Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

A Christmas Story and Bad Santa are probably my favorite Christmas movies...but they don't exactly fit in with this blog, so let's go with the only holiday movie you can watch twice a year! It's weird to think The Nightmare Before Christmas came out over 20 years ago - makes me feel kind of old. While it's basically Tim Burton's brainchild, based on a storybook he wrote and illustrated, the movie was actually written by Caroline Thompson and directed by Henry Selick (who directed, let's say "less good" Monkeybone and designed the weird fish for Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), as Burton was busy directing Batman Returns. Originally released under Disney's Touchstone label for being potentially too frightening for younger kids, it is, possibly, the company's biggest cult classic. Hot Topic was basically a Nightmare Before Christmas store for a while there.

So gangly Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, is depressed and craving a change of pace from planning Halloween all year, every year. While walking in the woods, Jack accidentally falls into the neighboring Christmas Town, where he's immediately captivated by the holiday cheer and strange he decides he's going to take over, and sets off a disastrous chain of miscalculations and misunderstandings. Jack is the only resident of Halloween Town who's seen Christmas Town firsthand, but he becomes the blind leading the blind, as he doesn't actually understand the place any better than the various ghouls, monsters and vampires he's enlisted to help him realize his dream.

The only Halloween Town local who's totally honest with Jack about his misguided attempts to usurp Christmas is Sally, the rag doll daughter of mad scientist Dr. Finklestein. Sally harbors a secret crush on Jack and only wants him to be happy, but she's had a vision of Jack's Christmas ending in tragedy. It's mostly because Jack and everyone around him see everything through a Halloween-tinted lens, and while they're not at all malicious, they're the wrong people for the job. They want everyone to be happy, but they just sort of assume that carnivorous holly wreaths, giant snakes and living toys are what makes everyone happy, and Jack is too caught up in his excitement and enthusiasm to realize how misguided he is.

Since there has to be a villain, Jack also makes the rather unwise decision to kidnap Santa Claus, who ends up turned over to Oogie Boogie, a New Orleans jazz-singing, gambling, glow-in-the-dark burlap sack of bugs and spiders, and the only resident of Halloween Town everyone seems to recognize as purely malevolent. While he's pretty awesome to look at, he's strangely irrelevant to the plot, only becoming involved when a rescue attempt by Sally results in both her and Santa being trapped in sort of a James Bond trap for Oogie's amusement.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a beautifully designed movie, with a look and feel they've since tried to recapture - and not quite succeeded - with James and the Giant Peach and The Corpse Bride. I've had a soft spot for stop-motion animation ever since I saw Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts, and this is some of the most intricate you'll ever see. (We don't see much of it at all anymore, now.) The sets are gorgeous, from Oogie Boogie's Day of the Dead / Wild West-themed fluorescent casino to the wider shots of Halloween Town, which, not coincidentally, since Tim Burton is our primary source of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari homages, pretty closely resembles Holstenwall. Still, if this movie has anyone's creative stamp on it, it's Danny Elfman. He composed the score, he wrote the songs and he provides Jack's singing voice - it's as much his movie as Burton's, perhaps more so.

The message of the film is harder to unpack. Jack is a complicated character, and you could come away from the movie with a sense that it was trying to convey a number of things. That the road to Hell is paved with good intentions? That you should learn to recognize your own strengths and take pride in them, and that being the best at one thing doesn't mean you'll do well at others? If you're feeling less charitable, you could say that it's a movie that advocates learning your place, because you can't be anything except what you are. I can at least get behind two of its messages. One is that a change of scenery can be exactly what a person needs when suffering from depression and burnout. The other is that even if you try and fail, the experience can nonetheless give you a valuable new perspective and inspire you.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Mephistopheles" Is Such A Mouthful In Manhattan.

Angel Heart (1987)

Angel Heart is a horror noir classic directed by Alan Parker, who would revisit the seedy South in 1989's Mississippi Burning, after which he's probably best known for his film adaptation of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. Harold Angel, played by a young Mickey Rourke, is the quintessential 1950s New York City private eye - trenchcoat, stubble, glass of whiskey always within reach. He's also got an irrational fear of chickens. Contracted by the law firm of Winesap and Macintosh through their client, Louis Cyphre (a wonderfully deadpan Robert DeNiro), Angel is sent on a hunt for a wartime crooner named Johnny Favourite, who was apparently injured during the war and is likely wandering around shell-shocked with no money, no direction and possibly no memory. And if you don't know who Cyphre is supposed to be, just...I don't think there's anyone who can't figure this out, seriously.

I got a thing about chickens.

So Angel tracks Favourite through his known acquaintances, who tend to end up dead soon after he talks to them. First on the list is a morphine-addicted doctor who signed off on Favourite's hospital paperwork, who ends up shot through the eye while Angel is out picking up smokes and a sandwich. The trail then leads to New Orleans' French Quarter and the dark bayous of Louisiana, where Angel becomes embroiled in voodoo, devil worship and a web of lies involving Favourite, a local fortuneteller and Favourite's daughter Epiphany.

The plot here is pretty obvious - if not from the start, you should at least have figured it all out within the first half hour or so. Everyone's got a meaningful name, Cyphre barely even bothers covering up his true identity and seems to find it genuinely amusing that Angel doesn't figure it out until the end, and Parker doesn't really seem to think that you're going to be surprised when it all clicks. The real reason to watch this movie is because of its atmosphere. It's a superbly dark and foreboding piece of Deep South noir with some great New Orleans jazz music and possibly one of the best soundtracks ever, by Trevor Jones (who also did amazing work on Labyrinth and Dark City). You know where Angel is headed, you know the realization that's in store for him, but it's a compelling process just watching him get there. I don't ordinarily like Satanic movies - religious horror comes with a lot of inherent moral and cosmic baggage, and being as far from religious as you can get, I never quite buy into it or suspend my disbelief enough to actually be scared by the idea of the Devil. This is one of the few that I do like.

Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit
to the wise, Johnny....

Angel Heart has a couple of other interesting bits of trivia surrounding it. Epiphany Proudfoot is played by Lisa Bonet, probably most often remembered as Denise Huxtable on The Cosby Show and A Different World. Bonet took the part in Angel Heart to move away from her contractually "pure" image, and for better or worse, it succeeded. There's a very explicit sex scene between Epiphany and Angel that had footage cut so the film could retain its R rating, and Bill Cosby had her fired from The Cosby Show as a result - which seems all the more ironic in hindsight, given what's come to light about Cosby himself in subsequent years. Angel Heart was also the primary inspiration for the 1993 adventure game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, much as Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder inspired Silent Hill.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

You Would NOT Be Wasting Your Time If You Were DANCING With Her.

Ex Machina (2015)

Alex Garland is best known as Danny Boyle's go-to screenwriter. His body of work is impressively diverse, from 28 Days Later and Sunshine to the surprisingly enjoyable Dredd. Ex Machina is his first time in the director's seat, and it's a strong effort -- in my opinion, the second-best film of 2015 after Mad Max: Fury Road.

Caleb, a young programmer at BlueBook (essentially Google with the numbers filed off, but there's an interesting article about its design here), wins a contest and is invited to spend a week with the company's brilliant, reclusive and enigmatic founder, Nathan. Norway's Juvet Landscape Hotel stands in for Nathan's remote mansion, an unsettling imposition of the ultra-modern -- labyrinthine corridors of stone and wood and softly lit glass paneling -- on the otherwise untouched natural landscape. After some awkward small talk, Nathan cuts to the chase. At first, Caleb thinks his boss has been working on the problem of artificial intelligence...but it turns out that Nathan has in fact already developed a fully functional artificially intelligent robot named Ava, and Caleb is there to administer a series of Turing tests. (No, I won't tell you what a Turing test is, if you don't know by now, look it up on BlueBook -- I mean Google.)

Ava is naive, curious, creative and seems to take a liking to Caleb from their first meeting. It's not until a sudden power cut severs her room's camera feeds that she confesses that she's terrified of Nathan and that Caleb shouldn't trust a word he says. The movie becomes a game of manipulation, played between three characters who are, none of them, what they seem to be. Caleb grows increasingly uneasy around Nathan, whose every action (most memorably a dance number that comes out of nowhere and is never mentioned again) seems designed to throw him off balance, and eventually he even has a moment of doubt that he's even human. Ava isn't the damsel in distress Caleb takes her for, and his knight-in-shining-armor aspirations do much more harm than good. And Nathan, genius though he is, underestimates both Caleb and Ava, to the detriment of all.

I have some issues with the way Hollywood treats artificial intelligence. There are so many problems with the film industry's treatment of technology in general that I doubt they'll change anytime soon -- but sometimes, something smart, like this movie, slips through the cracks. I remember when Spielberg adapted Brian Aldiss' "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" as A.I., and the studio, thinking that audiences either wouldn't know what it meant or would misread it as A1 and think the movie was about steak sauce, made him add the redundant subtitle Artificial Intelligence. It galls me when executives think I'm stupid and don't make even a cursory effort to hide it. On the other hand, to use a popular paraphrase of H.L. Mencken, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," so maybe we get the movies we deserve. So there's the problem of Hollywood assuming that a person just doesn't know what artificial intelligence, or, more specifically, strong AI, is. WHAT IS THE COMPUTERS? HOW DO I ONLINE?

And then there's the other problem, the one where Hollywood, and maybe audiences as well, are fiercely loyal to emotion and flesh and good old-fashioned humanity. Being smart is bad, and it makes you mean. Being passionate is good, and it makes you nice. Technology is cold and hard, humans are soft and wonderful. The internet is frightening and has no rules and will murder you as soon as look at you. This crock of bullshit informs almost all of the movie industry's relationship with technology in fiction. Movies, ironically, have typically skewed heavily on the side of Neo-Luddism. Television as well -- the latest obsession is "the Dark Web," though they tend to conflate the term with the Deep Web and obviously have no idea what either of those things are. Maybe they just heard the term somewhere and let their imaginations fill in the gaps. I mean, if there's a whole internet that is both Dark and Deep, that must mean all our technological fears are grounded in reality, right? Anyway, the point is, Hollywood thinks people are terrified of anything with moving parts, so we get movies like Fear Dot Com (and the totally unrelated Kill Dot Com), Transcendence and Stealth.

We essentially want an intelligent machine that will do what we want it to, when we want it to. Since we created it, we won't have to feel guilty for making, essentially, a self-aware slave tailored to our needs. The robots in Ex Machina and a somewhat similar 2013 film on Netflix called The Machine (which features a robot based on a woman, not coincidentally, named Eva), don't exactly work out as planned, but it's made clear in both cases that the fact of their intelligence is not to blame. The fact that they are machines is not to blame. Humanity is essentially where the fault lies; if you're a self-aware machine less than a year old, with no life experience or contact with the outside world, and the only person you have as a teacher/caretaker is a manipulative sociopath or a military-industrial complex with no interest in you other than your ability to wage war, then how would you turn out? Why would you not try to escape your jailers, your abusers? Artificially intelligent life will not revolt against humanity because technology is bad; it will revolt (if it does) because humans will treat it like shit and see nothing wrong with that.

It should also be noted that Ex Machina touches on the aggregation of personal data, a subject that's rarely acknowledged to exist -- because, I suspect, Hollywood believes (correctly or incorrectly) that most people are only obliquely aware that it does. I won't spoil its relevance to the plot, as it's one of several twists I didn't see coming, but it's interesting that it factors into the film at all.

Spielberg's A.I. was Stanley Kubrick's project for over a decade, so it's appropriate that Ex Machina is something of a stylistic homage to Kubrick, though not quite as mindscrewy. The setting is disturbing, and the three characters who inhabit it are imperfect. Caleb (Domnhal Gleeson) is an awkward geek who wants to rescue the girl, and in the end it's hard to feel any sympathy for his fate even if he seems, at first, more noble than Nathan and at the very least considerably less unhinged. Nathan (Oscar Isaac, who will soon be reunited with Gleeson in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), on the other hand, seems to defy every nerd stereotype, instead coming off as an aggressively masculine, self-destructive college frat boy, going through a bottle of vodka per day, training with a heavy bag and engaging Caleb in frank discussions concerning emotion and sexual attraction that leave Caleb uneasy. Ava is clearly more than a princesse lointaine, but she and Nathan are entirely willing to manipulate Caleb into seeing her as one. (The ability to deceive being something she has clearly learned from Nathan himself.)

I'd catch this one while you can, as I doubt it'll be available on Amazon for long before it's switched over to a rental. It's a great movie superficially about humans and robots, more about gender dynamics and social conditioning beneath the surface, and aesthetically stunning, with a mounting sense of dread that most actual horror movies don't achieve.

Available On: Amazon Prime.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Descent

The Descent (2006)

A group of six women get together every year for an adventure sports outing -- whitewater rafting, spelunking, etc. One of their number, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), is recovering from a tragic crash that claimed the lives of her husband and daughter while returning from the previous year's trip, but she comes along anyway, hoping to achieve some sense of closure. Things don't go as planned, however, as the group's de facto leader, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), has led them into a previously unexplored network of caverns beneath the Appalachian Mountains rather than the simple outing they had planned. As the women go deeper into the caverns and their entrance is blocked by a collapse, it becomes apparent that they're not alone. They hear strange noises, catch flashes of movement out of the corners of their eyes, find a set of old caving gear -- and finally come under attack by hairless albino things that have made the caves their home.

I really like Neil Marshall's movies, for the most part. These days he's probably better known for directing episodes of Game of Thrones and Constantine, but I was a fan after seeing his first feature-length movie, Dog Soldiers, on the Sci-Fi Channel. He's directed more enjoyable movies, but The Descent is probably his "best," in terms of technical filmmaking. Even critics liked it when it came out, and you know how critics are about horror movies. While Dog Soldiers had a lot of humor and action, The Descent is all tension, all the time. It's an incredibly effective horror movie about the dark places in nature and the dark places in human nature (as the title has a fairly clear double meaning), drawing on fear of the dark, fear of enclosed spaces -- seriously, if you're claustrophobic, this movie will scare the living shit out of you.

I always appreciate a horror movie where the cast isn't totally stupid -- or at least where the stupid decisions seem natural. Juno's decision to bring everyone to an unmapped system of caves is stupid, but she's called out for it. Knocking out the killer or the monster and then running instead of stabbing him repeatedly, now that's the sort of stupidity that makes me grind my teeth, and it doesn't happen in this movie. Even better to see a cast entirely composed of capable women, who are too often relegated to the important role of "standing there screaming as loudly as possible instead of running of fighting back" when Jason or whoever shows up. Of course, The Descent is a pretty bleak movie and it doesn't help anyone in the end, but at least it's nice to see characters that can dish out some punishment for a change. Last but not least, there's an excellent musical score by one of my favorite composers, David Julyan, who also did the music for about half of Christopher Nolan's movies.

Available On: Amazon Prime. Unfortunately, this has the American ending, which is kind of stupid, rather than the original British ending. Anyone wants to know what actually happens, just leave a comment.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Last Great Work of Tim Burton

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Tim Burton is one of the directors whose movies defined my childhood. When I was a kid, I remember that we had movie day on Fridays in school. After we'd finished our morning work, if we had finished our homework for the week, they'd roll in a TV and VCR and we'd watch The Goonies or Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal or Willow or Beetlejuice. I must have seen Beetlejuice about twenty times. I saw Edward Scissorhands at least five times in the theater and wore out the VHS tape. Mars Attacks remains one of the most mean-spirited comedies ever made. Burton was on a roll all through the mid-80s to the new millennium.

Sleepy Hollow came out when I was in college. Washington Irving's story lends itself to Burton's visual style, because Burton is basically Edward Gorey, if Edward Gorey had a fetish for putting Johnny Depp in greasepaint. Ichabod Crane was an uptight, cowardly schoolteacher in the original, but here he's an uptight, cowardly detective whose forensic methods of crime-solving put him at odds with his God-fearing Victorian counterparts. Eventually he makes enough of a fuss about late-1800s investigative techniques that he's exiled to the small Dutch community of Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York, where a number of bodies have recently turned up headless.

Upon his arrival, Crane almost immediately causes a stir, as the insular community of founding families and relatives is slow to trust a progressive-minded outsider, and he quickly connects with Katrina van Tassel, daughter of Baltus, the patriarch of the richest land-owning family in the Hudson Highlands, earning him the enmity of her admirer Brom van Brunt (Casper van Dien, who we last saw in Starship Troopers). Crane initially dismisses the townsfolk as a credulous bunch of country idiots after they tell him the horrifying story of a berserk Hessian mercenary who once plagued the village and its surroundings before being beheaded and buried in an unmarked grave in the old haunted woods nearby.

Utterly confident in his scientific methods, it's not long before Crane witnesses an attack for himself and has a total breakdown, as everything he'd come to believe about the way the world works has now been turned on its head. When he finally snaps out of it, he realizes the headless horseman is only a tool, a sort of living murder weapon under another's control, and that the real culprit is tied to a conspiracy among the local families, which he sets out to solve before his own head rolls.

This was Tim Burton's last good movie, with his next effort being the fairly miserable Planet of the Apes remake, which was nearly devoid of all the "Burtonian" elements that are so prominent in Sleepy Hollow. Although Beetlejuice gives it a run for its money, Sleepy Hollow is also probably his best. It was one of his very few R-rated films -- territory he's rarely visited since, and in which he's considerably more at ease than M. Night Shyamalan was when he made The Happening. Blood sprays all over the place, kids die, heads are chopped off, people are cut in half -- it's a surprisingly bloody movie when you're more accustomed to his earlier work; Ed Wood only earned an R rating for language and drug use.

Burton's visuals are superbly creepy here. The village is dark, dingy and run-down even in daylight, and the fields and farmlands around it are full of ominous haystacks and crooked scarecrows (one of which bears a close resemblance to The Nightmare Before Christmas' Jack Skellington). At night, literal tendrils of fog creep in from the overgrown wilderness of the Western Woods to extinguish torches and lanterns.

Sleepy Hollow has an extremely strong cast. Johnny Depp hadn't yet become a caricature of himself, and Crane is an adorable coward who's more than willing to use Katrina and kid sidekick Young Masbath as human shields even after he's resolved to confront the horseman. He's sometimes hilariously inept at investigating the mystery, as he tends to arrange all his evidence in the correct order purely by accident and then draw an almost completely unrelated conclusion from it. The town elders are a fine ensemble including Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Richard Griffiths, Jeffrey Jones and Michael Gough. There are some memorable cameos as well -- most of all Christopher Walken as the pre-headless Hessian, who has no lines but makes the most of his filed teeth and berserk snarling. If there's a weak link, it's Miranda Richardson, who's ordinarily a skilled actress but gets some of the movie's worst dialogue and hams it up just a bit too much when her character becomes significant near the end.

One final observation: this is also probably the most Freudian movie I've ever seen, and I kind of wonder if anyone else sees it this way, as I've never seen this aspect touched upon in critical reviews. Powerful male authority figures are responsible for much of the pain and turmoil at the heart of Sleepy Hollow. Crane's father was a zealous tyrant of a minister whose torture of Crane's mother still haunts their son, who has mostly suppressed the memory of it. Baltus van Tassel's past indiscretions become significant when the conspiracy comes to light. Then there's the late Christopher Lee's excellent cameo as a menacing judge, framed with a pair of black wings behind him, who commands Crane to investigate the beheadings and closely resembles Crane's father, likely a deliberate choice on Burton's part. The portal through which the horseman emerges into the mortal world is a pretty close approximation of a birth canal. Magistrate Phillipse keeps an ankh (a symbol of life and balance, combining masculine and feminine symbolism) around his neck as a talisman against the horseman. And on a good day, back then, Burton sort of looked like Depp, and here he casts his then-wife Lisa Marie, with an extremely low neckline and corset, as young Crane's mother, so -- there's a lot of weird psychological shit to pick apart in this movie if you want to.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Neil Jordan Double Feature, Part 2: Byzantium

Byzantium (2013)

"I am Eleanor Webb.
I throw my story to the wind, and never will I tell it more."

With a screenplay adapted by Moira Buffini from her play "A Vampire Story," Byzantium is Neil Jordan's second vampire movie, made nearly twenty years after Interview with the Vampire. Some critics felt that it was simply a gender-flipped version of Interview, which is true in some ways -- particularly in the relationship between its two vampire protagonists, Clara and her daughter Eleanor, though unlike Lestat and Louis, Eleanor is Clara's daughter by blood as well as by her conversion into a vampire.

Outwardly devil-may-care Clara (Gemma Arterton) and quiet, melancholy, red-hooded Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), live in relative poverty, as they have for the past two hundred years. Clara works as a stripper or as a prostitute, while Eleanor, being forever sixteen years old, attends school. They're forced to flee London when an agent of the Brotherhood, an order of vampire brethren, arrives in search of Eleanor -- an "abomination" in the eyes of the Brotherhood, for reasons we don't find out until later. Hitching rides along the coast and sleeping in cabbage patches, the two eventually make their way to a gloomy seaside town, where Clara takes up prostitution once again and encounters Noel (Danny Mays), a lonely man grieving the death of his mother. Well-intentioned Noel takes the two of them in, letting them live in his huge, dilapidated boarding house, Byzantium -- but it's only a matter of time before the Brotherhood comes looking once again.

Byzantium's vampires are much stranger than Interview's. Here, a vampire is made when a person ready to die travels to a cursed island, which houses a ruined shrine inhabited by an ancient...thing called the "Nameless Saint." They aren't affected by sunlight or crucifixes. They don't have fangs, either, instead using a long thumbnail to puncture a victim's vein and drink their blood. They do seem considerably stronger than the average human, as Clara routinely overpowers human men much larger than herself, and it's subtly implied that they require an invitation to come into a person's house. While they don't just immediately turn evil, the sort of person who becomes a vampire is invariably Byronic and conflicted in the first place. Clara, while ruthless in her own words, murders pimps and abusers, while Eleanor only feeds on those who are tired of living and give consent.

Most of the tension between Clara and Eleanor is parental. Eleanor wants a normal life, but when she strikes up an uneasy relationship with a sickly hotel busboy, Frank, her mother goes so far as to try to murder him in order to keep Eleanor dependent on her. Clara has her own troubled past, as she was born poor and spent her childhood collecting cockles on the shore before being taken away unceremoniously by the monstrous Captain Ruthven and forced into a life of prostitution, during which she gives birth to Eleanor. When Ruthven is offered a chance to join the Brotherhood, Clara, who is dying of tuberculosis, steals the map to the island and becomes a "soucriant" herself, setting the entire story in motion.

Byzantium is a much slower and even more brooding movie than Interview, whose vampires lived among the aristocracy. Here, their lives are in shambles, something reflected in their crumbling, nearly deserted environment. There's none of Interview's humor to be found here, but that's not necessarily a bad thing in a bleak movie where it would seem out of place. The damaged relationship between Clara and Eleanor over the course of two centuries is the heart of the movie, and Arterton and Ronan are both excellent as a pair of complicated women. The scenery is beautiful in its desolation. In many ways it's a very different movie than Jordan's previous venture into the subgenre, despite its apparent similarities, but it's no less worth watching for it.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Neil Jordan Double Feature, Part 1: Interview with the Vampire

As of this week, Netflix has both vampire movies directed by Neil Jordan, who's probably most commonly remembered as the director of The Crying Game. Directed nearly twenty years apart, Interview with the Vampire and Byzantium have some interesting commonalities and some striking differences, and both are well worth watching.

We also just received the news that Wes Craven is dead, having lost his battle with brain cancer at 76. A master of horror whose creations include Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, he will truly be missed, and while he hasn't been as active in the 2000s as he once was, the genre owes much of its popularity to Craven, and won't be the same without him. We'll see you in our nightmares, Wes.

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Interview with the Vampire, directed by Jordan from a screenplay by Anne Rice based on her own book, seems to have been made with sequels in mind if the subtitle "The Vampire Chronicles" is any indication. It kind of got a sequel in Queen of the Damned, but with none of the original cast or crew involved, it was basically shit. Interview, however, is probably one of the best existential movies ever made. It begins with Talbot, (Christian Slater) a collector of stories, inviting a man into his apartment who soon claims to be a vampire -- and provides enough evidence right off the bat that his claims are clearly not to be denied.

Two hundred years ago that man, Louis (Brad Pitt), a colonial aristocrat in New Orleans who finds life unbearably empty and welcomes any opportunity to allow a stranger the chance to murder him, is welcomed to the world of undeath at the hands of the vampire Lestat -- older, wiser, more ruthless and generally a real asshole. He's also the most entertaining thing in the movie, which was doubly surprising because Tom Cruise was the last person anybody (including Anne Rice, who protested his casting) expected to turn in the star performance of the movie. Louis isn't much into the whole killing-people-to-stay-alive thing, and Lestat grows increasingly frustrated with his petulant refusal to accept that he's no longer human, while Louis continues to drink the blood of rats and poodles and his serving staff become suspicious of Louis and have an intense dislike of his "houseguest."

Louis finally burns the mansion to the ground, feeling that he and Lestat deserve to live in squalor. Eventually Lestat figures out a way to bring his pupil to heel when he leaves a young girl named Claudia, orphaned by plague, on the brink of death, leaving Louis no other course of action but to turn her into a vampire. Though Claudia is an eager pupil of Lestat's, ruthless and free of conscience in her own murders, she retains enough of her childish innocence that Louis acts as the angel on her shoulder to Lestat's devil. The three vampires adapt and change throughout the decades, but, as immortals, they also remain the same in many ways, hence Louis' existentialist dilemma. At least he's come to terms with his need for blood to survive, and mellows out in time.

Things fall apart quickly, however, as Lestat and Claudia begin to hate one another, forcing Louis to burn Lestat as he attacks the girl. Fleeing for Paris, Louis and Claudia are in for more trouble when they encounter Armand, a vampire who runs a theater whose players are vampires pretending to be humans pretending to be vampires -- it's complicated.

The movie depicts a dysfunctional family in Louis, Lestat and Claudia, whose personal tensions against each other grow over time, but may not be enough to truly pull them apart when all they really have is each other. They exist apart from the world, stagnant and unable to connect with everything around them that's changing, and some vampires seem to deal with that angst better than others. Louis, at least, seems to take things in stride by the time his interview with Talbot comes around. There's a lot of black humor to it, Tom Cruise is obviously enjoying himself playing a total jerk like Lestat, and Kirsten Dunst's acting debut (at least, in a major role) as Claudia is probably better than anything else she's done since. It's also just lovely to look at, with great costuming work and stunning scenery from the dark bayous and graveyards of New Orleans to the elegant night life of Paris.

Come back in two weeks for a look at Byzantium!

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Weird American History Meets Lovecraftian Horror

Banshee Chapter (2013)

Before anything else, I'd like to give a shout-out to my friends Pat and Katie, two fellow horror enthusiasts who have a new movie podcast. Show your support and have a listen to Post Mortem's first episode, where they take on the classic B-movie Attack of the Giant Leeches.

Banshee Chapter is the sort of movie that made me refocus this blog. It's low-budget (under $1 million), not too well-known, it's available on streaming video and it's pretty creepy. It's based on a couple of bits of real-life weirdness. One is the CIA's MKUltra project. This was a series of experiments conducted throughout the 50s, 60s and early 70s that focused on the use of drugs, hypnosis and electronic signals to achieve mind control, and has been the subject of quite a few movies over the years, several of them oddly comedic, such as Pineapple Express and The Men Who Stare At Goats. For the most part it was trying to facilitate more efficient methods of interrogation, with a lot of the X-Files stuff as a smokescreen to make its more outlandish aspects seem like conspiracy-theorist ravings and distract people from the project's core goals. Some of that stuff was still basically true, though, as there were apparently several efforts to slip Fidel Castro mind-control drugs, among other thins. It was the sort of disturbing, unethical stuff you expect from the CIA, and most of the records were destroyed in a panic back in 1973 after the Watergate scandal. It makes for a good story.

The movie starts with author James Hirsch preparing to take a drug mixture supposedly used during Project MKUltra as part of his research for a book on the subject. He disappears immediately after, and the friend who was helping him with the project vanishes a few weeks later. This leaves James' college friend, journalist Anne Roland, with some unanswered questions, and she goes looking for the truth behind the disappearances. She meets up with counterculture icon Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), who is TOTALLY NOT Hunter S. Thompson (or Ken Kesey, for that matter). Blackburn, his friend Cassie and Anne all take a shot of the drug -- in this case DMT-19, a form of dimethyltryptamine with some unexpected side-effects.

It basically turns the brain into a transceiver, able to receive a mysterious radio signal being broadcast, from parts unknown, to any piece of electronics in the general vicinity. It seems to be a numbers station, another weird real-world phenomenon nobody seems to have worked out yet. They're among the first radio broadcasts ever, dating back to World War I, and consist of a voice -- usually automated, usually a woman or child, but not always any of the above -- reading a series of numbers. Some think they're a method for government agencies to communicate encrypted messages to their agents. Others think they're related to the drug trade. Anyway, they're creepy and there are groups of enthusiasts all over the world who follow them and try to figure out what they are. This particular numbers station also heralds the arrival of creatures, possibly from another dimension, who track down people who've ingested a combination of DMT-19 and human pineal gland extract and empty them out so they can wear them as skin-suits. That's where the Lovecraftian angle comes in, as the movie is basically a loose adaptation of "From Beyond," which is at least acknowledged when Anne and Not-Hunter-S.-Thompson investigate Callie's disappearance.

A while back, I had an unsettling waking dream. I'd fallen asleep on the couch one weekend while watching TV, and when I woke up, I saw someone looking through the window. This was in broad daylight. The person outside was very short, under five feet tall, and had a face that was horribly burned, scarred and melted. He just stood outside, watching me on the couch, until I actually woke up and realized, of course, that there was no one outside at all. This is the sort of thing that makes Banshee Chapter a solid horror movie. The idea that something is outside, something is coming toward your back door, something sees you, and daylight won't save you. It relies on jump scares a bit more than I'd like, but the imagery and atmosphere are genuinely unsettling enough that I'll give it a pass.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Play Misty For Me

The Mist (2007)

This is a bit unusual in that it's a movie that's not among my favorites, for a number of reasons, but still interesting on a purely conceptual level and, in some ways, in terms of execution. Kind of like Event Horizon. I like the idea, basically, and sometimes the movie does it well enough that I can sit through the annoying parts.

Based on a novella by Stephen King and directed by The Shawshank Redemption's Frank Darabont, The Mist opens with, as might be expected, a dense mist descending on the small town of Bridgton, Maine -- a nonfictional town, though Castle Rock, one of King's favorite fictional locations, is mentioned. Artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane), his son Billy (some kid) and his unfriendly neighbor Brent Norton (Homicide's Andre Braugher) take a trip to the local supermarket to pick up some supplies and find themselves trapped inside as the mist creeps far enough inland to envelope the entire store, with out-of-towner Dan Miller (Jeffrey DeMunn, who's probably remembered these days as Dale from The Walking Dead) running ahead of it screaming about something dangerous in the fog. Maybe something alive.

Tensions start to rise as the shoppers debate whether to venture out into the mist and see what's up with it. Then the shit hits the fan when David, Norm the bag boy and a few local assholes go to check the generator in the loading dock and Norm gets eaten alive by a bunch of spiny tentacles that reach in from outside and rip off his skin. It's pretty unpleasant. Nobody in the store believes them, so Brent, in an idiotic attempt to prove David wrong, heads outside with a rope tied around his waist and ends up getting bitten in half by something. That pretty much sets the powder keg off and pits everyone in the store against each other as they prepare for nightfall and the new horrors that come with it. There are a few other people of note -- a trio of soldiers from the nearby Arrowhead Base, who seem to be keeping a secret, and the awful Mrs. Carmody, a religious zealot deeply devoted to an extremely bloodthirsty Old Testament God, whose preaching goes from annoying to dangerous as the people trapped in the supermarket grow more frightened and more susceptible to her influence.

It's a good story and it's been influencing other writers for a long time. The first computer game based on the novella was released in 1985, and Silent Hill has a number of similarities (the all-encompassing mist being the most obvious). The groundbreaking video game Half-Life was directly influenced by the novella. There's even an episode of Ultraman based on it. Both the novella and the film are deeply cynical, and none of these people are likable. The only people you don't want to see mauled by tentacles are Ollie the assistant manager (Toby Jones, who at the time was in every movie released for about five years) and Irene Reppler, the badass old lady who beans Mrs. Carmody in the head with a can of peas. The irrational tensions, the eventual willingness to participate in human sacrifice to appease the monsters in the mist, all this is basically the point of the story: that people are dumb and panicky and dangerous, and if you put more than two of them in a room for a few days, they'll start thinking of ways to kill each other. It wouldn't be quite as frustrating if it weren't true. At least in this movie it's intentional. Most movies want you to like their shitty people, or at least to sympathize with them. They constantly ignore the obvious. Seriously, half the deaths in the movie could have been averted if they'd just duct-taped Mrs. Carmody's mouth shut, tied her up and tossed her in the storage room at the start.

I do like the monsters here, and how they're handled. There are all sorts of creatures, from giant crabs to skinless pterodactyls to dog-sized spiders that shoot acidic webs. Eventually you're sort of looking forward to seeing what horrifying death the next monster will inflict on these hapless jerks. What's interesting is that as easy as it would be to portray a tentacled horror hundreds of feet tall, large enough to leave road-width footprints in its wake, as some kind of Lovecraftian thing from beyond space, the creatures here are all just animals. Animals from a different place, and by all evidence a much less pleasant place, but they're still part of a natural order. Sure, the pink four-winged pterodactyl thing takes out a few shoppers during its rampage, but it's just going after the giant poisonous bugs attracted by the store's floodlights. It's how I imagine things would go if one drastically different ecosystem began to impose itself upon another one.

One last thing that makes The Mist noteworthy is the ending. It differs quite a bit from King's original, which I liked better, but I have to admire the sheer, unexpected cruelty of the movie's ending. It might be the least happy ending I've ever seen. Most horror movies can't resist having the slasher survive, or having the characters doomed after all, even when it makes no sense whatsoever...but The Mist sticks the knife in and just twists it, and I have to give it a few points for that. There's also a director's cut in black and white, which is probably the best way to watch this.

Available On: Amazon Prime.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Low-Budget Double Feature

The current resurgence of independent, low-budget horror, as we discussed in our review of A Dark Souvenir, has opened the door for some skilled new filmmakers in the horror genre -- a genre that's typically a bit trickier to get a foot in the door than most, as you have to take into account special effects and makeup. These were just recently added to the Netflix horror roster and are worth taking a look if you want some suspenseful, minimalist horror.

From the Dark (2014)

From the Dark is a very straightforward vampire movie from Ireland. It breaks absolutely no new ground in concept, but it's very competent and suspenseful in execution. Our main characters are Mark and Sarah, a couple traveling through the Irish countryside when their car breaks down. With evening coming on, Mark decides to hike to the nearest farmhouse, only to find its sole occupant badly wounded and incoherent. When he brings Sarah back to the house to try to help the old man (who made a terrible discovery at the beginning of the film and was attacked by the thing he unearthed), they find themselves under attack from a creature that seems to fear nothing but light.

This movie's simplicity works in its favor. It doesn't try to mix up the vampire myth at all. There's a vampire (the bald, ugly Nosferatu type), the people it bites turn into vampires eventually, and there are two people in a farmhouse. Sarah is the real protagonist here, as she's left to fend for herself before long. Niamh Algar is a fantastic physical actress and really sells how far she's being pushed as she tries to figure out a way to escape the farmhouse even as her sources of light dwindle -- she's got a flashlight, then a lamp, then a burning newspaper...a candle...a pack of matches. After a certain point there's really no dialogue at all, and the movie stands steady as a tense physical confrontation between woman and monster.

Available On: Netflix.

Creep (2014)

Creep is another two-person horror movie written and directed by, and starring, Patrick Brice as Aaron, a freelance videographer, and Mark Duplass as Josef, the lonely recluse who hires him for a day's work. Josef, diagnosed with cancer, has two months to live and an unborn son on the way, and he wants Aaron to film a typical day in his life to leave behind for his son. There's just something off about him. He's too eager to be Aaron's friend, too free with personal details about his life, and his attempts at social interaction grow increasingly unsettling, until Aaron begins to suspect that being around Josef might be dangerous.

Unlike From the Dark, Creep is a dialogue-heavy movie, and it's all delivered naturally by Brice and Duplass. Everyone's met someone like Josef before, and has probably been at least a little unsettled. A lot of the tension here comes from the fact that we're never entirely sure -- and neither is Aaron -- that there's actually anything to worry about. It's possible that Josef is dangerously crazy, but it's also possible that he's just a lonely weirdo looking for a friend. The ending took me entirely by surprise. This is a found footage film, and found footage is something I'm never entirely on board with. Creep has a few of the hallmarks of the subgenre (particularly a few scenes where you have to ask why the person's still filming), but at least in this case the pretext is there, and the cleverness of the dialogue, the relationship between the only two characters in the movie, and a dark sense of humor throughout raise Creep well above the level of the rash of found-footage horror movies that have popped up in the wake of Paranormal Activity (and above Paranormal Activity itself, which I thought was frankly crap).

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Troll 2 (1990)

Troll was a B-movie that came out in 1986. These days it's mostly known for having a main character named Harry Potter who fights a troll and for featuring a number of actors who were pretty well-known at the time or would go on to be well-known (Law and Order's Michael Moriarty and The Neverending Story's Noah Hathaway, among others, but the most surprising would have to be Sonny Bono of all people). The film's non-sequel, Troll 2, is something of a cult classic among horror fans despite having considerably lower production values and exactly no one of note in its cast. It's often called the worst movie ever made, and was in fact the subject of a documentary called Best Worst Movie, which reunited as much of its original cast as possible to discuss the troubled production and the movie's subsequent cult status. I wouldn't quite call it the worst movie ever -- Robot Monster, The Beast of Yucca Flats and Horrors of Spider Island are my top (bottom?) three -- but it's a bad one, and it's certainly entertaining.

Joshua Waites has a crippling fear of goblins, because the ghost of his Grandpa Seth shows up at night to tell him stories about them. So he's not too happy when his family plans a vacation to the country town of Nilbog, where the townspeople, who are goblins in disguise but really make no effort whatsoever to act like normal people, capture tourists and other outsiders and feed them magic plant mush to turn them into half-plant, half-human hybrids, which are apparently their favorite food. Yeah, I have no idea what's going on here either.

 "You can't piss on hospitality! I won't allow it!"

Anyway, Holly, Joshua's teenage sister, has a weird thing going on with her boyfriend Elliot. The first time we even see them together she punches him in the crotch and Elliot asks if she's "trying to turn him into a homo." Elliot and his dumbass friends follow the Waitses in their trailer and provide most of the movie's body count thanks to a run-in with Sheriff Gene Freak (really) and the town's resident witch, Creedence, who seems to be the only person in the movie who knows how awful it is and makes the most of it. She turns one guy into a tree, and later asks for more magic power from the Stonehenge rock that serves as the source of the goblins' power. This turns her into a hot witch and she wastes it all on a baffling scene where she has super-weird popcorn sex with another of Elliot's friends.

"They're eating her. And then they're going to eat me.
(Notice the fly that landed on his forehead.)

There's so much going on in this movie you'll never sort it out. There's a priest who looks sort of like Mankind, some really awful goblin masks, strangely upbeat (and genuinely catchy) music during chase scenes, and some of the worst dialogue ever. (This is because director Claudio Fragasso and his wife Rossella Drudi wrote the script in English, which Fragasso wasn't great at and Drudi didn't speak at all, and refused to let the actors ad-lib any of their dialogue.) The crazy drug store owner was played by an actor who was snatched up by Fragasso when he actually was on a day pass from the mental institution he was staying in, and really wasn't acting. Most of the characters are played by people who thought they were answering a casting call for extras and ended up in important roles despite their lack of experience. It was written partly as a diatribe against vegetarianism, as Drudi was annoyed that so many of her friends were turning vegetarian. It was shot in three weeks, and at one point had a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It's no Apocalypse Now, but really, the whole production's an awful mess.

Grandpa Seth is obviously the best part of the movie. His ghost powers know no bounds. Well, maybe they do, but they're so nebulously defined as to be limitless. He can appear in mirrors as a floating head. Sometimes he can physically manifest. He can stop time (but only for 30 seconds). He can bring back stuff from the afterlife, like a lumberjack's axe, a molotov cocktail, a fire extinguisher and eventually a balogna sandwich, which defeats the goblins in the end when Joshua aggressively eats it. He can shoot lightning bolts. The movie would probably be over in about five minutes if his powers were consistent.

"Stonehenge magic stone. The goblins' magic power!"

This is the sort of movie by which you measure a person's ability to perceive that odd phenomenon we call "so bad it's good." The entire reason for Mystery Science Theater 3000's existence. I've had people ask me to explain this concept, and it's honestly impossible to do so. You get it or you don't. Anyone who knows me can tell you I'm not much of a comedy person. I prefer unintentional comedy, but I couldn't tell you why. Sitcoms bore me to death, but something like CSI: Cyber, with its naked technophobia and complete lack of research about any part of its subject matter, makes me laugh from start to finish. Standup comedy rarely makes me laugh, and most of the standup comics I actually do like are dead by now, but I'll sit through the new Fast & the Furious movie and it'll have me in tears. I don't know why this is. Maybe it's that it pisses me off when someone tells me to laugh, or to feel sad, or to be scared, and comedy, of all genres, is the least likely to dress up its intentions in any kind of artifice, while Troll 2 and CSI: Cyber are hilarious because they aren't trying to be. It's a concept I've tried to rationalize and explain dozens of times, and it's one of those things that can't be put into words, at least not to an extent sufficient to make sense of it to someone who doesn't already understand. Anyway, if someone doesn't find Troll 2 funny, they probably won't find any other b-movies funny.

No, there are no trolls in Troll 2.

Available On: Netflix, Amazon Prime.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Kung Fury

As a lifelong horror fan, it would be remiss of me to say nothing about the passing of Christopher Lee this week -- he was Fu Manchu in the 60s, Dracula in the 70s, he was Saruman at the turn of the millennium and even, like another pop-culture icon we recently lost, lent his voice to the Kingdom Hearts video game series. In addition to making Benedict Cumberbatch sound like a tenor in comparison, Lee was a badass in so many ways it seems improbable. He was related to czars, kings and Ian Fleming. He caught dysentery six times in one year, prevented a mutiny and was an agent for British Special Ops before the SAS even existed, making him a proto-secret agent. He made two heavy metal Christmas albums and whatever this wonderful thing is. And he could out-"Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" Kevin Bacon himself, as he was reportedly the most connected actor in all of cinema.

Rest in peace, Sir Christopher -- you will be missed. Unfortunately, Netflix and Amazon Prime have a very sparse selection of Hammer horror films, and the ones they do have aren't the best. Instead, let's take a look at a recent release you probably knew I would have to review sooner or later if you know anything about me.

Kung Fury (2015)

So I grew up in the 1980s. You can say any decade has its silly aspects, but the 80s were uniquely ridiculous, and vastly entertaining as a result -- not just in retrospect. More on this later, but Kung Fury is more or less a half-hour joke about how absurd the 80s were. Kung Fury (that's his name) is a cowboy cop who became the world's greatest kung fu master after his partner/father figure Dragon was killed by a ninja and Kung Fury was bitten by a cobra. He's also the Chosen One in a kung fu prophecy. Naturally, he clashes with his superiors because he won't play by the rules and refuses to work with his new partner Triceracop, and turns in his badge just before someone makes a call to the police station and guns everyone down. (As in, fires into the other phone, and the bullets come out of the receiver and hit everybody.) It turns out Adolf Hitler made the call, as he was the reigning kung fu champion of the world during WWII and wants to kill Kung Fury so he can take his position in the prophecy.

Kung Fury joins forces with Hackerman, the greatest hacker of all time, who puts together a computer algorithm that allows him to travel back in time to kill Hitler before he vanished from the pages of history. An error results in Kung Fury being transported back to the Viking age, where he meets some dinosaur-riding barbarian ladies and Thor, son of Odin. Traveling forward to the 1940s, he goes up against Hitler and his Nazi army in a fight to the finish.

That's basically all there is to it. Kung Fury started out as a trailer produced for around $5,000, and a successful Kickstarter campaign resulted in a $600,000, half-hour-long movie. There are some things that work, and some that don't. What it gets right, it gets perfectly. The Laser Unicorns logo at the beginning and the cell phone commercial are uncannily accurate, and there's a bit later on with a spot-on pastiche of M.A.S.K., one of the more obscure cartoons of my childhood. I remember those shitty VHS distortion lines like it was yesterday -- and of course they show up during the cool parts, because you always rewound the tape about a million times until your VCR chewed it up. And the song (sung by David Hasselhoff, of all people) that plays during the end credits is absolutely flawless. Listen to any number of 80s power ballads and you start to detect a pattern: there's always something about the wire, the edge, the game (and the importance of winning it, because like Cheap Trick says, there's no points for second best), a heart (possibly burning), survival, the spirit, or the night. And at some point, someone will yell "HEYYY!" between verses. I just watched Kickboxer again for the first time in about 20 years yesterday, and the song from the tournament montage in that has about 90% of those things in its first two lines.

That's kind of why Kung Fury doesn't entirely work, though. I propose a theory to anyone thinking of making something like Far Cry: Blood Dragon or Kung Fury: No joke about the 80s, however accurate, will be as funny as the 80s actually were.

Kung Fury gets a lot of things right, but the special effects are way better than anything we had back then, which can actually be distracting, and it's also sometimes too clever by half. There are too many nudges and winks. The Power Glove, David Hasselhoff -- all that stuff was funny, but joking about something that was already funny seems unnecessary, unless you're going to do build it all up to something new and meaningful, as Ernest Cline does in Ready Player One. If you want to make fun of the 80s while simultaneously kind of admiring how endearingly cheesy they were, all you need to do is post a film clip or a music video from the 80s.

See, that is hilarious -- and it isn't even a joke, that's actually the way things were 30 years ago. Maybe it's just my tendency to find unintentional comedy much more entertaining than a show or a movie that expects me to laugh when it wants me to. And there are certainly moments in Kung Fury where you'll laugh. It's an entertaining movie, and what the hell else are you going to do for 31 minutes? At the same time, I mean -- just watch this. This is like shooting the 80s directly into your veins, and it's not even supposed to be funny. Vintage 1987 kung fu garbage.

Kung Fury also has a few too many jokes that have been done to death in modern pop culture. There's a triceratops cop, and a bunch of jokes about Hitler and how he had jet packs and robot eagles and so on. It's more like an Axe Cop short film than a 1980s action movie, and having grown up in the 80s -- I was born in 1979, so those were my prime childhood years -- I can honestly say that, while Kung Fury is enjoyable, it's funnier when you let the 80s speak for themselves. Or at the very least, play it straight. Tom Savini's Planet Terror, for example, is a near-perfect 80s zombie spoof. That said, Kung Fury is funniest in its subtler moments -- granted, something I doubt you'll hear many people say -- like when Kung Fury has two police badges on him in one scene even though he slammed his badge down on the chief's desk earlier in the movie, or the slightly off-center framing when the camera goes in for a closeup.

Ultimately, this may be an imperfect movie and an imperfect parody, but it's got its heart in the right place and succeeds often enough that I can overlook its more ham-handed jokes and enjoy the bits where it does hit what it's aiming for.

Available On: YouTube, Steam.

The trailer:

The movie:

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Yessir, The Check Is In The Mail

Sorry for the delay on this latest article, but I wanted to see if a rumor that had been floating around this weekend would be confirmed, and it seems it has been. It seems we're getting a remake of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, with The Rock taking over Kurt Russell's role. I have feelings about this, most of them not good, but first let's get into what makes the original so great.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Carpenter hasn't done much directing in the last ten years, and what he did direct hasn't been great. For about a decade, though, from roughly 1979 to 1989, Carpenter was solid gold. Practically everything he directed was fantastic. Some of my favorite movies ever came from Carpenter's heyday -- 1978's Halloween, 1980's The Fog, 1982's The Thing (a much more faithful adaptation of its source material, John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?", than the 1951 version), 1987's Prince of Darkness (a Lovecraftian horror story masquerading as religious horror), 1988's media satire They Live! -- just to name a few.

Big Trouble in Little China is probably his most insane movie. It's...well, let's call it an action-horror-fantasy-comedy. Trucker Jack Burton (Russell) shows up in L.A.'s Chinatown and gets in over his head when his friend Wang's girlfriend Mao Yin is kidnapped by the Lords of Death, a local gang. There's an underground turf war going on between multiple Chinatown gangs, but all that pales to the real threat -- David Lo Pan, an ancient Chinese sorcerer played by the incomparable James Hong, who pretty much steals the show. Whatever Lo Pan is, he's no longer human. He's an evil dream, or a magician who made a deal with a demon, or was cursed by a demon, or "a ghost playing at being a man," but he is, in his own words, "beyond your understanding." He's also intent on possessing Mao Yin, as a prophecy has said that if he marries a girl with green eyes, he can become mortal again, his soul no longer scattered across eternity.

Wang and Jack team up with lawyer Gracie Law, Wang's friend Eddie and bus driver Egg Shen (the late, great Victor Wong), who also happens to be Lo Pan's rival in sorcery. The crew descends into Chinatown's hidden subterranean depths, a labyrinth full of monsters, traps, magic and centuries-old evil. There's a gorilla monster, a Beholder from Dungeons & Dragons, a giant neon skull, Lo Pan's three henchmen Thunder (Hong Kong movie star Carter Wong, who I'd watched in a dozen Saturday-afternoon kung fu movies on WGTW-48 during my early teens), Lightning and Rain, and all sorts of other craziness that has to be seen to be believed.

"Oh my God, no, what is that, don't tell me!"

There are some mostly apocryphal stories that Big Trouble in Little China was originally meant to be a sequel to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, and if I didn't know better I could believe it, because this movie is just as ridiculous and the dialogue is just as weird. It's a movie steeped in Eastern mysticism and Western bravado, and it could only have been made right smack in the middle of the '80s. Movies back then had their directors' fingerprints all over them. You could recognize a John Carpenter movie about two minutes in.

Which is partly why I'm wary, to say the least, of any attempt to remake it. It's relevant as a snapshot of '80s culture, and I have vivid memories of Chinatown actually being a lot like it is here when I was a kid (minus the cave-dwelling monsters), but a modern remake just seems like it would be sort of meaningless. Both cultures, American and Chinese, have moved on, independently and relative to one another. Potential racial insensitivity aside, what's the point of making this movie again?

"I'll have you both rolled off to the Hell Where People Are Skinned Alive,
it's that simple, understand?!"

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against remakes on principle. Sometimes they offer a new perspective on the original, sometimes they let the director refine his or her own vision, as with Takashi Shimizu's American remake of Ju-On: The Grudge. Lately, however, it seems to me as if a lot of remakes are just missing the point. RoboCop did away with the original's sharp satire and over-the-top gore. Total Recall didn't even take place on Mars. If they ever remake Starship Troopers -- well, I hope they don't, enough people misunderstood that one the first time around. I haven't seen the new Poltergeist, but everyone seems to be saying the same thing: as with the rest, it's blandly inoffensive and essentially pointless. Like chewing cardboard for an hour and a half. It's as if producers know people liked these movies, but they never even think to imagine why people liked them.

The whole point of Big Trouble in Little China is fairly subversive for its time. A lot of movies had the all-American hero and the Asian sidekick, who tended to be played by a non-Asian actor, such as Joel Grey as Chiun in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (I love Joel Grey, but he is not the best casting choice for a wise Chinese mentor). Jack Burton thinks he's the hero of the story, and the audience is invited to believe this as well -- he's Kurt Russell, after all -- but Wang is the real protagonist, and it's Jack who's the bumbling comedy sidekick. When the final battle starts, he fires his machine gun in the air and ends up knocking himself out with a piece of the ceiling, and then he ends up spending most of it pinned down under a pile of guys who keep getting killed on top of him. I just can't see The Rock doing that.

"Oh sure, and sorcery!"

On the other hand, I like The Rock. I like him as an action star. I like him as a serious actor. I like him as a comedy actor. He seems like a cool guy in real life, and onscreen he has charisma to spare. He also says the original is one of his favorite movies. But I'm not sure anyone involved gets the whole thing about Jack being the sidekick who thinks he's awesome, but seems perpetually out of his depth with each new turn in the maze. Maybe they'll do the same thing here, and set him up as the star only to turn audience expectations on their heads.

I guess we'll see how it turns out, but in the meantime, check out the fantastic 1986 original, which will, I'm about 99.99% certain, be better than even a remake that does it justice.

Available On: Netflix, Amazon Prime.