Monday, October 31, 2016

Zombie

Zombie (1979) is probably Lucio Fulci's most accomplished movie. I can't say that with total certainty. He did direct more than fifty movies in his life, and I haven't seen them all, but this is one horror movie in which Fulci applies a slim, if somewhat more logical narrative than usual to the creepy, nightmarish visuals he conjures up.

Also known as Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombi 2 (in Italy, it was advertised as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, which was released as Zombi), Zombie returns the living dead to their Voodoo origins. They still eat people and their bodies are horribly decayed, but they're back in the Caribbean. They may not have Bela Lugosi ordering them around, but they're just as mindless and gory as ever (like a typical Lucio Fulci movie).

Following an incident in New York harbor involving her father's boat, Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow) journeys to an isolated island where her father, a scientist, was last reported to be. Joining her is investigative reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch). They find Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), who is researching a disease sweeping through the island, and before you can say "George Romero," the entire island is crawling with flesh-hungry zombies.

The plot's thin, the dubbing is awful, and the characters have a horrible tendency to stand still and watch as corpses slowly rise out of the ground to attack them, but as far as Fulci goes, there's nowhere near as much nonsense and baffling gaps in logic as there are in his other movies. Besides, plot and character have never been his strengths; he piles on extreme gore and creates an other worldly atmosphere.

Fulci really gives the film a sense of Hell on Earth, a feeling that world itself is poisoned and decayed. While George Romero's zombie movies have more of a comic-book aesthetic, Fulci's film is darker and nastier. These zombies are rotting, barely held together skeletons with chunks of flesh and maggots crawling all over them. I like how they all lumber with their arms hanging at their sides, as if their limbs are too heavy for them to hold up.

Like I said, the plot's not too important, going from one gory set piece to the next. It's very disgusting when someone gets eaten, on par with the Italian cannibal films of the era. Throats are torn out, and Fulci loves to linger on and zoom in on the nasty bits. One of the movie's most famous scenes involves a woman being pulled eyeball first onto a broken piece of wood, very slowly. One could accuse Fulci of being a sadist for how he makes his audience squirm and feel uncomfortable.

The other famous set piece is the fight between a zombie and a shark. This is a letdown. The shark clearly wants no part of this movie business and tries to swim away while the actor grabs on to it and pretends to wrestle it. Just leave that poor creature alone.

Zombie is blunt, crude, dumb, violent, atmospheric, and bloody. Italian horror of the 70s and 80s is something of an acquired taste, but Fulci knew how to create some unforgettable imagery and include some unintentionally funny nonsense. The final shot of the zombies marching across the bridge into New York would have been one of the coolest images to ever end a horror movie if not for all the passing cars that do not in anyway seem impeded by this impending apocalypse.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The 'Burbs

Wow. I just realized this is the first Tom Hanks movie I've covered on this blog. I would have thought it would have been something like Saving Private Ryan or Forrest Gump.

Ray Peterson (Hanks) plans on a week-long vacation at home in his cozy little cul-de-sac. His wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) knows it's a bad idea, that he should really get away because his friends Art (Rick Ducommun), a fat busybody, and Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), an intense Army veteran, will rope him into their crazy schemes.

And she's right. Before long, at the prodding of the others, Ray becomes convinced there's something off about the new neighbors, the Klopeks. Their house is a dark and Gothic, the lawn is dead, and no one is ever seen coming or going from the house. But it's not like the Klopeks are a deranged family of murderers or goat-sacrificing Satanists or anything like that, right? Maybe they just want to keep to themselves.

I grew up on The 'Burbs (1989), a dark comedy directed by Joe Dante. It was a movie I was at one point able to quote almost in its entirety. I had two copies of it on VHS, one recorded off TV and the other on an official release. And it was on TV quite a bit. I loved the way it took shots at life in the suburbs and how weird and kooky all the characters were, especially the ostensibly normal ones.

Looking back on it with more adult eyes, it's not as sharp nor as dark as it could have been, but it has enough cult appeal to carry it through. Blue Velvet this is not. Neither is it American Beauty. It's less about exposing deep-seated rot or corruption of the good American life as it is pointing out the peculiar strangeness of the suburbs. For the most part, the comedy is low key, less about zingers and more about observations.

The film begins with the Universal Studios logo - i.e. the spinning globe - and zooms in on it until we're down on the ground level of the neighborhood where all the action will take place. The effect creates an otherworldly feeling, almost like we're being asked to observed the residents of a strange, distant planet: suburbia.

Everyone in the movie is worried about the rarely-seen Klopeks, not bothering to self-examine and realize how odd their own behavior is. Art walks through backyards with a rifle, taking potshots at crows that hit up his wife's bird feeder; Rumsfield acts like he's still in the Army, threatening to staple shut the ass of a dog that took a dump on his lawn (he's convinced the dog's owner Walter trained the dog to do so); and Ray only grows more unhinged as the movie continues and all the stress gets to him. If anything, the Klopek business is a wonderful distraction from how boring the neighborhood is; they're all going cuckoo in their own way.

Of course, cuckoo is a relative term. Making complete fools of themselves and getting into trouble is probably more accurate: getting swarmed by bees, falling off roofs, throwing garbage in the streets, breaking into houses. At times, it's practically slapstick and the violence borderline cartoony.

Admittedly, the Klopecks are kind of creepy and very weird. They're seen only night, digging in the backyard, even during a thunderstorm while wearing hooded robes, and their basement lights up with so much electricity, you'd think they were renting it out to Dr. Frankestein. When we finally meet them, they include the quietly sinister Dr. Klopeck (Henry Gibson), who's the most charming of the bunch; the gruff Uncle Rueben (Brother Theodore), who's always leering at Ray; and young Hans (Courtney Gains), who looks like he's never been in sunlight.

Dante includes his trademark touches. Robert Picardo and Dick Miller cameo as a couple of garbage men baffled by Art and Rumsfield's insistence to examine the Klopeks' garbage, and Dante throws in shoutouts to other horror movies with clips on TV, which leads to Ray suffering a bizarre nightmare that is both freaky and funny.

He also poke fun at some horror conventions. When Ray and Art knock on the Klopecks' door, the address marker gets knocked askew, switching from 669 to 666. As the two walk to the door, ominous music swells, and the camera cuts to closeups of the other cast members' faces looking intense and concerned, including Queenie, the insufferable little dog.

