Category Archives: 1990s

Body Bags (1993)

*. The original idea was that Showtime was going to create a series out of the concept here, along the lines of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. For whatever reason that didn’t work out, and so all we have is this horror anthology consisting of three stories and a frame set in a morgue.
*. As far as framing narratives go, it’s actually a pretty good one. I could have imagined this turning into a horror-comic Six Feet Under. But it was not to be.
*. Things get off to a decent start with the parody of the MGM roaring-lion logo, only this time with John Carpenter playing The Coroner wielding a roaring chainsaw above the motto Sanguis Gratia Artis.
*. From there we enter the morgue, with Carpenter done up in make-up recalling The Phantom of the Opera. There are a lot of groaner puns that come with the territory. They might have been delivered by the Crypt Keeper. Carpenter isn’t that great as an actor though and doesn’t ham the part up enough.
*. Body Bags is, however, Carpenter’s baby. There are a bunch of cameos made by other horror directors (Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Tobe Hooper), but they’re just walk-ons (or fall-ons, in the case of Raimi). Carpenter directed the first two segments and Tobe Hooper the third.

*. I thought something more interesting might have been done with the first story. The isolated gas station has the look of the fishbowl under siege that was later used in Splinter and ATM. But things settle down into a routine pretty quickly. There’s a slasher killer. There are comic interruptions. There are bodies to be discovered. The villain is “killed” only to come back to life, rising up behind the last girl in a shot right out of Halloween. Can you rip off your own earlier work? Maybe not, but this is all uninspired, routine stuff, and aside from Craven’s creepy appearance I can’t think of any reason to recommend it.

*. The third story is disappointing as well. The innocent guy (Mark Hamill) is in an accident and receives a transplant. In this case it’s an eye. Before you can think of such classic riffs on the theme as The Hands or Orlac or Mad Love, he’s having violent visions. It seems this eye came from an executed serial killer! Who would have ever guessed.
*. The visions might also make us think of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which, perhaps coincidentally, Carpenter wrote. In any event, things work out predictably, to the point where we even get the Bible verses about what to do if your eye offends you thrown into the mix. It’s a shame to end on such a tired note.
*. The saving grace here is the middle story, which has Stacy Keach as a balding man who is desperate to get his hair back. He goes to a clinic which, through some unstated procedure, infects him with an alien life form that uses him as a host. His “hair” is actually a nest of writhing worms, like tiny serpents, that feed on his brain.

*. Such a story is pure Stephen King, with its Everyman faced with a problem that is easy to relate to ending up on a sidetrack to hell. The set-up reminded me a lot of the story “Quitters, Inc.” in Cat’s Eye, with a main character who should have been more careful about what he wished for.
*. But what really makes it work, and makes it so memorable, is the unnervingly real quality of the infection. Basically the alien parasites are just another kind of worm, of the sort that millions of people get every day, either in their guts or just under their skin (tapeworm, ringworm, etc.).
*. Body Bags is a much better film than its origin as a failed TV pilot would lead you to believe. The morgue frame is good, and comes with a nice twist at the end. There are several interesting cameos. And at least one of the stories, the second, is great. The rest of it is pedestrian and uninspired genre stuff, but this is a genre (the anthology horror) that isn’t known for a lot of memorable moments. Twenty-five years later, I think it holds up better than a lot of similar films that were released on a bigger screen.

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Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993)

*. This one was also released as H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, which it certainly is not. But very free adaptations of Poe have a long film tradition so there’s no reason Lovecraft should be treated any differently. I only wonder why so few directors have tried to do Lovecraft straight up. He’s certainly weird enough on the page.
*. Once again we have the conceit of the horror anthology film as a book. Sometimes it’s a dusty old tome (Twice-Told Tales, ABCs of Death 2), sometimes a comic book (Creepshow, Trick ‘r Treat). Here it’s that ghastly grimoire the Necronomicon. Though this makes me question why Lovecraft (the character in the film, played by Jeffrey Combs) wants to sneak into that ashram library just to read these spooky stories anyway. Doesn’t that make him a plagiarist?
*. The first story up in this three-parter is “The Drowned” (directed by Christophe Gans) which is ostensibly an interpretation of “The Rats in the Walls.” About the only thing the two have in common is the house on the cliff and the main character’s last name. This was a bit of a disappointment, as I’d love to see a faithful adaptation of “The Rats in the Walls.” It’s also disappointing that Lovecraft’s story has been replaced with the old morality tale about how bringing back the dead never works out the way you think it will because (as the line from Pet Sematary has it) “sometimes dead is better.”
*. Once things get going, however, we get some fun practical effects, with lots of slime and tentacles. And a much better Cthulhu than we got in The Haunted Palace. Or is that Nyarlathotep? Or Shub-Niggurath?

*. “The Cold” (directed by Shusuke Kuneko, who didn’t know any English at the time) is based on “Cool Air,” which is just Lovecraft’s version of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” but with some gruesome changes like having the doctor killing people for their spinal fluid, and keeping a baby alive for years in the womb. This is good stuff, and Valdemar’s (or Dr. Madden’s) dissolution is very nicely done.
*. The final story, “Whispers” (directed, along with the wraparound library material, by Brian Yuzna) is, I am led to believe by reputable sources, based on “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Apparently the script went through a number of revisions however, so what it has in common with Lovecraft’s eldritch tale of alien ventriloquists inhabiting the backwoods hill country of Vermont is anybody’s guess.

*. As far as these things go, this is a decent enough modern interpretation of Lovecraft: nowhere near close enough to satisfy purists but close in spirit to the pulp sensibility of the original. As I began by pointing out, few directors have tried to produce a literal adaptation of Lovecraft’s work, and that isn’t attempted here.
*. The idea of having Lovecraft himself as a character was interesting, but nothing is done with it, and to be honest I didn’t think there was anything to the frame story at all. These are so rarely done well that I understand why so many anthology horrors don’t even bother. I wonder why it’s been so hard to come up with something as clever as the frame in Dead of Night.
*. Not that the story structure really matters. This is very much an effects movie, of the old school sort (meaning a lot of practical in-camera effects rather than CGI). If you like this kind of gore then you’ll find this worth checking out despite the narrative weakness. The splatter is disgusting and inventive. The aquatic zombies are better than the ones in Creepshow, though not as good as Davy Jones and his crew in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The tentacles shooting out of the dead woman’s eyes are great. Dr. Madden’s demise is a highlight. Only the final story is a let down. It’s a real chaotic jumble of action and tone, and left me mystified as to what was actually going on.
*. There aren’t a lot of “classic” anthology horror films. Dead of Night. Kwaidan. Aside from those two titles, it’s a genre that sets a low bar. Adjust your expectations accordingly, also keeping in mind the date, and you won’t be disappointed by this one.

Two Evil Eyes (1990)

*. Damn, Adrienne Barbeau was good in a lot of junky little roles.
*. The first half of this Poe-inspired double-bill had me thinking about Barbeau, as there was little else to hold my attention. Poe’s story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is a one-trick pony, with little to recommend it to filmmakers aside from its ending, where Valdemar dissolves into a puddle of putridity. It’s a story that’s been filmed several times, beginning (I believe) with the Italian silent from 1936 Il caso Valdemar. Usually it’s done as a quickie. What makes Romero’s film stand out is both the fact that it takes its time (at 55 minutes it’s longer than any of the other versions I’ve seen) and that, despite Tom Savini providing the special effects, it doesn’t give us the satisfaction of seeing Valdemar’s liquefying corpse at the end.

*. Instead of a messy corpse, it has Adrienne Barbeau. She’s so fierce and intelligent, with a toughness that only makes her vulnerability more real. Even face-to-face with a zombie she’s the most frightening figure on screen, and she routinely upstages whoever she’s playing against, even behind sunglasses. There’s also something about her presence that hasn’t dated. While other stars of the 1980s now appear a bit ridiculous, Barbeau holds her own.
*. So George Romero’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” is watchable because of Barbeau. She isn’t given a lot of help though. I don’t see where Romero was inspired by this material, and it ends up being a pretty standard little story about scheming lovers getting rid of an unwanted rich old spouse. They stick his body in the freezer but he comes back. We’ve been here many times before (more imaginatively, and with humorous effect, in Asylum).
*. I think the ending is flubbed. Usually the shorts in an anthology horror end with a kind of gruesome punchline. This was a given with this particular text, but Romero doesn’t do much with it. As already noted, we don’t see Valdemar decomposing before our eyes, like, for example, David Warner does at the end of the Lovecraft Valdemar tale in Necronomicon: Book of the Dead. Instead, this whole sequence is done as a false climax before Ramy Zada gets his.
*. The finale lacks punch, and nothing about the film is very scary. There are some interesting ideas suggested, but they don’t go anywhere. Romero himself was unhappy with the result, thinking it could have been better if he’d been able to do sound work post-production and had more “bread” to do special effects. As it is, it’s got Barbeau and that’s about all.

*. Dario Argento’s “The Black Cat” has more zing. It takes Poe’s story as inspiration, and gives it a suitably ghastly climax (with a crazy twist!) as the body behind the wall is revealed. In addition, there are also various other nods to the Master. Harvey Keitel’s character is Rod Usher. His girlfriend is Annabelle. He visits crime scenes dressed up after “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “Berenice.”
*. I think there must have been another form of homage intended in the scene where Martin Balsam stands looking up the staircase in Usher’s house. Surely we’re all thinking he’s about to pull another Arbogast. And that would have been fun. Argento must have considered it, especially given how carefully constructed the stairway set was.
*. All things considered, this strikes me as one of the better horror shorts I’ve seen in any of these anthologies (though I say that while admitting that having only two films doesn’t really make this an “anthology”). Keitel seems a bit uncomfortable, but that actually helps. There are some good red herrings and misdirections, and the extreme parts come as real shocks. I was only left a little confused as to what Usher was up to at the end. Was he really trying to escape? Or just kill himself?

*. This isn’t the film anyone had planned. Argento (who was the driving force) originally wanted to do four stories but couldn’t get Stephen King and John Carpenter on board (I’ve heard Wes Craven was considered as well). Also, the two stories were at first going to be “The Masque of the Red Death” (as an AIDS parable) and “The Pit and the Pendulum” (set in a South American dictatorship), but these projects were abandoned.
*. I wonder, if they’d had four episodes, if they would have done more in the way of a frame. As it is there’s just a brief intro that visits some Poe sites in Baltimore but nothing else.
*. Two Evil Eyes didn’t get much of a release and did next to no domestic box office. I think it deserves a bit more credit. Most critics and audiences seem to agree (and I would as well) that Argento’s is the stronger half of the bill, but Romero’s piece is not without interest. In the lists of Poe adaptations and anthology horror films, which is admittedly setting a low bar, I think this one actually rates pretty high.

Point Break (1991)

*. I remember seeing this one with a group of friends when it first came out and I think we all were left wondering what to make of it. Sure it was a cops-n-robbers action film with car chases and gun fights, and the usual bullshit about the unorthodox and mismatched buddy cops with the hard-ass jerk of a boss, but, at least at times, it did seem like something different.
*. Maybe it was just trying a bit harder. I like how the footrace plays out with a number of interesting elements. It starts off with Johnny fighting the man in the Reagan mask while that man is on fire. That was kind of interesting. Then you have little things like the way the perp closes and locks the glass door behind him when he cuts through the house, and then throws the dog at Johnny. These aren’t things that make you go “Wow!” but they help to perk up what is an otherwise conventional chase sequence.
*. Then there are the sympathetic villains. It’s established early on that they don’t kill people when they rob banks, and the ex-presidents theme shows wit. They are “adrenaline junkies” looking for a way to finance their “ultimate rush”-seeking lifestyle, because, let’s face it, working sucks. I think we can all relate.
*. This relatability is an important point that I felt the 2015 remake flubbed badly. In that movie the gang struck me as depressingly downbeat. They wanted to die, but die beautifully. At one point in this film Johnny accuses Bodhi of having a death wish, but that’s not right. As he makes clear in his big campfire speech, what Bodhi wants to do is show that the human spirit is still alive. The gang accept death, but they’re not really directed toward it. You could argue that Bodhi is suicidal at the end, but at that point all his options have been removed.
*. Kathryn Bigelow also nicely captures the romance of the gang’s lifestyle. The surfing and skydiving are a kind of ballet. And Patrick Swayze just has too much energy and charm to be a real villain, or to lead us to think that he wants to die.
*. If there’s a big problem with the movie (I’m ignoring all the little problems) it’s in how quickly Bodhi turns from someone who is essentially non-violent to being almost indifferent to killing. His whoops and cheers after landing in the desert next to the body of his dead friend struck me as particularly jarring.
*. Then again, Johnny doesn’t do much to revenge Gary Busey’s Pappas does he? I guess he never bonded with his partner as much as he did with Bodhi.
*. Keanu Reeves. Pretty awful, as usual. But Bigelow knew him and could use him for what he was: a beautiful man who looks great in a wet t-shirt. Put a couple of more animated figures on either side of him (Swayze and Busey) and he seems almost normal.
*. Roger Ebert: “The plot of Point Blank, summarized, invites parody (rookie agent goes undercover as surfer to catch bank robbers). The result is surprisingly effective.” It’s interesting how often this happens. It doesn’t matter that a plot is ridiculous or “invites ridicule” so long as it works dramatically.
*. Some of the dialogue is very bad, and Reeves’s delivery just takes it up (or down) another level. His final words to Bohdi on the beach are hard not to smile at. But it’s a script that’s also knowing enough to undercut its own badness in this department. Example: Reeves bellowing at Tyler “My name’s Johnny Utah!” and having her call back “Who cares?” Or Reeves (again bellowing) to Bohdi “This is your fucking wake-up call! I am an FBI agent!” and having Bohdi reply “Yeah, I know. Ain’t it wild?”
*. It’s sometimes labeled a cult film today, but I don’t know if it quite makes that cut. I think it’s well made, and Swayze is terrific. Some of it is very conventional, and some of it very stupid, but it seems at least aware of these shortcomings. It’s not a movie I return to, because at the end of the day I don’t think there’s much to it, but it’s weird enough to have lasted this long and it may be around for a while yet.

An American Werewolf in Paris (1997)

*. Maybe this was just ahead of its time. Yes, An American Werewolf in London was a horror/rom-com too, but the story here seems bending toward the twenty-first century and YA romantic horror. Think Twilight and Underworld. An American Werewolf in Paris might have just been jumping the gun.
*. It was also jumping the gun with its use of CGI for the werewolf effects. But you don’t always want to be an early adopter of technology. By today’s standards, the CGI looks really bad.
*. Or maybe it was behind the times. I had to keep reminding myself while watching it that it came out in 1997. It seems so 1980s, right from the opening scene on the train introducing the three buddies. Surely one of them must be Ferris Bueller, right? And the soundtrack . . . were we listening to music like that in the ’90s? I wasn’t listening to much music in the ’90s so I don’t know.
*. This is a good example, perhaps the perfect example, of a sequel that has suffered badly because of comparisons to the original. In fact it has almost nothing to do with the original, and was so belated (a reported six years in development hell) that comparisons are almost useless. The actual link between Serafine and Alex Price is, for legal reasons, only implied. There are a couple of nods to An American Werewolf in London — the double-fake dream, the ghosts of the victims following the hero around — but it’s really a stand-alone effort and I think needs to be approached as such.
*. It has enough of its own problems. Aside from Julie Delpy the cast is forgettable. Tom Everett Scott seems too goofy for his part. The direction, by Anthony Waller, is just workmanlike. The plot is full of wild improbabilities, beginning with the dive from the Eiffel Tower. The werewolf effects, as already noted, are terrible. But I think the biggest problem is that there’s just too much going on. All the business with Serafine’s back story, the clan of werewolves led by Claude, the two ghost victims, the buff bro Chris (Phil Buckman) hanging around in a dungeon (couldn’t they have at least given him a shirt to put on?), a police investigation, the old ambivalence in Franco-American relations, the attempt to find a cure for lycanthropy . . . all of this and a boy-meets-girl werewolf story too. It’s hard to keep focused on what’s important.
*. This is a shame, as there some things to like here. I know most people didn’t find it funny, but I thought it had its moments. The condom-bubblegum bit. Andy’s animal instincts being activated by the hottie in the zebra-print skirt. The cop, upon being asked by Andy what he’s being arrested for, replying dryly that “the possibilities are limitless.”
*. But instead of staying light on its feet with witty banter and letting the two leads work together (admittedly, without any trace of chemistry between them), the film gets bogged down in a lot of extraneous matters and predictable action sequences.
*. An American Werewolf in London got a lot of flack when it came out for not knowing what it was about. I don’t think that was a fair criticism of that movie, but it really fits here. The comedy and the romance and the horror remain completely distinct elements. At some point someone had to decide which way they wanted to go with this. They didn’t, and ended up going nowhere. It’s not as painful as some critics have made it out to be, but it sure isn’t very good.

Bad Moon (1996)

*. There’s a basic problem that horror films dealing with classic movie monsters have to deal with. How long do you want to wait before the protagonists figure out what it is they’re up against?
*. This is a problem because the audience, in almost every case, knows what’s going on right from the beginning. They already know this is a vampire/werewolf/zombie movie. So part of the fun is seeing how long it takes the hero to cotton on to what’s happening.
*. But you don’t want to stretch it out too long. After a while an audience will get exasperated, and start muttering at the screen “Damn it, Janet. Your brother is a werewolf. That’s his problem!” Better to err in the other direction, as in the movie Late Phases where Ambrose knows just from hearing some growls and screams next door that he’s up against a lycanthrope. Off to the gun store to buy some silver bullets! And Ambrose is blind!
*. This basic problem is front and center in Bad Moon because the audience, and the family’s dog, Thor, already know that Uncle Ted (Michael Paré) is a werewolf. So it’s frustrating that Janet (Mariel Hemingway) and her son Brett (Mason Gamble) take so long to figure it out. It’s not as though there weren’t enough clues, including Thor’s animosity toward Ted. And while I know in the real world a werewolf probably wouldn’t be everyone’s first guess as to what’s going on, this is a werewolf movie!
*. It’s interesting though that Thor doesn’t pick up on Uncle Ted being a werewolf right away. He initially jumps into his arms and doesn’t give any indication of having suspicions. It’s only after a bit of detective work in the woods that he pieces things together.
*. Sticking with this same line of thought, it’s kind of disappointing that the reveal comes by way of Janet discovering Ted’s werewolf diary, which is read in a voiceover. That’s pretty cheesy, even for fare such as this. But then even that doesn’t convince her as to what’s going on, and she blames Thor for the killings! By this point I imagine a lot of people were throwing things at the screen. “You should have listened to the dog, Janet.” Damn it.
*. Nothing says you’re a heel quite as well as rolling a toothpick in your mouth, does it? It’s a conventional bit of film shorthand, which makes you wonder what people who do it in real life are thinking. I guess it’s just a bad-ass image they’re trying to project.
*. That’s quite a jump Brett (or his double) does off the roof of the house when he’s escaping the house at night. As I mentioned in my notes on Bullitt, it’s unglamorous stunts like this that impress me the most.
*. Hm. So Ted thinks that by “spending time with his family” his lycanthropy might go into remission. Well, I guess if all else has failed . . .
*. The werewolf? Looks pretty good. The transformation scene, however, is weak. Lame early CGI.
*. The novel this was based on, Wayne Smith’s Thor, was apparently told mainly from the dog’s point of view. Obviously this wasn’t going to work for a movie, though they try and do a bit in that way with the doggy POV shots. Unfortunately, that still left them with a situation where the most interesting and compelling character is the dog. It’s a small cast, and the three leads are pretty much just types: the boy, his mom (who is just defending her boy, same as Thor), and the cursed uncle.
*. The centrality of the dog, however, is really the movie’s only claim to our attention. Aside from that, this is a very conventional werewolf movie, obvious in almost every respect. There’s the bit where they introduce the book on lycanthropy with all the old woodcuts of werewolves (though this plays no part in the story at all), there’s the jump scare that turns out to be a nightmare that Janet wakes up from, there’s the caricature asshole of Flopsy who we know is going to be werewolf fodder right from the moment of his introduction.
*. Then there is the matter of tone. I think they never settled on this. It seems as though it should be a sort of YA horror-comedy along the lines of Fright Night or Silver Bullet, but there’s nothing funny going on and the sex at the beginning feels out of place. What we’re left with is a simple werewolf vs. dog story that plays out very predictably. It might have worked as a TV-movie, but bombed on the big screen. It’s a good marker of the doldrums the werewolf genre had hit in the ’90s. Something was going to have to change for this classic monster to stage a comeback.

Hard Target (1993)

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*. In going from Predator to Predator 2 we moved from jungle to urban jungle, and that same movement has taken place with this chestnut of a hunting-humans story, where we’ve gone from the tropical island of The Most Dangerous Game (or Mexican jungle of Run for the Sun) to the streets of New Orleans (described here as just another “unhappy corner of the planet” where the Organization can ply its trade). The “game” has gone undercover by hiding in plain sight. Hell, one victim is gunned down in the middle of the street, with dozens of witnesses, but nobody seems to care.
*. I’d add there’s a similar sort of movement in the Hostel franchise, with the first two films being set in an Eastern European backwater and Hostel: Part III moving to Las Vegas. (In this movie Fouchon is planning on taking the hunt back to Eastern Europe, as New Orleans has become too hot.) I think the point being made is that the cruel war of all against all is as much, if not more, a feature of modern, “civilized” life as it is a harkening back to some primitive state. It’s war, but war as entertainment, and there are rules to the game. As Fouchon tells one of his clients, “This is New Orleans, not Beirut.”
*. A final observation, following on this same line of thinking. Not only have we left the jungle, we’ve also left behind the idea that homicidal savagery is the mark of a maniac. Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff was an obvious candidate for the asylum, as was Balleau in Bloodlust! But the corporate killers in this film, like the members of the Elite Hunting society in the Hostel movies, though they may be evil sadists, are not eccentric in their psychopathy. We take them for granted, as recognizable types of bloodthirsty capitalists who just want ever more exotic and expensive ways to blow off a bit of steam.
*. This was John Woo’s English-language debut. The Killer and Hard-Boiled had made quite an impression but he wasn’t just given the keys to the Hollywood kingdom, in part because he didn’t know English very well. Sam Raimi was tasked with overseeing the project.
*. I don’t know how much Raimi was involved. It looks like a John Woo film. What that means is lots of slow-motion action scenes. Lots of guns blazing. A climactic battle that takes up the final third of the picture. And pigeons.
*. Aside from all that, Woo also has a weird habit in this film of letting his camera seem to drift aimlessly around people’s faces. He likes to isolate on eyes, but this rarely makes any sense. I couldn’t help thinking he just didn’t care what any of the characters were saying, because he didn’t understand it anyway. I believe Leone had some of the same issues.
*. I don’t think the slow-motion helps very much, and in some scenes it actually makes the stunts look bad. Take the shot of Chance (Jean-Claude Van Damme) kicking the man off the motorcycle. They show three different cuts of that and none of them and they’re all terrible.
*. Why do none of the motorcycle killers take their helmets off when they’re in the warehouse? I think that would have really cut down on their range of vision. They don’t even raise their dark visors! I wonder if they were all being played by the same stunt man.
*. Woo doesn’t make this movie good, but he does it give it moments of interest that raise it above the usual ’90s action fare. The script is mostly a throwaway to hang the battles on, but the poverty angle is different. The homeless or down-and-out are the natural prey of serial killers, as they have few if any friends or family and the police don’t really care when they wind up dead. They are also susceptible to Fouchon’s offer to make them “a man again, instead of a shadow of your former self.”
*. The plight of the homeless is underlined in the scene where the hunted (black) man can’t get anyone to help him. They all just walk by or tell him to “get a job.” He has become the invisible man. Chance will be their avenger, a social justice warrior taking the side of poor people, who, he tells us, are just as capable of getting bored as the idle rich who hunt them. The World, in an action film, is actually a very boring place. It needs a lot of gunshots and explosions to bring it to life.
*. Van Damme has a fantastic mullet, but seems somewhat disengaged. It wasn’t originally imagined as a martial arts film (Kurt Russell was supposed to star), so that stuff is kept to a minimum. Indeed, what little there is comes across as supererogatory, as, for example, Van Damme shooting bad guys a dozen times before polishing them off with a roundhouse kick. He also keeps his shirt on despite the Louisiana heat and, for the record, doesn’t do the splits once.
*. Lance Henriksen at least looks like he’s having fun. Yancy Butler, in her debut, appears to have been told to just make her eyes go wide every time she sees the camera pointed at her. Wilford Brimley as the Cajun moonshiner Uncle Douvee is one of the funniest miscastings you’ll ever see. But since he’s only there to lighten things up, why not?
*. I’m sure I saw this movie when it came out, but re-watching it now I had almost no memory of it. There’s really nothing here to hold one’s attention, or to spend any more time discussing.

Predator 2 (1990)

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*. Not bad. Not up to the level of the original, but not bad at all.
*. They had a lot of good ideas. I love the opening shot, transitioning from the palm trees and bird cries that make you think we’re still back in Central America, and then revealing the urban jungle of L.A.
*. As an aside, Schwarzenegger turned this film down in part because he thought changing the location to L.A. was a bad idea. He was wrong. It was an obvious progression. If they’d stayed in the jungle the whole movie would have just been more of the same.
*. The time stamp tells us it’s 1997, which ushers in Morton Downey Jr. (remember him?) as the obnoxious TV journalist hosting the tabloid-news program Hardcore. The over-the-top, jingoistic media satire, complete with a scorecard of body counts, has a flavour of Verhoeven to it.
*. Picking on the media was popular at the time. It’s a recurring theme in the Die Hard franchise as well. Another favourite target is the government, or the Feds, who are either seen as incompetent or somehow part of the problem. That was the case in the original Predator, with Carl Weathers’s character being up to some dirty spook business (I mean “spook” as in CIA), and it’s back again here with Gary Busey’s secret team of Predator investigators. Is it any wonder government and the media remain among the most distrusted and despised institutions in America today? Look at how they’re represented.
*. When I say Predator 2 isn’t up to the level of the original I’m thinking of several things. In the first place, Danny Glover is a big guy but he doesn’t quite fill the screen like Arnie did. He’s a better actor, but doesn’t have the same presence or intensity. He’s more the buddy in a buddy picture (Lethal Weapon) than a leading man.
*. He’s also more an Everyman figure than a bad-ass, which makes him seem like a square peg trying to fit into the round hole of the part. It’s as though they thought they were getting Murtaugh and Riggs all in  one, but ended up with neither.
*. And I really don’t understand why he has to vocalize everything. When he sits at the bar he has to talk us through every step of what he’s thinking. When he sees Danny’s necklace hanging from the tree he has to say “Danny’s necklace!” When he’s startled by some birds on the roof he has to say “Birds!” Did the writers or director think we were this dumb?
*. Things could have been worse. Much worse. The studio wanted Steven Seagal in the Harrigan part. Thank the movie gods that didn’t happen.
*. Another reason I think it’s a let down from Predator is the cliché factor. There are too many familiar scenes: the chaotic downtown police headquarters, the honest cop having his balls busted by the bureaucracy, the new transfer with an annoying catchphrase who’s trying to fit in, the trip to the graveyard to mourn a fallen comrade/vow vengeance, the disco lighting in the subway battle so we can’t really see anything, the bit of comic relief when the Predator crashes into an elderly couple’s apartment for some self-repair work. These are all routine moments, as much a part of the basic grammar of action films of the time as the bodies doing somersaults in the air after every explosion.
*. Speaking of that shootout in the subway, since it’s established that the Predator isn’t wearing body armour, why do none of the shots Paxton fires at him even slow him down? Indeed he seems to not even get wounded. And yet Paxton empties two clips into him at close range.
*. I was pulled up short by the scientist telling Harrigan that the material the Predator’s harpoon tip is made out of “doesn’t correspond to anything in the periodic table.” Isn’t that impossible? I mean, if we’re going to discover any new elements in the universe we sort of know what they would correspond to, don’t we? And any totally new element would have to be something incredibly unstable and short-lived. Not something you’d make a weapon out of.
*. Finally we hear the obvious expressed when Harrigan calls the Predator “pussy face.” This had been noticeable at least since the Alien creature opened up like an aroused vulva, and is a strain of imagery that would continue to have a long afterlife (appearing at the end of Starship Troopers, for example). As an icon of anxiety it goes back to the vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth, a cross-cultural folk tale with ancient roots. “Pussy face” is nothing new, but then neither is the castration complex.
*. It’s interesting that the same structural difficulty I noticed in the first film is back here. What I mean is that things get started on a high note and maintain such a violent pace that the film actually slows down in the final act after a strong median climax. It’s not a big problem in either movie, as the climactic duels are reasonably well done, but it is an issue.
*. So, in short, it’s a pretty good movie, in a functional and generic way. It’s not often that a formula will be so firmly set only two movies into a franchise, but the first rule of commercial filmmaking is not to surprise the audience. That way, at least they’ll never be disappointed.

Slacker (1991)

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*. A lot of the people who dislike this movie do so because they dislike the people in it. The slackers. They seem like prototypes of the currently (as of this writing) despised hipster. Indeed they might not even be prototypes so much as the advance guard. The London photographer identifies the Anti-artist as “one of those neo-poseur types that hang out at coffee shops and doesn’t do much of anything,” and several other characters are easily identifiable as the hipster type avant la lettre, even without beards and scarves.
*. I don’t dislike these people, at least as a type, and as I was a university student at the same time I can even recognize a bit of myself in them. It’s perhaps because of this identification that instead of finding them annoying they only get me down.
*. The next question is what Richard Linklater’s opinion is of these people. Does he despise them? I don’t think so. He says on the Criterion DVD commentary that he was disappointed when “slacker” entered the mainstream as a pejorative term, having always thought of it as a “badge of honour.” He even says that “doing your own thing,” which is what the slackers are all about, is “kind of heroic.”

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*. Elsewhere he has put it this way: “Slackers might look like the left-behinds of society, but they are actually one step ahead, rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them. The dictionary defines slackers as people who evade duties and responsibilities. A more modern notion would be people who are ultimately being responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might be ultimately striving for.”
*. I’m not so sure about this part. I wouldn’t call everyone here lazy, but society clearly has left them behind in an economic sense. They are not one step ahead of anything. And this is a big part of what gets me down about them.
*. Mostly, the slackers are students. The few who most obviously aren’t are either old men or criminals. But what are they students of? I don’t think they’re MBAs or in law or med school. They’re not engineers or science majors. Instead, the sad joke is that they’re what had become, by the 1980s, the ring of scum around the university bathtub. They are students of the arts and humanities. Their interests are music, literature, film, history, and philosophy. Which means they have no role at all to play in modern life.
*. This is why they seem so adrift. While perhaps not lazy (a charge Linklater fiercely resists), they clearly aren’t getting much done. Hence the refrain we hear throughout the film of people being asked what they are up to and them saying “nothing much” or “um, nothing.” One of them has a band practice in another five hours, so . . . there’s the rest of the day shot.
*. But they are more lost than even this implies. They are a hundred performers in search of an audience. As Linklater sits in the back seat of the cab he drones on about alternate realities while the cabbie is clearly paying no attention to him at all. This encounter becomes the model for almost all the subsequent engagements. Even the band at the end is playing to an empty club. As Linklater points out in his commentary over this scene, most dialogue is a conversation and involves interaction but “this movie is very one-sided.”
*. Essentially what we get are a series of monologues delivered to people, like the cab driver, who give every appearance of being zoned out or wanting to be somewhere else. Linklater specifically instructed these auditors not to respond to the monologues, not to judge anything being said. So we have endless scenes of people talking to human walls.
*. Their response to this is to turn inwards. If the slacker is the first coming of the hipster he is also a prototype of the blogger. It’s 1991 so the Internet hasn’t fully arrived yet, but it’s there glowing on the horizon. We can see it most obviously in the office of the Video backpacker, but also in the carefree envoi as the car full of young people turn their cameras on themselves (doing their bit to pollute a park while they’re at it). You can see this as the film swallowing its own tail, or a preview of the rise of the shaky cam (I half expected to see a monster burst out of the woods and eat them), but I think mostly it’s just the terminal point arrived at by artists (or people who study the arts) who have lost any thought of an audience and are just reveling in self-indulgence. This is the way the arts end: not with a bang but with a YouTube channel that gets twelve views.

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*. One offshoot of this failure — and make no mistake, that is what it is — is the constant self-denigration of the artistic class. Though intelligent, they seem to take delight in making themselves sound stupid. Their monologues are something very different from the arguments about pop culture we get in Tarantino. In Tarantino we’re listening in on people who are talking smarter than they are, much as they dress up-class in suits and ties. Tarantino’s gangsters and sundry aren’t university students, only having been educated in the school of MTV (not life). In comparison, in Slacker the characters are, mostly, very well educated, but don’t act like it, and seem not to care very much about anything they’ve learned. They are representatives of the closing of the American mind: not interested in anything aside from doing their own thing and expressing their own half-baked philosophies.
*. I want to extend the comparison to Tarantino, and in particular Pulp Fiction, just a bit. Like Pulp Fiction, Slacker is a movie built out of talk. But in Tarantino the people argue while in Linklater they deliver set-piece speeches that define individual scenes. As already noted, nobody is really listening to them. Also very different is the importance in Tarantino of structure. His stories intersect in various interesting ways, while in Slacker there is really no attempt at structure at all.
*. Slacker is the type of film that seems to want us to make connections, but offers none. There isn’t even the illusion of a thread holding it all together. I believe only one of the actors appears twice, and I don’t think he’s meant to be playing the same character. None of the stories loops around to be reintroduced later. The people we meet are simply left behind like bubbles in the film’s wake.
*. In this way it’s really an anti-conspiracy film. Conspiracy is a leitmotif  — Been on the moon since the 50’s, the Conspiracy-A-Go-Go author, the Video backpacker, the Old anarchist (if that’s what he is) — but the lack of any connections between the dots frustrates any sense that there might be conspiracies at work.
*. During his commentary for Pink Flamingos, John Water expresses surprise at the credit he was given for having so many long takes. This hadn’t been something he’d done for any aesthetic reason but just because he couldn’t afford editing. I thought of that here. But while long takes are cheap, they are not easy, and Linklater (and his cast and crew) deserve a lot of credit for making them work. It’s really remarkable how a largely non-professional cast pulls them off.
*. The pacing is also nicely maintained. All things considered, this is a very well made film that, if it doesn’t go anywhere, at least doesn’t lag in its peregrinations.

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*. Why would Rachael be worried about the guy at the door licking her wrist when she’s just seen her friend lick her own wrist to get the stamp? That seems like a mistake.
*. It’s a movie that’s very much of its time. I think Linklater is aware of this, as he has a thing for this kind of time-capsule sensibility in his movies. But the time can also become a label, as Linklater is also aware of. On the commentary he talks about the historical moment of the slacker, which included Coupland’s Generation X, Nirvana, and the Seattle grunge scene. The generation became a brand (it was “never content based”): something publicists could roll with and which could be used to sell stuff. The target audience created by marketers became the subject itself and Linklater found this speedy co-option creepy. In his contemporary review Roger Ebert remarks that “We are listening in on a whole stratum of American life that never gets paid attention to in the movies.” That was going to change in a big way.
*. Linklater wanted the song that plays over the end credits to be Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” but couldn’t afford the rights. Thank heavens. What a mistake that would have been. It would have been trite, and without any connection to the people whose lives we’ve just been watching pieces of. Whatever else you think of them, the Butthole Surfers were the correct choice.
*. I like Slacker, in the sense that I enjoy watching it. But it’s not a movie that repays many subsequent viewings. Is it because we’ve grown more familiar with the type, and fallen out of love with them? Perhaps. But the type has always been with us. Maybe it’s the way they’ve become a marketing cliché, or the fact that their patter just doesn’t sound as fresh decades later (the fate of all cleverness).
*. Or perhaps it’s just natural to want to turn the page. Think of the backlash in the 1980s against hippies. People who were once thought, or who thought themselves, to be idealists came to be recognized as either sell-outs or just bums. Twenty-five years later, where are the slackers? Still in the coffee shop I guess. Upstairs is the Austin Film Society. The next generation, self-pitying but not without some justification, might still be redeemed. But it will have to be on YouTube. As for me, I don’t hate them. But even though I want to like them — I really do — I just don’t have it in me.

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Funny Games (1997)

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*. Cynicism and nihilism are near allied, and the artistic form they produce is parody, the mockery of meaning.
*. You could call Funny Games a parody of a home-invasion horror film, and Michael Haneke has said that the point of what the preppy killers are up to is that there is no point aside from its entertainment value. It’s a form of art for art’s sake. But I don’t think Haneke has the same attitude.
*. The reason I say this is because Haneke is an angry guy, and anger takes the form of polemic, not parody. Haneke is not a nihilist. He has a mission, and something to say.
*. Nevertheless, Funny Games was attacked by a lot of critics, I think mainly for its cynicism. It was a movie that pushed a lot of people’s buttons, but it’s worth asking why and how.
*. David Edelstein, for one, took the DVD, snapped it in two and then cut it up into pieces before throwing it away. Now that’s a reaction! Exactly the sort of thing Haneke was aiming for.
*. What upset Edelstein was that he found Funny Games to be “little more than high-toned torture porn.” Seeing as Edelstein is often credited with coining the term torture porn, one thinks this should mean something. But it doesn’t. Nor does A. O. Scott’s likening Funny Games (the 2007 edition, but for all intents and purposes the same as this film) to Hostel in its reveling in the “pornography of blood and pain,” an appetite which Haneke hypocritically feeds while managing to express his own “mandarin distaste for it.”
*. “Mandarin distaste,” by the way, is offensive because it’s the preserve of critics like Scott. I don’t think he likes Haneke jumping the queue.
*. I think complaints like these are nonsense. The fact is, Funny Games is not a graphically violent movie. The murders, even of the dog, take place off screen (except for that of Peter, who is immediately brought back to life). There’s plenty of potential here for nastiness, but we don’t see it. The other chief act of violence, where Anna is made to strip, only shows her from the neck up. There’s nothing prurient or porny about it.
*. If this is a violent movie, it’s one where you have to imagine the violence. Isn’t the powerful, hard-to-watch effect the film has, that it manages to shock and disturb without being graphic, to Haneke’s credit? That perhaps the most frightening scene in it is Peter’s quietly persistent asking for eggs?
*. The other thing that seems to have really bothered critics is the breaking of the fourth wall.
*. Innocent or naive critics thought this unfair, or in breach of the rules. That Haneke was deliberately setting out to draw attention to and mock those rules (the need for such a story to still respect a basic sense of justice and narrative decorum, for example) seems to me, again, to only draw attention to his success.
*. More advanced critics understood what Haneke was doing, but thought it was too obvious and old hat. In his review of the 2007 remake (also directed by Haneke) A. O. Scott makes reference to “techniques that might have seemed audacious to an undergraduate literary theory class in 1985 or so.” Get that? Undergrad. Yes, horror movies make us all into voyeurs, adopting the point of view of the killer, etc., etc. We know all that. Psycho had said the same thing and done it with more intelligence and style. We don’t need the actors winking at us or being able to magically rewind the film. Apparently Haneke’s drawing attention to the film’s artificial status makes him a “fraud” (Scott). Why?
*. If it was such a tired point to be making, and in such an obvious manner, why did it upset so many people so much? Would they have liked it more if it had just been a traditional home-invasion, family-terror film? With a happy ending?
*. I don’t want to make the claim that I think Funny Games is an incredible breakthrough or particularly bold or original in its form or message, but I do find most of the complaints about it not just unfair but downright bizarre.
*. Kim Newman, for example, finds both versions of Funny Games to be “effective horror,” but finds Haneke’s “smugness” unbearable. According to Newman, Haneke “is ashamed of cinema and only embarks on genre movies with contempt.” I don’t believe that, and can’t see any evidence for it here.
*. Most critics do grant that the film is well made, but then immediately go on the attack with both barrels. Newman again: “Most of his [Haneke’s] films are rewarding, stimulating and affecting, but the only way to get people to watch them more than once is to remake them in different languages.”
*. I’ve watched Funny Games more than once. It has an interesting look, builds suspense very well, and the actors are all fun to watch. It’s hard to take your eyes off of any of the main four, and if the father is presented as too much of a wimp (he should be able to get around better than that even with a broken arm and leg), that’s the only criticism I can make in the premise.

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*. Also very effective is the way the two sets of characters (the family and the intruders) seem to inhabit two different fictive worlds. Haneke thought that Peter and Paul were essentially clowns, figures belonging to a comedy, while the family are tragic characters. This makes sense as Peter and Paul stand outside of the action, controlling it in a god-like (or director-like) fashion, while the fate of the family is to suffer. But is it cynical to draw attention to how we empathize with them? Do we really enjoy their suffering? I don’t think the audience is meant to identify with Peter and Paul, who are just after sensation and entertainment.
*. Haneke describes Peter and Paul as anarchic figures who “make fun of all the rules that exist to keep society running.” In much the same way, they make fun of the rules that exist to keep us believing in the film. There may not be anything profound in that equation of the rules of artistic convention with good manners (which the intruders are careful to insist on), both of which Haneke seems to despise, but I think it’s a perfectly valid point to make. Good manners can be not just absurd but disgusting. Hannibal Lecter always insists on them too.
*. It’s not Haneke who is the smug undergrad but Peter and Paul, and I don’t see them as the auteur’s avatars. They seem typical students, and in their final conversation on the boat they even get into an undergrad rap session about postmodern fiction of the kind they enact. Paul’s loud, horsey laugh after he throws Anna overboard gives the game away. He is an ivy-league jock, a privileged boor with a smattering of learning and nothing else.
*. The basic critique of the portrayal of violence in film is, I’ll admit, nothing new. But I think it’s presented in a powerful and original way. My own reading of the film is that it’s about the tragedy of entitlement. The family are living an affluent fairy tale of a life. We don’t like them right from their opera guessing-game in the car, and a gated cottage will probably strike us all as more than a little much (the cottage itself being as big as a barn).
*. Of course we’ve seen our share of zombie movies and films like The Purge, so we know that civilization, however privileged and pretty, is a tissue-thin layer that just barely conceals our desire to rape and murder our neighbours. So we want to see the family taken down. Their lives seem a little too perfect, even if what they have are all the things that we in the audience aspire to. Maybe they didn’t earn it, but they’re entitled to their lifestyle. It may not be fair, but that’s the way the world works.
*. Values like these are not to be trifled with. Having paid for our ticket, we feel we’re entitled to the same thing as the family: entertainment, fun and games. Perhaps more violent and shocking than what they’re in the market for, but still entertainment that plays by the rules, that has good manners. Maybe some partner-swapping with the other couples around the lake. But Haneke has cheated us. He is, in Scott’s telling final judgement, a “fraud.”
*. A fraud! Do these critics want their money back? Talk about entitlement! They didn’t even pay in the first place! What more do they want?
*. Whatever it is, Haneke isn’t interested in providing it. He’s less interested in criticizing our atavistic desire to be entertained by pointless violence than our faith in a transaction that will faithfully give us what we pay for. If you think art has to play by the rules then you’re no better than the dull, bourgeois family. Which means you’re in real need of a wake-up call.

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