well.  McGinley brings a lot of compassion and simple innocence to this caring husband and step-father.

Alfred Molina is perfect as Dr. Mallick presenting a soft-spoken, intelligent psychiatrist with a sense of empathy.  Pruitt Taylor Vince has always impressed me taking on some substantive and sometimes peculiar roles, and doing an exceptionally unique and standout job in them.  For what little time he has on screen, he brings that same level of talent to Malcolm Rivers.  That jittery eye trick he does seems to land him these off-kilter roles, and it is distinctly effective.

I really have to hand it to the screenwriting talents of Michael Clooney, and especially the directorial abilities of James Mangold.  Both crafted together a very solid, smart, and effective thriller that has plenty of genuine scares and suspense to entertain an audience.  Because of this, it still has re-watch value.  The film is so strong that it would still work just as marvelously without the major twist at the end.  The mystery thriller aspect with people being killed off at the motel is just expertly executed in every way.  The addition of said twist just ups the psychological brilliance of the concept.  I definitely give Identity a wholehearted recommendation, just as I did when it was theatrically released.


Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

It’s difficult to explain what this sequel is.  It apparently exists in a world where The Blair Witch Project was just a fictional movie, but the Blair Witch herself actually does exist.  That’s very hard to wrap your head around.  This is one confusing movie which is nothing at all like the movie that preceded it.  This script seems like it was never finished as if the screenwriters came up with all these clever little psychological plot twists, but never had the time to conjure up any answers to them.  The film is certainly creepy, but I really don’t know what it is about it.  There are a good number of surreal events in this film.  It’s like a very large dream that no one wakes up from until the very end.  And it’s not about perspective, it’s about the illusion of reality – did it really happen that way or not?  Everyone swears that it happen like this, we saw it happen right there on the screen, but then, we have undeniable proof that it happened completely differently.  Don’t know what I’m talking about?  Well, that’s how the film has left me feeling all these years.

The movie starts out documenting the phenomenon that was The Blair Witch Project with television clips of movie reviewers, news casts, and fans talking about the film.  One of these fans is Jeffrey Patterson (Jeffrey Donovan) who was inexplicably an ex-mental patient, a fact that is never truly explored.  Jeff now runs The Blair Witch Hunt, a tour guide of everything Blair Witch – including merchandise.  We learn that Jeff is not a fan of Burkittsville, and they are no fans of his – especially Sheriff Cravens (Lanny Flaherty).  The two seem to have a degree of implied history with one another that strains many events throughout the film.  Regardless, Jeff gets four people to sign up for his inaugural tour – Kim Diamond (Kim Director), the hot goth chick, Erica Geersen (Erica Leerhsen), the real-life witch and a student of Wicca, and Tristen Ryler (Tristen Skyler) and her boyfriend Stephen Ryan Parker (Stephen Barker Turner).  The five venture out into the wilderness, and spend a night on the foundation of Rustin Parr’s house.  Strange things happen that night, and when they wake up, they have no knowledge or memory of those events which leave many baffling questions for them.  Although, it is only the beginning, and things are going to get much more bizarre and surreal before it is all over.  As the movie goes on, each character’s sanity unravels in unique fashions in the face of bewildering paranormal events.  Some are paranoid, some are hysterical, some are in denial, and some become very, deeply disturbed as they ultimately cannot discern what truly is reality.

The confusion with this film stems from a jumbled mess of editing and structure.  At times, you will inevitably be disorientated simply by the flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flashes back to the present.  It destroys any cohesion the film might have had, and of course, this was all studio imposed.  The directors original cut was entirely linear, and I would like to see that version.  However, that is merely one element of the larger mess.  The latter half of the film takes place in Jeffrey’s isolated warehouse in the woods where he lives and works.  That’s where all of the hallucinatory and reality bending hysteria takes place.  Everyone suffers from it with some horrifying imagery, and there are a few revelations, but only one that really explains anything at all.  Simply stated, we are presented with one reality as we watch events unfold on film, but video footage from Jeffrey’s camcorder and security camera footage reveals an alternate series of events occurring.  Neither of which are given any more credibility as being truer than the other.  What this movie gives us is a massive load of strange questions without so much as an attempt or even a hint at an answer.  This is a film which leaves you bewildered at the end.  I don’t demand that a film blatantly answer every question or explain every little detail, but to leave an audience with absolutely zero evidence as to a theory of the truth is simply insulting.  You have just wasted an audience’s time on a completely nonsensical film that simply throws contradictions at them without a resolution.

This movie was directed by Joe Berlinger, the same man who brought us the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three.  Those films really hit me hard, and made me a long time supporter of the three men who were wrongly convicted.  Berlinger captured every bit of emotion there was to capture, and allowed the audience to come to their own conclusions regarding this crime and the three youths that had been convicted of it.  Berlinger chose to do the same here, and he states as much on his audio commentary.

In Book of Shadows, he presents everything entirely objectively as he wanted the audience to make their own decisions on what was reality.  Unfortunately, there is such a lack of substantive information or theory presented to us on how or why things happened to form any sort of conclusion as to what did truly happen.  We have absolutely every reason to believe what these characters swear to as the truth because we’ve spent the whole film witnessing it with them.  However, the video tape evidence is shown to fully contradict all of that.  One has to be the truth, yet both are equally, undeniably true, and the film ends offering you no reasoning as to why this is.  This concept can work if prefaced correctly.  A filmmaker has to respect his or her audience by telling a complete story which is cleverly structured and plotted to offer enough intelligent content for answers to be formed from them.  There can still be some mystery or ambiguity at the end, as I praised The Usual Suspects for doing, but a film or story needs a point of view for an audience to latch onto so that they can understand where it’s coming from and where it is going.

There is just so much left unanswered it heavily hurts this movie.  If the filmmakers had attempted to craft a smart and effective story, things surely would’ve been better.  Whether the revelations had been acceptable or not, it’s far better than not trying at all.  If you’re going to craft a reality bending, perception twisting film, you need to pay-off these surreal elements at some point.  Anyone can throw a series of strange and contradictory images up on a screen, and not explain any of it.  It takes talent to make sense of them all, and have them connect in a cohesive and intelligible story.  There’s no drama or tension in being left hanging with a question you cannot even guess at an answer for.  It’s like a joke without a punch line – it turns into a waste of everything good that was put into it.  You build everything up, and then, you just let it hang their at the top of the peak.  I could imagine someone like David Lynch doing this film, and while it would inevitably be far more bizarre, it would have the artistic depth and nuance to eventually discern a hypothesis as to the truth.

However, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is well acted, very well shot, and well directed in certain aspects.  It is not a frightening film or a splatter film, it’s a creepy, eerie film.  It’s got atmosphere and tone to spare, and the production values and design are quite engaging.  I think that’s part of my intrigue for the film.  It looks absolutely gorgeous with its distinct autumn colors, and the tall, long afternoon shadows.  Autumn is my favorite season, and this film captures the atmosphere and look that I love so much about the season.  This deeply permeates through the entire movie.  There are numerous chilling moments throughout the film which are greatly executed.  Despite its storytelling failings, Book of Shadows delivers on some solid horror content which proves there were some skillful talents involved.  There’s a definite psychological element which chillingly surfaces every so often, but since none of it amounts to anything purposeful or substantive, it’s just there for atmospheric effect.  The same goes for all the weird ghostly images and strange occurrences.  They’re effective in creating a very haunting and surreal experience, but ultimately have no meaning.  This film proves that it doesn’t matter how talented you are in creating suspenseful, atmospheric horror if you don’t have a good story to tell.  I can give a film more credit for having a great story and script even if the technical aspects aren’t all that good than the reverse.

This was the movie that introduced me to Jeffrey Donovan who I have enjoyed heavily the last few years on Burn Notice.  Despite how bizarre the film gets, Donovan still stands out as a strong and interesting lead.  He handles all of the unusual demands of the role well, and he makes his character very entertaining while still dark and off-beat.  He’s backed up by a cast that is equally as capable even if there’s a lot of poor dialogue to trudge through.  This could’ve turned out as a worse film due to the nonsensical layers of strangeness present, but the acting talents involved keep it solidly on-point in terms of tone.  There was definitely strong artistic and creative potential here.  Unfortunately, studio interference from Artisan Entertainment forced numerous editorial changes to the film that Joe Berlinger was not pleased with.  It altered the structure of the film with the various flashbacks and flash-forwards along with some added graphic imagery and the asylum scenes with the Jeff character.  Again, Berlinger’s cut was an entirely linear story that might’ve played better, but surely, would have offered no more explanations than the ultimate release version did.  Another critic that I know has called the ending to this film “mean.”  It’s like a big middle finger to the audience because the film bombards you with all this bizarre imagery and mountain of questions, and it vehemently refuses to answer any of them for you.

I think this is another film that I’ve always liked for its potential.  I used to think there was something vastly intriguing about it, despite its confusing flaws.  However, I think my fascination with it was based mostly on the visual quality of the film along with the pieces of a potentially very good twisting and mysterious plot.  This is a very prime example of a film that was not fully developed or well managed during its scripting or pre-production stages, and then, was mangled up further by a studio that just wanted more blood and shock imagery.  Berlinger had the talent for taut suspense and heavy atmosphere creating an exceptionally creepy horror film that a studio simply couldn’t appreciate.  I’m sure his director’s cut is probably a more coherent watch to an extent, but it’s still a heavily flawed film from concept to execution.  Not even Joe Berlinger’s audio commentary offers a haven for a single answer.  The film is presented too objectively, and that’s its real major flaw, too bad it practically overshadows the entire movie.  And no, the title’s Book of Shadows appears nowhere in the film, nor is it ever mentioned.  It is a Wiccan book containing religious texts and instructions for magical rituals.  As I said, the movie is very well made on a technical and tonal level, and the cast is filled with some very fine talents.  It had a some good things going for it, but it failed to provide a pay off.  Any great mystery requires a great reveal, but no attempt at one is present here.


Manhunter (1986)

In my view, there are psychological thrillers, and then, there is Manhunter.  I have never seen another movie that gets so deep inside the psyches of its protagonist and antagonist as Manhunter does.  Every element of filmmaking is used to envelop you into the psychological state of its characters, and done so with amazing depth and beauty.  Adapted from the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon by writer and director Michael Mann in 1986, this is the best film featuring Hannibal Lecter that I have seen.  I never grasped what everyone was so enthusiastic about over The Silence of the Lambs, and that was my sentiment years before I ever watched Manhunter.  I have never watched the Brett Ratner helmed re-adaptation Red Dragon, and so, you will not find any comparison between the two here.  I have plenty to explore in Manhunter alone.  This is my favorite film from Michael Mann, and I am going to tell you why.

F.B.I. Agent and criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is drawn out of retirement by friend and partner Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) to track down and capture a serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy.”  He is named as such due to the peculiar bite marks taken off his slain victims.  To reclaim the mindset needed to delve into the psyche of this new killer, who works on a lunar cycle, Graham must tap the mind of the psychopath he captured which led to his own retirement – Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox).  Graham must come to see through the eyes of this enigmatic killer in order to anticipate his methods, motives, and actions.  The psyches of both Graham and this killer, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), are eventually put into severe conflict even putting Graham’s wife and son into danger, but most importantly, Graham’s own sanity.  If Will Graham can enter into the mind of a psychopath, can he ever come back?

This is a beautifully layered psychological film.  It’s fascinating to see the process Michael Mann has Will Graham go through to absorb himself into the psyche of this killer.  It’s a slow descent where Graham is trepidatious stepping back into this mindset, but once he’s delved in deep enough, it starts to influence his emotions and manipulate his actions.  He’s gradually connecting with the psyche of Francis Dollarhyde, slowly putting more and more pieces of the puzzle together in his mind, and by the end, there is an obsessive impulse to destroy Dollarhyde so that Graham can simply be free of him.  When Graham was hunting Hannibal Lecktor, he integrated Dr. Lecktor’s psyche so deep into his own that he had to be institutionalized to in order to be brought back to good mental health.  It was a dark, terrible place for his thoughts to be that he is afraid to allow himself to go back there. However, in order to capture this new serial killer, he has no choice but to tap Lecktor’s mind to recapture that mindset.

Still, the real Will Graham remains beneath, but remains slightly detached from himself.  Graham has heartfelt moments with his wife and son at various points in the film that allow the humanity to show through the darkness.  These are brief reprieves from the troubling case at hand, but go a long way to show that Graham has not lost himself in this killer as he did with Lecktor.  All of these fascinating facets of Will Graham are brilliantly brought to detailed, nuanced life by William Petersen.  He deeply engulfed himself in this role so much that after production had wrapped, he couldn’t shake Will Graham from his head.  He had to shave off his beard and dye his hair blonde just to shed the character fully.  That’s an unsettling example of method acting.  Petersen puts so much emotional and psychological intensity into this performance that it is mesmerizing and captivating.  You can constantly see the emotional and intellectual gears moving in his head.  Petersen’s rich facial nuances and intense eyes also perfectly display Will Graham’s conflict and development throughout the film.  He leads this film with a wide breadth of weight and deep, amazing talent.  He forges a finely detailed and dimensional character.

This might be a procedural crime thriller, but I find the psychological development of the plot to be richly exciting and fascinating.  The physical evidence is an important cog in the process, and the detail and urgent context in which these procedures are displayed make them compelling.  Michael Mann keeps them unfolding at a tight pace with sharp dialogue that quickly pushes the narrative forward.  Of course, the investigation truly comes together through the psychological methods of Will Graham.  Without Graham’s constant prodding and deconstruction of the mind of this serial killer, the pieces would never come together.  While Lecktor is someone that Graham fears, he respects Lecktor’s intellect.  Where someone else might discount or take offense to Lecktor’s manipulative or sickly unsettling perceptions, Graham understands the valuable insight.  He knows there’s something more intuitive underneath Lecktor’s words.  Still, how Graham reacts after his first meeting with Lecktor here, you see how disturbed he is allowing Lecktor into his mind at all.

I absolutely love Brain Cox’s subtle and subversive performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecktor.  Where Anthony Hopkins would later be a little more obvious and deliberately creepy, Cox slowly gets in under your skin.  He could be generally unassuming, but he can gradually deconstruct your mind right before your eyes.  He’s immensely intelligent and intimidating by way of his psychological prowess.  Yes, he is a psychopath, and certainly a sociopath.  However, the scene where Lecktor calls the office of Dr. Bloom shows how naturally charming and charismatic he is, and that is very unsettling.  Brian Cox based his performance on a real life serial killer.  Such people are usually able to blend seamlessly into society, many as charming and unassuming individuals, and to see Cox bring that quality to this fascinating role adds further intriguing layers to Lecktor.  While the character only has three scenes, he remains involved in the plot, and maintains a strong presence through much of the runtime.  Overall, I believe the magnificently talented Brian Cox put in a masterful performance that chillingly supports the intelligence of this film.

The performance of Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde makes just as major of an impact as Petersen and Cox.  His is a chilling portrayal of a fascinating and intimidating character.  His generally soft spoken voice creates an unsettling presence.  You know he is a frighteningly violent and lethal individual, and this restrained, subtle manner makes you fear for when that violent impulse is ultimately unleashed.  Michael Mann chose to leave out aspects of the character from Thomas Harris’ novel such as the Red Dragon tattoo on his torso, of which scenes were filmed with it, and much of his back story.  For Manhunter, this seems to truly work for the best.  Instead, the first half of the film is used to build him up as an anonymous threat through Graham’s investigation and psychological profiling.  When the film directly delves us into who Dollarhyde is, Noonan brings an incredible depth of emotion and internal pain to the role.  Where Lecktor is a sociopath devoid of compassion, Dollarhyde has a wealth of emotional turmoil stemming from his distorted self-perception.  Noonan’s performance reflects shame as Dollarhyde masks his face with his hands or sunglasses, and won’t allow the blind Reba to touch his face.  He’s absorbed himself into this mangled self-identity that he resents those who he perceives as having the idealized life, such as the suburban nuclear family.  This fuels his obsession as a serial killer.  Tom Noonan brings such immense power to the emotional core of this sympathetic monster, and probably more than anyone else, makes this movie as powerful and effective as it is.

Chicago native actor Dennis Farina puts in a great and strong performance as Jack Crawford.  It’s great to see how he showcases Crawford’s trust of Graham.  He rarely questions any of what Graham says or believes, but when he does, it has a purpose.  Crawford can’t fully understand the process that Will has to go through to do what he does, but he entirely respects it and understands the danger of him doing so.  He essentially goes to Will Graham as a last resort.  It’s also great seeing that Farina is able to keep up with Petersen’s intensity at times.  Late in the film when time, as well as patience, has run short, both Crawford and Graham are jumping down each other’s throats.  Crawford’s accepting defeat this time out, but Graham’s gone too far to accept that at all.  Still, you see the loyalty and faith return in Farina’s performance as Graham begins to puts the final pieces together.  I like the compassion and concern in his performance as Crawford tries to hold to his word of keeping Will as far away from danger as possible up until the last minute.  He wants this case closed and this killer captured, but not at the expense of his friend’s safety and sanity.

Stephen Lang does an excellent job as the sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds.  He’s a great antagonist for Graham since Lounds only cares about his headlines.  He’s despicably charismatic, and a great character you’d love to hate.  However, the terror Lang puts into his performance when confronted and abducted by Dollarhyde perfectly sells the imposing and unsettling presence of Dollarhyde.  This once egotistical, arrogant grand standing man is reduced to a small man drowning in fear.  That is both the culmination of the film’s build up to Francis Dollarhyde, and the impactful introduction of the character in the flesh.  In my opinion, it couldn’t have been any more perfectly executed.

Kim Griest does a very solid job as Molly Graham, playing opposite William Petersen vey well.  She puts in just the right amount of compassion and concern for Molly’s husband.  She fears for his safety, and clearly wishes that Jack Crawford had never asked for Will’s help.  It’s not a comfortable position for her to be in knowing what Lecktor had done to him previously.  However, probably the least standout performance is Joan Allen as Reba, the blind woman who stimulates Dollarhyde’s affections.  She does a decent job, but it feels like the character with the least substance and depth.  She is given some strong scenes which intensify Dollarhyde’s character, such as with the sedated tiger, but there’s not much done with Reba to flesh her out like the richly dimensional characters around her.  This is likely due to a factor of time, and that the film is focused on Dollarhyde in these instances.

