31 Days to Scare ~ The Sentinel (1977)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman moves to an apartment in a building which houses a sinister evil.

Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, Sylvia Miles, Beverly D’Angelo, John Carradine, Ava Gardner

Director: Michael Winner

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Largely due to the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, there was a huge boom in horror films with religious overtones released in the ‘70s.  Seemed like at the heart of every haunted house or strange acting neighbor was a gate to hell or devil possession.  It didn’t just stop on the sliver screen either, television movies got into the game as well with above average entries like Summer of Fear pitting Linda Blair against a devil-ish relative.  By the time The Sentinel was released to theaters in February of 1977 ,there wasn’t a whole lot movie-goers hadn’t already been exposed to.

What elevates The Sentinel a bit higher than its fellow occult brethren is a first-rate cast of big names, sure-handed direction from a director that knew his way around the material, and a script thoughtfully adapted from a best-selling novel.  Maintaining the mood of Jeffrey Konvitz’s popular 1974 tome, Konovitz and director Michael Winner lift the story from the page to the screen with ease, transferring a plot with several different threads into an efficient chiller with plenty of twists, turns, and more than its share of scares.  While it falls into excess at times and may invoke some winces seen through “woke” eyes, it makes it though largely on its high production values and overall sophistication.  Did I mention the cast?  It’s like The Love Boat for the inhabitants of Hell.

In New York City, in-demand model Allison (Cristina Raines) is looking for a place of her own.  Though cohabitating with her long-term boyfriend (Chris Sarandon), she’s never lived by herself and feels like she needs space to be independent.  All the apartments she finds are too expensive (even though an early montage shows Alison on no less than 7 major magazine covers so…how broke is she?) but fate takes her to the offices of Helen Logan (Ava Gardner) who just happens to have the perfect spot for her.  A handsome brownstone with a great view, the furnished apartment is hers for the bargain price of $500, no, make that $400.   It’s a no-brainer.  To the brownstone, Alison will go.

Haunted by a teenage trauma she carries with her even today, living alone doesn’t go so well for Alison.  Though she meets a kindly neighbor (Burgess Meredith) just after moving in, she begins to experience strange occurrences and hears another neighbor loudly clomping around above her bedroom during the night.  She begins to suffer horrible migraines and fainting spells, all unexplained events that coincided with her moving into her new apartment.  When she meets a few more neighbors that aren’t so genial (including a mute Beverly D’Angelo who does something rather explicit in front of Alison) and begins to be curious about the blind priest that lives on the top floor, she starts to investigate with the help of her boyfriend.  The more she learns about the history of the building, the deeper into darkness she’ll plunge because it’s not just the neighbors she has to be afraid of.

Director Winner had already made numerous films that had received acclaim before he took on The Sentinel so it’s easy to see why he didn’t have any trouble securing his roster of stars.  Rains makes for a lovely lead, even when she devolves into a sweaty screaming mess she has an air of dignity about her that makes us care for the character.  In smaller roles that may require them to exhibit perverse behavior (or simply act out a perversion), the veteran stars shine in their brief bits of screen time.  Gardner, in particular, seems to be taking glorious delight playing a glam grand dame of NY real estate.  Check out Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) as a cop with no lines who is partnered with Eli Wallach called in to investigate when Rains goes off the deep end.   The bit parts could also double as a Before They Were Stars clip — so many people show up here that went on to have long careers.

The movie is problematic to be sure, with some attitudes toward different sexual orientations a bit passé and a finale that’s downright offensive…but it’s all a time capsule of the temperature of the time the movie was made and released.  Winner isn’t shy about showing a bundle of extremes be it gore or nudity so audiences are warned to gird their loins and steel themselves when the film goes barreling toward its abrupt but appropriate conclusion.  There’s quite a lot of good stuff going on here and it’s spooky enough to warrant a recommendation if you’re so inclined.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Invisible Man (1933)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.

Stars: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O’Connor, Forrester Harvey

Director: James Whale

Rated: NR

Running Length: 71 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I think it’s safe to say The Invisible Man doesn’t get as much love as his fellow Universal Monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolfman.  Heck, I’d even say The Creature from the Black Lagoon gets a few more hits on his Instagram.  While The Invisible Man (actually Dr. Jack Griffin in this first installment) may not be as instantly memorable as others in Universal’s stable of spooky characters, his debut film is a landmark achievement in technique and surprisingly complex storytelling for the era.

After the success of other monster movies Universal made this adaptation of the novel by H.G. Wells a priority and went through several screenplays that strayed from the Wells source material.  Having been burned by the last adaptation of his work, 1932’s middling Island of Lost Souls based on The Island of Dr. Moreau, Wells insisted The Invisible Man stick closer to his original vision. Screenwriter R.C. Sherriff’s final draft paid attention to the wishes of Wells and there are only slight differences between the novel and the movie.  Overseeing it all was director James Whale, who scored such profound success in the horror genre with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, not to mention Bride of Frankenstein which was on the horizon after The Invisible Man.

