Oldboy -2013-

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Directed Spike Lee. 104 mins.

Worth my time? Yes, but my expectations were modest. (Seen for free at Arclight Hollywood)

Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 K-vengeance classic isn’t a must-see by any stretch, nor is it the wet noodle (or raw octopus) that many critics have alleged. As I expected, this new version lacks the can’t-look-awayness of the original. Park, is a master of the sensuous and visceral (as his Stoker demonstrated so well earlier this year). Lee is more accustomed to illustrating his points with musical numbers and angry white dudes. To paraphrase a Mr. Thomas Hardy, Lee merely adopted the revenge thriller; Park was born in it.

The film would have been a disaster if Lee had tried to imitate Park’s sensibilities. Luckily, he makes no such attempt. Even though Lee doesn’t have a style that meshes well with the Oldboy story, there was some fun to be had in seeing his interpretation of the material. I’ve glanced through a lot of critics who have panned the film for being stylistically flat and lacking Lee’s interest, but they’re wrong. Sure, Lee isn’t going to be as enthusiastic about this film as he was about Do the Right Thing, but what the fuck were these folks expecting?

Even a mercenary director can leave an unmistakable mark on a film adaptation (see Lynch’s Dune). Here, Lee sniffs out plenty of opportunities of to ruminate on themes such as:

  1. Absent fathers
  2. White exploitation of successful black men
  3. White men hypersexualizing black women
  4. Frustration at New York’s Asian population
  5. Street-level charity and activism for the underprivileged
  6. The arrogance and decadence of old money and society’s elites
  7. Grotesque imagery of Americana
  8. Hurricane fuckin’ Katrina
  9. More New York than you can shake a stick at
  10. George Zimmerman’s home address is constantly displayed in the bottom-right corner of the frame.

Some of Lee’s flourishes feel silly, but I got a kick outta them. The core cast is solid, and Sharlto Copley is as believable as his cartoonish role will allow. Sam Jackson, of course, is so goddamn Sam Jackson that he instantly grows tiresome, but I suppose I’m resigned to that.

Aside: The two frame stories are gone, but it also eliminates the lazy narration of the original. Call it a lateral move.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-27)

The Dunwich Horror -1970-

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Directed by Daniel Haller. 90 mins.

Worth my time? I sorta want to say Yes, but No. (Streamed through Netflix)

I watched this movie because a) I finished reading Lovecraft’s freakin’ awesome short story of the same name early today and b) I was curious since its screenplay is one of the first film credits of LA Confidential director Curtis Hanson. Unfortunately, I started to fear that this film would stink because a) the opening credits listed Roger Corman (lovable, but not known for top-notch work) as producer, and b) it stars Dean Stockwell who is supposed to be a villain but resembles Adam Brody as Harry Reems in Lovelace.

With the exception of Re-Animator, it’s not a good idea to adapt Lovecraft stories to the present day, and this rule hold especially true for Dunwich. Wilbur Whateley, the characters whom Stockwell portrays, comes off in the short story as one of the most fucked-up characters I’ve ever encountered in a book (I suspect John Carpenter had him in mind while filming parts of The Thing). Stockwell (Blue Velvet notwithstanding) is not at all intimidating, especially when he looks like the type of dude who would be wearing a coke-spoon on his necklace.

While all of Lovecraft’s stories require some suspension of disbelief, he had the benefit of placing his stories in pre-New Deal (and sometimes pre-WWI) America. Aside from the railroads, the country was loosely connected, and the government as well as communities tended not to give a shit about the neighboring areas. The oceans (apart from trade routes) were a mystery. Folks were still reeling from the fact that there was a whole fuckin’ frozen continent at the bottom of the world, and no one knew a goddamn thing about it.

In such settings, it’s easy to buy the notion that spooky shit could be happening all the time in the dark corners of the country. But this film is set in 1970, the age of Cronkite and highways, for fuck’s sake. Dunwich doesn’t look like the squalid, inbred hamlet that Lovecraft described – it looks part-resort town, part-suburbs. Not only does the setting make the movie as a whole less creepy, but it also makes it harder to swallow that a bunch of pretentious artists (the movie was shot in Mendocino) would live with a cult of the Great Old Ones just chillin’ down the street.

Aside: This is the first film I’ve seen to co-star Ed Begley. The first one, not Junior.

Aside: Keep your eyes peeled for a young Talia Shire!

Aside: The opening titles were pretty neat.

Aside: The film’s score is waaaay too distracting.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-20)

Beyond ReAnimator -2003-

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Directed by Brian Yuzna. 96 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on Blu-ray)

Ah, here’s the piece of shit that I expected Bride of Re-Animator to be. Unsurprisingly, the film had its premiere on the Sci-Fi channel back in ’03. The only piece keeping it from being an Asylum film is Lorenzo Lamas.

Jeffrey Combs is, yet again, the best part of the movie, faint praise considering his lethargic performance. Everything else is shit of the runniest variety. The plot makes the previous two Re-Animators seem like they were penned by Robert Towne. Even the special effects by Screaming Mad George (from Society and Bride) were nothing interesting.

I usually try to be a little more comprehensive with my reviews, but why even bother with Beyond? Watch Combs in From Beyond instead.

Aside: For whatever reason (probably financing), the cast and crew is overwhelmingly Spanish. Who’dathunk that Arkham, Massachusetts, would be a nexus of Spaniards?

Aside: Has there ever been a film in which the investigative journalist character is anything but annoying? I’m looking at you, Superman and Manhunter.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-19)

Bride of ReAnimator -1990-

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Directed by Brian Yuzna. 96 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

Holy crap, I really liked this movie even though it has so many things going against it. After all, Bride of Re-Animator is a straight-to-VHS sequel (that’s one) of an iconic movie (that’s two) and demands that the viewer accept a dramatic revision of its predecessor’s ending (that’s three). In spite of all these potential weak links, Bride is a fun horror-comedy that has the inspired special effects of the original if not the inspired narrative.

Jeffrey Combs’ Herbert West (now a full-fledged doctor) is entertaining as ever.  Surprisingly, he has become somewhat more sensitive to the feelings of other, particularly his roommate and co-conspirator Dr. Cain (Bruce Abbott again) in the months since the “Miskatonic Massacre.” And David Gale is a good sport for reprising his role as the head of sinister Dr. Hill even though the character was obviously killed off in the first film.

Unfortunately, Bride’s plot lacks focus. The film has three major threads (the construction of the Bride, Lt. Chapham’s investigation, and Dr. Hill’s revenge) and no clear strategy to balance them or combine them in a satisfying matter. The new supporting players (Dr. Graves and Ernest the orderly, in particular) are boring and feel tacked-on.

Despite the clunky convergence of plotlines, the film’s ending is probably its strongest point. The mayhem in West’s lab and the adjacent crypt is just as fun and even more visually impressive (the poor shot-on-video photography notwithstanding) than Re-Animator. West’s experiments with creating new organisms from spare human parts are so gross and clever that H.R. Giger would be proud.

Aside: How the fuck did West and Cain come back to Miskatonic Medical School with no hospital personnel even raising an eyebrow?

Aside: “He’s a wife-beater, Dan! Use the gun!”

(Seen and written on 2013-11-15)

Day of the Dead -1985-

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Directed by George A. Romero. 96 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

The conclusion of the Night of the Living Dead trilogy (the later movies in the series aren’t worth the time) is just as effective as its predecessors. The film manages to out-bleak even the original. This time around, the end of the world isn’t near – it’s already come and gone. And while the film ends with more survivors than any of the previous installments, the final shot is pretty devastating.

The movie’s most glaring flaw is Captain Rhodes (played by Joseph Pilato). The dude’s such a cartoon villain that he may as well have a Jon Polito pencil mustache. While Romero’s zombie films contain some lousy people, Rhodes has no depth as a character. Even NotLD’s Harry Cooper, despite being nasty and selfish, exhibited plausible motivations such as panic, internalized bigotry, and sincere concern for his daughter’s wellbeing. Rhodes is just a dick, and it doesn’t make for very compelling drama.

Tom Savini returns for the makeup effects, and damn, they’re fantastic. From the very first moment a zombie walks onscreen (its tongue hanging from what little face it still has), you know these aren’t going to be the meek, blue zombies of Dawn. These things are ugly and far more pissed than in the other films and are responsible for some of the best death scenes in all of American horror.

Aside: I get a kick out of John Harrison’s score. The tropical flourished may seem out of place, but I think they’re meant to clue the viewers into the characters’ dreams and fantasies á la Badlands.

(Seen on 2013-11-12, written on 2013-11-15)

Re–Animator -1985-

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Directed by Stuart Gordon. 87 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

I finally bought a Blu-ray player, so huzzah for me! I spent yesterday watching two of the best gore-fests of 1985: Re-Animator and Day of the Dead (sadly, I left out The Return of the Living Dead). Nearly 30 years after its release, Stuart Gordon’s batshit-crazy adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story is one of the most disgusting-yet-hilarious stews of sex and violence ever to grace the screen.

Jeffrey Combs’ performance as Herbert West is perfect and steals the film (as I’m sure was the intent). Despite being insane, West’s one-track mind and hyper-analytical reactions to even the most bizarre situations makes his strangely lovable. It’s easy to find yourself rooting for West by the film’s end even though he’s responsible for pretty much all the death and mayhem in the movie.

David Gale is menacing yet equally funny as Miskatonic University’s resident headless stalker and star researcher. Everett Burrell’s gore effects (rivaling Bottin’s work in The Thing) and Richard Band’s earworm of a score fit the picture perfectly.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-12)

The Unnamable -1988-

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Directed by Jean-Paul Ouellette. 87 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

I’ve been reading a lot of H.P. Lovecraft lately, so I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for decent film adaptations of his material. My current search (I first saw Gordon’s excellent Re-Animator and From Beyond years ago) has yet to bear quality fruit.

Lovecraft’s work is particularly tricky to successfully bring to the screen. First, his stories are told almost exclusively from a first person perspective and contain little to no dialogue. Secondly, Lovecraft’s signature was the exploration of aspects of reality that defied description and often human comprehension altogether. When you have a movie titled The Unnamable and its poster shows a creatures that’s easily namable (let’s call it a gargoyle, yeah that works), it probably won’t be a top-notch piece of work.

The Unnamable is just another “Dead Teenager” movie with a few nice Lovecraftian trimmings. I liked that it featured Arkham’s Miskatonic University, the Necronomicon, and featured Randolph Carter (one of Lovecraft’s few recurring human characters) as a main character, but that’s about all the connection it has. The limp ending is a shameless parroting of Raimi’s Evil Dead films.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-09)

Society -1989-

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Directed by Brian Yuzna. US Theatrical Cut, 127 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

Well, that was a bummer. I had moderate to high hopes for the directorial debut of Brian Yuzna given his many collaborations with the usually-fun Stuart Gordon. I had also heard that the film’s special effects were bizarre and disgusting, and any such promise is bound to draw my attention.

Sadly, Society is largely a bore-fest. I’ve got no problem with a slowly building to a gloriously repulsive crescendo (as Cronenberg did so well in The Brood), but there just isn’t enough here to engage the viewer to the end. The finale is a fuckin’ spectacle, to be sure, but it’s far too brief and nonsensical. If you want a late-80s satire of society’s elites and the exploitation of common people, re-watch John Carpenter’s anarcho-action-comedy They Live.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-06)

The Thing -1982-

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Directed by John Carpenter. 109 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

John Carpenter’s The Thing is probably my all-time favorite movie. In a career chock-full of amazing movies (Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, In the Mouth of Madness, and more), The Thing is both his crowning achievement and a classic of American horror and science fiction.

There are so many reasons why I love The Thing and why you should, too. The film is a perfect example of how Carpenter was a disciple of Old Hollywood in a time when New Hollywood (Coppola, Friedkin, Lucas, Scorsese, the Scott brothers, and especially Spielberg) was metastasizing. The Thing courageously (and, from a business perspective, quite stupidly) landed in a time when sci-fi epics were playing one-upmanship. Close Encounters of the Third Kind had come out a few years prior. Both Blade Runner and E.T. were in theaters, and Return of the Jedi was less than a year away. Instead of following the trend, JC kept The Thing old school. He crafted a (far superior) remake of the 1951 B-movie classic with claustrophobic sets, minimal effects added in post, and an all-male cast (a feat that no studio film would dare attempt today).

The Thing was out of step with its contemporaries, but it never feels out of date. The film is closer to its source material (John W. Campbell’s novella, Who Goes There?) than the 1951 adaptation and does an outstanding job of conjuring the story’s themes. Every part of this movie is saturated with fear of the most timeless varieties: fear of the elements, fear of that which defies description, fear of betrayal, and most terrifying, fear that everything you know about your world will become irrelevant in an instant.

The film has a core of fear as old as humankind, but on its surface are special effects that, even today, remain close to the cutting edge. Effects master Rob Bottin (he also engineered the crazy-ass gore in RoboCop) brought the Thing to life with some of the most elaborate animatronics and puppetry in the cinematic history. The ways in which the creatures move and attack are creepier than any CGI: when the Thing is chomping on a character, it’s really chomping on the goddamn dude. Even more impressive is the multi-layered, constantly evolving monster design. Bottin pulls off the nearly impossible task of making the creatures impossible to describe even when they’re fully visible.

Kurt “Love-Of-My-Life” Russell is reliably fantastic in the lead role, but the rest of the doomed scientists are also perfectly cast (Wilford Brimley and Keith David for life, yo). All of the characters are crucial to how the events unfold, and each one has at least a couple fantastic moments. Even when eight or ten of them are onscreen simultaneously, Carpenter’s direction never allows the scenes to become clunky or confusing.

God, how I love this movie.

Aside: The Thing was nominated for “Worst Musical Score” at the 1983 Razzies. The fuck were they huffing? Ennio Morricone’s score is menacing and fantastic.

(Seen on 2013-11-04, written on 2013-11-05)

Dawn of the Dead -1978-

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Directed by George A. Romero. US Theatrical Cut, 127 mins.

Worth my time? (No More Room in) HELL Yes. (Watched on DVD)

The first two successors to Night of the Living Dead (Dawn and its 1985 sequel Day of the Dead) are probably my two favorite horror sequels of all time. While the film’s budget clocked in at well under $1 million, Romero had exponentially more resources than he did for Night, and he puts them to good use.

Dawn doesn’t bite off more than it can chew: the story still focuses on a band of barricaded survivors. However, Romero shows the zombie epidemic on a larger scale. The chaos at the television station, the SWAT raid of the apartment, and the aerial views of the civilian militias (who are throwing back beers and treating the apocalypse like a hunting trip) are some of the best scenes in the film.

Despite the similar scenario, Dawn is far from a Night retread. The main characters are not surprised and panicked like those in the farmhouse back in ’68. Two of them are work at a news station and the other two are from a SWAT team, so they are more rational and relatively well prepared. Even so, the bleak ending (though not as soul-crushing as the conclusion of Night) continues the theme that might makes right, particularly in a world gone to Hell.

Aside: Making Dawn a comedy as much as it is a horror film was a great creative decision. There’s certainly an absurd humor in making games out of killing zombies and seizing piles of now-worthless cash and jewelry.

(Seen on 2013-11-01, written on 2013-11-04)