Monday, July 30, 2007

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

Director: David Silverman


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ghost Rider (2007)

Director: Mark Steven Johnson

Watching Nicolas Cage in this role is like watching a child gleefully play with an empty box. At first, it’s cute. After about a half hour, you might get a little worried and start periodically checking on him out of the corner of your eye. But after two full hours, you’d want to snatch that box up and hide it in a locked closet forever. Cage was originally the frontrunner to play Superman in the character’s next big-screen incarnation a few years ago. After those negotiations fell through, he did the best he could with his consolation prize, Ghost Rider. I don’t want to be hard on Nicolas Cage, who appears on screen to be going through some sort of mid-life crisis. I DO, however, want to be hard on Ghost Rider as a hole. And no, I didn’t use the wrong “hole” there. Ghost Rider is an H-O-L-E hole; a bottomless pit; a tourist trap designed to attract slack-jawed yokels who inevitably use it as their own personal trashcan and/or outhouse.

Johnny Blaze (Cage) is a rich and famous Evel Knievil-style stunt motorcyclist. Even though Johnny’s rich and famous, he still lives a bad part of town, probably in an effort to stay in touch with “the people.” You know, the same people who will undoubtedly mug him at knife or gunpoint as soon as he ventures out to get some milk. Eva Mendes’ cleavage plays Johnny’s misguided love interest, Roxanne. As a boy, Johnny sold his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), in exchange for his father being healed of cancer. Unfortunately, Johnny’s father dies the following day performing a motorcycle jump. Man, if you can't trust the Devil, who can you trust? Reeling and heartbroken, Johnny leaves his carnival stunt-riding career and childhood girlfriend, Roxanne, in the dust as he takes off for an uncertain future alone. With a devil on his shoulder, Johnny has, over the years, received fame and glory for his risk-taking stunts and unbelievable luck. That’s where the villains come in. A vampire-ish demon named Blackheart (Wes Bentley) has come to Earth with three super-powered cronies in tow. Defecting from the Devil (which arguably could be considered good), he sets out to find an ancient scroll, which turns out to be a contract. Maybe it’s Nicolas Cage’s contract. If so, burn it!! With possession of the contract, Blackheart hopes to create “hell on Earth.” Instead, he creates hell on screen. It sort of undercuts the villain’s supposedly immense power when he can’t even find a sheet of paper. The Devil now enlists Johnny to become his next "Ghost Rider" in order to stop Blackheart, since the Devil's powers are weakened on Earth -- just go with it. He does this even though Ghost Riders have a reputation for being less than model employees. The story is like something out of a lame action flick (minus the action) at this point. The contract has no significance other than to be a physical representation of the plot. There's the plot over there!! Let's go!! Now the villain has the plot! Let's go over there!! Now Ghost Rider has the plot!! Let's go back that way!!

The cops in this movie are always after Ghost Rider… and with just cause. The guy’s an asshole. He destroys property left and right, like a flaming bulldozer careening through the streets. He attacks the police officers before they even get a chance to do anything. Shouldn’t the “hero” be falsely accused or something like that, so that we can empathize with him and be thrilled when he’s ultimately vindicated? I was rooting for the police in this movie. Get that psycho-moron off the streets! Can you imagine waking up the next morning and seeing your smoldering wreck of a car overturned outside your house, and the cause of it was Ghost Rider. Well, if it was damaged in an epic battle between good and evil, wherein Ghost Rider was in the midst of saving the planet, I guess it’s acceptable; collateral damage, right? Unfortunately, Ghost Rider inadvertently destroyed your vehicle while he was simply screwing around on his motorcycle. Turns out Ghost Rider is no different than a drunken uncle. Ghost Rider’s main superpower is his “Penitence Stare,” wherein he gazes into the eyes of criminals and makes them see and feel the pain their victims experienced. Although that may sound good on paper, on screen it’s hard to make a staring contest into an exciting action sequence. The action is non-existent in an almost criminal way. They introduce the baddies, who have superpowers relating to the elements (i.e. a water guy, and an air guy), but can't figure out how to use them. These characters could engage in some really interesting and thrilling battles now that special effects have become nearly immaculate in today’s films. Even in today’s box office bombs, you can still marvel at their flawlessly integrated visuals. Ghost Rider is geared towards those with Attention Deficit Disorder, though. During the action scenes, they forget a crucial element: we need to know where everything and everyone is in relation to everything and everyone else. Zoom out, for the love of God! Ghost Rider looks cool, but is he fighting a villain off screen or sorting papers? I can’t tell… I see his shoulder moving.

The big, all-encompassing problem Ghost Rider has is that it’s ridiculously one-dimensional. Johnny and Roxanne’s relationship starts and stops without any prompting. They’re together. Johnny leaves for several YEARS. They meet up again and arrange dinner. Johnny stands her up. She falls in love with him. As kids, they carved their initials into a giant tree in a field (you heard me), and that even figures into the final scene. I really thought I’d seen the last of that tree. Johnny’s got a chubby, comic-relief sidekick (Donal Logue), an elderly and wise mentor (Sam Elliot), and lame villains who wander through the movie like lost children in a shopping mall. Ghost Rider's catch-phrases are interchangeable with those of any other generic superhero. Johnny finds out that he can control his powers and other general plot crap by reading some of the most coherent Biblical texts that have ever existed. Also, the humor is so flat that it’s translucent. I’d like to present to the court exhibit A: When Johnny stands Roxanne up at a restaurant, Roxanne consults a “Magic Eight-Ball” that she pulls from beneath the table (who is she, Carrot Top?), gulps down gallons of wine, and asks the waiter if he thinks she’s pretty. Are these jokes? I couldn’t tell. The humor on display in this film is so bizarre, wherein the jokes raise multiple questions instead of eliciting laughter. I don’t think these could even be considered jokes. They’re more like dramatic reenactments of jokes. This is a bad movie, and I didn’t even get into Peter Fonda playing the Devil. This movie works better as a poster. I wish I could use that nifty little "Penitence Stare" trick on writer/director Mark Steven Johnson. Then maybe he would experience the torment and agony he caused those who actually sat through this film. Guilty!!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I Bury the Living (1958)

Director: Albert Band

Although it may end up feeling like an episode of Scooby Doo, this film does a descent enough job of following through on a standard, paint-by-numbers horror story to create an interesting experience. Robert Kraft (Richard Boone) recently took over management duties of the local cemetery. Eventually, Robert learns the chilling secret that he can control who will be the next to die by sticking pushpins into the giant cemetery plot map. The rest of the story plays out like a wannabe Hitchcock film or a better than average Twilight Zone episode, and although it probably won't surprise you, it may at least hold your interest.

Richard Boone (as Kraft) isn’t exactly the tortured soul he's needed to be for this role and ends up bottling up his acting for a few choice scenes towards the end, where in which he runs frantically around the cemetery while flailing his arms like Jerry Lewis. The art direction peeks out from behind the corner every now and then so as not to get in the way, but to punctuate the more suspenseful scenes to descent effect. Right off the bat, Kraft realizes that if he replaces the white pins (indicating a reserved burial plot) to black pins (indicating an occupied plot) on the giant cemetery map, the people he picks at random begin to turn up dead the next day, fulfilling the prophecy so to speak. This leads to a series of experiments performed by Kraft in hopes of proving this horrific concept to all those around him. In turn, they all keep reassuring him he's nuts. You'd think it would be easy to prove, and it sort of was for Kraft. The deaths are always chocked up to coincidence, however, and by taking place in a relative short amount of time, it becomes a sort of believably isolated story. The almost literal interpretation of the title is almost sure to lead to disappointment in the end. The ending itself turns out to feel tacked on, and doesn't fully fill in all the plot holes. Honestly, a lot of it is dull. I mean, there are only so many times I can watch the camera zoom in on a pushpin stuck on a map as the dramatic musical cue pounds through the speakers -- Bum Bum Buuuuuum!!!!!! The second half of the film is about 10 times better than the first half, as is the case with a lot of old-school thriller flicks. The set-ups take way too long because they're shamelessly crammed with totally uninteresting dialogue and exposition. That's where you'd find lines like, "I can't believe I just inherited this cemetery." Though, once that's all out of the way, I Bury the Living does hold its own. Of course there's the whole "ending" problem. Basically, there's a segment in this movie that starts about halfway through, and ends before the "big reveal" that works. I guess that's not exactly a shining endorsement.

Once the rest of the cast is brought in to trade opinions on Kraft’s alleged “death curse,” the movie gets considerably better. A rational approach is taken towards dissecting what's really going on when the cops are brought in, and the characters realistically discuss what's happening out in the open. All together, they try to sort out the seemingly coincidental deaths, which turn out to be more than just mere coincidences. Kraft's skeptical friends and co-workers are willing to test fate, and mockingly persuade Kraft to try his nifty little trick on them. Eerily, they begin to drop like flies in probably the best section of the film, and Kraft spends an inordinate amount of time sitting in his little office at the cemetery, sweating it out on the phone as he gets the bad news of each friend's demise. It’s hard to recommend this movie, since it’s obviously not the thriller it aspires to be. There are about two locations and several sleepwalking actors. The finale, where the big "secret" is revealed, is strangely similar (art direction and staging-wise) to the ending of Hitchcock’s Psycho, which came out two years later (note the swinging light fixture casting moving shadows on the spooky setting and characters). Without strong acting or a rewarding ending, this film is easily forgettable and will probably find itself buried in film history forever. Besides, if you've ever taken a writing course of any sort, you've probably scribbled a similar (if not better) story outline in your spiral notebook before eventually scratching it out or doodling over it once you came to your senses. I Bury the Living probably deserves to be doodled over.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Director: Robert Wise

Boris Karloff is a great actor. That may not come as a surprise to a lot of people, but I was used to seeing him as the lumbering Frankenstein’s monster or the Mummy. He was a great Frankenstein’s monster. In fact, he IS Frankenstein’s monster. But when he’s actually given lines to work with and not buried beneath pounds of make-up, he’s able to freak you out even when he doesn’t have bolts glued to his neck or isn't wrapped head to toe in bandages. This film proves he had range. The Body Snatcher is a suspenseful, dark tragedy (based loosely on real life events) that was handed over to Karloff as a perfectly wrapped present, which he was eager to feverishly unwrap. When Val Lewton opted to expand Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of the same name about grave robbers into a feature film, he must have had a lot of confidence in his rag-tag production team. Directing duties were handed off to Robert Wise (Wise had previously co-directed The Curse of the Cat People, but this film is remembered as his first solo effort), who proudly leans back and puts his feet up enough for the performances to create an eerie and dark mood all by themselves.

The setting is 1831 Edinburgh, Scotland. The town is a series of claustrophobic sets that look less than impressive, and are scarcely populated. The story begins when a young paralyzed girl arrives with her mother to seek medical attention for her ailment. The two arrive at the estate of Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) and his new assistant, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), but are turned down for an operation due to Dr. MacFarlane’s understaffed facility. If he treated her, he would have to treat everybody who came in, leaving no time to teach his students in the hopes of furthering medical research. This slightly contradictory notion is one of many that permeate throughout the story. This film’s script would resonate today due to its remarkable similarities to the controversial Stem Cell debate -- destroying a life to save lives. The simple premise leads to an open discussion throughout the film that doesn’t grow dull, mostly due to the actors’ performances. It turns out Dr. MacFarlane has been doing some dealings with a less than credible creep named John Gray (Boris Karloff). Gray has been supplying the doctor with bodies for his students to dissect. Soon, Fettes discovers that, with a low supply of graves to rob, Gray has found an alternate way of coming up with dead bodies. Karloff is the reason I would recommend this picture. He’s totally believable as a grave robber turned murderer. He stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, which includes a role played by Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is essentially a janitor at Dr. MacFarlane’s facility, who eventually attempts to blackmail Gray in a spooky scene between two iconic actors. McFarlane and Gray have a history together that Gray is all too happy to use in various attempts at manipulating MacFarlane. Fettes is the moral hero, who maintains sanity and holds the reigns on this outlandish story so as not to get too far off the trail.

The social relevance makes up for the lack of interesting directing techniques, and ultimately is the backbone of the whole movie. The plot points are systematically ratcheted up a notch, almost unnoticeably, so that you won’t even realize you’re totally buying every one. The acting scenes between Karloff and Daniell, as Dr. MacFarlane, are superb and quite unexpected for a low budget horror/thriller flick. Karloff’s performance skates that thin line between being cartoonishly over the top and believably psychotic. Whichever it is, it’s fun to watch. Once the little paralyzed girl finally walks, as we all knew she would, it comes close to being an unintentional spoof of heartwarming dramas of that era. It’s a shame they weren’t brave enough to just go all out and tell their story without having to endear the widest demographic possible. Val Lewton’s films he produced for RKO are not the greatest horror movies I’ve ever seen, but what they all share in common is an attention to detail despite being restrained by a low budget. They take a story, whether it seems goofy or, for lack of a better word, stupid, and put their hearts into it to try and make it work somehow. Typical Hollywood hacks of that era (and even this era) didn’t respect their actors or their scripts enough to let them speak for themselves, and assumed low budgets could only breed low quality. Lewton, however, wrote the book on handling with care.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Directors: Robert Wise/Gunther von Fritsch

Yet another misleading horror movie title. In fact, this if not even a horror film. Not surprisingly, it's not nearly as good as its predecessor, Cat People, but it’s definitely better than what its inaccurate title suggests. By almost existing in a different universe entirely, The Curse of the Cat People uses the characters from the first film and re-imagines them in a fairy tale follow-up to the original that's told through the eyes of a young girl. On the surface, this film seems like it would be an utter disaster that should be avoided like the plague, which may be why my expectations were low enough to be pleasantly surprised by its better than average attempt. I mean, let’s just be honest and look at the objective facts here: First, it’s a sequel to a groundbreaking horror film -- that’s a bad sign already. Second, the original film's outstanding director, Jacques Tourneur, is absent here. In his place are not one, but two "second choice" directors. Last but not least, it's barely even a horror film. Not only that, but it's closer to the complete other end of the spectrum and approaches "kids movie" territory. Oh, and one more thing: There are no "cat people" per se in the entire film, which comes as a big surprise given its heavily marketing-influenced label.