What makes The Invisible Man so interesting and creatively different from the jump is that it isn’t an origin story, per se.  When we first meet Griffin (Claude Rains) on a wintery night arriving at a small pub looking for a room, he’s already been through an experiment that has turned him invisible.  Seeking a quiet space where he can rest and perform tests to find a way to reverse his condition, it’s only when the pub owner and his wife (a hilariously campy and over the top Una O’Connor) won’t leave him alone when the trouble starts.   Lashing out in the first of several increasingly violent episodes, Griffin eventually descends into mad scientist territory as he terrorizes his sly former colleague (William Harrigan) and a countryside gripped with fear.  The only person he reserves any warmth for is Flora (Gloria Stuart, Titanic), his fiancé who is willing to stick with him, even knowing his murderous impulses.

For a 71-minute movie, Sherriff (via Wells) packs quite a lot of ideas and layered narrative into the action.  In a movie-going time that was still getting used to “talkies”, audiences had to truly listen to the dialogue to follow along and learn how Griffin came to his current state and how he plans to fix it.  All of the backstory usually shown to us is relayed via rapid-fire dialogue so you better strap yourself in and don’t miss a beat.  When Griffn goes off the rails and begins to use his invisibility as a weapon, there are various plots on how to catch The Invisible Man and not all of them are as simple as throwing a bag of flour on the guy.  I was surprised and pleased to find such confidence put in audiences by the filmmakers, they clearly were aiming for a sophistication that maybe wasn’t quite present in earlier Universal monster movies.

The effects utilized are impressive, even now.  Sure, some of the unmasking’s are a little rough around the edges and you can see the image overlay technique used.  More often than not, though, it’s hard to detect immediately how the effect was accomplished and even harder to spot the wires for the items that float through the air as if Griffin is carrying them from one place to another.  Even films 80 years later aren’t as consistently clean in their efforts to hide the magic.  Watching a documentary after the movie ended revealed most of the tricks and while some were simple bits of practical on-set effects, there were many that required time-intensive work…but the results are worth it.

While I loved seeing another film directed by James Whale and the source material of H.G. Wells is grand, I wouldn’t say The Invisible Man is my favorite of the Universal Monster films. It may lack the thrill of Frankenstein or the creepy chills given by Dracula but there’s something about The Invisible Man that’s particularly captivating.  Spawning several sequels and almost getting a reboot a few years back as part of the now scrapped Dark Universe, there’s no substitute for the original.   I’d never seen it before this year but it’s absolutely one of those titles you can’t let slip by you.

31 Days to Scare ~ Vampire Circus

The Facts:

Synopsis: As the plague sweeps the countryside, a quarantined village is visited by a mysterious traveling circus. Soon, young children begin to disappear, and the locals suspect the circus troupe might be hiding a horrifying secret.

Stars: Adrienne Corri, John Moulder-Brown, Laurence Payne, Thorley Walters, Lynne Frederick, Anthony Higgins

Director: Robert Young

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  A longtime fan of Hammer Studios and their horror tales, I’ve come to see recently just how limited my scope was in my formative years.  I’m making up for the time that I focused in on some of the more generic (but still worthy!) offerings and am quite enjoying expanding my horizons. With titles that might not be so in the mainstream featuring the familiar names that trigger a notion of what you can expect, like a Dracula or a Frankenstein or a Werewolf, I’m finding some fairly excellent experiences on a regular basis. I almost feel bad saying I’ve “discovered” these movies because they’ve been there all along just waiting for me to find them. So, with great humility, let’s talk about Vampire Circus.

How had I never seen this one before?  I’d heard Vampire Circus spoken of highly before and know I’ve seen the poster numerous times over the years; it’s striking image of eyes wide and a mouth open and fangs bared is instantly memorable.  Making an impact with promises of blood and mayhem, I can say the movie delivers on all accounts and it’s an R-rated delight from a studio that started off a little tentative in their willingness to go the extra mile.  From the beginning, it’s clear this isn’t just another standard vampire flick filmed against an eastern European backdrop…there’s some plot that’s been thought out and it’s exceedingly well made.

An extended prologue finds a group of villagers in the Serbian village of Stetl finally doing away with the vampire Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) who has been preying on the young children in the village.  As he dies, he curses the townspeople and their children, promising they will all die in order for him to live once more.  Entrusting a follower (Domini Blythe) to find his relation and tell him what the villagers had done, the Count dies and his castle is destroyed.  Fifteen years pass and the village has indeed been plagued by one problem after another.  A plague has cut them off from the rest of the world and no one can go in or out…until the circus comes to town.

Led by a flame-haired gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), the Circus of Night arrives in the village under mysterious circumstances and quickly begins to enthrall the townspeople with their unbelievable acts of daring and transformation.  High flying twin acrobats turn into, well, bats.  A panther can turn into a smoldering man in the blink of an eye.  Then there are the dancers who perform a risqué pas de duex (with full nudity, another reason the movie was slapped with an R rating) along with a funhouse hall of mirrors that turns deadly.  Oh…and most of them are vampires.  So begins a three-ring act of violence and revenge, with each victim being brought to the Count’s final resting place and being offered as a sacrifice, their blood restoring him to his full gory glory.

