Category Archives: Blog

Three-Minute Review: The faculty (1998)

Summary:

What happens when you pit high school students against an alien invasion? You actually get a pretty good sci-fi thriller that’s a little underrated and totally worth watching. And, that’s just what happens in The Faculty, as high school students from Herrington High have to put aside petty bickering to battle an otherworldly aggressor before it leaves their little town and takes over the world.

Behind the Scenes:

The film is directed by Robert Rodriguez who is an exquisite director all around (see From Dusk Till Dawn [1996]), and he excels at this kind of pacing and storytelling, which seems to involve the struggle of evil forces against misanthropes and outsiders.

Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnett are also 90s icons that really lift this film into even higher highs; also, Jon Steward and Robert Patrick play literal members of the faculty that don’t have the children’s best interests at heart.

Takeaway:

The Faculty triumphs because it takes Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and simply moves the story to a high school, which creates a new interpretation of an age-old fear: can we trust those around us?

The genre shift of communist-paranoia to teen-romp in a suburbia works so effortlessly that as a viewer, I was immediately sucked into the story. I think it has some great acting, some truly terrifying scenes (swimming pool climax), and excellent pacing. It helps put 90s horror on the good side of classic cinema.

I think The Faculty gets left in the dark a lot when considering other 90s horror films, but it’s really good in my opinion. If you haven’t checked it out in a while—you really should.

Three-Minute Review: Fight Club (1999)

Synopsis:

Under the sweaty manliness of Fight Club is a movie that warns its viewers about corporate isolation and negligence of the human self.

Our protagonist, who is unnamed (played deftly by Edward Norton), is a career corporate drone, who is bereft of life and overcome by meaningless nature of working one’s way up the corporate ladder.

We meet Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) early on and learn that to break the chains of his corporate life, our unnamed protagonist has to completely tear down his sense of self and embrace a new construction, which may quite possibly result in the destruction of society and order as we know it.

Behind the Scenes:

This is a masterpiece of modern cinema and uses the postmodern lens to analyze the futility of the life of a worker bee and the nihilism in our singular wants and ambitions.

Director David Fincher presents the characters, the setting, and plot in such an amorphous, delightful way, that the viewer has no choice but to go along for the insane psychological ride.

Fight Club also boasts an excellent score by The Dust Brothers that is so distinctly that film that hearing it out of context only makes one think about punches to the face and castration via rubber band.

Takeaway:

Fight Club is without a doubt an excellent film and demonstrates much of what makes a good film compelling. The actors all embody who they play, from Edward Norton’s burned out shell of a cog, to Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla, who is so strangely relatable and distant that you have to wonder how the character works in the context of a “good character.”

The book that the movie is based off of is also a classic, too (if you are into that sort of thing), but Fincher’s movie more than adequately captures author Chuck Palahuniuk’s voice and themes from the book on film.

“Rules of Engagement” fails to become the definitive military courtroom drama

Released: Oct. 10, 2000

Director: William Friedkin

Starring: Samuel Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, Bruce Greenwood, and Ben Kingsley

Writer(s): James Web and adapted by Stephen Gaghan


Synopsis:

Rules of Engagement (2000) is a military courtroom drama starring Samuel L. Jackson as Lieutenant Terry Childers, and Tommy Lee Jones as Lieutenant Hayes Hodges. It largely details the relationship between two men: Lieutenant Terry Childers (Jackson) and Lieutenant Hayes Hodges (Jones), during the court-martial of Childers for the murder of 83 foreign civilians outside of a US embassy in Yemen. It asks questions about soldier’s ethical responsibility during hostile engagements (sort of), and accountability in leadership when it comes to American soldiers on foreign soil.

Analysis:

The latter of the two themes—accountability—is more pervasive and especially evident in the film during a dinner scene in which Hodges is visiting his father, Gen. Hayes Lawrence Hodges (Philip Baker Hall), who says, “Even if you thought you weren’t responsible—it went wrong and you were there.” Purely for the contention of the movie, Childers and Hodges seem to be the only two who accept this idea as truth, whereas everybody else denies culpability in the war crime that took place.

The story behind Rules of Engagement is not a new one, and films of similar substance certainly had some impact on its arc and character development: A Few Good Men (1992) comes to mind. Rules of Engagement has an expectant ending, but I think what troubles me most about the film is that we don’t see definitive changes in the character, or any meaningful development in theme. “This movie is about accountability,” it says. “And at the end it is still about accountability (sort of).”

I suppose if a film offers something to the viewers in regards to this plot—a different take, an odd angle—I may be more interested in the story it has to tell. Samuel L. Jackson’s character commits a horrible atrocity in this film and yet he is vindicated at the end of the film, which should be unsettling, regardless of the clear picture of corruption in the legislature that the film is also trying to illustrate. I mean, we see him give the order to fire on civilians.

There was an annoying bit at the end, too, which involved a closing credit caption sequence as Samuel L. Jackson is strolling away from the court room, free of guilt. The words state that everyone who had lied and tried to cheat Jackson in the film was held up to high legal standards and convicted of some crime or were forced to leave their political position. I found this irritating because in a film that is asking questions about accountability, we suddenly understand that accountability is black and white, which simply isn’t true. The reason accountability is a problem in the United States is because it’s a difficult topic to parse, and assessing blame is a difficult action to pursue. Contrivance, I say.

I did enjoy watching Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones kick the shit out of each other in sloppy indoor fistfight; but, that kind of interesting storytelling and action is short-lived.

Both Jackson and Jones’ characters are carbon copy military characters as seen in myriad military dramas. Their superiors are the barking dogs walking in the shadows of George C. Scott’s Patton (1970), which makes the film a bit….blah. It has all been had and troubles an otherwise compelling (ish) narrative. Nevertheless, Guy Pearce really kills it in this film. During a scene in which he lays out the case to his legal team, he consistently displays his acting ability, strolling around the room, running the finer points through his head like a legal cheese grater. He has wit and is intellectually quick. The viewer understands that by watching him command the role he has been given. It’s good stuff in a film that is stacked full of cardboard simulacrums.

The film is shot in a very generic sense but it works to the advantage of the narrative. As I stated, the film isn’t doing anything new, so the filmmakers could only go in a few directions: either take a very general story and shoot it like a David Lynch film, or shoot it in a safe and practical way, which is what they did. The battle scenes look like battle scenes—the Vietnam flashbacks are so Vietnam-y it’s actually a little unsettling, as they look more like a satire of Vietnam than a historical recap. The courtroom scenes are straight out of JAG, so you can anticipate how the movie will play out before it unfolds. On the other hand, it’s a little comforting, but I think the viewer would want more. With such a violent introduction to the film, some more unnerving imagery might help the story of unlawful murder more gritty—more real.

On the score side of things, Rules of Engagement has a startling lack of music, and I believe what music exists is very stereotypical TAPS-style melody and rhythm, which is meant to evoke patriotic fervor from the audience, I suppose. I honestly wasn’t really wasn’t sure what the movie was getting at sonically. A subtle form of jingoism, maybe? Mark Isham provided this scarcity of score and seemingly committed to it intentionally, but it doesn’t work for the emotional weight of the film. Stark silence works for a thriller (sometimes) but for a dramatic court room drama—there has to be a bit more (typically)—especially if it the story is about a more controversial case. The audience may need to be keyed into what emotions they should be feeling.

I would recommend Rules of Engagement to viewers who enjoy war movies and courtroom dramas. I think there are a few interesting beats here and there—the fight scene between the embattled Jackson and Jones is one such moment—but it lacks something more that might push it out of the boundary of stereotypical drama. Of course, there are better ones, but if you are looking for a lazy, hangover Sunday film—this does the job.

Overall: 1 ½ stars (Writing 1/2 + Acting ½ + Sight 0 + Sound + Recommend ½)

A Domestic Nightmare in the documentary “Crazy Love”

Released: June 2, 2007

Directed by: Dan Klores, Fisher Stevens

Written by: Dan Klores


Crazy Love (2007) is all about psychosis. It’s about the intentions of the protagonist and the antagonist. It’s about the director’s decision to use a score that is totally incompatible with a film that is satirizing the institution of marriage; but, most importantly, Crazy Love is about two people who have lost touch with reality and a director who documents the two with sensationalist lust.

First, let me address the film’s content: it’s a good documentary. It’s good if only for the audience to scream at Burt Pugach and Linda Riss who are far more socially-handicapped than they or the director is willing to let on. There is a spectacle being made of these two, and they are going along for the ride with a candid “tell all” attitude.

There are long moments where Pugach talks about how much money he made as a lawyer, and there are equally long moments of Linda Riss talking about how much she loved him for having so much money. Their shallow relationship gets uglier with each minute of the film, and the viewer quickly comes to the conclusion that a marriage like this can’t be a successful one. Though Pugach is certainly a deviation from the norm, Riss comes off as comparably warped and jaded. If this documentary does anything well, it’s that the viewer begins to share the spoils of the couple’s unhappy relationship, which really makes one look at their own relationships more critically and will find (hopefully) that things could be a lot worse. In this way, the documentary works: the content is surprisingly good. It’s like a late night murder mystery on television, and the sheer macabre of the whole affair is intriguing.

The score, however, is incompetently weak. It stands in stark contrast to the theme of mutually assured destruction. Where there should be notes of distress and dissonance when Pugach pulls out his creeper peepers, there is instead a jovial laugh-track of guitar and horns.

“And then I threw acid in her face!” Pugach screams. *slide whistle*

(The above was not actual dialogue, but he did throw acid in her face).

It’s similar to watching Michael Madsen lopping off a cop’s ear to “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs (1992). In attempting to use the juxtaposition of disparate music and imagery as an exclamation mark to punctuate the insanity of Pugach’s and Riss’s unholy matrimony, the sound designer compliments the documentary with all the subtlety of a hacksaw cutting bone. I would love to believe this was intentional, as if it was a sort of joke; but, alas, it feels accidental. I don’t believe Director Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens completely understood the implications (or lack thereof) of what they were attempting to create and instead jammed two warring parts together with seriously insane results.

It’s difficult to have patience with a film that is documenting two truly unlikeable people. The entire film is very similar to the (thankfully) dissipating trend in horror filmmaking of “torture porn,” in which the audience is supposed to sit in approving disgust as people are mutilated and dismembered. While I love good gore in horror movies (and movies in general when it’s necessary), I don’t know that I can abide a two-hour movie where someone’s body is being slowly torn apart. That is, violence and effects are not a substitute for storytelling. The qualities that I just sighted can be applied to Crazy Love, as the main difficulty of the film is sitting through long moments of hedonism and grotesque narcissism with very little payoff.

If one can get past the sensationalist attitude of the film and the circusy score, Crazy Love is an interesting documentary, as it shows just how far the human psyche will go to convince itself that it is, in fact, in love when it definitely should avoid it at all costs.

Underrated 90s Horror Gems

It’s nearing Halloween so it’s high time to plop yourself down with a bowl of popcorn or candy and watch some scary movies, but as us horror connoisseurs know, scary movies come in all shapes and sizes, both good and bad. Thus, let’s look at a few underrated horror movies from the 90s that either don’t get much love or just get a bad rap.


Cube (1997)

I didn’t know what to expect the first time I watched Cube (1997) and was completely mortified when the realization of the protagonists’ impending doom set in to my adolescent mind (the body horror didn’t help either). Cube pits a group of unsuspecting individuals against a giant military-constructed contraption that exists, because, well—it just does. I think the franchise reveals what the cube is all about later in the series, but the mystery of it in the opener is damn intriguing. Additionally, there are some seriously gory death scenes in Cube that, while horrifying, are also creative and expertly executed.

Jason Goes to Hell (1993)

There is a lot of hate for this film, it seems…but I love it! Full disclosure: I’m not a huge Friday the 13th series fan, but I have seen all of the films (self-imposed viewing), so I can rightfully argue that they are just not my thing—except for Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993). To that end, here are my reasons for liking the detestable beast of an installment:

First, it gets rid of Jason Voorhees, who is a tall, lumbering and dull character who should have stayed dead after Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) hit him in the head with a machete in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) (at least the franchise could have gone in a different direction, like with more copycat Jasons or something). Let’s face it, those movies get pretty boring because the viewer knows what to expect, and when the audience becomes all-knowing, omnipotent observers, the films stop being exciting. And, really, considering the myriad flaws throughout each installment, shouldn’t these movies just be fun and not overly plodding?

Second, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday creates a slimy worm-like character who slithers around and takes control of people by entering their bodies (ewww). I love this angle on the film, because it’s new and inventive rather than predictable and lame. Really, ole slimy boi could be a slasher villain with his own franchise. It could be like The Exorcist or The Evil Dead, except the villain is everyone around the protagonist and not just a hulking jackass with a garden tool, who slips, trips (but has an absence of quips) because he has an insatiable lust for murder.

Slimy Boi
What could be the the poster for the first “Slimy Boi” in the series. 

Lastly, there is also a cool bounty hunter named Creighton Duke that actively tries to stop Jason and doesn’t run around screaming for 90 minutes. Moreover, there are some epic-level death scenes that I still marvel at to this day, and they use the Necronomicon in the film, which is alongside a million obvious horror movie references that the creators nod at throughout the film. I suppose so many movie references can be worthy of an eye-roll, but I actually appreciated them due to the slasher-niche genre of the film.

Tales from the Darkside (1990)

I love a good horror anthology, and I think Tales from the Darkside (1990) really does the trick for me in regards to presenting good stories, good gore, and good atmosphere. Director John Harrison does an excellent job with the material as he seems to know what Tales from the Darkside is all about, and that makes all the difference. I like to imagine a modern take on Creepshow (1982), which would no doubt have a million “jump scares” and good-looking actors and actresses to appeal to casual horror fans who don’t give a damn about the source material (and probably rightfully so because not everybody loves horror movies like us junkies).

The cast is really great. Steve Buscemi as a vengeful graduate student who reanimates a mummy is perfect, David Hickey as a wheelchair bound millionaire who fears retribution from a murderous cat is…well…he plays David Hickey and that works wonders, and James Remar as a gloomy artist who has sworn an oath to a gargoyle to never speak of having seen it in action is also a joy to watch.

This is a more than excellent anthology of horror very much in the vein of The Vault of Horror (1973) or Tales from the Crypt (1972), so it’s worth checking out if you are a fan of violent little vignettes,

Night of the Living Dead (remake) (1990)

I just watched Night of the Living Dead (1990) within the last few years and didn’t like it as much as I remember, but that just means it is high-time to watch it again.

It has a lot going for it as a movie: Tom Savini directs, it stars Tony Todd (Candyman [1992]), and features hordes of cannibal zombies at every turn. It at least has all the qualities of a good horror movie. Except that it takes shlock and camp and jacks it up to 11, and then features a repetitive castle defense-style game plot that sees the cast attempting to nail all of the windows and doors closed again and again.

But, I wanted to highlight this movie for a reason: when I was a kid, my brothers and I would play a game that we created called “Zombies,” which saw some of us playing as the hordes of the undead and some us as the survivors (or we would all be survivors and just pretend there were zombies), and the point of the game was to keep the zombies out of our home (one of our bedrooms). We would spend much of the game fake nailing the doors and windows shut against an ocean of imagined monsters and also pretend to be nearly bit as we boarded ourselves from the outside. As I was watching Night of the Living Dead, I suddenly realized that we had harvested much of that game from the movie itself, which is awesome for a kid’s game, but not awesome for a movie, because it’s repetitive and boring.

Still, I kind of like it for nostalgia alone, so…oh well!


Whelp, that’s my list of 90s gems, and while this list accentuates my taste in horror films, the 90s is filled with all sorts of strange and curious flicks for viewers of all stripes. Consider the campier Wishmaster (1997), Leprechaun (1993), and Hocus Pocus (1993), versus the revolutionary found-footage film The Blair Witch Project (1999). In the span of ten years, horror movies went bat-shit insane with bipolar depictions of the terrifying and the macabre.

So, what are your favorite horror movies from the 90s? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

 

“Dark Was the Night” uses atmosphere but reveals too much budget in the light

Released: Oct. 16, 2014

Title: Dark Was the Night

Director: Jack Heller

Starring: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich


Synopsis

A small-town sheriff (Kevin Durand), who is struggling with grief due to the loss of one of his sons, comes face-to-face with a monster that has been exacting its revenge on the local populace for desecrating its habitat.

Analysis

Dark Was the Night begins promisingly enough. It has the slow-burn quality of a tense horror thriller without using “jump scares” to try and excite the audience. However, the filmmaker forgot to add moments of excitement and resolve to create an engaging narrative.

By the time the climax hit, I was standing in front of the television waiting for it to be over, which is not the quality of a good film.

Kevin Durand turns in a good performance as a depressed father who has lost all emotional attachment after the abduction of his son. The long-windedness of the writing makes his character arch tiresome, though, and the viewer is exhausted from Durand’s depressed state by the end of the film.

Bianca Kajlich plays Durand’s estranged wife, who lives with her mother—unable to deal with the loss of her son. There is a lack of chemistry between both her and Durand, and their relationship feels like it is “going through the motions.” This is made abundantly clear through the writing, but their lack of attachment to one another seals the deal.

Lukas Haas provides some enjoyment as Durand’s rather detached partner. While he also shares many of Durand’s qualities in the film, he brings a sort of escalated expression to his role, which makes him enjoyable to watch—mores so than the lead of the film.

The first half of Dark Was the Night has interesting visual qualities. The screen is literally cast in blue to give a cold, distant winter-vibe, which I thought achieved its purpose. This cinema trickery wears off by the end of the second act as the film steers into generic territory.

Furthermore, the evil monster, which may or may not be a “Windiga” (sic) is revealed to be a giant malformed CGI creation. The entire film is a build up to the reveal of this creature—and it looks horrible. I wanted to give the movie a half-star in this category but really felt as though the monster ruined it. They should not have revealed it at all, because they could not pull it off as the build up set too much expectation.

As far as the music goes, I will keep this brief. There was nothing memorable in the score. The monster’s cries were monster screams that could have been royalty-free sounds from a horror website. And, there are moments where the audio is difficult to hear because Durand’s voice is both deep and low, which is fine, but they do nothing to elevate it in the mix, so it gets lost in a void of silence.

I would not recommend Dark Was the Night for the reasons previously mentioned. It is a long build to ultimately reveal something that could not be filmed. The setting was interesting (I love cold, snowy environments), but the characters were forgettable, and the CGI was not executed well at all. It’s kind of disappointing since I enjoyed the first half of the film.

Overall Rating: 1 star (writing ½ + acting ½ + sight 0 + sound 0 + recommend 0)

Film Festival a slice of delight for local horror fans and creators

I attended the Slice of Fright Film Festival with my mum in Bay City, MI on Saturday, Oct. 12. The festival showcased 32 international and national short films and micro-films from the horror genre.

Typically, I go to movie-outings with low expectations (this is done intentionally—not out of malice or snobbish contempt), because I’m a popcorn junkie and it gives me a reason to drink non-diet soda, which I otherwise avoid. If the outing features these offerings, then I can safely say it was a great experience without having to use the festival films as a critic’s egregious crutch.

The Slice of Fright Film Festival offered both popcorn and soda, and some really great mini-flicks to boot.

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I went with my dear mum, and at one point I asked her to buy me a sticker (because they only took cash, and I only had a card). My mom turned to me and said, “You’re eating into your popcorn money!” As a 30-year-old man who looks twelve, I probably should have felt more ashamed, because we were in a room full of people, but deep down I knew she was right.

As highlighted by the official selections, the short films were both national and international (and Michigan-made films as well), including Canada, France, Ireland, and Germany. The wide range of diverse voices provided interesting takes on atypical stories, so there were lots of little surprises throughout the evening.

Some of the film highlights:

  • Hypnosis: This French short by Director Grégoire Vaillant kicked off the film festival and had a great deal of depth. By analyzing viewer expectations as moviegoers, the short was able to play with horror movie clichés in an original way. The sound design in Hypnosis helped convey the fear, dread, and revelatory moments throughout its evenly-paced story. This was one of my two votes for the “Viewer’s Choice” category.
  • The Animator: I’ve loved clay animation since the first time I watched Rank/Bass’s Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Clause is Coming to Town (1970). South Carolina Director Trent Shy’s The Animator does not disappoint either, as it explores the notion of the creator and the creation…and the masochism that sometimes occurs when one is literally shaping the world of their creations with their own hands.
  • Grave Sight: One common factor throughout the festival was the level of humor that the creators employed in their films. Of all the films, I think Grave Site by Canadian Director Angus Swantee executed this skill with the most expertise. Grave Site tells the tale of a husband and wife who are digging up a witch’s grave to steal her rings, and hilarity ensues (there’s eye-popping, monsters, and some really fun sight gags). Grave Site was my second and final choice for the “Viewer’s Choice” category.
  • Verso: Verso was just damn cool. Michigan Director Joseph Victor proves that reverse linearity in narrative can be just as effective as telling one’s story front-to-back. The short works in reverse to tell the story of a man’s transformation into a zombie-like monster. The slow reveals through the literal reversal of film is both a neat execution strategy and it’s an engaging way to inform the viewer of plot detail.
  • Death Cleaners: This short by Director Cynthia Bergen uses the macabre profession of crime scene technician as a lens to tell a ghost story. I am highlighting it here because I think it tells a fairly conventional tale replete with “jump scares” but manages to use both a competent and unique voice to tell its story.

Overall, the 2nd Annual Slice of Fright Film Festival was a fun event that had a lot to offer in showcasing unique voices in horror and short films. I’m already looking forward to next year.

In the Tall Grass (Spoilers!)

Details

  • Released: Oct. 4, 2019
  • Director: Vincenzo Natali
  • Starring: Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson, Will Buie Jr., Harrison Gilbertson, Tiffany Helm, Rachel Wilson

Synopsis

A group of disparate characters (a mother, father, and son; a brother and sister; and an old flame) enter a field in the middle of the US to find themselves lost physically, spatially, and spiritually. They have to work together in order to defeat an ancient evil, and find their way out of a maze of tall grass and supernatural forces.

Review

In the Tall Grass (2019) is rife with Stephen King tropes, but has some of the charm of a Joe Hill narrative, which creates a compelling mixture of familiar and genuine moments.

The movie tells a story about an unknowable evil (tropey) that is both pervasive and permeates its way through miles and miles of tall grass somewhere in middle America. It also happens to embody a giant stone that sits at the center of the miles and miles of green ocean grass, and it has the ability to generate some a sort of psychic control over those that touch it, which dominates their minds and bodies.

Our protagonists are pulled off the road in pursuit of “time-loop” versions of themselves who have become stuck in a sort of wretched feedback loop where they either die or become extraordinarily insane (the rules aren’t made abundantly clear). The first two to enter, Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and Cal DeMuth (Avery Whitted) follow after a young child’s voice(Will Buie Jr.), who is searching for his parents Ross (Patrick Wilson) and Natalie Humboldt (Rachel Wilson).

There is a great deal of time in the beginning of the film that is spent acclimating the viewer to the tall grass’s abilities, which is actually neat for the first minutes until it degrades into everybody screaming each other’s name for an excessive amount of time. I felt as though this section could have been trimmed a little as it doesn’t further the movie in any meaningful way.

As such, I have come to the conclusion that if a film forces the audiences to follow characters around and around in setting circles then there might be trouble with the story or the particular act itself; and, that’s pretty much what happens throughout much of In the Tall Grass. There’s a lot of walking in circles and returning to the same set pieces, which actively steals forward momentum from the audience, and it feels like they haven’t gotten anywhere in the story. Oddly enough, the viewer feels as though they are walking through a maze of tall grass.

In a very Stephen King fashion, one of the characters becomes possessed by the ancient evil and begins eliminating the support cast. This isn’t necessarily an issue, but Patrick Wilson is a good actor who could do much better in a role which doesn’t call for him to transform into a zany, wise-cracking villain (Damian Lewis’s change in Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher [2003] comes to mind). And, Patrick Wilson really embodies that zaniness to a fault.

I was not really familiar with the cast, but I think that was a good choice for the film, because there are some deaths in the film that are unique and unexpected, and it helps to not know who you are supposed to be rooting for when those climactic moments occur. Not having a familiar face to cling on to certainly creates more tension for the audience.

Moreover, I enjoyed many of the visuals in In the Tall Grass, as there seemed to be an actual interest in using practical effects to achieve some of the more expansive visuals. The tall grass, for instance, looks like a moving, tricky mass of sentient life, and the ancient stone looks like a real piece of architecture that could be interacted with and touched. I think it’s important to have those moments in film that are visually awe-inspiring on a practical level to stand in contrast to the unnecessary use of heavy CGI in modern film.

Likewise, the sound is not remarkable but does convey the horror atmosphere by using disjointed tones and what sounded like Gregorian chants, I think. I may need to update my sound system, though, because early in the film, as the characters are shifting around the tall grass, their voices pan from right to left and back again to denote the inconsistency in their location, but I don’t think I was catching the full effect, or it just wasn’t executed very well.

In the Tall Grass is a good horror film. It has surprises and a few solid performances. Also, the premise is interesting, and I can really appreciate a film about unknowable evil. I think fans of Stephen King would enjoy it. As for modern King (and Hill) adaptations, I think this is more consistent in tone than IT: Chapter One (2017) and IT: Chapter Two (2019). There is some gory stuff, too, but it’s pretty tame in comparison to modern horror cinema.

The premise is interesting but then fizzles down in the third act. I am also uncomfortable with the rules of the tall grass. They make it a point to hint that there are some, so why not show the viewer the whole game? Or, just don’t hint at them at all. I can live with either choice. I guess it is supposed to be this disorienting, perennial evil that encourages confusion, but this actually creates a perplexing world for viewers.

Overall: 3/5 (writing 1/2+acting 1/2+sight 1+sound 1/2+recommend 1/2)

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later is the second-best film in the franchise

Details

  • Director: Steve Miner
  • Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Adam Arkin, Janet Leigh, Josh Hartnett, LL Cool J, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as hockey-skate face).
  • Writer(s): Robert Zappia and Kevin Williamson (uncredited)

An Argument for Halloween H20: 20 Years Later

The Halloween franchise is a complete mess. Ever since Michael Myers first (Laurie) strode onto the screen, audiences have had an interest in seeing more of the Shatner-faced antagonist in their film diet (and I do say interest because I feel as though most of the hype surrounding these franchises are literally manufactured by studios to continue the acquisition of wealth via franchise pillaging).

The first film in the franchise, Halloween (1978) is a masterpiece of genre filmmaking, but certainly not the first, as its predecessor, Black Christmas (1974), is an insanely underrated slasher film. Nevertheless, it still sets the tone for horror movies today and pushed the genre into the general public’s canon of interests. Hopefully, it will have a lasting impression on indie-horror for generations to come (hopefully).

Yet, the films that follow the original get a little weird and mundane. Halloween II (1981) is a rehash of the first movie…and it is just not a good film. Donald Pleasence running around to the passenger side of a police car in the beginning of the film while screaming, “I shot him six times! I shot him in the heart! I shot him six times! This guy…he’s not human!” is both disappointing for expository purposes, and it’s disappointing to watch someone try to act those lines…even if it’s Donald Pleasence.

You can watch it on YouTube here.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is clunky and a little random (I do love it though, but it really should be its own thing), even though it oozes atmosphere and a batshit-insane plot.  Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989), and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) all demonstrate how a horror movie franchise can degrade into the banality of a slasher orgy that rivals the likes of the later Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th films. The film series also gets into Druid curses as a plot point, which is weird, but it may be the only thing I appreciate about that trio of films because at least it’s innovative.

Halloween: H20 (1998), however, does everything the original Halloween did in regards to atmosphere and horror, and builds upon fear and tension without using an abundance of jump scares and gore. Case in point, the scene in which Michael steals a car while a mother and daughter try to use a bathroom at a rest stop perfectly represents what made the original Halloween scary, and I am prepared to use a comparative analysis to make my point:

At the beginning of Halloween, a nurse is literally scared out of her car because Michael Myers is on the top of the vehicle trying his damnedest to get inside. He batters the roof and the windows, and finally—in a frightful mess—the nurse lunges from the car and Michael climbs through a broken window, peeling off into the night behind the wheel. He doesn’t follow her, he doesn’t stalk her for an hour through the woods until he kills her. In fact, you barely even see him and later in the movie, when his motivations become clear, you understand that he just wanted to get the hell out of there to go kill the rest of his family.

In a similar fashion, in Halloween H20, Michael waits at a rest stop until suitable victims arrive (in this case a mother and daughter), and, in a scene that is as about as tense as they get, Michael enters the bathroom and takes the mother’s keys from her purse while she is tearfully hiding behind a restroom stall door. He doesn’t kill her, nor does he kill the daughter. He just steals the keys and hits the road on his quest for revenge against Laurie Strode. It speaks volumes of his character, his motivations, and moves the plot along in a rational way while still employing tension and a very real and menacing threat.

In contrast, in the latest iteration of Halloween, Michael murders a pair of podcasting partners in a bathroom…because, according to the film, Michael is a single-minded murderer who has no ability to rationalize when and who he should be killing. Likewise, in Rob Zombie’s less-than-enthusiastic (or overzealous? I don’t know) remake, Michael kills a rather large truck driver because he needs his jumpsuit…because viewers want to see him back in his old duds? I’m actually not sure.

What I’m getting at is that there is an essential lack of subtlety in literally every iteration of Halloween outside of the original movie and Halloween H20. To further this point, in H20 we also get to see Laurie (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) dealing with PTSD from having her life completely unhinged by her psychotic brother (something I liked in the newest film); and, while it might seem like a bummer that LL Cool J is in Halloween H20, he at no point kicks Michael Myers in the chest and screams, “Trick or Treat, Motherfucker!” He’s just in the film playing a character; and, he actually does a pretty good job at it, because, you know what? Not only do I really love Halloween H20, but I’m also a believer in LL Cool J’s acting capabilities.

So take that, internet nerds!

Halloween H20 is also more than competently written. The writers do a fantastic job conveying Josh Hartnett’s rebelliousness and Laurie’s concern over the safety of her son, while also handling the delicacy of her character with tenderness and strength. She is a strong person, but anybody confronted with the deaths of their friends and family in such a gruesome way have to put up walls to get through the trauma. Nevertheless, she stands up to Michael and beats him down with a fire extinguisher (and eventually lops off his head, thus proving fratricide is sometimes okay).

I also really enjoy the visuals. The director Steve Miner and cinematographer Daryn Okada make use of the giant, empty Hillcrest Academy as a sort of killing ground for Michael. And, the lack of emphasis on gore makes the film more worthwhile because, like the original, you are not focused on explosions of violence to sustain a slowly-paced script. Instead, the atmosphere, storytelling, and character development help the viewer interpret the action and the dynamics of the film itself.

As far as what doesn’t work: the title Halloween H20: 20 Years Later is redundant.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on Halloween H20, but I am also curious about your own favorite underrated horror films. What are some of your favorites from the 90s? And, if you don’t think the 90s was a good time for horror, then tell me why!

My Five Favorite Horror Films

Halloween is fast approaching like the shambling footsteps of the corporal undead, and what better way to celebrate the ghoulish holiday then by watching your favorite horror movies? As such, I would like to offer you boils and ghouls (hee hee) my list of favorite horror films of all time. Some are new (ish), some are old, and some are timeless, like some unknown, ancient horror in the depths of an aging manor on a blackened hilltop—but, nonetheless, each holds a special place in my gory, bleeding heart.

The Thing (1982)

I have so much to say about this film but limited space (self-imposed). So, I’ll be brief in saying it is as close to a masterpiece a horror director can achieve, or even a film for that matter. The Thing deals with cold isolation—from the world and from each other—and it’s also about trust. The Room’s (2003) tagline is “Can you really trust anybody?” which only kind of makes sense, but if it was The Thing’s tagline then it would make perfect sense! This film works because both themes (isolation and trust) are never broken, and never is this truer than when R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) is trying to weed out the alien by administering a test of his own devising, which involves setting heat to blood samples. Right up until the monster reveals itself, everyone is guessing as to who is still human and who has been assimilated; in other words, nobody knows if they can trust one another and on top of that, they are all alone on a frozen continent with relief months away.

The cast also does an amazing job—from Wilford Brimley’s pessimistic portrayal of Dr. Blair to Keith David’s role as Childs. They really all give an effortless portrayal of their characters. The real life isolation of the cast certainly contributed to the camaraderie on screen, and a funny anecdote about just how isolated the actors were is relayed in a documentary regarding the film when Director John Carpenter discusses a near-death experience on an isolated mountain, which featured their transport bus almost going over a cliff-face and very nearly to their doom.

More than that, what really makes The Thing great is Rob Bottin’s practical effects, which rely on prosthetic makeup, a double amputee, and lifelike replicas that explode with gorgeous violence. If you have never seen this movie, you simply must watch it. It’s one of the best and is an education in how to tell a grotesque and terrifying tale.

Alien (1979)

A running theme in movies I enjoy, which I didn’t realize until I formed this list, is isolation. The idea that a group of characters have a small place to exist while the fear of violence assails them appeals to me. With less room to move, characters must develop or the movie becomes stagnant, and the audience either becomes bored or turns on the protagonists.

Alien (1979) achieves where so many similar films fail. This includes creating compelling characters in distress and confusion. The harrowing onslaught of a mostly unseen enemy blinds the protagonists with paranoia and speculation as to how they will survive. The sheer fact that they allowed the character of Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) to go try to flush the Xenomorph out of a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.

Likewise, Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Ripley and the subtle performance of John Hurt as Kane, whose gory death is a revelation for viewers and the crew of the Nostromo, add to the realism and effectiveness of the film. Even if you’ve seen Alien, watch it again. The throat rape and chest-bursting will continue to haunt your dreams.

Sunshine (1999)

I don’t hear much fanfare for Sunshine, but I know its popular among sci-fi fans because it appears on “Best of …” lists often enough. Sunshine is yet another story on my list of lonely isolation aboard the spaceship Icarus II. After its predecessor becomes lost on a previous mission, the new space crew must chart a course toward the sun with the intention of dropping a nuclear payload, which will hopefully end a perpetual winter on Earth.

The mission is dire, indeed, and yet the filmmakers create a believable world filled with excellent plot development and strong casting. The score, too, is moving and overshadows some moments of lackluster special effects. And when a film can transcend its limitations (budget, casting, etc) then that probably means you have something good on your hands.

What makes Sunshine far superior, than say, Interstellar (2014) or Gravity (2013) is the balancing of storytelling which veers from science fiction adventure to slasher movie. Danny Boyle does a fantastic job directing this sharp shift with a keen eye to previous details and adequate pacing. Unlike many science fiction films, this is not just another 2001 (1968) ripoff or an attempt at mundane space horror. It’s the real deal.

Quarantine (2008)

Quarantine (2008) stands out as one of the finer attempts at a “found footage” title that I’ve ever seen, and it was one of the first of its genre to actually engross me into the short-lived lives of the characters. The decision to cast unfamiliar actors was a smart move and having the monsters downplayed compared to the mystery of their incarceration makes the film more jarring and definitely disturbing.

The added effect of cuing the audience to the conclusion was subtle enough as to not deem reproach. What is more, the apartment complex is claustrophobic and the narrow hallways and passages become familiar by the end of the movie. I can’t think of too many films where, as the viewer, I could probably find my way around the complex if given the chance.

I should also say that it’s scary as hell.

Kill List (2011)

I must admit, I watched this movie last year, and I was saddened that I had not seen it sooner. It has some flaws but subsequent viewings reveal a carefully plotted film, and disturbing implications, which while common for horror films, is uncommon to be so relevant upon further screenings. In other words, everything in Kill List means something: every little piece of dialogue, every altercation, every character, and every scene plays into the overall narrative and conclusion.

Thankfully, Kill List is on the good side of relentless—never questioning the intelligence of the audience to put two and two together. If given the chance, I guarantee it will stay high on your list of favorite horror films after the first time you watch it.