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Posts tagged “remake

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Get Carter (2000)

Get CarterIn the early 2000s, Sylvester Stallone was struggling to rebuild himself from some of his cheesy action movies of the 90s, and these efforts didn’t all meet with much success.  Get Carter is a remake of a 1971 film of the same name starring Michael Caine in the title role, and this remake was received with negative criticism and a poor box office take.  However, I saw this film on opening weekend, and I have very much liked it ever since.  Having still not seen the original movie, I imagine I have the ability to view it much more objectively.  Still, almost any movie promising Sylvester Stallone in a fist fight with Mickey Rourke and a hilarious John C. McGinley is pretty cool to begin with, but I honestly feel the film has a lot of worthwhile merit in many regards.

His name is Jack Carter, and you don’t want to know him.  When it’s your time to settle your debts, you pay what you owe, or Carter will make you pay.  While working for the mob in Las Vegas, Carter (Sylvester Stallone) learns that his brother has died, and returns home to Seattle in order to learns the how’s and why’s.  His brother left behind a wife, Gloria (Miranda Richardson), and a teenage daughter, Doreen (Rachel Leigh Cook), which Jack feels he must now take care of since he was not around when it mattered most.  Though, when digging into the death of his brother, Jack comes to suspect that is was no accident, and that someone has to pay up.

Now, what even some of the middle of the road reviews gave credit to was that Stallone is solid as Jack Carter, and I enthusiastically agree.  I really like that Jack is a guy who carries a weight of regret with him to where he has this post-facto sense of responsibility.  He might be a guy who beats people up for a crime syndicate, but there’s a certain moral compass to Jack which Stallone grasps onto perfectly.  There’s a lot of subtlety to his performance showing the superb reversal on the over-the-top action hero roles of Judge Dredd or Demolition Man.  He brings with him a low key presence of intimidation, but still finds those moments of clever signature Stallone charm and wit.  Jack Carter has a warm heart and compassion for those he cares about, and this comes so very naturally to Stallone.  There’s such a great depth of dimension to what he does here.  Sly gives us a complex character who intensifies the emotional drive of the film.  It’s also amazing seeing how bulked up Stallone got for this movie.  He’s larger than ever, and it really works for Jack’s tough, bad ass presence.  Yet, it is that softer side of Jack Carter that really impresses as he shows a lot of pain after a certain point really hitting you deep in the heart, and that translates into a venomous vengeful determination in the film’s third act.  It’s an awesome, compelling performance by Sylvester Stallone that amazingly reminds you that he can be a stunning, complex actor.  I think it’s one of his best performances since First Blood.

A lot of the depth of heart and substance is carried on through Miranda Richardson and Rachel Leigh Cook.  Richardson is great as Gloria who is in this constant uncertainty about Jack.  At times she can confide in him about her problems with Doreen, but at other times, can condemn Jack for bringing further trouble upon them and being absent from their lives until Richie died.  Richardson has pitch perfect chemistry with Stallone standing strong on her own while showing the emotional turmoil inside.  Meanwhile, Cook very easily endears herself to Jack and an audience with some sad sweetness and sympathetic charm.  As certain things are revealed, and far more tragic layers are peeled back from Doreen, Cook is really able to demonstrate the soul of her heartbreaking talent.  It really ends up being the pulsating emotional core of this film.

I really like the scenes between Stallone and Mickey Rourke.  These are two actors who genuinely seem like they enjoyed working off each other.  They’ve got the right rhythm and chemistry that these two characters should have being old acquaintances and all.  Rourke has the right charisma and air of sleaze as Cyrus Paice which makes him very entertaining to watch, but also, a real piece of scum that you want to see get busted up by the end.  Rourke and Stallone are two buffed up bulls ready to lock horns regularly, and when they do finally trade punches, it’s a straight up bad ass brawl.

Anyone who loves John C. McGinley’s comedy work would also love him here.  He plays Con McCarty, an associate of Jack’s in the Las Vegas syndicate, and I swear he ad-libbed the majority of his dialogue.  It is just so brilliantly quick witted, off the cuff, and hilarious that he’s an utter, endless joy.  It’s a performance like this which shows that this is a film that is interested in balancing the heavyweight drama with sharp beats of levity.  And Alan Cumming is quite good as the geeky wet rag dot-com millionaire of Jeremy Kinnear who has gotten in way too damn deep with seedy individuals.  He is a pleasure to watch in this role as Stallone looms over him with his brute intimidation.  Of course, Michael Caine does a fine job in a somewhat small role as Richie’s now former employer, and Caine and Stallone have some solid scenes together.  Apparently, even Caine endorsed Stallone as a respectable successor to his original role, and including him in this cast was a really nice touch.

I really adore the look of this film from director of photography Mauro Fiore.  It’s soaked in this somber tone of overcast gloom of blues and greens that really absorb you into the tone of the movie.  Director Stephen Kay really pushed hard to have this filmed in Seattle, and the beauty of the rain soaked city makes the film feel a little more unique.  There’s also some unconventional style to Get Carter that might not work for many films, but all of the artistic flourishes really meld together beautifully, in my opinion.  The strategic slow motion beats add a sense of grace to the photography, and Fiore moves the camera extremely competently with plenty of steadicam.  I like that when Jack’s whole world turns upside down so does the camera accentuating a particularly unique filmmaking style that I really like here.  There is some stylish editing with a few jumpy cuts, flash frames, and speed changes.  I could see how some would find that irritating, but I really got absorbed into the mindset of this movie.  Stephen Kay uses these stylistic choices to slip you into a character’s perception such as Jack’s world fracturing.  Get Carter was edited by Academy Award winner Jerry Greenberg who also edited The French Connection, Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Scarface.  Here, he superbly executes Stephen Kay’s vision right from the opening credits sequence onward.

There is a great, moody collection of music here in addition to Tyler Bates’ unique and stylish score.  The original theme for the 1971 film by Roy Budd is utilized and remixed for this remake, and it is a beautiful composition that just tingles my senses.  There are some techno tracks infusing some dance club style vibes into the movie.  I particularly love the ethereal Moby track during the funeral scene.  All of this music creates a very soulful or energized originality to this film that melds well with its visual stylings.

There is some really well put together action including a couple of very smart, tense car chases.  Action directors who love their shaky cam could learn something from this film.  Stephen Kay does make use of some unsteady photography and tight framing, but the editing is properly paced so to not confuse an audience.  There are quick cuts, but because the lighting is clear, the compositions are just right using good angles, it all works.  The latter car chase is really great, and it has a really cool stunt crash at the end.  Yet, while there is exciting action, this film maintains that emotional and character based focus as Jack Carter delves further into the seedy underbelly of Seattle.

When Jack goes into full-on revenge mode, this movie gets dead-on bad ass.  The grit really surfaces in the visual style and Stallone’s performance.  Everything gets pretty dark and intense as Jack deals out his sense of personal justice in violent, sometimes lethal ways.  This is a revenge movie driven by a lot of emotional depth and substance.  Jack is going to clean out the trash, but the mending of emotional wounds is just as important to him, if not more so.  It’s all wrapped up in his personal sense of obligation to the extended family he’s neglected, and a need to prove to himself and others that he can be a better man than his history has shown.  There’s also a subplot where Jack Carter is involved with the syndicate boss’ woman back in Vegas, and this runs through the film a little.  It’s another emotional tether that puts stress upon Jack especially when Con is sent to “take care of business” with much intended finality.  Most revenge movies are just about the violent retribution, but this movie really delves you deeply into the hearts and souls of its sympathetic characters.

Get Carter is damn good, in my opinion, because it does take the time to develop its character and give you a dimensionality to connect with.  You feel Jack’s pain and his need to put things right, and your sympathy easily flows for Doreen as the film progresses.  Stephen Kay did do a really exceptional job with making these characters feel poignant, and have the consequences of everyone’s actions feel like they carry the weight of the world.  This is really the kind of revenge thriller that truly captivates me because it’s not just gunning people down for ninety minutes, which does have its satisfying qualities.  The substance of everything here saturates the film, and Stallone carries it all so amazingly well.  The ending might have used a little more weight and veracity, but the payoff  is satisfying regardless.  I highly recommend this remake of Get Carter.  If you’re a Stallone fan, like me, you should definitely give this a watch.


Evil Dead (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Omen (2006)

So, thirty years later comes the remake which had one hell of powerful marketing campaign.  Script wise, the film is practically a carbon copy, but does have a few minor alterations and better polished quality.  It’s not a perfect film, but if my opinions of the original weren’t polarizing enough, I can tell you that I liked this 2006 film more in the first fifteen minutes than I did the whole of the 1976 version.

When a Vatican observatory priest sees the appearance of a prophesized comet, the Church is sure that it confirms the eve of the Armageddon.  Meanwhile, the United States President’s godson Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) is informed in the maternity in Rome that his wife Katherine (Julia Stiles) has just lost her baby, and she had troubles with her uterus and would not have another pregnancy.  Father Spiletto (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) suggests Robert take another newborn child, who lost his mother, as his own.  Robert accepts the child and gives him the name of Damien.  After a tragic accident, Robert is promoted to U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, but years later, bizarre occurrences begin to center around Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick).  When his nanny commits suicide at his birthday party, a substitute, Mrs. Baylock (Mia Farrow), comes to work and live with the family, but Katherine has come to realize that Damien is evil.  Meanwhile, Robert is contacted by Father Brennan (Pete Postlethwaite), who tells him that Damien is the son of Devil.  Soon after, photographer Keith Jennings (David Thewlis) shows evidence to Robert that confirm Brennan’s prophetic statements.  Thus, they commit themselves to a journey to discover the truth about Damien, and how to ultimately stop him.

What so immediately engaged me into this remake more than the original is the depth of real emotion and humanity in the performances.  I really do hold Liev Schreiber in high regard.  I think he’s really a fantastic actor with a fine range of talent.  I love that you can see the deep concern he has for his adopted son, but also, the internal conflict he has over the secrets he hides from everyone about Damien.  That knowledge is always in the back of his head, and builds up a sense of guilt as the foretelling words of Father Brennan become truth.  While Schreiber surely doesn’t have the dramatic presence of Gregory Peck, Liev brings something more valuable with that depth of emotion and relatable humanity.  He feels like a man with realistic struggles that define him as a conflicted, sympathetic person who only wished to bring happiness to his family, but brought evil in instead.

This remake wisely strengthens Katherine Thorn’s role.  She is given so much more emotional turmoil to grapple with over her fears about Damien.  Julia Stiles does a hell of a fine job.  Where Lee Remick left me with nothing to say about her performance, Stiles brings a strong breadth of traumatic emotion.  You can feel her pain seep through the screen with a lot of sorrow.  The filmmakers added in a series of surreal and startling dreams for her which are very foreboding as manifestations of her fear.  She is so afraid that there is something grossly wrong with Damien that the thought of this child being born from her psychologically and emotionally damages her.  This creates further turmoil for Robert who does not know how to tell her the truth without damaging her or their marriage further.

The late and very great Pete Postlethwaite does a far more realistic job as Father Brennan.  Instead of coming off as a frayed crazy man, he shows the immense fear and dread in the character.  He’s very much a prophet of doom who sells that sense of doom with every fiber of his terrified being.  It’s not a big splashy performance, but more subtle and foreboding.

I also enjoyed Mia Farrow’s different take on Mrs. Baylock.  She’s very kindly and unassuming, but is actually so nice to the point where it seems like a mentally unhinged disorder.  She makes the character the perfect nanny, to a fault.  Farrow is much more subtle in how she plays the role, making her evil nature less obvious and more subversive.  The performances of both Mia Farrow and Billie Whitelaw are excellent in this role in their respective films, and both work equally as well on different levels.

Unfortunately, David Thewlis’ turn as Keith Jennings is about average.  It’s nothing tremendous, but it services the film decently enough.  Between Thewlis and David Warner in this role, I would certainly choose the latter, even with that bad 1970s hair style he had.  On the whole, the acting in the remake is more dimensional and real instead of the more surface level performances of the original.  With a film that’s more heavy on ideas than plot, it is ultimately the performances which have to carry the film, and convince the audience of the validity of everything that is occurring.

On the down side, it is rather distracting how much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the 1976 original.  I honestly would’ve preferred if the screenwriter freshened it up a little.  You can still stay true to the spirit of the original dialogue without making radical changes.  Say the same thing in a different way is all I suggest.  In fact, this screenplay differed so little from that of the original film, Dan McDermott was not awarded a writing credit by the Writer’s Guild of America for his work on the remake’s script.

One significant addition to this remake that I felt was very effective were the Vatican scenes.  There, a Cardinal recites lines from a prophecy which correlate with real world horrific events.  These events foretell the coming of the son of the Devil.  I would say it’s more than a little controversial to use images of 9/11 to this effect, but one cannot deny the weight those images hold.  It’s a very good sequence that really sets up an ominous feeling that something terribly evil is coming, and it is bookended at the film’s conclusion.

I also like that a scene I felt was poorly handled in the original, where Damien disappears on the Thorns as they take a walk, is revamped into a much more effective scene here.  This time, Katherine pushing Damien on a swing set when she gets pulled away by a cell phone call.  When she turns around a moment later, Damien is suddenly gone, and she realistically panics.  It’s actually Damien playing a mischievous prank on his mom, one seems to take a little pleasure in frightening her with.  It’s a much more realistic and tonally appropriate scene that also strongly establishes Katherine’s deep, motherly concern for him.  The music here appropriately goes for a tone of dread as opposed to the original’s melodramatic punctuation.

This remake of The Omen does look absolutely gorgeous using a rich but restrained color pallet of ambers, blues, and greens.  That coupled with some excellent, shadowy lighting creates a very moody visual atmosphere.  While it might look a little too polished at times, on the whole, it’s a very well shot film.  Director John Moore also made vibrant use of the color red as a signal of supernatural events which you can take or leave at your discretion.  It’s artistic symbolism which I am generally indifferent about.

The score by Marco Beltrami might not be iconic or especially memorable, but it is entirely new and original.  He goes for a more traditional score that enhances mood and emotion instead of bludgeoning you with bombastic music cues.  It highlights the horror very effectively, and solidly supports the various subtle tones of the film.  It is a very good piece of scoring by Beltrami which works immensely better than the overbearing Jerry Goldsmith score for Richard Donner’s original film.  While Goldsmith’s would probably be a rousing listen on its own, apart from the film, Beltrami’s does what a film score is meant to do, and that automatically gets my praise.

Another thing that is mostly quite improved are the death scenes.  The impalement might not yet be perfect, but it is far better executed with quicker timing and stronger impact through use of digital effects.  Katherine’s fall from the balcony, again while not perfect, is vastly improved with a greater sense of the height from and force of which she falls.  The decapitation death is pretty good giving us more gore, but it’s not as elaborate or prolonged of an effect.  I could’ve done with a little less CGI where some of the latter deaths are concerned, but for the dramatic size of them, there really wasn’t much of an alternative for the filmmakers.  Still, many of these deaths did hold more dramatic weight for me between the strength of the performances, and quality of the execution of each one.

On the opposite end of the critique spectrum from the original, the makeup design on this film’s Father Spiletto, the burned priest, is actually taken too far for my tastes.  The extreme look feels out of place in the film evoking some sort of freakish ghoul.  I can imagine it’s hard to present a burned flesh make-up design that is scary without it looking like Freddy Krueger.  However, there must have been a happy medium these filmmakers could’ve gone for that would’ve felt more realistic.  Still, what I can merit this version for over the original that the quality of the make-up is vastly superior.

Enjoyable so, this film actually delivered some suspenseful scares for me.  This is, again, due to the atmosphere director John Moore forged for this picture.  He is able to create some tension leading up to some frightening or traumatic moments.  The characters are genuinely scared, especially Katherine, and become more so as events unfold which solidify their fears.  Also, I mentioned before that there are a series of dream sequences.  They haunt Katherine early on, but eventually, Robert Thorn starts having his own.  I really, really liked these.  They progressively got more creepy and disturbing.  As most dreams do, they are a little hard to read into as what every image means, but on the surface, they showcase very occult and frighteningly evil acts which do feel in line with Damien.  The final one, seen by Robert, is probably the best with some very chilling faces and images startling the Ambassador onward to what he must come to grips with.

I also really like that this Damien seems to be more aware of the power he has as he appears to silently conspire with Mrs. Baylock, at times.  During the zoo scene, he’s aware that the animals are afraid, and likely of him.  He uses his power against a police officer standing guard while Mrs. Baylock is in the next room committing murder.  I will state that Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick doesn’t have as strong of a look as Harvey Stephens did in this same role.  He can appear a little too dour, but he is able to conjure up an eerie, unsettling expression when needed.  He does quite well in the role.  If the original film had been written with this more self-aware Damien, I think Stephens would’ve had an even more effective performance.  In comparison, I think this Damien is better written while the original’s actor just had a consistently better look.

Now, while this remake generally takes the same amount of time for the same series of events to occur, what makes it work better, in my opinion, is the development of emotional depth and turmoil which establish a foreboding atmosphere.  We get characters who are dimensional, and a director who knows how to create an ominous, foreboding tone.  This version of The Omen definitely has a more natural flow of events with the emotional weight carrying the drama and horror along with cohesion.  You feel the tragedy, horror, and emotion pile up from one scene to the next creating dramatic momentum.  It’s interesting that both the 1976 and 2006 versions have about the same runtime, but this remake seems to move along at a smoother, quicker pace.  There are even a few new scenes in the remake, and thus, this film is able to traverse a little more ground in the same amount of time.  While little extra substance is added into the pages of the script, it really are the performances that add the substance.  And while I criticized the 1976 original for taking just as long to develop its plot, the key difference here is that emotional depth which develops the characters, and creates that impending sense of dread that the original sorely lacked.  This film always feels like it is building towards something whether in plot, character, or emotion.  Robert Thorn has internal struggles he’s dealing with which show through in Liev Schreiber’s performance, and we see Katherine’s struggles very outwardly.  The film gives the audience something to invest themselves in as the plot gradually forms.

So, obviously, without question, I do honestly believe that John Moore’s 2006 remake of The Omen is much more effective than the original.  It’s better in vastly more ways than it is not.  Still, while I believe it is a good film, it certainly did not propel The Omen into greatness in my view.  I enjoyed watching this film, and I felt it delivered some very strong, well rounded acting with a real skill for atmosphere and horror.  Yet, if ever someone were to revisit The Omen again, I would really like more substance put into the script, and add in some new ideas that enhance what’s already there.  Develop things further to build more dire urgency into the plot, and make the stakes bigger or, at least, more real.  This remake took some good steps towards that effect, but I think there’s still room for improvement, if ever another filmmaker wants to re-fashion The Omen for a future generation.


The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)

I still stand by my statement of Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes being “one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life.”  Still, this sequel is a solid and worthwhile horror film, but Aja’s 2006 remake of the Wes Craven cult classic is clearly and easily superior to this sequel directed by Martin Weisz.  New director Weisz comes from the Michael Bay background of music videos, and this was his feature film directorial debut.  While a lot of the same behind-the-scenes talent remains in producers Wes Craven, Peter Locke, and Alexandre Aja, this film lacks a lot in terms of character and visuals.  Although, it does still offer some gruesome gore and intense frights, but not in quite as hefty doses as before.  Still, its gore level and disgust factor still puts Platinum Dunes’ Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboots to shame.

The film picks up two years after the first where the U.S. military has seemingly wiped out the mutated cannibals of the New Mexico desert.  Though, these dwellers of the barren landscape still hideout, but in depleted numbers.  They seek women to help repopulate the hills, and are certainly hungry for new flesh.  Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is setting up a cameras and surveillance equipment at old 1950s army base in the Yuma Flats, New Mexico, but they never see their brutal ends coming.  When a rather unremarkable and unrefined military detail from the National Guard arrives to drop off supplies, they find the camp empty, and are quickly led to believe there are survivors in the surrounding hills.  Though, it soon becomes apparent that they are prey suckered into a lethal and gruesome trap, and their own Sergeant becomes an accidental victim of their own clumsy inexperience.  With no radio reception to call for help, no transportation out, and only limited ammunition, they are in for a fight for their lives.

I had hope for this film as it started out.  Within the first five minutes, I said, “I’m impressed.”  The opening scene is as gruesome and sickening as anything Aja did in the first film.  While the gore level remains gooey for the remainder of the film, it lacks certain elements that made Aja’s film very strong.  It doesn’t have that gritty ferocity, but it still has a very complimentary impact to it all.  I didn’t feel like the filmmakers held back, but the violence and gore just could’ve been amped up even further.  Though, this all ties into character and emotion as well as other technical elements – all of which I’ll touch on later.

Now, the acting is not at all bad here, but it seems like the budget for casting was slashed on this film.  Aja’s remake had some strong, established names like Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Billy Drago, Robert Joy, and the rising star of Aaron Stanford.  This time through, there’s no familiar names aside from the returning Michael Bailey Smith (playing a different mutant in Papa Hades).  I connected in varying degrees with some characters, hoping they’d make it through, and was saddened a bit if and when they didn’t.  Still, most of those who died were easy to spot as part of the body count.  Sadly, even though I liked the two characters who asserted a solid authority amongst the group, they were very shallow characters, offering nothing more than a sense of confidence and decisiveness.  I did feel that Michael McMillian as PFC “Napoleon” Napoli had depth and real emotion to him.  He seemed to fit the Doug Bukowski template for this film being rather uncertain of himself and always getting the worst treatment by everyone.  He was the underdog, more or less, not showcasing the nerve or ability to survive this frightening experience.  However, I couldn’t wait for “Crank” (Jacob Vargas) to bite it!  He’s the guy who acts all hard up, tough, and bad ass, but can’t back it up.  He continually rushes headlong into situations, and always screws himself and others over in the process.  It’s just all about feeding his over inflated ego and proving how big his balls are to everyone.  He’s full of macho bullshit, and never learns to act otherwise.  Simply put, he’s an asshole from beginning to end, and he annoyed me to no end.

On the flip side, Aja’s film was rather unpredictable in that you couldn’t really tell who’d live or die, let alone when, where, or how it might happen.  The peril was so high, and the characters were so well written and portrayed, it was a tough call.  At times, you might’ve thought that no one would survive.  Plus, the characters were all such three-dimensional people that emotion played so deeply into the effectiveness of the film.  Everyone was just in such an equal depth of danger, you simply never knew.  In Weisz’ sequel, the characters do have some emotion and personality, but they’re just not remotely as strong.  Most don’t feel as genuine or as solid.  With one or two, some really cheap bits are pulled to generate some degree of sympathy for them, but it just comes off as just that – cheap.  It’s simply ineffective and amateurish.  I suppose I have to blame the script written by Wes Craven and his son Jonathan.  It just feels more like lazy slasher level characters instead of the realistic and textured ones from Aja’s film.  None of these characters reach a true peak of emotional distress that fuels the momentum of the film through to a rousing climax.

Another point where the characters seem to appear inferior are the mutants.  While KNB EFX Group did the makeup effects for this sequel as well as the 2006 remake, the designs aren’t as interesting or as original as before.  There’s not enough diversity or personality to any of these freaks to truly generate any special interest in them.  Plus, they don’t work much as unit, in contrast to Aja’s film where they clearly do, and thus, form a far more dreadful threat.  Not to mention, they don’t have as much ferocity as before, and at least two or three kills are off-screen.  While these mutants operate with much the same methods as the previous batch, they appear to only do so as individuals.  Overall, they just don’t come off as fearsome or frightening as in the previous film.  Simply stated, they feel generic.  You never get a good sense of them in any fashion, and none of them do anything nearly as shocking or intense as the rape scene in Aja’s film.  Although, a much tamer and briefer rape scene is present in this film.  While most people would say to judge this film based on its own merits, everyone wants to know if it measures up to its predecessor.  So, you’re getting the comparisons right here.  Ultimately, none of the characters – whether human or mutant – come off as bad asses, let alone intriguing characters which Aja’s film was so rich with.  This sequel is second-rate, at best.

Now, the BIGGEST negative compared to Aja’s masterpiece of terror is the cinematography.  Sam McCurdy has never shot anything of note, let alone anything with scope.  Maxime Alexandre gave 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes a wide, sprawling scope with his cinematography.  You truly got the sense of isolation in that desert, that you were an ungodly number of miles away from anything remotely safe or civilized.  You were stuck in the middle of a barren wasteland.  You’re never going to find help, and no help is ever going to find you.  Alexandre’s photography was very wide open and had an amazing depth and scope to it all.  Still, it could also get in very intensely, helping to rack up the tension in the tighter scenes.  McCurdy gives you nothing like that.  It’s all very bland, narrow, and uninteresting.  The way he shot it, you’d think the budget was that of a direct-to-video feature.  There’s no depth, no scope, no artistry of any kind.  It’s all very flat and dull.  There’s so much that could’ve been done with the lighting to enhance the film’s atmosphere and tension, but nothing was delivered.  It’s very yawn inducing, and as a filmmaker working with practically zero budgets myself, I know you don’t need anything but vision and artistry to make a film look intriguing, engrossing, and even spectacular with lighting.

What also lacks any depth or true artistry is the score.  It really just pops in and out with a very limited array of forgettable cues.  Like the cinematography, it lacks any scope or impact.  Like McCurdy, Trevor Morris has never done anything of note, let alone scope.  TomAndAndy achieved something exponentially more powerful and intense with last year’s Hills remake.  It was, dare I say, an epic score with thrilling emotional highs, and disturbing stingers tearing through scenes.  The score for The Hills Have Eyes 2 is very cliché and uninspired, like many things with this film.

I also have to note that I was disappointed that the film only takes place over a couple hours – there are no night scenes (despite what’s hinted at in the trailer).  Some of the BEST and creepiest scenes in the 2006 remake were those night scenes, especially with Ted Levine at the gas station.  Here, it’s all taking place in either daylight or dark caves, but the whole creeping around in the dark mine shafts doesn’t lend much to the film’s atmosphere.  Martin Weisz apparently doesn’t have the talent for riveting, gripping suspense and terror which Aja clearly has so naturally.  It all goes back to the poor cinematography and weak musical score – there’s no one working to enhance the scene or setting.  There really is no atmosphere to wrap up the tension with.  The finale also doesn’t feel as climactic as the one Aaron Stanford offered us as Doug in Aja’s film.  The emotional hurricane just isn’t there, you don’t get that intense feeling of revenge and comeuppance.  Again, the script must be faulted for part of this, but as director, Weisz must take much of the blame.  I hate to keep comparing this to its predecessor incessantly, but when so many things fall short of their potential, I can’t help but point out how such a film was done better by way of comparison to another.

Now, I have noted a great many negatives against this film in light of Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake, but as I said before, this is a solid and worthwhile horror film.  The gore, the tension, and intensity might not 100% match up to the previous film, but it all still comes together as a good horror film.  There are definitely far superior horror films of this premise out there to better spend your time with.  However, I don’t think anyone should discount this film because it stands well on its own, and delivers what a horror film should – scares, fright, and gruesomeness.  Although, I think the kind of lazy tagline of “The lucky ones die fast” is poorly conceived since, aside from two very minor characters, no one has a slow death aside from the mutants.

Whatever the case, I would like to part by saying that the script could’ve been particularly stronger, and the cinematography could’ve been a HELL of a lot better along with the score.  Despite the fact that both the 2006 film and this sequel had the same budget of $15 million, The Hills Have Eyes II feels as if it had a far inferior budget, but likely, it’s due to being in the hands of far inferior talent.  It looks like a smaller scale film, and thus, appears to be made on a somewhat lesser budget.  Regardless, it is a horror film worth seeing.  It’s not the best it could’ve been, but it’s certainly far from being outright bad.  It has its problems and shortcomings, but generally, it should entertain a horror movie audience.


House on Haunted Hill (1999)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  The title is infamous in the history of American cinema.  It remains as one of the most disturbing films ever made.  It’s just raw unrelenting terror, a psychotic journey straight into the bowels of hell.  How anyone could ever believe they could remake such a thing is beyond my comprehension.  Of course, you throw in the name Michael Bay, and everything becomes so easily understood.  The man makes mindless big budget summer blockbusters, and hardly any of them are worth a second viewing (if even a first).  Relegating him to a producer’s role doesn’t seem like a huge step in any positive direction, but surprises can come along.  I admit that I was a detractor to the entire idea of this film.  Nothing Hollywood-produced can ever equal or even hope to surpass something as purely insane and terrifyingly real as Tobe Hooper’s original film.  The trick is not to expect such a thing because it’ll never happen.  If you compare this 2003 remake to the original film from 29 years earlier, you will inevitably despise it, and so, I am going to review this film on its own merits – which I find to be surprisingly good.

The setup is pretty simple, and quite formulaic.  A group of teens are traveling through 1973 Travis County, Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.  There’s the tough but vulnerable tomboy Erin (Jessica Biel), her affectionate boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour), the dim bulb muscle head Andy (Mike Vogel), the sort of hippie hitch-hiker from El Paso Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), and the skittish odd man out Morgan (Jonathan Tucker).  They’re singing along with “Sweet Home Alabama” (which actually wasn’t released until 1974), and enjoying a bit of weed.  Everything’s all a happy road trip until they come across a very traumatized girl, around their age, trailing along the barren highway.  A tragic turn of events with this girl forces the group to contact the local police – Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey).  This terrible twist of fate soon leads them to a large rundown house to obtain help, but what’s waiting for them there is anything but helpful.  What they encounter is a crazed backwoods family, and the murderous, relentless, chain saw wielding Leatherface.  The events of this day would become known as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (depending on your disposition).

What really stands out in this film is the great casting.  Where to start?  Well, what is most important in any slasher film is the heroine.  Jessica Biel is so amazing.  Her character tumbles through a horrifying bottomless pit of terror, and she sells all of it.  She starts out very affectionate, but also tough and take charge.  Biel and Eric Balfour really have wonderful chemistry, the love between Erin & Kemper seems very genuine and heartfelt.  Early on, there’s so much sympathy built for her and the rest of the young cast.  Later on, when the chain saw revs and the terror begins, the grief and fear she emotes is so frightening real.  The tension and suspense will get to you, but it wouldn’t exist if Biel didn’t have the acting chops to make Erin such a sympathetic and real heroine.  Of course, Eric Balfour complements Biel perfectly.  He’s not a macho guy at all, he’s very genuine, and you believe, without question, that he’s fully in love with her.  He wants to spend the rest of his life with Erin.  Balfour also demonstrates a sense of leadership as well, standing firm in what he feels is best.  Mike Vogel plays the stereotypical muscle head, but plays it with a dumb sympathy.  He says the complete wrong things at the wrong times, but he really means nothing ill about it.  He’s not the brightest guy, but he’s the kind of friend you can depend on when you need him.  Jonathan Tucker is admittedly the weakling of the group, and certainly less sensitive.  Though, eventually, you can’t help but feel for the poor guy.  Ultimately, he’s just scared, freaked out over the situation at hand, and just wants to put it behind him as quickly as possible.  Finally, Erica Leerhsen plays a far less stable girl than Erin is.  Pepper was only hitching a ride down the highway, and is now in a situation she never wanted any part of.  She easily starts to break down after being terrorized by Sheriff Hoyt, and barely holds together.

On the side of the psycho family, the Hewitt clan, you pretty much have to start with Andrew Bryniarski, the newest Leatherface.  This is, by far, the most straight forward and aggressive portrayal of the character, ever.  In the original franchise continuity, Leatherface was portrayed in a few different ways, but mostly in a mentally underdeveloped fashion.  Here, he’s a ferocious animal.  He’s a rampaging bull, but appears to be more focused than ever before.  The fact that he is now named Thomas Hewitt instead of Bubba Sawyer would appear to be to distinctly differentiate the two continuities.  Still, there’s a moment or two where Leatherface seems a bit like a ridiculed little boy.  It gives a hint of character and depth to him.  The overall look of Leatherface is very hulking, but not in a Kane Hodder fashion.  Leatherface is just BIG!  Andrew Bryniarski is a 6’5″ body builder with a decent list of acting roles to his credit.  So, there’s no lack of physical screen presence on his part.  The design of Leatherface is all-new, but not foreign – the butcher’s smock remains.  As with every new film, the mask of flesh is re-designed with more detailed ideas in it.  Apart from The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I have no intentions of ever seeing, I’ve never had any issues with any of the masks I’ve seen as they all offer something unique and different.  I mean, Leatherface can’t wear the same mask of flesh for all that long.  Sooner or later, it’s going to rot away.

The screenplay by Scott Kosar (The Machinist) introduces some new elements and characters into the world of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  One such new element is Sheriff Hoyt portrayed by R. Lee Ermey, who is very creepy and sadistic.  Granted, he seems to be called upon to do the same act in most every film since Full Metal Jacket, but he does it so well.  His Sheriff Hoyt is terribly intimidating, frightening, and demented.  You just don’t know what he’s gonna do next.  He pushes these scared teens to the edge, but doesn’t let them off this ride.  It’s all about psychological torture for many of his scenes.  The rest of this fucked up family is quite good, but have significantly less screentime.  Terrence Evans plays the cranky and creepy Old Monty exceptionally well, and all the ladies really dive off the deep end, too.

Next, there’s the direction of Marcus Nispel.  He had no film credits preceding this film, just music videos.  That can get people pissing in the wrong direction.  David Fincher began as a music video director, and look at the amazing films he’s directed.  I honestly feel that Nispel has a great talent for tension and suspense.  The way he crafts every scene in this film definitely twisted my muscles up in knots, and had some chills running over me.  You may indeed get the jitters here and there.  Although, while he did film some very gory and disturbing footage, he felt the need to hold back.  Alternate cuts of scenes are present on the Platinum Series DVD, and they really made me twitch in my seat.  They would be a gore hound’s dream, but we are left with a slightly tamer final cut.  Still, there’s a lot of gore and terrifying violence to satisfy your brutal horror needs.  There’s some gutsy stuff that nobody had the gumption to do back in 2003.  Horror films had been roaming down the safe road for a long time, and this film chose to get ballsy.  It went further with the violence and brutality.  Still, it held back some for fear of overloading the audience with too much intensity and visceral gore, but as time has told, genre audiences of today can handle a lot of intensity brutality.  However, it takes a talented filmmaker to craft suspense and tension, which Nispel achieves here.

Daniel Pearl, the cinematographer of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original, returned to lense this remake.  The difference is striking, but the difference of $9.1 million in budget and 30 years of artistic evolution tends to do that.  It has a gritty beauty to it.  In the light, there’s a dry, desolate, but wide open landscape to the film.  The big Texas sky goes on for eternity creating a grim isolated feeling.  In the dark, there’s this striking, but beautiful lighting.  Probably too slick and polished for something baring this title, but it’s high contrast and very effective.  There’s a density to the darkness that enhances the isolation.  Overall, I really enjoyed the look of the film.  It’s very rich and detailed.  It sounds wrong to call it gorgeous, but that’s just how I feel about it.

The musical score by Steve Jablonsky intensifies all the tension and suspense.  It truly aids the film without overwhelming it.  I found it noticeable, but not at all in a bad way.  It really drives home the terror, as does the entire sound design.  When that chain saw revs, it’s louder and fiercer than ever before.  Also, despite the fact that the soundtrack album is filled with modern day heavy metal bands, all you hear of any of them is in the latter half of the end credits.  Rather unnecessary and out-of-place for a film set in 1973, but the studio’s just gotta have their commercial soundtrack.

Overall, I honestly find this film to be very good.  It’s not perfect as the filmmakers’ felt the need to hold back a bit on the intense violence and gore in the editing stage.  If an unrated cut were ever released, I think this drawback would be remedied.  Ultimately, standing on its own merits, Marcus Nispel’s first film is impressive and the kind of film most directors would kill for as the start of their feature film directing careers.  Sadly, Nispel’s remake of Friday The 13th ended up being a terrible failure.  Again, if you go in this film with the intent of comparing it to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original film, I don’t see how you’re gonna like it.  Your mind is probably already made up that this remake is inferior, and I agree that nothing’s ever going to measure up to that film on the same levels.  The 1974 and 2003 movies are two entirely different beasts.  No modern day $9.2 million Hollywood studio film is going to be like an $80,000 independent film from the 1970s years ago.  More importantly, you can’t recreate what Hooper accomplished, and nor should you.  I think it was wise for the filmmakers to not try to emulate anything specific from that movie, especially certain scenes.  With the way this remake was approached and shot, such a thing could only fail.  In any case, this version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is definitely worth your time.  Whether you will view it as a worthy remake is purely subjective.  It’s a good, solid horror film that does what a horror film is supposed to do – scare the crap out you.  On a final note, I found it to be invaluable and a beautiful homage to the original film to bring back the greatly talented and beloved actor John Larroquette to narrate the opening and end of the film.  His voice is as much a part of the history of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as Leatherface and Tobe Hooper.


Total Recall (2012)

I never cared for the original Total Recall from director Paul Verhoeven.  It has always come off as a little too low grade and too strange for my aesthetic tastes.  So, I had no qualms about this remake or re-adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”  Plus, trading the corny camp fun of Verhoeven’s movie for a more serious action thriller tone does more consistently appeal to my tastes.  Although, I also did not have high expectations for this movie.  The film seemed mildly worth checking out, and it turns out to be just exactly that.  It’s surely not a bad film by any stretch, just an underdeveloped one that fails to truly grab hold of an audience tightly.

In the late twenty-first century, global chemical warfare has made the vast majority of the world uninhabitable, and Earth is divided into two superpowers, the United Federation of Britain and The Colony, who are locked in a battle for supremacy to unify the world.  Citizens of The Colony and the UFB travel between the two nations via a super massive underground gravity elevator, called “The Fall”, which takes them directly through the core of the Earth, emerging on the opposite side of the planet in under 20 minutes.  Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker who, despite having a beautiful, loving wife in Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is plagued by violent nightmares and has grown tired of his monotonous life in The Colony.  Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories.  For  Quaid, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life – real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs.  However, when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man.  His wife tries to kill him revealing herself to be a highly trained undercover UFB agent.  Finding himself on the run from the police – controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the free world – Quaid teams up with rebel fighter Melina (Jessica Biel) to find Matthias, the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy), and stop Cohaagen.  The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate.

This film showcased some potential.  I think it had some very good talents behind it, and a solid, fresh direction on where to go with itself.  As I said, there is nothing outright bad about this Total Recall.  The action is sensational most times.  There are very inventive action sequences all over this film backed up by some mostly excellent cinematography and editing.  There are few hectic moments where it gets close to that shaky-cam quick cut mentality, but backs off it enough to avoid raising my ire.  The more physically demanding action set pieces are greatly conceived and executed.  Director Len Wiseman has always believed in doing stunts and effects as much practically as possible, and that always adds more punch to his action.  Everything looked like real people doing real stunts, and that is immensely admirable.  More effects heavy sequences are also nicely done with no CGI ever looking cheap.  The visual effects teams did a remarkable job creating a very realistic, seamless futuristic world.  Even the robotic soldiers appeared entirely photorealistic and interacted with the actual actors naturally.  However, despite this, I couldn’t really get into the film like a normal action movie.  Despite seeing it on opening night, the very large theatre I was in was barely one quarter full, if that much, and no one else ever seemed to have any rousing reaction to what was happening in the movie.  It’s not the action that’s the issue, it’s the underdeveloped characters.

I don’t necessarily feel anyone was miscast in the film.  I do feel that the screenplay did very little to develop Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid or any of the other protagonists.  The beginning of the film is nicely setup as most anyone can relate to Quaid’s situation.  He’s an everyman that’s a slave to the grind who just has the need for something more in his life, some kind of release.  You can really sympathize with him through this part of the film as every element of it is wonderfully executed with the right emotional touches.  However, once the plot kicks in, and he is thrust into this intense situation where he doesn’t know what’s happening or why, his character becomes terribly lacking in development or depth.  The film has little moments here and there that try to have the audience connect with Quaid, but it’s just never enough.  These moments just fall a little too flat because there’s no real substance behind them.  Colin Farrell can be charismatic and very fun in the right roles.  He does have the ability to give a very strong, dimensional, and entertaining performance.  However, the script just doesn’t give his character enough depth for Farrell to sink his talent into.  I never got all the way invested in Quaid to feel the peril or excitement of the situations he was in.  I truly tried because I wanted to enjoy this movie, but these characters are not exciting.  You never get into the soul of this character to feel his struggle, or wrap yourself up in his potential mind-bending confusion.  While the action sequences are excellent, I just couldn’t get emotionally invested to care all that much of what happened in them.

The exact same goes for Jessica Biel as Melina.  She’s supposed to be the love interest to Quaid’s alter ego, but there’s no spark present.  The screenplay almost never gives the characters a moment to connect for the audience’s sake.  I never felt a single strand of emotional bond between the characters, and that’s such a sorely missed opportunity to give the film some emotional substance.  It’s so hard to even say whether or not Farrell and Biel have any chemistry together because the love interest angle is barely played up at all to know that.  It’s really just 98% action sequences between them, and 2% character development.  Even beyond that, the Melina character just doesn’t bring anything substantive to the table.  Again, there is no emotional depth or scripted material to offer up an exciting performance.  I was left with a rather blank impression of the character.  Again, I don’t think the fault falls on Jessica Biel, it’s a failing of the script.

I also strongly believe that Bill Nighy was criminally underused in this film.  His character of Matthias is meant to be an integral figure in this world, but he has essentially one scene which is not written the best it could have been.  Matthias talks some philosophy about self-identity, but it’s very abrupt and clunky how the conversation starts.  There’s no natural flow to it.  It’s clear that his words are meant to have some meaning, but ultimately, become terribly hollow as the film explores none of the ideas he brings up.  It feels very shoehorned in as a quick attempt to make him an insightful character, but it just came off as rushed and purposeless.  I anticipated a more poignant and climactic meeting between Quaid and Matthias.  I anticipated it being a scene where we learn more in depth about the man that Quaid was to gain perspective on the dichotomy between who he is now and who he was before.  It would be a pivotal moment where Quaid has to make a real decision on who he wants to be, and what path he wants to take from here on out.  No such moment exists in this film.  The screenwriters seemed to give the minimal effort towards the conflict of identity in Douglas Quaid.  There’s more confusion from him over the grand scheme plot than his own internal conflict, which is a gross missed opportunity in a film that seemed to have a lot of potential on the surface.  It was also distracting that Bill Nighy put on an American accent for this role, which seems to have had no true purpose.  He is also greatly low key.  One would think that the leader of a resistance movement would be a naturally charismatic or inspiring individual, but Nighy plays Matthias with none of those qualities.  I will say that it’s a nice change of pace to see the usually more intense and theatrical Nighy put forth a more reserved performance, but it just didn’t seem to fit here.

Conversely, the villains of this film are greatly charismatic, energetic, and very enjoyable.  Kate Beckinsale is easily the best thing about the movie.  Her scenes at the beginning as Doug’s wife are very heartfelt and genuine.  There is no question about the authenticity of their relationship and love.  However, once everything turns around on itself, she becomes an amazing villain.  She drops her American accent and plunges full into her natural British one with a wealth of devilish charisma and dogged motivation.  Lori loves the violent requirements of her job, and takes great, ruthless pleasure in hunting down her prey.  Beckinsale can kick ass with the best of them as she is involved in some fantastic and stunningly impressive fight scenes which are very physically demanding.  It’s amazing what she does in this vicious and entertaining role.  She just eats up every ounce of villainy, and clearly has a wealth of fun in the process.  I consistently loved what the film did with her right from the start all the way through to the end.  I can’t say enough about Beckinsale’s performance here.

Also, Bryan Cranston just storms into the film with authority and charisma.  He portrays a great bad guy in Cohaagen.  He throws a lot of power into the character making him a force to contend with.  You don’t need much convincing that Cohaagen is a cutthroat, menacing bad guy.  He unquestionably feels like a man in power, a man in control that has some very sordid and diabolical plans setup.  This is a role that could have easily gone over the top, but Cranston keeps the character grounded and realistic, as do all the actors.  No one ever indulges in cheesy or corny contrivances.  Tonally, it’s a far more serious and straight forward movie than the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger version.  That’s a refreshing take, and all the actors really grasp onto that cohesively.  It is great that the villains are very formidable and enjoyable, but when the heroes are downplayed so much, it really takes the overall entertainment value out of the movie.  Had the heroes been as exciting and entertaining as the villains, this would be an immensely fun movie.

I noticed this next thing from the trailer, and it started to hit me more as the film got going.  Total Recall seems almost like a science fiction version of The Bourne Identity.  How Quaid just instinctually takes down all the armored police is dead-on to how Jason Bourne assaults the two police officers in the snowy park early on in The Bourne Identity.  There’s even a secretly hidden safety deposit box number where Quaid goes to obtain passports and other spy trade gear, just like in The Bourne Identity.  There are more vague connections here and there, but this issue dissolves quickly after the safety deposit box scene.  It’s not something that really bothers me much now, but more something that snagged my scrutiny in the moment.

Again, the film mainly takes place in two different locations.  The early part of the film is largely contained within the Colony, and I love the production design of it.  It was nice to see Len Wiseman break out of his monotone funk, and give us a more varied, yet still restrained color palette.  The Colony is almost always seen at night with shadowy lighting schemes which give the film a dark richness.  Colors are not vibrant, but they have a strong atmospheric presence.  Blues, greens, reds, and ambers accented by moody lighting really were a pleasure for my eyes.  Everything had a seedy, almost noir quality to it.  Considering this is all based on a work by Philip K. Dick, it’s no surprise that there is some Blade Runner feel to the design of this world, but it has plenty of fresh ideas to offer as well.  The design of the city’s housing comes off as very utilitarian and modular that is continually built upwards.  It looks very logical as a world that could practically exist in our own possible future.  It also certainly makes for a great design element for the film’s early chase sequences as Doug Quaid is constantly falling downwards to street level as it progresses.  However, it did seem odd that while the Colony actually used to be Australia, everything about the culture seemed more like Tokyo, Bangkok, or Singapore.  I think it’s an amazing world that was created, but nothing is ever explained why Australia now has a predominantly Asian cultural aesthetic.

The United Federation of Britain has a far cleaner, but also sterile and bland design.  While the film starts off with a very moody and dark visual style, it now loses a great deal of visual pop when moving into the UFB.  Those scenes are almost entirely during the daytime, and I do very much understand and endorse showing the visual differences between the low class Colony and the more prosperous UFB.  I just think a little more color could’ve gone a long way to improve the visual flare of this portion of the film.  Everything is very white, very clinical making a lot of locales very indistinct.  There’s no character or personality to anything in this environment.  Much of this is meant to be London of the future, and that is definitely a city with a lot of cultural personality today.  So, it would’ve helped to reflect some of that in these designs since the bulk of the movie takes place there.  As it is, after a while, it all just blends into forgettable backgrounds.

Regardless of these production design choices, director of photography Paul Cameron does an amazing job shooting this film.  It looks very slick and smart all the way through.  His cinematography showcases a great sense of geography and composition in the hectic action sequences, and brings fine visual credibility to the dramatic scenes.  It’s very beautifully shot and lit all the way around giving us a film that shows us where the money went.  I truly got a wonderful cinematic visual sense from this movie.

Everything in these worlds is smartly designed.  The robotic soldiers, the hover cars, the weaponry, and computer interfaces all appear to be part of a cohesive world.  With this futuristic Earth being what it is, there are likely very few corporations or manufacturers, and so, much of this technology would likely be produced and designed by the same organizations.  Everything has a practical and logic design to it.  Nothing’s overcomplicated or ridiculous, which some future-based movies can lose sight of sometimes.

However, ultimately, it all has to come back to the script.  I think Total Recall could’ve done with a little less action and little more time spent focusing on the plot.  The action seems to just whisk an audience away to another part of the plot instead of the plot developing itself.  We get explanations and motivations, but the details of this world are never fleshed out.  We never get the true sense of division between the Colony and the UFB.  We don’t get to know how both worlds live, and what the true cultural divisions are between them.  We never learn if there’s a deep seeded resentment between the two, and “The Fall” is not given any poignancy by the characters.  They never comment on it being a “symbol of oppression.”  That’s only ever stated by news people in the film, and the film shows how the media is easily manipulated.  While the Colony does feel like a lower class lifestyle, I never got the sense from the characters that it was an oppressive society let alone why a resistance movement was necessary.  The story also never gives us a sense of breadth or impact on a larger scale.  I didn’t really fear for the residents of the Colony later on when there’s a invasion force on its way.  The film doesn’t take the time to build up the threat level to a fever pitch, or give us a foreboding sense of dread.  The focus is too narrow and too shallow to make the stakes feel big enough.  Total Recall had the tools and talent in most areas to develop these issues with some purpose and depth, but really didn’t push for it.  Screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have done work on films that I have very highly enjoyed.  Wimmer co-wrote The Thomas Crown Affair remake and Street Kings while Mark Bomback wrote the Hugh Jackman / Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and did re-writes on Constantine.  So, I know they have potential for producing more well rounded and satisfying scripts, but Total Recall feels too focused on action and not enough on substance. That would likely make for a thrilling video game with elaborate action sequences, one different than the last with a lot of unique obstacles, but only moderately developed story strung between them.  It’s certainly not that bad in this film, but you could probably take this exact script and hand it over to a video game developer without changing much.

There is a plot hole that puzzled me in how Cohaagen and his forces were able to locate Matthias.  No reason is ever given on if they tracked Quaid and Melina, or even how they might’ve done it since the two of them traveled to meet Matthias via subway and Cohaagen’s forces all flew in.  They just happen to be there, somehow, and storm in out of nowhere with no explanations.  This is definitely a plot hole that none of the characters attempt to plug up at all.  Total Recall doesn’t feel like a film with multiple plot holes, just a film that doesn’t develop it’s plot details or characters as well as it could have.

I’m sure there are those who will find some excitement and fun with this film.  The action is marvelously well done and inventive.  Len Wiseman has evolved into an excellent director of action.  He knows the mechanics of creating solid and thrilling action sequences with competent, coherent editing and cinematography.  There are absolutely no flaws at all with those aspects of this film.  Leading up to the climax, there’s actually a zero gravity shootout in “The Fall” that was smartly done, but still lacks a sense of wit or rousing action to really rile me up.  There’s plenty here to potentially enjoy, but I just never got enough substance from the film’s heroes to feel gung ho about them kicking some ass.  Had the script given more time to the characters and developing the details of the world of Total Recall, opening it up for more depth, texture, charm, and emotional dynamics, I likely would’ve highly enjoyed myself.  I would not be opposed to a second viewing of the film, but I wouldn’t expect too much of an improvement on my opinion.  I would never classify 2012’s Total Recall as a bad movie, just fairly okay one.  Its potential really shows on screen, but on the page, it just didn’t deliver.


The Thing (1982)

Right behind Michael Mann, John Carpenter is my favorite filmmaker of all time.  The diverse range of films he has given the world are entirely unique and wildly entertaining.  In 1982, he ventured to pay homage to one of his favorite filmmakers, Howard Hawkes, by helming a re-adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. short story “Who Goes There?”  Hawkes had done so previously in 1951 with The Thing From Another World.  What Carpenter gave us is what I consider the best film he’s ever made.  A grippingly effective science fiction horror film with an amazing atmosphere of slow building paranoia and sickening alien gore.  John Carpenter’s The Thing became a classic of the genre due not only to a solid ensemble cast, but an elite crew that make this such a fantastic film that continues to hold up thirty years later.

In the winter of 1982, a twelve-man research team at a remote Antarctic United States research station discover an alien life form that was buried in the snow and ice for over 100,000 years.  They soon realize that not only is it still alive after a deep freeze burial and a fiery defeat by a Norwegian camp, but that it has the ability to imitate any living thing to exact detail.  Before they know it, the alien organism has infiltrated their camp, posing as any number of these men.  Paranoia and distrust runs amuck in this isolated compound as no one knows who is human, and who is The Thing.

Time always seems to be the best judge of quality.  Upon its release, The Thing did poorly.  This was because 1982 was the summer of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, and many dark science fiction films did badly in the shadow of that wondrous, fantastical film.  Blade Runner, which opened the same weekend as The Thing, also suffered at the box office because of this.  However, since then, The Thing and Blade Runner have become two of the most revered films of the genre garnering massive praise, and are recognized among the best works from directors John Carpenter and Ridley Scott, respectively.  They are both amazing films in different ways, but have both influenced the genre immensely.

Beyond anything, what stands out the most in this film are Rob Bottin’s amazing creature effects.  What he achieves puts him on the same level with the absolute best in the business.  Effects master Stan Winston also lent a helping hand in a sequence or two, but Bottin is the main man responsible for the richly disgusting slimy alien gore and mind blowing physical creations here.  The detail he put into his work to create such twisted and purely alien designs remain as impactful and effective today as they were in 1982.  That’s the work of a master, and it lead to him working on blockbusters such as RoboCop, Total Recall, Se7en, Mission: Impossible, and Fight Club.  It is a massive loss to the industry that he has been absent from it since 2002.  Bottin was a fascinating personality with a wild artistic mind that was ripe with brilliance.  This film is eternal testament to his talents.

Speaking of which, John Carpenter’s pure horror talents have never been more taut or focused than in this film.  It’s the perfect blending of paranoia, creepiness, gory horror, tension, and suspense.  Nobody does it like John Carpenter, and only from his expert direction could this film have become as timeless and consistently effective as it has become.  Also from him comes a perfectly selected cast fronted by Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady – the cool and rational mind, the level-headed one of the bunch.  Also featured in this ensemble are Keith David, A. Wilford Brimley, Thomas Waites, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, T.K. Carter, and Donald Moffat.  They all inhabit their characters so distinctly and vibrantly.  Each man has their own look, and aren’t easy to mistake one for another.  Their personalities and characteristics set them all apart very nicely, and all of the cast grasped onto the growing paranoia excellently.  A beardless Brimley brings forth a fantastic performance as well as Blair flips out partway through the movie tearing apart the communications center.  He plays crazy to immensely entertaining effect.  Later, he is truly unsettling leading into the film’s climax.  Keith David is constantly entertaining as the gung ho, take-no-crap from anyone Childs.  However, Russell clearly remains the most central protagonist of the film bringing stability to the chaos, and handling all the various dimensions of MacReady awesomely.

The script written by Bill Lancaster is wonderfully constructed.  Sadly, Mr. Lancaster passed away in 1997 due to a cardiac arrest, and was not able to contribute his thoughts to Universal’s amazing Collector’s Edition DVD.  The Thing was the last piece of cinema Lancaster was directly involved with, and at least he could say that he bowed out of filmmaking on a seriously high note.  This happens to be a pure classic in the genre of science fiction & horror.  The dialogue is always great, never ever cheesy or cliché.  There are bits of humor, but nothing that works against the tone of the film or the scene.  Any director would be privileged to work with a script this well-conceived.

The cinematography is an absolute pleasure here, and that is forever to be expected from Academy Award winning director of photography Dean Cundey.  In the opening minutes of the film, we are given stunning shots of the immense arctic landscape that clearly establish how isolated our characters are.  The photography can even prove to be terribly creepy at times such as the storage room scene after MacReady breaks into the compound.  Kurt Russell looks ghostly with the brilliant blue lighting upon his snow covered self.  Cinematography in a Carpenter film has always been a strong point, and you cannot deny its strength here.  It helps evoke the proper emotions at the right times by capturing atmosphere in its compositions and lighting.  Another such element is Ennio Morricone’s score.  Right from the get go, it sets the tone for the entire film.  It grips you and never lets go.  This score is haunting, relentless, brooding, and terribly chilling.  This is such a powerful score, and despite that Carpenter did not compose it, it does have many elements of his own scores in it.  Morricone had scored many “spaghetti” westerns including The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, and we would later score The Untouchables.  To this day, Morricone continues to score many films, mostly Italian ones.

What makes this film so effective is due to the psychological aspect of the story.  The paranoia slowly develops in the company of these men while trust diminishes.  These characters are nicely setup from the start establishing their relationships and personalities so vividly that later you see how seamlessly the alien has infiltrated their ranks.  No one acts any differently, and it is surprising how complete the disguise is.  Under a human guise, the Thing turns down the chance to take over as the leader of the group.  The life form is not looking to be obvious.  It has no ego, and is possibly doing this out of fear for its own survival.  It wants to hide, be subversive so that it can keep doing what it does without suspicion.  Using covert methods, it can slowly take over the entire camp until it is in total control.  However, when threatened, it is a brilliant idea that each part of it is an individual whole that will fight for its own survival.  This makes it just that much harder to definitively defeat as even one molecule’s survival can be disastrous, in time.  Mixed in with the diverse and dimensional performances, every aspect of paranoia and fear that this film deserved is greatly fleshed out and realized here.

When taking in all of this excellence, one can’t help but realize they are watching a classic piece of science fiction / horror cinema with John Carpenter’s The Thing.  From Carpenter’s expert direction, Bottin’s masterful effects work, the stellar production values, the power of Morricone’s score, the amazing cinematography, and certainly the stellar acting talents of this whole ensemble cast you will get a perfect film.  The atmosphere in this motion picture is something that many filmmakers fail to inject into their own films.  My interest in horror films has waned in past several years.  First, it was the torture porn trend, and now, I just don’t see much of anything out there with this level of atmosphere and craftsmanship.  John Carpenter’s masterpiece gets a perfect, solid rating from me – 10 out of 10.  I did see the 2011 prequel, and while it excelled in the horror and atmospheric areas, it didn’t have the memorable characters or amazing creature effects that set Carpenter’s film apart from the competition.  You surely can’t perfectly imitate a masterpiece.


The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

“Oh fuck yeah!” – that was my response several times during my initial viewing of this film.  I know what many of you are thinking, “remake, ugh!”  Drop the misconceptions, people!  Let’s start fresh.  This is produced by Wes Craven, who directed the original The Hills Have Eyes among other horror classics like A Nightmare On Elm Street & Scream.  The director is Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension.  And to be plainly straight forward, this movie is a brutal piledriver of terror and madness.  This is, by far, the most intense horror film I have seen in years.  A few years prior, I felt that Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was the truest horror film in years – this movie beats the living hell out of it.  What you see in the opening moments of this film is absolutely NOTHING compared to what’s waiting for you later on.

This journey into a desolate landscape of hell starts with a family taking the long way to San Diego, California.  The father / former police detective Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a bold man with a penchant for guns.  His wife, Ethel Carter (Kathleen Quinlan) is somewhat of a religious woman, despite being quite the 60s hippie in her youth.  Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford) is married to their oldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), and together, they have a newborn baby named Catherine.  There’s also the other daughter, Brenda Carter (Emilie de Ravin) who’d rather be in Cancun than traveling through the hot, dry desert.  Finally, there’s the son Bobby (Dan Byrd) who spends a lot of time chasing down the family dogs -Beauty and Beast.  After stopping to refuel at the only gas station within 200 miles, the attendant gives them a “shortcut” back to the highway.  Big Bob has no qualms about taking a dirt road detour, but that’s where things go wrong….very wrong.  After a tire blowout, their SUV is totaled, and they are stranded.  Attempts to find help are futile as this family is being watched from the hills of the New Mexico desert.  These predators are inhuman results of nuclear testing done by the U.S. government in this very same desert from 1945-1962.  They are savage mutants that feed off anything they can find – especially other human beings.  The carnage, insanity, and stomach-churning bloodlust that ensues will leave only few survivors.  The lucky ones die first.

This movie is a brutal masterpiece of racked up tension, grizzly gore, and relentless horror.  Aja has delivered, in my purely honest opinion, one of the most bad ass horror flicks I’ve seen in my entire life.  There isn’t any particularly new twists to this story, it’s mainly the same as the original, but Aja executes a vision that only a rare few will ever match.  As of late, horror film directors have attempted to push the boundaries of intense, cringe-inducing horror, but I don’t believe anyone has proven to be more effective or successful at it than Alexandre Aja.  There is such power and visceral intensity here that it had a hardened horror fanatic in me jumping, cringing, and tingling in my seat.  Aja so quickly established himself as a modern master of horror.  A lot of other horror directors get a lot of hype built up around them, but their films continually fail to live up to it – Aja proves to be the genuine article here.  By chance, I will use Rob Zombie as a perfect example.  Zombie has done a lot to build hype for his own movies, promising just how far he’s pushing the envelope with them, and how grossly disturbing they will be.  Unfortunately, despite some disturbing moments and such at times, Zombie’s movies fail to strike the correct chords or craft a powerful atmosphere with a coherent storyline.  What makes Alexandre Aja different from Rob Zombie is vision, pure and simple.  Aja knows how to create and rack-up the suspense and tension in a film.  He knows how to vilify a group of savages, and how to elicit certain emotions from an audience.  Some people have the talent, the natural gift for such filmmaking.  Aja clearly and undoubtedly has it.  Some other directors seem to require further practice to get even close to that skill level.  Simply put, you don’t need hype when you’ve got the talent because it speaks for itself.

Now, while we don’t get a massive helping of these radioactively mutated cannibals (which can be a good thing), every time we do see them, they make a frightening impact.  The most is made of their screen time, and it is not forgettable in the least.  From their first attack scene, they catapult the film to a completely different level, and the tension and madness just continue to climb from there.  These cannibals only become more feral, more animalistic as the film moves forward.   The makeup work by KNB EFX Group is amazing, disturbing, and overall realistic.  Their work here is worthy of major awards.  I couldn’t imagine how many actors were unrecognizeably transformed by KNB’s complex and intricate makeup designs.  You may know Desmond Askew from Doug Liman’s Go as the somewhat charming British fumbler Simon, but here, there’s no way you’d even know he was in the film without reading the credits.  Michael Bailey Smith takes over the iconic Michael Berryman’s role of Pluto, and he is no stranger to complex makeup work.  In his first role, he was Super Freddy in A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and later portrayed (among other creatures) Julian McMahon’s demon alter-ego of Belthazor on Charmed.  Smith is really only 6’4″, but through whatever means, he seems even larger in this film.  Smith appears monstrous, towering over everyone else on screen.  He’s an intimidating physical force that makes the most frightening impact here.

Billy Drago (also a Charmed alumnus as the demon of fear Barbas) portrays the cannibals’ leader Jupiter, and despite his brief screen time, does an extremely sick job.  This entire movie is filled with sick moments, sick villains, and sickening imagery.  And man, is it great!  Drago’s a great actor, and his work in The Hills Have Eyes is very ferocious.  The same can be said of Robert Joy’s Lizard who teams with Smith’s Pluto in the most shocking scene of the film where the two mothers are assaulted inside the trailer – resulting in gruesome and dire situations.  The rest of the mutated cannibals are just as vicious, creepy, and/or crazed as the main ones.  They all make the film all the more disturbing, and all for the better.  Tom Bower also has a unique and interesting part as the gas station attendant which he pulls off with a bit of slyness, sleaze, and desperation.

The “human” cast, as it were, are great.  Enough time is given at the forefront of the film to flesh this family out, and allows us to relate to them.  They are real people, very human, and when this murderous band of inhuman maniacs befall them, the shocking moments never stop.  They are such a shock because we are so used to filmmakers pulling their punches for so many years, but this time, the punches connect – HARD!  Aja does not hesitate to bludgeon us with the brutal realism that this film deserves.  We crave it, and we get it in spades.  Still, you may not be ready for this level of intensity, and that’s just exactly the idea.  This cast is much more endearing in their own ways than some slasher film victims are, but this is much more intense than any slasher film I have ever seen.  The one cast member who deserves praise more than any other is Aaron Stanford portraying Doug Bukowski.  He starts out as the kind of person who would appear to be least likely to endure such horrific events, but Stanford evolves the character to the point where you believe in him fully – everyone in my packed theatre was rooting for him like MAD!  He does an absolutely incredible job here, definitely a performance that should get him well recognized.  Speaking of which, I didn’t even recognize him as Pyro from X-Men 2.  He appears to have grown up quite a bit since making that film, and all in all, he appears to have great potential for the rest of his career.

Ted Levine, as the father “Big” Bob Carter, does an excellent job as well.  Despite being somewhat of a jackass at first, I got to liking him more and more as things went on, and he has a fine night scene back at the gas station that Aja crafted beautifully.  Even those who are supposedly “the lucky ones” by dying first put in strong performances that last.  They stuck in my mind, and their fear only enhanced my own.  Dan Byrd (‘Salem’s Lot) as the son Bobby Carter delivers a concrete performance filled with strength, immense fear, and powerful grief.  A great piece of work by this twenty year old actor.  On a further note, all the female actors here are down right AMAZING!  I’ve never seen such genuine morbid fear captured on film!

And goddamn, how great was this score?  Talking about tying your nerves up in knots, and then, shooting them apart!  Tomandandy (aka Tom Hajdu & Andy Milburn) composed a score that demonstrates perfectly how valuable a score is to a horror film!  I actually enjoyed the few brief heavy guitar bits, but the meat n’ potatoes here are in the gut-wrenching moments of suspense that explode in an instant.  Just another masterful stroke on the canvas of this amazing motion picture.

Furthermore, the cinematography here by Maxime Alexandre is fantastic.  Never has there been so much scope of so much nothingness.  Working with this desolate landscape, there’s such a vast wasteland to capture and utilize.  The massive scope used in key moments illustrates how very isolated our protagonists are from everything.  The highly revealing shot in the crater scene is a perfect example.  There’s not another decent human soul to be found for what seems like eternity.  Even if you were to run away, there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to truly hide.  It becomes a game of kill or be killed because of this.  It’s also made clearly evident that cellular phone reception (as one would imagine) is completely non-existent out in the middle of nowhere.  Maxime Alexandre also provides great cinematography when the physical intensity kicks in, and the editing allows for Alexandre’s photography to be appreciated instead of flashed across the screen in a nanosecond like many films do in this age of filmmaking.

Overall, the editing is very well paced and consistent, the cinematography is beautiful and striking, the score is an excellent composition that enhances every single moment of every single scene, the performances are as strong as steel while others are as powerful as a sledgehammer to the face, and finally, the direction is tight, taut, unflinching, and immensely masterful.  Aja delivers a full-on balls to the wall horror film that aims to please, and for a great many, it truly has done that. My god, how long had it been since we were graced with a certifiable classic horror film on our hands?  Been way too damn long.  Alexandre Aja is definitely here to stay to scare the living crap out of us, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.