Tag Archives: movies

“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.

IMG_1285
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!

11. Village of the Damned (1960+1995) Movie Review (Podcast Episode!)

The two versions of The Village of the Damned (1960+1995) have their moments—both good and bad (alien babies? communism? Luke Skywalker?)—so this week, hosts Josh and Will sit down to talk about which moments elevated each film to space (because aliens), and which moments…well, crash landed on Earth?

Join us for this week’s episode and don’t forget to Like and Subscribe to catch future episodes!

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.

“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)