10.09.2019

Alien (1979)


DIRECTED BY
Ridley Scott

STARRING
Tom Skerritt - Dallas
Sigourney Weaver - Ripley
Veronica Cartwright - Lambert
Harry Dean Stanton - Brett
John Hurt - Kane
Ian Holm - Ash
Yaphet Kotto - Parker
Bolaji Badejo - The Alien

Genre - Horror/Science Fiction

Running Time - 117 Minutes


If you’ve seen film revolving around space for the last forty to fifty years, they’re usually inspired by two films. If you have a science-fiction drama, it probably has aspects from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But if you have a science-fiction horror film involving monsters attacking and murdering a space crew, then it’s most likely inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic ALIEN. ALIEN has inspired sequels, prequels, spin-offs, video games and a ton of imitators that have used the template to tell their individual stories to varying success. It made Ridley Scott a top director in Hollywood. It turned Sigourney Weaver into a household name. And after forty years, it’s still a horror film that many consider near the top of the genre - yours truly included.

PLOT
The crew of the Nostromo are woken up from a cryogenic sleep while traveling back to Earth. As they try to readjust being awake again, they receive a distress call from a nearby planet. While they’re initially unsure about answering the call, they eventually go to see what’s the deal. When the crew lands, they discover this humongous space ship that seems barren besides a few strange eggs spread around the planet’s surface. They soon realize that the received call was not a call for help, but a warning to stay away. Unfortunately, the investigation leads to crew member Kane (John Hurt) being attacked by an organism hugging his face and infecting him through his mouth. Even though they believe they’re in the clear after they detach the creature from Kane and he seems okay after, Kane starts falling ill and an tiny alien bursts through his stomach. It runs away before the crew can stop it, leading to a series of dangerous events as this alien grows larger and waits inside the Nostromo to prey on the rest of the crew.

REVIEW
Even though the film was inspired by previous science-fiction films like 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, 1958’s IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and 1965’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, ALIEN is, without a doubt, the most influential science fiction film in movie history. It’s produced so many B-movie and cult imitators over the decades that it would take forever to list them all. Plus, so many of the moments within the film have become pop culture lexicon that it’s crazy to imagine a world without ALIEN in it. While snobs would probably list the film as just science-fiction, ALIEN is a horror film at heart - an outer space,  haunted house film providing tension, suspense and a cat-and-mouse chase that is undoubtedly slasher. ALIENS may be the favorite of many due to its slick action direction and memorable characters with great one-liners, but ALIEN is the creepiest with its simple execution of easy-to-understand characters, phenomenal direction, and wonderful acting that made many of the actors bigger stars coming out of it. After four decades, the film is still that damn good.

I think one of the best things about ALIEN is how simple Dan O’Bannon's screenplay is. If you really think about it, there’s no real deep plot here. We just have a space crew who got way too curious, leading them to the danger they quickly preys upon them. The characters aren’t all that deep. We don’t know much about the Alien that attacks them. And it’s more than fine, as the film just builds and builds up tension and never lets up. The characters have been on this crew for a while it seems, as they bicker and bond like long-term co-workers or friends. They all have their roles to play, using their special traits to find a way out of this mess. And in like a haunted house movie or slashers, characters will split up to perform a task, only for them to find themselves in a perilous situation that will end up getting them killed. There are also issues of claustrophobia and paranoia amongst the crew, especially after the Alien makes its presence known and one of the crew members isn’t at all who they claim to be. We also have characters trying to save a damn cat, even though the ship is about to blow up. And by the end of the film, the story seems to imply that the Alien is some sort of phallic symbol meant to overpower the crew - especially the female members. It’s a horror film through and through… and a fun one to boot. The script never complicates the story, its characters and the situation they’re in. We know enough about these people. We know why the Alien is on the ship attacking them. All we care about is how they will get out of this danger. Sometimes that’s all you need in a movie and I wish more screenwriters would realize that less is indeed more.

ALIEN’s strength and what people mostly take away from the film is Ridley Scott’s confident and strong direction. The film is a visual masterpiece in almost every way, bringing the audience something new in each frame, each scene and in each sequence that constantly builds and builds as the shots grow closer and closer by the film’s end. The direction is impeccably mapped out and storyboarded, as everything we see means something.

Scott really uses the darkness of the ship and space itself as a main character to tell his story. Since the Alien is a black color, it can easily hide in the shadows and pop up when we least expect it. In fact, the lack of lighting in most of the film within the ship raises the tension, as it’s a pretty creepy location that feels more like underground tunnels rather than a work station. It may be the safest area in the world, but Scott wants us to believe there’s something hiding in the dark even if there isn’t. It creates an atmosphere a lot of the imitators lacked later on, really creating a vibe that something majorly bad is about to happen. It’s made worse when we don’t know when, how, or even why.

What also makes ALIEN stand out are the sleek and strangely intriguing designs of the late H.R. Giger. Groundbreaking for their time, the Swiss surrealist really captured a grittier and darker look at space within the Hollywood landscape. The Alien creature itself, was a Giger design, giving audiences a meaner and scarier alien than the generic big head and big eyed green aliens that have become iconic. It’s through Giger that the sexual context of the film takes shape, as his designs seem phallic in nature most of the time. The space jockey looks like an erect penis. The face-huggers attaches themselves through the victim’s mouths, almost performing an act of fellatio in order to infect their victims with eggs to incubate inside the human body. In a way, the Alien seems to be a sexual predator of sorts, raping its victims in order to impregnate them to build a new family of space villains. Even when the Alien reaches its adult stage, it seems to want to get rid of the men first while saving the women for last for its own personal pleasure. One of the female crew members’ last moment shows the Alien using its tail traveling up between her legs. And the Alien enjoys being a voyeur as Ripley undresses before striking. These acts make the Alien much creepier, sadistic and a lot smarter than most people would give it credit for. I can only imagine how this all would have come across if Giger didn’t have a hand in putting his vision onto film history.

Scott also takes his time building up to the horror moments in the film, making them stand out and genuinely create scares for the audience. Nothing scary really happens in the first act, slowly building tension until the face-hugger pops up and attacks Kane. It’s strictly sci-fi at that point still, until the classic moment where the baby alien pops out of Kane’s stomach before running away in a great creature effect. I still enjoy that moment where the blood splatters all over actress Veronica Cartwright, as the range of blood surprised the hell out of her to create a genuine scared reaction. From there, Scott builds tension in a different way, creating more of a slasher vibe as the protagonists must hide and survive from the Alien who plans on having its way with them. Like I mentioned earlier, the use of darkness and shadow really create a gritty atmosphere, executing wonderful moments of the Alien just coming into the light behind someone and scaring the crap out of them. That scene where the cat just watches a crew member get mauled by the Alien [which we don’t really see besides the cat’s frightened and stunned reaction] is wonderfully shot. And that great moment at the end where Ripley opens up a hole in the ship so the Alien can get sucked into space is visually impressive. It also helps when you have Jerry Goldsmith composing your movie and perfectly capturing every tone and beat within the scene. Ridley Scott would continue to make visually stunning films, especially 1982’s BLADE RUNNER and 1985’s LEGEND, but ALIEN is his masterpiece.

What completes the greatness of ALIEN is the wonderful acting by actors who would later become more famous after this. This is Sigourney Weaver’s major film debut and she does an excellent job playing Ripley. She’s tough and strong, yet vulnerable enough for us to care about her. Weaver would get to do a lot more in the sequels, but her first performance as Ripley is a great foundation to her character that would only build and change from here. The underrated Tom Skeritt, probably best known for his TV work on Picket Fences, is also great as the ship’s captain Dallas. He’s tough, commanding, and heroic. Veronica Cartwright doesn’t get to do much honestly, but she’s easy on the eyes and is great at screaming. Harry Dean Stanton, as usual, plays the comic relief as Brett. Stanton is always great and it’s no exception here. Ian Holm is stoic through most of the film, giving off a quiet and creepy vibe that pays off big time. John Hurt gets memorable moments, but I wish he was in the film more. He’s a great actor and seems underutilized here. Yaphet Kotto is another reliable actor who is solid as the smart and trough Parker. And a lot of love for Bolaji Badejo as the Alien. There are times near the end where you can tell it’s someone in a costume, but man - what a great looking costume. Badejo did a fine job bringing a soon-to-be classic horror villain to life. A pretty amazing cast for an amazing film.

THE FINAL HOWL
To call ALIEN other than a “sci-fi horror classic" would question my ability to even review films of the genre. It has inspired so many other films and other facets of pop culture, yet none have done it as well as Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece. It has tension. It has atmosphere. It has incredible set design and sexual subtext via H.R. Giger. It has a great use of light and dark thanks to Scott. And the Jerry Goldsmith score and talented cast elevate what could have been a silly science fiction B-movie with a bigger budget. After 40 years, ALIEN is the epitome of what any sci-fi horror film should aspire to be. You don’t need an alien bursting through your chest to make you see that.


SCORE
4 Howls Outta 4


10.01.2019

Lunar Cycle - September 2019


Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.




DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER (2015) - ** out of ****




Directed By: Zach Lipovsky

Starring: Jesse Metcalfe, Meghan Ory, Keegan Connor Tracy, Virginia Madsen, Dennis Haysbert, Rob Riggle, Julia Benson

Genre: Horror/Action/Science Fiction/Zombies/Video Games

Running Time: 118 Minutes


Plot: Based on the game, DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER takes place during a large-scale zombie outbreak. When a mandatory government vaccine fails to stop the infection from spreading, the four leads must evade infection while also pursuing the root of the epidemic, with all signs pointing to a government conspiracy.


Review:
Based on the successful Capcom video game franchise, DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER was Legendary Studios’ first entry into their digital department and exclusive to Crackle for a while. The film must have done well streaming, as a sequel called DEAD RISING: ENDGAME was released a year later. But I’ll get to that film whenever I get a chance to see it.

As for WATCHTOWER, it’s pretty much your standard zombie film that wouldn’t feel out of place on a SyFy Saturday Night marathon. It looks like a TV movie with a bigger budget, following many predictable tropes that one would find in most zombie films. If you’ve watched a zombie movie in the last 51 years, you’ll know exactly what to expect and how things will end for the most part. WATCHTOWER even takes things from other films. We have a mother and her zombie daughter like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. We have a leather and face painted biker gang that’s a mix of the original DAWN OF THE DEAD and THE ROAD WARRIOR. And one of the characters is living with the virus and has become sort of immune like in those RESIDENT EVIL films. Plus, you have the military and scientists who claim they’re there to help during the zombie apocalypse, but have their own agendas going on like in most zombie films. Also, the characters trapped within the outbreak zone have to find a way to get out of there in sort of an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK sort of way. There’s nothing really new when it comes to the screenplay, playing it safe while attempting to build a franchise that connects with the games themselves [WATCHTOWER apparently takes place in between Dead Rising 2 & Dead Rising 3].

The characters aren’t anything great, but they’re written competently. Chase Carter, our main hero, starts out as this sensationalist journalist who wants to exploit certain situations to become famous and gain a following for his video news blog series. But as he finds out the truth behind the zombie outbreak and has to rely on strangers to get this information out and escape a mass bombing the military is planning to eliminate the zombie infection, Chase becomes a bit more heroic and learns to be more human within an undead world. Jordan Blair, Chase’s camerawoman, is the conscience of the story and is the one who investigates the outbreak until she finds out the truth. Crystal is the film’s badass woman who knows a lot [maybe a bit too much] about the zombie situation while threatening and fighting her way to survive. But she also has a vulnerable side, which she only shows to Chase once he saves her life. Maggie is the grieving mother who just wants to get back to her daughter, knowing she’s a zombie. And you have General Lyons, who says and does all the right things in the public’s eye when it comes to eliminating the zombie issue, but has his own agenda that might go against the heroes. The only characters that seem fresh within the generic characters and story are reporter Susan Collier and Frank West himself, who hilariously banters with Collier to the point of annoyance, while telling the public how they need to survive the outbreak in the most blunt and realistic ways possible. Again, not a terrible script but nothing you’ll remember a week from now since you’ve seen it done so many times and done much better.

The direction by Zach Lipovsky is nothing really special. The movie is almost two hours long and it feels like it, due to a dialogue-heavy middle portion that’s sandwiched in between action-packed openings and endings. The film looks like any other digital looking movie you’ve seen in the last few years, with no real visual splashes. The use of Go-Pro cameras for some of the first person point-of-view shots during the action are a nice touch, though. And while the middle drags, at least the action flows as well as one would expect. I also thought the zombies looked pretty cool, especially this clown zombie that was a highlight. And having the characters use weapons from the video game was great, as I liked seeing these weird looking contraptions take out the undead. It’s a fine looking movie but nothing you wouldn’t see from a SyFy production.

The acting is probably the best part of WATCHTOWER. Jesse Metcalfe makes for a good hero as Chase, having the physical look to pull off action sequences convincingly. I also thought he brought some depth to his character that probably wasn’t on paper due to his facial reactions and body language. He’s more of a soap opera actor than anything, but this is probably some of the best stuff he’s done in his career. I also liked Meghan Ory as Crystal. Her tough girl performance was well portrayed and showed some nice vulnerability for viewers to care about her plight. I also liked Keegan Connor Tracy [of Bates Motel fame] as camerawoman Jordan. She has a likable presence on screen and I felt she grounded the film immensely whenever she was on. Shout out to both Carrie Genzel and Rob Riggle, who did nothing but banter and flirt with each other in front of a green screen posing as a news studio. They had the best dialogue and their interactions were always amusing. As for the negatives, I wish Virginia Madsen had more to do besides cry and look worried. She’s an Oscar-nominated actress who deserves something meatier to do. And I appreciate Dennis Haysbert, but he plays a typical military general and nothing more. And was that both Sylvia and Jen Soska as zombies? Pretty cool.

Overall, DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER is just an okay video game adaptation that’s more than watchable, but won’t stay in your memory after it’s over. It takes many elements from other zombie and genre films to create a generic zombie movie that you’ve seen done countless times, with some doing it much better and more memorably. The direction is also just there, besides some nice Go-Pro shots from time to time. But it has mostly a solid cast [although some don’t get a whole lot to do], very good looking zombies, and a nice connection to the video games with the makeshift weapons and a familiar character that I’m sure fans of the Dead Rising franchise will appreciate. DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER isn’t a must see at all, but it’s something you can put on in the background while you’re doing something more fulfilling.




TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL (2010) - ***1/2 out of ****

Directed By: Eli Craig

Starring: Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Philip Granger, Brandon Jay McLaren, Christie Laing, Chelan Simmons, Travis Nelson, Alex Arsenault

Genre: Horror/Comedy/Survival/Backwoods

Running Time: 89 Minutes


Plot: Two hillbillies are suspected of being killers by a group of paranoid college kids camping near the duo’s West Virginian cabin. As the body count climbs, so does the fear and confusion as the college kids try to seek revenge against the pair.



Review:
Have you ever wondered during a horror film involving hillbillies whether the hillbillies themselves weren’t the villains, but actually the misunderstood victims of our supposed heroes’ prejudice towards those who live and frequent the backwoods? Well that’s what TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL brings onto the table to change our misconceptions on the standard backwoods survival horror we see now and then with films like DELIVERANCE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, JUST BEFORE DAWN, the WRONG TURN series and etc. Not only is the film making fun of the tropes these type of films generate, but it’s a lot of fun to watch and worthy of the cult status the film has obtained over the years.

TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL clicks pretty much from top to bottom, but the screenplay is one of the best horror-comedy scripts I’ve seen acted out in a long while. I’m really surprised that the switch from having the traditional hillbilly villains be the heroes of the story hasn’t been done before, or not done often. It helps that the character development for both hillbilly characters is super strong, as both have distinct likable personalities. Tucker is technically the boss of the two - a bit more intelligent to the ways of the world and more extroverted in terms of making things happen. Dale is the follower - an insecure man due to his weight, but has a huge heart and cares about people. They’re best buds who balance each other out perfectly, creating a pair of protagonists we can care about and root for.

On the other side of the field, we have our archetypical college students who stumble into the backwoods area for a weekend of camping. Probably having seen a couple of horror films and believing urban legends about the people who live in these kind of areas, the students believe Tucker and Dale are creepy, stupid and probably planning on murdering them. The best part about these characters is that they all come off as stupid and naive, even though they’re following every single trope that makes most audiences sympathetic towards these sort of characters. They believe one of their friends has been kidnapped by Tucker and Dale, even though they’re just taking care of her after they saved her from drowning. And because they want to save their friend, they end up trying to attack the two hillbillies - only ending up in fatal accidents that Tucker and Dale get blamed for. The leader of this group, frat boy Chad, seems to know a bit more about the hillbilly lifestyle and wants revenge on Tucker and Dale over something that had happened to his family years ago that the two targets had nothing to do with. The twist in the traditional narrative is played for laughs, but also as a weird commentary on how we should never judge a book by its cover regardless of how the media has portrayed things for decades. The dialogue works, the reverse in portrayals works, the hilarious and horrific situations work, and even the ridiculous twist in the final act does the job. I was not expecting TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL to be as clever and witty as it is.

The direction by Eli Craig is nothing special or dynamic, but it’s directed as one would expect from this sub-genre. Craig’s best work is with the film’s pacing, as the film is only 89 minutes and breezes by due to things happening onscreen quite frequently. The accidental murder sequences are shot really well, using both a mix of practical and CGI effects. My favorite one is probably the wood-chipper death, but we also get a lot of people impaling themselves on sharp objects. Plus we get a nice explosion moment, as well as some good makeup for burn victims and people who get their face mutilated by a lawn mower. And for a low budget feature, the film looks pretty damn great and colorful. The visuals aren’t going to leave much of an impression once the film ends, but it does what it needs to do when the film is on.

The acting is also very strong. Alan Tudyk, best known for his work on Firefly, is pretty great as Tucker. Of the two main actors, Tudyk plays things a bit more straight while drinking beer and getting attacked by college students over a misunderstanding. Tudyk is pretty much great in all of his projects and this one is no exception. I thought even better is Tyler Labine as Dale, playing a perfectly lovable hero who is as dim-witted as he is charming. I thought he had great chemistry with Tudyk and Katrina Bowden. Speaking of Bowden, I thought she was very good as Allison - the only college student who saw Tucker and Dale for the nice guys that they were. While she doesn’t have a ton of depth besides being Dale’s potential love interest, she did a good job being a lovely presence on film. Of the other actors, I thought Jesse Moss as Chad was pretty great as the supposed hero of the college students, who ends up being a loose cannon who’s missing a few of his marbles. His switch from nice guy to psycho was fun to watch. Overall, a solid cast that made the experience enjoyable.

Overall, TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL is a pleasant surprise that made me upset that I hadn’t watched the film sooner, even knowing of its reputation. It has a great storyline twist in terms of having the usually evil hillbillies be the heroes of the story rather than the usually good college students who are nothing but idiotic and judgmental enough to lead to funny accidental death sequences. The film is extremely well paced, with great use of both practical and CGI effects to showcase some nifty deaths that end up being more funny than anything else. And the cast, especially Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, are excellent and bring the witty and clever narrative to life. I keep hearing there are attempts to make a follow-up and I hope it happens. TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL is a whole lot of fun and worth multiple watches whether at home, or at your new vacation home in the backwoods. 







THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS (2018) - **1/2 out of ****





Directed By: Eli Roth



Starring: Owen Vaccaro, Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Kyle MacLachlan, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Vanessa A. Williams, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, Eli Roth



Genre: Family/Fantasy/Horror



Running Time: 106 Minutes



Plot: When ten-year-old Lewis is suddenly orphaned, he is sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan in a creaky [and creepy] old mansion with a mysterious ticking noise that emanates from the walls. Upon discovering that his uncle is a warlock, Lewis begins learning magic, but when he rebelliously resurrects an evil warlock he must find the secret of the house and save the world from destruction.


Review:
After all the controversy over directing films like HOSTEL, THE GREEN INFERNO and that not-so-great remake of DEATH WISH, who would have thought that a family company like Amblin Entertainment would hire Eli Roth to direct a family-friendly horror film for a younger demographic? But it happened, as THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS hit theaters before Halloween and was a success at the box office. I didn’t catch the film in theaters, never had read the 1973 John Bellairs novel the movie is adapted from, and thinking it looked like another GOOSEBUMPS or modern Tim Burton vehicle that probably wouldn’t entertain me all too much these days. But knowing Roth had directed this film intrigued me enough to give it a shot. And while it’s pretty generic for the most part, it still managed to be entertaining for all the right reasons.

Even though the source material is older, THWACIIW might feel like a copycat of the HARRY POTTER series just with more horror elements added in. Both have a young protagonist who is an orphan. Both are thrusted into a world of magic and becoming powerful within it. And both include an evil magician who is raised from the dead to destroy the world. The only difference is that our main character is an outcast who isn’t treated well by most of his peers, hoping that learning magic will help bring his deceased parents back which obviously backfires. The film treats Lewis’ arc pretty well, giving him a lot of emotional beats for us to care about him. The other protagonists, Uncle Jonathan and Florence Zimmerman, also get bits of emotional arcs [more Florence], although the narrative doesn’t really focus on them as much. The villains’ arc is also pretty standard stuff, with Isaac Izard and wife Selena, using dark magic to destroy all of mankind. In fact, the film doesn’t really focus on Izard’s plan all that much until the final act - focusing more on Lewis’ adjustment to his new life and surroundings, trying to find his place in the world. The narrative is well written and we get to learn enough about the characters to care about what’s going on, but the story never seems to really know what it truly wants to focus on.

The problem with the film’s narrative is that it’s a bit too simple. Maybe this is because the film is catered to a young demographic and producers felt the story needed to be a bit dumbed down. But the character moments between Lewis, Jonathan and Florence are the strongest and more interesting part of THWACIIW. You quickly see how the three characters connect as a strange family who embrace their weirdness while teaching magic to Lewis. Their personal decisions also affect the rise of Izard back to the world of the living. Lewis’ struggle to make friends leads to Izard’s resurrection, creating a redemption arc in the final act. Jonathan’s reluctance to share everything with Lewis plays a hand in Izard’s return. And Florence’s grief over her past, which quickly bonds her to Lewis, emotionally stunts her magical ability, which quickens Izard’s plan of action in the final act. Even Izard’s motivations for his evil is easy to understand, making him a pretty deep character within a short time. But the film doesn’t have enough moments like this because Eli Roth would rather focus on the whimsy of the magic stuff, as well the horror moments that take precedence in the last part of the film. All of it is done well, but the film never feels quite cohesive because of it. The film feels like three movies trying to balance each other out, showing how much care went into all those HARRY POTTER films and other films of this ilk. 

This is the most visually impressive film of Eli Roth’s career. Roth seems to be having a lot of fun crafting great shots of CGI Jack-O’Lanterns attacking our heroes, evil mannequins haunting the magic house, and other objects flooding the screen to visually stimulate the audience. While the special effects are nothing that we haven’t seen before in other films, the film looks very slick and polished. Young children would definitely be impressed by what plays on screen. However, while the garden griffin looks great, the running poop joke gag isn’t really funny and seems forced. I get it’s used for levity, but I felt it ruined whatever tone the film goes for at the time. I also thought that CGI baby with Jack Black’s head on it was not good. Probably the scariest image in this film by a mile. Other than that, the film is paced well and it’s obvious Roth wants to create jump scares and creepy moments to carry the story rather than the characters themselves for much of the film. I wouldn’t mind seeing Roth tackle more films like this because he did a good job.

The acting is probably the highlight of the film. Jack Black is over-the-top and steals any scene he’s in as Jonathan. Depending on whether you appreciate his schtick, you might find him amusing or annoying. I thought Black brought a lot of life to the role, and even carries the short time when he needed to be serious extremely well. Even better is Cate Blanchett, who elevates the class and prestige to any film she’s involved with. The role of Florence could be a bit one note, but Blanchett fleshes it out and creates a dimensional character you really care about. I also liked her banter with Black, as you can tell the two were having fun acting together. Young Owen Vaccaro mostly does well as Lewis, carrying the emotional beats of the character believably. He can be a bit annoying at times, especially when he overdoes something, but he’s mostly likable does an okay job carrying much of the film. The other actor of note is Kyle MacLachlan, who hams it up and seems to be enjoying playing an evil warlock. I do wish he was more of a presence throughout the film, but he’s a definitely highlight during the final act.

Overall, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is a great starter point for younger children who want to start their horror film journey. Eli Roth surprisingly does a good job pacing the film well and crafting polished horror imagery that will impress younger viewers. The acting by Jack Black, Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro [for the most part] is pretty great and gives a lot of a life to a pretty generic story that has been done to death in Young Adult film adaptations by this point. The character development portions of the narrative are handled well, but it’s obvious Roth would rather focus on the whimsy of the magic stuff, as well as scares involving evil mannequins and Jack-O’Lanterns. And at times, the film doesn’t know whether it wants to be scary, serious, or a comedy, struggling to maintain a balance to appeal to all audiences. While other films have taken this sort of story and done it much better, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK ON ITS WALLS still would have been a film I loved as a child. As an adult, it’s flawed and not all that memorable once its over. But it’s amusing enough for a recommendation for parents to share this one with their children during Halloween season.






MARTYRS (2015) - *1/2 out of ****


Directed By: Kevin & Michael Goetz

Starring: Troian Bellisario, Bailey Noble, Kate Burton, Caitlin Carmichael, Melissa Tracy, Romy Rosemont, Toby Huss, Elyse Cole

Genre: Horror/Mystery/Thriller/Drama

Running Time: 86 Minutes


Plot: A woman and her childhood friend seek out revenge on those who victimized and abused them.


Review:
By 2008, French horror cinema was at an all-time high with classics such as HAUTE TENSION, FRONTIER(S), INSIDE and especially MARTYRS - a film that, to this day, still makes me uncomfortable to watch on multiple levels. The gore is excessive, the reveal of the mystery is downright sad and disturbing and the foreign feel of the film adds a level of atmosphere and bleakness that you don’t find all that much in American films. It’s not a film meant to entertain the audience, but to create a visceral stimuli that will linger much after the film is over. I would give it my highest recommendation to watch at least once because you’ll get something out of it whether it appeals to you or not. It’s one of those horror films that is beyond a rating system.

Unfortunately, the success of MARTYRS led to the production of an American remake that was released back in 2015. Now don’t get me wrong - some Americanized remakes of foreign films can work well. That was proven with 2002’s THE RING, which I actually prefer slightly over RINGU. But there’s no way you could take a deep, visceral film like MARTYRS and remake it for an American mainstream audience who would prefer a brainless popcorn film. Plus, a lot that can be gotten away with in France will surely not fly in America. Things will be lost in translation - which this remake proves because this feels like a Cliff Notes version of the original film. That’s not a good thing.

The first half of the remake pretty much follows the exact same shot and scene structure of the French original. The two main protagonists meet up as young girls as an orphanage, the brutal family scene is still intact, as well as the clean up and finding a tortured prisoner within the family’s home. Only this time, the cult mystery isn’t so much of a mystery, the brutality isn’t as severe, and the tortured prisoner isn’t some scarred person, but a young child who takes a liking to one of the protagonists. Unlike the original version, where the scenes are able to breathe and reveal things about the characters and the situations they’re put into, the remake condenses them a bit and reveals things in a way that allows audiences to feel more comfortable rather than disturbed. There never seems to be a feeling of dread unlike in the original, but a weird sense of hope that friendship will protect our characters and figure a way out. I think this might work for those who haven’t seen the original, but the storytelling is way more powerful in the French version.

The second half takes a detour from the original, pretty much changing the characters’ fates and adding an element of female empowerment that wasn’t at play previously. There’s no suicide attempt. There’s barely any skinny alive for the villains to get their answers in a way that physical pain will gain them some “enlightenment”. And one of the characters manages to escape, becoming a total badass warrior as she enters the villain’s headquarters to save her friend and the young girl she’s grown fond with. While I give points for the filmmakers for taking the story in a different direction and not making the exact same movie [something remakes should do], it also diminishes the essence and reason for why the original MARTYRS existed to begin with. The original film wasn’t about heroism, redemption, or empowerment. It was about brutality, disturbing moments both visually and emotionally, while giving the audience something to think about whether it’s worth going through immense pain in order to get answers on what’s in the afterlife. The philosophy about the extreme measures some will go to gain knowledge we’re probably not meant to receive make the original MARTYRS so powerful. The remake never really does that, rather settling for a more action-oriented final act that would rather tell the audience what we’re supposed to get out of the film without letting the audience figure it out for themselves. I will give the film this - the two halves flow better together than they do in the original film. But neither half is as interesting or powerful, which is what I was afraid of when I heard MARTYRS was getting an American remake. The original concept is not meant to be turned into a somewhat hopeful and upbeat Hollywood story. The remake of MARTYRS turns from a profound philosophical and psychological mind-twister into a predictable and pedestrian horror-thriller with bits of “torture porn” included because the original film did.

While the remake totally doesn’t understand why MARTYRS has affected so many people who have watched the original, at least it has good things going for it. The direction by both Kevin and Michael Goetz is better than I expected, with good pacing and editing in its favor. The cinematography is also quite beautiful, giving the film that Hollywood polished look that is visually pleasing to the eye. And even though the violence is tame compared to the original, I thought all of it was shot very well and look practical rather than CGI, which is a plus.

The acting is also a bright spot. It’s especially true in the case of both lead actresses, Troian Bellisario and Bailey Noble, who are believable in their roles. They hit all the emotional and physical beats the story required and never tried to copy what the original actresses had done. I think without their presence, I probably would have shut off the film before it ended. The rest of the actors, including Kate Burton and Toby Huss, did well also. My only issue is that I could tell these talented people were playing roles. In the original film, the actors seemed to endure so much more to the point where you’re not even sure where reality and fantasy start or ends. But that’s not the fault of anyone in front of the camera.

Overall, the remake of MARTYRS isn’t the total train wreck it could have been. Yet, it’s not particularly a good film, or even a necessary one when you have a more interesting and way more memorable original French version that will make you feel multiple emotions all at once by the time it’s over. You’ll probably just shrug your shoulders by the end of this one because it doesn’t really add anything that improves upon the original. At least the visuals and acting are good, which saves this film from being a total waste of time if you never bothered with the original film. I respect the filmmakers for trying to change the last half of the film to craft their own interpretation on the original story [even though it just diminishes what made the 2008 version so special]. But if you’re going to watch any version of MARTYRS, stick with the original. It might haunt you for a while once it’s over, but it’s still better than wasting 90 minutes of your life and feeling “meh”.








THE CANDY SNATCHERS (1973) - *** out of ****


Directed By: Guerdon Trueblood

Starring: Tiffany Bolling, Ben Piazza, Susan Sennett, Brad David, Vince Martorano, Bonnie Boland, Leon Charles, Dolores Dorn, Phyllis Major, James Whitworth

Genre: Thriller/Crime/Drama/Exploitation/Cult

Running Time: 94 Minutes


Plot: An abused autistic boy is the sole witness to the kidnapping of a teenage heiress.


Review:
Even though I’m a fan of grindhouse-era exploitation from the 1970s, THE CANDY SNATCHERS is a film that escaped my attention for longer than it should have. I was pretty much expecting a sleazier LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT rip-off with a more crime vibe than horror. But this one pretty much surprised me with how twisted, darkly comical and fun it is. For ninety-minutes, I was completely glued to see where this story was going to go. And while the ending is both satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time, I still didn’t feel too disappointed by this hidden gem.

The basic plot of THE CANDY SNATCHERS is that three criminals kidnap a teenage daughter of a jewelry mogul, hoping that a ransom will guarantee them lots of diamonds to become rich. But they soon realize that this mogul doesn’t really care about his daughter [or step-daughter], wanting her dead in order to gain an inheritance that will grant him over a million dollars. Realizing that they’re stick with this teenager, the criminals start imploding within their own group. They also are unaware that this autistic child has witnessed most of what they’ve done, involving himself in trying to save this girl.

I really want to go deeper into the story and how well written it really is, but doing that would spoil the multiple twists and turns that escalate until it’s shocking conclusion. Not all of it works, or even integral to the story itself, but most of it is a true rollercoaster ride that never lets up until that final bang. I really enjoy films where you expect will go a certain way because that’s how it’s usually done, only for it to take you to places that will surprise you.

The twists also reveal a lot about these characters, with most of them really despicable people you hope will get punished by the end of the film. The three criminals all have distinct personalities, with some better than others. Alan is the psychopath of the trio, always down for maiming and killing, raping and torturing people to get his way. His sister Jessie is the tough and angry one, although it seems to come from a bit of insecurity to gain some power against the two men in her group. And Eddy isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but he does have a bit of a conscience and just wants the diamonds without having to hurt anyone. He also grows fond of Candy in a protective sort of way, while his feelings for Jessie lead to some questionable actions towards his partner. Candy’s step-dad Avery is a character whose jerk status increases as the film rolls. And the Newton family, especially the mother, are just awful people who abuse their child because he has autism, seeing him as a hindrance to getting ahead in life. 

The only likable characters are Candy and Sean Newton. Candy is just a victim whose future doesn’t look too bright. Not only does she have to deal with three criminals who kidnap her, bury her in the ground to hide her, and even have thoughts of killing and sexually abusing her, she also has to deal with a step-father who wants her out of the way and a mother who seems clueless about the reality around her. Sean Newton is Candy’s only hope, but the child is not only autistic but a mute as well. He makes attempts to save Candy, but he’s disabled by his lack of speech and just being a young kid who is over his head. He’s also a victim of abusive and ignorant parents, as well as his parents’ friends, who laugh at Sean for not being able to communicate verbally. You root for both of these characters, hoping they’ll somehow make it out of their respective darkness. I thought the screenplay was really well written and it pulled the right emotions out of me throughout, hoping justice was served for everyone involved in this entire mess.

The direction by Guerdon Trueblood is nothing really special. It looks like a TV-movie from the 1970s. It has a TV soundtrack from 1970s programs. There are moments where the camera will zoom in to create this odd, surreal effect. But they’re brief and don’t happen too often. The film is paced very well though, with nice editing and a good use of multiple locations to create a bit of atmosphere. The exploitative stuff isn’t as sleazy as I would have expected, but the tropes are here and Trueblood directs them well enough to make them matter. THE CANDY SNATCHERS is the only film that Trueblood directed, focusing more on producing and writing [including the infamous JAWS 3-D]. It’s surprising since he doesn’t do a bad job and would have been interesting to see if he would have gained a bit of style with more filmmaking.

The acting is most solid. The standouts are former Playmate Tiffany Bolling as tough Jessie [hitting multiple emotional beats believably], Vince Martorano as less-than-evil Eddy, Ben Piazza as slime bag Avery, and especially Christopher Trueblood [the director’s son] as Sean Newton. I’m not sure if Trueblood was really autistic or mute, but damn I bought everything he did. One of the better child performances I’ve seen in an exploitation film, or any film period. Special mention goes to Bonnie Boland as Sean’s mother, who gave an annoyingly shrill performance for an extremely unlikable character who I couldn’t wait to get hers. The grating performance made me hate the character more, which benefited the film for sure.

Overall, THE CANDY SNATCHERS is an underrated gem in the exploitation film genre. While the direction looks and feels like a TV movie from the 1970s [with appropriate soundtrack included!], the strong narrative gives the film a reason to put this in your queue. I could see how filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie would take influence from this one. It has colorful characters, awesome twists and turns that never stop coming, and a genuine sense of black comedy during really bleak moments of murder, rape and child abuse. The acting, especially by Tiffany Bolling and young Christopher Trueblood as an ahead-of-its-time autistic child, are pretty solid. I can’t believe it took me this long to finally watch this movie. One of the smartest and most confident grindhouse-era films I’ve seen in a while. Really good stuff.








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