Apr 30, 2021


Rightfully so, 1996’s Scream gets a lot of credit for being the first post-’80s slasher craze to acknowledge sub-genres tropes, stereotypes, and mythologies that had spent a decade+ accumulating and solidifying. That it managed to do all this while also being a solid slasher that could stand on its own feet was a magical feat achieved by director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Ten years later would come the release of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a film festival darling that took horror audiences by storm. Following in the same footsteps, Behind the Mask was another loving ode to the slasher films of yesteryear, but this time being more on the nose than its hip ‘90s predecessor. Where Scream would occasionally say the name “Freddy” or have Halloween playing on a television in the background during a party, Behind the Mask would actually join all of those film franchises together in one universe while also existing within it, and it does so by looping in another horror element that would postdate Scream by three years: the faux-documentary gimmick as reinvigorated by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.

Shot to look like a documentary, Behind the Mask examines its subject, Leslie Vernon, a serial killer in training who strives to be as well known and infamous as his inspirations Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, “Mike and Chucky.” If Christopher Guest had applied his mockumentary forte to the slasher genre, it would look a lot like Behind the Mask. It’s a parody, a satire, an ode, a dark comedy, a light comedy (sort of), and an old school slasher flick all in one. Its from this nutso combination where it derives most of its strength, but which also leaves it feeling somewhat at odds with its nature during the final act.

Right off the bat, it’s obviously a slasher fan’s dream to see the different worlds of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Child’s Play (and more, I’m sure) existing in the same landscape. The very streets on which Nightmare and Halloween were shot appear in cameos (along with a very brief appearance from Kane Hodder, aka Jason in several Friday the 13th sequels, as the newest and creepiest resident of beleaguered Nancy Thompson’s former home). Robert Englund plays a small part very much in the Dr. Loomis mold of Halloween (whose character name, Doc Halloran, is a direct nod to The Shining) with Poltergeist's Zelda Rubinstein also appearing in a pint-sized role as a pint-sized librarian. 

As you can see, writer David J. Stieve and co-writer/director Scott Glosserman are wearing their inspirations and it results in an often clever and often amusing horror/comedy that is proudly affiliating itself with an era and specific franchises birthed during that era that had previously been written off as silly and dismissible. Scream clearly adores Halloween but merely mentions other infamous titles matter-of-factly; Behind the Mask embraces every bloody installment of every bloody franchise with equal aplomb without passing judgment on those titles not as critically well regarded as others. (Of course, I would never take away Craven’s desire to include a line in Scream about the first Nightmare being good and scary “but the rest sucked.”)

Behind the Mask loses a little steam during the final act as it drops the documentary approach and switches to a straight narrative, losing much of the quirky humor that derived from said approach. Don’t get me wrong, the film remains smart, as the film’s remaining victims look to the rules established by the slasher genre to figure out how they can survive the night, but without the more amusing humor, it then feels like Behind the Mask is taking the events it had spent most of its time sending up just a little too seriously. It’s obvious this was by design, cemented by one scene in which one of our supporting characters meets his bloody end at Leslie’s hands, but who tries to reason with him by telling him over and over, “Come on man, it’s me,” as if suggesting their prior friendship should be enough to neutralize Leslie’s murderous wants and goals. Well, it’s not, and it’s actually a really conflicting scene, because up to this point, Leslie had been a fun, well-mannered, and even lovable character whose goals of which the audience was very much aware, but whom they all liked, anyway. With him now being a dedicated mass murder, the change in his character is as abrupt as the change in tone. Again, this was intended and not some kind of accident, but upon my first viewing of Behind the Mask fifteen years ago, I felt conflicted about it, and I still feel conflicted today. And if there’s one thing a slasher shouldn’t be, it’s conflicting.

Despite that, Behind the Mask is an easy recommendation, a solid addition to the slasher sub-genre, and a love letter to the genre as a whole. Fun cameos, respectable performances, and some decent (but restrained) gore gags only add to its enjoyment. Glosserman has been talking up a sequel for years, and like all of Leslie’s murderous and masked colleagues, hopefully he can transcend from one-hit wonder and cross over into successful franchise territory.

Apr 28, 2021


It's 1864, and a young boy named Will (Ashton Sanders) works with his uncle, Marcus (Keston John), on behalf of a group of bounty hunters, in locating runaway slaves and reporting their whereabouts so that they may be returned to their slaveholders. Will and Marcus, in order to do this, earn the trust of their targets and divert them to an agreed-upon place so the slaves may be taken captive and returned. What makes Will and Marcus so easy to trust is that they themselves are former slaves, operating under the guise of also being on the run. By the time their targets realize they have been had, they are already back in chains. On one particular assignment, the pair are tasked with locating a freed slave named Nate (Tishuan Scott) in order to return him, but after locating him, Will soon finds himself gravitating toward this perfect stranger, coming to first confide in and then depend on him in a way that the fatherless boy had never experienced. During their perilous time in the wilderness, Nate saves the boy's life, and then later, Will saves his, elevating their bond to staggering new heights. Soon Will's task comes into conflict with how he feels toward Nate and he finds that he must face a very difficult choice.

In an interview with journalist Matt Fagerholm for RogerEbert.com, actor Tishuan Scott (who plays Nate) expressed a "dislike of history" in his youth, citing that African-American culture had been too easily summarized merely by the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. In his eyes, exactly one hundred years between 1863's Emancipation Proclamation and 1963's civil rights movements was missing from the history books relating to the African-American experience. It has only become recent that tales of the African-American struggle, from the brutally honest with Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave to the satiric and exploitative with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained to HBO's recent Lovecraftian/Jim Crow mash-up Lovecraft Country, are finally being told. Released within the shadow of 12 Years a Slave lies the little seen film The Retrieval, a story told not just from the African-American experience, but one that sidesteps more obvious approaches in favor of offering an extremely unique and uplifting story. It's also highly superior to those two prominent titles.

Though The Retrieval is not based on any specific event, the film is still firmly entrenched in a very real history. The characters of Will and Nate may have never met, bonded, and parted under extremely emotional circumstances, but the idea of former slaves being forced to root out their fellow man (and being paid to do so) sadly sounds like the kind of additionally awful thing that would be occurring within an already awful and very turbulent period in history. Nearly unfolding in real time, The Retrieval offers up suspense from the very first minute that Will and Marcus cross paths with Nate. Those bounty hunters for hire know exactly what they have been tasked to do, as does the audience, who also knows that this is something they have already done, and are willing to do again. As Will and Nate begin to grow closer, the former yearning for a father he never knew and the latter mourning for his deceased child, the bond that forms between them is as equally heartfelt and satisfying as it is heartbreaking, because the audience knows there new friendship can only end in one of two ways: either Will and Marcus risk their lives in letting Nate remain free, or Nate will end up back in shackles following their many shared campfires in which their greatest fears and regrets were shared and a mutual understanding and respect was forged.

An intimate story propelled by only a handful of performances, it's easy to see why Scott's performance as Nate has been as celebrated and awarded as it was. Same goes for Sanders as the young Will; at no point do either of their performances come off as disingenuous or self-aware. Noted horror/cult actor Bill Oberst Jr., who plays a minor role as Burrell, one of the bounty hunters, also offers strong work. The easy way out would have been to present Burrell as obviously vicious - the archetypal evil white man - but instead Burrell comes across as sympathetic, and even caring where Will is concerned, but this calm demeanor is not to be trusted. He is on assignment just as Will and Marcus are on assignment, and his ideology isn't the thing that's driving him. Ultimately what he has been tasked to do, and what he has tasked Will and Marcus to do, is evil, but to him there's no evil in it. In his mind, he believes what he's doing is just, and the money he is being paid serves as affirmation.

The Retrieval is an uplifting story set during an ugly time, and to echo Scott's thoughts, the world, and this country especially, needs to immerse itself in the history that it has gotten too used to denying, because however ugly and humiliating that history may be, it also contains a plethora of untold stories that need to be told - not just to confront this history, but to gleam from it any saving graces in which the human spirit was not just preserved, but flourished, even in the most dire of circumstances.

Considering this is filmmaker Chris Eska's second film, and shot solely in exteriors using available light, the film is consistently confidently captured – one that deviates between night and day, lit only by campfires, torches, and the southern sun. Whether by design or by happy accident, background shots looked to have their colors muted, so much that at times the sky looks like a faded photograph. Same goes for fields of wheat and dead grass, which alternate from amber brown to stark white. All of the film takes place in the great outdoors, and in the midst of war, so rippling rivers, pelting rain, blowing wind, and the distant cannon fire trickle out through. The pretty musical score by composer Matthew Wiedemann and Yellow 6 alternates between commanding the screen's use of natural landscapes and lying under the surface to complement the more emotional actions and exchanges.

Critics and audiences spent most of 2014 being enamored by 12 Years a Slave - and rightfully so - but one wonders if that were maybe at the expense of The Retrieval, a film that was sadly little seen outside of film festivals. Though both films are set in the same places and during the same times, their stories are told in vastly different ways. 12 Years a Slave is an extremely powerful piece of filmmaking, but it doesn't share the uniqueness of the story to which The Retrieval can lay claim. Far less brutal and far more hopeful, The Retrieval is a celebration of the human spirit and one's own belief in the bigger picture. Flesh expires; hope does not. 

Apr 26, 2021


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has the oddest trajectory of all the long-running horror franchises. Even during its initial four-movie run from the '70s to the '90s, the sequels' designs were already a little dodgy. During the same era, other slasher franchises like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street had begun following very plain episodic paths: their original movies established their stories and concepts, and all subsequent sequels continued those stories in a mostly fluid manner while recycling actors, characters, or both. Each Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, however, seemed like a mini reset. None of the final girls ever made return appearances, and even members of the Sawyer family killed in previous entries seemed to return for a later sequel or were replaced by very similar characters without explanation. For instance, is "The Hitchhiker" from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, played by Ewin Neal, supposed to be the same character as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2's Chop Top, played by Bill Moseley? Because I'm pretty sure that Big Mama tractor trailer made him into mincemeat during the original's finale...unless that was lazily explained by the plate in Chop Top's skull. If we put that aside, who the hell are all the brand new family members in 1990's Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and why do they have their own invalid, comatose grandpa, too? And once those characters are wasted, who the frig are everyone in 1994's accidentally hilarious Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, who also have their own invalid, comatose grandpa? I guess one could make the (silly) argument that this particular borough of Texas was inundated with cannibalistic families, but how is it that every single family has, along with their own desiccated grandpa, their own Leatherface as well? Does he just bounce from family to family like some kind of murderous Oliver Twist? 

Even if we put aside all of those complicated mythos and reexamine the series strictly by the various experiences offered by its entries, everything is still all over the place. The first was a landmark horror classic that presented some of the most frenzied and chaotic psychological terror ever levied at a mainstream audience; the second, a Cannon Films-produced black comedy (which I detest); the third, basically a remake of the original, only not as good; and the fourth, an utterly insane direct sequel to the original which starred a pre-fame and totally bonkers Matthew McConaughey and a typically mousy Renee Zellweger; Leatherface was a crossdresser and the murderous Sawyer family had apparently been installed by a shadowy underground operation for the purposes of studying “real horror.” It makes absolutely no sense, all the characters are eccentric as hell (even the teenage victims), and McConaughey’s murderous Vilmer has a remote control for his robotic leg brace. If you haven’t seen it, you should, because it’s a blast. Then came the remake, which was good; the prequel to the remake, which was bad; and Texas Chainsaw 3D, which was a direct sequel to the original (not the remake), somehow included Bill Moseley again, and solidified its place as the worst entry up to that point. Confused yet? 

French directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury burst onto the American horror scene when Dimension Films acquired their home-invasion shocker Inside (À l’intérieur) for distribution. Since then, Dimension owners the Weinsteins (run!) tried to get the duo involved with several of their other horror properties, such as the long-mooted Hellraiser remake and an early iteration of Halloween 2 before Rob Zombie returned to create something slightly better than his remake while still making something pretty terrible. For whatever reason, the duo couldn’t find their footing with either project, but evidently their sloppy seconds (or thirds) known as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series was there to pick up the pieces — hence, we have the succinctly titled Leatherface, which borrows its moniker from the first-round Part 3, and which explores Leatherface's past as...a teenager. 


A common complaint worth repeating: not everything, or everyone, needs an origin story. Bates Motel, while an entertaining series, spends fifty episodes saying “Norman is crazy.” We know. (And Psycho IV: The Beginning had already done that, and far better,) The Nightmare on Elm Street remake tried to muddy Freddy’s origins by suggesting, maybe, he was framed. (He wasn’t.) And Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween finally answered the burning question we’ve all had about The Shape for 40 years: just WHERE did Michael get his jumpsuit? (A shitting Ken Foree.) What filmmakers and studios fail to realize is that mystique is perfectly fine. We don’t need everything spelled out. Oftentimes, it’s scarier if we don’t know. Though most moviegoers, horror fans or not, would be quick to point out that franchises like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th have more than enough entries already, their popularity never really waned even when their box office receipts began to shrink. Mainstream audiences may have had enough, but horror fans kept that candle burning, consuming each series on home video sequel by sequel. Those franchises have also been around for so long that one sequel after another was no longer enriching the overall mythos, which is why the remakes started, and then the prequels after that, and then the ret-conning sequels that only followed certain original films. This is why Leatherface is the second prequel in the series, coming after 2006’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

Saying "what if?" regarding certain horror franchises is all well and good, but the more entries made that shit the bed, the more complicated those franchises become. This sequel counts but this one doesn't, and these never happened and who could possibly keep up? If whoever owns the rights to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series vies for a third prequel, they better call it Leatherbaby so I know where it belongs in the franchise's timeline. (But in all seriousness, maybe a filmmaker can finally step up and make the definitive biopic on serial killer Ed Gein, who inspired not only Leatherface but also Norman BatesHannibal Lecter, and Buffalo Bill — how’s that for an origin story?)

The weirdest part of this history-exploring concept is that their filmmakers constantly cite their desire to make the audience "sympathize" with their respective series' boogeymen — with masked maniacs, pedophile dream stalkers, and murderous cannibals.

Open question to these filmmakers: why do you want this from us? IT’S WEIRD. 

Leatherface juggles numerous unlikely inspirations — Of Mice and MenMystic RiverBadlands — while marrying it to one of the biggest horror franchises in cinema history, and with so much of this going on, it can’t help but make the film feel so different, and by result make the character of Leatherface feel so different, that it’s out of sorts with the rest of the series. The worst entries before this one at least felt like a proper Texas Chainsaw Massacre entry — even the ridiculous McConaughey one, Leatherface's crossdressing propensity notwithstanding.

Leatherface’s biggest fumble is its purposeful design to obscure just which teenaged psycho in the large collection of escaped teenaged psychos is the titular chainsaw-wielder we all know and love. This whole Ten Little Indians-ish, “which troubled youth is Leatherface?” angle is, frankly, stupid, and the film so obviously points to one character in particular as being the infamous cannibal that there's no way your brain would ever allow that to be the case, so when a twist occurs and points to an entirely different character being the titular madman, the viewer looks blankly at the television and says, “No shit.” And once this twist occurs, and you spend the rest of the movie knowing this character is Leatherface, it absolutely robs him of any fear he would go on to inspire in the original. Somehow, he goes from a teen who can think and reason and even empathize to a mute, human-face-wearing mongoloid who communicates by shrieking and wagging his tongue around like a pervert. 

I mean, Leatherface just sucks. 

It’s also incredibly violent. And I can see you rolling your eyes and pushing up your glasses to say, “Well, what did you expect?” and in response I push up my own glasses and nerdily remind you that the original film spilled very little blood, contained very little violence, and, despite its title, contained only one chainsaw murder — the violence of which was left off-screen (so shut it.) 

Leatherface is not cut from the same cloth. It’s very bloody, very violent, and very depraved. If characters being slowly chainsawed apart digit by digit or a psycho girl licking the gooey face of a rotting corpse while having doggie-style trailer sex is your idea of a good time, then have at it, you weirdo. Though, technically, Leatherface is a prequel to the '74 original, it falls more in line with the Platinum Dunes era, thanks to its violent content and admittedly pleasing visual palette, and which were set during the 1970s, anyway. From the get, Leatherface's execution shares very little in common with the stylistic approach and aesthetics of the actual film that inspired it, which was much more of a disturbing, moody cautionary tale and less the maniacal splatterfest the ignorant dismiss it as being. With everything tinged in gold and sepia, some of Leatherface's shot composition is genuinely beautiful at times (that’s where the Badlands influence comes in — Terrence Malick would be so proud), but beauty only gets you so far in any genre, and where the beauty leaves off, the violence and nastiness and goo take over. And speaking of, I hope you like goo! Because you'll get more than your fill here. In Leatherface, sedimentary goo even makes noise

There are only two bright spots throughout this catastrophe, which are its competent leads. Lili Taylor (The Conjuring) does strong work as the Sawyer family matriarch, and any project is better for having her. Same said for Stephen Dorff, whose sheriff character easily presents as a man possessed and operating on his own, unlawful agenda. It’s a wonder either of them appear in, essentially, part eight of a long-running slasher franchise, especially one that landed with such a quiet thud. (This was the first Chainsaw in 24 years that didn’t get a wide theatrical release.) 

Had Leatherface been called anything else — Cannibal Run, for instance (I hope you're proud because I just made that up on the spot) — it would offer a reasonable amount of nonsense escapism. It’s well made enough in the gonzo sense, it’s attractively photographed, and the bloodiness and gags will definitely entertain the gorehounds. But most importantly, it wouldn’t be weighed down by those pesky terms “legacy” and “classic” and “iconic,” because as the official backstory of ‘Leatherface’ Sawyer, it feels rote, unwelcome, and just plain wrong.

Apr 23, 2021


Hollywood is in love with portraying a world either on the brink of extinction or already long dead. And these types of films have only gotten bigger in scale since the advent of CGI. Now it isn't just meticulously constructed models being burned with a flamethrower or drowned in frothy ocean water. It's entire cities, or countries, or planets. Streets melt or collapse into sink holes; skyscrapers disintegrate into piles of twisted metal; bridges belly-flop into the oceans below. Spoiler alert: as the technology has improved to realistically destroy civilization itself, the magic of how a world of make-believe was brought to life has decreased, skewing these weakening apocalyptic stories to such a degree that darkened-theater demands of, "How did they do that?" have since been answered by, "Computers, idiot." The rapidly improving visual effects industry may be bringing the impossible to life, but it's doing so at the expense of why film exists in the first place: human connection.

During the 1980s, this apocalyptic fascination somewhat took a backseat to John Hughes and the many action and horror franchises that were running rampant and attracting most theatergoers' attention. Except for Max Rockatansky, no film characters were keen on watching social order fall around them before wandering around a desolate desert landscape. Everyone just wanted to do cocaine and wear pink sunglasses and listen to Wang Chung. This is one of the things that makes Miracle Mile so notable, although it's not the only thing. What makes Miracle Mile a film worth remembering over thirty years after its theater debut is how much of it still feels so relevant, and how at-ground-zero it puts the audience at the conception of nuclear destruction. One of Miracle Mile's greatest strengths is that once Harry (Anthony Edwards, Pet Sematary Two) answers that damned ringing payphone and learns nuclear warheads will strike Los Angeles in fifty minutes, the remainder of the film plays out in painstaking real time. It's at the very diner where Harry was supposed to meet Julie (Mare Winningham) for their date where he relays the news of his revelation to the other diner patrons. Most of them are quick to wave off his claims until one of them, well-connected and fully well knowing this was a possibility, gets on her mobile phone to confirm Harry's claims. Once she does, the film's collection of tremendous supporting characters all begin working together to exact the quickest evacuation of Los Angeles they can muster: who will gather the food, who will navigate, and for the love of everything, does anyone know a helicopter pilot?

It's watching Los Angeles' very slow, but also very rapid, descent into chaos that enables Miracle Mile to pack such a punch. And during its 1988 release date, the Cold War was still very much in the forefront of American minds. It seemed like nuclear warfare was a dangerous possibility nearly consistently, and many people were fearful that the bombs could drop at any time. But it's also watching Harry hopping over cars, fleeing gunmen, ducking from explosions, and depending on people he's never met to not only find a way out of the city, but somehow also locate Julie, a perfect stranger with whom he's in love, in the middle of all that madness.

Getting back to an earlier point, and being that this was 1989, Miracle Mile’s bird's-eye view of destruction is brought to life all through the use of practical and in-camera effects, depending very scarcely on opticals. CGI at its height has brought entire characters to life, be it Gollum or Caesar or King Kong, and after a while, though its creations and its potential to create can be deeply affecting, it's also doused some of the fear that filmmakers were once intent on establishing. Nowadays, to set a character on fire, the actor puts on a green body suit and pretends to run from a flock of bees, but back then, filmmakers really just set stunt people on fire, and in spite of how impressive that CGI fire may look, our brains are always going to filter what's real and what's not. Because of that, their respective potential impacts are never going to be on an even scale. But this is just one example of numerous that Miracle Mile presents so well. As the bombs approach toward film's end and the city begins billowing in non-CGI radiation heat, you feel that heat against your skin. When the helicopter crash lands in the ocean and the cab begins filling with real and black water, your own breath feels stifled. This is Miracle Mile’s power.

What Miracle Mile lives and dies by is its cast, which just might be one of the best ensembles ever assembled for a film, even if they may not command A-list status - today or back then. Anthony Edwards, at first glance, seems like an odd choice for a leading man, and his somewhat unconvincing voice-over that opens the film isn't doing him any favors, but once Miracle Mile settles back and finds its groove, you begin to realize that the beauty of casting folks like Edwards or Mare Winningham in the lead roles is because they never achieved the bigger-than-life baggage that some of their colleagues did. Edwards's plain and everyday looks helped to sell his character as simply that: a fledgling musician but nothing more - no one big, no one prominent. He felt real.

The beauty of watching Miracle Mile for the first time, especially if you're a film buff who for one reason or another has never had the pleasure, is that every single supporting character is played by a recognizable face. In a flip-side of Anthony Edwards's everyday looks and stature, it's in watching an immense collection of actors and actresses playing these small roles in which they find themselves dealing with the end of the world, and all the emotional and irrational thoughts that come with it, that really help to sell the outlandish (but not really!) premise Miracle Mile is selling. To list them all here would be exhausting, but rest assured each face that pops up will trigger instant recognition. (This thing even has Denise Crosby! Pet Sematary reunion!)

Miracle Mile manages to combine several different genres - thriller, romance, sci-fi, even irreverent comedy - to paint a look at the last fifty minutes of life in a way that's both completely outlandish and entirely believable. From the wall-faced, blonde-mulleted, bodybuilding rescue pilot (Brian Thompson) who won't leave his girlfriend behind, to the police-car-stealing bystander who needs to rescue his sister, to Julie's in-love-but-out-of-touch grandparents, Miracle Mile pulls off a magnificent feat: in the midst of city-wide carnage, burning cars, exploding buildings, and oncoming nuclear war, it puts love at the forefront. Even as the helicopter whirs to life in front of him, Harry opts to instead turn right around and head back into the madness for the woman he barely knows, but whom he already somehow knows he loves. That's something not even CGI can bring to life.

And I haven’t even mentioned the tremendous score by Tangerine Dream. The film's intimate opening has the couple-to-be wandering Los Angeles streets and slowly getting to know each other, complemented by that ethereal score, but soon, madness descends upon the city, bringing to life chaos and disorder with it. Cars honk and crunch metal, flames crackle and whip, errant bullets ricochet off sewer pipes and walls. And the score by Tangerine Dream, which is not only one of their best (next to Sorcerer), begins hammering like Miracle Mile’s heartbeat, becoming a steady tick of the clock quickly running out of minutes.

On those lists that circulate tantamount to "One Hundred Films to See Before You Die," Miracle Mile should be on there. It’s proven to be one of the biggest cinematic surprises of my life; if you give it a chance, it just may be the same for you, too.

Apr 21, 2021


At one point during Psycho IV: The Beginning, a young Norman Bates is doing what he does best in the darkness of the night, lit only by the red taillights of a nearby car. Its director, Mick Garris, once mused that scene's lighting scheme inspired Martin Scorsese for his opening scene of Goodfellas where our mafioso heroes reveal the bloodied body of Billy Bats in the trunk of their car. (It's tempting to laugh at the idea of Martin Scorsese looking to Mick Garris, the director of Sleepwalkers, for inspiration, but Scorsese has seen more films than you, me, your dad, and the guy behind you combined, so it's totally possible.) The reason I bring this up is because we now live in a post-Bates Motel world, A&E's smash television hit that ran for five seasons, introduced the character of Norman Bates to a new generation, and which purported to take inspiration only from the original Psycho...but which has certainly lifted more than a few things from its first official prequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning.

Unless you are a hardcore horror fan, people are often surprised to learn that there was more than one Psycho (not even including its terrible remake.) "I had no idea they made sequels to that!" they often exclaim. Take that, add in the fact that Psycho IV: The Beginning never played in any American theaters, intended as being just a Showtime original movie, and I guess it's easy to understand why it's the least heard-of entry in the series.

When dealing with sequels, it's always tempting to talk about which entry is the best, as there are numerous criteria to consider. Which honors the original the best? Which is the most entertaining, the most insane, the most violent? For similar horror series, like Halloween or Friday the 13th, these are acceptable debates in which to engage, being that though they all tried new things, they were all largely the same in construct. But with the Psycho series, each sequel strived to be incredibly different from the first, and from the sequels that came before. The very undervalued Psycho II played with the audience's preconceived notions of who Norman Bates was, not allowing them to trust their own eyes, as they were convinced the unseen knife-wielder could only be their titular madman. Psycho III, directed by star Anthony Perkins, goes full gonzo, ramping up the blackly comedic elements of the original while guiding it into a sleazy, dark, and somewhat uncomfortable direction. Psycho IV, written by original Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano (without input from original novelist Robert Bloch), brushes aside all the accumulated baggage of its previous sequels and opts to focus on the core of what made Psycho so interesting – the psychosis of its "leading man." (Garris confirmed his intent to ignore the sequels, but an in-film reference to the motel being closed down after the last murders "a few years ago" seems to fly in the face of that. If by "a few" you mean "thirty," well, okay.)

Norman Bates, now somewhat unrealistically living free and married to a staff member of the hospital where he'd been committed, is calling into a radio show (remember those?) to put in his two cents on the subject of matricide: the killing of a mother by her child. Using the name Ed (as in Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer who inspired the character of Norman Bates, along with scores of other fictional cinematic killers), Norman delves back into his never-discussed childhood, finally fleshing out his mother, Norma, beyond just a stuffed corpse in a rocking chair. After thirty years, the audience gets a taste of the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse he suffered at her hands until the iced tea/strychnine cocktail he eventually served her.

The cast – in the past and in the present – do a fine job of sliding into Bates family history. Henry Thomas (The Haunting of Hill House) is remarkable as a young Norman Bates, unafraid to tackle some taboo topics and frankly a handful of uncomfortable scenes to film (popping a B while rolling around on top of your "mother" certainly qualifies). In terms of younger iterations, his take is far better than Freddie Highmore's somewhat irritating, mush-mouthed version from A&E. Olivia Hussey (Black Christmas) as Mama Bates offers the strongest performance, with a character even more complicated than Norman. While the son is the fucked-up progeny of his mother, it's the creator of his psychosis who must come off even more unhinged. Hussey's take on the character has to be so many things: loving and happy, but sad and resentful; sexual, but puritanical. She's manic depressive, bi-polar, and emotionally manipulative, all at once. (Again, somewhere, Vera Farmiga was taking notes.) CCH Pounder (Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight), an actress as awesome as her name, does typically great work as a radio show host slowly transitioning from skeptical and slightly amused to invested and even personally responsible for the bloody path Norman is threatening to cut. And of course, there's Anthony Perkins stepping back into his most famous role. Much of his limited screen time is relegated to him hugging a phone to his face and providing segues into the past, but the amount of emotion he's capable of conveying is highly effective.

Much of Psycho IV is very well made – it's certainly the best film in director Garris' career – and it's really only during the final act where it falters, intent on giving present-day Norman some knifery to do (or consider doing). The idea of him struggling with whether or not to kill his wife – and by proxy, his unborn child – in an attempt to avoid passing off his madness to someone else comes off just slightly obligatory (not to mention certainly put a damper on the marriage); the same emotional catharsis could have been had in Norman's burning down of his family home while confronting the ghosts of his past, leaving a doubt in the audience's mind he might make it out of the inferno alive, without resorting to cheap and unnecessary slasher film territory to bring it all home.

Exploring the backgrounds of our favorite cinematic killers has become more and more prominent in recent years, with the remakes of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and coming soon, another Friday the 13th, robbing from their respective boogeymen their sense of mystique, and thus, their potency. The same cannot be said of Psycho IV, as nothing within it was fabricated beyond what was already spoken of or alluded to in the original film. 

While Psycho IV might not be the best of the sequels, it certainly treats the original film with the most reverence, unafraid to embrace the more icky subjects that the sequels opted to avoid. It was a worthy send-off for the character of Norman Bates, who, despite all the women-stabbing, has proven consistently to be the most sympathetic movie maniac of them all, with Psycho IV making him even more so. Though one could argue that the groundwork for exploring Norman Bates' backstory was laid during the original film in its final moments, Psycho IV: The Beginning is as respectful to that as it can be without coming off as exploitative of the Hitchcock classic. 

Apr 19, 2021


Have you ever noticed that nearly every film about making a film is rife with drama, turbulent emotions, and absurdity? That there is no shortage of bad news, insurmountable odds, pain, and suffering? Ever wonder why that is? Filmmakers love to make films, and that's obvious, or else they wouldn't do it, but that doesn't mean that they enjoy every stage of the process - like butting heads with producers, raising money, catering to every ego on set, dealing with drug/alcohol/other vice addictions. The director only wants to make a film, and sometimes it seems the things standing in the way of that are the very resources he has chosen in order to make that film happen.

Living in Oblivion, if you have any respect for the actual filmmaking process, is something you simply have to see - if only once. An exorcism of sorts for writer/director Tom DiCillo, whose debut effort, the Brad Pitt-starring Johnny Suede, it would seem provided him with all the fodder and inspiration needed to examine the art of the film and the collaboration it requires before tearing it all apart with hilarious results. As presented, and according to DiCillo, filmmaking is a balancing act. It's massaging actors' egos, it's contending with faulty equipment, it's butting heads with DPs, it's dealing with ball-busting assistant directors, and it's keeping the fucking boom mic out of the shot. This and so many other things.

For this deconstruction, DiCillo has brought with him a remarkable cast of knowns, lesser knowns, and unknowns, each absolutely thrilled to be satirizing the very industry in which they work. Although Steve Buscemi takes on the role of the beleaguered director, there is no one special performance worth calling out over any others, because everyone does tremendous and hilarious work. But if there had to be one, Phantasm II's James Le Gros walks away with most laughs per capita of screen time, as his passive aggressive pretty boy Chas Paolomino is an absolute delight to watch; his love him/hate him presence sees him suggesting alternate camera shots, blocking, and dialogue, which garner some of the biggest belly laughs of the film. (His insistence on laying down on the bed in a too-casual, slightly effeminate way, but never managing to appear fully in the shot, is a personal favorite.) It's also nice to see Dermot Mulroney in a beefier role than audiences are used to, as he's an undervalued performer who deserves to be doing more of The Grey and less Insidious: Chapter 3. And yes, even Peter Dinklage! Can you believe he was an actor before Game of Thrones? Weird, right? 

What makes Living in Oblivion so entertaining to watch is its uncanny ability to send up the medium while doing it with equal parts hate and love, and resulting in a film that's just damn good, whether you get all the film-related jokes or not. Tom DiCillo is an extremely underrated filmmaker, and he has a firm grasp of the material and his script. Living in Oblivion serves two purposes: it both makes you wonder how someone of DiCillo's talent could've ever had such trouble on set, and then offers an answer to that question with a charming, acerbic, hilarious, and at times heartbreaking response. 

DiCillo has recalled reacting to notices about Living in Oblivion that stated the film could only be truly appreciate by other filmmakers, which he is quick to deny. While perhaps it's possible that other filmmakers could appreciate Living in Oblivion the most, it does have one thing at its core that every facet of the audience can relate to, and that's the utter hell it can be in trying to accomplish a goal while you have nearly every possible hurdle popping up to squash that accomplishment - to the degree you start to wonder if you're cursed. Living in Oblivion just happens to be about making a film, but there's nothing about it that will leave you feeling left in the dark. 

Apr 16, 2021


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


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


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? 



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, Léon. 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


"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.