Nov 30, 2019

THE ‘HELLRAISER’ TRILOGY (1987-1992)


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

Hellraiser's couldn’t.

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

This was Frank’s big idea.

Way to go Frank.


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

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

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



Nov 28, 2019

THAT'S NOT CRANBERRY SAUCE


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


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

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


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

And I love being able to say that.


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

No one cares. 

No one looks alarmed. 

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Blood Rage is hereby awarded:


Happy Thanksgiving!

[Reprinted from the Daily Grindhouse.]

Nov 26, 2019

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974)


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


Nov 25, 2019

LOVE, TRAVIS

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

Nov 24, 2019

GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT: THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Kane says yes.

Fell says no.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Nov 23, 2019

LISTEN TO SATANIC DOO WOP


For fans of: Chelsea Wolfe, Amy Winehouse, Postmodern Jukebox, and Satan, the Prince of Darkness.


From Twin Temple's website:

Everybody knows that the Devil has all the best tunes. From Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads to the blood-soaked black metal of Norway, Satan has long loomed large over the music world, striking fear into the hearts of the sanctimonious. But nothing that has gone before will prepare you for the arrival of Twin Temple: Los Angeles’ one and only purveyors of Satanic Doo-Wop. Devout Satanists and meticulous preservers of rock’n’roll’s ancient, timeless spirit, this black-clad and effortlessly stylish duo have created a sound that blends their Satanic ideology with the irresistible sass and melody of classic ‘50s and ‘60s rock ‘n’roll. The result is Twin Temple (Bring You Their Signature Sound…Satanic Doo-Wop), a debut album that not only serves to salute the Dark One, but also delivers some of the catchiest and coolest music to emerge from any genre in years.



Nov 22, 2019

VAMPIRE'S KISS (1988)


Any reasonable reaction to watching Vampire’s Kiss for the first time inevitably hovers around “What the fuck is this?” Part horror, part comedy, part insanity, the film hails from 1988, the wondrous year of military helicopter collisions, the first communist McDonalds, and the comic strip FoxTrot. Take that, add Nicolas Cage, and well, what the fuck is this? We're not just talking whole horses of different colors--we're talking fang-bearing, shrieking, bleeding, bug-eating Nicolas Cage. And regardless of whatever color strikes your fancy, well, hold on to your hat, you weirdo, because shit's about to get quirky. Stat.

Forget all the Nic Cage crazy acting compilations on Youtube. Forget all his weird, eccentric turns in the early part of his career. The utter bizarreness of his role of Peter Loew in Vampire’s Kiss would’ve been more than enough to solidify Cage’s reputation as the quirkiest actor this side of Peter Sellers during a psychological breakdown. Also known as "Nicolas Cage: The Meme: The Movie," Vampire’s Kiss makes very little sense and its tone changes with the tide as it sees fit. Sometimes it wants to be horrific, sometimes comedic, sometimes mean-spirited, and sometimes I don’t even know—god damn weird—but what it creates is an experience that never quite gels, but which you can’t help but enjoy in a “How weird is this going to get?” kind of way.


Most of the plot is spent with Cage's Peter Loew gradually beginning to believe that he's been inflicted with the vampire disease, which as you might imagine makes him quite irritable. He spends most of the film willfully forcing this vampire transition, such as sleeping in a coffin or eating bugs (for real), all while harassing Alva, his poor poor secretary.

Referring to Vampire’s Kiss as “so bad it’s good” would be a miscalculation, because every oddity on display—from Cage’s completely made-up aristocratic accent to him running down the street bellowing, “I’m a vampire, I’m a vampire!” while wearing Halloween store vampire teeth—is 100% intended. Nothing about Vampire’s Kiss is accidentally entertaining. It just…is.

And it’s lovely.


Alva, there is no one else in this entire office that I could possibly ask to share such a horrible job. You're the lowest on the totem pole here, Alva. The lowest. Do you realize that? Every other secretary here has been here longer than you, Alva. Every one. And even if there was someone here who was here even one day longer than you, I still wouldn't ask that person to partake in such a miserable job as long as you were around. That's right, Alva. It's a horrible, horrible job: sifting through old contract after old contract. I couldn't think of a more horrible job if I wanted to. And you have to do it! You have to or I'll fire you. You understand? Do you? Good.

