Firestarter (1984)

Mark L. Lester

David Keith - Andrew “Andy” McGee
Drew Barrymore - Charlene “Charlie” McGee
Heather Locklear - Victoria “Vicky” McGee
Martin Sheen - Captain James Hollister
George C. Scott - John Rainbird
Art Carney - Irv Manders
Louise Fletcher - Norma Manders

Genre - Science Fiction/Horror

Running Time - 114 Minutes

I wonder if anyone could have predicted how influential writer Stephen King would become after the release of his 1974 novel Carrie. Not only was the novel about a bullied teenager with telekinetic abilities a massive success, but its 1976 film adaptation by Brian De Palma was also a commercial and critical success that kickstarted the adaptation trend for any of King’s works. The 1980s, in particular, were a cornucopia of King film adaptations, all with varied success yet still highlights for any child of the 80s who were into horror.

One of these adaptations is 1984’s FIRESTARTER, based on King’s 1980 novel of the same name. A story about a young girl who is being targeted by evil scientists due to her development of pyrokinesis, FIRESTARTER seemed liked a reductive re-do of King’s CARRIE from years prior to many. Also, similar films had been released post-CARRIE like 1978’s THE INITIATION OF SARAH and THE FURY [the latter directed by De Palma himself] and 1981’s SCANNERS by David Cronenberg. We’ve also had similar films since, like multiple CARRIE films and even a FRIDAY THE 13TH film where Jason Voorhees battled a character with Carrie-like powers. But FIRESTARTER seems to be a film not many talk about for whatever reason, even though it has an impressive cast and had a sequel made in 2002 for cable. Even King himself has stated that the film adaptation isn’t all that good, making the film feel like its in a time capsule that only gets opened for nostalgic purposes.

It had been decades since I sat down to watch FIRESTARTER, at least in full, barely remembering anything about the film besides Drew Barrymore, George C. Scott, and the action-filled finale where a bunch of government workers burn to a crisp. And now watching it again after all this time, I can see why I barely remembered what happened in this film. I’m not saying FIRESTARTER is bad at all, because it’s not. It’s just one of King’s weaker adaptations and proof that sometimes being too faithful to the source material could be more negative than positive.

While acting as volunteers for some experimental test, Andy McGee (David Keith) and Vicky Tomlinson (Heather Locklear) meet and fall in love. The experiments grant both of them psychic abilities, bonding them closer. They eventually end up getting married and having a daughter named Charlie (Drew Barrymore). Due to the effects of the experiment, Charlie has powers of her own - the power to create and control fire with just her mind.

While the three try and be a happy family, the evil government agency behind the experiments, The Shop, find out about Charlie and want to exploit her abilities. During an ambush at home, Vicky is murdered by Shop agents, making Andy and Charlie go on the run. However, The Shop has hired an American Indian assassin named John Rainbird (George C. Scott) - a man obsessed with Charlie for some sick reason. As both father and daughter are taken prisoner, Rainbird tries to befriend Charlie for his own personal reasons.

Produced by the legendary Dino de Laurentis, who would produce a few Stephen King adaptations in the first half of the 1980s, FIRESTARTER was one of two King adaptations developed for the big screen in 1984 [the second one being CHILDREN OF THE CORN]. And while, in my opinion, both films are pretty flawed adaptations of King’s work, I feel FIRESTARTER is slightly the better of the two. CHILDREN OF THE CORN has interesting ideas, but doesn’t seem to know where to really take them through a 90-minute runtime. FIRESTARTER, at least, knows what film it sort of wants to be because it’s mostly faithful to the novel unlike many of King’s adaptations at the time. This is both a gift and a curse because while the story definitely works cinematically, certain aspects should have probably been changed or taken out in order for FIRESTARTER to be more film-friendly than it actually is.

It would have been very interesting to see what John Carpenter’s version of FIRESTARTER would have been if Universal Studios had given him a chance. For those who don’t know, Carpenter was the original pick to be the film’s director. At time, he was already working on a King adaptation, 1983’s CHRISTINE, and felt like a natural fit. He had a couple of adapted screenplays to work with, all seemingly more suited for cinema than the actual screenplay that was used. But due to 1982’s THE THING flopping at the time at the box office and CHRISTINE not doing much better a year later, Carpenter was taken off of the project - along with the screenplays he had approved for his version of FIRESTARTER. Instead, Universal hired Mark L. Lester [of CLASS OF 1984 and later COMMANDO fame] to direct the film instead, leading to Lester to bring in screenwriter Stanley Mann to adapt a screenplay that was very faithful to the novel. While that’s commendable and ideal for Stephen King and the fans of the novel, doing that doesn’t always make for the most exciting movie. And that’s a serious issue with FIRESTARTER, as the film has very good moments that are dragged out by a story that stays too true to its source material.

FIRESTARTER is really a film of two halves in terms of quality. In my opinion, the first half of the film is the strongest part of the movie. Along with some much needed flashbacks that quickly set up what’s happening in the present, the first half is mainly a cat-and-mouse chase flick where Andy and Charlie are on the run from these evil government agents of The Shop. There’s a sense of urgency, danger, and dread as they soldiers want to harm an innocent child and her father - products of an experiment that they created in the first place. While the film does suffer from a lack of depth in terms of character development, this part of the film at least establishes the relationship between Andy and Charlie. Andy uses his psychic abilities to manipulate things in his favor to protect his daughter, while Charlie is confused, scared and frustrated over the situation and her lack in controlling her powers. You get a real sense that they’re a team, as Andy tries to control his daughter every chance she feels the urge of burning people that harm them. They meet kind strangers along the way, which end up getting them somewhat involved in the whole mess as well, building up stakes in the story that make us care about what will happen next. Even though John Carpenter was taken off of FIRESTARTER, this portion of the film sure feels like something he would at least produced in one of his own films. There’s small character development within a quick paced and action-filled section that tries to build us a world for these characters for us to understand.

It’s too bad the second half just plods along until the insane final 10 to 15 minutes of the film. In this portion, Andy and Charlie are prisoners of The Shop as they’re being studied on their abilities. Charlie, especially, is a focus because The Shop wants to use her as a weapon and challenge her as a way to increase her abilities. Also here, we learn more about the Rainbird character, who has a real interest in a young pyrokinetic girl - to the point where it borders on creepy enough to call Chris Hansen to sit this old man down for a talk. This portion is more focused on the drama and the science fiction aspect of the story, which would be fine if it wasn’t so generic and uninteresting. There’s no real sense of time, just moments where characters interact with each other. Then it leads to a scene of Charlie being told to use her powers so The Shop can gauge it, which then goes right back to these interactions before repeating itself. Andy and Charlie have sympathy because they’re obviously victims and we’ve been following them from the film’s first shot. But the last half of the film doesn’t really develop them in new ways to create any sort of depth. And the bad guys, besides Rainbird, are just bland stock mad scientists and followers.

Rainbird has a little more going for him since he’s a manipulator who has his own agenda with Charlie, whether that’s to kill her, use her for her power, or something more sinister that’s sort of implied. And while it makes sense for him to lie about who he is in order to slowly gain Charlie’s trust, not having a sense of time hurts these scenes because Charlie falls for this act way too quickly. In the first half of the film, Charlie also seems to sense when The Shop is close enough to her and her father to cause trouble, making her warn Andy when they’re near. If Charlie has this ability to tell who’s dangerous, why wouldn’t that work with Rainbird? They’re not drugging her to suppress this power since they want to become stronger. It just feels badly written, as if Rainbird gaining Charlie’s trust will turn her against the man who has taken care of her her entire life. Also, Charlie has trouble controlling her power whenever she feels frustrated, angry or moments when she doesn’t exactly get her way. Why wouldn’t Charlie force these bad guys to tell her where her father is so she can save him and they can escape? She may be a child but she’s been through enough to understand what’s the deal, I would think. It’s handled better in a novel where Charlie is the narrator, allowing us to understand her emotional state and reasoning through her own words. You can’t really do that in third person narration on film without giving the audience more information to close these plot holes. Plus, as much as I like slow burn science fiction, the last half besides the conclusion is just way too long and boring for its own good. Stranger Things [which was obviously inspired somewhat by this film with the Eleven character] handles the science stuff better because it doesn’t feel rushed and has deep characters we’re allowed to care about. FIRESTARTER tries to cram a 500 page novel into a two-hour film and that’s not nearly long enough to tell this story - and the film is already longer than it should be.

Mark L. Lester does a decent directorial job on FIRESTARTER. The first half is great because of the fast paced action and Carpenter vibe. The second half isn’t shot terribly, but the pacing is off and just feels bland. It has a TV movie feel that shouldn’t be part of any theatrical film. It honestly feels like a David Cronenberg film without the interesting characters or commentary that goes with it. The second half of the film could have lost 15 to 20 minutes and wouldn’t have changed much. I will say that Lester does handle action very well, especially when father and daughter use their powers. Andy’s mind control is very much like SCANNERS, with the nice touch of nose bleeds happening each other. And Charlie’s fire power is awesome and it’s used in multiple ways that keep our interest throughout. But other than that, there’s not much to say about FIRESTARTER’s visual presentation other than that it’s okay.

The acting is also a bit mixed. The film belongs to both Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott, as this film would have been a lot worse without them involved. Scott is miscast as an Native American assassin, but does manage to make Rainbird a bit of a creep at times. He gives a good performance, but the role was probably better suited for someone else. Barrymore, however, is fantastic as young Charlie. Sure, at times it seems she doesn’t take the fire power stuff all that seriously, almost trying not to laugh as wind blows her hair while she stares blankly at the camera. But she’s believable as a young child who has an ability she doesn’t know how to control or understand. She has tantrums. She cries on cue. She’s charismatic and displays a maturity most child actors her age wish they had. She carries FIRESTARTER on her shoulders and does a commendable job. She feels like a real kid and I like that. David Keith is also quite good as Andy. He plays the heroic and protective father well, making him likable enough for us to care about what happens to him. A lot of the villains though, especially Martin Sheen as the head of the Shop, just feel wasted here. Sheen is just cliche villain of the week with no depth or life to him. An actor of his stature deserves a meatier role. You also have Art Carney and Louise Fletcher here as well, but they don’t get to do a whole lot either. Three Academy Award winning actors and two aren’t used to their capacity - a shame.

I also have to give a ton of kudos to all the stunt people who worked on FIRESTARTER. No CGI was used in this film, so all the fire effects were done practically on set. Watching people set ablaze for these action scenes still amazes me and I have nothing but respect for their hard work here. That’s scary as hell and they made the film memorable for me after all these years. The stunt people deserve more credit than they actually get - and I mean that for any film that has them involved.

And I can’t end the review without talking about the musical score by the great Tangerine Dream. Unfortunately, I think the group has made better scores for other films, as not everything I heard worked for me in FIRESTARTER. I thought the musical cues for the action and quicker paced moments were great, carrying a nice synth heavy groove that added a lot. But during the quieter moments, the score was just there and didn’t really capture my attention all that much. I have a feeling it’s less about the actual music and more about the sound design here. I think a lot of the score wasn’t used properly and didn’t elevate the visuals when they probably should have.

FIRESTARTER is a film I probably enjoyed more when I was younger than I do as an adult. The chase aspect of the first half is pretty solid, while the weaker second half slows the film way too much to the point of almost dull at times [the film’s climax is pretty cool though]. Director Mark L. Lester handles the action scenes nicely [the stunt people deserve all the respect for allowing themselves to be set on fire like that], but the more quieter scenes feel like I’m watching a TV movie, hoping for something more interesting to happen in terms of style. The Tangerine Dream score is more good than bad, mainly due to how the music is used within the film. And while some big actors are wasted, Drew Barrymore carries the film extremely well considering her young age at the time. David Keith and George C. Scott help her out immensely in supporting roles as her heroic father and a creepy assassin respectively. The film doesn’t fire on all cylinders as a King novel-to-film adaptation, but it has enough things going on to make it worth at least a watch or a revisit.

2.5 Howls Outta 4


Breakin' (1984)

Joel Silberg

Lucinda Dickey - Kelly ‘Special K’ Bennett
Adolfo ‘Shabba Doo’ Quinones - Orlando/Ozone
Michael ‘Boogaloo Shrimp’ Chambers - Tony/Turbo
Ben Lokey - Franco
Christopher McDonald - James
Phineas Newborn III - Adam
Ice T - Rap Talker

Genre - Music/Drama/Comedy

Running Time - 87 Minutes

Even though films like SKATETOWN U.S.A., XANADU and ROLLER BOOGIE weren’t critical or commercial successes, Hollywood never faltered in taking opportunity to produce a film around a fad that was most likely fading away by the time the film was actually released. Films about dancing were pretty huge in the 1980s, especially as MTV started to gain momentum and present the art to a mainstream audience to sell records and soundtracks. Films like FLASHDANCE, FOOTLOOSE, and especially DIRTY DANCING were huge pop culture moments of the decade in terms of their films and their incredible soundtracks that played all over Top 40 radio. A similar trend even occurred in the 2000s with films like SAVE THE LAST DANCE and STEP UP. 

But none of those films were the first to present the art of breakdance to the mainstream like 1984’s BREAKIN' - a Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus produced movie for Cannon Films that proved to be one of the most important films in that studio’s history, as well important for dance movies in general. Inspired by Golan’s daughter [who was impressed by a California breakdancer], as well as a 1983 German documentary about breakdancing called BREAKIN’ 'N' ENTERIN' [which also starred Ice-T and Michael ‘Boogaloo Shrimp’ Chambers], Golan & Globus rushed BREAKIN' into production so it could beat the release date of rival Orion Pictures’ own breakdance film of the same year, BEAT STREET. The strategy actually worked, as BREAKIN' made $38.7 million on a $1.2 million budget and proved to be the studio’s biggest success in its history. A sequel was rushed into production [the infamously named BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, released in the same year], but the Cannon bloom was off the rose at that point due to the company losing their lucrative MGM/United Artists contract due to their release of BOLERO, which was considered an X-rated film. However, the sequel did do well in the box office amid all the behind-the-scenes drama.

So… what made BREAKIN' so popular and commercially successful back in 1984? I mean, the film even made money than SIXTEEN CANDLES in its first weekend, even though it was in less theaters! What was so appealing about this film and is it even worth popping and locking for?

A struggling young jazz dancer named Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) meets up with Ozone (Adolfo Quinones) and Turbo (Michael Chambers) - two breakdancers who show her that dancing is about the art, not about the money. Together, they become the sensation of the street crowds and the mainstream audience, to a snobby dance instructor’s (Ben Lokey) dismay.

I feel the most important aspect of any dance film is the music, correct? While other dance films probably have stronger and more memorable soundtracks overall, the music of BREAKIN' still manages to capture that time frame wonderfully. Honestly, the soundtrack and the dancing that takes place in front of it are the only reasons why BREAKIN' works better than it has any right to. The soundtrack itself was a major hit upon its release, even securing a Billboard Top-Ten single with the still infectious Ollie & Jerry’s “Breakin’… There’s No Stopping Us”.

We also have Rufus and Chaka Khan’s classic “Ain’t Nobody” during a dance montage, as well as an early track by Ice-T, which shows how far he has come since then. While not on the soundtrack, Art of Noise and Kraftwerk can be heard as well. Other dance movies have better soundtracks, but the music included fits the scenes they’re used for. 80s dated cheese at its finest.

Speaking of 80s cheese, BREAKIN' is definitely one of those time capsule films that captures the era so well, it makes me feel nostalgic for the good ol’ days. The fashion is the epitome of the decade, with leg warmers and headbands in the forefront. The hairstyles and colorful neon clothes and locations quickly tell you what era this film is in. Even breakdancing isn’t as popular as it was back in 1984, giving us a look at the street culture and how many in the African-American and Latino communities expressed themselves and bonded. It’s refreshing to watch a movie where rival gangs would rather have dance offs to prove who is the best rather than having them shoot and stab each other for the same reason. I know it’s not realistic, but the world would probably be a better place, right? BREAKIN' is definitely good escapism for 90 minutes.

The characters are also colorful and memorable for the most part. Kelly, or Special K, is your typical female lead in a dance movie. She’s an aspiring dancer who believes dancing formally will get her success in life, not realizing that she’ll make better connections doing street dancing instead. She brings some optimism into the film and is the bridge between the street and the high society. Ozone is the hothead leader of TKO, who doesn’t want to make a career out of dancing, even though it’s the best thing he’s good at. He also likes Kelly and quickly gets jealous and paranoid over any guy who gives Kelly any kind of attention. Turbo is the best dancer in the film, having no issues teaching neighborhood children to dance as good as him, while not easily trusting outsiders who may plan to complicate his life for good or bad. These three quickly bond over dance, defying class and race issues to become the best of friends and a solid dance trio.

Then we have the stereotypical snobby dance instructor, Franco, who is also a sexual predator and a manipulator to keep street dancing out of the mainstream. And then we have James, Kelly’s agent who plans on making her a famous dancer. And while these kind of films would make the agent a slimy creep who is willing take advantage of our protagonist, BREAKIN' does the total opposite and makes him a genuinely good person who wants nothing but the best for Kelly and her friends. It feels odd because it’s rarely done in films, but it’s also a pleasant surprise. Here’s a film where people support each other to make their dreams come true, no matter if higher ups and people who don’t understand try to keep them down. That’s why BREAKIN' is still remembered today. It wants its audience to feel good and achieve their dreams - something we all want in life.

While BREAKIN' is focused on the dance sequences, as it should be, it would also help if the film had a story to connect the dance scenes together. Unfortunately, the standard plot has no substance at all and brings down the film as a whole. Now if BREAKIN' was just dancing from beginning to end, this wouldn’t be an issue. But the film tries to add certain plot elements that are barely developed. For example, there seems to be a love angle going on with Kelly and Ozone that the script wants to push for a certain demographic. Even moments of Ozone getting mad at Kelly whenever another man is around showing her affection are just played off as if it doesn’t even matter. And it doesn’t by the end, as the relationship remains the same as it did in the beginning of the film. In fact, the film seems to push more chemistry between Ozone and Turbo [that doesn’t go anywhere either]. Also, the happy ending of BREAKIN' comes off way too predictably and way too simple. I get that BREAKIN' wants people to feel good, but you have to add stakes and a struggle to keep people invested. I’m honestly surprised it took three people to write this film. Like… how??

I also felt that Joel Silberg handled some of the direction in a bland way where the dancing didn’t really electrify the film. BREAKIN' is not a flashy film and shots mostly stay static as people dance on screen. And while the dance choreography was good, I felt that whenever people danced together, everyone was doing their own thing and never felt like a real team trying to win battles. Say what you want about those STEP UP movies or YOU GOT SERVED. But at least those films had cohesion in the dance department, making you believe the dancers were in a real squad together. You barely feel that here and the direction doesn’t help.

The acting is also a component that brings BREAKIN' down. I’m not saying that some of it is not unintentionally funny. There is a moment between Lucinda Dickey and Adolfo Quinones where they argue about why they dance that tries to be super dramatic, but ends up being hilarious because Dickey is a bit bland and Quinones tries to compensate by overdoing the emotion and line delivery. I actually busted out laughing because it wasn’t good. Now, I can excuse the dancers for not being the best actors because that isn’t their true profession. Even then, I felt the dancers showed more charisma and personality than Dickey, who just coasts through the film with the same blah delivery. She’s a beautiful woman and she can dance, but the script and her handling of it does her no favors at all. Thankfully Christopher McDonald was around to keep things afloat any time he appeared.

I also have to give a shout out to some guy named… Jean-Claude Van Damme?

I mean, look at this guy! I wonder if he made something of himself after this. Eh, probably not.

In terms of dance films, BREAKIN' may be one of the most important entries in that genre. Even though FLASHDANCE was released a year earlier and was a huge success in terms of box office and soundtrack, BREAKIN' is really the movie that set the tropes for dance movies that were released afterwards. While the lack of story, not-so-good acting, and some of the direction on the dance sequences bring the film down, BREAKIN' does what it needs to do - showcase a dance fad and give the audience a reason as to why it was so popular at the time. The film also happens to be a fun watch, with colorful characters, cheesy but right-for-the-era music, and cool montages of breakdancers poppin’ and lockin’ for our entertainment. While it’s certainly dated, it’s still a nice nostalgic trip for 90 minutes.

2.5 Howls Outta 4


Angel (1984)

Robert Vincent O’Neill

Donna Wilkes - Molly ‘Angel’ Stewart
Cliff Gorman - Lt. Andrews
Susan Tyrrell - Solly Mosler
Dick Shawn - Mae/Marvin Walker
Rory Calhoun - Kit Carson
John Diehl - The Killer

Genre - Action/Drama/Thriller/Serial Killers

Running Time - 94 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
15 year-old Molly (Donna Wilkes) is the best in her class in high school. Nobody suspects that the model pupil earns her money at night: as prostitute "Angel" on Sunset Blvd. The well-organized separation of her two lives is shattered when two of her friends are slain by a necrophile serial killer (John Diehl). She's the only eye witness and becomes a target herself. The investigating Detective Andrews (Cliff Gorman) helps her, not only to survive, but also to query why she keeps on humiliating herself and to stop it.

One of the more famous exploitation films of the 1980s, New World Pictures’ ANGEL was another film that was part of the whole teensploitation sub-genre that involved young women having to prostitute themselves as a plot device to tell the movie’s story. While the 1970s did have its share of films that focused on young women who did what they had to in order to survive - 1976’s TAXI DRIVER, 1978’s PRETTY BABY and 1974’s THE WORKING GIRLS come to mind - the 1980s really glamorized it with 1984’s SAVAGE STREETS and 1985’s STREETWALKIN’. I mean, just look at the tagline on the film’s poster, “High school honor student by day…Hollywood hooker by night!” It’s no wonder ANGEL was a sizable box-office hit, although it’s a wonder why anyone would feel scandalized about the film’s themes. It’s a Grindhouse exploitation film, duh!

Surprisingly, ANGEL isn’t as sleazy as one would expect from that tagline. In fact, the film looks and almost plays out as a TV Movie of the Week if it didn’t have swear words, nudity, and blood. But the message of “young women putting themselves in danger if they solicit themselves in the streets” is still very evident and works well enough in terms of storytelling. There’s not much to ANGEL other than that, playing out as an action-thriller where women close to Molly ‘Angel’ Stewart are being murdered one-by-one by a serial killer. She’s a witness to one of the murders, making her an obvious target to the point where she has to grow up fast and fight back in order to survive. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I do wish it was a bit more exciting and fun in terms of its execution. But ANGEL is never boring and it's easy to see why there were three sequels that followed to varied success. 

What really makes ANGEL the cult classic that it is are the interesting characters that Angel surrounds herself with. Drag queen Mae is probably the best of the lot, as she has the best dialogue in the film and seems to be the more fleshed out of all the characters. She’s sassy, foul-mouthed, tough, yet extremely caring and protective of Angel - considering Angel is only fourteen-years-old and working the streets. Mae is Angel’s mother and father figures all wrapped up into one, making her extremely likable and fun to watch. Landlord Solly is also up there, as she’s just as crude as Mae and just as loving towards Angel and sympathetic. Mae and Solly’s banter with each other give the most memorable bits of dialogue in the film, genuinely making me laugh at how unpolitically correct they are. Dialogue like this would get flamed in 2019. But in 1984, this was just standard exploitation storytelling. We also get Cowboy Kit Carson, who pretty much runs the part of Hollywood Boulevard that Angel frequents. He’s a bit of a western caricature on the surface, but there’s more to him that we learn by the film’s end. We also a magician dressed as Charlie Chaplin who befriends the prostitutes [even falling for one], leading to a memorable moment where he learns she was murdered and he just grieves for her. It gives the character a lot of depth in just a minute. And in a film like this, we obviously need a detective character, Andrews, who investigates the murders and befriends Angel to the point where he sort of takes her under his wing more or less.

And then there’s the killer himself, who is described by Andrews as “probably bisexual, impotent and was beaten by his daddy.” He’s also a necrophiliac, which makes certain scenes a bit uncomfortable to watch. He also doesn’t say anything until the very end of the film, just eating raw eggs, working out, and murdering hookers after charming them with his muscles and creeper face. He probably should have felt more of a threat than he did [the killer in 10 TO MIDNIGHT comes to mind] had more going on, but he’s still not a guy I would like to bump into the street.

The best character is obvious Molly, or Angel, who honestly has the most depth of any character. A fourteen year old, her parents had abandoned her and relied on hooking at age twelve to pay her tuition to prep school, as well as pay bills and rent. She has a lot of sass and is not a girl who is willing to let people step all over her. An issue pops up though, as both her lifestyles don’t ever seem to connect in a single film. Schoolgirl Molly and hooker Angel feel like characters from two different films than a natural progression. And if she had been hooking for over 2 years, why was she recently busted by schoolmates just now? And no one realized she wasn’t living without any parental units at all? These things feel like plot conveniences rather than something natural the character would have lived through. But it’s an exploitation film, so I’m not expecting a high quality of art here. 

The direction by Robert Vincent O’Neill is a mixed bag. Nothing about the film is all that stylish, as it feels like a TV movie made for a theatrical release. The tone is mostly balanced, although there are moments where one could struggle with the question of whether ANGEL is a drama made for ABC’s Afterschool Special, or a provocative thriller about a necrophiliac murderer targeting a teenage girl. There’s no real sleaze in the film besides a few men acting like pigs towards Angel. And the violence is quite tame, with no real graphic murder scenes at all. We do see the aftermath with bloody corpses, but they’re never really the focus of the film. I will commend O’Neill on the gritty look of the film, as it captures 1980’s Hollywood Boulevard extremely well and gives you a sense of how street smart you had to be to survive. And probably the best moment of the film - a drag queen fighting a Hare Krishna that was shot really well and was more amusing than it had any right to be. Only in the 1980s could a film like this had been directed. I’ve seen a lot better exploitation films of this kind, but at least it’s easy to follow and is short.

The acting is a bit hammy at times, but I didn’t hate it. Donna Wilkes, probably best known for JAWS 2 and ALMOST SUMMER, was actually 24-years-old playing a 14-year-old. But she kind of pulled it off and portrayed Angel as a fleshed out character who was vulnerable, tough, sassy and smart all in one. Wilkes actually followed prostitutes and spent time in halfway houses to make the role authentic. I respect that and Wilkes was very charming as the lead. Dick Shawn was a hoot as drag queen Mae, spouting off offensive one-liners and kicking butt to protect her girls. He also seemed to enjoy wearing that dress and being Mae, so respect. Susan Tyrell is just as funny and kooky as Solly, while Cliff Gorman played the stereotypical hard-as-nails police detective who gains a soft spot for our heroine. As for John Diehl, he played a pretty convincing silent killer, using just facial expressions and body language to give the character a bit of depth. For a film like ANGEL, the cast was perfectly fine for their roles.

While not the greatest 80s exploitation film out there, it’s pretty easy to see why ANGEL became the cult classic that it did. It has B-movie humor, interesting characters that elevate a generic plot, and a great look at what Hollywood Boulevard looked like back in the early 1980s. It also has charming acting - especially by Donna Wilkes as the title character, Dick Shawn as a funny and tough drag queen, and John Diehl as a creepy silent killer. It’s not the most exciting film and for an exploitation film, it doesn’t do a whole lot of exploiting. The violence is tame, the sex is barely there, and feels like an ABC Afterschool Special for much of its run time. But it does have a drag queen and a Hare Krishna battling each other for a bit, as well as a teenage prostitute fighting back against a slimy murderer. How many films can you say have either of those? ANGEL isn’t a must see, but it’s definitely worth a look if you enjoy Grindhouse exploitation cinema that could never be made in a politically correct modern world.

2.5 Howls Outta 4


Original vs Remake: Let The Right One In (2008) vs. Let Me In (2010)

Credit to: 

Tomas Alfredson

Kare Hedebrant - Oskar
Lina Leandersson - Eli
Per Ragnar - Hakan
Henrik Dahl - Erik
Karin Bergquist - Yvonne
Peter Carlberg - Lacke
Mikael Rahm - Jocke
Ika Nord - Virginia

Genre - Horror/Drama/Romance/Vampires

Running Time - 114 Minutes

Matt Reeves

Kodi Smit-McPhee - Owen
Chloe Grace Moretz - Abby
Richard Jenkins - Thomas
Cara Buono - Owen’s Mother
Elias Koteas - Detective

Genre - Horror/Drama/Romance/Vampires

Running Time - 116 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
Oskar/Owen (Kare Hedebrant/Kodi Smit-McPhee), a bullied 12-year old, dreams of revenge. He falls in love with Eli/Abby (Lina Leandersson/Chloe Grace Moretz), a peculiar girl. She can't stand the sun or food and to come into a room she needs to be invited. Eli/Abby gives Oskar/Owen the strength to hit back but when he realizes that Eli/Abby needs to drink other people's blood to live he's faced with a choice. How much can love forgive?

More of a romantic coming-of-age drama than a horrific vampire film, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is still one of the finest entries in cinema vampire lore and one of the best horror films of the 2000s. Funny how big of a difference LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is to another 2008 vampire film, TWILIGHT, even though they share a lot of similarities on the surface. Both were adapted by novels. Both have young people, one human and one a vampire, falling in love as they try to understand each other and themselves. Both vampire films are about the soap opera and character element rather than the horrors of being a vampire. Yet their presentations are total opposite, as TWILIGHT caters to pre-teens who need fan fiction ideas while LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is more adult-oriented and deserved more attention than TWILIGHT ever did.

What really makes LET THE RIGHT ONE IN work are the young protagonists. Both Oskar and Eli are outcasts for different reasons. Oskar, coming from a broken home, is constantly bullied in school and not given much love or affection at home. The lack of positive emotional stability makes Oskar want to lash out on his enemies violently, almost being nurtured into a potential sociopath. Eli also has violent tendencies, but only because she’s a vampire stuck in a 12-year-old body who needs blood to survive. Both feeling alone and misunderstood, the two slowly forge a connection that begins as friendship and turns into something more. Eli and Oskar are Ying and Yang - Oskar providing Eli a sense of humanity a vampire can’t really feel, while Eli feeds into the bloodlust and violent tendencies that Oskar is willing to experience, pushing him to hit and fight harder when bullies try and humiliate him. It’s also great that they don’t judge each other. Oskar never blinks when Eli reveals she’s a vampire and that she may not even be a girl. Oskar has unconditional love for Eli and Eli is truly loyal to Oskar, which is something rare when it comes to child characters in horror films. Watching them interact and bond to the point where they’re willing to risk their lives for each other makes Oskar’s and Eli’s relationship believable due to strong screenwriting - which isn’t surprising since the novel’s author, John Ajvide Lindqvist, also adapted the screenplay.

That’s not to say that vampirism doesn’t come into play. Eli portrays the typical traits of one, meaning she wants blood, sleeps during the day, and can’t enter a room without an invitation first. And Eli’s thirst leads to a vengeance subplot involving Lacke, a man who loses his best friend and girlfriend due to Eli’s action. It strengthens the bond between the two young characters while giving them a major threat that could separate them. There’s also Oskar’s bullies, who torture him any chance they get and become the focus of Oskar’s revenge. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN doesn’t really focus on these characters a whole lot, but they’re pivotal to the film’s story and help us sympathize with the protagonists, even if they may not be morally correct with their actions.

The direction by Tomas Alfredson is strong, visually pleasing and confident. Instead of filming LET THE RIGHT ONE IN as a horror film, Alfredson treats the movie with tenderness and romanticism, wanting the audience to focus on the characters and their interactions rather than the violence and bloodshed. Along with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Alfredson create a lot of atmosphere within the film’s Scandinavian landscape. Snowy and set in Winter, the setting feels cold, which contrasts to the warmth of Eli’s and Oskar’s relationship. The film flows extremely well, never making the drama feel boring or plodding, while the horror moments are presented as jarring but in a good way. The vampire stuff is never the real focus and Alfredson clearly lets us know that right from the start. The film is a great slow build as the main relationship blossoms, giving the film an essence not many modern horror films can achieve. It’s superb work from a director who prefers subtlety over shock value, which I appreciate a great deal.

The acting is pretty great here, especially by the two young leads who carry LET THE RIGHT ONE IN on their shoulders from beginning to end. Kare Hedebrant is good as Oskar, the bullied young man who just wants to be understood and loved. His blonde hair and almost albino looks makes you believe he’s already a vampire. But he’s just an innocent boy trying to find his place in a dark life. Even better is Lina Leandersson as Eli, bringing both coldness and darkness as a vampire, while showing a level of vulnerability, intelligence and strength as she tries to be more human for Oskar. The two actors share a very likable chemistry that helps hold up the film after all these years. Without them, we wouldn’t still be talking about LET THE RIGHT ONE IN today.

And since I’m already discussing LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, I might as well give thoughts on its 2010 American remake, LET ME IN. For a film that didn’t need a remake to begin with, LET ME IN manages to surprise as it’s actually pretty damn good. While it doesn’t reinvent the film it’s based on, it does enough small changes to the story and visual style to make it stand on its own, never once disrespecting the original film in any way.

The story is very much the same as LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, with some scenes actually quoting dialogue word for word from the original. The small changes are interesting though, even though I’m not sure if it makes the film any better or worse than its predecessor. The ambiguity of Eli’s, or Abby’s in this case, gender identity is made more clear in this remake, as well as her relationship with the old man she lives with. Abby and Owen’s relationship is a bit more judgmental here, especially when he realizes he’s friends with a vampire. It’s not that bad, since it’s realistic that a child would be frightened by something he doesn’t understand. The sunlight death is done much differently in this version. And the vengeance angle is replaced with a standard police investigation that doesn’t end well for the detective. The film also takes place in 80s America instead of 80s Stockholm, helped by the use of popular 80s music, classic arcades, and television footage of then-President Ronald Reagan questioning good and evil. The Reagan stuff doesn’t really add anything besides Owen questioning if there is really evil in the world, which doesn’t go anywhere since the film ends the same way as the original. I think people who haven’t seen the original would enjoy the story regardless, but the original’s subtlety wins out for me.

Matt Reeves, who previously directed 2008’s CLOVERFIELD and will helm 2021’s THE BATMAN, does a commendable job understand what made LET THE RIGHT ONE IN work and capturing its tone and atmosphere almost perfectly. Reeves, however, doesn’t direct the film shot-by-shot like Gus Van Sant did with PSYCHO in 1998. He adds his own touches to the familiar scenes, using different perspectives or camera angles to present the story for a different audience. It’s still a slow moving affair and Reeves lets scenes play out without having to rush things or “Hollywood” them out for the mainstream. It feels just as bleak and cold in LET ME IN than it does in the original, and I gotta respect Reeves for respecting the original so much. My only gripe would be the CGI during Abby’s feeding scenes, which look like a cartoon that doesn’t fit in at all with the scene they’re a part of. But other than that, great visuals.

The acting is also pretty solid. Chloe Grace Moretz is a very good actor and does well as Abby, playing the role with sadness and loneliness unlike Lina Leandersson’s haunting portrayal. I do think Leandersson plays the role better, as she’s able to convey more through facial expressions and body language than Moretz does in the role. However, I feel that Kare Hedebrant is overshadowed by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays the role of Owen wonderfully and sympathetically. Smit-McPhee understands the role so well, you honestly believe he’s been through this in real life, conveying anger, loneliness, confusion, and fear so perfectly. He also shares nice chemistry with Moretz, even though I feel the original actors had more of a connection personally. But Smit-McPhee is the star of this film because he makes us care for him a great deal. Supporting actors Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas are also very solid in their roles, adding a lot of nuance and tension to the film’s main story. Really solid cast here who took the material super seriously.

While TWILIGHT tried to take down vampire storytelling one sparkle at a time, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN proved within the same year that vampire films can still be well told tales and must see movies. Bleakly atmospheric with solid child characters and a slow pace that lets the story simmer to a romantic ending, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN proves that serious vampire stories can still resonate in a modern society. In fact, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is one of the best horror films of the last twenty years in my opinion. But if you don’t like foreign films or subtitles for any reason, the 2010 American remake LET ME IN is still a very well made film that respects the original while adding a few small twists to cater to an American audience. Same bleak atmosphere, solid acting especially by the child actors and still the same simmer that makes LET ME IN a remake worth checking out whether you’ve seen the original or not. Both solid interpretations of the same novel, but my vote goes to the original. But LET ME IN proves that not all horror remakes suck - pun intended.

4 Howls Outta 4

3.5 Howls Outta 4

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