Next to the adventures of one Mr. Charles Lee Ray, Final Destination may very well be my favorite horror franchise of all time. Part of it is a personal connection, as unlike the mixed but marvelous Elm Street series, I’ve seen each of Death’s installments on the big screen with low expectations. The first and probably ‘scariest’ entry opened with the best plane crash since Alive (despite being in poor taste by using the same name and setup as the ill-fated TWA Flight 180, but hey, go Long Island-set horror!). Part 2 featured one of the greatest car accident scenes ever put on film, and the roller coaster gone amok opening of Part 3 has made many a carnival goer stick to the bumper cars. More importantly, each film knows what its audience wants--creative deaths, macabre humor--and delivers it with drunkenly giddy spirit.
The Final Destination--which I pray to the Grim Reaper is just an excuse to not smack a 4 on the title--is the movie you expect, and in a rare instance, that’s a most fantastic thing. Let’s face it: every Friday the 13th, save for Parts IX and X, followed an identical formula right down to the kill styles...much like all four of the Final Destinations. And yet, compare the by-the-numbers energy of filmmaking in any Jason round with the kinetic movement of Final Destination and you get a perfect example of what makes a good and lasting film franchise.
Quick Plot: A quartet of well-spoken young pretty people attend a NASCAR race, along with an array of rednecks whose accents somehow exist in the same town. Clean cut Nick is hit by a gentle brush of wind--never a good sign in a horror movie--followed by a nightmarish vision of a racing accident that spews through the so-secure fence and into the crowd, sending sharp things into bellies, debris on top of heads, and panicky families stomping over each other to reach the exit.
Anyone whose seen one of the other joyfully twisted Final Destination films knows that little Nicky will snap out of his CGI’d dream in time to save his friends and a few stereotypical bystanders (one is actually credited as Cowboy; another, played by The Signal’s not Simon Peggish Justin Welborn, is listed as Racist). What follows, of course, is the unseen Grim Reaper grouchily working overtime to knock off the wrongfully surviving characters in increasingly wacky ways.
The trailer gives away a few situational deaths, but director David R. Ellis (he who helmed the enjoyable first sequel) really does provide an engaging show that still packs a few surprises. Nods to the earlier films are littered throughout with care, from the opening credits sequence to the Clear Rivers Car Wash. The cast is serviceable, and while none are worthy of Oscars or People’s Choice Awards, the core creates sympathetic characters that we can mildly care about.
High Points (aside from the entire 80 minutes) There’s a nice seize the day moment late in the film that helps to make us actually care about the final scenes of suspense
A late plot element featuring a second large-scale disaster is a nice way to shake up the formula we’ve come to rely on in past films
Some of the choices for vicious machinery felt especially inspired in a I’ve-always-been-slightly-afraid-of kind of ways. Escalators, car washes, and pool drains are certainly ripe with potential. Should there be a 5th trip, I’m crossing my fingers for a revolving door kill.
Low Points Aside from the fantastic opening, the 3D is never really utilized in an innovative or even fun My Bloody Valentine-ish way
Lessons Learned In a pinch, tampons make effective--and adorable--ear plugs
European travel guides are big on highlighting local attractions with artistic zombie hand photographs
Babbling is not encouraged when crossing a busy street
Binoculars are an excellent tool for smuggling alcohol into dry events
Velcro really is the best invention of the 20th century
See/Skip/Sneak In Despite the disturbingly cheerful 9-year-old sitting two seats away from me, I had a blast with this film. It’s too early to call it the best in the fairly young franchise, but any movie that keeps a sick smile on my face for 80 minutes is definitely worthy of a full price ticket. My one complaint is that the 3D is hardly overwhelming, so those living in 3Dless towns can still enjoy the film without shelling out $4 for disposable glasses and flying object imagery. Best enjoyed with popcorn and a sense of humor.
Like a good chunk of current horror fans, I rank The Devil’s Rejects as one of the best-made genre films of the last ten years, consider House of 1000 Corpses to be an obnoxious but not irredeemable scrimmage in filmmaking, and find the opening half of the Halloween remake to hold a pumpkin full of potential that gets squandered in the rushed second half. The news that Rob Zombie would be following up his 2007 film with a sequel that he once vowed to never touch was odd, but not unwelcome. Maybe, I thought, he needed to get the reboot homage out of the way to find his own vision for Michael Meyers.
Well. Perhaps he did, but that doesn’t mean it works. Halloween 2 (thankfully NOT called H2 in the actual credits) is, like its predecessor, an ugly, occasionally jarring, often annoying, and ultimately chaotic exercise in grisliness. It’s far more interesting than lackluster fare like the latest Friday the 13th or The Hitcher remakes, but ultimately, even the 2 hour running time--filled not in small part by quick shots of fake breasts, blasting music cues, and somewhere around 1872 uses of the word ‘fuck’--leaves us with a rough and confusing film without much to like.
Quick Plot: One year after surviving the return of Michael, Laurie Strode (the now more tolerable, if not quite sympathetic Scout Taylor-Compton) continues to be haunted by nightmares and bad fashion sense. Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis (the always reliable genre stalwart Malcolm McDowell), is thriving as a minor celebrity about to release his second book detailing the Haddonfield attack. And Michael? Well, he apparently woke up somewhere that contains Rob Zombie style hillbillies and has been trekking across the country/state/town/universe (it’s never clear) slaying anybody that gets in his way of reuniting with lil sis. For company, he is occasionally visited by mom Sheri Moon-Zombie dressed up for Halloween in a dime store ghost costume and leading a white horse through snow. (For the record, Zombie has adamantly stated there will be no Part 3--which he also did regarding Part 2--but if there is, I’m dying for it to feature a showdown between Moon’s Pegasus and Brad Dourif on a black stallion).
Also returning is Danielle Harris as the healthy-minded Annie, a far more enjoyable presence compared to Laurie’s new slutty goth friends. In typical Zombie style, other veterans pop up for random cameos with mixed results. Eventually, Michael comes home, Laurie learns some secrets, and we try to figure out what the hell is going on.*
One of the reasons I’ve always preferred Ebert to Siskel is that Ebert reviewed a film for its intended audience, while Siskel would criticize its plot for not being the direction he would have chose. At this point, I’m starting to think my issue with Rob Zombie’s Halloween series is not necessarily his filmmaking, but the tease of character development he’s now given us twice. I was intrigued by the young Michael Meyers as a natural born psychopath with a soft spot for his mother and baby sister, and therefore, I’ve been nothing but disappointed with Zombie’s decision to fast-forward through adolescence and jump into Meyers, now a 7 foot tall indestructible killing machine. As a fan of Chucky, I’ve never had issues with the abuse of realism of horror, but I don’t understand how or why someone with as much talent as Rob Zombie would start Michael out as a person and suddenly transform him into a demon. I don’t want a Part 6 style supernatural explanation, but it feels, once again, like Halloween 2 wants to explore Michael’s psychology but can’t quite shake the limitations of making a simple and grisly gorefest.
High Points Brad Dourif clearly holds a special place in my heart, and here, he dutifully carries out the role of a guilt-ridden sheriff and ends up being the most sympathetic character in the bunch
Casting Margot Kidder as a psychologist is all sorts of ironically fun
No spoilers here, but one of my favorite performers--goodness no, it’s not Chris Hardwicke--makes a stellar cameo beside McDowell
The final shot is quite haunting, but see my spoiler rant below for more explanation*
Low Points One of the most effective aspects of The Devil’s Rejects is how truly terrifying scenes take place under the hot sun, so it’s quite disappointing to see the majority of Halloween 2 occur in the poorly lit nighttime
While I enjoyed McDowell’s performance, his entire storyline felt like plot filler--especially considering its thin resolution
Zombie has proven before that he can compose a great shot, but here, he randomly chooses scenes to make artistic. As a result, these slow-motioned moments feel pretentious and out of place, while the rest of the filming just looks ugly
Lessons Learned Post traumatic effects of surviving a nightmarish chase with a giant killer may include developing a goth persona, not wanting to clean your bathroom, and building an impressive tolerance to hard liquor
Illinois is home to the new Chris Hardwicke talk show, conveniently located ten minutes from Haddonfield
If you want to survive a Rob Zombie film, never work in the sex or stripping industry
Black-and-white cartoons are known to inspire vivid nightmares
Another word for a Dr. Frank-N-Furter Halloween costume would be “chick dressing up like a dude who wants to be a chick.” I guess someone did not obtain the rights to the Rocky Horror Picture Show
Jewish people use the phrase ‘kosher’
D-E-A-D spells not dead
See/Skip/Sneak In Sigh. Fans of Zombie’s first Halloween will certainly want to check out this installment, and some may even enjoy it more. The Saturday night audience I had the displeasure of sitting with hardly seemed impressed at the conclusion, although they certainly seemed jumpy throughout. Despite my fairly negative review, I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from giving Halloween 2 a chance if he or she appreciates this kind of roughness onscreen. Just remember to stop by with some comments on your own take. I'm incredibly curious to hear other thoughts on this installment, especially as word of mouth contains more expletives than the film itself.