Nov 20, 2019

BRAINSCAN (1994)


You can tell just from watching Brainscan that its makers were desperate to create their own money-printing Freddy Krueger slasher villain. Considering that Brainscan ultimately comes off sillier than Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, the nadir of that series and ultimately the end result of a softening/sillying of its lead boogeyman that eventually killed the franchise, it’s no surprise audiences weren’t eager to see Brainscan’s lead techno-monster come back for additional installments.

Besides, it’s difficult to generate any real fear when your villain, called Trickster, resembles the lead singer of ‘80s Eurodisco band Silent Circle:


The ‘90s were a ripe time for film exploring mega-overblown concerns about computers. Just ask Brainscan lead boy Edward Furlong, who put himself on the map as the very first John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But for every major title like that, there are dozens of B-movies that were begging audiences, “Be afraid of your personal computer!” The Ghost in the Machine explored similar tactics, as did an outlandish sequence in the otherwise sex thriller Disclosure, during which Michael Douglas, while VR-ing into a private network, is pursued by a Michael Myers-like 2D avatar of Demi Moore. Then there was Hackers, The Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, and more than one episode of The X-Files. And let’s not forget The Net, which, to its credit, started out as unbelievable tripe but eventually became sadly prophetic in our new age of rampant identity theft.

Brainscan stands head and shoulders above these titles as being the absolute stupidest, but I’ll be — the filmmakers seem to be taking this concept seriously. I don’t know what’s stranger: that a humanoid manifestation of a murderous video game begins stalking an underage boy while simultaneously eating all his bananas, or that Frank Langella is in this at all.


If Brainscan has anything going for it, besides how hilariously dated it already is, it’s the grisly violence, which can come off at-odds when juxtaposed against a silly concept (and sillier villain). I almost wish it had been a box office hit because I’m dying to know what a Brainscan 6: Virtual Mortality would look like.

If you yearn for ‘90s horror cinema, you’re weird, but you’re also in luck, because Brainscan is the most ‘90s horror title there is: the computers are just blocky enough, the soundtrack just Butthole Surfers enough, and the visual effects just terrible enough to make you stand up and scream, “the ‘90s are back! Someone get me my cordless phone!”


Nov 19, 2019

HANGMAN (2017)



From the opening moments, you can just feel that Hangman is going to suck. Before you catch a single lousy performance, or a sampling of overwrought directing, the sense of mediocrity to come is innately palpable. You could call this snap reaction either snobbish elitism, preconceived notion, or uncanny intuition. I don’t care — whatever. Regardless, it’s not going to turn Hangman into anything other than the tired, silly, and twenty-years-late ripoff of Se7en that it’s obviously vying to be.

Not a single name in the cast gives you that hope of, “Hey, this could be good!” Karl Urban’s name is not synonymous with quality. Nor is that of Brittany Snow, who Prom-Night-remaked herself into the mainstream before ending up in almost exclusively quiet VOD releases (unless it’s a Pitch Perfect sequel) because she’s simply not a strong performer. And then, of course, there’s Al Pacino. Ironically, he and his counterpart, Robert De Niro, have been considered kindred spirits throughout their entire time in Hollywood: the actors (both of whom appeared in The Godfather II) became linked not just because of their cultural lineage and tough mafia guy personas, but because of their brooding intensities and dedications to their craft. (That Heat came along later and brought them together yet again, resulting in simply one of the all time greats, solidified this bond between them.) But, like De Niro, Pacino has been rubber stamping everything that’s come his way.

Hangman is no exception, and it’s really odd to see Pacino slumming it in this particular flick, being that it offers zero intrigue or uniqueness; there’s no obvious draw for him, and offers him absolutely nothing new. Was it the chance to play a cop, even though he’s already played a cop seven times before? The chance to play a homicide detective who regrets his past choices while hunting a serial killer? He did that in Insomnia. Another homicide detective chasing down a gimmicky serial killer? He did that too, in 88 Minutes. So why return to this well? The chance to, what, work with the venerable Karl Urban — the guy from Red? Or maybe he just wanted to vacation in beautiful Atlanta. No, wait — I’ve got it: it was the chance for Pacino to try on a southern accent that doesn’t sound at all convincing. And speaking of unconvincing, Pacino is flat-out bad here. Obviously, he’s made bad films in the past — name me one actor who hasn’t — but even in any of those bad films you can conjure, at least Pacino was good in them. In Hangman, he’s bad. It’s like he knew right off the bat that Hangman was doomed — in the hands of a workman director eager to show off every film school trick, and being released by a studio who needed to fill their February slot in the Redbox at the local ACME — so why bother putting in a good performance?