The cast is fun, especially Dern and Gibson. Also of note is Corey Feldman as the spacey teen who functions as the Greek Chorus, watching everyone else running around while he just sits back and enjoys it. What kind of Twilight Zone have we entered in which Corey Felman is more level-headed than Tom Hanks?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Pit and the Pendulum

By this point in his career, director Stuart Gordon had already tackled H.P. Lovecraft with his adaptations of Re-Animator and From Beyond, and so with The Pit and the Pendulum (1991), he moved on to Edgar Allan Poe.

As he did with those Lovecraft works, Gordon handles the material with splatter gore and black humor. The Pit and the Pendulum is both gruesome and funny in a deadpan, cheeky sort of way. The approach is not as successful as those other movies, but a central performance by Lance Henriksen carries the film through.

Spain. 1492. The Inquisition under Torquemada (Henriksen) is in full swing (hee hee). During the auto-de-fe, Maria (Rona De Ricci) is aghast at the cruelty on display and begs for the violence to stop when a young child is whipped. Torquemada becomes entranced with her and orders her arrested as a witch. She's taken to the castle dungeon for torture while her husband Antonio (Jonathan Fuller), a baker and former soldier, tries to rescue her.

Well, nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition, but viewers of The Pit and the Pendulum can expect a cavalcade of atrocities: the iron maiden, the rack, floggings, burnings at the stake, a tongue is cut out, and Torquemada wears a spiked corset. The spikes are pointed in. It's as bloody and ghastly as you'd expect a movie about the Inquisition to be.

Torquemada is an intense, serious, devout zealot, but his underlings are not cut from the same cloth. They make sardonic wisecracks and seem to really enjoy inflicting pain on others. One character loses a tongue, and Francisco (Jeffrey Combs, also very good), basically Torquemada's book man, denies the accusation his men did it. "How can they confess if they don't have tongues?" Esmerelda (Frances Bay), an accused witch, offers to confess before being waterboarded, but Francisco says they can't accept her confession because she's likely only offering it to avoid being tortured; that confessions under torture are usually made to stop the torture is a point these Inquisition folks never seem to have heard.

The dark humor goes beyond the dialogue. In the opening, Torquemada declares a dead count a heretic and orders his family's property confiscated by the Church and that he receive twenty lashes. The dead man is a dusty skeleton, and in tying him up for the lashings, the torturers accidentally pull his arm off. When the man with the cat o' nine tails gets a little too carried away, he is scolded for exceeding twenty. Yes, we'll steal this man's property, desecrate his body in front of his wife and child, but God forbid we fail to follow procedure.

The Pit and the Pendulum moves at a quick pace and is never boring, but I can't help but feel it's something of a missed opportunity. The jokes are funny, and the cast is good, but the humor keeps it from being truly dark and disturbing. This is a movie about mob rule, sexual repression, and religious tyranny, and it's hard to reconcile these serious themes with deadpan snarker and splatter gore. There's some real horror on display - how human beings treat each other and how they rationalize it - but that doesn't linger in memory as much as the jokes do.

The film's ace in the hole is Henriksen, in what may the most intense performance of his career. Torquemada is a sick, evil man who devoutly believes he is doing God's will, going so far as to defy the Pope. He hangs a sword by a thread over his bed, so God may strike him down if he displeases Him. He rages, he whispers, he commands.

He's confused by his lust for Maria and becomes convinced she's bewitched him. After she's arrested, she is stripped naked in front of him, so she can be examined for the Devil's Mark. His underlings welcome the opportunity to ogle her body and lay their lecherous hands on her, but he castigates them for not taking the work seriously. In the most perverse, taboo-breaking moment of the film, he dresses her up as the Virgin Mary and tries to have sex with her.

Gordon gets a good mileage out of authentic Italian locations, and the costumes are well done, but I would have liked more gloom and shadow. Poe's tales work on dread, darkness, and the Gothic. Gordon's movie is brightly lit with atrocities out in the open. This fits the casual approach to life these characters have, but I would have liked a stronger sense of atmosphere.

Most disappointingly, the climactic unveiling and use of the titular pit and pendulum are letdowns. It happens too quickly, the resolution feels like a cheat, and the poor soul staring up at the blade never seems to be in the frame with it at the same time.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Vertigo

Vertigo (1958) is Alfred Hitchcock's most ambitious and hypnotic movie. Forgoing the man-accused-of-a-crime-he-didn't-commit narrative and globetrotting race against time for the McGuffin, he instead tells a twisted tale of doomed love, obsession, and a man's attempt to reshape one woman into his fantasy. All the while, it's wrapped up tightly in a crackerjack mystery story that builds not to a violent chase at the climax but a warped, heartbreaking revelation.

Acrophobic detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) has just quit the police force after his fear of heights caused an officer to fall to his death. Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an old friend of his, approaches asking for a favor. His wife has been acting strange, almost as if she has been possessed by another person altogether. He wants Scottie to follow her, find out what's going on, whether she's going insane or if something else is happening. Scottie takes the job, and before long, he falls hopelessly in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak).

Hitchcock pioneered the "Vertigo" effect with this movie, also known as the dolly zoom. As the camera physically moves in toward the subject in focus, the operator uses the lens to zoom out. The subject remains unchanged but the perspective of the background becomes distorted. In the case of Vertigo, the simulate Scottie's unease with great heights, the shot elongates the distance to the ground, making a great height seem that much greater and more perilous.

I bring the "Vertigo" effect up because it's part of the surreal, dream-like trance Hitchcock places on the film. When Scottie begins following Madeleine, the camera has a sort of haze or softness that creates the effect of a dream. Things move a little slower, a little more graceful, and how fitting: Madeleine comes to be Scottie's dream girl. When the two finally kiss, they're along the coastline, and waves batter the shore as the music swells.

Color is important, too. Scottie first sees Madeleine at a club, the walls are all red, but she's wearing a green gown, an emerald in the midst of all this intrigue and all these possible threats that emerge as the movie continues.

It's impossible to continue talking about the movie without discussing spoilers, so be warned. Madeleine seemingly kills herself, pushing Scottie further into anguish, shame, despair, and possible mental breakdown. Her presence seems to haunt him as he goes to all of her old haunts, seeing things that remind him of her.

Then, he sees Judy Barton (also played by Novak), a redheaded girl he becomes fixated on. He begins to reshape her, making her dress and act like Madeleine, treating her like a real-life Barbie doll, even making her dye her hair platinum blond. What he doesn't realize is that Judy and Madeleine are one in the same. It was part of a murder scheme orchestrated by Gavin, and Scottie was the sucker.

Yep, Vertigo is warped, and it casts one of the most iconic American actors as the most warped: Jimmy Stewart, he of the saint-like, aw-shucks demeanor. True, he was manipulated, emotionally tortured, and has his heart broken twice, but that wouldn't have happened if he hadn't so willingly gone along with it, if he hadn't so desperately tried to control and reshape another person to his fantasies and desires. He clung to a dream, even though it wasn't real.

The tragedy of it was Judy really fell in love with him. Try as she might - wear the dress, cut her hair and dye it, dance with him at the club - she'll never be Madeleine because that Madeleine was never real. By the end, history repeats itself, and the results are dire.

Vertigo is set in San Francisco, and Hitchcock brings it to life. The city is practically another character: the winding seaside roads, the Golden Gate bridge, the historic architecture. It gives the movie a real sense of time and place, which ironically doesn't detract from the dream-like atmosphere. It seems fitting, almost like remembering a far off, distance place.

Vertigo is a such a different kind of thriller, one built on character psychology and secrets rather than chases and action, and it's one of Hitchcock's finest.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Rear Window

For a few years, I considered Rear Window (1954) my favorite movie by Alfred Hitchcock. In college, for a film course, I composed a shot-by-shot analysis of a key scene (Grace Kelly's introduction in case you were wondering. Oh, I got an A.).

Today, I'm not sure if I'd still call it my favorite, but it ranks pretty high, definitely in my top five of Hitchcock's filmography. Besides, the Simpsons did an episode as a parody/homage. That's got to count for something, right?

Crack photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart) is beginning his final week in a leg cast that has kept him confined to his apartment for almost two months. Bored out of his mind, he's taken to watching his neighbors. Meanwhile, his high-society girlfriend Lisa Freemont (Kelly) is anxious to get married, encouraged by Jeff's nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). Across the way, Jeff sees some strange going-ons, and soon, he's convinced one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife.

It has been said that form follows function, and if anyone believed that mantra, it was Alfred Hitchcock. Just as Psycho, the story of a killer with multiple personalities, was told from a number of different perspectives, so too does Rear Window's visual strategy match its story. The entire movie takes place inside Jeff's apartment, and looking out the window, we only see what he sees, except for one scene in which Thornwald, the suspected murderer, leaves the building while Jeff is asleep.

This is a bold decision on Hitchcock's part, and it pays off magnificently. One setting, only a handful of characters with speaking lines, it's easy to imagine Rear Window turning into a dull affair, but Hitchcock knows how to make it dynamic and visual. His camera, often representing Jeff's point of view, tracks and follows all the little dramas going outside the apartment. Even though Jeff is immobile, there's all this movement going on around him. We can feel his frustration, his impotence, and his curiosity/obsession about those around him.

Voyeurism is a theme Hitchcock has touched on elsewhere, including in Psycho, but with Rear Window, he constructs a whole movie about the creepy thrill of being able to observe someone else's life without being seen yourself. It's amazing how people behave when they don't realize they're being watched. The voyeur can learn almost everything possible about the people they observe, but to the observed, the voyeur remains a total stranger they don't know is there.

That's quite a tantalizing prospect: to know the intimate details of someone's private life without having to be a part of it. No wonder Jeff likes voyeurism; it's removes so many personal complications. Lisa wants him to either settle down or to join him on his travels as a photographer. Jeff insists they both live in separate worlds, it wouldn't work out, can't they keep their relationship "status quo" etc. This is a man who tries to keep the woman who loves at arms length.

Rear Window is also very funny. The dialogue is whip smart, and Hitchcock packs a droll touch. Early on, Lisa accuses Jeff of letting his imagination run wild and points out a murderer would not parade his crime in front of an open window. She points to a window with the blinds down and says there's probably something worse going on in that apartment. Jeff, knowing that's where some newlyweds have moved in, chuckles and says, "No comment."

Performances are wonderful, and the movie builds to a great climax as Jeff watches helplessly as Lisa walks into danger, and then a voyeur's worst nightmare occurs: the person he's watching discovers him. When the villain looks at Jeff, he's looking right at us.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

This might be the movie that inspired the careers of Tim Burton and M. Night Shyamalan.

Realism in film is overvalued. True, there are many movies in which a realistic approach or style is best, but too often, realism is held up as a virtue in and of itself. If movies are escapism, then they don't need to be burdened by the notion they must be realistic.

Horror movies, more so than other genres, are free to break the rules of reality in the pursuit of terror and fear. Like nightmares, horror films don't have to make much sense so long as they are scary. That brings me to one of the most influential movies of all time: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari begins as a young man named Francis explains what recently happened to himself and his fiance Jane. In their hometown of Holstenwall, a fair brought with it Dr. Caligari and Cesare, a somnambulist who supposedly has been asleep all his life. The doctor's arrival coincided with a number of strange, mysterious murders.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari arrived from Germany and is regarded as the most important films of German Expressionism, the artistic movement that depicted the inner, subjective, mental and emotional states of its characters, often representing those (usually distorted) states through the characters' surrounding environments. Visual hallmarks of the genre include harsh shadows, skewed camera angles, jagged lines, and strange shapes, all of which can be found in Caligari.

The only things that aren't artificial in Caligari are the human actors. Everything else is obviously phony: the town, the buildings, the streets, etc. Everything was built on a stage and in no way resembles plausible, realistic objects. The town looks like a children's play set. Buildings are out of proportion, backgrounds look to be painted on the walls, and even the trees have spiked leaves.

Yet, the movie suggests not "fakeness" but rather another level of reality, a warped, disorienting fantasy world shaped by the delusions of its characters. Caligari frequently uses iris shots, surrounding everything but one point of focus with black, controlling our attention (often, a shot closes in around the deranged face of the doctor). This technique offers the idea that outside of what these characters perceive, there is nothing. The film is located entirely within their own little world, literally and figuratively.

Caligari is one of those movies scholars love to dissect the meaning of. Is Francis insane, as the ending suggests, or has Caligari won? What about the subtext? Is Caligari, a doctor who uses a hypnotized killer to do his bidding, a prediction for Hitler and the rise of Nazism, a movement that seemingly brainwashed Germany into ignoring its conscience? What would Sigmund Freud have to say about how Cesare "rises" as he moves after Jane?

Like many silent films of the era, Caligari uses a lot of long static shots. The camera doesn't move at all, and there are few editing cuts within a scene, which makes the movie feel slower than modern films. Nor would I call the movie frightening or scary, at least not by today's standards.

What Caligari has going for it is a sense of unease, an atmosphere of creeping dread, a feeling of the bizarre, and that can't be masked by over-the-top, silent era mugging, staid pacing, or poor surviving film prints.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Titus

Forget Romeo and Juliet. High school students should be introduced to Shakespeare with Titus Andronicus. Forget a couple of teens mistaking hormones for true love; this one contains human sacrifice, cannibalism, dismemberments, decapitations, and possibly the first "Your mom" joke in the history of the English language (and it's a good one).

Titus Andronicus is an early Shakespeare, regarded by many scholars as one of his worst, but ironically, Titus (1999), adapted and directed by Julie Taymor, proves to be one of the most ambitious and successful film adaptations of the Bard's work. It's frenetic, surreal, darkly funny, pretentious, sprawling, gimmicky, in-your-face, ghastly, and all packed in at more than two-and-a-half hours. I'm not sure what kind of audience this is intended for, but it's wonderfully bloody and glorious.

General Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns to Rome after a successful campaign against the Goths with the Goth Queen Tamara (Jessica Lange) in tow, along with her sons. Having lost 21 of his own sons in the war, Titus allows his surviving sons to sacrifice Tamara's eldest. Soon after, he declines the offer to become emperor, instead backing Saturnine (Alan Cumming), even though Titus' daughter Lavinia (Laura Frasier) is engaged to Saturnine's brother, Bassianus (James Frain). Eventually, Saturnine chooses his empress: Tamara, who has sworn vengeance against Titus.

Like in Shakespeare's other tragedies, the eponymous character of Titus is undone by his own flaws. In this case, Titus' tragic nature is his rigidness and unbending commitment to tradition, even when it's a bad idea. Titus' rejects Tamara's pleas for mercy for her son, creating a mortal enemy in the process that plots the downfall of his family. He backs the weak, unqualified Saturnine over the level-headed Bassianua, and when Saturnine initially tries to choose Lavinia as his bride (just to stick it to Bassianua), Titus kills one of his sons for standing in the way.

Titus, both the play and character, is violent, and Taymor turns her adaptation into a commentary on violence and its effects. Pretty much everyone in the play uses violence, in increasingly gruesome and depraved ways, to get what they want and exert control over others. Revenge becomes a vicious, never-ending cycle; as soon as one wrong is seemingly righted, another character swears revenge against the person who just achieved theirs. It constantly escalates.

In adapting the play, Taymor places more emphasis on young Lucius (Osheen Jones), Titus' grandson. In the play, he has maybe two scenes and a couple of lines. In the movie, he's present in almost every scene as a witness to all the depravity around him. The movie opens with young Lucius in a modern kitchen, playing war with action figures, spilling ketchup all over his toys as mock blood, until a real war erupts around him and a figure takes him to Rome. What began as a game becomes the real thing, and young Lucius is forced to see and feel the real-life consequences of violent behavior. People aren't toys; they get hurt, they bleed, their lives are ruined.

Taymor makes the interesting decision to be anachronistic. The story is set in Rome, and we get the stone steps, the columns, the tunics, but we also get cars, motorcycles, suits, video games, billiards, swimming pools, and jazz bands. It's Ancient Rome crossed with fascist Italy, the decadence of the Roaring 20s, and the amorality of the 90s, suggesting a surreal world. It's very stylized, reflective of the characters and their states of minds. At the height of his despair, Titus stands at a literal crossroads. After Tamara's son Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) rape and mutilate her, Lavinia stands in the center of a mucky swamp, surrounded by the stumps of dead trees.

Titus is also a funny movie, like really funny, especially in the way it piles on the atrocities with a droll touch. At one point, two of Titus' sons are condemned to death, but Titus is told by Aaron (Harry Lennix) that if he, his brother Marcus (Colm Feore), or son Lucius (Angus MacFadyen) cut off one of their hands and send it to the emperor, he'll pardon them. The three argue over who's going to cut off their hand until Titus tricks the others into leaving the room while he has Aaron chop off his hand. It's hard to describe that scene properly, but because of the timing and performances, it's hysterical in its ghastliness.

I should mention the performers Hopkins is a great, commanding presence, capable of chewing the scenery in madness and being sympathetic as a broken old man, even if he probably doesn't deserve our sympathy. Lange is wonderful, a ruthless siren who plays the peacekeeper while plotting her vengeance.

Other performers are solid, but the best is Lennix as the Moor Aaron, Tamara's lover and arguably the most evil character, a man who gloats and delights in causing misery and pain in others. As written in the play, Aaron is a one-dimensional villain (and a racist caricature), but Lennix imbues him with much more complexity and even inner dignity (note the parade of prisoners in the opening scene: it's Tamara and her sons in a cart, then treasure, and lastly Aaron who must walk). There's a touch of Iago and Richard III to him as he addresses the camera and includes the audience in his devious schemes.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Blade Runner

What a one-two sci-fi punch for director Ridley Scott. After making one of the best monster movies of all time with Alien, he proceeded to adapt Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and gave us Blade Runner (1982).

The importance of Blade Runner can't be overstated. To this day, it's hard for a science fiction film to not be inspired or indebted to it. Blade Runner envisioned a future that was not bright or optimistic but dirty, dark, and grungy. True, there had been dystopian movies before it that depicted a nightmarish future but none could compare to this level of detail or scale.

Los Angeles. 2019. The Tyrell Corporation has created Replicants, sentient beings that are indistinguishable from humans, to use as slave labor. A group of renegade Replicants have infiltrated Earth, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), looking for ways to extend their short lifespans. Because Replicants are outlawed on Earth, the police send Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-cop who worked as a "Blade Runner," to hunt and eliminate the Replicants.

Blade Runner boils down to film-noir set in the future. The hallmarks of film noir all over the place: the burned out detective down on his luck, the dark urban environment, the overwhelming atmosphere of despair and corruption, and even visual hallmarks such as ceiling fans and shadows of Venetian blinds cast on the wall. In looking to the past, Scott crafts a paranoid, cynical future, one in which wall technology has marched on, but humanity remains petty, violent, and self-destructive.

Massive, overcrowded buildings stretch to the horizon. Flames shoot up into the smog-filled sky. Rain always seems to be falling. Neon lights and video screens dot flight paths of vehicles. Animals are implied to be all but extinct, and the only ones we see, a snake and an owl, are fake. Advertisements for off-world opportunities indicate Earth has become a lost cause. The world of Blade Runner is devoid of color and comfort.

In this world, Blade Runner asks what makes us human. The Replicants are artificially created, but they want what we want: more life. They're dangerous but strangely child-like, not having the years needed to build up memories and experiences to comprehend certain situations from an emotional standpoint. An empathy test is used to expose them because a human would be able to have a reaction to the hypothetical scenarios presented to them; a Replicant has none.

But the humans we see are much worse than the Replicants. What kind of being creates a new form of life simply to enslave it? Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkell), creator of the Replicants, has set himself up as a god; his building resembles an ancient temple, and it towers over the rest of the city, just as he sees himself above everyone else. In a number of ways, Tyrell resembles Dr. Frankenstein - a brilliant scientist who creates life, usurping the power of gods, and now his creation is out of control.

Deckard isn't much better, and he's the closest thing to a hero. It's one thing to terminate armed and dangerous individuals, but it's another thing to shoot a woman as she runs away, her only crime being on a planet that has outlawed her kind, even though the residents of this planet built her. The Replicants aren't angels (possibly fallen angels, though), but humans created them, gave them the short lifespans, mistreated them, and now fear them.

While the planet might be beyond salvation, Deckard might not be. Initially, he is dismissive toward the Replicants. After he meets Rachel (Sean Young), a Replicant with false memories implanted so she is not aware she's Replicant, he outright mocks her and is cruel, but gradually, he falls in love with her. This forces him to question everything he's been doing. Who is he to decide who's human and who isn't? Has he been a murderer, a hired killer, all this time? Of course, depending on which version of the movie you watch, Deckard could very well be a Replicant himself, so he could be executing people for the same crime he's guilty of himself.

These questions may be the philosophical heart of Blade Runner, but even ignoring them, the movie is a visual feast, awash in details, and Scott's camera glides over the metropolis so we can appreciate the richness.  The film was one of the first cyberpunk movies, the unglamorous low-life of hi-tech, and Blade Runner's influence can be seen in the likes of Strange Days, The Matrix, and others. The future is not clean and pristine but dirty, smoke-filled, and grimy.

And yet, the film captures moments of beauty. Roy Batty does some awful things, but in a career-best performance by Hauer, he's not an evil villain. His final confrontation with Deckard is not a cold, ruthless fight to the death but a sad, poetic longing to be remembered. Ironically, Batty, with his final actions, demonstrates more humanity and compassion than just about anyone else in the film.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

God Told Me To

If good ideas made for great movies, then God Told Me To (1976) would be a masterpiece. Here's a police procedural with an undeniably creepy premise, and in a post-9/11, post-Andrea Yates world, in the era of the mass shooter, it has arguably only grown more relevant and prescient. Unfortunately, the movie writer-director Larry Cohen constructs around the central idea is a muddled mess.

A sniper perched on a water tower in New York City kills fifteen people. A loving father murders his family. During the St. Patrick's Day Parade, a marching patrolman opens fire, taking out five people before he's subdued. Another man attacks several people in a grocery store. What do all these criminals have in common? When questioned by police, they respond identically: "God told me to."

Police Lt. Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) believes these cases are all connected. His investigation leads to a mysterious, messianic figure named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch) who does seem to have some kind of supernatural power. The truth about Phillips, and Nicholas' own past, is even more scandalous.

Belief can be a frightening thing, and God Told Me To builds its early creepiness and dread around that notion. Peter interrogates the man who killed his family, and he is horrified as the man, practically beaming, explains how he shot his wife and son and tricked his daughter into thinking it was all a game before shooting her. The man is blissful, explaining how God has given humanity so much and asks for so little in return. Peter is shocked and angered, but the man shakes his head. "You just don't love God the way I do."

Faith is why suicide bombers blow themselves up in crowds, why terrorists fly airplanes into buildings, and why fundamentalists bomb abortion clinics, and in modern society, it's relatively easy to acquire the means to kill a lot of people very quickly. Well executed, God Told Me To could have been a terrifying motion picture.

Unfortunately, God Told Me To is not well executed. Cohen, the low-budget wunderkind who has used shlocky monsters to tell socially conscious films, shows little grasp of plotting, transitions, or even coherence. Cohen throws in so much, and everything feels shortchanged as a result: the investigation, Peter's wife and girlfriend, Peter's family history, the cabal of businessmen who serve Phillips, the corrupt cop, the pimp, the police trying to suppress the God elements of the crimes, the newspaper man, the public panic that ensues, it all feels jumbled. Every time something new is introduced, it feels like Cohen going, "Oh by the way," almost as if he was making it up as he went along (which he may have been doing).

At times, the movie feels out of order; characters and plot details are introduced, not to be mentioned again for a long time, by which point we've forgotten about them. Several scenes conveying important information seem to be missing. The police talk about plot elements before they've been introduced, and we're left wondering how they learned about this and that.

Visually, God Told Me To is drab. Cohen deserves credit as a guerrilla filmmaker, getting authentic New York locations and gritty street details, but too often, the characters are just standing around talking about things we haven't heard about yet but the movie acts as if we should have. Cohen also throws in random interludes that feel out of place, like Peter's boss talking straight to the camera, explaining what Peter did during the sniper incident; this bit feels like it's coming after the fact, but then the movie cuts back to show what Peter did. Not only is it unnecessary, it's confusing because never again does the boss address the camera like this.

Worse is the explanation for Phillips. Phillips turns out to be the result of alien insemination, and the plausible, real-world terror of the movie gives way to Chariots of the Gods nonsense, making the movie impossible to take seriously. Peter learns he too was the product of an alien abduction and rape, and this leads to a bizarre confrontation in the end where Phillips offers to mate with Peter, revealing a vaginal slit in his abdomen. One question: what the hell is going on?

The one consistent strength of the movie is Tony Lo Bianco, who gives a sincere performance that anchors the film. Even as the movie goes off the rails and becomes increasingly wacky and incoherent, Lo Bianco keeps it grounded. Peter is a devout Catholic living in sin with his girlfriend because he won't divorce his wife. He goes to daily mass and is really shook up by the murderous fervor of the Phillips' followers. But he's a good, dedicated cop, too, tough and compassionate.

The elements are there for a great, searing thriller, but Cohen lets them get away from him. This is one movie I would like to see remade. With better craftsmanship and a clearer focus, this material could really be intense. As is, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Human Centipede

This can't be real. I'm flabbergasted The Human Centipede (2010) is an actual movie. The idea is so thin, so juvenile, that I can't believe anyone thought they could turn it into a feature-length movie. And it got two sequels! It sounds like it should be the name of the fake movie in the background of an episode of The Simpsons or one of those random cutaways on Family Guy.

I heard this story once about Cannon Films, the studio that produced so many wonderfully trashy B-movies starring Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson. Back in the 80s, during their heyday, they acquired the rights to adapt Spider-Man to the big screen, but apparently they didn't grasp the concept of Spider-Man as a superhero. Apparently, they envisioned him more as an arachnid version of the Wolf-Man. Well, here's a movie Cannon would appreciate.