**SPOILERS** **SPOILERS** **SPOILERS**
My understanding is that Laurie has simply snapped by the end, but my friend and I were both considering the fact that maybe she was the killer all along. The last few kills are committed with no witnesses. The cops can’t get a shot of Michael. The early murders have nothing to do with anything else happening onscreen and therefore could have simply been fantasies of a pre-aware Angel Meyers. If our theory was right, I’d have more respect for the film; at the same time, I’d also be annoyed that Zombie couldn’t commit to that idea. Either way, the ambiguity--and there’s a good chance dear Erica and I are the only ones that felt that--just seems, like the rest of the film, a big old mess.
**END OF SPOILERS*** **END OF SPOILERS*** **END OF SPOILERS***
It must be hard to be the ugly twin. Humans are insecure enough without the constant reminder that someone with all the same potential is using it in a better way. Likewise, Hollywood is often prone to birthing a pair of fraternal films that share a unique or timely concept. Because us audiences are generally unable to tell Bill Paxton apart from Bill Pullman, the very idea of similarly plotted films often feels cruel and intolerable, thus dooming one to certain box office death. We’ve seen it in the art houses when the mighty Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote slew poor little Toby Jones’ Infamous. and we’ll soon be served with two dueling helpings of Sherlock Holmes. In terms of genre cinema, here are a few examples of double features and some thoughts on how time has aged them.
1996: Independence Day / Mars Attacks
Connection: hostile aliens, ensemble casts, big budget
With the economy booming and humans enjoying themselves way too much on that new toy called the Internet, the film gods looked upon us and decided the world needed a serious beatdown. Aliens of all sizes were lining up to do some damage and while I hate to project a stereotype on any species, everybody knows that extraterrestrials do not respect the rules of the queue. The long-legged villains of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day naturally took the lead over Tim Burton’s goofy little bobbleheads by premiering on its namesake holiday (hear that, Rob Zombie?). The July 4th opening famously cemented Will Smith’s Uncle Sammish reign over the start of summer, while Mars Attacks thudded into the Christmas Season. Whoulda thunk seeing the world vaporized by country music hating bug-eyed gremlins wouldn’t be popular with the mall-going December crowd?
13 years later... While Independence Day has racked up its share of well-deserved criticism (golden retrievers with great timing, Harvey Fierstein's gravely whining, and an advanced inter-galaxy traveling species without Norton Anti-virus protection are just the start), the effects have aged decently enough and the initial attack still feels appropriately exciting to a popcorn munching, belief suspending viewer. Modern viewers are justified in scoffing at the faux nationalistic spirit and hokey pro-America attitude, but the rash of big dumb action flicks it has since inspired look and sound so much worse, it’s hard to claim Independence Day has aged poorly. Similarly, Mars Attacks remains a polarizing film, respected by some as a clever piece of pop art lampooning B-movies and hated by others as an overlong and overloud slog far less entertaining than it thinks it is. All in all, history and now remain in sync.
Sixth Sense / Stir of Echoes
Connection: ghosts, haunted little boys, working class
1999 was a fantastic year for movies, so it’s natural that a few merely good ones might slip through the cracks. David Koepp’s Stir of Echoes, a surprisingly effective--if not overwhelmingly awesome--ghost story was thus doomed by its release date and four little whispered words: “I see dead people.” Talk about bad luck. M. Knight Shayamalan’s blockbuster juggernaut changed the nature of twist endings and helped--briefly--to restore some mainstream cred to scary cinema. It packed astonishing performances, oozy atmosphere, and one of the biggest shocks of its time. Stir of Echoes, on the other hand, was a solid little thriller aided by its blue collar setting and Kevin Baconness, yet limited by a familiar plot and Law & Order: SVU ish resolution.
10 years later... While it’s certainly true that M. Knight can’t brag about spawning a Rob Lowe starring sequel, The Sixth Sense remains an admirable film that lives up to its hype. Despite the well-deserved backlash against the director’s later works and the fact that everybody and their kittens knows the twist, some memorable scenes--such as Cole's offscreen tussle with a servant in a friend's attic--still provide genuine chills. Stir of Echoes now gets the obligatory "Oh yeah, that was a good one" nod from later viewers. It certainly holds up as an effective thriller and makes for a decent night's viewing, but it remains a humble pearl in a year of gems.
Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors /Bad Dreams
Connection: See below
It’s not surprising that a studio would want to market its film to subconsciously remind audiences of the most sucessful franchise of the 80s, but it sure is unfortunate that a haunting and well-acted thriller like 1988’s Bad Dreams (yes, your thesaurus is correct in noting that those words are a synonym for ‘nightmare’) would be dismissed as a quick cash-in to Freddy Krueger’s third and, according to many, best outing into Springwood. Really, the similarities between the films are surface level...it just happens that the surface is really thick:
-Both are set in the psychiatric wing of a laxly run mental asylum and focus on a diverse group of unstable patients
-Both share a middle aged male villain who died by fire and now wears some badass burns
-Both feature an elaborate collection of insanely creative deaths wrongly dubbed as suicides
-Both star Jennifer Rubin
You can see how an theater patron might get confused and ultimately choose the more familiar, if much wordier, title. And they did.
21 years later...Most fans of Freddy still contend that the Frank Darabont co-penned Part 3 is heads (perhaps even pizza topping heads) above other 6 sequels). At the same time, Bad Dreams continues to slowly win approval from late blooming DVD renters. Once removed from its Krueger connection--especially since, despite its title, there are no actual rapid eye movement set scenes--Bad Dreams does stand on its own as a solid 80s entry into the horror world.
The Zombie Diaries / Diary of the Dead
Connection: title, downbeat ending, found footage device
The word 'diary' is associated more with a fourteen year old girl than gruesome flesh eater (I'm waiting for a truly sick combination of the two, by the way). In 2008, however, video journals were all the rage in the zombie genre. George Romero's pseudo guerilla style documentary hogged the theatrical attention, receiving a fair amount of critical praise but loads of hatred from the general horror community. Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates’s British anthology, The Zombie Diaries, on the other hand, found its audience a month or year or two later (all depending on which country you call home) on DVD, where podcasts, blogs, and other webbish forms of communication spread that this was in fact one of the best zombie films in years.
One year later...It's too soon to really call a winner here, but history is already warming up to favor The Zombie Diaries over the far too dated Diary of the Dead (even the Myspace reference feels like a relic a mere year later). Then again, when both films utilized a filming style that had and has since reared its shaky head in Cloverfield, REC, Quarantine, District 9, our sensitive stomachs can only wait and see what the world will make of home movie horror.
I'm sure there is a shoe closet full of other pairs I'm forgetting, so add below and declare your winners.
Perhaps it's my own age, but I always find something truly special about non-slasher horror films made in the 1980s. Once you hack your way through the cookie cutter patterned Friday the 13ths and their knockoffs, there is a seemingly endless supply of decent little thrillers rich in gore, compelling storylines, and character actors that instantly keep viewers young by challenging them to identify what other 1980s horror or 1990s sitcom they made brief appearances in.
For these reasons and more, I was excited to finally view 1988's Bad Dreams, a Nightmare on Elm Street-ish inspired flick that had the terrible luck of premiering around the same time as Freddy’s most beloved outing against the Patricia Arquette-led Dream Warriors. Well-cast and directed by a young (very young) Andrew Fleming (he who would go on to make a personal 8th grade favorite, The Craft), Bad Dreams is not what you would call a classic, but certainly worth its weight in dead mental patients and 80s era scoring.
Quick Plot: We open on an icily blond Richard Lynch leading his Waco-esque (pre-Waco times) cult into a fiery mass suicide. One young woman, Cynthia (Nightmare 3’s mohawk donning Jennifer Rubin), survives alone, falling into a 13 year coma which wakes her up conveniently enough in the 1980s, just in time to ride the nightmare horror craze and act beside a Summer School era Dean Cameron in a powerful supporting role. Since Cynthia has no memory of the fire and has even less resources in the outside world, she’s committed to a mental asylum headed by ReAnimator’s Bruce Abbott and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Henry Yulin*. Cynthia struggles to fit into the kooky borderline personality support group, quite a challenge when she’s continually haunted by the eerie image of a post-burning Lynch and the slightly uncomfortable fact that everyone she seems to talk commits suicide in an elaborate manner.
This is not your fluffy dumb and dead teenager movie, despite its reputation as Freddy's illegitimate child tucked away in a VHS love nest. While Bad Dreams was clearly influenced by the more famous films of its time, it holds its own and holds up well 20 years later. Sure, we've seen our share of pretty young women with ghostly visions and questionable sanity, but middle aged horndogs being splattered by violent air conditioning and salty mouthed Weekly World News reporters add new and welcomed touches to an age old sub-genre. The film is not without its faults--a clumsy climax and not quite fully realized villain revelation bog down its second half--but Bad Dreams ultimately succeeds on its own terms in creating a new story with memorable characters and a few moments of actual fear.
High Points From Jennifer Rubin’s sympathetic amnesiac to the quirky but resonant mental patients and always enigmatic Richard Lynch, the entire cast turns in solid performances to make you genuinely care about each character
If you read my disappointed review of The Believers, you may know that I have a fascination of sorts with cults. While I still would have preferred a little more exploration into Unity Field, the presentation of this Jonestown-ish group is haunting and realistic
The gore is not nearly as explicit as in the Nightmare series, but Bad Dreams does boast a few memorably twisted and creative death scenes, plus a truly disturbing and impressively directed baptism by fire that may indeed induce your own bad dreams
Low Points Somewhere along the line, the film switches viewpoints from Rubin’s patient to Abbott’s psychologist and while this does produce one of the film’s wackiest and most entertaining sequences, it also loses our character investment
This moment actually made me happy, but not in a good way: note the final expression and blase shrug of the police investigator at the film’s resolution. Should major characters really express such a blatant lack of interest after a dramatic and deadly showdown between the protagonists and villain?
Lessons Learned If you want to be totally 80s, get two divorces and a yeast infection. If all you can handle is Cleveland, stick to the 70s.
Having secret sex in a turbine fan room carries risks far greater than herpes
The record for longest tenure in a coma is 37 years
Comas will do wonders for your hair and complexion
Rent/Bury/Buy Fans of 80s studio horror should enjoy Bad Dreams as an interesting, if not amazing remnant of a time when horror had something of a heyday. While it doesn’t pack the lasting visual innovation of its ultimate rival, Dream Warriors, it is a well-acted and sometimes haunting film that refreshingly does not involve zombies, big men with machetes, or boobs (sorry boys; the ladies can enjoy the sexiness of Bruce Abbott’s Mr. Rogers’ sweater). The DVD includes a few older featurettes, along with a friendly commentary by writer-director Fleming. An alternate ending packs a creepy and appropriate punch before finishing with a dime store Halloween decoration image that belongs in no film made for more than thirty seven dollars and eighty two cents. Bad Dreams is definitely worth a viewing and could have enough rewatchability potential to merit a purchase.
*You might be wondering why I seem to have this need to credit each actor with another performance. Truly, it’s just too hard not to when nearly every cast member has some notable horror or cult film on his or her resume. Plus, I've been playing the movie-actor-movie connection game for nearly two days, so I'll personally take any chance to boost my personal database of useless film knowledge.
We made it! We conquered Dollywood and survived a round of Kentucky bourbon, West Virginian spaghetti bread, and Tennesseean karaoke. Most importantly, we weren't killed by anything from the following two establishments clearly built and filled to terrify outsiders with nightmarish possibilities of what can be done with a bowl of wax or little girl's toy chest.
I'll get back to my normal review schedule in a few days, as my horror film watching was put on hold to experience some true life terrors and fried green tomatoes. Until then, I included a few images from my road trip to demonstrate some of the wackiness buried inside this beautiful lil country I call home.
Some samples from the Lexington Virginia Wax Museum:
And possibly more frightening, inside the Lexington Toy Museum:
Not kid friendly at all. We'll close with an image that needs no words, but produced one of the greatest speeches in American history:
Yes, a little known fact of the 19th century is that a vegetarian velociraptor helped old Abe get through a few first drafts of the Gettysburg Address. I can't imagine why this tidbit never made it into the textbooks.
Okay, one last review before I hit the road for a week. I dedicate this post to my broken iPod, whose inability to work led me to busy my 70 minute train ride with another activity.
Onward we go:
Sometimes, there’s truly nothing like big dumb action movie drunk on excess violence to get you through a busy day. Knowing that stress was slowly building up on me last week, I bumped the recent remake of Death Race 2000 (minus the 2000 and set in 2012) up on my queue hoping for a mindless helping of carsplosions and Statham scowling.
I should preface this writeup with two confessions:
1. I have yet to see the original (as it currently isn’t available through Netflix) 2. This was my first experience seeing the much loved by genre fans Statham actually act, as opposed to glaring sexily from movie theater posters
Quick Plot: In the near future, America is wallowing in some economic lows (imagine that!) and hard-working Statham is trying his bloodiest to provide for his sweet and filmically understanding wife and newborn daughter. Like all movies involving Sweet & Understanding Wives with husbands that insist themselves to be unworthy of such Sweet & Understanding love, Sweet & Understanding Wife is soon murdered in the middle of a stir fry.
Statham is framed and sent to prison, where TV exec/warden Joan Allen (yes, three time Oscar nominee Joan Allen) runs a successful reality competition pitting lifers against one another in a Nascar-esque race watched by millions via pay-per-Internet. Having seen our share of this plot in everything from Series 7: The Contenders to The Condemned, it’s not that Anderson & Co. bring anything new but it seems that even they are aware of that. Little time is wasted on explaining what went wrong in society or just who it is that watches the Death Race. Frankenstein, the Hulk Hogan of the series has perished, but rather than lose a few viewers and admit defeat, Allen recruits her newest inmate to don the previous Frankenstein’s mask and drive his car to freedom...providing he wins the upcoming race.
There’s not a whole lot to say about Death Race. It’s loud, slick, and peppered with some fine moments (usually provided by the fire crackling voice of Ian McShane or the simply unbelievable carving of Statham’s torso) but ultimately, Death Race is a video game for people with arthritis or bad eye-finger coordination. There are some decent deaths and a few explosions. Characters die and others live, but none drudge up any real interest or sympathy between the blaring score and hasty plotting. Anderson takes a few stylizing chances at making Death Race a tad meta and aware, but he never crosses that line to real innovation. The film is what you would expect, for better and worse.
High Points Considering this is made by Paul W. Anderson, the minimal use of annoying jump cutted editing during the races was far less severe than I was expecting
Ian McShane. Nothing to really say about him; just Fucking Ian McShane
Statham, it would seem, has indeed inherited the title of Best Action Hero currently working. His physicality is quite believable, but more importantly, his acting is good enough to make us root for his character, whether we really care about the film or not
Low Points While Allen’s icy villainess is entertaining in the ridiculous way only an A-list actress can pull off, a film like this needs a few more colorful baddies with Running Manish personalities. Most of the prisoners here feel like extras on Oz answering a casting call with little flavor to make a real impression
Granted I’m not the target audience here, but do we really need blaring “She’s So Sexy” rap scoring during the extremely slow-motioned scenes introducing female characters to inform us that the these women are hot? Their hair is blowing, midriffs are exposed, and short shorts are worn: we get it
The final plot twist is a decision made by our characters offscreen in a secret conversation. Nothing irks me more than a film that simply cheats its viewers by taking them on one character’s journey, only to then hide key details for an “exciting” surprise. Such a plot can occasionally work if the film never actually lies (think of the hints in Inside Man or The Sixth Sense), but merely holding back information that breaks the flow of the film for the surprise factor is a cheap, dishonest trick.
Good thing I didn’t really care about the movie that much. I may have been angry.
Lessons Learned In the near future, salaries will crash, but a blue collar worker can still afford a lovely two-level house
All mugshots should involve a topless reel, particularly if the subject is Jason Statham
Declaring “You can’t kill me!” will instantly get you, indeed, quite killed
If you fuck with Joan Allen, you will finally answer the age-old question of just who it is that shits on the sidewalk
Addendum: What the hell does that actually mean?
Rent/Bury/Buy Eh. You won’t get much out of Death Race that you couldn’t find in other R-Rated action fare. My lack of enthusiasm is probably in some part due to my low interest in car chase films (give me Point Break to any Fast &Furious incarnation), so if you what horsepower rating a '67 Mustang has or leave Ronin on TiVo for months solely to catch a few speed scenes whenever a commercial comes on (as my own Pacer owning father is prone to do), then this may be worthy of a rental with a few beers. Otherwise, tune in when it airs on cable or just stare at this for two hours:
Or for a week, as I head to Dollywood and try to survive car sickness, country music, and not watching movies without turning into a Redneck Zombie. Although, the possibilities of that could make for some reaaaaaaal horror commentary.
In a few days, I’ll be hopping in a car and driving down south with a few friends for a mobile summer vacation. I know what you’re thinking: how could someone so well-versed in horror films possibly risk such a journey unless she’s itching to be chased, violated, and eaten by prehistoric cave people or rabidly maladjusted children. Thankfully, it’s because of those countless hours spent in front of straight-to-VHS rentals that I’m confident I have what it takes to survive. To be sure, I’ve compiled a few key points to remember when traveling through unchartered (at least by urbanite) terrain in an automobile.
1. Focus on the road
I have an odd, yet justified hatred of any film--particularly horror--that spends too much time in the front seat of a moving vehicle. More often than not, such a scene will feature the driver irresponsibly turning his or her head towards the passenger to carry out a conversation only to then cut to the shocked partner screaming “Watch out!” as the car veers off the road to avoid hitting a stray animal, child, or ghostly presence. (See The Descent, Children of the Corn, and about a thousand other films featuring more than one character on a highway.) A variation on this lesson can be seen in one of the most popular recent entries in the road trip gone awry genre, Wrong Turn. Leave it to seemingly intelligent med student Desmond Harrington to make the fatal error of shifting his focus from the windshield to the radio. The result? A broken leg, busted Mustang, and deadly chase with cannibalistic inbred West Virginian mutants. Take heed, young viewers: as humans, most of us only have two eyes. Glue ‘em to the windshield and let no spatula pry them off.
2. No skinny dipping
Partially because most natural waters are littered with some very unnatural waste. Also, if my 9th grade biology teacher was telling the truth, August is the time for clams and other sea creatures to deposit their sperm in aquatic environments for the reproduction season. Personally, I’m not quite at the right time in my life to cross into Cronenbergian body territory as the woman impregnated by a mollusk. (I get the feeling such a process is far less fun than it sounds.) The most important reason to stay clothed in the water, however, is that skinny dipping is, by all rules of the horror canon, a sin punishable by death. Take the nice young ladies of Tourist Trap, none of whom partake in any visible sexual activity, all of whom experienced terrifying abuse at the waxy hands of a backwoods artist who got a fleeting glance of their young bodies when they made the fatal error of diving bare into a private lake. Sometimes, that's all it takes to then be strangled, stabbed, and molded into a loose-jawed mannequin.
3. No hitchhikers
What, you mean I shouldn’t pull over and open my car door to that dusty bearded hobo with suspiciously red fluid leaking from his sack? But what of my karma, you ask, with good samaritan glitter in your wide eyes. Keep a running tab and call Sally Struthers when you get a fews bars on your cell phone. Picking up hitchhikers is the surest ticket to a bloody chase at the wrong end of a chainsaw or pesky stalking courtesy of one of the truest psychopaths cinema has ever given us in the pristinely blond body of Rutger Hauer. Remember Leatherface’s skinny big brother? Or how about the gutty mess those unlucky pretty young people never got the chance to clean up in the 2003 remake? Not to mention the finger fries and torso tearing of The Hitcher . Sure, that obnoxious Franklin deserved a little stabbage, but then you (and by default, us) had to deal with his whinings all night. And yes, driving solo cross country can be a lonely, but that’s what obnoxious radio commercials and unfunny DJs were made for. Just remember to see Rule #1 and tuned into one station until the next red light.
4. No sassing the locals
Sure, rural townsfolk are different, what with their soder pop and mustard on hamburgers (in New York, that offense will send you straight to Ryker’s Island Maximum Security Prison). Always remember, however, that those same bumpkins whose blackened teeth gave you a chuckle can lead you straight into disaster, such as the wrong end of a black market organ donation ring a la Turistas. Eli Roth’s comedic horror homage Cabin Fever is ripe with lessons on how to behave south of the Mason Dixon Line. A few I picked up:
a) Never force a friendship on shy children. Some are socially awkward, but more importantly, some are well-versed in kung fu
b) No thieving the mom-and-pop shops. Particularly when pop wields a shotgun.
c) Avoid peeping on married women. This is an especially bad idea when your friends are dying, you’ve blown up your car, and you may be infected with a flesh eating bacteria like silly little Ryder Strong, who loses his last chance of getting some help when he lingers a tad too long at a local’s window.
5. No taking advice about off-the-beaten track attractions from locals
It’s not on a map. GPS has nothing to say about it. But that scabby clown dripping in fried chicken grease swears it’s the greatest place since Dollywood. That’s right folks, do not, I repeat, do NOT take traveling directions from suspicious locals, particularly when they survived Spider Baby to grow into older, rounder, and more vicious backwoods peddlers of local town lore like Sid Haig's Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses. This is a man who, along with his not-quite-fit-for-society family, is so evil he'd actually lure Rainn Wilson into death. You have to be pretty badass to take down Dwight Schrute, and/or really heartless to want Rainn Wilson exterminated. So. If you hit a rest stop littered with mutated skeletons and busting with whispers of a true roadside attraction detailing the life of one of the country's most brutal serial killers...
Oh who am I kidding. There’s no way in hell would I NOT take that advice. The only real question is at whose hands do I ultimately perish. Considering my lifelong complications with Barnum & Bailey's most ubiquitous entertainers, my corpse will probably be shipped home stained with white pancake makeup. But hopefully, I’ll experience enough adventure in those fleeting moments before my untimely death to crank out a few more blogs from beyond the grave.
Few things are more frightening than everyday people committing heinous acts of violence. It's part of why I recently found myself explaining how haunting Gus Van Sant's Elephant is. For 90 minutes, you meander through high school walls and eavesdrop on its 'real life' teenaged conversations. Then, right between the afternoon sun and the lunch bell, a pair of 16 year olds march inside and open fire on everyone from the head cheerleader to the shy library aide. Yes, it's disturbing for being so close to the actual Columbine massacre, but it's also the non-Hollywood look and sound of amateur actors role playing a situation that hardly seems forced.
The great Larry Cohen's God Told Me To begins with a scene of almost documentary-esque violence, setting viewers up in a recognizable universe where general rules of safety and conduct are no longer guaranteed. For the first half or so, this is the terrifying environment we find ourselves in. Once plot points are revealed, Cohen takes us in an equally interesting, if slightly less primal place. The end result is memorable and will make you think; the opening is unsettling and will give you nightmares.
Quick Plot: A typical workday in NYC comes to a bloody halt when a rifleman perched on a water tower starts gunning down passing strangers. Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) attempts to talk the shooter down face to face. Not surprisingly, he’s unsuccessful, but this strict Catholic cop does get an answer when he inquires about the motive: “God told me to.”
Later that week, Manhattan preps itself for the annual beerfest--I mean, St. Patrick’s Day Parade. A phoned warning hints that one of NY’s own Finest will open fire on 5th Avenue, but being as “The Irish have waited all year for this!”, the march continues and none other than a fresh-faced Andy Kaufman in uniform goes postal before the world knew what city employees were capable of. Dying words? See title.
To continue with a plot description leads me into dangerously spoiler filled terrain I dare not enter. There’s a lot of directions you’d expect this film to take, but I’m fairly certain most viewers will be surprised by where God Told Me To goes and how it gets there. Cohen wisely grounds his story in Lo Bianco’s Catholic detective, a Catholic struggling with his own decisions who ends up on a journey far more terrifying and weird than one would expect.
God Told Me To is not an explicit horror film along the lines of It’s Alive, nor is it a fluffier piece of satirical insanity like the Dolls House favorite The Stuff. This early Cohen piece has, not surprisingly, its own unique mood aided by the gritty beauty of NYC in its glorious gritty 70sness. The action, however, is hardly limited to 42nd St sleaze. I'm biting my tongue to not give away the force behind the lordly commands, but let's just say it's transcends the Tri-State area in ways only a restrained Larry Cohen could conjure.
High Points An early scene wherein a murderous father calmly explains how and why he slaughtered his family is one of the most quietly disturbing monolgues I’ve heard on film
Likewise, Sylvia Sydney turns in a strong one-scene performance that succeeds in revealing a surprising, potentially laughable plot point and making it into something sad and scary
The relationship between Pete's two loves plays out in an intriguing and honest way, avoiding the cliches we'd expect from a mistress/ex-wife meetup. Their discussion is well-acted and reveals a few more chilling details
Low Points Perhaps there’s a better DVD out there (more about that later), but much of the dialogue was muffled. This was especially frustrating since my Netflix’d copy lacked any subtitles
I imagine the low budget had some say here, but it would have been nice to get a liitle more of how the rash of killings were affecting the city of New York
Just as it’s hard to watch any John Carpenter movie and not wish for a dose of Kurt Russell, any Cohen flick without the weirdly charismatic presence of Michael Moriarity also feels a tad incomplete
Lessons Learned Never let your son hang out with a dirty long-haired hippie...particularly if said bad influence possesses an angelic glow and oddly placed vaginal opening
It’s easy to sweet talk a nun
Speaking to God will make you rapidly age ten years before your 22nd birthday; other side effects include going on a killing spree
When a man calls in a serious terrorism threat and begins his warning with “Don’t ask who I am,” the first thing you should not do is ask who’s speaking
Never date a married Catholic. Soooooo much guilt there
Rent/Bury/Buy Like most of Larry Cohen’s work, God Told Me To is rich in ideas and a little less wealthy in execution. Still, the central themes about faith and free will combined with fairly wacky (yet somehow very grounded) story twists overcome some of the awkward plotting and low budget restraints. The performances are top notch all around and most of the early scenes are truly frightening in how they depict random violence hitting everyday urbanites.
A note on the DVD: It seems as though there are a few versions of this film floating about on those fragile little discs, and should you purchase this film (which you should), be sure to get the right release. My Netflix edition was disappointingly bare bones and the transfer was messy and muddled. Look for the Blue Underground edition which features a Cohen/Bill Lustig commentary (yes, that is the team that gave us the sadly inferior, yet gleefully patriotic Uncle Sam). Be sure to tell ‘em God sent ya.