Hangman is every bit cop movie that you’ve come to expect. And if you’re hoping that it has that scene where a homicide detective shows up to a crime scene and asks the coroner examining the body, “Whaddya got?,” well, you’re in luck. Everything about Hangman is dull, and generic, and simply uninteresting. The only thing it tries to do that’s the least bit different is add a journalist into the mix who basically rides along with our detectives from crime scene to crime scene to obtain research and insights for an article she wants to write. And that I’ll totally buy. What I won’t buy is that this journalist follows the detectives directly into danger — into houses where suspects are hiding, where blood was spilled and where her ignorance could very well contaminate evidence, and where she actually puts herself in harm’s way to help catch a suspect. There’s nothing believable about this — and if this does actually go on in the real world of law enforcement, we have major problems.

The film only momentarily comes to life when the killer is prominently introduced in the last act (and to give Hangman credit, it at least takes another page out of Se7en and introduces a new character instead of hamfistedly and impossibly revealing the killer had been a main member of the cast). The killer, as played by the underrated Joe Anderson (The Grey), has awful motivations and his link to one of the main characters is hazy and unconvincing, but Anderson still manages to shine through all that and bring to the table something resembling an actual performance — which is more than can be said for anyone else in this garbage.

Potential viewers, you’ve seen Hangman a hundred times already — all of them, even the worst of them, much better than this. 

In fact:
_______
|            |
|            O
|           /|\
|            |
|           / \
__________
I  T    B L O W S


Nov 18, 2019

ONLY AS HEALTHY

I tried several times to call her, but after the first call, she wouldn't come to the phone any longer. 
I also sent flowers but with no luck. 
The smell of the flowers only made me sicker. 
The headaches got worse. 
I think I got stomach cancer. 
I shouldn't complain though. 
You're only as healthy, 
you're only as healthy as you feel. 
You're only as... 
healthy... 
as... 
you... 
feel.


Nov 16, 2019

THE CURSE OF DOWNERS GROVE (2015)


A high school student, clearly under the influence, climbs up a water tower.

His drunk compatriots cheer him from down below.

He begins shimmying across the very thin metal piping.

He slips. He falls. He smashes his head open on the hard ground.

Two girls step up, horrified. "It's the fucking curse!" one of them states.

Roll opening credits.

This is The Curse of Downers Grove, and it’s very stupid. (Based on a true story, which means at one point a high school senior died through his or her own idiocy.)


Chrissie (Bella Heathcote, a 28-year-old still playing a high school senior) lives in Downers Grove, a town allegedly cursed, in that seniors on the cusp of graduating seem to die awful deaths. The curse isn't just something the kids whisper about, but the parents, too, seem well aware of it, so much that it gives Chrissie's mother (Helen Slater) pause for leaving her and her little brother alone for the week. 

She does though because the plot demands it.

At the urging of Chrissie's friend, Tracy, the two attend a party in the next town over where Chrissie meets Chuck (Kevin Zeggers, who at 31 is still playing high school seniors); Chuck is bad news, since every shot has him flashing smile-glares at the camera as ominous music plays. After he sexually assaults her, Chrissie pokes him in the eye like Curly and peaces out, leaving Chuck to scream and get his ass handed to him by his father, played by a pantsless Tom Arnold. 

Conflict ensues because the plot demands it.


The film's marketing is quick to point out that The Curse of Downers Grove is co-written by American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, whose bland, sardonic prose ("The suburbs are the ghettoes of the meaningless)" is all over this mess, along with his unsubtle methods for dissecting and exploring sub-cultures of society. It's desperate to put the suburbs under the microscope and reveal it for all the hidden evils and depravity that allegedly thrive beneath the surface, only it fails by not exploring this concept nearly enough, except for having high school kids act like total dicks while living in suburbia.

Derick Martini's direction and the Easton Ellis-co-written script seem to be battling for the most irritating and pretentious component of the film, and both are winning. A film whose concept is built on the grounds of a mysterious curse would rather spend time with boring, unscary, teen-rape drama, or teen boys getting in fights, than dedicate its running time to anything else. Including random scenes of something foreboding, only for one character to glance at another and say "It's the curse" seems to be as far as the film is willing to go to acknowledge it's based on an idea it completely abandons beyond cursory references to it. Where it lacks in the level of class and uniqueness presented in this year's suburban-set and far superior It Follows, it makes up for with lame and pedestrian editing techniques; i.e., inverting footage of characters and adding BUZZ noise - the ultimate effect being one cheap film-school trick away from exposing everyone's skeletons via x-ray as if this were a cartoon from the 1950s. And wait a minute, you mean to say this sequence over here shows someone in black and white, but her eyes are in color? Welcome to the “Neat Effects!” section of Shutterfly's website.


But that's not all! Quick cuts of barking dogs! Tombstones! Squawking birds! War-painted stabbing Indians! "It's the curse." Do you feel the fear?

Of course not. 

Martini is more interested in stealing quick-zoom, music-driven shots from Scorsese's playbook*, or trying to sell his film as "horror" while doing his best to circumvent any of its traditions and flat-out channel the aesthetic of Larry Clark, only to fail spectacularly. Or this might be because Easton Ellis is less interested in fleshing out his satirical look at horror and more interested in delicious, delicious irony: a quarterback gets his eye popped out; a drummer gets his wrist broken. Can you see all the futures being destroyed? Can you see that everyone is cursed? Do you even care? The script attempts to flesh out its characters beyond walking horror stereotypes, but by doing so, serves only to repeat the same tired ideas and personalities seen so many times before. If Chrissie questioning the existence of a God because bad things happen (like war!) isn't tired enough, perhaps spend some time with her smart alecky younger brother (Martin Sanjers), who has a serious crush on Chrissie's BFF and thinks the best way to express his affection for her is by leering like a pervert.

Further, the avoidance of "plot holes" are dealt with in the laziest ways possible. For instance, of course Chrissie's going to the cops to report her attempted rape. But, upon telling them the name of her would-be rapist, the two duty officers exchange a look before blatantly admitting that he's the son of a fellow officer (Tom Arnold), and hence, yeah, they're not going to help her. (Tremendous poker faces you fellows have.) Now, does this cop/dad revelation figure into the plot at a later time, and to present itself in any significant way? (Spoiler: no.) The writers just needed to plug that little hole. Chuck Sr. may now get back to drinking on the couch with no pants and using way too much profanity, not in the least bit cop-like.


As for the performances, well, director Martini is too busy peppering every few scenes with AHHH! moments to wrangle any semblance of life from his cast. Every performance is mostly terrible, ranging from bland lifelessness to complete, over-the-top unconvincingness, contributed most by the gleefully stupid appearance by Tom Arnold as Chuck's father, who appears in two scenes, both during which he's abusing his son in one way or another**. Heathcote as your lead does marginally well, unless she's providing Easton Ellis' go-to voice-over - during these points, she sounds like she's about to roll over in bed and fall back asleep. One particular monologue that may be attempting to set up a red herring for "the curse" manages the impressive feat of offering lazy exposition as shamelessly forced as it is lifelessly recited: "I've been dreaming about Indians since I was a little girl. Maybe it's because our town was built on land that was stolen from the Indians in 1832. I can't help but wonder if this has something to do with the curse...but if that were case, then all of America would be cursed. Maybe we all are." Mm, maybe. As for Kevin Zeggers as Chuck, he's way evil and way unlikable! Watch as he drinks a beer and throws the bottle aside! Watch as he injects steroids into his muscles and throws the needle aside! Watch as he screams in fury as he lifts weights! Do not trust him! He's evil!

The Curse of Downers Grove really wants to posit the one and only question it thinks matters: what is the cause of the curse? Is it supernatural, or is it caused, of all things, by teenagers' freakishly uncontrollable angst-driven sexual urges? Can fate be escaped, or is it written in the stars and destined to occur?

Say, I have a question of my own: why is this being sold as a horror film instead of the tepid Lifetime Network nonsense that it actually is?

In the film's first act, Chrissie states, "Don't try to understand everything, because some things don't make sense."

If only I'd listened.



* FYI: Zooming in on Ray Liotta snorting cocaine to hard-hitting Muddy Waters > zooming in on Kevin Zeggers snorting cocaine to a song whose lyrics are "party ova here! party ova here! party ova here!"

** If there's one sole reason to ever sit through The Curse of Downers Grove, it's to see Tom Arnold's character beating the shit out of Chuck while asking him multitudes of questions as he does so, to which his son offers the most incorrect answer possible. ("What the fuck happened to your eye?"  "Nothing!" "Can you see?" No!" "Do you know what that does to your fucking football career?"  "No, I don't know!" "They don't even hire a fucking one-eyed mascot!" "I know!" "Dammit!") Then Zeggers gets thrown into a tub. It's glorious, and the anger of Tom Arnold during this sequence nearly matches my own experienced while suffering through the entire film.

Nov 14, 2019

ROAD GAMES (1981)


Director Richard Franklin was known in his native homeland of Australia as “Australia’s Hitchcock,” and that’s not because he was a filmmaker who made notable genre fare, but because, like another noted genre filmmaker, Brian De Palma, Franklin was fascinated by Hitchcock’s techniques and sensibilities and adopted them into his own work. His most direct tie to Hitchcock was his helming of Psycho 2, a belated sequel following 18 years after Hitchcock’s landmark horror shocker. A few years later, Franklin would take a script by well-known Australian screenwriter Everett de Roche (Razorback) and bring it to life as a Rear Window-meets-road-movie hybrid, imbuing it with Hitchcock’s famous themes of paranoia and isolation, along with his use of dark humor and quirky supporting characters.

Road Games gets mentioned a lot when notable 1980s horror titles are being rattled off, especially when that conversation is based around all the horror flicks Jamie Lee Curtis did in her youth to earn the moniker “Scream Queen,” but not only is she not present in a majority of the film, the horror is actually toned down quite a bit in favor of thrills, mystery, and black humor. And despite Road Games being an Australian production which happens to feature some American actors, along with being an obvious homage to Hitchcock, the film also fits right in with ’70s American cinema, unofficially known as the paranoid thriller era. Films like The Conversation, The French Connection, Marathon Man, and more were direct results of the Nixon/Watergate scandal, and the cinematic response was one that would also soon be revitalized by The X-Files, whittled down into one core lesson: trust no one. 


The reason Road Games fits in well with this movement is that for a good portion of the film, Stacy Keach’s Quid is doing nothing more than following his paranoid instincts on what he may have witnessed. It’s not a slam dunk for him from the beginning; he’s not convinced that he’s witnessed anything nefarious, or if he is convinced, he doesn’t have enough evidence to back it up. What he does figure out pretty quickly is that law officials are no help, and all the blokes and sheilas who overhear his frantic demands for help on the bar payphone are not only not overly concerned, but they look upon him with suspicion. There’s an indirect subplot involving a worker’s strike going on in Australia which has resulted in meat becoming scarce, but also leaving natives incredibly wary of people they don’t know. Obviously this doesn’t help matters — not only is Quid American, but he’s a long-haul truck who happens to have a trailer full of meat. Simply put, no one is eager to help him.

Where Road Games falters is with its pace. The first act unloads at a purposeful but ever-intriguing pace. Through Quid’s observations, we “meet” all the other characters on the road around him, and this isn’t for throwaway comedy, but because we will cross paths with these characters again later. It’s through this observational behavior (because what else is there to do on the road besides stare straight ahead and talk to a dingo?) that Quid thinks he may have witnessed a murder — or, at least, a potential murder. Quid fixates on the maybe-killer (Grant Page), who will be personified by his dirty black hippie van for most of the film. It’s when we’re approaching the middle of the second act, after Jamie Lee has hitched Quid for a ride (her nickname is “Hitch” throughout — which serves two purposes: character nickname and Hitchcock homage), where the pace starts to slow. Keach and Curtis have reasonably good on-screen chemistry, and watching them get to know each other is charming, but once Hitch mysteriously vanishes, and Quid begins to question what’s really going on is when Road Games slows to a near halt. After having built such good will with the audience, and provided them with reasons to be as intrigued with the plot as Quid is with that dirty green van, the air is let out of all the goings-on; even as Road Games struggles to get back on track, and it eventually does, too much time is spent waiting for that to happen.


