Monthly Archives: October 2020

Halloween (2018)

*. I’ve written before about how the Halloween movies constitute perhaps the most chaotic horror franchise ever. You can’t combine more than a couple of these films together into any kind of a coherent Michael Myers story. This movie, the third to be simply titled Halloween (following up John Carpenter’s 1978 original and Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake), doesn’t change this. Technically it’s a sequel to the original, taking place forty years later. But it rejects the further plot developments offered in previous sequels, including all the business about Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) being Michael’s sister, and makes a couple of other changes to the back story. So really it’s a bit of a standalone.
*. Given how long-running a franchise it’s been this may have been necessary. For movies like this there are two audiences, the hardcore fans and the newbies, and I think the former is the most important. The really hardcore fans, however, are, like Laurie and Michael, getting on in years. Even Michael’s iconic mask is now lined with leathery creases. Hence both the need to stay the same (all the old, familiar faces) and reboot.
*. Judging from the film’s initial reception I think it satisfied both camps. Primarily it works as homage: There are lots of little nods to the earlier films and Michael remains the reliably non-verbal, superhuman Shape. My own response was less enthusiastic though.
*. To start with what I liked. Jamie Lee Curtis is re-energized playing Laurie as a survivalist who has been waiting to kill Michael for forty years. There’s a generational angle that isn’t developed enough but which had promise. The idea of Laurie trying to protect her family in the panic room in the basement plays on the bunker-horror theme that was so prevalent in the 2010s. And finally some of the kills are surprisingly modest but effective.

*. Now on to all I didn’t like, which is a slightly longer list.
*. It was apparently a much longer film in its rough cut and I felt like a few of the characters had been entirely abandoned on the editing room floor. What happened to Allyson’s boyfriend Cameron? He seemed like he was being set up for a messy end. Why bother with the character of Sheriff Barker? He has no role to play at all.
*. According to producer Jason Blum, he liked the idea of David Gordon Green directing because “if you’re a great director you can make a great horror movie even if you’ve never made a horror movie before.” True in theory, but I didn’t have any sense here that Green was comfortable working in the genre. There really aren’t any scary or suspenseful scenes, despite the potential being there. A good example comes when the babysitter finds Michael hiding in the closet. The timing of this entire sequence is off so it doesn’t even work as a jump scare. We know he’s in the closet, which should come as a surprise. Or take the gas station episode. What was scary about any of that?
*. I thought the script was mostly trash. A new psychiatrist character is introduced, a successor to Dr. Loomis, and he isn’t credible for a moment. His motivation is a joke. Then the rest of the story is advanced through the usual idiot-plot behaviour and coincidence. The panic room was actually a trap? Then Laurie’s plan all along was to get Michael to go down there? How does that make sense?
*. When the film isn’t paying tribute to its predecessors it’s raiding horror clichés. Rooms full of mannequins. Hiding in a bathroom stall. A hand grabbing an ankle on the basement stairs. Some commentators found the plot a new wrinkle on the final girl theme (Josephine Livingstone, writing in The New Republic, thought Laurie a Trump voter), but I thought the ending was standard fare. We’ve had kick-ass heroines enough by now not to see them as making any kind of #MeToo statement.
*. In short, once it gets going this Halloween settles down into a predictable routine, not far removed from the other films in the series. In its favour, it may be the second-best Halloween movie yet (there will, of course, be more). On the other hand, that’s not saying much.

Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)

*. Of all the modern horror franchises I think the Halloween films constitute the most chaotic.
*. On a strict accounting, Halloween H20 (usually pronounced H-2-Oh and not H-Twenty), is the seventh film in the series, and indeed the original working title was Halloween 7: The Revenge of Laurie Strode. We got here by a very long and winding road. To make a long story short, H20 picks up where Halloween II left off. Halloween III remains an aberration, while the events of Halloweens 4-6 are now assumed to have never happened. Just in case you’re keeping score.
*. My initial response here was badly mistaken. I saw the kid in the hockey mask being used for a jump scare. I saw Janet Leigh talking to Laurie about “We’ve all had bad things happen to us,” before getting into a very familiar-looking vintage car. I was thinking to myself that this was maybe a lead-up to Scream.
*. But like I say, this was badly mistaken. In fact, Scream had come out two years earlier. And at one point the kids are even watching Scream 2 in their dorm room. So this wasn’t a step moving the genre toward Scream but a way of nudging the Halloween franchise in the Scream direction.
*. Though uncredited, the story was based on a Kevin Williamson idea and he apparently worked quite a bit on the script. So I’m guessing that’s where the whole Scream vibe was coming from. Not that it’s totally unwelcome, but it does seem like a not very necessary echo. You can think of the genre as swallowing its own tail, with the Halloween franchise now ripping off the film that was ripping it off.
*. As for the movie itself, I found it strangely uninvolving. It’s not too bad once it gets going, and I didn’t mind that it took a long time to get going. Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is an interesting character, even if she’s surrounded by the usual collection of stereotypes (a list headed by her indestructible brother, who struck me as even more blank than usual). They go to the well far too often with the fake jump scares, but there are still a couple of decent scary scenes. I just found myself not caring very much about what was going on.
*. It’s not that I care very much about what’s going on in any slasher movie, but H20 left me feeling particularly out of it. Maybe it had something to do with the Scream influence I mentioned, that sense that nothing here is to be taken seriously. I don’t know. In most respects this is far above average when it comes to slasher movies, but it seems caught between different worlds. Is it an attempt at providing closure, or is it setting us up for a new beginning? Given the producer’s refusal to let Michael die, you can guess what the answer would be to that one, but it’s not clear just based on what this film presents, where the ending is quite definitive. It also seems like a step in a new direction, but it’s not as clever as later “postmodern” slashers, or as dark and violent as the various reboots that were coming down the pipe (including Rob Zombie’s Halloween).
*. As I began by saying, the Halloween franchise is a bit of a mess. The pieces don’t really fit together that well, and not just in terms of any larger narrative continuity. For what it’s worth, I’d rate H20 one of the best in the series, even if it’s also one of the least engaging.

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

*. It seems fitting that Halloween 5 came out in 1989. It has that feel of the end of the ’80s. I don’t think this is just because of the generic New Wave girls either. The Halloween franchise, along with ’80s horror in general, was winding down.
*. I said in my notes on Halloween II (1981) that it was a very tired, half-assed effort, which was all the more remarkable for being only the second film in the series. Halloween III: Season of the Witch then tried to go in a new direction, but that turned out to be a short detour. Halloween 4 brought Michael Myers back to do his (only) thing, and was quite successful. So, if you’ve been following me this far, Halloween 5 plays a bit like Halloween II, being another tired-feeling retread of tropes that had just recently been revived.
*. What are those tropes? The POV shots. The promiscuous teens being cut down in flagrante delicto. The glimpse of Michael, the masked Shape, from a window. Donald Pleasence, not looking at all well, emoting for the ages while delivering the same lines about Michael’s blank evil. Cats (live and dead) jumping out at us. People running around screaming “Help me! Help me!”
*. I’m not sure Halloween 5 has much of a story or even purpose behind it aside from all of this recycling. Apparently they started making it without a finished script, which is something I can certainly believe. Despite all the formulaic elements it’s amazing how chaotic a movie this is.
*. This is the second movie built around the character of Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), the niece of Michael Myers. And immediately we start going off the rails. Why make Jamie mute? I get the psychological block, as far-fetched as that is, but I mean what does it add to the film? Even Harris was unclear on the purpose, since she can still write important messages. But then when given that opportunity Jamie doesn’t want to say anything. It’s all very confusing.
*. Then there is the psychological link that Jamie shares with Michael. What is the point of this? One suspects they were thinking of something along the lines of The Eyes of Laura Mars, but they didn’t get it. Similarly, it seems director Dominique Othenin-Girard was going after a Psycho-like medial caesura with the murder of Rachel (Jamie’s mom), but Ellie Cornell thought it an odd decision and her death itself is presented in a perfunctory way (stabbed in the shoulder with a pair of scissors?).
*. Lurking in the background is the Man in Black with the silver-tipped boots. Who is he? According to the documentary on the making of the film he wasn’t mentioned in the script at all but was just dropped in to hopefully tie things together in some way or to help make sense of what was going on. Mission not accomplished. He just adds to the confusion. Plus his identity wouldn’t even be explained until The Curse of Michael Myers, which was up next.

*. Here’s a horror cliché that I don’t think gets enough attention. It’s right up there with the people who find themselves locked inside a house (something that may go back to the first Halloween). If it’s the middle of the night, where is all the light coming from that’s pouring in the windows from outside? Look at the scene where Loomis confronts Michael on the staircase. That’s not a streetlight. Those are stadium lights beaming in from outside. Where is it coming from? A lot of movies do this (I think I pointed it out in my notes to Don’t Breathe), but people usually let it go without comment. It’s something that bugs me.
*. The idiot plot is one thing, but it’s disturbing that the dog here is smarter than any of the people in the movie. The people really are that stupid.
*. You know you’re in trouble when you start imagining a better movie than the one you’re watching. About halfway through Halloween 5 I was thinking that it would have been a lot better if Dr. Loomis had actually been the killer all along, and Michael Myers was just some alter ego of his who died in the looney bin years ago. No such luck.
*. I don’t know if Halloween 5 is the worst film in the series — there’s some stiff competition — but I think it’s my least favourite. Not only did I not enjoy it, I positively hated it most of the time. There isn’t a single good kill. There’s no suspense or humour. The plot is a total mess. And finally there’s way too much running about and screaming at the end. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, even knowing that there would be no end for some time yet. Or ever.

Eye of the Devil (1966)

*. No, it wasn’t a Hammer production. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. It certainly has the feel of the Hammer “modern” horrors of the 1960s: overwritten, gothic psychothrillers usually featuring a woman either going crazy on her own or being driven crazy. Titles like Paranoiac and Nightmare (both delivered courtesy of director Freddie Francis and writer Jimmy Sangster).
*. The name of Freddie Francis also recalls The Innocents, and that’s another movie that’s definitely in play here. Deborah Kerr returns to another stately pile (the Château de Hautefort), with a pair of young charges (a little boy and girl), and a pair of sinister presences (with David Hemmings as Christian/Peter Quint and Sharon Tate as Odile/Miss Jessel).

*. If it’s a movie of its time (the ’60s vogue for retro-horror) it also looks ahead, most obviously to The Wicker Man. The same folk cult demanding a blood sacrifice to get the crops to grow. The same shots of silent, sinister villagers who don’t seem to have much to do but stare at strangers. The Wicker Man was based on a novel, Ritual, that was published in 1967 so it’s possible there was some influence there.
*. Introducing Sharon Tate, a discovery of producer Martin Ransohoff. A life cut tragically short. A career? Not so much. Tate really couldn’t act and it’s just as well that the witch Odile is practically a zombie.
*. Kim Novak was originally cast as Catherine and indeed I believe they shot a lot of the movie with her. Then she either got injured falling off a horse (believable) or, according to David Hemmings, got into an argument with Ransohoff and was fired (also believable). Too bad. The thought of a stone-faced stare-down between Novak and Tate is intriguing.
*. Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Who went from directing inventive stuff like this, The Guns of Navarone, and Cape Fear in the ’60s, to Happy Birthday to Me and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown in the ’80s. Now there’s a depressing career trajectory for you. But, as I like to say, he did keep working!
*. Thompson really ripped open his bag of tricks for this one. Just get a load of that montage that plays over the opening credits! There’s even a wipe of the credits when the fellow we’re following walks from the train. Then in the film itself there’s no end to the crazy angles, zooms, tilts and other stunts. Which normally I like, but I’m not sure they really fit with the story here.

*. David Niven is someone else who seems out of place. How many horror movies was he in? I can’t think of any off the top of my head. A fine actor but I can’t get on board with the casting. Some people just don’t belong in horror movies. Even though he’s playing the lord of the manor he has too much class. As I started out by saying, this is really a bit of Hammer horror. It didn’t want class.
*. Donald Pleasence, on the other hand, fits right in as a mad priest. That was a safe bit of casting.
*. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about this movie before coming to it now. From the opening credits I anticipated a treat. And in some ways it delivers on that promise of “lunacy” (David Thomson’s judgment). It’s inventive visually and makes terrific use of its location throughout. I’m still amazed at how they did those shots of the boy playing on the ledge. The story is also bleak and transgressive in a way that movies in 1966 hadn’t embraced or even turned to yet. But still . . .
*. But still Eye of the Devil doesn’t quite click. It doesn’t have any of the creepiness or sense of looming threat that infuses every frame of classics like The Innocents or The Wicker Man. Instead it sort of plods along, with Niven giving its ritual horror an air of nobility that mixes any message the film might have. Is it a far, far better thing he does at the end than he has ever done? Or is he going straight to hell? And for what? Killing him isn’t going to bring back the apples, or vineyards. And what are we to think of Odile? Is she a real witch? Can she turn frogs into doves?
*. Recommended more as a curiosity than for being good. Still a title worth tracking down, and a movie that grows a bit when looked at in hindsight, and from a proper distance.

The Clovehitch Killer (2018)

*. By now I think we’re all familiar with the phenomenon of the “murderer next door” (to borrow the title from a very good book on the subject by researcher David Buss). We hear about it every time there is another serial killer or mass murderer revealed to be living in the suburbs somewhere who turns out to be a normal-seeming guy (maybe a bit lonely or depressed) that “nobody dreamed” could have ever done the things he did.
*. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, was one such case. There’s a book on him that’s even subtitled “The Serial Killer Next Door.” Rader was a married man with children, a scout leader and a member of his church council who also killed people. That disjunction between a seemingly normal and a dark secret life has been irresistible to authors and filmmakers. Stephen King wrote a novella based on Rader’s story called A Good Marriage that was later made into a movie. The Clovehitch Killer is another take on the same material.
*. Just as an aside, I don’t recall hearing A Good Marriage mentioned on the DVD commentary. This despite the fact that the discovery of the killer’s cache of mementoes is so similar to the identical scene in that earlier film that it feels as though it were taken directly from it.
*. Of course the broader theme, about the murderous horrors that lie beneath the surface of everyday suburban life, has long been a staple, usually taking as its target the Leave It to Beaver America of the 1950s. Think of movies like Parents (where the parents are cannibals), or The Stepfather, or countless others. So in 2018 The Clovehitch Killer was entering onto very familiar ground. So much so that even though it’s presumably set in the present day (tracking the movement of a cell phone using GPS is a plot point), the Kentucky town it’s set in has the feel of some kind of Christian Happy Valley that time has forgot. Aside from the cell phones and laptops it just feels like the ’80s.
*. Director Duncan Skiles refers to the genre as “normcore”: “My goal was to set everything in a very normal, relatable environment with minimal ‘traditional’ horror cues. So, everything’s happening in the daytime and there’s not a lot of music. I wanted simple angles that felt safe. Because I remember the feeling that I got when I was doing this research, about how horrible things can be injected into normalcy, and that was frightening. I kind of wanted to capture that feeling.”
*. I think he does capture the feeling well, and it marks an attempt to go in a slightly different direction with the material. The focus is more on the family, and this plays a major part in the story because Don’s grooming of his family is what keeps them in check and his secret safe. This is the real critique of Bible belt values, more than its moral hypocrisy. Children raised to refer to their parents as “Sir” and “Ma’am” are at all kinds of risk. The film’s final line gives some indication of just how much damage has been done.
*. I say it’s an attempt though because I don’t think it’s fully realized. The thing is, it’s perfectly obvious as soon as Tyler finds his dad’s secret stash under the shed what’s going on. And things get worse when he enters the crawlspace. There is no way anyone, even a dutiful son who really wants to believe, could buy the story that this was all Uncle Rudy’s stuff. That doesn’t make sense. It’s an impossible part and Charlie Plummer can’t be blamed too much if he doesn’t sell it.
*. This would then allow for some interesting angles to be taken on the story. Is Tyler just playing his dad? Or, if he really does believe him, how much does he suspect Kassi as being just some mixed-up chick? There are moments that allow for suspicion. Did Kassi really discover the clovehitch knot behind that house? Or did she tie it herself?
*. Unfortunately, none of this is developed. Instead we go along with a plot that, despite having one really nice swerve where we change points of view, falls into a routine pattern, no less routine for being highly improbable. The character of Kassi is the worst element here. She just seems to be there to perform various plot functions. No longer required at the end, she disappears.
*. Still, I enjoyed The Clovehitch Killer a lot more than I thought I would. I went in with low expectations and they were more than met. The events have a quiet fascination and the suspense is nicely managed. Dylan McDermott, unrecognizable in glasses and goatee, is very good. There are some missed opportunities here, but I think it comes out as much better than average, judged against its peers.

A Good Marriage (2014)

*. What a frustrating movie.
*. Frustrating because the potential was there. It’s full title is Stephen King’s A Good Marriage, which tells us it’s based on the novella of the same name by King and which he adapted and wrote the screenplay for himself (something he doesn’t do very often).
*. Normally that wouldn’t excite me much, but it’s a script that up-ends expectations. It’s not just another take on the serial-killer-next-door or I-married-an-axe-murderer trope. Inspired by the story of the “BTK Killer” Dennis Rader, we don’t see any of the husband’s violence at all. We don’t believe him when he says he’s going to go straight, but we don’t see him killing anyone either.
*. Instead it’s a story that addresses the question of compromise. We often think about this when we hear about the arrest of some terrible criminal on the news who turned out to be a married man leading a seemingly normal life. How could his wife not have known? Well, what if she did?
*. So it’s not the movie you’d expect. There are no slow suspenseful build-ups or sudden frightening scenes. The wife (Joan Allen) discovers what her husband (Anthony LaPaglia) is up to pretty early on, but he can matter-of-factly inform her that this isn’t going be like some movie. She should go along with things as they are and keep up appearances, if only for the sake of their adult children, who are just setting out on lives of their own (one is getting married and the other’s business is starting to take off).
*. You could imagine a really good movie being made out of this material. This is why A Good Marriage is frustrating.
*. Things just fail to ignite. The premise has a lot of dramatic potential but it all seems so pat and tame. The decision to play it as an understated and quiet drama, with a pair of older leads, was bold. But there’s no spark. I wasn’t interested in what was going on at all. Everyone has to share the blame. King’s script doesn’t develop things beyond the initial premise. Peter Askin’s direction is inert. LaPaglia is miscast.
*. It’s a shame because I had the sense that they were daring to do something a bit different. They were not, however, successful in their attempt. Just a few years later there’d be a more conventional and literal adaptation of the BTK story, The Clovehitch Killer, that also focused more on strained family relationships than on murder. While not perfect, it’s a much better movie than this.

Predestination (2014)

*. Sometimes you just need to leave well enough alone. Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” is a classic story, considered by many to be one of the finest imaginings of time-travel ever. Throw in a couple of great performances from Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook (the latter being a revelation to me) and this movie should have been set.
*. To some extent they were set, as Predestination is a very good movie if not a classic. But the add-ons don’t add anything. In fact, I think they’re more a distraction. The character of the Fizzle Bomber is wholly made up and, not surprisingly, it’s the one element that doesn’t fit. It just seems to have been thrown in to pad out the story and give the plot a motive force along the lines of 12 Monkeys.

*. This is too bad, as the premise is wonderfully realized and just needed a bit more moodiness from directors Michael and Peter Spierig to give it more depth. I was on board with the infinitely looping paradox idea and the two leads are, as I’ve said, perfect. Ethan Hawke’s persona of the confused intellectual finally seems at home and Snook is entirely believable as Leonardo DiCaprio not in drag. But it’s all presented in a way that’s perhaps too subtle for its own good. The meet creepy, for example, between the Unmarried Woman and Jane is underplayed to the point of my nearly missing it.
*. I understand wanting to do it this way. The nature of the story is meant to suggest if not a narrative trap then at least a certain amount of inevitability. Hence the title. But it’s hard to tell when the main character becomes aware of this cycle. How does s/he feel about all this? Angry? Resigned to living a kind of Groundhog Day existence? Can we even say that s/he grows or develops? I think that’s actually a fascinating question, but I don’t see where the Spierigs tried to follow up on it. They seem more interested in things like the retro décor of the space academy.
*. In short, it’s a movie I both really liked and felt frustrated by. What I wanted to see was a deeper exploration of the main idea. Things got a little too Hollywood though. Not enough for great box office, but enough to put a wrinkle in the timeline I couldn’t get straight.

The Cat and the Canary (1978)

*. There’s always a question when producing a new version of an old classic as to whether you want to bring it fully up-to-date or keep it in its original setting, with or without a dose of irony.
*. The Cat and the Canary started out as a play by John Willard in 1922. Since then it’s been filmed several times, beginning with Paul Leni’s 1927 silent version. This 1978 version is set in 1934, and the date helps give it more the air of an Agatha Christie mystery then I think the source originally had. This isn’t a surprise, since the success of recent Christie adaptations, like Death on the Nile, was apparently part of the film’s inspiration. This sort of thing was experiencing a bit of a renaissance, as evidenced not only with the Christie adaptations but such other Old Dark House mystery-comedies as Murder by Death, Clue, and House of the Long Shadows.
*. This was actually the fourth or fifth direct film adaptation of Willard’s play, but it hadn’t been done in forty years (the last version being the 1939 Bob Hope and Paulette Godard vehicle). I’m not sure what the aim was. It doesn’t try that hard for either laughs or thrills. The director, Radley Metzger, is a hard to pin down figure, known for adult-oriented/softcore erotic films while at the same time maintaining an art-house reputation. But there’s nothing sexy about this movie, despite all of the potential.
*. An interesting cast with nowhere to go. Still, it’s charming in its way, I think mainly because of the familiarity of the story. Plus it’s nice seeing some of the old faces. Edward Fox really takes the opportunity to ham it up. Wilfrid Hyde-White’s default setting was hammy, and he’s obviously enjoying himself. Olivia Hussey is funny as Honor Blackman’s wide-eyed gal pal.
*. Only a week after watching it, sitting down to write out the notes I’d made, I found I’d forgotten it almost completely. It’s that kind of movie. A bit like one of Christie’s less strenuous “entertainments,” and not really of its own time, or any other.

Scanners (1981)

*. There can’t be many directors whose work divides fans and critics so radically as that of David Cronenberg. I don’t mean over the question of whether he’s any good or not, but over the question of what constitutes the good Cronenberg and what’s not worth bothering with.
*. In putting my own cards on the table I’ll repeat a point I’ve made many times before, both in my book on Canadian fiction and several other places. Most artists have a period of about ten years where they do most of their major work. I find this is the same for film directors as it is for poets and novelists. It usually comes in the front part of their career. With that in mind, I would put Cronenberg’s most creative years, or big decade, as running from 1979’s The Brood to 1988’s Dead Ringers. In other words, I like the early Cronenberg. Some of his later work is interesting, but I never want to see Crash or Maps to the Stars again.
*. That said, these early films do have their drawbacks. They are cheap and show it. At times they approach “so bad they’re good territory.” But they really are good. In Scanners I get the sense that Cronenberg was actually trying to jam too many ideas into the frame, but I still find it fascinating even forty years later.
*. The so-bad-they’re-funny parts can be quickly addressed. Stephen Lack’s performance as Cameron Vale has been universally panned, and with cause. Lack is actually an interesting artist in what is his day job, but he’s terrible here. I couldn’t even buy him as an oddity.
*. Then there are the improbabilities in the plot. I could (just) get on board with the homeless derelict Vale being transformed into a corporate spy extraordinaire, but the business about his being able to mentally hack computers from a phone booth because the network is just like a human nervous system was a bridge too far. Not to mention the way his mental powers not only make the computers blow up but also down power lines and turn gas stations into fireballs. You have to laugh at all of that. But then, this was a time when people using computers wore lab coats.
*. All of this, however, somewhat constitutes the Cronenberg aesthetic. In his review of Scanners Roger Ebert says something that I find very perceptive in this regard: “We forgive low-budget films their limitations, assuming that their directors would reach farther with more money. But Scanners seems to indicate that what Cronenberg wants is enough money to make a better low-budget movie.”
*. Setting the production bar where he does, Cronenberg can be counted on to deliver entertaining fare that, while it may draw on various sources (Kim Newman cites the run of ’70s paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View and the psychic mumbo-jumbo of The Fury), always ends up feeling distinctive and unique.
*. Part of it has to do with his use of locations, or more precisely his way of turning everyday locations into uncanny spaces. Like a lecture hall, or even a food court at the mall. He has moments that make him seem like a discount Antonioni here, delivered with a garish genre inflection.

*. From the look of the film alone you could probably identify its auteur, but there are other fingerprints as well, including the familiar theme of medical science and technology run amok. All these scientists whose cures are worse than the disease. Or whose cures are the disease. The ephemerol kids are thalidomide babies, or LSD burn outs, so if you want there are those extra kinds of readings available. Political? Well, apparently Michael Ironside (Darryl Revok!) thought he was playing Che Guevara.
*. Apparently Cronenberg was writing a lot of the script on the fly, but because it was working out themes he was so thoroughly invested in this was something he could get away with.
*. It’s also to his credit here how he makes something out of what could very easily have been unintentionally hilarious: scenes of people making faces (grimacing, twitching, jerking their heads and having their eyes bulge) while supposedly engaged in psychic combat. There are really only the two big effects scenes where we actually see the kind of damage the scanners can do to a human body. The rest of it has to be mostly implied.
*. If Stephen Lack is a disappointment, Michael Ironside takes this movie over and makes it his own, even against Cronenberg’s visuals, Dick Smith’s special effects, and Howard Shore’s score. Just as he almost did, playing against Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, in Total Recall. How did this guy not become an even bigger star? He doesn’t have to over-emote to just chew a script to pieces.
*. Hands up if you identified Dr. Paul Ruth as Patrick McGoohan. I don’t think I would have caught him without a credit in a hundred viewings. I’m sure it’s mostly the beard, but still.
*. I know people who think the world of this movie, and (probably more) who think it’s just terrible. It’s not my personal favourite, that might be The Brood, but it has a place among the other works of what I like to think of as Cronenberg’s major phase. Major in the sense of most imaginative and creative — ironically or not, the years where he was just starting out and had the least to work with.
*. There’s been a lot of talk about a remake and one can understand why. It seems so obvious that a better movie could be made out of such a premise. But at the same time any improvement, and maybe that should be in quotation marks, would mean making it into something else entirely. You can’t spend more money and make a better low-budget movie than this.

Color Out of Space (2019)

*. It’s an old story. H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 story “The Colour Out of Space” is a classic that’s been filmed many times over the years. I’ve made notes on most of them: Die, Monster, Die! (1965), The Curse (1987), Colour from the Dark (2008), Die Farbe (2010), and Feed the Light (2014). And these, I should add, are only the more direct page-to-screen translations. Any story where a farmer finds a glowing meteorite out in his field that turns out to be something pretty awful derives from the same source. So add The Blob, and the Stephen King episode from Creepshow to the list.
*. Given that it’s an old story, told many times before, did we need this new version? Did we need Lovecraft, in director Richard Stanley’s words, to be dragged into the twenty-first century? Well, I think I needed it. Specifically, I needed to see some all-out practical gore and monster effects done in the manner of Carpenter’s The Thing just to remind me of what they looked like. I needed mutant alpacas. I also needed Nicolas Cage totally losing his shit, because let’s face it, there are few things as enjoyable in movies today as watching Nicolas Cage have a meltdown. It’s the whole reason to watch a movie like Mandy. I guess I also needed to see Tommy Chong again, just to know he’s still with us. And finally, if I can find one, I think I need a Miskatonic University t-shirt. Even though I never got accepted.
*. I didn’t know I needed all these things, and I’m thankful to Color Out of Space for them (though I don’t know if I’ll ever get that t-shirt). This movie was sort of like a horror enema I had to take after so many lousy new fright flicks.
*. Did I also miss Richard Stanley? To be honest, I’m not sure why such a cult has grown up around this guy. Was Hardware that auspicious a debut? Was Dust Devil that good? Was he treated that unfairly in getting canned from The Island of Dr. Moreau? I’m not denying he has talent, but I have to think that a lot of his legendary status is due to the fact that he hasn’t done much. Before this he hadn’t made a feature in over twenty years. That’s quite a while to be out of work.
*. Is this the best film version of Lovecraft’s story? I’d rate Die Farbe higher, but this is still a respectable effort. The visual texture, with all its lurid magenta light and transformed flora and fauna recalls Annihilation, as does the link between the alien force and cancer. Coincidence? I note in passing that in his review of Color Out of Space Robbie Collin says that Lovecraft’s story was “already semi-adapted by Alex Garland in Annihilation.” I don’t know if he was aware of the book by Jeff VanderMeer.
*. This film and The Grudge (2020). Two horror movies released within months of each other, both featuring a scene with a woman at a cutting board in the kitchen slicing her fingers off. Another coincidence?
*. I wasn’t as blown away by the effects as some reviewers. The light show didn’t seem all that special and I thought that after nearly forty years they should have been able to do monster effects at least as good as in The Thing. But I guess that movie really did set a standard that’s never since been equaled.
*. What I did like was the appearance of the house at night. Its lights make it look like a spaceship, which must have been intentional. I think it makes for a fitting incongruity. A bit of backwoods alien-ness before the alien(s) even arrive.
*. The script could have been tighter. Why bother with all the stuff about Lavinia being a witch? Tell me you didn’t roll your eyes when Benny decides he just has to go down the well to look for the dog, or when Ward and the cop have to go looking for Ezra in his cabin. These are moves straight out of the most idiotic of idiot plots.
*. On the plus side, however, I thought the destruction of the family was very well handled, particularly with the surprisingly bleak fate of the mother and her youngest son. A suitably sickly atmosphere is evoked in eldritch Portugal (where the film was shot). The last act drags a bit (they should have kept Cage’s character around), but overall it seemed well paced.
*. A critical success but a total bomb at the box office. Apparently Stanley had plans for doing a Lovecraft trilogy but I’m not sure he’ll be getting the chance. Which, in turn, will likely only make his reputation grow.
*. Still, I liked it. Cage’s performance actually outshines all of the effects, and if he’s basically doing a sort of parody of himself now that’s fine with me. Samuel L. Jackson has been doing the same thing for years and it works for him too. So maybe not the Lovecraft we deserve, but the one we need. I hope we get more.