Feb 27, 2020

THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI (2002)


The western world has its own idea of the samurai. In this neck of the woods, samurai are sometimes blood-thirsty, meticulously trained savages who can disappear at will like wisps of smoke. They can appear otherworldly, even supernatural, suggesting that it wasn't generations of enlightenment and formal training that has led to their legacy, but mysticism and black magic. 

And then you've got nonsense like Kill Bill where old men stroke too-long beards and revel in bawdy bullshit. In this age of Quentin Tarantino and Tom Cruise, the true essence of the samurai has become muddied and lost. This is where The Twilight Samurai enters to shatter your allusions and change so much of what you thought you knew about this ancient culture. 


Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada) has had a rough go of it lately. His wife has died from consumption, leaving him to not only care for their two daughters with little money, but he must also contend with caring for his mother, whom he is sadly losing to her increasing dementia. To support his family as best as he can, he has taken to working in an accountant's office, utilizing none of his skills of a samurai. Seibei struggles to find worth in himself in a world rapidly changing and one that he feels is consistently letting him down. 

One of the reasons The Twilight Samurai is so effective as a film is the sheer normality of it all, which sounds like an unusual point of praise, but it's exactly this normality that gives the film its power. Seibei the samurai is not a wire-flying hero; he does not befriend a westerner to fight off the advances of a nearby warring clan. He is a widower, father of two daughters, son of a sick mother; an office drone like the rest of us forced to work in a lifeless environment doing lifeless work. And in the midst of all this, Seibi finds himself living in a world where the concept of the samurai is outdated and unnecessary. He is not only contending with the drastic turn his life has taken following the death of his wife, but he is also contending with his own worth as a person, and feelings of his own irrelevance. 


Though the story of an individual examining their own worth is a timeless one, the foreign environment in which The Twilight Samurai takes place is what drives the story into unique territory. It gets a lot of mileage out of presenting a character study of this sad man who, though he bears the sword, the robe, and the tied-back hair, feels nothing like the samurai whom he has studied to be. Because of this, Seibei feels intensely human and, at times, sadly relateable. He's been dealt a shitty hand, he's barely making ends meet at a job he loathes, and his co-workers, who repeatedly ask him to come out for drinks and who are always turned down, have begun calling him "Twilight Seibei," because he always makes it a point to get home before dark so he can care for his family. They mock him for his anti-social behavior, his appearance, and yeah, even his body odor. He suffers the same indignities as your basic blue-collar 9-to-5er - it's just that he happens to be a samurai, and never has such a respected and awed-over figurehead been so castrated and dehumanized to the point of humiliation. 

The Twilight Samurai is definitely not for everyone. At a running time of over two hours, and with samurai everywhere on screen all the time, but none of whom are doing cool flips or slicing men in half or other dumb Hollywood shit, preconceived notions have the power to conflict with the story. Make no mistake, though there are scenes in which the samurai exercise their skills, ultimately The Twilight Samurai is a two-hour character study about a broken man learning to feel worth again - and that's equally compelling as any wire-fight.



The Twilight Samurai is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Feb 24, 2020

THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1969)



I adore Ray Bradbury. I grew up reading the author’s works, but without truly honing in on the emotion and sense of wonder that the author infused in his writing until I was much older. The Halloween Tree, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The October Country all rank as not just my favorite Bradbury works, but my favorite works ever. But as someone who leans more toward out and out horror rather than sci-fi and fantasy, there are some books and short story collections by the author I never felt compelled to read — an example being The Martian Chronicles, as well as The Illustrated Man.

By the studio’s own synopsis, one would think that the film adaption strayed away from the heavier sci-fi leanings of the anthology of the same name, but that’s not the case. Though the wraparound story (featuring the titular character played by an excellent Rod Steiger) exists in a mid-1900s, middle-America environment, every tale spun by the illustrated man exists in a science-fiction or futuristic environment. Source material aside (again, I haven’t read it, so I don’t want to tick off the purists), the wraparound story doesn’t mesh well with the stories that are told. (For once, the wraparound story is actually the best part of the anthology.) A single story existing in the sci-fi world would have been one thing, but by the second story, the theme is established and it feels at odds with the film’s opener (and closer).

Steiger and Claire Bloom (who plays the illustrator witch in the wraparound) play all the lead roles in each story, and though they do a great job, it also lends itself to confusion — especially with the very subtle inference that some of the stories may or may not overlap. Sci-fi aspect aside, there’s another thing that all the stories have in common, and it’s one very unexpected, and that’s a slight hint of sexuality. Steiger’s carnival drifter becoming attracted to Bloom’s witch and undergoing his body transformation in hopes to sleep with her is just one example, but each story includes something akin to this. I’m not sure what it all means, to be honest.


If there’s one reason to watch The Illustrated Man, it’s for Rod Steiger. He’s a blast to watch, and manages to play an intimidating, authoritative figure in every tale. His dominating performance anchors every segment, and there’s an interesting dichotomy in place in that, though every character is supposed to be different, Steiger’s approach seems purposely similar in each, suggesting that maybe all of them are him in some way. And if there was anyone with the audacity to attempt such a thing, it would be Bradbury.

Surprisingly, Bradbury hasn’t been adapted for film as much as you’d think (the most recent was HBO’s mind-bogglingly reckless and disrespectful Fahrenheit 451), given his large body of work and Hollywood’s tendency to adapt cult and horror authors. For reference, Stephen King is already starting to lap himself, racking up two adaptations, or more, per novel or novella. I can’t imagine that those Bradbury fans who enjoy or prefer his science-fiction writing won’t enjoy The Illustrated Man, but for me I was hoping for something a little more “supernatural” (as promised by the tagline). 


The Illustrated Man is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archives.

Feb 22, 2020

COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019)


Outside of “Rats in the Walls” and “Herbert West: Re-Animator,” I’ve never read anything by H.P. Lovecraft because my simpleton brain won’t process his era-specific writing style. Oddly, my education of what a Lovecraft story entails comes not from the man himself, but through other artists homaging his work, like John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness or several of Stuart Gordon’s films, including From Beyond. One thing among them all remained consistent: Lovecraft writes of slimy, distorted, indescribable monstrosities from other worlds—both in a sci-fi sense and a more generally horrific one. 

Because of this, I had no real idea what to expect as I sat down to watch Color Out of Space, which is not just Nicolas Cage’s latest foray into the horror genre following the astounding Mandy, but which also hails the return of celebrated cult director Richard Stanley after a twenty-year absence(!) from feature filmmaking. Except for a quiet and low-key documentary about mysticism and inter-dimensional travel called The Otherworld, the last time anyone saw the mythical South African filmmaker was as the subject of Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley's Island Of Dr. Moreau, which, if you haven’t seen it, holy shit—do it. Stanley isn’t known to the mainstream, having made films that are quiet and very unique, like Dust Devil (compromised for a long time by the Weinsteins) and Hardware, recently released exclusively on Blu-ray from Ronin Flix. Stanley’s films have their own look and feel, which is what makes Color Out of Space both comfortably familiar and surprisingly nuanced. 

One night, as the Gardner family disperses throughout the house for some alone time, a meteorite crash-lands on the front lawn of their isolated country home. Though it’s never made clear, this meteorite contains a radioactive or intergalactic element that causes nearby vegetation to double or triple its size, along with insects and reptiles who begin sporting wild, neon colors. Lastly, its exposure to human beings begins to change them in different ways, physically or mentally, eventually leading to the Gardner family’s deconstruction in weird and wild ways, including a scene with the family matriarch (Joely Richardson) cutting carrots in the kitchen that you’ll never be able to unsee.


Based on the first act alone, and outside of your usual number of eccentricities we’ve come to expect from Cage, Color Out of Space almost comes across as…normal. And measured. Certainly not the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from Cage or Stanley. But don’t worry: neither of them have refuted their aesthetics. The two join forces to bring to life a wild flick that begins with calmness draped over slight family dysfunction and soon boils over into gooey, alien terror and the kind of psychological breakdown of which only Cage is capable. Very successfully, Color Out of Space maintains Lovecraft’s consistent juxtaposition between creepy monsters, who physically come into being, and the broken mind of the character being haunted by them—either the kind of mind that’s already broken and unveils an unseen world of monsters, or the kind of mind that breaks once this veil is peeled back. Here, physical and psychological terror go hand in hand, and there hasn’t been a marriage this strong since the first act of David Cronenberg’s directorial career.

Despite the craziness of the synopsis, Color Out of Space unfolds at a leisurely pace, so if by now its Twitter reputation has preceded itself, it would be best for viewers to settle into the movie and expect something measured and patient, rather than something that goes instantly wacky. Like the literature it’s honoring, Color Out of Space reveals one piece at a time. Along with being measured, Color Out of Space is also ambitious. Stanley and co. clearly didn’t have a very large budget, but their sprawling story feels bigger than life. The CGI effects look damn good and comparable to what you’d see in modern theaters, and because they are particularly placed throughout the script, the scope feels bigger in recollection. Along with the CGI, though, are the practical effects, and they are remarkable, with one bit in particular being downright John Carpenter’s The Thingian. Stanley’s direction is assured, and even beautiful, but he always remains true to his aesthetic, which makes Color Out Of Space feel dreamy and strange, and, thankfully happening to someone else


By now, Cage’s presence in films like this draw a certain appeal. Known as an operatic performer for his entire career, it’s always the horror and sci-fi genres that yield some of his most interesting work, and it’s thanks to the genres’ complete lack of boundaries. There are no rules, which means artists can go as big as they want and embrace the wackiest of ideas. An unrestrained Cage is the best kind of Cage, but that’s not to say that his performance here consists of his usual level of freak-out scenes (there are a handful of these, though, and they’re glorious). An unrestrained Cage also gleefully embraces the strange and quirky, which no one does better. In a really brief moment during the first act where Cage openly lambastes his hard-to-please deceased father, he slides into an overly pretentious voice (resurrecting the one he used as Peter Loew in the batty Vampire’s Kiss) and begins to mimic some of his father’s dismissive words used toward him over the years. What seems like a throwaway scene of character development comes back later with really interesting implications, in that, as “the color” starts to infect both the landscape of the family home and the family themselves, Cage slips in and out of this pretentious voice in the heights of his mania, subtly suggesting that his internal hatred for his father is not just beginning to manifest, but that he’s actually turning into his father. Ezra (Tommy Chong), a squatter who lives on the Gardner estate, is the one who observes that the “color” infecting the land has the power to upend everything—to take one thing and transform it into its utter opposite. At least as far as Cage’s character is concerned, he’s slowly turning into what he hates most.

Color Out of Space looks excellent on the 4K UHD release, obviously coming to life during the flick’s more mystical moments. “The color” permeates the screen during several moments throughout, replicating beautifully in high definition. Dialogue is cleanly presented and marries well with the ambience of the family’s isolated farmhouse. The interesting musical score by Colin Stetson, who had previously scored another horror hit, Ari Aster’s Hereditary, also fits in well to the soundscape and helps to heighten the strange new world of the Gardner farm.


After a shaky start, RLJE has been consistently acquiring interesting genre titles, especially over the last couple years, having given a home to the likes of Mandy, Gwen, and The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot. Unfortunately, their physical releases hardly overwhelm with supplemental content. That’s the case here as well, as this release offers only a trailer, a photo gallery (which I don’t think anyone ever looks at), and a twenty-minute “making-of” that catches input from all the film’s major participants, charting the production from the script all the way to post-production. There’s no commentary track with the director or a one-on-one interview, which is a shame given Stanley’s long absence from filmmaking (which, to the making-of’s credit, is briefly covered). I’m sure he’s spent a long time thinking about what his next project was going to be, and that he’s got a lot to say about it, but you’re not going to find that kind of deep-dive here. Having said that, eight-year-old Julian Hilliard (The Haunting of Hill House), who plays Cage’s youngest son, calls Color Out of Space “the best movie in history,” and how can you argue with that?

Fans of Lovecraft, Nicolas Cage, or Richard Stanley would be missing out if they didn’t check out Color Out of Space. Now that Stanley is “back,” he’s been thinking about the future, which is all Lovecraft all the time. Continuing his partnership with SpectreVision (the distribution company co-owned by Elijah Wood and which produced Color Out of Space), Stanley plans to revisit the Lovecraft landscape in an ongoing, shared universe of the author’s most celebrated titles, with the next being The Dunwich Horror. Based on Color Out of Space, I’m eager to see what else Stanley has up his sleeve. 

Welcome back, sir. You were missed.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Feb 21, 2020

THE TWILIGHT ZONE (2019): THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON


This newest iteration of The Twilight Zone marks the third attempt at resurrecting the infamous science-fiction/horror brand in a short-form format since the original and still highly celebrated run from the 1950s-60s. Confined to CBS’ All Access streaming service instead of network television, the Jordan Peele-produced version is also the most adult, heaping doses of profanity and slightly graphic violence into the proceedings. For some reason, The Twilight Zone has been a tricky brand to keep going, and besides for HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, its initial run and its 1980s revival were the only horror anthologies to enjoy a successful run on television. The second revival of The Twilight Zone lasted only two seasons. It’s interesting why that would be, because, as any horror writer or director will tell you, there are no limits in the sci-fi/horror/fantasy genre. There are no rules or boundaries. Write the wackiest story you want, and so long as it has a “point”—something that ties back into the human condition or puts society under the microscope—then it’s already a success. The genre offers an infinite number of opportunities to tell an engaging story and yet so many of these short-form programs fail to catch fire. This newest version of the brand has been greenlit for a second season, so CBS definitely sees the potential, but so far this relaunch is off to a rocky start.

The nature of anthologies leads to pitting the one-off stories against each other. Which one was the best, the worst, the funniest, the scariest? Which one had the best twist, the best cast, the best special effects? Similar titles like Creepshow or Tales from the Darkside can attest to this—ask a horror fan, and everyone has their favorite segment. Me? I’ve always been more of a Creepshow 2 person, and I pretty much get @-punched in the face every time I say that. The Twilight Zone 2019 is no different, offering a very different collection of episodes made with different sensibilities and all vying for a different experience. Some of them, like the show’s opener, “The Comedian” starring Kumail Nanjiani, in which a comedian makes your classic deal with the devil (an understated Tracy Morgan), is your simple monkey’s paw morality tale (and the strongest episode of the series). Some of the other episodes, however, like “Replay,” about a black mother and son using a magical video camera to keep going back in time to avoid being harassed and killed by a racist cop, or “Not All Men,” in which a meteor crashes to earth and turns the world’s men into violent, sex-crazed assholes, obviously have something to say about the dangers of living in the modern age if you’re an underrepresented demographic. 


Many fans have been vocal about the overly political agendas of this new series revival, and I agree with them, but only to a certain extent. As confirmed by Rod Serling himself and those who knew him in the supplements included on the home video release, The Twilight Zone’s mission was to tackle issues like these and present them as allegories as a means of deconstructing the human experience. The original run dealt very much with issues that were prevalent during the 1950s, like the McCarthy communist hearings and the constant fears of nuclear war. Still, this new revival is intent on making nearly every episode political or societal in at least some way, and more than one episode is a thinly veiled stab at Trump (which should surprise exactly no one). “The Wunderkind,” starring John Cho and everyone’s favorite little boy Jacob Tremblay, is an update on one of The Twilight Zone’s most famous stories, “It’s a Good Life,” about a godlike six-year-old boy with the power to create anything he wants. Resurrecting that concept, “The Wunderkind” is about an eleven-year-old who mounts a successful run for the presidency, becoming corrupted by power and turning into a jerk, and surrounding himself by yes men who do whatever he wants. (Tremblay even wears the fat red tie and everything. It’s not exactly subtle.)

This newest revival isn’t a total lost cause, as a handful of episodes manage to evoke that classic Twilight Zone feeling (I’ll come back to “The Comedian” again, because that episode nails it). Having said that, if CBS want this series to enjoy a lasting run, showrunners Peele and Simon Kinberg should consider dialing down the political and societal natures of the episodes at least to tolerable levels. The best episodes of the original The Twilight Zone, of course, had something to say about the human condition and that should in no way stop, but they also didn’t have to beat their audience with a hammer to make their point. The aforementioned “Replay” is one of the least subtle allegories I’ve seen in the horror genre since Joe Dante’s Iraq War satire “Homecoming” for Showtime’s first season of Masters of Horror, and even though it ends in an obviously unreal landscape, it still feels too much like real life and not like the escapism the audience was hoping to lose themselves in.


The supplements included on the home video release are thankfully rich in content, especially the featurette on the first disc entitled “Remembering Rod Serling,” which is not just the best supplement on this release, but essential viewing for all aspiring and seasoned writers. Intimate footage of Serling talking about his approach to writing, both for the show and in his everyday life, gets at the heart of what the best writers can do and what their responsibilities are as people with the ability to tell a story. (He also very clearly states that the competitive nature of writing during his era ensured that only the best stories made it to the limelight, so I have a feeling he’d run screaming from Amazon’s e-book search results.) During this segment, Serling’s daughter shares a haunting story in which her father witnessed the decapitation of a fellow solder during World War II after he was struck by a care parcel thrown from a helicopter, which would eerily foretell the tragedy experienced during the shooting of John Landis’ segment in 1983’s The Twilight Zone: The Movie. This five-disc release also includes all ten episodes in alternate black and white versions to amp up that classic Twilight Zone feeling.

If nothing else, this newest take on The Twilight Zone will expose newer audiences to the older series, which has aged beautifully (and which is available on Blu-ray from CBS). Top talent behind and in front of the camera has resulted in a very okay first season, and Peele admirably steps in for Serling as the new mysterious “Narrator”, but if this brand is to stick around, it needs to strive harder to nail that Twilight Zone feeling, dial down the agenda, and only bring the best possible stories into the limelight. As Serling himself said, if writing was easy, everyone would be doing it. I hope season two embraces that. 


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Feb 18, 2020

THE 'NINJA' TRILOGY (1981-1984)


The Ninja series produced by Cannon Films might just be the only trilogy in history whose films have nothing to do with each other - that carry over no characters, conflicts, or events - beyond just being about ninjas. Though famed martial artist and skilled weapons performer Shรด Kosugi appears in all three films, he consistently wears the ninja robes of different characters (sometimes as the hero, and sometimes the villain). And if there’s such a thing as ninja movie royalty, it’s Kosugi. In addition to Bruce Lee, Kosugi powered the ninja phenomenon throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, firing off action flicks nearly every year (many of which have enjoyed fancy reissues from the likes of Arrow Video and Kino Lorber). And Kosugi hasn’t fully hung up his robes, having appeared in big Hollywood mainstream fare like James McTeigue’s Ninja Assassin and taking part in supplements on even his quirkiest releases, such as the Van Damme early effort Black Eagle

His roles certainly never varied much beyond "ninja," though the kind of ninja certainly did when it came to the Ninja trilogy, which begins with Enter the Ninja (starring a dubbed Franco Nero against Kosugi’s villain), continues with Revenge of the Ninja (which saw Kosugi playing the hero), and concludes with the absolutely insane Ninja 3: The Domination…which sort of saw Kosugi playing the Father Merrin character of The Exorcist while also being...a ninja. If you haven’t been able to surmise, the reason that the Cannon Films Ninja trilogy is unofficial is because none of the entries have anything to do with each other. Though they’re sold as sequels to each other, they are completely standalone with completely different characters. (Ninja 3: The Domination, which unexpectedly and absentmindedly pushes the series into horror territory, absolutely proves that.)


Menahem Golan, sometimes director and one half of Golan-Globus (aka Cannon Films), directed the first addition to this trilogy, Enter the Ninja, starring Franco Nero as the title silent assassin. In typical Golan style (as far as his directing reputation), much of the film was accidentally silly and about a half-hour too long (looking right at you, The Delta Force, which runs a staggering 2 hours and 5 minutes). Still, it followed a traditional plot and mostly tried to take everything seriously. 

Americans were utterly fascinated by all things ninjas during the 1980s, and Golan deludedly credited that fascination to his Enter the Ninja. A wealth of films revolving around ninjas, all made by different studios but which were mostly low budget affairs, were released during this decade, and though they certainly all brought different ideas to the table, none of them were particularly good. Something about the art of the ninja doesn't translate well to the medium, at least not in the sense that a serious film can be made about it. Warner Bros. tried as recently as 2009 with their hyper-violent Ninja Assassin (which also features Kosugi,) and though it was stylish and covered in blood, the title ninja had to become almost preternatural in order to present a compelling on-screen presence.


Go-to director for Cannon Films Sam Firstenberg (the American Ninja films; Avenging Force) took the reins on Revenge of the Ninja, contributing the "best" of the trilogy - one that married enough sincerity with enough self-awareness that the end result was legitimately entertaining. Though there's no denying that Revenge of the Ninja falls victim to the tropes that have come to define the typical action film, like having an Italian mafia figurehead as the main villain, or a series of henchmen who are given no identities whatsoever beyond dressing them so disparately that they may as well be wearing Halloween costumes (the cowboy! the Apache! the biker!), or the appearance of Harold Sakata (aka Odd Job), the film's sheer entertainment value derives from adhering to this very same mold.

As could be expected, none of the performances are really worth calling out and praising - they range from acceptable to screaming to the back row. Much or all of Kosugi's dialogue had to be looped by another voice-over artist in post-production, relegating his performance to his on-screen antics (which, again, is fine, given the film in which this occurs). Riddled with seriously stupid dialogue ("You want to work out, but you forgot your pants." "You really think I forgot?"), a bevy of consistent and bloody-yet-harmless looking violence of which only the 1980s were capable (did ninjas really carry axes in battle?), and two scoops of to-be-expected female nudity, Revenge of the Ninja makes for a delightful experience for the less discerning movie fan.


If you’re familiar with Cannon Films, you should know it’s a big deal when I tell you that Ninja 3: The Domination is the most insane film those lovable Israeli cousins Golan and Globus ever produced. It shamelessly uses the Ninja brand to shoehorn in two completely unrelated pop culture phenomena — aerobics and The Exorcist — to create something that, to this day, still defies description, but which the pair were hoping would appeal directly to the masses.

Cue laughter.

In spite of this nonsense plot, there’s still plenty of ninja action, especially during the action packed extended opening in which an evil ninja kills way way way many dudes before his spirit is loosed and infests the body of a young female aerobics enthusiast. (This is a real movie.) Kosugi soon appears and ninjas it up, and though he’s given less to do here, as he’s been demoted to a supporting character, the absurdity of the plot and what he’s tasked to do more than makes up for it.

I first saw Ninja 3: The Domination on television when I was very young, and between Lucinda Dickey crashing a hot tub threesome to kill a dude by scratching him with a poison-tipped ring, and later pouring V8 juice all over her body during a love scene, it was a movie about which I had thought, “I think I have to be older to understand what’s happening in this.” Twenty-something years later, I still have no earthly idea what’s happening. But I do know that whatever IS happening is glorious.



Feb 16, 2020

DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)


I can absolutely understand why the people who love Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise also love Drag Me to Hell. Following that first 1981 trip within the woods, which was gunning for a solely scary experience, the audience’s unexpected laughter-ridden response led the rest of the Evil Dead franchise down a path more focused on “spook o blast” slapstick horror-humor. Even Raimi’s cult favorite Darkman, which was equal parts horror, action, and superhero movie, displayed the same kind of manic execution, very icky set-pieces, and a frenetic and unhinged sense of humor. If it weren’t for his extremely undervalued 2001 ghost story The Gift, which was a straight, dark, and humorless horror/thriller, I would say that Raimi was neither interested in nor had the confidence to make a genre pic where he couldn’t rely on silliness and buckets of slime. That The Gift didn’t make any money might have been the last reason Raimi needed to leave serious horror behind as a director.

If Drag Me to Hell has somehow eluded you all these years, yet you adore the Evil Dead series, then this movie is for you. It contains all the stalwarts of that franchise, but this time in a gussied-up mainstream flick starring the pretty Alison Lohman and the prettier Justin Long. Everything else remains the same: goo, slime, goo-slime, slimy goo, and screaming. The spectre of the dead gypsy (Lorna Raver) constantly shows up either in ghostly form or corpse form and manages to projectile vomit all manner of foul things directly into Lohman’s mouth: maggots, corpse slime, embalming fluid (I think), entrails, and more. Drag Me to Hell is 90 minutes of nasty shit being gooed into an unwilling mouth, and right around the time Lohman drops an anvil on the head of the gypsy, which causes both the spectre’s eyes AND more black goo to fire into her mouth, you start to wonder what on earth you're doing with your time. (The operatic musical score by go-to horror composer Christopher Young, however, is the tops.)


I’m going to be pretty blunt: I hate Drag Me to Hell. I hated it in theaters ten years ago, and this opportunity to revisit the film hasn’t yielded any less hate. Years before The Evil Dead returned in the form of the new-ish Starz series, fans moaned that Raimi was dragging his feet on making Evil Dead IV, and Drag Me to Hell seemed like a direct response to that. “Give the people goo!” he probably bellowed. Because the similarities are profound: people are possessed, causing them to float and make scary faces and speak in terrible demon voices; more goo, more blood; even a terrible CGI goat comes to angry life at some point, mimicking the laughing and squealing animal heads from Evil Dead 2. There’d be absolutely no mistaking Drag Me to Hell as anything other than a Sam Raimi movie (although, while his Oldsmobile appears, Bruce Campbell doesn’t). It’s absolutely cut from the same cloth as Evil Dead 2 and especially Army of Darkness. If you’re someone like me who doesn’t particularly care for either of those, then you must run, screaming, from Drag Me to Hell. But if you're someone who does love the latter half of the Evil Dead franchise, open your mouths and prepare for goo slime.





Feb 14, 2020

THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE (1967)


The name Roger Corman carries a lot of weight in both mainstream Hollywood as well as cult audiences. The man responsible for enabling the careers of no less than Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, and so many more, has also produced some of the silliest, trashiest, z-grade horror and exploitation trash this side of 42nd Street. Silly as it might sound, but the man who currently has CobraGator and Sharktopous vs. Mermantula on his producing roster is also the same man who, without hyperbole, permanently changed the face of the industry by not only breaking new ground when it came to low budget filmmaking, but who also birthed upon the world some of our greatest living filmmakers. Though Corman has also stepped behind the camera for no less than 56 directorial projects, when you compare that to the one thousand films he's produced, it seems like a drop in the bucket. His directing "phase" transcends four decades, his last credit belonging to the glorious trainwreck Frankenstein Unbound, but it often seems that Corman's body of work that receives the most attention revolves around his Edgar Allan Poe collaborations with Vincent Price as well as his self-described "drugs and sex pictures" like The Trip.

And that's what makes The St. Valentine's Day Massacre so special. Made during a time when studios were no longer making classic-era gangster pictures (the only other one that comes to mind is the Warren Oates starring Dillinger), and boasting involvement from the likes of legends Jason Robards, George Segal, and frequent muse Bruce Dern, the pedigree of The St. Valentine's Day Massacre suggests a rather subtle project for the director to take on - at least, on its surface. Because while it's easy to deduce that since it doesn't feature Dennis Hopper or Peter Fonda dropping acid and hallucinating or a man being slowly sliced in half by a swinging pendulum blade that it's possible that Corman was looking to make a "prestige" picture, so much of The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is hugely ingrained with his DNA - and I don't just mean the violence. Though he was working for his first major studio, and though his production was considered low budget, he was given the most amount of money yet to bring his project to fruition. His ability to stretch a dollar to its very limits is something that seems to be making a return to genre film-making, and he successfully increases the scope and look of his film with little effort. Much of Corman's budget went toward building impressive exterior Chicago sets, complete with storefront barber shops, general stores, and bars, and actors were willing to work for less in order to play a different kind of role.


The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, presented in a semi-documentary style approach, is actually quite factually accurate (if you're willing to forgive the gaunt Robards playing the quite rotund Al Capone, that is), which is one of the film's best attributes. It's 1929 in Chicago. The sounds of gunfire ring out, causing pedestrians to shrink back behind doorways. Everyone looks alarmed, but no one looks very surprised. This is what life in Depression-era Chicago has become. Attempting to rule the city are Alphonse Capone, Southside Mob boss, and George "Bugs" Moran, who is eager to muscle in on Capone's illegal booze importing, using threats and intimidation to force speakeasy operators into buying their supply from him instead, and at twice the amount. Tactics like this are causing a problem: namely adding to the tensions already firmly established between the rival gangs. It soon escalates to all-out war, with drive-by shootings spraying thousands of bullets, and the gangs cherry-picking each other's men one by one.

The first thing worth commending about The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is how calmly presented it all is. Corman adds nothing superfluous or gimmicky to keep your attention on screen (except, of course, for that rather silly domestic dispute involving thrown lamps and a scantily clad Jean Hale). Much like modern takes on the gangster genre including The SopranosThe St. Valentine's Day Massacre is driven by dialogue, character exchange, and the performances of the actors engaging in them. You can add as many tommygun-grasping, suit-wearing mafioso to the poster as you'd like, but the film refreshingly doesn't rely on warring gangs whacking each other out. This would be considered praise for any filmmaker, but it's heightened praise considering it's Roger Corman's accomplishment, a man who more often than not eyed the line in the sand with a glint in his eye and wry smile as he took towering steps over it. Sure, men are gunned down, as this kind of story demands it, but the violence is surprisingly sporadic, so when it does occur, it actually results in being that much more jarring. However, the problem is at times this decision can cause the film to seem drawn out or tedious. Audiences will be anticipating what the title promises, and Corman is right to make them wait for it, but a brisker pace would have resulted in a more rewarding experience. Still, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre packs quite a punch despite that, offering up an array of dedicated performances from the likes of Robards, George Segal, and Ralph Meeker. (Look for the blink-and-miss-it cameo from Jack Nicholson.)


Speaking of performances, Jason Robards resurrects an unhinged, megalomaniacal Al Capone, chewing every stick of scenery and making damn sure the back row can more than hear him. It will more than rival Robert De Niro's take on Alphonse in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables twenty-five years later.

The gangster era is a huge part of American history, and as such, the gangster picture is a huge part of American cinema. United Artists produced probably the quintessential take with Scarface, but Warner Bros.' frequent collaborations with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson solidified them as the studio producing the gangster picture. Though the movement had run its course by the end of the 1930s, the mystique that they held for the American public never really waned. Corman's contribution to this genre with The St. Valentine's Day Massacre remains one of the director's most celebrated films - accessible to all cinematically inclined members of the public. With nothing outrageous or overly exploitative to isolate lesser adventurous audiences, Corman's rare foray into the mainstream was a successful one. Fifty years later, whether The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is considered a cult title or perhaps a minor classic, there's no mistaking that Corman's passion for the story and his admirable ability to work within the confines of a low budget have resulted in a film that, at the very least, is still worth discussing all these years later.