Now, without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is one of the best cinematographers around, and he brought a great amount of beauty, intelligence, and grace to Manhunter.  He creates some gorgeous, vibrant visuals that are awe inspiring.  Also, scenes are composed and staged very smartly.  It’s rarely just standard shots.  Every shot seems to be handled with a purpose to symbolize a character’s mindset, relationship with someone else, or to establish mood and tone.  In Graham and Lecktor’s first scene together, Mann and Spinotti compose it to where as Graham and Lecktor’s psyches begin to overlap and align, so do the shots of them.  The scene begins with a regular composition with Graham on the left side of frame and Lecktor on the right, but eventually they are dead center in the frame looking dead-on towards the camera by the end.  Both men reflect one another in this moment.  The visuals of the film have numerous mirroring aspects, and evolving motifs which visualize the psychological states and connections of characters.  There are a series of shots of Will Graham looking into mirrors, and each successive shot is more and more obscured until there is eventually no reflection seen to the audience.  This shows Graham’s journey in finding and ultimately detaching from Dollarhyde’s psyche.  Dollarhyde himself cannot even look at himself in a mirror due to his perception of how grossly disfigured he is.  Graham can confront the monster within himself, but Dollarhyde cannot.

The use of steadicam is greatly on display here giving us a film of very fluid motion, reflecting the intensely focused mindsets of Graham and Dollarhyde.  It’s very gorgeous cinematography.  Yet, in the film’s climax, as Dollarhyde destabilizes, the film also becomes chaotic with jump cuts and a surreal frenetic style.  This works amazingly well delving our protagonist and antagonist into an explosive conflict which will either destroy or free their respective psyches.

The use of color is also integral to the moods and emotions of the film.  Blue tones reflect safety as the love scene between Will and Molly demonstrates.  However, green punctuates a feeling of discovery as with Graham’s early wardrobe, or a subversive quality such as in the dark room scene with Reba and Dollarhyde.  There are even splashes of green lighting in Dollarhyde’s home at times.  In my own independent films, I have used color washes heavily to evoke certain moods and atmosphere, but it’s never been used with such deliberate purpose as in Manhunter.

In the process of writing this review, I ecstatically discovered the complete Manhunter soundtrack album on iTunes.  I purchased it without a doubt, even though I already had a few of the songs from the film.  No other film have I ever seen makes as impactful, integral use of its soundtrack as Manhunter.  It’s all very atmospheric, ambient music from amazing, lesser known 1980s artists such as Shriekback, The Prime Movers, and Red 7.  The Shriekback tracks are the most enveloping in the film’s deep haunting mood.  “This Big Hush” punctuates the seductive and quietly powerful love scene between Reba and Francis.  It’s the deepest insight into Francis’ soul that we get, and this song made the scene what it is.  The score was composed by Michel Rubini and The Reds.  It’s very synthesizer based which might seem typical of the 1980s, but it sets an overall ominous, mesmerizing, and dangerous tone that absorbs itself into every fiber of the film.  Michael Mann employed Tangerine Dream to score Thief five years earlier which created a very sleek and beautiful soundscape of that noir crime thriller.  Here, the atmospheric synth music is very much in the forefront creating a bold and intense experience.  The soundtrack truly does follow in the style Mann had perfected on Miami Vice at the time using popular music along with striking visuals to tell an emotional and exciting story.  However, I feel Manhunter takes it a to higher level due to the overall tone and deep psychological aspects of the story.  The music takes the audience deep inside the emotions and psyches of the characters.  I love the cue of “Graham’s Theme” which accompanies and accentuates Will Graham’s slow revelation of the final pieces of the puzzle.  It is a brilliantly executed sequence.  Furthermore, the film brilliantly uses Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to orchestrate the entire climax of the movie.  It’s entirely edited and constructed around the various dramatic beats in that seventeen minute long jam.  The organ section of the song creates a haunting Phantom of the Opera style mood until it and Will Graham crash back into full blown action.  This is a score and soundtrack that simply blows my mind in how well executed and finely weaved into the fabric of the film.

This is undoubtedly one of Michael Mann’s absolute best films.  It is very tightly crafted with a taut, suspenseful atmosphere.  Manhunter is a deeply enveloping film utilizing all its aspects of sight and sound to create a thoroughly absorbing experience.  The investigative aspects are given a rarely implemented psychological focus built upon some solid and sharp procedural elements.  We are treated to a wealth of rich performances and fascinating characters.  There’s a depth of detail to everything which comes out in those performances, and they are presented in very intriguing ways to keep an audience riveted with every moment.

Manhunter has been a curiosity on DVD.  Four different cuts exist from both Anchor Bay and MGM.  The original theatrical version was actually the last one to be released, and that was from MGM which they also put out on Blu Ray Disc.  Anchor Bay released a two-disc set with both a video tape sourced director’s cut and a THX certified version billed as the theatrical cut, but contains some additional scenes and a few bits and pieces cutout.  A “restored director’s cut” was later released by them which features a vast improvement in quality, but leaves out one scene from the first director’s cut between Will Graham and Dr. Chilton.  It was likely cutout due to it not being shot very well.  There’s no one version I wholly prefer over another since they all add in or leave out something I like from another cut, but as far as quality is concerned, the THX certified DVD from Anchor Bay has the best transfer.  All other transfers have desaturated colors, are darker prints, and lack some sharpness.  I did personally assemble what I called the “Definitive Cut” adding in almost all footage from various cuts of the film into one amalgamation for a complete experience.  It’s just something for my own complete satisfaction of the film which I love so very much.

As I said, this is my favorite Michael Mann movie.  Although, I do consider The Insider to be the best film he has ever made for very distinctly different but immensely admirable reasons.  Manhunter really has been a major influence on me as a filmmaker.  It was the main influence on my psychological noir thriller Dead of Night.  I wanted to explore what would happen if a criminal profiler similar to Will Graham lost himself in his psychologically twisted work and went off the deep end by hunting down serial killers.  There was a similarly themed episode of Miami Vice titled “Shadow in the Dark” that had Sonny Crockett delving into the disturbed mind of a crazed home invader that I also really love.  However, nothing is as rich or as layered as Manhunter.  Where The Silence of the Lambs seemed more focused on regular investigative work to lead to the capture of its serial killer, Manhunter is all about the psychological construction and deconstruction as the main cog in tracking down the killer.  That is far more fascinating to me.  Not to mention, Will Graham is a vastly more intriguing character to explore, in my eyes, than Clarice Starling.  Graham is someone that’s been to some terrifyingly dark places, and has the capabilities to contend with Hannibal Lecter.  He is the one who captured the cannibalistic doctor to begin with, even if it was at a troubling price.  Simply everything in Manhunter appeals to my imagination, and I love that time has given the film the respect and praise it deserves.  It wasn’t a successful release in 1986 for many reasons, and thus, is why The Silence of the Lambs was never handled as an actual sequel.  I’m sure there are people who would be put off by the 1980s neon and pastel aesthetics of Manhunter today, but that’s no bother to me.  I love it.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Michael Mann showcased a very powerful vision with this film, more so than any other film I’ve seen from him.  While his last two films – Miami Vice and Public Enemies – have shown a sharp decline in overall quality, his general body of work maintains him as one of my favorite and most influential filmmakers of all time.


Paranoia (2011)

As I have mentioned in several of my reviews here, I am an independent filmmaker.  From before I even was one, I was watching ultra low or even no budget filmmakers develop their talent aspiring for the day I would become one of them.  Now, as one, I truly enjoy supporting and promoting other independent filmmakers.  One I have become a great fan of in recent times is Brad Jones.  Some may know him as a comedic internet personality with characters like The Cinema Snob, 80’s Dan, or Kung Tai Ted, but he’s been an exploitation independent filmmaker for far longer.  Being a filmmaker who has grabbed inspirations from Michael Mann works like Thief, Manhunter, Miami Vice, Heat, and Collateral, I have really enjoyed the sleazy, sordid crime stories Brad Jones has told in feature films like Midnight Heat and The Hooker With A Heart of Gold.  However, in 2011 came a haunting thriller written by Brad Jones and directed by Ryan Mitchelle titled Paranoia.  It’s a definite shift in tone from what Brad Jones has given his fans in the past, but in my view, it’s still just as solid and satisfying only now, with Mitchelle’s help, has the technical quality to give his work a more professional polish and sheen.  The results are great!

A serial killer is terrorizing a small town.  Mark Bishop (Brad Jones) has just killed an intruder (Brian Irving) that attacked him in his home.  Mark’s not sure if this was the real serial killer, but on the night where his wife has finally left him, he is certain he doesn’t want the attention.  Mark needs to get rid of the body and avoid the authorities, but Mark can’t shake the feeling that the real killer is still out there.  As his peculiar, tiresome night unfolds, further unusual and violent circumstances impact him and the people he encounters towards unexpected ends.

As I have watched more and more of Brad’s films, I have become increasingly impressed with not only his screenwriting talents, but the strength of his acting.  While most likely know him from his comedy work on his website, most of his films put him in very dramatic roles.  Paranoia is probably the most straightly dramatic, yet.  Mark Bishop is a very down and out man who I could feel for right from the start.  His life is starting to spiral out of control, and all he wants is for one thing to go right.  The film continually allows the audience to feel empathy for him as he bares his soul every so often.  He’s already a rather sad guy to begin with that just falls into one bad situation after another, and one can’t help but feel sorry for Mark Bishop.  Brad Jones shows a wide range of realistic emotions and inner turmoil in this role.  From the fearful urgency to the contemptuous conviction to the somber and cynical to the embittered, lonely man, he gives the character a strong, sympathetic depth.  He carries the film with a weight and ease.

The supporting cast is generally quite good.  Brian Lewis has a very genuine, endearing charm as Officer Randy who encounters Mark Bishop early on, and later, is shown to have an affection for the waitress Claire.  In that role, Jillian Zurawski gives a heartfelt and vulnerable performance.  Claire is sweet, but is clearly a little on edge being all alone in this restaurant late at night with a killer on the loose.  You can definitely feel for this isolated young woman who starts out trying to cheer up the tired and jaded Mark Bishop, but is subjected to more of Mark’s ill fortunes through an armed robbery gone awry.  Sarah Lewis has been increasingly excellent in all of Brad Jones’ movies, and she has a solid outing here as Marissa Bishop, Mark’s wife.  There’s that tired sadness and heartbreak in her performance conveying just how strained the Bishop marriage has become, and that really carries through with Mark’s emotional state after her departure.  Brian Irving is fairly alright.  He plays the intimidating aspects of Carl Stowers effectively, but the more humanistic scenes in the climax feel rather monotone.  A little more heart and soul in the delivery of lines could’ve added a lot weight to his words.  It’s not remotely a bad performance, but I feel it could’ve been pushed towards a place of more emotional depth.  Considering Irving took on the role about an hour before they shot those scenes, it’s forgivable that the performance lacks some of those qualities.

I absolutely love the tone of Paranoia.  It definitely feels like a late 1990s independent thriller.  Considering that’s when the script was originally conceived and written that is no surprise.  The first comparison that comes to mind, in terms of tone, would be David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Paranoia carries a very somber and mysterious vibe allowing every dark, isolated, and imposing element to soak deep within an audience.  The high definition cinematography is handled with great competence.  This looks like a very high grade feature film shot by people with the talent and tools to realize their vision.  Handheld camera work is smartly and realistically done.  Many big budget filmmakers like to add excessive shakiness to their handheld work, but from the independent filmmakers I’ve seen, they take a far more subtle, natural approach.  That’s what we get here, but there are plenty of instances where the camera is locked down for more rock solid compositions and still moments.  While no director of photography is listed in the credits, I believe director Ryan Mitchelle is to credit for all the camera work.  He and gaffer Jerrid Foiles created a very solid and consistent lighting scheme for this film.  Strong shadows are used throughout to great atmospheric effect.  A minor thought of mine was that some of the dialogue scenes could’ve used a few master shots to get more than a single actor in frame.  However, the coverage they have is quite good with different angles and focal lengths, and Mitchelle does a very fine job as the film’s editor.  He keeps an even, consistent pace that allows the tone to flourish amongst the tension and suspense of the story.  Some of the sound effects editing could’ve benefited from a little more volume or some reverb filters to integrate them more realistically into their environments.  As an independent filmmaker myself, sound editing is probably the hardest art to craft if you don’t have professional grade tools and skills at your disposal.  As the DVD commentary makes clear, Mitchelle made sure that the production audio was as top notch as possible, and the quality of it is very highly admirable and consistent.  The only piece of ADR that he mentions, a scream from Claire, is exceptionally and seamlessly done.

The score for the film captures the absolute perfect mood.  Michael “Skitch” Schiciano uses a very somber and mysterious mix of piano chords and synthesizers in his score.  At most times, it reflects the dark, lonely, isolated feeling of the film in a man alone roaming the streets not knowing what to make of the next moment.  The music is very in sync with what Mark Bishop is going through and feeling every step of the way.  At times, it has an ominous, pulsating relentlessness that is very unnerving, and perfectly complements the chilling and fearful aspects of the film.  You could definitely get an early John Carpenter vibe from the synthesizer part of the score, a la They Live, Prince of Darkness, or Assault on Precinct 13.  Schiciano does one hell of a remarkable job, and I’m glad to know that Jones and Mitchelle continue to retain his services for their subsequent films.

Paranoia has a superb twisting and turning surrealism to it.  It gradually eases you into it the same as it does Mark Bishop.  It’s a slow descent into a psychologically twisted reality.  To a point, you can buy into this all being in Mark’s physically and emotionally exhausted mind, but eventually, things deconstruct to where you know there’s something more at work.  Both the screenplay and the film itself nicely craft these subtle elements, and allow them to discretely pile up until the flood gates break wide open.  Some might call the ending a twist, but it has far more substance than most twist endings.  This is essentially the whole third act of the film, and deals with the meanings and repercussions of what is truly going on.  I still fully felt for Mark Bishop through to the film’s end due to the character I came to know for over ninety minutes.  Again, this a testament to Brad Jones’ very realistic and emotional performance, and the quality of the script written.

Paranoia really is a style of movie that I would’ve loved to have made.  It’s a very smartly written and executed film with a great atmosphere and tone that I find fascinating.  Ryan Mitchelle did an excellent job with Brad Jones’ material.  He is a very intelligent filmmaker who brings a high grade, respectable style to Paranoia.  The films Brad Jones directs always have a gritty visual quality to them reflecting his exploitation film influences, but for this film, the sleeker style is definitely to its benefit.  However, I do agree with Brad Jones that the film does play even better in black & white.  The stronger noir aesthetic just seems to add to the isolated and dark atmosphere of the film, and the contrast lighting directly supports a film noir style.  Brad has released an alternate “Writer’s Cut” of Paranoia for free viewing on his website which presents the film in black & white with some purposeful edits that adhere the film closer to the script he wrote.  It also adds in some pop songs from the 60s and 80s which enhance the ambient, sadly emotional musical atmosphere.  However, since he doesn’t own the rights or licenses to any of those songs, he cannot commercially release that cut of the film.  Both versions of Paranoia are great, and have their own distinctive and excellent qualities.  This is a very impressive and haunting thriller that strengthens my fandom of Brad’s filmmaking, and showcases the great talents he has surrounded himself with.  I had the pleasure of meeting Brad Jones at Wizard World Chicago Comic Con 2012, and he was as interested in hearing about me as I was about him.  He was the coolest, friendliest, most approachable person I’ve ever met, and it was truly a great experience hanging out with him.  His light-hearted enthusiasm showed through regardless of fatigue, and I was glad to have been able to share my admiration for his work in person.  I would highly recommend checking out the Writer’s Cut of Paranoia to help influence your decision whether or not to purchase the features-packed DVD from Walkaway Entertainment, as I did.


Seven (1995)

Back in my favorite year in film, 1995, David Fincher brought us a terribly disturbing and gripping crime film in Seven that changed the genre dramatically, and set Fincher forth on a very successful, high profile directorial career.  His previous film was Alien 3, and that was plagued with production difficulties and creative clashes.  It was not a success, but Seven showed what an unencumbered David Fincher was capable of.  Supported by a powerful cast and a brilliant screenplay, this didn’t just spark his career, it ignited it.

Lieutenant Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a seasoned investigator who is on his final days before retirement.  Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, impulsive cop looking to make a difference, and maybe even a name for himself, here on the grimy, ugly side of this nameless city.  They are put together on a series of murders that Somerset soon determines is the work of a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Each crime is more ghastly than the last as this sociopath “John Doe” uses them as a garish method of preaching.  While Mills is quickly convinced that this killer is a certified whack job, Somerset sees the calculating, educated rationale behind these crimes.  Both men slowly descend into this frightening and disturbing world that culminates in an unforgettable climax that tests the resolve of both men.

While there had been serial killer films before this, Seven really applied an original concept and environment to the subgenre.  Having the killer, John Doe, be motivated by the seven deadly sins opened up the film to social commentary, and that is handled exceptionally well.  Somerset is someone who you would like to know what kind of person he was before he was damaged by the apathy and amorality of the world.  He’s someone that appears to have once strongly believed in certain admirable principals, but has since lost his zeal for them.  He’s perhaps looked far too deep for too long into the grimy darkness of humanity, and Mills is someone who, likely, hasn’t looked deep enough.  He judges everything on surface appearances, and doesn’t entertain the possibilities of a deeper psychological analysis of their adversary.  Somerset slowly tries to educate Mills to be a more insightful and knowledgeable investigator, and while it brings them more into alignment with one another, it can’t wholly change who Mills is at his core.  The scenes of both Detectives discussing philosophies on Doe’s motives and how they reflect upon society are amazingly well written and perfectly acted by Freeman and Pitt.

With the film never stating what city this takes place in, it creates an enveloping environment in which one can never get quite comfortable, and you’re not supposed to.  The world of Seven is dangerous, seedy, disturbing, and filthy.  This feels like a city where decency of any kind is in the extreme minority.  The production design creates a world that is probably even more weathered than Somerset is.  There is deep texture put into every aspect of every setting to give it a worn down history.  There’s nothing new and shiny here.  It’s all old and deteriorated by time.  The grime seeps through in every frame of film, and the color timing adds to that further with a slightly de-saturated quality.  The near constant rain just adds to the miserable conditions that these characters have trudge through every day.  It was an excellent choice to have the entire climax take place outside of the bleak urban environment and put it into a sun-baked desolate open field.  The visuals in that sequence depict a dead landscape.

The cinematography of Darius Khondji enhances the production design further with a modern noir quality to it.  This is much different than a Michael Mann type of neo noir where things are glossy and colorful, but still offering a depth of darkness.  This is a style of noir that emphasizes the dreadful and macabre aspects of this world.  It’s meant to show off a gritty, unsettling realism that will horrify.  Khondji composes shots with a lot of dramatic weight, and makes use of dolly tracks very well in specific moments.  I love the tracking shot after the duel interrogation scene after the “lust” killing.  It’s just Somerset and Mills sitting in separate interrogation rooms quiet and still.  They are taking a long moment to recover from everything they’ve just witnessed and experienced.  The shot smoothly tracks from the one-way window of Somerset’s room to Mills’ room.  It’s a quiet downbeat moment for both the characters and the audience to soak it all in.  The main action sequence of the Detectives chasing after John Doe is exceptionally well shot maintaining a solid sense of geography with each character, and letting each shot count as the sequence moves from one location to another.  The scene constantly evolves adding in new obstacles and dangers along the way.  Every aspect of its execution is excellent.  Overall, the cinematography of Seven is superb and masterful.  It is definitely a result of a cohesive artistic vision.

Rob Bottin was a special make-up effects master starting with his amazing achievements in John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982.  In Seven, his signature grotesque and stunningly detailed work is highly evident.  He knows how to bring out the garish realistic horror in his creations.  It fits Fincher’s visual style dead-on presenting the smallest details with great clarity to make you believe that everything your seeing is frighteningly real.  Bottin worked with great filmmakers like Joe Danté and Paul Verhoeven before joining with Fincher, and I could praise Bottin’s body of work to endless extent.  It has always had a particularly off-beat and strange approach which reflects Bottin’s personality very well.  While Seven went grossly under-appreciated at the Academy Awards with only a well deserved nomination for Best Editing, Rob Bottin won a Saturn Award for his work here, and it was also very well deserved.

It is a very taut and suspenseful story that Andrew Kevin Walker wrote and Fincher executed.  No time is really wasted getting our characters into the plot.  We learn about them along the way through the investigation instead of introducing them in a standard first act structure of seeing them go through their daily lives before something adverse occurs.  How they each approach the case tells us all we need to know about Mills and Somerset, as I stated earlier.  The case and plot unfold with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue as both Detectives uncover the chilling theme behind these murders.  Each homicide becomes increasingly more graphic and horrific, thus, heightening the twisted psychological state of the killer.  Meanwhile, there is Somerset getting to know David and his wife Tracy, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, who tries to adjust to their new home, which she is not very fond of.  She confides in her husband’s new partner after getting to know his sensible and compassionate manner.  These scenes and character beats are nicely interwoven to continue developing these characters and their relationships.  This maintains an audience’s invested interest in how they deal with everything that’s going on, and the repercussions of what they encounter.

The film presents a definitely interesting psychological state of its killer.  How he gets into police custody is quite unexpected, and sets up a very compelling final act where John Doe is in control.  He might be in handcuffs, but he’s the one leading the Detectives towards a chilling conclusion.  A friend of mine believes that Brad Pitt over acts drastically in this climax.  I’ve never had a problem with it.  In that moment, David Mills is severely torn in an agonizing emotional state where he wants to lash out, but repeatedly tries to restrain the urge.  He’s already established as an impulsive and brash person, and attempting to not lash out in anger would be extremely difficult for a man like David Mills to do.  He’s fighting raw, instinctual emotion, and that would likely result in the reaction Pitt presents here.

Brad Pitt’s performance all around is rich with depth and emotion.  Mills is a guy who cares about what he does, and wants to make a difference.  He could easily become an ignorant jerk of a character with his brash attitude and closed mindedness, but Pitt gives him enough heart and humanity to make him likeable.  He takes the hard headedness, the intensity, the loving husband, the optimistic outlook on humanity, and the naivety and mixes them into a cohesive whole.  As do all the characters in this film, David Mills has his complexities, and Pitt makes it all work and make sense.  Pitt also visually inhabits the role well giving Mills a dirtier, more gritty look than Pitt had ever adopted before, and truly makes the character seamless with the world he inhabits.

The synergy between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman is solid.  They counterbalance one another beautifully with their characters existing with polar opposite mentalities.  They hardly ever agree on anything, but are both motivated to see this investigation through to the end.  When they occasionally do get on the same page, it’s a great spark that quickly motivates the story forward.

Freeman, as always, is exceptional.  He embodies the dour philosophical mindset of William Somerset wholly.  Again, he’s a man worn out from the moral decay of society, and only reluctantly gets pulled towards this case.  At first, he wants to avoid it, but Somerset’s intuitive and educated mind drives him towards it.  Freeman greatly captures that reluctant attraction, and conveys the character’s psychological investigative approach with a great deal of skill and weight.  Somerset is very meticulous, never jumping to conclusions, and Freeman has the right seasoned quality and grasp on tone to sell those qualities well.  So much of the film’s tone is sold through him.  Prior to the appearance of John Doe, all of the religious ideology and deconstruction of motive is carried by Morgan Freeman, and I don’t think anyone else could’ve done it as well as he did.  While the screenplay explains it all very well, if handed over to the wrong actor, it might not sell remotely as well or as coherently.  Again, it’s all in the tone, which is pitch perfect through Morgan Freeman’s deeply talented abilities.

In the same year that Kevin Spacey gave us his exceptional performance in The Usual Suspects, he also gave us this fascinating surprise performance as John Doe.  It’s a greatly subdued and conservative piece of work that makes Doe so much more unsettling.  Throughout his screentime, there’s that knowledge that Doe is not done, yet.  There is something more chilling and frightening still to come, and Spacey’s performance is very foreboding in the most subtle way possible.  He’s in control, and he is reveling in the impending completion of his masterpiece.  It’s all amazingly compelling.  Spacey won an Academy Award for his turn as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, and this role is equally deserving of that accolade.

The supporting cast is very solid.  R. Lee Ermy is the tough Police Captain, but never falls into that Full Metal Jacket stereotype people like to shoehorn him into.  While he doesn’t have a great amount of screentime, his character is given enough character beats to make him feel fleshed out and genuine.  Gwyneth Paltrow is perfectly cast as Mills’ wife Tracy.  She’s a very compassionate and loving woman who is not pleased with their current situation moving into the city, but has no desire to cause David any stress or turbulence by voicing her worries.  She is an exceptionally decent young woman that definitely is out of place in this decaying urban setting, and Paltrow plays these emotional beats with depth and heart.  Everyone else filling out the cast holds their own strongly, and help to create a very full and dimensional world for this film.

Lastly, Howard Shore composed a strong score by bringing weight to the grim, horrifying atmosphere.  It truly emphasizes the drama, urgency, and intensity of the film.  It’s not a score that jumps out at you, and nor should it be.  It maintains and enhances dramatic tone throughout.  Shore has proven to be a widely diverse film composer, and he is able to complement David Fincher’s darker cinematic style so very well here.

Andrew Kevin Walker put together a deeply impressive and stunning screenplay here, and Fincher was the absolute perfect choice to realize it.  Much of what I write in these reviews is more than just saying if the film is good or bad.  In a case such as this, it’s about spotlighting the brilliant achievements in filmmaking, and analyzing what made it such an instant, powerful classic.  Seven is a landmark film for the genre, and especially for New Line Cinema.  It was really their first A-list type of film attracting high profile movie stars like Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and securing an amazing director with incredible vision in David Fincher.  It’s entirely shot as a major studio film, and strongly moved New Line Cinema into contention as a serious, big budget studio.  Only six years later would they release The Lord of the Rings trilogy to massive commercial and critical success.  This was a pivotal film for both the studio and David Fincher.  It is an all around shocking and amazing piece of work that delivers an intelligent story with thematic and dimensional elements along with startling images of graphic horror.


