Live in Cook County Jail is King of Chicago Blues albums

I was immediately swept up with this album as I was riding on a train back home from Chicago with my future wife sitting next to me. I can still remember us grinning at each other when the crowd on the album erupts in applause at the line, “I gave you seven children, and now you want to give them back.” King’s genuine attitude really sealed the deal for me, regardless of a few clunky executions on the album.

Synopsis

King was invited to Cook Country Jail by the new warden Clarence Richard English and played for 2,117 prisoners. English had seen king play at the Chicago nightclub Mister Kelly’s (Kapos).

The set included older material, and the track list is laid out as such:

  1. Introductions
  2. Every Day I Have the Blues
  3. How Blue Can You Get?
  4. Worry, Worry, Worry
  5. Medley: “3 O’Clock Blues,” “Darlin’ You Know I Love You””
  6. Sweet Sixteen
  7. The Thrill is Gone
  8. Please Accept My Love

Live in Cook County Jail is still regarded as one of King’s finest performances alongside Live at the Regal.

Analysis

I love the way this album opens. The jeers from the crowd at the very mention of prison and state officials sets the mood (and the reform in living conditions that took place after the concert at Cook County Jail hints at why they were not pleased to hear such esteemed names). The first track, though, is rushed, and King’s voice gets muddled in trilled horn instruments as he barrels through the lyrics. Nevertheless, most of the tracks are all around sonic bangers, and I always enjoy the crusty pentatonic peel that King attempts to pull off at the end of “The Thrill is Gone.” It’s authentic.

Even the sometimes ambling “Every Day I Have the Blues,” which is perhaps played too quickly (perhaps the live-stage jitters?), still affords that necessary energy to kick off the album. When the second track “How Blue Can You Get” came on I was completely riveted. My excitement trickled over, and I handed my wife one of my ear buds. It was such a perfect moment between us, and I can thank Chicago Blues for that.

This is a classic blues album, and I believe if you go in listening to a generic blues album, your expectations are typically met. There is going to be some yelling, some soloing, and some twelve-barring. Live at Cook County doesn’t disappoint in that regard, but it has some tricks up its sleeve. King monologues and inserts his discreet sort of guitar playing into all the right nooks and crannies. If we analyze it from the idea of intention in complexity, the listener will be comfortable with the bluesy-ness of the album, and will be delighted by the content and delivery.

This is a live album so I can cut it some slack in regards to fidelity, but I would also say that in that way, the audio is one of its best parts. It sounds like a blues album, and the listener doesn’t have to find a faux-blues band to hear them use vintage amps and equipment. It’s right there on stage. As far as the ideas go, King and the band play laid-back music on purpose (I’m guessing because of the setting), and jam and vamp their way through the album, setting a real tone for both expectation and reality.

I think B.B. King, much like everybody on the planet, is as authentic a blues player as one can get, and I also think on Live in Cook County Jail, King lives and breathes his blues music like a true blues man.

Trivia:

  • Press related to the album described the poor living conditions at Cook County Jail and necessitated prison reform. The prison had been referred to in the press as “a jungle” because the conditions were so rough for inmates.
  • The album reached Number One on the “Top R&B” chart, which is the only B.B. King album to do so throughout his career.
  • It was ranked 499 out of 500 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

Musicians:

B.B. King – guitar, vocals

Wilbert Freeman – bass

Sonny Freeman – drums

John Browning – trumpet

Louis Hubert – tenor saxophone

Booker Walker – alto saxophone

Ron Levy – piano

Sources:

The Times are a-Changin’ in “No Country for Old Men”

Introduction

 The first time I became familiar with “No Country for Old Men” in any format, was when I watched the movie by myself at the ripe old age of 17. The movie played through, Tommy Lee Jones finished his monologue with “And then I woke up,” the screen went black, and I sat up from the couch. “God, that movie sucked.” Seemingly, I had just sat through something poorly executed and meaningless. I mean, was there significance to each character? What was I supposed to take away thematically? Anton Chigurh got away scot-free aside from a baffling car accident? And Moss simply dies off-screen and away from the reader’s window? I am the wiser at this point and with the help of literary analysis, I have come to understand the book much better, and find it far more profound than I once did. Though, this essay is a reflection, I will impart both thoughts and lessons I have taken from “No Country for Old Men,” and elaborate on what I think and feel about the content.

Outdated Characters in the Modern World

I suppose a good starting point is the book thematically as a whole. An initial scan reveals the suggestion that life, often being brief and ending abruptly, has a way of informing its residents in many aspects, as does the slow deterioration of one’s self. While I think nailing down a theme for “No Country for Old Men” can be difficult, there are some clues that may help the reader understand what McCarthy is getting at throughout the text. Reviewer Walter Kern writes that the novel relies on sparse elements that create a cohesive whole, which include, “Too much temptation. Too little wisdom. Too many weak, bad men. Too few strong, good ones.” Yet, it’s covered in something else. Kern writes that it’s freedom and space to make poor choices to temporarily flee, as we see with Moss fleeing for his life with the drug money—the blood money.

“He sat there looking at it and then he closed the flap and sat with his head down,” McCarthy writes of Moss’s fateful decision. “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead.”

So, then the theme it is tied to fate and chance, as one’s actions will see literal outcomes; however, I also think an important theme to consider plays into the title, which is that time moves on whether one wants it to or not, and, with that, people become outdated in their morality, philosophy and ethics as the years pass. In other words, relevancy is not permanent, and it can be inferred that one’s age dictates the currency of one’s life. I think this makes sense when one considers an older person who is attempting to dress in the current fashion—there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, but it just looks off, because we have adopted what our own conscious understanding of fashion (and what is fashionable) and to whom it belongs. With that being said, the looming irrelevancy of all of our lives can dictate the meaning we derive from ourselves and our history.

  1. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell

Case in point, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. He believes people should be responsible for their actions and for their justifications; and, yet this concept evolves throughout the novel. The endless procession of horrors jostles Bell to the point that he retires disenfranchised due to his inability to exact any kind of justice in a world that no longer fits him.

“A few years ago and it wasn’t that many neither I was goin out one of these little two lane blacktop roads of a night and I come up on a pickup truck … so I hit the lights and whenever I done that I seen the slider window in the back of the cab open and here come somebody passin a shotgun out the window.”

During this scene, Bell is attacked by drug runners, who shoot at him from their truck, and he crashes his car and realizes that times have changed. No longer is the world full of innocent barfights that lead to a few minor scrapes, but now it has morphed into a landscape rife with murderous rampages, violence, and killing. While he reminisces in the book from what we can assume is the future of the events, the real change isn’t apparent until he visits Moss’s dad toward the end of the book and discusses his dreams with his wife.

To frame it another way, at the start, he is an honest, stalwart sheriff who is overseeing the civilians within his county (what could be defined as his flock). At the end, he doesn’t know if there is any reason to continue doing such a thing, as evil has forced its hand, the villain got away, and good people died. This is an interesting evolution as Bell reminisces about “better times” where kids used to play different games (better, more innocent games), and, as such, we see the theme of an evolving world taking place in a more literal way—in Sheriff Bell’s mind. Moreover, in meeting with Uncle Ellis and after having a thorough discussion about modern morality and ethics, Bell learns that these “better times” might have never existed, as men have always killed each other for the same reasons—or lack thereof. As Uncle Ellis states of Uncle Mac’s death, the violent times never went away.

“They was seven or eight of them come to the house,” Uncle Ellis tells Sheriff Bell. “Wantin this and wantin that. He (Uncle Mac) went back in the house and come out with a shotgun but they was way ahead of him and they shot him down in his doorway. She run out and tried to stop the bleedin. Tried to get him back in the house. Said he kept tryin to get hold of the shotgun again. They just set there on their horses. Finally left.”

This excerpt is reminiscent of Chigurh’s macabre methods. While the killing of Uncle Mac seems devoid of emotion and meaning, one could suppose that such killing happened a lot in that particular area of Texas, and thus had historical value to the inhabitants. One could also surmise that Uncle Mac was so attached to the past, and the way things were done in his day, that his death was assured. But this is only my own inference.

  1. Llewelyn Moss

Furthermore, we see the theme of outdated values in Llewelyn Moss, who is truly a flawed character. While hunting on the flats of New Mexico, he stumbles upon money, which he then decides he will steal to better his own life. This action dooms him as far as the theme of the novel goes, as he is then pursued from the start of the novel by a drug cartel, a sheriff, an remorseless assassin, and another hired gun; and, he is finally left dead in the doorway of a motel after a shootout with someone from the cartel.

Sheriff Bell’s unveiling of Moss’s corpse is indicative of the dry means of killing in this part of the world:

“He (Bell) pulled back the sheet. Bell walked around the end of the table. There was no chock under Moss’s neck and his head was turned to the side. One eye partly opened. He looked like a badman on a slab. They’d sponged the blood off of him but there were holes in his face and his teeth were shot out.”

In this, we can see Kern’s point—Moss had the freedom of choice and the freedom to flee, which he chose not to do and thus killed himself and his wife in the process of his own wants. But, we must also analyze the “outdated values” argument. Moss is impulsive and is willing to follow his morality and ethics to the end to justify his theft. Moreover, he is willing to throw his life away, and he believes that, through simple ingenuity, he could survive and defeat the odds. Nevertheless, as we see, this is not the case. Moss is killed, the money is taken from him, and his wife, Carla Jean, is murdered likewise. Llewelyn’s outdated morals—morals he perhaps honed in Vietnam (and thus during a different older time)—ultimately get him killed. He is too reliant on the skills he hopes to use to defeat the cartel and Chigurh. As such, his morals are outdated and thus lack rational logic for modern problems, which in McCathy’s world means you will leave defeated or you will die.

  1. Anton Chigurh

Anton Chigurh is vastly different from both Llewelyn and Bell in his moral code. He doesn’t believe that life has inherent meaning, and instead favors fate as the guiding principal. In Chigurh’s opinion, one follows a path that leads them to where they are going rather than choosing their path. Destiny is destiny.

As Kern states:

“He’s a strict, conscientious, self-taught psychopath who vigilantly maintains his mental ill-health. He’s purged himself of all qualms and second thoughts so as to function smoothly in the world that Bell has grown unfit for.”

The march of time and “outdated morals” do not apply to Chigurh because his morality and ethical purity are made for a violent world. In other words, he lives strictly by his convictions, and he will not be deterred unless he is in an absolute dire strait, which isn’t often. As such, he is completely different from Bell in that way.

“… what makes Chigurh such a chilling antagonist is that by McCarthy’s reckoning, he seems like the right man for the times—an uncaring beast with no concern for anyone else,” Keith Phipps from the A.V. Club writes.

He is the right man for the right time, and he is playing a violent game—not an innocent one.

Llewelyn Moss is flawed, impulsive, and impractical, while Sheriff Bell is in over his head as times have moved on without him, but the world seems to reward people like Chigurh due to his convictions and his willingness to adopt the methods of the current climate. Somebody who has no want of sensibility, community, and capital—those things that tie Bell and Moss together—will benefit in the en—or, at least, that seems to be the suggestion.

Conclusion

Which brings me to one of the final scenes in No Country for Old Men—both the book and movie. Anton Chigurh is driving down the road in suburbia after killing Carla Jean and is t-boned by another car that runs a stop sign. He is left in bad shape, bloody, but is able to pay a bystander for their shirt and silence, and then he makes off into the night, as though he is some phantom of vengeance and retribution that can’t possibly succumb to his own rule set.

I’ve always found this to be the most confounding part of the book and movie, but now it makes sense to me when applying the “outdated morals” concept. Taking a step back, one can see how Chigurh simply leaves the scene of the accident, and gets away, which would literally mean that this really is “No Country for Old Men,” because evil perseveres in the face of justice. However, in applying the “outdated morals” concept, we must reflect on Chigurh’s confrontation with Wells and his unwillingness to take money in exchange for Wells’s life. In fact, he gives Wells a face full of shotgun instead of taking his money; but, this should be strange, because we then see Chigurh bribe two small children in order to ensure his own escape. Is he just being a pragmatist who is cleaning up loose ends? I think not. As the two boys ride their bikes to Chigurh, who is terribly hurt, he asks them for their help and gives them money.

“Chigurh thumbed a bill out of the clip and put the clip back in his pocket and took the bill from between his teeth and got to his feet and held it out … Take it. Take it and you don’t know what I looked like. You hear?”

But, why? If he is so sure of fate, wouldn’t it work itself out? In the novel, Wells asks Chigurh if he would take money in exchange for sparing his life, and Chigurh says it’s a good payday, but “It’s just in the wrong currency.” This, he says, shortly before outright murdering Wells. Nonetheless, according to Jack’s Movie Reviews, and what I think is an astute observation, the reviewer states: “As he passes the one-hundred-dollar bill to them, it is a passing of generations. It is him being weak. It’s him becoming an old man. And, as we know, this is no country for old men.”

There is no right or wrong in “No Country for Old Men,” in my opinion. There are no just actions or evil actions. There are just those who have outdated morals or ethical impurity and suffer from their own actions, and those who adhere strictly to a modern moral compass that ensures survival. Bell realizes he is outdated and is no longer fit for a world that has changed and left him in the past. Once, he used to break up bar fights, and suddenly he was being shot at by drug dealers, and then he was following in a destructive swath cut by Anton Chigurh. The world moved quickly and away from Sheriff Bell, and regardless of the amount of his ruminations—the world had changed.

No Country for Old Men is a book about changing times and how that has a lessening effect on one’s own immediate surroundings. Toward the end of the novel, Bell states that by trying to live by his own morals, he thought he was going to live his life the right way, or at least the way that he perceived was right.

“I thought if I lived my life in the strictest way I knew how then I would not ever again have a thing that would eat on me thataway.”

Perhaps it is a little about mental change as one gets older, too, and the realization that these moments you once lived are now just shaky memories. I recall reading an article about how unreliable our memories are, which is such a sad realization, because we hope those memories will remain with us and will in some way allow us to remain current and relevant in conversation. The thought that we generate parts of our own memories undermines our intellectual independence and renders us fragile before time, which is what I imagine Sheriff Bell feels in No Country for Old Men. He remembers better times, but maybe those times were never better in the abstract. He just remembered them as better days. 

Either way, I believe McCarthy wants us to believe that regardless of one’s morals—or their ability to survive, or their patience, or their violence toward others—everyone becomes outdated one day whether it’s through their own memories or actions. Yet, by understanding and accepting this, one can adjust their life so that the reliance on the past has less of an impact on the present and the future. At least this rational could help us rest easy with the knowledge of our own impending irrelevancy as time marches onward, and perhaps it could help us avoid Sheriff Bell’s disenfranchised conclusion…or Llewelyn Moss’s violent fate.

Works Cited

Cheuse, Alan. “McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men.” NPR. July 28, 2005. Web.

Kern, Walter. “‘No Country for Old Men’: Texas Noir.” The New York Times. July 24, 2005. Web.

Phipps, Keith. “Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men.” A.V. Club. Aug. 16, 2005. Web.

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.

 

Low track to “High Lane”

Details

  • Director: Abel Ferry
  • Writer(s): Johanne Bernard and Louis-Paul Desanges
  • Starring: Fanny Valette, Johan Liereau, Nicolas Giraud, Raphael Lenglet
  • Released: June 24, 2009 (France)

Synopsis

High Lane tells the tale of a group of friends who go into the mountains on a climbing trip, and after enduring many dangerous extreme-sport scenarios, discover that they are going to have to brave more than just the terrain, and themselves, to survive.

Review

I was 15 minutes into High Lane (2009) before I realized it was dubbed in English, and I was 30 minutes into High Lane before I realized I wasn’t going to see any mutants circa Wrong Turn (2003), which is sad because every once in a while I pick a film at random just to see what’s happening in the world of indie (ish) horror films, and sometimes I find an interesting story in a pile of ill-conceived scripts and what might be movies made as tax write-offs.

Director Abel Ferry oversaw both High Lane and the television film Piege blanc but had no other ventures into film from what I could tell, and I think this is worth something when considering the content of the film. It’s not an incompetent movie, but it’s not adept, and like many films that have an interesting premise but still fall short—the execution is often lackluster. Writers Johanne Bernard and Louis-Paul Desanges do not add much else aside from the initial pitch it seems, and the stars—Fanny Valette, Johan Libereau, Raphael Lenglet—work with what they’ve got in the script, which is not much.

Case in point, once the squabbling between the characters started I began to tune out—I’ve seen this all before. As Boromir from the Lord of the Rings (2001) might say, “One does not simply go on a camping trip with your friends in a movie and not get into Whose afraid of Virginia Woolf-level arguments.” Hours seemed to go by, and I was still holding out hope that a three-eyed humanoid would jump out from behind a tree and ravage one of the climbers with his three arms and jerry-rigged penis (oh, come one, it’s a mutant I’m imagining for gods’ sake!). I mean, I was begging for anything to get me out of this 84-minute French film based on the finer points of mountain climbing and how not to act in social settings—even if you are trapped in the mountains.

High Lane is exactly like Cliffhanger (1993) starring Sylvester Stallone except all of the fun has been sucked out of it and it’s less intelligible than John Lithgow’s henchman—you know the one who screams and curses his way through the whole film? Moreover, much of the character development has been replaced by the actors loudly screaming each other’s names. It helped me figure out which character was which, but as I sat there, I could feel my life draining due to decibel exhaustion. Then, suddenly, one of the characters stepped on a bear trap and I sat up in my chair, excitement boiling in my stomach. Then someone fell into a pit and the vague stirrings of elation began to rise in my chest.

“Mutants!?” I cried, and my wife stuck her head in the room confused at her husband’s sudden outburst. She saw tears in my eyes—only the second time she’s seen me shed tears (the first time involved the birth of my child)—and I looked upon the screen triumphantly as the mutant antagonist emerged. I was right from the beginning, there was a mutant in High Lane, dammit, and I had good fortune for a while, but one must realize that if a film has difficulty injecting life into archetypical characters and a-typical plot structure, well, even a crazed mutant will only get you so far (I hate writing that because mutants are so much fun when done right).

I want to say High Lane was original because it blended mountain climbing with The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and High Tension (2003) (which is also French), but it was too similar to too many films. This movie is the rehashing of repeated themes, and the viewer will recognize these tropes: a doomed relationship headed for terror, a timid teenage boy with a crush (he’s just a super nice guy), an alpha survivalist guy who can’t possibly live until the end of the film, a maniacal woodsman (aka mutant), a frantic woman who does all of the wrong things to get herself killed, a strong independent woman who is clearly the “final girl,” and frat house-level ass grab-assing. This is every Friday the 13th without the entertaining kills and low-quality charm.

As far as positive aspects in High Lane, I found myself chuckling at the subtitles a they can be entertaining. At one point in the film, the protagonist (our “final girl”) unsheathes a knife and the closed captioning reads: “Knife Pulled Sound,” which I think is like a shink noise but it’s funny to me that it is just kind of expected that the audience would know what “Knife Pulled Sound” means. I guess I can’t put that on the filmmakers, though, because their is a crew (or unpaid intern) for that sort of work. But I will blame them for the mediocre time I had watching this film.

Fiction on Fiction in “Delirious”

Details

  • Director: Tom Mankiewicz
  • Writer(s): Lawrence J. Cohen and  Fred Freeman
  • Starring: John Candy, Mariel Hemingway, David Rasche, and Charles Rocket
  • Released: August 9, 1991

Synopsis

The plot revolves around soap opera writer Jack Gable (John Candy), who, through the powers of a head-on collision, gets trapped in the melodramatic world of Ashford Falls, which is a setting that Gable himself dreamed up (thus the delirious aspect). In Ashford Falls, Gable meets Janet DuBois (Mariel Hemingway) and takes part in a long list of misadventures that ultimately lead to him understanding the importance of standing up for himself (not without a few front flips, horseback riding, and some fancy driving), and he also discovers that the woman he has been pining after is far more vapid than he first imagined.

Review

I don’t think I would ever argue that John Candy is a master-level actor, but I would argue that he was certainly really good at playing endearing characters, which was probably a good place for him to be as he seemingly had to play the same character in every movie.

With that being said, Delirious (1991) is not a great movie, but it’s a film that I really just appreciate as an attempt at fantastical narrative, and I also really appreciate it as an ode to John Candy’s ability to make even the most intractable material seem great; and, this film is certainly all over the place, but, without a doubt, it’s really damn charming.

It’s a super basic plot (humdrum even), but it has a lot of surprises, too. For instance, Dylan Baker, who plays Blake Henderson, is quite entertaining throughout the film. He physically falls apart in each scene as he is being fed the wrong kind of drug by his insane brother that results in him getting sicker and sicker, and he also becomes more and more disgusting. The revulsion on some of the other character’s faces toward the end of the film is priceless. David Rasche is perfect as the slimy Dr. Paul Kirkwood, and Charles Rocket plays the conniving (and oh so dramatic) Ty Hedison with precision.

Mariel Hemingway provides charm in the film playing the rough-and-tumble DuBois. The nicest part about Hemingway is that she is effortlessly funny, much akin to her costar, which makes their scenes together fun and genuine. These kinds of comedies tend to have such wooden relationships that it makes for a nice change. Regardless, while she is a strong female lead, the film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. It’s a film about a man, and so the women seemingly have to talk about that man (or men) because that’s what male writers believe women think about all the time. I can cut it some slack, though, as the setting invites this kind of sexism. I don’t recall many soap operas being rife with ideas of female liberation.

Delirious_1991

The true beauty of Delirious, which is often times aimless, is John Candy. I can’t think of another actor (maybe Sean Connery) whose sheer charisma and likability is enough to give a winning performance. Jack Gable is a John Candy character, without a doubt, but he also has little nuances here and there that makes him just different enough from Candy’s previous characters (for instance, he carries himself with a bit more bravado and a bit more sarcasm).

The plot is mostly nonsensical, though, (not Who’s Harry Crumb [1989] nonsensical), and derives most of its humor out of the premise (a writer gets trapped in his own piece of fiction and attempts to mold it with his imagination). The ramifications of Gable’s circumstances are capitalized on for humorous effect, and rightfully so, because there’s a lot of humor to be had out of the situation. A scene in which Candy chases down a love interest on horseback is a highlight (that stunt double is ridiculous).

Director Tom Mankiewicz makes good use of sight gags and low-level action to move the plot along to the next set piece or interaction. Earlier in his career, Mankiewicz had been a script doctor for numerous films and television series, and had also been given “creative consultant” credit by Richard Donner for both Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980). He was also involved in writing the James Bond film’s Diamonds are Forever (1971), Live and Let Die (1973), and he received shared credit for The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Considering his history, I can certainly see why Delirious is such a fun romp, even though I’m not a huge fan of either the Superman or James Bond franchises.

If you can look past the meandering plot and don’t mind a little silliness, then Delirious will be a treat.

