Good sequels and Bad

I am really looking forward to seeing The Shape of Water when it released in Feb in the UK. It’s an original film from a fantastically creative film maker and it looks amazing. I must confess though, I am more excited for The Predator, Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War.

This year there are more than 30 sequels coming out at the cinema and I am sure that I will watch a good portion of them. Although, the way sequels are treated is funny. Fans and movie goers in general, myself included, lament the lack of original movies coming out but we love to see the on-going adventures of characters we know and love. The trick to making a sequel successful is to make it interesting and fresh while not affecting what has gone before or changing what is at the core of the character.

If we look at a couple of movie series that have multiple sequels we can see where some have succeeded and others have failed, at least in my opinion. Now I am going to discount any series based on books (Harry Potter, Hunger Games etc) as they have a template to work from.

To end on a positive note let’s start with two film series that I mostly enjoy but have followed a very similar path and as a result are at a low point. The Terminator and Alien.

They both start with a small sci-fi horror concept, one a haunted house the other a slasher film. Each gained attention and success by creating a complete world and just dropping the viewer in them. The follow ups take that concept and instead of treading the same ground, up the ante. Aliens and T2 are examples of perfect sequels being great movies in their own right, while building on what was established in the first films. James Cameron being the director and creative force behind each is a testament to his talent.

Unfortunately, after that is where its starts to fall apart. In both cases the third film in the franchise tries to do something new, without really respecting the characters that have been established. Both T3 and Alien 3 have uneven tones and do not feel like extensions of the stories that have already been told. In my opinion Alien 3 is a better film that T3. This could have just been a wobble overall but the issues continue.

The fourth instalments in each series (Terminator: Salvation and Alien: Resurrection) are jumps forward in time and force story telling conceits to keep certain characters in play. Both ignore key elements of the past films in favour of trying to standalone. They are shallow and forced. I would even go as far as to say that both have a negative effect on the films that have come before by taking characters in a poor direction.

In both cases this should have been the end. Profits and credibility were low but there was going to be more. In recent years, we have had Prometheus (and Covenant) and Terminator: Genysis which have both tried to rewrite the history of what has come before. I would suggest that that the result is mostly negative and in some ways insulting to fans of the series.

As I say, both are at a low point now but I am sure we will get some form of movie continuation at some point. The only thing I can hope for is that we get a sequel that is honest to what the heart of the franchise is about.

On the flip side is a series of films that have reinvented themselves to become one of the biggest money makers of recent years. Much like Alien and Terminator the Fast and Furious films start with a small and tight concept. It was nothing new but it was fun did better than expected, it was bound to get a sequel. The following two films try different approaches but always keep the core fun, if daft, elements in play … and fast cars, lots and lots of fast cars. The fourth film in the series is the most interesting for me, it goes back to the beginning but starts to grow the focus of the first three. They move from underground racers being involved in crime to crime stories centred on core characters that happen to be excellent race drivers.

This is taken to the next level in 5, with the addition of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. 5 through 8 are crazy crime action movies. They have massive set pieces and explosions, and they took a middling franchise into one of the most successful of the 21st century.

Another example of knowing your franchise but keeping it fresh is the Mission Impossible series. Each film since the first in 1996 has had a different director that has brought a different tone and feel but they have kept the similar sense of fun action and big stunts. Doing so they have gone from strength to strength, with the 6th instalment coming in 2018.

I know that these are very different beasts and that the F&F and MI series is are more pulp action nonsense overall. However, there is something very important that the Terminator and Alien franchise can learn from them. People want to see these characters do what they do. It’s why Bond has 25 films, why Rocky never started MMA, it’s also why people get so frustrated with the Hellraiser franchise (that’s a blog for another day).

As movie goers, we cry out for new and fresh concept and characters and stories. These will always excite and intrigue us. However, let’s be honest, as some studios have shown over the decades, if you put time, effort and money into a well thought out sequel you will satisfy fans and bring in new people as well as make a ton of cash.

My Top 5 Haunted House films

The haunted house has been a staple of cinema since the beginning. Cob webbed shadowy corridors and creaking doors used to varying effect to create that perfect spooky atmosphere. I love a good ghost story but so often I think it is done poorly. I really dislike the Insidious film series for their reliance on jump and noise scares rather than fear and tension … just my opinion. While I can find something to enjoy in the run of ghost film remakes like 13 Ghosts (2001), The House on Haunted Hill (1999) or The Haunting (1999), they don’t deliver the creepy horror I love in a good haunted house film.

Below is a list of my top 5 favourite Haunted House films:

1.       The changeling (1980) – After the death of his wife and daughter George C. Scott moves to a renovated mansion to focus on his music and work through his grief. His time in the house is soon interrupted by noises in the night and distant whispering voices. This opens up into a mystery that is preventing the unquiet spirit from moving on.  The Changeling uses its locations and sound brilliantly to unnerve the viewer. The film is laced with tragedy and lose, which makes the final reveal the more impactful and shocking.

As a side note, I should mention that the events of the film are loosely based on events that the screenwriter claimed happened to him when he lived in a town house in the mid-60s.

2.       Poltergeist (1982) – For years there have been tales of the production of Poltergeist and who was actually in charge on set, Producer Steven Spielberg or Director Tobe Hooper. Regardless of who actually ‘directed’ the film, the fact remains that this is one of my favourite horror films. It is the quintessential modern haunted house film, clearly influenced by the events of Amityville. 

The standard American family living in a good neighbourhood where the kids can play safely. It is template 80’s Americana. This is then be shattered by the ‘abduction’ of the youngest daughter, leading to the acceptance and handling of the supernatural presence. There are moments that stretch the suspension of disbelief (a tree attack!) but the overall film is a masterclass is quiet drama being punctuated with hard hitting scares. More so than The Amityville Horror (1979), this film helped move ghost stories from gothic mansions to modern suburban homes.

3.       The Others (2001) – As I mentioned in the opening, in the late 90’s, early 00’s Gothic horror was not in vogue. It was replaced by loud, more action orientated horror (13 Ghosts / The House on Haunted Hill / Ghosts of Mars). However, in 2001 Alejandro Amenabar wrote and directed the first Spanish entry on this list, the Spanish/American produced The Others. A magnificent gothic tale that plays like a novel.

The film lays interesting and believable constraints on its protagonists, as to why they cannot leave the haunted location. Trapping them in with the fear, unable to escape. This makes for great conflict as we watch Nicole Kidman’s lead start to unravel as she deals with events that she does not want to believe are real, while trying to protect her children. The tension and scares culminate is a successful twist and a satisfying ending that a lot of modern horror films lack.

4.       Paranormal Activity (2007) – Found footage films are the lowest budget films that can be made. This usually means they are a gateway into Hollywood for armature or up-coming film makers, but they are usually poor. Every now and then though a film comes up that understand how to use the format to great effect. For me, Paranormal Activity nailed it.

The film follows a couple that have moved into a new house and quickly start to experience strange goings on. The hand-held camera footage is given justification and I am pulled into the daily goings on of the couple and their friends. This is then used to great effect later to build tension and for the viewer. The Camera doesn’t always focus on the central point, so you are pushed to take in the whole screen to look for the scare. The tension builds in this films to an excellent open ended pay off, the way a found footage film should. 

5.       The orphanage (2007) – “Presented” by Guillermo Del Toro but the creation of Director J. A. Bayona. I will admit that this being a subtitled film meant that it took me a while to get around to watching it. I am so glad that I eventually did. A woman returns with her family to the orphanage in which she grew up to reopen it as a home for children. However, things take a tragic turn when her son goes missing. This one event starts to pull together strands for a mystery involving her past as well as that of ghosts trapped in the orphanage.

Oscar Faura’s cinematographer is beautiful throughout. He and Bayona use the central building and its cliff side local to create a sense of isolation and timelessness. This accentuates the fear and tension as the film grows to its tragic gut punch of a conclusion.

5 Haunting Horror films based on true stories (aside from Amityville Horror).

When I started researching this I was expecting to find a glut of films that would fit this category in the 70s and 80s. There were a couple but they were a bit tenuous (The Exorcist). It seemed more like a nugget of a real-life event was taken and then turned into something completely different. I suppose this way no one extra had to be paid. This changes in the early 2000’s and from 2005 onwards we have had a continual stream of Horror Movies based on ‘real events’. This has culminated in the Conjuring films, based on the accounts of the Warrens.

Below is a list of 5 films that are based on alleged real paranormal events:

1.       An American Haunting (2005)

Events: in 1817 the Bell family started to suffer an alleged haunting by a ghostly witch. It started when the head of the family, John Bell, came across a strange animal in his corn field. Shocked by the animal’s appearance he opened fire, the animal vanished. That night for the first time, the family were bombarded by a beating sound on the side of their home. From that point on the haunting got worse.

The noises continued. Sometimes outside the house, other times in the same room as members of the Bell family. Many people as well as the family reporting the sounds as well as seeing and feeling things within the house over several years.

Whatever the entity was that was haunting the family it made its final attack in 1820, when it allegedly poisoned and killed John Bell. Laughing loudly as he took his final breathes. It is said that the ghost returned in 1828 for a short time but was not heard of again after that.

This is regarded as one of the earliest and most wide spread hauntings in American History.

Film: The film has got an interesting cast with Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek and several up and coming actors at the time. It has an interesting modern wrap around mechanism as access into the period setting. It also maintains the actual, relative down beat, ending of the legend but condenses the haunting period of years to what feels like months. While the film maintains the haunted happenings the scares and tension never really amount to much, it was only a 12 (PG-13).

It was an interesting exercise in period drama horror, however I think this would have been better if it had either been more stylised (ala Sleepy Hollow) or tried for some harder edged scares and content (ala Annabelle Creation).

2.       The exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Events: The film is based on the tragic events that lead to the death of German woman Anneliese Michel. She dies in 1976 suffering from malnourishment and dehydration after months of being subjected to exorcist practices.

After suffering a seizure at the age of 16 Anneliese began to suffer increasing periods of depression. These low points and neuroses began to become focused on religious artefacts. A huge concern for a girl that came from such a religiously devoted family. Soon both she and her family became convinced that she was possessed by something evil. After several attempts the family convinced two priests that she needed intervention.

This started the exorcisms that eventually led to her death. Following her death her parents and the two priests were prosecuted for murder. They were found guilty of negligent homicide. This also forced the Catholic church to distance itself from the case and change its stance to state that she had been mentally ill and not in fact possessed by an evil force.

Film: They take a leap with this film as the story is told in retrospect, dealing with the court case that follows the death of Emily Rose. This is not a film about whether they can save the possessed girl, we know the answer is no. The film spends more time dealing with the question of whether she was possessed at all. It’s an interesting conceit and that isn’t fully explored. If they had had the confidence in the audience, it would have been a better film. However, they never want to completely condemn the priest.

In a better film, he would have been played as a more unreliable narrator. There would have been more uncertainty about whether she was possessed or if the priest hadn’t been obsessed due to his religious zeal.

That said, the film is good fun and the core cast are mostly good. This is a solid possession horror film with an interesting concept. The frustration is that this had the potential to be something more and elevate the genre and story into a classic.

3.       The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

Events: of all the ‘True Events’ on this list, this is the one that has the most holes. This is the first but not the last appearance of the Warrens on this list and their paws are all over this.  The haunting was alleged to have focused around the House and son of the Snedecker family, who was suffering from a form of Cancer. Minor events were reported but nothing of great note. That is when the Warrens got involved and the story became ‘clearer’.

The entity harassing the family was supposed to have been linked to the previous use of the house as a mortuary. It was stated that there were several employees of the mortuary that practiced necromancy and necrophilia. It was the spirits of these people that were returning at the heart of the events.

This did lead to several grander events. This included the son attacking his cousin and being held in a mental health ward for a period. However, following Ed Warren’s death in … several people linked with the investigation and the documenting of the events admitted that Ed told them to embellish what they knew in any way they could think of to make it scary.

The House is still occupied and the current occupants have frequently stated that they have never experienced any paranormal activity.

Film: The movie has a couple of well-placed scares and some moments of tension, however the overall film is very pedestrian. The facts from the true events are close enough regarding the house and its history. However, elements of the family are changed for safety. The focus on the main son having cancer is reduced.