The original characters of Oliver (Kent Smith) and Alice (Jane Randolph) return as a married couple with a young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is the main character and the whole story is told from her perspective. Amy’s an anti-social, imaginative young girl, who trades real friends for imaginary ones. Her, at times, dysfunctional parents are disturbed by this and try to socialize her in any way they can. The story takes a supernatural turn when Irena (Simone Simon) returns in the guise of Amy’s new imaginary friend. Irena is now a ghostly incarnation, complete with billowing white gown and calming speech pattern, that only Amy can see. Amy summons Irena when she makes a wish on a “wishing ring” that she receives from a Boo Radley-ish shut-in, who turns out to look more like the Queen Mum. Her name is Mrs. Farren, and she lives in an old haunted house with her supposed daughter, Barbara. I use the word “supposed” because Mrs. Farren doesn’t acknowledge her as such, and claims that her actual daughter died a long time ago. This is never resolved, but doesn’t really spark a lot of interest anyway. Mrs. Farren befriends Amy as though she were her own daughter. This enrages Barbara, and her resentment towards Amy builds until the both heartwarming and suspenseful climax. The whole story is very straightforward, and has no surprising twists. This makes it nearly a children’s movie, but not necessarily a bad one. Even though the entire film is essentially a "bait and switch", it’s not necessarily worse for being as such. It's merely on a different plain altogether, and should be evaluated with a completely different set of criteria. I can't dock it points for being straightforward, since it's geared towards kids. It's just a shame that its target demographic would never take the bait, and instead, producer Val Lewton will reel in some very disappointed and confused fans.

I’ll admit that I’m not the target audience for this movie, but I sort of liked it. I have a feeling that if I saw this movie as a kid, I would remember it along with the likes of E.T. or A Christmas Story. It’s ultimately hindered by its childish elements to really stray much from its simple premise. Irena is an imaginary friend, and once Amy no longer needs her, she’s gone. It’s a well told message that delves into Freudian psyche analyses and parent-child relationships that seems daring for its time, but is by no means heavy handed. It’s simple enough for kids to follow, and it’s engaging enough for adults to not grow restless. The young lead actress, Ann Carter, does a good job here in the role of Amy. Her performance is, at times, a little wooden, but she’s just interesting enough to make up for it. Simone Simon as Irena (a character who really has no business sharing even the name of Simone's character in Cat People) is unfortunately wasted here. Although, she does look better as a fairy godmother-ish spectre than as a sexually repressed "cat woman." There are many large orchestral music swells and frolicky musical cues that may wear on your nerves a bit, and there isn’t enough focus on the fanciful, larger-than-life storybook aspects that would've kept the script from growing tedious. Also, the set pieces are boring, redressed hand-me-downs, and the magical effects look really cheap (two things that they definitely should NOT have skimped on in a film of this sort). The story is more interesting and better written than that of Cat People, but it unfortunately fell into less than capable (or, more likely, less than interested) hands. The direction ironically lacks direction, and doesn’t attempt to throw in original sequences or an appropriate atmosphere that would've insured the film's placement in movie history and/or in the minds of the viewing public. Robert Wise (director number one) would go on to win multiple academy awards and nominations and direct many hit films, including The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Gunther von Fritsch (director number two -- a fitting description in more ways than one) would just go on. Ultimately, the only “curse” in this film to speak of is that of its unfortunate title.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cat People (1942)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Take a wildly silly premise, add a melodramatic love story, mix it together with a talented director, and you’ll get Cat People. Director Jacques Tourneur always impresses me, even when the material he’s dabbling in seems less than interesting. He still manages to come up with original and genuinely haunting visuals amidst a muddled script. That’s really a testament to the directing style. It’s like if Picasso was handed some cheap-ass, broken paintbrush and instructed to make a work of art with only what he was given. A lesser artist would blame the tool or not fully put their heart into it, seeing that the project wasn’t worth their time. Tourneur looks at these stories and says, “I can work with this.”

Cat People revolves around a young immigrant named Irena (Simone Simon).While at the zoo, Irena encounters a man who she will later marry. Kent Smith plays her husband, Oliver. Irena is deeply disturbed by the ancient legend of the people she believes she’s descended from. The Cat People are a group of witches who can transform into deadly felines whenever their passions are aroused. Irena fears this, and keeps her distance from her husband, leading him to console in his co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph). Obviously this leads to a love triangle, which isn’t probably isn’t the ideal situation for someone who’s emotions can lead them to turn into a large panther that lashes out at the people in its immediate vicinity. Irena attempts to solve her seemingly mental problem by consulting with a therapist, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), to little effect. Dr. Judd also has some ulterior motives and turns the situation into a sort of love quadrangle. The whole melodrama weighs the movie down, and makes it fairly uninteresting. When Oliver explains to Alice that he’s not sure why he fell so madly in love with Irena, it offers an interesting but unexplored explanation for those “love at first sight”, instant movie romances. Something more was drawing him to her. The main reason for this movie’s significance is its style. Tourneur shines when he takes a standard romantic atmosphere and drains nearly all the light and sound from select scenes. There’s a scene where Alice goes swimming in an indoor pool late at night. The lights go out, and a panther’s growl is heard reverberating throughout the darkened room, although we never see the animal in question. Shadows are seen on the wall, but they're never distinct enough to see what’s actually threatening her. There's a chilling moment when Alice stares at the empty, shadowy staircase and hears a faint growl ominously approaching. It turns out that it was Irena, who wanted to confront Alice about her interest in her husband. In Tourneur’s films, there is always at least one scene that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
It’s quite silly to think that a woman who turns into a panther is terrorizing a girl in a pool, but if you put yourself in the moment without analyzing it, the scene works wonderfully on its own, as does the scene where Irena pursues Alice down a desolate sidewalk, ending with a great shock effect. Once again, these scenes are figuratively cut off from the rest of the feature by having their lighting and soundtrack nearly completely ripped away. I liked Simone Simon in her repressed sex-pot role, and I liked the suspense scenes in contrast with the other scenes. The problem is the story, which seems like it would be better suited for a daytime soap opera. The twists and turns, if there are any, seem uninspired and seem to come from nowhere. The characters' actions and emotions seem unmotivated and are only there to help the story chug along, as opposed to letting the characters affect the story in their own individual ways. I was actually kind of impressed with the amount of interesting material they were able to salvage from an ostensibly goofy and uninteresting premise, though. This was producer Val Lewton's and director Jacques Tourneur’s first in their series of suggestive horror films, and it pretty much seems like that. I Walked with a Zombie is probably a better vehicle for Tourneur's talents, but a definite style can be seen on display here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

Director: Jack Sholder

Ugh. Where do I begin? Maybe I should just start off by saying this is a bad movie. It’s not hard to be derisively verbose on this subject (see below), or to blindly drive off into the sunset in a rant powered vehicle (also, see below). But I’ll try to stay on topic for as long as possible. This is the second installment in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, but you’d never know that by watching it. It’s horribly dated. It was actually interesting to see this film though, since it hammers home the point that Wes Craven had at least a knack for something in the first film. First things first, the title: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. It’s a standard device for the title of a movie sequel (especially a horror movie sequel) to brandish the word “revenge” in some way or another, but it comes across as unbelievably cheesy here. Freddy takes revenge in all of his movies. That’s just part of his mythos. My suggestion for a title to this film is A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Coming for You. But I guess a cheesy film deserves a cheesy title. My title's too good for this movie.

I don’t want to spoil anything here, but that’s like saying I don’t want to burn down smoldering ashes. The damage has been done. The plot (I can’t believe I’m using that word when referring to this film) involves a young, 17 year old boy named Jesse (Mark Patton). Young is a relative term here, so Jesse looks like he should be on his third marriage instead of cheerily hopping on the school bus with his Ninja Turtles backpack draped over his shoulder. Jesse’s the new kid in town, who just moved in to Nancy’s old house from the first film. Her house is now officially the house from The Amityville Horror. Jesse’s having nightmares and visions of good ole Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) wandering about the house. It appears Freddy wants Jesse to kill for him, or he wants Jesse to become him, or something. Jesse constantly wakes up sporting Freddy's trademark glove o’ knives. He thinks he’s the one responsible when his coach turns up dead. So what do they do with this concept? They whiz it down their legs. Jesse is frantically worried (and sweaty) as he agonizes and overacts over possibly being a murderer. Well, nobody ever even suspects him and nothing ever happens with it. Freddy wants to use Jesse as a vessel to inhabit his body, but is constantly setting him up to get caught in the act of cold blooded murder -- good plan, Fred. Strange events begin to occur in the house. The temperature rises, the toaster gets hit by lightning, and the pet bird explodes. The level of ineptitude in this film reaches new heights… or is it depths? At any rate, the characters are dumb, to put it bluntly. They’re not even “horror movie dumb.” They’re dumb for the sake of being dumb. It’s not funny, and it doesn’t help the story. Jesse’s dad (Clu Gulager) attributes the exploding pet bird to buying the wrong kind of bird seed. There’s a pointlessly odd homoerotic subtext in this film as well. Jesse meets his coach in a bar where the coach had been picking up men -- excuse me while I stitch up my sides, they’re splitting. For some reason Jesse is constantly sweaty, and garbed in unbuttoned shirts. The actor must have had a clause in his contract that said he must be dripping wet at all times. Why? I don’t know… and I don’t want to know. When he’s not waking up from a sweaty nightmare, he’s showering or pointlessly strolling through the rain.

Anyway, Jesse has a non-emotive girlfriend named Lisa (Kim Myers), who looks almost exactly like a young Meryl Streep. She’s sort of like Meryl Streep mixed with Gillian Anderson. She’ll be the “last girl” in this film (she’s also the “only girl”, so that was a wise choice). The chemistry between Jesse and Lisa is non existent. When they lean in for their dramatic kiss, it looks like a closing draw bridge, except not as romantic. She believes in Jesse's claims that he is being affected by Freddy when they find Nancy’s diary that details the events of the first film. This is later confirmed when Jesse actually turns into Freddy and kills one of his (many) shirtless friends. Lisa throws a pool party that’s so devoid of energy that it could have doubled for a wake. Incidentally, Freddy begins a murderous rampage-of-sorts amongst the seemingly restless partygoing extras in this colossally mismanaged sequence. He cuts a few folks, burns them, and manhandles the deck furniture -- dear God, he is a monster! When he attacked Lisa earlier, he knocked a plate off the living room shelf. When will his reign of terror end?!! Is Freddy a frustrated interior decorator at heart or something? It all concludes in the abandoned factory where Freddy used to work. This is a perfect example of finding and exploiting a set piece and building a scene around it, regardless of its integration into the rest of the story. Lisa runs to find Freddy/Jesse there. Here she encounters a few demonic animals. The dogs with the cupie doll faces were a nice touch, but are distractingly fake and filmed in long shot. Anyway, Lisa figures it’s time to finally emote, and she pleads with Jesse to fight Freddy’s control over him, after he chases her around the plant. In the end, he gets lit on fire and collapses. Jesse emerges from the ashes, and the nightmare is over… or is it? The final sequence is a nod to the first scene on the school bus (Can you make a nod towards something in your own film?). Freddy pops his claws through one of the students, and the terrified passengers are driven off into the sunset. Again, the film repeats itself.

So, I’m going to go back to my earlier remarks of this film being bad. It kind of makes this whole review seem unnecessary. But somehow, a review that just reads, “Bad” seems a bit unimaginative, if not perfectly accurate. Jesse’s perpetually damp and screams like a girl. Lisa is nearly comatose and distractingly Meryl Streep-esque. Jesse’s dad wouldn’t be out of place in a Three Stooges sketch, and Freddy seems to be lost in all this. He barely kills anyone. The dream sequences that made the first film tolerable were either erased or forgotten. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, and I was glad when the things that I didn't know were happening ceased to happen. This film elbowed its way into the box office smack dab in the middle of the 80’s, and that fact couldn’t have been more apparent. Every background female character is dressed like Madonna, and every male character looks like a gay porn star. This film hurts. It offended me as a horror film fan and as a member of the human race. It took the Friday the 13th series a while to find its footing and establish a working formula. Freddy had a formula, and they totally ignored it. How is it possible that this film looks more dated than the previous one? Did fashion go completely haywire in only one year's time? The actors are annoying, whiny and moist, and the story slowly dies out after the scenes begin to lap themselves. The entire movie is essentially three scenes (give or take, although giving would be all too generous) which were crudely stapled and duct taped together before being carelessly strung through the film projector. As a result, the movie repeats itself about every three minutes. It's sort of like a horror version of Groundhog Day, except less scary. Unfortunately for the audience, in the end, Freddy discovers that the best revenge is living well.

