Stir of Echoes (1999)

Stir of Echoes (1999) movie poster

director  David Koepp
viewed: 01/14/2018

I didn’t have the fondest recall of 1999’s Stir of Echoes, but having just read the book, I thought it might be worth a re-visit.

Richard Matheson might not have been a great novelist, but he was certainly one of the cool horror-sci-fi idea men of his generation  and lots of great stuff emanated from his work. I became keened in on him through TV’s The Twilight Zone, and I still hold him in esteem.

Unsurprisingly, the book is better than the film. Not that the film is bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. The book develops the main character as having developed all kinds of psychic ability as a result of hypnotism, but writer-director David Koepp, probably to try to hone in, focuses the story on the ghost that starts haunting him. That, and adding the psychic powers of his kid, winds up giving Stir of Echoes a poor man’s The Sixth Sense, though that also came out the same year.

Koepp employs some visual effects that I liked: the Hitchcockian flares of red when Kevin Bacon senses something amiss with the babysitter. But the film suffers a bit from some computer-developed effects, like the ghost movement, an effect that hasn’t aged well.

Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Trilogy of Terror (1975) movie still

director Dan Curtis
viewed: 04/25/2017

There is a major dividing line for viewers of the 1975 made-for-TV movie Trilogy of Terror, and that dividing line is between those who saw it back in the day (original airing or another time in the tender years of childhood) and anyone coming upon it elsewise.

Because if you saw this as a kid, you never forgot the Zuni fetish doll come to life and madly trying to kill Karen Black with all its meager, mighty warrior terror. Or that hilarious ending where Karen Black smiles Zuni doll teeth. A lot of folks rate this as one of the biggest freakout terror movies made for television in the 1970’s heyday of such stuff.

Even now it’s somewhere between terrifying and hysterical. It’s almost as if the first two segments of the film cease to exist at all.

But it’s Karen Black in her prime in each of these stories, all from the pen of Richard Matheson originally, but tellingly, the one screenplay he actually wrote was the finale.

I don’t know that I was as scarred by this film as others were. My mom always had a thing against Karen Black (I don’t know why) which probably vaguely shaded my childhood viewing of the film.

The Zuni doll bit is silly brilliance eternal.

Tales of Terror (1962)

Tales of Terror (1962) movie poster

director Roger Corman
viewed: 05/18/2014

Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror may not be the highlight of his “Poe cycle” but it has its charms.  It’s got Vincent Price in every segment and Peter Lorre in the second and Basil Rathbone in the third.  The episodes are “Morella”,  a”The Black Cat” mash-up “The Cask of Amontillado”, and finally “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”.

The Peter Lorre one is amusing, played for comedy in contrast to the more serious and spooky other segments.  Lorre is quite good.  He is both the caricature of Lorre that showed up in cartoons and also much more than that, the real, talented actor that he was.  Quite the classic.

It has charms, certainly.  I think I recall finding it kind of dull as a kid.  And surely, that is understandable.  Nothing too exciting happens until the end, the last segment when Price comes back from the dead and then decomposes rapidly all over his tormentor Rathbone.

Burn Witch Burn (1962)

Night of the Eagle (1962) movie poster

director Sidney Hayers
viewed: 05/18/2014

If you’re a psychologist who disdains the supernatural, you better hope that your wife is not secretly a witch.  And if she is and then you find out and make her destroy all the totems that she’s acquired to protect you from evil and ensure ongoing luck and happiness, you better hope that you don’t have another witch colleague who has been long gunning for your downfall.  Things might get hairy.

This is a very nice sort of obscure British horror film, co-written by both Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, two of my favorite writers from The Twilight Zone.  I suppose that it’s no accident then that this film has the feel of a sustained Twilight Zone episode.

The film reminded me of a couple of cool movies, notably Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) and Mark Robson’s Val Lewton production of  The Seventh Victim (1943).  Demons, witches, and devil worship, oh my!  Quite excellent stuff.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) movie poster

directors John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller
viewed: 06/08/2013

The Twilight Zone was one of my formative favorite television shows.  I caught it on PBS on Saturdays as a kid and developed a number of favorite episodes.  I’ve come to think that it has led to my penchant for outdated science fiction.  Not to say that the show didn’t have its relevance in the 1980’s, just that it was a great image of its time and its creator Rod Serling.

When Twilight Zone: the Movie came out in 1983, I was well-aware of the tragedy that happened on-set with the crash of the helicopter and the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two young children.  That sad fact still haunts the film.  And worse yet, it haunts the film’s worst segment, and is in a sense what pulls the film down from any potential greatness.  I felt it at the time when I first saw it, and I’d say that it’s still true now, three decades later.

The anthology film has moments as a type of film, perhaps, but is almost inevitably challenged by the variance in quality of its segments.  Directors John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller each imparted something to the film, but it has to play as a whole, or at least it was meant to play as a whole, with far less narration opening and closing each sequence.  The film’s heart is in the right place, trying for the spirit of the show, but somehow only Dante and Miller deliver on it and Miller delivers the only sequence of greatness.  It’s arguable that Spielberg’s segment is among the worst of his career.

Focusing on the positive, Joe Dante’s redo of “It’s a Good Life” channels Serling and Richard Matheson via Looney Tunes.  After watching his Gremlins 2 (1988) recently, his taste for the anarchic antics of early animation seems deeply embedded if not beautifully realized.  It’s about a creepy boy with the power to make anything happen and the people who absolutely fear him.  Billy Mumy played the boy in the original and it’s one of the true classics of the show.  It’s pretty good here, too.

But Miller’s version of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, also originally from Richard Matheson actually maybe improves upon the classic episode that starred a young William Shatner.  It’s a acrophobic guy on the plane who is losing his mind, thinking the engines are being sabotaged by a gremlin.  The Shatner version is pretty great, though the gremlin left a bit to be desired.  The Miller version has an amazing John Lithgow in the Shatner role, a much creepier, cooler gremlin, and a perfectly paced and executed paranoia thrill ride of a run.  It’s the film’s most redeeming sequence.  The highlight without a doubt.  It’s been speculated that Spielberg realized the quality of the episodes and put them in order to improve.

It still doesn’t rescue the film.

The kids weren’t too into it.  The opening sequence with Vic Morrow as a racist facing being in Nazi Germany as a Jew, the deep South as an African American, in Vietnam as a VC, who knows what it would have been had nothing happened. It’s weak and a bit of a cluster.

They liked the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” part.  But they weren’t overly impressed.  Oddly enough, of the 3 episodes of the show that they’d seen,”Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was one of them.  This was the biggest flop I’ve played for them in a long while.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 01/04/2013

The second film of our impromptu Jack Arnold triple feature was The Incredible Shrinking Man, which TCM noted for us is considered Arnold’s best film.  It was the one that intrigued Clara the most of the three titles.  Oddly enough, as familiar as I’ve been with this film over the years, I don’t know that I’d actually ever watched it.  Certainly not in its entirety.

Written by Richard Matheson from his own novel, it’s pop science fiction with a heady little spin.

When Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and his wife are out on the sea one day, he is fatefully caught in a weird cloud of what turns out to be some form of nuclear radiation.  When months later he is exposed to an insecticide, the combination of exposures triggers his body to start shrinking.

Arnold employs a number of clever camera tricks to portray Williams in various levels of decreasing size in comparison with his wife, house, and world around him.  The effects are a big part of the film’s lasting appeal, creating some its most recognizable images, with Williams armed with a pin, facing off against the housecat and a tarantula.  Arnold’s work on his 1955 film Tarantula helped hone these camera tricks to create such impressive imagery.

The ending of the film is a sort of anti-climax, though it’s arguably conceptually more interesting.  Williams shrinks beyond microscopic size, into an atomic and subatomic world that changes all concepts of reality and self.  Not surprisingly, this was a bit of a stretch for 1950’s special effects and so this change is described in voice-over and plays out with a vague abruptness.  It actually disappointed Clara quite a bit, who had enjoyed the film considerably up to that point.  I agree that as dramatic denouement it is a tad low key.  And since the visuals don’t really communicate it, it’s a little vague.  But I think conceptually it’s quite interesting, moving from a story of such literal, physical challenges in our known world to something utterly abstract…that’s pretty interesting.

I’m still partial to It Came from Outer Space (1953) (which would turn out to be our final film of our triple feature too) as my favorite of Arnold’s films, but The Incredible Shrinking Man is good stuff all the way around.

Real Steel

Real Steel (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Shawn Levy
viewed: 10/23/2011

The “feel good” robot boxing movie of 2011.

Absurdly chock-full of cliche, sentiment, and sappy music, Real Steel didn’t look like a good bet.  It’s a boxing movie, made along the lines of genre staples, only this time the combatants are big robots.  Seeing the trailer over the summer, the kids seemed interested, though I grimly winced and hoped that this wouldn’t be something we’d have to see.  But then it got some pretty good reviews and I thought we’d give it a shot.

Loosely adapted from a Richard Matheson short story (and eventual episode of The Twilight Zone original series, “Steel”), the film opens in the near future (near enough to look exactly like our present) in which boxing has become too brutal for humans, so to allow for endless carnage, humanity has turned the WWE into the WRB (World Robot Boxing) league.  Despite that rather tenuous connection to the source material, you’d have been hard pressed to have made the association.

Hugh Jackman, a former boxer, now underground robot boxer owner, is shown on his way to a rodeo operated by a former opponent.  He sets his robot to wrestle a bull and his robot gets trashed.  Jackman is also a deadbeat dad, only his ex-girlfriend, mother of his 11 year old son (played by Dakota Goyo), has died, leaving him with the opportunity to hand the boy off to the boy’s aunt.  Well, Jackman, who has no use for a kid, manages to wrangle more money from the family but winds up with the boy through the summer.

One more robot down, creditors galore, he and the boy break into a junk yard to find pieces to build a new robot.  But the boy finds an old early generation sparring ‘bot called Atom, who turns out to be more than the sum of his parts (and some leftover parts from the two previous robots).  Atom can “shadow” someone, mimicking their moves, but more than that, he’s suggested to be sentient (though to the film’s credit, this is left as a subtle aspect of the story, which winds up adding depth to it.)

Atom goes from being sure dead meat (or the robot equivalent) to being a contender for the title of robot champion.  Classic boxing narrative: check.

The thing about the movie is that it does work, despite itself.  Director Shawn Levy (whose prior film credits include things like Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), The Pink Panther (2006), Night at the Museum (2006), Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009), and Date Night (2010)) often lets the emotional moments linger too long. The girlfriend is in tears of joy watching the boy who is in tears of joy, watching his dad in tears of joy…you get the idea.

Yet somehow, this ham-fisted story delivery works within the genre.  By the end of the film we were all rooting for Jackman and Atom and while I didn’t muster tears of joy, I did actually quite enjoy the damn thing.  Though Felix was a bit non-committal after the film, he was full of smiles at the sassy Goyo and Clara watched the final fight with clenched fists and intensity.

The effects are good, too, using real life “robots” for many close-ups and well-executed digital effects for the bigger action scenes.  Atom has a simple design with lit-up eyes and a strange scar-like laceration to the mesh of his face that gives him a subtle but effective smile.  The one thing the film holds back on is Atom as a thinking, possibly living thing, holding those cards close to the vest and I have to say that I think that is one of the keys to why this film wound up working so well for me.

I don’t know.  Go figure.  The boxing robot movie was actually pretty good.

The Box

The Box (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Richard Kelly
viewed: 04/02/10

Oh Dear.

Writer/director Richard Kelly, most notable for the 2001 film Donnie Darko, brings forth his latest version of end-of-the-world catclysm sci-fi gobbledygook.  How far and how fast he has fallen.   Let’s face it, Donnie Darko was an indie oddity whose value was debatable and up for analysis and discussion as the years treated it, as well as Kelly’s own following work.  Well, his following work, Southland Tales (2006) and now The Box, really tell of a flash in the proverbial pan.

Adapted from a short story by the notable sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend (2007)), The Box is a strange, largely very bad extended Twilight Zone episode played out in a period setting more apt to the science fiction of the film.  Kelly puts a lot of his own life into the story.  The film is set in his own native Virginia of 1976.  And Kelly’s father worked at NASA’s Viking program (as is the main character) and his mother was afflicted with a weird disfigurement due to over-exposure to X-rays (as is the main character’s wife).

So we have this weirdly personal version of mid-20th century science fiction fear of apocalypse, loaded to the max with set design (particularly the decor of the family home) a little outsized to the film.

The story is of a husband and wife who are approached by a highly disfigured Frank Langella with a “box” and a proposition.  The box has a button.  If they push the button, someone somewhere in the world dies, and they get $1,000,000 cash, no tax.  The idea is that this is a moral dilemma, posed to them artificially, yet meant to be deeply significant bearing on humanity.  People, you see, are greedier than they are righteous.  And the film’s take on morality is a high-handed and problematic righteousness that does beg questions of who exactly determines what is morally right and what is morally wrong?

It’s not as poignant as the best of this type of science fiction can be, though I don’t know if that is Matheson’s fault or simply the change of historical perspective or Kelly’s, but since it’s Kelly’s baby to make this a relevant and worthwhile endeavor for the 21st century, let’s blame him.  And Cameron Diaz, for her merits, is really a poorly cast actress here.  Her acting is flabby and  she seems miscast.  But the whole film is a dull wreck.

The film verges constantly on the edge of epic badness.  And it’s a shame that it tipped neither way, towards decency or towards hilarity, which is the crime of the marginally bad films.  True badness is greater than semi-badness.   But this film will probably not help several careers herein.  What Kelly manages to do now…it’ll be interesting to see, but I’ve got to think that he’s really got little left of value for our viewing pleasure and/or enlightenment.

Duel

Duel (1971) movie poster

(1971) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 09/07/09

Strangely, I’d never seen Duel, Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough television movie adapted from a novellette by the notable Richard Matheson.  It’s from a time when television movies occasionally rose to cinematic quality, and in fact, Duel was released as a feature film in Europe.  It’s quite nice to see Spielberg at work in his early phase, utilizing camera framings and managing tension and drama and action like an old pro.  It’s easy to see how this propelled his career and has remained among the notable films by Spielberg, even after decades of more well-known work.

The story is simple.  A man, Dennis Weaver, is driving the back road highways of California and runs afoul of a greasy, menacing semi truck, emblazoned with “flamable” and spewing black smoke.  Within a series of increasingly dangerous ploys, it becomes clear that this unseen driver is out to kill him, for no clear reason.  And isolated in the California backroads and mountains, it is simply man against murderous machine, a clean and simple scenario, and it’s taken to the hilt.

I reckon that this film set up a lot of the same tensions in Jaws (1975), though that film was less a one-on-one thriller, perhaps a less potentially philosophical sensibility.  From the opening sequence, which is sort of a car’s grill point-of-view, pulling out of the garage and moving along into traffic and onto the freeway, with only radio jabber to fill the audio as the credits roll, this is a much more interesting and sophisticated approach to film than the average Joe might have thrown in there.  You see mostly Spielberg’s mastery with action and tension, though it’s not without its lags, and a little of his ability to populate sequences with keenly honed and easily recognizable characters at the cafe, the snakehouse gas station, and even some of his tropes about American family life in the phone call with Weaver’s wife.  By this, his general characterization of people, and by further point, Americans.

The story is very much like a Twilight Zone episode, in a sense.  And Matheson was a key contributor to what that would signify anyways, having written several of the shows most notable episodes.  One weakness, perhaps, is Weaver’s internal dialogue, done in voiceover.  Always kind of a clunky device, but hard perhaps to separate from the story.  At the same time, it might have been even more interesting without hearing his fretting thoughts.

I also found it interesting to see the California hillsides and byways, which are now way more populated than they would have been in 1971, though the film probably exagerrates the isolation available on those backroads even then.  It’s something that strikes me at time to time, especially in looking at films from a previous era, how much more built up the world is than it was 30-50-70 years ago.  How isolation, a point of self against the world, loneliness, helplessness, is actually not nearly as easy to achieve as it once was.  The concept, much like a dream or nightmare, is much more concept than reality these days.

I Am Legend

I Am Legend (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Francis Lawrence
viewed: 12/21/07 at AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX

Going to see I Am Legend, this latest, most literal from a title perspective though not from a narrative perspective, adaptation of Richard Matheson’s science fiction/horror novel from the 1950’s was the cap on a little series of films that I’d been seeing leading up to this film’s release.  As I’d mentioned before in other posts, I recently read Matheson’s novel, having always liked his work on The Twilight Zone, and having been developing an appreciation for short horror fiction.  And I had recently viewed both The Last Man on Earth (1964), the Vincent Price version (still the most true to the novel) and The Omega Man (1971), the Charleton Heston vehicle with its strange contemporary spin on the topic (probably more of an influence here than either the Price film or the novel itself).  So, I had to close the circle.  I had to see this film.  For my own silly reasons.

Will Smith was at one time an actor that I admired.  This was coming off Men in Black (1997) when his charm and panache seemed quite appropriate for becoming the leading African American film star.  That appreciation started to diminish right after, especially with the tiresome Wild Wild West (1999) that seemed to show what a great waste of energy most Hollywood mega-movies really are.  And somehow, by now, I would actually choose actively not to see anything he was in.  All that and one’s natural capriciousness, I’d say.

Well, anyways, I went.

The story is relocated from LA to NYC, which one can sort of understand.  Taking our country’s most populace city and depopulating it should be impactful.  And Hollywood loves to destroy New York.  How many of these modern disaster films take place there?

But this is one of the film’s problems.  It’s sort of been done before.  28 Days Later… (2002) was sort of the rebirth of these types of films and in many ways is a bit more like the way that they interperated the narrative here than from the original text.  It’s all modernized and changed, which one would expect.  The vampire/zombies are more like the monsters in Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005) than the lucid, vocal creatures that Matheson dreampt up.

But it’s not really the lack of originality or the change of story that really bothered me.  In fact, some of the action and drama, especially the film’s best sequence when Smith is drawn into a trap by the creatures, is actually quite compelling.  The reason that it bothered me was more idealogical than that.

Matheson’s novel is typical of the period, ripe with a serious ironic twist at the end that re-sets the perspective of the entire story.  One that is intended to make you think about the story and re-think it through a second lens.  In Matheson’s novel, the protagonist Robert Neville finds out in the end that he has been killing both the vampires and some moderately effected people, a group of humanity that evolved through the process of disease, but seeks to redeem itself and make society again.  He is crucified for being their nemesis and murderer.  His legend, the “I am legend” statement, is that for all time forward he will be more like the devil or Hitler, not a savior, not a survivor, but a killer.  Take it for what you will but look to this new film.

In I Am Legend, not only is the irony stripped away, which you could almost understand.  Neville, though he perishes, is a hero because he does find a cure.  And his legend is betokened at the end of the film, echoing the slightly odd title, letting the audience understand that “he’s a legend”, a hero.  Ripping the irony out is pretty demoralizing, but beyond that, the film is also quite anti-science and pro-Christian.

In one sequence, Neville states that “God didn’t do this” (meaning the man-made virus that eventually destroys humanity) but that “we did”.  Humans who tamper with genetics are bad.  And beyond that, the woman who delivers the andidote when Neville dies is led to both him and a location in Vermont by “God”.  Neville does some odd backtracking on his other statement by saying that “There is no God” to her when he strangely rants rather than appreciates and accepts other survivors or proof in opposition to his beliefs that no one else is alive on the planet.  But in the end, he acquieses.  It must be a God who led them along, who led the people from their own mistakes and allowed them to live again.

It’s weird.  Personally, I find it disturbing.  Probably there are those who find it both refreshing and/or reaffirming.  But I didn’t like it.

As an action/horror film of its genre, it deserves some points, but overall, its rejection of irony for Christian faith and anti-science ideology, I have issues with it.