31 Days to Scare ~ Drive-In Double Feature: The Car (1977) & The Hearse (1980)

Each year when I set out to do this series I make an effort not to repeat myself within these 31 days.  It’s difficult when there are so many worthy titles to choose from and a number of quality studios that produced a wealth of films that are waiting to be watched.  Still, once I’ve done a vampire flick I attempt to keep it firmly crossed off my list, but if I find myself in the company of another movie with fangs that I just have to include, I’ll allow it only if it has an interesting angle I can work with.

What I like more than anything is to do a deep dive into the movies that are rarely resurrected year over year and dust them off for a new audience.  I know everyone has their Halloween favorites and you can still have your night-of watch list ready to go but there’s always room to expand your horror horizons beyond your comfort-zone neighborhood Michael Myers is stalking.  Now, often there’s a reason these films gather dust and are only available to watch via YouTube or pricey BluRays released via boutique labels.  Either they were never good to begin with or time hasn’t been kind to them, rendering whatever scares they held in their initial release null and void.  Still, it’s these titles that prove fascinating to watch and think about what viewers must have felt sitting in a theater (or a drive-in) watching these quirky wonders unspool in front of them.

Today I’m giving you what I’m calling a Drive-In Double Feature and the title serves two purposes.  The first is that I can imagine both of these schlocky titles on a neon-lit marquee at a rural drive-in during their first run and the second is that both are vehicle themed…so it’s a way I can get around the whole “not repeating myself” business and feeling not an ounce of shame.  So put your car in park and sit back for today’s 31 Days to Scare Double Feature: 1977’s The Car and 1980’s The Hearse.

 

The Car

The Facts:
Synopsis: A powerful, seemingly possessed car terrorizes a small desert town, and the local sheriff may be the only one who can stop it.
Stars: James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, R.G. Armstrong, John Rubinstein, Elizabeth Thompson
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Rated: PG
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Two years after their release of JAWS changed the landscape for movies forever, Universal Studios was, like every other studio in Hollywood, doing their best to find a similar property to scare the bejeebus out of audiences.  With production on JAWS 2 not quite ready and soon to be headed for major waves and a number of other projects failing to achieve true liftoff, there was little reason for Universal not to gamble on giving the greenlight to a film that must have sounded totally bonkers on paper.  A mysterious black car arrives out of nowhere in a nothing Utah town and starts terrorizing the townspeople with no apparent rhyme or reason.  The only people that can stop it include a sheriff, a gruff drunk everyone in town avoids, and an idealistic deputy struggling with addiction that believes in a higher power.  Does this set-up sound at all familiar?  Is it any wonder Universal was tempted to bite?

Yes, of course The Car is a blatant rip off of JAWS like a number of lesser-than imitators were at that time and, like those swiftly made efforts, it follows it’s muse so closely that it fails to come up with many unique ideas of its own.  However, unlike its copycat brethren, The Car manages to be incredibly silly yet take itself seriously and not come off like it isn’t in on some kind of joke.  It’s entertaining as all get-out and while it’s too long by a solid 15 minutes I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have several impressively staged action sequences and one truly fall out of your chair shock with mouth agape.  I had set myself up to be slightly amused by people running away in fear of a mean ‘ole car but found myself feeling rather invested in it all, even when it teeters into mysticism and religious tropes that feel out of its grasp.

Fans of The Shining will note from the start the use of Dies Irae throughout the film, especially in its ominous opening credits.  That music is so tied to that 1980 Stanley Kubrick film you’ll need to remind yourself The Car came out three years before.  It does set a mood from the beginning, though, as director Elliot Silverstein stages the first attack on two young bikers on a picturesque canyon route.  Filming from the car’s POV and accompanied by Leonard Rosenman’s stinging score, this opening is incredibly effective and led me to believe The Car would be more than it’s silly premise would have had me believe.  Unfortunately, these opening moments are about as intentionally serious as the film is going to get.

From there, we meet Sheriff Wade Parent (James Brolin, The 33) a second-generation lawman and single dad trying to keep his relationship with school teacher Lauren (a plucky Kathleen Lloyd) a secret from his two young daughters (played by real life sisters Kim and Kyle Richards, the latter of which would appear in Halloween the next year).  The relationship drama takes a backseat when the car takes out a drifter and then targets a crowded event which is the source of an extended bit of mayhem which tips us off there’s more to this car than meets the eye.  The more the town tries to predict the next move the car will make, the less predictable it becomes and the greater its attacks feel personal against the people out to stop it.

I genuinely liked the majority of the characters that drift through the film and even the car itself finds a way to display some kind of personality.  There’s a certified menace to the black beast that shows up when people least expect it when everyone isn’t busy trying to make it so much like the shark in JAWS.  Watch for a shot where the car is running parallel to a dune and you can just barely see it’s top fender…looks an awful lot like a fin skimming the surface of the water.  Brolin has just the right attitude for the role and doesn’t seem to be irked that he’s often upstaged by the car, though his scenes with Lloyd are a bit on the goofy end of things.  Their opening intro felt like the first scene of a discarded Neil Simon play.

How much terror one can derive from a big black car that you can see often see coming from a great distance thanks to the dust-up on the Utah plains is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.  Still, a small part of you will have to admit that when all the elements combine to firer on all cylinders it works better than you’d expect.  My hopes were raised by those opening moments so be forewarned that while it’s not totally downhill from there, it decreases in excitement (save for that one big unexpected turn of events ¾ of the way through) after the car claims its first victims.


The Hearse


The Facts
:
Synopsis: A schoolteacher moves into her deceased aunt’s home in a small town, only to find herself plagued by supernatural occurrences and unexplained hostility from the local townspeople connected to her aunt’s past.
Stars: Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gautreaux, Perry Lang, Donald Hotton, Med Flory, Donald Petrie, Christopher McDonald
Director: George Bowers
Rated: PG
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  Horror movies can truly be feast or famine not just for viewers but for actors as well.  Take the star of The Hearse, Trish Van Devere.  In 1980, Van Devere appeared in two theatrically released films, both in the horror genre.  The first, The Changeling, was released in March and has gone on to haunt many a Top 10 list of creepiest and scariest films of all time.  I certainly have a high regard for that film and recommend it strongly to you this Halloween season.  Not three months later, Van Devere would have a leading role in The Hearse, but the lasting impact of this one would not be as comparable.  To go from classic to crap in short order is unfortunate but it’s not all Van Devere’s fault.

Divorced San Francisco teacher Jane Hardy (Van Devere) has chosen to spend the summer out of town (where is never truly specified), fixing up her aunt’s old house that was left to her by her mother.  Arriving in the town of Blackford late at night with apparently no solid notice of her pending arrival, the growly probate lawyer (Joseph Cotton) isn’t happy to see her…foreshadowing the attitude of everyone she’ll meet in town.  There’s also the case of the mysterious hearse and its disfigured driver that nearly t-boned her as she entered the town and seems to be following her as the days go on.

As she settles into her aunt’s house, she ignores some pretty major signs that all is not well in the dwelling and not just the, let’s just say what it is, ugly décor.  Blackford also appears to be a hub for creeps, the sheriff is a leering goon and the otherwise benign pastor has a ghastly laugh that will either send chills up your spine or have you bursting out laughing right back.  Befriended by a love-struck teen (Perry Lang) who mostly likes her but also wants to impress his horndog friends (including a young Christopher McDonald from Grease 2), Jane instead falls for the biggest weirdo of them all, Tom (David Gautreaux). Appearing out of nowhere and playing a character with an air of mystery that’s so obvious you want to reach in and shake Jane to open her eyes and see what’s going on in front of her, their courtship is scarier than a number of the jump frights staged by Bowers.

One of the pieces of the puzzle here I never could quite get over was Jane’s ties to the house.  She never lived there and it doesn’t sound like she visited it.  It’s not one of those classic movie houses that someone inherits where you feel like they were given a real gift…this place looks like something you’d bulldoze and start over again.  Overall, Jane is just one of those characters that’s self-reliant just long enough for her to go out on her own and then she suddenly becomes too timid to do anything more than run out of her house anytime she sees something that frightens her.  In addition, after she finds a diary she starts to read it aloud to herself.  I never understand that in movies – why they do that.  Who are they reading to?

The movie is just very dumb and despite a few interesting jumps, is a yawner of the first-degree.  Its slow-pace and lack of a strong leading lady also adds to the drag.  You can tell Van Devere is trying but lack of budget or a decent script holds her back from making anything happen with the piece.  Why the script has her experiencing these horrific visions and being terrorized nightly only to return to the very scene of the crime as if nothing happened is the film’s biggest mystery.  I have a hunch that had this gotten a rewrite from a writer more in tune with crime fiction or with lengthy experience in constructing suspense, this may have been passable.

Produced and released by Crown International Pictures, which was known for their inexpensive films that catered to crowds of the teenage boy variety, The Hearse is a bit of a more adult departure for them, which is likely a problem at the outset.  A PG rated horror film with little in the way of blood and no gore or nudity was a gamble considering the market was being flooded with Halloween knock-offs and the original Friday the 13th had debuted a month before The Hearse drove into theaters.  Even if the script from William Bleich had a bit much punch and less paunch, director George Bowers would have faced an uphill climb to sell his feature on mood alone.  You’re never truly happy to see a hearse drive by but you’ll especially want to avoid The Hearse if it appears as an option in your queue.

31 Days to Scare ~ Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D

The Facts:

Synopsis: Jason Voorhees takes refuge at a cabin near Crystal Lake and continues his killing spree as a group of co-eds arrive for their vacation.

Stars: Dana Kimmell, Richard Brooker, Paul Kratka, Tracie Savage, Catherine Parks, Jeffrey Rogers, Larry Zerner, Rachel Howard, David Katims

Director: Steve Miner

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If there’s an era of film-going I wish I could go back to, it would definitely be the early ’80s when the seats weren’t stadium, malls had just a few screens, and you often had to wait in line through the screening before yours to secure your seat for the next show.  Stuck at home without all the bells and whistles of going to a theater, it’s nice to take some sort of solace in any kind of feature in your home cinema that enhances your experience which is why I’m glad I have a 3D television that not only plays movies released in 3D but converts regular programming into that format.  I grew up after the small resurgence of the 3D gimmick happened so never had the chance to see films like Parasite 3D (the early Demi Moore film, not the recent Oscar winner), Jaws 3D, or Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D.  Growing up, I’d watch these films and wonder why they looked so terrible and how come there’d be random items that would be shoved in front of the camera lens and then held there for extended periods of time. Though I’ve sadly never gotten the opportunity to see them in theaters projected as they were back in the day, Parasite 3D and Jaws 3D were eventually released on BluRay in a 3D format that allowed you to ditch the awful Red/Blue cardboard glasses that caused your eyes to cross and just use the regular sleek shades provided to those that had 3D televisions.  That just left Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D as the one I’d been wishing for.

Thankfully, my movie-loving prayers were answered this year with the arrival of Scream Factory’s gigantic collector’s edition of the Friday the 13th series which included a spiffy new 3D version of Part 3.  Now, I’d finally get to clearly see all of the effects and sit through the entire film without popping a few Tylenol halfway through.  Part 3 had never been a favorite of mine to begin with but it’s notable for a few reasons, the first is obviously the 3D and the second is that this is the one where killer Jason Voorhees gets his infamous hockey mask.  So after catching up with the original Friday the 13th and its fun but quickly made sequel, it was time to throw on my glasses and see Jason leap off the screen.  Released just 28 months after the original film (Part II came out 11 months after the first!) and swapping filming locations from the East Coast to California this would be the biggest box office take of the series to date and picks up the day after it’s predecessor ends.

After a traumatic encounter in the woods two years earlier seemingly unconnected to the massacre at Camp Crystal Lake, Chris (Dana Kimmell) has returned to her family cabin on the lake with her college friends for a relaxing weekend.  Too bad for them Jason has just hacked his way through a group of counselors in training (from Part II) nearby, fled the scene, and is now lurking around the property.  As Chris reconnects with her onetime boyfriend Rick (Paul Kratka, one of the hunkier leading men in the series and also one of the worst actors) on an evening drive, the rest of her friends stay behind to play practical jokes, smoke weed, fornicate, and meet gruesome ends by the hulking killer.  When prankster Shelley (Larry Zerner) scares Vera (the lovely Catherine Parks, a personal fave) wearing a hockey mask, you can’t help but get a little zing of excitement at the realization that soon the unmasked murderer, whose face returning director Steve Miner has gone to great lengths to hide, will soon be wearing it.  As the numbers dwindle and a final showdown begins, Miner repeats much of what he did in the last film but having Jason go up against a resourceful foe that won’t go down without a substantial fight.

There are some films that just are what they are and no matter how much you fancy them up or try to rewrite their history, they just aren’t going to improve.  As I said before, Part 3 has consistently been on the lower end of my appreciation list and it’s not because this is the first one that starts to feel like a machine more than a movie but because there’s a lack of authenticity to the whole film that gives off a phony quality.  Perhaps the change of scenery to California is the cause of that; most everyone feels like they came out of the same acting class.  Their look, their style, their choices…all of it has a slickness to it that was missing from the first two and that’s not a good thing.  Also, the weathered ranch with a dingy beach the movie was filmed on looks nothing like a lush lakefront so believing you’re back on Crystal Lake is a stretch. One could also argue that the script from Martin Kitrosser and Carol Watson with additional material from an uncredited Petru Popescu was lacking in sufficient development of characters and the Voorhees myth. Two stoner characters might have been fun in 1982 but watching them now I have no idea how they related to the other people and why they were present.  Also, the silly background story given to Chris seems to imply that Chris may have met one of the characters from Part II before and been, well…I mean…I just can’t say it.  Watch it and you’ll know what I’m referring to and you can draw your own conclusions.  All I’m saying is that you could outright skip this one and move on to the excellent Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and not miss anything crucial to the overall timeline.

What the film does have are some gags that are pretty fun in 3D.  A number of these are of the eye-rolling variety (and two of the eyeball variety) but the effect is put to good use not just in the obvious ways but by adding depth to locations and sharp weapons that come flying out at you.  The barn on the property gets heavily used and its well appointed set has a number of nooks and crannies that play well with a 3D view.  While the murders may not fully benefit from the filming technique, there were a few cool shots I hadn’t noticed before which were enhanced by a body or body part popping out a bit more.  All in all, it was well worth the wait to finally see this as audiences did back in 1982.  You can see why it took a hefty sum at the box office and how the producers original plan to end the series as a trilogy tempted them to call it a day with “The Final Chapter” a year later.  I’d still have to resist the urge to skip this one if I was attempting a marathon but knowing I could watch the disco-scored credits in the pleasant 3D might sway my thoughts moving forward.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Jacob’s Ladder (1990)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The life of a traumatized Vietnam veteran begins to unravel as the line between reality and nightmarish visions becomes blurred

Stars: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames

Director: Adrian Lyne

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There are a few reasons why I do this special series 31 Days to Scare every year.  First and foremost is that it commits me to writing something every day and doesn’t give me an excuse to forget or procrastinate.  Another reason is that I’m primarily watching horror/suspense films throughout October so why not make it easier on myself and write about what’s totally fresh in my mind?  The third reason is that is gives me an opportunity to go back and revisit older films that I’d been wanting to review but hadn’t or saw long ago and didn’t remember.  I’ve found there’s a nice balance to doing that and during the year I’ll bookmark titles that I want to save for this month.

One of those selections that’s been in the hopper for a few cycles now is Jacob’s Ladder, a 1990 horror film from director Adrian Lyne.  I’d seen it only once, when it was first released on VHS and never again since but bits and pieces of it had stuck with me over the years.  I didn’t really recall the finer details of the plot so I figured I had enough distance to come at it with a decently unvarnished perspective.  Often listed on lists of the best scary movies from that era, viewing Jacob’s Ladder as an adult I can see why it’s more mature take on death, hell, and demons wouldn’t have spoken to me as an adolescent.  Now, the watch was harrowing.

Opening in 1971 Vietnam, we find Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins, Thanks for Sharing) and his platoon unaware of the danger waiting close by.  An enemy attack leads to a frenzy of action and carnage, leveling the unit in what we think is one thing but turns out to be another bleak nightmare from a future Jacob who has already returned safely from the war.  Obviously damaged by what he saw and experienced, he continues to have dreams of dying and these visions begin to manifest themselves in his daily life.  He sees tentacles and tails on friends and loved ones, a charge nurse has something growing out of the back of her head, he’s pursued by a faceless gang of terrors, but none of this is witnessed by anyone else.

His girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña, Grandma) is concerned at first but eventually turns fearful for Jacob as his body begins to show the effects of his paranoia.  Still grieving the loss of his son from his first marriage, she tries to help him stave off those memories in the worst way possible and her tough love approach appears to the audience to be doing more harm than good.  When Jacob meets up with his army buddies and discovers they too have been having similar visions, they start to uncover a conspiracy tied to their time in the war that may explain what’s happening to them now.

There’s more to Jacob’s Ladder than meets the eye at first glance.  I don’t want to say it has a twist because then you’ll be spending the movie looking out for the tables to turn.  Think of it more as a different way of viewing what you’ve just seen because it’s a really a key bit of information given to the audience at the very end.  You may have already arrived at that information on your own but even knowing the ending myself and watching for any clues, Lyne and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who would win an Oscar the same year for Ghost) do a remarkable job keeping their cards close while not cheating.

Known for directing his more adult films like Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks, and Flashdance, Lyne brings his same attention to detail and eye for making New York look ominous yet strangely attractive all at once.  The movie would be spooky under any director considering Rubin’s trippy script but Lyne does actually fill it with arresting imagery that creates some honest to goodness frights.  Not just your run of the mill jump scares but visuals of eyeless surgeons and bloody ghouls that will haunt you long after the movie has concluded.  On the flip side, when Lyne wants to change the mood he’s able to take us to a lighter place to comfort us by having cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball (Top Gun) soften some of the harsh gradients.

I’ve never made a firm decision on my feelings toward Robbins but this turns out to be a great role for him.  His lanky frame, glassy eyes, and sallow face speak to a man troubled by lingering memories from his past that have now come back to steal something more in the future.  It’s a rough road Lyne asks him to travel but Robbins is up for the race.  He’s well matched with the late Peña as his girlfriend that we aren’t sure if we fully trust or not.  Required to be more naked than I think is necessary (until I remember this is an Adrian Lyne film), the actress handles these and other spoiler-y scenes near the end with a cool professionalism.  Pour one out for Danny Aiello (Radio Days) as a kindly chiropractor and the rest of the platoon and large supporting cast filled with familiar faces.

Not a huge box office hit when first released, Jacob’s Ladder was given some semblance of a new life on VHS where it was able to find a more relaxed audience.  I’m glad it did, too, because it’s a strong effort from all involved and one that has good replay value.  The popularity was so big, in fact, that it was said to have influenced the creators of the video game Silent Hill and even got itself a lackluster remake in 2019.  My advice is to stick with the original and give it a shot.  Not only does it represent a fine slice of early ‘90s entertainment from a top director of the time but you might find yourself keeping a light or two on after.

31 Days to Scare ~ Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb

The Facts:

Synopsis: A British archaeologist and his team bring an embalmed Egyptian royal back from their latest expedition, and trouble ensues when the archaeologist’s daughter is possessed.

Stars: Andrew Keir, Valerie Leon, James Villiers, Hugh Burden, George Coulouris, Mark Edwards, Rosalie Crutchley, Aubrey Morris, David Markham

Director: Seth Holt

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’m still more than a little disappointed that 2017’s The Mummy was such a lackluster bust.  Not only did it stop Universal’s planned onslaught of re-envisioning their classic monster catalog, but it wasted a prime opportunity to use their gender-swapped title character in any meaningful way.  It was more about star Tom Cruise than any gauze-wrapped undead wreaking havoc in modern times.  While Universal making their mummy female was applauded, it was far from the first time that change was made (that would be 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse) and other studios had attempted their own twist on mummy norms over the years.

One studio that gave it a shot was Hammer, this British company that churned out oodles of genre pictures covering every kind of beastie and baddie.  Already three deep in their mummy series and wanting to change things up, they looked to none other than Bram Stoker for inspiration on their next picture, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb.  Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars was published in 1903 and concerns an ancient evil Egyptian queen, a group of unwise archaeologists, and a young girl that becomes a vessel for the rebirth of the queen’s violent spirit.  This would be a different kind of mummy movie, with the same storyline fueled by revenge but carried out in far more supernaturally obtuse methods and showcasing less rotting flesh in favor of the ample cleavage of its well-endowed star.

Margaret (Valerie Leon, The Spy Who Loved Me) has been having increasingly vivid nightmares about the mummification of a beautiful queen.  Adored in finery and surrounded by key artifacts, not to mention a whopper of a ring, the body is well-preserved save for her hand which is violently cut off but remains fairly…active.  In present day, her father (Andrew Keir) a retired archaeologist gives her the same ring from her dreams as an early birthday present, a coincidence that’s just the beginning of Margaret completing a long-gestating connection to Queen Tera, the woman of her dreams. As Margaret becomes more entwined with the spirit of Queen Tera, her father’s old expedition companions begin to sense what can only be described as a disturbance in the force.  Flashbacks reveal their presence as Margaret’s father discovered Queen Tera’s tomb (of course dust/cobweb free and with her body in immaculate condition) and they all took something from their find.  Now, with Tera controlling Margaret, she needs these pieces back by any means necessary so she may live again and continue her reign of terror.  The bodies start to pile up at the same time Tera’s treasures begin to find their way home, leading to a showdown for Margaret’s spirit.

The production of Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is legendary.   Original star Peter Cushing left the production after a day to tend to his terminally ill wife, a production assistant was killed, and director Seth Holt died before filming was completed.  Seemed there was a curse of some sort over the film and perhaps that’s why it had a rather lackluster reception at the time of its release, despite it being a fairly enjoyable, if overly tame, ride when compared to its elegantly wrapped series siblings.  There’s just something odd about calling the film a mummy movie when it’s more about possession and reincarnation than anything.  The final image is a great visual and teed up a sequel that, due to poor box office returns, sadly never materialized.

Hammer produced so many films that it can be easy to start writing off the lesser known ones like this…just as it’s easy to call titles that aren’t that great underrated.  I think this falls somewhere in the middle of it all…and at least from what I hear it’s better than The Awakening, the 1980 Charlton Heston version of Stoker’s story.   There are definitely things to improve in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb but I can’t help but wonder if that change of directors didn’t figure into some of the confusing plot shifts in the final act (a main character leaves a room and dies in such a strange way it feels like a dream) so it’s possible to give the film a pass on that.  Though she’s inexplicably dubbed, Leon is a lovely lead and there’s a slow-motion shot of her walking toward her evil double in the middle of the night that’s truly haunting but also beautiful at the same time.  If you can find this one, I say give it a go because you might be surprised at how much you like it.

31 Days to Scare ~ Bad Hair


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ambitious young woman gets a weave in order to succeed in the image-obsessed world of music television circa 1989. However, her flourishing career comes at a great cost when she realizes that her new hair may have a mind of its own.

Stars: Elle Lorraine, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Judith Scott, James Van Der Beek, Usher Raymond IV, Blair Underwood,  Vanessa Williams

Director: Justin Simien

Rated: NR

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  Not that I have much of it to speak of now, but there was a time when getting a haircut was a big deal.  When I started making my own hair decisions (meaning, my dad stopped taking me to his barber and telling him to “give me the usual”) it took a while to find the right person to give me the cut I wanted.  Looking through the men on both sides of my family I knew I was fighting a losing battle so was always prepared for the end.  Until that time, though, I was going to treat my hair with flair.  So I get the way that hair plays a huge part into the way we feel about ourselves and why a haircut during a difficult time in our lives is often the way we first signal a change is necessary.

In 1989, I think I had those horrible parallel gradient lines buzzed into my hair (all photo evidence has been destroyed or is in a safe location so don’t go looking for it) but for Bad Hair’s Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), her situation is far worse.  As a child she had a bad run in with a poorly applied relaxer and her scalp has never been the same, forcing her to keep her style largely natural to avoid any further irritation.  Normally, this would be something most of us could live with but Anna’s working in Los Angeles at one of the hottest music networks (think MTV but run by a James Van Der Beek type, played by James Van Der Beek) and dreams of becoming a host on their popular video program.

When her team undergoes a restructuring, she impresses her new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams, Miss Virginia) with her ideas but not her looks.  The ex-model suggests Anna start with her hair and offers the name of a stylist that had recently worked wonders on singer sensation Sandra (Kelly Rowland).  Determined, Anna heads to Virgie’s (Laverne Cox, Charlie’s Angels) where the cryptic woman helps her find the perfect weave.  Armed with a glam new look and a fresh aura of confidence, Anna is set on a path to success only to be derailed when her locks begin to display strange, life-like behavior and a fondness for blood.  Possessed by her hair, no one is safe from Anna’s tresses of terror.

Writer/director Justin Simien’s film has so many things going for it that it depresses me to no end to report that Bad Hair (streaming on Hulu starting 10/23) isn’t the fun bit of campy horror it sounds like it’s going to be.  True, there are moments of wit and some humor to be had from the observances from the time and the cultural norms of the day, most of it provided by Lena Waithe (Queen & Slim) as Anna’s co-worker who already hosts her own show.  The biggest problem going on here is the severely poor special effects that sink an already shaky ship.  Plenty of films can skate by with a small budget and decent special effects because they know how to work around them.  However, in Bad Hair, Simien relies so much on terribly rendered effects that its robs the actors and action of any credibility or suspense because the viewer is totally taken out of the moment thinking about the poor quality of what’s onscreen.

You can also add an unnecessarily long run-time to the list of thumbs-down factors because at 115 minutes, Bad Hair needs a good trim.  It’s simply too long and unruly to justify that length and the time it does use up it doesn’t dole out wisely.  Not enough effort is spent to set-up the acknowledgement that something awful is happening in the offices of the music network – people are vanishing left and right courtesy of the hungry hair yet there are hardly any establishing scenes showing anyone is discussing this.  Basically, it’s just a series of scenes of Anna’s weave acting wonky and then the next event happens.  There’s a mass slaughter of key players and all is well the previous day.  Did they not have the police working back then?  The first twenty minutes are so cleverly constructed that you wind up wondering where all that creative energy went in the final 90 minutes that seem to stretch on forever.

The best thing to come out of this experience is getting to know Elle Lorraine as the dynamite lead of the film.  Whatever I thought about the movie, its effects, or its pacing, there’s little denying that Lorraine is a bona fide star and will go on to better things after this.  She’s practically the only person other than Waithe and a great Judith Scott as Anna’s ousted boss, who feels like they realize they’re in a feature film.  Everyone else is strictly playing for a television audience, none more so than Vanessa Williams.  Oh dear.  Vanessa. Williams.  Playing her umpteenth ex-model witchy backstabbing narcissist, I simply don’t see the rationale for Simien using her for this role.  Bringing nothing new or interesting to the role and developing into exactly what we think she will, Simien lost a chance to go after someone unexpected not known for playing this type of maneater and non girls-girl to play a type of role Williams has got the market cornered on. What a flat, boring,  uninspired casting choice on a grand scale.

I almost feel like a broken record saying this but I get to thinking that Simien’s story started out as an episode for some anthology series or film that he then expanded to full-feature length.  It doesn’t have the substance to qualify for that expansion, even though a head-spinning ending created a twist so devious (and, yes, interesting) I wish the actor involved had been in two or three more scenes so their reappearance made more sense.  If you’re going to attempt a final zinger like Simien does, you have to set it up better and, like many things in Bad Hair, it isn’t fully realized.  I expected much more from this and had hoped it would have found the same Little (Hair)Shop of Horrors vibe it felt like it wanted to go after.  Instead, the effects weren’t even comically bad in an Ed Wood sort of way.  Very disappointing.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Witches

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1967 an orphaned boy and his grandmother find themselves in an unexpected battle against a coven of glamorous witches.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth, Josette Simon, Codie-Lei Eastick, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Oh, but do I love the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 fantasy book The Witches.  How much do I love it?  At our local discount movie theater I managed to see it a whopping ten times when it played for several weeks on account of its good business in the later months of 1990.  Though it failed to catch major fire at the main box office, it’s gone on to become one of those movies you can mention to kids who grew up in that generation and they’ll light up recalling their memories of their first or forty-first time seeing it.  The practical effects by Jim Henson (it was the last film the creative puppeteer/designer personally oversaw), the wickedly wonderful performance from Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, and a lovely overall production shaped by director Nicolas Roeg made The Witches a nicely askew family film.  A rare treat in those tricky times.

Full disclosure, I was fairly incredulous when I heard the news director Robert Zemeckis was undertaking a remake of The Witches for Warner Brothers and it’s not just because I was feeling a little protective of a childhood favorite.  Zemeckis had a decidedly spotty track record over the past decade with Welcome to Marwen (awful), Allied (good but forgotten), The Walk (more technical than personable), and Flight (compelling but also not entirely memorable) unable to create the same excitement as the Oscar-winning director’s phenomenal run in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  With Academy Award-winners Anne Hathaway (The Hustle) and Octavia Spencer (Ma) joining the cast and word of the script being a collaboration between Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Kenya Barris (Girls Trip)…my initial reaction began to soften.

Around the same time, I heard del Toro and Barris had shifted the setting from England to the South in the 1960’s and suddenly…I was totally sold on it.  It was a brilliant idea to make this change and taking the opportunity to utilize the time period of the ‘60s and oceanside location was a great way to update Dahl’s original upper crust seaside resort. It also helped provide an easy solution to the lack of diversity in the previous version – now the film has the look and feel of Alabama in the waning days of 1967 when a young boy from Chicago (Jahzir Bruno) loses his parents and comes to live with his grandmother (Spencer) in the fictional southern city of Demopolis.  Other than these geographic changes and a few adjustments along the way, little more had to be done to get The Witches on its broomstick and off on some high flying fun.

When a snowy car crash claims his parents, a big city youngster is taken in by his small town grandmother.  At first, the boy lacks any will to do much of anything, despite his grandmother’s best efforts to break him out of his funk.  Eventually, a pet mouse encourages him out of his shell…just in time for a local witch to make her presence known.  Alerting his grandmother to the strange woman with a raspy voice, gloved hands, and odd lines on the side of her mouth, she tells him the truth about witches inlcuding how to spot one, and how they despise children more than anything.  Dabbling in a bit of magic herself, the grandmother senses danger is close and whisks the boy away to a luxe resort presided over by a stuffy hotel manager (Stanley Tucci, Beauty & the Beast) where they’ll be safe…if it wasn’t for the convention of witches that have arrived on the very same day.  Now, they’ll have to outsmart the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who has devised a sinister plot to rid the world of all children with a mere drop of a special potion.

Sticking closer to Dahl’s original story (ending and all) than the 1990 film, Zemeckis has returned to the kind of full-out fantasy storytelling he was so good at in the Back to the Future series and the dynamic blending of special effects with live-action performances he pioneered in 1992’s Death Becomes Her.  The production design throughout is pristine, as are the colorful costumes (and wigs) worn by the witches and especially Hathaway’s killer garb.  I appreciated the focus first on character building before getting to the witch-y business and Zemeckis takes his time getting to the convention, by that time we’ve grown attached to the boy and his grandmother so we are completely invested in their surviving this battle royale with demon do-baddies.  Though it eventually gives way to a series of sequences dependent on believable effects, the film isn’t entirely beholden to its computer generated imagery as has been the case for a number of Zemeckis films.

In my original review of Roeg’s The Witches, I mentioned how I thought that film was too scary for young children, but this outdoes that one by a mile.  These witches have large mouths that open like wolves, noses that expand, and appendages that give the special effects folks space to let their imaginations run wild.  All of the CGI looks stellar and is convincing in the context of the world Zemeckis has established, but it does ratchet up the intensity as the ferocious faces and claws almost appear to push out into the screen…and if you know Zemeckis you know he loves a close-up of his work.  This is absolutely, positively, not for young children.  For adults, however, it’s tremendous fun that also has moments of riotous humor sprinkled throughout.

Like Huston before her, Hathaway is practically drooling with delight throughout the film and you get the impression she may have offered to pay the producers back some of her salary because she had such a good time.  She’s sets the tone for the rest of the witches who factor in less than the original, so much so that they are almost a non-entity – I would have liked to have a few of them step out more and had their own development but by and large it’s a one-witch-show with Hathaway dominating their scenes.  She’s paralleled nicely by Spencer as the warm-hearted but tough-love dispensing heroine who has already dealt with a witch before once and lived to tell the tale and doesn’t intend to let her grandson fall victim on her watch.  The children, Bruno and Codie-Lei Eastick (Holmes & Watson), do most of their work in voice-over and still manage to create commendable characters from just their voices.  Speaking of voices, Chris Rock (What To Expect When You’re Expecting) narrates the story with a gruff sparkle that kicks things off with a jolt of energy.

It must be the destiny of The Witches to fall flat at the ending and while this follows the book’s finale closer than before the ending that’s included here feels rather perfunctory and tacked on.  It’s almost as if del Toro, Barris, and Zemeckis weren’t quite ready to end things so they just stopped filming one day and never came back.  The rest of the film is so satisfyingly entertaining that these final moments are a strange deflation after so much puffing up.  Originally intended for release in theaters until the pandemic derailed the plans, it’s a real shame The Witches isn’t getting a debut on the big screen because it would have looked fantastic projected on a large scale to enjoy the world the creators have brought to life.  Available to stream on HBOMax in time for Halloween is a good substitute, though, and this is by far one of the best offerings I’ve seen so far this season to consider for your October 31st selection.  A truly wonderful remake.

31 Days to Scare ~ Rebecca (2020)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young newlywed arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, whose legacy lives on in the house long after her death.

Stars: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, Anna Dowd, Bill Paterson

Director: Ben Wheatley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Ah…remakes.  They’re a funny thing, aren’t they?  Sometimes you find a film that is so perfect that to remake it would seem like blasphemy but with a clever way in and enough time between the original it just might work.  Then there are the re-dos for the sake of lining the pockets of investors and those, dear reader, never turn out well.  What about the remake that is perfectly fine, entertaining but sort of listless and doesn’t really fit into any category in the good or bad column?  These are the ones you have to think a little harder about, because they require some effort to review.  To make that final judgement you’ll have to dig a little deeper in your feelings.

First published in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s (The Birds) gothic novel Rebecca has been a best-seller that has never gone out of print and it’s not hard to see why.  There’s a little something for everyone in the story of a shy girl who falls for a haunted man and it’s no wonder that director Alfred Hitchcock saw fit to turn the novel into a film in short order.  Nominated for 11 Oscars and winning two in 1940, including Best Picture, Rebecca set a high water mark for slow-burn mysteries that didn’t need to boil over to be highly effective.  The performances in Hitchcock’s film are legendary, particularly Judith Anderson’s unnerving presence as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

Over the years, Rebecca has been adapted for a number of mediums, and if you want a good lunchtime read, look up the lawsuit surrounding the failed attempt to bring it to Broadway as a musical.  It’s a doozy.  Yet for all the various versions of the work it’s been quite some time since the material was reexamined and provided a fresh adaptation and that’s what’s been worked out in a new production debuting on Netflix.  With a screenplay by Jane Goldman (The Woman in Black), Joe Shrapnel (Race), and Anna Waterhouse (Seberg), that pays homage to the novel in ways the 1940 version couldn’t while providing its own tweaks along the way, this Rebecca is grand in scale and design yet somehow less atmospheric than the original Oscar winner and I think I have an idea why.

First…let’s talk plot.  Lily James (Darkest Hour) plays a young girl (it took me until ¾ of the way through to remember we never learn her first name) who has no family to speak of caught up in a whirlwind romance with handsome widower Maxim de Winter while working for a aging ninny (Ann Dowd, Bachelorette) in Monte Carlo.  Accompanying him back to Manderley, his opulent English seaside estate presided over by the perilous head of household, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas, Military Wives), it’s obvious from the start this new life is going to be a tough adjustment.  Not that she receives much help from her husband (Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name) or the household staff, many of who seem to still be loyal to the first Mrs. de Winter.

The longer the new Mrs. de Winter stays at Manderley, the more curious she becomes with her predecessor and the power she seems to have had over everyone.  More than that, it feels as if Mrs. Danvers is actively trying to keep Rebecca’s seat at the table unoccupied for her eventual return…meaning the new bride should be careful who she trusts.  With her new husband sleepwalking often into the wing of the house he shared with Rebecca, occasional visions of a mysterious woman in a red dress, and a cliffside boathouse holding secrets that will reveal more about the goings-on at Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter launches her own fact-finding mission to discover the truth.  Then, a body is found nearby.

It was exciting to find out this new Rebecca was being directed by Ben Wheatley who was behind the terrifying Kill List from several years back (an early entry on 31 Days to Scare, by the way).  I knew Rebecca wasn’t exactly a “scare” kind of picture but more of the “dramatic suspense” sort of genre so I’m shoehorning this in a bit but I expected Wheatley to take this a little further than he does…and even then it’s not as sharp as it could have been.  Instead, I think Wheatley and the screenwriters focused on making their film a classy-first affair and resisted the urge to sully it with anything that could detract or distract from the love story (haunted or otherwise) at its center.  Fans will either appreciate that (if you like the book) or be disappointed (if you like the director).  Me, I leaned more toward the appreciation side of the fence because it’s all handled with a high level of craftsmanship, from the striking costumes to the gorgeous production design.  What it lacks in high stakes it makes up for in high quality.

Casting was key to this and I wouldn’t have wanted to fill the shoes of any of the three leads – all of them had an uphill battle but I think they all slid down the other side without any skinned knees.  Hammer likely struggles the most but only because it’s the toughest nut of a part to crack and he’s following in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier…unenviable.  Still, he looks great in a suit (though doesn’t look remotely like he belongs in this time period).  First becoming a start on Downton Abbey, James curiously also doesn’t quite look like she belongs in this era, although her change from naïve girl to devoted wife is quite convincing.  Make no doubt about it, the best role in Rebecca is Mrs. Danvers and Scott Thomas enters the film, sits down, puts her napkin in her lap, and proceeds to make a meal out of her role and then finishes everyone else’s plate for good measure.  Nothing will ever erase Judith Anderson’s searing performance but Scott Thomas comes awfully close…it’s a treasure.

I need to go back and watch the 1940 Rebecca again because I failed to do that before watching the new version; however I almost preferred to go in with just the memories of the original on my mind and not having it quite so fresh.  That way, I didn’t have the ghost of that haunting me like the woman herself haunted all the people at Manderley.  I think this new version acquits itself nicely.  It looks terrific and has two solid performances and one that’s a must-see.

31 Days to Scare ~ Memories of Murder

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In a small Korean province in 1986, two detectives struggle with the case of multiple young women being found raped and murdered by an unknown culprit.

Stars: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim

Director: Bong Joon Ho

Rated: NR

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  With the landmark, well-deserved victory for South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite at the Academy Awards last year (can you remember that far back?), not to mention the director himself taking home an additional two statues for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, it seemed only natural that his previous films would come up in conversation.  He’d already been riding a nice wave of admiration with Okja for Netflix in 2017 and 2013’s Snowpiercer which is where he truly broke through to a US audience.  I first came to know his work with the monster movie The Host in 2006 but also was familiar with him from 2009’s Mother (don’t get it confused with the grody mother! from 2017) – so I felt I’d already had a good primer for his work.

One film had eluded me, though, and it happened to be the one that many cite as his best of all so it was just my luck that indie movie studio Neon (which released Parasite and has been crushing it with honing in on the next big thing lately) is re-releasing it in a special version.  Remastered and showing for two special nights before becoming more widely available, 2003’s Memories of Murder is director Bong’s epic crime saga that follows a police investigation of a serial murder/rapist on the hunt in a remote Korean town.  The hype was high for this before I pressed play and I was expecting the same skill on display in Parasite…which makes the feelings I had by the end that much more disappointing.

I struggled for a while to find exactly what turned me off so much about Memories of Murder but perhaps it’s a cultural thing that I never warmed to.  There’s a deeply misogynistic and repressive feeling to the film, with gruff men exuding force to get their way and ignoring all others who might argue otherwise.  This is true for both the good and the bad individuals in the world director Bong has created and by the end of the very long running length you feel like you haven’t come up for air all day.  The overarching message that appears to be relayed is that strong men take what they want and the weak, infirm, handicapped, minority, gay, female, will subjugate to them at all costs.  It’s likely the intent to illustrate some point that’s never made completely clear but it makes the movie a tough, ugly sit and therefore it isn’t one I’d ever want to return to for a second viewing.

It’s very much your standard serial murder story with women being brutally tortured, killed, and then defiled after the fact.  (As is director Bong’s fascination, a fuzzy fruit plays a twisted part of the killer’s calling card.)  The police investigation into the crimes is hackneyed with little technology available in the mid-1980s setting and hardly any attention really paid to the slayings at first.  The methods of extricating confessions from potential suspects is problematic to say the least and a number of detainees are cornered and subjected to heinous treatment based solely on hunches.  If it all led to something of substance, you might be able to rationalize out the means to an end but it spills out into a void of nothingness that stretches on for infinity.

If I’m being honest, I’m a little surprised Memories of Murder is the film that’s singled out as representative of the kind of filmmaker director Bong wanted to be.  Every film after this seems to have gotten more sophisticated and more attune to the governance of human decency toward others.  I haven’t loved each of his films (I thought The Host was terribly overrated, so you can do with that what you will) but have found them to carry some sort of balance to them.  Not here.  This is a grim, grimy experience and while it may have its share of chilling imagery and a plot that mirrors a number of similar serial killer films found in the US, it’s insistence of wallowing and then pressing our face in it didn’t work for me at all.

31 Days to Scare ~ Happy Halloween: A Halloween Kills Fan Film

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In this lost scene from Halloween 2018, a police officer, a trick-or-treater and three high school friends have a deadly encounter with THE SHAPE.

Stars: Vincente Disanti, Berlin Edmond, Landon Strain, Mark Gonzalez, George Champane, Jimmy Champane, Ryan Becker

Directors: Courtlan Gordon & Jimmy Champane

Running Length: 14 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Up until yesterday, I had every intention of using today’s entry to look back at Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween and the 2009 sequel that was very much his own vision of a follow-up.  I’d watched the films again after a number of years and gritted my teeth through Zombie’s unfortunate fixation on finding meaning behind Michael Myers actions and wanting to explain away the violence that tore through Haddonfield.  Frankly, Zombie just didn’t understand that what made John Carpenter’s original film and even the subsequent sequels so scary was that there was no motivation and the more the franchise tried to put a purpose on the perpetrator, the less frightening he became and the less it all made sense.  I can’t even begin to dissect the sequel which a cache of fans actually feel is better than the Zombie’s remake because it externalizes PTSD.  No thank you, and no more please.

Instead, I was pleased to get wind of a something I’ve yet to cover on 31 Days to Scare and it’s the legendary fan film phenomenon that’s been around for some time.  In between sequels that can cause long gaps between films, ardent followers of their favorite characters will either spend their time writing stories that spin the character off in another direction or continue the plot after the previous entry ended.  In this age where you can make a movie with your iPhone and simple editing software, aficionados are more likely to attempt a film to bridge that length of time…many to less that stellar results.  I’ve gone down a YouTube rabbit hole many times and spent anywhere from 20 seconds to 20 minutes watching projects that showed what happened after the shark exploded, after the priest fell down the steps, and even what went on before the counselors arrived at Camp Crystal Lake.

With the coronavirus bumping out Halloween Kills, the sequel to 2018’s Halloween, out an entire year, those longing for that middle part of the trilogy which hopefully laid the groundwork for a resolution of the Laurie Strode/Michael Myers story, were going to be left empty-handed come October 31st.  Thankfully, fans Courtlan Gordon & Jimmy Champane had our best interest at heart and have released Happy Halloween: A Halloween Kills Fan Film, a fairly striking short film produced with no budget and is a true labor of love.  Supposedly a lost scene from the 2018 film, it’s brief and brutal and what it lacks in production value it more than makes up for in the type of gore and atmosphere showcased in the best entries of the series.

The structure is a bit odd and I won’t give away why but let’s just say that Michael Myers is doing his thing and doesn’t run into many obstacles along the way.  Gordon and Champane appear to only be concerned with seeing their friends get sliced and diced in gruesome ways and the effects are impressive considering this was touted as being produced with no funds.  I’d be interested to hear what the filmmakers of the official franchise think about this effort and wouldn’t be shocked to see the two directors get involved in some kind of low-budget horror film in the near future, they’ve clearly got an eye for the genre and how to stage a stalk and stab scene on a nickel and a dime.  It may only be a fun size bar of candy but Happy Halloween: A Halloween Kills Fan Film is exactly the kind of treat you’re looking for.

Here’s the film if you’re ready to watch it now:

31 Days to Scare ~ Anaconda

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A film crew traveling on the Amazon River is taken hostage by an insane hunter, who forces them along on his quest to capture the world’s largest – and deadliest – snake.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight, Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Owen Wilson, Kari Wuhrer

Director: Luis Llosa

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If there’s one thing you should have gathered by now if you follow this blog on any kind of regular basis, it’s that The MN Movie Man loves a good creature feature.  Though they often fail to meet their potential, I’m notoriously a sucker and pretty forgiving for any movie that has a slimy monster, razor toothed alien, or, best of all, some underwater beast.  Big studios have become averse to toss their money toward these movies because they’re often heavy on CGI or animatronic effects, which increases the costs significantly, making the possibility to turn a profit more difficult for a genre that gets the most bang on opening weekend. However, don’t forget that in the late ’90s the teen slasher film was back on the rise so young audiences looking for thrills were being catered to more than ever. So while Sony was getting I Know What You Did Last Summer into production and ready for release, they already had a stealthy sleeper hit ready to slither into theaters in early 1997.

Keep in mind that when Anaconda was released in April of 1997, it carried with it a $45 million dollar price tag and a cast not known for raking in audiences.  Oscar-winner Jon Voight (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) wasn’t exactly a cover story anymore and Ice Cube (21 Jump Street) the actor wasn’t nearly as popular as Ice Cube the rapper.  Eric Stoltz (Kicking and Screaming) was more recognized for his brief turn in Pulp Fiction than he was for his dynamite roles in 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful or 1985’s Mask and Owen Wilson (Zoolander 2) was just perfecting  his California surfer boy cool vibe that would land him a number of roles for the next two decades.  Then there was female lead Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) who we now always remember as being a star but back then hadn’t yet fully capitalized on her sensational breakthrough in Selena — that would happen in 1998’s Out of Sight.

So there was nothing to suggest Anaconda would be anything more than a silly B-movie of with a decent mechanical snake that would be substituted for a semi-convincing computer generated one for the fast moving shots.  And you know what?  That’s exactly what it is…and it’s great.  Sometimes it’s nice to just kick off your shoes and relax into a horror film that’s going to give you a little zing but isn’t going to to send you leaping out of your seat every six seconds.  There’s a particular level of fun to be had with a film like Anaconda because it gives you exactly what it promises (and a little extra) and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s campy but in all the right ways and takes itself only as seriously as the material will allow — to spoof it or make it joke-y would spell disaster so the cast (and even the snake) seem to have a tiny twinkle in their eye.

Not that it really matters, but the plot finds a film crew led by Stolz and Lopez floating down the Amazon that picks up a stranded man (Voight) who turns out to be a psycho snake hunter.  He’s obsessed with capturing a large anaconda said to lurk in the waters far off the beaten path and takes control of the expedition so that he may use their boat to get where he’s going.  Looping crew member Wilson into his plot, Voight (sporting an accent questionable for its authenticity and political correctness) may prove to be more dangerous than the snake as the rest of the cast fights to survive being offed by him before the snake can give them a good squeeze.  Director Luis Llosa keeps the action brisk and and, considering the deadly subject matter, surprisingly jovial.

When the snake does appear, the results are mostly good but can be mixed at times thanks to mediocre CGI that can make its actual size confusing.  The practical snake is finely detailed and quite effective but the computer generated one looks an awful lot like a cartoon in some shots.  Then again, the editing is so fast and quick that you don’t get much time to see it in full and Llosa goes the Spielberg route and keeps it out of sight as much as possible for as long as he can.

Ultimately, it’s a solid effort and for the time period the movie was made you can see where the money went…although you look at a movie like Jaws and wonder how they made such a realistic shark in 1975 with absolutely no computer effects yet twenty two years later they can’t make an anaconda go from point A to point B and appear mostly convincing?  Say what you will about Voight nowadays but he’s never less than fully committed to the role and the loopy performance…and his famous “wink” scene is well worth the wait.  You don’t get a huge sense of the star Lopez would become but there’s definitely something there that makes you want to see more.  Audiences clearly were charmed by this big snake film because Anacadona wound up rattling the box office with a final take of nearly $137 million dollars.  It’s no wonder it was followed with several sequels of gradually decreasing quality, many of which bypassed theaters entirely.  There’s nothing quite as entertaining as the original and it holds up well even now.