Archive for the ‘Ghosts’ Category

 

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973)

 

Certainly as a director and a little less so as a star, Clint Eastwood has worked in just about every genre there is. One glaring exception is horror, or so it would seem. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER comes pretty damn close. It’s a genre rope-a-dope. You see the star of THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY and he’s riding a horse and carrying a six-shooter, so you think you know what kind of a movie you’re expecting. And then you get hit with something else entirely, but not right away.

 

 

 

Here I find myself in the unfortunate position of spoiling a movie early on simply by describing it in terms of the horror genre – since for a long stretch, the story of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would not lead one to conclude it should be filed anywhere other than the Westerns shelf of the library.  

 

 

But, at the very least, Clint Eastwood as director and star uses some elements of the ghost-story genre in the construction of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER.  The unnamed gunslinger appears out of the haze of the frontier heat on his way into a town that he eventually paints blood-red (literally) and re-names “Hell,” and the wailing score by Dee Barton of PLAY MISTY FOR ME is at all times more horror-movie than Morricone 

 

 

Clint’s second film as director after the aforementioned PLAY MISTY FOR ME, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER was heavily influenced by the styles of Clint’s mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone.  Unlike PLAY MISTY FOR ME, which was a then-contemporary thriller, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would have seemed like a return to familiar genre terrain for Eastwood. But this was no usual shoot-’em-up. It was the first of many sly and bold deconstructions of his own “nameless gunfighter” persona – this is no hero, but a ruthless avenging angel.  And maybe “angel” isn’t remotely the right term.  

Actually it definitely isn’t.

 

 

Written by Ernest Tidyman, creator of SHAFT, and moodily lensed by Eastwood regular DP Bruce SurteesHIGH PLAINS DRIFTER lets you know almost immediately that this isn’t Gary Cooper territory. The townspeople of Lago are nervous about a trio of murderous outlaws, led by Stacey Bridges (played by Geoffrey Lewis), who once terrorized the place and are rumored to be on the way to do it again. So when a mysterious stranger, in a familiar tall, dark and handsome form, rides in from the desert and shoots down some nasty customers, it would seem he’s the answer to Lago’s prayers.

 

 

But when a well-dressed blond lady tries to meet-cute with the stranger by bumping into him, he forces her into a barn and not very ambiguously forces himself on her. This is within the first fifteen minutes of the film. It’s startling and upsetting, and while there are indications the woman seems to enjoy it, that only makes it more difficult to process. Our movie’s hero has done one of the worst things you can do to anyone to a seemingly innocent person. And we’re still supposed to root for this guy? Can you imagine the Salon thinkpieces if this film were to come out today?

 

 

Of course, as it turns out, nobody in Lago is innocent or pure. But we don’t know that at the time of the sexual assault. And even once the truth is revealed, this moment still doesn’t sit right. Nobody deserves such a violation, and even if logic were perverted and contorted enough to make rape seem justifiable, does that make things better? Is anything really resolved? And why are we watching in the first place?

 

 

Twenty years later, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Science awarded Clint’s film UNFORGIVEN for its canny deconstruction of the star’s own persona and that of basically every American action hero of the past century. But — not to take anything away from UNFORGIVEN, which is a favorite — HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER proves Clint had been doing that all along. The gulf between what an audience expected from Clint in 1973, when he first rides into this movie on a white horse, and then what he proceeds to do in short order, is unfathomable. It’s still shocking today. No action star before or since had been so daring with their onscreen persona. No movie star period would risk such a vicious reversal of expectations.

 

HPD

 

 

Like HIGH NOON, this story is about a lone gunfighter preparing to face off against three outlaws in a frontier town. Like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, the story finds a town hiring a mercenary to teach them to fight against invaders. But in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, the hero abuses the authority he’s given: He assaults a woman, drinks up the town’s booze, appoints a little person (Billy Curtis, who is excellent in the movie) the town sheriff, defaces the scenery, and ultimately abandons the people in their supposed time of need. He’s an unchecked anarchist at best.

The Western is maybe the single genre where American audiences most expect our heroes to be heroes. Clint Eastwood used the Western to make us ask ourselves what that means.

 

 

 

— JON ABRAMS. 

 

 

ME

 

 

 

 

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GHOSTBUSTERS 2

 

 

My love for the original GHOSTBUSTERS is infinite, and the sequel is the only one I got to see in the theaters, so it took me a lot of distance before I could ever admit to the flaws of GHOSTBUSTERS 2. I get it now. It’s not a great movie. It isn’t the stone classic the first one inarguably is. Fine. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of goodness happening around the edges of the under-cooked main plot about rivers of slime and demon paintings and weirdly-accented demon-painting familiars.

 

Ghostbusters-2-PF-WENN-1

 

For one thing, I’m not about to overlook any movie where cinematographer Michael Chapman gets to shoot New York City. The man shot some of my favorite New York movies ever — TAXI DRIVER, THE WANDERERS, RAGING BULL, SCROOGED, and QUICK CHANGE — and here he’s taking over for the legendary László Kovács, who gave the original GHOSTBUSTERS (and the New York City of 1983/1984) such a timeless look. Chapman gives us a movie that is more recognizably 1989, but it’s still got more widescreen pop than most comedies ever get near.

 

EXONERATED

 

For another, I will argue for the comic excellence of the opening bunch of “Whatever Happened To?” opening scenes, which establish what these guys have been up to since they saved Manhattan from paranormal ruin five years previous – Harold Ramis as Egon Spengler has gone back to academics, while Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz and Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore are playing kids’ birthday parties. Best of all, Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman is making a living as a TV psychic talk-show host. (Which Sigourney Weaver’s character somewhat predicted in the original, when they first met!)

 

WORLD OF THE PSYCHIC

 

This isn’t a rehash of the first movie; it’s a believable, logical, surprising, and very funny extension of what would most likely be happening five years after the first movie ended. GHOSTBUSTERS 2 doesn’t really get into trouble until the basic plot kicks in, but even then there are still great bits such as Rick Moranis as former accountant Louis Tully, now representing the Ghostbusters in court since he’s all they can afford.

 

ESQUIRE

 

Despite whatever flaws the film may or may not have, all of the character beats between the main guys, and particularly between Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver, feel completely right to me. This is five years after these dudes saved the world and since Venkman got the girl, but in the interim that romance petered out (no pun intended) for realistic relationship reasons. Just because two people kiss at the end of the movie doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be together forever. Is there another sequel that has addressed something this real? As goofy and corny as it is in so many places, GHOSTBUSTERS 2 is also a movie about a guy who realized he let one of the good ones get away. And now she’s got an infant son. Bill Murray plays those moments so well. “You know, I should have been your father. I mean, I could have been. ” Am I the only guy who’s ever gone on Facebook and seen a baby picture on the wall of some long-ago girl and thought something similar? Or is that just more evidence of my own weirdness?

 

ORANGE NOSE

 

More than anything, it’s just a pleasure to have this group assembled again. I’d rather hang with these characters in a problematic movie than most other characters anywhere else. GHOSTBUSTERS 2 gives Sigourney Weaver more of a chance to interact with Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd than she did in the first movie. Harold Ramis didn’t act too much after this movie, nor did Rick Moranis come to think of it. Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray never teamed up again, to my knowledge. And what a pleasure to get to spend more time than before with Ernie Hudson, as likable an actor as I could ever name. (Also, an actor with access to the Fountain Of Youth — he looks five years younger this time around.)

 

DON'T LOOK GOOD

 

 

There are a few regrettable scenes to skip past (i.e. the ghost baby carriage; whatever that pink thing in the bathtub is supposed to be) and Randy Edelman’s score is nowhere near as iconic and lovely as Elmer Bernstein’s work on the original, but I’m a person who’d rather look at the assets than the demerits. I’m an assets man. Perfect movies are pretty rare. Sometimes you have to yield your critical eye a little and loosen up. There’s no way this thing is a total wash. If you’re combining Harold Ramis with Ivan Reitman and Dan Aykroyd you can’t help but come up with a ton of hyper-specific and hyper-quotable dialogue, and if you’ve got Bill Murray on board you’ve got the best comedic leading man of the past few decades, and that’s the value of GHOSTBUSTERS 2. So there.

 

For more on the incredible Harold Ramis, who the world lost this year, please see this tribute.


@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

Parts of this piece originally appeared over on Rupert Pupkin Speaks.

 

ONE OF THE FETTUCINIS.

ONE OF THE FETTUCINIS.

GHOSTBUSTERS 2

GHOSTHOUSE (1988)

 

GHOSTHOUSE is pretty far from a classic, but at least it inspired what I’d argue is our funniest podcast yet. Umberto Lenzi, aka Humphrey Humbert as he calls himself on this poster anyway, is an Italian exploitation filmmaker who made a bunch of gory zombie and cannibal movies. This is his take on the haunted-house genre, from 1988, which is not generally considered to have been Lenzi’s prime, if indeed such an era existed. GHOSTHOUSE has some of the stupidest and most irritating human characters you’ll meet in any horror movie anywhere, but their stupidity and obnoxiousness is nothing compared to little Henrietta and her evil clown puppet.

 

DUMB CLOWN

 

Yes, absolutely, the evil clown puppet goes on a rampage, but it’s not remotely as cool as it sounds.

 

CLOWN ATTACK

 

 

To be fair, a spooky hooded skeleton shows up near the end, but it’s way too little and too late to redeem this dungheap:

SPOOKY

 

Basically, you’ll hear the three of us talking about everything we can before getting down to the movie — including the work of Nicolas Cage — but once we do, it’s hard to tell which aspect of the movie tormented us most: the anti-urgent pace, the butcher-block editing, the horrific acting, the complete lack of scares, or most likely, the cruel, cruel, torturous score. Oh God. It still rings in my skull.

Here’s the movie, if you think you have the constitution for it, but be forewarned, many stronger warriors have crumbled before its awful might:

And now here’s us talking about it — hear us reeling from the agony it induces!:

GHOSTHOUSE (1988)

[Click here to listen and download!]

Once you’re done with that, it’s never too late to check out our previous efforts:

STREET WARS.

STREET WARS (1992)

VIGILANTE FORCE.

Vigilante Force

 

 

The new episode drops this Tuesday, so stay tuned!

 

@JONNYABOMB

Lady In The Water (2006)

M. Night Shyamalan, the kinda-sorta auteurist filmmaker who rocketed to above-the-title fame with a couple movies only to struggle critically over the tail end of the past decade, has a new movie coming out this summer.  It’s called AFTER EARTH and it stars Will Smith, one of the last dependable movie stars, and his son Jaden.  The movie is a sci-fi epic about a father and son who return to Earth in the deep future, long after the planet has been abandoned by humanity.  I included AFTER EARTH on my list of 2013’s potentially strangest movies, which is totally a dick move on my part.  I mean, how much have I done with MY life to be sitting here taking cheap shots?  At least this guy is out there making movies, and making them with some of the world’s hugest stars.  In my heart, I’m really not a so-called hater.

Quite the contrary in this case, in fact.  I think there’s a particular angst for movie lovers when we start following a talented filmmaker who then makes a severe right turn down the off-roads of unfulfilled or squandered promise.  It happened to me with Kevin Smith, for example, a witty, bold, and perceptive writer who I always hoped would take an interest in learning what to do with a camera, but it turned out he’d rather pursue other interests besides visual storytelling.  By contrast, Shyamalan never had a problem being cinematic, but he certainly grew overly enamored of certain tics that precluded concise and coherent films.  I would have liked to remain a fan, but at a certain point I had to decide that I didn’t want to follow these guys up their own asses.

So here’s a chronicle of me falling in love with another man’s talent, and then rapidly falling out of it.  I wrote most of this piece back in 2008 but unfortunately my mind hasn’t much changed since then.

NOTE: This will not include anything Shyamalan did before THE SIXTH SENSE, because I haven’t seen any of that stuff. I’m most interested in the Shyamalan of self-created myth & legend, the Shyamalan we have come to know in the past decade, the one who – like a young Bruce Wayne in his study who looked up at a bat and gained an instant career direction – looked up at the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK poster in his office and asked himself why he wasn’t making those kind of movies. That is the filmography I will be talking about here.

I also won’t be talking about anything after THE HAPPENING, for reasons that may soon enough become apparent.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) – This one came out of nowhere in the summer of 1999 and blew most people’s minds.  It was a ghost story with the emphasis on story.  The dramatic twist near the end actually deepens the experience, and it doesn’t hurt that it makes you want to re-watch the movie with the twist now in mind.  This is an extremely solid movie about faith and the after-life and how those intersect and overlap. Is it maybe even good enough to one day sit on a shelf alongside another one of the director’s inspirations, THE EXORCIST? That may be going a little far. But it does serve as an answer to the most vehement haters, the ones who, burned by his later films, have rechristened him F. Night Shyamalan:

Anybody wondering why they still allow this guy to make movies should re-watch THE SIXTH SENSE. It was a massive financial success achieved with an actually good movie. The people who make the decisions are no doubt optimistic that one day, this guy will do that again. (So am I, for the record.)

But the movie itself does indeed hold up to revisiting. To prospective screenwriters like myself, I also recommend reading it in script form, if you can track that down, because it’s still just as affecting on the page. This movie is so solid that it has a good performance by Donnie Wahlberg.  That’s directing, son.

The truth is that Shyamalan’s filmmaking talent is very real. Every movie he has made since THE SIXTH SENSE has contained varying degrees of that copious cinematic talent. Key word: “varying.” It’s why his filmography is so frustrating. He wouldn’t be so widely discussed if he wasn’t so capable.

UNBREAKABLE (2000)

UNBREAKABLE (2000) – I loved this one when it was first released. Saw it twice theatrically and a couple more times on DVD. So I hope that earns me enough leeway to suggest that it does not really hold up viscerally eight years later. It’s slow as a turtle attempting to moonwalk. Okay, hang on–

Here’s a rule: You can’t make a movie that’s more boring than real life. You just can’t. It’s why — to take a random and unrelated example — BROKEN FLOWERS was so disappointing to me. No matter how much Bill Murray you pour into a movie, you can’t slow a story down so much that you leave out the space for narrative.

Anyway, that’s why Shyamalan’s “deliberate” pacing falls so often flat. It also plays into the cardinal mistake Shyamalan likes to make of turning lighthearted subject matter — in this case superheroes — into a somber and ponderous suite of melancholy. It’s true that comic books themselves have been doing this for years, and now comic book movies are doing it too, so Shyamalan can’t be entirely faulted there.  In a way, he was ahead of the curve.

On an intellectual level, UNBREAKABLE still works. It’s an interesting approach to the standard superhero/supervillain origin story. I just don’t want to rewatch it ever again. Unless…

You know what would solve all its problems? If the once-rumored sequel were to actually happen. Because as it stands now, UNBREAKABLE feels like the longest first act ever.  I would definitely be curious as to what happens in the second UNBREAKABLE movie if it ever happened, especially since the second act is traditionally where the majority of the actual story takes place.  UNBREAKABLE doesn’t add up to much without its MR. GLASS STRIKES BACK.

Signs (2002)

SIGNS (2002) – Forget the fact that it’s kind of impossible to look at Mel Gibson anymore without off-the-screen baggage.  He’s fine in the movie, really.  It’s the movie itself that’s the problem.  This is where the storytelling problems infecting Shyamalan’s arsenal start to rear up violently. Shyamalan’s technical skill is still crazy-impressive – every scene where those aliens appear (or don’t) is freaky and great.

It’s the other stuff that just plain doesn’t add up in a coherent way — first and foremost that ending — and there’s been enough cyber-ink spilled on the subject for me to not bother to add to it. But the movie still made tons of money, and enough people still inexplicably say they like it, which is no doubt precisely how the first out-and-out blunder came to pass.

The Village (2004)

THE VILLAGE (2004) – Or as I call it affectionately: Cinematic blue-balls.

There’s nothing wrong with the original premise – colonial village is surrounded on all sides by a thick forest and maintaining an uneasy truce with the horrible monsters who live there – in fact that’s a great goddamn premise! And the way those red-cloaked spiny creatures are set up is chilling. Even knowing how things turned out, I still get chills thinking of their first couple appearances in the movie, and trust me, I don’t scare easy at movies. The first half of THE VILLAGE does the tough part and brings the fear.

So why completely subvert it for a corny twist ending? I’ll tell you how I figured out the twist after the first five minutes of the movie: “Okay, colonial village, bunch of musty old white people, how are they going to work in a role for the director, a modern-sounding East Indian guy, AHA! – it’s actually set in the present day!” And sure enough, there he was, and so it was. Sorry to ruin the movie, but you’d be a lot happier if you turned it off at the hour-mark anyway.

Lady in the Water (2006)

LADY IN THE WATER (2006) – Even worse, somehow.  Massive folly. Near-unbelievable, but I didn’t see it alone, so I know for a fact it really happened.

Reading Shyamalan print interviews is one of my guilty pleasures. I’m just fascinated by how someone so smart and talented can so often be so misguided. I may risk sounding like an asshole to say so, but I truly find it illuminating. For a while there, Shyamalan was fond of defending his work by questioning why so many people criticize him and not his movies. Seems to me that one way to avoid that is to take a break from casting yourself in your movies. Right? Kind of hard to separate the two when, in this case, you’re playing the pivotal role of the man who will write the book that will change the world, even though it will mean he will die a martyr. And you can’t be so naive as to think that notebook-toting, detail-oriented professional film critics won’t pick up on the fact that the only character to meet a gruesome death, in an entire movie about the act of storytelling itself, is the cranky film critic.