There is little to say about this film really. It’s competently made, the acting is sufficient and its creepy at times but it just feels very run of the mill and safe for this genre. It’s a shame really because again, like the Exorcism of Emily Rose, this has the potential to add an element of ambiguity and tension with a just a few changes. Could the son’s illness have been at the root of the events? Could it be suggested in the film that this was a hoax to raise money to cover medical costs.

It’s worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre but there are better films on this list.

4.       The Conjuring (2013)

Events: Ah the Warrens. The couple that have now become synonymous with modern haunted house movies, thanks mostly to this film. As is usually the case, the story the Warren’s tell is very different from the truth the family have sated. The Perron family lived in the house at the heart of the story of a decade and the hauntings were spread over this while period.

The haunting was centred around the spirit of an alleged witch called Bathsheba Sherman who died in 1885. There is little evidence that she was in fact a witch, however it was alleged that she killed several infants as sacrifices to the devil. The haunting took on several aspects for the different inhabitants. Some saw apparitions, others were physically attacked but all the heard the noises and voices.

The haunting was never fully resolved. The case may have been closed by the Warren’s however after the Perron’s sold the house in 1980 there were further reports of ghostly activity. This is an event that I think deserves a more attention and possibly a closer adaptation of the story.

Film: Forgetting the alterations of the history this was a return to form for haunted house films. I really enjoyed the tone and feel of the film. It’s has an excellent sense of creepiness and uneasiness running through it. There are some incredibly well placed and paced scares that are incredibly effective.

The strength of the film is in the first two thirds. The build-up of the family dynamic and the relationship that grows with the Warrens. This investment in characters underlines the tension and scares. However, this is partially undone by a clichéd and overly dramatic finale. This will most likely be regarded as a milestone in horror history however it just falls shy of becoming a horror classic. I won’t even go into the dreadful sequel and Annabelle spin-offs. This Franchise has such potential but is being squandered on cheap jump scares and poorly written and preposterous characters.

5.       Deliver us form Evil (2014)

Events: The book ‘Deliver us from evil’ written by Lisa Collier Cool, chronicles the supernatural cases of former New York Police officer Ralph Sarchie. It is set up to be like the real life X-files. It covers a number of cases of possession and ghostly attacks that are alleged to be related to crimes that were left unsolved. Of course, they have been solved by Sarchie but the truth would not be accepted by the public.

Sarchie has appeared on several podcasts, radio and TV shows to promote the book and Film, telling his tales of the supernatural that lives in the Bronx. Demon neighbours, ghostly vengeful brides and the exorcisms that were carried out to save the people involved. Its sounds like he was a busy guy, maybe the Bronx is over a hell mouth and they would have been better off with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Film: Eric Bana is a New York cop that starts to uncover a conspiracy of soldiers possessed by demons from the middle east. The plot is a little daft and the direction is not subtle in anyway however this odd combination of horror and cop drama is fun if not scary. Bana is committed to the role and is sufficiently brooding and earnest about it all. It does all fall a part in the finale, as they usually do. If these events are alleged to have happened I am sure that someone in the media would have noticed.

A fun film for Halloween or with a few beers but not a solid recommend.

Evolution of the horror movie scare

As usual, before I start I have admit that I am not an expert in Horror films (despite the many, many films I have watched). This blog, as with all of them, is just my opinion and I am happy to be challenged and on anything I propose. In fact, I welcome your comments and feedback. So, let’s get stuck in.

From the earliest days of cinema Horror has been a popular genre. With films like The Golem (1915), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu (1922) people loved being scared. Over the course of the next century the genre evolved and changed to reflect the fears of society. Also, upping the ante again and again on what the films could show to elicit fear and scares. Each generation has films that they claim are the best in genre and are the peak of fear. The question is, who is right if any of them?

I am a big fan of horror movies and enjoy the varied sub-genres for different reasons, expecting different things from them. However, there is a core conceit, I should feel a sense of fear when watching the film. It’s how that fear is evoked that might change. For example, the tension built up in the first half of ‘Halloween’ (1978) creates a sense of fear that elevates the events of the second half of the film. While the notion of Freddy Krueger in the first Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), a killer you cannot escape, is scarier than many of the actual ‘scares’ in the film. The film plays for blood rather than tension.

Since these films were released the genre has altered several times. The 80’s were filled with slasher films and low budget high gore video nasties. There were entries into the genre in the mid to late 70s that can be considered ‘classic’ films. However, the genre has always been fuelled by B-movie fare. It was these movies that became much of the output in the 80’s. unfortunately this meant that the genre was at a low point going into the 90’s. It was pulled from the doldrums by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson with Scream (1996).

The film was a huge success and made Horror a viable commercial prospect again. As is always the case, Scream was followed by a litany of poor imitators. It also opened the channels for the ante to be upped once again. As we had had the video nasties of the 80s in the early 2000’s we were introduced to torture porn with SAW (2004) and Hostel (2005). The popular films source of scares had shifted again, now to victims literally being tortured or under threat of torture. The mechanics of the torture device might be clever but the scare had become simple and base.

I’m not a fan of these films. In fact, I find them tedious and a slog to watch. In my opinion, the acceptance of these as milestones in modern horror is the moment that the craft of creating tension and paying off with a scare was dropped. However, they were not the only films that changed the course of the genre during this period. The Blair Witch Project (1999) introduced the low budget high tension scares of the found footage format to the mainstream. It also introduced the notion of moving the focus of a threat or scare from the films characters to the viewers. This combination of excessive gore and direct viewer threat has been the main thrust of horror films for the last decade.

Things have started to change in recent years. Directors like Adam Winguard and Ti West have started to reintroduce the slow burn horror movie (House of the Devil 2009, You’re Next 2011). Are we at the start of another shift in horror? Could films like ‘Get Out’, ‘IT’, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ or even ‘Split’ drive the shift into the next iteration of popular Horror?

All these shifts and varying films are filled with different types of scares but do some work better than others? I understand that different people are effected by different scares but I also think that the art of a well-structured scare has been lost. The majority of horror films of recent years have all made the same mistake, in my opinion. There is a belief that the scare needs to be directed at the audience. This has been done over and over with loud musical stings and jump scares. Don’t get me wrong, these can be effective when used in the right place and sparingly. However, they have become the standard go to shorthand for a movie scare. By the third time something jumps out at me with a thump of noise, I check out. The other issue is that by directing these scares at the audience more than the characters they take the audience out of the experience rather than bringing them in. why should we care about a character surviving if we as the audience are continually put in their place?

It should be remembered that Horror films, like all forms of entertainment must contain a variety of elements to work. Some jump scares are fine, as long as they are accompanied by the building of tension and some well-placed reveals. The other elements that are more important are characters that matter and the audience cares about. It should be these characters, that we grow to love, that are under threat and to which the scares are directed. Fearing for these characters, I believe, is more effective than an audience directed scare. The final element is the context of the scare within the story. A scene can be well constructed, look great and have excellent effects but if the story is poor or makes no sense then everything else is for nothing.

All those different types of horror films that have been popular and fallen out of favour. All those masters of horror that have brought something new. They’re all valid and all deliver something worth watching as both movies and examples of Horror history. However, for all the differences the things that remain constant are at the heart of all good films. A good story, filled with characters we care about that is filmed well. Within that a good writer and director can introduce any types of well-constructed scares and the audience will be terrified.

What are the examples you think of that manage to blend all of these elements to make a great Horror Film?

Zombies!

If someone asked you to describe a Zombie I’m pretty sure you would detail a decaying corpse shambling along in tattered clothes, driven only by its need to eat human flesh. A creation of a virus, chemical mishap or just maybe there being no room left in Hell. That is the accepted modern take on a Zombie. How that came to be though is not completely clear.

The reanimated dead appear in literature dating back thousands of years in different interactions. The most common origin for the modern iteration comes from the Island of Haiti. In these traditions the Zombie is a person brought back from the dead using magic to act as a slave to whoever resurrected them. This very often gets lumped in with the generic understanding of Voodoo, although Zombies have no actual basis in the Voodoo belief system.

In fact the Haitian Zombie beliefs are a mixture of different belief systems brought over by enslaved Africans and incorporating belief systems that existed in the “New World”. These ideas and beliefs became a part of popular culture in the 1920s, when America occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934. During this time stories emerged from soldiers on the island of Zombies and how they were created and used by the inhabitants. These garnered so much attention that a book was written on the subject in 1929, The Magic Island, by William Seabrook. Following this further research was done on and around the folklore and actual case studies form the island. The result was more books and articles being published, further raising awareness of the supernatural creature.

So that’s how the walking dead entered the American conscious, but they were still to evolve, or decay if you prefer. The first time a Zombie appeared in a film was “White Zombie” in 1932, which sticks with the Haitian traditions. In fact the distributors used the case studies that had been published in the films marketing, mixing real life fear with the Horror of the film.

In the following decades Zombies would appear in several films, but a closer representation of what we know as the modern Zombie would appear in the Horror comics of the 40s and 50s. These depicted decaying bodies returning from the grave, usually to exact revenge on someone. The design was there but these were not referred to as Zombies out right. Also, they usually had a level of conscious or intelligence that would soon be stripped away.

It is not until “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968 however that we get the first sight of a shambling flesh eater. Were these Zombies though? Romero didn’t think so to begin with. In the film and its marketing, they are never referred to as Zombies. They are called Ghouls, which is a different creature of myth altogether.

It was only after the film was released that the media started to use the term when reviewing or describing the film. This was then picked up by the film maker and his audience. By the time “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978 was released the term was accepted for what we know today.

This of course has evolved since then and the name Zombie is now synonymous with the undead flesh eating walking corpse. There have been several sub-interactions that have sprung up in the decades since Dawn of the Dead. In the 80s “Return of the living dead” (1985) brought us brain eating Zombies. More recently we have had the introduction of the running Zombie in films such as “28 days Later” (2002) and the “Dawn of the Dead” (2004) remake. The original Zombie form does occasionally pop up again though. Most notably in the 1988 Wes Craven film “The Serpent and the Rainbow”.

Whether in the fore or back ground of a story Zombies can be used to have an impact on an audience. They have become so popular for simple low budget gore horror films as an easy way to get some splatter on screen (too many to name!). They are also used as a satire of who we are as a society at our base level (Dawn of Dead – 1978). Or most recently and possibly the most popular vision is the Walking Dead in both its comic and TV format. Delving into what we would do after the Zombie Apocalypse and survive the inevitable collapse of society?

It would seem quite appropriate that as a creature of horror and storytelling, since they shambled into pop culture almost a hundred years ago, they just won’t die. So what are the Zombie films you need to check out? I have put a list of the top 10, in my opinion, below:

1.    White Zombie (1932)

2.    Night of the Living Dead (1968)

3.    Dawn of the dead (1978)

4.    Return of the Living Dead (1985)

5.    The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

6.    28 days later (2002)

7.    Shaun of the dead (2004)

8.    Dawn of the Dead (2004)

9.    Quarantine (2008)

10. Zombieland (2009)

 

My top 10 Guilty Pleasure Movies

My top 10 ‘Guilty Pleasure’ movies

As I defined in the last Blog, a guilty pleasure movie is:

“A movie that I enjoy despite knowing that said movie is objectively not very good or is not held in high regard by most people.”

Having confirmed that, check out the below list of my top 10 Guilty Pleasure Movies and why I love them.

1.        Masters of the universe (1987) (IMDB – 5.3 / RT - 17%): This is a camp sci-fi classic produced by Cannon films and is a part of 80’s movie history. Why? That’s something I will cover someday. Anyway, I was a big fan of the toys and cartoon when I was a kid so to see some of the characters pulled up on to the big screen, I was pulled into this. Although, even as a kid I knew there was issues with parts of this film but I was down for the ride. I enjoy it in a different way now I am older but there is still part of me that gets a kick out of He-man and Skelator fighting. The film is well made but being released at the wrong time and laden with a few too many clichés it was never going to be a success. That does not mean that this shouldn’t be enjoyed as a B-movie sci-fi romp.

2.        The Shadow (1994) (IMDB – 6.0 / RT - 35%): Batman 1989 was a watershed moment for the superhero movie. Studios wanted to start making them, but keep them cheap. So instead of turning to the comic companies they turned to copyright free characters. So why not the character that partially inspired Batman? The Shadow is a much darker noir pulp character willing to kill and aggressively punish criminals. The film doesn’t reach those levels of darkness; it stays in the family film territory but it’s still great. The visual’s and effects on this film are so 90s, which is part of why this film stands out for me. Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast and the pulpy writing gets me really invested in this adventure romp. The character deserves a reboot on screen but more, this film needs to be found by more people.

3.        Rocky IV (1985) (IMDB – 6.8 / RT - 39%): In 1985 Rocky Balboa single headedly brought the Cold War to an end, or so Rocky 4 would make you think. The first 3 Rocky films are a trilogy of amazing sports dramas about achieving and holding onto success and what it can cost you. Rocky 4 is a propaganda film that includes a robot butler and the possibly the craziest and best work-out montage ever! EVER! The pacing, music and climax are so awesome that if you are not jumping up and down pumping your fists in the air, I would check your pulse.

4.        Child’s play 2 (1990) (IMDB – 5.7 / RT - 40%): The first Child’s Play film is good, but it’s not until 2 that the series gets into its full slasher / killer doll groove. The second film feels more confident by being more camp, and therefore more fun. This film has some excellent kills and has so much more fun with the concept. Also the final act in the toy factory is amazing. This is a film I watched at the right time, it may have even been the first Child’s Play film I saw. It is a definite milestone on my path to enjoying horror films.

5.        Ghostbusters 2 (1989) (IMDB – 6.5 / RT – 51%): This film gets a lot of hate because of how good the first film is. Now I love the first Ghostbusters; it would be in my personal top 5. However, this is the first Ghostbusters I got to see at the cinema. 1989 is a watershed year for me, it’s my first big summer of movies and this stands out to me. I should also say; I think this film is a lot better than people remember. The acting and comedy are solid and it has several scenes that I think are genuinely unnerving. Maybe not the strongest sequel ever made but I love every part of this film, from Ghostbusters being down on their luck to the finale and the odd painting at the end.

6.        Lord of Illusions (1995) (IMDB – 6.0 / RT - 61%): The Hellraiser franchise is what defines Clive Barker on screen. However, there are several other adaptations of his work that are really good (Midnight meat train and Nightbreed mostly notably). The one that ticks most the boxes for me is this adaptation of a short story from the Books of Blood and directed by Barker himself, Lord of Illusions. A horror, detective story about magic, cults and dames in distress. This is a brilliant horror noir that gets massively overlooked, Also Scott Backula is great in it.

7.        The Rocketeer (1991) (IMDB – 6.4 / RT – 62%): Like “The Shadow” this film came in the wake of the success of Batman. The Rocketeer however was not in public domain, as he was created in 1982 by Dave Stevens. However, not particularly well known the right weren’t very expensive. This is a proper old school adventure in the mould of 30’s serials, think Indiana Jones including fighting Nazis. Produced by Disney it is a family adventure with great characters and fun action. An early film for director Joe Johnston who would use his touch of fun and adventure in future films Honey I shrunk the kids, Jumanji, Jurassic Park 3 and Captain America the first Avenger (bringing back the 40’s serial nature).

8.        The Running Man (1987) (IMDB – 6.6 / RT - 63%): This film is the pinnacle of Arnold’s one liner actioners. Based on a much darker and grittier story by Stephen King the film is so 80’s from the costumes to the predicted technology. It’s not subtle in its message but it still has one as well as the great over the top action. I would say that this film would not only appear on this list but would be pretty high on my best of Arnie list as well.

9.        The Goonies (1985) (IMDB – 7.8 / RT - 70%): This is guilty less because the film is bad but more for the fact that at 35, I still want to be a Goonie. Goonies was one of the first films I can remember watching as a child. It fed my desire and love for adventure and the number of childhood adventures I attempted to go on. This holds up so well and I think should held up as a kid’s movie classic. Go back and check it out with your kids and see if they love it.

10.     Killer Klowns from outer space (1988) (IMDB – 6.1/ RT - 71%): This homage to 50’s sci-fi horror B-movies is nuts and relishes in its daft concept. The idea of vicious Alien clowns that travel through space in a ship that looks like a circus tent is brilliant. The acting is a bit wooden but everyone involved is giving their all and some of the scenes are cheesy joy. The practical special effects and makeup are wonderful and look great on the Blu-ray version. The best thing is that all of this is topped off by the tongue in cheek tone throughout. A perfect film to watch with a few beers and friends.

Guilty Pleasure Movies and why we love them

This month I have done commentaries for two films that I am a big fan off but I’m not sure I would admit that to everyone I know. Actually, I suppose putting the commentaries on a podcast and then writing about them shows that I would … so let’s get it out there. I really enjoy the Child’s Play Films and the 80s He-man movie, Masters of the universe. Wow, I feel better just saying it! The question is, why do I feel embarrassed for enjoying these films? Surely enjoyment of a medium such as film is subjective? One person’s flop is another person’s classic.

Before we dig into it more let’s start by being clear, I am talking about “Guilty Pleasure Movies” and so we are all on the same page let’s give that a definition:

“A movie that I enjoy despite knowing that said movie is objectively not very good or is not held in high regard by most people.”

I think that’s a fair starting point. Something else to acknowledge is that while enjoyment is subjective, film quality is most definitely objective. It is quite easy to identify parts of a film that are not good, whether its cheap special effects, bad acting or jerky editing. All of which can sink a film in an instant. So why then do so many people love bad movies? I want to give 3 suggestions that I can definitely relate to.

Ø  The ‘Fuzzies’: This comes down to a simple notion, watching said films makes you feel happy. If your bored, a little depressed or feeling ill there will be a film you will pull out that will make you feel a bit better. This is most likely going to be down to nostalgia. It might have been the first horror film you saw, or you saw it with your childhood best friend or it was given to you by someone important to you as a gift. Or it could be that you have an emotional connection to the source material the film is based on and this is the only movie version there is. Don’t underestimate the power of nostalgia, it can make the best of overlook some glaring issues in films.

Ø  Nod and wink humour: It’s said that no one wants to make a bad films, However when you have a really low budget you might not have a choice but to make a bad film. This can go one of three ways. The creators understand what limitations they have and use that for entertainment by leaning into the daftness of it (usually in horror), ignore it and try and be as straight as possible losing all credibility you have, or try and be as straight about it as possible and make something that is so bad its good. These are the films you watch with your mates. The best hope is that the creator embraced it and rolled with the situation. The film maker is bringing the viewer in on the joke and they are laughing together. For a lot of B-movie horror films this take the form of gore effects being quantity over quality. Yeah the decapitation looked a bit iffy but the buckets of ‘blood’ that coated everything looked awesome.

Ø  Your Imagination: It might just be that the film you love is just too weird for the mainstream but the concept, design and / or end product really tickles you fancy. It reaches into you and for some reason this film gets a positive reaction, when others are left scratching their heads. Let’s not be shy about it, we all have things that we enjoy that we might only share we a small group of people. There are also going to be films that for some reason or other fit into that category and tickle your fancy. These are probably the best guilty pleasures, the ones you want to show to people and explain why it’s so good, tell people what you see that they don’t and why seeing this film should change their world view. The likely hood is that it will remain that little film that you love having on your shelf but others will never quite get it. Love that film, it speaks to the real inner you.

So they are my 3 reasons why people love films that are considered guilty pleasures. I mean it doesn’t have to be just one of the above. I am sure, in fact I know, there are cases that are covered by two if not all three of the above.

Please let me know what you think. Can you relate to the above reasons or do you think there are more? Please let me know. In the next blog, I will provide a list of 10 movies that are my guilty pleasures.

Why I think Action Movies are important.

There are a slew of essays, books and podcasts that provide an academic or more serious analysis of films. These cover everything from how they reflect the state of society at the time, the hidden meaning inserted by the director or even how philosophical or religious undertones can be interpreted. These cover almost every genre, from Horror, hard sci-fi, melodramas and more recently superhero films. The one genre that I think gets a raw deal is “Action”.

Action films often get written off as dumb fantasy escapism for teenage boys, with bad plots and wooden acting. I want to revisit this as a concept and ask if this is actually all they offer. Don’t get me wrong I’m not making a case for all action films to be considered deep, artistic representations of the human condition. As with Horror, melodrama and superhero films, there are those that deserve attention, those that should be enjoyed as entertainment and then there those that should just be forgotten (Mr Seagal, I’m looking at you!).

The action film, in the form we know it today, evolved from the disaster, revenge and cop films of the 70’s. The everyman and down trodden hero was replaced by muscle bound supermen. The gritty car chases and small scale fights were overtaken by epic explosions and one man army killing sprees. However, that in itself is an interesting point to make. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude Van-Damme, or the Austrian Oak, the Italian Stallion, The Swedish meatball and the Muscles from Brussels were all, ironically, the embodiment of the 80’s America; Big, Loud and full of attitude; shoot first ask questions later and any number of other clichés. Action films and their stars became the representation of this decade much more than any other genre.

This raises a further point I would like to highlight. It is often discussed that Horror films are used to explore the underlying fears of a social group of society in general. However, like fear these films and the themes are more personal, at least when done well. Easy examples are “Dawn of the Dead”,

I suggest that more than almost any other genre, Action films react to real world events quicker and more evidently on larger scale, representing the state of America at least, if not the world:

Reagan became President in 1981; we get the Reagan era and the larger than life supermen action stars already mentioned. You also get a range of mainstream Cold War propaganda films like Red Dawn (1984), Rocky 4 (1985) and Rambo 3 (1988). Seriously, go check out the politics behind the Rambo sequels, it’s fascinating when you consider where we are today.

The fall of the Berlin wall and Soviet Russia led to more diverse action films. There was no longer a dread super-villain hanging over the world, so while maintaining bombast and the larger than life stars of the 80’s we get more diverse heroes. Keanu Reeves (Point Break 1991, Speed 1994), Nic Cage (The Rock 1996, Con Air 1997, Face/off 1997) make it to the A-list. We also get new foreign stars and directors coming into American Cinema, like John Woo (Hard Target 1993) and Jackie Chan (Rumble in the Bronx 1995).

The tragic events of September 11th 2001 led to some believing that it was the end of the action genre. However the reality was the birth of less bombastic and more introspective actions heroes like Jason Bourne (Bourne Identity 2002) and Daniel Craig’s James Bond (Casino Royale 2006). It was a time when Heroes felt guilt for their actions and having to deal with the consequences.

Finally, we have had the economic crisis of 2008 and the small world mentality that has grown from this. These events have led to a nostalgic hunger for “better, simpler times” and the resurgence of the old bombastic simpler Reagan era heroes. Actors in their 50’s and 60’s becoming action stars in The Expendables (2010), Taken (2008), The Last Stand (2013) and even Arnie coming back to the Terminator Franchise (2015).

The question now is how will the action genre react to Trump’s presidency and the rise of isolationist politics? Will Hollywood continue its liberal leanings or pander to the beliefs of the masses? The point is, Action films can be used as a great barometer of the state of the western world.

That was a quick look at how Action films can be tied into and be related to real world events. Now let’s take a look at something just as important, the quality of the action. There are a million and one low budget action films which rely on bad gun battles and poorly edited and choreographed fights. However, from time to time we get a film that presents the violence as ballet like, each shot and move a thing of brutal beauty. The Lobby shoot out in The Matrix (1999) stands out as an epic and beautifully constructed sequence. Check out any 80’s or beyond Jackie Chan film to see some of the best choreographed comedic martial arts on film. Try Terminator 2 for one of the best running gun battles / car chases in modern cinema between a van and a helicopter.

All of these and every other great fight scene takes month’s to conceive, stage and pull together, with skills from so many different departments. The stuntmen, the special FX team, the actors, the cinematographer and the editor are just a few of the people that have to get it right for a fight scene to get the heart racing.

As a final note I would also like to mention the most important part of all this, the heart of the film, the characters involved. In the cases of the best action movies, the reason that the fight scenes, gun battles or car chases have such an impact is that the audience cares about the characters in peril. Without this the action can be cold, hollow or just plain bad.

Consider John Rambo in First Blood, yes the ambushes and town invasion are great to watch but they are also heart breaking as you follow Rambo being forced down a path that can only end in ruin. When he breaks down at the end, it all floods out and his vulnerability is laid bare. Rambo wasn’t an angry vet out for revenge; he was a lost soul reacting to events in the only way that he knew how. Say what you will about Stallone but by the end of

Deep, I know but consider Die Hard. Why is it one of the best action films of all time? Yes, the special effects and action are well staged, the script is sharp and Bruce Willis is pretty much pitch perfect.  Technically that sounds good but on an emotional level all of that builds to create a story in which I am invested and I really care whether John McClane makes it out of Nakatomi tower. If one of those elements hadn’t worked I’m not so sure it would be as fist pumpingly iconic. It would have been ‘Under Siege’ or one of the other lesser Die Hard knock offs.

Do these films deserve Oscars? Probably not

Should they get more attention for the skill that is involved in making a good action film, never mind an iconic one, or how they affect us and what they say about us? Most definitely!

This has been a bit of an action ramble I admit but I feel the point is more than valid. Action films are designed to entertain first and foremost. Done well, they will. However, with just a little more thought and kicking away some of the rubble you can find that these films represent so much more. Hopefully one day someone with way more knowledge and skill than me will take up the challenge and Action films will get the representation they deserve.

 

Top 10: Genre Action Films of the 20th Century

Sometimes action films mix it up with other genres, sci-fi, Historical fiction even horror. This list is my top 10 genre action films in date order. What do you think of the list? What films would you add?

  1. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) – The first Mad Max film is good but its sequel is brilliant. It is so out there in story, imagery and action. The story is a simple sci-fi post-apocalyptic western, a lone ‘Road warrior’ helping a small isolated community against a much stronger outlaw force. A young Mel Gibson, before his American break out, is perfect in the role and gives it his all in a film that could have failed massively. This film deservedly created a legacy for both the genre and Gibson. Max may limp off in the sunset at the end of the film but Gibson walked into a series of great roles as a result.
  2. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the lost ark (1981) – This was homage to the serial adventures of the 30’s and 40’s but also set up a new generation of treasure seekers. When I first saw this film as a kid it thrilled and terrified me. I wanted to be Indy but the fate of the Nazi’s after opening the Ark gave me nightmares, regardless I was hooked. Harrison Ford embodies the slightly jaded archaeologist so much that it I struggle to imagine anyone else filling that iconic fedora. Raiders is pretty much episode after episode of action but directed by Steven Spielberg it hangs together to become and all-time great action adventure.
  3. Highlander (1986) – A medieval Scottish clansman played by a French actor, an Egyptian soldier trained in Japan played by a Scottish actor and an ancient Russian lone killer played by an American. All in all it’s a bit muddled but it works, especially when played with tongue in cheek humour. This is perfect Saturday night entertainment with a legendary soundtrack by Queen and ending in an epic sword fight on a roof. All of it shot beautifully, whether in the dingy alleys of New York or the wide open Highlands of Scotland. The sequels without expectation are bad but this film stands up and should be regarded as a classic.
  4. Aliens (1986) – James Cameron took Ridley Scott’s Alien horrific haunted house film and expanded the universe and story with an action packed war movie. I enjoy the theatrical cut but I am a bigger fan of the extended cut. Not only does it provide more Xenomorph action but it also provides more back story for Ripley and the Wayland-Yutani Corporation. This film is so intense and fast paced when it kicks in, the action is good and the cast are excellent but all of this is held together by something else that makes this film timeless. The practical special and creature affects by Stan Winston are amazing, all topped off by the iconic Alien Queen.
  5. Robocop (1987) – Paul Verhoeven’s break out American film and what a breakout it is. A super violent dystopian dark comedy satire of 80’s corporate privatisation culture, what more could you ask for? How about a bad-ass cyborg cop taking down the gang that killed him.  Not only is the action in this film bloody, violent and top notch but it is punctuated by excellent takes on adverts for ludicrous products (a board game called NUKEM about international annihilation, a vehicle the 6000 SUX, which offers 8.2 miles to the gallon). This is kind of film that benefits from repeat viewings and actually, unfortunately, has become more relevant over time.
  6. The Running Man (1987) – Based on a very different Stephen King novel, under the Richard Bachman pen name. The dystopian story of an innocent man being trapped in a game show in which he gets to win his life back. It may not be as clever as Robocop but its satire of American Television and justice culture is obvious. Once the contestants are thrown into the arena the film kicks into high gear. Arnie is typical Arnie and great for it but the film thrives because of the ludicrous villains like Buzzsaw, Dynamo and Sub-Zero, all over seen by the deliciously evil Richard Dawson, real life game show host.
  7. Terminator 2 (1991) – Another sequel on this list. The Terminator series mirrors the Alien mould, the first is a dark sci-fi slasher film but the second is an all-out action film. I would suggest that this is the peak of Arnie’s action career. The film is outstanding in expanding the universe, upping the stakes and actually makes the original a better film. Three high points for me are the Asylum escape, the Cyberdyne office building attack and the final showdown between the T800 and T1000. The series falls apart after this point but getting a film this good from it is worth a couple of bad films.
  8. Demolition Man (1993) – Another future but this one utopian, at least on the surface. Despite being a fun action film it has a dark message about the cost of peace and human nature. I am not sure I completely agree with the message that we are innately violent and dark and that we should allow that to be a part of society. It comes across a little mixed by the end. However, the fun comes from the Stallone and Snipes characters and their fish out of water antics and eventual show downs. This is supported by some excellent world building using off hand comments and background touches.
  9. The fifth element (1997) – This European intergalactic pulp adventure is brilliant because of its balls to the wall craziness. Written and directed by Luc Besson with production design by Mobius and costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier. This film was going to be crazy stylish if nothing else. Bruce Willis is basically playing a future John McClane, remaining cynical while aliens of all kinds do battle round him. The high points of the film are the battle at the Opera in which Willis shines and Milla Jovovich pretty much throughout. A colourful, funny and imaginative romp that is busting with style in every frame.
  10. The Matrix (1999) – I think it’s fair to say that The Matrix, coming out in the last year of the millennium, ushered in so many elements of movies for the 21st century. It is a film between two eras. It has the urban gothic style that is very 90’s, as well as early ideas about what computers could do but introduced special effects and franchise structures that are still being used today. As a standalone film its excellent high concept paranoid action fun. The martial arts fights are awesome and while Keanu Reeves is never going to win an Oscar he is the perfect opposition to Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith. I would suggest forgetting the sequels and watching this as a standalone film.

Top 10: Straight Action films of the 20th Century

The only criterion for this list was that the film had to have minimal cross genre elements. So, I have discounted films like Robocop, Terminator 2 or even Indiana Jones. The other thing is that this is a list that I have created and is based solely on the films I love in date order. If you want to suggest anything else or dispute anything on this list, let me know.

1.       Rambo: First Blood (1982) – one of the first true one man army action films but not just action candyfloss. The film provides a perspective on veterans by civilians and their place in society following Vietnam. Stallone’s John Rambo is a damaged soldier looking for connection in the real world. When he is rejected he reverts to his training and takes the war to small town America. The action is raw and brutal but its true impact comes at the end when Rambo breaks down and retells what has seen and been through. This is an action film with a message about ignorance and the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.

2.       Commando (1985) – A proper candyfloss action film and the second one man army film on this list. This film has no deeper meaning but is filled with some great set pieces and one liners. Schwarzenegger is on true muscle bound action hero form. The fact that his daughter has been kidnapped as leverage to assassinate a country‘s leader is completely immaterial. The plot is so thin but it all builds up to an amazing and ludicrous third act. Seriously, Arnie taking on an entire drug cartels army is awesome. The only thing that brings this down is Bennett, Arnie’s nemesis, who seems so out of shape next to Arnie that the final fight is a bit daft.

3.       Lethal Weapon (1987) – The buddy cop film was already a staple by the mid-80’s; the sub-genre came to America with 48 hours in 1982. This was followed by a couple of other films in the genre but it wasn’t made really popular until 1987 with Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon. The previous entries had leant a little more towards the comedy and while fun they were throw away. Lethal Weapon took this to the next level by upping the violence and intensity, and wrapping around it the great pairing of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. The chemistry between the two is excellent and what drove this franchise for four films.

4.       Die Hard (1989) – Possibly the best loved action film of all time. Die Hard was a game changer, it took the everyman hero of the 70’s and throw him into the over the top action of the 80’s. Based on the book “Nothing lasts forever” by Roderick Thorpe released in 1979. To me this film is almost perfect, Bruce Willis is excellent as John McClane and Alan Rickman is thrilling as Hans Gruber, the slimy international terrorist thief.  This film was rightfully a break out for each actor and started the film description cliché “Die Hard in a …” of all the films on this list this is the one I have watched the most.

5.       Tango and Cash (1989) – The second buddy cop film on the list. While Lethal Weapon took the genre pretty straight, Stallone and Russell take it full on action cheese. This film is pure dumb fun, the plot is basic and the action is big. Of the two Kurt Russel seems the more at home as the scruffy Gabe Cash while Sly Stallone sometimes feels a little awkward as the well-manicured Ray Tango. However, when that starts to fall away a little by the second act they fall into the roles brilliantly and the fun just keeps on coming. This is not going to win any awards but is perfect Saturday night pizza and beers action mayhem.

6.       Hard Target (1993) – John Woo’s first American film and it had Jean-Claude Van Damme in it. Mixing the oriental directional style of Woo with Van Damme’s martial arts was a great idea and is brilliant fun. In a story about People being hunted for sport we get everything we would expect, slow motion, high kicks, dove’s and amazing action set pieces. This was at the height of Van Damme’s 90’s fame and is one of his best films. It also includes the brilliant Lance Hendrickson at his nastiest, as the main villain.

7.       True Lies (1994) – Take Bond and make him an American Family man built like an Oak and you get James Cameron’s True Lies. This film demonstrates how far Arnold Schwarzenegger had come as an actor. He is charismatic and plays the roles of dull computer salesman and super spy well and with charm. He is also surrounded by a solid supporting cast from the sexy Jamie Lee-Curtis (I grew up when I saw that dance scene!), the entertaining Tom Arnold and the evil Terrance Malik. The comedy never over takes the action and the third act contains some of the best stunts you will see in any action film of the decade.

8.       Goldeneye (1995) – One day I will get to cover James Bond on a couple of episodes but right now I need to admit, Goldeneye is my favourite bond film. This may be due to my age, I was 14 when the film came out, but Peirce Brosnan is my James Bond. I had seen some of the other films before this and was aware of Bond as a film series but had not been pulled into them until Goldeneye. You couldn’t avoid Tine Turner’s excellent intro song and the advertisements. This is one of the few Bond films I have seen in the cinema and I have loved it ever since. Also the game was awesome; let’s just not talk about some of the other Brosnan outings at the moment.

9.       Bad Boys (1995) – The first of two Jerry Bruckheimer actioners on this list and the film that made the Fresh Prince a legit star. This film is great for two reasons, the first is the relationship between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, the second is the stylised action. Watching it now I will admit that some of the directorial choices date the film to the decade. This is small a minor complaint however when many of the other choices still stand up so well and the main cast are so good. It should also be noted that this is the feature directorial debut of Michael Bay; regardless of my feelings about his more recent Transformer efforts his style is perfectly suited for this action.

10.   Con Air (1997) – I flip-flopped between this and The Rock to put on this list, both Jerry Bruckheimer films. In the end I decided to go with Con Air because it is slightly more fun and has the amazing John Malkovich as the main villain, Cyrus ‘The virus’ Grissom. Nic Cage delivers one of his more subdued performances amid some more flamboyant choices from the bad guys around him. However, it is clear that he is having fun; he is a pretty good action lead. The premise of the film is daft and some of the leaps in logic and credulity push the boundaries at times. However, the film is endlessly quotable and the plane grave yard sequence is so much fun and chock full of great moments.

Halloween Countdown: 1 - Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter is a director ruined by the studio system; the more backing he was given the worse he became a victim of his own early success. In 1978 however he was untested with only one film behind him (1976 – Assault on Precinct 13) and with a budget of only $300,000 he produces the magnificent “Halloween” and we get the birth of the first iconic slasher killer Michael Myers (Jason would not be fully formed until 1982 and Freddy until 1984) and a template that would be expanded and mimicked for years to come.

Due to its limited budget and the fact that it was made before the overly gory horror films of the late 70’s and 80’s really took hold Halloween is surprisingly sparse on gory kills. In fact only 4 people are actually killed in the film. Halloween is a great example of necessity being the mother of invention. Throughout the film where they can’t afford to show masses of blood methods of hiding it have been used, whether that’s clever lighting or the first person perspective. Instead the film focuses on building tension and creeping fear, as the viewer you know something is coming but you don’t know when.

This technique is used from the outset, having the first 5 or so minutes of the film in first person perspective. Someone is stalking a young girl and her boyfriend as they go upstairs, within minutes the person enters the house and puts on a clown mask and picking up a knife. The person moves upstairs and enters the bedroom where the young girl clearly recognises the person. Seconds later all we see is the knife moving and the girl screaming. It is revealed in the next scene that the perspective was that of a small boy, Michael Myers and that he has just killed his sister. There is no explanation for why or who this family is. This is the key thing for Michael Myers, he is dangerous and driven to kill but (in the first film at least) we don’t get a reason why and I think that not knowing makes him scarier and more unpredictable. 

His mystery is heightened by his iconic design, a result of the limited budget. Originally he was going to wear a clown mask to mirror the look used as a child. However this was dropped close to production and the legend has it that a member of the design crew had to look for a new mask and bought a Captain Kirk mask, made the eye holes larger and painted it white. Add in a plain dark blue boiler suit and a simple and incredibly affective design is born. This design is so perfect because we still get a face to see but it is expressionless and using good lighting we never get to see his eyes. This could well be a hollow shell, it is only in the last act that we see below the mask and see a scared young man who panics and pulls the mask back on to regain his control. This does raise the question of what is he? Does he need to hide behind the mask to be the killer; is he scared of seeing his own face when he knows what he has done? There is so much we don’t know about what is going on in his head, leaving it so open makes it more interesting.

Michael fits very neatly into the first of the three iconic slasher killer types; silent slow moving killing machine (Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees), Witty and flamboyant (Freddy Kruger, Chucky) and charming seducer (Candyman). Without a given motive and because Michael gives nothing away during the film it is for the viewer to fill in the motivation if they want to. You can be as simple or as deep as you want to be, he could just be a crazy person who is killing based on opportunity and Laurie just happens to survive, or he takes a liking to Laurie and wants to separate her from her friends.

I like to think of things a little more deeply, I have always seen Michael in this first film as a personification of conscience, like a crazy Jiminy Cricket. Each of the kids that are killed has committed some sort of sin (under age sex, drinking, smoking weed or leaving the kids unattended) which singles them out for killing, even his sister at the start of the film.

This is a morality tale for older kids, the film even calls it out when Michael is referred to as the Boogey man by the young kids, which Doctor Loomis agrees with at the end. Children are told, if you’re naughty the Boogey man will come and get you (not a practice I advise) and here we have that played out for real. Laurie is the best of them, she is the goodie two shoes of the group but even she smokes weed at one point. So despite being the best of them she still sins, this is why she is the last to be attacked. I think this also plays into the building of tension for the first two thirds of the of film. Michael is watching and picking his kills. After the opening scene we only ever see the film from a limited number of viewpoints, I have always thought that we have only followed the stories that result in kills but that Michael has actually been watching other kids as well.

This notion is driven home at the end of the film. Doctor Loomis has shot him and he has walked away from it into the night, proving that he isn’t simply human he is something more. Then we are shown a series of shots inside and outside normal homes all normal, overlaid with the sound of breathing. In modern cinema this would be an indicator of the inevitable sequel, however when they made this film there was no intention of having a sequel this was supposed to be left open ended. To me this scene is the final indicator, be good because Michael is still out there and he is watching, he is in your normal looking home or neighborhood. Be good or the Boogey man will come and get you.

The film tries to drive this home by making everything as normal as possible All the kids are normal and doing normal things. They are discussing things that we all talked about when we were that age, school, dating and what we are doing at the weekend. There are parts of the film where the conversation is almost inane to the extent of being distracting. However it all works to make the point that this could happen anywhere.

John Carpenter’s desire for the film to maintain a level of normalcy is betrayed by two key things, firstly, the fact that the film actually points out its own main plot hole. The ones that come to mind are the fact that Michael has been locked up for 15 years since he was six, yet he is able to drive a car from the Hospital to Hanndonfield. It is mentioned by a doctor and an answer is never given. It’s something that has bothered me since the first time I watch the film.

The second is Donald Pleasence and his scene chewing performance. Everyone else in the film is trying to play every scene down and be normal. Pleasence screams, overacts and goes crazy eyes every chance he gets trying to convince everyone that Michael Myers is the devil incarnate. His performance is distracting and struggles to fit in with other parts of the film, he would probably fit in better in a later Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th film rather than this more restrained suspense horror film.

The final thing to mention is the music. John Carpenter is renowned for having done his own music for many of his early films and produced some amazing yet simple scores. Halloween is a prime example of this; the title music has become a seasonal anthem and is another further highlight of how restraint and a minimalist approach can really pay off.

In summary this is a low budget horror film that uses its limitations to its advantage and tells a story about a normal neighborhood going through one night of hell. It builds tension using a brilliantly simple score, well directed photography, clever editing, restrained acting (for the most part) and some simple designs to create something iconic. As with A nightmare on Elm Street this franchise becomes something different down the line, however in this case it’s not for the better. This is a great film that gets to the route of horror, there is something hiding in the dark that will get you if you aren’t careful. 

Halloween Countdown: 2 - The Changeling (1980)

I had not heard of 1980’s The Changeling until a couple of months ago. After that I heard about it several times in quick succession. Each time was praising the film as a forgotten gem. I am always a little suspicious of a film that seems to have fallen of the radar so much. It’s usually for a reason. Having now watched it and really enjoyed it, I understand why this does not get the attention it deserves. The late 70’s and early 80’s saw a wave of classic horror films that changed the direction of the genre to this day. The Changeling would have done better if it had been released 5 or 10 years earlier. This film is a much gentler ghostly thriller than was being produced by 1980. That does not mean that this is a bad film though, far from it.

The film centres on George C. Scott’s character John Russell, a musician and music teacher who, following the death of his Wife and Daughter, moves into a rented historical house. While dealing with his grief he starts to hear strange noises in the house. His investigations into the house lead him to a boarded up attic room that contains a small dusty child’s wheelchair. The hauntings escalate and he finds out more about the child that died in the house.

While I enjoyed this film and happily recommend it there are several issues that need to be addressed and are the reason it got lost in the mix with other films around this time.

The tension builds well for the first two thirds of the film and there are some really spooky moments. The massive house is used like a real haunted house. Doors slam, pipes bang and it’s all played like an old school ghost story, which is one of the reasons I like this so much. There are no huge moments with people being pulled up stairs by an unseen force or a ghostly wind blasting through the house and no mention of Demons. It feels a lot more real. There is a reason for that; the script is based on alleged events experienced by the writer a decade before.  

Unfortunately the mystery is revealed a bit too early and the last third drags as it reaches the finale.  This tension is mostly lost by the time the credits roll despite some great set pieces and performances. However, an uneven script is not helped by pedestrian direction and cinematography. Looking at their other credits both the director and cinematographer have done mostly TV work and it is shows. The locations for the film, the House in particular, are beautiful and a more talented cinematographer could have used them more effectively. Also, throughout the dialogue scenes are shot with the same intensity as ghost scenes, both of which have a TV movie feel.

When you stand this next to similar films around this time, such as Poltergeist (1982), The shining (1980) or The Amityville Horror (1979) it doesn’t stand up. Each of those had something special which makes them stand apart. With stronger more auteur direction this could have been elevated to the classic status along with the other films listed.

As I say there are several great effective spooky moments, also the essence of the story is strong and disturbing. Despite the pacing issues the feeling of grief and how that affects people, possibly opening them up to experiencing supernatural things is played really well. This is bolstered by brilliant sound design. The character of John Russell being a musician is utilised well with a creepy score that both supports and exists within the film.

Speaking of John Russell I would like to mention how good George C. Scott is. Scott plays John Russell as a quiet man looking for peace and to work through his grief. He portrays different sides of the grief so well and with dignity, from crying with despair to reminiscing over a photo album. There are several moments in the film where his is stopped in his tracks by a memory or his emotion and I felt it with him. In other scenes we get to see more of the man that he was. When the hauntings begin he ends up bringing in a medium to conduct a séance. During the mediums rantings and scribbled spirit writing the look of disdain for his face is priceless and completely valid.

His feelings and grief are what propel him through the film and drive him to follow the investigation to its end. I get the feeling that knowing he has done the right thing for this lost soul will make him feel reassured about what has happened to his wife and daughter. A good man whose life has been broken and he is looking for sense and peace in his life.

Overall, this is a good film with solid performances in a pretty strong story. Unfortunately despite these it feels like a film from 1972 released in 1980. Weak direction and a failure to utilise the locations really hinder this film. Had this been directed by Spielberg or Kubrick I am convinced that this would have been a classic. It is well worth a watch especially if you enjoy the smaller more down played ghost stories over the over blown nonsense that is released today. 

Halloween Countdown: 3 - A Nightmare on Elm St Part 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

I have a theory, when you watch a film franchise or TV show (which lasts more than 5 seasons) that isn’t based on previously established material the first film or series in the run is the idea in its purest form. However, it doesn’t become the model that is most commonly known until at least the third instalment. A good example of this is the SAW franchise, the model that is most associated with the series (traps and creative deaths) is a better description of the sequels.

This theory is also true of the Nightmare on Elm St franchise. There is very little humour in the first two films, Freddy is a straight up slasher killer and the deaths are plain gruesome. It isn’t until the third film that we get the Freddy and film model that we know and love, in fact it is possible to pin point the actual scene when this series turns a corner but we will get to that later.  

By 1987, when this film was released the slasher template was very well established and was being rolled out for all the slasher icons of the 80s (Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and even Chucky). A group of stereotypes (jock, nerd, bitch, virgin etc.) in a relatively confined location, being killed in a series of deaths that represent something about their character until the most virginal beats the killer. This is almost a perfect description of Nightmare 3.

We are first introduced to Kristen, our in for the film, who is forcing herself to stay awake because she is having horrific nightmares. I should also point out the music over the opening sequence, the song Dream Warriors by Dokken, written for this film. This is a great 80’s hair metal song (I have it on my iPod!) and the first sign that Freddy has become popular and is starting to get some mainstream treatment. Anyway, Kristen falls asleep and we get taken to the Freddy house. This sequence is very reminiscent of the first two films, we get the horror house, the little girls skipping and the infamous nursery rhyme (1, 2 Freddy’s coming for you …). I am getting what I know and I am into this film from the start, I especially enjoy how this sequence ends, with Kristen slitting her wrists with a little help from Freddy.  This is also the first great thing that I am sure first appears in this film but becomes a staple; Freddy becoming something else in a dream, in this case a tap becoming the bladed fingers of the glove.

From this we go straight to the local mental institute (Horror films have told me that every town in America has one!) and we meet the rest of the teen group and they are the expected outcast archetypes, a Dungeons & Dragons nerd, an ex-druggy, sarcastic kid and shy kid, a delusional girl who wants to be a star and … err … an angry black guy. Yeah, things were a little different in 1987.  Kristen has been brought in to join them and she isn’t alone.  

Let me say it right now, I really enjoy this film, for me it is the most enjoyable Nightmare film but that does not mean it is a great film out right. There are a few things that are bad and it is at this point that we meet the first of them, Heather Langenkamp back as Nancy from the first film. This film has some young actors in it so I am willing to accept some less than stellar acting but Ms Langenkamp should know better. She is awkward in this film, she struggles to portray any real emotion and almost every interaction with any other actor looks like she is reading her lines off of their face. I understand that they have brought her in as a tie to the first film but she isn’t needed and I do think the film would have been better without her in it.

Anyway, I digress. So we have now met the whole group and through a number of conversations we now understand that despite the kids all talking about the same nightmare, it is classed as group hysteria, basically that they are being difficult teens and just need to behave. That’s not to say that all the doctors are against them, there is Dr Gordon, the one person willing to listen to the kids and try something different to help them. Played by Craig Wasson, this character is the anti-Nancy and is a real help to this film, he is convincing and shows that the character cares for the kids but is still a professional. He is also in the scene with my favourite line later in the film.  

With the all the players in place the plots can begin and we get into the kills. Let’s get to the one that really matters, the moment Freddy becomes Freddy. The star wanna be, Jennifer, falls and asleep watching TV without realising it’s a dream, the TV goes on the fritz while attempting to fix it and we get more Freddy becoming something in the Nightmare. This time he literally forms out of the TV set, grabbing Jennifer and slamming her head into the screen and shouting “This is your big break Jennifer. Welcome to primetime bitch!” There it is, the one thing that was missing, Freddy pulling out one liners after each of his kills. It should be noted that this line was actually adlibbed by Robert England (Freddy) and started something both great ruinous for the later films.

The other side of the kids being killed is an origin story for Freddy and more supernatural shenanigans. I know it’s ridiculous to say about a film that has a killer stalking kids dreams but I find the introduction of a ghost nun a bit much. It’s fine but like having Nancy back it is something that isn’t needed and there could have been better ways to progress the story. Despite this, it is the Nun that has my favourite line in the film. When we find out that Freddy’s mother was trapped in the mental institute years before an repeatedly raped, during which Freddy was conceived, she describes him as “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs” a bit dramatic but awesome at the same time. This also leads to the contrivance of being given a way to beat Freddy. This is why I dislike the Nun so much, it’s too easy. A ghost turns up and tells you what to do to beat the baddy. Did all of this have to take place in this location for her to part this knowledge? What if they had gone to a different hospital? What about all the kids that died in the first two films, didn’t she care then? It gets the plot going and I will let it slide because this is a slasher film about a killer that stalks dreams but I still think it is a little lazy on the part of the writers.

Something positive? Ok, this film does have a positive message. We find out later that all the kids have select special powers in their dreams. Not going to go into them but suffice to say some are better than others and the questionable race relations continue (Kincaid the Black Character gets super strength and um, more anger – it seems fine in the context of this film but would not fly today). The point being that we all have dreams and that believing in them makes you stronger. The theme is well placed and actually plays out when they are fighting Freddy. It’s not often you can say that a daft slasher film has a positive message.  

Getting to the climax we have had some great kills, dream confrontations and we also get a stop motion skeleton Freddy in the real world attacking someone. I have always had a soft spot for stop motion effects, the Ray Harryhausen style from the Sinbad films and the 1981 Clash of the titans. Granted they never look great but they have a feel to them that is something else and it works in Nightmare just as well. This is a great climax leading to a troupe of this franchise. Freddy being defeated is always a little woolly and never feels like it will be final. Yeah, I know the villain always comes back but the Nightmare films don’t really try.

 

In summary, this is, in my opinion, the best of the Nightmare films. You don’t have to have seen the previous films to understand anything; it contains some of the best kills of the series and we get the Freddy we know and love for the first time. This is a fun slasher horror film, with a couple of jump scares and plenty of blood for the gore-hounds. However, as I have mentioned it isn’t perfect. The story is a little weak and contrived, some of the acting is just plain bad and the final defeat isn’t amazing. Overall if you have never seen any of the “Nightmare on Elm St” films start with the first one and then watch this one, just to see the difference. If you have seen this, go back and watch and see how well some many parts of this film still stand up, especially if you are having a few drinks. 

Halloween Countdown: 4 - The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

When I was pretty young I was given my first TV for my bedroom. It was a small TV (tiny by today’s standards), with a black and white picture, an aerial in the top that needed adjusting constantly and a rotating knob to tune in the channels. It was ancient even when I got it but I loved it. It sat at the end of my cabin bed and for a kid in the late 80s was the best thing ever. I was easily pleased.

I vividly remember listening for my parents to go to bed and then switching the little black and white TV on and sitting way to close, so I could watch it with the volume turned way down. I must have watched all kinds of things but two images stand out in my mind. The first was my introduction to Rocky, when Rocky 3 was playing late one night. The other was my introduction to Hammer and it scared the hell out of me.

I tuned in a channel and I could hear the smooth tones of, who I now know was, Peter Cushing. The picture came into focus and I see two men in period costume in heated debate. I wasn’t particularly interested but gave it a few minutes. Soon Peter Cushing storms out and walks into a lab, revealing a bandaged figure slowly lurching towards him. The figure reaches up and pulls the bandages from its face and in an instant reveals a broken and vile face. I literally jumped and turned the TV off. Yep, I chickened out and I doubt I slept well that night.

It wasn’t until years later when I saw the film again that I learned that I had been scared by Hammer’s “The Curse of Frankenstein” and Christopher Lee as the creature. Watching it now there are elements that are campy and the make-up effects haven’t aged well but I still think this film is fantastic and genuinely creepy and sinister. However, the things that affect me have changed over the years.

Film historians have credited this with two note worth distinctions. This film is the first of the very successful Cushing / Lee on screen partnership. Also, many highlight that this film brought horror back in to favour after it had declined in the 40’s and early 50’s. A film and two great actors at the start of the British re-birth of Horror.

Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein is brilliant. He is smooth but driven; almost single minded in is obsession. He also comes across as cold and calculating to such an extent that I wonder if he is a sociopath. Throughout the film he treats people as if they are solely there for his benefit, helping him reach his goal. He kills, cheats and casts people aside with no remorse. Even in the final moment he is still screaming to be believed to save his life and be appreciated for the genius he is. There is so little consideration for the people he has hurt.

Watching it now I love this choice. The easier option is to make Victor a fallen or damaged hero. He would be someone trapped in an obsession but still loves his wife and eventually regrets what he has created, someone redeemable. Not this Victor, in this film Victor is the real villain.

There three scenes that I want to mention that demonstrate how Cushing and the film portray him like a villain. The first is a small scene between Victor and his wife Elizabeth (Hazel Court) as she presses him on working with him in his lab. During their conversation Victor is placating her to keep her happy. However, as he talks about her being in his lab he is clearly examining her, considering whether her body could be used at some point. She is so fawning and naïve that Cushing being so calm is chilling.

The second is the killing of Professor Bernstein, to obtain his brain. The scene sets up that the professor has been invited over under the pretence of dinner. Victor then leads him to his room for the night but on the way stops to show him a painting. He then proceeds to ask the professor to step back to see it better and over a balcony his goes (an amazing head pounding stunt!). Cushing is so slimy as he builds up to the killing and is clearly pleased with the result. No remorse, just another step in his grand plan.

The last is towards the end of the film. We find that Victor has had the creature restrained and been performing experimental surgery on it. Its torture, nothing less and he just sees it as science advancement. He does not see the creature as human in any way at all. It is just a collection of parts that he has created and therefore can do with it whatever he wants.

He repeatedly states that all of this is in advancement of his research but there is no question that he is enjoying everything he is doing. He may be obsessed with the goal of greater knowledge but he is in love with power it gives him.

The script of the film is a bit clunky and campy in places but Cushing elevates this to a classic. Christopher Lee is fine as the creature but doesn’t have a great deal to do. His Hammer shine will come with Dracula and others. The rest of the cast are also mostly fine, Hazel Court begins to grate on me but I think that has more to do with the character and dialogue she is given rather than her acting.

Robert Urquhart plays Paul Krempe, Victors tutor and friend. He is given the sole purpose of being the voice of reason and only in a couple of scenes does he bring anything interesting to the role. On several occasions his reactions to Victor indicate he understands how dangerous not just the experiment is but the man conducting it is as well. He sees and fears the uncaring nature and knows that it will never let Victor stop.

Watching it this time I also noticed what a small film it is. Mostly due to budget I am sure but there are only a couple of sets and very few outdoor scenes. Victor’s lab is a smallish attic room rather than the grand expanse of the Universal Dr Frankenstein. Like I say, budget restraints but it adds something to the film, knowing that this creature is so close trapped in the house with the others. It makes it a little claustrophobic. It starts to represent that this is Victor’s small world; it’s all he cares about.

In summary I recommend this film. There are better Hammer films and better portrayals of Frankenstein’s Monster but Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein is brilliant. A villain I really enjoy watching and a film that still gives me chills. Hammer has started releasing a lot of their films on special edition blu-ray, which I watched, and the picture and sound quality is excellent. The colours are so lush and crisp for a film made in 1957. Track it down and give it a go. 

Halloween Countdown: 5 - ParaNorman (2012)

I am going to break my own rule for this review and jump into the 21st Century.

There are two things to explain upfront before I get into this review. First, while it is probably the biggest part of Halloween, I love the fact that it’s not just about scares and horror. Halloween is about fun, it’s about letting go of convention, enjoying yourself and being able to laugh. This is why I really enjoy films like ParaNorman, Beetlejuice, Monster House and even Hocus Pocus. They don’t take themselves seriously and pock gentle fun at clichés and the more serious films that have come before.

Second, I am an advocate of kids’ films being a gateway to a better and wider range of films. Some people I have spoken with have an odd belief that kids films are for kids and then you grow up and only watch “proper” films. To me this is madness, if you want someone to be interested in something you snag that interest when they are young and you can’t interest a child in horror or films in general by making them sit down and watch Halloween or The Exorcist! What kind of parent are you! – So we need films that act as an entry point and they have to be good or at least appeal to kids and contain enough to be enticing.

However the line between “children’s” films and “proper” films is blurring more and more with Pixar producing classics like Inside Out and Up. They are not alone though; there is another studio working to produce animated films that are an art form as well as good films. A small studio called Laika. They specialise in stop-motion animation and have contributed to the Corpse Bride as well as making Coraline, The Box Trolls, Kubo and the two strings and of course ParaNorman.

Their animation style is wonderful and they have it nailed. Ever since I saw 1981’s Clash of the Titans I have been fascinated by stop-motion effects. They don’t always age well but they always have a feel that is so appealing. I will admit that watching it in older films nostalgia comes into play but ParaNorman is an example of the animation style used to great effect.

The story focuses around Norman, a young boy that can see and speak to ghosts. He doesn’t think much of it; it has become part of his daily life. Others however think he is a freak and weird, none more so than his own Dad. He is an outcast in a town, Blithe Hollow, which lives on the back of the town legend of a witch that was executed 200 years before. The witch gimmick is in everything, including the school play Norman is forced to be in.

It turns out that Norman is not the only one who has the ability it’s a family trait. Moreover, it’s his destiny to use to the power to calm the spirit of the Witch every year. Otherwise she and her accusers, 7 elders that settled the town, will return from the grave to attack Blithe Hollow. Of course it doesn’t go to plan and Norman and his new friends are thrown into some Zombie mayhem.

The story has some really strong positive themes. Norman appreciates that being different is a good thing and that people should learn to understand who you are. There are also lessons about not making judgements based on fear as well as several swipes at American gun culture and other things. The script is pretty strong and it is boosted by great design and animation.

Despite being cartoonish in style all of the characters have physicality due to the nature of the animation, which makes them feel more real. The great thing about stop motion for me is that the sets and characters are actually being lit and affected by the environment. I do enjoy CG animated films but they still feel like a cartoon. These have texture and depth that cannot be replicated in a computer. Yes the stop-motion is cleaned up and special effects are added using CG but the basis is still the stop-motion figures.

The film is littered with little details that I notice more of with each watch. I would not question that this was a passion project for everyone involved in the making of this film.

This is all good but the real fun comes from the jokes and nods made to horror films. The film opens with a bad zombie film which includes a boom mic in shot and acknowledges the silliness of slow moving zombies. It’s a joy to watch and smile along with the film makers that clearly love the reference material, despite some of its more ridiculous aspects.

A couple of other nods worth noting are a shot taken directly from Halloween (1978) of the shape hiding beside a hedge and then disappearing. Also Several Night of the Living Dead references when the main characters are trapped in a library.  

The film moves along at a pretty swift pace following Norman failing to keep the witch in her grave. The zombies chase after them slowly but with purpose and bump into some of the town’s folk. This leads to chaos in the streets as the residents don’t know whether to fight the zombies, loot the shops or shout at Norman.

In the third act some harsh truths are revealed and Norman is able to deal with the Witch. The finale is both eye popping visually and excellently emotionally driven. I am always drawn into this film and enjoy the journey and the pay off each time. I highly recommend this to everyone but especially to fans of animation or a family looking for a Halloween family film. Its great fun with some excellent voice work (John Goodman is having a blast as a crazy uncle) and genuinely funny moments. I wish there were more films like this that could start kids on the right path to enjoying the fun that horror films provide. Check it out. 

Halloween Countdown: 6 - The Shining (1980)

I have seen this film on several occasions and it has never sat well with me, it has always felt a little off. I know that it is lauded as a Stanley Kubrick classic and a great horror masterpiece but it just never lived up to that for me. However, it wasn't until I read the original Stephen King book recently that it fell into place. 

King's novel is the story of a man's last shot at redemption in an isolated hotel with his wife and son. How he is driven slowly insane by the ghosts of the hotel that feed off the psychic abilities of his son and his guilt over the choices he has made in his life. This creates a tense story filled with fear and inner conflict building to a tragic end. 

Kubrick's film however seems to be about a psychotic man forcing his family to move to an isolated hotel so that he can possibly do some writing but after some mild nudging from a ghostly barman decides to kill his family. This creates a tension of a very different kind as we wait for the inevitable finale that has become such a famous part of pop culture. 

This is not to say that this is a bad film. The way it is shot is great and the third act of the film is very good. There are also some pretty good scares when you are watching this sat alone in the dark. It is a competent horror film but there are some major flaws that really take me out of film. 

The biggest issue I have with this film is the primary cast. 

I really like Jack Nicholson, and find him incredibly watchable in the right role with the right direction (see The Departed or 1989 Batman). That does not mean he is the right person to play the central character of this story, Jack Torrance a struggling writer looking to make good on his potential. From the moment he appears on screen we know where this is going simply because we get crazy Nicholson. When he has his first scene with the family unit he talks to them with flippant annoyance and almost disdain. Nicholson is playing, or being directed to play, a man who is only one step away from beating his family anyway. The choice to play the character this way and drop the inner conflict that he should go through before reaching the inevitable decent into madness makes the character a little shallow and the outright villain rather than the tragic figure he should be. 

As for Shelly Duvall I have to admit that I don't find her that good in anything that she has done. It is well documented that she had major run ins with Kubrick over the direction of her character (Wendy Torrance) in this film and rightly so. She wanted to play the character closer to the book, an intelligent woman that has stood by her husband through some bad times. What we get is a whimpering Olive Oil before she played Olive Oil (Popeye 1980). The character becomes so grating and redundant by the third act that I would not be surprised if this direction was taken by Kubrick as a punishment for her arguments. 

As a quick note, I will add that the young boy who play the son, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) is actually quite good and adds an element of sympathy to the film. Although, much of Danny's story from the book has been dropped. 

So what do we have at the centre of this film? A psychotic husband and his dependent wife. At no point in this film do I ever buy that these two people met, fell in love and had a life together before this film starts. There is no chemistry or sense of family and the interplay that should be demonstrated on screen. 

In King's novel the Hotel is very much a character itself and the events and life that have happened there is vital to understanding the downfall of this poor family. There are images, some horrific some ordinary that pop up throughout the book but all are explained and tied to events in the history of the hotel. This does not translate well to the film, although some of the images are used. The most famous is the two little girls and the events that surrounded them and their father, the previous caretaker. This is fine and makes a lot of sense both in the book and the film. However, in the third act as Wendy is roaming round the hotel she sees a series of things (man covered in blood, a man dressed as a dog etc.) that are tied to very specific events that have been a part of Jack Torrance's torment. In the film they come across as being random for the sack of trying to random and spooky. It was this section of the film that never sat well with me before I read the book; now that I have it just makes me think that Kubrick liked the images but not the story.

Halloween Countdown: 7 - Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

 

For the Halloween film reviews I wanted to look at different types of films that are worth watching for this growing annual pagan holiday. “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” (KKFOS) is an homage to the horror and sci-fi films of the 50’s and 60’s, as well as the teen comedies of the 80’s. 

The film was written and directed by the Chiodo brothers, who have a background in special effects (Team America, Critters and Elf). This was one of the first films they made and they set out to make a film that they could have fun making but also show off some of their skills. Lets be honest from the start, they are not overly talented writers or directors. The dialogue is clunky and only well handled by some of the more experienced actors (we will get on to John Vernon in a minute). The direction is also very pedestrian with no flare. However, neither of these affects the quality of the film and in fact adds to the cheesy B-movie nature of the film.

In addition to this some of the special effects are very cheap and dated; this can be expected though based on the films budget ($2M) but the thing that standards out for me are the Klowns themselves. There are 4 or 5 main Klowns and they look great, a little rubbery but the movements in the faces are smooth and they look good enough for me to accept them as a threat in this very silly film. This is aided by the fact that the Klown designs themselves are great, they are all different shapes, sizes and make-up combinations, making them each easily identifiable. In addition to the Klowns there are a few other things that standout for me in design and effect, which I will call out as I go.

Getting into the film itself, from the outset it is clear that this is not a film that is going to scare anyone, the title sounds like the result of a drunken conversation. It also opens with the most amazingly ridiculous 80’s synth-rock title song performed by The Dickies. The expectations are set, this film has a sense of humor and we are right in the heart of comedy-horror.

We are introduced to the main players straight away, with the idiot brothers selling ice-cream out of their clown ice-cream truck out side Big Top Burgers, this film isn’t subtle. Then we get the main male and female leads Mike and Debbie at “make out point”, which are very cookie cutter late teens being played by actors in their mid-twenties. Knowing that neither of these actors went on to do much more will give you an idea of the quality of the acting that is on display here. However Mike is leagues ahead of Debbie, who has particular trouble getting through some of the clunky dialogue. They are sufficient for what the film needs.

Soon after we also get the films good cop / bad cop combo; Dave the good cop is very bland and by the numbers but the bad cop is great fun. John Vernon as Officer Mooney is brilliant as the teenager hating paranoid aging cop. He gets stuck into this role and chews the hell out of it. He is a panto villain that the audience want to see killed. The fact that the film plays it totally straight when he intends to beat two teenagers for walking through park after dark drinking is brilliant. By playing it so straight it is over the top but makes the rest of the film even more outlandish.

Then we get the introduction of the titular Klowns. They fall to earth and Mike and Debbie decide to go investigate but in the mean time we get to see the ship in which they have arrived, a huge glowing circus big top, and a glimpse of Klown when they kill a local old timer. Within minutes we are in the ship with Mike and Debbie and they are being chased by the Klowns. There really isn’t any messing around in this film the pace is great, it starts and you are off to the races. I may criticise the writing but I can’t fault them for getting stuck in as soon as possible. They know that this isn’t about building tension or drama, lets see some craziness.

So what craziness do we get? How about a pop corn gun or the Klowns using a balloon animal dog on a leash as a bloodhound. The sniffer dog is a particular favourite of mine, stupid and simple but makes me laugh each time. At this point we also get the most exposition we are going to get in this film when Debbie asks about the Klowns guns “Pop corn, why pop corn?”, Mike’s response “They’re Klowns, that’s why.” fair enough I can buy that and there is no need for any other questions, this is all the explanation I want and need from this film.

The second act is a 20 minute montage of the Klowns invading the town to kill and collect it’s citizens. I won’t go into all the moments but I will highlight two standouts for me. The first is the shortest Klown cycling up to a biker gang. The inevitable happens and his little clown bike is broken and I love the expression of sadness on the klowns face. The puppet work is so good, his ears droop, he frowns and for a second I feel sorry for him. However, he gets his revenge when he offers to take on a member of the gang one on one and literally knocks the guys head off. In keeping with the general tone of the film this is daft and fun.

The second is a queue of people waiting for a bus being entertained by a Klown making shadow shapes on the wall, which eventually becomes a dinosaur and eats them all. I love this because of the complexity of the shadow designs and the fact that no one in the queue questions whether this is possible. I especially love the old man who salutes when a shadow of a soldier and waving flag is presented. Again, this has dated but I am so enjoying the tone and essence of this film that I can see past the iffy spots.

I should mention that during this act we also find out why they are here in the first place. They are here to wrap us in space cotton candy cocoons and drink our blood. Obviously as with most things in the film this raises a load of questions that there is no point or need in asking because the simple answer is, “They’re Klowns, that’s why”.

The third act starts with the first payoff of the film when Mooney is killed by one of the Klowns and turned into a ventriloquist’s dummy. We also find out how the Klowns can be defeated, how else than blowing up their big red comedy noses, why? They’re Klowns, that’s why.

The third act is driven by the fact that Debbie is one of the people that have been captured and Mike and good cop Dave have to go and rescue her. During this section we get a glimpse of other budget restraints of the film and poor direction Such as the Klowns invading one street and it looking like a party with streamers, then a shot from another direction shows the rest of the street is fine and we even get to see two cars driving past normally in the background. A mis-step but only a quick shot that doesn’t distract from the madness.

I should also point out that at this stage that I am beginning to think that good cop Dave has a darker side. The two leads are supposed to be late teens in college and he a Officer that has been on the force for a couple of years. Yet he dated Debbie at some point in the past, it’s not made clear when and the age difference between the two is never made clear but it’s another part of the script that feels forced. There had to be some relationship tension so they threw in a love triangle. It doesn’t work for me but it is also so inconsequential to the film that you can ignore it.

So off they go back to the Big Top space ship to save Debbie and stop the Klowns. Unfortunately this final act is where the lack of budget really shows. While the scenes on the space ship at the beginning were in small corridors and looked pretty good, the final act tries to take things to a larger scale and while one or two sections are good overall the inside of the ship is made up of big black spaces and some random brightly coloured shapes. It looks cheap and well, rubbish.

The finale is also a bit of a mess. There is a super Killer Klown in the empty black space back lot that is space ship which does have a fun little fight with an ice-cream van. The super Klown is defeated and the main characters escape. This is a bit of a flat ending for such a fun film but I am not sure how much money there was left or if they could have done something larger.

In summary this is a cheap and clunky scripted comedy horror that tickles that silly immature funny bone. It never takes itself seriously and despite some missteps has some great moments that will stick with you, as well as some great design work, puppetry effects and title song. And who can resist a film that has pop-corn attack a woman in the shower? Why, pop-corn? They’re Klowns, that’s why

I highly recommend this 88 mins of joyous nonsense, which is best enjoyed with a few friends and a few drinks.  

 

HALLOWEEN COUNT DOWN: 8 - DRACULA (1931)

Some things are so good that they become ingrained in pop culture and are copied and parodied to the extent that the original is almost forgotten and lost. This is the case with the 1931 Dracula starring the great Bela Lugosi. This is the film that has formed most of the modern common Dracula look, the suit and cape, the slicked back hair, the charming eloquent mysterious man (however no fangs appear in this film). Every Dracula fancy dress costume that we see today in shops and supermarkets is based on this film but it is it any good? The film is 83 years old and film making has progressed so much in that time but I will say up front, this is a very good film.

It’s hard to spoil a film that’s central story has been told so many times in so many different formats, so I will only skim over the plot and focus on what I really enjoyed about this film. I should say, I only watched this film for the first time last week and I watched the remastered Blu ray.  If you do watch this film and I strongly recommend you do, this is the best format to watch this film on. The remastered version is beautiful, the picture is fantastic and the contrast of the black and white image is great. I can honestly say that this film has probably never looked better.

This is a rather short film, running at 74 minutes. One of the reasons for this is that the screenplay was a direct use of the stage play version. A lot of the original novel has been dropped or contracted but this is a real benefit to the film. It would not have been possible to create some of the expansive scenes and locations on stage or for the film at the time it was made. So the film focuses in on the central characters and the key story points. This is excellent concise storytelling, supported by some iconic performances.

Before I get to Bela Lugosi there are a couple of other performances that I want to highlight, first off, Dwight Frye who plays Renfield. A character from the Stoker novel but expanded for this version to be the person that visits Dracula and helps him travel to London. It is this interaction that drives him insane in this version of the story.

While he replaces Jonathan Harker for this part of this story it actually does make reference to a Stoker short story “Dracula’s guest”. This was originally part of the novel (Dracula) as an introductory section but was removed by the publisher. It was later published in a collection of Stoker’s short stories. “Dracula’s guest” tells the story of another English lawyer being chased down in the woods of Transylvania. It is disputed whether this is an earlier start to Harker’s story or the story of Renfield’s interactions with Dracula. Either way, in the film we get a character that is a very reserved and goes crazy.

Frye is superb in this role. When he is introduced he is clean cut and almost naïve and reacts as you would expect to the strangeness he encounters on his way to and at Dracula’s mansion. His facial expressions are great as he interacts with Dracula, he is nervous and a little lost but keeps doing his job. The scene between Frye and Lugosi near the start of the film is a stand out for me. He is also brilliant as the insane Renfield when they get home; he is excessive crazy without being over the top. He has some of the best lines in the film and a great monologue about being promised hundreds, thousands of rats on which he can feed when he has done the work of his “master”.

Frye was a stage comedian for a lot of early career and this comes through in his timing and delivery. If this guy was working today I would expect him to be someone like Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, a comedian who takes on and succeeds at more dramatic and creepy roles.

The second character I want to bring up is Van Helsing play by Edward Van Sloan. This Van Helsing is portrayed as a man of science and superstition and happens to be right all the time. It is not really explained how he got this knowledge and to be honest it doesn’t matter. Sloan is like a force of nature in the film, despite being an older gentleman he orders people around with confidence that everything he is doing is right and I was bought into it.

There is a scene where he stands toe to toe with Dracula and lets him know that he knows what he is and what he is doing. Dracula attempts to use his hypnotic stare to bring him close enough for the kill but Van Helsing resists. Not only is Dracula impressed, so am I. it quickly shows that these two are a match and I want to see them face off at the end of the film.

Bela Lugosi had played Dracula on stage for a period and was so keen to get his performance on screen that he took a huge pay drop to make the film. It is a stage performance that he gives but it is so engaging. There are moments of stillness, where he just watches someone and or his is animated and charming as the exotic count. Either way he commends the screen and owns the character.

Forget all the over acted parodies and the ridiculous accents, this performance contains real menace and the accent is legit and perfect for the performance. The one line that I loved and has become so famous “Listen to them, children of the night. What music they make.” It can be read as corny and over the top but Lugosi delivers it with such sincerity you believe that he does take comfort from the sound.

Lugosi’s performance is taken from great to iconic by really effective lighting and direction. In 1931 this film was made to make Dracula a serious villain and it achieved it. I would suggest that a modern comparison is the way Hannibal Lector is presented in the TV show Hannibal. The audience is well aware that this suave charming person is a danger but the cast don’t see it. In fact I would suggest that Mads Mikkelsen would make a fantastic Dracula.

The three roles that I have highlighted are male, which for a film made in 1931 isn’t surprising. The female characters in this film, whilst key to the story (as in the novel) are only secondary to the males. The plot revolves around the male characters reactions to what is happening to the women. However, a lot of events regarding the women happen of screen. This is not unusual for the time, however it is one of the flaws of the film and an extra 10 – 15 minutes expanding on the women in the movie would add so much more tension and empathy.

In Summary this is a classic, a film that has set the template for all future Dracula films. Granted this is a film of its time but this only adds to the appeal. Whilst this isn’t scary by today’s standards the portrayal of both Dracula and Renfield is unsettling enough to stay with you, Bela Lugosi is and always will be Dracula. Also, as I mentioned before go and find the remastered version it is a fantastic transfer and makes the film look stunning. 

HALLOWEEN COUNT DOWN: 9 - HELLRAISER (1987)

I think that Hellraiser is one of the most mis-remembered films and would be included in the theory that general understanding not matching the original intent. This is in part due to the lesser sequels (3 onwards) and the way in which Pinhead has been marketed over the years. He is remembered as a horror icon in the same vain as Freddy, Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers but he is very different to all of these and so much more. The three I mentioned are icons, no doubt but they are all slasher killers, killing with a loose motive (revenge or territoriality) but Pinhead and his Cenobites are not slasher killers. In fact I would argue that they are not intended to be the stars of the film at all.

 

Hellraiser is a pretty accurate translation of Clive Barker’s novella “The Hellbound Heart”, likely because the film was written and directed by Clive Barker himself. Despite not being a very experienced director he has a very distinct vision and tone that permeates every scene. There are few directors that could have made this film and made it match the tone set out on the page. To my mind maybe Guillermo Del Toro, Tim Burton or David Cronenberg could do it well but let’s look at what Clive Barker created.

 

The film centres on the Cotton family, Kirsty, her father (Larry), his cheating wife (Julia) and her lover (Frank), who is also Kirsty’s uncle. Frank is the black sheep of the family and he has dedicated his life to pursuing pleasures. This leads him to find the Lament Configuration, a black and gold puzzle box that legend states when opened will provide the opener with unlimited physical sensations. It also opens a door for the coenobites, creatures driven to seek out physical sensation – pleasure and pain, and led by the priest, better known as Pinhead.

 

This brings us to one of the themes of this story, be careful what you wish for. Granted it’s not subtle but it does play out in the rest of the film.  Also this is where a more experienced director may have added some additional layers to the story.

 

Frank is taken by the Cenobites to experience the extremes of physical sensation for eternity. However he manages to escape and return to the room from which he was taken, a room in a house his brother and family now live. However, he does not come back as a whole man only a bloody skeleton returns screaming. This is a great scene and use of practical effects as the skeletal remains pull themselves from the floor. I love practical effects, yes they can date a film and look bad within a few years but this scene looks great and this is to do with the vision that Barker is bringing as well as the excellent effects by Cliff Wallace.

 

During the next act of the film we are shown the sordid history between Julia and Frank, as Julia finds him, skinless, bloody and weak in the attic. I have mentioned perfect escalation in films in past reviews (Ghostbusters) but this is an example of a leap of logic that almost breaks the film. Julia finds him and after only a quick conversation she is convinced not only that he is Frank but also that she has to bring him people to feed from to become human again. In the first part of the film it is made pretty clear that Julia is a bitch but it is a big jump from a cheating bitch to a woman willing to kill for a monster locked in the attic. Once again I put this clunky leap in logic down to Barker’s inexperience with film, as this plays out much better in the novella. It is saved however by Clare Higgins, playing Julia. She plays it so well and portrays a board house wife with deep passion and lust that is desperate for some excitement. It just so happens that her obsession has been Frank.

 

The following couple of kills are the closest the film gets to a slasher film but they are quick and facilitate the growth of Frank, which yet again looks brilliant, gruesome and terrifying using practical prosthetics. It is also during this section of the film that we get the most tension; Barker introduces a claustrophobic feel to the house. As the audience we know that Frank is there lurking in the dark as the family go about their business. The second act culminates in Kirsty finding Frank and escaping with the puzzle box and ending up in Hospital. This is when we also get to meet the Cenobites properly for the first time.

 

The four Cenobites, The Priest (Pinhead), Chatterer, Butterball and The Woman are visually stunning to look at. Pale skin, clad in leather, hooks and chains with weeping open wounds each unique but following a theme that Barker called “Sadomasochistic Glamour”. They are lit so well, they are hidden in enough shadow to hide the joins in the costumes but illuminated enough so that the audience get a good look at them. Pinhead is the most distinctive and made better by the great voice of Doug Bradley. He is given some dialogue that would sound ridiculous coming from someone else but he gives it a level of gravitas that makes him terrifying. One such line is, “No tears please, it’s a waste of good suffering.”

 

These are creatures that revel in the pleasure of pain but the film does not attempt to give them an origin or explain what they are, they just are and they always have been. Pinhead actually describes them as “Explorers... in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others” I love the idea that they have always been out there and they don’t care about good or evil, just physical sensation and looking to try something new. The notion that they have been doing this for eons is heightened by the fact that they comes across as business like. There is no huge acting, they move with purpose and look on the human characters with boredom. They are looking for something new but keep getting the same depraved people seek out an extension of limits of Human experience and they have long passed this level.

 

It is also demonstrated in this scene that they are arrogant and consider themselves better than human. Kirsty tells them about Frank escaping them and they refuse to believe that anyone can escape them. However, they eventually agree to give her a chance to prove it but before she leave the hospital we also get to see a little more of the “hell” the Cenobites call home. A door is open in the wall and leads down a corridor, which Kirsty just has to walk down.  However, she is chased out by a creature called the engineer hanging from and running along the ceiling. The effects in this scene are really disappointing, while the creature looks pretty good as a practical puppet; the problem is that in several shots the rigging and puppetry for the creature is clearly visible. It is only fleeting but it is so disappointing for a film that has, to this point, done some much with so little.

 

Eventually Kirsty escapes and returns home to find her Father and Julia playing “happy families”. Her father tells her that he knows what has been going on and everything is sorted, Frank is dead. Running to the attic she finds a bloody skinless body lying in a heap and the Cenobites waiting for her. They inform her that the remains are not of the one she told them escaped and that they will now take her. I am not going to go into detail regarding the final scenes as there are some really good twists and reveals. What I will say is that the finale is almost the pure essence of Clive Barker. There is cruelty, sexual depravity, hellish creatures and a satisfying resolution which means that this can be watched in isolation of the sequels and provide enough answers to be satisfying but leave enough to the imagination that parts of the film can be interpreted in different ways.

 

In Summary, this is one of few films that have managed to capture the essence of Clive Barker and delivers a really interesting horror film. The designs are iconic and the Cenobites rightfully belong in the pantheon of horror. However, the film has aged poorly in some parts, mainly due to the budget restraints on the effects and Barker’s inexperience at directing. I am in two minds about a lot of the changes that George Lucas made to the original Star Wars films but I understand his intent. I wish that Barker would do something similar with Hellraiser. This film could have a new lease of life with some CGI enhancements to some of the effects and around some of the rougher edges. Until that happens, as long as you can accept a few leaps of logic I highly recommend this truly Clive Barker Horror. I also recommend that you read the novella, at 128 pages it is a quick and tightly packed read. 

Halloween Count Down: 10 - The Frighteners (1996)

Before trekking across Middle Earth Peter Jackson made splatter gore comedies such as Bad Taste (1987) and Brain Dead (1992) (both of which I recommend). He changed direction with Heavenly creatures (1994) receiving critical for doing so. The film was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay Oscars. Following this the studios came knocking. Jackson put forward “The Frightners” a film he had penned with writing partner and wife Fran Walsh; it wasn’t the film the studios were hoping for.

The film follows window and spiritual psychic Frank Bannister (Michael J Fox) who uses his psychic abilities (and two ghost partners) to carry out haunting cons. A Ghost disguised in Death’s robes is also numbering and murdering people in the small town and Frank becomes the prime suspect. Eventually he discovers that the ghostly killer is Johnny Bartlett. Johnny, with his girlfriend Patricia, carried out a massacre 30 years previously and killed Frank’s wife following a car accident.

This film is a mishmash of tone but there are so many good elements I enjoy, the whole experience becomes satisfying. Even without knowing the full behind the scenes story the unevenness smacks of studio interference. Jackson’s core story is incredibly dark, incorporating coping with grief, survivor’s guilt and obsession. This is overlaid with strange comedic scenes of flying babies and ghost sex jokes. The latter have an air of studio “notes” to make it lighter.

The final 20 minutes are mostly spared the comedic injections and benefit from it. It’s a cat and mouse chase through the abandoned hospital where Bartlett’s massacre took place. Bannister is trying to get to the hospital chapel but keeps having flashes back to the massacre. We and Bannister watch helplessly as Bartlett and Patricia kill innocent people left and right. The joy taken in the senseless killing is shocking and while a good piece of film it fits awkwardly with the previous 70 minutes.

The killing of the character Milton Dammers further suggests studio issues. Originally written as an off screen gunshot to the chest. However once the MPAA made it clear the film would get an R instead of the much coveted PG-13 Jackson filmed Dammers’ head being blown apart on screen. Also, the fact this was held back from a 1996 Halloween release for a January 1997 release in the UK strongly suggests that the studio didn’t know what to do with the end result.

Despite the unevenness the script is good. Frank and Patricia are parallel characters. Both trapped in the aftermath of the death of a lover, not able to move on. They are being forced to face their past on a daily basis. Frank in his unfinished dream home he was building for his wife and Patricia from her mother’s unrelenting hatred and fear. This theme of loss and being unable to move on is carried through most of the film. The spirits that remain on earth decay and start to fall apart, it is only if they let go and move to the other side that they become “pure spirits”.

There are several standout performances in the film. The first is Jeffery Coombs as the damaged and deranged FBI agent Milton Dammers. He steals every scene he’s in despite leaning a little too much towards wacky comedy. There’s so much more to the character. His reaction when shouted at by women hints at past trauma. Also the scene in which he recounts how Bannister’s wife died could have been just an exposition dump. By adding in a series ticks and character flourishes it becomes just as much about his character as progressing the plot. I would love to see this character in his own film.

The second is Dee Wallace as Patricia. For the first two acts she is the perfect meek guilt ridden victim. When this mask is torn away she relishes in the wild menace and freedom of being able to be the killer she has always wanted to be. While this twist is sign posted pretty early on her character portrayal makes the reveal so much fun. Another highlight is an amazing cameo by R. Lee Emery as a version of the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket.

The decaying ghost make-up affects are really good throughout but the film is let down a little by early CGI affects. They are flat and lack texture which took me out the film in parts. Despite these flaws the film has a look which works for the content.

The Frighteners is an enjoyable horror yarn that has confused moments of horror and comedy but has darkness at its heart that makes it a Halloween must see.