Archive for the ‘Movies (P)’ Category

A Perfect World (1993)

One of Clint Eastwood’s most underrated pictures, A PERFECT WORLD features Kevin Costner’s single best performance ever.  Maybe that’s why Costner doesn’t get a whole lot of credit – because not a lot of people have seen A PERFECT WORLD.  I’m not totally sure why that is, unless people were confused by the title’s similarity to that of the Cosby Show spinoff that was still popular at the time.  This is a different perfect world from where they’re coming from.

Here Costner plays a fugitive criminal named Butch who kidnaps a small boy named Phillip – the kick is that the boy, raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, has a blast along the way, and the crook warms to him, for example dressing him up in a Casper mask for his first Halloween.  Their unusual friendship is by far the most compelling part of the movie; the subplot with the cops pursuing him — even though Clint plays the sheriff! — can’t compete.  By definition, you start to buy into the friendship between Butch and Phillip and you don’t want it to be ruined by reality, in this case the fact that Butch is a wanted fugitive for robbery, murder, and kidnapping and that can only end a couple of bad ways.

Screenwriter John Lee Hancock went on to adapt MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL for Clint and then pretty much fully committed to being middlebrow, as the auteur responsible for the phrase “Academy Award Winner Sandra Bullock,” but his work here is perceptive and indelible.  Clint stocks the movie with a tremendous supporting cast, including Laura Dern, Bradley Whitford, Bruce McGill, Keith Szarabajka, Ray McKinnon, and Mary Alice (not for nothing, a regular on A Different World.)

Clint’s performance as the lawman chasing down the outlaw isn’t his most essential in that respect, but as a director he truly shines, perfectly balancing the urgency of the plot with a leisurely pace, almost reminiscent of Terrence Malick and BADLANDS.  He gets an unforgettable performance out of T.J. Lowther, the child actor playing Phillip.  If I’m not mistaken, this is the first Eastwood film to spotlight small children in any significant way (TRUE CRIME is one of the only other examples.)  The score by Lennie Niehaus is typically spare and effective.  And the cinematography by Jack Green, doing a victory lap from his triumph on 1992’s gorgeous UNFORGIVEN, is a real highlight.  Even divorced of content and story, this is a beautiful movie.  Factoring back in the central relationship, it’s something special.  A PERFECT WORLD is an important waystation along the highway of one of the most significant careers in American movies.

A PERFECT WORLD is playing this weekend at New York’s IFC Center.

@jonnyabomb

APW

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Play Misty For Me (1971)

By 1971, Clint Eastwood was a top box-office draw, having built his name on Westerns and war films.  PLAY MISTY FOR ME was Clint’s first film as director.  The first surprise is the logline:  A FATAL ATTRACTION style thriller about a radio DJ (Clint) who is stalked by an obsessed fan (Jessica Walter, now best known as Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development, a fact which is sort of hilarious in context.)  A nightmare-romance movie.  That’s a long way from the action movies for which Clint was then, and is now still, best known.

Play Misty For Me (1971)

In PLAY MISTY FOR ME, Clint took a script written by a woman, Jo Heims — although Clint later had Dean Riesner, of DIRTY HARRY and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER fame, do some work on it — and essentially cast himself in the role of the victim.  It’s fucking fascinating.  Here is the definitive macho screen icon, choosing to play the traditionally female role.  Usually the psycho-killer is a man, and the pretty victim he’s obsessed with is a woman.  Here that paradigm is flipped.  Clint as Janet Leigh, Clint as Jamie Lee Curtis, and so on — this film exists in conversation with the thrillers of the past and the thrillers which at that point were yet to come.

Play Misty For Me (1971)

And of course it’s personal.  Clint sets the movie in his beloved Carmel and casts himself as a jazz DJ.  Those are personal touches.  The vibrant cinematography is by Eastwood & Siegel regular Bruce Surtees.  That scenery alone is worth the watch, even if you don’t agree with my championing of Clint’s work here.

Play Misty For Me (1971)

Play Misty For Me (1971)

I can see how another point of view might look at the villainization of Jessica Walter’s character as somehow less than feminist, but I don’t see it that way.  There’s way more feminism in this body of work than anyone is likely to pick up on. I think Clint is at the very least trying out some big ideas here, and whether or not you agree that he hit the target, it sure was a bold swing to make right out of the gate, accurately predicting the brilliant four-decade-long-and-counting directorial career that was to follow.

Play Misty For Me (1971)

Keep an eye out for the extended cameo by Clint’s mentor and DIRTY HARRY director Don Siegel — he’s really good in the part!

@jonnyabomb

P.S. Here’s the original trailer for PLAY MISTY FOR ME — that voiceover sounds a whole fuck of a lot like Orson Welles, don’t it?  That’s voice actor Paul Frees.  Brilliant.

The Professionals (1966)

THE PROFESSIONALS is a politically-charged white-men-in-Mexico Western that starts out bombastic and boistrous and maintains that stance throughout.  The opening vignettes introduce the four lead characters in their most characteristic arenas.  Rico Fardan, the reserved, pragmatic, always-prepared leader, is shown testing out a new machine gun that you know full well you’ll eventually see him use, due to the fact he’s played by Lee Marvin.  Hans Ehrengard, the frontier-era horse whisperer, is shown punching the shit out of an animal abuser.  That’s quintessential Robert Ryan, doomed decency and temperamental violence often in the same character.  Jacob Sharp, the archer, is  bringing a live captive into town for sentencing.  As played by Woody Strode, he’s a proto-DJANGO [UNCHAINED-style], a calmly-effective bounty hunter in an unfriendly time for guys who look like him.  And Bill Dolworth, the devilish explosives expert, is first introduced in bed with a woman who we quickly find out is another man’s wife, because the guy is about to walk in the door and Dolworth is pulling on his longjohns and diving out the window.  Burt Lancaster, one of the greatest Hollywood leading men ever, could play noir and he could play arthouse drama, but here he’s the comic relief and the leading man all in one.

Lee + Burt

Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode.  That is kind of an all-star super-team of old-school movie tough guys.  If I have to bring up THE A-TEAM to get some of you youngsters to go watch this lesser-acknowledged classic, then that’s what I’m going to do.  It’s clear where that popular 1980s action template came from — the grizzled and grey veteran soldier, the horndog ladies’ man, and the two other guys who handle all the transportation.  Four guys with their own individual and shared histories take on a dirty job no one else is able or ready to handle.

The Professionals (1966)

In THE PROFESSIONALS, these four rough riders are hired by big-business tycoon Ralph Bellamy — you know him best from a weirdly similar role in TRADING PLACES — to rescue his young wife from a marauding revolutionary who has taken her south of the border.  Bellamy perenially played a lovelorn shnook but here he’s an intriguingly nastier sort of character.  In the great Hollywood tradition of casting great stars in ethnically incongruous roles, Jack Palance plays the revolutionary, “Jesus Raza,” and the Tunisian-by-way-of-Italy bombshell Claudia Cardinale plays the Mexican-born “Maria,” an old flame of Raza’s, as it turns out.  If you’ve read my page before you already know how I feel about Claudia Cardinale. Or you could just look at a picture:

The Professionals (1966)

THE PROFESSIONALS is a great big-screen action classic, three-times Oscar-nominated, with some fascinating sociopolitical subtext.  Writer-director Richard Brooks (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, IN COLD BLOOD) adapted Frank O’Rourke’s novel for screen with the legendary Conrad Hall (COOL HAND LUKE, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, FAT CITY, AMERICAN BEAUTY) believably and beautifully shooting California for Mexico.  The movie works just fine on the level of supreme entertainment, but if you read Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation, as I did when I was lucky enough to learn from him as an undergraduate, it becomes apparent that THE PROFESSIONALS is reflective of the era during which it was made.  The Professionals are comparable to the American Green Berets, an elite military-trained fighting force, who are sent into a foreign nation for dubious reasons and in the course of their adventure they become disillusioned with their mission.  Very potent stuff, but it’s buried under a rollicking mainstream Western facade.  The subtext is there if you want to think about it, but you can also just sit back and enjoy.

The Professionals (1966 film)

Since I’m a huge Robert Ryan fan, I do wish he had a little more shine in the movie.  According to some interviews on the Blu-Ray, Ryan wasn’t well during filming, which could explain it.  (I’m also a Woody Strode fan but unfortunately Woody Strode being underused in a film is somewhat more routine occurrence.)  Ryan and Strode, as the horse wrangler and the team scout, are really playing strong support to the buddy-movie pairing of Marvin and Lancaster, the gunman and the dynamite setter.  Ryan does play an interesting contrast to his frequent noir antihero persona, though.  This is one of his most thoroughly decent roles – Ryan’s horse expert is tender and protective of every horse the group encounters.  He’s one of those guys who seems to care more about animals than people, and who can blame him, in a movie where one species is clearly more consistently trustworthy than the other.  Many of this movie’s heroes have abandoned ideals for commerce when it begins.  What makes the movie ultimately so thrilling and rewarding, then, even more than the banter and the gunfights, is to watch them rediscover actual virtue.  That these Professionals end up refusing a hefty payday for the right reasons and manage to stick it to a corporate fatcat in the process is arguably even more satisfying today than in 1966.  Besides, who can resist the following exchange:

“You BASTARD!”

“Yes sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you sir, you’re a self-made man.”

THE PROFESSIONALS showed tonight at 92Y Tribeca but I didn’t get this piece up in time.  So:

Call me a bastard on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

The Professionals (1966 film)

The Professionals (1966)

The Professionals (1966)

Peeples (2013)

Peeples (2013) Peeples Peeples (2013)

Much as I’d like to keep this apolitical and just talk about the movie, the way it deserves, I don’t think I can resist it this time.  Here is a statement I’m going to underline:  I paid to see PEEPLES opening weekend.  I am lucky to have a lot of chances to see movies for free, and quite frankly I need to take those chances whenever I can, because I don’t get paid much from writing yet, and my time-consuming day job pays me a barely-survivable wage.  To say I don’t have a lot of money (or time) right now is an understatement.  But I paid to see PEEPLES.

The main reason I did that is because I really love the main trio of lead actors, Kerry Washington, Craig Robinson, and David Alan Grier. They are actors who constantly make every scene they’re in a scene worth watching. In my opinion, Kerry Washington is an uncommonly passionate screen actor, with an unfakeable decency, whereas Robinson and Grier are two of the most consistent scene-dominators in all of comedy. These are guys who have shared screens with some of the most famous comedians in modern history and have stood out against them every single time. I would watch almost anything any of these three were in, and the three of them together is an irresistible prospect to me personally.  Happily, that instinct paid off for me, and their movie brightened up a gloomy, drizzly Saturday morning.

Kerry Washington

Craig Robinson, who you probably know from NBC’s The Office or PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, plays Wade Walker, a musician who plays very Craig-Robinson-style songs to school-children as a way to give them life advice.  He doesn’t make a lot of money but for the past year he has been dating a woman who does, glamorous lawyer Grace Peeples — Kerry Washington, most recently from ABC’s Scandal and DJANGO UNCHAINED.  Maybe you’re the type who’d look at the two of them and see a mismatch, but they have a sweet, eminently believable relationship in the opening scenes.  I’m not a romantic comedy kind of guy, but that’s not really because of my love of Clint Eastwood Westerns, monster movies, and ninja flicks.  It’s because most modern romantic comedies feature lead actors who go with their worst instincts and writers who can’t write relatable dialogue or scenarios.  I find either one, or both, of the romantic leads in most of these movies to be people in whose company I don’t want to spend an entire movie.

PEEPLES eradicates that reservation quite simply, with the power of good casting.  Every single actor in PEEPLES comes off well, even when they’re disagreeing with each other within the story.

Peeples

Grace comes from a high-achieving family.  Her father Virgil (David Alan Grier) is a prominent judge.  Her mother Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson) released a successful R&B album in the 1970s.  Her sister Gloria (Kali Hawk) is an on-camera newswoman.  Her little brother Simon (Tyler James Williams) is a brilliant inventor and an aspiring musician himself.  Her grandmother is Diahann Carroll and her grandfather is Melvin Van Peebles!

Wade has heard a whole lot about “The Chocolate Kennedys”, as he calls them, but he hasn’t met them yet, in a whole year of dating Grace.  This is weighing on his mind because he wants to marry Grace.  (Who wouldn’t?)  He has a romantic weekend planned, where he hopes to give her his grandmother’s ring, but she tells him she has to head home to Sag Harbor to celebrate her father’s beloved Moby Dick weekend.  (Yes, David Alan Grier dresses up like Ahab and reads from Moby Dick, yet another reason for me to feel warmly about this movie.)  When Grace heads off without him, Wade decides to crash the celebration and shows up uninvited, which immediately earns him Virgil’s disapproval, especially since Grace has never once mentioned Wade to them!

The rest of the film is a series of comic shenanigans and hijinks, as Wade struggles to endear himself to Virgil and continues to make things worse.  All of the main characters have secrets:  Wade is hiding his intentions, Grace is hiding her relationship and most of her history, Gloria is hiding the fact that she’s in a committed relationship with a woman (Kimrie Lewis-Davis), Simon is hiding his kleptomania, Daphne is hiding some recreational habits, and even Virgil is hiding… well, you’ll have to see.

Peeples

This is Tina Gordon Chism’s first movie as both writer and director.  (She previously wrote the screenplays to ATL and DRUMLINE.)  If I had to be critical, I’d say her facility for staging scenes of farce is promising but not fully formed — some of the gags are hilarious, others could be more sharply carried off.  And to be honest, this is more of a showcase for Craig Robinson than for Kerry Washington, who gets less screentime and slightly less comprehensible motives.  But what quibbles I could come up with are overshadowed by my appreciation of this movie’s warmth and affable watchability.  That comes from a script which treats every character as a full human being, and direction that encourages every last actor to shine.  There are no villains here.  Every character is his or her only real enemy, but all of them have the ability to improve, and we get to see most of them do so before the movie’s done.  It doesn’t feel forced or unearned. That’s an increasingly rare experience at the movies. I laughed out loud several times throughout the running time, uncommon for me, and that happened because I enjoyed the characters and the performances.

Peeples

Right this moment, PEEPLES is flopping at the box office.  That’s why I need to write this piece.  It’s not a perfect movie, but it does not deserve to flop.  It’s a generous movie about likable characters any audience would be happy to know.  For PEEPLES to flop, that means two things are happening:  People who like Tyler Perry are avoiding it, and people who don’t like Tyler Perry are avoiding it.  If you don’t like Tyler Perry, you are seeing his name on the poster and staying away.  Guess what?  I don’t much like Tyler Perry.  I’m the guy who wrote this, after all.

But Tyler Perry didn’t write or direct PEEPLES — Tina Gordon Chism did — and he sure doesn’t appear during it — an amazingly talented ensemble cast does — and very genuinely, I give Tyler Perry a ton of credit for trying to get this movie out in front of people.  To Tyler Perry’s diehard audience, I give no credit at all, since they have demonstrated with their dollar that they prefer exaggerated caricatures over believable characters and judgmental homilies over the loving themes of acceptance and honesty that PEEPLES encourages.

To me, those are themes worth supporting with my hard-won cash.  To me, it is worth supporting with my cash a film that gives Craig Robinson a long-deserved leading role.  (Judd Apatow didn’t give me that!)  To me, it is worth supporting with my cash a movie that maybe doesn’t represent my face specifically, but does represent faces resembling people in my life, dear friends of mine: teenage characters that aren’t sex-crazed morons, gay characters who aren’t mincing stereotypes, black characters who act like witty, successful, loving human beings rather than total fools.  To me, it is worth supporting with my cash the very rare case of a woman, and a black woman no less, writing and directing a feature comedy, especially a comedy that promises a career full of more to come, if only she gets another chance.

Peeples

See, this is where I have to get political.  In the age of Facebook and Twitter, in the age where everyone has a blog or writes for one, in an age where we get to see and hear everyone’s opinions twenty-four-hours a freaking day, I’m not seeing a lot of put-up-or-shut-up.  In the last day alone, this Jezebel article excoriating misogyny in comedy has been in front of my eyes about a hundred times.  I happen to generally agree with what is being said in that article, and in most of the articles like it.  I’m not sure all of them apply to me specifically, but that’s not for me to decide.  I tend to think that a man who is willing to read an entire article like that in the first place is one who is friendly to the cause and interested in ways he can change if need be.  I love movies and I am trying hard to be a good person and I believe sometimes that means putting my money where my mouth is.  That last part is an important distinction, I think.

Maybe I’m overstepping a bit by suggesting it, but I’m going to do it anyway:  If you are so committed to the principle of furthering women’s roles in comedy, then will you not get out of the house and vote with your own dollar?  Will you not go pay for a movie written and directed by a woman?  Especially because I, someone who normally loves “guy’s” movies and who normally does not love movies with Tyler Perry’s name on them, is insisting that it’s a movie worth your time?  Maybe my opinion doesn’t, won’t, shouldn’t matter.  It’s true: I’m a very heterosexual male and my skin is pretty pale.   But still, the fact that a woman broke through and managed to get a comedy made and nobody’s going to see it is something that doesn’t feel right to me.  I want to do what I can about it.  Here’s one indisputable truth, feminists and fellow feminism-friendly men:  It’s not your blogs or your re-Tweets that are going to encourage studios to make this kind of movie.  It’s your hard-earned dollars.

@jonnyabomb

DAILY GRINDHOUSE BANNER

Daily Grindhouse would be pretty much my favorite website even if I weren’t writing for them, but since I am, here’s a collection of all my work so far.  It’s some of my very best stuff. Enjoy!

25TH HOUR (2002) 48 HRS. (1982) 52 PICK-UP (1986) 88  THE ACT OF KILLING (2013) ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948) Alex Cross (2012) ALIEN (1979) ALIEN ZONE (1978) ALPHABET CITY (1984) american sniper  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) ANACONDA (1997) ANTS (1977) The Apple (1980) ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992) ARTISTS & MODELS (1955) Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) BADLANDS (1973) BAIT (2012) A Band Called Death (2013) BASKET CASE (1982)  BATMAN (1989) BATTLE ROYALE (2000) The Baytown Outlaws (2013). Beetlejuice (1988) BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2013) BEST WORST MOVIE (2009)The Big Lebowski (1998) Big Trouble In Little China (1986) BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) BLACK DEATH (2011) THE BLOB (1988) BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) The Brides Of Dracula (1960) brothers-2009 BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (1965) untitled CARRIE (1976) CB4 THE MOVIE (1993) CEMETERY MAN (1994) Charley Varrick (1973) CHEAP THRILLS (2013) CHOPPING MALL (1986) class-of-1984-poster The Colony (2013) COMPLIANCE (2012) CON AIR (1997) Conquest (1983) THE CONTRACTOR (2013) Creature (2011) CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) CRIME WAVE (1954) THE CROW (1994) DARKMAN (1990) DEAD & BURIED (1981) DEADLY FRIEND (1986) deranged-1974-movie-review-jpeg-35312 THE DESCENT (2005) THE DEVIL’S EXPRESS (1976) dillinger-1973 DIRTY HARRY (1971) Django (1966) Django Unchained (2012).  DOG SOLDIERSDOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) DRACULA (1931) Dredd (2012) DRIVE (2011) Drive Angry (2011) End of Watch (2012) EQUINOX (1970) Escape From New York (1981) Evil Dead (2013) THE EXORCIST (1973) Eyes Without A Face (1960) FACE-OFF (1997) Fast Five A tumblr_n2u9s565B11rscnczo1_500 Fist Of Legend (1994) FRANKENSTEIN (1931) GANJA & HESS (1973) the-gauntlet-1977 Get Carter (1971) ghostbusters GHOSTBUSTERS 2 (1989) ghosthouse 1988 GI Joe Retaliation (2013) THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) GOD TOLD ME TO (1976) GONE GIRL (2014) THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966) The Great Silence (1968) Gremlins 2 - The New Batch (1990) The Grey (2012) Halloween (1978) Hannie Caulder (1971) Hardbodies (1984) Hardware (1990).. Henry (1990) High Crime (1973)  THE HILLS RUN RED (1966) . IMG_8699 THE HIT (1984)Hit Man (1972) hobo with a shotgun HOMEFRONT (2013) The Horror Of Dracula (1958) the host - no words HOUSE (HAUSU) (1977) The Iceman (2013) The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus (2009) IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) THE INNOCENTS (1961) THE INSIDER (1999) The Invisible Man (1933) Iron-Man-3-2013 I SAW THE DEVIL (2010) Island-of-Lost-Souls-19331 Jackie Brown (1997) jaws jennifers body  JUAN OF THE DEAD (2011) The Keep (1983) KILLER JOE (2011) The Killers (1966) Killing Them Softly (2012) The-King-of-Comedy-1983 LADY IN CEMENT (1968) LADY TERMINATOR (1989) THE LAST CIRCUS (2010) BERRY GORDY’S THE LAST DRAGON (1985) Lawless (2012) LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) the-leopard-man-movie-poster-1943-1020199765 Leprechaun (1993) A LIFE LESS ORDINARY (1997) LINK (1986) Liz & Dick (TV, 2012) Lockout (2012) The Lords of Salem (2013) Lost Highway THE MAGIC BLADE (1976) MAN OF STEEL (2013) THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE (1997) The Man with the Iron Fists (2012) Maniac Cop (1988) THE MANITOU (1978) MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976) men-in-war-1957 MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) MILANO CALIBRO 9 (1972) MULHOLLAND DR. (2001) MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D (2009) My_Darling_Clementine_1946 NakedSpur-1953-MGM-one navajo-joe-1966 NEAR DARK (1987) NEON MANIACS (1986) night of the comet NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1986) THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) Night of the Living Dead (1968) NOSFERATU (1922) NOTORIOUS (2009) OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983) ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013) OUT OF THE PAST (1947) PACIFIC RIM (2013) pet-sematary-1989 Phenomena (1985) POOTIE TANG (2001) POSSESSION (1981) PREDATOR (1987) Premium Rush (2012) PRIVATE SCHOOL (1983) PULP FICTION (1994) Pursued (1947) q-the-winged-serpent-movie-poster-1983-1020195479 quick-change-poster BERANDAL (2014) RAVENOUS (1999) RAW FORCE (1982) Raw Meat (1972) RE-ANIMATOR (1985) Rear Window (1954) RED RIVER (1948) RED ROCK WEST (1992) Relentless (1989) RIDDICK (2013) tumblr_njo3upN5tn1sy67obo1_540 the road  ROBOCOP (1987) ROBOCOP (2014) SCANNERS  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) SCROOGED (1988) Shaft (1971) Sheba, Baby (1975) SHOCK WAVES (1977) shogun_assassin SORCERER (1977) source-code Spring Breakers (2013) SQUIRM (1976) STARSHIP-TROOPERS-1997 story of ricky  STREET TRASH (1987) Streets-Of-Fire-1984 THE STUNT MAN (1980) SUDDEN IMPACT (1983) Super (2011) SUSPIRIA (1977) switchblade_sisters_poster_02 (1) TAXI DRIVER (1976) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) THE THING (1982) THIS IS THE END (2013) thriller TORQUE (2004) touch of evil The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) TREMORS (1990) TRICK ‘R TREAT (2007) THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE (1972) THE UNKNOWN (1927) Under The Dome VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988) VERTIGO-1958-649x1024 Vigilante (1983) vigilante force THE VISITOR (1979) WHICH WAY IS UP (1977) WHITE HUNTER  WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL THE WICKER MAN (1973) winters-bone WITCHBOARD (1986) worlds-greatest-dad-2009 ZODIAC (2007) ZOMBI 2 (1979) ZOMBIELAND (2009)

Make Daily Grindhouse your daily destination for genre movie news, reviews, and interviews — there’s a ton of truly great content over there, beyond just the parts with my name on ’em.

And follow me on Twitter for updates!: @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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POSSESSION would be one of the rawest, most vicious, most harrowing films ever made about love and marriage and the awful dissolution of both, even if there weren’t an oozing Lovecraft-style tentacle demon sitting squarely and evilly in the middle of it.  Polish director and co-writer Andrzej Żuławski reportedly made the film in reaction to a painful divorce, and it shows.  This movie had to have been made by someone who knows what it’s like to be in love, and then out of it.  (The internet tells me that Żuławski has since been with and NOT with Sophie Marceau, so his highs and lows may be higher and lower than most.)

Dashing genre legend Sam Neill plays Mark, the husband going through hell on earth, and the fierce and striking Isabelle Adjani plays Anna, the wife whose mysterious personality-flip drives him to madness.  Mark returns from a trip and is immediately welcomed by Anna with a divorce request.  He feels totally bushwhacked.  They have a young son, who it seems Anna has totally abandoned, both emotionally and literally.  Anna has taken up with a new lover (Heinz Bennent) — who isn’t that new, actually, as he’s almost twice her age.  But despite the brutal slugfest that ensues between Mark and Heinrich, the new guy isn’t half the problem, really.  Something confusingly supernatural seems to be at work — Mark meets his son’s teacher, Helen, who is a dead ringer for Anna (Isabelle Adjani plays a dual role), while Anna is acting more and more unhinged, animalistic, and self-destructive, and oh yeah, that incredibly vile monster mentioned up top is starting to make house visits.  If all of this is sounding crazy, you need to see the movie because it plays seven-hundred times crazier than it sounds.  You’ve never seen anything like it.

POSSESSION has an odd, frenzied, almost jumbled energy right from the outset, for many reasons, one of which being that this is an international production.  The film’s director is from Poland, its leading man from New Zealand, its leading lady from France, and its setting and filming location is in Germany.  This makes it interesting and vibrant, while lending it a personality clash that probably serves the narrative well.  The cinematography by Bruno Nuytten (who, maybe not for nothing, had a relationship with Isabelle Adjani) is fascinating — though it has the look of most British film at the time, and the film for long stretches wouldn’t look out of place on PBS, it picks up a whirling momentum that adds greatly to the disorienting effect of the events onscreen.  The unusual score by Andrzej Korzynski has a similar effect.  There’s nothing safe or reassuring about POSSESSION once it gets going, least of which its perfomances. 

Sam Neill is a phenomenal actor whose ability to project sly intelligence has seen him cast equally as heroes and villains.  He was once screen-tested for the role of James Bond and I see no reason why that wouldn’t have worked, except that it may have kept him away from many of the other interesting roles he’s played.  In POSSESSION he’s playing something closer to an everyman, though if you read “hero” when you look at him early in the film it certainly helps, as does later on his capacity to suggest darkness. 

But it’s Isabelle Adjani who rips the film away and threatens to disembowel the very machinery that is projecting it.  When critics call a performance “fearless”, they really have no barometer with which to judge that virtue if they haven’t seen Isabelle Adjani in POSSESSION.  This is without a doubt one of the bravest, least self-conscious, most go-for-broke frightening performances ever committed to film, regardless of gender.   Gender does matter, though.  This role captures all the allure, the awe, and the fear that feminine sexuality instills in men.  Mark cannot comprehend the changes that Anna is going through, and it scares the hell out of him. 

The dedicated physicality that Isabelle Adjani brings to bear is far more formidable than any monster could ever be, even though this film has a creepier monster than most — brought to life by Carlo Rambaldi, the effects genius who designed E.T.!  Rambaldi also had a hand in the creation of the title character in ALIEN, another film that generates horror by evoking sexual imagery — though that one is far more subtle than this one.

POSSESSION is incomparably bold, personal filmmaking.  Some of those who have seen it have balked at classifying it in the horror genre, since it is so unusual and resistant to classification, and because it is possible (I think wrongly) to read the supernatural elements as metaphorical.  But again, even if there were no tentacle-beast pulling the strings, this film would still have nearly as visceral an impact, due to its incredible lead performances and the concerted efforts of its crew.  POSSESSION is bruising and unforgettable and most of all shocking, long before anyone walks into that room and sees the unholy thing writhing on the ground.  The only reason that more people don’t know about this movie is because most people probably couldn’t handle it.

POSSESSION is tonight’s midnight screening at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, as part of their month-long Video Nasties celebration.  LA, you are so lucky. 

Me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb