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Posts tagged “suspense

The Conjuring (2013)

The ConjuringWhen I woke up this morning, I didn’t even have this movie in my mind, but a great endorsement by another review motivated me to switch off the spoiler filled review and look up showtimes.  The Conjuring is directed by James Wan, the man behind Saw and Insidious, a couple of horror films I have yet to see, but I’m more motivated to do so now, especially the latter.  When a director demonstrates the level of tight grasp on taut, wicked suspense and horror that Wan does here, it puts him emphatically on my radar.

Based on a true story, the film tells the horrifying tale of how world renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Verma Farmiga) were called upon to help a family, the Perrons, terrorized by a dark presence in a secluded farmhouse.  Forced to confront a powerful demonic entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.

I love many kinds of horror from slashers films to vampire flicks and beyond, but what really gets me excited is a film like this.  A film that is all about the careful art of suspense and tension, and just thinking about what this film does to an audience gives me chills now.  As with any “based on a true story” movie, there are potentially some embellishments from the filmmakers for dramatic or storytelling effect.  Thus, that can allow an audience to slip a suspension of disbelief into this viewing experience.  However, whether it’s all dead bang true or not, this movie is terrifying as living hell.  My heart was pounding for five minutes after the film ended.  James Wan is clearly a master at this craft because I’ve rarely seen anything this well executed.  There is so much he doesn’t show you that utterly chokes the breath right out of your throat.  He uses the pitch black dark corners of a house, making you project your own anticipations and imaginations into what lurks there.  What these people say they are seeing will stand your hair on end, and when eventually Wan does reveal something to you, it will set your nerves on fire and jump start your heart like nothing else.  Yet, this is not a film of jump scares.  Every terror is subtly and brilliantly crafted and entirely earned.  Things don’t just jump out of the darkness at you, they creep their way in under your skin, and scare the crap out of you.  Wan does such a remarkable job showing you just enough to creep you out, and have the tension choke you up.  A demonic face will ease its way into the frame, but will smartly cut to the next shot, keeping you on edge.

The film does have moments that could have been false jump scares, if handled by a much lesser filmmaker, but this film has so much better stuff waiting for you that it doesn’t need to fall back on cheap tactics.  This film starts out ready to slam the fear factor into full gear.  From the guy who made Dead Silence, it’s no wonder that a creepy, demonic doll jump starts the looming, pounding terror, and weaves its way back into the film later on.  I just love that Ed Warren knows the doll is so dangerous, he has to keep it in a glass case with a sign that says, “Positively do not open,” in a room full of demonic artifacts completely out in the open.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga do an amazing job as Ed and Lorraine Warren, respectively.  You can tell these are two people who have been through some intense circumstances because their bond is extraordinarily strong.  All of these people, based on real life individuals, feel like fully dimensional, deeply human people.  The emotions are strong, and the depth of belief in one another between Ed and Lorraine shows that a rare love would have to exist to keep these two people together through the hell they have experienced, first hand.  Ed cares deeply for her safety after a terrifying exorcism incident really traumatized Lorraine, but seeing her strength constantly show through is amazing.  If this is at all an honest representation of these two legendary paranormal investigators, my respect goes out to them just for their unwavering dedication to one another and what they do.

This film does a great job of balancing the story between the Warrens and the Perron family.  Both of their stories are being told side-by-side and are interconnected.  The fact that this entity latches onto both families compounds their problems makes for a greatly more intense story, and Lorraine getting more and more visions that frighten the hell out her just drives the terror forward incredibly intense.

Lili Taylor is taken on a real rollercoaster ride, and she handles it incredibly well.  As Carolyn, she’s a wonderful mother and wife, but as these horrific experiences befall her and her children, Taylor sells the fear with grave importance.  She and Ron Livingston work very naturally together, and no one here feels cheated on character or substance.  All of the daughters are magnificently portrayed by an array of solid young actresses.  Everyone feels like a real human being, and have very realistic chemistry and dynamics amongst them.  Joey King has an amazing moment of paralyzing terror seeing something terrifying in the shadows that is never revealed to us.  There is solid talent all throughout this cast that is absolutely impressive creating a very grounded, convincing realism to this extraordinary series of events.

The Conjuring also looks excellent as James Wan works with his regular cinematographer John R. Leonetti.  They use light and especially shadow to brilliant effect.  Few horror films really utilize the unseen mystery of darkness remotely as well as this film does.  There are many moments where light bulbs are busted out, or very little light is present down to a mere match lighting up a whole creepy, spider web filled basement.  It puts you so precariously on edge that you don’t know where or when the terror will come at you through that thick blackness.  The cinematography really starts to get stylistic, in very good ways, during the climax.  Many unique angles and good movement is utilized to surprising, clever effect.  Yet, overall, the film is shot wonderfully never trying to distract or dazzle you with frenetic movement.  Instead, there’s a lot of great still shots and flowing steadicam work to make this feel like this is a horror film with its feet firmly planted in the ground.  It would’ve been easy for another filmmaker to make this feel like a 1970’s movie with a lot of film grain and handheld camera work, but again, this film doesn’t need much in the way of stylistic visuals to be amazingly effective.

And the score is greatly crafted and perfectly utilized.  Most commonly used is a very low rumble that will rattle you with an ominous, foreboding feeling.  The score never tries to over accentuate the scares.  It’s right there in line with the intensity of the moment, and only strikes out at you when needed.  This is a horror film that knows the value of silence, and the right time to tweak your nerves in the right direction with an appropriate music cue.  You won’t find any clichés in the work of Joseph Bishara here.

And as any haunted house movie begs the question, this movie clearly answers why this family doesn’t just pack up and haul ass out of there.  They’ve poured all their money in this new home as a family of seven in a new area where they don’t know anyone else.  They have no alternative but to stay here.  Yet, even if they did, the film has that great hook that the demonic presence has latched onto them.  It doesn’t matter where they go, this thing is going to follow, and so, there is no escape.  They have to confront and defeat this entity in order to move on with their lives.  This is a horror film that has good doses of exposition, but it is handled so damn well that you are intently invested in every word that Ed or Lorraine relay to the Perrons.  We see all of this come greatly to a head in a riveting third act.

When things ultimately go all to hell, the film ramps up the intensity so damn tightly.  Anyone who has seen their fair share of horror films is quite familiar with the exorcism scene formula.  While The Conjuring doesn’t do anything that will revolutionize that aspect of horror, James Wan still executes it will a lot of artistic merit and vision.  Having the possessed individual covered in a sheet the entire time allows for the audience to project their frightening imaginations upon it, and think of just what this demonic entity is doing under there screaming and shrieking.  The house shakes, birds crash into the windows, things are going insane, and just when you think the calm is setting in, it’s only elevating to the next level.  There is so much hair-raising terror to be sucked into throughout this film, but I think it’s best sequence is when the Warrens’ daughter is being haunted by the entity and the possessed Annabelle doll from the opening sequence returns.  Just thinking about it sends chills all over me.  Typed words simply don’t do it justice.  This is a film designed to tighten your every muscle, and strain every nerve across your skin.  If you read my review of Sinister from last October, you’ll know how much that film scared me, and I would put The Conjuring right up next to that if not above it.  The heart pounding terror continues to amplify throughout the film, and even the final moment of the movie still gets you in a really smart way that is never cheap.  This is a high grade horror film with sophisticated filmmaking by a director who is clearly a master of the genre.

If you love being scared at the movies, and really enjoy something that is taut, chilling, and suspenseful, it is all here in The Conjuring.  This film will indeed scare the living hell out of you.  It is one of the most frightening horror films I’ve ever subjected myself to, and I look forward to being scared by it again and again.  You should absolutely go see this as long as you’re not weak of heart because it will put a toll on it, for sure.  This film earns every scare so brilliantly.  There is just so much great terror on intense display that I could never cover it all, and there is no way I would spoil a single scare for you.  Backed by a stunningly strong cast, especially in the case of Patrick Wilson and Verma Farmiga, you cannot go wrong with The Conjuring.  This movie keeps giving me chills thinking about it.  It is worth every penny you spend on your ticket and then some.  This is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years.  Based on this film alone, I am going to check out Insidious, and then, hopefully look forward to Insidious: Chapter 2 coming this September.

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Black Christmas (1974)

Black ChristmasMany attribute the birth of the slasher genre to John Carpenter’s Halloween.  However, a small Canadian film from 1974 laid the groundwork for the genre and especially Carpenter’s seminal classic.  Black Christmas is likely known to younger horror fans by way of the remake that I never saw.  You do yourself a serious disservice if you have never seen the original because it is still a greatly effective piece of horror filmmaking with a collection of surprisingly notable talents involved.  Who would have ever thought that the director of the beloved family film classic A Christmas Story would have once done a Christmas-themed slasher movie?

The college town of Bedford is receiving an unwelcome guest this Christmas.  As the residents of sorority house Pi Kappa Sig prepare for the festive season, a demonic stranger begins to stalk the house.  A series of grisly obscene phone calls start to plague the residents of the sorority and soon they will each meet their fate at the hands of the psychotic intruder.  As the Police try to trace the phone calls, they discover that nothing is as it seems.

Watching this film you will see right from the start its influence.  The killer, Billy, as he refers to himself, is hidden almost entirely throughout the film through the use of a point of view camera.  Clearly, this trick would be re-used in both Halloween and Friday The 13th, but neither achieves it quite as well as Black Christmas.  That’s because of what more is added to it in terms of the killer’s psychotic behavior.  Director Bob Clark creates an amazing sense of unease with the point of view camera work.  The wide angle lens coupled with the slightly unsteady camera movement reflects the psychosis of this killer.  The completely deranged phone calls are still frighteningly disturbing.  They got right under my skin from the start, and continue to escalate as the film progresses.  The radically unhinged psyche of this deranged killer is manically on display throughout the film, and Clark wastes no time establishing the nerve-racking suspense and horror.  The fact that we know there is a crazed killer hiding out in the attic, unknown to everyone in the film, immediately injects suspense and terror into nearly every scene in that house.  I will admit, it’s been a very long time since I’ve watched this film, and damn is it still insanely creepy and effective.

Black Christmas was an especially low budget film, and so, it has a rough, grainy quality.  However, it is photographed very solidly showing the talent involved, and even then, the rugged quality of the film stock adds to the dark, unsettling tone.  The pacing might feel slow to a certain audience, but this is not a film that drags along.  Every methodically paced moment is used to great suspenseful effect, and Bob Clark knows so immensely well how to elicit these spine tingling feelings.  Each scene builds story, character, or towards the terror of the picture.  Yet, the film still features a few fine moments of levity to give it a needed contrast on a rare occasion.  It also has a collection of stunningly solid talents in front of the camera.

Olivia Hussey is a wonderful lead portraying Jess with a lot of compassion and vulnerability.  Hussey has a sophistication and warmth to hear in addition to maturity and intelligence.  This builds Jess into a relatable character to worry about on multiple levels, and she plays terrified exquisitely well.  She also does feel like a woman coming into her own as Jess deals with her boyfriend Peter.  He wants to have a baby with her, but she’s against the idea creating a troubling friction between them.  You might think this is a frivolous subplot, but it directly ties into the mystery and paranoia about the film’s killer moving forward.  Keir Dullea, most well known from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is quite superb in this very conflicted and emotionally aggressive and unstable role.  He’s very intriguing to watch as the relationship between Peter and Jess is torn apart, and begins to become a perceived menacing threat.  Dullea and Hussey work exceptionally well with one another laying out the drama between them smartly and poignantly.

And yes, this film has John Saxon.  That automatically increases its coolness factor.  I just love the authority and weight he brings with him in anything I see from him.  As Lieutenant Fuller, he’s everything you’d expect – confident, level headed, and concise.  He really echoes this performance in A Nightmare On Elm Street, but surely builds upon that.  As Fuller, he’s rock solid, just the way I want my John Saxon, but still has a moment of two of levity that is very much welcomed.

Margot Kidder puts in a surprising performance.  Sorority sister Barb is meant to be rather crass and heartless, and Kidder hits that right on the mark.  Add in the constant smoking and drinking, and you’ve got a character that is not endearing.  Yet, she makes a definite impression.  The rest of the cast is not particularly notable, but everyone does a very solid job with their distinct characters.  They make this a horror film with likable characters who you can easily fear for as lethal danger stalks them from the shadows.

Black Christmas definitely feels like a 1970’s horror film.  Beyond the aforementioned dark, grainy look and the obvious fashion and hairstyles, this film has almost a similar style as The Exorcist.  There’s very little score except in exceptionally key moments as Bob Clark uses the silent unease of the house to great effect.  The phone calls are jarring enough without overcompensating with a score.  The use of the Christmas music sets the tone wonderfully using the serene sound in an unexpectedly haunting way.  Scenes like when our killer is stalking through the house while Christmas carolers sing outside is simply brilliant.  Juxtaposing these angelic voices with a moment of suspense and violence is truly inspired, and is filmed gorgeously.

There are terribly creepy moments all throughout such as seeing just a shadow creeping into the background while Jess is on the phone with the police, or simply anytime the POV shot has our killer spying on these young ladies from upstairs.  And the shot of the eye through the door jam has become iconic and chilling as it sets off the film’s final act.  And the climax is brilliantly crafted with a great use of shadow, misdirection, and taut tension.  Just when you believe all is laid to rest, this ending gives you one final ominous moment of terror.  Wrapping it all up together, you see the brilliant touches that Clark and screenwriter Roy Moore put into this film.  In later years, it likely would’ve been a film of high body count, gratuitous sex, and little character.  However, in the same year that brought us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you get a film that is very well written that connects you with these characters, gives you something to care about with them, and then, set them against a very deranged and unseen killer.  It is a film of great suspense and ratcheted up tension that will leave prone audiences choked up in their seats, and wanting to turn all the lights on in the house while checking every room and locking every door when its all over.

From Black Christmas, you can definitely see evocative elements for Halloween and When A Stranger Calls.  This is absolutely one of the most influential slasher films without many people knowing it.  Maybe the influence was a time or two removed, but this was the genesis of that genre in a clearly defined form.  This is a classic that doesn’t get the recognition it so very much deserves.  This was director Bob Clark’s final foray into the horror genre, and it’s odd to see his career veer into comedy in the 1980’s, then very silly and wretchedly received kid’s films in the final years of his life.  Regardless, we will always have this amazingly effective horror and suspense film to scare us on a dark, quiet evening.  As this film’s tagline says, “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… It’s on too tight!”


Deep Rising (1998)

Deep RisingThe recommendation to see this film came from an odd source.  An internet radio show discussion about the biggest box office bombs of all time.  Deep Rising did just over $11 million on a $45 million budget in 1998 with a cruddy January release date.  This was undoubtedly a major failure on behalf of the marketing campaign because, for me, this is a fun, exciting, scary, and action-packed film that is designed as a crowd pleaser.  This comes to us from Stephen Sommers whose follow-up would be the massively successful and entertaining The Mummy, and if you enjoyed that film I really believe Deep Rising should work just as well for you.

The most luxurious cruise liner in the world, owned by Simon Canton (Anthony Heald), is on her maiden voyage when it is damaged and attacked from beneath the sea.  Meanwhile, John Finnegan (Treat Williams) and his crew, who have a policy of “if the cash is there, we don’t care,” transport what turn out to be a band of ruthless hijackers who intend to seize and rob the cruise.  However, when they all arrive, they discover the passengers have mysteriously disappeared, but they are not alone.  Something is lurking behind every deck and passageway, snatching the intruders one by one, and they all now must fight together to escape with their lives.