It takes longer than it should for the townspeople to figure out what’s going on but even when they do there are still a few mysteries yet to be solved that are gradually doled out before a blood-soaked finale set in a tomb.  The special effects are well-rendered and it’s more than a little bit scary at times.  In general, the atmosphere is right on target for the time and place, something Hammer was always so pitch perfect in achieving time after time.  The production design is lovely and the location shooting in Europe adds to the authenticity of the work.  Even the performances manage to be more than just your standard victim and prey stock characters, though not everyone can bare their fangs and sink them into necks as good as Anthony Higgins.

This is an absolute must-see for fans of horror, classics and new.  Especially if you have a penchant for the vampire genre and especially the Hammer brand of filmmaking, it’s an essential watch.  It drags ever so slightly in the middle with a bit of repetitive kills and sensuality but at 87 minutes you aren’t waiting around too long before things pick up again and the Vampire Circus prepares for its big finale.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Stuff

The Facts:

Synopsis: A delicious mysterious goo that oozes from the Earth is marketed as the newest dessert sensation. But the sugary treat rots more than teeth when zombie-like snackers begin infesting the world.

Stars: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Scott Bloom, Danny Aiello

Director: Larry Cohen

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When schlock director Larry Cohen passed away in March of 2019, he left behind a legacy of campy horror films that ran the gamut in tone and style.  He was comfortable with tightly paced Hollywood fare like Cellular and Phone Booth, likely because he was used to filming quick and fast having cut his teeth in low-budget horror films It’s Alive and God Told Me To.  Though his movies were amusing in a throwback sort of way (I dare you not to watch the ‘80s monster movie Q: The Winged Serpent and not have just a little bit of fun) they often were one joke/concepts that didn’t always have a resolution to their rather fantastical set-ups.  Good starts, bad endings.

Never is that more apparent than in The Stuff, Cohen’s 1985 sci-fi horror satire about a tasty substance that becomes everyone’s favorite snack.  Obviously commenting on the yogurt craze that was happening around that period of time, Cohen spends the first half hour or so of the film nicely structuring a framework of a society eager to jump on the bandwagon of the latest craze.  Marketed as The Stuff, every supermarket has a healthy stock and nearly all American households have one or more cartons in their refrigerators waiting to be consumed.  The advertising parodies Cohen has dreamed up are a riot, with commercials and jingles for The Stuff providing some decent laughs in their ridiculous earnestness.

There’s something bad about The Stuff, though, and we know it early on.  Suburban boy Jason (Scott Bloom) wakes in the middle of the night looking for a midnight treat and when he opens the fridge he sees The Stuff moving…crawling back into its carton.  His parents and brother don’t believe him, likely because they have been eating The Stuff on the regular and soon are trying to get him to eat it as well.  At the same time, a private investigator (Michael Moriarty) is hired by a rival corporation interested in stealing The Stuff’s formula and he begins to suspect the food may not exactly have the full support of the FDA.  Teaming up with an ad exec (Andrea Marcovicci) who had been working on The Stuff’s campaign, the investigator uncovers more than he bargained for and is soon on the run with Jason joining their ranks.  Can they stop the spread of The Stuff?

Cohen wastes no time diving headfirst into the action.  Literally, within the first moments of the film we see the goo bubbling out of the ground where an old man finds it, samples it, and thinks it could be something the entire world would want.  This all in the span of, oh, twenty seconds.  The first half of the movie is so front loaded with information and action that Cohen runs of interesting developments before the film has reached the sixty-minute mark.  That’s when he brings in Paul Sorvino (The Gambler) who has been waiting in the wings and, let me tell you, he is hungry to nosh on some scenery.  Sorvino’s military figure battling The Stuff like he’s going to war with the communists is a tired old cliché and only shows you how little the finale was truly thought out.

The concept of The Stuff is intriguing but Cohen did not fill the rest of the movie with anyone we remotely want to root for.  As Jason, Bloom is a total dud lacking conviction in any of his line readings and Marcovicci might have made for an interesting female lead playing a powerful businesswoman of the ‘80s…if Cohen didn’t have her jump into bed with Moriarty immediately when she thought he was a headhunter for another account she wanted.  As for Moriarty, he’s the lead and is truly, truly, atrocious.  A longtime Cohen favorite, Moriarty is going for some slick kind of character with, I’m guessing from his accent, some kind of bayou roots but winds up giving a bad performance for the history books.  Sporting a hideous toupee and laughing at the material almost as much as the audience is laughing at how bad he is in the movie, Moriarty pretty much ruins the movie.

When The Stuff starts to take on a life of its own, there are some decent special effects but it too often reminded me of The Blob (the original and the fun ‘80s remake), reminding me it had been a while since I’d fired one of those films up.  When you spend more time thinking of when you can start another movie you know the one you’re watching isn’t filling you up.  The Stuff isn’t a feast, just an interesting first taste.

October at the Alamo

 

Used to be that in October if you wanted to see a scary movie or two you had to hunt down a theater showing midnight screenings of the same old set of horror standards and pick your poison.  Lucky for us in MN (or for those living in a place close to an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema) because with the arrival of the Alamo Drafthouse Twin Cities in July 2018 there has been a wealth of themed programming each month and they’ve really gone above and beyond for October.

With horror classics interspersed with schlock comedies and uncovered gems, there’s something for every kind of horror fan in the family.  Here are a few upcoming titles to consider:

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: Cereal Party – Saturday, October 12 – If you’ve never seen this, boy oh boy, are you missing out!  At one point I had written this off as too old to be appealing to my taste but then I saw it and it’s funny and scary with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello uproarious as they come face to face with some great Universal Monsters.  The monsters have never been better and this one works every single time!  Plus – at this screening you get all you can eat cereal!

Cabin in the Woods: Beer Dinner – Saturday, October 12 – A fun movie gets a fun screening!  With your ticket (slightly expensive, I should add), comes a meal and drinks tailored specially for the film.  The food at the Alamo is often better than average and for these special screenings they definitely kick it up a notch.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this is right on the money – plus, the movie is so good it might be an impressively special date night option.

A Nightmare on Elm Street: Movie Party – Wednesday, October 16 – Sadly, I’m not able to attend this but I would certainly be there if I could.  Movie Parties at the Alamo are a blast.  Not only are they more lax on their “no talking” rule (you still can’t text, thank you very much!) but they provide you with props to interact more with the movie and your fellow audience members.  If you have the right audience that has come ready to play, it can truly enhance the experience.  I have it on good authority one of the props given out at this party is a Freddy glove…so get your ticket pronto!  If you don’t want your glove after, I want it!!

The Witches: Flashback Brunch – Sunday, October 27 – Ugh!  Another one I can’t make and this one really hurts my heart.  The Witches is one of my all-time favorite films and to miss seeing this one in theaters will haunt me for some time.  Like, truly haunt me.  At this Flashback Brunch, guests can order off of a special brunch menu (not included in the price of the ticket) and I would recommend getting the mimosas – with two selections of fresh squeezed juice and a bottle of champagne provided, it’s well worth the cost.  Plus…the movie is divine.

Check out the full list below:

Looking over this list there are at least 6 other titles I would go and see (I was just there last night to see the excellent documentary Wolfman’s Got Nards and The Monster Squad).  One of these years I’ll be brave enough to tackle the 8 hours of Dismember the Alamo…but tickets go so fast!  I’m looking forward to seeing what November and December brings!

Movie Review ~ Lucy in the Sky


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Astronaut Lucy Cola returns to Earth after a transcendent experience during a mission to space, and begins to lose touch with reality in a world that now seems too small.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Coleman Domingo, Tig Notaro, Jeffrey Donovan, Ellen Burstyn

Director: Noah Hawley

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It seems that in Hollywood they have a much easier time giving men kudos for taking on challenging work and, more specifically, challenging characters.  I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen based on buzz touting the leading man doing something extraordinary by going the extra mile for a role or disappearing deep within a character.  Hold on to your knickers if that same actor appears as someone unlikable or unrelatable because that’s where the awards chatter begins.  Even in 2019, there are several actors being mentioned for major awards that are doing good work but…work that’s awards worthy?  I’m not so sure.

Natalie Portman has always been an interesting actress to me.  Feeling wise beyond her years from a young age, she managed to bypass the teenage comedies that stunted many of her peers and graduated to adult fare and populist entertainment early in her career.  Nabbing an Oscar-nomination at 23 for Closer before winning one at 29 for Black Swan, Portman never settled into one genre or budget-range, preferring to choose projects based on the scripts and directors instead.  She didn’t get quite enough praise for the divisive Annihilation in 2018 and, well, the less said about the annoying Vox Lux, the better. I was hoping Lucy in the Sky would be a return to the kind of Portman performance I had enjoyed in the past, one that was a little more grounded and connected.

The biggest problem I found in this story loosely (very loosely, it turns out) inspired by the true-life story of a NASA astronaut that traveled thousands of miles and assaulted the mistress of her married lover and former co-worker was that it strayed so far from the truth.  I can understand changing some of the details to protect the innocent but screenwriters Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, and Noah Hawley (who also directed) have made so many bone-headed changes that what remains is only a sanitized shadow of what really happened.  Also, one important (and, ok, sensationalized) detail has been completely excised.  So the story has been reduced to just another spurned lover tale we’ve seen done countless times before.

Astronaut Lucy Cola has returned to Earth after a journey to space that has left her, as it has many, a changed person.  As she shares with her fellow astronauts, things just don’t look the same on the ground once you’ve seen the entire globe from space.  Living in Texas with her husband and a niece left with them by her irresponsible brother, Lucy sets her sights on returning to space on the next mission in order to feel that same high she felt before.  During her highly competitive and intensive training, she finds a connection with Mark, another astronaut readying for his own mission and the two begin an affair that will cause Lucy to spin-out of the orbit she has set herself in.  Now, as she feels her stability going out of balance and feeling pressure from Erin, a younger recruit, just as eager as she once was, Lucy’s actions get more erratic until she makes series of decisions that will forever change the course of her life.

Always a problem inherent in movies with cheating spouses is that the cheaters face an uphill battle from the audience when they finally have the face the music.  Are we supposed to feel sorry for these characters for getting caught up in a mess of their own making?  Do we excuse Lucy (Portman) walking out on her husband (Dan Stevens, Apostle) because he’s too…nice?  What about Erin (Zazie Beetz, Joker), Lucy’s competition at work vying for a spot in the next space shuttle mission and for the attention of Mark (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm)?  How much does she factor into what ultimately happens between Lucy and Mark?  Ultimately, aren’t all of these people (save for maybe the jilted husband) kind of awful in their own way?  Hawley also awkwardly places Lucy’s niece on the frontlines for much of this action, alternately as an observer and as a participant and that feels like an inconsiderate adjustment to this story.  Involving a pre-teen in this adult sphere of responsibility isn’t appropriate, no matter how out of touch Lucy begins to get.

Hawley has assembled a hard-working cast that feels like they were possibly signed up for a different kind of movie.  Though it starts with some promise, it eventually comes apart at the seams and not rapidly…it’s a slow slog to the finish line. Along the way there are some quite good scenes with Portman convincingly speaking about how much harder it is for women to get ahead in her line of work and conveying the desperation for perfection and achievement.  I also enjoyed what little we see of Ellen Burstyn (Interstellar), though Hawley seems to only want to use her for a few foul-mouthed punchlines.  The more manic the film gets in its latter half, the weirder Portman’s Texan twang gets and I have to wonder if it wasn’t almost intentional.  It’s as if she’s learned to tone down her drawl to compose herself but when she starts to unravel she reverts back to a Yosemite Sam pattern of speech.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far to say Lucy in the Sky represents the kind of performance that should get Portman the same kind of accolades she received for Jackie or her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan but it is representative of the kind of askew work she seems inherently drawn toward.  Despite a brief foray in recent years into Marvel blockbuster territory with Thor and Thor: The Dark World, Portman has squarely appeared in harder sell pics that take some time to warm up to.  Portman can’t seem to help herself in taking on women with rough exteriors that are cool to the touch but have a fire burning inside waiting to be released.  That she’s found a way to make each one distinct in the way they go about freeing themselves from turmoil is a testament to her creative approach.  It doesn’t quite work to her advantage ultimately in Lucy in the Sky but I can’t imagine anyone else attempting it with such force.

31 Days to Scare ~ Wolfman’s Got Nards: A Documentary

The Facts:

Synopsis: This heartfelt documentary explores the power of cult film told through the lens of the 1987 classic The Monster Squad and the impact it has on fans, cast and crew, and the industry.

Director: André Gower

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  After horror, if there’s one genre that I just can’t get enough of it has got to be documentary features.  There’s something about that reality of interviewing real people or hearing a true life tale recounted that produces a similar charge within that I get from watching a movie meant to send chills up my spine.  So a documentary about a favorite horror film from my youth?  I’m SO there.  Most often, these documentaries are relegated to a bonus feature on whatever special edition DVD/BluRay has been produced from a long-lost classic finally making its debut in a restored print. That’s cool and all, but on the rare occasion a behind the scenes insight into a film’s genesis and staying power is created for distribution in cinemas…well now, that’s an event to be celebrated.

In the past several years, documentaries on beloved horror/cult classics have upped their ante with lengthy explorations on the Friday the 13th (Crystal Lake Memories) and Nightmare on Elm Street (Never Sleep Again) series prime examples of those that have exhaustively covered the work.  What makes a documentary like Wolfman’s Got Nards so unique is that in 91 minutes it manages to amply cover the highlights of the making of 1987’s The Monster Squad while also exploring it’s unexpected resurgence as a cult classic taught in college curriculum and as a touchstone for numerous genre aficionados from the heartland to Hollywood.

By all accounts, when it debuted two weeks after The Lost Boys in August of 1987, The Monster Squad was a total bomb.  Mis-marketed and poorly reviewed, it likely should have been held back a bit longer and built on the success of screenwriter Shane Black’s (Iron Man 3) current project Lethal Weapon, which had been released the previous March.  Fading from theaters and the minds of most people shortly thereafter, a core group of hardcore fans held the movie close to their hearts for years.  I vividly remember renting the movie numerous times from my local video store; after all, I was the target audience for a PG-13 rated film surrounding pre-teens doing battle against a horde of monsters out to rule the world.

It wasn’t until 2006 when a longtime fan partnered with the Alamo Dratfhouse in Austin, TX to hold an anniversary screening that the film started getting the long lost love it richly deserved.  Surprising the cast and director Fred Dekker more than anyone, it kicked off a whirlwind of press and promotion that resulted in the movie making its much heralded debut on DVD and numerous screenings over the last decade.  It also inspired star André Gower to team up with Henry Darrow McComas to produce this documentary about the film, how it’s reputation changed over time, and what that shift meant to those involved.

This is one of the best documentaries made about a movie I’ve seen in quite some time.  Obviously, with Gower involved there’s going to be some sort of level of reverence to the piece, but even if the original film has flaws that’s not what we’re sitting down and watching this for.  It’s also not a straight making-of documentary either.  At my screening, Gower and McComas were present to introduce the film and they mentioned it wasn’t a behind-the-scenes or where-are-they-now film and they’re right.  While it covers the elements of making the movie (which I was grateful for) and includes tidbits not found on the DVD making of doc, it’s more interested in committing to film interviews with fans and supporters who have championed the movie over time and can pinpoint exactly what about the experience of the film is so important to them.

I was surprised at how unexpectedly emotional it was on top of everything else.  One of the most loved characters in the movie is Horace (aka Fat Kid) and the actor who played him, Brent Chalem, sadly died at 22.  Many fans, including myself, only found this out when the collectors edition DVD came out and it’s been a sensitive subject ever since.  This documentary interviews three family friends who give us a bit more information on Brent as the person while several of the film stars get choked up thinking about what he would have thought about all this newfound popularity of his character.  Sitting in the theater watching this sequence, I found myself shedding a tear or two – definitely didn’t think that was going to happen.  While it would have been nice for the doc to acknowledge the several key cast members that are also no longer with us (including the brilliant Mary Ellen Trainor, who played Gower’s mom), I do get why Brent/Horace got his own special shout-out.

Handsomely produced with little padding to extend its running time to 91 minutes, this is a blueprint for how to produce a movie doc that’s not just about how the script came together and why the director cast the actors.  The interviews with the technicians that worked on the film are fascinating and the amount of fan interviews featuring people from all walks of life was astounding.  These types of serious-minded reflections can only happen decades on and I’m glad Gower and company were moved to take the approach they did with this look back on a popular title that continues to gain new fans.  I even stayed after and re-watched The Monster Squad for the first time in a theater and was reminded what a fun watch it was…so is this documentary.

 

Check out my original review of The Monster Squad right here:

 

 

Movie Review ~ Gemini Man


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An over-the-hill hitman faces off against a younger clone of himself.

Stars: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, Linda Emond, Douglas Hodge

Director: Ang Lee

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It isn’t uncommon for some movies to take a long time to get made.  Like, a loooong time.  Commonly referred to as development hell, a script can pass from studio to studio and be revised along the way as it is handed between directors and is attached to different stars.  Quite a few Hollywood blockbusters and even more infamous bombs have toiled along this tortured route and the stories around their creation are either the hard-won tales of success or the blueprint of abject failure.  Last year, we saw a success story with the third remake of A Star is Born which defied all odds and was a sensational retelling after gestating for nearly two decades. This year, another project that’s been in the works for twenty years is finally getting released…and strangely enough the lead (Will Smith) is the guy originally meant for A Star is Born when it was first developed.

You can do a quick Google search or look up the Wikipedia entry for Gemini Man and see all of the A-List stars and directors who have been mentioned as being involved with the film over the years.  To give you an idea of how far back we’re talking, Sean Connery was one of the box-office draws considered for the role at one time or another.  When the rights for the film were finally acquired by Tom Cruise’s production company in 2016 it was naturally assumed it would be for the white-hot actor to star in but instead he handed it over to Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (The Life of Pi), an exciting choice but a less-than-obvious one.  When Will Smith signed on, Gemini Man actually started coming together and, coupled with Lee’s glee in utilizing advanced filmmaking technology, we have a visually arresting but dramatically stilted action film.  It will definitely spike your adrenaline in the appropriate moments, just be prepared for some less than engaging dramatic shifts.

You’re advised to buckle up when the coming attractions are over because once the Paramount studios logo has faded and Gemini Man begins, there’s a lot of information thrown at you in short order.  Government assassin Henry Brogan (Will Smith, Aladdin) has decided to retire after 72 kills.  His aim isn’t quite on pointe anymore and the emotional toll is starting to wear him down.  Plus, he just wants a little R & R at his peaceful homestead nestled in Buttermilk Sound, GA. Side note: has there ever been a more enticing name of a location to want to retire to?   After meeting with an old friend with inside knowledge (Douglas Hodge, Joker), Brogan begins to suspect his last kill was a set-up and now he’s another loose end someone needs to trim. His dreams of serene sunsets as a retiree are dashed quickly as his suspicions are confirmed and he’s targeted by his former agency…and not just because they don’t want to pay extended benefits.

They’re dealing with a pro, though, and to take him down they’re going to need someone who can match him in every way.  Lucky for the agency there’s been a covert project underway for years outsourced to a black ops unit run by Clay Varis (Clive Owen, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) operating under the codename Gemini and they’ve got a secret weapon ready for a test run.  This all leads to Brogan globe hopping with a plucky agent (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and an gregarious ally (Benedict Wong, Doctor Strange) while trying to remain one step ahead of an unrelenting soldier that bears a striking resemblance to Brogan and seems to be able to anticipate his next move.  What’s the secret behind the Gemini program and how far into the organization has the conspiracy infiltrated?

It’s already been revealed that the soldier pursuing Brogan is his clone and what a bummer that is to have had that spoiled in advance.  I know that’s pretty much the entire idea the movie is marketed around but still, consider how much more interesting the film would have been if the identity of this unknown force was kept hidden just a little longer.  The filmmakers sure try to pretend we all hadn’t seen the trailer a hundred times already, attempting to build up suspense for a reveal that doesn’t quite pan out like they planned.  With Smith playing both roles and being de-aged to play his younger self, it works some of the time but more often than not looks creepy.  It’s as if Smith is entirely a CGI creation and not just his face.  The lips don’t always match what his mouth is saying and during some action sequences I swear there are times when Smith’s head is in one place and his face is in another.

Speaking of action sequences, this is the real reason to catch the movie on the biggest screen possible.  Three key bonkers scenes are the total highlight of the film.  A motorcycle chase through Cartagena is a caffeinated delight, culminating in one Will Smith literally beating up another one with a motorcycle.  An impressive fight is staged throughout the catacombs of Budapest and the finale is just the right length without pummeling us with too much gunfire.  It’s too bad this wasn’t screened for critics the way Lee had intended; the film was shot digitally at an extra-high frame rate of 120 fps, modified for 3D and I could see where the impact of some of scenes would have been raised if I’d seen it projected like the director wanted.  I’m probably not going to see this again in theaters so it was the one opportunity to impress me and seeing it projected flat on a 2D display wasn’t cutting it.

Sadly, there’s a lot of movie left over in between all the action and while it’s all beautifully shot by Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns), it’s suffers from a too-serious dramatic performance from Smith.  Smith has long since proven he’s an actor that can headline a summer blockbuster as well as an awards contender but along the way he lost his ear for good dialogue and characters that didn’t aggravate.  He’s more easy-going here than he’s been in a long time but there’s still a desperate need to make what’s mostly a generic action flick more than what it is.  Everyone else seems to understand what level of movie they’re in but it’s like Smith thinks that with Lee directing him he has a shot at an Oscar if he emotes extra hard.  His action scenes are spectacular, his dramatic ones are tough to get through.

Twenty years is a long time for a movie to move through a production cycle and the results of Gemini Man are good but not great.  I was surely entertained for two hours and it’s nice to see Lee continue to surprise by showing there’s not a genre he can’t tackle with some measure of success.  I still wish a bit more of the twists had been held back early on but at least there was one genuine surprise that wasn’t hinted at in early previews.  If you’re going to see this in theaters, and you likely should, go see it the way the filmmaker intended and spring for the extra charge to see it in 3D HFR.  I have a feeling Lee will make it worth your while.

31 Days to Scare ~ Mary (2019)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family looking to start a charter-boat business buys a ship that holds terrifying secrets once out on isolated waters.

Stars: Gary Oldman, Emily Mortimer, Jennifer Esposito, Stefanie Scott, Owen Teague, Michael Landes

Director: Michael Goi

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: There’s a myth in Hollywood that winning a Best Actress Oscar puts a kind of curse on your career for a period of time after you take home the statue.  Most of those who hold some sort of stock in this cite Halle Berry as the prime example of the jinx with the actress starring in a seemingly endless series of flops and non-starters.  After all, her two headlining movies out of the gate after winning her award were Gothika and the notoriously reviled update on Catwoman.  I mention this because we may want to expand this dark cloud watch to the Best Actor Oscar as well because of recent Best Actor winner Gary Oldman setting sail on the high seas with this well-intentioned but ultimately listless horror film.

Unfulfilled with his days working on a tourist fishing boat for a company he doesn’t own, David (Oldman, Darkest Hour) seeks out a cruiser he can invest in to start an excursion business he can manage the way he chooses.  His wife Lisa (Emily Mortimer, Mary Poppins Returns) wants him to be practical with the little savings they do have, so she’s wary when he’s drawn to a ship in bad shape.  As the audience, we know David and Lisa should steer clear of the ship, having been treated to an earlier introduction to the vessel where we get an bloody idea of how her last crew wound up.  David remains resolute and soon, along with their daughters Lindsey (Stefanie Scott, Insidious: Chapter 3) and Mary (Chloe Perrin, Jurassic World) the family has restored the ship and are taking it for a maiden voyage.

Of course, this is when strange things start to happen on board and this is one reason you’ll be glad the movie clocks in at a scant 84 minutes, including credits.  See, the ship might just be under a witch’s curse, having been a Puritan vessel that carted women accused of witchcraft to their watery graves.  Now, a spirit seeks to inhabit the soul of a family member…maybe young Mary.  The family and two crew members aren’t too far out to sea when they experience visions of death and burned corpses, are possessed by an evil host, and just generally go a bit nuts, all culminating in a life or death battle during a particularly nasty storm. The close quarters provide little wiggle room for changes of scenery and the vast ocean horizons give the sense of solitude and just how alone they truly are.

There’s a framework set up in the script from Anthony Jaswinski (who wrote the far more enjoyable Kristy and The Shallows) that takes the air of surprise out of things from moment one.  Opening with one of the characters being interviewed by an officer (Jennifer Espositio, Don’t Say a Word) about the events that happened on the ship, you know the ending already and start to work backward from there.  That unfortunately robs any suspense from the rest of the film and even a last minute, um, Hail Mary, can’t save the awkward plot device.  I never understand why a movie will take this approach without turning it into something more interesting and upending our expectations.  I kept expecting Jaswinski to treat this musty old contrivance with a little more flair – instead I was left feeling this was an early script he dusted off and sold without tinkering with it before turning it in.

Looking at Mary from a 1,000 feet level, one has to wonder how it attracted Oldman in the first place.  Though featured prominently on the poster and billed first (obviously), there’s precious little for Oldman to do for much of the movie, relegating co-star Mortimer to do a fair amount of the heavy lifting which she does admirably.  I kept feeling that wherever the action was taking place, Oldman was on a different deck of the ship, oblivious (or off filming another movie?) to what was going on.  It’s certainly a well-made film that has a clear atmosphere established; television director Michael Goi also served as cinematographer, which I’m guessing added to the film feeling efficiently produced.  The only scares are of the jump variety and Goi at least keeps the movie interesting to look at – I just wish the port of call was a bit more alluring.

31 Days to Scare ~ Scanners

The Facts:

Synopsis: A scientist sends a man with extraordinary psychic powers to hunt others like him.

Stars: Jennifer O’Neill, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, Michael Ironside, Robert A. Silverman

Director: David Cronenberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Around the same time Canada was hopping on the American bandwagon and producing a bunch of teenager slasher films, they also were nurturing a strange vision of another type of horror.  Beginning in 1975 with the landmark Shivers, director David Cronenberg has been a pioneer in crafting a particular type of scare fest that goes beyond an outside force acting hacking away at an unsuspecting innocent.  He’s clearly been more intrigued with persona and the “body horror” subgenre in films like Rabid (a woman becomes a zombie after having plastic surgery), The Brood (psychotherapy produces demonic entities), and Videodrome (the original attack on mass media’s negative influence) and, of course, Scanners.

Released in 1981 and probably best remembered today as the movie where that guy’s head explodes, it’s so much more than that.  While it doesn’t feature any revolutionary technique in filmmaking or the kind of memorable (okay, good) performances that stand up against similar movies released in that era, its themes are sophisticated and more often than not well ahead of its time.  Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method) obviously had deeper themes about the rising of the next generation of leaders and wanted to say something about the dangers in handing over the keys to a fragile kingdom so fearlessly.

There’s a new weapon on display courtesy of a company called ConSec and they are called “scanners”.  With the ability to control the minds of others, these psychics are initially meant to be a way to infiltrate enemies consciousness and anticipate their next move or prevent them from taking action.  However, as with any weapon designed for good there are those who want to use it for evil and that’s where scanner Daryl Revok comes in.  After making a rather messy demonstration of a scanner with lesser strength, Revok (Michael Ironside, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) goes on the run and exposes he has formed his own group of aggressive scanners that oppose the more docile troupe employed by ConSec.  Revok’s more take charge minions want to be calling the shots and not rely on the passive ConSec scanners to lead the way.

The man behind the the ConSec operation is Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan, Braveheart) who reluctantly calls in troubled scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, Dead Ringers) to help track down Revok before he goes too far with his plans.  Vale has suffered terribly with his dark gift, winding up on the street and not always being able to control his powers.  With the aid of a new drug  meant to quiet some of his unstable rumblings, Vale agrees to help Dr. Ruth (save your jokes) because he’s the only one that’s any kind of match for Revok. Picking up another individual with special skills along the way (Jennifer O’Neill, The Psychic), the trio are in a race against time to figure out where Revok will strike next.  There’s an added layer of mystery involving a link between Vale and Revok that, convenient as it may be, helps keep the film coloring inside the lines until its rushed ending.

I’d say Scanners is about ten minutes longer than it needed to be with a few too many dips in the action.  While I applaud Cronenberg building out some character backstory with Vale and even more so by giving Revok a decent amount of motivation beyond being a simple megalomaniac, it does weigh down the film when it should be picking up steam.  Credit also to Lack and Ironside (and all the scanners, actually) for developing their own facial twists and tics in conveying their powers – it could be laughable to some but it’s highly effective when paired with Howard Shore’s pulsating score.  The effects are a bit hokey but somehow it all works as part of the grand design of Cronenberg’s master plan.

There’s a reason why Scanners has gone on to become a cult classic and spawn several lesser-than sequels (but oddly no remake) and it’s not because of that aforementioned head-exploding scene, which I must say is divine.  It’s because it’s a smart, well-constructed film that delivers the goods when necessary.  I’m not sure it has a high yearly re-watchability factor but it’s absolutely something you could revisit every five years or so with satisfaction.