American Psycho (2000)

Brilliance!  That is what this film has always been to me.  It had controversy surrounding it when it was made and released, but time resolves these issues.  Films that take chances and tackle some explicit subject matter often polarize audiences, but all I ever saw from this was a hell of an entertaining, genius piece of cinema.  A true twisted classic that introduced me to one of my favorite actors of all time.

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is an empty man.  He lacks emotion, he lacks a sense of reality, and seriously lacks a genuine sense of humanity.  “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman…but I simply am not there.”  For whatever perverse reason, Patrick Bateman is completely disassociated from the rest of humanity.  He’s a Wall Street executive that really does nothing all day long, but earns loads of money despite it.  He finds many people despicable from his girlfriend Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) to his own co-workers to the random homeless man on the street.  By night, he has a terrible bloodlust that he is slowly losing control of.  But the question ends up being – what is reality and what is just pure fantasy?  This is a dark, dark journey through the mind of one demented and empty individual – welcome to the life of Patrick Bateman.

Christian Bale is a marvel!  I really was not familiar at all with Bale before this film, but afterwards, I took close notice of him.  When I heard he was up for the role of Batman / Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins I was 100% in support of him, and he proved me and many others right.  The man has brilliant acting abilities, and fully immerses himself within his roles, both mentally and physically.  As Patrick Bateman, he plays the role with a lot of fun.  The manic and maddening nature of Bateman is brought out fully under Bale’s talents, and it becomes a wholly satisfying performance that will disturb and entertain.  Bateman is a seriously sick man, and honestly has no comfort zone in this world of ours – probably why he becomes lost in his own world of fantasy. Bale just plays it up like I believe no one else ever possibly could.  His moments of introspection are unsettling as he knows that he’s a sociopath, but has no idea just how far off the deep end he will go.

The supporting cast is wonderful as well.  They give quite the counter-balance to Bateman’s madness and hysteria.  Reese Witherspoon has a small, yet pertinent role as Bateman’s girlfriend who is a regular materialistic, high society snob that’s rather oblivious to Patrick in general, and Bateman, in return, cannot stomach her.  Willem Dafoe wonderfully portrays Detective Donald Kimball, who is hired to investigate the disappearance of one of Patrick’s co-workers – Paul Allen (Jared Leto).  Through the brilliance of Dafoe’s acting and Mary Harron’s directing, you never quite know what Kimball does or doesn’t know.  He keeps Bateman guessing – not to mention sweating.  While much has been admittedly attributed to editing two different performances by Dafoe, he delivers both qualities with a great deal of skill.  He has fantastic chemistry with Bale.

Jared Leto is also wonderfully hilarious as Paul Allen.  There’s enough satire in what he does to make the character not simply a stuck-up moron.  Leto plays stupid very intelligently.  He holds up his end of the scenes with Bale equally well.  He’s immensely entertaining, and an excellent encapsulation of this film’s satirical mindset.  The entire cast is just great.  They all play very intriguing characters, and they all do so extremely well.  There’s not a negative note about any of it.

The music in this film plays up the off-balance mental state of Bateman.  It goes between very high class music reflecting an affluent sensibility, and Bateman’s love of contemporary pop music.  With this being set in the late 1980s, the soundtrack is rich with songs from Phil Collins, Robert Palmer, and Huey Lewis & The News.  When this music is set against particular scenes, it accentuates Bateman’s dementia to an extreme.  My favorite is with Lewis’ “Hip to be Square” where Bale engages in the lamest little dance which is actually a stroke of improvisational brilliance on Christian Bale’s part.  If ever I were to meet Mr. Bale, I’d love to put this song on the stereo, and have him re-enact that moment.  It cracks me up like crazy.  The score is beautifully composed by John Cale, and it was an absolute stroke of genius to take this route.

This film is a dark satire on 1980s American capitalism in how the desire for wealth dominates everyone’s lives, and how it dwarfs their sense of humanity and morality.  Most of the characters are so full of themselves that they can barely tell one person apart from another, or at least, don’t place enough worth on anyone else to care.  Mistaken identities are abound in the film, which is an allegory to how Bateman has no real sense of self.  Everything in the film reflects upon that since it is all told from his perspective.  With Christian Bale being a Welshman, I’m sure that allowed him to bring an original perspective towards the satirical subject matter and Bateman himself.

American Psycho was mainly controversial for its use of explicit sex, violence, and twisted psychological subject matter.  That means the film is not for everyone as these are all taken to generous extremes, especially in the highly satisfying unrated cut.  There are a lot of great sequences in this film because of those elements, none that I will spoil for you, but many are there to reveal the fact that Patrick Bateman tries to emulate certain behaviors.  From a pornographic video to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he integrates them into his twisted fantasies, but there remains the question – how real are they?  The psychological ambiguity of this film is masterful.  There is plenty of evidence to support whatever theory you choose, but you have to look at the subtleties to truly grasp all the possible meanings.  Did Bateman actually do all these horrendous, violent acts, and the world is just so consumed with greed, self-importance, and indifference that it doesn’t matter?  Or is Bateman so far out of his mind that he cannot separate his own sick fantasies from hard reality?  Both theories are fascinating to explore, and neither can be entirely discounted.  This is not one of those films which presents you all the evidence, and just leaves you blowing in the wind as the credits roll.  That’s where Patrick Bateman’s internal monologues come in.  They give you a perspective on these things, and allows you to see it all through his eyes.  And even at the end, Bateman doesn’t know what to believe, but with that internal voice, an audience gains the only thing that matters – what it all means to Bateman.

American Psycho is a crazed psychological descent into a giant black void that is filled with immense entertainment values. You can indulge yourself in Bateman’s over-the-top manic madness, or get completely freaked out by it – or both.  Whatever the case, director Mary Harron delivered a massively unique and fascinating adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel.  It gave Christian Bale what was most likely his breakout role.  I absolutely love this film, and if that means I’m a bit strange, then I find that to be nothing new.  I give American Psycho a perfect score and my strongest recommendation to whoever feels this is for them.