Aug 20, 2019

READY PLAYER ONE (2018)



Steven Spielberg has never made an out-and-out bad film. I’m not sure the celebrated filmmaker is capable of that. I’ve certainly seen plenty of his films that don’t agree with me, ranging from the newer (War Horse) to his classics (I’ve given Close Encounters of a Third Kind so many chances), but I’ll never say they’re poorly made or seem workmanship in their presentation. While I’m not about to drop the internet-douchey slam of “worst Spielberg film ever,” I will say Ready Player One is probably the director’s emptiest — one that embodies the same kind of spectacle and world-building that many of his previous films sought and achieved, but with very little of its heart, or even over-sentimentalism that he’s been accused of in the past. Though one might argue Ready Player One’s entire construct is based on over-sentimentalism, given that it’s entirely an ode to ‘80s pop culture bent on nostalgia, this same kind of warmth doesn’t really come through any other aspect.

Ready Player One crams every possible ‘80s reference into its running time (at least, I’m assuming, the ones Warner Bros. had legal ownership of or access to — the nerdiest of you may have noticed that Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees appeared as his Freddy vs. Jason iteration, which is a film owned by Warner Bros. and not current franchise rights holders Paramount Pictures). And while it’s neat to see your lead hero (Tye Sheridan) driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future and later lovingly homaging its director by obtaining “the Zemeckis cube,” these feelings of awww just don’t last. Nostalgia is great for luring in an audience, but it’s not enough for telling a standalone story. 


The nostalgic bits — the appearance of the aforementioned Jason and his colleagues Freddy and Chucky, along with Robocop, King Kong, Duke Nukem, and so many more — work on that reactionary fanboy level. And the much ballyhooed sequence set in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining works in the same way. Once that familiar Penderecki soundtrack creeps in, and our characters start traversing the very faithfully recreated hotel, it’s easy to want to squee. Jack Torrance’s typewriter! The bloody elevator! Midnight, the Stars, and You! But once Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (also the source novel’s author) put an axe in the hand of the suddenly leaping Room 237 bathtub ghost and CGI starts demonically morphing her face, you also get the notion of just how wrong it all feels. Now, I’d never claim to be an authority on what Kubrick would or would not have approved. Spielberg and Kubrick were friends in real life, whereas “all I know is what’s on the internet” (Trump, 2016), and the Beard believes Kubrick would have good-naturedly approved the homage. Still, he skirts his faith in that belief by having Olivia Cooke’s Artemis say, “That’s the point. It’s not supposed to be exactly like the thing you like so much.” I’m not quite buying that, and the feeling of wrongness remains.

Ready Player One isn’t a terrible film by any stretch; in fact, it’s a light, fun, and breezy way to kill 90 minutes. But once the spectacle of the whole affair wears off, you’re struck with the realization that you could have skipped watching it and gotten the same experience simply by sifting through the film’s IMDB Trivia page for all the references the film contains.

Bonus! Some screengrabs from the flick featuring our favorite horror villains are below:






Aug 19, 2019

I SEE YOU HERE

I think you're a lonely person. 
I drive by this place a lot and I see you here. 
I see a lot of people around you. 
And I see all these phones and all this stuff on your desk. 
It means nothing. 
Then when I came inside and I met you, I saw in your eyes and I saw the way you carried yourself that you're not a happy person. 
And I think you need something. 
And if you want to call it a friend, you can call it a friend.

Aug 18, 2019

THE BURBS (1989)



Next to The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, The Burbs is probably my favorite all-time comedy. It’s one that I’ve been watching and laughing at since I was a kid — right around the time when I was also developing my love for the horror genre, which made The Burbs feel like an ideal way to also get in my comedy kicks. The script, naturally, conveys that blending of genres (make no mistake, though — this is much more comedy than horror, with the slightest twang of a western), but it was also thanks to the sensibilities of director Joe Dante, who has worked in every genre there is, but who has also directed some bonafide horror classics (the Gremlins films, The Howling). 

Because of this, and aside from the obvious morbidness and murderousness of the plot, The Burbs is a Rear Window parody rife with nods and homages to horror titles from The Exorcist to The Sentinel, and the underrated Race with the Devil. (Tom Hanks’ character, Ray Peterson, even suffers a nightmare straight out of that latter satanic thriller.)


Hanks and Rick Ducommun (who didn’t quite get along during filming), along with Bruce Dern, make for an absolutely wonderful and hilarious trio — Hanks’ Ray is the dry and glib straight man slowly sucked into the mystery, Ducommun essays childlike immaturity with next-door neighbor Art, and Dern plays, basically, your wacky conservative uncle — a gun-loving military nutjob with an all-fatigue wardrobe — and he’s a fucking delight. Dern, especially, wraps his limber arms around his character of Mark Rumsfield, clearly having a great time playing such a broad archetype. (The actor has mellowed during his later years, keeping closer to dramatic roles, although he did appear in another Dante effort: 2009’s The Hole.) Corey Feldman also appears as a sleuthing neighbor, rejoining Dante after Gremlins, and basically playing the Greek chorus for the audience. Wendy Schaal as Bonnie Rumsfield plays the most undervalued member of the cast, often deserving big laughs that go unnoticed, especially during the neighbors’ intensely awkward first meeting with the mysterious Klopeks. Her alarmed or mystified reactions to Hans Klopek are some of my favorite scenes in The Burbs’ entirety.

The Burbs is one of those rare pre-90s comedies that never feels dated, and everything that was funny about it thirty years ago is still just as funny today. (The frantic zoom-in/zoom-out of Hanks and Ducommun screaming at a human leg bone, which purposely goes on for just a hair too long, is still one of the best gags any film has ever had — period.) And there’s every kind of comedy on display: slapstick, sight gags, and — my favorite — the surreal and the absurd. The Burbs is at its best when it’s almost self-aware, such as the aforementioned leg bone scene, or when our characters recognize the sheer madness of the conflict in which they are engaged. (“I’ve never seen that. I’ve never seen someone drive their garbage down to the street and beat the hell out of it with a stick. I…I’ve never seen that.) 


Dante, who has built a career on horror-comedies, uses perfect timing and dramatic camera angles to accentuate the more amusing aspects of the script’s concept. At one point, when Art and Mark appear on the driveway of Ray’s house to collect him so they can continue their spying on the creepy new neighbors, Ray’s wife, Carol (a wonderful Carrie Fisher), tells them from an upper balcony that Ray won’t be joining them. Dante shoots this scene from both perspectives — from Carol looking down on them, and Art and Mark having to look up. As intended, it presents Carol as the mother figure, telling two neighborhood “kids” that her son isnt allowed to come out and play. And for good measure, Art kicks the ground as the two walk off in disappointment. Meanwhile, Ray cowers in the background half obscured by a doorway. If The Burbs were to be directed by anyone else other than Dante (and okay, maybe John Landis), then it shouldn’t even bother existing. Its DNA is too intertwined with Dante’s ease at this kind of humor and his willingness to poke his audience in the ribs and say, “Isn’t this just a gas?”

Hanks had a tremendous run in the ‘80s with a string of successful comedies, including Bachelor Party, Big, and The Money Pit (I’ve still never seen Splash — sorry), but The Burbs remains the most underrated. A combination of its somewhat morbid content and its offbeat humor has prevented it from being as celebrated as Hanks’ more obvious titles, which is a damn shame, but new collector’s editions of films like these only prove their enduring legacy and offer the chance to become reacquainted with yet another lost classic.



Aug 15, 2019

'HAIL SATAN?' ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK IT IS


As I sat down to watch Penny Lane’s Hail Satan?, I knew the doc would be covering many different things about this black goat religion, but I was hoping to hear concrete answers to the very pointed question, “Do Satanists actually believe in Satan?” Even before that question is asked, which occurs roughly one-third into the doc, everything that Lane presents up to that point, which includes interview segments with Lucien Greaves, the current leader of the Satanic Temple, would lead you to predict the answer: no. 

Obviously, the next question comes, “If you don’t believe in Satan, why call yourself Satanists?” That answer, this time, is less predictable, and it’s one that sums up Hail Satan? as a whole: Satanism is a direct response to the United States’ gradual transformation into a “Christian country,” despite having originally been founded as a secular nation, and that Satanism is basically the underdog religion using shocking imagery and their own very misunderstood philosophies to shock society into awareness and attempt to teach what they’re really about. Satanism is rebelling against the Church’s butting in of everyday Americans’ lives in the form of limiting women’s access to abortion, or restricting gay rights, or taking the moral high ground and defaming the Satanic Temple as a whole, even though the Diocese of Boston was responsible for the cover-up of thousands of boys being molested by priests over the last several decades--something, the Temple is quick to point out, is far more evil and disgusting than what the Temple is said to take part in.


The third question to come: “If Satanists don’t believe in God, why don’t they just call themselves atheists?” Because non-believers lack a community, one Satanic Temple member puts it: that atheists embrace nothing, and have no philosophy; the same cannot be said for the Satanic Temple, who very much have codes of beliefs (in the form of their own seven Tenets). One of those Tenets? Word for word: 
Beliefs should conform to one's best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one's beliefs. 
Tell me that’s not fucking relevant with respect to the current anti-science administration currently occupying the White House--that the entire world is melting, the temperatures are increasing yearly, that people are embracing ludicrous conspiracy theories about vaccinations and climate change while gleefully turning up their noses at the facts and science anyway. Also tell me that particular Tenet makes less sense than the Commandment that forbids a person from being envious because their neighbor has a maid.

I’ll admit I’ve been intrigued by this movement for a while now: not because I’m a devil worshiper, but because by doing some simple Googling--something anyone is able to do--I was really taken aback by the things I’d discovered, embodying the simplicity of what the Satanic Temple, preceded by Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, aims to do. (LaVey’s Church forbade its followers from killing animals unless for purposes of food and shelter. Sound evil to you?) Modern Satanic Temple members do not sacrifice animals, or take part in orgies, or perform black magic or occult incantations. No, instead, they adopt sections of Arizona highways and pledge to keep them clean--same with beaches, in fact. They run shoe and feminine hygiene drives to benefit the homeless. They form after-school programs to give children a place to go that’s safe, where they can color with other children and expose themselves to new ideas. Satanists are men and women, white and black, hetero and homosexual, former Christians, atheists, and Muslims. One of them in particular, a native of Arkansas who calls himself a former Christian, and who looks and sounds every bit like 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, wears a respectful blue suit complete with blue bowtie. But this isn’t a put-on: this is what members of the Satanic Temple can look like. The Temple is also comprised of people, though their external appearances may suggest they follow the public’s misconceptions of the Satanic Temple, who are not evil, who are not crazy, and who don’t have hate in their heart. They are people rebelling against the corruption of government and the Church, and who are advocating for the clear separation of both, upon which our country was once founded, but has since fallen by the wayside--after one political party in particular realized it would benefit them at the polls. In fact, the doc is sure to include one prominent member being ex-communicated due to her extremist performances that called for the assassination of Donald Trump. While this is easy for the armchair devout to point at and say, “See? They’re evil!!,” really, what the doc is showing you is that this viewpoint goes entirely against the belief system of the Satanic Temple, and that they did the responsible thing by severing ties. They are, one could argue, remaining more true to their responsibilities to morality than the Catholic Church.


The backbone of the doc is the story that has become quite well known to every-day society through its heavy coverage in the media: the Temple’s insistence that the Arkansas State Capitol either remove its Ten Commandments monument in order to honor the Constitution’s proclamation that religion and government never intertwine, or make room for their own Baphomet statue, which they argue belongs there just as much. Naysayers call this nothing more than a form of trolling, and certain members wouldn’t disagree, but they also know that what looks like theatrics represents something much larger, and it’s their way of breaking through to the everyday American to educate them on what the Satanic Temple is really about.

Hail Satan? is the most fascinating documentary I’ve seen all year and I would recommend it to anyone the least bit open minded. I like to think you will be constantly surprised, amused, and even touched by certain aspects of both the documentary and the religion itself. I would almost guarantee that you won’t be expecting nearly any of what you see. 

Hail Satan? is now on DVD from Magnolia Pictures.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Aug 14, 2019

FIRST REFORMED (2018)



From its very first minute, First Reformed, from the longest-working man in show biz, Paul Schrader, is never not engaging. The filmmaker responsible for writing Taxi Driver, Hardcore, and Raging Bullmay not have made a film this engaging since 1997’s Affliction. It’s also very unusually made, with the director choosing a 4×3 aspect ratio, a direct call back to a primitive era of film, and very very rarely moving the camera. Except for the gorgeous opening shot, which slowly tracks from the bottom of red-brick steps to the front doors of an old Dutch Colonial church, every shot is static, and they can go on and on without a break in action or dialogue. Oftentimes, if someone calls a film “point and shoot,” that person means the film lacks identity or style, and that the director is workman-like without a sense of making the story come to life with visual flourish. First Reformed purposely goes for the point and shoot aesthetic, but Schrader uses the style to maximum effect, manifesting Father Toller’s growing indifference, isolation, frustration, and severe battle with his faith.

Speaking of, Ethan Hawke has gone from being an actor that I was too quick to dismiss to one of my absolute favorites. Interviews with him (like the one included on this release) show him to be a very pensive, thoughtful, and likable actor who enjoys genre-hopping in an effort to play different kinds of characters in different kinds of situations. For a long time I held high that his work in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy was his best, but then First Reformed came along and left me in total awe of his talent. It’s his work in this that’s made me realize the actor doesn’t receive nearly the amount of accolades he deserves. His work here is staggering, and an absolute career high. The archetype of the priest struggling with his faith isn’t a new concept, but when you’ve got Paul Schrader behind that archetype’s tweaking and finessing, turning him into a somewhat of a Travis Bickle character, it absolutely opens up the character into something new. 


In a sense, First Reformed is a fantastic companion piece to Schrader’s Taxi Driver: two men, at odds with society, become seduced by the idea of shaking up that society and putting an end to the evil and sickness that plagues our world at large. Travis Bickle drives taxi cabs and Father Toller presides over thinly attended masses and is forced to serve as a surrogate tour guide for his famous Underground Railroad church, but both men suffer the same disillusionment and horror with their world and both men, perhaps not all there, want to do something about it. The film also contains aspects of Calvinism, to which Schrader subscribes, and which also appeared in a more obvious form throughout Schrader’s Hardcore. Given its religious themes, one might assume that Schrader is lampooning or satirizing religion at large, but that’s not really the case here. Schrader, instead, is telling a story similar to ones he’s told in the past and imbuing a lot of shared themes of loneliness to the point of mental detriment, but this time it just so happens to be a priest. That sounds like Schrader side-stepping a larger potential, but just the opposite: he’s smart enough to not take the easy bait.

First Reformed is very unusually made, and its very pro-environmental message, even though it has a great deal of reason to be there given its story, will probably turn off some audiences, as they don’t mind being preached to up to a certain extent. First Reformed willfully and purposely ups the preaching levels, and for dual purposes: to enhance and justify Father Toller’s descent into radicalism, and to enforce upon the viewing audience: we’re very very close to being eternally fucked. First Reformed will scare you in more than one way, and regardless of how you feel about the film by its end, it’s a long-term unshakeable experience.

Paul Schrader is 72, and has just delivered among the best films in his directorial career.



BASHFUL


Aug 13, 2019

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)



Sequels are nothing new in Hollywood, and there’s no one genre that’s above sequalizing a successful film to death. What’s a little new is the idea of making a sequel to a landmark film (for one reason or another) so very long after that film came out. Notable examples are TRON: Legacy, made 26 years following TRON, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, made 23 years following Wall Street. Sequels to Top Gun, Twins, and Beetlejuice are also in the offing — if they ever come to fruition, that is, and as of right now, all of them will come more than thirty years following their originals.

We all know sequels are hardly ever patches on their originals. What makes the execution of these very delayed sequels so daunting is not only do they have to overcome the sequel curse, but they have to find a way to at least feel like their predecessor — that is, if filmmakers are doing their jobs. Under the right circumstances, and with the same filmmakers returning (the Dark Knight trilogy, for instance), this can sometimes happen. But it’s rare.


Blade Runner 2049, a thirty-year sequel to an original film that suffered an extremely troubled release history (there are five different cuts — seven if you count the bootlegs), somehow manages to both pack the same visual and emotional experience, but also feel like a natural extension of that universe. Blade Runner 2049, as directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) and thankfully only produced by Ridley Scott (much respect to the Sir, but Alien: Covenant proves he needs to stay away from his old franchises), is every bit as stylish, intriguing, bleak, sad, and challenging as the original — a film once initially dismissed before gaining cult status, and before being rightfully hailed as the visionary piece of filmmaking that it is.

From a purist’s point of view, what makes Blade Runner 2049 such a fulfilling experience is that this isn’t solely a reboot masquerading as a sequel — not one of those situations where audiences won’t be confused if they hadn’t seen the original. Sure, they could probably put the pieces together, but going into Blade Runner 2049 utterly blind would absolutely ruin the emotional impact toward which it’s striving. Co-writer from the original Hampton Fancher returns after a long time away from script writing, his last feature being 1999’s The Minus Man; working alongside Michael Green (Logan), he fleshes out a new story every bit as complicated and philosophical, and most importantly, worthy. Again, for delayed sequels like these, having the original director return in some capacity isn’t outside of normal, but for the original writer to return — that almost never happens. The best aspect of the script is the careful execution of two surprises — one which snowballs into the next, and neither of which you see coming.


Keeping this fluid transition from original to sequel going is the spot-on musical score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, taking over for former composer Vangelis (who, I’m sure, would have been asked to return if he hadn’t retired). A somewhat large stink was made when Blade Runner 2049’s original composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, was removed, but if it was done in aid of making room for the score we eventually received, it was absolutely the right move to make. The ambient and electronic score, which is alternately mournful and dreamy, is pure Blade Runner, which also comes to pounding life during more action-oriented sequences. Like many other aspects to this sequel’s success, the musical component was critical, and it’s a victory.

