Michael Mann's Miami Vice is a lot of things. Hypnotic, sedated mood piece. Thrumming, rhythmic action picture. Deeply romantic. More going on underneath it's surface than what you see onscreen. Masterful crime piece. Showcase for digitally shot film. Restless, nocturnal urban dream. One thing it is decidedly not, however, is anything similar to the bright 'n sunny, pastel suited 80's cable TV show of the same name, also pioneered by Mann, at a more constricted and likely very different point in his career. A lot can be said for the show though, it's instantly iconic and was one among a stable of crimeprimetime (The Equalizer and Crime Story did their part as well) to give many actors their break, actors who we take for granted as stars today. Mann's film version is a different beast entirely, a likely reason for the uneasy audience reception. Let's be clear: it's one of the best films of the last few decades. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx make a deliberately moodier, more dangerous Ricardo and Tubbs, and their high stakes undercover work is set against an austerely fatalistic Miami that bares little resemblance to travel brochures, let alone the tv show many were used to. Their story starts one of two ways, depending on whether or not you view the extended director's cut, which is the version I'd choose as it sets up tone before throwing you into a hectic nightclub sting operation they've got going, which is hastily interrupted by the exposure of a CI snitch (John Hawkes in a haunting cameo). This sets them on course to take down a powerful Cuban drug syndicate run by a scarily calm Luis Tosar and hotheaded maverick John Ortiz. Farrell gets involved with a girl from their fold, of course (Gong Li is a vision), a romance that has grown on me over the years, while Foxx is involved with beautiful fellow cop Naomie Harris, yielding heart wrenching moments in the final act. Darting in and out of the story as well are Tom Towles, Justin Theroux, Isaach De Bánkole, Eddie Marsan, Barry Shabaka Henley, Tony Curran and Ciaran Hinds, all vital cogs in a well oiled, momentous machine that doesn't drop it's pulse for a second. Composer John Murphy piles on the mood with his mournful score, highlighting evening boat-rides, shadowy shoot outs and outdoor nightclubs with a top tier soundscape, while cinematographer Dion Beebe works tirelessly to get shot after shot looking mint, not an easy task with a film this energetic and particularly lit. From start to finish it's to the point as well, Mann has no interest in useless exposition, mapped out play by plays or cheesy moments. Everything careens along at a realistic pace and you're on your own if you can't keep up or make sense of the off the cuff cop jargon. There's stillness too though, in a torn up Farrell watching his love disappear on the horizon, Foxx looking on from beside a hospital bed or simply either of them glowering out at the skyline from a rooftop pulpit before things Heat up. Like I said, do the extended version and you'll get that terrific opener to set you up, instead of being thrown in the deep end right off the bat. Either way though, Miami Vice is one for the ages.
Prisoner is a rough, disturbing little psychological thriller about a potential prison film, or rather the lonely location scouting sessions of controversial, much disliked Hollywood auteur director Derek Plato (Julian McMahon). He's an arrogant prick of a dude whose newest film has him scouring abandoned penitentiaries for that perfect location. He's alone, curiously, until all of a sudden... he's not. Out of nowhere appears the mysterious Jailor (Elias Koteas), a frightening man who forcefully imprisons Plato, mentally berates him and forces the man to look back upon his long and quite unpleasant past in both the film industry and his disaster of a personal life, prodding him with intimate questions and accusations. This is essentially a chamber piece with the two actors being the only ones who appear in the present timeline, which is punctuated by hazy flashbacks to his life before. McMahon carries himself nicely, handling a well worn arc with charisma and giving off an authentically unlikeable vibe early on. Koteas is a beast of an actor and could scare the pants off of real life convicts, as such he steals the show with a brutal, galvanizing performance. Now, these types of films usually head towards conclusions we've seen before, and I won't spoil anything except to say that although I was satisfied with the way the ending did rise up to meet the rest of the film, some won't be and may find it cliched, but hey, that's life. Nevertheless, it's a taut little mind game by way of a character study, clocking in well under ninety minutes, a sleek little piece that leaves the viewer no time to lag or lolly-gag as it trundles along through it's intense story beats. Cool stuff.
Trust John Carpenter to constantly subvert expectations, aim for innovation and simply just please the crowds throughout his career. Prince Of Darkness is, at first glance, a creaky ol' fright fest, and it is that, but there's also a cheeky little irreverent streak to it as well, a borderline atheist flourish that you wouldn't normally find in a flick about summoning up the devil. Carpenter lays the atmosphere on thick, especially with a reliably spooky electronic score and a pace that burns slow and steady. Deep in the crypt of a church there lies a large glass vial containing swirling green matter, a pseudo scientific/spiritual cocktail that contains the "anti god", a denizen composed of backward atoms that wants to break out and raise a little hell. Grim faced priest Donald Pleasence will prevent this at any cost, and hires a team of underpaid undergrads led by a crusty professor (Victor Wong) to research it, camping out in the church for kicks. You can imagine how this goes, and there's a refreshingly old school 'Body Snatchers' vibe as various characters fall victim to the creeping dark forces. There's also mind-stimulating, sci-fi ideas at work too though, including an intriguing time travel prospect and a deft little jab at religion via the story's trickier elements. Carpenter, although hailed as a master of horror, is no simpleton when it comes to ideas, and he flexes his cerebral muscles nicely here. Ambient, gooey, smart, provocative, a terrific little fright fest that leaves you wanting more.
Although billed as pure horror, A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors strays into fantasy as well and is a pure blast of fantastically diabolical special effects when it's working in either genre. Around the middle of the franchise marks the place where Freddy Krueger began to turn into more of a cartoonish wise-guy from his original mainly silent phantom, but he's still pretty foreboding here, as Robert Englund puts energetic work into both his funny and frightening sides. The cool thing about this flick is it's 'Goonies' style aesthetic; several youngsters, committed to a mental facility for their insomniac 'delusions', do dream battle with Freddy, and it's one of the few instances in a slasher film where victims get to fight back in some capacity, and as a unit. Patricia Arquette is wonderful as Kristen, leader of the pack and a fiercely vulnerable spirit, while a young Laurence Fishburne plays the kindly head nurse. It's also a treat to see Heather Langenkamp return as brave Nancy Thompson, still out for Freddy's head. The effects are dazzling, from Freddy's remodelled syringe needle glove in one scene, to a giant pac-man version of his head attempting to eat a live person whole in another, it's just imagination run wild in dreamland. The kills are still sufficiently gory too, if punctuated by his now classic growling one liners ("Bitch!"). It's safe to say this is the best in the franchise barring the first film, it's quite a bit of fun. Oh, and for a good hearty laugh, nothing beats the Dick Cavett/Zsa Zsa Gabor cameo featuring a priceless interruption from Freddy.
John Carpenter's The Ward isn't a particularly remarkable film, and it's certainly not a very scary one, but there are aspects that I really enjoyed, one of which being the excellent original score, which Carpenter actually didn't compose himself, for once. The film gets off to a great eerie start with opening credits that are the most evocative sequence of the whole thing, leading into the tale of one seriously disturbed chick (Amber Heard) who finds herself in a whacko mental institution, plagued by the ghost of a restless former patient. A befuddled Doctor (Jared Harris) knows more than he let's on, of course, and her fellow patients are similarly tormented by the phantom. Here's the thing: it's well plotted, acted and executed, save for one thing: it's never scary. Not once do the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention, and a horror film should have that. I loved the psychological sudoku of an ending, but even there there was no creep factor to be found. Her fellow patients all have parts to play, including Danielle Panabaker, Laura Leigh Claire, Mamie Gummer and a standout Mika Boorem who steals the show from Heard right in the final act. Works as a thriller, padded with atmosphere here and there, but could have done with a better dose of chills to sweeten the deal.
The Sender is godawful Z-Grade SciFi with cloying, grating intentions, a script with War Of The World's type ambitions that was given an allowance of like ten bucks to come into fruition, and the result is a windows 98 screensaver with a fraction of a pulse. It's a shame because they scored two dope actors in Michael Madsen and R. Lee Ermey, but as good as they are they're both sheepishly notorious for appearing in bottom feeding diarrhea like this to put food on the table. Madsen strains his tear ducts as the sympathetic father whose adorable daughter has mysterious connections to extraterrestrial activity from years before. He's on the run from all kinds of government folks including Ermey's gonzo, overzealous military asshole, a one dimensional fire and brimstone go-getter who hunts them six ways to Sunday. That's about all you'll get, besides cameos from Dyan Cannon and golden oldie Robert Vaughn, as well as some Fisher Price worthy UFO effects and an all round lack of pride in the craft from everyone involved. Poo.
Stephen Norrington's Death Machine whips up a knowing, near meta grind-house schlocker that harvests names, ideas and actors from other well know horror classics and churns out a wonderful little pastiche that's clearly in love with every project influencing it, as well as the genre. In a giant m, imposing corporate high rise, the collective minds of future tech enterprise brainstorm the next best thing, but all of the are bested by creepy, psychotic designer Jack Dante (Brad Dourif) an antisocial lunatic who has designed an appropriately razor-adorned monster equipped with cunning AI, primed to tear the building, and everyone in it, to shreds. This includes the looney board of directors who all bear names lovingly similar to that of various creative minds in the horror/sci-Fi industry. Scott Ridley (The always maniacal Richard Brake), Sam Raimi (The Machinist's master of everything unsettling, John Sharian) John Carpenter (William Hootkins) and even a pair of characters called Weyland and Yutani, all references are here and they're not subtle whatsoever, part of the film's charm. Dourif's moniker is no doubt based on Gremlin's pioneer Joe Dante, and speaking of Brad, he's a flat out beastly delight as he turns loose a mechanical nightmare of a creation for all to be sloppily slaughtered by at some point. Bureaucracy is lampooned between decapitations and corn syrup gore, the film is never short of dark humour to garnish it's violent pandemonium. The film is displayed a lot like Alien, and the creature itself looks not unlike a bionic xenomorph with the ability to change into all sorts of elaborate shapes, all the better to hunt you down through the tight crawl spaces and narrow ducts that made up most of 1989's cinematic architecture. Director Norrington would go on to make his own horror classic in 1998's Blade, and here he earns his stripes as both a vetted disciple of the genre and a thrifty low budget wizard. Watch out for Rachel Weiss, of all people, as a random board member who's seen briefly. A howlin' good time.
Stephen King's Gerald's Game is exactly what horror/thrillers should aspire to be: devilishly well written, engagingly acted, crisply directed and scary enough to wake the dead. Presented on the Netflix platform with their trademark lack of marketing (they tend to hurl out content willy nilly, sans fanfare), it's just shown up and is already one of the best horror films I've seen all year. Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood give encore performances and the best work of their careers as a couple who make their way to a cottage in the country, trying to spice up the ol' marriage. When Brucie has a nice heart attack mid-foreplay (he popped a few of those magic blue pills), Carla is stuck handcuffed to the bed in the middle of nowhere, with no one for company except a mangy stray dog that begins to take chunks out of dead Bruce. So begins a fiercely internal, visceral psychological survival story, a brutal chamber piece that delves into her twisted childhood, troubled marriage and churns forth a tale to curl the pain on the cabin walls. There's hallucinations, inner monologues, squirm-inducing gore, elliptical mind games and a pseudo-twist ending that had me shuddering into the couch. Gugino has never been more intense, believable or varied in her work, turning this character into something potent and tangible, bringing her past trauma and fight for survival to screaming life. Greenwood is smart, witty and so darkly funny it's tough now to picture him as the stoic, emotionally shut off archetype he usually has embodied before this film. Additional work from ET's now eerily grown up Henry Thomas and Twin Peak's ginormous Carel Stryucken (terrifying here) adds class and distinction. The show belongs to Carla and Bruce, and what a show they put on, feasting on the rich, textured dialogue and playing sandbox in the story that uses depth, character and genuine menace to lasso us right in. In a year that's seen at least one King novel unforgivably bastardized, and one other given the solid yet flawed and incomplete treatment, it's reassuring to find one that comes up pretty much perfect in every way. Kudos to Netflix, the two leads and everyone else involved.
Pet Cemetery II never gets much love or accolades, and while the first isn't a bad effort, the sequel kind of blows it out of the water by being just bonkers crazy in general. Edward 'John Connor' Furlong plays an unfortunate youngster who stumbles into the same macabre Indian burial ground, causing all manner of havoc in his small town. The real asset the film has is actor Clancy Brown, a huge talent who has an utter ball as Sheriff Gus Gilbert, a nasty prick who gets much worse when some ghostly entity takes up residence inside him and stirs shit up. Imagine the farmer with the alien in him from the first Men In Black only more scarily rambunctious and you'll have some idea. Brown's performance is a deranged opus of physical comedy and hyped up lunacy. " Why did you dig up my mom's body?" asks his bewildered stepson (Jason McGuire) "Because I wanted to fuck her!!" growls Clancy in retort. Such is the demented level of dark comedy that gets served up alongside the gore, which in itself is plentiful as well. It's a sequel and as such isn't based on a Stephen King book like the first, but it still manages to finds a writing groove and gruesome set pieces, including a spectacularly ooey gooey third act. Cool stuff.
Whacked out character actors hunt down Ice T.. what's not to like?
There's a whole bushel of 'Most Dangerous Game' films out there, tweaked versions of the same motif in which human beings are hunted for sport, and often large sums of money as well. Surviving The Game is probably the most bombastic and excessive one (John Woo's Hard Target is the way to go if you want something slicker), but it's a hoot of a flick, a dingy, mean spirited exploitation piece with an eccentric cast and thrills right up to the last scene. Ice T stars here under a giant heap of dreadlocks, playing a grumpy homeless man who is approached by an alleged social worker (Charles S. Dutton, intense) and offered help in the form of some vague rehab program way out in the woods. Soon he's out in the woods at the remote retreat run by a sinister ex military Rutger Hauer, joined by other oddballs from all walks of life including F. Murray Abraham and a hopelessly coked out Gary Busey, who chews enough scenery that those giant teeth of his actually go to good use. This is no sabbatical though, as Ice soon finds out, and before he knows it he's scrambling through the wilderness for his life as Hauer & Co. pursue him with a giddy amount of heavy artillery. The film isn't interested in the morality or ethics of it's concept, it's here for a down n' dirty romp and not much else, as long as you're in popcorn mode you'll get a kick out of it. Hauer is intense as ever, with some inspired costume choices and that ever present half smirk that signals danger and violence aren't far off the horizon. Busey is certifiably, completely off his head, spouting monologues that weren't even in the script (Hauer's autobiography provides hilarious behind the scenes insight) and staring down everything that moves in true loosey Busey fashion. Throw in a manic John C. McGinley as well and you've got just about as much crazy as the film can handle. The combat hunting scenes really are impressive and thrilling, well staged stunts against a wilderness backdrop and raucous gunplay all round. An oddball of a flick, in the best way.
As I settled in to watch Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner: 2049 in a thundering imax theatre, I truly did not know what to expect. I'd successfully avoided spoilers up until that point, done a scant bit of reading hither and thither on a surface level, and obviously been privy to the mind boggling, overwhelmingly positive buzz that's been flowing forth since the first critics were screened. 'Masterpiece', 'Movie even of the century' and 'instant classic' were some of the lofty adulations that were being hurled around right out of the gate, and it's not often a sequel to such a long worshipped, culturally influential bombshell of a science fiction film has been welcomed so eagerly and almost unanimously praised. There's been a gulf of time between Ridley Scott's 1982 neon fever dream, which is indeed a masterpiece and one of my favourite films of all time, and the shoes to fill have never, ever been bigger. So, does it live up to the original? Is it better? Worse? Pandering fan service or bold pioneer trek into new galaxies of thematic and tonal exploration? The answers to those questions are somewhat more complicated than yes, no or similar succinct absolutes. I can say, however, that Villeneuve's near three hour machine-dream is one of the most beautiful, ambitious, thoughtful, well wrought films I've ever seen, a staggering achievement in all arenas and indeed a piece of cinema they'll be talking about for years to come. It's a masterpiece on its own terms, blending elements of the original which we all loved, but bravely surging forward into it's own brand new chapter of this world, a little bleaker and more austere than the poetic lullabies of Scott's L.A., yet no less wondrous or sumptuous a creation. This is a world where quite a bit of time has passed since the initial story, and the environment these characters dwell in has shifted along with it. Los Angeles is wearier, emptier and less of a gong show than we remember, yet the buzzing life that we recall catching fleeting glimpses of between monolithic, impossibly gigantic skyscrapers is still there, that endless nocturnal hum has thrived through into a new age. So too have replicants, now far more advanced, under the label and stewardship of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his mega corporation. Ryan Gosling plays a young blade Runner, a profession, it seems, that has not run out of supply in demand. Under the very stern watch of LAPD Captain Joshi (Robin Wright, terrific) he navigates a meticulously paced detective story that, yes, eventually leads him to missing former Blade Runner Rick Deckerd, played by Harrison Ford in one staggeringly well pitched performance. That's all I'll really be specific about in terms of plot, because it's a gorgeously wrapped present that should be opened corner by corner, inch by inch until the viewer has actively and emotionally seen the big picture, a thoughtful process that challenges the audience and should be the standard not just for science fiction, but for big budget films in general. While Blade Runner 1982 was a visual and musical feast for the senses and still maintains that edge over it's sequel, 2049 has a cerebral and multifaceted patchwork quilt of themes, questions and notions that play across the screen like a ballet of auroral, magnificent wonders, layered, ponderous cinema with an emotional weight and resonance that took me right off guard, a quality that although present in 1982, wasn't quite as developed as what we get here. Hans Zimmer's score is every bit the thundering piece you'd expect and is brilliant, a slightly industrialized departure from the lyrical, ethereal tones of Vangelis, but equally as captivating. I could go on, but I'll let you see the thing for yourself and paint your own picture. I'll say this: Blade Runner 1982 is the rainbow coloured light shone through a prism, abstract, illusory and trancelike. 2049 is the prism itself, the source of the light and the place where it's understood from a more conscious, waking-life perspective, and that's the closest I can get to explaining just how different these films are from each other. One is a dream poem, the other is a deep methodical meditation, but both are vital halves of the mythology. However you look at it, Villeneuve's 2049 is astounding, achingly beautiful work on every level, not to mention the work of everyone's favourite unsung maestro, cinematographer Roger Deakins. This is an important film, as it may just hasten the exodus of brainless big budget fluff and help Hollywood enter a golden age of well crafted, intelligent blockbuster films once again. One can dream.
Urban Legend is pretty much like Scream, but a lot less meta and a bit more atmosphere, unfolding as you'd expect it to, with a group of college kids getting killed in bizarre circumstances that all relate to half whispered local myths. One of their professors is Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, and who better to lay down the tongue in cheek groundwork than such a familiar face and expressive, dynamic presence like him. Looking back on this it's fairly shocking how terrific of a cast it has and how it's been mostly forgotten in the annals of slasher archives. Jared Leto, Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid, Natasha Gregson Warner and Danielle Harris headline as the varied campus rats, with Harris a standout as the obnoxious bitchy goth stereotype, far from her timid Jamie Lloyd in the Halloween films. There's a prologue cameo from horror vet Brad Dourif as well as appearances from Loretta Devine, Julian Richings, Michael Rosenbaum and a priceless John Neville, getting all the best lines as the college's salty Dean. The kills are all done in high 90's style, the story takes a Scream-esque twisty turn in the third act and as far as atmosphere goes, it pretty much outdoes the ol' ghostface franchise. Spooky good time.
Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce is the most dementedly unique horror SciFi mashup you'll get. Based on a novel that's literally titled 'The Space Vampires', the film is exactly that and more. It's so out of it's mind that at a certain point you have to surrender and bask in it, and grab the sides of the cart as it veers between all kinds of increasingly bonkers plot points. When a strange, rice kernel shaped object shows up in earth's atmosphere, a team of exploratory astronauts led by intrepid Steve Railsback goes on up to investigate. What they find up there eclipses any weirdness aboard the Nostromo, Millennium Falcon or Event Horizon. Intergalactic vampires lie in creepy cryo suspension, just waiting for unlucky hosts to come along. Soon they're exposed to earth and it's a gory mad dash all over London to stope them from turning every earthling into zombies. Yes, that's actually the plot, and despite how it sounds on paper, they really make it work. That's mostly thanks to the screen shattering, ridiculously good special effects, especially in the opening aboard the alien's strange, baroque vessel which is one of the most otherworldly and atmospheric sequences in any horror film ever. Once the action shifts back to earth it's a pure shit show and near comedy of errors, with Railsback's frenzied cosmonaut teaming up with a peppy British intelligence agent (Peter Firth), and even Patrick Stewart comes out to play as some vague scientific bro. There's boundless imagination at work here, carried by sheer movie magic to contribute lasting, impressive images and create an entirely unique horror experience. Plus, how could a flick about space vampires not be amazing (we will not speak of Dracula 3000). A sci-Fi horror classic, an under-sung jewel of visual flights of fancy and practical effects laden nightmares.
A disgraced nightclub bouncer faces off against a psychotic zealot vampire preacher. Quite a crazed concept ripe for hyperactive exploitation thrills, and yet Southern Gothic plays it pretty low key and laconic, for the most part anyway. Moody where other films would have been brash, it's a nice atmosphere piece with gore galore and a gonzo central performance from William Forsythe as Enoch Pitt, a man of the lord who has strayed from the path. Bitten by a vampire, the already sleazy Pitt turns into a full on monster, tearing up the small Deep South town of Redemption and building an army of the undead. Hazel Fortune (Yul Vasquez) is traumatized and broken by the death of his young daughter, until he meets young Hope (Emily Catherine Young), who crosses Pitt's vision and finds herself in mortal danger. This puts the two men on a vengeful collision course of blood, retribution and carnage. Ok, so I've made it sound a little more epic than it actually is, but that's more or less how it goes down. Energetic it ain't, more of a slow burn than anything else. Firmly rooted in B-movie territory in terms of both budget and script, but entertaining and distinctly flavoured nonetheless. Vasquez is moody and four, but dangerous when he needs to be. Forsythe, as usual, is the acting equivalent to a junkyard bulldog let off the chain, chewing scenery faster than he can munch carotid arteries, and loving every campy, frightening minute of it. Not the cream of the horror crop per sé, but reasonable enough Saturday night horror background noise fodder.
David Fincher's Alien 3 is like the troublesome sibling, the antisocial, un-cinematic black sheep of the franchise, and I'm sure that's exactly what he intended it to be. Mean spirited, desolate and callous towards the characters who just came triumphantly riding in off the victory of James Cameron's Aliens, it's a bleak, hopeless vision that plucks Sigourney Weaver's Ripley our of the frying pan and plunges her right into the fire, namely a scary hellhole of a planet that's pretty much one giant maximum security prison home to folks who are almost as menacing as that persistent Xenomorph who, naturally, has followed her there. Sporting a new buzz cut, Ripley contends with hostile inmates including Charles Dutton, Holt Mccallany and Pete Postlethwaite, sparks a romance with one of them (Charles Dance) encounters the remains of heroic Android Bishop (Lance Henriksen in a couple sly cameos) and continues her ill fated, never ending crusade to destroy the hostile extraterrestrial beastie. Fincher's vision is a grim one, bereft of warmth, hope or humour, but he's always injected his films with that kind of nihilism, which infects every frame and beat of this one. Admittedly, it's the weakest in the initial quartet of Alien films, but in a franchise so consistently good, even the odd one out is still well worth seeing.
The Wizard Of Gore is an inspired little oddball of a flick, based on an obscure oldie that I've never seen, but the absurdity of Crispin Glover as a psychotically evil pseudo Vegas showman is worth the price of admission alone. I've not a clue what the original film's plot is, but here we find Kip Pardue as some private detective, trying to make heads or tails out of Montag The Magnificent (Glover), who uses a combination of dark magic and dodgy airborne pharmaceuticals to trick his audiences into thinking he's dismembered assistants body's onstage, for real. Tricks of the trade, right? Sure, only problem is there's girls turning up dead for real, and the trail leads right back to this spindly, well dressed agent of evil in magician's clothing. I thought it was pretty cool, especially the slick production design and actual effort put into a plot with more tricks up it's sleeve than Criss Angel. Not too mention some jarring gore, which of course the title more than suggests. Brad Dourif, who you may have guessed by now is a favourite of mine, appears as an Asian man named Dr. Chong, with creepy ties to whatever magic is being used in the murders. That's right. Brad Dourif. As an oriental man. I laughed hard, especially since nothing about his appearance or costume is remotely of the orient. Throw in appearances from various cutie pie pinup girls from the Suicide Girls troupe, and you've got something memorable indeed. Check er' out.
Peter Hyam's The Relic takes a smaller horror idea that usually services a low budget production and gives it the expensive, near blockbuster treatment. The result is a pretty damn fine creature feature flick that holds up better than it has any right too. When you've got a director like Hyams at the wheel though (see End Of Days), who is a meticulous perfectionist and often serves as DoP in addition to directing, you're going to get class and durability all the way. Relic takes an ages old concept and injects wild screaming life into it; When an ancient artifact is brought from the South American jungle and stored at the Chicago museum of anthropology, trouble is not far off, for as we know in movie land, any ancient relic most definitely has a supernatural curse on it. Before too long a gigantic angry lizard thing from olden times awakens, tears through the building like the stampede from Jumanji and starts eating everyone it sees. It's up to heroic police detective Vincent D'Agosta (Tom Sizemore in a rare lead role) and professor Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller, what ever happened to her?) to use their wits and survive long enough to defeat it. Linda Hunt, that sweet little munchkin, also has a nice role as the museum director. The film is just pure fun to watch, a solid popcorn banger that has the look and feel of an old school adventure film, or something by Stephen Sommers, albeit with a healthy helping of slimy gore. The creature is truly immense, and one feels the scope of it's rampage as Hyam's camera arcs through the vast hallways and mezzanines of the building, following the action in crisp, tactile strokes. Sort of a forgotten gem, but one that's always fun to check out.
Dimension films made a few Dracula sequels following their solid 2000 effort starring Gerard Butler, most of which are meh. Dracula III: Legacy, however, has the ace-in-the-hole asset of having legendary cult thespian Rutger Hauer in the titular vampire role, and that alone makes it noteworthy. Even though the guy doesn't even show up until the third act, and isn't around for long, he's magnetic as the dark prince of bloodsuckers and not to be missed when rallying up the lengthy list of actors who have played the role. The film itself is grade A-cheese and hardly ever feels like a Dracula story, as well as being fairly incomprehensible in relation to the other handful of films in the franchise. I've got a weakness for Dimension horror films though, and they're particularly slick brand of schlock. Jason London, who we all wistfully remember as Randall Pink Floyd in Richard Linklater's Dazed & Confused, is some random vampire hunter, off trekking into the Eastern European alps with martial arts actor Jason Scott Lee to find the Vamp of all Vamps. They do find him, in the form of Hauer's entertaining fiend skulking around a derelict castle and... that's pretty much it. For Hauer fans, load up Final Cut Pro and edit a breezy short film with just his wicked good scenes. For fans of B Movie silliness, have a few beers first. Everyone else, keep on browsing the blockbuster shelf. Oh yeah, and Roy Scheider is in it too, and I've completely forgotten who he plays.
Dario Argento's Inferno is the most abstract, expressionistic and nearly incomprehensible entry in his Witch trilogy, like oil and blood smeared on canvas haphazardly to create something just this side of the conscious realm. The other two films, Suspiria and Mother Of Tears, each have their place in the story, with this one doing middle chapter duties, but really they all work better as standalone films more than anything cohesive. While the film clings loosely to the idea of two college students investigating separate Witch covens in both Rome and New York, that's just the baseline for a petrifying, beautifully surreal mood piece full of thumping psychedelic music by Claudio Simonetti and Goblin, and episodic set pieces of bizarre dreamlike horror. Argento is the undeniable king of lighting and atmosphere, and although other areas of the work like story, dialogue and acting suffer, it's easy to look past that and get swept up in his magnificent visions. Unearthly light and wind ripples over the hair of a gorgeously enchanting witch who holds a cat and and stares down one of the protagonists in a lecture hall. An eerie full moon possesses one man trying to drown a bag of cats, and a butcher knife wielding whacko. A woman descends underwater into a flooded derelict building and discovers a bloated corpse floating there in the film's most harrowing scene. Argento's films are less about the rhyme and reason, more about the feeling of it all than anything else, very much like dreams. Inferno is one of his very best, a feverish madhouse of light, colour, operatic violence and hypnotic music.
The Insatiable, like droves of other vampire flicks, attempts to cover new ground and build on established formulas to create something memorable, and despite having the direct to video stigma working against it's notoriety, works pretty well for the most part. Sean Patrick Flanery plays a timid fellow who, after being targeted by a sexy, devilish bloodsucker (Charlotte Ayana), seeks help anywhere he can, broadcasting his predicament via HAM radio (maybe not the most effective outlet) to anyone who will listen. It just so happens that there is a grizzled old vamp hunter out there played by Michael Biehn, a jaded hardass who's just waiting for signs of these creatures. Ayana likes to play with her prey, and taunts both of them throughout the film in some amusing cat and mouse games, forcing Flanery to great lengths of survival including building one hell of a cage in his basement to trap the bitch. The material is treated mostly head on with just a smidge of smirking deadpan, especially in the sly ending. Biehn is awesome as the cranky, high strung vamp slayer, really having fun in the role. A fun, if slight little flick.
What scares you most in the horror genre? Masked killers in isolated settings? Booby trapped razor wire rooms? Demon possession? Werewolves? Ghosts? Those are all well and good, but nothing messes my shit up more than psychological uncertainty, the feeling that anything you see might not be real, and the layers of your perception are gradually being fucked with in a subtle way. Such are the terrors that Mike Flanagan's Oculus traffics in, a film that takes postmodern horror expectations and strangles the life out of them in favour of something far more effective. You'll read surface level summaries claiming this to be about a haunted mirror. It...is. Sort of. And it isn't. Then it is again, and before you know it you have no idea what's real and feel like leaving the television and hiding in a back room for fear of an incoming dissociative episode (true story). See, the haunted mirror is just the suggestive tip of a very dense psychological iceberg, a starting point to a narrative that's disturbing in ways that few big budget horror films understand. When an idyllic American family moves into a perfect new house, life seems peachy. Following the arrival of an ornate antique mirror, things take a darker turn. The loving patriarch (Rory Cochrane, exuding natural charisma) turns fiercely psychotic, preying on his doting wife (Katee Sackoff) and terrorizing his son (Garrett Ryan) and daughter (Annalise Basso, terrific in a performance of true hurt and horror). The mirror seems to indeed be the source, but no clear correlation is ever established by the film, only heavy suggestion gnawed at by the notion that the parents may just be irreparably sick in the head, an idea just as, if not more scary than a sentient looking glass. After brutal tragedy, we flash forward a decade or so, the parents are gone and once again the daughter, now played by a dynamite Karen Gillan, tries to get to the source of what happened by locking herself, her brother (Brenton Thwaites, the only weak leak in an otherwise excellent acting ensemble) and that dang pesky mirror in their old house to destroy it. Bring on a panic inducing haunted house of the unconventional variety, one where something, either the mirror or inherited mental illness, plays endless nasty tricks of the mind on both of them until the viewer feels uncomfortable in their own thoughts, the fabric of internal reality ready to disintegrate into shards. Their plight is carefully interspersed (big kudos to Flanagan, serving as his own editor) with flashbacks to the harrowing ordeal they went through as children, as the loving parental unit collapses into madness before their eyes. Listen for a hair raising, subversive score by The Newton Brothers that just adds to the queasy cauldron of unease that this film is. It's more brilliant than any widely released horror film has any right to be these days, a huge step in the right direction for the genre and a waking nightmare for anyone whose worst fear is losing their mind.
Sam Raimi made comic book cinema history with his gritty Darkman, which was solid entertainment, but the real dark and demented side of the franchise came through on the two sequels, which tossed aside stalwart leading man Liam Neeson as the titular antihero and went for offbeat, edgy character actor Arnold Vosloo (Imhotep in Stephen Sommer's The Mummy) as the doomed Dr. Peyton Westlake, a once brilliant and handsome scientist reduced to a disfigured, monstrous vigilante known as The Darkman. Raimi's film played it with a mix of straight and subversive, going for the underdog hero approach, while the third sequel, which is my favourite, is literally called Darkman III: Die Darkman Die, because someone at the studio boardroom table had too much caffeine and brainstormed the shit out of that abrasively hilarious title. Dr. Westlake is still doing his research on synthetic skin and skulking out there in the night pilfering supplies from random warehouses, one of which he'll wish he didn't mess with. Enter tyrannical, psychopathic drug lord Peter Rooker, played with moustache twirling, freaky panache by Jeff Fahey. Said warehouse belonged to him, and now he's zeroed in on Darkman and his super strength abilities, shrewdly trying to pirate them for his organization's nefarious deeds. The two wage a bloody war, with both of their families as collateral damage in between, an exploitation palooza of trashy, effects oriented fun. The first two films housed the villain Durant, embodied by inherently weird looking actor Larry Drake, who left big shoes to fill. Fahey seems to know this and plays up every campy aspect of this scumbag, his greased back hair lit perfectly, every mannerism an over-pronounced, garish villainous flourish to be savoured. I think the very concept of Darkman suits the tasteless excess of these two sequels better than it does Raimi's upright origin story, as classic as it is. I actually prefer the B Movie Glory approach to the material, and this third one is schlock incarnate.
Cat's Eye is Stephen King's stab at the Twilight Zone, anthology formula, and a damn fine one at that. Just this side of horror, it's a trio of weird and wacky tales as seen through the eyes of a meandering stray cat who manages to get itself tangled up in each thread. I've always marvelled at how they get animals to behave or sit still long enough to do a take and make it look realistic, but I guess that's why they're the movie magicians. This kitty fared well and even has a recognizable little personality of it's own as it navigates each freaky scenario. The first segment sees a jittery James Woods enlist the help of an unorthodox 'Doctor' (Alan King knows just how over the top this satirical fare needs to be and goes there) and his... interesting methods of helping people to quit smoking. I won't say more but this first third of the film feels the most like Twilight Zone in it's borderline surreal mentality, and is a lot of fun. The middle segment is a hard boiled, vertigo inducing tale of a whacked out gangster (serial scenery chewer Kenneth McMillan in top form), tormenting his wife's lover (Airplane's Robert Hayes) in a Las Vegas high rise, whilst the cat looks on and contributes it's own helping to the mischief. The third story sees an adorable Drew Barrymore adopt the poor stray, only for it to have to fight off a vicious little goblin thing that's taken up residence in her room. This one is the most simplistic and closest to horror one finds in these three stories, and while a bit underwritten when compare to the others, is definitely the most visually engaging. All together they're classic warped King, set to a hazy Alan Silvestri score and supported by a screenplay by the King himself. Great stuff.
As picturesque Disneyworld looms just out of reach over a Florida welfare assisted motel, so too does the prospect of any normal upbringing for some of it's pint sized residents. Sean Baker's The Florida Project exists in a world of pristine pastel promises and lacquered, castle shaped buildings, a colourful, cotton candy paradise that is as tragic as it is eye catching. For six year old Mooney (Brooklyn Prince instills joy and heartbreak in every mannerism) and her friends, this is a kingdom where they run wild, oblivious to the squalor around them and perceiving their surroundings through the idyllic, abstract lens of childhood. Mooney's mother Haley (Bria Vinaite in a scarily realistic depiction of unabashed ratchetness) is a wayward, self destructive girl whose slack, near non existent parenting leaves the girl mostly up to her own devices. Haley loves her, that much is clear, she just isn't built to take care of herself, let alone a daughter. None of this strife matters to the children though, and that's where Baker's film gets its light from, amongst such troubling themes. All of it is seen through their eyes, youngsters who are still half connected to the subconscious and therefore are affected differently by everything. Peter Travers has called this 'the best film about childhood ever', and he may just be right. Much of what we see shows them simply playing, running about and being kids in a naturalistic, unforced way that is enchanting and makes me endlessly fascinated about Baker's methods of direction, as I imagine children are harder to control on set than animals. To say that music is used sparingly here would be an understatement; ninety percent of the film is soundtrack free except an ironic opening credit sequence set to 'Celebrate Good Times', and one jarring musical cue near the end that I won't spoil except to say it's so effective I let out an audible exhale of surprise. The film is episodic too, and although contains visible arcs, is told in a hazy, spare and hypnotic 'fade in, fade out' fashion, drummed into us until we feel the day to day rhythm of this curious and beguiling part of America. Now let's talk acting, which, as you all know is the centrepiece of my cinematic musings. Willem Dafoe is a tower of power as stern but compassionate Bobby, motel manager and guardian angel to this group of lost souls. Dafoe is a seasoned pro and knows never to overplay it, and when things get rough for him to bear witness, his moments of quiet devastation are incredible. He's also the comic relief in bits and the steward of a very irregular township, it's a delicious role for any actor to get, and he's about long overdue for an Oscar, so... hint, hint. Prince is an unbelievable find, showing uncanny control and focus on camera for someone her age, and when it's time for the third act emotional beat-down, she hits every note pitch perfect. Vinaite seems to have no acting experience before this, a choice which Baker also went with in his fiery debut Tangerine from a couple years back. She's great too, turning a role that could have been one note into something way more complicated and sad, like a tragic fallen angel. I'd also toss cinematographer Alexis Zabe's name into the Oscar race, as she beautifully captures this really strange looking area in surreal, eye popping colour and always from angles the seem like a child's POV a la Terry Gilliam. Between his debut and now this, Baker is gathering momentum in leaps and bounds, and he's quietly released the best film of the year so far, no easy task in the same year as a certain SciFi masterpiece. Florida Project is intimate, focused, loosely spun yet gravely affecting, important, playful, both cinematic and anti cinematic, and something of a small miracle. Seek it out in theatres, even if you have to drive out to the local art house venue.
Peter 'Robocop' Weller vs. home invading rodents. That's pretty much the premise behind George P. Cosmatos's Of Unknown Origin, a warped little TV movie that takes on battling rats as a central plot-line, with a straight face no less. Usually this type of thing would be a campy SyFy original with screensaver special effects and the tonal towel already half thrown in. This one goes for full realism though, or at least tries, and it's an odd mixture. Weller plays a mild mannered businessman who just gets so irked by those pesky vermin, enough so that he saddles up in all kinds of elaborate gear that would make Christopher Walken in MouseHunt jealous, and trawls the hallways and ducts of his townhome like a looney head, trying to kill the little bastards. There's a vague satire angle in terms of his job, office politics and whatnot, which is one more thing you wouldn't really find in this type of flick, if it were garden variety, but this one avidly shirks the standards. The rats are treated not as spooky monsters or a shadowy hidden legion, but the outright heinous plague they are on society. I got a try-hard metaphor vibe out of this one, something like these things representing the decaying monotony of the proverbial 'rat race', and one lone suit and tie renegade who aims to blast the gnawing pet peeve out of the water, like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Or maybe it's just a flick about one lone crazy dude who just really doesn't like rats. Either way, it's a bizarrely constructed little thing that ducks the limbo bar of genre and darts off in it's own slightly dysfunctional direction.