Archive for the ‘Wolves’ Category

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) – 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.



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

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

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

The Grey (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

The Grey

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

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

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

The Grey (2012)

For further reading:

My Top Ten Of 2012





If you heard the song first, the way I did, you’re already picturing mental images that are pitched somewhere between John Hughes and John Woo. It sounds like an ‘eighties action movie. The video takes that film-friendly sound and runs with it, towards some pretty unusual, memorable, and maybe even culturally progressive places. (Let’s just say Murtaugh never rode on the back of Riggs’ motorcycle.)

Great song, great video. You’re probably going to dig it. The album is out now.

Find out more at the official site:

And find me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

I probably should be doing about 50 other things at this very moment, but I saw this great top-50 list today and was inspired it to immediately answer it.  I made my list very, very quickly, so in plenty of ways it’s the most honest form a list like this could ever arrive in.  While the numbering is fairly arbitrary (until the top five, where shit gets definite) and while the contents could easily change as soon as five minutes from now, this is still a fairly good representation of what a top fifty movies list from me should look like.  Anyway, let’s hit it.  Links where they fit.  I eagerly await any and all comments you might make!

50. Watermelon Man (1970).

49. Fletch (1985).

48. The Great Silence (1968).

47. Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954).

46. The Hit (1984).

45. Knightriders (1981).

44. The Night Of The Hunter (1955).

43. Of Unknown Origin (1983).

42. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973).

41. Prime Cut (1972).

40. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).

39. Coffy (1973).

38. Trainspotting (1996).

37. In Bruges (2008).

36. Quick Change (1990).

35. Collateral (2004).

34. Out Of Sight (1998).

33. Halloween (1978).

32. Magnolia (1999).

31. Raising Arizona (1987).

30. Escape From New York (1981).

29. Shogun Assassin (1980).

28. Goodfellas (1990).

27. Purple Rain (1984).

26. True Grit (2010).

25. The Unholy Three (1925).

24. My Darling Clementine (1946).

23. The Insider (1999).

22. Alligator (1980).

21. Animal House (1978).

20. High Plains Drifter (1973).

19. Freaks (1932).

18. Beverly Hills Cop (1984).

17. An American Werewolf In London (1981).


16. Predator (1987).


15. Jaws (1975).

14. Shaft (1971).

13. Evil Dead 2 (1987).


12. The Wild Bunch (1969).

11. Manhunter (1986).

10. Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976).

9. Heat (1995).

8. King Kong (1933).

7. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

6. Big Trouble In Little China (1986).

5. Unforgiven (1992).

4. Dawn Of The Dead (1978).

3. Ghostbusters (1984).

2. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968).


1. The Good The Bad & The Ugly (1966).


Cold, cold, cold.  That’s all I hear about, the second the thermometer drops below 40.  But at the moment, all the complaints are pretty valid.  It actually is very cold in New York, 16 degrees worth, as evidenced by the fact that my scrotum is tucking itself up in my grundle.  That’s gross, so it’s a good time to change the subject and look at the greatest Winter Movies ever made.  There aren’t as many of them as you’d think — probably because the majority of folks who make the movies live in Los Angeles and they don’t have the same meteorogical issues to ponder.

So what makes a great Winter Movie? 

First of all, forget the holidays – we’re well beyond all that happy-joy-joy nonsense.  A Winter movie isn’t about celebrating, quite the opposite in fact, and it probably doesn’t end happily.  A great Winter Movie may or may not have snow in it, although all ten of my choices do, so maybe that is a criteria after all. 

OK, a great Winter Movie convincingly depicts snow.  That’s number one.  But it goes much deeper than that. 

At heart, a great Winter Movie must make you feel COLD.  Just watching it, regardless of season, will make you feel cold in your bones (and aforementioned other parts.)  A great Winter Movie leaves you lost and snowblind and deeply suspect at the very concept that springtime will ever come.

The following ten (give or take) are the movies that I chose.  If you have your own suggestions, I’d love to hear ‘em…

P.S.  Having seen Joe Carnahan’s bruising, brutal new film The Grey, be forewarned that this list will very soon be either amended, addended, or extended.



10. Encounters At The End Of The World (2008)

In keeping with his absolute lack of fear at jumping right into foreign situations, the iconoclastic director Werner Herzog made this documentary about daily life at McMurdo Base in Antarctica.  As with every one of Herzog’s documentaries I’ve seen, there are moments of bizarre eccentricity and moments of extreme sadness and sometimes both at the same time.  Herzog makes profound observations about an isolated culture made up of people who have abandoned the rest of the world, and captures otherworldly images that will blow your mind.  (The underwater footage literally looks like life in another galaxy.)  The must-see moment in this movie happens when a penguin goes insane and heads off alone to certain death.   When Herzog warns you at the beginning that this ain’t no March Of The Penguins, he isn’t kidding.

9. Never Cry Wolf (1983)

This movie is based on a book by Farley Mowat, a famous naturalist, and it’s about a scientist who is sent to the Arctic to study wolves who have been [wrongly] blamed for a drop in caribou numbers.  It stars Charles Martin Smith (American Graffiti, The Untouchables, Starman), Brian Dennehy, and a bunch of wolves.  I haven’t seen this movie in more than twenty years (holy crap!) and still it makes my list.  That’s some memorable cold.

8. Orca (1977)

I’ve written about Orca before, in the context of its intentions as a post-Jaws horror movie, but Orca’s major cinematic contribution is less its ability to scare you, and more its ability to make you shiver in the literal sense.  The movie is set on the wintery coasts of the Canadian North, and killer whale or no, these people are getting in the water.  Crazy!  The feeling gets more frigid as the movie’s action moves away from civilization.  As star Richard Harris pursues the vengeance-crazed killer whale further and further north, the scenery goes white and looming ice floes are as dangerous as the primary threat. Things don’t end well for the human half of the cast, so be forewarned:  this list gets ever bleaker from here on out.


7. Fargo (1996)

One of the touchstone movies of the 1990s, this movie probably needs little introduction.  If you love movies, you’re probably a Coen Brothers fan, and if you’re a Coen Brothers fan, you’ve seen this one.  It’s set in Minnesota in the dead of winter, and while serious critics can go on and on about the originality of the screenplay and of the choice of a pregnant police chief as protagonist, all I think of when I think back to this movie is “BRRRR.”  That refers to the cold existential state of criminality displayed in the movie, sure, but mostly to the physical reality that a state of constant snow and ice presents.  Essential Winter Movie scene: Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), frustrated and furious, venting his blind rage on his iced-over windshield with an ice scraper.


6. Let The Right One In (2008)

Another film set in the dead of winter, only this one takes place in Sweden, where I’m not sure if they even get any other season.  Have you heard about this movie?  It made just about everyone’s year-end best list back in 2008.  It really is that good – atmospheric and affecting.  It’s a story about a young boy, tormented at school, who meets an unusual little girl who moves into his apartment complex with her much-older companion.  Safe to say, she isn’t what she seems.  (I won’t reveal it here, but what she is becomes clear fairly quickly, although you’ll never guess how the story develops.)  I feel like a movie that’s this good about showing the breath escape from a just-killed person on a freezing night is guaranteed a place on this list.

Honorable Mention: The American remake, Let Me In, from 2010.  Nearly as chilly as its inspiration.

5. Groundhog Day (1993)

Yeah, it’s a comedy.  There’s a happy ending.  Am I breaking my own rules here?  Maybe – but remember how dark this particular comedy gets in the middle, even if it never relinquishes its hold on hilarious.  Quick synopsis, as if anyone needs it:  Bill Murray, the most profound of comedians, plays a nasty, self-obsessed weatherman who finds himself reliving the most boring day of his life over and over in a quaint town in Pennsylvania.  At one point, the monotony gets to him so much that he decides to take his own life.  Which doesn’t work, don’t worry, but let’s see something that dark make its way into a Sandra Bullock comedy.  Won’t happen.  No one else has the guts.  Bill Murray’s never been afraid of the big questions in his comedy, which is why he’s been so successful in recent years in more dramatic roles.   Additionally, Groundhog Day is linked to an earlier wintry Bill Murray movie, Scrooged, in a fairly depressing way – both movies feature Bill Murray encountering a homeless person who has died from ailments related to prolonged exposure to cold.  In Scrooged, the homeless guy is literally frozen, but in Groundhog Day, it’s arguably more upsetting since it plays out in a more realistic way.  For a while there, Bill Murray was uniquely concerned about not letting the homeless freeze to death.  It’s not a very humorous concern, but it sure the hell is something we could all stand to think about in this weather.


4. A Simple Plan (1998)

When people think of Sam Raimi, they are either thinking of the Evil Dead movies or the Spider-Man movies.  It takes a moment to recall that he had an intriguing transitional period between those two “trilogies,” where he started to merge his incredible horror-cinema skills with a more mainstream sensibility.  A Simple Plan is the best film from that period, adapted from a novel by Scott Smith and starring Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda, and a hardly-recognizable Billy Bob Thornton.  A trio of small-town guys find an abandoned airplane full of cash in the middle of the woods, and decide to keep the money.  Things go bad.  It’s better the less you know going in, so I’ll ruin no plot details – just please note that we’re now in the top five bleakest Winter Movies ever, so you know I mean seriously bad.


3. The Shining (1980)

A Winter Movie rises in greatness proportionally to the level of movie star who is frozen solid at the end, and in The Shining, one of the hugest movie stars of all time is frozen solid.  This movie needs no introduction and it’s best remembered,  fairly, for its terrifying horror imagery.  (The moment with the highest pants-pooping potential, in my opinion, is this one.)  But beyond its status as one of the most memorable horror movies ever made, let’s not forget its Winter status. Jack and his family are cooped up in that spooky hotel all winter – it’s the season, even before the ghosts, that turns him into an unfriendly lumberjack.

2. The Great Silence (1968)

If you’ve seen Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, congratulations!  You’ve seen the greatest movie ever.  But even if you’ve seen every Western that Leone made (which you ought to), you’ve only scratched the surface of the vast reserve of wonderfulness that is Italian Westerns.  Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence is among the best-regarded of those movies – it’s about a mute gunslinger that tries to help a small community who have been besieged by vicious criminals led by the ever-disturbing Klaus Kinski.  And it all takes place on a wooded frontier blanketed with snow – even the horses have a hell of a time getting anywhere.  The Great Silence has probably THE down ending of all time, and the score by Ennio Morricone (already on this list for his contributions to Orca) is one of the most haunting I’ve ever heard.  If you think you can handle it, then I couldn’t recommend this movie any more highly.


1. The Thing (1982)

Skip the shite remake, with all its CGI and sound stages.  This right here is the G.O.A.T.  Accept no substitutes, or more specifically, beware all imitations. 

What can be said, at this point? John Carpenter remade a sci-fi classic by his hero, Howard Hawks, and arguably, he beat it. It’s still a brilliant set-up – a malicious shape-shifting alien being plagues twelve guys manning a research station in Antarctica – and the follow-through is equally brilliant, between the direction by Carpenter, the imagery by cinematographer Dean Cundey, the effects by Rob Bottin, the score by Ennio Morricone (him again!), and the eclectic ensemble cast of character actors (some you’ve seen before; some who were never seen again), led by Kurt Russell and the legendary Keith David.  The end result is the greatest movie T.K. Carter was ever affiliated with NOT named Doctor Detroit.  It’s arguably Carpenter’s masterpiece.  It’s a classic in science fiction, a classic in horror, a classic study in isolation and paranoia, and it’d be all of those things even without that remarkable ending, which is legendarily, chillingly, ambiguous. Carpenter has said that he has the answer to the famous question in that ending, and naturally I have my own take on it – what’s yours? See the movie (again) and let’s hear your opinions!


I once read an interview with the author of Twilight where she proudly claimed to have never read Dracula.  In case you’re wondering why people like myself who are normally more open-minded about junk culture have no respect for the Twilight phenomenon and won’t bother to read the books, this is one very strong reason why.

Openly admitting to having written a book featuring vampires without having bothered to read Dracula is like making a movie about the Italian-American mafia without having seen The Godfather, like making a movie about vengeful great white sharks without having seen Jaws, and [sure, I’ll go there] like telling the story of Jesus Christ without having ever read the Bible.

When you’re a writer at that level, there simply must be enough time in your day for you to make it a priority to do the minimum and most basic groundwork – otherwise don’t get in the ring with the heavyweights. To me, it’s blatantly offensive to work in a genre without having the decency to credit the works that created that genre. Frankly, it’s a kind of plagiarism to use someone else’s ideas without acknowledging the debt. Of course, Twilight isn’t a true vampire story to begin with, instead it’s just the most popular example of an improbably popular genre that should be called “vampire romance.”   It belongs on the shelf with the romance novels rather than in the horror section, but that’s another rant for another time.

Speaking personally, I don’t currently have any plans to write a vampire novel or to make a vampire movie. I only have one vampire story in me so far, and that one is most likely a short subject. But you can be damn sure I’ve read Dracula before, and if I hadn’t, you wouldn’t ever catch me making a point of it publicly. Honestly, vampires aren’t even my favorite movie monster. They’re fairly low on the list, in fact, but to the rest of the world, they’re unquestionably the most popular. Having been keeping an eye on horror product for a while now, my informal observation is that the majority of it feels like it’s been vampire stories. Which is cool, since there are plenty of great vampire stories that have been told, and yet may be. But, as I say, at some point you have to go back and start at the beginning…

So I read over Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 novel Dracula once again. Not that I’m anybody, but I’d say it’s fairly well deserving of its reputation and its influence. There have been tales of vampires (or their equivalents) in the majority of cultures in the majority of corners of the world for the majority of human existence. What Stoker did with Dracula was to marshal together some clear-cut rules and common traits of vampires, inject some amount of research and historical reference, and utilize his own character-building ability to create the most clearly defined vampire character of all time in Count Dracula.

If Count Dracula wasn’t such a commanding, imposing, ominously memorable figure in the novel bearing his name, then Dracula couldn’t have been the touchstone that it is in horror literature. In other words, Stoker’s greatest achievement was to distill all of that cross-cultural mythology into one iconic character. Creating a true icon is one of the most difficult things a writer can do, because it can’t be forced and it has to come from a genuine place of character impact, but when it happens, an iconic character can lift the entire genre around him/her to prominence. (Maybe that’s why werewolves are perennial also-rans – there’s no one iconic werewolf character to center the genre.)

A couple observations struck me as I made my way through the book this time. One was the intense ruthlessness and cruelty of the Dracula character. There is no trace of humanity or sympathy within him; he wants what he wants and has no reservations about taking it. This, more than anything, is where today’s “vampire romance” trend diverges from its roots in horror. The vampire mythology has a natural eroticism to it – the act of feeding has always had a sexual element in its description – but Dracula, as portrayed in in Stoker’s novel, is hardly a romantic figure. If anything, he’s a sexual predator. While his conquest of young Lucy Westenra has clear sexual overtones in its description, it is disturbing at its core and its results are clearly tragic. Count Dracula is by far the dominant character in Dracula, but you don’t read it wishing for anything other than his demise at the hands of the novel’s heroes.

Another interesting observation to me is that very few visual interpretations of Count Dracula have come particularly close to his appearance as described in the book. There have been so many wonderful and unforgettable Dracula designs, but strangely, none of them have looked much like this: “…A tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.” So in Stoker’s mind, Count Dracula would look like James Coburn with the wardrobe of Johnny Cash.  I kind of love that.  This drawing by the great John Cassaday comes the closest to that description of any I can recall, but of course it’s still great to have all of the different looks that cinema, television, and comic books have afforded us throughout history, from Bela Lugosi’s iconic caped slickster, to Gene Colan’s ferocious drawings, to Gary Oldman’s “Aunt May” rendition.

I was also surprised to be reminded of the way that the story is structured. Dracula is an epistolary novel, which means that it is made up of fictional correspondences and communications – a common storytelling choice that used to be popular in antiquity but was way out of style in the past century, until the current horror boom with books like World War Z which use a comparable “oral history” format.  It’s a fascinating choice on Stoker’s part to have Count Dracula’s personality and exploits recorded and reported by a group of protagonists, including Jonathan Harker, his fiancée Mina Murray, close ally (and initial courter of Mina’s friend Lucy) Dr. Seward, and of course that infernal Van Helsing. It’s also intriguing to see how the book is split up into phases; the first chunk of the novel is largely drawn from Harker’s journal, and depicts his initial encounter with the Count in Transylvania; the next chunk involves Mina’s correspondences with Lucy, wherein her concern about Jonathan is expressed, and where we also first hear about Lucy’s suitors (Seward, Quincey, and Holmwood, who later become Van Helsing’s vampire-hunting squad). Then the ship’s log of the Demeter is invoked – the Demeter being the cursed vessel that brings Dracula to England. When the action shifts to England, the story structure shifts again, and the novel’s exchanges toggle between Mina Murray, Dr. Seward, the returned Jonathan Harker, and – not as much as could be expected – Professor Van Helsing.

Abraham Van Helsing is absolutely another key to the success and longevity of Dracula. Harker shows real pluck and resourcefulness and Mina is no precious flower but just as willing to fight as the men, but Van Helsing is the Count’s true opposite number. He is a haunted and determined adversary of vampires, and it’s no surprise that he pops up nearly as many times as Count Dracula in the many iterations of the tale that have transpired throughout fiction and film over the years. (The most memorable was Peter Cushing in the Hammer horror films, the most recent in my generation’s memory was Anthony Hopkins in Francis Ford Coppola’s version in the early 1990s.) The creation of Van Helsing is another of Stoker’s masterstrokes – just as a good hero is best defined in opposition to his worst enemy, so too is the greatest villain best tested by a strong hero. You need a Captain Ahab to pursue Moby Dick, you need a Joker to forever plague Batman, and you need Van Helsing to constantly thwart Count Dracula.

However, the character that stuck with me this time around was the poor, unfortunate Renfield. Renfield is a patient of Van Helsing’s friend Dr. Seward, who runs a lunatic asylum. Renfield acts as kind of a predictor of Dracula’s comings and goings; his ravings increase or subside depending on what the vampire is up to. Renfield is a tragically memorable wretch who eats spiders and flies and figures into some of the most sad and disturbing passages of the book. It’s funny; when I read The Lord Of The Rings, the most resonant character to me was Smeagol, a.k.a. Gollum, a.k.a. that freakish creature who’s obsessed with and tormented by power. It’s just so perceptive on the parts of Stoker and Tolkien, as they conjure characters of the most abject evil and the most resolute virtue on either side of the central battle, to acknowledge those pathetic figures who face similar trials and fall short of either extreme. Not everyone can be purely good or powerfully bad; in fact few are – most of us, when placed into such apocalyptic scenarios, would fall somewhere in the middle, and the weaker among us would be ruined by the experience. Some of the more famous portrayals of Renfield throughout Dracula history have been Dwight Frye (from the James Whale Frankenstein), Klaus Kinski, and Tom Waits.  That’s one interesting dinner party.

I’m happy that this article has become such an enthusiastic celebration of a classic work of literature. Dracula isn’t quite flawless; it does have its repetitive passages, particularly when Mia Murray and Prof. Van Helsing get into their mutual admiration routines. However, that is a small complaint when weighed against the harrowing Transylvania scenes, the atmospheric Demeter sequence, the tragic loss of Lucy Westenra, the inspiring gathering of the vampire hunters, and the still-affecting-despite-it-all afterword. Bram Stoker’s novel remains one of the most influential books ever written. Dracula casts a long shadow, and all of us who create and enjoy horror stories are still standing in it.