The same way that you can’t complain about the way that people are always trying to figure out the twist endings of your movies when you keep putting twist endings in your movies. Right?

I particularly liked how the title character spent very close to the entire running time curled up in the shower. That was exciting.

And Paul Giamatti had the speech impediment coming and going, and that Latino dude with the fucked-up arm… (Now I’m getting confused again.) The wolf made of grass was pretty cool though. (Was I high?)  Wikipedia tells me there was in fact a grass-wolf. It was called a “scrunt,” which really isn’t a great word to have in what was intended as a children’s movie.

The Happening (2008)

THE HAPPENING (2008) – Okay. Okay.

It’s starting to become apparent that the director may no longer be interested in suspenseful stories about the supernatural, and has in fact now evolved into the maker of really, really weird comedies.

If you go into THE HAPPENING in this spirit, you will not be disappointed. If you are looking for a creepy edge-of-the-seater, you surely will. Without giving anything important away (I want to leave the half-hearted yet still insane ultimate revelation to the bravest among you), here are some reasons why I enjoyed THE HAPPENING:

  • “Filbert.”  Let me explain: The main characters are fleeing Philadelphia on a railroad train, which inexplicably stops. Someone ducks their head away from the window, and the name of the town in which they are now stranded is revealed: Filbert. FILBERT! Duh-duh-duhhhhh! No, God, please, no, not…      Filbert! Filbert! Dooooom! I don’t even care whether or not I’m the only one who laughed at that, because it’s still funny to me. Fucking Filbert, man.
  • I was NOT, however, the only one who laughed when the construction workers started walking off the building. Everyone in my theater laughed at that.  It’s mostly because the plummeting crazies are played by dummies. And if we learned anything from The Three Stooges and Saturday Night Live, it’s that dummies are the greatest of all comedy props.
  • I don’t know who in all of Hollywood I would cast as a science teacher and a math teacher, respectively, but Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are not they. Likable and down-to-earth actors both, but far better casting for, say, the cranky gym coach and the wisecracking AV teacher. They do their best, but the dialogue they are given does them no favors.
  • I swear a couple times Shyamalan cuts away from the action to a reaction shot of Zooey Deschanel and it looks like she’s trying to suppress a crack-up. Shyamalan may not have noticed, but I’m sure I did.
  • Intentional laughs are in the movie for sure, to the point where it’s almost confusing when it happens – stay tuned for the scene where Wahlberg tries to relate on a personal level to a plastic plant. Expertly written and played, and I’m not being sarcastic at all.
  • Far and away Shyamalan’s best and most hilarious cameo in all of his movies to date happens in THE HAPPENING. If you end up going, please stay for the credits to see what role he played. It’s just got to be a joke. But one of those jokes that only the one making it gets; you know that kind.
  • The Lion Scene! Oh man, the lion scene. The lion scene is a horror-comedy classic of which an EVIL DEAD 2-era Sam Raimi would be chainsaw-wieldingly envious. Soon to be a YouTube staple, guaranteed.

So if you’re looking for scary, this is not your territory. Watch the news instead. But if you’re a certain kind of moviegoer in a certain kind of mood, grab a couple like-minded buddies and Mystery-Science-Theater away.

Now, I skipped Shyamalan’s 2010 movie, THE LAST AIRBENDER, because I didn’t think my brain could handle all the fart jokes I was destined to make about that title.  By every last account (except probably Shyamalan’s), I made the correct decision.  But I’m curious about AFTER EARTH.  Did the nasty thrashing he got over his last couple flicks make Shyamalan reconsider some of his more over-used quirks?  Does the presence of Will Smith, one of the most infallible choosers of successful projects of the last decade-and-a-half, suggest that Shammy has reclaimed his earlier mojo?  The AFTER EARTH trailer does not look overtly comical.  It’s somewhat well paced, and more importantly, it has hordes of monkeys in it.  That’s not any guarantee I’ll be able to stay away.

@jonnyabomb

MANKEY

sleepy hollow

Sleepy-Hollow

FOX has a new show from the writers of the new STAR TREK which re-envisions Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” for the modern day.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this information.  I grew up on that short story, and on the 1949 Disney retelling.  I grew up not far from Tarrytown where the story is set. I went to haunted hayrides there.  In high school I drew pictures of the Headless Horseman while other kids were trying weed for the first time.  This is a story that has a lot of power for me.  This is a property I know about, more than most.

There’s stuff I like about the promo footage.  I like seeing Clancy Brown (STARSHIP TROOPERS) in anything, although it doesn’t look like he makes it out of the pilot.  I like Nicole Beharie, the female lead, having just seen her in 42 and thinking she made near-angelic sweetness a believable human characteristic there.  I like the idea of the Headless Horseman running rampant through the very bucolic Dobbs Ferry.

But there’s some bizarro stuff in here too.  The premise is that Ichabod Crane, who in this incarnation fought with George Washington, is woken up 250 years into his future, where his nemesis the Horseman has been once again causing trouble.  First of all, that’s Rip Van Winkle, if you know your Irving, but neither that nor the fact that Ichabod has been stripped of his characteristic cowardice is what worries me nearly as much as THE CONSPIRACY.  Oh no, the conspiracy! The back-of-the-dollar-bill spooky-eye pyramid Illuminati conspiracy!  I’m not being sarcastic.  I’m actually concerned.  Concerned that this is going to be turned into NATIONAL TREASURE: THE SERIES.  I don’t watch those movies, the same way I don’t watch DA VINCI CODE movies, because I’m not interested in historical conspiracies.  I’m interested in ghost stories.  Especially when it comes to SLEEPY HOLLOW, I’m interested in the ghosts.  And on top of everything, here they’ve got the spectral swordsman wielding automatic rifles just like he’s Val Kilmer in HEAT.

It’s adequate cause for concern, is all I’m saying.  There are ways to allay worries.  (I am, as always, eminently hirable as consultant on matters of supernatural accuracy.)

Anyway here’s the trailer.  You decide for me.  Keep an eye out for a special guest appearance by the tagline from Tim Burton’s 1999 SLEEPY HOLLOW ad campaign!

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

@jonnyabomb

Some movies just can’t budge you too far if you get to them too late. If I’d seen PET SEMATARY when I was much younger, it would’ve ruined my sleep for days. But it somehow eluded me until adulthood, at which point horror is a different experience. A lot of horror-watching in adulthood is fruitlessly searching for frights that’ll shake you up anywhere near as much as the horror films of your youth did. You grow up, and you see first-hand how brutal the real world can be, and it becomes that much harder for something made-up to scare you. Personally, I can absolutely still be thrilled by the deranged excess and outsized imagination found in horror films (see my recent pieces on PHENOMENA and POSSESSION, for example), but to really mess with my head? That’s a mission all but doomed to fail.

Credit then to PET SEMATARY, for still clinging to its genuinely eerie moments, twenty years later, and occasionally making them work spooky magic. Director Mary Lambert made some of the most memorable music videos of the 1980s, and she gives this film a poppy energy that keeps it moving over some of the dodgier aspects. PET SEMATARY, is, of course, a Stephen King adaptation, written for screen from his original novel by King himself, with all the excellence and potential dodginess that implies. I love Stephen King and I grew up on his books, but whether or not it’s true that every great writer is just rewriting the same story over and over, it’s certainly true that Stephen King has certain elements he returns to with bizarre frequency, and some of those elements don’t always translate to movies: Sometimes a problem when you’re one of the most-adapted writers in modern literature. A Stephen King checklist might include: Toddlers with supernatural powers. Pets with supernatural powers. Mentally-challenged people with supernatural powers. Well-intentioned but somewhat patronizing portrayals of black people and country folk. Handymen in overalls. (In THE GREEN MILE, you get a king hat-trick of a character, with the mentally-challenged black man with supernatural powers. Also, he wore overalls.)

Fred Gwynne, PET SEMATARY.

Bill Fagerbakke, THE STAND.

Michael Clarke Duncan, THE GREEN MILE.

Stephen King, CREEPSHOW.

Hell, we all have our leitmotifs and odd peccadilloes. The overalls-wearing fella in PET SEMATARY is Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), neighbor to the Creed family, who just moved into the country house across the street. Jud doesn’t have supernatural powers but he knows about a plot of land that does: Out in the woods, there is a stretch of makeshift funeral plot where people bury their dead pets, but the area is said to be haunted, and things buried there have a way of coming back. (Canny mythmaker that he is, King both invokes the “Indian burial ground” trope while giving it a down-home spin — “Pet Sematary” is the colloquial way the sign is scrawled, and I think King knows that a portion of his broad audience may not even realize that the word “cemetery” is misspelled.) Louis Creed, the young father, is played by an actor named Dale Midkiff who resembles a less-doughy, less-charismatic Nathan Fillion. Louis is a doctor at the local hospital, and while he takes a liking to Jud and his amiable presence, he doesn’t buy the “Lazarus pit” ability of that place in the woods. Louis lives with his wife Rachel and their two young children, Ellie and Gage. Trucks are a major problem in this area, speeding through the farmland and causing a suspiciously high number of accidents in a short amount of time. One accident victim, a jogger named Victor, dies on Louis’s emergency room table, and soon begins appearing to Louis in ominous visions. This is probably my favorite character in the movie, if only because it’s not every day you see a zombie ghost in 1980s short-shorts.

These early sections of the movie may well owe a debt to John Landis’s 1981 werewolf classic AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which also used a decomposing spectral figure as the bearer of approaching bad tidings. Honestly, I’m not sure it takes a zombie-ghost to predict where this is all headed. In 2012, we’ve seen so many horror movies that we can surely guess. The next to die is the Creed family’s cat, named Church. (The naming is a touch unsubtle.) Jud warns Louis against it, but after being plagued by the ghost of Victor, Louis is bound to experiment with the funeral plot. He buries Church there, and sure enough, Church comes back to the house, but he comes back changed, complete with an eerie-slash-comical visual effect around the eyes.

But even those who could predict where the movie is headed may still be shocked to see that it actually goes there. Little Gage wanders into the road and is run down by an inattentive trucker. The movie is pitched somewhere between pathos and camp at this point, complete with an empty child’s sneaker bouncing down the asphalt and Louis’s dramatic scream of “NOOOOOOOO!” — it’s certainly overwrought and kind of funny, but at the same time, this is a little kid, and I’m not made of stone here. Dad is so shattered by the loss that soon enough he’s contemplating the unthinkable. And once again, the movie goes there. I’m not a big fan of evil-kid horror movies, because I don’t generally find children to be at all scary, but again, damned if the over-the-top nature of the entire proceedings does manage to make little Gage a disturbing enough villain for just as long as he needs to be.

“Over-the-top” really is the description for PET SEMATARY. Part of it is because what works (terrifically) on the page sometimes seems a little much when it arrives on screen. Part of it is casting. Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby, as the Creed parents, come off as rather stiff, except in the moments they explode with grief and hysteria. She, in particular, has a running subplot about her troubled sister Zelda, who was bedridden with spinal meningitis and apparently deranged — this might otherwise be an affecting tale, but only for the fact that Zelda is played by a man, and not one with a subtle acting style either. And then you have Fred Gwynne walking around. If you know who Fred Gwynne is, it’s most likely because you saw him as Herman Munster, high-spirited patriarch of The Munsters. Basically, Jud Crandall is a role Boris Karloff might have played, but since he wasn’t around, they got the next most recognizable Frankenstein’s Monster. The campiest possible version. This casting is key to the entire enterprise, I think. PET SEMATARY is meant to be taken at face value, surely, since so many people still count it among their favorite scary movies. But my guess is that you’re allowed to laugh and have fun as much as you’re supposed to be scared. It’s a “spook-a-blast,” the kind I can still happily enjoy even coming to it as an adult. If I’m wrong, and I’m not supposed to be laughing, then how do you explain the following picture…?

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Don’t let the title above get me wrong: The A.V. Club’s recently-completed list of the 50 Best Films Of The ’90s is as close to a definitive consensus as anyone could ever hope for.  It’s a terrific list.  Barring the inclusion of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (I understand why they felt they needed to include it, but it’s a bad movie), there isn’t anything I could even begin to object to — in fact, most of their choices would have been mine.  But since the 1990s are the decade in which I [sort of] came of age, I thought up 50 more that could have been included.  In my opinion.  There.  Disclaimed.

Here are some of my favorite 1990s movies, any of which I could make a strong case for as the decade’s best, grouped by year NOT by numerical rank:

Incredible imagery from a true master of cinema.

Even the people who already love this movie probably don’t even fathom the full extent of its excellence.  Read my dissertation at Daily Grindhouse!

All three leads are brilliant in this con-man crime film written by Donald Westlake and directed by the hugely-underrated-even-by-film-geeks-who-should-know-better Stephen Frears.

Look at the upper left side of that poster.  There’s no better vote of confidence on the planet.

This is one of the best of the decade based on the music alone.

Known to true Bill Murray fans as the most underrated Bill Murray movie, this one was actually co-directed by our hero, and it’s an expert farce and one of the better New York movies ever.  Read more from me on this one here!

A radio shock jock (Jeff Bridges) and a homeless man (Robin Williams) cross paths in another underrated New York movie, this one from the genius visual wizard Terry Gilliam.

This choice comes down to whichever definition of “best” you’re personally using at the time in regards to movies.  Are there more culturally resonant and artistically sophisticated movies than this one?  Sure.  Am I more likely to put one of those on at the end of a long day over this one?  Nope.

What does “best” mean?  Maybe I equivocate too much.  I’m an action guy, and this fits the term “best” under any definition.  John Woo is an artisan of cinematic mayhem and this is arguably the pinnacle of his career.

Because nobody else ever before or since made a movie like this one.  More from me here.

One of the few movies that genuinely emotionally moves me every time I see it.  A high point for Jeff Bridges, who has had a ton of high points.  Rosie Perez is wonderful also.

It’s not exactly that Robert De Niro and Bill Murray trade personas here.  This movie isn’t a stunt.  It’s something way more sensitive and thoughtful than that.  But De Niro does play the meek, mild-mannered police photographer and Murray the unpredicably-violent gangster who dreams of being a stand-up.  And it was written by the great Richard Price and directed by the man who made HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.

Enthusiasm for this movie seems to have dimmed, as has much appreciation for director Jonathan Demme (people are a little too much “What have you done for me lately?”, but this movie represents a key moment in the cultural mainstreaming of things that needed to be made mainstream at the time.  Honestly it’s been a while so I don’t know how much it all holds up, but to my memory, it was a thoughtful, character-based film about the big issues.  Terrific soundtrack also.

Well I said a bunch here and here.  This movie is a switchblade-arsenal of terrific actors, showcased with bombastic direction from Tony Scott working in concert with the unconquerably individualistic Quentin Tarantino script.  It’s kind of a nexus of everything that became important and trendy in 1990s crime and action films.

This wouldn’t make a personal top 50 or 100 or maybe not even a top 200, but it’s impeccable Disney entertaining for the widest possible audience and believe me, it still works as hugely as it did nearly twenty years ago.  (You’re old.)

C0-written by David Peoples (UNFORGIVEN), which makes it important right there.  But again, Terry Gilliam, this time challenging Bruce Willis into another great performance (Bruce always seems to do best with the most individualistic filmmakers).  Madeline Stowe is great.  And character-actor Brad Pitt beats leading-man Brad Pitt six out of seven days a week.

Super-serious great movies are easy.  Great comedies are hard.  This is one of the funniest of the decade.

Yeah, I get it.  Some of you think it’s too much.  I think it’s opera.  I think Michael Mann is criminally underappreciated by the listmakers and the award-givers.  I think it’s one of the few movies more than two hours that I can watch over and over without getting bored.  This movie got in my soul the first time I saw it, and it’s still there.

This came toward the end of John Carpenter’s remarkable run of horror and action classics, but it still has moments of colossal inspiration, and a truly memorable lead performance by the great Sam Neill.

I’ll admit it’s probably a stretch to call this one of the best movies of the 1990s, but it’s one of my favorite filmmakers, Sam Raimi, taking on one of my favorite genres, the “spaghetti” Western, and supercharging it with his anarchic cartoony innovations.  There’s more energy in this movie than in most of the Best Picture winners of the decade.

All I’m saying is, I’ve seen this one more times than I’ve seen RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS combined.

Some people maintain that this remains Paul Thomas Anderson’s best movie.  Some days I can see what they mean.  It’s certainly his tightest, most controlled, most focus, most conventional.  And it’s the Rosetta Stone where many of his later musical cues, character names, themes, and company players were first established.  For me, it’s a treat to see Robert Elswit’s camera roam around Nevada — Elswit is the (until-recently) unsung hero of Anderson’s oevre (until recently.  I also like this movie because it makes me feel like an asshole.  It was released when Anderson was 26.  You should have seen what I was doing at 26.  Feeling like an asshole is good, though — it motivates me.

This is a black, black comedy.  You gotta give these guys credit — they did not take the easy road after DUMB & DUMBER kick-started their careers.  Even THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY goes to some daring places (it’s a romantic comedy about stalking, after all), but it’s nowhere near as nasty as this one.  And once again, Bill Murray, comedy’s supreme ninja master, comes in for a few scenes and completely destroys throughout every single moment he appears.

Chris Rock’s favorite Tim Burton movie.  I don’t have a favorite Tim Burton movie — impossible for me to choose — but this one is up there.  It’s pure anarchy on film.  Somebody gave the creepy kid down the street complete access to fireworks and all the best toys — expensive sets, costumes, huge movie stars — and he went to work blowing them all up with demented glee.  (Demented Glee is my favorite Fox TV show, by the way.)  It was a stroke of inspiration to reframe the alien invasion movie as a 1970s-style disaster movie, and to make the whole thing a comedy.  This weirded out a country more interested in the more straightforward INDEPENDENCE DAY, but I’m with the weird kid.

Because as much credit as Eddie Murphy and Rick Baker get for their brilliance, it still isn’t enough.

A case could be made for THE TRUMAN SHOW as the best Jim Carrey movie of the 1990s (maybe ever, barring ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), but I’m a fan of the big weird risk and the sudden detour and the critical and popular underdog.  THE CABLE GUY is even weirder than you may remember, and in retrospect it paved the way for enduring cult comedies to follow like ZOOLANDER and ANCHORMAN.

Best-of lists always go heavy on lauding the director and the actors, but how about the screenwriters?  You know, the guys and gals without whom the entire movie would not exist in the first place?  Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski are the kings of the gonzo biopics of the 1990s, with ED WOOD, MAN ON THE MOON, and this, the story of Hustler founder Larry Flynt.  Woody Harrelson is incredible in the role, and the whole thing, under the stewardship of the mighty Milos Forman, is a raunchy, raucous, searing, and sad affair.

Leon Gast’s film is one of THE essential sports documentaries ever made.  It’s the story of Muhammad Ali’s match against George Foreman for the title of heavyweight champion of the world.  The ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ took place in Africa in 1974, and the movie is supercharged with electric history.

In my local paper at the time, the shoddy film critic referred to this movie with a cheap shot: “Lifeless, Ordinary.”  It’s anything but.  It’s everything but.  The follow-up to TRAINSPOTTING from the team of Danny Boyle, John Hodge, and Andrew McDonald is a deranged, delirious trip through America.  It’s colorful and kinetic and enthusiastically acted and it sounds like a million bucks.  (Why not?)  It’s boistrous and unruly and maybe a little too self-indulgent, but it’s my kind of self-indulgent — the boldly original kind — so the complainers can go screw.  Expanded thoughts on this movie here.

In 1997, Kevin Smith was still a filmmaker who led with his heart and inspired an entire generation of creatively-inclined young’uns to write with honesty and candor.  Smith’s first four movies were sloppily-made but felt incredibly personal, and CHASING AMY was maybe the rawest of them all.  I’m not sure I could revisit it now any more than I’d like to look at a high school yearbook, but I’m grateful for that long-ago validation the success of CHASING AMY gave me and a ton of more-famous, more influential up-and-comers. As for Smith, he made an encouraging return to form with the flawed but fiery RED STATE. Unfortunately, he seems to be more interested in everything BUT filmmaking nowadays. Too bad.

There’s over-the-top pulp, and then there’s JOHN WOO over-the-top pulp.  This is the most gloriously operatic and unrestrained of any of John Woo’s Hollywood movies, and both of its stars seem to have been stuck in that mode ever since.

As an undergraduate, I wrote a seventeen-page paper on GROSSE POINTE BLANK, so convinced was I about how great it is. I still love it, but I’ll try to be more brief here.

GROSSE POINTE BLANK has a brilliant one-liner comedy concept – contract killer accepts invitation to high school reunion due to its proximity to his latest contract – and a brilliant fit of a leading man in John Cusack. Cusack and his co-writers fine-tuned Tom Jankewicz’s original script and got the movie made under the direction of George Armitage, a filmmaker who works way too infrequently, having made the underrated MIAMI BLUES and the even more underrated HIT MAN with Bernie Casey and Pam Grier.  Armitage nails the unusual tone of GROSSE POINTE BLANK, a very dark comedy about a paid murderer who is lovable mostly because he’s played by that guy who everyone loved in BETTER OFF DEAD and SAY ANYTHING.
The score is by Joe Strummer of The Clash. Pretty epic. The soundtrack is stacked with killer songs from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. The supporting cast is deadly – Dan Aykroyd deftly playing against type as an insane hitman and rival of Cusack’s Martin Blank. Alan Arkin as Blank’s traumatized psychologist, who begs him to stop coming back. Joan Cusack as Blank’s secretary, equally traumatized. MAGNUM FORCE’s Mitch Ryan as the dad of Blank’s high school sweetheart (Minnie Driver). Jeremy Piven’s original hairline in an extended cameo. And many more.
In retrospect, GROSSE POINTE BLANK is less successful in its action-movie moments as it is anytime it’s being a hyper-verbal, deep dark and truly bizarre character study. But boy, it’s not like we ever get too many of those. I mean, technically this is a romantic comedy where plenty of people get shot dead.  My kind of movie entirely.  And in case you were ever wondering where the name of my site ‘DEMON’S RESUME’ comes from… now you know!

Most people would argue that PULP FICTION is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece.  A lesser number would argue for this one.  I tend to favor JACKIE BROWN, largely because I love Pam Grier and Robert Forster so much and this movie is a highlight for both of them.  It’s interesting that almost everybody favors either PULP FICTION or JACKIE BROWN — these are the only Tarantino-directed films where his recognizable and dominant authorial voice has ever been ameliorated by second writers.  PULP FICTION drew on material by Tarantino’s one-time collaborator Roger Avary, while JACKIE BROWN is of course based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.  I’m not saying that’s good or bad or necessary or even interesting — it just is what it is.  But until DJANGO UNCHAINED, I never loved a Tarantino movie as much as I loved JACKIE BROWN.  JACKIE BROWN started from a great place (the book RUM PUNCH) and is stocked entirely with maybe the greatest Tarantino cast ever, with one of the greatest Tarantino soundtracks.  It’s pretty glorious.

Here’s what I wrote about this movie for a list of Underrated Horror films:

As far as strict classifications go, LOST HIGHWAY is more of an elliptical art film (which goes heavy on the L.A. noir elements) than a horror movie.  Try telling me that in 1997, when friends and I saw it twice in theaters just because it was so goddamned freaky, or when I creeped myself out listening to the soundtrack while driving down a dark highway.  When my friends and I were younger we reveled in absurdities – the less sense something made, the more invigorating it seemed to be.  Then you become a film major and you start looking to ascribe meaning to everything. I don’t know that you can make sense out of a movie like LOST HIGHWAY.  It seems to be the story of a jazz musician (Bill Pullman) who is arrested for killing his wife (Patricia Arquette) and then has a psychotic break, wherein he imagines himself as a younger man (Baltazar Getty) being mentored by a violent gangster (Robert Loggia), only to fall in love with the gangster’s girl (Patricia Arquette).  In both storylines the protagonist is haunted by a Mystery Man (Robert Blake in ghostly pale makeup) who seems to know everything and be everywhere.

But is that what happens?  Beats me.  Every time you think you’ve teased out a cohesive narrative, you remember one out-of-place element and the theory unravels.  Best to stop thinking so hard and just experience LOST HIGHWAY as David Lynch’s nightmare vision of Los Angeles, presaging the equally creepy MULHOLLAND DRIVE  in 2001.  What adds to the hellish landscape of LOST HIGHWAY is its proximity to disturbing real-life elements, such as the cameo from a once-vibrant and now clearly-ill Richard Pryor, to the presence of Michael Massee, a terrific character actor unfortunately best known for being on the set of THE CROW when Brandon Lee was killed, to most upsetting of all, the recurring specter of Robert Blake,the one-time child actor who ended up on trial for allegedly killing his wife.  Which, you’ll notice, puts us right back inside the plot of LOST HIGHWAY.  We can’t escape.

Been a Howard Stern fan for a long time, regardless of what anybody has to say against me for it.  This movie is pretty unassailably good, regardless of your feelings on a lifelong flashpoint of controversy like Howard.  It’s a super-smart, efficient, fast-moving, and very funny flick, a sterling example of the biopic format.  Really, it’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT with a happier ending.

Yeah, I can’t look at that poster without laughing.  First of all, even the title is funny, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, which, as the story of a small-town theater company eagerly anticipating the visit of a big-city critic, is obviously a play on Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT.  Then you have Christopher Guest’s bowl-cut, Kriss-Kross ensemble, and beatific smile.  His character’s name is Corky St. Clair.  I’m now making tons of typos because I’m laughing while I pound this out.  The sincerity and the naïveté of the cast of this movie, played by a roster of comedic ringers including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Larry Miller, Bob Balaban, Brian Doyle-Murray, and the great Fred Willard, is simply astounding.  It’s probably not accurate to say you watch this movie and laugh with these characters — you’re most definitely laughing at them, but somehow loving them sincerely at the same time.  Pillory me for a non-consensus opinion, but I like this movie way better than THIS IS SPINAL TAP.

Sam Raimi made his name on a trio of uniquely comic horror films and a superhero movie that felt like a Universal horror film, but in the 1990s, he branched out and made a Western, a baseball picture, and a Southern Gothic drama, and this, a grim suspense thriller about two small-town brothers who find a downed plane in a remote snowbank.  The plane has a dead body inside, and also a huge sum of money.  A SIMPLE PLAN was based on an excellent novel by Scott Smith and if anything, Raimi’s horror expertise adds to the creeping dread of what could be very dry and formulaic in another director’s hands.  All of the performances are uncommonly good and unexpectedly moving and/or upsetting.  Raimi’s cross-genre experiments in the 1990s turned out to be a proving ground for his mega-budget blockbuster career, and I do love his SPIDER-MAN movies, but if we’re going to be getting stuff like that OZ movie from here on out, I’ll be over here praying that Raimi goes back to these smaller-budgeted treasures instead.

The first BABE is pure sweetness and you should definitely see it too, but this is the one directed by George Miller, of MAD MAX fame.  It’s wilder, sadder, scarier, and even more bizarre.  It’s great.  George Miller doesn’t work nearly enough.

Normally I hate long, indulgent movies; however, this one I adore. With good reason. It’s like a symphony.

This is Tim Burton’s tribute to the old Hammer horror pictures.  Some people think it isn’t serious enough, seeing the great potential lost when frights are swapped out for comedy’s sake.  Honestly I agree, but not to the point where I can’t enjoy the movie Burton did make.  After all, it could be way worse.  The greatest cinematic treatment of Washington Irving’s eternal tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman continues to be the 1949 Disney cartoon version.  But this one has its fair share of great moments.

Michael Mann again.  This is his most high-minded movie, and there’s no reason it should be remotely as watchable and rewatchable as it is.  It’s about network TV, journalism, and big tobacco, and yet it’s suspenseful, moving, and entertaining as all hell.  So much of that comes from the dynamic, unusual directing choices of Mann, working with his DP from HEAT, Dante Spinotti.  The musical selection, both of score and soundtrack, is impeccable and distinctive as it ever is with Mann, and the editing style is somewhat hypnotic.  Of course the script by Mann and Eric Roth is impeccable, and then you have a roster of some of the world’s greatest actors, led by Al Pacino in maybe his last truly excellent role, and Russell Crowe, who was so ridiculously incredible in his transformative role that the Oscars realized they fucked up by not giving him Best Actor for this movie and corrected it the next year.

Still the best Superman movie since Richard Donner was making ’em.

Look, I’ve had it up to here with M. Night Shyamalan too, but no one, not even Shyamalan himself, can strike this one from the win column.  It’s a very solid script accompanied by thoughftul direction, with an unusually soft-spoken and gentle performance from Bruce.

This movie came on like a revelation from director David O. Russell, who had made two small movies at that point and no one could have expected him to make an action-comedy/war movie with an eclectic ensemble cast (including director Spike Jonze!) with raucous energy and actual formal innovations (with bleached-out cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel).  It’s like KELLY’S HEROES but with more of a social conscience.  This is one of the reasons people think of 1999 as a banner year for American film.

A bizarre and beautiful chimera that is a perfectly-modulated melding of the sensibilities of Jim Jarmusch and The RZA.  Contains what is probably the last of the great wackadoo Henry Silva performances.

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Am I missing any?  Is it possible?  Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb