Sep 24, 2020

FOUR FROM HITCHCOCK

Throughout his career, Alfred Hitchcock directed 55 feature films, along with numerous shorts and documentaries. That’s not a bad haul, nor a bad legacy to leave behind to the world. Having said that, even the most ardent film fan couldn’t possibly name you half of his films in total. In fact, if you look at his filmography starting from the beginning, it would take you seventeen films before arriving at 1935’s The 39 Steps, really the first film, chronologically, that still enjoys discussion to this day. I’m not picking on Hitchcock, though – this is more just a reminder of the reality. Not a single director has a flawless track record when it comes to output (and if the names Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino just flashed in your mind as a challenge to that, I’m laughing at you). But by now, Hitchcock has reached legendary status, and not just from the strong crop of films he left behind: there’s his larger than life persona as a morbid spokesman for his work; there’s his reputation for being a hard-nosed director unwilling to compromise his vision; and there’s also his penchant for victimizing his cast for reasons both professional and personal. 

Because of his infamy, he’s achieved mythic status, and as such, we assume everything he touched shocked audiences, changed cinema, and left an indelible mark. Not quite. If you asked that same film fan from before to name ten Hitchcock films, undoubtedly these four titles would be among them: Rear WindowVertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. They are sacrosanct, legendary, backbones of their respective genres, and sterling examples of a director fully in control of his talents and resources. 

Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is in the midst of recuperating from a broken ankle and is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. Sheer boredom leads him to watching his neighbors across his apartment complex’s shared courtyard, keeping up to date on the various comings, goings, and personal dramas unfolding in everyone’s tiny homes. It’s through this passive observing that L.B. begins to suspect that one particular neighbor across the way may have murdered his wife. With the assistance of his “girlfriend” Lisa (Grace Kelly), who L.B. uses as a mobile quasi-avatar, they investigate to see if L.B. really does live across the courtyard from a murderer.

Like the other films in this set, Rear Window would inadvertently create an oft visited trope in genre cinema going forward, either through presentation or in conception – in this case, the idea of the voyeur, and of large open windows serving as movie screens that depict the actions of those inside their own bubble, generally unaware of their being watched…or sometimes being complicit in their “performances.” John Carpenter would riff on this concept with a clever reversal in his 1980 television movie Someone’sWatching Me! with Lauren Hutton and soon to be wife/ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau. Australian filmmaker Richard Franklin, who would eventually helm the extremely undervalued Psycho II, would make a road-set homage with Road Games with Stacy Keach alongside a post-Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Psycho’s Janet Leigh). Finally, following his accident that left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, Christopher Reeve would produce and star in a Rear Window remake in the late ‘90s for ABC, with Daryl Hannah taking on the Grace Kelly role of the adventurous troublemaker. It was…fine. Also like the other films in this set, Rear Window is one of many Hitchcock films that sees a pretty blonde girl (Hitch’s fave) really going above and beyond to make an impotent or uninterested man commit to her beyond mere petty flirtations and casual trysts. With L.B. prone and imprisoned in his wheelchair, he’s powerless to stop Lisa as she decides to take full control of the situation and break into the suspected murderer’s apartment in order to validate L.B.’s beliefs – and this after the film opens with Lisa basically nagging L.B. to marry her, which he declines with reasoning that makes the very concept sound entirely objectionable despite the fact that he’s twenty years older, has the physique of a snapped rubber band, and he’d be incredibly lucky to have her.

A near-death experience leaves former police detective John Ferguson (a returning Stewart) with acrophobia, a debilitating fear of heights, and very retired. An old acquittance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), hires him out of the blue to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who believes that she’s the reincarnation of another deceased woman named Carlotta. Being we’re in Hitchcock territory, after Ferguson begins his reconnaissance, it doesn’t take long for him to discover, whether or not Elster’s beliefs have any merit, that he’s definitely not on a routine job. And he couldn’t possibly have anticipated how obsessed with Madeleine he would become.

At 130 minutes, Vertigo is one of Hitchcock’s longer features, and most of that running time is filled with heavy exposition and twisting/turning developments that, at times, feel almost more appropriate for a James Bond caper mixed with brooding noir. Hitchcock once again reigns over his use of cinematography to deeply unsettle his audience, using camera tricks and extreme points of view to take away our balance and feeling of stability. The opening scene has Stewart’s Ferguson hanging for dear life from the top of a very tall building as the gutter he’s grasping slowly tears off the wall, and as a nearby officer reaches down to help him, the poor schlub slips and plummets to his death – in just one sequence, both Ferguson and the audience confront the ultimate fear: not just impending death, but our front-row view of our only salvation being whisked away.


Poor Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a bunch of cash in hopes of buying the domestic freedom of her secret beau, Sam (John Gavin), and blows town. After stopping at a desolate roadside motel, she leaves the worst Yelp review in Bates Motel history, causing perfectionist Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) to respond in…let’s call it an exaggerated manner.

Look, no one needs the plot breakdown of Psycho; considering it’s widely considered Hitchcock’s crowning achievement as a director (these things are subject to opinion, of course, but…it is), Psycho is a masterclass in filmmaking in just about every way – from expert casting (Martin Balsam!) to maximizing low budget filmmaking (the crew was almost entirely comprised of Alfred Hitchcock Presents personnel) to wrenching tension out of every scene through the use of slow-moving cinematography and off-putting angles. Psycho should be taught in film classes exclusively for its use of the camera. There’s the slow opening push into Marion and Sam’s hotel room window (which, while possibly borrowed from 1955’s Dementia aka Daughter of Horror, is still expertly crafted), and obviously there’s also that whole shower-scene thing, but my favorite shot comes as the camera slowly pushes in on Norman standing by the side of the swamp and listening in the dark as Sam calls out for him back at the motel. It’s chilling and perfectly engineered. Honestly, I could go on and on about the 1960 classic that inspired four sequels, a (failed) television show, a remake, another successful television show, the next generation of filmmakers (Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, Richard Franklin, Brad Anderson), and a perpetual mark on the genre, not to mention the permanent ruination of the sense of security one feels while taking a shower in a motel room…but we all know this already. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano improve the well written source material in every way. Stefano’s screenplay changes Norman Bates from a monstrous killer to a sympathetic figure, and Hitchcock had the forward-thinking idea of casting someone with charming, boy-next-door features instead of someone who more closely matched the unsightly, stocky, balding, and frustrated virgin present in the novel. Even the shower scene is a complete rebuilding, in which Marion Crane’s demise is limited to a few sentences: “Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher's knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”

Loosely based on the 1952 short story by Daphne Du Maurier, Hitchcock’s adaption depicts a world being overtaken by angry hordes of birds, atypically flocking together in every species to wage an unexplained revenge against mankind – presumably for being the earth-raping assholes we always are. One of many folks caught in the swarm are Melanie (Tippi Hedren), who’s attempting to charm her way into the life of Mitch (Rod Taylor), who lives in an isolated coastal home. The attacks from the bloodthirsty birds increasingly mount until they find themselves trapped in Rod’s house and fending off the birds that manage to find their way in. Who will survive, and what will be pecked from them?

Truth be told, and in spite of its (deserved) reputation, The Birds is a mixed bag. As a youngin’ obsessed with JAWS and all the animals-run-amok films that it introduced me to, I used to consider The Birds my favorite Hitchcock film, but later viewings re-introduced me to a kind of silly film that’s actually at its best when the birds aren’t on screen (school playground scene notwithstanding, because that’s the kind of thing Hitchcock did so well). However, once the opticals of marauding flocks are overlain into the sky and birds both real and dummy are being thrown into Tippi Hedren’s face, it all seems pretty nonsensical. It’s also hard to mentally dismiss how much Hitchcock mistreated Hedren on set, which was the stuff of Hollywood legend for years before HBO’s The Girl made it mainstream knowledge in the earliest beginnings of the #MeToo movement.

Alfred Hitchcock is part of cinema history, taught in universities and film schools, still the subject of modern documentaries like the Psycho-deconstructing 78/52, and conjured in the modern descriptor “Hitchcockian.” The four films above are the top reasons why. Even if Hitchcock had directed four or four hundred films throughout his life, the merits alone of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds would’ve been more than enough to secure his legacy. 

Sep 22, 2020

DEAD DICKS (2019)


If David Cronenberg had a sense of humor, he would’ve made something like Dead Dicks. Pushing aside, of course, the obvious connection that Dead Dicks is a Canadian genre production, I’m actually focusing more on the large, otherworldly, interdimensional vagina that’s growing out of the apartment wall modeled after the opening that protrudes from James Woods in Cronenberg’s Videodrome, but which acts like Phantasm’s space gate. In the same way that the Tall Man sees his comeuppance throughout the Phantasm series and a fresh copy of the Tall Man re-enters the world through said space gate, removes his corpse, and takes over for him from there, Richard (Heston Horwin) is caught in a never-ending cycle where he’s desperate to end his own life inside his cramped apartment, but each time he does, a fresh copy of him is borne from this giant vaginal opening in his bedroom.

Written and directed by first-time feature directors Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer, Dead Dicks is a wild way to break onto the scene, and that it’s being distributed by Philadelphia label Artsploitation Films is both a minor victory for the filmmakers and a way of labeling Dead Dicks as certainly outside the norm. In case you’re unfamiliar with the label (and you should really dive deep into their catalog if you are), Artsploitation Films releases uncompromising international titles that defy genre conventions and will never be caught dead screening at your local multiplex. While some of their titles veer way outside normality at the expense of the story being told, their most successful titles are those that play with strange and wild ideas while infusing their stories with real, relatable, emotional backbones that make such wild ideas wholly approachable. Germany’s Der Samurai, a previous acquisition from the label, is a perfect example of this balance (and, honestly, is a favorite of my own), and Dead Dicks eagerly follows in its footsteps. A little bit horror, science fiction, comedy, and drama, Dead Dicks is obviously hard to categorize. What it very much is, however, is about something – in this case, mental illness, depression, suicide, and how those things can affect a family that’s not prepared to deal with it. Bearing the brunt of Richie’s burden is his sister, Becca (Jillian Harris), who has spent her adult life trying to offer support to her sullen brother but feels her patience running out and wanting nothing more than to, for the first time, focus on her own life. The giant vagina and an apartment filled with copies of Richie’s dead body certainly puts the kibosh on that.

Based on the collection of genres that it bandies about, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dead Dicks’ tone gets a little schizophrenic at times, exacerbated by inconsistencies with how “serious” the characters are taking the very surreal events of the story during certain times. Through a weakness in the writing or a strange choice to convey Becca’s initial ambivalence over Richie’s shocking reveal, it’s hard to tell, and harder still, whether or not to determine if this was intentional to maintain the film’s point about a family’s failure to notice the warning signs about suicidal behavior, but once we move beyond this initial point, the amount of seriousness over the siblings’ surreal new reality begin to take centerstage, which allows for moments of perfect humor to balance out the story’s darker themes. Indeed, unlike most genre films, Dead Dicks’ second act is the most effective in the film, allowing the audience to settle into the film’s surreal concept and also allowing them to find humor in the situation. (There’s a pretty great moment when Richie looks down at one of his own dead bodies and laughs immaturely at how it looks – you’ll have to see the film to understand why.)

Horwin and Harris are capable leads, with Horwin having to do much of the emotional work. He proves himself highly capable of carrying such heaviness in his performance even in the midst of the R-rated cartoon his life has become, while Harris struggles at times to offer a consistent performance. I wouldn’t ever describe her role as being poorly presented, but she seems more comfortable with the smaller moments than the ones dependent on dramatic bravado. (Her comedic timing, however, is perfect.) Still, being that we’re dealing with low budget filmmaking, the ensemble is up to the task in ways you might not expect from reading the plot synopsis, and that goes for every performer. In keeping with the wackiness, the last few moments of Dead Dicks are, to be honest, befuddling, and I’m not sure how the ending will land with most viewers (I’m still working it around in my head), but one thing is for sure: if the out-there breakdown of Dead Dicks’ plot appeals to the part of you that’s become bored with mainstream genre filmmaking, then you’re already the intended audience and likely more willing to put the extra work into determining what it all means. If you can and do, be sure to drop me a line and tell me because I’m still in the dark.

Dead Dicks is now on Blu-ray and DVD from Artsploitation Films.

Sep 20, 2020

HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981)

Second only to Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci is likely Italy’s most infamous and highly regarded director of horror, murder, and the macabre. Though Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling is considered to be the director’s masterpiece, it never achieved the same amount of adoration as Argento’s own masterpiece, Suspiria. Having said that, the bulk of each director’s filmography has very different goals. While Argento was more interested in sexualized murder-mysteries, Fulci, though his earlier work explored similar material, eventually became indebted to the “monster” sub-genre. Perhaps best known as having directed the famous unofficial Dawn of the Dead sequel Zombie, he also helmed what’s known as the unofficial “Gates of Hell” trilogy. Not quite zombie movies, City of the Living Dead aka The Gates of Hell (1980), The Beyond (1981), and House by the Cemetery (1981) tread familiar ground about a remote or infamous location concealing a literal doorway to hell that becomes inadvertently open, unleashing sentries of the dead to kill in extremely gruesome ways. This theme and the presence of lead Catriona MacColl in all three entries are the sole ties that bind them together, along with Fulci’s unrelenting dedication to executing the goriest and most surreal deaths you’re likely to see in Italian horror.

As usual with “trilogies,” every fan has his or her own favorite (I’ve always been partial to City of the Living Dead, even with its hilariously nonsensical and unfinished ending), so I honestly don’t know where House by the Cemetery lands with fans. I do know that it’s among the director’s most unintentionally amusing, mostly thanks to the character of Bob (Giovanni Frezza), an unnaturally cherubic looking young child dubbed in post-production by what sounds suspiciously like a grown woman putting on a “kid’s” voice. A line of dialogue as simple as “My name is Bob” shouldn’t be as funny as it is, but it’s part and parcel with how charmingly clumsy all of House by the Cemetery is. Each film in the trilogy isn’t known for its concrete and fluid storytelling (The Beyond is downright befuddling), and House by the Cemetery continues the trend by presenting a story that somehow feels both incomplete and overstuffed, seemingly propelled by the movie operating by its own rules. Zombies, ghosts, potential and otherworldly co-conspirators – Fulci is ready and willing to throw them all against the wall to see what sticks – if it does: great, and if it doesn’t: whatever. This is and always has been the Italian way: directors feeling more indebted to atmosphere and style than presenting an air-tight story with every t crossed and i dotted; so long as there is forward momentum that eventually leads the audience to the conclusion, even if they stumble through the dark for most of their journey, then that’s good enough.

As far as generating genuine terror, there are moments that work as intended, and sometimes, it would seem, in spite of the flick’s clumsiness. None of it ever makes much sense, like young Mae (Silvia Collatina) hallucinating walking nightmares of headless, bloody mannequins or the extended bat attack that goes on forever. When Bob has his final-act encounter with the walking terror that haunts his new country house, the sequence goes on for so long that the action turns from suspense to tedium before turning back to suspense again, and it’s because Fulci reinvents the sequence with added horrific imagery during a chase scene that is already horrific enough. (I’m just speculating, but this sequence seems to have informed how James Wan directed one of the creepier scenes in The Conjuring, featuring Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren cowering from a hanging specter in a farmhouse cellar.) Also helping the scary agenda: Italian horror has never shied away from not just gore, but from committing on-screen taboos. Children aren’t safe from their film’s respective boogeyman threats, and neither are the lead characters whom we are brainwashed to believe that just because their names are first in the opening credits that they’ll walk away terrified but relatively unscathed. Anyone can bite it at any time, and when it comes to Fulci, everyone normally does.

Italian films, especially horror films, have their own look, feel, and complete disregard for a cogent story. Because of this, the style is upped significantly to at-times overbearing degrees. Characters rattle off more extraneous dialogue than is necessary; the camerawork, though fluid and beautiful even when capturing moments of the grotesque, can sometimes come off as excessive. Take that, add in all the aforementioned gore, and there you go: Italian horror. There’s nothing like it, and that’s both good and bad. House by the Cemetery, for better or worse, is the prime example of that.

House by the Cemetery is now available in beautiful 4K UHD and 3-Disc Blu-ray editions.

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Sep 18, 2020

Z (2019)

[Contains minor spoilers.]

When I was a kid, I had an imaginary friend named Mr. Suit. I called him that because of the old looking clothes that hung from his tall and lanky body, completed by a matching bowler hat and a beard so thick that Grizzly Adams would’ve felt genetically deficient. I never told my parents about Mr. Suit, and I made sure never to “play” with or talk to him when they were around, because, by that time, I was already feeling a little ostracized by the other kids at school and I didn’t want to engage in any further behavior that might seem weird. You see, I somehow knew Mr. Suit was imaginary, and no one else could see or hear him, so why complicate my life even more? Still, he was my only friend, so I almost always did the things he’d tell me to – most of which were pranks, and fairly harmless. He used to make me pinch clothespins around the tail of a neighborhood cat that often wandered my small town’s backyards looking for food, or he told me to dig up large shrubs from the neighbor’s garden and plop them down in the middle of the busy road so cars would come along and plow into them in the dark. One night, very late, Mr. Suit told me to go stand next to my mother and stare at her as she slept; eventually, he said, I’d know what to do, because he would guide me. I did what he said, but after a while, no epiphany came, so I merely stood at her bedside and stared at her in the dark until she’d woken up on her own and, upon seeing me, let out a half scream of surprise. This was the most dramatic show of influence Mr. Suit ever perpetrated over me, and as time went by, he visited less and less until he never came again; I assumed he’d dismissed me as a disappointing protégé and moved onto a more promising kid. For a long time after, I questioned what Mr. Suit wanted from me until the day came when I finally understood that I was Mr. Suit, and I was the one telling myself to do these things. I wrote it off as childhood nonsense and eventually forgot about the whole thing. A few years ago, I was reading online about area serial killers and that was when I first learned about H.H. Holmes, known, infamously, as the first serial killer discovered in the United States and subject of the non-fiction book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (the adaption of which is allegedly coming from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company and possibly director Martin Scorsese). Upon seeing the last photograph taken of this murderer of 27 people before he was hung in 1896 in Philadelphia, roughly fifteen minutes away from my childhood home, I would’ve told you, without a moment’s hesitation, that this H.H. Holmes had been my childhood friend, only his name back then was Mr. Suit, and he’d slept standing up behind the curtains in my room at night while softly laughing at the funny dreams I assumed he was having, or maybe at all the weird, dangerous things he was conjuring in his imagination for me to do.

I’m obviously kidding. My point is: imaginary friends are creepy, aren’t they? And in horror, they are typically one of two things: the devilish, dangerous side of a child’s personality, or a walking entity masquerading as childhood fancy. The imaginary friend is an under-explored concept in horror, generally utilized in haunted house movies (The Conjuring, The Grudge) where it ceases being referred to as such after the first act, because by then it’s revealed that said imaginary friend is actually a trapped spirit or something much worse. Rarely does the imaginary friend concept stick around for the duration; the closest exception I can drop is, hilariously, Drop Dead Fred.

And that’s what makes co-writer/director Brandon Christensen’s Z so refreshing. Elizabeth (Keegan Connor Tracy) is one of many parents in the world who accepts the fact that her son, Josh (Jett Klyne), has an imaginary friend, this one named “Z.” Over time, however, Elizabeth begins to realize that “Z” has an unhealthy hold over her son, and may be persuading him into doing increasingly dangerous things. “Z,” also, becomes much more than imaginary, in that she begins to see him in the flesh, and with everyone else in her life, including Josh’s father, Kevin (Sean Rogerson), not experiencing the same things she is, her battle against “Z” soon becomes one she has to fight on her own.

Z seems to have picked the bones of the last ten years of supernatural fright flicks, including Lights Out, Sinister, and especially Insidious, but that’s not necessarily a complaint. The horror genre has always been cannibalistic, perpetuating itself by living off previously explored ideas. Ironically, even Insidious is a perfect example, in that it’s story of ghostly events leading a scared family to obtain the services of mystics and paranormal investigators has been lovingly borrowed from Poltergeist. On the surface level, Z is familiar territory – the peculiarly acting child and his creepy drawings, the lone parent who begins to question her sanity – but as Z plays on, it begins to forge its own identity. There’s a genuine attempt at establishing histories for our characters, which not only help us to sympathize with them, but which also provide just enough personal trauma to make us wonder if the creepy goings-on are actually the result of our lead character’s psychological break with reality instead of a surface-level supernatural infestation. 

The titular boogeyman is only spotted a handful of times, and only for a few frames. All told, “Z” appears on screen for less than three seconds across its entire running time, but what you see is genuinely unnerving. The golden rule in the haunted house sub-genre is the more you see the specter, the less effective it becomes. In that regard, Z presents its creepy figure in just the right way. (Resist all temptation to press pause on the figure, believe me.)

As a horror fan, I’m glad to see Keegan Connor Tracy enjoy a lead role, as she’s been a constant part of the genre since the 2000s, with turns in White Noise, the loony Final Destination 2, Bates Motel, and a handful of appearances on the CW’s never-ending Supernatural. (Amusingly, she was also in the direct-to-video sequel The Net 2.0, where she played a character named Z.Z.) As such, she’s well practiced as someone playing against a horrifying threat, which makes her turn as a beleaguered mother an easy and effective sell. Though she plays a familiar archetype, Z imbues Elizabeth with a history that moves the story into a more mythical and emotional direction, and thankfully, she doesn’t just play “the mother” or “the wife” – a bystander observing the action and offering a zero-hour nugget of advice that guides the hero to victory. She’s the hero, or at least she’s the only one who can vie for that role because she’s the only one who can, and when she descends into pure mania before film’s end, Tracy throws everything she has into the role with impressive dedication. That she spends the first act of the flick caring for a terminally ill mother alongside her sister, Jenna (Sara Canning), helps to both ground the movie’s wackier events and add an additional twist on the concept. In genre films, someone always dies, but in Z, someone is already in the process of dying, which helps it to feel different and poignant while basking in the cemetery of other films that came before it.

If you don’t expect a reinvention of the wheel, then give Z a fair chance. Though it makes a few of the same mistakes that its brethren often do, depending on visual effects it can’t quite afford, and with an ambiguous ending that borders on mean-spirited, Z still manages to offer a fair amount of creepy imagery, dense atmosphere, and a fresh twist on an old concept. 

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Sep 16, 2020

CASTLE ROCK: SEASON TWO (2019)


[Contains spoilers for both seasons of Castle Rock.]

If anyone deserves the shared-universe approach to a large accumulated body of work, it’s Stephen King. The author of over ninety novels and who-knows-how-many short stories and novellas has spent the last forty years creating a rich and intricate history with his many characters doing ghastly things in the fictitious town of Castle Rock. His most well-known Castle Rock-set stories include the mammoth Needful Things, his early effort The Dead Zone, and his novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, which inspired you know what.

The first season of Hulu’s Castle Rock successfully fulfilled its mission statement as being a brand new story set in the world of Stephen King’s creations, borrowing characters (or relations of characters) and giving them new conflicts to contend with. Certainly not hurting is the casting of at least one prominent actor from a previously heralded King adaption, with Carrie’s Sissy Spacek fulfilling that role, and which resulted in one of the best episodes of any television show ever (that would be “The Queen”). Overall, the first season of Castle Rock was a well-made, unusual, ambiguous, and creepy new yarn that somehow managed to capture those Stephen King vibes without the author serving as an active part of the show, as it contained the usual Kingisms we’ve come to expect from our favorite master of the morbid: the strained father/son relationship, the conspiratorial town, the secret that soon becomes public and threatens to destroy everything in its path, and, of course, the horror. It was also filled with a bevy of easter eggs – not just as they pertained to the story it was telling, but as fun quick glimpses in the background, designed for the most ardent and eagle-eyed King fan. (If the shady man-and-boy duo of Odin (Charles Jones) and Willie (Rory Culkin) weren’t meant to channel Dick Halloran and Danny Torrance from The Shining, I’ll surrender my geek card right now.)


Whereas the first season of Castle Rock relied on the mystical and the mysterious, season two backs away from that approach, vying to tell a more easily digestible story, even if its elements border on the absurd and the silly. Season two embraces the more supernatural aspects of King’s work, setting the bulk of the action in Jerusalem’s Lot. Salem’s Lot, one of King's earliest works (and my personal favorite of the author), as you might well remember, was about a small New England town being slowly overtaken by a vampire disease, started by the arrival of the unseen Kurt Barlow and his human familiar, Richard Straker (played by James Mason in Tobe Hooper's 1979 miniseries adaptation).

Season two jettisons the novel's vampire threat, replacing it with a similar kind of monstrosity that acts in much the same way: an awakened evil takes refuge in the long-abandoned Marsten house and begins to “turn” members of the town one by one, an effort led by the recently possessed Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks, House of Cards), a character who previously appeared in the Castle Rock short story “The Body,” which was adapted into Stand By Me and featured Kiefer Sutherland as the switchblade-twirling character. Meanwhile, unknowingly driving head-on into the conflict is Annie Ingalls (Lizzy Caplan, Cloverfield), real name Annie Wilkes, a nurse on the run alongside her teen daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher, The Addams Family). A freak accident strands them in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, where they end up in the dangerous cross-hairs of Ace Merrill, nephew of “Pop” Merrill (Tim Robbins, returning to the land of King following The Shawshank Redemption), seemingly the town’s Irish godfather. A confrontation between Annie and Ace leaves the latter dead, and Annie, who is on the run and can’t simply call the police, instead dumps his body beneath a local construction site, unwittingly awakening a dangerous and dormant evil that begins to transform the town.


The second season of Castle Rock experiences moments of greatness, almost entirely relegated to Annie Wilkes’ subplot, especially when it goes back in time to her childhood to shine a light on her neuroses. Normally, we like our “horror” villains free of such backstories, as we prefer the mystery to speak for itself and our imaginations to fill in the gaps of what happened to make a person so monstrous. However, the writers have provided a very rich, poignant, and emotional trip into the past, dedicating more than an episode’s worth of running time to exploring Annie’s origins, presenting her as a troubled student with a learning disability, leaving her a pariah at school and forcing her to be home-schooled by her father. The dynamic between her parents, Carl (John Hoogenakker, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan) and Chrysida (Robin Weigert, Deadwood), begins with tension and soon gives way to an unhealthy power struggle, putting further strain on an already emotionally unwell Annie. All of these bits are where season two resonate the strongest and exercise the firmest grasp of the story, and it doesn’t hurt that every actress who brings Annie to life is exemplary (Ruby Cruz as the teenager; Madison Johnson as the grade-schooler), with the top honor going to Lizzy Caplan. Normally, unless we’re dealing with the portrayal of a real person, I’m not a fan of mimicry in performance, as it can be distracting and come dangerously close to spoof, but Caplan’s take not just on Annie Wilkes, but Annie Wilkes as previously and infamously played by Kathy Bates (which netted her an Academy Award), is eerily good. She's nailed the mannerisms, the aw-shucks voice and frumpy wardrobe, and most importantly, the ability to go completely blank behind her eyes during her most extreme moments, losing herself in pure unhinged mania.

What’s interesting about this iteration of Annie Wilkes is, unlike Misery, where she imprisons a crippled man and inflicts all kinds of tortures upon him, Castle Rock turns her into the hero – but one that lacks the straightforward, one-dimensional characterization where she’s always a good person who does the right thing. Annie, actually, seldom does the right thing, falling back on lying, fraud, theft, and even murder to keep from being found out, but everything she does is in servitude toward protecting her daughter from the dangerous person or people she’s convinced are in pursuit of them. (And seeing her wield a sledgehammer again, this time to kill a bad guy, overcomes how obvious an idea it is and still manages to be strangely satisfying.)


The problem with season two is that it’s overstuffed with too many subplots, and eventually, Annie and her daughter soon become bit players in the season’s main conflict – that of the supernatural threat invading the town. Also vying for space is “Pop” Merril’s own conflicts having to do with his two adopted Somalian children, now adults: Nadia (Yusra Warsama, The Last Days on Mars) and Abdi (Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips), a doctor and a construction developer, respectively. Normally, one can overcome a chaotic season with confident and complex writing, ensuring that all subplots eventually connect and never feel forced or extraneous, but season two isn’t up to the task. There are way too many instances of coincidence, convenient timing, extreme abuses of the expression “suspension of disbelief,” and just-go-with-it moments required to drive the story forward, and while a few of these could be forgivable, there are unfortunately many more than a few. To its credit, Castle Rock has a few surprises in store that ferment the conflict and provide additional pathos for some of its characters, one of which directly ties it back to season one (which remains a point of contention, as every season was supposed to be its own unique story); however, to its discredit, every major twist is easily predictable, and though, on the surface they help to enhance the story, it does leave the ultimate impression that season two has very few tricks up its sleeve.

Much like the novel Misery and its film adaption of the same name, season two could’ve easily presented a story that skirted supernatural elements while still being horrific – one fully focused on the story of Annie Wilkes, her daughter, their complicated past, and the possible future that lay ahead for them. To be fair, Castle Rock’s goal from the beginning was to take a “what if?” fan-fiction approach to Stephen King’s universe and put certain elements on a chess board to see how things could play out, and that’s where the series has been the most successful. It is odd, however, to see a character from one of King’s more grounded novels appearing in a new story that’s outright supernatural, as it somewhat cheapens the emotional and mental journey of the Annie character and serves as more of a distraction to the path she has to eventually take, which is the one that, in the end, feels more profound.


In spite of season two’s stumble, I am eager to see what the as-of-yet unannounced season three will bring to the table (and which prominent actor from a previous King adaptation will appear – fingers crossed for Kathy Bates or Christopher Walken). There are a wealth of characters and concepts in King’s body of work to borrow (and in spite of the series’ name, being that Misery took place in Colorado, everything he’s written is up for grabs), so in a way, as long as this series keeps getting the greenlight, Castle Rock has barely scratched the surface of the stories it can tell.

Sep 14, 2020

DILLINGER (1973)


In 2009, Michael Mann had hoped to tell the definitive story of the most famous bank robber ever—Public Enemies. With Johnny Depp as the John Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his love, and Christian Bale as “G-Man” Melvin Purvis, the potential was there for not just another solid crime thriller from the director of Heat and Collateral, but for a new classic to stand alongside the great period crime films like The UntouchablesRoad To Perdition, and more. Unfortunately, Public Enemies proved to be, er...the nice way of putting it would be an underwhelming disappointment, when taking into account the pedigree involved in bringing it to the screen.  It’s hard to gauge how much of Public Enemies’ audience was aware that the story of the John Dillinger Gang had already been told nearly forty years prior, written and directed by John Millius. It’s also hard to gauge how many people realize just how much better Dillinger is. The film opens with a sequence which sees this version of John Dillinger, played by Warren Oates, ordering a bank teller to make with the cash, even though he’s at this moment breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience. “Nobody get nervous, you ain’t got nothing to fear,” he tells us. “You’re being robbed by the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is!” This opening scene alone is better than the best parts of Public Enemies.

Back-to-back viewings of Dillinger and Public Enemies will tell a pretty similar story, though in different ways, and utilizing a different timeline of events. Like Public Enemies, however, Dillinger presents its title “character” as a charming, lively, no-nonsense bank robber more interested in stealing from the federal government than from the pockets of the individual. Oates’ take on Dillinger might be a bit more true to life, presenting him as someone who takes what he wants—including women—by force. The start of the union between himself and Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) ain’t exactly romantic, as it’s more akin to a kidnapping, and the black eye she later sports is dismissed as a “marital disagreement,” The usual suspects are there: Homer Van Meter (Harry Dean Stanton), Harry Pierpont (Geoffrey Lewis), Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly), Baby Face Nelson (an irascible Richard Dreyfuss), with Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) pursuing them all.


Dillinger unfolds in a docudrama fashion similar to Roger Corman’s period Chicago gangster flick The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, relying on voice-over to provide fact-based narration that propels the narrative forward (supplied by Johnson’s Purvis). Being that more time is spent with the gang than with the FBI agents hunting them down (very little time is spent on investigatory techniques; mostly these confrontational scenes begin with the agents already at the scene), it’s easy to determine that Millius was infatuated with these criminals and less so with “the law.” 

Ben Johnson offers a gruff performance as Purvis—one punctuated with glee each time he takes the life of a criminal and lights a cigar in celebration. In fact, one of his final scenes has him promising the woman who ultimately gives up Dillinger's location that “no harm” will come to him, with Pruvis stating he wants to take him in peacefully. Whether this is something the real Purvis had promised and subsequently defaulted on, or was a cinematic creation to heighten Millius’ seeming skewering of the FBI of that time period, that moment pushes Johnson’s Purvis from a relentless law agent to an Ahab-like figure pursuing a personal vendetta. (Historically, Purvis does not fire the fatal shot.) (Also, interesting, two historical accounts slightly differ in Dillinger’s final moments—some claim he realized the agents were there and attempted to pull a gun from his coat pocket; another claims he did successfully retrieve his gun and ran into a dark alley, intent on shooting his way out of the situation. Both Dillinger and Public Enemies have him being shot down in the street with no attempts to take him alive. This, likely, leans closer to history than what “history” claims.)


Dillinger’s post-Little Bohemia shootout finale takes a bit more time to draw to a conclusion, as we see each of the Dillinger Gang’s surviving members disperse and attempt to elude authorities, and it slows the film’s pace somewhat, but the before mentioned theater assassination punctuates the film and allows it to end on a somewhat somber (and violent) note. (The whole film, in fact, boasts much more violence than Public Enemies—with no cheap CGI blood to offend the eye.)

The John Dillinger Gang story has been told numerous times already, and it’s safe to assume Public Enemies won’t be the final word on the subject, all the Depps and Bales notwithstanding. Dillinger, however and so far, is the best attempt. Historical inaccuracies and somewhat broad character archetypes aside, it’s a captivating, violent, well-made, and mostly accurate account on the John Dillinger Gang—the best there is.


Sep 12, 2020

AMERICAN RICKSHAW (1989)


During the finale of American Rickshaw, which takes place in a television studio, a producer in the control room looks out on the events unfolding on the stage – where Donald Pleasence’s Reverend Mortom is snorting uncontrollably like a pig and the stage’s television screens at his back are showing a hijacked transmission of a youthful Chinese woman gleefully taking it all in – and then looks to his team in pure dismay as he demands, “Will somebody tell me what’s going on?”

That right there sums up the experience of watching American Rickshaw.

Released in 1989, and also known as American Tiger (a title that makes a bit more sense), American Rickshaw was directed by cult Italian director Sergio Martino, who, among many other films, had made the classic gialli All The Colors Of The Dark and The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh. Following the announcement of American Rickshaw making its Blu-ray debut some time ago, I was aware of this. I recognized the name and thought, in my unending quest to see every Italian curiosity, “Well now I have to see this.” 


Over the following months, however, I’d forgotten about Martino’s connection, and when my screener of American Rickshaw arrived, I’d tentatively given the disc a spin, assuming it was a random title made by a random American director with no real recognition. When the credits rolled, I switched to the special features and saw the name of Sergio Martino, and that rediscovered revelation made what I had just watched even stranger.

There’s one word to describe American Rickshaw, and it’s this: baffling. From the opening moments where an elderly Chinese woman (Michi Kobi) rests on a bench in the thick of a rainstorm, and random American rickshaw driver (Mitch Gaylord) stops to pick her up, and as she stares at him with a smile reserved only for lovers, you are already baffled. Who is this woman? Does she know this young man? Does he know her? Fucking rickshaws in Miami?

And you’re off and running, and not even five minutes in!


American Rickshaw is a complete and total mystery – not just from understanding the movie’s living-thing plot, but also trying to figure out how the hell this thing got made in the first place. Because of its try-anything kitchen-sink approach, American Rickshaw seems like ideal double-feature fodder alongside John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China – not just because of the superficial Chinese connection, or that it’s a weird, weird twist on the Indiana Jones format, but because it’s a mishmash of half-a-dozen different genres with none of them taking centerstage and allowing a viewer to say, “Oh, well, it’s primarily X.” American Rickshaw has it all: horror, mystical fantasy, intrigue, action, noir, and lastly, unlike Big Trouble In Little China, not a single goddamn joke. And unlike Big Trouble In Little China, where you at least had recognizable faces like Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong taking you by the hand and leading you down into the depths of a studio release, the only person you’ve ever heard of in American Rickshaw is, ironically, another Carpenter connection, Donald Pleasence…but, if you’ve seen a good portion of his output from the mid-‘80s and up until his death in 1995, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe. 

At this point in his career, even though the Halloween series was proving to be his mainstream bread and butter, Pleasence said yes to everything that came his way. In American Rickshaw, he plays another Sam – this one a television evangelist doing his usual amount of spitting, proselytizing, and money grubbing. It somewhat recalls his role as The President in Escape From New York, only this time Pleasence really goes for it, embracing the curiosities of playing a villainous caricature falsely championing the word of God to enhance his personal worth. He relishes in playing a scumbag, and he’s very good.


Native Italian productions have their own feel, but so do Italian productions that are filmed in America using American crews. The aloofness and clumsiness of the Italian sensibility is still present, only it’s been filtered through the American aesthetic, presenting the final product as glossy, bright, and very Hollywoody. Umberto Lenzi’s Welcome To Spring Break aka Nightmare Beach, a slasher also set and filmed in Florida, is a perfect example. Italian films play by their own rules, the biggest being: it doesn’t matter if the story is illogical. The story might not even make sense to the filmmakers, and as Dario Argento himself has said in the past, it’s less about the story making sense and more about your immersion in the story itself, and the collection of scenes and images that connect them all together. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end; there’s a hero, a villain, and a conflict; there’s danger, terror, violence, and sexytime. To quote Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis, what more do you need?

American Rickshaw and Luciano Onetti’s Abrakadabra, the third in a kinda-trilogy of very stylish and faithfully rendered giallomages that began with Sonno Profondo and Francesca, are the debut releases from Cauldron Films. They are a good sign of things to come from the label; I know for sure I’m eager to see what comes next.


American Rickshaw and Abrakadabra are now available through Diabolik DVD.

Sep 10, 2020

VHYES (2019)



I tend to avoid falling victim to trends – not because I’m the rebellious hipster type, but because I genuinely don’t understand most of them and feel like even more of an outlier because of it. (I still don’t know what fidget spinners are and I never want to.) But this rebirth of fondness for the VHS movement and everything that comes from that beautiful ‘80s time period? Yes. It’s mine, and I want it. I want the big hair and the scrolling VHS lines and the keyboard synth and all the dumb real-world-blindness that came from kids piling into jeeps for trips to the beach or bowling alley instead of staring at the constant barrage of bad news on their phones and growing more and more despondent because of it.

This fondness for everything ‘80s began rolling in during the early 2000s with filmmakers designing throwback horror films to honor that long-lost decade of Giorgio Moroder, cocaine, and the Paramount era of Friday the 13th. Whether it was a fondness for a bygone era, or a necessary escape to a less traumatic time, who knows, but we’ve been going back in time more and more as the years bleed into each other, and that suits me just fine, being that, in case you haven’t noticed, 2020 and the several years before that have really, really sucked.


Most of this time traveling seems to have revolved around the horror genre in one way or another, be it low-budget indie films (House of the Devil, It Follows), mainstream Netflix content (Stranger Things), or the music scene, which has seen the post-Daft Punk explosion of dark-dwelling synthwave artists like Carpenter Brut, Perturbator, and Dance of the Dead. VHYes, written and directed by Jack Henry Robbins (the offspring of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, who both cameo in extremely odd but hilarious ways), seems to know this. Even though VHYes is a comedy for most of its running time, there are constant bases being touched in the horror world, be it the science-fiction (and chastely presented) porn parody about three Swedish lesbian aliens, or the true-crime tale of the Witches Coven, which ended with a sorority house burning down following a mysterious event. Also, given VHYes’s presentation as a VHS tape of random television bits and camcorder hijinks being accidentally recorded over a young boy’s parents’ wedding tape, there is a “found footage” element that comes into play – subtly at first, and then much more prominently towards the conclusion of the film, at which point VHYes becomes less of an amusing, quirky, and lighthearted comedy and more of an abstract, nightmarish, and even horrific descent into pure terror and purer heartache.

VHYes, in case you weren’t able to pick up on this, isn’t presented as a straightforward narrative, but that’s not to say there isn’t a forward-moving narrative that connects all the different skits in a meaningful way. (Said skits feature the likes of Thomas Lennon, Mark Proksch, an absolutely scene-stealing Kerri Kenney, and many more.) You’re not hit over the head with this narrative either, and that’s VHYes’s biggest accomplishment, at least from the point of view of someone who absolutely detests being spoon-fed lazy exposition by films that assume its own audience is too stupid to follow along. If your audience is perceptive enough and wants to do the work to piece it together, VHYes offers you just enough to give you a glimpse of what life and domesticity look like when people think no one is looking. 


If you want to get really analytical, VHYes plays out almost like a commentary on social media – a skewering of the feelings of inadequacy you feel when so many of your e-friends are purporting to lead these lives where they’re sky-diving in Hawaii and riding camels in Morocco and all the other bullshit things they’re lying about. Like social media, the characters in VHYes act a certain way when the camera is on them, but when they think it’s not, they’re lost in moments of self-reflection and existential helplessness. In the modern age, we post funny videos and memes and jokes on our social media accounts in an effort to present the illusion that everything is fine, but meanwhile, on our end of the screen that no one sees but us, we’re sobbing. In VHYes, a quick scene of a woman sitting at a breakfast nook by herself and sipping coffee while lost in some dreadful thought conveys more meaning and honesty than when that same woman is capering and grinning after she sees the little red light glowing near the camera lens. We live two lives, VHYes is saying – the one we want people to see, and the truth.

With VHSYES, your mileage with vary, as they say on Internet. For this reviewer, I laughed from beginning to end – and when I wasn’t laughing, it’s because I was lost down the unexpected rabbit hole of adolescent pain, confusion, and sometimes pure terror. Just as the film intended.


VHYes is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Oscilloscope. I cannot recommend it enough.

Sep 8, 2020

SOME SORT OF ANIMAL: ‘THE HILLS HAVE EYES’ (1977)


In the horror film documentary The American Nightmare, Wes Craven talked about what it was like being in the presence of a “dangerous filmmaker.” What that meant was to be watching a film, directed by said filmmaker, that was willing to do anything — include any taboo — to unsettle the audience. In context, Craven was talking about his colleague Tobe Hooper and his Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but he easily could have been talking about himself. Hitting the ground running as a soon-to-be-legendary horror director with his first film, The Last House on the Left still remains the most controversial title in his career — one that features an extended rape sequence of a young girl, and which leads her parents to take bloody revenge. Craven followed up five years later (but in between, directed a softcore porn film about incest under the pseudonym Abe Snakes) with The Hills Have Eyes, semi-based on a true story, and which reined in (slightly) the disturbing shocks of The Last House on the Left while exploring similar territory: how do the civilized react when facing an uncivilized threat?

Based on the infamous Sawney Bean clan — a cannibalistic family who lived in a cave in the dusty west and who preyed on weary travelers before they were caught and tortured to death “for justice,” The Hills Have Eyes follows that concept beat-for-beat. A family on vacation takes a shortcut (no!) through abandoned desert land previously used by the government for atomic bomb testing and run afoul of cannibal mutants who like to eat people. And, like the history that inspired it, The Hills Have Eyes asks: at what point do the “good” people, forced to do what they think is right, become just as vicious as those victimizing them?


Hearing Craven speak of dangerous filmmakers conjures images of his first two films; and when it comes to The Hills Have Eyes, following the cannibal clan’s first attack on the sitting-duck family, during which one of their members is raped, and her baby taken, you realize that Craven is one of those dangerous filmmakers about which he muses. At that moment, the audience are terrified to see what becomes of the stolen child. Based on what they have seen up to this point, they throw in the towel and readily believe they are in the presence of a filmmaker who will do anything to shock them. The baby, in a real or unrealized way, becomes the focal point that binds the two families together — the only “innocent” one among them, both families are willing to do anything to possess her, and both for very different reasons.

Compared to The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes is more polished, and seems intent on telling a more accessible story. (I said “compared to,” mind you.) Having said that, The Hills Have Eyes is still an ugly film — one that’s willing to strive for certain “dangerous” goals, and show you a group of people who are willing to do anything to survive, including a heartbreaking scene where they’re forced to use one of their departed family members as bait for the cannibal family clan hunting them.


But Craven also wants you to consider the source of evil, and The Hills Have Eyes asks the question in reverse. A good family turns to evil to fight off their attackers; the attackers are forced to evil once their land becomes contaminated by government testing; and being that this was a late ’70s film, the recently ended Vietnam War was still weighing heavily on everyone’s minds — including filmmakers — so at what point does the government become evil while committing it in the name of good? The Hills Have Eyes suggests that the creation of evil is on an endless loop: what is evil will corrupt that which is good, and that former good will go on to corrupt, etc., until nothing good is left.

The Hills Have Eyes bares every bit of its limited budget, from its single shooting location, to its not-so-seasoned actors (including an early on-screen appearance from the most famous mom in cinema history, Dee Wallace of E.T., Cujo, and The Howling), to its filmmaker still honing his skills with the written word and behind the camera. The Hills Have Eyes may ride on a simple concept, but it asks a complicated question — one that filmmakers have been trying to answer since it was unleashed upon audiences forty years ago.

The Hills Have Eyes would go on to accumulate one sequel (which is infamously bad — I’ve somehow never managed to see it, despite it featuring a flashback experienced by a dog) and one very credible, if not superior, Craven-produced remake (which would inspire its own terrible sequel written by Craven and his son), along with a metric ton of rip-offs. Despite the series’ collection of strongpoints or shortcomings, none of them contained that element of danger of which Craven originally spoke. In that regard, The Hills Have Eyes has taken to the desert utterly alone.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Sep 6, 2020

FORCE OF NATURE (2020)



By now, whether we want to know or not, it’s become depressingly clear the industry that produces the movies we love, which enables us to lose ourselves in worlds of fantasy and engage with other like-minded movie fans, is filled with closets, and those closets are filled with skeletons, and those skeletons are hideous. Some of the most revered people in Hollywood have had their falls from grace become very public, becoming a hashtag on Twitter or a criminal charge that eventually leads to litigation. Sometimes these people escape mostly unscathed, and after a few years of chemical and reputational rehab, they can return to us and re-obtain both greatness and the respect from audiences and colleagues they lost. For others, their past misdeeds seem damn near unshakable, and no matter how many apology tours they make and teachable moments they profess to learn and movies they make to widen the time between their unfortunate past and their hopeful present, those misdeeds won’t vanquish. I speak, of course, of Mel Gibson.

For the record, I hate having to include this journey back down Shitty Memory Lane, and normally I abhor any other article or review that feels the need to shoehorn Gibson’s past misdeeds into said article or review and make it a talking point. Separate the artist from the art, as people often say, and ideally, that’s the way it should be. After all, Polanski still gets to make films that win Academy Awards, and Robert Downey Jr. still gets to play Iron Man 37 times and make 37 billion dollars at the box office. (For the record, I’m not equating them for their past misdeeds, as they're not even in the same league. I’m more pointing out that our favorite artists have engaged in varying degrees of terrible behavior and should be judged accordingly.) Which brings me back to Mel Gibson, and his newest endeavor as an actor, Force of Nature, which also brings me to my point: had Gibson not so dramatically, offensively, and disturbingly fallen from grace a decade ago, there’s no way in bloody hell he’d be appearing in something so ham-fistedly stupid and incompetently made as Force of Nature. Somehow directed by Michael Polish, who developed somewhat of a small, underground following after his two quiet and quirky indy dramas, Twin Falls Idaho and Northfork, Force of Nature feels like a script that would’ve been politely rejected by Gibson somewhere in the late ‘90s following his string of his warmly received thrillers Ransom and Conspiracy Theory. The reason I say that is they already made this movie in the late ’90s. Hard Rain, with Christian Slater, Morgan Freeman (his first of what would be many forays into mediocre genre entertainment), and the crazy Quaid brother, became legendary during its production and following its release because every single person creatively involved never missed a chance to describe how miserable a time they had making it. As far as’90s action flicks that don’t star Van Damme go, it was...a movie. The genre was kinda on its way out by then and would soon be revamped by The Matrix and Universal’s long-running Cars Go Fast series, and when genres die for a little, they go out neither with a whimper nor a bang, but a long and sustained whine that you wish would just shut the fuck up. That’s where stuff like Force of Nature belongs.


Emile Hirsch plays a cop named Cardillo too young to be burned out and cynical, but we know he’s burned out and cynical because he discourages his new partner, Jess (Stephanie Cayo), from responding to calls on the police band and also says “fuck” a lot. Following a meat-related disturbance call at a local grocery store (I’m not lying), Cardillo crosses paths with Gibson’s retired cop, Ray, who seems to be dying of cough and not that likeable. The Boston accent he’s trying on and the stories he tells about being a cop that don’t exactly paint his past in the best light immediately establishes that he’s going to be stubborn, violent, and tough as nails. You also know that he’s an asshole, because at one point he mutters to himself, “I’m such an asshole.” In the face of a growing hurricane, Cardillo and Jess force-evacuate Ray from his apartment and naturally run afoul of some pretty bad men, led by John “the Baptist” (David Zayas, playing a villain almost as boring as the one he played in The Expendables), attempting to pull off a heist of some rare black-market artwork. Naturally, Cardillo, Jess, and Ray are the only ones who can intervene, save the day, uphold the rule of law, and yadda yadda yadda – rest assured, had Gibson said no to this movie like he should’ve, Force of Nature would’ve been a Nicolas Cage vehicle through and through, because that’s exactly the kind of thing you’re getting.

The script is dreadful, finding ways to split up all the different occupants of the Puerto Rican apartment building where the majority of the film unfolds, which means that – yep, Gibson’s face prominently displayed on the cover isn’t as prominent as his role in the movie – leaving the film’s other bland characters to have heart-to-heart conversations about sad things which is supposed to make them feel like real people. The machinations of these well-worn tragedies feel so trite that you halfway expect Gibson to break down in a sad monologue about that one time on the force when he accidentally shot a kid and he’s been looking for redemption ever since. That doesn’t happen. Instead, Hirsch’s Cardillo takes the reins of the tragic backstory, which comes damn close to killing a kid, while Gibson’s Ray mutters about being poisoned by his own shit (literally), hence all the coughing. Meanwhile, in another apartment, a man named Griffin (William Catlett) is recovering from the wounds inflicted by his real lion named Janet he keeps locked in his closet and being cared for by Bergkamp (Jorge Luis Ramos), who may or may not be an escaped Nazi, and if you’re reading all that and thinking, “how on earth could Force of Nature be boring?,” well, my friend, that’s because you haven’t seen Force of Nature. (And if you think Janet the lion doesn’t figure into the bad guy’s comeuppance at the end, you’ve never seen a movie in your life.)


One would be tempted to think, and I wouldn’t blame them because I was hoping for this too, that Force of Nature might be good, at the very least, for watching Mel Gibson be old and irascible and shoot lots of bad guys in violent ways. While that does happen, it doesn’t happen nearly enough to make the overall experience any more than tolerable. Not as engaging or suspenseful as Dragged Across Concrete, nor at least as consistently if vapidly entertaining As Blood Father, Force of Nature, let’s hope, is the worst movie Gibson makes between now and the end of his career. Whether or not he deserves better than something like this kind of dismissible bilge is for you to debate, but what I can say, conclusively, is that audiences definitely deserved better.

FYI, the 1999 Sandra Bullock movie Forces of Nature is currently available via HBO On Demand. I’ve never seen it, but it’s gotta be better than this.