What pleasantly hooked me first is the good cast.  It’s not a stunning set of acting jobs, but these are actors who were having fun with the material and strike a solid chemistry.  I’ve been seeing Treat Williams lately in television guest spots, but as a fatherly figure.  Him as more of an action centric lead was really good.  He demonstrates a fun, lively charisma that keeps you invested in how this plot unfolds.  He felt very capable and comfortable in this role, which was originally intended for Harrison Ford.  If you can think of Air Force One Harrison Ford, I’m sure the idea fits fine in your head, but Williams really does a superb job in this lead role.  One might expect having him and Famke Janssen billed as leads would add up to a particular romantic subplot.  There is a relationship built up between them, but the film doesn’t slow down for them to develop it in a traditional way.  It’s more of a bond built out of the intensity of the situation, but there’s some nice pay-off with them at the end.  They work well together equally carrying the weight of the action nicely.

Famke Janssen’s character, Trillian St. James, is a thief who tries to use slight of hand to slip into Canton’s vault early on, and really only survives due to being locked in the brig.  However, the character doesn’t have much to her after the thief plot has evaporated, and is certainly doesn’t show off Janssen’s incredible talent.  So, it’s not a film that’s going to go deep into characters like Die Hard, but the action moves fast enough that you don’t really notice it.  I also enjoyed the humor from Kevin J. O’Connor’s character of Joey, Finnegan’s fun and quirky mechanic.  Stephen Sommers would use him very regularly in his films from here on out, and I think O’Connor is a very good actor showing a range from serious roles like in Lord of Illusions to outright comedy in The Mummy.  It’s possible that not everyone would enjoy him as the comic relief, but for me, he’s a little charming and surely funny.  I never found him obtrusive as he definitely works well with Treat Williams, but also has some good adversarial dynamics with the mercenary characters.

Wes Studi portrays the mercenary leader Hanover to great effect.  The actor should be known to Michael Mann fans as he had a supporting LAPD role in Heat and a prominent role in The Last of the Mohicans.  Here, the work as Hanover is not as demanding, but he portrays a solid adversary who holds a tenuous allegiance through this harrowing scenario with Finnegan.  At anytime, he can be strictly in command, but he can be, usually, smart enough to know when to work side-by-side in order to survive.  The actors portraying his mercenaries are very good especially Trevor Goddard who was Kano in the live action Mortal Kombat movie.  I enjoyed him being in the movie so much that I wish he was in more of it.

I’m actually a big fan of Anthony Heald.  I’ve seen him on screen a few times on Law & Order and Miami Vice, but my fandom is more from his great voice work on various Star Wars audio books.  He’s got a lot of sly, ingenious talent, and he portrays Simon Canton very entertainingly.  As the film progresses, you learn some unsavory, underhanded things he’s done, and Heald plays up that aspect more and more.  He takes what appeared to be a very refined yet charismatic and cowardly character and deteriorate him into a despicable, enjoyably sleazy adversary.  He was fun to watch, and the film deals with its less desirable characters with a lot of satisfaction.  Overall, I think all of the actors do a good job as they seemed to all put their best foot forward for this fun thrill ride.

The pacing right out the gate is really solid.  It keeps moving forward at a tight rhythm and pace to rarely ever linger on any one scene.  This is aided by some signature Sommers humor that is sharp and succinct.  The actors all have really good chemistry to make this work, and Sommers maintains the right balance to not sacrifice good tension and terror for laughs.  Still, I was thinking about halfway through the runtime how the film was going to keep up this survival / escape plan plot for another fifty minutes, but it throws in a number of smart turns, dangerous obstacles, and thrilling sequences to achieve that.  Sommers keeps the film rolling forward with a lot of momentum, and of course, people get picked off one-by-one escalate the peril.  Sommers gives us a fine melding of horror and action with enough to satisfy whatever you primarily desire more.  Plenty of people get killed and eaten in bloody fashion, and there’s more than enough gunplay and fiery explosions to amp up the excitement.  Yet, overall, it’s just fun without taking itself too seriously.

By no doubt, this is a fairly simple plot.  Deep Rising starts out as a covert heist mission on the sea, but intriguingly twists into a sea monster movie that requires everyone to fight to survive.  Why they don’t just haul ass out of there is handled well as Finnegan’s boat needs hull and engine repairs.  Yet, it’s not a simple task getting out of the luxury cruise liner as danger awaits at every turn and in every flooded deck.  Even then, not everyone between Finnegan’s crew and these mercenaries can trust one another, and that plays nicely into keeping the adventure treacherous.  This felt like a nice mix of The Poseidon Adventure and Aliens with a little dash of Die Hard for the thieves / mercenaries plot.  I just really liked the close quarters feel of the ship which also reminded me of Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, but achieved with better results.  There really is so much potential for a suspenseful movie set in that environment, and this film really delivered that to my satisfaction.

Still, as I was watching this I was waiting for something to pop up on screen to justify this film’s box office reputation.  Just something stupid or low grade.  I was enjoying it so much that I was expecting the CGI to be really bad, but quite frankly, in general, this is particularly good for the late 90’s.  It’s rather on par with the digital effects in The Mummy for the most part, and the sea creature itself is impressively designed.  That design is courtesy of Rob Bottin who was responsible for the groundbreaking and timeless creature effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing.  There’s some traces of that in here, but Bottin is able to make it its own distinct creation.  Tentacles are everywhere, and the long jagged teeth springing out from it are frightening.  The tentacles frequently slither out from nowhere, or bust out from the hull or metal corridors.  Sommers does a great job building up tension and suspense by gradually unveiling the creature.  We get small glimpses of it, and even when you think you’ve seen it in all of its slimy, ferocious glory, the climax gives you the Coup de grâce.  There are plenty of fun scares and thrills in how these dangerous scenarios unfold from well crafted tension to straight out intense action beats.

The action all around is just great with a really great, slick, high octane finale, and all of those thrills, tension, and intensity are well fleshed out with Jerry Goldsmith’s score.  It just has a great driving rhythm and rousing, dramatic momentum to it, clearly reflecting the movie right on the mark.  I didn’t expect Goldsmith’s name to be attached to this movie, but he really did deliver something solid that played up the strengths of it.  It’s never going to amongst his revered legacy of work, but he did his job perfectly with this score by giving it just what it required.

Held together by some solid cinematography that always keeps the geography of these close quarters very coherent, and editing that maintains that consistent rhythm and tempo, I really have to say Stephen Sommers did an excellent job here.  No one tried to make Deep Rising out to be more than what it was designed to be – a big, fun, suspenseful, action-packed ride.  The film does have this sequel tease at the end, and while that was probably a fun final moment back in 1998, it’s not so much fifteen years later.  Knowing the film bombed and no sequel was ever made, it just leaves you desiring a more proper conclusion to this adventure.  Regardless, Deep Rising showed a lot of potential to be a hit.  However, its failure was not the fault of the movie, but of a really underwhelming marketing campaign.  The trailer feels like a slapped together direct-to-video trailer which conveys none of the film’s suspense or wider plot elements, and instead, relies a lot on CGI shots of the monster.  That trailer sells this as a forgettable, cheaply executed movie.  The poster campaign had some good teaser style ideas but lacked a big eye catching poster to encapsulate the film’s overall excitement and scare factor.  It even resorts to promoting it as being “from the special effects team who made Total Recall and Star Wars.”  How is that supposed to sell the quality of the movie?  Beyond all that, a late January release was not a target for big box office success.  Stephen Sommers made a really solid crowd pleaser of a movie, but was marketed lazily.  That’s a real shame because this is a film I would’ve loved to have even seen back in 1998.  It would’ve been a long time action favorite of mine.  Still, I really like the tagline of “Full Scream Ahead.”  Anyway, you can tell that I give Deep Rising a really solid recommendation.  I thoroughly enjoyed everything it had to offer, and I think a lot of other people will, too.


The Hitcher (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When A Stranger Calls (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


28 Days Later (2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Identity (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


‘Salem’s Lot (2004)

I watched the original telemovie of Salem’s Lot from director Tobe Hooper a long time ago, but for whatever reason it never made a lasting impression upon me.  In 2004, the TNT cable network produced and aired this re-adaptation of Stephen King’s popular novel, and it has been an October favorite of mine ever since.  That is, when I can find three hours to sit and watch this mini-series telemovie.  Most of the Stephen King film adaptations I’ve seen have not fared very well, but this one really hit the right tone and consistency to be successful, in my view.

Writer Ben Mears (Rob Lowe), returns to his childhood home of the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot (also known as ‘Salem’s Lot), to research his new book, and to confront his haunted past.  As a child, inside the ominous Marsden House, he witnessed a horrific crime and a chilling, evil presence.  Little does he or the townsfolk realize that a couple of other new residents have just settled in that house.  They are Richard Straker (Donald Sutherland), a kindly, if slightly unsettling antiques dealer, and his partner and master Kurt Barlow (Rutger Hauer), a ancient and malevolent vampire bent on making Salem’s Lot his new home.  The story wraps around many of the town’s residents showing that dark secrets are abound even in the quaintest of towns, but for as much bad, there is a measure of good that can win out.  Ben Mears fights against his fears and skepticism as he and some of the locals battle to eradicate this heart-stopping force of evil that is destroying ‘Salem’s Lot.

What shines the brightest here is Rob Lowe.  He carries the film so very well, and inhabits the Ben Mears character comfortably.  Firstly, his voice over narrations have a perfect foreboding tone that demystifies the innocent charm of small town America.  It starts off the film reflecting on Mears’ nostalgia for things both pleasant and fearsome.  Lowe has enough subtle charm to bring levity to the right moments, but also, a haunted quality which casts a somber aura around him.  He does a fine job exploring Mears’ underlying fears.  That aspect brings more dimension to the character if he had just been a fearless, courageous protagonist.  He’s a very real person who has his demons to confront and overcome, and the journey to defeating them is a painful one.  By the end, you see Ben Mears’ soul break through in its purest form, and it can be heartbreaking.  Rob Lowe is a remarkable leading man in this mini-series.

Donald Sutherland is excellently creepy as Straker.  He walks the line between sweet, gentle old man, and shady, dangerous stranger.  The character makes me think back to Max von Sydow in Needful Things, but Sutherland puts his own unsettling mark on this style of character.  Rutger Hauer has played quite a few vampires in films on drastically varying tone.  As Barlow, he has an understated chilling quality.  He is a tempter of desires drawing people into the darkness by offering them what they most want, but repaying their surrender with blood.  He’s not there to scare you outright for the sake of scaring, but wishes to spread his brand of darkness into the very soul of this small town.  Straker insidiously works into that agenda with vile glee.  Hauer’s portrayed some amazing psychological characters from Blade Runner to The Hitcher, and while he has limited screentime here, he makes a striking impression as Barlow.

The supporting cast is very strong as well.  I’ve regularly enjoyed Andre Braugher since first witnessing his Homicide: Life On The Street character of Frank Pembleton.  That was a very intense role.  Matt Burke brings out a more vulnerable, yet sharply intelligent and perceptive performance.  Samantha Mathis is particularly strong willed and bright in the Susan Norton role, the aspiring writer that Ben connects with.  James Cromwell does a fine job as faith-filled Father Callahan who has a problem with alcohol.  Sheriff Parkins is given a strong depth of somber sadness later in the film by Steven Vidler.  He grapples with his ability and commitment to protecting this town until he feels it has slipped away from him.  Every cast member inhabits their roles with a lot of depth and strength making each character’s story evenly compelling.

I really, deeply love the look of ‘Salem’s Lot.  It has rich darkness and a strong contrast of shadows which create a beautiful atmosphere.  The blue tones and overcast skies create a cold wintry visual that compliments the story’s slightly grim tone.  A snowy landscape has its wonderful beauty that I very much appreciate, and that adds to the appeal of this movie for me.  There is also plenty of warmly lit scenes which accentuate the heart and humanity of these characters.  Overall, this is just a gorgeously shot mini-series that puts a lot of production value on screen.

While the film is mostly a character driven story establishing tone and atmosphere from their inner fears, it does have its fair share of creepy, scary, and suspenseful segments.  About halfway through it has a good series of such moments.  I particularly like Floyd Tibbits squeezing through the air vent trying to reach Ben Mears in the adjoining jail cell.  Maybe it’s just because it reminds me of an early episode or two of The X Files, but it’s sufficiently creepy and nightmarish.  Of course, since this was a basic cable network production there is not much gore to speak of, and while that certainly could’ve improved the film, it does artistically work around those constraints.  What make-up effects we do get from the vampires are very good.  It’s nothing elaborate like the Barlow of the original mini-series, instead holding more to Stephen King’s more subtle ideas.  However, the creepy yellow eyes gleam in the darkness, and the pale make-up on the vampires turned by Rutger Hauer’s Barlow is decently effective.  It certainly lacks a more ghastly quality that would have been more impactful.  I’ve praised the very original and striking vampire make-up designs all through this Vampire Week, and so, this vampire appearance hits a little lukewarm.  They just look more like walking corpses than fearsome creatures of the night, aside from the creepy eyes.  The digital effects are few, and are decent as well.  Not bad at all for a 2004 television movie budget, and I’ve certainly seen far worse from large budget theatrical release films.

Of course, I like the story very much.  It shows how the good and evil is tested in everyone, and how this darkness pushes them further towards one or the other.  Many succumb or embrace this darkness, but the few that fight to hold onto their humanity stand strong in the light.  How the town is slowly infested with vampires, turning the population into a band of bloodsuckers, is truly terrifying.  It’s like a sickness that swallows them whole.  The film starts out very domestic establishing these characters, their lives, and their little dark secrets.  It builds relationships, attitudes, and an emotional landscape for them to trudge through.  Jerusalem’s Lot has always had the dark looming presence of the Marsden house peering down upon them.  It’s a constant reminder that this town is not safe from evil, and that it lurks in every direction.  While some are skeptical about vampires stalking them, they all know something just as evil has been in their town for a long time.  It’s an underlying knowledge that they have put out of their minds, but it lingers in their thoughts.

The framing scenes for the flashbacks in the hospital are very good.  They create an unsettling, sad weight to the story knowing that things do not end well for Jerusalem’s Lot.  It’s just a matter of how this grim, frightening series of events affected these people, and what damage it inflicted upon their souls.  The ending surely has its hefty dose of pathos.  Peter Filardi put together a hell of a teleplay based off of Stephen King’s novel.  The characters are strongly fleshed out, and the various subplots are well balanced before converging into a singular main plot.  Everything flows together very evenly for a consistent, steady pace that is just right for a three hour mini-series telemovie.  Much praise to director Mikael Salomon for maintaining a solid atmosphere and elicit some equally strong performances from this cast.

‘Salem’s Lot is not a film that will jump out and scare the living hell out of you, but I feel it is an effectively suspenseful, atmospheric movie that invests you in the heart and soul of its characters above all else.  It’s shot as a high grade feature with the acting talent and production values to back it up.  With so many King film adaptations being horrendous failures, it’s special to find one that is a competent and artistically successful outing, and they didn’t need John Carpenter or David Cronenberg to do so.  I’ve seen that this is generally regarded as faithful adaptation with only a few liberties taken, but of course, opinions can vary on whether those liberties are favorable or not.  I know the Tobe Hooper original has its legion of fans, and I do not know what their general feelings are on this version.  Thus, on its own merits, I believe this is a very worthwhile watch when you have a good three hours set aside for a moody, horror movie afternoon.


The Thing (1982)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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