“Quigley Down Under” excites but doesn’t live up to its epic aspirations

Details

  • Director: Simon Wincer
  • Writer(s): John Hill
  • Starring: Tom Selleck, Laura San Giacomo, Alan Rickman
  • Released: Oct. 17, 1990

Synopsis

The film centers on Quigley, who travels to Australia after being hired by Marston to shoot Aborigines—a fact that Quigley did not know upon accepting Marston’s invitation. This leads to a conflict between the two characters and a series of battles ensue between Quigley, Marston, and his cohorts.

Review

Quigley Down Under (1990) has the draw (rifle?) of what might be a good western for its time, but it falls short of being an exceptional film by erroneously wasting the viewer’s time with a lack of depth in the setting and frivolous villainy.

Quigley (Selleck) himself is a one-dimensional character, but Tom Selleck (the would-be Indiana Jones) brings the character to life due to his natural charisma, wit, and charm. Also, a welcome change to the stereotypical western genre—one that was more spaghetti than gritty for a such a long time—is that of Quigley’s gun: a rifle that allows him to hit targets at great distances (a fantastical weapon, perhaps even silly, but a welcome change nonetheless). It provides explosive action any time Quigley pulls the trigger, which often offsets some of the boredom brought on by the film’s poor attempt at character development and plotting.

Laura San Giacomo plays Crazy Cora, who follows Quigley around during his adventure in the Australian Outback—seemingly against her will for the most part. She wonderfully acts the part, and sells the Gremlins-esque backstory scene with command, as she bounces between talking about her road-worn dress and how she smothered her own child to save herself from pillaging Indians. This inciting incident literally drives her (by her husband) to exile in Australia. Of course, late in the film, she has to relive this torturous experience while hiding from carnivorous wolves in a cave.

Alan Rickman plays Elliot Marston, who is truly evil because he needs to be evil, and Quigley punches him in the face for that—twice. Rickman is so exaggerated in the role of Marston that one can almost imagine him threatening to cut out Quigley’s heart, “with a spoon,” circa Robin Hood (1991). Yet, Rickman fails to be even half as charming as his diabolical doppelganger from Sherwood Forest, which is a bummer because The Sheriff of Nottingham is a silly/fun character and Rickman is an extraordinary actor. Regardless, Quigley shoots Marston with a pistol in a final, engaging standoff where it is revealed that Quigley is not only good with a rifle but he is also a quick draw with his pistol. Ultimately, this hammers home Quigley’s point (or pistols home his point?):  don’t mess with the best … or with Quigley … or whatever. Wait, did he have a point? At the very end of the film, Quigley is standing in a corral that is littered with bodies, he is a million miles from his house in Montana, and he just spent a week romancing an insane woman who smothered her kid some years ago, and all I could think was: “Why are you still there? Go home already! Just go home.”

Quigley (2)

Visually, the movie looks good in ordinary shots and camera angles, but some of the more glaring issues can be attributed to its use (or lack thereof) of setting: the location is the sprawling outback of Australia—and it was filmed on locations there—but this fact is not exploited very well. One would think that if it was filmed at a specific location, then perhaps utilizing it would be paramount. In other words, if you are filming a movie about a cabin in the woods, one should maybe use the trees around the cabin, or the streams, or the rocks, or the nature (not unless it’s one of those damn arthouse films—then to hell with you!).

The sweeping shots of Australia could have been easily replaced with sweeping shots of Utah or Arizona (circa Outlaw Josey Wales) or any other ambiguous western scenario from any film (take yer pick). With such a concoction, there is bound to be a bunch of cool stuff you can do with the characters, villains, and extras. Alas, the depth of setting is overlooked by the film creators, who pursue a story about a man with a modified rifle—and the result is a mundane traipse through the backyard of someone’s ranch out west.

Moreover, I could not understand the use of music in this film. It navigates its way through sci-fi, John Carpenter-level symphonic explorations, to the typical cowboy guitar strumming that a viewer might expect from the genre. The musical styles don’t mesh well and I was left confused as to how I should feel emotionally during many scenes. Take for instance: space music harvested from an obscure, futuristic alien movie from the 80s is a little strange when showing enormous panoramic shots of what is supposed to be a lawless continent set in the 1860s.

Nevertheless, Quigley benefits from a strong cast (even Alan Rickman is a little entertaining in a less-than-riveting role) and from some fine visuals as well. Oh, and even though I’ve never fired a gun in my life, Quigley’s rifle is a neat addition.

Overall: 2/5 stars (writing 1/2+acting 1/2+ sight 1/2+ sound 0+recommend 1/2)

Three Worst Films I’ve Seen this Year

This article first appeared in The Valley Vanguard.

There is a running joke around the Vanguard office that Joshua doesn’t know what “Top Five” means. Such a humorous notion comes from me submitting a “Top Five Favorite Graphic Novels” piece that appeared on these fine pages earlier last semester. Of course, I submitted a synopsis of five of my favorite graphic novels. Low and behold, our intrepid A&E editor informed me that what he had meant to say was that I should have submitted, “Your favorite graphic novel, and I’m going to run five of those from five different people—not YOUR top five favorite graphic novels.” In hindsight, that makes more sense than trying to jam twenty-five “top fives” on the same page; but, also in hindsight, I wasn’t really listening and still don’t really think he knows what he’s talking about. Regardless, and because I’m not really listening and still don’t think he knows what he’s talking about, here’s the “TOP THREE worst films” I’ve seen in the last year, rated from worst to best. 

Bad Taste (Directed by Peter Jackson)

Bad Taste (1987) is one of Lord of the Rings’ director Peter Jackson’s first efforts and features gruesome visuals and the talented director’s burgeoning eye for cinematography. It also features dialogue that is difficult to understand because it is New Zealand English and so low in the audio mix that I’m not sure where the accent starts and the sentence ends. Likewise, the plot is so intrinsically bizarre that it fails to captivate and maintain one’s attention (Aliens come to cannibalize humans….sort of?) and there’s a character who has a hole in his head running around satiating his pain by graphically stuffing random bits of brain matter back into his skull—for some reason. The movie is a spectacle and relies on visuals more than story. While I appreciate such a cinematic endeavor, this is one of those cases where boredom set in before the next interesting visual occurred. 

Zardoz (Directed by John Boorman)

If you want to see Sean Connery in a giant red diaper traipse around a fantasy world with a revolver and a license to kill given to him by an omnipotent being who vomits rifles, please watch Zardoz (1974). It features Freudian themes, some of the coolest names for factions (the Apathetics, the Brutals, and Sean Connery’s Mustache [that last one I made up]), and a scene in which people who are begging for death get ruthlessly shot by red-diaper-wearing sociopaths. I am still unsure if this is the most profound film I’ve ever seen or the worst thing that’s happened to me in a decade; and I watched both Terminator 3 and Terminator Genysis in theaters upon release. 

Getevan aka Road to Revenge (Directed by John de Hart)

Getevan (1993) was written, produced, and directed by one man. It also starred the same man and the music was written by him, too. His name was John de Hart. Is that unfamiliar to you? That’s okay, because it was to me when I witnessed the amazing travesty that was clearly his passion project. In real life, (de) Hart was a lawyer, songwriter, martial artist, actor, writer, director, and producer, but was demonstrably good at none of those things. As far as the movie goes, it features a poorly-delivered Shakespearean monologue, an uncomfortable date that seems to last forever, a cop/judge/Satan-worshiper, a horrifyingly-long sex scene(s), and a 70-year-old hero who wears muscle shirts and recites his dialogue as if he had never seen words on a page before. Getevan is a joy to watch….if you like being stung in the face by bees. 100 bees. Right in the face. 

What are some of the worst films you’ve seen recently? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

 

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