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Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

Paramount Pictures had run their course with Jason Voorhees, and gladly sold the rights to New Line Cinema for them to do with it as they pleased.  What they gave us was something that remains a mixed result for many fans.  Personally, I really love Jason Goes To Hell.  I believe it to be a great, original storyline that dared to do something drastically different with the franchise.  The filmmakers populated it with a very solid and impressive cast, and put together an inventive script.

An FBI sting operation at Crystal Lake succeeds in blowing Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder) to pieces, and all believe he is permanently dead, except for bounty hunter Creighton Duke (Steven Williams).  Interviewed on the news program American Case File by Robert Campbell (Steven Culp), Duke claims that Jason is not dead, and that he is the only one who knows how to send him to hell for all time.  He sets a bounty of $500,000 to paid for doing so.  Meanwhile, Jason’s demonic heart takes possession of person after person on a path of death back to Crystal Lake in the effort to be fully reborn in the body of another Voorhees.  Coincidentally, Robert Campbell is dating Jessica Kimble (Kari Keegan), the daughter of the woman Duke seeks out in Crystal Lake, but he doesn’t get far as he is locked up for insulting the town Sheriff.  The father of Jessica’s daughter, Steven Freeman (John D. LeMay), eventually encounters Duke after Diana Kimble (Erin Gray) is accidentally killed, and he learns the truth about Jason and what it will take to destroy him forever.

Many fans are content with just leaving all the origins and explanations for Jason being whatever he is unknown.  However, at a certain point, a franchise has to look back on itself, and realize that some sense has to be made of its menacing slasher juggernaut that continually comes back from the dead.  In this case, I believe Dean Lorey and Jay Huguely succeeded in conjuring a story that takes itself seriously while dealing with some fantastical ideas.  This film turned the franchise around from its campy decent into cheap horror, and back into a far gorier and violent direction.  It lays several implications upon Jason’s undead origins such as with the Necronomicon from Army of Darkness sitting inside the Voorhees house.  Granted, it was likely a prop happenstance due to the same effects company working on both films, but it’s presence alone enhances the occult and supernatural implications of the film.  It certainly helped spark the idea for a Freddy vs. Jason sequel, ultimately adapted into a comic book, featuring Ash Williams fighting against both slasher foes.

The addition of the Creighton Duke character was pure brilliance.  A hard edged bounty hunter with the secrets to what Jason is, and what became of his family lineage injects that air of mystery and urgency into the plot.  I have become a big fan of Steven Williams from 21 Jump Street to The X-Files.  He’s an incredibly talented actor capable of a wide range of characterizations.  As Duke, he’s got charisma that really grips an audience.  He can have an mischievous wit when he offers answers to Steven Freeman in the jail, but also has an intense, captivating energy when finally delivering those answers.  Duke’s a man with a dedicated purpose, and a confident, bold attitude backed by his rugged skill set.  He doesn’t offer trust easily, thus, reinforcing a sort of loner attitude.  He doesn’t back down from anyone, but has the intelligence to remain focused and level headed.  He’s not blindly obsessed with destroying Jason.  He knows he cannot do it by himself, and must come to trust that others will do what is necessary when the time comes.  Creighton Duke is one of my absolute favorite characters of the entire franchise, right up there with Tommy Jarvis.  Steven Williams’ performance is immensely entertaining and compelling.

On the opposite side of the hero spectrum is John D. LeMay as Steven Freeman.  He’s very much just an average guy with no special skills, but has his motivations.  He desires to see and hold the child he helped father with Jessica, and wants to see both of them protected from this murderous evil out stalking them.  LeMay starred in the unrelated Friday The 13th: The Series where he solidly played a similar protagonist, but Steven is even more unlikely.  He’s not at all a man of action, but when forced into extraordinary circumstances, he rises to the challenge by doing whatever it takes to survive and protect those he cares about.  LeMay gives the role plenty of light-hearted charm, and an audience easily feels for him when things go terribly awry.

This is undoubtedly the best cast assembled for a Friday The 13th movie.  There is just a wealth of credible talent throughout the ranks, and they are all handled excellently by director Adam Marcus.  For the most part, they project a grounded feeling that works towards the very serious dread and horror that is present in this film.  The diner owners, Joey B. & Shelby, are kind of comical, but in a way that sells Joey’s heartless exploitative nature and Shelby’s warmer sensibilities.  However, Steven Culp is probably the best of the supporting cast giving us a very sleazy, unscrupulous news anchor in Robert Campbell.  This is a guy who has deceived Jessica into a romantic relationship only for the chance to exploit her family for his own personal gain.  Culp puts in an excellent performance as a character you love to hate, but there’s more to it that I will touch on later.

This is undoubtedly the goriest movie of the entire franchise.  The filmmaker made the blood thick and plentiful.  The scene of the coroner consuming Jason’s enlarged heart is beautifully disgusting and graphic.  The gooey black blood oozes and splatters all over.  It’s an amazing effect, yet again provided by the masterful talents at KNB EFX Group.  They really went all out for this installment creating very elaborate effects which are seen in all their glory right there on the screen, in the unrated cut, of course.  New Line Cinema was the first to officially release an unrated version of a film in this franchise, and this couldn’t have been a better film to do that for.  The practical effects work is absolutely spectacular, and the visual effects are also highly impressive.  There is nothing at all that is just mediocre or sub-standard in this film.  Everyone was fully dedicated to making a high quality feature, and I applaud each and every one of them for that commitment and hard work.

Yet, this isn’t just a mindless splatter flick.  There is plenty of classic Friday The 13th style suspense.  Adam Marcus shows a talent for crafting solid atmosphere and tension.  The film has a dark visual tone creating a gritty feel that tells you this is going to be straight-on horror.   Lighting is quite moody with rich, deep blacks that really strengthen that hardened atmosphere.  It’s a hell of a great look for this film that really sets it apart from the rest of the series in a very good way.

What many fans count as a negative mark against the film is that Jason himself is barely in it.  He spends most of the runtime jumping from one temporary body to another in pursuit of a permanent resurrection.  However, this does allow for an unexpectedly menacing and kick ass performance by Steven Culp while possessed by Jason.  He tears through the diner massacre sequence savagely.  It’s absolutely awesome.  Of course, there is no discounting Kane Hodder, but he does appear lethargic in this film.  Possibly, this is due to the padding added to his costume to reflected a bloated and malformed Jason.  It definitely adds more bulk that works well in contrast to everyone in the film, but Hodder just seemed to have a harder time throwing himself into the end fight scene.  Regardless of that, he still delivers a performance up to his established standards for Jason Voorhees.

Now, Harry Manfredini’s score in this film is a split opinion for me.  It is quite good, and might be one of his best of the series.  Unfortunately, instead of using an orchestra, the entire score is synthesized.  He takes what he regularly would have done with an orchestra and apply it to a synthesizer, and it just loses far too much in that transition.  While the composition is very good, the sound of shrieking strings on a keyboard sound like the score to some cheap direct-to-video horror flick.  There are times it doesn’t sound that bad, but certainly from the opening credits and elsewhere, it has always given me that feeling.

I know I am not the only one who believes there are many places to take the Friday the 13th concept outside of its formulaic comfort zone, and to me, this film shows it can be done with the right ambition and talent.  It’s certainly a concept that you will either like or won’t, and it’s understandable if you don’t.  Many are happy to revisit the standard formula, and just see Jason killing innocent campers.  However, I find that many franchises could use an infusion of new ideas.  It’s only unfortunate that most times, those new ideas become bad ones that result in poor movies.  Thankfully, the right talents were employed that did love the series, and wanted to do something more supernatural, graphic, and demonic with Jason without betraying the core of his character.  Many would argue otherwise, but this is my opinion on Jason Goes To Hell.

I do hardly believe that even New Line Cinema was serious about this being The Final Friday considering they just picked up the rights to the character.  The ending of this film blatantly and cleverly sets up Freddy vs. Jason, so, there were obvious plans to keep utilizing Jason however they could.  Regardless of that issue, Jason Goes To Hell is one of my top favorite Friday The 13th films, and I feel it is one of the best and most successfully innovative of the series.  There’s a first rate cast here that really push the film towards that more serious, convincing tone instead of one of camp, which is refreshing.  The make-up effects are off the chart incredible giving us more gore than any other film in the franchise, before or after, but it has no lack of genuine suspense or terror.  If you care for a return to more serious horror for this franchise, and don’t mind more fantastical ideas injected into the concept, I strongly recommend giving Jason Goes To Hell an honest chance.

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New Nightmare (1994)

After the horrendous Freddy’s Dead, New Line Cinema was willing to entertain ideas from series creator Wes Craven on a new entry to the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.  This film is partly a return to form for the series, but also ventures into a completely and radically new direction.  The entire film is set outside the realm of the franchise in our reality.  Many of the main characters and cameos are people playing themselves, to a degree.  Heather Langenkamp, the heroine from the first and third films in the series, plays herself.  We also have appearances by Wes Craven, John Saxon, and Robert Shaye – all playing themselves with some creative licenses.  Robert Englund is of course here, playing both a more eccentric version of himself and the demonic incarnation of Freddy Krueger.

Heather Langenkamp lives a content life with her husband Chase Porter (David Newsom) and son Dylan (Miko Hughes).  However, her sense of safety is compromised by a series of unsettling phone calls which Heather believes are from an anonymous stalker.  Coupled with this is some increasingly strange behavior from Dylan.  Heather gains little comfort from her former co-stars Robert Englund or John Saxon about either her paranoia or concern for her son.  While she does not allow her son to watch any of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, with her promoting the ten year anniversary of the original, she cannot escape its looming shadow.  She soon finds out that Wes Craven is planning on making the definitive Nightmare movie, and that he has been plagued by nightmares of his own.  It has practically become an epidemic as the same disturbing dreams have come to Heather as well as Robert Englund himself.  Craven eventually tells Heather that what is haunting them is an ancient demon that has been roaming from story-to-story since the beginning of time, but has come accustomed to Freddy.  Now, it wants into our world, and Heather is the perceived gatekeeper betweens the realms of fantasy and reality since she was the first to defeat Freddy.  Dylan is a key focal point of this demon’s plan to lure in Heather.  As all the elements begin to converge, the world around Heather starts to transform into the twisted existence of this guised Freddy Krueger.

New Nightmare is a creatively successful film that was not a financial success in 1994.  I don’t think New Line Cinema knew quite how to market this concept in a way that was concise to an audience.  It’s a far more cerebral concept than had been introduced into the series prior, but even then, it still requires a good amount of exposition to get a handle on.  It’s very strange that at the time of release I had never even watched any of these films, and hadn’t spawned my horror movie fandom, yet.  Still, I was entirely aware of this film while no one else seemed to be.  Thankfully, time has given it the respect and admiration it deserved.

Wes Craven absolutely wrote an ambitious and smart screenplay.  I think this shows a maturing of his artistic sensibilities.  This is very high concept employing ideas that could not be competently handled by just anyone.  There have been plenty of poorly conceived and/or executed reality-bending films, but only a special few that have done it with inspiring results.  While that’s mostly true of any genre, this is one that doesn’t have as high of an output, and is usually only tried when a filmmaker feels ambitious.  Most fail because they don’t have the right intellect behind them to pull it off without becoming pretentious, contrived, or fall into a style over substance trap.  The films that do succeed have visionary filmmakers behind them who know how to convey the concept smartly and effectively.  In New Nightmare’s case, it connects you directly with the characters, and invests you in their plights while methodically building up its premise with fine dashes of foreboding tension and suspense.  It treats its horror and gruesome deaths with real human emotion and grief.  These are real people experiencing real terror and pain.  Thus, it increases the dread and danger of their situation with a heavy weight that an audience can truly feel.

This film is exceptionally solid while it’s not so much slasher horror as supernatural, psychological horror.  Craven relies more on subtle atmosphere and a series of creepy, unexplained events, much like a haunted house story, to scare an audience.  There is some gore, but it is only in a few scenes.  So, on a slasher film level, New Nightmare does feel very starved for gruesome bloodletting, and that does detract from the film for me.  There’s not enough visceral pay-off for the building up of suspense and atmosphere.  Heather is truly terrorized by what this demon does to her life, tormenting her at every turn, and claiming the lives of a few people closest to her as well as traumatically manipulating her son.  Those elements are executed outstandingly well.  You can feel her fear and frayed psychological state increase throughout the movie.  Freddy has very restrained screentime, which is a pleasant change from his overexposure in previous sequels.  Wes Craven instead uses the screentime to intelligently and clearly setup the reality transcending premise before unveiling the revamped Freddy Krueger.

This ancient demon has decked Freddy out in a generous use of leather, and a frightening new glove of razors.  It’s no longer rusted, but very shiny and skeleton like showing off Krueger’s burned hand.  The new make-up design is certainly fresh, but still looks like prosthetics instead of an organic piece of burned flesh.  It’s certainly better than the very rubbery appearance we got in the last few films, but I’ve still seen better burned flesh effects elsewhere.  Generally, the redesign does give the character a darker edge which supports the premise of the film, and that this is not actually Freddy but a demon taking on his appearance and persona.

All the actors are as great as could be imagined.  Langenkamp is even more beautiful here than ever before, and her performance is very true to the situation, despite its fantastical nature.  I refer mostly in regards to the parent-child relationship, and how she does whatever is necessary to protect her child.  Now, while this film blurs the line between reality and fantasy, this applies to the presentation of the people.  Much of the stalking elements in the story were taken from the real Heather Langenkamp’s own experiences with a stalker, and so, there’s a personal element to this story for her.  Overall, she brings a great weight of maturity and strong emotion to a role that was likely challenging for her to grasp.  It was bold and brave of her to put as much of her personal life on screen like this as she did, and if it wasn’t Wes Craven asking her to do so, I don’t think she would have done it.  On a related note, Miko Hughes shows a wealth of talent, and is really endearing.  Most kids in horror films tend to be annoying or worse, but he managed to be very likable and endearing.

Robert Englund, as always, clocks in with all he has.  This time, his Freddy performance is intimidating and fearsome.  There’s not a wisecrack to be had, and he still remains engaging as a dark villain.  His screentime is quite limited until the final act of the film, but enough is done throughout the picture to increase his menace and power.  I know for a fact that Englund did prefer portraying Freddy as darker, but most directors preferred the comical approach.  Thankfully, Craven brought the character back to where he works best, and Englund did a great job there.

John Saxon also returns in a supporting role, and I’ve always had a fondness for him.  He’s just such a captivating and marvelous actor with a very fatherly or commanding aura about him.  He always inspires confidence, and consistently does solid work.  I thoroughly enjoy every bit of work I have seen of him.  Tracy Middendorf stars as Julie, Dylan’s babysitter, and really comes off as sweet and caring.  She’s definitely the ideal babysitter.  I could easily go on and on about the cameos and solid acting, but to sum it up, the acting in this movie is wholly satisfying and exceedingly far above slasher genre standards, as is everything with New Nightmare.

This is definitely one of Wes Craven’s best and most modern looking films.  Director of Photography Mark Irwin gave the film a lot of visual integrity, firmly grounding it in a dramatic reality.  There’s a nice use of blue tones that add to the atmosphere that Craven nicely crafted.  This looks like a serious, intelligent film for a more mature audience, contrasting the more juvenile sensibilities of previous Elm Street sequels.  Mark Irwin really showed a great ability to artistically shoot a suspenseful film, and it’s great that Wes Craven used him again on Scream.  It’s only a shame that most of Irwin’s filmography after this were comedies, many of them rather stupid comedies.

The story behind the inception of New Nightmare is also interesting.  The concept was spawned from a meeting between Wes Craven and New Line executive Robert Shaye.  He wanted to know, from Wes, what he thought was done wrong with the series, and if the company had offended Wes in anyway.  Craven made a number of valid points about Freddy becoming a comical buffoon, and Bob offered Wes the chance to rectify these errors.  I’ve always liked that cordial mentality from Mr. Shaye who never cared for burning bridges, only building a better company built on professional integrity and respect.  With that, New Nightmare came into being.

Even without comparison to the wreckage that was Freddy’s Dead, this film shines and soars high as one of the best of the series right behind the original film.  The only major drawback of the film, I feel, is that this demon-as-Freddy is not dispatched in a very clever way.  There’s really no fantastical element to it, as one would expect from such a fantastical concept.  It is more of a physical method of defeating him instead of a supernatural, metaphysical, or psychological one.  And even though I’ve never taken much note of J. Peter Robinson’s score, it is widely recognized as one of the best horror film scores around.  Ultimately, this is still one to highly recommend alongside the 1984 original and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.  Those are the definitive classics of the franchise, and those reputations are rightly earned.


A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

You didn’t think I could let Forever Horror Month go by without a look at old Fred Krueger, did you?  I think A Nightmare on Elm Street came out at just the right time.  The slasher film craze had exploded, but then, began to water itself down with all the imitators.  There were still good ones out there, but it was already time for something fresh to shake up the genre.  Something to bring it back to a terrifying and original concept that was conceived by a master in Wes Craven.  Where the effectiveness of some other horror films have diminished over time for me. A Nightmare on Elm Street still holds a chilling nerve in my spine.

In the town of Springwood, on Elm Street, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are experiencing violent nightmares where they are stalked by a badly scarred man with a clawed glove of razors.  When Nancy’s friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) is brutally murdered in bed one night, Nancy believes that it wasn’t Tina’s boyfriend who killed her, but the man who terrorizes their dreams – Fred Krueger (Robert Englund).  Unfortunately, her claims are dismiss by her father, Police Lieutenant Donald Thompson (John Saxon), and her alcoholic mother (Ronee Blakley).  So, Nancy, aided by her boyfriend Glenn (Johnny Depp), Nancy fights to stay awake to discover the truth behind Krueger, and find a way to stop him for good or never sleep again.

Right from the start, the film sets a dark, gritty, frightening tone with Freddy’s construction of his bladed glove.  This film truly is a nightmare come to life with the shadowy boiler room being the perfect backdrop for Krueger.  It’s damp, steamy, and filthy – a dangerous industrial environment for a sleazy, twisted killer.  From there, the film haunts you with creepy, surreal images that touch your deepest fears.  Once you are in Freddy’s realm there is no safe harbor.  He wants you to know you’re trapped and ensnared in his sick, demented reality.  He’s the master of the domain that is your dreams, and that’s what’s most frightening of all.  He can violate you deep within your mind, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t go forever without sleep.  Eventually, you are going to fall asleep, and that’s all he needs to have his way with you.  Unlike other slashers, Freddy doesn’t just stalk and kill.  He gains vast pleasure by psychologically tormenting his victims so that when he finally goes in for the kill, it will be all the more sweeter for him.  Freddy is a glorious sadist.  He both literally and figuratively feeds off your fear.  It’s what gives him his power and pleasure.  The glove was also a brilliant idea by Wes Craven.  Most slashers just kill with whatever’s handy, but Freddy puts his own signature mark on his victims with a weapon custom built for himself.  It’s a direct and distinct extension of his twisted personality.

Robert Englund instantly created an icon here built off of Wes Craven’s imagination.  He absorbed himself into the weight and feel of this character through the amazing make-up effects, and the dingy, distinct wardrobe.  The body language alone conveys a sickening individual who takes perverse pleasure in everything he does.  Every little gesture with the blades, every wiggling of the tongue, every slinking movement creates a terrifying performance that burns itself into your psyche.  The fact that Craven keeps Krueger so secluded in shadow, and only highlights certain aspects of his figure or face, enhances the intimidating power of him.  This is the most vile rendition of Fred Krueger we have ever gotten, and I think it’s a real disservice to horror audiences that he became so campy and cheesy in the later sequels.  I know Englund preferred going the darker route, but most directors preferred the comical punch.  I cannot fathom why because Freddy proves to be his most frightening in his purest form.

Beyond just Robert Englund, the film is packed with a great cast.  Heather Langenkamp steps into a strong lead role as Nancy.  I love that the film sets up Tina as the potential protagonist, but swerves the audience when gruesome tragedy strikes.  This allows Nancy to overcome her own grief and build herself up to a confident, smart heroine.  Yet, she never loses her honest sense of compassionate emotion.  Nancy does feel fear, very intensely, but she fights to conquer it every step of the way.  Langenkamp looked and felt like a genuine fresh faced girl next door which made her performance vulnerable and realistic.  The strength she brought to Nancy was incredible making an audience believe in Nancy through every terrifying moment.

Johnny Depp, in his very first acting role, is also great showing off the charm and talent we’ve come to know from him.  As Glenn, he’s funny and sweet.  I also believe casting John Saxon is always a rock solid choice.  He brings a fatherly warmth to Donald Thompson showing concern for his beloved daughter.  He’s also entirely believable as a commanding police officer with a fine screen presence which just exudes strength and confidence.  Ronnie Blakley is quite remarkable as this drunken mother who is clearly unable to cope with the crime she helped commit.  Amanda Wyss puts in a great performance selling the intense fear of Tina, and showing the subtle terror that trembles underneath.  Overall, everyone in this cast does an immensely solid and greatly admirable job.  They make this a film filled with character you can genuinely cared about, and thus, seriously fear for.

Wes Craven shows such a talent for suspense here.  He carefully unnerves an audience with subtle sounds and glimpses of terror, firstly.  Then, when Freddy finally reveals himself, it’s a truly scary sight as he torments Tina with a grin and a despicable laugh.  Just as Freddy torments his victims, Craven uses those moments to freak out his audience to build up the suspense and tension.  He prolongs the fear with masterful skill so that the pay-off will be frightening beyond your imagination.  The kills are gruesomely brilliant with no lack of gore or blood.  The screen is soaked in crimson many times in the movie., and the violent impact of those four blades slicing into flesh is always terrifying and shocking.

All of the special effects in A Nightmare on Elm Street are absolutely impressive and truly ambitious.  Today, as the lackluster remake proved, a lot of these effects today would be done with severely unconvincing and unimpressive CGI.  Back in 1984, everything was done practically, and the results are just astonishingly excellent.  Even knowing how they did it takes away nothing from the viewing experience of the film.  The movie magic is still there, and it is still massively effective.  From Tina being dragged up the wall and ceiling of her bedroom to Freddy’s form pushing through the wall above Nancy as she sleeps to all the subtle tricks and slight of hand to achieve so much, these are timeless, classic images that are the result of talented, innovative minds.  They entirely sell the chillingly surreal qualities and power of Krueger.  It’s amazing that they achieve so much on a budget that was less than $2 million.  Compare that with the $35 million budget of the 2010 remake which couldn’t pull off the same effects with even a fraction of the artistic quality or effectiveness.

Charles Bernstein beautifully score this film with just the right approach.  The main theme is instantly recognizable with its sort of nursery rhyme melody, but has a haunting, foreboding quality lying behind it which is purely brilliant musicianship.  The score, in general, is purely enveloping with a wide, rich range using synthesizer in gorgeous fashion.  It disturbs and unsettles at nearly every dark turn.  The sound design works in tandem with the score by fully immersing an audience into Freddy’s world.  The sounds of the boiler room come to magnificent life in a full surround sound experience.  I think it’s one of the best audio presentations of any horror film I’ve ever heard.

Again, what really sets this film apart from its slasher brethren is the psychological aspect.  Freddy isn’t a killer you can simply outrun.  He’s lurking in the dark recesses of your dreams, waiting for you to fall into his clutches.  It’s amazing to me that Wes Craven is such a sweet, easy going, regular guy, but is able to delve so vividly into the chilling imagery and nature of nightmares.  Scary experiences from his childhood forged many of these inspirations, but so much touches a frightening nerve, such as the bloody corpse of Tina in the body bag beckoning to Nancy, that it demonstrates Craven’s creative brilliance.  He taps so deeply into the mechanics of horror, and is able to craft beautifully gruesome images that could dig their way into your own subconscious.  I think Craven is at his best when he’s pushing horror to a higher level beyond the visceral.  Whether it’s the psychological aspects of this franchise, or the mystery aspects of the Scream films, he has a unique quality to inject into horror films that I really enjoy.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror classic that goes beyond just the slasher genre.  It was created by a team of greatly talented and dedicated individuals in front of and behind the camera.  No other film in the franchise quite matches up to the dark, pure horror quality of Wes Craven’s original.  While there are sequels with their own enjoyable and respected qualities, there are many which simply lost sight of what horror was, and diluted the powerful and effective tone of fear the franchise was built upon.  Regardless of disappointing sequels or poor remakes, the 1984 original will always stand as an eternal horror classic.


Wolf (1994)

Good werewolf movies are very hard to come by.  That was until I came across Wolf a few years ago.  Fronted by two amazingly electric actors in Jack Nicholson and James Spader along with a very tantalizing Michelle Pfeiffer, I couldn’t love this film more.  It’s a different approach that is far more modern and character driven with these supernatural aspect slowly weaved into the plot.

Worn down and out of luck, aging publisher Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is at the end of his rope when his co-worker and protégé, Stewart Swinton (James Spader), snatches both his job and wife out from under his nose.  However, after being bit by a wolf on a snowy road, Will suddenly finds himself energized, more competitive than ever, and possessed with amazingly heightened senses.  Meanwhile, Laura Alden (Michelle Pfeiffer), the beautiful daughter of his shrewd boss, begins to fall for him – without realizing that the man she’s begun to love is gradually turning into the creature by which he was bit.

As should go without saying, Jack Nicholson is excellent in this movie.  He gives us a performance that is mostly low key with modest manner and sense of heart.  He’s a man living a less than stellar life, and that downtrodden feeling seeps into the cracks of the performance.  There’s also the increasing worry about his wolf bite that truly begins to affect Will adversely.  However, of course, Nicholson is able to turn on his mojo and even delve into a feral side that is fierce and primal.

It’s slightly humorous how the enhanced senses manifest in Will Randall.  There’s a few funny moments, like being able to smell the tequila on a co-worker early in the morning, or how he doesn’t even realize that he can read perfectly without his reading glasses.  However, it takes a more unsettling turn when he can start hearing far away voices throughout his office complex.  Still, the film is able to maintain an occasional sense of levity mostly from the charisma of Nicholson and Spader.  I love how the wolf instincts make Will more aggressive, able to take stand against his co-workers and boss.  He becomes a man of bravado and cutthroat actions instead of a weaker willed pushover that he was.  So, at first, this is all a good change in his character, but gradually, the wolf bite effects begin to take a more ferocious and bloodletting turn.

James Spader is wonderfully sleazy, as appears to be his regular strength, as Will’s apprentice / rival.  Stewart is conniving and deceitful with no ethical or moral compass.  He’s a real snake in the grass that will smile to your face while stabbing you in the back, and Spader makes it a richly enjoyable performance.  He really excels in these kinds of roles, portraying them pitch perfect to make the character detestable while still being wholly entertaining.  Awesomely, he gets the chance to just go full boar with it by the end with a very fearsome performance.  This really is all the vile, juicy Spader you could ever want.

It’s surprising how good the chemistry is between Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer.  There’s a nineteen year age difference between them, but that seems to work better for these characters.  Will Randall is a more worn out, tired career man while Laura Alden is young, vibrant, and intriguing.  Pfeiffer certainly has a seductive aura about her that creates a dangerous air to the relationship.  There’s plenty of sexual charisma to spare with both her and Nicholson.  Overall, she does a tremendous job with this character who does have a harder, jaded exterior with a more approachable, comforting core.

The supporting cast of Wolf is also stellar.  Most notably is Christopher Plummer’s gracefully egotistical, but also authoritative Raymond Alden, the owner of the publishing house.  He carries a substantial weight as this slightly ruthless boss who insincerely sugar coats things.  He has a great presence and a subtle way of acting that results in a lot of dimension coming out on screen.

The mystical ideas of the demon wolf are beautifully conveyed.  There’s a grounded sensibility from Dr. Alezais when he tells Will of the lore.  It’s not the ravings of some wild witch doctor, but of a man of science and research.  He believes in the possibility that this mystical lore is true, and he sells the dreaded reality of it very convincingly.  It comes at the right point in the film where both Will and the audience have experienced enough to believe that something supernatural is taking a hold of him.  So, we are all ripe to fully believe what he has to say.

I love the make-up effects from Rick Baker, a go-to master for werewolves from his work on The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.  While it is just some added facial hair, fangs, and yellow contact lenses, the visual of Nicholson in this make-up is frightening.  He looks like a wild animal that would stop your heart at the real life sight of.  Yet, he’s not the only one.  Although, I do not wish to spoil anything, but the make-up is extremely creepy upon the face of another actor.

Director Mike Nichols had this film shot in a way that was rather uncommon for the time it was made.  In many cases, it feels like a classic monster movie in its cinematography.  Preferring some dramatic camera zoom-ins over dolly shot push-ins, using rear screen projection during the driving scenes, and employing conservative editing resulting in some beautifully long takes, it partially feels like something from the black and white era.  Yet, it is such a brilliantly shot, composed, and executed film that it undeniably has a modern edge and beauty to it.  There’s a great sense of artistic horror and suspense to appeal to modern audiences.  There’s not much gore here, but there is a wealth of ferocious veracity that will satiate your desire for intense, horrific, primal violence.

The climax is absolutely wild.  Everything really converges in an animalistic confrontation that delivers in a hugely dramatic and savage high point.  How it all ultimately ends is tragically heartbreaking and powerful.  Yet, it still has a nice quirky and mesmerizing punch right at the end, too.  Mike Nichols’ ability to pull off these complex tones which mesh unsettling tension with a dash of quirky humor is really marvelous.  How this film progresses from a light drama about Will Randall’s inter-office politics and his developing romantic relationship with Laura to a full-on werewolf horror film is amazing.  That’s actually why this film works.  It builds these characters up into a realistic setting with convincing relationships and conflicts.  They are charismatic and entertaining characters that really invest your interest.  Then, the film gradually builds up the supernatural wolf element as it begins to affect Will’s behavior from a re-invigorated, confident man to a frightening metamorphosis that he deathly fears.  It’s a wonderful twisting arc that never loses credibility or its grounded sensibilities.  The conflicts it establishes, and the relationships it grows remain an integral part of the story all the way through.  It really is a stellar work of screenwriting by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick, and a brilliant directing job by Mike Nichols.

Add in an excellent score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and you’ve got one hell of a great film that I dearly love.  It’s a real gem I only discovered a few Octobers ago, and have really wanted to share my admiration for it for a long time.  Wolf was actually delayed into release by several months to completely re-shoot the entire third act of the movie. Whatever they did is entirely seamless.  I cannot see any deviation in quality or story to hint at what was changed.  There was no novelization, and no script available online to find out what the original third act was.  I’m certainly intrigued, but the film that was released is entirely amazing and I wouldn’t change a thing.  As I said, good werewolf movies are hard to come by, and I think Wolf is a surprising pleasure.  There was no shortage of remarkable talent behind this film, and that talent shines through in every moment.  I think it’s a great and original horror films with a lot of entertainment value to offer any audience.


Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I haven’t been a loyal follower of Tim Burton’s career, but the films I have seen from him, I very much do enjoy.  Sleepy Hollow is a very pleasant entry in his career, collaborating with Johnny Depp, that strikes the right balance between Burton’s quirky humor and dramatic gothic storytelling.  It’s fun, exciting, and scary all at the same time.

Constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) of the New York police arrives in the small village of Sleepy Hollow in 1799 to solve a mystery of murders. With all the victims found with their heads missing, everybody in Sleepy Hollow is talking about the ghost of the “Headless Horseman.”  He is supposedly out in the woods seeking revenge for his murder many years ago.  Crane, believing only in logic, refuses to believe the public’s theory about the horseman and begins his investigations, only to find his faith shattered when he himself encounters the headless horseman.  Yet, he is compelled to resolve his investigation after falling deeply in love with the beautiful young Katrina (Christina Ricci).  Their fates intertwine as Ichabod attempts to unravel the supernatural and wicked mysteries that threaten everyone’s lives in Sleepy Hollow.  It’s a magical tale of sense against myth.

While I think general audiences today are a little worn out on the repeated Burton-Depp collaborations, Sleepy Hollow is an excellent piece of work that’s worth your while.  Depp does a brilliant job as Constable Crane.  He brings a certain young naivety to the ambitious investigator.  He has bold new ideas about using science and intellect to deduce crimes that his superiors lightly dismiss.  The contrast of everyone’s grim, fearsome attitudes to Crane’s more upbeat mentality creates an amusing dynamic.  Crane is definitely intelligent and educated, but Depp’s clever, delicate balance between the serious and the tongue-in-cheek tone of Crane makes him such a delight.  True to the source material, Ichabod is somewhat cowardly, but he can muster up courage when it counts.  Beyond all else, he’s determined to resolve this twisting mystery that seems to have an air of conspiracy about it.  That’s what makes him a character to invest yourself in.  Despite his own trembling fears, he picks himself back up and pushes forward to finish what he began.  Depp shows a lot of sweet charm and humor making Ichabod a pure hearted hero that both amuses and inspires.

I will absolutely admit that I once had a fascination with Christina Ricci.  She’s a beautiful and highly talent actress who doesn’t shy away from challenging material.  What she gives us as Katrina is a lovely, graceful young lady that is indeed bewitching.  She carries an ethereal aura about her reflecting Katrina’s depth and purity of soul.  Ricci and Depp have a gorgeous chemistry that really lights up the screen, and enraptures an audience with their magic.  They are such an excellent fit that I’d love to see more of them together.

At the time of release, it was kept a secret that the Hessian Horseman was portrayed by Christopher Walken.  It was an added pleasant surprise when I first saw the film in 1999.  Aside from some animalistic grunts as he slays his victims., the Horseman has no lines of dialogue, and doesn’t need any due to how he is portrayed and presented.  It was a great idea to tell the Horseman’s story early on to have the bloodthirsty psychotic face embed itself in the audience’s minds.  The Horseman filed his teeth to a razor sharp point that made him appear more frightening in his enemies’ eyes.  It’s an amazing, ferocious design that sends a chill up your spine, especially in conjunction with Walken’s charismatic physicality.  It’s also great that the Horseman is not the ultimate villain, but a weapon used by a treacherous conspirator.

Tim Burton really culled together a magnificent cast with several veterans of stage and screen as well as some fine young talents such as Casper Van Dien.  Adding in some Hammer Films alumnus like Christopher Lee and Michael Gough was a very nice touch.  Miranda Richardson has a wonderful turn in this film that she seemed very enthusiastic about throwing herself into.  Her overall performance is marvelous.

The visual effects of Sleepy Hollow are astonishingly good.  Just getting the Headless Horseman to become a reality on screen was a big challenge, I’m sure, and there is nothing but top notch quality on display here.  The various decapitations and other gory slayings are phenomenally done.  What else would you expect from Industrial Light & Magic?  The effects never cease to impress throughout the entire movie.  The film has a generous helping of blood and gore to make some squirm or jump in their seats while others will simply relish its exquisite glory.  The practical effects are seamlessly integrated with the digital effects for a visually amazing experience.  I cannot praise this work highly enough.  While there are some silly moments with the visual effects, they are perfectly at home in a Tim Burton movie.

The gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton are realized in a magnificent way.  The film has a slightly desaturated, gritty look giving way to a more grim feeling of looming danger.  Sleepy Hollow is shot beautifully, strongly maintaining that dark tone of horror and tension.  Yet, there are plenty of picturesque sequences, such as a series of dreams Ichabod has which further enrich the fantastical, and sometimes, enchanting aspects of the movie.  This truly is a visually gorgeous film in a style that could only come from the imagination of Tim Burton.  And of course, Danny Elfman created a powerfully grandiose score that fits perfectly with Burton’s gothic stylings.  It is a stunning, sweeping piece of work that enhances all the dark, lovely, and magical atmospheres of Sleepy Hollow.

This movie really is a lot of fun.  Burton doesn’t take it too seriously as he applies his own dark comedy to the more violent, gruesome moments.  So, while the Horseman is chasing down and chopping off the heads of hapless victims, there’s usually a humorous quirk in there, but Burton keeps it in check.  He never allows it to compromise the dramatic integrity of the story, and instead sort of does it at Ichabod’s expense, which is entirely fitting.  Said story has plenty of mysterious aura and thrilling moments of tense horror and suspense.  The Horsemen, head or no, is very scary and intimidating.  He’s mercilessly violent and very smart.  There are superbly executed plot twists that are never cheap.  This is a smartly crafted screenplay which weaves its way around these solidly conceived characters.  The secrets and manipulations abound under the surface of this quiet village make for a fertile ground for this sort of story.  How everything is unraveled in the end is quite wicked.

That said, this has a hell of a great climax with plenty of fiery action and dramatic revelations.  Characters are kept in serious peril as it becomes a race to save lives while the Horseman in unleashed once again.  Action and suspense build up to a highly energetic and exciting level, and the pay-off is quite ironic and fitting.  It is all very satisfying tying up all the plot and character threads with that classic Tim Burton wit and charm.

This is a beautifully crafted film in every aspect.  It’s a visual masterwork backed by an excellent script written by the deeply talented Andrew Kevin Walker with a story co-developed by Kevin Yagher.  The latter of the two also worked on the creature effects here, and doing a remarkable job at it, too.  There are many tried and true Tim Burton talents who were involved with this film which instilled it with an amazing depth of artistry and talent.  The film definitely delivers on exciting tension and fearsome scares with a light air of dark, quirky humor.  It also weaves an enchanting love story through its haunting and startling mystery.  I really, really like Sleepy Hollow because, beyond everything else, it’s just a fun watch with plenty to take pleasure in.  This is truly one of Tim Burton’s finest outings, and I’m glad that Johnny Depp was along for the ride.  They both do a brilliant job through every frame of this film.  I give Sleepy Hollow my full recommendation.  It’s more than worth your while.


Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stir of Echoes (1999)

This film was based on the novel A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson, and David Koepp, the screenwriter and director, made a hell of solid and smart thriller out of it.  Koepp has plenty of fine credits to his name ranging from generally good to great films.  While there are a few black marks on his filmography, he showcases a vast amount of solid talent with this nicely crafted supernatural thriller that is Stir of Echoes.

Tom Witzy (Kevin Bacon) lives with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and his son Jake (Zachary David Cope) in Chicago.  They live in a neighborhood with a good reputation, but at a party with a bunch of his neighbors, the narrow-minded Tom dares his open-minded sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), to hypnotize him.  She does, but when she implants a post-hypnotic suggestion for him to ‘open his mind’, he begins to see disturbing and confusing visions.  His son has an imaginary friend called Samantha (Jennifer Morrison), but Tom soon realizes that she is not imaginary.  She is the ghost of a young girl that is now terrifying and driving Tom towards strange ends.  As the horrific visions intensify, Tom realizes they are pieces of a puzzle, echoes of a crime calling out to be solved, but when his other-worldly nightmares begin coming true, Tom wants out.  He desperately tries to rid himself of his eerie, unwanted powers – only to be seized by an irresistible compulsion to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery that is consuming his life.

Kevin Bacon absolutely does an incredible job in this role.  He really absorbed himself into it adopting a subtle Chicago accent and a textured blue collar working man appearance.  His physicality is very raw, and it helps that he seemed to be in excellent, lean shape for this film.  He pushes the performance through every fiber of his body with a powerful nervous energy and charisma that is electrifying.  Bacon portrays the increasing obsession and near psychotic behavior amazingly well.  His manic intensity becomes scary like he is going off the deep end, which is quite the truth.  On the flip side, he shows the heart of Tom Witzy with a lot of genuine depth.  Beneath this crazed obsession, he is a deeply caring husband and father with a touching levity of heart.  It’s good to see the real man before this psychic awakening occurs, and thus, we get full context on how drastically he changes and what he’s jeopardizing with his crazed behavior.  There’s ultimately a lot of compassion and humanity in this man who starts out with a bit of an abrasive attitude.

Playing perfectly off of Kevin Bacon is Kathryn Erbe.  She also shows a strong range from loving, bright wife and mother to woman of fire and conviction when Tom goes further out of control.  Erbe and Bacon have very honest and heart-filled chemistry which is a main strength of the movie.  Zachary David Cope was a fine young actor here.  While he has an appropriate innocence and cuteness, he proves to have a mindful intelligence to portray the nuances of the role.  Acting opposite thin air to an unseen ghost is definitely a challenge, but Cope really showed a lot of promise here.  Sadly, it was only second and last film acting role.  The remainder of the cast does equally fine jobs building up a realistic community of dimension characters that ground the film very firmly.

Stir of Echoes is definitely a spooky and startling film with a tight pace.  It keeps a nice unsettling atmosphere going as Tom is very unnerved following his hypnotic awakening.  As the visions begin inflicting more graphic images upon Tom, the more freaked out he gets, and the more the tension of the film rises.  It’s an entertaining and fascinating descent into manic hysteria which just drives the film’s suspense and danger to a more chilling height.  When the film hits those peaks, it gets the heart pounding very strongly.  It winds itself up to a frightening full head of steam once the third act slams itself upon the audience.  While it’s not a rousing climax that is practically horror-based, it definitely resolves itself properly.  It builds upon the more underlying qualities of the film, namely the characters and the community they inhabit.

Thus, I really like the character driven strength of this supernatural thriller.  It’s a ghost story that doesn’t boil down to defeating an evil specter, but instead, helping find justice for an innocent soul.  Showing the quality of this seemingly tight knit Chicago neighborhood plays an important role in the story, and it’s nicely developed and demonstrated to ultimately explore the heart and soul of these people, no matter where they might lie.

Admirably, this film boasts some very good visual effects.  From the ghoulish effects to make Samantha a frightening apparition to the hypnosis sequence in the theatre, these are all consistently top notch effects.  The ghostly make-up effects work done on actress Jennifer Morrison are very haunting and unsettling.  She did a fine job in that aspect as well as the living Samantha in the flashbacks late in the film.  She was a very sweet, shy young woman that is a worthy of the sympathy and tragic value put on the character.  While the “shot in reverse” movement is a clichéd trick to give a creepy quality to her ghost, it is still very effective.

Now, I also have to admit I find a bit of pleasing notoriety from the theatre scenes when Lisa hypnotizes Tom.  They were shot at the Rialto Theatre in Joliet, Illinois where my high school graduation was held the year before this film’s release.  I really love that the filmmakers shot on location throughout the Chicago area bringing a real authentic feel to the neighborhood and other locations.  There’s one shot where Tom’s up on a telephone pole making a call to Lisa, and it pulls back to reveal the Chicago River and Metra trains rolling by.  It’s a location I am very familiar with, and it just creates an honest sensibility that I commend.  Chicago really is a diverse and beautiful city that deserves to be shown off more prominently in film and television, and this is a small gem that takes pleasant, if small advantage of that.

While David Koepp is the sole on-screen credit for the screenplay, there was some work on it done by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en).  So, I would like to share my praise for the quality of the script with them both.  I’ve never read Richard Matheson’s novel that this was based on, but Koepp and Walker clearly had an intelligent foundation to build upon.  The story never goes for cheap clichés of the genre, and instead, stays focused on its smart supernatural thriller path.  The film makes it a point that it is very focused on Tom Witzy from early on, and the script follows that path very steadily.  It keeps the audience in tune with what he’s experiencing, and we are able to relate to him even when he becomes more irrational and brazen.  He’s intensely driven to uncover whatever it is he needs to in order to shut these psychics visions down.  He himself becomes connected with Samantha, even if he doesn’t entirely know what his purpose in all this is.  So, we follow him on this haunting journey that is exceptionally well executed by David Koepp.  It surely helps this film that there was a highly effective score put together by the immensely talented James Newton Howard.

While this turned out to be a bit shorter review than I usually post, I think the quality of Stir of Echoes has been well conveyed.  It’s not a very complex story, but it lacks no depth of character or scares.  It won’t slam bang you with horror, but it has a solid atmosphere, some startling, graphic imagery, and air of compelling supernatural mystery that is very satisfying.  Seeing the film is worthwhile for Kevin Bacon’s exceptional and amazing performance alone.  He really showed a very wide breadth of talent and commitment here that I find incredible.  The only iffy aspect is that I’m sure the climax would feel stronger if there was an actual supernatural element added into it instead of a straight physical confrontation.  However, I’ll say again that it suits the more character based sensibility of the story, which is somewhat refreshing to see, and does support the idea of needing a living person to resolve things instead of a vengeful spirit stalking and killing people.  So, I certainly do not knock the climax one bit, but an audience could feel like a little extra punch was desired after all the spooky paranormal happenings throughout the film.  There’s just not much of a climactic pay-off for the scary elements in the film.  Overall, I do highly recommend Stir of Echoes as a smart and suspenseful film that has some refreshing turns on the old ghost stories premise.


Sinister (2012)

I rarely go see horror films theatrically because, mostly, today’s horror genre just hasn’t been my style.  The few times I go, it’s usually a general letdown.  However, the trailers for Sinister were effectively suspenseful and scary to where I had to work up some courage to see it.  And now, after having seen it, yeah, I wasn’t courageous enough for it.  This is a damn good horror movie, one of the scariest I’ve ever seen.

Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true crime novelist who has moved his family into the house where a grisly family murder once took place.  He hides this fact from his wife and two children, but the locals know the home’s history, especially law enforcement.  The town’s Sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) even attempts to convince Ellison to pack his things up and leave right away, but he is not deterred as writing this book maybe the one big paycheck he needs to get his family back on their feet, again.  When Ellison discovers a box of mysterious, disturbing home movies depicting a series of family murders dating back to the 1960s, he believes they are all connected to the one he intends to write about.  However, what he doesn’t realize is that he has just plunged his family into a nightmarish experience of supernatural horror.  The evil that claimed the lives of these families is now threatening them.

I just have to start out with the fact that this film choked me up with tension and suspense so much, my heart was damn near pounding out my chest.  Even as the end credits rolled, I needed a few minutes to calm back down before standing up and leaving.  Sinister delivers on scary.  Usually, I view the word “scary” as a lightweight term, but here, I want to give it a full heavyweight treatment.  The film has a methodical pace.  It sets up the creepy atmosphere from the very first shot, and it sent chills up and down me, as much of the film did.  I like that it slowly eases the audience into a supernatural ideal.  Ellison is repeatedly skulking through the darkness of his new house at increasingly louder and more overt noises.  While it got to being that I just wanted him to flick on a light switch, as most anyone would do in near pitch black chasing weird sounds around the house, the sequences are just hair raising suspense at its finest.  These sequences gradually build upon one another until the supernatural element is impossible to deny, and becomes far more intimidating as they occur.  The biggest chill probably hits when Ellison is tracking the creeks around the house, and what he can’t see are the ghosts that are stalking him everywhere he goes.  Even the few false scares serve a purpose for the characters, and overall, every scare is sharply effective.  Sinister scared the hell out of me.  No other film has done that since The Strangers.

The story is smartly crafted setting up Ellison Oswalt’s situation hiding the truth of the house from his wife, his own struggles with whether he’s doing this for the financial security of his family, or just to bask in the spotlight, again.  There are nice moments where Ellison is watching old TV interviews from when he clearly had a more optimistic and altruistic attitude.  His younger self talks about how he writes these books for the sense of justice instead of money, and it shows just how desperate Ellison’s point of view has changed.  The decline his career has taken forces him to do something far more deceitful and amoral by moving his family into the house of a murdered family, and hiding that from them.  It puts more stress upon him, and eventually, coupled with the strain these snuff films put on him, he begins to drink quite frequently.  It pushes the inner turmoil to the surface, and further enhances the outer conflicts of the film.  Everyone can see there’s something troubling him beneath the surface, but he’s so hesitant to speak of it for fear that it will ruin his efforts with this book.  He might be selfish in that regard, but he’s not without conscience.

As Ellison views these Super 8mm films, we are right there with him feeling the gruesome, unspeakable horror that he is witnessing.  He is clearly disturbed by these films, and you can see the recoils and reluctance he has in sitting through them just for the sake of his book.  Beyond just seeing them, there’s the knowledge that every frame of film was shot by the murderer.  The killer wanted someone to see these as a foretelling omen of what will happen to them, and ultimately, the plot works this into the supernatural elements smartly and perfectly.  Ellison’s investigation is very smart as he uncovers more and more clues, revealing more detailed evidence as he digs deeper.  The film keeps the mystery alive all the time, and sucks you into it every step of the way.  As more is discovered, the more frightening everything becomes, and the danger increases with every passing night for the Oswalts.  The addition that their son Trevor has had night terrors for most of his life, and that it is acting up more than ever just builds upon the unsettling nature of the house, and the evil that is haunting and stalking them.  Of course, since Ellison is intent on keeping the truth of the house a secret for as long as possible, he refrains from taking more rational action to keep the family safe.  I also like that, early on, he has the impulse to call the police after watching the films, but backs away from it thinking about the best seller book he needs to write.  If he hands everything over to the cops, his book is inevitably done for, and he shies away from pursuing that course.  These actions never made him unlikable in my view as he is trying to do something that will financially put his family at ease, but eventually, he’s gone too far down this ill path for the police to realistically do anything.

Ethan Hawke really is damn good as Ellison Oswalt.  He’s in essentially every single scene, and gives a lot of dimension and relatability to the character.  Ellison is a caring father to both his kids showing deep concern for their well being, and always thinking about them, most of the time.  When it comes to his wife Tracy, portrayed strongly by Juliet Rylance, there is definite conflict.  She worries about his well being, fearing that he will become an emotional wreck, and fall down an ill path they’re both familiar with.  He tries to reassure her, and keep her away from the disturbing truth.  However, when the truth eventually gets out, the confrontational scene between them is immensely realistic.  The argument has a few bits of levity as Ellison spouts out pithy excuses for putting them into this situation, but ultimately, it’s a very emotionally visceral scene.  Hawke conveys the fear, turmoil, and horror of the character with powerful realism, and carries this film greatly, without a doubt.  It’s just an exceptional performance all the way through maintaining the humanity of the character, and Hawke keeps the tension and terror alive through his performance.

Juliet Rylance holds up equally well.  While she doesn’t get much chance to encounter the fear and horror of the film, she is a solid actress who has excellent chemistry with Ethan Hawke.  They both bring realistic depth to the history of their marriage, and the emotions that she puts in the role couldn’t be stronger.  Both child actors, Michael Hall D’Addario and Clare Foley, do an amazing and commendable job.  Every single performance in this film is very sternly rooted in reality, and both Michael and Clare bring likeability and a strong dramatic foundation to their characters.  As a whole, this family feels solidly cohesive and real with their own sets of unique problems and personalities.  It’s excellent casting and stellar acting through and through.

Fred Dalton Thompson’s always impressed me with his authoritative presence, and he brings some of that with a dash of genuine fairness that a Sheriff should have.  He only has two scenes, but he makes a solid impression on an audience.  He tells Ellison that he’s not much of a fan of his books, and doesn’t appreciate the criticism and ill attention he brings with him.  Yet, he proves his fairness in his second scene with a concern for the Oswalt family’s safety.

I also want to acknowledge the performance of James Ransome as the local Deputy.  What starts out as an awkward and somewhat star struck character becomes a guy you can take more seriously with a show of intelligence.  Being a fan of Ellison’s work, the Deputy offers to assist him with some research, and as he does, he becomes more wrapped up in the gruesome reality of these murders.  He notices the patterns of the crimes, and shows his worth as a capable police officer.  Ransome offers up a fine balance of low key charm and heart with an honest seriousness.  He becomes concerned for Ellison when things start to become more stressful and disturbing for him, and gives him some sound advice while never disputing the validity of anything Ellison has recently experienced.  It’s a surprising highlight of this film, and getting those few moments of perfectly pitched levity are very welcomed.

Beyond just the dark scenes at night, this is a visually dark film all the way around.  I’m not sure of why even the daytime scenes are masked in heavy shadow and even silhouettes, but it sure adds to the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of the film.  Nearly all of the film takes place in that house, and it hardly ever feels warm or inviting.  Every scene is given just enough light for the purposes of that scene, but does lack a natural quality since almost none of the indoor lights are ever used.  When it gets very dark, it’s only highlights to make out a face, a figure, or a doorway.  It’s highly effective, but again, it is a little bothersome that Ellison Oswalt never does just switch on a light to see what’s going on.  At least one scene has the power go out entirely, and he has to navigate via his cell phone flashlight.  Overall, it is an amazingly well shot film with just the right compositions and framing to service the various moods and tension.  The editing is damn good as well allowing shots to linger in order to build up that choked up suspense waiting for the next chilling moment to unfurl itself upon your senses.

All throughout the movie, the score was shockingly powerful and effective.  When I saw the end credits, I knew why the score so fucking good.  It was done by Christopher Young.  This is the man who created the powerful and iconic scores for the first two Hellraiser movies.  For Sinister, he cranks up the nail biting, skin crawling, electrifyingly suspenseful music higher than ever before.  The tension gets so thick because of his prominent and intense score.  This is a masterwork of horror soundtracks that enhances every moment exponentially by its presence.  While a few of the clicks and clacks in certain scenes were a bit distracting, overall, this is nerve racking brilliance.  It’s especially effective over the Super 8 film clips which have no sound of their own.  So, it’s just the gritty visuals with this verbose score playing over them, and it just couldn’t be anymore heart pounding than it was.

This really is a horror film that treats its audience with maturity and intelligence.  The investigation aspect doesn’t have Ethan Hawke explaining every little detail to you.  It trusts in your attention to detail and intellect to put the pieces together.  Thus, it never gets redundant.  It keeps moving forward, and gives you enough information to keep you in sync with Ellison Oswalt.  You process things as he does, and the pace of the film allows you to do so.  Vincent D’Onofrio uniquely portrays Professor Jonas, a local expert on occult crime at the local university, and he is able to shed light on the occult symbols Ellison discovers in the film footage.  He explains what they all mean, and possibly what supernatural entity is stalking his family and is responsible for all these murders.  This aspect of the film is very smartly conceived and executed.  It’s another part of that gradual building of the supernatural elements.  You’re not bludgeoned with them from the start.  They subversively creep into the film until it saturates it completely.  It’s beautiful work that not enough horror filmmakers strive for these days.  There’s practically no gore, but plenty of graphic imagery to have you recoiling in terror.

Sinister is frightening to no end hitting you with shocking imagery and chilling sequences that are still sending a shiver over me as I type this.  The very last shot of the film is a very unnecessary jump scare, and I imagine it was just the filmmakers wanting to get that extra punch in at the end.  Still, that could’ve been done with a strong music cue, but I won’t fault the film over that cheap bit.  In a horror film so well crafted, I can afford them that much.  I am quite surprised that this was directed by Scott Derrickson who, a long time ago, directed the direct-to-video failure that was Hellraiser: Inferno.  Oddly, I caught a few minutes of it on cable the night before seeing Sinister.  It’s a gigantic leap forward in talent and skill that I couldn’t admire more.  Derrickson also co-wrote the Sinister screenplay with Christopher Robert Cargill, who is actually a movie critic.  So, it’s quite pleasing to see this sort of combination work so successfully.  Simply said, this is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time, and I strongly encourage you to go see it!  I don’t think you could at all be disappointed in it.  It’s likely to scare you right out of your skin.


Lord of Illusions (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Constantine (2005)

I very much love this film, and count it as an all time favorite.  I saw it twice in the theatre in 2005 because I was very much enthralled by the concept of the film and the excellent execution of all its characters and ideas.  It has since remained a strong favorite of the genre for me, and has driven my fandom of John Constantine further.  I was not knowledgeable about him before seeing this adaptation, but in the years since then, I have become a fan.  In the Hellblazer comics from DC / Vertigo, he was a blonde Englishman created by the widely revered Alan Moore and visually based off of Sting, the front man for The Police.  Obviously, that does not fit the description of Keanu Reeves, who portrays the title character as a dark haired American in Los Angeles, and there are numerous other changes here that deviate from the source material.  That inevitably irritated numerous hardcore Hellblazer fans, but since this was my introduction to him, I can allow both versions to co-exist in my fandom.   There are many reasons why I highly love this film including its gorgeous visual style, the world it showcases, and the potential of the characters.

It is said that whoever possesses the Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in their hands, and the Spear of Destiny has just been found and put into the hands of evil influences.  In Los Angeles, exorcist and occult detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) begins to see foreboding signs of something big and unfriendly coming with demons forcing their way into our world, but at the same time, the anti-social chain smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer.  It’s not so much the diagnosis that troubles him as the knowledge of where he’s going.  John was born with a gift he didn’t want, the ability to clearly recognize the half-breed angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin, and Constantine was driven to take his own life to escape the tormenting clarity of his vision, but he failed.  Now, marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life, the bitter hard-drinking, hard-living Constantine seeks a reprieve from his Hellbound fate.  He patrols the earthly border between heaven and hell, hoping in vain to earn his way to salvation by sending the devil’s foot soldiers back to the depths.  Unfortunately, he gains no absolution from the half-breed angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), and no consolation from strenuous allies such as the ominous former witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou).  They all adhere to “The Balance” which keeps half-breeds from directly interfering in human affairs in order to settle a wager between God and the Devil for the souls of all mankind.  When desperate but skeptical LAPD Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her beloved psychic twin sister, their investigation pushes them deep into a subversive plot to use the Spear of Destiny to bring forth an evil that threatens to destroy humanity.  Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events, the two become inextricably involved, and seek to find their own peace at whatever cost.

Director Francis Lawrence came from a music video background, and that can be hit or miss when moving to feature films.  However, Lawrence’s background was clearly a benefit as he injects a very powerful and epic visual style into this film.  Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot realizes that immersive vision brilliantly.  His composition is rock solid creating very engaging visuals that pull an audience into the story and characters.  There is depth to spare in his frames, and plenty of grace and integrity in how he shoots everything.  There’s never any handheld camera work.  It’s all fluid movement that contributes to the overall enveloping otherworldly tone of the picture.  The use of color temperatures is very key to the atmosphere as it accentuates the dramatic tones throughout with a vibrant palette.  This is a gracefully shot film with great attention to creating a unique atmosphere and tone in its visuals.

The overall quality of the visual effects are stunning.  They are exceptionally consistent and of an amazing high quality.  From subtle effects like the fiery glint in the eyes of demons to the enveloping landscape of the Hell version of Los Angeles, they create a complete, rich, textured, and full world for John Constantine to exist within that is truly convincing.  The fearsome demonic creatures seen throughout are designed with consistency and originality.  This feels like a world with its own weathered history, and attention is paid to every detail to present it as such.  The entire “into the light” effect in the climax is awesome as the shadows are literally pulled away to force the evil presence into view.  There is never just one effect used over and over again as a crutch.  The film is full of vibrant effects that give the film its fantastical flare.  Overall, every effect is just executed and presented with amazing artistry complementing Francis Lawrence’s vision beautifully.

I also very highly enjoy the score to Constantine.  It has a great atmospheric, haunting electronic style that further fleshes out the otherworldly quality of the film, but still incorporates plenty of traditional score elements that punctuate the rousing, dramatic sequences as well as the softer, more intimate emotions of the film.  Composers Klaus Badelt & Brian Tyler put together one hell of a unique musical accomplishment with this.  I’ve never heard a score quite like this before, and it works so amazingly well.  There is a great use of melody all throughout which enhances the emotional depth that this film is truly rich with.  This is definitely a film that takes a different approach to things to give an audience a very distinctive identity for an all encompassing experience.  The addition of the song “Passive” from A Perfect Circle is wicked cool in my opinion.  It truly set a great tone entering into Papa Midnite’s club.

These enveloping elements wrap together to create a very rich story with a tone full of integrity and gravity.  It can be a very haunting and scary film that uses horror elements at times, but is best categorized as a supernatural dark fantasy action film.  The action in the film are not big set pieces with spectacular stunts.  John’s not some bad ass action hero who can slug it out with a demon.  Instead, he uses his occult and demonic knowledge as well as his skills as a con artist to help him win battles.  He fights smart using the tools he has acquired which exploit the weaknesses of his enemies such as holy water, Moses’ shroud, a pair of Holy Cross brass knuckles, dragon’s breath, and various eclectic items provided to him by his allies.

This story is partially inspired by the Dangerous Habits comics storyline, which I have read.  There’s little directly adapted from that story, and is more just taking the premise of Constantine being diagnosed with lung cancer and having to cope with that.  How he deals with it and the resolutions of the comic and the film are very different, but both greatly show off John’s cunning skill as a con artist to varying degrees.

Constantine himself is very fascinating, and I think this version of him is well portrayed by Keanu Reeves.  I am quite a big fan of his work ranking Point Break as one of my absolute favorite films ever.  I find his work quite enjoyable, and he has some highly impressive acting ability.  I think his approach tends to be more subtle, and with Constantine, he really drives home a very diverse character.  Reeves showcases Constantine’s jaded personality with depth and purpose.  He brings out that worn down, weathered texture that makes the character so intriguing and surprising.  He can be an outright asshole because he’s been both plagued by the knowledge he has about the world around him, and that he’s destined to spend eternity in Hell, regardless of what he does.  He’s tired and frustrated by these rules that these so-called “higher beings” have imposed upon humanity for their own sport, and he knows there’s little he can do to combat that.  Keanu gives the character enough edge while still maintaining an underlying sense of humanity which evolves through the film.  As the story goes along, he becomes more and more invested in Angela as a person instead of just her being a cog in a larger plot.  You gradually see the bond form between the characters, and how that starts to drive John’s actions.  There’s a pivotal shift in there where he stops sulking in his own pain and starts seeing Angela’s.  He sees her regret and how far she’s willing to go to mend it.  John can still be an asshole, but ultimately, it’s just to those that deserve it.  Reeves portrays these subtle and strong emotional beats powerfully showing that there’s more to Constantine beyond that spiteful, embittered exterior.

Another subtle part of John that’s retained from the comics is how his friends constantly pay the price for his battles.  In the comics, John is haunted by the ghosts of his dead friends, and the screenwriters slipped a brief line in here about John not needing another ghost following him around.  So, it’s no wonder that he’s as cynical and jaded as he is, but it’s also these circumstances which drive him to fight.  He challenges everyone on their egotistical or hypocritical behavior, and allows no one to slide.

However, the arc for the character takes him from being a self-serving person who fights evil for his own sake to someone that does the right thing for the sake of others.  It takes nothing away from the hardened core of the character, it just makes him an actual hero by the end.  That is helped immensely by Rachel Weisz’s emotionally impactful performance.  Reeves and Weisz had previously worked together on the 1996 film Chain Reaction as love interests, and perhaps that added a stronger chemistry between them.  In this film, their chemistry is exceptionally solid and tight.  They have great back-and-forth dialogue with sharp timing and rich character dynamics.  Angela is also easily able to stand up to John’s abrasive attitude which is a welcomed quality.  Weisz strongly portrays the more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable counter-balance of the story.  This allows an audience to have a relatable conduit into the character of John Constantine and his supernatural world.  Rachel Weisz is an incredible actress showcasing a wide range of abilities here.  She is remarkably powerful bringing out the emotional pain that Angela has deep within.  However, while Angela is vulnerable, she is a police detective, and thus, Weisz never makes her appear helpless or incapable of defending herself.  She has a definite strong will and confidence about her mixed in with a grounded, engaging charm.  It’s simply that the character been impacted by tragic events, and is thrust into a potentially frightening scenario which brings out those fearful or unstable elements in her.  Weisz handles it all with dramatic weight and grace.

It is also immensely impressive how strong the supporting cast is in Constantine.  Djimon Hounsou has such an awesome presence as the witch doctor turned night club owner Papa Midnite.  His deep voice and subtle charisma give weight and gravity to his performance.  He can be greatly imposing and intimidating without even standing up in his initial scene.  Hounsou and Reeves spark a fascinating chemistry.  They play the characters with a sense of shared history which has its turbulent areas which causes friction and some antagonism between them.  The screenwriters had a good philosophy of the best way to convey exposition about a character is to show them working.  You get to know more about Midnite and Constantine through what they do and how they go about doing it than can really be conveyed through straight dialogue interactions.  This is showcased beautifully in the sequence with “The Chair” which allows John to see the path the Spear of Destiny has taken recently, and to find out where Angela has been taken.  It’s a manner of operating alluding to information that is necessary for them to know to do what they need to do, but is not necessary to be spelled out for the audience.  This further reflects the sense that this a world with a long, textured history between characters, and it is presented in a very smart way that never bogs down the film with extraneous exposition.  Midnite himself has a very pleasing arc in the story that ultimately shows Hounsou’s range and charm.  He makes the character very fascinating, imposing, but ultimately, highly pleasing.

Tilda Swinton is immaculately graceful and elegant as the half-breed angel Gabriel.  The filmmakers chose to go with an androgynous quality for the character, and absolutely wanted Swinton for the role.  They chose incredibly well.  Her performance has a gentle compassion that eventually turns into a subtle megalomaniacal mindset.  She also has an ethereal aura and presence about her that is pitch perfect.  It’s a nice dynamic when Constantine goes to see her with him ranting and calling out the hypocrisy at hand, but she offers up a very warm, motherly tone with him.  They are both trying to make each other see things from their perspective, and neither is entirely in the right.  There is a very aristocratic, snobbish mentality from Gabriel that John can’t stomach, and it works so exceptionally well for this character.  It’s such a remarkable performance that the words to describe it in depth escape me.

Now, this film was before Shia LeBouf started grating on peoples’ nerves, but here, there’s enough heart and charm with him as Chas to make his performance a pleasure.  Chas is spirited and driven to be given the chance to be of real assistance to Constantine instead of just his personal cab driver, but John just knows the danger of allowing him to do so.  Yet, Chas is eventually given the chance to show his worth.  As with everyone else, the chemistry is dead on the mark perfect.  Gavin Rossdale’s turn as the demon Balthazar is oozing with charisma.  He relishes being engulfed in evil, and that delicious smarmy arrogance just pours out over the screen.  The tension and spite between him and John is thick as can be.  You can’t help but love and hate him all at the same time.  All of the actors throughout the film really inhabited their characters with exceptional commitment and nuance, and came together as a cohesive whole to deliver something diverse and marvelous.

Of course, there is Peter Stormare’s magnificent performance as Lucifer himself.  There have been so many portrayals of the Devil over the years in cinema from some massively talented actors, and each portrayal has been unique.  Stormare takes unique to a whole new level here.  The physicality alone is unsettling as if he’s trying to uncomfortably fit back into a human form like it’s an old out of shape body suit, and it results in some peculiar and tense nervous energy.  The look is striking enough without devolving into shock.  The shaved eyebrows and shorn haircut along with the tattoos really present a standout visual that separates Lucifer from everyone else in the film.  Stormare takes all of this to forge a weirdly eccentric Devil that doesn’t need to flaunt an ego or boast of his power.  His creepy, chilling presence sells everything.  The addition of the pure white suit and bare feet was a nice touch, and it really fits the visual aesthetics of the film.

While I have nothing against a well done origin, it is very commendable that this is not an origin story spending a large percentage of the film showing how Constantine became the man he is today.  His back story is not even revealed until well into the second act as we get to know it alongside Angela, and allusions to other shared histories are sprinkled throughout.  The film treats its audience as intelligent by not having to explain every little thing.  It presents a world, gradually lays out the general parameters of how it works, and then, allows it to envelop the audience.  I like this approach for the character because there is a lot of John Constantine history that is very relevant to the character, but it would be nigh impossible to hit all the poignant marks to develop him fully in a two hour film.  Starting a film series here is very interesting because it takes John from the jaded, weathered depths to someone more purposeful and formidable.  It is a greatly executed arc wrapped up in a strong plotline backed by some excellent talents in front of and behind the camera.

It seems hard to judge where this movie stands in terms of general consensus.  It’s not one of those comic book movies everyone talks about, or includes on the list of the best or worst adaptations.  I seem to perceive this as a film that had good commercial success, but tends to get overlooked for no apparent reason.  Professional critics were divided on it, but the thing with critics is that they get paid to go see movies they are not always pre-disposed to enjoy.  This was a movie that appealed to my tastes via its marketing, and it did blow me away.  Again, the hardcore fans of Hellblazer likely had their passionate gripes with all the changes made to the established elements of the property, but it’s not a bad film at all.  It’s exceptionally well made from a filmmaker with great vision and artistry, and features an amazing cast that put their all into it.  From an objective point of view, it’s a greatly entertaining and satisfying film.  It has plenty of interesting action, an excellently crafted world, fantastic, stunning visual effects, a unique and fascinating score, and is just generally well written all the way around.  I really love this film, and I love what I’ve read in the Hellblazer trade paperbacks.  Both offer me something different but equally satisfying to my tastes for supernatural horror and dark fantasy.  If you’re unfamiliar with the property, this film can ease you into the heavier subject matter and grittier feel of the comics, but they are two unmistakably different presentations on the characters and the world they inhabit.  Taking the film on its own merits, it’s a highly imaginative, excellent piece of work that is worth investing your time and interest in.