Jun 29, 2019

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)


Within a window of three years during the late '70s/early '80s, the world would receive two of the greatest sci-fi remakes of all time. The latter would be John Carpenter's grisly and bleak monster opus The Thing, but preceding it would be Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, itself also an update of a 1950s classic. That both films would heavily lean on the idea of those you knew being taken over by an organism from another world, rendering your former society untrustworthy and even deadly, were reactionary from a previous decade of civil, governmental, and international unrest and distrust. While The Thing was much more about the inability to trust on the individual level, 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers was centered on the fear of the bigger picture. The original Invasion, as the best cinema does--especially horror--was a reflection of the times--namely communism. Whether or not the film satirized the idea of communist ideas spreading like a virus, or was in essence a legit warning that such an event were actually taking place, will likely always be up for debate, but make no mistake: communism was at the forefront of Don Siegel's original invasion. It's one of the main reasons that the classic film hasn't dated all that well.

In the America of the 1970s, especially San Francisco, everything was changing. By then, Americans had grown disillusioned and angry over its involvement in the Vietnam War, and by the Kent State shooting which directly resulted from its protests. They had learned, through the Watergate scandal, that their own politicians didn't have the heart of the people in their best interests. Americans began looking to themselves for the social change they so desperately wanted. Feminism was born out of this. Culture exploded into more intense explorations of art, music, and literature. The sexual revolution. All the things the people gave to themselves while they waited around for their government officials to do the right thing.


But all during these awakenings, the people couldn't shake the feeling that the world around them, in which they existed, wasn't capable of the same kind of change. It hovered in the sky above and surrounded them on the ground below. Societal and international unrest was something that could be counteracted with positive social movements, but couldn't be quelled by them. Try as the people did to lose themselves in the art scene, at book readings, or in mudrooms, reminders of an unstable world was a constant crushing weight that, finally, overtook them all. As Kaufman says in his audio commentary, the 1970s saw the birth of pop psychology, during which psychiatrists relied on hugs and positive reassurance that everything was all right. "But everything was not all right."

Critics have been willing to lavish on Kaufman's Invasion redux the kind of praise it deserves, but reticent to label it as superior to its predecessor, even though it absolutely is. Not only does the Kaufman version feel timeless, it had the balls to carry through with its iconically bleak ending, whereas the original had original star Kevin McCarthy (who cameos in this version as a street lunatic bellowing "they're here!") waking up in a hospital bed and being told, basically, "Don't worry, America solved the whole invading alien species thing while you were asleep." Kaufman's take is eerier, more intimate, and somehow grittier. The camera moves around the room like an antsy witness to all that is unfolding, going in close and low on those who, it seems, have already been duplicated and replaced. The ragtag group of individuals embark on the same kind of grassroots movement to fight back against the invading threat that they would have utilized for giving the people back their voice and their freedoms to be who they are.


There's also, somewhat satirically, an emphasis on making our characters as forthright as they are oblivious. There are multiple instances in which characters are mired in their own personal connections to the unexplained phenomena unfolding around them, leaving them lost in thought--even as they walk by people tearing down the streets as if in a panic and being chased by something, or looking out a window for the imminent threat, somehow not noticing trash trucks collecting large dried out husks and crushing them into clouds of dust. Our characters are looking so hard for the explanation for the conflict surrounding them that they are missing what's in front of their faces. It leaves you wondering just what Kaufman was trying to say.

Are we already doomed? By the time we realize what the threat is, will it be too late?

The way this Invasion concludes, perhaps we already known the answer.


When strictly considering staying power, Kaufman's Invasion will likely be considered the ultimate take on Jack Finney's original novel, even though I'm sure there will be more iterations down the road as the people's strained relationship with their government continues assuredly down the wrong road. Forty years later, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is still a relevant mortality tale. Much in the same way George A. Romero used the same zombie threat to explore different facets of a failing society, the invading threat of alien organisms duplicating the human race one member at a time will continue to be explored in different ways, but for the same reason.

The 1970s has long been heralded as the greatest decade for film, giving birth to a cinematic movement known as the paranoid thriller, which includes titles like The Conversation, All the President's Men, and The French Connection. Included in this lineup is Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is not just a worthy contribution to the paranoia movement, but also an excellent sci-fi tale of immense fear and suspense, a call for social awareness, and finally, a superior remake of a groundbreaking predecessor. It's the kind of horror story that will live on through the ages, and like Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend," will be retold every so often to reflect the current times, though it's likely none of them will ever be as successful as Philip Kaufman's take.


Jun 26, 2019

DER SAMURAI (2015)


On the audio commentary included on its Blu-ray release by Artsploitation Films, producer Linus de Paoli paraphrases a former film teacher when he says that every film has to leave at least some questions unanswered, for if every possible curiosity the audience held for a certain film were satisfied, it would make that film forgettable. Nothing about that film would linger in the audience's mind. Such a philosophy has fully informed the construct of Der Samurai, which presents a lot of questions and provides very little answers. And boy, audiences do not like this - especially the mainstream--and Der Samurai is as far away as one can get from mainstream before traditional narrative is left behind entirely.

Der Samurai has been described as a black comedy, or a Lynchian mind-twister replete with bouts of dark humor. The first is fully incorrect, and the second is pushing it, but closer to the truth. For once you get over the fact that, yeah, you're watching what's clearly a man (or a man-shaped being) walk around in a formal dress and kill random people with a samurai sword, all while not-so-subtly trying to convince poor Jakob (Michel Diercks) to desire him, there's not that much humor to be found. A moment or two allows some levity - the scene in which Jakob violently assaults a lawn ornament flamingo is beyond surreal and kind of comes out of nowhere - but Der Samurai appears to be playing its outlandish concept very straight. And a certain understated beauty comes out of that. Or it could very well be what was intended as humor gets lost in the utter madness unfolding before you, leaving you ready to accept that this slice of oddness over here isn't meant to be more or less funny than all the other oddness surrounding it.


Jakob, awkward in his own skin, is an outcast. He doesn't maintain any groups of friends and lives with his grandmother (his parents are deceased). And the fact that he's a police officer doesn't earn him even a modicum of respect from his community or superiors. He's lonely, and likely wrestling with the fact that he is homosexual (though this is never flat-out admitted). His comfort in the presence of girls, in any way other than his role as server/protector of the people, is lacking. He sadly dreams of making a cavalier move on a pretty girl nice enough to give him a ride...but it's all in his head - a quick and stolen daydream; in actuality, he's staring out her car window, unaware of what to say or how to act.

In the same way that Tom Hanks made audiences cry over a volley ball, or Bruce Campbell wrangled tears by playing an elderly dying Elvis mortally wounded by a mummy, Der Samurai is adept at triggering a surprising melancholy reaction despite all its surrounding insanity. The Samurai, who is never named anything beyond that (and who is never actually called that during the film), makes his appearance in an ominous fashion, immediately gaining the distrust of the audience. But throughout the one long dark night over which Der Samurai's events unfold, the dynamic between our two lead characters begins to slowly change. The Samurai begins to embody many different things to the tortured Jakob: first, an antagonist; then, a leery friend; finally, a subject of sexual desire - all before turning back around to becoming his antagonist again, only it's of a different sort: not of the sword-wielding psychopath, but of Jakob's refusal to admit who he is.


What may come off sounding like pretension is actually quite the opposite. Heavy themes aside, Der Samurai is wicked fun, strikingly directed, boasts an extremely brave performance from Pit Bukowski as The Samurai (see the film and you'll know why), and yeah, it does manage some mileage from some pretty dark gags. Seeing a man in a woman's dress taking off heads with a samurai sword is something that would likely never get old - but lucky us, we get that along with an engaging story, likable characters, and even a tug at the 'ol heartstrings. It just may be the most unorthodox romance in the history of cinema.

Please see Der Samurai. There's no promise that you'll love it, or like it, or even understand it, but films that possess such an individuality and which circumvent typical cinematic machinations need to be supported to encourage other filmmakers to make more of them. Der Samurai offers something that films very rarely offer: the chance to experience something as graphic, thrilling, and mystifying as it is touching--all while chopping off heads.


Der Samurai us available on Blu-ray from Artsploitation Films.

Jun 23, 2019

WISH UPON (2017)


Wish Upon feels like it should have seen release somewhere in the late ‘90s, where more fantastical teen thrillers like The Craft, The Faculty, and Disturbing Behavior were hitting theaters. There’s a certain novelty to it that, if nothing else, offers it its own identity in a crowded genre calendar. That Wish Upon also serves as the ultimate morality tale, heavily inspired by the immortal short story The Monkey’s Paw, too, helps it to stand off from the rest.

Otherwise, Wish Upon is woeful and inept to the point of accidental amusement, and you’ve got to hand it to the screenplay for being filled with such random bits that don’t really lead anywhere and offer any explanation. Joey King’s Clare is still haunted by the suicide of her mother a decade before, and with King consistently doing solid work in some popcorn favorites (The Conjuring, White House Down), the audience likes her because she’s a likable and spunky lead. She’s, rightfully, the foundation of Wish Upon, and her talents are a good start to a pic that otherwise goes amusingly off the track, and which introduces so many befuddling elements.

Like:

Why does Clare’s father (Ryan Phillippe) trash-pick professionally instead of just getting a job? 

Why does his passion for the saxophone never amount to anything

Why doesn’t their next door neighbor (an utterly wasted Sherilyn Fenn) seem to mind at all that she lives directly across the street from a family who has let their lawn grow over with weeds and is covered sky high in piles of trash?

Why is Jerry O’Connell in this for a ten-second cameo where he does nothing but scream?

What’s with the casual prejudice, like having the gay teen boy at a slumber party sleep on the floor half-in/half-out of the closet, or a scene in which Clare bribes a Chinese girl with “wontons”?

As Clare makes increasingly selfish and stupid wishes even after it’s established that they not only come true but KILL ANOTHER PERSON, are we supposed to be screaming “YOU MORON” at the screen?

Wish Upon entertains, there’s no doubt about that, and though it lacks the more interesting directorial flair that John R. Leonetti brought to Annabelle (even if he was borrowing from James Wan), the story at least keeps you engaged in a “how badly is Clare going to fuck up her life?” kind of way.

If nothing else, please watch this for the twist ending, which I imagine was supposed to be very shocking and very sad, but instead results in instant hilarity.

If you have a bratty teen son or daughter who needs a reality check, maybe you could make a case for ever finding a useful reason for Wish Upon. Or, if you were looking for unintentional amusement (or if you’ve always wanted to see Ryan Phillippe pretend to play the saxophone), you could do a lot worse. 


Jun 20, 2019

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016)


There is no one on planet Earth more sick of zombies than I am. Even before The Walking Dead premiered to firmly launch both zombies and maudlin mediocrity into the mainstream, Danny Boyle’s “non-zombie” zombie movie, 28 Days Later… (it’s a zombie movie, btw), the Resident Evil franchise, and a thriving direct-to-video market ensured there would be no shortage of flesh-ripping clumsy ghouls. That zombie movies are still being made, not in spite of but directly because of The Walking Dead, has pushed the sub-genre to the stage of saturation, and regardless of well-meaning producers who claim to have done something different, they are all very much the same. A foreign body creates a virus; a virus creates a ghoul; a ghoul creates many ghouls; many ghouls create a ghoul apocalypse; a ghoul apocalypse creates a franchise; a franchise creates exasperation.

Upon the release of The Girl with All the Gifts, based on the novel by M.R. Carey, I’ll admit I didn’t pay much attention. And when the words “dystopian future” and “young lead female character” filtered into my brain, I shut it down entirely, writing it off as yet another film based on an alternafuture young adult book series featuring a strong and plucky girl to lead yet another revolution.


Within moments of the film’s opening, I knew I was in for something different – and not a film ready to rely only on zombie carnage and helicopter shots of a post-human world. Instead, The Girl with All the Gifts is a philosophical, scientific, and at times alarmingly charming new take on the zombie story, looking beyond the cause of the zombie outbreak (called “hungries” here) and at a future where a zombie crossbreed species exists and calls into question the well-worn “us vs. them” concept that has been at the forefront of every zombie movie conflict. Told from the point of a young “girl” named Melanie (an extraordinary Sennia Nanua), one of a dozen special children being held in captivity and studied by what appears to be the last of the world’s military, The Girl with All the Gifts looks not to the far reaches of outer space, a government lab, or to an unspoken cause for all the zombiery on which our characters can ruminate. It looks to the very world we inhabit – something birthed from nature – that brings about the downfall of man. A far less stupid version of The Happening, but with the same basic concept, The Girl with All the Gifts suggests that our planet soon tires of us and relies on fungus – yes, fungus – to bring about the destruction of man.

Director Colm McCarthy, making his feature directorial debut after a long career in television, wants to take this material as seriously as a Vietnam-era George Romero, Danny Boyle, or even Jim Mickle with his underappreciated Mulberry Street, and he does quite handily, falling back and letting the camera linger on intimate environments and small moments between characters. Astoundingly, the audience is thrust into the same confusing environments where Melanie thrives, but where we’re struggling to put together who she is, where she is, and what’s being done to her, she’s instead existing in a place where she always has; she knows nothing else about the outside world, so the cold manner in which she’s treated by the soldiers who point automatic weapons at her face as her shackles are done, or undone, isn’t the least bit surreal to her. That’s been her whole life. 

And this is where The Girl with All the Gifts will begin to feel familiar.


At the core of every zombie movie has been the aforementioned “us vs. them” conflict, but always with a suggestion that the “us” had the potential to be far more monstrous than the “them.” Helen Justineau (Gemma Arteron) is the special children’s teacher; someone who shows them kindness and love. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) wants to cut them open and look for the cure to the infection she believes to be inside. Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) hovers somewhere in between, not allowing his empathy for young Melanie to supersede his purpose and drive to survive. The Girl with All the Gifts tows that familiar line but with new and ponderous ways, leaving you to wonder about the final sequence and what it means – who’s really in charge? And who, really, is the enemy? Us, or them?

The very unusual musical score by composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer, comprised of a chorus of robotic-sounding human voices and something akin to a theremin, sounds both utterly foreign but completely appropriate for the zombie-ridden environment. It also makes for one of the best musical scores of the year. There aren’t too many instances when the audioscape comes alive in the typical blockbuster movie sense, but when there’s carnage, you hear it — so much that it nearly pierces you with its surprising intensity.

Zombie fans unfettered by mass consumption of their favorite ghouligans have no reason not to love The Girl with All the Gifts. Even those, like me, who need a long breather from the zombie phenomenon will find a lot to respect and adore in this latest take on the walking dead. Anchored in place by a preternaturally confident performance by Sennia Nanua, it’s the best kind of horror film one could ever hope to see — something that’s not just horrific, but about something. 

Jun 17, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: ‘US’ IS NO SOPHOMORE SLUMP


At this point, Jordan Peele is only two films into a career as a director, and already he’s successfully established his own brand – as easily, or even more easily than M. Night Shymalan did when he debuted with The Sixth Sense all those years ago. Effortlessly, Peele has established what a Jordan Peele film looks like, feels like, and what it’s about. This branding, of sorts, becomes apparent as early as the opening credits for his newest film, Us, over which plays an unusual, vocal-driven piece by composer Michael Abels. However, Peele isn’t interested in regurgitating his race-based runaway film debut, Get Out. This time around, despite a similar satirical look at American culture as it pertains to wealth disparities as well as its “work hard/play hard” mentality, Us’s story is more comfortable rooting itself in a higher-concept, almost Twilight Zone-inspired environment. What that means is US more comfortably resides in the horror genre, which, I would think, makes it a bit more accessible to viewers put off by his race-driven debut.

Get Out, while injecting a healthy amount of humor into the horror, is an angry film. Though the anger is well-disguised, it delved heavily into matters regarding racism, and more specifically, cultural appropriation. Us packs more of a visceral punch, leaning more on violence and gore gags than Get Out did, but without rendering it as strictly pulpy but ultimately empty horror. Us has every bit a purpose as Get Out, but it strives toward different goals in presenting that purpose to the audience. 


If you’ve seen Us and delved into the subtext contained within, by now, you’ve likely seen interviews with Peele in which he breaks down the film’s most mooted line of dialogue: when Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) asks her family’s terrifying doppelgangers who they are, her shadow double, named Red, replies simply, “We’re Americans.” What may sound like an abstract answer is a pretty blunt statement from Peele about the origin of his screen monsters. They don’t hail from a distant land, or planet, or another dimension. They are flesh and blood and they exist in the same country as “normal” Americans. They just happen to exist below it instead of on its surface. (I’m assuming that the title Us is a play on “the U.S.”)

Even if you’re not interested in subtext (and Peele’s films are designed to be at least engaging and thrilling if you’re not), Us still packs a hell of a horror wallop. The opening sequence in which a young Adelaide wanders off from her drunken father and across a nighttime beach with a lightning-infused sky behind her feels wrong, but we don’t yet know why. And once she ends up in an isolated carnival house of mirrors where she encounters her equally young double for the first time, it’s unnerving, but again, without relying on anything obviously scary. And as for the doppelgangers’ first long-shot appearance, forget it: it’s fucking eerie, especially when Adelaide asks her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), what’s out in the yard of their vacation home, and he responds, in total befuddlement, “It’s…a family.”


Putting the horror aside, Us is also unexpectedly poignant and beautiful at times, especially during the final act when Adelaide has her final encounter with her subterranean double, and in an unexpected moment of connection between them, Red tells Adelaide, “If it weren't for you, I never would've danced at all.” In spite of the horror we’ve seen Red and her brood inflict upon Adelaide and her family over the course of Us, we’re still taken aback by this moment of…what is it? Empathy? Understanding? Appreciation? Maybe resentment, as Adelaide dancing on the surface of the earth was the thing that made Red realize just how empty her existence really is?

And, lastly, there’s the humor. As expected, based on Peele’s comedy beginnings and the light touch he administered throughout Get Out, Us also manages to be very funny at times, with Winston Duke’s Gabe stealing nearly every scene he’s in. Tim Heidecker, from the insane Tim And Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job, and Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men), appear as friends of the Wilson family, which leads to some amusing exchanges between the two, getting a lot of morbid mileage from what appears to be a near-loveless marriage. (That their vacation home is much more opulent than the Wilsons’ is a sly comment on wealth disparity.)


Universal has been hit or miss with the amount of special features on their releases as of late, but thankfully, Us has been given a healthy collection of special features, all of which give Peele the chance to talk about the intent behind Us, what he was trying to say, and what he wanted to do. “Scene Explorations” looks at a handful of notable scenes from the film and breaks down how they were made. “The Duality of Us” is the most contextual feature on the disc, as Peele talks thematically about certain concepts. “The Monsters Within Us” sits down with the cast as they talk about playing the Wilsons along with their sinister doubles. “Tethered Together: Making Us Twice” looks at the challenges involved in having your primary cast play double roles and what’s involved from a technical standpoint. “Redefining a Genre: Jordan Peele's Brand of Horror” is a love-fest regarding Peele from those who have worked with him, but Peele also gets the chance to talk about his influences. “Becoming Red" offers a fly-on-the-wall look at N’yongo’s staggering transformation. Other featurettes include “Seven Second Massacre,” “It's a Trap,” and “I Just Want My Little Girl Back.” A wealth of deleted scenes, outtakes, and an extended look at the final dance sequence round out the remaining special features. (No commentary from Peele, which is an immediate thumbs down.)

Us is absolutely no sophomore slump. Every bit as worthy as Peele’s celebrated and critically adored debut, and perhaps better, Us is horrific, poignant, and somehow hilarious, solidifying Peele’s place as a fresh new voice in the genre. Whether or nor you’re on board with Peele’s approach to the genre, his is a voice that the genre desperately needs right now, if nothing more than to remind critics and audiences that the genre is capable of so much more than what we often get -- more importantly: that it’s just as deserving of the celebration and conversation as more mainstream genres. 

Us is now on Blu-ray from Universal Studios.


[Reprinted from the Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 15, 2019

THE VHS EFFECT: FAREWELL TO A FRIEND


It started off innocently enough.

“Maybe I’ll just upgrade JAWS. I hear the picture on the new DVD is excellent. And it’ll be nice to get rid of this bulky two-tape version.”

My intentions were good. Even pure. Why not obtain my absolute favorite film at its technical best? Why couldn’t that be the lone exception to my otherwise “VHS only” mindset? It’s not like buying one DVD would open the door to ditching all my VHS tapes.

No way that would happen. No. Way.

…But it did.

The transition was slow. Barely noticeable. At first my reasoning dictated that the titles I chose to upgrade had to benefit from the dynamism that only DVD could offer.

Die Hard.

The Perfect Storm.

Even Speed!

And then there were the less showy films I absolutely loved and wanted at their best.

Session 9.

To Live and Die in L.A.

Ace Fuckin’ Ventura.

It just got way out of control way too fast. Before I knew it, I was trading in tapes hand-over-fist, or selling them online for substantial cash. I was delighted to accumulate shelf space; to regain “the whole film experience” (a widescreen aspect ratio); to look at my VHS collection with a more critical eye and determine if I really, truly needed to own Mountaintop Motel Massacre. (Spoiler: I did. But I would realize it far too late.)

My first VHS purchase was a Blockbuster exclusive release of John Carpenter’s Halloween. It was 1995, I was in fifth grade, and I had ridden my bike six miles to obtain it. For ten years following, I would be an avid collector, amassing well over a thousand tapes (including seven different VHS iterations of Halloween). Stacks of tapes were brought home nearly every weekend, and from multiple choice spots--from the shiniest Hollywood Videos to the scummiest farmer's markets. Special excursions, reserved only for every so often, found us in nearby cities in video stores bigger than libraries, and it was there that you could actually purchase titles off the rental shelf. Personal points of pride during this rich period were Return of the Living Dead, Phantasm III, and Eraserhead, in their original, uncut cases. I planned it so that my one thousandth tape purchase was Freddy vs. Jason, a film I not only unabashedly loved, but which also represented the culmination of the franchises that cemented my love for the genre at a young age. My last tape purchase would be Tod Browning’s macabre masterpiece Freaks, two years following the release of the final VHS tape by a major studio (David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence).

During this recent VHS resurgence, commemorated by the loving retrospective documentaries Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking, I’ve found myself looking on in sad awe at the featured collections not unlike the one I used to have, recalling my own oddball titles, and whispering to the impassioned collectors on screen, “I used to be one of you.”

VHS was magic. A time capsule. A revolution. The next step in loving film. No longer was the flickering picture on the silver theater screen confined only to your memory, nor was the one-time chance to catch its rare airing on broadcast television your only redemption. You could wait, patiently, for West Coast Video or your local mom-n-pop store to begin selling off their excess rental copies of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, or you could snap it up on release day, brand new, for a paltry $99. Either way, those pizza-loving heroes in a half-shelf had to be yours—and they would be, at any cost.

VHS encouraged casual film fans to become collectors, and organically, these collectors became cineastes, swapping tapes with gleeful conspirators, clamoring to see the newest, greatest discovery. Little-seen films spread from person to person like a beautiful virus. Small films that made small splashes in theaters were appropriated by legions of fans and eventually became favorites. It no longer mattered that The Monster Squad failed to ignite at the theatrical box office; on video, it would, instead, ignite the imaginations of horror-loving children (as it did mine)—over and over again.

Like most things, VHS wasn’t fully appreciated until after it had passed away. DVD had taken off like a rocket, so the purging of this magnetic tape technology was a sad inevitability. But the change didn’t really hit home until video stores went through their own transformation. No longer on their shelves were there handfuls of warm, inviting cardboard covers stuffed with styrofoam blocks proudly showing off a reworked iteration of the film’s theatrical poster; in their places were cold plastic cases in capitalistic amounts, labeled in sterile company fonts, automaton-like in their uniformity.

In the beginning of the DVD transition, everyone had questions.

“What does that mean for the ocean of VHS tapes already in the world? What about someone like me who refuses to upgrade to DVD? What if I accidentally break or lose my copy of Batman or Clerks? Will studios still be making new ones? And what if my VCR takes a shit? Will stores still carry them? How much longer will VCRs be produced if companies are no longer putting newer films on VHS?”

“What’s going to happen to my collection?”

Overnight, VHS went from a premier technology to a clunky pile of hard plastic stacked in every corner of every living room, where certain titles would be cherry-picked before the leftovers hit the goodwill box or garbage can. This thing that had literally changed the way people discovered and loved films had instantly been looked upon like a bad dream: quivery picture, the “pan and scan” frame, and except for the very rare release, no special features to speak of.

We even had to rewind them! What cavemen we were!

VHS to DVD was a massive quality upgrade—we know this—but there’s no denying that it left much of collecting’s magic behind. Sure, films had become available in their directors’ original aspect ratios, with their preferred color timings permanently locked into that digital sea of ones and zeroes, never to fade as their magnetic tape counterparts began to dissolve. Mind-blowing releases like Anchor Bay’s four-disc Dawn of the Dead provided fans with every alternate cut of their favorite film to enjoy, and massive supplements to pore over—all which provided fabulous new heights of appreciation for a horror staple. Admittedly, it was an exciting time to be a film collector—especially horror. But for each title resurrected in a brand new digital release, a little mystique was taken from it in the process. Because certain films wear their age and budget like a badge of honor. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is one—a low-budget, late-‘70s, semi-sequel to his bonafide classic Night of the Living Dead. If you’re like me—born after the theatrical bows of many 1970s-'80s classics and therefore were only able to experience them in your friends’ basements—you discovered Dawn of the Dead like I did: with a forbidden VHS tape, smuggled into the house behind your back, to be played only after double- and triple-checking that your mother had gone to bed for the night.

Films like Dawn of the Dead felt forbidden; relics from another time; created and then instantly forgotten. Same for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or The Hills Have Eyes (films that actually play better the shittier they look). Without previous knowledge of that baggage “classic” label, they felt dangerous and not meant for human eyes, and this feeling of obscurity became married to the entire VHS format. There was an excitement in going to record-and-tape traders, pawnshops, yard sales, and flea markets, never knowing what you would find. Forget Dawn of the Dead—stumbling upon those really aloof titles like Crazy Fat Ethel 2, or Dead Meat, or this fever dream I once had called Gore-Met: Zombie Chef from Hell, felt tantamount to discovering pornography at thirteen. It was exciting to explore this uncharted territory, always with the sensation that you should not be doing this. Because…anyone could make a film and put it on VHS. And knowing that, what madness awaited you? Sliding a mysterious tape into your VCR became Russian Roulette: you had no idea if you were going to have the best night of your life or the worst. Films of this questionable pedigree felt even more forbidden post-DVD when knowing these particular titles hadn’t been salvaged and transported into the new format. And maybe they never would be. Maybe VHS copies and the occasional one-sheet sold on eBay would be the final sign, long after their original casts and crews have died off, that these films actually existed. For every schlock title like The Pit or Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror that was resurrected for DVD, a little magic was lost. Films that felt like your little secret suddenly had Amazon description pages and appeared in DVD review columns of print and online publications. People hadn’t forgotten these films existed after all, and it ruined the fun—just a little.

If that weren't bad enough, there was, and is, another issue plaguing collectors—the physical tapes themselves.

Within the recognition that nothing lasts forever, the very components of VHS technology are especially temporary. With each viewing of your film of choice, the magnetic tape within degrades—just a little. Incrementally. Over time, your repeated viewings begin to manifest in the form of scrolling lines, fuzzy scenes, or a white flash-bang explosion as your VCR struggles through two inches of splicing tape. Whether you watch that VHS religiously, or once every few years, the clock is ticking on its integrity, and there is nothing you can do about it. Store it in the most ideal environment, sans humidity, temperature-moderated, sealed in plastic—that tape is going to rot. While this is the worst aspect of the technology, it’s also a philosophy that should extend to every aspect of your life. Your relationships, your passions, your life’s work—it’s all as temporary as your copies of Split Second or Pumpkinhead 2. Nothing lasts. Everything is fleeting.

Cherish what you have while you have it.

One sole VHS tape remains in my semi-possession—via joint ownership with a chap named Brian, my good friend of many years. The final holdout to have survived my magnetic tape purge—my love for it, and what it represents—is a constant reminder of what I gave away. Yes, that used copy of Commando I’d purchased for three dollars all those years ago is still going strong. (It’s outlived two VCRs and is currently dominating a third.) It doesn’t play nearly as well now as it did thirteen years and three hundred viewings ago, but it’s still willing to tell us the same thrilling story of rescue and revenge and absurd masculinity, now sporting an array of scrolling distress lines over the scenes we rewind over and over. (They usually involve Sully.) Effort is made to watch it at least once a month when we get together—even just a few minutes. We easily pick up where we left off, whether it’s John Matrix leaping from an airplane’s landing gear or arch villain Bennett waxing philosophically about the worth of men. Like a good friend, the film stops when the night ends and loyally waits for us to pick it back up at our next session. That tape might as well be a photograph, or a journal entry. It has played over and over during bad breakups, first houses, new jobs, the passing of family and friends. It’s captured life, in snippets, and it represents me: what I love, who I love, and the simple things that bring me pleasure. (And as John Matrix always says, “Don’t deprive yourself of some pleasure.”)

One of the most conflicting movements in recent years has been that of the VHS revival. Like vinyl, which had momentarily regressed into an easy punchline to signify someone’s out-of-touchness with the times, the VHS resurrection is romantic and inspiring...but also a little sad. It’s romantic because this very people-led rebirth, far from the money-driven clutches of film studios or distributors, is refusing to let the format die. These collectors of the past are traversing the world to find the most random title, the most obscure release, to rescue it from the tote or shelf or cardboard box where it’s spent most of its post-digital life—all to give it a permanent home.

That’s a beautiful thing, and they are beautiful for doing it.

But the VHS rebirth is, like I said, also a little sad.

Because, well…

I used to be one of them.


[Reprinted from The Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 13, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: BLUE VELVET (1986) [CRITERION COLLECTION]


Filmmakers come and go, and while some of them manage to make some fantastic films, very few are lucky to have a style—something that makes their names and their films synonymous with each other—something that, if you’ve seen previous films from that same director in the past, you’ll immediately recognize as being part of his or her oeuvre. One of these filmmakers, absolutely, is David Lynch.

1986’s Blue Velvet almost serves as a precursor or a spiritual prequel/pilot to his most well-known work, Twin Peaks. After all, both are about the discovery of a dead body (in Blue Velvet’s case, an ear) leading its lead investigator (in both cases, a gentle Kyle MacLachlan) down a rabbit hole of depravity, surreality, and total quirkiness. Both take place in small towns whose economies are driven by the lumber industry, both boast a small charming diner where young lovers meet and conspire, and both even feature its hero investigator oddly and enthusiastically commenting on his drink of choice.  (“Man I like Heineken. Do you like Heineken?”) 

If you’re familiar with Lynch’s filmography, you’ll know that he is capable of offering a very broad approach to filmmaking. He’s done straightforward, accessible, and even mainstream films like 1980’s The Elephant Man or the Disney-financed true-life tale The Straight Story, all the way across the spectrum to the downright experimental and nearly inaccessible Inland EmpireBlue Velvet falls somewhere in the middle of the accessibility scale. The plot, while existing in a strange landscape filled with stranger characters and even stranger motivations, is straightforward. If you’re paying attention, you remain keenly aware of the plot and its various machinations. Blue Velvet isn’t one of Lynch’s vehicles where you turn to look at your movie-watching partner and admit, as the credits are rolling, that you have no idea what’s transpired those previous two hours. 

Having said that, Blue Velvet is still absolutely an acquired taste. The plot is easy to follow, but that doesn’t make the film easy to watch, which mostly (but not fully) has to do with Dennis Hopper’s astonishingly unhinged performance as crime boss/sexual deviant/rapist/murderer Frank Booth. Lynch and Hopper, in cahoots, created one of cinema’s most unseemly, discomforting, psychotic characters. Booth, sucking back on an ammonia nitrate tank, can either slither across the screen, or come barreling across like a wrecking ball gone rogue. (Hopper shares an amusing anecdote in an interview featured in this release that details how he’d suggested to Lynch that Booth be sucking on ammonia nitrate, rather than the originally intended helium, as the former has chemicals that can alter the mind. Helium does nothing for a body’s biology rather than giving its user a high-pitched cartoon voice, and Hopper recollects thinking, “David Lynch is out of his mind,” realizing after the fact that using helium would have made Frank Booth even crazier.) There aren’t enough synonyms in the world to convey Booth’s sociopathy and Hopper’s dedication to bringing him to life, making him as terrifying as possible. 


Normally, Lynch likes to dangle clues in front of the viewer, allowing them to piece together the story—if not Lynch’s own intention for his story, then at least enough for the viewer to forge his or her own interpretation. Blue Velvet’s opening moments take care of this handily, leaving no room for debate: opening shots of a quaint and charming town, a smiling and waving fireman with his faithful station house Dalmatian at his side, and just behind him, rows of picket fences and perfect blooming roses. But the camera doesn’t stop there, at surface level—instead, it dives deep beneath the grass where those roses grow until coming up on a horde of subterranean insects clawing and climbing over each other, filmed in icky close-up, giving them beastly proportions. Beneath perfect suburban sprawl, Lynch posits, lies its seamy underbelly. 

In fact, compared to head scratchers Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr, neither of which offer an easy path to at least one interpretation, Blue Velvet is seemingly about so many things: it’s a sobering and exaggerated look at fear of commitment, a skewering look at suburbanism, and even a comment on sexual domination. In ways that go beyond the physical, its three primary leads are all guilty of rape in their own way: Jeffrey’s insertion of himself into Dorothy’s life and the extended sequence during which he spies on her from her closet as she suffers a sexual attrack; Dorothy’s subsequent discovery of him and their near-sex scene that she administers at knife point; and most obviously, Frank Booth’s perceived ownership of Dorothy’s body to satisfy his most depraved needs. Everyone is looking to everyone else to fulfill their own unhealthy desires, some of whom simply want it, while others seem to think they need it. Jeffrey looks to Dorothy to satisfy his fantasies that go beyond boring suburban sweetness (Laura Dern’s character, in effect), Dorothy looks to Jeffrey for comfort, and Booth, well…Booth is out of his mind, and wants simple, animalistic satisfaction. 


MGM, back when its home video division gave a damn, previously released Blue Velvet to Blu-ray for its 25th anniversary with commendable results. However, eight years later, the Criterion Collection have given this Lynch favorite a stunning upgrade in every sense. The PQ on this release is staggering—near perfect and crisp, but without sacrificing any of Lynch’s typically hazy, soft, and dreamlike environments. Criterion wisely ported over MGM’s 70-minute retrospective, “Blue Velvet Revisited,”which offers a staggering amount of information on the production. Nearly every major cast and crew member are on hand, including archival VHS-era interviews with Lynch. The newly produced featurette, “It’s a Strange World,” catches up with a few crew members, including props master Shaw Burney (who claims credit for Dean Stockwell’s utility light karaoke microphone), and Steadicam operator Dan Kneece, who recalls with discernible wonder how Blue Velvet was not just an opportunity to collaborate with the director, but that it was the first of many over the years; Kneece has shot nearly every single one of Lynch’s features since then. Rounding out the special features are an interview with frequent Lynch composer and unexpectedly Bronx-accented Angelo Baddalamenti; “Test Chart” - vintage test footage; “The Lost Footage” - a collection of deleted scenes and alternate takes; and “Room to Dream” – an audio recording of Lynch reading from his recently released memoir.  


If this reviewer’s words carry any weight at all, then Blue Velvet is Lynch’s masterpiece along with Lost Highway, and this new release from the Criterion Collection is the easiest recommended upgrade in the world. Besting its previous incarnation in every way, Blue Velvet continues to live on in the way that it deserves, and joins its colleagues Eraserhead and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in the famed Criterion Collection closet.

Jun 12, 2019

THE INCIDENT (1967)


There is a very real psychological phenomenon known as the bystander effect, which deduces that the more people present during an event which would normally require intervention to diffuse a violent or traumatic conflict, the less likely that anyone will do so. Basically, if two people witness something where intervention would be necessary, those two are more likely to intervene than if ten or fifteen people were at the same scene. The idea is that the feeling of responsibility for coming to someone’s aid becomes dispersed amongst all those who are present, and with everyone waiting for another individual to make the attempt, no one ultimately will. (Yay mankind!)

The Incident, which plays out as a bleak and uncomfortable combination of 12 Angry Men and The Taking of Pelham 123, is a cinematic embodiment of this phenomenon and a fascinating character study about fear, anger, racism, and loneliness. Like a Frank Weegee photograph come to life, the black and white photography not only captures the seediness and despair of a late ‘60s-era New York, it also provides every single character with an implied backstory about his or her experiences. Before they end up on that fateful subway train for an excruciating real-time 45-minute ride, we meet every single character. None of them are at particular high points in their lives: many are angry; some are victimized by their husband or wife or lover; some are excruciatingly lonely and looking for intimacy; and some are in a bad way and need help from someone waiting for them on the other side of that subway train ride. These characters bring their backstories and personalities to that subway ride and colors how they will react to the conflict unfolding within. 


Director Larry Peerce and writer Nicholas Baehr made a very New York film that is not complimentary of New York. Every single character is in a bad way; no one is happy. People aren’t just being victimized by two hoods on a train (with two audacious and excruciating performances by Martin Sheen and Tony Musante); they’re being victimized within their relationships, or by society at large, or by their own lives or desires. And on that subway train, some riders speak out against their harassers, begging them or even ordering them to stop. But some don’t. Some ride in silence, shying away from their harassers or even falling for their mock empathy. How some of these riders react to their torturers mirror how they reacted to their own partners before stepping onto that train. Likewise, those riders who exerted dominance over their own partners were soon dominated by one of the two hoods. It’s bloodcurdling yet fascinating to watch unfold — like a car wreck on the side of the road, only the audience sees it unfold in real time.

As the tension on the train car increases, the audience wants it to stop — would, also, like some of its characters, beg for it to stop. And an idea begins to creep in that there are a handful of young and able-bodied men on that train who could easily, if working together, disarm the two punks. But no one ever has that idea. Sure, as one after another they are victimized and terrorized, they trade awkward glances to other riders with pleading eyes, hoping for someone to intervene. But no one does. Everyone cowers, even behind those making empty threats to call the police — somehow, on a subway train, traveling 60 miles an hour.


For those who have never before experienced The Incident, it sneaks up on you like a sucker punch to the gut, sending you to your knees. It’s ugly, and bleak, and very cynical, and when it’s over, you walk away feeling as if you, yourself, were on that same subway train. There is very little physical violence used, beyond the very opening and the very closing of the film; throughout, however, it’s very psychologically violent, and doesn’t make for an easy watch. 

Those with strong stomachs and an affinity for challenging cinema need to ride this train. Those who don’t need the reminder that in this world it’s every man for himself need to get off at the next stop.

The Incident is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Jun 10, 2019

LEPRECHAUN RETURNS (2018)


Despite rampaging through dozens of horror franchises over this long and broken life, I can’t say the Leprechaun franchise was ever one of them. Having seen and shrugged at the first film a couple times, I only ever saw bits and pieces of the next two sequels before stopping for the sake of my health. Unregrettably, I never followed Warwick Davis to space, or to the hood, or…back 2 tha hood. Except for the Puppet Master series, I’ve never cared less for a long-running horror fiasco. 

With the series being softly rebooted several years ago (for television), and with Davis declining to return to the role for personal reasons, it seemed like the franchise was on its way into further obscurity. Still, with the announcement of the latest entry in this series, titled Leprechaun Returns, there was one thing about the production keeping my interest: director Steve Kostanski, one of several members of filmmaking/comedy troupe Astron-6. So far, these Canadian gents have been responsible for the horror comedies Father's Day, a send-up of satanic sex thrillers from the ‘70s, and The Editor, also a send-up, this time of the giallo sub-genre…and also from the ‘70s. To each production, they brought their appreciation for genre filmmaking (and its history), their absurd sense of humor, and—my favorite—their preference for practical effects over CGI. Kostanski served as director for both of those films, along with The Void, the troupe’s crowd-funded, non-comedic horror flick that served as an homage to the likes of Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft. Though I’ve remained ambivalent regarding the Leprechaun franchise for equally as long as I’ve known of its existence, I opted to give it a spin to see what Kostanski could bring to the pint-sized table. 


While I can’t say this is a flick I’d ever watch again, I fully admit to having a better time with it than I expected. After all, Kostanski was riding solo, not bringing any of his troupe members along for the ride, nor did he originate the screenplay (as that duty went to Ash Vs. Evil Dead screenwriter Suzanne Keilly). Despite that, Leprechaun Returns boasts a fairly consistent and dependable sense of humor, some of which rides an air of self-awareness with respect to the genre, the series specifically, and current culture at large. (Once you “get” the joke that a bunch of college students are trying to turn a small soon-to-be sorority house “green” (hey, like a leprechaun!), you will groan groan groan.)

Taking a page from the likes of Halloween ’18, Neill Blomkamp’s abandoned Alien 3, and the forthcoming Terminator: Dark Fate, Leprechaun Returns delouses the entire series and serves as a direct sequel to the very first Jennifer Aniston-having flick. Generally, this approach can bother series loyalists (to this day, fans are still hoping for a new entry in the Halloween series that directly continues the events of 1995’s Curse Of Michael Myers --  I’m sure Paul Rudd is achingly awaiting that call), but at this point it’s doubtful even the most die-hard Leprechaun fan is worried about such richly accumulated lore being discarded in exchange for a clean break. Solidifying this “direct sequel” approach is the return of Mark Holton, reprising his role of the slow-witted Ozzie along with a small reappearance by Jennifer Aniston…sort of. In addition, the original set—a house in the middle of a sandy nowhere—has been faithfully rebuilt.

Taking over for Aniston is Taylor Spreitler, who plays Lila…the daughter of Aniston’s character from the first film. Normally these sorts of moves are rife for eye rolls (the latest entry in the Tremors series, A Cold Day In Hell, pulls a similar move by introducing the daughter of Kevin Bacon’s character), but with Leprechaun, I’ll allow it, because this franchise exists within its own rules when it comes to suspension of disbelief. It also helps to create tension among the cast once Lila confesses within fifteen minutes of movie time that her mother was insane…but that she’s also seen a tiny leprechaun stalking around, so maybe her mother wasn’t insane. Spreitler isn’t your typical “final girl.” While she satisfies the requirements of being somewhat of a loner, not interested in the same kind of debauchery of her friends, and the only one with a backstory that offers her some additional characterization, she’s also keenly aware of how absurd their threat has become—especially once a familiar face returns to offer her some ghostly help. Leprechaun Returns frequently comments on the genre and overwrought movie making, nearly surrendering to certain tropes that we expect to see in movies of this type before noting—literally out loud—that, in fact, certain things are actually terrible ideas. It’s not exactly Scream-caliber commentary, but it’s appreciated all the same, and Spreitler offers the kind of dry delivery that’s required to drive this meta-approach home.

Linden Porco takes over for long-time series presence Warwick Davis and also for pro wrestler Dylan Postl, who appeared in 2014’s Leprechaun: Origins. Under all the heavy make-up (the Leprechaun gets an eerie makeover with a more Krueger-esque approach), and his voice disguised by a thick Irish brogue (and all the terrible puns), Porco seamlessly transitions into the role. Series die-hards will know the difference, but the more casual horror fan will neither notice nor care. 


The real star of the flick is the reliance on practical effects. Except for a fiery third act and some very slight digital addendums used for touch-ups, Leprechaun Returns’ effects are done practically, bloodily, and very gooily. Despite having debuted on television for Sy Fy (a video release wasn’t even planned until the fans demanded one), the flick is gruesome and gives most theatrically released slasher flicks a run for its pot o’ gold. Kostanski’s background proves this was a purposeful choice, and along with some amusing nods to other horror properties (there’s a Jaws nod that is both stupid and charming), I feel vindicated in actually giving this new flick a chance. 

As typical for a quiet Lionsgate release, there are only a couple special features included on the Blu-ray, one of which is an interview with Kostanski, who talks about his love of the genre but who admits to the Leprechaun series not necessarily being part of that love. He also talks about how he got involved as director after he was initially hired only for the make-up effects. The Blu-ray also includes some behind the scenes footage and a “still gallery,” which at this point in time is a special feature that can go away forever. 

Leprechaun Returns isn’t enough of a triumph to cause a wild reversal and convert me to series loyalism, but I’m glad I watched it. It was good for a handful of laughs, a bigger handful of bloody carnage, and despite not being a fan of this series, the nods to the original still manage to work on that nostalgic level. Franchise fans will likely enjoy this, along with non-fans who still enjoy a bawdy, bloody, and broad good time.

Leprechaun Returns hits Blu-ray from Lionsgate Films tomorrow.


[Reprinted from The Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 8, 2019

HOLE IN THE GROUND (2019)


The evil kid sub-genre has been kicking it at least since 1956’s The Bad Seed, but was certainly most popularized following the release of The Omen in 1976. Richard Donner’s anti-Christ fable is still considered one of the all-time greats released during film’s pinnacle of the 1970s, having inspired three sequels, a remake, and a short-lived television series. Ever since then, most evil kid flicks have taken its page from The Omen just a little, and in some situations more than others, it absolutely shows.

I say over and over that I don’t care how many times you repackage the same horror concepts and tropes. So long as your flick is well made, lacks pretension, and adds just a twist of freshness, I’m on board. (For example, I adore The Conjuring, even though it tells one of the most derivative stories possible in the genre.) And that’s where The Hole in the Ground comes in. 


Possibly based on the short story “The Samhain Feis” by Peter Tremayne, about a woman and her young son escaping a miserable husband/father to a cottage in Ireland where the son becomes possessed (maybe) by an ancient spirit, director Lee Cronin makes his feature directorial debut in this familiar but well-made supernatural tale. As noted, it treads similar ground to Tremayne’s short story, although now instead of an American woman traveling to Ireland with her son, it’s Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake, who looks like a combination Rebecca Hall/Ellie Kemper) locating a quiet, out-of-the-way place in her native Ireland to take a moment out and raise her son in peace. (All we know is that there’s bad blood directed at the family’s patriarch, but we never find out what, and he never appears on screen.) While doing some exploring, Sarah discovers an unnaturally large crater in the woods behind her house and steers her son, Chris (James Quinn Markey), away from it. But whatever dark forces dwell in those woods/that crater won’t take no for an answer and soon take control of young Chris, pitting Sarah in a helpless and hopeless situation and leaving her to figure it out on her own. 


While The Hole in the Ground is familiar, Cronin, who writes as well as directs, establishes a fair pace while skillfully slipping in scenes to unnerve or even terrify his audience. Sarah catches small glimpses of her son acting in ways very unlike him, or very unlike that of your normal human being, and this begins to mount, with each instance becoming more disturbing and presenting Chris as increasingly less like her little boy. Cronin, also, very smartly directs young Markey to play Chris as off rather than downright creepy or evil from the word go, allowing the audience to wonder if perhaps Sarah is just undergoing some undue stress from her recent separation. Markey never outright acts evil, in the same way that The Omen’s little Harvey Stevens mostly just placed a little boy, which ironically causes him to come across even more off-putting. Additionally, Game Of Thrones’ James Cosmo appears in a supporting role as a mourning father still getting over the loss of his own child, and who, as you might expect, provides most of the film’s exposition. 

The Hole in the Ground isn’t going to win any awards for originality, but, as usual, A24 knows what they want from the horror genre, and it’s just one more solid acquisition for one of the most respected indie film distributors in the land. 


[Reprinted from The Daily Grindhouse.]

Jun 4, 2019

NOW ON BLU-RAY: THE BATMAN 4K UHD COLLECTION


Try to picture this, you young whippersnappers: there was once an era in Hollywood’s long reign when superhero movies hardly ever came out. I’m talking…hardly ever. If you Google “1990s superhero movies,” you’ll see peculiar results like Darkman, Orgazmo, (something called The Meteor Man), and even Jim Carrey’s The Mask, but as far as pure, undistilled, “guy puts on costume and fights bad guy in costume” comic book originals, this era was a wasteland. 

When 1989’s Batman came out, directed by Tim Burton, who at that time was fresh-faced and still worth a damn, it was an event. These days, that concept is a little hard to appreciate—especially in the superhero genre, since 800 fuckbillion superhero movies get released per year (a scientifically accurate figure, by the way). For perspective, once Matt Reeves’ The Batman is released (assuming in 2020), we will have seen three different actors take on the role of Batman in a span of eight years. However, Michael Keaton took on the role after a 23-year span between theatrical endeavors – Adam West had been the previous Batman back during the days when Batman was a goofball property and featured a lot of dancing. Burton’s relaunch of Batman, which was designed to actually embody the character as presented in the comics, was the movie to see. And man…everyone did. I was five years old at that time, but I ended up in a theater watching it all unfold, even if I had no idea what was happening (and even though it was NOT appropriate for a five-year-old. It had skeletons!). During its initial theatrical release, it pulled in $412 million at the box office, which, in today’s monies, comes to $850 million. (By comparison, Batman Begins made $375 million upon release, adjusted to $491 million.) To this day, Batman is the iconic superhero of the landscape, for many different reasons: because of the very varied ways he’s been brought successfully to the big and small screen, because of Christopher Nolan’s mind-bogglingly successful Dark Knight trilogy (the terrible Dark Knight Rises notwithstanding), and because Batman simply is the face of the superhero movement. 


It’s said that every generation who experiences decade-spanning franchises have their own version of a character, depending on which actor it was who brought that character to life. I exist in a sort of no-man’s land of broken rules in that regard. My James Bond is Daniel Craig, but my Batman, despite Christian Bale having taken on the role during the same era when Craig was running across rooftops and sweating profusely, will always be Michael Keaton (with a hat tip toward voice actor Kevin Conroy re: Batman: The Animated Series). Also, in spite of the radical evolution that technology and special effects have undergone in cinema over the last 30 years, as well as an adhering to the gritty and super-serious, Burton’s Batman, in my eyes, is the quintessential way to present that character – dark, yes, but not gritty, and not super-serious. (I’ll forgive the Prince soundtrack. Meddlin’ studios gonna meddle.) As for the actual production, the use of models and miniatures, stop motion effects, gigantic matte paintings, and drawn-on visual effects were the kinds of rudimentary tricks that channeled that kind of raw imagination tantamount to pitting Batman figures against Joker figures as a child. It reinforces the notion that we’re existing in a pure fantasyland. Maybe, in a move almost foretelling Nolan’s ultra-realistic take, Burton seemed to say, “Let’s not take this so seriously.” (When the Joker removes a handgun from his pants with a barrel longer than an elephant gun, you…kinda get that impression -- a far cry from Nolan’s Joker shooting a cop point blank with a shotgun as the soundtrack whines at you.) And lordy, that score by Danny Elfman is one of the best of all time; except for Indiana Jones or the aforementioned James Bond, I can’t think of a character who has a better theme song. It even carried over to Batman: The Animated Series, which premiered on television between Batman Returns and Batman Forever. (When a movie can give you chills, but all that’s happening is the Batmobile driving through a leaf-strewn road at night, you’ll know that’s the power of a tremendous musical score.)

As for Batman himself, this is a dark character, and though Nolan tried profusely, he could never quite resurrect that darkness, instead relying on depressing melancholy. Though he deserves the accolades for trying to plant the character in as realistic a setting as possible, asking and answering the question, “What would Batman and Gotham City look like if they were real?,” his trilogy never managed to tap into the same kind of gothic darkness that embodied that character and that fictional city. And then we have Burton’s marriage of time—cars and fashions suggest a 1930s aesthetic, yet the setting is evidently present day, due to the presence of modern devices like televisions and boom boxes (along with contradicting cars and fashions). Burton’s Batman not only exists in its own fictional city, but in its own fictional time period.


Largely inspired by the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, tropes of film noir, and gothic features from the 1920s and ‘30s, Burton’s Batman is a wonderland of moviemaking. And there’s a reason why so many of its scenes have become iconic, the best being the scene with a recently transformed Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) glimpsing his new face in the mirror and laughing, creepily and unhinged, as he stumbles out of a basement surgical room. In a PG-13 superhero movie, it’s still one of the scariest fucking scenes ever committed to film. 

Burton not only wasn’t fazed by some of the criticism levied his way regarding the previous film’s gothic darkness and despair, he seemed to be driven by the 2010s’ anachronism of “hold my beer,” dialing up that same darkness and despair into his masterpiece Batman Returns. Keaton returns, and joining him are Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito’s still-ultimate takes on Catwoman and the Penguin, respectively. For a film that opens with a baby being thrown in a river in the dead of snowy winter (by father Paul Reubens!), Burton was once again saying, “Hang on – you’re not off the hook yet.” It also boasts Burton’s love for classic horror, naming one of his villains Max Schreck (Christopher Walken), the actor who played Count Orlok in 1922’s Nosferatu. (Future Leatherface and dog-hoarder Andrew Bryniarski plays his son). Burton also plays Selena Kyle’s transformation scene very subtly eerie: after Schreck throws her from her apartment window and she splats onto the snow-covered ground, she appears quite dead…and then a pack of stray cats come by and begin nibbling on her body, chewing hard enough on her fingers to draw blood. Was she simply stunned from the fall and awakes from the tiny teeth gnawing on her flesh, or did her spirit animals literally bring her back to life? Either way is equally acceptable in Burton’s world (although this would make his version of Catwoman the first ever zombie superhero). 


Following Burton’s departure from the series after his bow of Batman Returns, the remaining two installments fell under the tutelage of markedly different filmmaker Joel Schumacher, who dabbled in equally dark but less flamboyant features and had just enjoyed some critical raves for his first John Grisham adaptation, The Client.

For those even vaguely aware of the trajectory of the Batman series, most are aware that this is where the first dip in quality manifests. Almost everything about Batman Forever feels very different from what’s come before: Val Kilmer takes over for Keaton, gone is the bleached art deco and replaced with overbearing neon, and the villains (Tommy Lee Jones, replacing Billy Dee Williams, and Jim Carrey as Two-Face and the Riddler, respectively) are severely over the top. Even the composer is different, with Elliot Goldenthal taking over for Elfman.


On paper, casting Kilmer as the new Batman was a great idea; the actor had just come off the successful Tombstone where he drew raves for his performance as Doc Holiday—a character with mythical proportions whom one could argue was the superhero of the Wild West. Perhaps under a different director, Kilmer might have offered a different performance, but under Schumacher, who doesn’t seem suited for mega-budgeted productions, his performance seems somehow both antsy and flat.

Nicole Kidman, who plays the terribly named Chase Meridian (seriously?) seems to be along for the ride, going through the motions while seemingly knowing she doesn’t belong in this kind of big budget nonsense. (That she follows up on Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t do her any favors.)


Capping off the Batman quadrilogy is Batman & Robin, easily the worst of the series, and the second entry in which the actor playing the villain receives top billing over the actor playing the titular hero (after Jack Nicholson’s trumping of Michael Keaton’s credit). Everything about this production seems to confirm what Schumacher has never missed a chance to disclose in the years following the sequel’s release: the studio was more interested in marketing a new line of glowing, neon Batman toys than making a coherent, actually good feature. And it shows.

After the studio balked at Kilmer’s demands for an increase in salary, he was shown the door, and in entered George Clooney, who at that point was pretty much known for ER and a handful of movies no one saw. Clooney has the dubious honor of having played the worst Batman to date, somehow ruining a character’s mystique and tragic aura more than Adam West ever did, and it’s not because he appears in the worst-yet Batman film, but because you can see he’s totally in it for the money and exposure.

As for the final product, there’s nothing I can say about it that hasn’t already been said: it’s a dreadful, garish, immature film that has “paycheck” written all over it from everyone involved. Once Batman pulls out his own Batman credit card (which has an expiration date of FOREVER), and your arch villain (played by an all-in Arnold Schwarzenegger) rattles off his 37th pun about cold or ice, you just know you’re existing in the wasteland of nonsensical, big-budget tripe that Hollywood thought audiences wanted at the time. (It features some solid pre-breakup Smashing Pumpkins tracks, however – written specifically for this goofball movie.)


Following Batman & Robin’s release, and its critical condemnation across the board, the studio wasn’t keen on rushing another into production, so the theatrical arm of the franchise was dead in the water until Christopher Nolan came along to revitalize it ten years later with 2005’s Batman Begins.

And the rest is history.

Warner Bros. debuts the entire ‘90s Batman collection on 4K UHD Blu-ray. Obviously, the results are stunning, and the new Dolby Atmos audio options really open up the world of Gotham City. (Elfman’s score sounds so lush.) Sadly, no new special features have been produced, but the press release boasts over seventeen hours of supplemental material rolled over from previous releases (and I can already hear the griping about the admittedly uninspired new cover art), but being that these flicks have already been well covered in the past, what matters most is their new 4K revamping. That, above all other things, is the major selling point, and it’s worth it for that aspect alone.

The past couple years have been great for Batman aficionados. A new standalone film, The Batman, is gearing up for production from well-established filmmaker Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, War For The Planet Of The Apes), Batman: The Animated Series enjoyed a complete, definitive Blu-ray release, and now we’ve got the original series that started it all making its 4K debut. Whoever your generation’s Batman is, it’s a pretty good time to be a fan in general.

The Batman 4K UHD Collection is now available in single units from Warner Bros., with a boxed set coming in September.


[Reprinted from The Daily Grindhouse.]