Seven (1995)

Seven (1995) movie poster

director David Fincher
viewed: 11/14/2014

To suggest that David Fincher is one of the better big directors currently working in Hollywood would hardly be a radical position.  Currently, his film Gone Girl is performing well at the box office and is probably in line for adulation come awards season.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I am interested.

Seven was not Fincher’s first feature (1992’s Alien 3 was), but because his first feature was such a squandered opportunity, I don’t doubt that Fincher likes to consider Seven his first film.

I didn’t see Seven in the cinema when it came out but on VHS.  Actually, I think I can say the same thing about his other great movie of the 1990’s, Fight Club (1999), for whatever reason.  But my various streaming film queues are dangling a lot of the great movies of the 1990’s and so I’m finding myself drawn back to the flicks of 20 years ago, movies that I saw and liked, but only saw once for whatever reason.

Seven reeks of music video.  Especially mid-1990’s music videos.  Visual aesthetics held that films could play with muted palettes and Seven is set in a “big city” of sleazy blues and greens, washed out colors like old clothes, dingy lighting all as literal of the real world but also highly metaphorical about the dark recesses of human depravity.

Darkness.  Depravity.  The seven deadly sins.

Kevin Spacey plays “John Doe” the eventual serial killer whose ornate murder spree plays out like a piece of creepy performance art.  It’s Morgan Freeman (as the elder detective on the verge of retirement) and Brad Pitt (as the young upstart detective due to take Freeman’s place) who play front row audience to John Doe’s grotesque commentary on humanity, killing each victim according to a convoluted version of their assigned deadly sin.

It’s one of those movie conceits straight out of Screenwriting 101.  Audiences love the stuff, but it’s total fantasy compared to real world killers.

But the film’s kicker is its ending.  Gwyneth Paltrow’s (unseen) head in a box.  Oh yeah, did I assume that everyone has already seen this movie?  Sorry.  No really.

Actually, I think that this otherwise decent movie is pretty much made by the ending.  It’s dark and ruthless, shocking, effective and stays with you.

Frankly, it’s about the only aspect of the movie that I could clearly recall from two decades ago.

I’d say this is formative Fincher.  He’s already got Trent Reznor on the soundtrack.  The very pessimistic world view is firmly in place.  A strong directorial aesthetic and approach is already evident, honed in some of the era’s most slick advertising slots.  And it’s a crime story, which seems to be Fincher’s primary bailiwick.

But it’s not yet great (except for the ending).  It ate at me, the nameless city in which the story takes place (it has to be New York — it’s clearly a stand-in for New York) and yet it’s unnamed.  It rains incessantly in this grimy place.  For most of the week of the film’s narrative.  So it’s whole setting has the vibe of convenient movie-making fantasy, perhaps in tune with its convoluted serial killer/artist.  I know I’m focusing on some seriously “surface” stuff but these are elements that pushed me out of an otherwise pretty involving flick.

You know, it is what it is.  And that’s some pretty good stuff.  The start, if a second start, on what would evolve into one of contemporary American cinema’s consistently better directors.

Humanoids from the Deep (1980)

Humanoids from the Deep (1980) movie poster

director Barbara Peeters
viewed: 04/27/2014

In the realm of urban legends and the sorts of hype and rumors that one grew up with as a teen in my time, the notoriety of Humanoids from the Deep may have been something purely unique to me and a couple of friends.  I, myself, had never seen it, but in hearing the description of the story, about these monsters that come from the sea and rape women on the beach with lots of sex and gore…well, I thought it sounded astounding.  Hard to believe.  But was told it was true.

I don’t know how many of my friends told me about it.  Who knows, it could have been just one with a particularly lurid account of the film.  But it stuck with me and for nearly 30 years, I have had it rather dubiously on my list of movies that I wanted to finally see.  It’s funny how elusive some things can be.

The funny thing about the lurid details that I recall, three decades hence, but they really were not exaggerated exactly.  This is a movie with Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)- like monsters terrorizing a seaside town and, indeed, quite explicitly raping the women.  And pulling their clothes off and showing their breasts.  (Some of these things were a bit more of a pure draw at those more tender years.)

The raping thing is rather unusual though.

I’ve come to think about the slasher film that it is indeed rather odd that the killers only seek to kill and not to rape the nubile young beauties therein.  There is this whole trope of punishment for sexuality that runs through the genre, a sort of Puritanical revenge, if you will.  But the thing about slashers is that they are in a sense closer to a true life type of criminal, a random human killer, serial or spree.  And in life, those killers often are sex-driven as well as purely physically violent and murderous.  Why is it that in your average slasher/horror film that rape is not a motive, not an act?

I feel that there is something much more significant beneath the potential answers to this question.  And I’m sort of balking at going beyond raising the question at the moment.

But these Humanoids from the Deep very explicitly rape the female victims and are in the narrative even trying to expand their biology somehow in the process.  These monsters, designed by Rob Bottin, are some weird Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Alien (1979) meets low end Roger Corman.  They’re kind of cool and weird.

Apparently, Corman asked for more explicit sex to add to the violence and had the rape scenes added later to spice up the film without director Barbara Peeters’ or others’ knowledge or consent, so maybe it’s not such a random thing to glom onto.  It certainly adds a seediness to the affair.

The affair, the film rather, stars Doug McClure and Vic Morrow.  And it reels between real cheap and pretty decent throughout.  Some of the film is better produced and some of the sequences are shoddier.  It also has a mild Jaws (1975) element running through it, all with weird science gone wrong and blood and gore.

It’s quite good in its way.  And now some deep-seeded need within my movie-watching soul has been slaked.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979) movie poster

director Allan Arkush
viewed: 03/17/2014

Rock, rock, rock, rock, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School!

The Roger Corman/Allan Arkush/Joe Dante teenage rebellion movie, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has definitely been filed in my chagrined category of movies I had never, *ahem*, seen.  When you talk about foreign cinema or avant-garde or something, perhaps it’s a little more understanding if you’ve never seen a Alain Resnais film or a particular Godard film.  But some films, especially films of the midnight movie ilk or cult status, especially one that features the great rock’n’roll punk band, the Ramones, it’s almost downright shame-facing.

How? How? How? How could I have never seen it?  Why? Why? Why? Why had I never seen it.  No good explanation exists.

It’s frickin’ brilliant.  For a late-1970’s teen rebellion film, it’s almost squeaky clean.  And cute.  Charming.  And features the Ramones in their heyday, capturing lightning in a bottle, or at least on celluloid and audio.

It’s so cute.  Really.  That’s the main word that came to mind.

P.J. Soles (who I think I remember fondly from Stripes (1981)) is as cute as cute can be as the Ramones number one fan Riff Randell.  Mary Woronov is pretty iconic as the evil school principal whose cutting down hard on anything remotely fun.  And Paul Bartel is gloriously funny as the hip unhip music teacher.

It’s an amazing.  It’s kind of like the anti-Grease (1978), with it’s all retro 1950’s rock’n’roll filtered vaguely through disco.  The Ramones exemplify a particular aspect of punk that is unrepentantly tied in a key way to the sounds of the 1950’s and early 1960’s but is entirely of itself, of a new and at the time contemporary era.  It was an amazing act of genius to land the Ramones, such a unique, bizarre thing.

It also ties back to films like High School Confidential (1958), the whole teenage movie genre, particularly with a contemporary soundtrack.  It also brought to mind the much less successful Rude Boy (1980) which was more of a film dedicated to the Clash with a story stuffed into it, but it’s probably closer in production to the Jack Arnold flick.

The Ramones were such a gloriously unlikely band.  Brilliant misfits turned punk rock gods.  Any glimpse is a worthwhile glimpse.

The whole thing is great and frickin’ cute.

RoboCop (1987)

Robocop (1987) movie poster

director Paul Verhoeven
viewed: 02/016/2014

After watching the new RoboCop (2014), I found myself wanting to see the original again.  It had been a long time since I’d seen it and I thought the renewed experience might be enlightening.

Sadly, Netflix had the DVD listed as “very long wait” as much of their DVD’s are showing up as these days.  I’ve come to understand that moniker to suggest eternity in my experience, a very long wait indeed.

So, I saw that Comcast/Xfinity had the original available for $2.99 to watch and decided the trade off to be a fair deal for immediate gratification.  But life lesson renewed, the damn thing was in pan-and-scan and not letterboxed.  Curses, foiled again.

Preamble over.

RoboCop (1987) is indeed an excellent film.  The first of Paul Verhoeven’s American science fiction flicks, it delivered a wonderfully wry and violent commentary on the America of its day, looming technology fears, militarization, corporate control of public sectors all with entertaining action and violence.  Because while there is text and subtext, there is a fun movie to watch first and foremost.

The cast is great: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith.  It’s uber Eighties.  Yet it also has a great prescience about things to come.  And I always loved Phil Tippet’s stop-motion animation of the big robots.

It’s a leaner, funnier, far more fun film that its eventual re-make.  And the blood and violence, I think, make a statement in and of themselves.

Also, Verhoeven’s comic pop culture advertisements that pepper the film offer amusing ironic commentary throughout.  Something that becomes one of his signature elements.

The Howling (1981)

The Howling (1981) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 07/13/2013

Back in 1981, the werewolf movie underwent radical transformation.  Transformation being one of the key qualities of a werewolf movie, dating back no doubt to Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941), perhaps arguably back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (not a werewolf movie but it does feature an excellent transformation).  Back in those days and for many years onward, transformation effects were generally created via a series of fade-in shots, blurring the images together to show growth of hair, fangs, and claws.

But by 1981 (and perhaps earlier — please let me know), a breaking point was achieved in werewolf movies that transformed the genre.  It was the special effects, make-up and prosthetics, analog constructions that evolved right in front of the camera.  The series of these latex and what-have-you enhanced sequences tapped into new levels of gross-out cinema that would come to be the standard borne by horror films throughout the 1980’s all up until the digital age.

Nowhere were these effects more prominent than in Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981).  Rick Baker worked on both films, though he left The Howling to Rob Bottin and moved over  to the Landis’s production.  The Howling came out a few months prior, and while fans and aesthetes can argue which is better, they both individually and together utterly redefined and re-enlivened the werewolf film.  Bottin would go on to do the effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), a much more free-form gross-out transformation design.

The rest of The Howling is a reasonably entertaining werewolf movie, peppered with Dante’s Hollywood references and loony humor, especially with the aid of the script by John Sayles, who had worked with him on Piranha (1978).  It features Dee Wallace as a news anchor trailing a serial killer to a porn shop in LA.  After a freaky meeting, in which the killer is killed, she suffers psychological trauma and is sent to “The Colony”, a retreat on the California coast that turns out to be inhabited by a coven of werewolves.

It’s all pretty weird, really.

The star of the film is the effects largely, but it’s an entertaining, oddball, goof-fest featuring cameos from the likes of Roger Corman, Forrest Ackerman, John Sayles, and Dick Miller.  It even features a meatier cameo by John Carradine.  It’s all part of Dante’s collective homage to the genre plus as many silly gags as he can pack in.

It’s been eons since I’ve seen An American Werewolf in London, but I’m guessing that I ought to queue that up right soon for sharper contrast.  1981 also featured another notable killer wolf film, Wolfen, which isn’t actually a werewolf movie, though you kind of have to work your way through it to find that out.  I always actually considered it the best of the three.  Though oddly enough, no werewolves mean no transformation scenes.

Today, digital effects make the “anything” possible.  I think that werewolves, in movies in which the transformation is still the key element of the narrative, still take their direction from these 1981 films.  Though more and more digitized werewolves seem to forgo the gory detail of transformation, instead morphing in split seconds in the no-nonsense immediacy of “Zap! Now I’m a werewolf!”  Where’s the fun in that?

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.

Legend (1985)

Legend (1985) movie poster

director Ridley Scott
viewed: 02/24/2012

I don’t know how I’d never managed to see Ridley Scott’s 1985 fantasy adventure film, Legend, but I hadn’t.  I’ve never been a Tom Cruise fan and maybe I was a bit young to know about Ridley Scott.  Anyway, while looking for films for the kids, 1980’s action/fantasy has been a fruitful genre/period, so I queued this up for them and myself.

After debuting with his film, The Duellists (1977), Scott made his two masterpiece science fiction films, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).  Both of those films featured such innovative and influential visual designs, it’s not surprising that when he turned his lens to fantasy that the resultant designs are overwhelmingly stunning.

The film is set in a classical fairy tale world inhabited by elves, sprites, dwarves and demons.  And unicorns.  And Tom Cruise as a boy of the forest.  Mia Sara, most known for her role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), is the goodly princess who loves him.  It’s a very young Tom Cruise, still very boyish.  When Tom’s character takes the princess to view the unicorn, her trespass against the rules in approaching and touching the magical animal of purity sets up the opportunity for the creature to be attacked by dark forces.

Dark forces, in this case, are driven by “Darkness,” an elaborately-made-up Tim Curry as Satan with massive, massive horns.  He seeks to kill the two remaining unicorns and steal their horns, allowing him to pitch the world into eternal darkness, in which he rules.  His minions successfully get the first unicorn when the princess approaches it, throwing the world into night and snow, and setting the adventure afoot.

A number of trolls or dwarves or other forest sprites appear, the most significant of which is Gump, the striking-looking small boy-man, played by David Bennent, who starred in the amazing 1979 film of The Tin Drum.  He is the leader of the magical creatures of the forest and bears the fascinating features of an adult in the child’s visage.  Whereas Bennent required little make-up to be so striking (he does have long elfin ears), the others are cased in top of the line prosthesis.  The make-up in the film is uncanny.

This film’s shortcoming, unfortunately, is in story and tone (and perhaps in character).  The story is original, though heavily influenced by traditional fairy tales and folklore, but it lacks imperative and, at times, logic.  Why the demon doesn’t kill the second unicorn right away and be done with it, I have no idea.  And why he falls for the princess?  Doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The tone is driven by the designs, which are dark and detailed.  It lacks wit and humor, even in its characters who are meant to embody that for the script.  And finally, none of the characters in themselves are compelling.  It all looks great, but it doesn’t suck you in.

I don’t know that the kids would put it the same way but they both found it disappointing.  Just as a point of comparison, they both said that they liked both Stardust (2007) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) better, two fantasy adventure films that we had recently watched.

I still say that the visuals are stunning.  I was a bit dubious as the film opened in the glorious forest and it seemed that birds were being thrown into the frame every other cut.  But the light, filtering through the trees, with the air full of seedpods or dust or “magic” or whatever…it all looked a little overdone.  But as the film progresses the whole thing becomes more and more striking.  Sadly, just not amazing nor compelling.


Piranha (1978) movie poster

(1978) director Joe Dante
viewed: 11/13/10

Before going to see Alexandre Aja’s recent re-make Piranha 3D (2010), I’d been wanting to watch the original Roger Corman-produced, John Sayles-written, Joe Dante-directed original.  Actually, I not only wanted to watch the original but also its sequel, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981).  But the DVD gods were not cooperating.  Between Netflix (which still doesn’t carry the original) and GreenCine (which had a long back-log for it), there was no Piranha to be had besides the shiny, 3-D new-fangled version.  Until just recently.

Made three years after Jaws (1975), and clearly marketed along those lines (just look at the poster!), the film is often referred to as a comedy or a parody.  While the film has some comic moments, and a few really good lines, it is an earnest effort in its own right.  Not nearly the exploitation orgy of the re-make, the film’s charms are a little deeper.  It has a good cast, including a number of great character actors (featuring Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, and Barbara Steele), and with Sayles on the script, the film ends up having, if not depth and insight, a lot of character and cleverness, as well as some well-managed low-budget effects.

The story starts off with two young hikers, heading up a mountain in rural Texas, breaking into a fenced-off military testing site, and foolishly going for a swim in a pool that they know little about.  Of course, they don’t make it past the first scene, either one of them.  But when a female detective comes looking for them and drains the pool into the local river, the pool’s residents, genetically altered super-piranha are unleashed on an unsuspecting populace, streaming down toward a summer camp and a lake front park that is about to open.  Oh the humanity!

Actually, the humanity gets a good munching on.  And to a greater extent than in Jaws, kids are not just endangered, but attacked, eaten, and killed.  A long while back, I read an article in Film Threat that discussed Steven Spielberg’s penchant for putting children in danger and it cited Jaws as the one film in which he’d actually followed through on the threat and had any children harmed.  In Piranha, we’ve got scads of summer camp kids in inner tubes in a swimming race getting nibbled, chomped, and de-fleshed by the hungry fishes.   Later, the fish move on to the more adult-themed lake front resort, and while there’s not nearly Aja’s level of tongue-in-cheek T&A, you can see the model for the film that Aja wound up making in the end.

While the story cites military abuses of science, other interesting and timely issues spring to mind.  As the fish are introduced into the river system, one is reminded of the Asian carp (and other invasive species) issues that plague the United States today.  And while it’s not really about eco-horror, it’s amusing that what they use to exterminate the fish at the end of the film is toxic waste.  They “pollute them to death”.  Of course, that had it’s own timely commentary in the 1970’s, but still, it plays with added poignancy today.

In the scientist’s office, there is a strange, stop-motion animated creature who is never explained and who drops out of the story, presumably the further results of experimentations.  Curious but just a little aside more than anything.

Of course, the film paved its way for a sequel, which I’ve queued up for myself.

It’s another quality Roger Corman production.

The Thing

The Thing (1982) movie poster

(1982) director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/26/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Great f’ing movie.

John Carpenter’s re-make of Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) is doubtlessly Carpenter’s best film.  Tense and intense, straightforward and yet gorily over-the-top, there is a gritty earnestness to the film’s whole, a pared-down and energetic horror/action film that features some of the best of 1980’s special effects courtesy of Rob Bottin and Rick Baker.

When it came out in the 1980’s the gore/effects were so shocking that there were lots of rumors or stories about people throwing up in the theater.  The effects are strange and extreme, innovative and shocking, still holding great power today, which is owes no small debt to the overall film and its effectiveness.  Many of the best scenes are that in which the “Thing” is morphing, exploding, oozing, whipping around tentacles, never finding a single, singular form.  It must have been quite the exciting challenge, an open ended interpretation of what the creature is going to look like at any given time.  One of the best is when the head of a dead man detaches itself from the body, whips out a long tongue, which it uses to grab on to something to pull itself to safety, and then sprouts antenna-like eye-protrusions and several spidery crab-like legs as it tries to scamper to escape.  It’s not just the grossness but the shock and weirdness and unpredictability of the designs that keeps you always unsettled.

The action is set in Antartica, and the film opens with a helicopter chasing a husky across the snow, shooting at it.  The immediate sequence gives no lead as to what’s going on (i.e., “why are they shooting at a dog?”), so it’s kind of disorienting, very effectively so.  The men in the helicopter chase the dog to the American base, unintelligibly speaking a foreign language, shouting and firing at the dog and wounding the Americans before they are shot and killed.   The dog is taken into camp.  The mystery is afoot.

Kurt Russell, in the best of his starring roles for Carpenter, is the American chopper pilot, who leads a search of the Norwegian outpost to try to figure out what happened.  Footage that is found shows that the Norwegians discovered a spaceship in the ice, and apparently a being as well, frozen for who knows how long.    And unfortunately for all involved, they find out when it thaws out that this creature is a parasitic impostor, a monster that absorbs other creatures and then turns itself into a replica of them.

Things go from bad to worse as the story unfolds, as they begin to understand what they are dealing with.   What comes about is an air of utter paranoia.  The American base team, a very strong all-male cast of character actors, suddenly doesn’t know who among them might be the Thing.  And this leads to one of the film’s best scenes, in which Russell tests their blood with a heated wire, because the creature’s blood will react as a living thing, not merely a bodily fluid.

I’ve been on a minor John Carpenter bent of late, watching his earliest films,  Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and I’ve come to have a greater and greater appreciation for him as a director.  I remember that the last time that I watched The Thing, probably about 12 or so years ago, I was also duly impressed.  It’s a film with very little fat.  And with quite a bit of intensity, surprises, and excitement.  Heck, it’s probably one of the best of the 1980’s period.  Yes, it’s that good.