Still, what allows Road Games to speed across the finish line as an overall entertaining contribution to the genre is its identity, helped by the quirky sensibilities of Richard Franklin. Had Road Games been just another slasher flick, but plagued with the same second-act slowdown, it would be just a footnote in the genre timeline. Even though Franklin’s intent was to homage one of the horror greats using an open-road concept, it’s his likeness — far less known to American audiences — that make Road Games a film that’s not willing to be outright dismissed. It’s a flawed film for sure, and some viewers might not have the patience to spend most of their time watching a man riding around in the cab of a truck, but there’s a reason why Road Games has stuck around for so long. Equal measures of mystery, thrills, intrigue, and black humor make Road Games stand out from the rest of its ’80s colleagues, even if it doesn’t play as well as some of them.

Road Games is an offbeat title and definitely not for everyone. The Hitchcock flair is certainly present, both in construction and realization, but also in its usage of black comedy. Though its considered one of the many titles that made Jamie Lee Curtis a “Scream Queen,” her appearance lasts no more than 25 minutes, leaving Keach to carry most of the screen time. (Okay, him and his dingo.) Its pace might be too glacial for some, and its odd tone may turn off those more used to traditional genre fare, but there’s something undeniably quirky about Road Games that makes it easily watchable. 


Nov 12, 2019

THE BLOB (1988)


Ah, The Blob. A film that harkens back to that magical time in horror history when films were remade because someone had a good idea and a good approach, instead of saying, "Well, it's been five years. Let's remake it again."

Long a childhood favorite of mine, for not only terrifying me to death and keeping me away from all kinds of drains for days, but also for introducing me to my first ever horror crush, Shawnee Smith, The Blob works as well now as it did then. Normally the things that would hold back a lesser picture, including the dated (but still perfectly acceptable) special effects and the hilarious fashions, The Blob has always been good enough to surpass those shortcomings caused by the passing of time and still present a fun, nasty, gooey, and ultimately harmless good time.


You all know this one: a meteor carrying a strange jell-o substance from space (or was it?) crash lands on Planet Earth and begins gooing up its inhabitants. Only one man it seems can stop them, even though dozens try. That man is the hilariously-haired Kevin Dillon and the still-adorable Shawnee Smith (call me!).

Because of the time in which it was made, The Blob relies solely on practical and in-camera effects, only resorting to opticals for a couple scenes. (They've been trying to get a new version of The Blob off the ground for years, and once it arrives, I can only imagine the absurd amount of CGI that will be sliming across silver screens everywhere.) To tell someone who's never seen it that a space-foreign (or is it???) slime begins to suck people into itself, where it strips flesh from their bones and causes the blob to increase in size and oh by the way it's actually scary at times—the end of that conversation doesn't bode well. Because of its concept, and because it’s an ‘80s flick, it’s easy to think that The Blob is a light, silly, and inconsequential good time, but it actually has a lot in common with John Carpenter’s The Thing, in that it goes for the throat in unexpected ways and highlights some pretty grisly practical effects. The Blob not only manages to work just with its concept, but in spite of it; it also has no qualms in breaking some serious horror-film taboos. It eats a kid! A kid! Take that, kid!


A wonderful cast of character actors fill the background, including a regular of Frank Darabont (co-writer on The Blob) named Jeffrey DeMunn, who appeared in both The Shawshank Redemption as the lawyer who sends Andy Dufresne to his fate, and one of the guards in The Green Mile. Oh, he also played Dale in The Walking Dead. Perhaps you've heard of it. And perhaps you knew he'd been acting for thirty years before he played a filthy man in a bucket hat for which he'll now always be known (on Twitter). (Bitter hipster fan-boy rant over.)

The Blob is a classic. It's rare to say that a remake of something is a classic, and also bests the original. But this edition of The Blob is, and has. 


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]