Apr 16, 2021

SILVER BULLET (1985)

In the pantheon of Stephen King adaptations, Silver Bullet never garnered much respect, which is something I can and can’t understand. Based on his novella “Cycle of the Werewolf” (King also wrote the screenplay), Silver Bullet was the seventh feature film baring King’s name to hit theaters in the decade since his first novel, Carrie, was published. Following 1983’s trifecta of Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Christine came the forgettable Firestarter and Children of the Corn the next year. Silver Bullet and Stand By Me were released back-to-back in 1985 and 1986, respectively, and despite the latter being a coming-of-age drama, the pair of films actually feel spiritually joined. Both are made with that hazy, somewhat overblown light, presenting the films as memories recollected much later on in life. That Silver Bullet is narrated by an adult version of Marty’s sister, Jane (Megan Follows), lends this the additional sense of nostalgia that gives the flick most of its power, which also echoes Richard Dreyfuss’ narration in Stand By Me. Finally, both films are set in idealistic, Bradburian places and times, though both are actually about the youth overcoming their childhoods and acknowledging their mortality. 

Silver Bullet is the sole feature film credit for director Daniel Attias, who has otherwise worked in prominent television over the last 20 years (and who lent a directorial hand during the first season of Hulu’s Stephen King series Castle Rock, which is pretty cool). He approaches Silver Bullet as if it were a childhood drama that just so happens to feature horrific and fantastical elements; there’s a heavy emphasis on Marty’s (Cory Haim) feeling of being an outlier not just because he’s wheelchair bound, but because, as typical in conflicts where a kid knows of danger, no one believes him. (Silver Bullet was nearly directed by Phantasm director Don Coscarelli, and it’s interesting to speculate what his version would have looked like, especially when noting that the original Phantasm shares many of its themes, chief among them a quasi-outcast youth fighting against a supernatural force in his town.) 

There’s a subtle and purposeful somber tone throughout, which is heightened by its musical score from composer Jay Chattaway; he, also, approaches many scenes where creeping sustained strings would be more appropriate, but where he instead relies on melancholy tones. Attias stages some excellent sequences—of suspense, when Reverend Lowe (an excellent Everett McGill) approaches young Marty trapped in a covered bridge, or corners Jane in his garage; and drama, like the emotional outburst of Herb Kincaid (Kent Broadhurst), whose son was killed by the werewolf, that brings an entire rowdy bar to silence, and who, in just two heartbreaking scenes, absolutely steals the entire film from everyone else. 

King’s screenplay is mostly solid, turning his somewhat unorthodox short story into a more streamlined narrative, though it does feel like there are some leaps in logic at times, along with some unexplored opportunities. Once reports of townspeople being found mutilated by a wild animal begin circulating, Marty makes the leap to pinning the blame on a werewolf a bit too abruptly. (It’s also unlikely that the wheelchair-bound Marty would throw caution to the wind, following a “don’t let the terrorists win”-like conversation with his boozing trainwreck Uncle Red (Gary Busey), and decide to sneak out in the middle of the night to set off fireworks and hoot and holler about it, all while still believing there’s a murderous werewolf somewhere in the night.) And when it’s eventually revealed that the werewolf is none other than Reverend Lowe, the film very subtly hints that the reverend is attempting to channel his lycanthropic urges by taking out his bloodthirst on sinful members of the town—perhaps after becoming privy to these sins during confession—but that this theory lacks even a brief acknowledgment from Lowe feels like a missed opportunity. In fact, much of the werewolf aspect to his character is kept vague—there are no flashbacks to his encountering a wolf during the third-act reveal, nor even so much as a one-sentence explanation on how he’s caught the werewolf scourge. He’s a werewolf, we’re to accept it, and that’s all there is to it. Undoubtedly, though, this was a purposeful choice, because the screenplay definitely doesn’t skimp on character development. There’s an earnest effort on behalf of King to shore up the relationship between Red and Marty’s mother, Nan (Robin Groves), presenting their dynamic as one of love but also deep conflict; Red, recently divorced, is a shiftless alcoholic, and Nan wants him to get his shit together before he risks inadvertently teaching Marty that giving up on life is an option. And some of the film’s best scenes take place not with our core characters, but with the secondary townspeople, including Sheriff Haller’s (Terry O’Quinn, The Stepfather) confrontations with the loud-mouthed troublemaker Fairton (Bill Smitrovich, TV’s Millennium). 

Sure, the werewolf effects are a little hokey, and the pained shrieks it emits sound a little too close to Toho’s Godzilla, but within the framework of the way this story is being told — through a memory — then, at least to me, it’s forgivable. Haim would go on to appear in the much more celebrated vampire romp The Lost Boys, which I’d easily call the lesser of the two by comparison, but his role in Silver Bullet feels more grounded, more emotional, and hence, much more realistic. And hey — Gary Busey spends the entire finale being thrown into furniture. What’s not to love about that?

By now, the written works of Stephen King have inspired so many films, and now, TV series, that the man almost deserves his own channel. Some of these films are rightfully considered classics, some have been artistic disasters committed by talented filmmakers who should’ve known better, and some slide under the radar, all while deserving more than what they ultimately got. Silver Bullet may not hold a candle to Carrie, The Shining, or even Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, but it’s a damn sight better than the entire Children Of The Corn franchise, as corny as it may be itself.

Apr 14, 2021

NO ESCAPE aka ESCAPE FROM ABSOLUM (1994)

If you’ve heard of 1994’s Escape from Absolom at all, it’s likely by its American title, No Escape (not the Owen Wilson film of the same name). Though it opened #1 at the box office during its weekend debut, it would ultimately fail to make back its production budget, relegating it to live in home video obscurity. Director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale), relatively unknown at that time, helms an adaption of Richard Herley’s obscure 1987 novel The Penal Colony and staffs it mainly with character actors — and Ray Liotta, in a rare heroic leading man role. The likes of Stuart Wilson (Death and the Maiden), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), the immeasurably cool Lance Henriksen (Aliens), a very pre-Entourage Kevin Dillon, and many more “hey, it’s that guy!” folks fill out the diverse cast — none of whom would be considered box office draws.

No Escape was one of the many unexpected titles I thrived on as a kid; a version recorded off television (likely the now-defunct Prism) enjoyed dozens of revolutions in our trusty VCR. Though it’s fairly violent, the idea of two warring prisoner factions attacking each other’s very rustic fortresses clad in armor and wielding weapons both futuristic as well as primitive and obviously made from forest implements was hugely alluring to a child’s overactive imagination. No Escape, in a sense, actually plays like an adult person of Hook, with the Insiders (good guys) taking on the adult counterpart roles of the Lost Boys who live by their own code and with their own sense of order. Houses are constructed from logs and tree trunk wood, clothes are burlap, weapons and armor are fashioned from bamboo, and the less said about their food, the better. And then, like a grown up and cynical Peter Pan, Ray Liotta’s John Robbins drops unexpectedly into their lives — although, instead of re-learning how to fly, he learns how to kill a bunch of bad dudes alongside other people instead of killing a bunch of bad dudes by his lonesome.

Additionally interesting is the dichotomy of the prison island’s inhabitants, because everyone on the island deserves to be there — everyone has taken lives — but yet the prisoners naturally deflect to either side. If you’re semi-bad but bare some regret for your shiftless life, you become an Insider and you live as an undersupplied and undernourished member of what’s essentially a poor community, but if you’re really bad, you become a member of the Outsiders — the baddest of the bad who are offered a very unfair advantage by the Warden, who drops off supplies from a helicopter (which include the aforementioned futuristic weapons) to ensure the two factions remain constantly at war. Even among prisoners, the Insiders strive to be good, under the paternal guidance of The Father (Henriksen). The film acknowledges that, yes, people can make poor choices, but even when living in the physical manifestation of oblivion where there is no chance of salvation — where there’s nothing to be gained from living in peace; there’s no such thing as time off for good behavior — some still choose to live as good men anyway.

Liotta’s John Robbins is an interesting lead; even when the hardened bad-ass Marine eventually softens, Liotta still plays him as intimidating and slightly cold, unwilling to grow close to any of the men. In particular, Robbins takes Kevin Dillon’s Casey, a young and hapless would-be kidnapper, under his wing (sort of)…yet he still maintains a detectably off-putting presence toward him. He’s that film father who offers tough love from the very start, and only at the end when his ice melts does he reveal himself as someone empathetic and warm; here, however, this film father fails on that second part. Liotta can play warm — 2001’s mediocre drug flick Blow proves this — but in No Escape, where he’s playing the hero for the first time in his career, he seems to have trouble playing someone strong and heroic but also someone who surrenders to the warmth and shared community of the Insiders’ camp. As such, the audience never fully warms up to him, even as he slowly sheds his lone-wolf sensibilities in favor of living in a community — or the closest thing to it he can find.

Much of No Escape can be explored and further analyzed; its futuristic setting (sort of — this movie takes place in or around 2022, which is depressingly right around the corner) is once again a warning on where a failing society can lead: rich vs. poor exaggerated to the nth degree, and the idea of a for-profit prison system are two aspects of the plot that are still in constant conversation today.

Apr 12, 2021

ROMEO IS BLEEDING (1993)


Filmmaker Peter Medak (Zorro, the Gay Blade; The Ruling Class) isn’t the only director who would have been capable of telling a story like Romeo is Bleeding, but he is likely one of the few whose sensibilities and aesthetic would have resulted in the film being worthy of discussion more than twenty years after its release. Romeo is Bleeding has been described as neo-noir, which is a good starting off point, but if other films, like Memento or Blade Runner, are referred to as the same, then Romeo is Bleeding deserves another class entirely.

How about insane-noir? 

Psycho-noir? 

Kitchen-sink-noir?

I’m not good at word play, but you get the idea.

Whatever term we concoct, Romeo is Bleeding blows the doors off the film-noir genre as we know it, injecting a European-style level of debauchery usually reserved for either art-house fare or 42nd Street. Many of the typical aspects of noir are heightened; the damaged lead in over his his head, he trouble in which he finds himself, and the femme fatale who may or may not figure into the main conflict--it's all so turned up beyond eleven that it comes dangerously close to coming off as satire, but Medak keeps things evenly keeled so that the wheels only threaten to come off, instead of doing so.

Sidestepping the plot (because it can barely be addressed without giving away its best twists and turns), Romeo is Bleeding is a film brought to life by its phenomenal cast. 

Gary Oldman's Grimaldi isn't just a flawed man looking for redemption--he's a slimy scumbag who can do all manner of questionable things as a husband, a man, and a cop, but still go home at the end of the night to his wife (Annabella Sciorra) who it would seem he really does love. But that love doesn't keep him from the arms of his on-the-side girlfriend (Juliette Lewis), or from taking on-the-side work from the mafia by giving away the locations of protected witnesses for $65,000 a pop. Giving Grimaldi life is the consistently watchable Oldman, infusing his performance with certain shades of bombast, the full dose of which we wouldn't experience until his very next film, Lรฉon. At this point in his career, he was riding high on a series of well-received films and/or performances, with True Romance, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and JFK in the immediate past, and with Immortal Beloved and Murder in the First soon to come. There's possibly never been a better streak of strong performances.

Whomever coined the term “femme fatale” never in his or her wildest dreams could have ever predicted that it would lead to Lena Olin’s Mona Demarkov. The closest thing on-screen to a female Hannibal Lecter, Olin is madly seductive to watch, her willingness to display brazen sexuality equally matched by the level of insanity she’s obviously delighted in achieving. Watching her squirm across car hoods or snap on rather revealing leather harnesses leaves you with the sense that very few of her female colleagues would have ever been brave or daring enough to dedicate themselves entirely to such a role. Olin, who has played similar (though very watered down) versions of this character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Ninth Gate, oozes sensuality alongside danger, presenting the two as if to suggest one cannot exist without the other, which is appropriate, being that Romeo is Bleeding goes out of its way several times to explore themes of duality and the natural balance of the universe.

More typical femme fatales of the past preyed on the loneliness and isolation usually exhibited by our flawed but well-meaning heroes. This time, however, Olin senses that Oldman’s Grimaldi isn’t lonely or isolated so much as he possesses a self-destructive appetite for sex and danger, which leads him into the beds of other women. Olin’s Mona is the femme fatale of the ’90s, fully exploiting her own sexual nature to lure Grimaldi into the type of danger that usually befalls the many men who should know better in the noir universe.

One might accuse Romeo is Bleeding of being overstuffed to the point of powder-keg status, and of offering the false indication that the conflict has resolved itself before introducing the next unseen development, but that doesn’t dare come close to ruling out Romeo is Bleeding for unworthy proper examination and respect. As modern noir goes, it hits the tropes beat for beat, right down to the cynical narration by Oldman and the horn-driven musical score by Mark Isham, but along the way it adds a gonzo amount of sexual aberration and violence that students of more classic noir might not fully stomach. Think of Romeo is Bleeding as a gender-swapped, crime-thriller version of The Silence of the Lambs and maybe you're on the right track.

Film noir newbs should stick Romeo is Bleeding at the bottom of the pile until their feet are a bit wetter. Celebrated tropes of the noir movement are certainly on hand, but have been transformed under Medak's eccentric eye; he gleefully embraces the crazier aspects of Hilary Henkin's screenplay to present a take on noir that hasn't been topped probably ever, and whose closest competition is Robert Rodriguez's Sin CityRomeo is Bleeding might be a bit too overstuffed for its own good, but when the events that come out of this excess are this insane, and when they enable one of Gary Oldman's best and most reckless performances, well, it's easy to forgive. 


Apr 9, 2021

PSYCHO COP RETURNS (1993)

"You have the right to remain dead. 
Anything you say can and will be considered very strange…because you’re dead. 
You have the right to an attorney, but it won’t do you any good because…you’re dead." 

It’s only every so often that I get to incorporate a youth-inspired memoirness to a write-up because there are only a small handful of films that, through completely random happenstance, I saw at a very young age that catapulted me into a permanent state of adoration for the genre. There's The Return of the Living Dead, the first Halloween and one of its sequels, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, and, hilariously, there's Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight. If your formative years are all encompassing, then I was all too eager to absorb every weird, scary, or gooey second from these movies and the horror genre at large.

For some reason, Psycho Cop Returns (aka Psycho Cop 2) is one of them.

Glimpsed late at night on the USA Network’s B-movie showcase Up All Night, hosted by Gilbert Gottfried and/or Rhonda Shear (I don't remember which one had this particular honor), and which also presented such cinematic glories like A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, Dr. Alien, and Vampire on Bikini Beach, my young eyes feasted upon a very censored tale of a Satan-worshipping cop who zeroes in on a group of horny office workers hosting an after-hours bachelor party for one of their own, who then secure a trio of strippers and a filing cabinet of booze for a night of debauchery and having asses danced right in their faces. Officer Joe Vickers, the titular psycho cop, finds his way into the building and begins dispatching the office workers, the strippers, and whomever else might be around, all while letting off a series of puns so unbelievably stupid that Freddy Krueger immediately pressed charges.

Even in my early teens I could see that Psycho Cop Returns was poorly made, in most cases poorly acted, and certainly poorly scored. (This is one of the worst musical scores – written by two people! – I’ve heard in a horror film other than Jason Goes to Hell, and that’s saying something, because Jason Goes to Hell features probably every example of “worst I’ve ever seen,” up to but not including usage of The Blues Brothers‘ Steven Williams.) Nothing about Psycho Cop Returns is surface-admirable, but I’ll be damned if it isn't fun. And if I said I wasn’t just the tiniest bit disturbed as a tyke during the opening sequence when the psychotic cop gets into his squad car to reveal a blood-splashed interior, dismembered body parts, and satanic symbols, I’d be fibbing.

For years following the immense success of Die Hard’s debut in 1988, a slew of imitators came down the pike – some good, some not, but all sold as “Die Hard on a _____!”

Die Hard on a bus!

Die Hard on a naval warship!

Die Hard on the ice!

It became a tried and true method for making your pitch as succinct as possible while also trying to suggest your film would be at least as good as that Yuletide classic, and this lazy pitching gimmick reached across every genre aisle.

Psycho Cop Returns borrows that concept, presenting a sort of Die Hard meets Bachelor Party meets Friday the 13th: a group of office employees in a city high-rise are essentially taken hostage by a dangerous threat, who after neutralizing the only security guard, slips in unnoticed and attempts to blend in at one point to fool them. There are scenes in elevator shafts, on helicopter launch pads, a sexual tryst in an unused office. Only this time, it’s not the cop who will save the day. It’s the cop who will throw them off a building directly into a dumpster, then make a garbage joke while doing it. 

And it’s tremendous.

John Wick was here.

To those unfamiliar with the cinematic opus that is Psycho Cop Returns, the most surprising aspect would likely be the actor who takes on the murderous title role: stage name Bobby Ray Shafer, aka Robert Shafer, who might be most famously known as having played Bob Vance of Vance Refrigeration in several seasons of The Office. Schaffer, who has admitted as such since the movie's release, was hoping to parlay his predecessor, Psycho Cop, into a horror franchise all his own a la Nightmare on Elm Street – and the production house behind the first film was equally optimistic, signing Shafer to a staggering, pre-Marvel five-picture deal.

FIVE Psycho Cop movies. 

Imagine living in a world so good and just where that would've been allowed to happen.

Sadly, Psycho Cop Returns would be the second and final in the series (so far – I would totally see Old Psycho Cop tearing ass around wherever old people hang out and do illegal things). By all accounts far better than its predecessor, Psycho Cop Returns is 100% video store shelf sleaze. Not nearly soft-core porn, but pretty close, there’s a detectably slimy and greasy vibe covering every frame that adds to the film’s appeal. Also appealing, and I’m being 100% serious: the screenplay. Yes, the story is very derivative of the aforementioned Die Hard and the dozens of slasher flicks that came before it, but the screenplay by Dan Povenmire, who worked as an animator for The Simpsons, is actually well written. Not the action, mind you, but the dialogue between characters. Jokes (non-murderous ones, anyway) feel natural. The ribbing between coworkers feels genuine. The exchanges really do bring at least an attempt at everyday life, even if the characters are nothing more than half-formed archetypes: the horny guy, the nervous guy, etc. And the ending, which both spoofs and embodies the grainy Rodney King beating footage, which was a huge cultural event in 1992, it suggests that, maybe — just maybe — Psycho Cop Returns had something to say all along.

Of all the stupid undeserving horror franchises that don’t realize they’re stupid (Saw, The Purge, and so forth), it really is a shame Psycho Cop didn’t spawn more than one sequel, because at least it knew what it was, and wasn’t vying for anything more. Its only immediate competition was the more restrained, the more hyperbolic, and the more Bobby Davi-having Maniac Cop series, which petered out with its lame third entry, but it’s typically the franchises that tend to strive for higher quality and relevance that run the risk of diminishing returns. Psycho Cop wasn't worried about that. Psycho Cop wanted to have sex, kill people, and pun. It’s not exactly a difficult beat to walk, so it’s a shame this cop retired so early – he definitely wasn’t too old for this shit.

If you have only a passing, casual interest in the horror genre, then holy shit, just keep walking, because this will not be the film that converts you. Psycho Cop Returns is 100% for people who live, breathe, and bleed the genre. Every single person involved in its making knows that it’s stupid. Not a single person among them has any delusions that maybe Psycho Cop Returns is a slice of cinematic genius capering as something less. No. Psycho Cop Returns features a scene in which Officer Joe Vickers stabs someone in the eye with a pencil and then makes ten “eye” jokes about it. And that’s totally fine with me. 

Apr 8, 2021

THE MORTON DOWNEY JR. SHOW: SLASHER MOVIES

So-called violent movies, TV shows, and video games (and comic books and rock 'n roll songs and rap videos and...) have been vilified by puritans and alarmists for as long as those mediums have existed. Though the offending examples often cited change with the times, the same talking points and skewed "studies" are trotted out time and time again to prove a point that's tantamount to witchcraft: movie violence causes real-life violence, horror and slasher movies warp kids' minds, and blah and blah and blah.

Likely a relic to audiences today, Morton Downey Jr.* (no relation to Iron Man) is considered the pioneer of trash-talk television. The literally and figuratively big-mouthed TV personality, whose titular show was produced in my home state of New Jersey, ran from 1987 to 1989 and was a slimy portent of things to come, both in terms of sensationalizing people's worst behavior as well highlighting outrageous hard-right leaning "conservative" viewpoints. (He was a staunch anti-abortion activist who never missed a chance to impugn liberal philosophies while dabbling in occasional racism and misogyny. Sound familiar?) A precursor to The Jerry Springer Show, which somehow ran for 28 years, Morton's format presented hot-button guests with opposing views on social issues and let them claw at each other's throats, often manipulating the conversation and taking both sides at once just to spur the conflict.

The below episode, presented in its entirety, focuses on slasher films of the '70s and '80s, namely (but not exclusively) 1974's The Last House on the Left and 1977's The Hills Have Eyes. (Between those two titles being thrown on the pyre, and Morton opening the show wearing a Freddy Krueger mask, I'm sure Wes Craven was pretty proud at the time.) Notable guests include Hills actor Michael Berryman, who played mutant cannibal Pluto, and former Fangoria editor Anthony Timpone to take the "everyone needs to relax" side of the argument, but whom you won't be surprised to hear are barely given time to finish their points before they're cut off by Morton or his puritanical counterpoint guests. The episode is definitely worth watching for all kinds of reasons, especially if you're a pro-slasher type of person, but mainly because television from the '80s is kind of hilarious.

The greatest irony of the claim presented on this episode, which is the ease at which kids were able to rent R-rated horror films from local video stories (RIP) was causing them psychological harm, is that the claim is coming to you from one of the trashiest daytime shows in the history of television  one so frequently condemned that it had a hard time maintaining a steady business relationship with advertisers  which was only a single remote control click away from our apparently very impressionable children. Though slasher films, throughout their history, often showcased bloody kills and pornographic images, they were fiction  gags created by special effects artists and blocked by directors and cinematographers. When it comes to things like The Morton Downey Jr. Show, from the host to the guests to the venomous audience members, these people were real and the behavior they exhibited was often hostile, dismissive, self-righteous, profane, hateful, and demeaning. There are two scenarios here: a child watches a movie maniac kill people, so they go out and do the same, or a child watches a "real" TV show where adults scream at each other and hurl insults and thinks, "Oh, I guess this is how I should act when I'm older."

You tell me which is more likely.


*Morton Downey Jr. happens to appear in my all-time favorite Tales from the Crypt episode, "Television Terror," in which he leaves his comfort zone of being a trashy TV talk-show host...by playing a trashy TV talk-show host (on location in an allegedly haunted house).

Apr 7, 2021

CULT OF CHUCKY (2017)

The Child’s Play series has been one wild ride. After the classic, humorless first film, the series – like most horror franchises – devolved into your more typical slice and dice (though I unabashedly love Child’s Play 2). After exhausting its straight-up horror experience, series writer Don Mancini (who also directed the three most recent entries) served up a mini-reboot with 1998’s Bride of Chucky, directed by Freddy vs. Jason’s Ronny Yu, which allowed the series to deviate in a more knowingly comical manner. Things got meta with Seed of Chucky, which saw a Hollywood film being made about the “real” killer doll’s exploits, and once John Waters’ face melted off, and, in a gag that hasn’t aged well, Chucky ran Britney Spears’ car off a cliff, it seemed like the series had found itself in a creative corner.

Well, Mancini took the opportunity to, again, softly reboot the series with 2013’s Curse of Chucky, which dropped the broad humor, the meta winking, and everything Jennifer Tilly, steering the series back to the darker tone established by the original trilogy. It was a worthy effort, and certainly better than Child’s Play 3 and Seed of Chucky, but it wasn’t quite a return to form. Still, Chucky voice actor Brad Dourif was back, and his real-life daughter, Fiona Dourif, played the lead “final girl” and became quickly beloved by fans, so it had some positive things to offer.

Cult of Chucky serves as a direct sequel to that film, and just might be the most ridiculous and insane entry so far (and I am totally including Seed of Chucky in that – ya know, the film in which two plastic killer dolls give birth to a child doll while rapper Redman is directing a fake movie about their lives). Original Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent, making a return to the series after 28 years) is back, and he’s keeping a living Chucky doll head in his isolated cabin home for nightly torture sessions. And Jennifer Tilly is back as well, again playing Tiffany, murderous girlfriend of Charles Lee Ray (or, maybe she’s just playing Jennifer Tilly. Who knew a horror series about a killer doll could get so esoteric?).

It’s also strikingly directed. Mancini, who wrote several episodes of NBC’s short-lived Hannibal series (“I can’t believe they canceled that show,” Chucky grumbles at some point), embraced that series’ ultra-pretentious approach. Cult of Chucky is the most interesting looking film in the series – one might go as far as saying artfully directed    with one murder sequence in particular looking straight-up Hannibal inspired. Cult of Chucky actually looks phenomenal, and Mancini’s earlier mentioned Hannibal-inspired directing is largely to credit for that. Cult of Chucky takes place in the fanciest and most aesthetically pleasing asylum ever in cinema. It’s very white and institutional, but without being depressing, and everything is meticulously designed.

Cult of Chucky is also often very funny, mostly deriving from Chucky’s one-liners, which completely dwarf any that have come before. Dourif has been voicing this character for thirty years now and hasn’t lost his spark — not to mention gaining creative mileage from the asylum setting, a clear callback to the actor’s Academy-Award winning appearance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There are multiple references to this, from Juicy Fruit to Chucky outright mumbling half that film’s title in his typically profane manner. And like the previous films, the callbacks to other horror films are numerous, even including an unexpected nod to The Witch.

However, there are portions of Cult of Chucky that don’t work. Nearly all of the characters beyond Fiona are either inconsequential, irritating, or serve no purpose other than to make the loony bin loonier and eventually die bloody. The gore gags are great in concept but not in execution. Chucky looks cheap – not quite Spirit Halloween-cheap, but close. It’s appreciated that the film leans more on puppetry and practical effects than CGI, but its results are still unconvincing. The return of Alex Vincent promises something big, but after some really interesting implications are made regarding his post-Chucky psyche, his character plays out with no point whatsoever, except for setting up the inevitable next sequel – or TV series? (Although the post-credits stinger has me legit excited.) Jennifer Tilly, too, seems shoe-horned in, and with an especially off-kilter performance, as if her character’s appearance here is more about fan service, and the dispatching of one character in particular is more about tying up loose ends rather than creating drama. Lastly, Cult of Chucky alludes to a really interesting, psychologically-based new direction very early on, but what’s set up here doesn’t come to fruition by the end, resulting in a missed opportunity.

And speaking of “that end” – yeesh.

By now, Chucky is on his seventh entry and the series has gone direct to video. Budgets have been cut, and multiple concepts have been explored. And I can name several other horror franchises that became completely lifeless before their seventh entry. If Mancini is on board for Chucky 8: Your Soul, then of course I am, too. By now, Chucky has become a horror hero to audiences, almost the good guy. And you can’t keep a Good Guy down.

Chucky is back in a mostly enjoyable sequel — one that towers over the last two entries, at the very least. It explores new territory (without much explanation) and slowly ties back in earlier events from earlier films in an effort to group everyone together. Is the next Chucky sequel to come the one where they finally get it totally right? Probably not. But that probably won’t make it any less fun to watch.

Apr 5, 2021

BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962)

Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) was anything but a model prisoner when he was transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in 1912. The first impression he made on his guards and fellow new-arrival inmates was smashing a window on the train, citing "he got hot." Once there, Stroud's behavior didn't exactly improve. After pushing his cellmate for his having touched a photo of Stroud's mother, he clocks another inmate during laundry detail. To complete the trifecta, Stroud stabs a guard to death after he tells him that his recent misbehavior has cost him a visitation with his mother. For this bloody infraction, he's charged with an additional five years of solitary confinement, after which he'll be hung until dead. However, after a plea of clemency from Stroud's mother to President Wilson, the death sentence is tossed out in favor of a life sentence in solitary confinement. After making enemies out of the crusty old warden (Karl Malden), Stroud resigns himself to a life that had already been promised to him: solitary. But on one rainy day when Stroud is taking a walk in the prison courtyard, he spies a starving sparrow in a nest, so he takes it inside to care for it...and for the next four decades, the ruthless, violent man that walked into Leavenworth Penitentiary will devote his life to the study of ornithology, even being called a "genius" by others in the field for his scholarly studies on bird disease, and by the time of his death, he will barely resemble the hardened criminal that bought him that one-way ticket to life behind bars.

Though it's often said that troubled productions lead to troubled films, Birdman of Alcatraz is anything but. Following the departure of original director Charles Crichton, John Frankenheimer signed on to finish the picture, and after two weeks, fired the original director of photography. Lastly, though star Lancaster and director Frankenheimer enjoyed a working relationship that yielded significant contributions to cinema, it was one that saw moments of tension and on-set confrontation. Despite all that, Birdman of Alcatraz is a remarkable end result of a tumultuous shoot. Though Frankenheimer would later go on to shoot "angrier" films, like The Manchurian Candidate and The French Connection II, here he imbues upon Birdman of Alcatraz, somewhat surprisingly, a soft, intimate, and inspiring touch. The audience's initial exposure to Robert Stroud has them meeting face-to-face a rather angry and care-nothing individual who seems to have no love for anything or anyone except his mother. But it's not soon after when Stroud's hardened heart begins to melt at the sight of the hungry chirping baby bird left abandoned in its nest during a rainstorm. Stroud carries the sparrow inside, nurses it back to health, and even teaches it tricks. Though the film was made during a time in which cameras were allowed to remain still and shots were allowed to linger, Frankenheimer opts to challenge his audience's patience even more by including a ninety-second close-up of a real hatching baby bird; except for a few removed frames, he allows his camera to capture the entire moment, including the freshly hatched bird wearing part of his broken shell as a hat. (Yeah, it's as adorable as you just imagined). And it's also a telling sign of what kind of film Frankenheimer wanted Birdman of Alcatraz to be: touching, gentle, and most of all, surprising.

Burt Lancaster once again finds himself sporting old-age make-up and playing a despicable character who later in life comes to terms with the person he was and the mistakes he has made, his immediately previous role being Ernst Janning in Judgment at Nuremberg. His performance as Robert Stroud remains likely the high-watermark of his career.

Putting aside the rather obvious irony of Stroud's moniker (it was at Leavenworth where he kept his birds, not Alcatraz), the original book's author, Thomas E. Gaddis (depicted on-screen by actor Edmond O'Brien, who also narrates), presents a rather compelling portrait of a man hardened by life, but softened by something as mundane and every-day as a chirping bird. Gaddis is not a stranger to writing biographical material on dangerous or diabolical men who still manage to find redemption (his other co-written book, Killer: A Journal of Murder, comes highly recommended); the care he shows in fleshing out the legacies of his real-life subjects is also matched by his objectivity. There's no attempt to paint Stroud as misunderstood, or a victim of "the system" - Andy Dufresne he is not - which makes his transformation all the more inspiring and effective. (However, reception of this version of Stroud - both in Gaddis' book and Frankenheimer's film - was labeled as wholly inaccurate by fellow inmates who knew the real man. Even post-birds, allegedly the real Stroud remained "a jerk" for the rest of his life.)

John Frankenheimer would go on to direct for an astounding forty years, luckily still able to craft at the very least exiting and entertaining fare like the Robert De Niro heist flick Ronin, though sadly his last feature film would be the remarkably stupid Reindeer Games. (He nearly directed an early iteration of what eventually became Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader...which eventually became Exorcist: The Beginning, completely reshot by Renny Harlin, before dying during pre-production). His filmography is a strong one, though many of his works are not nearly as well-known as what may also be the best film of his career - yes, even more so than The Manchurian Candidate. Forgive the pun: Birdman of Alcatraz soars to great heights.

It's easy to see the fingerprints of Birdman of Alcatraz all over more modern fare. Stephen King is likely a fan, as his short story "Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption" features an inmate carrying and caring for an injured bird (though in the original story it's not the Brooks we all know, love, and for whom we weep in the film version). The Green Mile has an inmate keeping a pet mouse in his cell, teaching it the same kind of tricks that Stroud did to his sparrow. Even Bill Murray manages to pay homage in the hokey but entertaining Charlie's Angels in the third act after he's locked up by a maniacal Sam Rockwell. When a filmmaker makes the best film of his career, or an actor manages to give his career-best performance, separately those are triumphs, but when those two come accomplishments come together, then history is made, and that's something to chirp about. (I'M SORRY.)