Best Death: Freddy plays a deadly game of S&M with the coach in the locker room showers.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Director: Wes Craven

Freddy Krueger makes his bloody debut in this flawed but undeniably fun horror staple. Pop culture had no idea what was in store for it when A Nightmare on Elm Street burst onto the scene with its wildly violent and visually arresting style. In this film we’re introduced to the creepiest character of them all… no, not Johnny Depp. Although, some of his outfits haunted me long after it was over. I’m talking about the one and only Freddy Krueger who, unlike Jason, made torturing and taunting his victims an art form and took sheer glee in nothing more than terrorizing children in their sleep. It’s no wonder this film is sought out by curious high school kids who want to see every film they aren't supposed to see. With an excellent premise firmly clutched in the capable hands of director Wes Craven, Freddy has the perfect vehicle to do what he does best. Right off the bat, it’s noticeable that A Nightmare on Elm Street perfectly utilizes its premise of traveling between dream and reality by focusing almost entirely on visually haunting sequences. The visuals will stick with you, even though when you look back at it, Freddy only kills four people in the entire film. It’s quality not quantity here. The entire film is literally drenched in blood. And I’m not talking about splatter-fest type stuff here. It’s more like tidal waves of it that coat the characters and sets, leaving horrified audiences in their wake. Freddy is noticeably scarce here, and short on words. Later, he would learn that the camera loves him. But here, he’s a wallflower who's almost afraid to surreptitiously ask a girl to dance before literally stabbing her in the back.

The story starts out right away in a dream with a young girl runs across a spooked lamb while wandering the labyrinths of a boiler room. Why a lamb? ‘Cuz it looks creepy, that’s why. What more of a reason do you need? This is a good omen that the crew has a distinct style and isn’t concerned with drawing you in, but rather freaking you out. Tina (Amanda Wyss) traverses the corridors, only to encounter everyone's favorite sweater-wearing psychopath (except for Mr. Rogers, of course). Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) pops up, but Tina awakes before he can do more damage than just a few slices to her nightgown, which Tina discovers actually exist. The next day at school, Tina discovers that her friends, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Glen (Johnny Depp) and Rod (Nick Corri) have all had similar nightmares. So, what's the next logical response when a psychopathic killer who attacks people in their dreams is out to get you? Sleepover!!!! What could go wrong? Tina and Rod head up to the bedroom to bump uglies, while Nancy and her boyfriend, Glen, hang out downstairs. Freddy takes a second stab at the whole Tina-killing thing, and screams are heard coming from the upstairs bedroom... the bad kind of screams. In probably the most memorable scene (which holds up surprisingly well) is when an invisible Freddy begins to fling Tina around the bedroom. She’s dragged around the room, including the ceiling and walls, like a blood soaked paintbrush. Rod is no help, of course, and flees the scene before Nancy and Glen discover the horrific aftermath. Now, Rod is wanted for murder by the cops. Later, Freddy takes out Rod while he’s in his jail cell after he’s been captured by hanging him with a bed sheet.

Nancy is the main character (or "last girl"), whom the rest of the story revolves around. Nancy is continually terrorized in her dreams, leaving her no choice but to try to ward off sleep by using gallons of coffee and handfulls of “Stay Alert” pills. Her boozed up mother thinks she’s nuts, so she takes her to a Dream Therapy Clinic. It's there that Nancy discovers she can bring things out of the dream world and into the real world. In a doctor-induced nightmare she swipes Freddy’s trademark tattered fedora before waking up in her hospital bed with the hat firmly in her grasp. After little coaxing, the backstory arrives in one huge clump. Nancy’s mother reveals that Freddy Krueger was a child murderer who escaped a sentence, and the parents took matters into their own hands. They tracked him down and burned him alive. Apparently, Freddy didn’t cook all the way through and now he's up to his old tricks attacking children again... but this time, in their dreams. Death = superpowers. After a few failed attempts by Nancy and Glen at an attack on Freddy due to Glen's inability to stay awake, Glen gets sucked into his bed and belched out in the form of a blood geyser -- It's Old Faithful, Wes Craven style! Unfortunately for Freddy, there was a little side effect to Glen's untimely end: Now it's personal... more so. Nancy attempts to venture into dreamsville one last time to bring Freddy out and clobber him for good. Before the big sleep, she assembles an elaborate set of Home Alone -style booby traps around her house. She dozes off and manages to bring Freddy into the real world. Freddy bumbles around and falls down stairs, gets a mallet to the gut, and is lit on fire as he pursues Nancy. I expected Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern to walk in at some point. Freddy claims one more victim: Nancy’s mom. Freddy, still on fire, hops on top of Nancy’s mom while she's in bed. I’m assuming she wept up so quickly because her body was, at that point, probably about 85% alcohol. Nancy finally confronts Freddy in a courageous face off and claims to have discovered his weakness. She tells him she doesn’t believe in him and that she knows that it’s all just a dream. Freddy fades away thanks to cheesy 80's digital effects before he can deliver a final blow. Nancy walks through the bedroom door and finds herself now walking out her front door in a fantasy reality with all her friends and mother back among the living. Well, wouldn’t you know it, but that was just a dream too. The gang’s car takes on a life of its own and drives off with them all trapped inside like sardines. Nancy’s mom is yanked through the tiny window on the front door of their house by Freddy, while a group of young girls jumping rope recite Freddy’s signature tune.

It definitely looses steam and gets a little too goofy in the third act, but the script (which seemed more like just a concept) stays alive with its consistently chilling direction and slasher-honoring mood throughout. With Freddy lurking around virtually every corner, he isn’t the witty and charming psycho we all know and love yet. The film ultimately rests on its imagery and atmosphere, which I would guess were heavily influenced by The Shining and the works of Dario Argento. There are a bevy of memorable scenes, including a scene where Tina’s dead body is dragged down the hallways of the school in Nancy’s dream by an invisible Freddy. Also, the scene where Nancy attempts to climb the stairs, only to find that her feet sink into them, portrays the surrealistic nature of nightmares with an original and creepy effect. In a film about dreams and blurring the line between fantasy and reality this is the perfect canvas for a horror virtuoso to really make his mark. The visuals and mood were the most important elements for this film to really work, and luckily those are the exact (maybe the only) elements that do work. Characters and plot take a back seat so that we can be treated to a mosaic of blood and… well, more blood from start to finish. Although, the ending is less rewarding than it should've been and ends up feeling a bit out of place. They wanted to end it with the shocker of the dream not being over and Freddy still calling the shots, but they couldn't really figure out how to go about it. Which part was a dream? And who's dream was it? If you analyze it too much you'll probably find yourself liking the movie less and less. But that's not what we're here for. We're here for fun and terror and we get them in spades. And kudos to Heather Langenkamp as Nancy. She shines in a performance that requires her to be the voice of reason, and energetically carry this film while simultaneously running low on steam as she eschews sleep. She's one of my favorite "last girls" in horror history. So, now the stage is set. Freddy’s got his foot in the door, but is more than happy to batter it down anyway just for the sake of chaos.

Best Death: Tina's "Dancing on the Ceiling" routine turns ugly.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)

Director: William Beaudine

Don't dare delve deep into this dull and dreary, Dracula-dueling, dramatically drained disaster. With an eye-popping stare, Dracula mesmerizes his victims in one of the worst vampire films ever made (and yes, I’m counting “The Little Vampire” starring Jonathan Lipnicki). Dracula assumes the identity of the uncle of a beautiful blonde named Betty. It turns out that Betty just happens to be engaged to none other than Billy the Kid. Dracula plots to turn Betty into his vampire mistress, and convert her wealthy family's abandoned silver mine into his new, charming townhouse. Billy the Kid is there only to meet the requirement that the title boasts. Directed by the shamelessly prolific William Beaudine, master of the “let’s just film it and go” technique, this film wastes an absurd amount of time sadistically stretching out its plot as though it were chained to one of those medieval racks, when it should be utilizing its characters and creating dramatic and imaginative confrontations. The story is a simple one anyway, and in no way can carry this movie even over the threshold of the opening credits (which look like the opening credits to the 60's Batman television series). Dracula tries to take control of Billy the Kid's fiancé. Bada-bing bada-boom, I’m done.

The aging John Carradine plays Dracula, in a role that’s been drained of its life-force, and could probably best be classified as elderly abuse. Chuck Courtney plays the bland and forgettable character of... uh, what's his name? Umm... Billy the something-or-other, who tries to expose Dracula for who he really is from start to finish. The special effects are neither special nor effects by even the loosest definitions. A plastic bat on strings floats behind a stagecoach and Dracula comes around the other side -- Fantastic!! One second Dracula is standing there, and the next he’s gone thanks to an effect that looks almost like an editing room mishap -- Amazing!! Dracula's face glows red when he mesmerizes his victims, or whenever the stagehands manage to get the red spotlight aimed in the right direction -- Questionable!! I’ve created better special effects in videos I made for high school projects. But at the time, special effects could never rival that which we see today, so they had to be clever to make up for it. Needless to say, they weren’t clever and did the bare minimum to get on to the next scene. The effects and actors garbed in their community theater costumes are paraded across the screen in a way that makes you embarrassed FOR them (If they’re not going to be embarrassed by this, then by God, someone should be). So, let’s see. What else happens? Dracula keeps on hypnotizing Billy's fiancé, Betty (Melinda Plowman), and Billy the Kid keeps on trying to expose Dracula's real identity and motives for about 9/10ths of the movie. Dracula sets up a nifty one-bedroom apartment in the abandoned silver mine, and Billy is arrested for killing a man in self-defense. Dracula screams/growls at an old woman and it sounds more like a colicky baby or the Penguin from "Batman" -- “Waaaaaahhh!!!” Betty is ultimately carried off (from here on out, Betty will now be playing the part of "luggage") to Dracula's new lair in the abandoned cave and Billy breaks out of jail to rush to her rescue. It gets less and less interesting every time they cut to the same shot of Billy riding to save her amidst cheesy, heroic musical cues. There’s a light tussle to the death in the caverns (actually, it's more like cavern, singular) of the silver mine, and Dracula meets his demise with a large knife to the heart when bullets don’t do the job (a frustrated and childish Billy actually throws his gun at Dracula and hits him in the face at one point). With Dracula dead, Betty is freed from her trance (which wasn’t all that different from her normal state). Oh yeah, one more thing: Dracula carries Betty around in the middle of the day, clearly exposed to sunlight. They really didn’t care at all, did they? And on top of it all, the incessant day-for-night shots make the visual aspects of the film look horribly murky. It's almost like you're watching the whole thing while wearing sunglasses. Maybe a vampire movie isn't the best idea for a director who doesn't like to shoot at night.

Possibly the least menacing, and certainly most laugh-inducing Dracula to grace the silver screen has nothing to do in this film but does it quite frequently. Too much exposition on a plot that could be written entirely on a post-it note makes this film a bore. No exciting conclusion and no interesting plot twists make the terrible dialogue all too apparent. It seems the dialogue went skinny dipping, leaving its plot and characters carelessly crumpled in a heap along the lakeside. The father of one of Dracula’s victims attempts to shoot Dracula with his gun. “You’re bullets can’t hurt me,” Dracula says. “Oh, no?” the man confidently replies, and then proceeds to fire at him to no effect. “See," Dracula simply states. What a face off, huh? Never before has climactic banter been so precisely articulated. My favorite scene is at the beginning, where Dracula asks to see a photo of a woman's daughter. He blatantly leers and makes googly eyes at it, hands it back, and then asks to see it again, and ogles it once more. Now, he's either a complete perv, or a haunting villain -- or possibly both. Either way, he shouldn't be so extremely obvious about it. The last line is Billy’s, where he says to Betty as he carries her out of the cave, “Come on, honey. We’re going home.” It’s not exactly, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” but it will have to do. This movie is plain and unimaginative throughout every aspect. Just remember to pray hard each and every night. Not because Dracula may come around (since, apparently he can appear in the daylight as well, according to this film), but because this film may suddenly emerge in your bedroom in the form of a late-night broadcast. And much like Betty, you may find your will succumbing to the horrors of “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” and forget to change the channel before it’s too late. Look away!!!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Fast Food Nation (2006)

