Monthly Archives: November 2018

Ghostbusters (1984)

*. What a pleasant surprise. I was expecting to be underwhelmed by Ghostbusters this time around. I saw it, along with everyone else, when it first came out, and of course I loved it then. But I hadn’t seen it in a long time, maybe twenty years, and I figured it would have dated badly.
*. Not so. The dry humour of Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis holds up really well. I mean, it’s been Murray’s signature his entire career, and it’s never gone out of style. Sigourney Weaver is so obviously having a great time, even when she’s possessed by the demon Zuul, that you enjoy every scene she’s in. The special effects aren’t bad for the pre-CGI era. Hell, I was even singing along to Ray Parker, Jr.’s theme song, a bit of call-and-response ear candy that was patterned after an advertising jingle and that I don’t think anyone ever forgets.

*. The supporting company is great too. Annie Potts, Rick Moranis, and William Atherton (as the “dickless” dick) are perfectly cast. Ernie Hudson? He’s good, but you do have to wonder what he’s doing here. I like him as an actor and think he plays well, but the part seems so unnecessary.
*. On the commentary it’s said that Winston is the necessary everyman figure who the others can explain necessary plot points to, but really this only occurs in the one scene where they detail the working of the ghost trap in the basement, and they could have just as easily done that with Annie Potts. The rest of the time he seems like a fifth wheel. In a 2015 article for Entertainment Weekly, Hudson himself wrote: “I love the character and he’s got some great lines, but I felt the guy was just kind of there.”
*. Apparently the Winston Zeddmore part was supposed to be bigger because it was originally written for Eddie Murphy. When Murphy turned the role down it remained as a sort of vestigial tail to the script. Oh well. Apparently much of the script was improvised anyway, so you win some and lose others.
*. On the DVD commentary track Harold Ramis denies that there was any double meaning to the “crossing the streams” business. I don’t believe him for a minute, but part of what makes the movie so enjoyable is that the sexual angle is so deftly dealt with. There’s lots of that going on, but it’s never bawdy, and plausible deniability is maintained. That device Venkman brings with him on his first visit to Dana’s apartment? The post-coital positioning of Weaver and Moranis after the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster finally hook up? Those aren’t laughs, but they’re big smiles.

*. I think the funniest line is Stantz telling Venkman: “You never studied.” Such deadpan condescension, with just the faintest hint of wry amusement. But it makes me wonder what exactly it is that Dr. Venkman hasn’t studied. Aren’t they all experts in the paranormal?
*. It’s interesting that just a couple of years earlier The Entity had also introduced a ghost-busting unit that worked out of a university, but in that movie they played it straight. The genre of films where science is used to investigate the supernatural would go on to have a long life, but it was rarely the subject of comedy. Why not? It seems a natural fit.
*. What such a line as “You never studied” also serves to underscore is that it’s the little things here that are the funniest. Roger Ebert made a good point in his review of the film by mentioning how it upsets the general rule “that the more you spend, the fewer laughs you get.” In some ways it’s sort of like today’s Marvel Universe films, where a wisecracking, smartass superhero (Ant-Man or Deadpool) tear off one-liners in the face of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of CGI. Even the climax here, with the team assembled to shut down a portal from another dimension threatening to destroy NYC, is very Marvel-ish. And yet somehow it works.
*. Well, you can overanalyze comedy. I’ve never found Ghostbusters to be hysterically funny, but it was charming thirty-five years ago and it’s still charming today. Charming, I would add, without depending on nostalgia. Though I do miss the cards we see exploding from the drawers of the catalogue file at the library. Libraries used to be such magical places, you could believe a ghost was haunting the stacks. Now such spirits are almost as rare as books.

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The Entity (1982)

*. Poor Barbara Hershey. She could’ve been, should’ve been a legendary scream queen. This movie came out the same year as Poltergeist, and is a much better movie, but it fell into eclipse.
*. Sure, horror afficionados today will talk your ear off about how good The Entity is, but at the time it pretty much disappeared, and Barbara Hershey went on to other things. But then, even though she’s very good in it, maybe she didn’t want to be a scream queen. I can’t say, but I did think it was nice to see her back in a somewhat similar role in Insidious nearly thirty years later.
*. The story of The Entity is based on “actual events” (Carla Moran was a woman named Doris Bither). Well, so was The Amityville Horror. What I find interesting, and something I mentioned in my notes on The Amityville Horror, is the way the DVDs for these movies are packaged with bonus features that treat the subject matter as absolutely authentic. In the case of The Entity it’s a featurette called “The Entity Files.” I’m not sure why this genre gets this kind of treatment. I mean, I like The Entity but I don’t believe in any of it for a second.
*. Billy does look a little old to be Carla’s son, not to mention a bit too tough to be threatened by a ghost. In fact, David Labiosa was thirteen years younger than Hershey, and the film does say that Cara had Billy when she was just a kid so . . . I guess it’s OK.
*. Sidney J. Furie wasn’t looking to re-invent the wheel. He really loves him some Dutch tilts. He uses lighting to cast ghoulish shadows on faces, even when you can’t explain them. And then there’s that banging/clanging score. Effective? Annoying? Cheap? All of the above? I like it.
*. The Rube Goldberg-MouseTrap device at the end is ridiculous. Up till then the movie was doing so well making a virtue out of its cheap budget by not showing the creature and getting by on familiar low-budget horror-film techniques. Then the campus Ghostbusters build an entire house in a gymnasium to capture the entity? How would that work? Why would the entity only attack Carla in an exact replica of her home? Why would a spiritual entity freeze when doused in liquid hydrogen?
*. Still, as sketchy as the science is you do have to give this some credit as one of the earlier science vs. the paranormal films. There had been ghost hunters before, but after this film and Poltergeist it would really become a genre.
*. It’s an oddly anticlimactic end. The giant exploding iceberg looks silly, and then Carla just drives away. But we are told the entity still haunts her. So?
*. I do like the conference room full of doctors puffing away on their cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Was that the way things (still) were in hospitals in 1982? I don’t remember.
*. A feminist film? I would say so. Carla is a hard-working single mom threatened by sexual domestic violence. The men she looks to for help are useless. Dr. Sneiderman thinks she’s a hysteric and her lover Jerry is even worse: a lecherous older man who turns into a blubbering coward when the going gets tough. Meanwhile, Carla’s saviour is another woman: Dr. Cooley, who runs the parapsychology lab the medical old boys club want to shut down. Finally, Carla faces her antagonist at the end and, while admitting it may be able to rape her it will never “have” her. It’s a moment that could have been ridiculous, but Hershey sells it and makes it into something powerful.
*. Though it has its fans, I get the sense this is a movie that most people still don’t know. Personally, I think it’s a pleasant surprise. It’s not great, but if you haven’t seen it, it will probably beat the hell out of your expectations.

The Stone Tape (1972)

*. The Stone Tape, which was a TV-movie that ran on the BBC as their seasonal “Christmas ghost story,” and which was originally planned as being part of its Dead of Night program before being eventually presented independently, has two main claims to fame. Or, to put it a bit more precisely, two entry points for talking about it today.
*. In the first place, it stands at the head of a sub-genre of horror films that deal with the scientific investigation of paranormal phenomena. At least Kim Newman gives it pride of place in this regard and I don’t think I can argue with his appraisal. I call these the Ghostbuster films, as they usually involve researchers, a sort of secular team of exorcists, called in to explain weird or scary goings-on. Other Ghostbuster type films include Poltergeist, The Entity, Prince of Darkness, and, in a comic vein, Ghostbusters.
*. The Stone Tape was so influential in this regard that it even gave its name to something called the Stone Tape theory, which has it that supernatural occurrences leave behind psychic records in physical material. This is not just something that gets picked up in other movies. People really believe it. Anyway, it’s what is supposedly happening here, with the damp stone of the haunted room capturing mysterious events from centuries in the past.
*. The other point to note about The Stone Tape is that the teleplay was written by Nigel Kneale, the man who invented Professor Bernard Quatermass and someone who now has an almost legendary status among fans of this sort of dark fantasy material.
*. Because it’s a Kneale vehicle the emphasis is very much on the script, which is quite technical and talky. One gets the sense the idea could have, and probably should have, been expanded into a miniseries. There’s a lot of information thrown at you, or yelled at you, as Michael Bryant is pretty loud.
*. I’ll admit I had trouble following the plot very closely. I get the basic premise about the haunted stones, but I wasn’t sure why Ryan Electrics should be that interested in them, or what the scientists were really trying to establish, or what was going on between Peter and Jill. All of which are major plot points.
*. Is Jill (Jane Asher) a case of stereotyping because she’s the most receptive to the ghostly presences? I don’t think so. She is some kind of a scientist or computer programmer herself, for one thing. She’s not a secretary. It’s also the case that among the rest of the team (all men) there is a range of sensitivity to the sounds in the stones. So I don’t think she’s singled out as the weak link because she’s a woman. And in fact she’s even allowed a bit of revenge at the end for the fact that the men never seem to take her very seriously.
*. It’s a bare-bones production, looking like it was mostly shot in a shoebox, and I have to say I don’t find it very scary. But it was an original premise and something about the idea stuck. I still don’t think the conflict between science and the supernatural has been fairly represented on film, with most of the science in these movies being pseudo-science of very limited utility in fighting ghosts and demons. But, given our all-too real anxieties about technology, I suspect many will see that as a relief.

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

*. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. If I thought the first movie was garbage, why bother with this one?
*. For my excuse I’ll fall back on what I said in my notes on The Man with the Iron Fists 2, which I really shouldn’t have bothered with after The Man with the Iron Fists. With a new director (Johannes Roberts) and a livelier script, anything might have been possible here. There was no where to go but up. Right?
*. Actually there are three directions they might have gone: up, down, or on the same level. I think they went with the third, though I might rate it marginally higher than The Strangers. I didn’t think this was a worse film than The Strangers so much as it was just more of the same.
*. Once again with the motiveless malignity of the three generic killers: Man in the Mask, Dollface, and Pinup. As a comment on just how generic they are I’ve never been sure which mask was Dollface and which Pinup. At the end of the first movie when they’re asked why they’re doing all this the one girl replies that it was only because the couple were home. Here she says “Why not?” Ho-hum. I get it. They’re psychopaths. But this still strikes me as a script fail.
*. Once again with the victims acting like morons. When the son actually gets to place a 911 call he doesn’t know his location? It’s just “some trailer park”? I realize he’s in shock, but he didn’t know where he was? Where his aunt and uncle live?
*. Once again with the victims screaming “Leave us alone!” and “Go away!” With those out of the way I was waiting for “Why are you doing this?” and I was not disappointed.
*. Once again with the girl being hobbled (something that really turned me off in the first film). Here she gets stabbed in the leg. Alas, the damage is compounded here by adding the cliché of having her limping away from a vehicle that’s running her down and having her trying to escape by running right down the middle of the road. I told you these people were morons, right?
*. Once again with the lack of suspense and dull kills. Basically this is a slasher film rather than a home invasion flick but there’s nothing special done with any of the violence and gore. In fact, most of it just strikes me as depressing. The murder of the father in particular only got me down.
*. OK, so what’s different this time out? Instead of a young couple being terrorized we have a whole family that has to overcome its dysfunction in the face of a clear and present danger.
*. The main difference though is a very welcome one, which is that (spoiler alert) the three killers all receive their comeuppance. The reason I say this is welcome is that it means there shouldn’t be any sequels. Given the disappointing box office a sequel was probably unlikely anyway, but perhaps a prequel is in the books, wherein we may even find out who Tamara is or was. Not that I really care.
*. I say that there “shouldn’t” be any sequels, but given the indestructibility of the Man in the Mask I suppose anything is possible (with an alternate ending suggesting Jason-level powers of reincarnation). But again, box office will decide.
*. Aside from the killers being killed, which was so surprising in such a movie as this I’d even count it as a plot twist, there’s little to recommend here. There’s a good fight that takes place in a swimming pool to Bonnie Tyler, suggesting that Roberts wasn’t taking this shit seriously. Or maybe the Man in the Mask just has a thing for classic ’80s pop-rock. There’s also a strange repetition of characters being caught in vehicle headlights that I wasn’t sure was deliberate or just forgetful. I suspect the latter as there are glaring continuity errors throughout.
*. It was panned by critics and audiences. The only place I’d part ways with their opinion is that most of them seemed to consider it a steep falling off from the first movie and I actually thought it was a bit better. But it’s still not very good.

The Strangers (2008)

*. “Inspired by true events.” Well, if you think about it, what isn’t? Even the Iliad and Odyssey could make such a claim, not to mention every fiction since.
*. The Strangers suggests something more, telling us by way of a pre-credit voiceover that “there are an estimated 1.4 million violent crimes in America each year” and that this is one of them. Don’t think about that too hard.
*. As far as I’ve been able to determine, it’s just the usual come-on. In other words, it’s total bullshit. The voice doing the voiceover actually sounds a bit like John Larroquette at the beginning of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, making his similarly bogus declaration in tones just as earnest. Texas Chain Saw Massacre was, perhaps, based on the totally unrelated story of Ed Gein, the same source crime as for Psycho. In this case writer-director Brian Bertino may have been thinking of the Manson murders, or, as he has claimed, some childhood incident, but really it could have been “inspired” by just about anything.
*. Critics also compared The Strangers to the French film Them, which was another movie inspired by true events, only in that case I think there was a bit more of a connection. The bottom line however is that this is just another home invasion thriller and it isn’t based on anything at all aside from the genre formula.
*. It’s not my favourite horror sub-genre. Even when they’re well done I don’t really like any of these movies, and they’re rarely well done. Funny Games was disturbing but at least it tried to do something a little different with the basic concept of the psychos knocking on the door of a happy, well-off family staying in a semi-remote home or cottage. Haneke’s film gave you something to talk about after. The Strangers . . . not so much.
*. There is literally nothing at all new here. There are things that go bump in the night. Kristen is left alone and then relieved when James returns, who at first doesn’t believe her about the people in masks. Then they are both terrorized. He tries to go for help, without her, telling her that “I’ll be fine.” Yeah. He isn’t. There is a failed rescue attempt by a friend of James that you know is going to fail, and exactly how it is going to fail, five minutes before it plays itself out. How many times do we have to see this Stephen King staple? I think it’s a plot element that can safely be retired now.

*. Kristen screams out “Why are you doing this to us?” Not once, not twice, but three times. Maybe more. I think James says it at one point too. I lost count. Once, I hardly need to say, would have been more than enough. We get the point. The masked killers are psychos. None of this makes any sense or has any purpose. That’s life.
*. One can only take so much cliché. Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) aren’t total morons but they’re pretty darn close. But it was when Kristen fell and twisted her ankle and had to crawl through the woods that I went from being bored with The Strangers to actively hating it.
*. Early on, Kristen decides to don the modern uniform of the last girl: jeans and a tank-top, with a flannel shirt to stay warm. But for some reason she feels that, despite the cold, shoes are unnecessary, even when running around outside. Which is when she falls and of course twists her ankle so she can’t run but can only limp and crawl away from the bad guys. You know the drill.
*. How was this even sold as a screenplay? It runs just 86 minutes and it’s well padded at that. I honestly don’t see where there’s anything to the script beyond an 8-10 page treatment. Indeed, you could pitch this movie in a single sentence — a young couple is terrorized by a trio of masked home invaders — and aside from that what would you add? Even the action/suspense sequences where there is no dialogue are very simple. As I’ve already laid out, it’s pure formula without a single twist to the set-up or any part of the plot.
*. Every now and then you get the sense of an actor who just doesn’t want to be in a movie. Boy did I get that feeling with Scott Speedman here.
*. As you would expect in this enlightened age of horror the ending is nihilistic and cruel. It is also, however, dull and anticlimactic. There’s no horror or tension or drama to it at all. And the final jump scare is both another cliché and stupid to boot. If the film’s “brutal events . . . are still not entirely known,” then how could there be a survivor? Or maybe Kristen is just giving us the twitch of the death nerve. I didn’t care. This movie is garbage and is too lazy to even try to be anything else.