31 Days to Scare ~ Anaconda

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The Facts
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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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Thinner (1996) 

The Facts:

Synopsis: An obese attorney is cursed by a gypsy to rapidly and uncontrollably lose weight.

Stars: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna, Lucinda Jenney, Michael Constantine, Kari Wuhrer, Stephen King, Walter Bobbie

Director: Tom Holland

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Starting with the release and huge success of Carrie in 1976, author Stephen King has enjoyed seeing the profits for numerous adaptations of his work come his way.  Studios began scrambling to buy the rights to his work and bring his tales of terror to life which is how we’ve come to have solid titles like The Shining, Christine, Cujo, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, and Misery in our libraries.  To talk about the good adaptions, you must also talk about the bad and King’s work has produced far more duds than hits…such is the case with Thinner from 1996.

Originally published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, Thinner hit bookshelves in 1984 and when it was discovered the King was Bachman isn’t wasn’t long before a studio attached themselves to the grim morality tale.  Condensing the 300+ page novel to 90 minute movie, director and co-screenwriter Tom Holland (who also wrote Psycho II and directed Fright Night) removed the, uh, fat from King’s tome and produced a slick but slack horror thriller that is passable entertainment but feels like everything about it was second-hand.

When overweight attorney Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) accidentally runs over and kills an old gypsy woman and then gets off scott free, he incurs the wrath of a gypsy king (Michael Constantine, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) who puts a curse and him and others that covered up the crime.  Each person cursed has their own personal hell to endure and Billy’s is that no matter how much he eat,s he continues to lose weight at a rapid pace.  At first, that’s good news for the man that has tried for years to shed pounds and his beleaguered wife (Lucinda Jenney, Matinee) who has kept him on a strict diet.  When the weight loss begins to accelerate, and his friends start dying in horrible ways, Billy must track down the gypsy clan to get the curse reversed.

Arguably, there’s a nice concept at the heart of Thinner and had this been given a bit more money and prestige I’d imagine it could have been a sleeper hit.  The problem is that Holland never quite figures out is how to make his characters (any of them) the least bit sympathetic so we have someone to be invested in.  There’re literally no “good” people to be found, everyone has an ulterior motive to their actions or spits their lines out with such overstimulated venom you have a hard time feeling sorry when they are killed off.

It also doesn’t help the leading man is such a bore.  Burke had infamously taken over for Peter Weller in RoboCop 3 and even under that heavy costume with his face obscured he managed to overact.  He does the same thing here, saddled with a fat suit and unconvincing make-up at the beginning and eventually turning skeletal as he continues to lose fat and muscle.  I’m not sure if the make-up did this to him but Burke has this smile/grimace on his face when he’s heavier that is truly unnerving…and not in the way Holland intended.

If I’ve forgotten to mention Joe Mantegna (House of Games) up until this point he should count himself lucky.  As a tricky mobster client of Billy’s, Mantegna plays up the wise guy role to the point of parody and acts as a silly means to an end in helping Billy connect the dots to the origin of the gypsy curse.  If there’s one actor I didn’t mind, it’s the always reliable Jenney who seems to know she’s in a turkey so opts for such a small performance that it has the effect of letting her scene partners look like they’re overacting.

Not surprisingly, this was a huge box office bomb but it didn’t stop the King adaptations from coming.  It would be three years before The Green Mile would be released and in 2017 there was the one two punch of the remake of IT and the dandy Gerald’s Game for Netflix.  It’s clear the best was behind the King work at that time and while Thinner wasn’t bad enough to make studios think twice about taking a dip in the King swamp it’s prospects of being much better are keenly felt two decades later.