Director: Richard Linklater

“Do you want lies with that?” was one of the taglines for this film. This couldn’t be more misleading. Richard Linklater is probably one of my favorite directors working today. His films are usually thought provoking, refreshingly original, and filled with great dialogue that only Linklater could've written. That’s why I was intrigued by the idea of him making a dramatized adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction, bestselling book of the same name. But this film was very disappointing to me. Roger Ebert says that (I’m paraphrasing) the degree of how good a movie is in the difference between what it was setting out to accomplish, and what actually results in the final product. This is the criteria I like to use as well. So if a director wanted to create a goofy and fun children’s movie, you shouldn’t criticize its plot for not perfectly making sense. It was supposed to be silly, and it doesn’t really matter if it fails to connect all the plot points, as long as it entertains the children it was trying to entertain. The down side of this is when a film like “Fast Food Nation” makes a bold attempt at painting the entire fast food industry in a negative light (not hard to do, of course), and never comes close to building a case that wasn't built already.
I think there's a pretty huge chasm between what the mission statement was, and what ended up on screen. This film works much better as an indictment of the American job industry as a whole, rather than specifically the food industry. This ends up being disappointing when it builds up to a nearly impossible scene to watch, where they film on the actual killing floor of a slaughterhouse. I thought it was really brave to depict, or rather, actually show the real goings-on of one of these plants. Yes, it’s hard to watch and it looks like a real-life version of “Hostel”, but it’s a groundbreaking thing to put into a film. The problem is that it doesn’t fit into the rest of the movie, and comes off as almost exploitative. That scene deserves a much better story, and it almost would’ve worked better in Morgan Spurlock’s brilliant documentary “Super Size Me”, where the identical topics (plus many more) are explored much more in depth, and to much greater effect. Another problem is that this film is filled with great actors, but they end up crowding each other, leaving little room for performances. I wouldn't have cared about that so much, except for the fact that this was supposed to be a dramatized version. No character development = no drama. Greg Kinnear plays a marketing executive for the fictional fast food chain, "Mickey’s" (Get it? Thought you did). Bruce Willis plays another, more corrupt businessman, and Wilmer Valderrama plays an illegal alien hired to work in the slaughterhouse. This film wants to intertwine their lives, but never does. Nor does it show off the characters needed for this film, due to its needlessly fragmented style. It's constantly moving, but it moves just before we can really get involved in a scene or character. There’s basically too much fat in this movie -- how ironic.
Anyway, I started off this review by quoting the tagline. “Do you want lies with that?” implies that there’s some big conspiracy going on, and the film almost stands firmly behind this idea, even though they don't offer any good evidence. When Greg Kinnear’s character, Don, finds out there’s a possible contamination problem in one of Mickey’s meat plants, he’s quickly dispatched to find out what’s going on. Well, no one was lying to him. He goes there to find the plant running smoothly and immaculately clean. It turns out he didn’t get to see “the killing floor” on the tour, but what did he expect happened there? Obviously the cows are killed -- they didn’t commit suicide conveniently near a meat grinder. It’s absolutely immoral and cruel (which doesn’t seem like a strong enough word here) the way these animals are treated. But if people know this already, I’m not sure what they would get out of this movie. Everybody knows more or less what goes on at these places, but it’s shocking to actually see it. That’s why I wished that it would’ve felt appropriate in a film that tries to dramatize the events, but never develops its characters believably or in an original way. If they had free range to create a story around this concept, they should have spent more time on the characters than on the overused clichés about what really goes on behind the counter.

The area that I wish they had explored more would be the effects the work industry in general has on our everyday lives. It felt like they wanted to, and there were hints of something much deeper below the surface, but they were too closely tied to indicting this one specific fictional fast food chain. And that was the whole point of the film; to use one company, and burn it as an effigy. Well, this may sound weird, but the food industry didn’t come off as bad as I thought it would. There’s terrible things going on, but I just thought, “Yeah, shitty stuff goes on with every company. What reaction are they going for here?” I would like to think that I answered my own question, and that that’s what they wanted to depict -- all businesses are corrupt to some extent, even those preparing our food. But I wish that idea had been utilized or explored more here. It wreaks of self-righteousness, and has no more to say than what we already know. The film wants to juxtapose when it's actually disjointed, and it's pretentious when it wants to be enlightening.
There are two scenes that were salvageable, but get lost in the rest of the picture. One interesting scene is the one between Bruce Willis and Greg Kinnear as Mickey's executives that have different philosophies. They create a real interesting scene where they do something that most movies are too tunnel-visioned to figure out. Both sides of the argument are presented intelligently, and it doesn't simply set up a straw man to get us all on one side. Something that I definitely wasn't expecting from this film, but I should've expected it due to co-writer/director Linklater's resume. The other memorable scene was the one where Don, played by Greg Kinnear, checks out of his hotel. He chats briefly with the girl running the front desk, and it seems as though he’s talking to a robot. It’s not blatantly obvious like the rest of the picture, and Don doesn’t even comment on it. But it looks as though it troubled him on a level that would be hard to even put into words. It hints at a deeper problem of people losing themselves to industrialized form and function, as opposed to what comes naturally. Unfortunately, that theme popped up like it was taunting me. It would rear its head and wink at me, but then quickly disappear before I had a chance to acknowledge it. It was like some twisted game of "Whack-A-Mole" or something. Also, the film is padded with re-hashed political/moral activism that grows tiresome after two hours. My take on this is that the problems in the food industry are a symptom of the disease of a hyper-industrialized society that permeates throughout all companies as they begin to run all by themselves, sort of like HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey." This film is too naively focused on the symptom to have any time to really say anything worthwhile. So, in conclusion, I WOULD like lies with that, but they're fresh out. So, I guess I’ll just have a diet soda.

P.S. If you’re thinking about watching this film, rent “Super Size Me” first, then you’ll see what a missed opportunity this film was.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Curse of the Demon (1958)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Originally released in 1957 under the title “Night of the Demon” in the U.K., this is the re-cut, 1958 U.S. version that’s a mixed bag of stylistic direction and sci-fi elements that unquestionably must have looked better on paper. Jacques Tourneur may be the best director most people have never heard of. The story of this film however, seems less than suitable material for him. But Tourneur manages to keep the film engaging despite its goofy premise and special effects.

Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is an American scientist who arrives in England to investigate the strange goings-on surrounding the death of one of his colleagues, who was investigating a devil worshiping cult. John is very skeptical of anything supernatural, and believes there’s a reasonable explanation for everything. In England, he hooks up with his colleague’s niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummins). Joanna compliments John’s personality by remaining open to the idea that the devil cult had something to do with her uncle’s death, and wanting to investigate all possibilities. Together, John and Joanna are a couple of supernatural sleuths that must have been the model for Mulder and Scully of “the X-Files”. The only reason that this premise becomes a little shaky is that we know right off the bat, and are constantly reminded throughout the film, exactly what's happening in terms of the supernatural phenomena we're witnessing. We see the actual demon in the opening scenes, so it’s only a matter of time until John finally comes around, but we (the audience) will just have to wait it out. It would have been much more effective if the techniques Tourneur used so effectively in “I Walked with a Zombie” had been used a little more to keep us in the dark as to what was really happening, and allowing us to fill in the blanks for ourselves. It almost becomes a cartoon when, right before our eyes, John starts running from a giant, hairy demon puppet, and battling a cat that magically transforms into a stuffed animal that someone must have won from a carnival ring toss game. It doesn’t help that the special effects are so dated and silly that they almost take you out of the picture completely. They’re still interesting to look at, though (I thought the demon looked kind of cool, actually... until he started to move, that is. He reminded me of Animal from "the Muppets"). At any rate, if you attempt to pound these puzzle pieces into the rest of the movie (whether it's by using your fist, or inevitably brandishing a hammer of some sort), your brain will tell you to laugh out loud when you were supposed to be hiding under the covers. The following thoughts may forcibly take up residence in your unsuspecting mind: "Why is John running away from a Muppet?" or "Watch out for that plush-toy, John!!" Please save your comments or questions until the end of the feature. Thank you.**

Several things save this film from becoming the cheesy B-movie that the producers must have insisted on it becoming, against Tourneur’s wishes. One thing is the performance of Niall MacGinnis as the devil cult leader, Dr. Karswell. He’s a mixture of Auric Goldfinger and Hugh Hefner (sans Playboy Bunnies) with a dash of C. Everett Coop. He comes off as friendly and casually threatening all at once in several memorable scenes. Karswell seems Bond villain-ish with his polite treachery and luring of unsuspecting flies into his parlor. This probably wasn’t the best kind of character for Tourneur to utilize, since he’s not exactly ambiguous with his motives or behavior. With all that said, his performance is the most interesting to watch in this film, and much more engaging than the one-note performance of Andrews as the lead, Dr. John Holden. John never clearly makes a change between belief and unbelief. He seems to have simply switched like we all knew he would do from the beginning. Other things that help the film are the set pieces and locations, mostly due to Tourneur's stylistic design concepts, and eye for the visually interesting. The story is similar to that of “the Ring”, or more accurately the abysmal “Ring 2”, in where John has a curse put on him by Karswell due to a parchment inscribed with ancient runes that Karswell surreptitiously passed to him. Now John’s days are numbered, unless he can pass the parchment back to Karswell. (And John didn't even get the standard "seven days" that the victims in "the Ring" got. He only got about three, due to budget cuts.) The story’s a little too simple and straightforward to add up to a thrilling conclusion, and it ends up playing out more like a noir detective story than as a terror-inducing, horror one. That's obviously not a bad thing on its own, but it's very anti-climactic given the rest of the film, even though the demon does make a final appearance. But this time, instead of being scared, you'll probably feel more like he's an annoying house guest that just won't go away -- "Look, do you need a ride home or something, Demon? 'Cuz I really have to go to bed now."

There are a few sequences that stand out. As John sneaks into Karswell’s mansion to figure out what he’s up to, he is pursued by a hand that moves along the banister. As we see John creep down the staircase from behind, a hand enters the frame in the foreground. Cut to a reverse angle, and we clearly see that no one else is on the staircase. They do this several times to chilling effect. There’s a séance that pokes fun at, and then uses to great effect the mediums and their rituals, with John (obviously) playing the voice of reason. It’s probably Andrews’ best acted scene. The scene involving Karswell psychically conjuring up a storm, and John and Joanna taking refuge in Karswell’s mansion on the surface sounds silly, but ends up being a real diamond amidst this rough story. This sequence features howling wind and lightning sound effects encircling the candle-lit set that creates an appropriate, and desperately needed, “ghost story” atmosphere. And even when John and Joanna venture deeper into the belly of the mansion, the muffled winds of the storm never stop, creating the feel that something relentlessly menacing is surrounding them even when we can't see the storm itself. It’s definitely not Tourneur’s best example of fright and terror, but it does show that even within a cheesy premise he was able to create unforgettably creepy moments in an otherwise forgettable film. "Oh, Great. Quick! Shut the blinds! That damned Demon is back again."

** Editor's Note: Even after the feature's over, don't ask questions. To quote the movie, "Sometimes it's better not to know."

Die Hard (1988)

Director: John McTiernan

Bruised, bloody and beaten, Bruce Willis is in the wrong place at the right time. An action movie is only as good as its hero, and “Die Hard” features one of the greats. With reluctance and a “how could it get any worse” attitude, Willis imbues a character that carries this film far beyond what it could have ended up being -- namely, another disposable "junk food" action flick. Yes, this film is, in part, junk food, but it will taste so damn good that you'll gladly abandon your diet for two hours of indulgence. "Die Hard" bravely set a trend that was in direct opposition to what had been going on at the time, and consequently was bastardized by Hollywood hacks, but never equalled. Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop with a tinge of noir, who is visiting his wife, a successful businesswoman, and two children out in L.A. The whole film is laced in an atmosphere designed to turn McClane into the most put-upon fish out of water the action screen has ever seen.
First, we discover that it's Christmas, but one that only the neutral weather of L.A. could provide. It’s set almost entirely at a Christmas party in an L.A. office building, where McClane arrives to meet his wife. She and her coworkers are held hostage, when a gang of terrorists seizes control of the party in an attempt to rob the building's safe that's filled with over $600 million in bearer bonds. This perfectly simple set-up allows this film to be a great action movie and nothing more. And why shouldn't it be just that? They obviously knew what they were good at, and designed a movie to show off their talents. John McClane is able to slip away, and make his way through the building, which is in the middle of a renovation. The 12 terrorists begin to drop like flies as they’re systematically picked off by a simultaneously confident and panicky McClane. The plot may be simple, but it has a great economy. As one character intervenes, whether it’s the police, the media, the F.B.I, or McClane himself, it immediately and plausibly throws everyone else’s makeshift plan out of whack (a detail few action movies recognize or utilize well). I know “plausible” is a word that may seem out of place here, but when the characters recognize their respective positions in the story, they keep the whole thing realistic in relation to the rest of the story. Obviously the whole thing is a ridiculous concept, but within that frame, the plot points work. The other perfectly cast addition to the story is Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman), who's the leader of the terrorist group. Hans remains the model for any 90’s action film villain who has an axe to grind and an affinity for ridiculously brutal intimidation. All the while, never forgetting his role in this little story and pointing out what's going on right before the audience even gets a chance to ask. This shows that the filmmakers knew affectionately what genre they were dabbling in, and weren't shy about unabashedly showcasing action for action's sake. But unlike most other action flicks, Hans stays three steps ahead of everyone in a way that keeps the story movie without weighing it down with superfluous exposition. Part of that is that the exposition is simply the character of John McClane. Where he goes, the story goes.
It’s quite simply a “guy” flick in its purest form, complete with wry catch phrases, a classic battle between good and evil with no middle ground, and a hero who steps up when he sees that nobody else will. It's futile to defend its over-the-top silliness, and the film itself knows this. It uses action film elements to great effect, in a way that won't have you rolling your eyes, but thinking to yourself, "nice." Without Willis, this film would undoubtedly not be at the level it ultimately rises to. They took an action film, and boiled it down and gutted it to provide a backdrop for a great performance by Willis. They even stripped McClane of his shoes, his clothes, and his energy. And when the final confrontation occurs, we see that McClane was probably on his last leg, and probably couldn’t make it another round. L.A. has literally stripped, beat, and worn McClane down to the exasperated and bloody action star that was shamelessly copied, but never duplicated, in a delightfully simple, but never boring, excuse to simply blow some shit up.