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Posts tagged “serial killer

The Howling (1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cobra (1986)

CobraIf you love Stallone’s bonafide action films, then Cobra is absolutely one of his signature outings.  It also has an interesting origin.  It originally started out when Stallone was cast as the lead in Beverly Hills Cop, but instead of the action comedy we got with Eddie Murphy, Sly did rewrites to essentially change Axel Foley to Marion Cobretti.  When he and Paramount couldn’t agree on this, they parted ways, and Cobra was born.  This is also an adaptation of the novel Fair Game by Paula Gosling, which was the basis for a William Baldwin film in 1995 of the same name.  I’ve never seen that film, but this one, it is a really damn good one.

Lt. Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) is a one-man assault force whose laser-mount submachine gun and pearl handled Colt 9mm spit pure crime-stopping venom.  Cobretti finds himself pitted against a merciless serial killer called the Night Slasher (Brian Thompson).  The trail leads to not one murderer but to an army of psychos bent on slashing their way to a “New Order”- and killing the inadvertent witness Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) to their latest blood spree.  Fortunately, Cobra is her protector intent on bringing down these brutal maniacs.

Very notably, Cobra was helmed by director George P. Cosmatos who also did Rambo: First Blood, Part II and the absolutely amazing Tombstone.  Under his skills, this is an excellent action movie!  Primarily, the quality of the cinematography and editing is amazingly superb.  I see a lot of good quality films of this sort on the filmographies of the editors and cinematographer that prove to me that this was not a one-off shining moment.  This film does have a gritty style with a strong sense of mood and atmosphere for the urban environment.  I took special note of just how well visualized this film was, which would have turned out very generic in much lesser hands.  With Cosmatos, Cobra has real bite and punch.  He also executes the high tension and suspense sequences with remarkable ability.  The parking garage scene where the Night Slasher is stalking Ingrid is a gorgeous example of this.

The Cobretti character is surprisingly understated in most cases.  Sure, when he’s in the heat of action, he’s bad ass and intense, but outside of that, Stallone plays it cool.  He’s calm and collected handling urgent scenarios with confidence and sharp action.  Stallone also brings his usual heart and charm, adding a little charisma and levity to Cobra, but overall, he’s a hard edged cop that’s ready to kick ass at a moment’s notice.  The entire look of Cobra with the five o’clock shadow, black overcoat, mirror aviator glasses, and the wicked cool 9mm just certifies the character as awesome.  Its not a character that jumps off the screen, but with that great look and a couple of cool one-liners, Marion Cobretti drives forward an entertaining film.

Brigitte Nielsen might be regarded very poorly today, but early in her career, she was particularly good.  Her performance as Ingrid is soft and gentle in the most part, but she also handles the terrified moments in the film exceptionally well.  Not surprisingly, she and Stallone have real good chemistry.  They would later marry and divorce within a few years.  Here, you can see their real life affectionate for one another shine through on the screen making for a heartfelt connection that adds more depth to both characters.

The use of Brian Thompson as the Night Slasher, our main villain, is just right.  I honestly have never felt he was a particularly good actor outside of his powerful physical presence.  However, the script and Cosmatos wisely utilize his imposing figure and psychotic killer look instead.  He has extremely little dialogue until the climax where he monologs his creed about his New Order, and he does an exceptional job with this dialogue letting his deep voice carry its weight.

And I love Andrew Robinson in everything I’ve seen him in.  He beautifully plays the smarmy Detective Monte who likes to throw his weight around, and dig his ego into Cobretti like a thorn in your side.  You can’t wait to see this guy get what’s coming to him by the end.

By no doubt, there is a lot of excellent action here.  Stallone gets plenty of chances to get physical with some hard edged fight scenes.  Then, there’s an adrenalin pumping car chase with some great car stunts and rapid gunfire.  Add in some tense, scary moments of Ingrid fighting for her life from the Night Slasher, and you’ve got a very intense, exciting action movie from a director who just knew how to film it with masterful vision.  The editing on these action sequences is so perfectly tight.  This is especially exemplified in the amazingly dynamic shootout and chase sequences that kick start the climax.  The rhythm, pacing, and impressive choice of angles are just excellence on display.  Cosmatos was a brilliant action sequence visionary, and everything in that climax is bad ass and awesome.  It starts out hard and fast, and then, gets tough and brutal inside the industrial factory.  The final confrontation between Cobra and the Night Slasher is really damn good.  This is a great, tense, climactic moment that Stallone and Thompson play dead-on-the-mark in this fiery, industrial setting aided by the excellent cinematography and Cosmatos’ razor sharp direction.  It’s wicked cool.

Further showcasing that this is an 80’s movie is the rock soundtrack.  It starts with a sweet montage sequence fueled by “Angel of the City” by Robert Tepper, who also contributed “No Easy Way Out” for Rocky IV.  We then get a couple of other tracks that are catchy, upbeat, and energizing to the vibe of the movie.  This helps keep the film lively and little more memorable.  The actual score by Sylvester Levay here serves its purpose right fine, but doesn’t standout as anything exceptional.

Cobra is a fun, entertaining, exciting film packed with action.  It has a moody, serious tone with the door comfortably open for levity, but it never gets especially cheesy.  This is a really good action movie that will satisfy even today.  The standard fare script by Stallone is entirely elevated by George Cosmatos’ stylish directing talents.  Cobretti himself is not all that fascinating as it’s the attitude and look that sets him apart including the cobra emblem Colt 9mm and the custom 1950 Mercury.  It’s not a character that puts a challenge on Stallone, but he likely enjoyed the experience.  I certainly would have enjoyed seeing a sequel, but this was also a time where Sylvester Stallone’s ego started swelling a lot.  So, I can imagine there could have been some behind the scenes conflicts.  Regardless, check out Cobra!  It’s a solid piece of action cinema!


Midnight Heat (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Hitcher (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When A Stranger Calls (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Dead Zone (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From Hell (2001)

The benefit of doing Forever Horror Month is that it has forced me to watch films that have been collecting dust in my DVD collection for about a decade.  I saw From Hell theatrically at the discount theatre with a number of my friends in 2001.  I do recall general impressions and plot details from back then including a slight letdown of the film’s conclusion.  Of course, my tastes have certainly matured since that time, and so, it will be interesting to see if my opinion of the film has altered any today.

Set in London of 1888, Jack the Ripper has been running amok in the Whitechapel district murdering and dissecting prostitutes. Scotland Yard Inspector Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), aided by his partner, Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), are on the case to figure out who this serial killer is and why he is killing these women in such a brutal manner. Abberline is an opium addict and when “chasing the dragon” he is able to have visions of the future, a certain psychic ability that allows him to solve cases. As Abberline and Godley investigate the crimes, they become acquainted with the prostitutes who were friends and colleagues of the victims. Abberline begins to fall in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), one of the prostitutes, or as the nobles called them “unfortunates”, being hunted down by Jack the Ripper.  Abberline digs deeper and deeper into the conspiracy and attempts to solve the case before Mary Kelly is the next victim.

This was adapted from the comic book series by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell by the Hughes Brothers – Albert & Allen.  It’s not one I’ve ever read, but the comic book visual aesthetics occasionally show through.  There are striking moments of heavy reds or sickly greens that are very stylized, and do work with the editing approach to those gruesome moments.  The rest of the film is competently shot maintaining a natural look to the time period.  The identity of Jack the Ripper is kept artistically hidden through shadows, shots from behind, and smart framing.  It doesn’t get gimmicky.  It plays scenes out with the Ripper with an imposing, mysterious quality that builds up the threat of him.  It’s very solid work from a director of photography who started out shooting Evil Dead II and later occasionally working with surreal filmmaker David Lynch.

Now, this is a genre that kind of hits me in a pleasant place.  Mixing crime drama with a suspenseful, bloody horror genre just feels like my kind of taste.  The Jack the Ripper case is an iconic one in many peoples’ minds, and this film crafts the investigation and mystery very smartly.  It incorporates some great forensic knowledge which further enhances the quality of Inspector Abberline’s abilities.  This is very important as Jack the Ripper happens to surgically remove various organs from his victims, leaving behind a sickening and horrifying sight.  While the film inevitably takes liberties with the known truth, and hypothesizes about the unknown truths, what we get is tightly and sharply crafted.  It’s a very good script realized by some richly talented filmmakers.

The production design and wardrobe departments did an amazing job.  They seem to have realized the late nineteenth century with beautiful detailed realism.  The wardrobe is especially impressive with the distinct styles given to each character.  This extends to hairstyles and the overall grooming of the actors.  It’s elegant craftsmanship through and through which gives the film its grounded texture.  The filmmakers took great care to reproduce the sights of the murders and the wounds inflicted upon the victims.  While the film lays back on its graphicness for most of its runtime, it does have visceral impact through sharp editing styles and some impressive practical make-up effects.  There is one very graphic throat cutting scene that would likely have many squirming in their seats.  As the film chillingly drives towards its climax, the violence becomes immensely more graphic and disturbing.

Getting down to the performances, I believe Johnny Depp does a very fine piece of work here.  I like the accent he adopts for the role.  Very different from the one he used in Sleepy Hollow or as Captain Jack Sparrow.  He clearly worked on the details very meticulously to bring this intelligent person to life.  While, Frederick Abberline was a real life Inspector for Scotland Yard, the clairvoyance and drug use was reportedly not true about him.  Regardless, the character that is Abberline here is given a good measure of charm and perceptive intelligence.  Depp cautiously balances out Abberline’s assertiveness with the manner of a gentleman.  While he is a man that indulges in less than respectable vices and beliefs, he is still a man that is respected in his profession.  It is an impressively strong and dimensional performance.  Depp leads this film excellently.

Depp also displays a subtle heart and passion opposite Heather Graham.  She inhabits this particularly lower class woman with a lot of spirit and compassion.  While the love between Mary and Frederick is not a major part of the story, it is developed through the building of trust and charm between them.  The chemistry of Graham and Depp is solid and genuine.

Robbie Coltrane does very well as a Police Sergeant who takes his job with a lot of serious weight.  Sergeant Godley is written well as both a consummate street level investigator, and a trusting confidant for Abberline.  It’s a very well rounded performance that instills credibility and faith in Abberline’s unconventional methods for the audience.

The highly revered Ian Holm is also especially strong as the former surgeon Sir William Gull.  He shares some solid scenes with Depp throughout the movie, and delivers a fine dramatic performance that also offers up an intimidating quality late in the film.  He really portrays all facets of the role remarkably well.  All around, this is just a stellar cast with a great depth of talent creating an array of fascinating and realistic characters.  They all make a distinct impression upon an audience.

The affluent pretentiousness of Abberline’s superior, portrayed by Ian Richardson, strikes me funny.  His assertion that no Englishman would be capable of such an act shows how much sensibilities have changed in law enforcement over the decades.  Today, everyone’s a viable suspect, no matter who you are, but back in the 1880s, an educated or even sophisticated person would never be thought of as a violent criminal.  It was preposterous.  Furthermore, his arrogance impedes Abberline’s investigation to the point of obstructing justice.  Unlike Sergeant Godley, he has little faith in Abberline’s deductive abilities.  He cares only for the perception of the investigation, not the truth that it should uncover.  It’s simply another fine detail which exemplifies the era this is set in, and what struggles Abberline has to surmount and combat to prove his theories correct.  It sets a treacherous path that he must walk to expose this gruesome killer.

Ultimately, the Jack the Ripper plotline is resolved in a ghastly psychological manner that has a sort of fitting quality.  Considering, in reality, he was never publicly, definitively identified, the ending to this has to have an air of secrecy.  There’s really no way around that.  So, it couldn’t have ended as a standard crime story with an arrest and conviction.  Still, it lacks any sort of dramatic gratification of justice.  Grisly, unspeakable murders are committed, and for an audience, it demands something equally harsh. It’s sort of a subjective feeling.  If for nothing else, this conclusion just lacks a real punch.

Again, the romantic aspect is gracefully handled, but it can get a little lost amongst the main plotline.  Abberline becomes deeply invested in Mary’s well being, but it’s more of an ancillary story.  It comes and goes in the film never really dominating the characters’ actions too much, but it does surface every now and then when it has relevance.  It possibly could’ve been developed into a fuller part of the film to have more substantive impact.  The conclusion to this story is also a little downbeat.  I’m not sure it was necessary for it to end as it did, but it’s definitely not a bad ending.

So, yes, I think my initial impressions about the film remain about the same.  It has a very good story with plenty of suspense and intelligence, but the pay-off is quite lacking.  Maybe there are those that can appreciate it more than I can, perhaps those that have read the comic book series.  There was more than enough rich talent involved making this a very well made and slightly stylish horror crime mystery.  The Hughes Brothers did a very high quality job with this material, and Johnny Depp puts in a very satisfying lead performance.  While it’s not as quirky as some of his better known roles, this is a nice departure into more serious ground that I did enjoy.  “Do I recommend From Hell?” is the pressing question.  Sure.  While it’s ultimately not as wholly satisfying as desired, it’s still a worthwhile watch for many reasons.  If for nothing else, it’s a respectably well executed moody and chilling piece of horror cinema.


Manhunter (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paranoia (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Seven (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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