As tends to happen far too often when it comes to films both good and challenging, audiences didn’t turn out for Blade Runner 2049, as they were too likely distracted by something that required less of them, intellectually, in spite of the critical praise it received. No studio ever embarks on such a risky sequel without keeping an eye on the franchise’s future, so ideas for further films in the Blade Runner universe are likely written on cocktail napkins somewhere. Even when assuming those are now in flux, Blade Runner 2049 is an almost flawless new beginning as well as a satisfying end. It’s the shining example of how to make a sequel — especially one so late to the party.



Aug 12, 2019

AN ANGEL

I first saw her...at 63rd and Broadway. 
She was wearing a white dress. 
She appeared like an angel. 
Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. 
They...cannot...touch...

Aug 11, 2019

THE WITCH (2016)



I’m reticent to call The Witch a horror film, even though it utterly is. Because doing so would call forth images of how the current horror film has come to look: lazy remakes of classic titles, CGI monsters, buckets of blood, or even old-school classy approaches that avoid cheap tricks, but which at least provide a visceral jolt to the audience every so often to remind them that they are, indeed, watching a horror film.

The Witch isn’t interested in doing any of this. It very much wants to get under the audience’s skin and unnerve them in ways they aren’t used to, but its approach is tremendously different from the current crop of fright flicks at the theater. It’s not a spoiler to say that this isn’t a case of “Is there a witch, or is it all in the heads of this family recently excommunicated from their former home?” There is a very real and tangible threat. It exists among this displaced, God-fearing family, looming over their new patchwork home in the woods like the night sky. Quick and hazy sightings of the force haunting them, rarely glimpsed but ever changing, heighten its malignancy. Like another witchy horror flick—The Blair Witch Project—the thing going bump in the night is never made a primary on-screen force. It’s not hiding behind closet doors or hovering in the background of a mirror’s reflection. Its existence is felt in every frame, even if its visage is hardly sighted—a masterful accomplishment for any filmmaker, but especially for one making his directorial debut.

Horror films are easy to construct, but difficult to render effectively. It’s easy to scare the audience, but difficult to earn those scares through classy and clever execution. And it’s tremendously difficult to establish dread from the very first frame. So few horror films know how to accomplish this. We can throw out The Shining as an example, and even more recently, Scott Derrickson’s Sinister. If the inescapable feeling of dread permeates from the onset, before a single horrific incident has occurred, that’s not just rare, but nearly unheard of. Filmmakers don’t know how to do it, so they open their film with a kill, and end it with a monster literally screaming into the camera. And in between: heads fly off, or ghostly faces drip. It’s tiring, and it’s cliché, and it’s boring, and The Witch is the antithesis to all of that.


Like The Blair Witch Project, The Witch is destined for a viewers’ revolt. In fact, it’s already here. “Overhyped.” “Overrated.” The dreaded IMDB bomb: “Worst movie EVAR.” Maybe The Witch should have remained a quiet title, released to VOD and then later to home video, but A24 Films boldly called the bluff of horror fans demanding smart and original material, rolling out the film in their widest release so far. And they get immense credit for having such faith in writer/director Robert Eggers’ debut. But The Witch is not a Friday night “I’m bored, let’s go to the movies” kind of film. It’s not ideal drive-in fodder (yes, they still exist). It’s not a party film like The Evil Dead. If there were ever any film worthy of closing the drapes, turning off the lights, and immersing in the environment of a horror film, The Witch is it. To experience it any other way is to rob yourself of an honestly unsettling experience.

The Witch's impressive sound design adds to that experience. A film that relies on utter silence, complemented by a chilling musical score by Mark Korven, The Witch makes great use of environmental ambiance, filling in those long stretches of silence, though a combination of textbook-authentic dialogue matched with actor Ralph Ineson's baritone voice and accent may have you leaping for the subtitles. Of all the horror films to watch with at least an average home theater surround sound, The Witch is a prime candidate.

If you have not yet taken The Witch plunge, please do so. But before you do, watch it with a mindset that’s different from what the film’s marketing has enforced. Don’t think of it as a horror film, but as a family drama that just so happens to contain horror elements. Sit down with it knowing that its eerie events are going to unfold at a slow pace, that the antagonist will be constantly felt but not seen, and that it will provide no easy answers. But ideally, sit down with it knowing that while the shadowy thing in the dark is a dangerous and terrifying threat…it’s not the only one.


Aug 7, 2019

A WHOLE DIFFERENT ANIMAL: ‘ORCA’ (1977)


By now, JAWS is a Hollywood institution. It not only birthed the summer blockbuster, but, like any popular new idea, it inspired countless knockoffs – a trend that continues to this day. Putting aside the more infamous examples, like the Italian-lensed Cruel Jaws (yes, this is real) and Enzo G. Castellari’s The Last Shark aka Great White, both of which saw their U.S. releases halted by JAWS distributor Universal Studios due to obvious reasons, the “animals-run-amok” subgenre wasn’t actually confined just to sharks. Following the unparalleled success of JAWS, every kind of animal that could reasonably run amok ran amok, regardless if those animals had legs or not.

Even those animals (or insects) that weren’t obvious amok-runners still got their own one-word titles through which to generate “terror”: Grizzly, Frogs, Slugs, Bug, Ants, Gi-Ants, Squirm, etc.

Even automobiles got in on the action, like 1974’s Killdozer and 1977’s The Car.

It got pretty ridiculous.

Addressing the great white in the room, Orca, on its surface, could easily be written off as one of these JAWS bastards. It even takes the name of Quint’s doomed sea vessel for its title. Obviously, the similarities are profound. Sea-based killer animal? Check. Crusty, hard-drinking boat captain tasked with killing the beast? Check. A crew assembled with people of differing philosophies toward the animal and how it should be dealt with? Check. An entire town’s financial stability affected by the maniacal animal? Oh yes. And like JAWS, Orca also gets a huge boost from its musical score – Ennio Morricone’s absolute all-time best, in fact.

Long dismissed as just another JAWS clone, Orca is worthy of much more respectable appreciation – forty years after its release.


While out on a routine sharking expedition hoping to land a big payday for a local aquarium, Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and the crew of his vessel, the Bumpo, get an up-close and personal encounter with an orca whale during a shark attack. Impressed with the size and savagery of the whale, Nolan switches targets, deciding that the capture of a male orca – alive – would fetch a much bigger payday. But after botching this capture and accidentally killing the targeted orca’s pregnant mate (which miscarries on the Bumpo in a devastating sequence), the orca becomes incensed, ramming the vessel and then stalking the murderous captain all the way back to shore – and beyond – intent on ruining his life by any means necessary. Even from the frigid ocean waters, the orca inexplicably begins to wear down Nolan in every feasible means – physically, mentally, financially, existentially, and philosophically. (If Hannibal Lecter were an animal, he would be an orca.) Soon, Captain Nolan is left with no choice but to take back to the sea and engage in a battle to the death with his massive opponent.

Yes, Orca follows a lot of the same familiar JAWS beats, and though it pales in comparison, Orca is much better than its reputation or immediate sketchy filmic colleagues would suggest. (The opening sequence, which sees the orca kill a great white shark in a violent battle, is a not-so-subtle dig at its legendary predecessor.) Based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Arthur Herzog, what sets Orca off from its unintended brethren is the amount of sincerity with which it was made, with much of the credit going to director Michael Anderson (Logan's Run) for maintaining a level of seriousness and weaving a palpable sense of regret throughout what would otherwise be your standard animal-revenge thriller. Orca is inherent with sadness and despair, from the quiet haunted life of Nolan to the vicious capture of the pregnant orca, right down to the icy finale which sees the crew being led to the unforgiving crushing ice caps and brutal cold of the Strait of Belle Isle. Not a single time during the film can the sun be glimpsed or does daylight look bright and warm. Colors are muted, and at dusk, barely present. Nolan and his crew live a shiftless life, existing only in those strange lands where their fishing work takes them. No one has any roots to speak of – the only relationships they have are with each other. All of this is purposeful; Orca isn’t out for the same kind of adventurous thrills as JAWS, nor is it only interested in cheap but entertaining exploitation thrills like Alligator. Though the furious orca kills quite a few people, it’s not done for titillation like the usual sharksploitation flick. As each character sleeps with the fishes, you feel conflicted, even if these characters have shown off their ignorance toward the dangers that their profession can have on the ecosystem. Like real people, they’re flawed but not villainous, and none of them are particularly heroic; in fact, Nolan only gets up the gumption to resolve the conflict he’s inadvertently created because the town where he‘s temporarily docked blackmails him into doing it – even refusing to sell gasoline to the crew attempting to retreat from their sins. (Heroism!)


Aiding Orca’s effectiveness is the slightly dangerous tone exhibited by ‘70s-era Italian thriller and horror films, which always had their own look and feel, and which were heightened in every sense – regardless of genre. Exploitation films were just a bit more exploitative. The infamous “cannibal horror” period was rife with filmmakers pushing boundaries – so much that murder charges were brought against Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato in response to the too-convincing fates that befell that film’s characters. This sensibility would spawn the giallo sub-genre – one that gleefully focused on the exaggeration of sex and sensuality, fluid and poetic camera movement, and, most famously, very specifically choreographed and violent murder sequences. The presence on Orca of Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, a major figure during this time (and who remained so until his death; he’d go on to produce several films in the Hannibal Lecter franchise), and the largely Italian crew – from the script writers to the production and art designers – inadvertently rode that over-stylized subset of Italian filmmaking, which enhances Orca’s sense of danger and unease; it comes across as similarly loose-cannoned and willing to push the boundaries of good taste, even though, except for the upsetting whale capture scene in the first act, Orca is fairly restrained. (Though this is not at all applicable to Orca, Italian productions were also occasionally unkind to animals, which also enhances the unsettling usage of Orca’s special effects. More on that in a bit.)

Richard Harris’ Captain Nolan is a heavy figure. The fisherman lives a life of isolation, having seen his pregnant wife perish in a car accident caused by a drunk driver – one that’s already taken place before the opening credits, but which can be unnervingly glimpsed through quick flashbacks complemented by the unsettling shrill shriek of an orca. The film draws parallels both obvious (the tragic loss of a burgeoning family) and subtle (obsession leading to self-destruction) between Nolan and the orca that hunts him, and which he then begins to hunt. As life took away Nolan’s family, so Nolan took away that of the orca. They become one and the same — two lost souls navigating a cold and barren seascape; satisfying the avenging beasts within them is the only thing offering them forward momentum.


The death scenes, too, are executed differently. Unlike JAWS, where the shark attack scenes were suspensefully predicated by John Williams’ famous low-end piano and Spielberg’s paranoid shots of the water, the death scenes here are quick and brutal, and over before you realize they’ve happened. The orca lunges with a shriek, takes his target, and disappears beneath the depths. It’s not at all about suspense this time around; it’s much more focused on shock – how, at one moment, you can be sitting safely on the bow of a ship, and at the next, you’re immediately disappeared as if you never existed. Again, a film that clearly exists because of what’s come before is still making an effort to distance itself through different stylistic choices. Yes, both films feature an aquatic killer as the main threat, but each is going about it as differently as they can while remaining in the same genre and delivering, ultimately, what the audience expects.

For its time, the special effects are quite good. Granted, some of the visual tricks, like superimposing together scenes of orcas breaching the ocean’s surface, show their age, but the practical effects are extremely lifelike to the point where certain shots look downright disturbing. Charlotte Rampling sitting on the beach next to the corpse of the orca that Nolan kills during the opening moments and seeing it rock and sway in the coming and going ocean tide offers it a very sad reality. (Production on Orca was even momentarily shut down following outcry from animal rights groups after someone glimpsed a life-sized orca prop being trucked into the shooting location.) A brief shot of a pummeled great white shark floating lifelessly in bloody waters, too, looks alarmingly real. (It wasn’t; all underwater shark photography was captured by ocean conservationists Ron and Valerie Taylor, who famously obtained all the real shark footage used in JAWS.) Honestly, there are times when Orca’s best special effects even look better than some of the troublesome effects from JAWS – and for a film that would go on to inspire a multi-billion dollar franchise and a theme park ride (RIP), that’s not dismissible praise.

It’s fair to admit that Orca would not exist without JAWS, but it would also be unfair to disregard Orca as a lazy cash-grab. It has its own identity and purpose, and its own less traveled path for getting there – one might even argue that it has much more in common with Moby Dick than that aforementioned stillness in the water. Richard Harris once stated to have found the characters in its script far richer and more complicated than Brody, Hooper, and Quint, and that its label of being a mere JAWS rip-off was offensive. Charlotte Rampling, who works steadily to this day, continues to look back on the film with pride. Affirmations like these are important to preserving and fairly examining Orca’s legacy. This isn’t a case where actors, who go on to more prominent roles in wider reaching films, look back on their horror past with embarrassment and dismissal. A good film is a good film, regardless of its genre, unfair reputation, and especially regardless of its inspiration.


Aug 5, 2019

SOMETHING BETWEEN US

When I walked in and I saw you two sitting there, I could just tell by the way you were both relating that there was no connection whatsoever. 
And I felt when I walked in that there was something between us. 
There was an impulse that we were both following. 
So that gave me the right to come in and talk to you. 
Otherwise, I never would have felt that I had the right to talk to you or say anything to you. 
I never would have had the courage to talk to you. 
And with him, I felt there was nothing and I could sense it. 
When I walked in, I knew I was right. 
Did you feel that way?

Aug 3, 2019

THE MUMMY (2016)


Is it too late to make a “Show me the mummy!” joke?

Upon Universal Studios’ announcement that it would be re-exploring all the old classic horror properties they’d created more than eighty(!) years ago as an action-adventure shared universe, the Internet let out a collective, “wha?” And they were right to. In this post-Marvel world, everything is now being re-imagined as a shared universe. In theory, the idea is intriguing and creates a lot of opportunity for world building and creativity. Still, characters like Dracula, Frankenstein(‘s Monster), and the Mummy — they’re dead ghouls, brought back to life by a curse, or science, or sheer stubbornness, so the idea of centering a shared universe around them — and presenting them as the villains they ought to be — seemed like a really odd choice. But Uni were likely looking at their last firebrand of a rebooted monster property — the Brendan Fraser Mummy franchise, which had been designed as an Indiana Jones-ish tale of Egyptian paranormal, and which was still seeing new entries in the direct-to-video market as recently as 2015. (This would be The Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power, which, in case you lost count, was the sequel to the sequel to the prequel to the prequel to the sequel to the remake of The Mummy, and it starred Lou Ferrigno.)

The announcement of Alex Kurtman as director of this new Mummy, most famously known as formerly one half of the Kurtzman/Roberto Orci writing duo (who together had scored major gigs over the last decade in Hollywood all while not turning much in worth a damn) was the second sign that maybe Universal wasn’t quite thinking rationally about this idea. Not only was Kurtzman an untested director, the Dark Universe was one of Universal’s most audacious ideas since that one time they had a fast car drive furiously out one window and INTO another window. But with the announcement of Tom Cruise joining the film, who, craziness aside, has a good track record picking projects, the Internet’s hesitation went into remission. After all, even the worst of Cruise’s films were still marginally better than most other summer blockbusters. And who wouldn’t be excited about a classic horror property being resurrected with the likes of Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe.

And then the leaks began. Something about behind-the-scenes drama on The Mummy’s production. Something about the studio realizing Kurtzman was in way over his head. Something about Cruise taking over more non-actorly roles on the shoot. Once the film was released to a critical drubbing and a poor domestic box office take, no one was surprised.

I know I’m not.

The Mummy is as every bit as bad as you could have assumed at every stop on the production train — from the very first words “reboot of The Mummy” to “shared universe” to “action/adventure” to “Tom Cruise” — and, I never thought I’d say this, it even lacks the charm and whimsy of Brendan Fraser’s first go-round with Imhotep. After a promising opening, which introduces Russell Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jekyll in what’s assumed to be a sort of curator of the entire Dark Universe, The Mummy seems almost eager to reveal its brainlessness, throwing together a quick backstory on this Mummy’s version of the mummy — a young girl cursed by black magic and who is “mummified alive,” which, according to the filmmakers, means being dressed as a wriggling mummy and locked in a coffin. (If you remember your history lessons, being “mummified” actually entailed having your brain and organs removed, your hollowed cavities stuffed with herbs and spices, your body dried in the sun, and then wrapped in bandages — but, we’re in PG-13 territory here, don’t forget.)


Though Tom Cruise brings his Tom Cruise game, and certain sequences are admittedly fun and enjoyable, The Mummy instead presents a series of real-life mysteries more intriguing than the mystique it’s desperate to establish: Like, why does such an expensive production have such horrid CGI? Or, why does it suffer from a severe identity crisis — ie, is this horror, or adventure; fun, or frightening? (The “nod” to American Werewolf in London, which sees Cruise talking to hallucinations of his dead and ghoulish looking friend, while appreciated, feels cheap and stupid, while also showcasing some Sims-level CGI.)  The biggest mystery, perhaps, is this: what was everyone THINKING?

Before The Mummy was cruelly released to the wild like a lame animal, Universal was quick to distance their previous Dracula Untold from their Dark Universe, calling it unrelated from their long-term shared world-building. Ironically, Dracula Untold suddenly played a whole lot better after seeing The Mummy, as it was more surefooted at striking a horrific tone even if its main crux was action and escapism. (Uni’s previous reboot of The Wolfman with Benicio Del Toro, too, suddenly played a whole lot better.) But no, The Mummy was so poorly received and so powerfully bad enough that it made Uni stop and reconsider this whole Dark Universe thing, which is currently on hold — my thanks to the gods and monsters. (Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man is still going ahead, though it seems to be its own thing.)

The Mummy achieves almost award-worthy stupidity, which is bolstered by the presence of Tom Cruise shouting and punching CGI mummies directly in their mummy faces. 

Show me the mummy!  

Aug 1, 2019

THE DARK


One of Arch Oboler's better known stories. Creepy in the right mindset, until you realize it directly inspired this: