Dec 9, 2019

TEN CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016)



As disciples of J.J. Abrams know by now, he is a filmmaker who enjoys shrouding his films in mystery. Ideally, all filmmakers should, as the advent of social media and entertainment websites who cover every new development, right down to the design of Batman's new utility belt, are kind of ruining the magic of seeing everything unfold--even the smallest details--on the silver screen. This was what made 2008's Cloverfield, about a group of friends in New York experiencing their city being destroyed by a Godzilla-like monster, so startling. It wasn't just that the film was effectively crafted, draping what was essentially a ground-zero re-imagination of the sudden shock, horror, and immediate aftereffects of 9/11 with good, old fashioned monster movie mayhem, but the extremely subtle and vague ad campaign heightened the sense of mystique of what on earth Cloverfield was all about. The trailer featured people pooling in the streets hearing loud noises from afar before a large object is spotted hurtling from the sky and bouncing down their street, revealing itself to be the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty, set to an unseen someone screaming their own head off. This coupled with some clever internet viral marketing helped usher Cloverfield into both box office success and cinema history.

For years, Abrams, director Matt Reeves, and writer Drew Goddard fielded inquiries about when Cloverfield 2 would be made, and they all fell back on the typical response of being open to it, but only if they were confident they'd cracked a concept worth exploring. Six years later, that sequel/not-really-sequel revealed itself to the world as not only being in the planning stages, but already having been shot, assembled, and ready for its big premiere. What has arrived is an experience that's clever, thrilling, sadly realistic, but conflicting and at odds with its lineage, all at once.


If Cloverfield was an attempt to appropriate 9/11 in an effort to make audiences experience a version of it for themselves, then 10 Cloverfield Lane takes the logical next step in showing what that kind of experience does to the human psyche, while borrowing elements from Night of the Living Dead, Misery, and an eerie scene from Spielberg's adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Doomsdayers are real people. They, too, have underground bunkers stocked with non-perishable foods, drinking water, and a cache of firearms. While these people have always existed among us, their numbers saw an increase following 9/11, and another following the election of Barack Obama. Entire "reality" television series have been created to cast a light on both these people and their mindsets. And 10 Cloverfield Lane does a pretty fantastic job of looking at one of these doomsdayers.

John Goodman as Howard, said doomsdayer, has never before played a character like this, not to mention it's been a while since he's enjoyed such a prominent role. He plays simmering instability rather well, but is also, effortlessly, able to fall back on vulnerable, sympathetic, and even caring. Who starts off the film as "the villain" transitions into something less clear and defined, as in his heart he believes he's doing the right thing, and his performance reflects that. It's only when he becomes the more typical movie monster when the celebrated actor has a less firm grasp on the role and starts to fall back on what we've seen countless times before.


Uneasy alliances between characters have always been a fascinating dynamic to explore, in that people who start off as foes become friends, and even grow to depend on each other, and for the most part, 10 Cloverfield Lane really nails that dynamic down, but while also leaving just the tiniest shadow of a doubt so that the audience never fully relaxes into their seats. The bond Howard shares with his "roommates," Michelle and Emmett, exists either as a formality or as a genuine human connection. With Howard, it's hard to tell, but it's our need as human beings to emotionally insist on the latter.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has struggled to find strong, action-oriented characters in genre films worth a damn, finds a believable heroine in Michelle, who transitions from someone fleeing a broken relationship with her boyfriend, Ben (played by an off-screen Bradley Cooper) to a full-blown heroine. Between this and a pivotal scene during which she shares one of her greatest regrets, it becomes clear that Michelle doesn't just want but needs to be a stronger person. Winstead easily enables this transition for her, as she deals with conflicts both at eye-level as well as above her--very, very above her.

John Gallagher Jr. as Emmett is on hand to provide some of the usual comedy relief on which the Cloverfield series apparently depends. Not quite as rapid-fire ridiculous as T.J. Miller in the first film, Emmett's presence is more equally balanced between poignancy and neutrality with the usual tension-lightening oddball comment. The use of this kind of character is better rendered this time out, offering more than just off-screen wryness, and it's through Gallagher's easy likability that this is possible.


10 Cloverfield Lane's only failing, but it's a significant one, is with its condensed final act, in which the exterior threat which has made the outside world so uninhabitable is finally revealed. Ironically, it's Abrams' insistence on utter secrecy that takes all the impact out of the reveal. For all of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the audience is waiting to see the monster (or its mini-monsters) from Cloverfield, being that the title confirms the former exists in the latter's universe. Even as we settle into the underground bunker story and allow ourselves to invest in this conflict, we can't shake already knowing what the larger conflict above them is, so when Michelle faces that conflict head-on, it doesn't come as a surprise but an inevitability. For someone as smart and insistent on surprise as J.J. Abrams, the best thing he could have done was call 10 Cloverfield Lane anything else--10 Howard Lane, 10 Paranoia Lane--to keep the invading threat a secret. Not only would this have added a new layer to Goodman's mysterious Howard, being that he repeatedly claimed the outside threat were "martians" (which was eagerly dismissed by his fellow occupants), but Abrams still could have tied this new film to the previous, kept his mailbox reveal, and packed an ever bigger surprise wallop to his faithful audience who weren't necessarily expecting "martians."

10 Cloverfield Lane's biggest issue is its title. With the word "Cloverfield" comes a certain expectation, and by proxy, takes away the impact of the big reveal. But everything leading up to that is expertly executed, especially when taking into consideration that this was director Dan Trachtenberg's directorial debut. Cleverly, and admittedly very ballsy, the filmmakers have placed a very intimate and very different kind of universe it into a very broad and very specifically genred universe. Unfortunately, it's this outside-the-box thinking that somewhat handicaps the film, causing it to end in a way that feels foreign and somewhat inappropriate. Having said that, 10 Cloverfield Lane still gets an easy recommendation.


Dec 7, 2019

THIS WILL DRIVE YOU INSANE


I can’t stop reading this over and over. I am in hell help me.

OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983)


You’re going to absorb so much information on rats from watching Of Unknown Origin that it’s absurd, and you’ll never see it coming. Like, apparently, a rat’s teeth never stops growing, hence why they chew, constantly, on everything, in an effort to wear their teeth down. 

Now, is that true? I have no idea, but a movie starring Peter Weller told me it is, and I CHOOSE TO BELIEVE IT. 

By film’s end, you will be a walking rat expert and no one will ever date you.


As you settle down to watch Of Unknown Origin, what will resonate with you the most after a while is that it’s honestly kind of good, with an absolutely committed performance by Weller and an almost JAWS-like approach to the material. (There’s even a scene where Weller’s Burt flips through books and photographs of rat attacks suffered by humans, complemented by a similarly moody Williams-esque musical score. It’s a shame none of the pages reflected in Weller’s glasses, or perhaps director George P. Cosmatos figured that might be going a tad too far.)

It’s easy and even kind of understandable to write off Of Unknown Origin if you’ve never had the pleasure, especially when you know that it was a product of the ‘80s, starred a pre-Robocop Peter Weller, and was about one man’s descent into hell thanks to the gigantic rat infesting his New York brownstone. And don’t get me wrong, Of Unknown Origin is silly, but not the kind of silly where you can just dismiss the film out of hand. It’s silly in the sense that it’s man vs. rat, but the concept is taken seriously enough, and Cosmatos is a skilled enough director (let’s pretend that the ghost-directing going on during the shooting of Cobra and Tombstone by Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell*, respectively, were overblown), that the film never feels like outright parody or B-movie stupidity.


And Weller, holy shit — he’s having so much fun with this role, and why wouldn’t he? This is an actor’s dream — the chance to transform, slowly, through the course of one film, starting off as a plain and mild-mannered junior executive and ending the film as a raving madman, willing to go to great lengths to destroy the rat that’s totally ruining his mind — and his own house in the process.

Throughout, Of Unknown Origin maintains a very sly sense of humor, through Weller’s own bemusement with the rodent, as well as the concept itself. And obviously, or maybe not so obviously, it’s also clever satire on the idea of the American Dream — in this case, the perfectly manicured, catalog-ready home: what it says about your status, and the silly lengths one may go to maintain its flawlessness. So, if that’s the case, then what does the rat represent? God knows. How social do you want to get? The scourge of the middle class or the poor? Maybe the homeless? Immigration? (This isn’t far-fetched. Creepshow, more specifically the segment “They’re Creeping Up On You,” in which E.G. Marshall’s hermetically sealed apartment is infested with cockroaches meant to represent the exploding immigrant population in the surrounding city, has explored this ground before.) Weller’s a white, well-to-do, suit-wearing fella who handles “deals” as part of his job, so based on the film itself, the rat can represent almost anything, since white people are everything. I mean, sure, the synopsis refers to “the rat race of Wall Street” and that’s a differing and fair allegory, but much more of the conflict takes place within the rat-infested home, with Weller’s job not suffering that much or causing that much undue stress. (Plus I just like my own analysis better because I’m whiny and proud.)


But if you’re not interested in social commentary, that’s fine, because Of Unknown Origin is still entertaining as hell if you’re taking the movie merely at face value. Only in rare cases do I find the animals-run-amok sub-genre entertaining — I’ll re-mention JAWS as a fave, and Alligator as a dark horse, but I’ll also mention that I find Hitchcock’s The Birds kind of stupid and Cujo extremely dull. Having said that, I’ll happily count Of Unknown Origin among the ranks of one of the good ones. Obviously it’s no JAWS, but it’s a hair better than JAWS 2, and that’s not bad. Maybe because, on paper, you wouldn’t think Of Unknown Origin had a chance, and maybe I like an underdog. Or maybe I expected an easily dismissible bullshit B-movie like the distributor’s prior release of Deadly Eyes and got something much more well rendered.

Be sure to watch it surrounded by your ratta friends that you bought from the local IKEA, to whom you’ve assigned differing personalities, and then talk to them during the movie and pretend they are talking back to you in little unique rat voices because you are just a total, total weirdo.



*Hey, Tango & Cash!

Dec 6, 2019

IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019)

 

(Contains spoilers.)

IT: Chapter One, which I guess is what we’re now calling the first half of this saga, was a mostly successful horror flick, if not an overly loyal adaptation of Stephen King’s legendary tome. Though the troubled production, began by True Detective director Cary Fukunaga and concluded by Mama director Andres Muschietti, culminated in a better genre picture than most people were expecting, certain audience members (including me) were a little disappointed that King’s novel wasn’t adhered to a little more faithfully. Still, the essence of the novel remained, and that was the most satisfying part. 

IT: Chapter Two always seemed like the more dubious gamble of the saga, for several reasons, but mostly because the portions of the IT story that deal with the characters as kids are far more interesting, empathetic, and nostalgic than the portions that catch up with their adult counterparts, and this applies to the novel or the original miniseries. Not to mention that the adult portions of the story lend themselves more to the mystical and the strange, including the very odd “ritual of Chüd,” which IT: Chapter Two utilizes and which feels too foreign and unusual when following the fairly straightforward normality of IT: Chapter One. While doing a better job of faithfully adapting the second half of King’s novel, IT: Chapter Two still feels overstuffed at times, and ironically offers a critical flipside reaction when compared to its predecessor. This time, IT: Chapter Two is more faithful to the source material, but suffers at times from offering an inconsistent horror experience, leaving this second half of the saga merely satisfactory. 


Even with the film running at a staggering three hours(!), IT: Chapter Two still feels like it’s in a hurry. It wouldn’t be right to say the introduction to the adult versions of the Losers Club feels perfunctory, but it's awfully streamlined, and Muschietti doesn’t provide enough time for audiences to catch their breath in between meeting each adult counterpart. Beverly (Jessica Chastain), especially, gets the short straw, with the film hurtling through a major part of her character’s background – that she’s matriculated from an abusive relationship with her father to an abusive relationship with her husband. Her character’s reintroduction not only downplays her husband’s mind games that exist in canon, but the film tries to be “slick” by falsely introducing him as a kind man to try and fool the members of the audience who already know he’s an asshole. Meanwhile, Bill (James McAvoy) is writing screenplays for the Hollywood system based on his novels, which star his wife, Audra, but after receiving "the call" from Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), he immediately blows town, leaving Audra behind… never to be seen again. (If you’re familiar with the novel or the previous miniseries, you’ll note this is a major change.) Eddie Spaghetti (an excellent James Ransone, Sinister) is no longer driving cars for the rich and famous, but instead cites his job as a “risk assessor,” which rightfully sounds like the kind of job that a young, neurotic Eddie would grow up to obtain. (I have to give major props to Muschietti for re-using the actor who played Eddie’s mother in Chapter One to briefly play his wife in Chapter Two – it’s somehow both subtle and super on-the-nose, but it works.) The rest of the cast are introduced in the same rapid way, with none of them suffering the kinds of dramatic “Remember that time we were almost killed by a monster clown?” floodgates of memories you’d expect (unless you count a constantly vomiting Bill Hader), and before you know it, the Losers Club are back at the Jade of the Orient Chinese restaurant screaming at demonic fortune cookies. But not Stan, though! Poor Stan (Andy Bean, Swamp Thing); he barely registers as a blip in this new take. By film’s end, when he’s essentially speaking to his friends from beyond the grave, it feels far too late for his character to have the kind of significance the film is asking for, and audiences almost have to remind themselves who he was again. (Poor Stan!)


The criticisms I had for IT: Chapter One remain, mostly in that the changes made from the source material seem unnecessary and useless, feeling especially wrong when arguably significant events from the novel are chucked out in favor of brand new creations that the story, frankly, didn’t need. Whether it's Bill trying to save the life of a young boy who lives in his old childhood house, or the out-of-nowhere revelation that Richie has spent his life running from the fact that he’s gay, there’s nothing wrong with these new subplots, but they just don’t add anything new or constructive to the mix, and this in a movie where there’s already a lot going on. And, again, the humor – for the love of Bob Gray – the humor. Muschietti is fully capable of establishing a creepy and dreadful tone, but he seems intimidated by letting that tone sustain, too often subscribing to the philosophy of setting the audience up with scares and then deflating the tension with a joke. IT: Chapter One had its fair share of this, but IT: Chapter Two’s three-hour running time really accentuates this technique to the degree that it becomes frustrating. Sure, some of the gags are funny, but some are face-palming tone killers, and I’m still trying to figure out which I hated more: Eddie being vomited on by the cellar leper set to ‘80s pop, or the too-long scene where Richie and Eddie are terrified by a Pomeranian. If this were any other property, I’d be more forgiving, but this is a story about a demonic, intergalactic clown who EATS children – who tore off the arm of an eight-year-old kid in the first scene of the first movie – so maybe things shouldn’t be so hilarious. Maybe it’s okay for horror films to retain constant horror instead of the constant up and down emotional ride Muschietti likes to curate. Admittedly, though, some gags do work. The constant references to writer Bill botching the endings to his novels are amusing on both a surface level as well as a meta one, and King, who has been criticized for years with that same claim, was a good sport for letting Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (the Annabelle series) throw that in. (King cameos as an antique shop owner and shares a scene with McAvoy's Bill, where he tells him that same thing.) Ironically, however, after flinging this joke toward Bill several times, the flick’s own ending feels anticlimactic and silly, being that our cast of heroes literally bully Pennywise to death.

Unless Warner and New Line decide to go ahead with IT: Chapter Zero and explore the town of Derry’s morbid, dangerous history from King’s novel (or if Muschietti assembles his “director’s cut” and resurrects much of the unused footage he shot for both chapters), then this is all she wrote for this long-mooted IT saga. Like the miniseries itself, or the novel before it, or hell, even the kind of idealistic childhood as suggested if not experienced by the young versions of the Losers Club, this new take on IT starts strongly and ends satisfactorily, resulting in an above-average horror epic that manages to be scary, touching, imaginative, and conclusive, even if it’s not definitive. 

Dec 3, 2019

THE 'DEATH WISH' SERIES (1974-1994)



1974’s Death Wish, directed by Michael Winner, is nowadays considered a minor classic. While it achieved only a modicum of critical success, it certainly landed much better with audiences and was a box office hit (none of which the pitiful Eli Roth remake from 2018 managed to do). Death Wish was one of the last of the guy-in-a-suit-with-a-gun films of the 1970s, which were a temporary stopping point between the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and the gloriousness of the 1980s. These ’70s comprised guys like Clint Eastwood, Roy Scheider, Lee Marvin, and even Walter Matthau, domestically, and blokes like Michael Caine, internationally, all doing their thing with a single pistol tucked somewhere between their tweed sport coat and their brown turtleneck. Physically, the men were rather average — even scrawny — and so they depended on their performances to exude intimidation rather than ludicrous musculature. 

Also born during this era was the realization that Charles Bronson, despite his tiny-uncle-like stature and his strange anonymous hybrid of ethnicities (dude looks Mexican, Asian, and Native American all at once), was a remarkable bad-ass. Though he never achieved the same level of critical acclaim as his fellow suit-wearing bad-asses, as he often fell victim to just playing Charles Bronson on-screen, his name is one that often comes up in conversations akin to old school action flicks.


Given Death Wish’s financial success, you might think that a sequel was inevitable, but you must remember that during this era, sequels weren’t nearly as commonplace as they’d eventually become. Death Wish 2 was actually one of the first sequels to be made in what would eventually become a very marketable franchise. It’s also the worst sequel in the series. Based on the finished film, it’s clear Death Wish 2 was eager to hit all the same beats as its predecessor without too much deviation. And its version of Paul Kersey (Bronson) was eager to get to his vigilantism, this time not even giving law enforcement the chance to fail him before he slipped on his knit hat, grabbed a revolver, and took to the streets — this time hunting down the actual punks responsible for the defilement and death of his daughter, hereby eschewing the “any punk’ll do” mentality that gave the original film its voice.

As tends to happen with franchises, the Death Wish sequels were very silly (though not incrementally – Death Wish 3 out-sillies them all), but unlike most other franchises, these sequels barely resembled the groundbreaking first film when the series was only halfway through. This unexpected tonal change in the Death Wish series very much mirrors that of the Rambo: First Blood series, in that their increasingly absurd entries succeeded in not only becoming so removed from their first films’ original ideals that they barely resembled each other, but also somehow established a precedent of cartoon violence for which those series would ultimately be known. As far as Death Wish goes, this can be likened to the involvement of the legendary Cannon Films, who produced all four sequels, and who are responsible for perhaps some of the most iconic B-action films of all time.

Death Wish 2 is the grindhouse entry of the series. It’s grimy, slimy, violent, and discomforting, courtesy of the returning and controversial Michael Winner. For those unfamiliar with the deceased British director, he was the 1970s/80s version of Michael Bay: his talents were hardly ever commended, and not many good films can be found in his filmography, but he always turned a profit for studios, so they were eager to keep him employed. In an almost spiteful reaction to some of the critical drubbings he received on its predecessor, he ups the cruelty for the sequel: the rape scene lasts longer, with more graphic detail and softcore flourishes, and with the added taboo of the victim being mentally handicapped. It also ends in her equally graphic suicide. The reactionary violence perpetrated by “mourning” Paul Kersey that then unfolds results in more bodies dropped, right down to a completely unrealistic mano-a-mano finale set within a hospital (which allows for a small role by Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers).

Death Wish promotes private justice!” those 1974 reviews stated with condemnation. Winner responded with his middle finger that he later nicknamed Death Wish 2. 


And then there’s Death Wish 3, again helmed by Winner, and considered by many to be the standout of the series for just how ridiculous it is. It’s the equivalent of a live-action “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon — a hyper-violent marriage of Grumpy Old Men and Home Alone that includes a third-act extended finale where more time is dedicated to people dying than people not dying.

Those people who call Death Wish 3 the series standout are kind of right…depending of course on how seriously we’re considering the rating system. Because Death Wish 3 is kind of a masterpiece. It’s Charles Bronson meets Merry Melodies. It’s an unabashed series of vignettes in which people are killed in extremely disparate ways, loosely connected only by one common thread: they deserve it. Kersey knows they deserve it, the audience knows they deserve it, and the audience wants Kersey to make it rain bodies. And by gosh, does he ever. While the previous two Death Wish films, each in their own ways, wanted to make killing ugly, and revenge conflicting, Death Wish 3 wants you to eat your fucking popcorn and enjoy the carnage, you assholes. Out of sight is any commentary or sense of confliction. There are no warring minds re: revenge versus justice. Kersey barely needs a reason to begin unpacking all of his weapons of mass destruction. Evidently he can’t wait to do it. He’s no longer haunted by the change that’s taken place inside him, turning him from mild-mannered architect/widower to a nonplussed bachelor/accomplished killing machine. His ease at life-taking has come to define him. In previous Death Wish films, the vigilante murders had been committed in response to the frustration spurred by feelings of helplessness; in Death Wish 3, they are cathartic release. They are the unleashing pent-up blue balls of a mentally exhausted neighborhood so beaten down and regressed by daily victimization that rioting in the streets and blood in the gutter is tantamount to ejaculatory celebration. To come away with the message “violence isn’t the answer” at film’s end, where Kersey grasps his suitcases and heroically marches down a street littered with flaming cars, dead bodies, and screaming police sirens — it’s the lone rider leaving that Old West town at sun-up — is to embrace your delusion. Death Wish 3 makes one thing very clear: violence works — works well, works often, and should be utilized for every possible conflict.

Death Wish 3 so changed the overall tenor of the series that there would be no returning to semi-respectable ground, which is why the remaining sequels don’t hold a candle, either in terms of being a rock’em sock’em silly time, or of actually attempting to be engaging, thoughtful films. But the Cannon Group, enjoying another hit, obviously had dollar signs in their eyes and typically premature Death Wish 4 posters floating around in their brains…


Following the “disaster” (read: genius) that was Death Wish 3, a minor shake-up occurred behind the scenes as Death Wish 4: The Crackdown moved ahead without series director Michael Winner. The why of this is unclear. I’ve seen this attributed to Bronson refusing to work with the director ever again after Winner had allegedly secretly shot additional violent inserts on Death Wish 3 while the conscientiously objecting Bronson wasn’t on set. Another story had Cannon claiming that Winner simply wasn’t interested in further sequels (which will seem suspect soon). Whatever the reason, replacing him was J. Lee Thompson, a far better filmmaker (he directed the original Cape Fear, for one) with whom Bronson had previously worked six times, and with whom he would collaborate twice more following Death Wish 4 for an overall total of nine films. (One of these is the bonkers Bronson crime thriller/slasher flick Ten to Midnight, which is required viewing as far as I’m concerned.)

Being a Cannon Films production, Death Wish 4 is still pretty silly, but following the gonzo previous sequel, there’s at least an effort on behalf of Thompson and screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman, who had written the Thompson/Bronson flick Murphy’s Law, to ground the Death Wish world back in reality. Although this is called Part 4,  the events of Death Wish 3 go largely ignored, and I can see why. If one’s goal with Death Wish 4 is to adhere to a more realistic world, best not mention the time your lead hero literally killed an entire neighborhood of painted, unionized punks.

Death Wish 4 thankfully feels different from what’s come before, although it still embraces the silliness that would come to define most of Cannon Films’ output. Retired from the vigilante life and living with his replacement wife and daughter, Kersey embraces his old deadly ways when his nu-daughter is killed by drug dealers thanks to her shady, drug addict boyfriend. But this time, instead of taking to the streets and murdering any punk he encounters, Kersey is embroiled in a mystery — one that has him infiltrating two competing drug operations and serving up some serious Yojimbo-style double-cross, all at the request of his mysterious benefactor (played by Cannon go-to guy John P. Ryan).

Thankfully missing from Death Wish 4 is the grit and grime from the first two films. Also thankfully, it’s a sequel that preserves the “let’s have fun!” mentality from Death Wish 3, which was quite honestly that sequel’s only selling point. As mentioned, Death Wish 3 had so changed the trajectory of the series that there was no reverting back to the path of the original’s respectability. Death Wish 4 pretty ably straddles that line between actually showing off an engaging plot while trying new things, but also blowing up chunky looking dummies that had, just seconds before, been real, living character actors. (And I love a good dummy.)


Following the release of Death Wish 4, Cannon Films was sold to Pathé, and the Golan-Globus cousins were fired. Golan soon joined 21st Century Film Corporation, who immediately kick-started the redundantly titled Death Wish 5: The Face of Death, the worst sequel in the series since the second entry and the film that Golan hoped would save the ailing company. (It didn’t.)

Death Wish 5 is the most bizarre entry in the franchise, even if the mainstay of Kersey the vigilante remains its chief narrative hook. Again enjoying a quiet life (this time under a new name) with his new girlfriend Olivia and her daughter Chelsea, shit goes sour when Olivia is killed and Chelsea is kidnapped by a maniacal mobster named O’Shea (Michael Parks). Complicating the matter is that O’Shea is Chelsea’s biological father, so the cops (one of whom is played by a generally terrible Saul Rubinek) can’t do anything about it.

Enter the vigilante.

Bronson was 72 when he made Death Wish 5, which was the main dig most critics got in when the critically savaged sequel was released — that the aging action star was far too old to be engaging in something so silly and violent. Not only that, but much of the sequel feels cheap, offering the kind of small scale environments prevalent in direct-to-video features. There are very few city exterior sequences, which had been a stalwart of the series up to that point. The actual cities of New York and Los Angeles had become part and parcel with the stories being explored in those entries; sorry, I have to say it: they became characters. Death Wish 5 was the series’ only Canadian production, and it’s evident that director Allan Goldstein was eager to hide this whenever possible.

Death Wish 5 offers a fair share of entertainment strictly on two terms: the presence of Michael Parks, who absolutely excelled at villainy, and the lunacy involved with Kersey’s murder methods, whether they be remote-controlled soccer ball bombs or poisoned cannolis borrowed from The Godfather III. Beyond that, Death Wish 5 has absolutely nothing else going for it — even the presence of an aging, puffy-faced Bronson, who had been completely over the Death Wish franchise since Part 2, is a serious bummer, because you can tell he’s not at all into it — and, as the critics noted, definitely showed his age.

Director Michael Winner, who helmed the first three Death Wish films, once said, “I’d have Charles Bronson starring in Death Wish 26 if I thought it would make a profit.” From the point of view of someone strictly looking for a silly, B-movie good time, I’ll say it’s a shame that the series ran out of steam far before that projection — that is, of course, assuming that some of those never-to-be sequels would have reached the same lunatic heights as seen in Death Wish 3. Because at that point, there was no turning back — no sense in trying to end the series before it jumped the shark, because that shark had most definitely already been jumped. So long as Bronson had been willing, I’d have easily taken 21 more entries in spite of how terrible the last official sequel had been. Over Charles Bronson’s storied career, he made far better films than the original Death Wish, but the long-running vigilante series would eventually define his career. It’s a shame this was the final theatrical note on which he had to go out.

Nov 30, 2019

THE ‘HELLRAISER’ TRILOGY (1987-1992)


Hellraiser, at its start, seemed like the least likely horror film to spawn a franchise for many reasons — the first of those being the extremely odd and daring subject matter. Though Hellraiser was released in the ‘80s – the very decade that saw the first installments in what would become major horror franchises – Hellraiser wasn’t simply about a maniac with an unforgettable appearance mowing down the innocent. Halloween, though made in 1978, officially became a franchise in 1981 when its sequel was released; many would argue that, though it was not the first official slasher film ever made, it was the first that would kick-start the genre and inspire a storm of imitators, which directly led to the creation of the Friday the 13th franchise. But whether you’re talking about a legitimately classy film like Halloween, or a slice of popcorn escapism like Friday the 13th, neither film would be fairly labeled as complex. Their concepts could be broken down into one sentence.

Hellraiser's couldn’t.

Hellraiser was sicker, slimier, angrier, and more depraved. On its surface it was about a mysterious puzzle box that had the power to open the gates of hell and allow demons (to some, angels to others) to emerge. But below that it was about sexual depravity, about the limits one kind of individual wanted to reach. It was about finding that straddling line between pain and pleasure. And honestly, it introduced certain taboos into the mainstream (well, the semi-mainstream) that had never been discussed in such a public way...unless you had read director Clive Barker’s writing at that point. The mastermind behind “The Hellbound Heart,” which was later fleshed out into the screenplay for Hellraiser, had been having that discussion for years.

Following the groundbreaking original film, eight sequels (!) would eventually follow, more and more shifting Pinhead – originally just one of many demons (called Cenobites) who was never intended to be the focal point – into the limelight. And, as was usually the case, his character would appear in each subsequently diminishing entry, soon becoming DTV franchise fodder like Puppetmaster and the Corn kids. Like many other horror franchises, how they play out in their latter entries seldom resemble how they looked in their earliest days. In the first Hellraiser, Pinhead appears fleetingly – not the main antagonist, but a monster whom one must face when seeking the ultimate pleasure. By the final entry (at least the final one with Bradley), Pinhead had become a ghost haunting a website (or something) and swinging machetes into teens’ necks, cutting their heads off with a snarl. (Seriously.) He became the very thing Barker hadn’t intended, as Pinhead’s introduction into pop culture grouped his Hellraiser in with all the other horror properties…where it didn’t belong.


Made with a very low budget, Hellraiser was the horror film no one was expecting. By the time its release year of 1987 rolled around, the Friday the 13th franchise was already on its seventh entry; Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street, their fifth. And already their concepts were starting to wear thin. Clive Barker, after having had no success with a handful of short experimental films based on his own short stories, wrote and directed the ’87 horror cheapie about a shaky marriage with a history of familial infidelity and a desire for a new beginning, both shaken by the reappearance of a familiar face. (Well, kind of.) Not at all your typical ’80s horror (despite the hero being a plucky teen girl, played by Ashley Laurence), Hellraiser was about the limits of desire, the consequences of self-destructive behavior, and the lengths one will go for what they perceive to be love. The faces remain the same in Hellraiser, but the real faces behind them often change. Larry Cotton (Dirty Harry’s Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) have moved back to Larry’s old family home (never given a specific location, but one which was originally meant to be London). It’s the same house that bore witness to the former immediate scene of Larry’s brother, Frank (Sean Chapman) having opened the puzzle box and being ripped apart by the Cenobites for his troubles. It’s there, following a bit of unexplained bloody voodoo, that Frank is resurrected as a slimy skinless humanoid, whom Julia discovers living in the attic. Being that Frank and Julia had engaged in a bit of coitus prior to her wedding to Larry, she still desires him (either emotionally or sexually), so when Frank orders her to bring him blood by any means necessary in an effort to continue reforming his body, Julia agrees. But it’s when Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Laurence) comes to visit that Julie and Frank’s scheme gets a little complicated.

It goes without saying that the first Hellraiser is the best in the series, though many fans would point to its immediate sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, as the superior entry (more on that in a bit). Celebrated for its inventive practical effects in the same way as John Carpenter’s The Thing, Hellraiser plays out like a doomed romance, with Julia becoming a murderess to reform Frank in hopes that they would again be together. In spite of all the grime and grit and spilled blood, it’s actually a sad story – a Greek tragedy that unfolds with equal levels Shakespearean drama and EC Comics irony. And yes, despite the original intention for Julia to actually be seen as the main villain and the takeaway face of Hellraiser, it would be Doug Bradley as Pinhead who would inadvertently walk away with the final association with the Hellraiser brand. His impressive appearance, along with fellow Cenobites Chatterer, Butterball, and “Female Cenobite” (she got the short stick in the names department), though limited to roughly ten minutes, would be powerful and effective enough to not only spawn a franchise but inherit the mantle of the main villain going forward.


Call it the return of New World Pictures as financier, or the short amount of time between films, or the returning of much of the creative force (sans Clive Barker, who only provided a rough outline of the story), Hellbound: Hellraiser II feels like not just a natural sequel, but the second half of the overall Hellraiser story. Following Uncle Frank and Julia’s comeuppance, Kirsty, understandably, now finds herself a patient at the Channard Institute for the mentally ill as police try to piece together what exactly happened in that house. Very unfortunately for Kirsty, Dr. Channard himself (Kenneth Cranham), harbors the same blood-thirsty need for the next level of passion-meets-pain, and has been researching the puzzle box for years (and who seriously looks like Old Tom Hardy). In one of the most uncomfortable scenes to ever appear in a horror film, which sees a mentally ill patient slicing himself with a straight razor to kill the bugs he believes are crawling all over him, his torrential blood flow leaks onto the stolen mattress on which Julia had perished in the previous film, resurrecting her, and she becomes Channard’s guide directly into the pits of hell. Meanwhile, Kirsty does stuff involving a mute girl at the hospital who just so happens to really enjoy puzzles; for their troubles, they also end up in hell.

Aesthetically, Hellbound: Hellraiser II really does play out like a natural second half, but in doing so also becomes somewhat lost in its own story. Unsure of what it wants to be, it sacrifices some of its sexual daringness in favor of focusing much of its journey on its descent into hell, where Kirsty believes her father to be, and who’s in need of rescue following a dream in which he appeared to her in skinless form, scrawling bloodily on the wall, “I AM IN HELL HELP ME.” Julia (a returning Clare Higgins) is certainly sexier and more diabolical, but compared to the conflicted iteration of herself in the first film, she comes off less interesting. Once she’s reborn and her skinless ass groped by Dr. Channard, she’s given absolutely nothing to do except walk around and grin big.

By this time it had become apparent that Doug Bradley’s Pinhead was the star, and though his screen time in the makeup isn’t necessarily increased, his character is fleshed out, being ret-conned as a former British soldier during the first World War who opens the puzzle box and subsequently becomes the pointy-faced demon we all know and love. Hellbound: Hellraiser II boasts some interesting and impressive visuals from first-time director Tony Randel, taking over for Barker, but also a few asinine “twists” – such as “Satan” being a gigantic puzzle box which shoots lasers, or — my favorite  — Frank revealing himself as the one who appeared to Kirsty and wrote her the bloody note, all in an effort to lure her into hell so they could bang.

This was Frank’s big idea.

Way to go Frank.


And it’s with Hellraiser’s third film that Pinhead is made the front-and-center villain, receiving a boost in screen time and a copy of Freddy Krueger’s Official Guide to Awful Ironic Puns. Screenwriter Peter Atkins, who returns from duties on Hellbound: Hellraiser II, again scripts this entry – one that he admits isn’t very far removed from the original intention, but who is also happy to admit that the new rights holders of the Hellraiser franchise wanted different things from what came before. Basically, they wanted their own horror villain to turn into a sadistic sidesplitting bad guy to lure in a different kind of audience (the kind who thought Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare was just a total hoot). They got their wish.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth focuses on a reporter named Joey Summerskill who stumbles ass-backwards into a Pinhead-like situation after witnessing a poor guy stabbed with rusty chains being wheeled into an operating room one night at the hospital, putting her directly on the bloody path of Pinhead, recently freed from a statue (?) by a New York playboy who fancies himself worthy of sitting at the right hand of the king of Hell. (He’s basically the new Julia, only intensely punchable.) If there’s a reason that logline sounds stupid, it’s because it is. Very much so. Except for watching Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth turn a once-frightening demon into a pun-dropping pain in the ass who – no bullshit – turns people into Cenobites that have cameras in their heads or can fire CDs like saw blades – this second sequel doesn’t offer much depth, daringness, or really anything at all besides yet another example of diminishing returns. Pinhead’s sad transition into Freddy Krueger-lite was inevitably completed, aided by a more than willing Anthony Hickox (the Waxworks series) stepping into the director’s chair for Tony Randel, who wisely opted not to return.

Dimension Films would maintain their hold on the franchise, turning out one entry after another, but after the spectacular failure of Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (credited to phantom director Alan Smithee, which in movie talk means RUN), ironically, non-Hellraiser related horror scripts would be picked up by the production house, rewritten to include Pinhead and Hellraiser elements, and would then actually offer far more solid one-offs than the series’ earlier official sequels. (I’ll defend Scott Derrickson’s Hellraiser: Inferno from now until the end of time – the first sequel to go direct to video, but the best since the original.) The Hellraiser franchise continues to chug along, with a new entry—Hellraiser: Judgment—released in 2018. It’s the tenth film of the franchise and the second subsequent sequel on which Doug Bradley has passed, so that probably tells you everything you need to know. For almost ten years, Dimension Films have been trying to bring a proper remake of Hellraiser to life, and all kinds of interesting people – from Inside's Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury to Drive Angry's Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier – have taken a crack. Currently the task rests in the hands of super hack writer David S. Goyer, but word has been quiet, so who really knows what's going on? One thing is certain: you can't keep a good bad guy down, and Pinhead will return – one way or the other.



Nov 28, 2019

THAT'S NOT CRANBERRY SAUCE


BLOOD RAGE (1987): A GORE-NUCOPIA OF THANKSGIVING MAYHEM!


Don’t listen to that blowhard Eli Roth. Despite his self-aggrandizing fake trailer for Thanksgiving sandwiched in between the two mini features that comprised Grindhouse, which he purported to be the first to exploit the previously unexploited turkey day, Blood Rage (aka Nightmare at Shadow Woods) had beaten him to the punch by roughly twenty-five years. And what a twenty-five years it’s been. Long considered an obscure title, available only in compromised hack jobs found on VHS and DVD releases, the true, intended, and uncut version was finally unleashed last year by Arrow Video in all its “that’s not cranberry sauce!” glory. And it is a sight to behold.

Blood Rage offers everything the hardcore slasher fan could possibly want: a gimmicky but forgivable premise, a charismatic but quirky killer, tremendous violence, a nice helping of T&A, an array of flying limbs, and not a single unwelcome minute of stagnation. Blood Rage moves at a clip, only hanging around long enough to commit bodily mayhem against its cast before zipping to its “seriously, what is this?” ending, cutting to black, and rolling credits.


In the subgenre of the slasher film, it’s easy to love many titles strictly via irony. PIECES, for example, is an absolute favorite, as well as The Mutilator, but I could never in good conscious call either of them actual good films. But Blood Rage is different. So different. On the Blood Rage scale, I give it five out of five cut-off hands holding a beer can. Because, you see, one film is not less good simply because it’s striving toward a different goal. JAWS is not less of a good film because The Godfather exists. Mad Max does not pale in the majestic shadow of Mad Max: Fury RoadBlood Rage is as good at killing teenagers as Quint is at captivating a crew with his wartime stories, or Sonny Corleone is at personifying agonizing death, or the Doof Warrior is at rocking out on a flaming fucking guitar. In fact, Blood Rage is better at what it wants to do because it exists in an entirely uncategorizeable box – an entity unto itself, and only itself. 

And I love being able to say that.


Its plot, such as it is (or ain’t), is so sinfully simple and rife with logic errors that it transcends ineptness and becomes charming. A family receives word that their so-called psychotic family member has escaped an asylum and could be heading their way, but…no one cancels Thanksgiving dinner. 

No one cares. 

No one looks alarmed. 

Not a single person says, “Gosh, maybe we should drive our functioning cars to safety.” 

In the land of Blood Rage, it’s don’t worry, be happy. There are no cars that don’t start, there are no phone lines that are cut. People just…willfully choose to stay in the place where the murderer seems to be heading, without concern. And it’s glorious, because someone’s HEAD gets hacked in half and you can see his entire BRAIN. That’s Blood Rage, people.

That’s what you’re getting, and like a slice of pumpkin pie after a big turkey dinner, it’s delightful. 


What Blood Rage gets right, effortlessly, is its willingness to be fun. The premise alone lets the audience off the hook in the sense that they’re not left wondering for the entire film just who it is behind the mask that’s cutting of everyone’s knees and faces, inevitably leading to an underwhelming conclusion bound to satisfy only a fraction of the audience. At no point is Blood Rage‘s audience left to theorize about the mysterious identity of the killer responsible for all the carnage.

It’s Terry. The one in the striped shirt. He’s…right there. 


The acting’s about the caliber you might expect from a low-budget slasher film made in the early ’80s but not released until the late ’80s. It’s doable, passable, and certainly entertaining enough. Plus Ted Raimi appears as “Condom Salesman.” He has one line: “Condoms?” (I think. Memory’s hazy on this one; I think Blood Rage broke my brain.)

Maintaining the slasher film tradition of featuring one lead actor who makes you say, “Wow, he/she’s in this?”, Blood Rage features the unexpected appearance of Louise Lasser, who began her career in many of Woody Allen’s earlier films, and who most notably appeared in Requiem for a Dream as Ada, friend to Sara Goldfarb, who eventually breaks my heart as she sobs uncontrollably on a city bench. Her role hovers somewhere between normal and Mrs. Bates, suggesting that she’s mostly grounded, but also a bit too…attached to her sons. But she plays it well, and her crazy role is just one of many crazy things that make Blood Rage so crazy good. The scene in which she sits Indian style on the kitchen floor in front of her open refrigerator and begins eating Thanksgiving leftovers with a depressed look on her face because her crazy son has escaped a lunatic asylum and may be on his way to kill her and everyone else – so what else can she do? – is the stuff of cinemafantastique. 


Blood Rage is the movie that unaware slasher fans never knew they needed. Everything about it is pure and lovable – even the detestable violence and gore that our mothers would absolutely despise contains an intangible charm that’s become ingrained with this oft forgotten era of horror. For a film about a psychotic teen cutting down his friends and family with a machete in violent ways, it’s the most harmless slice of escapism yet that hails from the golden era of hack’em-up cinema. Its intentions are as innocent as the on-screen killer is murderous, but they both want the same thing: to cover everything in blood, and to make every minute of it as enjoyable as possible. And both succeed, so hard. 

If you consider yourself a fan of old-school slashers, have never seen this, and are still on the fence, then give me a break – YOU NEED THIS. Cut from the same mold as My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler, Intruder, and the entire Friday the 13th franchise, Blood Rage demands to be part of your yearly Thanksgivings or else you’re just a big turkey ha ha. 

Blood Rage is hereby awarded:


Happy Thanksgiving!

[Reprinted from the Daily Grindhouse.]

Nov 26, 2019

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974)


To lean on an overused expression, they really don’t make films like The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three anymore. The remake from 1998 with Vincent D’Onofrio, and the other remake from 2009 with Denzel Washington and John Travolta and directed by Tony Scott, proved that with ease. Because the uniqueness of the original is very much a product of the time in which it was made.

As has already been proven, the future has a bad memory. Over time, individuals who were once prominent actors, or filmmakers, slip into the ether. Names like Walter Matthau or Robert Shaw, celebrated during their time, may or may not survive the pop culture purge that’s currently in progress with the generation just below our own. Names like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, who died young, beautiful, and tragically, will always live on, while some of their colleagues will become trivia in board games and movie theater screens just before the ads for Hyundai. For some, those names are already forgotten, but for those who still remember, it might still come as a surprise that Walter Matthau, best remembered for his lifelong friendship and multiple on-screen couplings with Jack Lemmon, did his fair share of roles in the 1970s where he played kind of a badass. Not Schwarzenegger or Stallone levels of badass, mind you, but a different kind of badass. With his roles in The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, or Charley Varrick, or The Laughing Policeman, the lanky and limber Matthau exuded that 1970s version of a badass without the egocentricity of ridiculous musculature or an array of militaristic weapons. Matthau could be a badass only with a look, or a wry smile, or a perfectly timed cutting remark. His resistance to authority, his disdain for bureaucracy, and his insistence on always getting his man made him a less showy but just as effective “action” hero.

As for the villain (well, the lead villain), Robert Shaw’s menacing, icy, and subtly funny take on Mr. Blue (yep, Tarantino steals from all over) is a perfect foil to Matthau’s Lt. Zachary Garber. He is very much no-nonsense, at times treating the hostages in his subway car with more respect than his fellow heisters (brought to life by the likes of Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and yes, Earl Hindman, aka Tim Taylor’s neighbor, Wilson, in nine years of Home Improvement). When one uses the term effortlessly cool for actors from this era, the names Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood come to mind, but Robert Shaw out-cooled them all. Perhaps best remembered as Quint from JAWS, followed by his villainous turns in The Sting and From Russia with Love, his untimely death at 51 is one of the worst tragedies to befall the art of cinema, as it robbed us from so many more potentially great roles from the underrated British actor.


Two strong lead actors aside, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’s greatest strength is its screenplay, based on the novel by John Godey (Johnny Handsome) and adapted by Peter Stone (Charade; 1776). Channeling Die Hard before Die Hard existed, the majority of Matthau and Shaw’s scenes together are shared via radio between the New York City subway operations hub and the taken train car, and despite this, the men manage to show a tremendous rapport, anyway. Helping this is the cracking, sharp-witted dialogue, which comes off as both cinematic and realistic at the same time. Add to that a slice of political incorrectness (it’s true—in previous eras, it was okay to laugh at the things that made us different) and a ground-zero look at how different facets of city culture react to a terrorist event (topical!), and the end result is The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three—one of the only times domestic terrorism was fun.

Director Joseph Sargent (White Lightning; JAWS: The Revenge) matches the thrills with the laughs, presenting an old-fashioned good time with one of the best, ironic, and expertly executed endings of all time. And to forgive another overused expression, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’s DNA lives, breathes, and bleeds New York – to the point where the city is not just another character but the main character. In fact (move over, Spike Lee), The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three just might be the most New York film ever, from the emphasis on local actors for bit parts, to bigger-than-life New York attitudes, to iconic city geography, and to how ably Sargent captures the city, warts and all. The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three takes place in several not-so-glamorous environments. Much of the film, understandably, is subterranean, spent in gritty and dank locations like malfunctioning train cars or subway tunnels and platforms, but this only adds to the film’s appeal. Having set The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three in any other city would have stripped away its identity, its wryness, and most importantly, its sense of humor.


Much of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is dialogue driven, but composer David Shire’s musical score complements the subtler and less bombastic moments outside of scenes of gunplay or car chases. (Shire has amusingly described his earlier attempts at scoring The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three as “bad Lalo Schifrin” and “bad flute jazz.”) Scenes set underground on the subway tunnels or platforms benefit from echo and station ambience, exuding the New Yorkness of New York, and working perfectly alongside Sargent’s intent to make this a New York story.

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three is a classic of the genre, the sub-genre, or however you want to catalog it. It exists in a simpler time, both historically and cinematically, when all you needed for something to go so wrong was a handful of homegrown men with a plan, and all you needed to right that wrong was someone on the opposite end of the radio to ensure those men never reach the last stop.


Nov 25, 2019

LOVE, TRAVIS

Dear Father and Mother: 
July is the month I remember which brings not only your wedding anniversary but also Father's Day and Mother's birthday. I'm sorry I can't remember the exact dates, but I hope this card will take care of them all. 
I'm sorry again I cannot send you my address like I promised to last year. But the sensitive nature of my work for the government demands utmost secrecy. I know you will understand. 
I am healthy and well and making lots of money. I have been going with a girl for several months and I know you would be proud if you could see her. Her name is Betsy but I can tell you no more than that... 
I hope this card finds you all well as it does me. 
I hope no one has died. 
Don't worry about me. One day, they'll be a knock on the door and it'll be me. 
Love, Travis.

Nov 24, 2019

GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT: THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)


Horror is subjective. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky once referred to his gut-wrenching drug drama Requiem for a Dream as a horror film. Same for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, or Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. There need not be a supernatural presence, a masked antagonist, or a family of cannibals for something to be considered a horror film. Sometimes the characters within the story need to be ailing from horrific misdeeds, or actions, or turmoil within themselves. Sometimes the horror results from an act that our lead character regrets. Sometimes it results from a series of decisions that our lead makes, which set off a chain of events from which there is no coming back, and which will spell doom for everyone connected to him or her. And sometimes the horror comes from a severe religious conflict – a lack of faith by a formerly faithful person. For the second time, that first being The Exorcist, writer/director William Peter Blatty explores the idea of the loss of faith – how horrible it must be to question everything, to discount the notion that such things as “good” may exist in the world, and how hopeless it must be to feel so alone.

High in a mountainous region of the Pacific Northwest resides an old castle, which the American government has appropriated as a mental hospital – called “Center 18” – for its military personnel from the Vietnam War. A stoic and mysterious man named Colonel Hudson Kane (Stacy Keach, Road Games), a former member of a United States Marine Corps special unit, arrives at the castle for his assignment: while there under the guise of overseeing the treatment of all the patients, really he’s been sent to determine if any or all of the patients are actually faking their psychoses to avoid going back to Vietnam. While there he meets Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders, The Exorcist III), a fellow psychiatrist who will be on hand to help Kane settle into his new role. Upon meeting him, the crux of “Center 18” is explained: the confined men are allowed to indulge in their own self-created and ridiculous role-playing fantasies as a means of therapy, and Colonel Fell encourages Kane to play along. Kane agrees, and not just because as the acting psychiatrist he believes in the technique, but because, just maybe, he’s playing a role, too – perhaps he’d been playing one before he ever arrived.

As one might imagine, a cast of colorful characters reside at the castle: there’s Frankie Reno (Jason Miller, The Exorcist), a former lieutenant attempting to put together a Shakespearean stage adaptation …using a cast of dogs; there’s Spinell (Joe Spinell, Maniac), Reno’s number two; there’s Major Nammack (Moses Gunn, Roots), who can be spotted wearing a “Super Nammack” costume; and let’s not forget Fromme (Blatty himself) playing a “System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”-ish character who earns the film’s first big laugh. This film-quoting, mischief-making band of men will be the ones providing the comic relief, but it will be Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson, The Walking Dead), the former astronaut dealing with a crisis of faith, to whom Kane will gravitate, compelled by something unknown to get to the root of Cutshaw’s crisis and find a way to show him that there is good in the world. What occurs between them is an at-times preposterous ping pong game of philosophical debate, peppered with angered accusations, too-calm responses, and proclamations bordering on the absurd. (“The man in the moon fucked my sister!”) Cutshaw insists that no good – and hence, no god – exists in the world; only an instance of selfless self-sacrifice could ever convince him otherwise. Unmet demands that Kane cite just one example of such an instance seems only to bolster Cutshaw’s point. Cutshaw assumes himself to have won, but Kane won’t give in that easily. Though he shares the same jaded and depressing view of the world, he knows there’s enough goodness dwelling within it to cancel out the bad. He knows that the shepherd will sacrifice himself for the good of his flock. He just has to find a way to prove it.


The most remarkable thing about The Ninth Configuration is its blending together of multiple genres: drama, thriller, war, comedy, horror, existentialism, and for good measure, gothic mystery. It’d be difficult to point to one or two of these genres and say “it’s mostly this” because that’s utterly untrue. The film never stops being dramatic, comedic, thrilling, horrific, existential, or mysterious; instead, all of those genres work together in tandem to create the experience that is this wild, quirky, and inexplicable film culled entirely from the imagination of William Peter Blatty. At first based on an original novel called Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane, it was then turned into a screenplay, which was then turned into a new novel, The Ninth Configuration. Rarely does it occur when there are two versions of the same book, by the same author, that are similar enough to be considered the same story, but different enough for those two stories to be told in such unique ways. The fate of the film, too, shares the fate of the book – several different cuts of the film have been circulating all over the world since its original theatrical debut, though the director’s preferred version wouldn’t “exist” until the 2001 DVD release by Warner Bros.

I say with distaste that the world will forever remember Scott Wilson as Herschel from The Walking Dead (and indeed, he was the best thing about it), but the actor has been a remarkable performer for nearly fifty(!) years, hitting the scene big with a one-two punch of In the Heat of the Night and In Cold Blood. In The Ninth Configuration, he’s given both his weightiest character and a rare lead role. Much like the dearly departed Robin Williams, Wilson retains that uncanny ability to make you laugh even as you can see in his eyes that he’s not laughing along with you. Though the most absurd dialogue flows from his mouth, there’s something festering inside him that hints at a profound sadness. His Cutshaw is haunted by the notion of being completely alone, and out there in the confines of space – the closest man will perhaps ever physically get to the perceived location of heaven – he wanted to feel closer to God. Instead, he felt more abandoned than ever. His mental breakdown unknowingly put him on the journey to meeting Keach’s Colonel Kane, a man who will prove to him that there is goodness in the world – even if he has to die trying.


Speaking of, Stacy Keach, playing “the greatest fucking psychiatrist since Jung,” is another actor rarely given a lead role, and he’s never been as good as he is here. For so much of the film, his performance is incredibly muted – almost artificially so – as if he’s just awoken from a very long sleep. But over time you will see him become reborn into something else – something more riveting, unhinged, exploding with passion. In one particular scene, he exudes such an immense magnitude of anger that his eyes fill with tears and his entire body shakes without control, and all while wearing a Nazi uniform. (It makes sense in context, trust me.) It’s an especially powerful scene in an especially powerful film. But then again, in the same film, he’s capable of delivering extremely melancholic monologues – musings on the very world to which he is trying to re-introduce his patients, but one that he himself doesn’t seem to entirely understand:

“Maybe we are just fish out of water. I just think about… sickness… cancer in children… earthquakes, war, painful death. Death. Just death. If these things are just part of our natural environment, why do we think of them as evil? Why do they horrify us so? Unless we were meant for someplace else. I don’t think evil grows out of madness. I think madness grows out of evil.”

Really, the entire cast work perfectly – each for their own parts, and as one unit of an ensemble: Jason Miller, Moses Gun, Tom Atkins, Robert Loggia, Richard Lynch, Neville Brand – it’s a who’s who of under-appreciated cult actors that should enthuse any appreciating film fan. (And let’s not forget Joe Spinell, who plays a character not present in any iteration of the literary story, but who flat-out told Blatty he wanted to be in the film, to which Blatty replied, “Well, all right,” and invited him to the set to ad-lib all his lines – hence his character’s name being “Spinell.”)

Nothing about The Ninth Configuration is extraneous or exploitative. Every scene – every exchange of dialogue, no matter how absurd – matters. It’s all urging the story toward its conclusion. One scene in particular between Miller and Keach – the “Hamlet theory” scene – really sums up the entire film. In the famous Shakespeare play, based on his eccentric behavior, there are two interpretations: either Hamlet is crazy, or he’s merely pretending to be. So the question posed to the two psychiatrists: is Hamlet crazy?

Kane says yes.

Fell says no.

Miller’s Reno smiles at them. “You’re both wrong.”


For a film in which it seemed actors had played musical chairs with their roles before finally settling on the character each would be playing, everyone hits home with their respective contributions and every one of the supporting character actors seem to be having a lot of fun. What sounds like what must have been chaos (and according to Tom Atkins, many of the actors felt stranded in the middle of nowhere in their shooting locale of Budapest, taking to drinking and fucking around to blow off steam) results in strong ensemble work where everyone plays off each other extremely well.

One of the biggest disservices in life seems to be that, except for this film, as well as the very underrated The Exorcist III, William Peter Blatty has remained away from the director’s chair. Though he continued to write until his death last year, he was an extremely focused and particular filmmaker. In a way, only the author of the source novel(s) could have been the one to bring this story to visual life. The divergent tone – comedy one minute and tragedy the next – would have sent many filmmakers scurrying, and when the dark and effective scenes were afoot, Blatty had only small bouts of limited screen time to convey his point. A man who once considered joining the priesthood, Blatty’s body of work has a strong (but not preachy) religious tone. It was Father Karras in The Exorcist (Jason Miller in the film) who was suffering a crisis of faith, even as he was looking the devil right in the face. And it would soon be Detective Kinderman in Legion (George S. Scott in The Exorcist III) as he confronted the long-dead Gemini Killer, and who was also struggling to find goodness and decency in the world. Here, it’s Captain Cutshaw (who actually appears in The Exorcist – the astronaut at the cocktail party whom Regan tells, “You’re gonna die up there”), a fractured and terrified man who has let the evils of the world overtake him and shake his sense of faith.

There are as many scenes brimming with comedy as there are those filled with intense drama and disturbing content. Kane’s reoccurring dream of his twin brother, the once-titular “Killer Kane,” having killed a young Vietnamese soldier in the midst of the war – garroting him so fiercely that he inadvertently removes the boy’s head (“I cut off his head with a wire, but he kept talking.”) – is extremely disconcerting in its staging. And though it technically takes place in another film (Blatty’s own adaptation of Legion, retitled by the studio as The Exorcist III), he crafted perhaps the greatest and most effective jump scene likely since the ending of Carrie. In fact, it’s the lame and studio-mandated third-act exorcism that handicaps the original intended finale and results in preventing The Exorcist III from achieving the same level of perfection as its infamous predecessor. But it’s one image in particular, found at the top of this article, that will become synonymous with The Ninth Configuration – another dream, this one of Cutshaw, afraid of what he might find, or not find, on his voyage into space.


Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m not a religious person, but I do believe in “live and let live.” Believe in God, a god, or many gods, as much as you want, so long as you keep your faith and devotion an exclusive part of your life. Alternately, if you don’t accept that there’s another world beyond our own – one in the spiritual realm – that’s also your prerogative. But again, that is your belief to keep, so keep it as such. At times I’ve either bore witness to or participated myself in the sporadic “is there? vs. isn’t there?” debate, and eventually threw up my hands and said “I have no idea, and neither do you.” To claim you know there’s a God reeks of just as much arrogance as to claim you know there is not. In time, we’ll both find out. Like ghosts or reincarnation or fucking Bigfoot, those questions are bigger than me, and are not for me to answer.

I bring this up for one very significant reason: there’s a strong religious backbone throughout The Ninth Configuration – not in that corny Kirk Cameron kind of way, but in a more existential and philosophical way – an “important” kind of way. Ultimately, though the film is about the tortured Captain Cutshaw regaining the faith he lost, and though the dialogue revolves around the existence of God (whom Cutshaw refers to as “the all-knowing, all-powerful Foot”), really it comes down to that age-old conflict of good versus evil. From the point of view of a decidedly non-religious person, I state unequivocally that the film is intensely moving. I recall being brought to tears upon my very first viewing of it, which was years ago, courtesy of an old tattered VHS I had found in a junk shop somewhere and brought home strictly for the pedigree of talent involved. It’s since become one of my favorite films.

Considering The Ninth Configuration is attached to the same man who wrote the novel and subsequent screenplay for The Exorcist – still cited as the scariest film of all time, a multiple Academy-Award winner, a box-office smash – one would have assumed that the film had been treated with a comparable reverence and confidence during its initial release. Far more writers are given risky opportunities by major studios these days if their previous films have been proven moneymakers. Whether it’s a changing studio system, the bizarre uniqueness of the story, or just plain old bad luck for William Peter Blatty, The Ninth Configuration never achieved mainstream popularity, and it never will. But, in a home video market that’s dying a slow death, here’s hoping it manages to find a few more folks before retiring to that big “Center 18” in the sky (whether or not it exists).