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

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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.

Movie Review ~ The Invisible Man (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman

Director: Leigh Whannell

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 Minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  In the mid 2010’s, Universal Studios saw the writing on the wall.  They didn’t have any true franchise properties left and even the recently resurrected Jurassic World would only take them so far.  With Marvel doing beyond spectacular business with The Avengers and all their spin-offs and after Warner Brothers got into the groove of their DC world with Wonder Woman, the once titan Universal was suddenly taking at least the bronze in the box office Olympics.  Then, some clever person within the company hit on something…the studio had a literal haunted house full of characters that had filled their coffers almost a hundred years earlier and had largely laid dormant for the last half century.  Why not resurrect Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein? Then they’d give them a modern twist to create what was to be known as the Dark Universe.

To me, this sounded like a heck of a lot of fun.  With The Mummy in production with Tom Cruise, the kernel of an idea started to grow into something interesting with the news that Oscar winners Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem, Angelina Jolie, and other A-listers like Johnny Depp would be coming on board for various projects over the next several years.  Announcing not just the movies but also actual release dates along with a much passed around photo of these stars giving their best brooding monster face, the studio put all of their precious eggs in one mummified basket and the result…was a complete disaster.  Released in 2017, The Mummy had its moments but Cruise was too old for his role and the titular character (recast as a female and that’s where the creativity stopped) was largely absent.  While not a complete bomb, the box office returns were paltry enough to completely throw the Dark Universe off its axis, resulting in a humiliating about face for Universal, which eventually cancelled all of its gothically grandiose plans.  The Dark Universe was dead.

It was surprising, then, to see a new version of The Invisible Man quietly make its way onto the schedule for an early 2020 release.  Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3), this isn’t a straight-up remake of the classic film from 1897 based on the novel by H.G. Wells but an original story that has more in common with the 1991 Julia Roberts film Sleeping with the Enemy.  What made The Mummy such a downer was how much it was clear it was trying to be this jumping off point for something bigger.  The Invisible Man doesn’t come with those extra trappings (at least not that I could immediately observe) so it has a freedom to be its own monster instead of being the first step in a full-blown creature crawl.

The first thirty minutes of Whannell’s movie is focused on establishing Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss, Us), a woman putting her life back together after escaping (literally) her violent and controlling significant other, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Raven).  Fleeing from his impressively secure beachfront home in the middle of the night, she hides out with her sister’s boyfriend James (Aldis Hodge, Clemency) in the home he shares with his daughter (Storm Reid, A Wrinkle in Time).  Fearing Adrian will find her and even though James is a police officer that isn’t rattled easily, Cecilia stays indoors and out of sight…until her sister (Harriet Dyer) arrives with the news that Adrian has taken his own life.  Now…Cecilia is truly free.

Adrian’s death brings Cecilia some emotional relief and a financial windfall after she’s named the beneficiary of his fortune at a meeting with his brother, Tom (Michael Dorman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales).  The calm is short lived, though, because soon she starts to get the strange feeling she’s being watched by an unseen presence.  Items start to disappear and events occur that can’t be easily explained unless…maybe Adrian isn’t really dead.  Perhaps his work in optics has given him a way to crack the code on invisibility and allowed him to stalk Cecelia, her family, and her friends.  Could that invisibility suit he was working on in his lab actually work to let him slip in and out of Cecilia’s new life unnoticed and enact psychological torture on her? Then again…with her already fragile mental state it could be that Cecelia is just imagining it all and she’s the one behind the violence that begins to occur?

At 124 minutes, Whannell definitely gives audiences a full movie experience with a beginning, middle, and an end and I appreciated the whole thing felt like such a complete package.  It absolutely has an old-school ‘90s vibe to it and that isn’t a bad thing in my book, though it may come off a little hokey for movie-goers used to seeing their foes instead of just imagining them.  Blessedly going light on the kind of visual effects that could have bogged things down, Whannell opts for practical methods to elicit good scares along the way.  I think there are a few too many one-person fights with an invisible enemy but they are staged with flair that keep you alert and engaged.  The final 40 minutes are a wild ride, yet Whannell makes a bold choice to end the movie on a quieter (but still effective) note than you may be used to.

Though she’s amassed a large fan following from her days on Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve never totally warmed to Moss as an actress.  Her addled lady on the edge only goes so far with me and after 2019’s Her Smell was so widely embraced I sort of just couldn’t take it anymore. (I can’t believe how many people liked that movie – it’s just…blah…terrible and you can hate me all you want for saying it).  Here, though, all the ticks and quirks that Moss uses as calling cards work in her favor and she positively makes this movie soar on a different level than a conventional horror film.  She has the relatable “Anytown, U.S.A.” look to her so that when she turns around and surveys an empty room, unable to place why she’s uneasy but knowing something is wrong, you instantly understand the rising fear.  Her performance is so key that while the rest of the supporting cast is strong (Hodge, in particular, is becoming a value-add to anything he shows up in), they tend to fade into the background when sharing the screen with her.

If this is where Universal is going creatively with their intellectual property than I say more power to them because it’s an intriguing entry point into pulling from the past to create something new.  In November it was announced that Elizabeth Banks would direct and star in The Invisible Woman which thankfully isn’t related to this movie and they also have plays for a Renfield movie, taking a secondary character from Dracula off the sidelines and positing them at the forefront.  All interesting choices that I’m excited to see play out.  Right here, right now though…The Invisible Man is well worth getting a glimpse of.

Movie Review ~ Queen & Slim


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple’s first date takes an unexpected turn when a police officer pulls them over.

Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloë Sevigny, Indya Moore, Bokeem Woodbine, Sturgill Simpson, Flea, Benito Martinez

Director: Melina Matsoukas

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: What most audiences don’t know is that by the time they see a film on opening weekend in a large multiplex with reclining seats and a big bucket of popcorn, the movie has been through a number of committees, approvals, screenings, edits, and adjustments.  From studio heads to a soccer mom recruited in the parking lot at a 7-11, someone has watched this movie already and had some sort of say in the final cut.  This is done to maximize the appeal in order to make the most money, hopefully in the first few weeks before something newer comes out to steal its thunder.  It’s filmmaking by committee and it’s a disappointing way to get things done – that’s why you may get the feeling of a certain staleness lately when you head to the theater.

Then there are the rare directors/producers that get “final cut” written into their contracts, making them the last word when it comes to how the movie will turn out.  If the film is a bomb, the buck stops with the director and the same goes if it’s an out-of-left-field success.  I was surprised and totally delighted to learn the filmmakers behind Queen & Slim had negotiated this clause with Universal Studios and it makes sense why they pushed for it.  The story being told is one that needed no outside tinkering or interference, no focus groups or market strategies…because sadly you can imagine opening up a paper tomorrow and reading about it happening in real life.

Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Widows) has finally convinced Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith, The Neon Demon) to go out with him.  He works retail and she’s a lawyer that defends murders. He’s easy-going and passive, she likes restaurants to get her order right the first time.  Slim’s driving her home from their pleasant but fireworks-free first date when they are pulled over by a Cleveland police officer.  All Slim wants to do is take the ticket and go but the officer is clearly looking to make something more stick based on vague suspicion.  Within seconds the situation has escalated, the officer is shot with his own gun, and the young couple flees into the night.

So begins a cross-country crime drama that’s equal parts Bonnie & Clyde, Thelma & Louise, and Badlands but is delivered clearly in its own voice.  That voice comes from Emmy-winner Lena Waithe who came up with the story with author James Frey and has written a script that doesn’t pander to audiences.  Waithe has created two distinct main characters that represent differing points of view, not just simple devil’s advocate opposites.  Flipping gender roles on its head, Queen is the more aggressive and dominant partner throughout, often acting on impulse instead of taking time to consider the emotional consequences of actions.  Slim is the more sensitive of the two, holding off the shock of what he’s done by focusing on the growing feelings he has for Queen.

As they make their way from the Midwest down South, they encounter folks who have seen the dashcam video of their crime that has gone viral and want to offer solace as well as people who feel they are only contributing to the police violence against people of color.  Waithe isn’t afraid to introduce players that challenge her titular characters strongly because it shows all sides to the discussion…and allows the discussion to be had in the first place.  There’s nothing one-sided in Queen & Slim, which gives it greater distinction from similar “issue” movies that come with a clear angle and objective.  Waithe is obviously troubled by what is happening in the world and has used the film medium to express her frustration but it’s communicated in such a sophisticated way that you are compelled to lean forward in your seat and engage.

Directed by Melina Matsoukas, she brings her excellent eye from the music world (she’s behind Beyonce’s Formation video) but thankfully doesn’t fashion her feature debut as rapid fire head-spinner.  This is a finely crafted movie, conscious of how it develops and what path it turns down.  A trip to see Queen’s war vet uncle (Bokeem Woodbine, Overlord) living in New Orleans with a houseful of barely clothed ladies could have been a real low point but Matsoukas has paced it so well and Waithe provided such defined personalities for the women we meet that it doesn’t feel as exploitative as it could have been.  Only the drab taupe-ness of a visit with a husband and wife played by Flea (Boy Erased) and Chloë Sevigny (The Dead Don’t Die) is a bit of a yawn.  Likely the point, but the mundane parallel of this visit compared to their New Orleans layover is etched with fairly broad strokes.

It makes little difference who else we meet, though, because Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are in almost every scene and they are fantastic.  Kaluuya continues to show his strength at disappearing into any role he takes on, easily stepping into the soft-spoken Slim and your heart breaks watching him see his plans for the future fall apart with each setback they encounter along the way.  He’s got great chemistry with Turner-Smith and it’s her you’ll want to keep your eyes on because it’s a star-making performance if ever there was one.  Though she’s been in several movies already, this is her highest profile role to date and she knocks it out of the park.  As Queen, she’s often asked to be front and center, exposing herself (literally) in the most vulnerable of ways.  The icy front she has at the beginning isn’t totally an act and the reasons behind her emotions are made clear not just by Waithe’s late-breaking exposition but in Turner-Smith’s carefully constructed work.

It was an interesting experience to watch Queen & Slim with a packed house filled with responsive audience members.  I was surprised at how many of them weren’t on the side of our lead characters and it was an eye (and ear) opening experience to have running commentaries during the movie. Normally I would get frustrated at the talking while a film was going on but here it was helpful because it gave me greater insight into how another person was interpreting the film from a perspective I could never truly understand.  What’s happening with police violence is frightening and the growing number of deaths in the black community at the hands of police needs to be resolved.  Queen & Slim won’t stop it but it introduces necessary conversations for audiences as take-aways – my hope is that people see the movie and do something, anything, afterward in response.

The Silver Bullet ~ CATS (Trailer #2)

Synopsis: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

Release Date: December 20, 2019

Thoughts:  Ever since the first trailer for CATS dropped in July, it’s been the talk of the town and not in the way Universal Studios had hoped it would be.  The initial reaction to the starry cast including Jennifer Hudson (The Three Stooges), Judi Dench (All is True), James Corden (Into the Woods), Taylor Swift (The Lorax), Idris Elba (Molly’s Game), Rebel Wilson (The Hustle), and Ian McKellen (Beauty & the Beast) being turned into digital felines was a mixture of hilarity and horror but once that first round of shock wore off I think there was a general curiosity to how exactly the movie would turn out.  Insiders had underestimated the power of a family-friendly feel-good holiday musical before and The Greatest Showman is a perfect example of that.  Still, CATS is a different beast and even though it continues to have it’s strong supporters (I’m a ride or die Rumpleteazer fan and will not apologize) plenty will line up to tear it down.  I was hoping this second trailer would smooth things out a bit and put some of those naysayers in their place but this is another weird looking swirl of kitty kat mayhem.  I mean, I’m fascinated more than ever to see it but it didn’t exactly calm my nerves.  The proportions are strange and the bodies seem weirdly matched to the heads…it’s all just so bizarre.  My mind is just…amazed.

With a little over a month left before the film opens, we’ll be getting more and more teases of CATS and that started last week with the release of a new song written for the movie by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Weber.  With the movie rumored not to be ready in time for early awards consideration (think Golden Globes), the song may be the best bet the picture has at getting an Oscar nomination.  Listen to it below.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The Invisible Man (2020)



Synopsis
: When Cecilia’s abusive ex commits suicide and leaves her fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia’s works to prove she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.

Release Date:  February 20, 2020

Thoughts: In 2017, Universal Studios had big plans to create their own tentpole franchise by resurrecting their classic monsters in a new Dark Universe where stories/characters could crossover.  Announcements were made with A-list stars signed on and release dates staked out – this sounded like it could be something to get excited about and a nice alternative to the superhero series that had been dominating the box office.  Then, The Mummy starring Tom Cruise came out and completely tanked…uh oh.  As expected in this risk-averse era, everyone got cold feet and all the grandiose plans for the Dark Universe were scrapped.

It’s interesting, then, to see this first trailer for The Invisible Man make its debut.  Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3) and starring Elisabeth Moss (Us), it appears this was made by Universal Studios without any restriction on future sequels or how it might fit into larger plans for existing projects.  That means it could be a nice little mystery building off of the name of the novel by H.G. Wells, though it doesn’t seem to share many similarities to 1933’s The Invisible Man.  I worry the trailer is a tad too long and wish it left a little more to the imagination…but there’s something intriguing about this concept and it makes me think of those slick ‘90s thrillers we don’t seem to get on the big screen anymore.

31 Days to Scare ~ Tremors

The Facts:

Synopsis: Natives of a small isolated town defend themselves against strange underground creatures which are killing them one by one.

Stars: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, Robert Jayne

Director: Ron Underwood

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I’m sadly too young to have experienced the popularity of the B monster movie craze of the ‘50s and ‘60s that kept kids entertained during the afternoons and on weekends at the drive-ins.  There were no shortages of mutated tarantulas, scorpions that came from under the earth, radioactive lizards, or other pesky beasts that preyed upon fine upstanding Americans.  Now looked back on with some degree of novelty, these movies did some serious business and often had a fun tie-ins that made the film experience unique in a way that meant you had to go see it in the theaters so you’d know what everyone was talking about.  Seeing it on TV as the midnite movie later on just wouldn’t cut it.

While I may have missed out on that piece of movie-going history, I was lucky enough to be there for a tiny resurgence in the early ‘90s when creature features came back into fashion.  Before everything became overdone with CGI and lacked that life-like sheen, practical effects provided some nifty scares for audiences, which is why these films have held up better over time than releases that came several years later.  Having actors able to battle something actually in front of them (the more realistic, the better) raised the stakes and made for the kind of memorable moments I think audiences had all those years ago.  It didn’t need to be bloody, it didn’t need to be gory…it just had to have some intelligence to it and a little creativity didn’t hurt either.

Tremors is a sterling example of how to make a B-grade monster movie that feels like an A+ effort from all involved.  It’s scary in all the right places, cleverly keeping you on your toes (literally) for a large part of its economical running time.  Better yet, screenwriters Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson firmly establish their characters long before they’re have them eaten by an unseen creature attracted by seismic disturbances.  As an added bonus, they’ve somehow managed to make the film funny on top of everything else.  That the laughs come from character-based dialogue and not from physical humor shows how in tune the screenwriters were with the world they were creating.

Seeing no future for themselves in the dying town of Perfection, NV, handymen for hire Earl (Fred Ward, Silkwood) and Valentine (Kevin Bacon, Patriots Day) decide today is the day they are packing up and heading out of this one horse town.  If only they had left just one day sooner.  Just as they are thinking of moving on, something else has decided to move in and it’s claiming the town and the neighboring valley as its own.  The warning signs come fast.  A seismologist (Finn Carter) notices an uptick in unexplained underground disturbances around the same time Val and Earl find several dead bodies around town.  Convinced there is a killer on the loose, the townspeople gather to form a game plan only to discover what’s really hunting them…and it’s not what they expected.  Now, they have to say one step ahead of (and above) something they’ve never seen before and find a way out of their valley town that’s as isolated as it gets.

Director Ron Underwood keeps things buoyant throughout the movie, keeping his foot on the gas and easing off only slightly along the way.  The film has a strong momentum to it so it never lacks for energy or risks losing our attention.  This is partly due to Wilson and Maddock’s screenplay finding a way to keep the townspeople moving into increasingly dangerous situations that require them to strategize a way to stay off the ground from the horror trying to grab them from the ground.  The other point of success is the tremendously enjoyable performances from Bacon and Ward as the good ole boys just going about their business put into the roles of heroes to townspeople that just the day before were paying them to clean their septic tanks.  It’s also noteworthy to see Reba McIntire in her first film role as gun toting survivalist’s Michael Gross’s equally excitable wife.  Like the rest of the small cast, she understands exactly what movie she’s in and plays it pitch perfectly.

Spawning several direct to video sequels that unfortunately did start to use those dreaded CGI effects to less than stellar results as well as a short-lived television show, there’s just no matching the original Tremors. It’s endlessly rewatchable and a fine solution if you are in a group of friends wanting to watch something scary but not too scary.  There’s something for everyone in Tremors and all should come out satisfied.

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Black Christmas (2019)



Synopsis
: A group of students are stalked by a stranger during their Christmas break. A remake of the 1974 horror film Black Christmas.

Release Date:  December 13, 2019

Thoughts:  Though Halloween has often worn the crown as the original stalk and slash holiday film, 1974’s Black Christmas beat it to theaters by a solid four years.  Though it failed to make serious waves in its first release, the effective chiller (made by the same guy who gave us A Christmas Story!) has become a classic with countless imitators over the years.  It’s been remade once before in 2006 when rebooting old chestnuts was all the rage and didn’t do much but make audiences long for the simplicity of the original.  Now comes a 2019 version that seems to chuck everything but the title and the thin premise out the door.  While I’m most certainly down for any wintery horror arriving smack dab in the middle of Oscar season, I’m disappointed to once again see a trailer that gives away so dang much of the movie – where’s the restraint?  Starring Imogen Poots (Green Room) and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), my interest dropped a few notches after seeing the preview and only because I feel like I’ve caught the gist of the entire film.

Movie Review ~ Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lawman Luke Hobbs and outcast Deckard Shaw form an unlikely alliance when a cyber-genetically enhanced villain threatens the future of humanity.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Eddie Marsan, Helen Mirren, Eiza González

Director: David Leitch

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: To their credit, Hollywood studios have been actively trying to elevate the summer movie to being more than just a two-hour mélange of special effects and explosions in a cookie cutter plot about world domination. For example, the sophistication of where Avengers: Endgame wound up is a far cry from the early days of the first Iron Man. Audiences have shown (in most cases) to have ever evolving and distinctively discerning tastes and the same old action movie just won’t do any more. Sometimes, though, there’s nothing wrong with a little cinematic comfort food and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese of summer blockbuster entertainment.

With each installment growing in popularity and box office returns, it was a natural next step for the producers of The Fast and The Furious franchise to think about the future of the series and how to keep their product going. While the main series could keep speeding forward thanks to a seemingly never-ending roster of characters that rotate in and out, were there any fan favorites that could anchor their own film? When Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) joined the group in 2011’s Fast Five, Special Agent Luke Hobbs quickly stood out thanks to Johnson’s natural charisma and the way the writers worked his character from law-man adversary to comrade over the next three films. Jason Statham (The Meg) made the biggest change, with his Deckard Shaw starting as the revenge-seeking villain in 2015’s Furious 7, eventually switching sides and joining the crew…though he never did take a liking to Hobbs.

Even before The Fate of the Furious came out in 2017, this spin-off was already in the works and, depending on who you ask, it came at the right time. Some of the stars not involved were, um, furious that the next installment was going to be delayed while producers were focused on this stand-alone film and there is reportedly bad blood between Johnson and Vin Diesel regarding professional behavior on set. Best to let their biceps cool down on opposite sides of the world. That freed Johnson and Statham to team up with original The Fast and the Furious writer Chris Morgan and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch for a new adventure and it’s clear this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

In London, an MI6 agent (Vanessa Kirby, Me Before You) ingests a deadly virus rather than let it fall into the hands of a genetically enhanced legionnaire (Idris Elba, Zootopia) sent by a mystery figure to retrieve it. Now on the run with a ticking time bomb flowing through her veins, her best hope is to rely on Hobbs and Shaw to help her find the scientist that created the virus and is the only one who knows the way to get it out of her safely. Adding to the complexity is a history Shaw has with the super-soldier unyielding in his pursuit and the fact the MI6 agent is his estranged sister. Together, the trio evade continue to evade capture in increasingly impressive action extravaganzas while Hobbs & Shaw learn to work as a team and put aside their beef.

Truth be told, the first half an hour or so of Hobbs & Shaw is a bit of a rocky ride. The set-up of these films is usually the weakest part and that’s the case here, not to mention the film having to juggle re-introducing two main characters sufficiently before they can bring them together. There’s frankly too much time spent getting the guys in the same frame and that feels like wasted energy for a movie that thrives on pure adrenaline. A useless cameo by Ryan Reynolds (Life) as an annoying co-worker of Hobbs grows tiresome almost the moment it begins, though I could have easily spent more time with Shaw visiting his cheeky mum (Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky) in prison. It’s when the two meet up for the first time when the movie kicks into gear.

With Statham and Johnson doing what they do best, it’s no huge news bulletin to note they are both extremely watchable and have terrific chemistry. They have a nice yin and yang sparring about them that never goes too far and never falls in favor of either man. Though the film throws in some nice surprises along the way (including one great cameo I wouldn’t dare spoil) it remains focused on its two leads while leaving space for others like Elba and Kirby to shine. Speaking of Elba, his next-gen soldier might be a bit far-fetched and not fully explored but he doesn’t oversell the advanced tech power he possesses. As with most of his performances, Elba looks like he’s having a great time and that energy is infectious. As the lone female leading presence, (though there are several females in power positions besting their male counterparts, a nice touch) Kirby holds her own impressively both in the dramatic scenes and in the physical stunts and fights she’s involved with. Kirby’s star is definitely on the rise and her performance here only cements that ascent.

With an edge of your seat finale set in beautiful Samoa, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is an out and out audience pleaser that elicited the first mid-movie applause I’ve heard in quite some time. Even clocking in at 135 minutes (including multiple post-credit sequences… completists will need to sit through a lengthy credit crawl for a final scene) the movie justifies its length by giving you every bang for your hard-earned buck. Sure, it’s a silly ride at times but it’s an exciting one all the same.

The Silver Bullet ~ CATS

Synopsis: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

Release Date: December 20, 2019

Thoughts: I mean, I literally was speechless after I got done watching this first trailer for the long-awaited (by some) film adaptation of the international hit musical CATS.  Since it premiered in 1982 on Broadway there has been buzz of a film and though a purrrfectly decent direct to video movie was made featuring Broadway and London stars there was always a Hollywood version slinking around.  Boasting a star-studded cast with the likes of Jennifer Hudson (The Three Stooges), Judi Dench (All is True), James Corden (Into the Woods), Taylor Swift (The Lorax), Idris Elba (Molly’s Game), Rebel Wilson (The Hustle), and Ian McKellen (Beauty & the Beast) among others, I was holding out some hope this might quell some persnickety naysayers that have always turned their noses up at the show.

Yeowch!

I’m sufficiently creeped out by this preview, though, and even more amazed they let Hudson sing ‘Memory’ in its near entirety!  It’s the big 11 o’clock number…why give it all away?  Still…I’m more curious than ever to see how big of a dumpster fire this one will be.  I’m gonna get dressed up in my finest finery for the Jellicle Ball come December.