31 Days to Scare ~ Body Snatchers (1993)

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tumblr_l4pdcgklxb1qc8b0ao1_540The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage girl and her father discover alien clones are replacing humans on a remote U.S. military base in Alabama.

Stars: Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Forest Whitaker, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth, R. Lee Ermey

Director: Abel Ferrara

Rated: R

Running Length: 87

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers had already made it to the screen twice before.  The original 1956 version is a certified classic and, though some may say otherwise, so was its 1978 remake.  Both films managed to be timely and seemed to have a reasonable justification for existing.  In 1993, yet another take on the story was brought to the screen and while the results aren’t totally at the level of its two previous incarnations, there are a few memorable moments to keep this one apart from other retooling’s of sacred material.

To start off with, Body Snatchers had a director famous for his controversial independent features.  Abel Ferrara was hot off of Bad Lieutenant and King of New York when he signed up for this far more commercial endeavor.  Aided by a script from no less than 5 contributors, the action is moved from the small town of the original and the swinging ‘70s setting of the first remake to a military base where Steve Malone (Terry Kinney, Promised Land) has moved his family.  Stepmom Carol (Meg Tilly, The Big Chill, Psycho II) is still adjusting as the new member of the Malone tribe and isn’t helped much by Steve’s daughter Marti (Gabrielle Anwar).

Marti in particular has it out for Carol and being uprooted from her previous life is, understandably, causing the teen to be quite the rebellious hellion.  Though Marti makes fast friends on the base, her half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy) has a rougher go of it.  When he runs way, Marti meets cute helicopter pilot Tim (Billy Wirth, The Lost Boys) and proceeds in making goo-goo eyes at him.  All is not all well, though, and the Malone’s aren’t even there a fortnight when Marti stumbles across a plot involving mysterious pods and a possible alien conspiracy.

Fans of the previous films may recoil at this horror flick aimed squarely at teenagers but in all honesty it works better than it should.  At a trim 87 minutes, it feels like it suffered some major studio edits after the fact but I’ve a feeling it was for the best.  Ferrara is remarkably restrained here, only letting loose during the finale and building up some solid unease for the first 2/3 of the film.  The cast also makes a good impression with Tilly in particular delivering memorably in one dynamite scene.

Yet another remake (The Invasion) was released in 2007 starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig but even that star wattage couldn’t salvage what turned into an incoherent mess.  If anything, it cemented the law of diminishing returns where these pod people pics were concerned.

31 Days to Scare ~ Psycho II

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After twenty-two years of psychiatric care, Norman Bates attempts to return to a life of solitude, but the specters of his crimes – and his mother – continue to haunt him

Stars: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz, Lee Garlington, Claudia Bryar

Director: Richard Franklin

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 slow-burn thriller Psycho remains one of the most famous and famously recognizable movies.  With its iconic ‘shower scene’ and last minute twist, the movie was already interred in the Hollywood history books by the time 1982 rolled around.  That was the year that Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho was based on, had published a sequel that found escaped madman Norman Bates turning up on the Tinsel Town set of a movie based on his life and eventually getting back to his own tricks.  While this was a surprisingly meta take (and one the Scream sequels would steal) executives over at Universal Studios who owned the sequel rights weren’t thrilled about their town getting skewered and satirized.

Hiring screenwriter Todd Holland and director Richard Franklin, both having had recent successes with horror films of their own, Universal decided to beat Bloch to the punch and draft their own take on the further adventures of Norman Bates.  The resulting film was far removed from the original, more in the slasher vein which was enjoying peak popularity at the time.  That’s not to say it exists without merit because Psycho II is very much its own film, strong enough to withstand ornery critics who grumbled that it sullied Hitchcock’s memory.

Released from a mental hospital when he’s deemed to be harmless, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, wisely changing his mind and reprising his role before Christopher Walken could be seriously considered) has only one place to go.  Home.  The house he lived in still stands, as does the motel where guests checked in but didn’t check out…well, at least the ones that showered.  22 years after being apprehended dressed like his dead mother and speaking in her voice, the house brings back bad memories…and maybe his killer instincts.  Not long after he arrives people go missing, dispatched in a variety of gruesome ways.  Is it Norman brandishing the knife or is it someone else with their own motives?

Surprisingly, Psycho II is filled with decent twists and winds up to be quite entertaining.  I somehow get amnesia between viewings and always forget how the pieces fit together.   Aided by Jerry Goldsmith’s (Poltergeist) score that thankfully doesn’t even attempt to top Bernard Hermann’s string heavy orchestrations from Psycho, this has more than its share of spooky moments from toilets overflowing with blood all the way through it’s surprising finale.  Franklin doesn’t try to mimic Hitchcock’s style but cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween) does liberally lift familiar camera angles right from the previous film (not to mention Franklin taking a huge risk by recapping the first film in clips before the opening credits).  He even manages to work in a nice tip of the hat to Hitch – try to see if you can spot a recognizable shadow when looking around the room that used to belong to Norman’s mother.

Along with Perkins, Vera Miles (The Initiation) is a returning player from the original as the sister of Janet Leigh’s doomed character leading a one-woman crusade to keep Bates behind bars. Robert Loggia (Jagged Edge) is nicely sanguine as Norman’s psychiatrist and Meg Tilly’s (The Big Chill) waifish waitress cautiously befriends Norman and eventually takes up residence with him in the main house.  Character actors Dennis Franz, Lee Garlington, and Claudia Bryar are all standouts in the well-cast ensemble.

It wouldn’t have been possible to top Psycho but it could have been easy to drag its good name through the mud.  Thankfully Psycho II is elevated from cheap cash-in sequel to respectable continuation thanks to a cast and crew who obviously held the original film in high regard.  Now Psycho III and Psycho IV: The Beginning…those are the sequels you should be worried about.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Big Chill

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of seven former college friends gather for a weekend reunion at a posh South Carolina winter house after the funeral of one of their friends.

Stars: Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, JoBeth Williams, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, Jeff Goldblum

Director: Lawrence Kasdan

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Some movies set in the 80’s just do not age well.  I can’t tell you how many films I’ve had fond memories of until I took them for another spin and squirmed uncomfortably at their failure to have the same hold on me years later.  On the other hand you have the films that age like a fine wine, getting richer and more meaningful as they age and such a film is 1983’s The Big Chill, writer/director Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar nominated ensemble dramedy.

Taking place over a long weekend for a funeral of a close friend that dies suddenly, The Big Chill introduces us to a group of baby boomers that are all at different phases of their adulthood.  Kevin Kline (In & Out) and Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs, Jagged Edge) are the stable married couple, the ones that their less mature friends look to for support and guidance.  Gathering their old college friends in their expansive South Carolina home, Kline and Close (who was Oscar nominated for her work) are perfect hosts…ones that allow their friends the chance to let loose, grieve, and cavort like they did when they were younger.

As we all know, there is a time to put away childhood playthings but in Kasdan’s eyes people need to let go in their own way at their own pace.  Saying goodbye to their friend (an unbilled Kevin Costner) means saying goodbye to a part of their youth they can never get back and for some that’s a frightening notion to wrap their heads around.

Hollywood playboy Sam (Tom Berenger) rekindles a romance with married Karen (JoBeth Williams) while actors like Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park) and William Hurt (The Host, Altered States) find themselves at different crossroads of their romantic lives.  I’ve always found Mary Kay Place’s nebbish attorney the most interesting yet consistently frustrating character as she struggles to pinpoint exactly what she wants in life…and when she does the solution surprises everyone.

As famous as the film, the soundtrack to The Big Chill is remarkable, and not only because nearly all of it was added in after the movie was shot.  All the choices from music of the present day to the folk/rock music of the past blends so well together, resulting in a bestselling soundtrack that takes on a life of its own.

Kasdan’s script is extremely funny with a dry wit that speaks to the frustrations of the Baby Boomer generation yet still remains apt to modern audiences viewing it thirty years later.  After all, becoming an adult hasn’t gotten any easier in the decades since The Big Chill was first released and the movie is a lasting reminder that even in the worst of circumstances it’s nice to have a group around you as screwed up as you are to help you find support.

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