The Human Centipede combines tropes of Americans abroad with the mad scientist kidnapping people to experiment on them. In this case, the Americans are Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), who are taking a road trip across Germany, and the mad scientist is Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), a surgeon who specialized in separating Siamese twins. When the girls' car breaks down in the woods, they find themselves at Dr. Heiter's isolated estate, and before long, he has drugged and tied them down, and then he reveals his twisted scheme.

That scheme is to surgically connect the girls, along with a Japanese man (Akihiro Kitamura). With key ligaments from the knees removed, they'll be forced to move around on all fours, and their digestive tracts will become one. They will be a human centipede.

Do you see what I mean when I say I can envision Peter Griffin going, "This is like that time I made a horror movie called the Human Centipede," and then cutting to an image of several people stitched together ass-to-mouth?

The Human Centipede is as gross, depraved, and nasty as you would expect, and it has its share of blood, drool, and pus. Thankfully, we don't see the details when Katsuro, who is the first in line, can no longer hold his bowels and Lindsay is forced to swallow, but even implied, it's repulsive.

Getting kidnapped and experimented on is a frightening notion, but what Dr. Heiter does is so ridiculous and juvenile that I can't tell if I'm supposed to be taking this seriously. Usually, movie mad scientists have some sort grandiose vision to conquer the world or make some kind of earth-shattering revelation. Heiter has stitched people together for no reason other than he's insane. Big deal.

There's really only so much  any film can do with the concept of a human centipede. The movie takes more than 40 minutes to get to the surgery that joins the character. With so few characters, and the two we've been following this whole time losing their ability to speak, there's not a lot of dramatic tension, character development, or story momentum. After he finishes his creation, Heiter then tries to train them like a dog and deals with a couple of police detectives while his victims try to escape. That's the whole movie.

The movie has a pace that could be generously described as methodical. Points are belabored, and character actions are deliberate, so the filmmakers fill material for a feature length. Performances are bad and grating, especially the girls. Heiter is convincingly weird, but shouldn't a movie mad scientist be a little more flamboyant, a little more grand, a little more fun instead of awkward and stilted?

I honestly don't know what kind of audience this is intended for, much less one that welcomed a trilogy. It's not scary or funny. It's just gross-out for the sake of gross-out.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Nanny

She has no name. Played by Bette Davis, the eponymous character of The Nanny (1965) is only referred by her title. In fact, when the movie flashbacks as she narrates a bad moment in her life, we're surprised to learn she had anything resembling a life outside of her job. Of course, given what we see from that flashback and what we hear, it's safe to assume her life was not a happy one.

The Nanny is a domestic, psychological thriller, a story in which buried secrets, shame, and guilt tear into a family. It's not too dissimilar from all those movies that arrived the 90s about a disturbed individual who ingratiates their way into a vulnerable family/couple/individual and threatens to destroy them - Sleeping with the Enemy, The Hand that Rocks the CradleThe Good Son, Single White Female, etc. Not surprisingly, The Nanny is better than all of them, crafting genuine suspense instead of hackneyed Hollywood cheese.

Young Joey Fane (William Dix) returns after two years at a special school for problematic boys. His younger sister Susy died, and Joey was blamed for accidentally killing her. His strict father Bill (James Villiers) wants him to straighten out while his mother Virginia (Wendy Craig) is an emotional wreck who resents Joey. Nanny tries to dote on him, but he rejects her offers, claiming she's the one who killed Susy and convinced she really wants to kill him.

Most of the domestic thrillers are upfront about how evil and twisted their villains are - abusive husbands, killing the family dog, smoking - but The Nanny works because of its subtlety and ambiguity. Initially, Joey is set up as the troublesome one, the boy with behavioral problems who defies his parents, plays mean tricks, and treats Nanny terribly. His ideas of jokes are horrid - pretending to hang himself at school and putting a doll facedown in the bathtub so it looks like his sister did when Nanny found her after her accident. You could almost believe he is indeed a bad seed.

But Nanny is played by Bette Davis. She doesn't have to do or say anything outwardly wicked to seem ominous. Her eyes see everything, and her take-it-in-stride responses to Joey's cruel behavior is enough to make you wonder what she really is thinking. Why does she put up with this nasty boy, his head case mother, and his domineering father?

It goes back to what I said at the start: this is all she has. Her identity, her purpose, and her meaning are tied inextricably to her job as nanny to this family. That's why any threat to that position, internal or external, must be dealt with. Otherwise, Nanny would have to go away, and where would that leave her?

Based on a book by Marryam Modell and directed by Seth Holt, The Nanny is a tight thriller, confined mostly to the building where the Fane family lives, and as the movie goes on, the home becomes more and more confining and twisted, a place of shadows and dark hallways. It's about as far from cozy as you can get, which is appropriate for the movie. Instead of a family coming together after an awful tragedy, the members grow further and further apart. The only person holding them together is the one who is ultimately the biggest threat to them.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Seventh Sign

If my writing seems off, I'm distracted. As I write this, the Cleveland Indians just clinched the American League Pennant, going to the World Series for the first time since 1997. And earlier this year, the Cavs ended Cleveland's championship drought. I won't take any of these as signs of the coming apocalypse unless the Browns starting winning.

The Seventh Sign (1988) tries to be a modern-day Rosemary's Baby with a more apocalyptic bent, but the resulting movie is ultimately not that absorbing, lacking the genuine terror and paranoia of Roman Polanski's masterpiece. It tries, but in the end, it's muddled, predictable, and not particularly scary.

Abby Quinn (Demi Moore) is seven months pregnant and nervous. The last time she and her attorney husband Russell (Michael Biehn) were expecting, the baby did not survive. Anyway, they rent a garage apartment to the mysterious David Bannon (Jurgen Prochnow), who claims to be a teacher of ancient languages. Soon, weird stuff begins happening, and Abby becomes convinced her baby is at the center of a Biblical prophecy that could mean the end of the world.

One of the great strengths of Rosemary's Baby was how we couldn't be sure if Mia Farrow was going crazy or if her neighbors really did have devilish designs on her baby. One of the problems with The Seventh Sign is we're pretty certain from the get-go that something supernatural is really going on. While Rosemary's Baby accumulated tension and progressed its narrative, The Seventh mostly spins its wheels, not really getting anywhere.

With all these prophecies going on - fish dying in Haiti, a town in Israel becoming frozen, etc. - Abby is often just waiting around for stuff to happen and doesn't feel connected to all these other events. There is a nice scene where she is watching TV, and every channel she turns to is a news program covering some sort of war, crime, or other human-made atrocity. David walks in and says how disappointed he is in mankind, having expected it to have changed for the better, but that's really the only time the movie succeeds in conveying the idea the world around the characters is falling apart and affecting them.

Also, Rosemary's Baby spent every scene with Rosemary. We got to know her pretty well, to feel for her plight, and root for her every step of the way. In depicting the signs of the apocalypse in places like Haiti and Israel, along with spending time with Russell and other characters, The Seventh Sign distances the viewer from Abby, nor does it help that Moore turns in a rather bland, vacant performance.

Biehn does what he can, but he's mostly limited to standing on the sidelines trying to calm his wife down. All the time spent on his case - a mentally disabled teenager (John Taylor) scheduled to be executed for killing his parents because they were brother and sister - tips the movie's hand that this will somehow be important in the climax. Prochnow is appropriately mysterious and creepy but given little to do except walk and stand ominously.

The Seventh Sign has some neat apocalyptic imagery - the dead fish on the beach, the frozen desert town - and some of the back story is interesting, especially involving David and a mysterious priest (Peter Friedman) investigating the signs, but little is done with this.

The film admirably tries to tell the story of the apocalypse through a personal narrative, but it just doesn't seem to work as well as it could have. By the time we get to the delivery scene during an earthquake and thunder, the early sense of dread and doom has been long lost.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Bering Sea Beast

For a movie about sea monsters, Bering Sea Beast (2013) sure has a lot of footage of people running to and from cars and trucks. I guess that's one way to keep production costs down.

Also known as Beast of the Bering Sea and Damn Sea Vampires! (a much better title), Bering Sea Beast is no better or worse than just about any other Syfy Channel original monster movie. It is what it is: modern-day schlock of the post-drive-in theater era. Dull acting, awful special effects, and a complete lack of logic are to be expected. If you enjoy cheesy bad movies, have at it, but it's not my thing. I found it boring and repetitive.

A family-run dredging boat is out looking for gold one night when they unknowingly stir up a horde of the famed sea vampires, creatures of local legend that drain the blood from their victims and are sensitive to bright light. When their father is killed, siblings Donna and Joe vow to take out those damn sea vampires.

The thing with these Syfy Channel original movies is how formulaic they are. Swap out the cast, ensuring at least one B-level or has-been actor or actress, and and pick your monster, and you're good to go. That wouldn't be so bad if so much time wasn't spent on characters standing around and talking about things I don't care about.

Random character background is brought up, never to be mentioned again, and there is so much nonsensical plotting. In Bering Sea Beast, an approaching storm is mentioned and set up to be a big deal; afterward, the weather is never a factor. This is the kind of movie in which no one thinks to use two corpses and a captured specimen of the creatures that killed them to convince anyone the water is dangerous.

When the creatures attack, the scenes are so ineptly staged and made up of god-awful computer graphics, it's pitiful. Actors have to stand still to ensure they're killed, and very rarely do actors and creatures actually share the same frame. It's hard to build tension if the audience is never sure the monster and the victim are even in the same place at the same time. Occasionally, the movie mixes in a scheme to kill or capture one of the sea vampires, but too often, it's just a lot of aimless running away by the humans, who don't even seem to be in that much of a hurry.

The cast is mostly unknowns, except for one ... I was about to say recognizable name, but if you only remember Jonathan Lipnicki as the cute kid from Jerry Maguire, you won't won't recognize him. He's not a cute little cute kid anymore. I'm not saying he's hideously ugly or anything; he's reasonably presentable, but without glasses, he's just kind of a generic looking guy, and the script doesn't do him, or anybody else, any favors.

Performances are flat, and motivation is often nonsensical. The siblings seem more upset about not being able to dredge for gold than their father being horrifically killed by a monster.

Bering Sea Beast should be watched during a cable broadcast. Watching it uninterrupted from start to finish, it's easy to become bored or distracted. On TV, at least there are commercials to break the flow, and you can always change the channel to something more stimulating.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Darkness Falls

Of the childhood fantasy figures, the Tooth Fairy is inherently the creepiest. Sure, some kids are afraid of Santa Claus, and we should hope the Easter Bunny hasn't seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but the Tooth Fairy comes into your bedroom while you're sleeping and collects a body part.

And what does she want with our teeth anyway? Seriously, that's some Leatherface territory.

Darkness Falls (2003) has enough good ideas, including making the Tooth Fairy a vengeful, murderous wraith as its villain, that when the movie started, I was intrigued, but overall, it's a blown opportunity. After a promising opening, the movie fails to capitalize on the inherent fear built into its premise, becoming another tame, watered-down PG13 horror flick.

The movie opens with some back story about Matilda Dixon, a woman in the town of Darkness Falls who would pay the children when they brought her their teeth. A fire disfigures her face, making her sensitive to light, so she takes to wearing a porcelain mask. One day, two children go missing, and the townspeople, blaming Matilda, lynch her. Before she dies, Matilda swears revenge. Naturally, the two children turn up safe and sound the next day.

A legend soon develops in Darkness Falls. On the night children lose their last baby teeth, Matilda visits them in their bedroom to claim the tooth. But should anyone look upon her, she'll kill them.

As far as backstories go, this one ain't too shabby. It would have been cool to dramatize this instead of just having some unseen narrator tell it, but hey, what can you do?

The movie proper opens with young Kyle Walsh losing his last baby tooth and awaiting the Tooth Fairy. This is the best scene in the movie as Kyle hunkers down under the covers, listening for strange noise and spooking himself with every shadow on the wall. The movie does a solid job of making you feel like you're a little kid in his dark bedroom as things go bump in the night. If only the movie ended there.

Alas, the plot jumps ahead twelve years. Kyle, now played by Chaney Kley, is called back to Darkness Falls by Caitlin (Emma Caulfield) because her brother is now pathologically afraid of the dark and refusing to sleep in it. Kyle knows Matilda is responsible and that she is trying to kill the little boy, but of course, no one believes him, especially because they think Kyle killed his mother all those years ago.

It was a catastrophic mistake to have our main characters be adults. As a kid, Kyle is sympathetic, young and vulnerable. As an adult, he's just another burned out Hollywood hero who's become a pariah in his hometown. A child afraid of the dark and scared of the Tooth Fairy is understandable; an adult scared of those things is just weird.

Granted, Matilda is real in the movie (a better movie would have at least initially created some uncertainty), but this is a story just begging to be about kids and their fear of being isolated and not believed by adults. Adult Kyle and adult Caitlin lose that, so the story is just another town under siege by a supernatural villain.

The plot is stupid. Apparently, Darkness Falls the town has a history of unresolved child murders, but no one has ever noticed. Doctors apparently believe the best way for a child to overcome a fear of the dark, a fear so pervasive that he cuts himself, is to lock him in a sensory deprivation tank. Matilda lives in the shadows, I guess, and can snatch people when they're in the dark but only does so when it's convenient.

The direction, after that first scene, is poor. Whenever the Tooth Fairy attacks, the camera starts shaking all over the place, and the editing is so rapid, you can't even tell what's supposed to be happening. Too often, the Tooth Fairy looks like a poor special effect.

And who names a town Darkness Falls? Sure, people took to calling Crystal Lake "Camp Blood," but that was only after it developed a reputation for mass murder.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Secret Window

Secret Window (2004) finds the familiar Stephen King tropes: a writer with a troubled marriage, a drinking problem, and writer's block. All we need is the fundamentalist mother and the teen bully who thinks it's 1955, and we have a BINGO.

Despite the familiarity of the story elements, Secret Window makes for a reasonably effective and entertaining thriller that gets better the further along it goes. The movie begins in a relatively mundane, straightforward manner but subtly plays on expectations to get to something all together more complex and devious.

The writer in question is Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp), struggling to get to work on a new book alone at his cabin on a lake. He and his wife Amy (Maria Bello) are divorcing, but he still hasn't signed the papers, even though she's living with Ted (Timothy Hutton). Then, John Shooter (John Turturro) turns up. An angry man with a thick southern accent, he accuses Mort of plagiarism and demands he make it right. Otherwise, things will get awfully ugly.

Secret Window is about a man in crisis, both personally and professionally. Mort is a guy who's had some success in the literary world, but now, he's stagnant. His personal life is in shambles, and he can't get to work on anything. His idea of accomplishing some writing is to eventually delete the one paragraph he actually typed on his computer. Then, Shooter arrives and makes it worse. It's one thing to be a has-been; it's another thing to have someone accuse your past success of having been built on fraud and stealing.

As the movie progresses, we watch Mort disintegrate further and further. Shooter always seems to be one step ahead of him and capable of saying just the right thing to get under his skin or make Mort afraid of what he might do. Mort becomes angrier, paranoid, and unhinged, although the real question might be not whether he's going crazy but if this Shooter situation is revealing just how disturbed he already was.

I'm trying my best not to spoil anything, but in some ways, Secret Window shares a kinship with The Dark Half (and ironically, Timothy Hutton starred in that adaptation), and not just because they're both about writers. They're both about writers questioning who they are and what they write after being accused of some dishonest behavior. They're both about the identity of writers, but while The Dark Half went for a more literal tale of Jekyll and Hyde and a mad killer, Secret Window is more psychological and less straightforward.

Depp turns in one of his better latter-day performances. This was just before he got swallowed up by Jack Sparrow, but here, he dials down the goofiness. While Mort is an eccentric to a degree, he balances the complexities nicely, so he's believable, and he taps into the darkness of the character.

Turturro took some getting used to, but I warmed to his performance by the end; the accent and brim hat are almost laughable, but the revelation into his true nature goes a long way in alleviating that. Bello is sympathetic as the soon-to-be ex who still has some feelings for him but knows it's time to move on, and Hutton brings appropriate ambiguity to his role.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Monster Squad

The Goonies have entered the House of Frankenstein. The Monster Squad (1987) takes a bunch of smart aleck, pre-teen kids and has them take on the monsters from the glory years of Universal Studios. It's amiable enough but an effort I feel I would have appreciated more if I had first seen it as a kid.

Following a brief prologue involving Van Helsing's failed attempt to stop Dracula, the movie picks up in the present day as Dracula (Duncan Regehr) assembles a collection of other monsters to help him track an amulet that will allow him to take over the world. There's the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Gill-Man, and Frankenstein's Monster (Tom Noonan). Standing between them is the Monster Squad, a club of kids who love monster movies and who have come into possession of Van Helsing's journal.

The Monster Squad was directed by Fred Dekker, who co-wrote it with Shane Black. It moves fast, has some cool retro-inspired monster makeup, and gets some cute laughs without being too scary for kids. Regehr makes for a fine and menacing throwback Dracula, complete with a cape and collar, while Noonan is outstanding as Frankenstein's Monster; his scenes with a little girl are just so adorable, and when he sadly examines the Frankenstein Monster mask, you just want to hug the big guy.

The kids aren't bad, but they don't particularly stand out. Comparisons to The Goonies are inevitable, but in Richard Donner's movie, the cast included the likes of Sean Astin, Corey Feldman, Josh Brolin, and Martha Plimpton. Those characters had more well defined personalities and funnier dialogue.

The same can't be said for The Monster Squad kids, who are limited to being monster fans or obvious types (i.e. the fat kid, the cool one, etc.), and their lines just aren't as clever or funny, usually conveying exposition or cheap gags ("Wolf Man's got nards!"). Also, screaming. Lots and lots of screaming.

For a short movie (barely 80 minutes), The Monster Squad feels too plot heavy. Too much time is spent on that stupid amulet and explaining why it's important to keep Dracula from getting it, although I still don't know how he planned to use it when he got it. And apart from the novelty of having all these monsters together, I'm not sure why Dracula needed so many of these other creatures for all they manage to do.

The Mummy comes off as especially useless except for a gag to defeat him that has been done in every comedy with a mummy ever. Early on, after he's been resurrected and met up with Dracula, the Mummy winds up in a little boy's closet. The scene itself is reasonably funny - the kid cries that there's a monster in the closet, and his dad completely misses seeing it - but why was he in this kid's closet? It seems kind of random.

Moments of horror are counterbalanced by moments of farce. In the climax, the monsters get serious, killing several police officers who show up to save the day, and Dracula picks up the little girl by the neck and calls her a bitch. Dynamite blows up the Wolf Man, but he puts himself back together, gruesome bit by gruesome bit. In other scenes, the kids repel Dracula with a slice of pizza that has garlic on it and kick the Wolf Man in the balls. Gill-Man steals a Twinkie.

When the squad needs help translating Van Helsing's diary, they turn to a neighbor known only as "Scary German Guy," who tells them he knows a thing or two about monsters as the camera reveals a concentration camp tattoo on his wrist. The Army turns up on the word of a five-year-old, who sent them a note written in crayon. Not as many jokes about virgins as Hocus Pocus but they tried.

I'm not entirely sure how I missed The Monster Squad the first time around. I grew up on The Goonies and loved it, and I assume this could have been another staple of my childhood as well. I only discovered it as an adult and couldn't relate to it. It's kind of fun, but I don't have the fondness or nostalgia for it that fans have.