Archive for the ‘Fire’ Category

 

Finally gonna see THE RAID 2 this week! Been waiting two long years for this thing — can you feel my excitement buzzing like a swarm of cicadas on a summer day? The action in the first movie was all-out peanut-butter-and-bananas, and the events of that one were confined to one building. In this new one they go outside! Oh my god. Imagine these maniacs in cars. I can’t wait. Anyway, here’s what I wrote about the first one when I listed it in my 2012 year-end top-ten.

 

THE RAID

 


If I were an action-movie hero (and who’s to say I’m not?), I’d be on the phone to writer/director/editor Gareth Evans yesterday.  He has made,  by a wide margin, the best action movie of the year, displaying all of the most integral virtues of the field. THE RAID starts from the most basic plot – a small group of cops are cornered in a high-rise packed with murderous thugs – and uses only a fraction — $1 million – of the means most action movies have in the pocket.  None of the guys in THE RAID look to be over five feet tall and ninety pounds, and the lead actor (Iko Uwais) looks a bit like Halle Berry circa STRICTLY BUSINESS, yet somehow hey all turn out to be the kind of fearsome, fearless shitkickers who make all fifty-two Expendables look like a Mad Magazine parody.  That’s due to the fact that these are all incredible athletes, of course, but also due to filmmaker Gareth Evans and his ferocious camerawork and ginsu-blade cutting style.

 

THE RAID

 

This isn’t just the best action film of 2012 – it’s pure cinema.  Great film-making isn’t only about storytelling and style, though THE RAID has that too.  It’s about using the tools of cinema to most effectively get a story across, with style as a garnish.  What Gareth Evans does here is present the kinetic ass-kicking doled out by his stars in a way that maximizes its impact.  The choreography of both the battles and of the camerawork that captures them has an uncommon clarity.  The violence is tactile – you can practically feel it.  This cumulative effect is also achieved by brilliantly-chosen and –rendered sound design – whether it be the sound of bullets rolling around in a wooden drawer, or that of a chambered clip, or of a machete scraping the underside of a table, or the face of a stone wall.  While everyone else was name-checking Bruce Lee and John Woo in their reviews of this movie, I was oddly enough reminded most of Martin Scorsese’s short film “The Big Shave.”  That’s the level of clever, innovative, forward-thinking filmmaking on display in THE RAID. I’m talking craft, not content.  That said: Will Gareth Evans one day make his own TAXI DRIVER or GOODFELLAS?  I would not bet against it.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

Advertisements

Raw Force (1982)

 

On the Norwegian Wikipedia page for the 1982 exploitation epic RAW FORCE — probably the only time I’ll ever start a sentence that way — we are informed that the movie was banned in Norway in 1984. That’s the most attention any kind of majority, political or otherwise, has paid this movie. RAW FORCE is made for almost no one, because it is apparently made for almost everyone. Nearly every convention or trope of genre movies from the first seventy or so years of the existence of film is expended in this one rickety heap of madness.

 

THIS IS THE RAW FORCE.

 

As I tried to describe on our latest podcast focusing on RAW FORCEdescribing this movie is like fighting a giant squid. Just when you’ve bested one wavy storytelling strand, another one snaps up and grabs you by the throat.

 

Here’s the trailer, which is maybe the most dishonest trailer I’ve ever seen:

 

_______________

That trailer literally sells a different movie. The clips are the same, but some of the character names and all of their backstories are totally different. The editors somehow cobbled together a cohesive story from several scenes that have no connection. This is the SHOGUN ASSASSIN of movie trailers. RAW FORCE is plenty of kinds of fun, but one adjective that does not apply is “cohesive.” This is the summary I gave on the podcast:

___________________

NOT THAT EDWARD MURPHY

_______________

First, a quote from Anton Chekhov:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Okay. So early on in RAW FORCE, when a plane lands on a remote island and a character mentions that the waters surrounding the island are infested with vicious piranha, you can bet you will see those fish by the end of the movie. And if that character is a white-suited human trafficker who looks and talks exactly like Adolf Hitler, you may fairly assume he’ll be the one to meet them.

 

EVERYBODY HATES HITLER

 

Otherwise, RAW FORCE, also known as KUNG FU CANNIBALS, completely ignores the principle of Chekhov’s gun. This movie operates under its own rules, and also it doesn’t have any rules. If you somehow managed to drink up all the movies and television shows of the 1970s and then you barfed them back up, the mess on the bathroom floor might look like this.

 

RIGHT IN THE TUMMY-BALLS

 

Saloon fights, graveyard fights, bazooka fights, hippies in warpaint, gratuitously naked ladies, karate-chopping hobbit bartenders, giggling monks who dine on human women, ninja zombies, a BOOGIE NIGHTS style group of protagonists calling themselves the Burbank Karate Club, an ornery sea captain, a kung fu chef, an extended riff on ‘Gilligan’s Island’, and the aforementioned worst person in human history: All this and more in RAW FORCE.

_______________

This was a fun episode even though I was delirious and feverish and congested and loopy. As always my co-hosts Joe and Freeman were terrific, engaging, and informative. You can subscribe and download the show on iTunes (please comment with feedback!) or you can

CLICK HERE!

_______________

Here are our previous episodes, in case you’d like to catch up. We’re recording a new episode this week! Stay tuned.

STREET WARS (1992)

STREET WARS (1992)

Vigilante Force

VIGILANTE FORCE (1976)

GHOSTHOUSE (1988)

GHOSTHOUSE (1988)

THRILLER: THEY CALL HER ONE EYE (1973)

THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE (1973)

Find me on Twitter:

@jonnyabomb

 

BYE I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU

 

 

RAW FORCE

 

LADIES

 

 

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” as the old saying goes. But what about in wolves’ dens? It’s a question I never knew I had. Just one of many reasons why THE GREY, the new thriller from co-writer/director Joe Carnahan, is such an uncommon and splendid achievement is that it asks (and answers) that question.

I had been sold on this movie from the minute I was made aware that it was to be a survival drama where the great actor Liam Neeson faces off against a pack of hungry wolves. “Herman Melville meets Jack London meets Hemingway meets wolves meets Liam Neeson’s fists.”  That movie would have been just fine.  But this movie is twice as good.  It’s got all the thrills and chills you could hope and expect out of that brilliantly direct premise — but on top of that, THE GREY is one of the more profound, dynamic, and uncompromising illustrations of existentialism I have seen on a movie screen in quite a while. This film goes deep — like “straight to the bone, through the ribcage, all the way through to the soul” deep.

For those of us who have been starving for brutal, bruising, uncompromising American cinema, THE GREY is proof of life.

The Grey (2012)

That was what I had started to write in January 2012. Here’s what I finally wrote about the movie in December for Daily Grindhouse:

THE GREY marked its territory in my number one spot all the way back in January of 2012, and fiercely warded off all comers with teeth bared.  I love all the movies in my top ten and there are plenty still which almost made the list, but THE GREY is the one I really took to heart.  For one thing, I am ready to go to the mat on the argument that the storytelling and filmmaking in THE GREY is at least as exemplary as any of the year’s more award-friendly critical darlings.

The score by Marc Streitenfeld is gorgeous and heartbreaking. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is crisply delineated and winter-clear.  The script by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers & Joe Carnahan is perfectly-paced and indelible.  And Joe Carnahan’s direction is world-class.  I was a huge fan of Carnahan’s movie NARC, and I think his SMOKIN’ ACES and THE A-TEAM, while surely on the cartoony side of the action-movie spectrum, show action chops on par with the best of ‘em.  I have been following and enjoying his work for a long time, but THE GREY makes Carnahan a canon filmmaker in my eyes.

I was lucky enough to see THE GREY a month early, so I could watch with fascination as it was received by the public.  Considering how thoughtful a film it is, all the simplistic and reductive “Liam Neeson punches wolves!” jokes were almost obscene.  Some of the marketing did seem eager to group THE GREY alongside the Liam Neeson action-thrillers of the last few years, and obviously this is a different thing entirely.  Interestingly, some religious groups embraced the movie, although I’m not sure it’s saying what they may want it to be saying.  And some environmental groups were bothered by the portrayal of the wolves, which is a well-intentioned complaint but misses the point.  First of all, Liam Neeson’s character views the wolves above all with a kind of respect.  But more importantly:  The same way FLIGHT isn’t really about a plane, THE GREY isn’t exactly about the wolves.

Think about the title.  Did you look at the wolves in that movie?  Didn’t look all that gray to me.  They looked almost black.  They blended in and out of that night with ease.  These aren’t real-world wolves.  These are something else.  The wolves in THE GREY are an engine, relentlessly forcing the sands through the hourglass.  In my reading of the title, “The Grey” refers to that space between existence and non-existence, between the white of snow and the black of death. No, this isn’t a movie about wolves.  This is a movie about mortality.

The Grey

Many fans of the movie have noted how THE GREY structurally resembles a typically horror movie, as the cast of characters are gradually winnowed away, and maybe that’s true, but in that case I’ve never seen a horror movie that treats the ranks of the culled with such care.  Most of the characters who die in THE GREY get sent out on a moment of dignity, even grace, or at least as much as can be mustered.  (There is one major exception, maybe the most upsetting death in the entire film, but that is the one that prompts the film’s most important emotional moment, so it’s not much of an exception after all.)  This is a movie that shows many people dying, yet it is the rare such movie that happens to value life.  That is one reason why I am struck where it matters by THE GREY.

There are also personal reasons.  I’ve spent the last four years attending more funerals than I wanted to attend in a lifetime.  Without any exaggeration and in a relatively short time, I’ve lost half my nearest and dearest.  I’ve been living with death.  This movie is what that feels like.  Wolves and winter – that’s all just visual trappings meant to illustrate an idea.  The point is, there may come a time in your life when everybody you know starts dropping like flies at the hands of some relentless cosmic flyswatter, and then what are you gonna do?  Pray to God?  Good luck there.  Worth a try.  Maybe He answers your prayers.  Maybe He doesn’t answer.  Probably he doesn’t answer.  Now you’ve got a choice to make.  Or maybe there isn’t a choice at all.

“Fuck it.  I’ll do it myself.”  That isn’t a renunciation.  That is, in fact, a profoundly spiritual decision.  This movie illustrates that concept so beautifully that if I had the tears to do it, I’d cry them.  I thank this movie for existing in 2012, and I thank Joe Carnahan and his cast and crew for braving the cold to make it.

The Grey (2012)

For further reading:

My Top Ten Of 2012

THE A-TEAM

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

@jonnyabomb

AGE OF THE DRAGONS (2011)

I can’t speak for every dude who writes about movies on the internet, but as for me, it’s not like I don’t have any options at all as to how to spend my free time. Sure, I fit the stereotype of single and brainy, but I also bring plenty to the dating pool. I’m generally considered to be sweet, thoughtful, loyal, and giving. Most people find me funny. I’m certainly presentable, even considered outright attractive from some angles. I’m currently regularly-employed and employable. I’m terrific with kids and I’ll make a great father one day. Animals also love me (though not always cats). The ladies reading this may be asking, What’s the downside?

Well ladies, the answer may be that I’m addicted to movies. Addicted. Big-time. I don’t know why, but I can’t go more than a day without one. And there’s only so many times you can watch GOODFELLAS or PULP FICTION or BOOGIE NIGHTS or whatever finite number of acceptable classics that normal guys my age watch, before you start sniffing around the outskirts of what’s out there in the great beyond, movie-wise. Sometimes that search can result in a great discovery, and most other times it doesn’t.

When I saw a preview somewhere for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, I knew I was in trouble. Somebody made a version of MOBY DICK starring PREDATOR 2‘s Danny Glover as Melville’s Captain Ahab, in the relentless and dangerous pursuit, not of a great white whale, no, but instead, of a great white dragon.

Aw hell.

I’m gonna have to watch that.

RIGGS!

MOBY DICK is often cited as The Great American Novel. Every author is out there trying to write one, but Herman Melville did it almost two hundred years ago. The book is its own Great White Whale. It has influenced countless writers and their works, been adapted to film multiple times, and has many obvious and less obvious descendents in movies such as JAWS and ALIENS. MOBY DICK is so many things — a historical document detailing the whaling industry of its era, a lierary allegory, a character study of obsession and madness, a rousing adventure tale… It’s really good! You should read it.

For a book of more than six hundred pages, the main plot of MOBY DICK is perfectly simple: A young sailor named Ishmael and his friend Queequeg, an intimidating foreigner, get a job on a whaling ship called the Pequod. They meet the first, second, and third mates on the ship — Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, respectively — but it’s a while before they meet the ship’s captain. When he arrives, he basically takes over the book. Ahab is a vengeful Quaker (which is an oxymoron, for the record) out to destroy the white whale who, in an earlier encounter, scarred him and took his leg. The only question is how many of the crew members will survive his deranged quest.

I love this story — it kind of has an elemental appeal to me at my center. It’s based on a true story! I love stories about sea monsters. As a kid my family took summer vacations to some of the areas described in the book. I grew up obsessed with the whale at the Museum Of Natural History in New York. And technically I’m half Quaker, so I even get that part of it. All of this is a run-up to say that I have more than a passing familiarity with the source material for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, which is why I found it to be even more of a bizarre anomaly than I figured it was going to be.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is so remarkably bizarre precisely because of its fidelity to MOBY DICK. There is no question that the people who made AGE OF THE DRAGONS have read MOBY DICK, which is both what makes it strangely admirable and what makes it so weird. Let’s look at some of the similarities and the differences.

Well, besides, the obvious.

MOBY DICK.

MOBY DICK is about a large angry whale.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is about a fire-breathing dragon.

In AGE OF THE DRAGONS, the action is shifted from sea to land. The dragons can fly, but the men who hunt for them travel on land. (Sky-boats would have been a little too crazy. Duh.) Still, their choice of vehicle is in fact a boat.

Boat.

The boat does have wheels, so I guess that makes sense, and the terrain they cover is generally coated with blankets of snow, so technically the boat is travelling over expanses of water, but again, let’s not mince words here: This is fucking weird. I mean, if you want to get all film school on it, you could possibly attribute the snow boat to being an extended reference both obliquely and literally to Werner Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO, another story of mad obsession, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fucking snow boat in a dragon-hunting movie.

Not only that, but the winter is apparently one of the utmost extremes, so you know what that means….

Ahab Snow Ninja

!!!SNOW NINJAS!!!

Snow Ninjas.

At every moment where I got anywhere near taking this movie seriously, somebody would show up dressed like a snow ninja and I’d have to chuckle. Which is totally fine. There isn’t anything at all wrong, from where I’m sitting, with a movie about dragon-fighting snow ninjas. But if you’re going to make a movie like that, you ought to have a sense of humor, and AGE OF THE DRAGONS is played for straights. It’s pretty dour and grim, missing the fact that Herman Melville had a satirical eye, having penned lines for MOBY DICK like “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

But I guess the makers of AGE OF THE DRAGONS figured, if they were going to take the sense of humor out of MOBY DICK, they’d better put something else in, and what they settled on was — you guessed it — a pretty girl. Her name is Rachel, which, despite there being no character like her in MOBY DICK, actually does mean something in reference to the novel. (I think the Rachel is the name of one of the boats.) Here the character is Ahab’s daughter, who he took in after her family was killed by dragons. Ishmael takes a shine to her, I guess because she’s a better bunkmate than Queequeg, which Ahab doesn’t like but what did he think was gonna happen, really. The actress doesn’t resemble Danny Glover much, which I guess is a virtue because let’s face it, she’s only really in the movie for stuff like this:

Girl.

Outside of Danny Glover, there’s no one in this movie you’ve heard of before, except for Vinnie Jones. My British friends know Vinnie Jones from his soccer — sorry: football — career, and my American friends know him from SMOKIN’ ACES 2, X-MEN 3, and GARFIELD: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES. He plays Stubb in this movie, but not for long. A dragon breathes on him and he turns into a pile of dust. Sorry if that’s a spoiler. I don’t think anything like that happened in the Melville text, but I guess they only had Vinnie Jones budgeted for a couple days on this shoot. It doesn’t feel like an organic storytelling decision, is what I’m implying.

Vinnie.

Anyway the main reason I wanted to see this movie was to see Danny Glover acting weird and talking a lot about dragons, and in this respect I did not walk away disappointed. Basically Danny Glover hates dragons because when he was a young Danny Glover, he and his sister were walking through the woods and a dragon showed up. The dragon turned his sister into a pile of ashes like it did to Vinnie Jones, and it also burned Danny Glover up pretty bad, to the point where he can’t go out in direct sunlight. On one hand that’s a bummer, but on the other hand….

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

As I was watching this movie, which has a lot of dull parts — really too many, for a movie that has dragons and Danny Glover dressed like a G.I. Joe character — I gave a lot of thought to Danny Glover, who is an actor I have a ton of affection for, but who has been really under-served by the movies, I think. He’s definitely a guy who has “important actor” status, but who hasn’t been in as many great things as he should or maybe could be.

Danny Glover High Points:

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (Clint)

WITNESS (a rare villainous turn)

THE COLOR PURPLE (probably, I haven’t seen it)

LETHAL WEAPON (obviously)

A RAISIN IN THE SUN (Bill Duke version)

LONESOME DOVE

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER

THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS (funniest part of the movie)

DREAMGIRLS

Personally, I liked SILVERADO, PREDATOR 2, PURE LUCK, and BE KIND REWIND also, but I don’t know if those roles necessarily go on the highlight reel. (PURE LUCK is pretty bad, actually, but it’s a Martin Short movie, so.)

I guess the point I’m making is, for such a prestigious actor, there sure are a ton of movies like OPERATION DUMBO DROP, GONE FISHIN’, LETHAL WEAPON 4, and SAW, on that resume, which also includes an unfair amount of shitty TV shows. Of course Danny Glover has been in some great stuff, but not enough. He needs some Fincher or Mann or Spike or Spielberg in his future. I mean, of course I enjoyed seeing him like this —

Riggs!

— but there aren’t too many of me. I’m a guy who will spend this much time thinking about a version of MOBY DICK that has dragons: Through me does not necessarily pass the road towards Oscars and widespread critical acclaim. And even with that said, I’d probably rather see a sincere version of MOBY DICK than a silly one which I can only watch in the middle of the night when there’s no female presence around to stop me. There’s no reason why Danny Glover couldn’t be given a movie where he can play Captain Ahab for real. He shouldn’t be stuck playing some weird groaning Gollum-esque character lurching around in a cave in Utah at computer-animated dragons.

Seriously, you should see the part when he fights the great white dragon at the end and gets his leg caught in the harpoon — if only for a textbook definition of anti-climax. I mean, I haven’t said much about the effects of the movie: The production value is actually rather good — I liked the sets and the costumes and even a couple of the scenes of the dragons. The actors all take it as seriously as they’re asked to, and the music by J Bateman (either Jason or Justine, I’m not sure which) is better than average for a movie of this type.

But the movie’s pace is slack and all the good dragon bits all happen early on — it’s like the production blew their dragon wad early, and like a bad lover with no follow-through, skimped on the effects in the final scenes. Even Danny Glover turns into computer animation, a cluster of pixels being dragged away on the tail of a fake monster. If it wasn’t enough that he was asked to overact through the entire movie, he doesn’t even get to leave it with any dignity.

So AGE OF THE DRAGONS, sadly, probably not a thing I can recommend. But at least I learned a thing or two about myself.

I learned that all you have to do is say the word “dragons” and I will watch your movie. It’s a foolproof method of advertising. Everyone and their grandma use more common sales pitches such as “boobs” “monkeys” and “explosions” to lure me in, but not everyone promises “dragons” and that brings my eyes over, every time.

The other thing I learned is that if I had any brains at all, I would have just watched JAWS for the 57th time. So maybe strike “brainy” from that list of datable qualities I listed up top in reference to myself.

@jonnyabomb

 

Ever look back at old haircuts from the 1980s and wonder how anybody could have left the barbershop with a straight face?  That’s the way I look at LINK, and the idea that it was ever sold as a horror film.  LINK is a fun movie to watch, but not on its own terms.  It’s a movie that asks an audience to be afraid of chimpanzees.  That’s a lot to ask of an audience.  In real life, chimpanzees are like bears:  They’re terrifyingly dangerous, but they look cute, hence all the “accidents” you occasionally read about in the news.  But in movies, chimpanzees have historically been treated as friends, sidekicks, or punchlines.  You’d be better served making a horror movie about Chewbacca or C3PO.  (I have a feeling these words will come back to haunt me one day soon.)

Let’s begin our visit with Link at the plot-recap gazebo:  The movie opens on a rooftop, where something inhuman and murderous, something we don’t see, is hiding out in the shadows, pigeon bones strewn around nearby.  Right after that mood-setting opening title sequence, we move directly into the main premise, which is this: 

The eternally-lovely Elisabeth Shue, fresh off THE KARATE KID, plays an American college student living abroad in England (where the movie was made), who is hired by an eccentric professor (SUPERMAN 2’s Terence Stamp, who is also eternally-lovely) to help his lab for the summer.  The lab is located a small summer home, which is situated on a cliff high above the coast, with a seaside view, and it’s there that the professor studies the behavioral patterns of a group of super-smart chimpanzees.  The smartest of the bunch is a fellow named Link, who wears butler clothes and roams about the house freely.

There’s something I haven’t told you. 

LINK is about chimpanzees, this much is true.  But the title character is actually played by an orangutan.  His naturally orange fur has been dyed black, or, as it turned out, a sickly shade of brown.  I get it, it’s a safety issue, chimpanzees are dickheads, one of ’em bit off poor Jennifer Connelly’s finger during the making of PHENOMENA (true story), but still:  We’ve all seen PLANET OF THE APES.  We know the difference.  Don’t give us Dr. Zauis and then tell us he’s the lady one who kept calling Charlton Heston “Bright Eyes.”  It’s insulting to everyone involved.

Meanwhile, back in the movie, Professor Stamp has abruptly disappeared halfway through the story.  Elisabeth Shue gets increasingly suspicious and tries to find out where he went, while trying to run his lab in his absence.  Link and the others may or may not be able to help or hinder her efforts.

That’s it.  That’s the story.  In as many words, I’m telling you that Link is a movie where, for a significant amount of its running time, the only living beings onscreen are Elisabeth Shue and a small group of super-smart chimpanzees (orangutans).  If you’re even remotely like me, there can’t be any more encouraging cinematic prospect on paper.  In 2012, Elisabeth Shue is still incredibly cute (and definitely deserves to be a much bigger star), but Link has her at 23.   And I can’t pretend to get all sophisticated about it – for me, that’s kinda enough.  Show me apes in suits and a pretty girl and I will have to strain to complain. 

LINK was directed by Richard Franklin, who was a protégée of Alfred Hitchcock, to the point that Franklin directed PSYCHO 2.  (The Squeakquel!)  It was written by Everett De Roche, who also wrote 1981’s ROAD GAMES for Franklin.  These are not untalented men, not by a long shot, but this is not their best work.   LINK has a bizarre, unnatural rhythm that seems to be primarily due to some ill-considered pacing, but it could also have a lot to do with the fact that it’s a would-be suspenseful movie that relies heavily on animal actors.  That means that a human character will speak a line of dialogue, and then have to wait for the trained orang’s reaction.  That all happens in real time on film.

LINK also has a weirdly jaunty score, for a movie that intends to make chimpanzees (orangutans) in dinner jackets appear ominous.  The orchestral music undercuts most of the movie’s attempts at suspense.  I was surprised to see that the legendary Jerry Goldsmith supplied the music – you’d think that the guy who scored ALIEN, THE OMEN, POLTERGEIST, and even GREMLINS could have come up with some spookier tunage, but then again it must have been a tough assignment from the outset.

Lest I start sounding too critical, there are other things you need to know.  There is a scene where a perverted chimp (orangutan) stares at Elisabeth Shue as she prepares to take a bath.  There is a climactic exploding cigar scene.  I’m pretty sure that there are a couple scenes where little people in ape costumes double for the ape actors.  These are all moments that make me glad that I witnessed this movie.

A year later, Hollywood provided an answer to LINK with PROJECT X, where the chimpanzees were heroes, instead of creeps.  According to Wikipedia, however, PROJECT X was besieged by claims of animal cruelty.  LINK wasn’t, so that’s another chalk mark in its favor.  It’s got a growing cult following too, although there’s no re-release or remake in the works, as far as I can tell.  That might be for the best, really.  Like I said at the outset, for a horror movie it’s one bad haircut.  Then again, the hi-top fade is returning, and the mullet never left, so never say never.

Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

 

 

DEAD & BURIED strikes me as a film underrated even by the crowds who usually stand up for films that are underrated. DEAD & BURIED was directed by Gary Sherman (RAW MEAT, VICE SQUADPOLTERGEIST 3) and written by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett (ALIEN, TOTAL RECALL).  These aren’t household names by any stretch, but neither are the guys who built the George Washington Bridge, and tens of thousands of people drive over that every single day, get me?

Jason Zinoman’s 2011 book Shock Value does a heroic job of making the case for O’Bannon’s place in the pantheon of important horror filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s.  However, if Zinoman’s terrifically readable book has an obvious flaw it’s that it’s far too short for such a rich subject.  When I went back to the book to see what it had to say about DEAD & BURIED, there was literally nothing there.  This is a project O’Bannon and Shusett wrote before ALIEN, and got to make (with Shusett producing) once ALIEN conquered the world.  It features early effects work by the legendary Stan Winston (PREDATOR).  It’s a movie worth considering, for its historical import alone.

O’Bannon and Shusett wrote ALIEN and adapted TOTAL RECALL.  O’Bannon, a classmate of John Carpenter at USC, made DARK STAR with the director who would soon take off with ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and HALLOWEEN. And O’Bannon wrote and directed RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, the movie that introduced talking zombies with a taste for brains to punk music.  Dan O’Bannon is as valuable to the sci-fi and horror genres as just about any more famous hyphenate worshipped by genre film fanatics.  Ronald Shusett has obviously earned his bones as well.

DEAD & BURIED was originally a short story and script by Jeff Millar and Alex Stern, which O’Bannon and Shusett rewrote and then gave to Gary Sherman to direct.  Sherman’s previous film, RAW MEAT aka DEATH LINE (which I will cover at greater length in a future column), is what got him the director job on DEAD & BURIED.  The story needed a director who would go all the way in, and it got one.

DEAD & BURIED opens on an overcast beach in Maine (actually Northern California), where a photographer has stopped to shoot some local scenery. He’s approached by a striking young woman (Lisa Blount), they flirt, and she starts posing for cheesecake snapshots.  She spontaneously opens her blouse, and just when the poor guy thinks his day is made, a mob of locals appears, seizing his camera away and snapping disorienting flash photos as they beat and kick him mercilessly.  They wrap him around a wooden pole with a fishing net, splash gasoline on him, and burn him alive.

It’s a mightily unsettling scene, even to modern eyes (like mine) who have seen three decades of horror hence.  The romantic music, the sudden boobage, and the jarring transition to such savage violence make one powerfully disturbing cocktail.  And the scene isn’t even done with us yet:  The local sheriff, Dan Gillis (James Farentino), and the town mortician (Jack Albertson) arrive on the scene to examine the burnt and deformed body of the photographer.  They kneel in close, looking for the cause of death, and the skeletal figure SCREAMS.  It’s an ingenious and upsetting scare, the likes of which we’ve seen several times since, in films as great as David Fincher’s SE7EN, but DEAD & BURIED has that film beat by a decade and a half!

DEAD & BURIED is full of unnerving moments like that one.  It’s a movie that was actually pared down in many markets due to its gruesome violence.  The scene that was cut, surprisingly, wasn’t the one I just described, but instead a rather infamous act of cruelty that befalls that poor photographer a little later in the film, as he lies helpless in the hospital.

This is only the beginning, by the way.  Sheriff Gillis is called to a new crime scene every morning after that first one on the beach.  The spookiness really kicks in when those murder victims start reappearing in town.  Don’t go picturing zombies — these folks are as unharmed and as generally pleasant as they had been before an angry mob bashed their heads in and set them on fire.  The practiced horror viewer will likely figure out the mystery before the sheriff does, but it’s the journey, not the destination, that makes DEAD & BURIED so indelible.

The story crafted by O’Bannon and Shusett parcels out surprises cleverly, in a way that can be surprising even three decades later.  Director Gary Sherman and his crew make the most out of their locations, making the town of Potter’s Bluff feel like a tangible environment.  The music by Joe Renzetti contributes mightily to the creepy atmosphere.  The ensemble cast, including a young Robert Englund (pre- NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), is never less than fully invested.  But no discussion of DEAD & BURIED would be complete without mention of its two lead performances.

When I found out that James Farentino (who died in January of this year) was a native New Yorker, I wasn’t surprised: He has a direct, grounded presence that we as the audience depend on to keep us steadily moving through a story that becomes increasingly, horrifyingly unhinged.  He’s a low-key Everyman in the early goings, a regular guy whose very sanity is tested by the town’s journey into darkness.

But if we could retroactively award Oscars to unheralded performances of our choosing, I might have to commandeer the time machine to ensure that Jack Albertson would get his due.  If you’re like me, you either know Jack Albertson as Manny Rosen in 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, or more likely as Grandpa Joe in 1971’s WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.  Especially if you’ve seen either of those roles, in which he played the definition of the kindly old Jewish grandfather, Jack Albertson’s portrayal of the morbidly sardonic coroner Dobbs will be a revelation.  He’s there to help in the investigation, but he irritates the sheriff as much as he entertains him (such as the comical moment when Gillis arrives at the morgue and Dobbs loudly mentions where his young assistant stashes his weed.)  This was one of Jack Albertson’s final roles, and according to the director’s commentary on the wonderful Blue Underground DVD, he knew he was dying while filming the movie.  So Jack Albertson, a vaudeville performer from way back, clearly relished the black humor and irony in the role, and played it up to the hilt.  Dobbs isn’t just an eccentric with a nostalgic affection for big-band music — there are many more shades to the character, and Jack Albertson’s nimble performance alone is more than reason enough to take another look at DEAD & BURIED.

In addition, I think we can all agree that Jack Albertson has the greatest IMDb profile picture of all time:

 

DEAD & BURIED is playing tonight in Los Angeles as part of Cinefamily’s Video Nasties series.

Follow me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

The other day I was describing PHENOMENA to a buddy who’s similarly enamored of horror flicks, and when I kept emphasizing how wonderful a movie it is, he thought I was fucking with him, since I apparently had a devious smile on my face the entire time. It made me smile just to think about it, but smile weirdly, because the movie is insane. Let me say it here in black-and-white without quotation marks: I sincerely, absolutely believe that PHENOMENA is a brilliant horror film. You can find vastly differing opinions elsewhere, but this essay is about mine.

PHENOMENA, originally released in the United States as CREEPERS (the reason for which will soon be apparent), is the work of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento. I’ve had only limited exposure to Argento’s filmography. I’ve seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at least a dozen times, of course, but Argento was one of several writers on that film, not the director. And I’ve seen DAWN OF THE DEAD a couple dozen times, but Argento’s main contributions to that film as far as I know were in the way of musical compositions and support to his friend George Romero.

The only Argento film upon which I can hold forth in any meaningful way (besides this one) is 1977’s SUSPIRIA, but SUSPIRIA is far from the only notable film in his arsenal. Argento’s primary milieu is within the genre of film known as giallo. PLEASE NOTE: I do not and would not claim to be any kind of authority on giallo cinema. I will explain it as best as I know how, but for a more comprehensive look, please visit my friends at Paracinema. They even have a piece on PHENOMENA, which I will finally read as soon as I’m done writing mine! I’m sure theirs is smarter, as you’ll see soon enough. But let’s try to sound academic as long as possible before bringing up the monkey.

So, Giallo: It literally means “yellow” and it’s an evocative reference to the yellowed pages of pulp novels. Giallo is a kind of pulp tale, but rather than more traditional pulp topics such as noir or sci-fi, giallo quickly diverged into its own thing. Generally speaking, giallo films tend to be lurid, bloody psychological thrillers. Think Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, only with a significant level-up on the gore. Giallos may or may not have supernatural elements, but the color red (ironic, due to the name) is a near-constant. Stabbings abound. Quite honestly, I stayed away from the giallo genre for a long time because, despite its encouraging tendency to feature female protagonists, giallo as a result and by nature also features a preponderance of graphic and vicious violence towards women. I’m a guy who prefers monster movies to knife-murders, and — unfairly or not — I’d always figured giallos to be the artier precursor to slashers, like the FRIDAY THE 13TH series. That assumption is not entirely incorrect, but of course it’d be foolish to write off an entire genre, particularly one so influential.

Directors like Mario Bava, Massimo Dallamano, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci were the most prominent practitioners of giallo films, though genre journeymen more famous for other types of movies, such as Enzo Castellari, Antonio Margheriti, and Fernando Di Leo, also worked in the arena. That’s how significant a movement it was. Of all giallo directors, Dario Argento is the one whose name is arguably most synonymous with the genre. His films THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), DEEP RED (1975), TENEBRAE (1982), and OPERA (1987), among others, are giallo hallmarks. The aforementioned SUSPIRIA (1977) is a giallo film with somewhat more of a supernatural angle than usual. 1985’s PHENOMENA is even more of a departure.

PHENOMENA is a deep, dark fairy tale. It’s a completely unrestrained work. It defies convention, throws peerlessly bizarre protagonists into the mix, and veers tonally all over the map. Clearly, if Argento and his co-writer Franco Ferrini had an idea, they put it in. No doubt this is what puts off some of the film’s detractors, but for me, the audaciousness is thrilling and inspiring. Let’s do a recap and you’ll see what I mean:

The film opens on a cloudy late afternoon in the rolling, lushly green hills of Switzerland. Right off the bat, what Argento manages to do with wind is eerie and evocative, and the primal unsettling quality of wind through trees is a recurring part of the film. The instrumental score by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin (the Italian prog-rock band who also did the score for Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD) and Simon Boswell is weird and unforgettable and also a kind of secondary character who wanders throughout the film. So by the time any human characters enter the frame, the tone for PHENOMENA is set. A busload of young tourists is herded onto a bus by their chaperone, and as the bus is driving off, one schoolgirl is left behind. She chases the bus, but as it disappears, she realizes how very alone she is. The girl is played by a young actress named Fiore Argento, and if the surname sounds familiar, that’s no accident. Argento had no reservations about featuring his nearest and dearest in his films, often in ways that might give meeker hearts pause. More on that in a moment.

In an epically eerie sequence, the girl wanders through the hillside until she finds a small isolated cottage. With literally nowhere else to go, she ventures inside, calling out for help. There’s something chained inside the house. It breaks free, slashes at the girl, and chases her outside. We don’t see what the girl sees, although we do see some angles from the vantage point of her pursuer. The girl runs to a cave near a waterfall, and is run through with a pike. The attack continues until it’s clear the girl is dead, at which point something falls into the waterfall and is washed away by the rapids far below. In case it wasn’t immediately clear, the object is the girl’s head.

The next time we see that head, it’s dessicated almost down to the bone, with maggots and worms and all manners of creepy-crawlies doing what they do upon it. The skull is encased in glass, in the laboratory of a wheelchair-bound forensic entemologist named John McGregor. McGregor is describing his work to the two police investigators who have come to see him: He’s a scientist who uses insects to determine the method and manner of a victim’s demise — basically, if the TV show CSI were like this movie, I’d watch the TV show CSI. Here’s why: McGregor is played by Donald Pleasence, the veteran British character actor who is probably best known to horror fans from his role in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. He serves a similar function here. I should also mention that McGregor has an assistant named Inga who happens to be a chimpanzee. By assistant, I mean that Inga helps McGregor with his experiments and helps him talk out theories and also pushes his wheelchair for him. If you’re still reading, I appreciate it and I will understand fully if you want to stop now and run off to watch the movie for yourself. It’s worth doing.

Into the movie comes young Jennifer, the teenaged protagonist of the film. She’s played by a then-14-year-old Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role, having previously made her debut appearance in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Jennifer Connelly is shockingly beautiful in this movie — I say this not at all in any creepy way, that’s not the effect her appearance provokes — she’s like a fairy-tale princess, the kind you want to see no harm befall. Your eyes go right to her in every scene, but not in any kind of lustful way — she’s simply a striking figure, almost a special effect, and exactly the kind of visual anchor that an unhinged narrative like this one requires.

Jennifer — Argento allegedly gave Connelly’s character the same first name in order to help her get invested in the story — is headed to a Swiss boarding school, having been shipped off by a famous actor father who doesn’t seem to care much about her. Her chaperone is Frau Brückner, a local employee of her father, played by Daria Nicolodi, another frequent collaborator of Argento and the mother of his famous daughter, Asia. (Both of whom are actors Argento has used repeatedly in his films, to go back to an earlier point.) Jennifer is dropped off at school and nearly immediately ostracized by the other girls. There are two things you need to know about Jennifer: She sleepwalks at night, and she can commune with insects. She has psychic abilities that give her disturbing images of the future and torment her sleep.

So one night, while walking in her sleep, Jennifer is awakened by a schoolmate being murdered out in the surrounding woods. It seems that the killer from the opening scene isn’t done preying upon young victims. Jennifer gets lost in the woods, but is rescued by Inga, who introduces Jennifer to McGregor. With their shared affinity for insects, Jennifer and McGregor become fast friends and soon enough they team up to investigate the murders on their own. Since McGregor is house-bound, he sends out Jennifer with a fly in a box to aid in the investigation. Jennifer and the fly find the cottage from the opening scene, which leads to more disturbing revelations.

In other words, what I am telling you is that, in addition to a chimpanzee lab assistant, this movie also has a fly detective. And songs by famed metal bands Iron Maiden and Motorhead. And a little person with Patau syndrome. And I’m not even done recapping yet, but I’m going to stop there, because believe it or not, PHENOMENA has even more twists and turns and seemingly random factors that all collide and result in a uniquely fizzy combustion of weird inspiration. I don’t want to reveal any more than I already have.

PHENOMENA is an everything movie. Most people are understandably content with just one or two flavors, and such a mad mixture of elements is too much for them. Most movies would begin and end with the string of murders at a Swiss boarding school, or with the sleepwalking girl with psychic powers. The apocalyptic swarms of flies and the chimpanzee protagonist may be five or six too many layers of awesome for the conventional filmgoing mind to handle. But PHENOMENA is the only movie I know of in which a chimpanzee protagonist and an apocalyptic swarm of flies team up with Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence in order to defeat a deranged murderer — if you know of any others PLEASE let me know — and that is the reason it gets a blue ribbon from me.

Throw everything at me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb