*. Woof. How do these terrible franchises keep going?
*. Part V of the (at least to me) inexplicably long-lived Children of the Corn franchise heads off in yet another new direction. As I’ve mentioned before, there is no coherent Children of the Corn mythology or narrative presented in these films. Despite being numbered they’re not really sequels to each other, and indeed have almost nothing in common except (1) children and (2) corn.
*. Take the matter of the Bible they use. In Stephen King’s story (still being credited as what this film is “based on,” though it isn’t) it’s a standard Bible with some of the pages in the New Testament ripped out. That seems to be what it is in the original film as well. In Urban Harvest, however, the Bible has become a kind of Necronomicon, a source of power of He Who Walks Behind the Rows. Now, in this film, the sacred text is something called the Book of Divine Enlightenment, and from what we may gather it doesn’t have anything to do with the Christian Bible at all but instead lays out the basic rules and rituals of the corn cult. I was left wondering who printed the thing.
*. Then there is the nature of He Who Walks Behind the Rows. At times he’s like a kind of super gopher, burrowing away underground. In Urban Harvest he was a giant . . . thing, all tentacles and eyeballs and teeth. Here he’s an eternally burning corn silo that human sacrifices dive into. Which, among other things, means he isn’t walking behind any corn rows.
*. I know I’ve been watching too many horror films from this period when I actually recognized Kane Hodder, who was also the stunt coordinator, playing the bartender. Hodder, as many people will know, played Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th VII through X, but his filmography is . . . extensive.
*. Part III gave us Charlize Theron, however briefly. Part IV gave us Naomi Watts, before she was a star. In this movie we’re introduced to Eva Mendes, who struggles heroically in an absolutely hopeless part.
*. The series also has a thing for roping in fading veterans. Karen Black in the previous film. David Carradine here. Yes, David Carradine. Who, somehow, is the leader of the cult despite being an adult. His noggin splits apart and turns into a flamethrower that torches a hole straight through Fred Williamson’s head. I am not kidding.
*. That’s all the fun stuff. The rest of the movie is quite bad. It might have at least played out as an entertaining slasher flick — the group of young people who end up in a town full of psychos — but it’s not scary and the gore effects are garbage. So there’s nothing at all to see here. And yet the franchise was still far from over.
*. Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest was a bit of stupid fun that I’ll admit to being fond of. But that’s the only mulligan I’ll give this franchise. Now, back to our usual programming.
*. The Gathering is the fourth film in the series, or IVth, but the number doesn’t appear as part of the title on screen. The thing is, these movies don’t present any kind of a through narrative, no matter how incoherent, so it’s hard to think of them as sequels (and thus in need of numbers). They have certain similarities — a cult of homicidal kids who worship some kind of pagan corn god — but they’re more like separate episodes riffing on a theme. Which, I would add, starts to make the credit “Based on the story by Stephen King” quite a stretch. This movie is not based on King’s story, even at several layers of remove.
*. Oh, Karen Black. To have gone from Five Easy Pieces and Nashville to this (and House of 1000 Corpses still to come). But at least she’s kept working. I salute her.
*. And hello Naomi Watts. She was still doing hard time here, waiting for her big break. She says she only got paid $5,000, which must have been in violation of some kind of minimum-wage law given that she carries the whole film. In any event, if you’re looking for a bright spot in the proceedings, she’s it.
*. I don’t think I want to add anything more. This isn’t even interesting. Ideas and plot points are introduced in a clumsy way that just screams at you that they’re going to be used later. The evil wizard, for example, is allergic to mercury. And the one kid is hemophilic. And Karen Black is agoraphobic. Though this last point, curiously, doesn’t play much of a role in the story. I think something got left out.
*. One guy gets cut in half but that’s the only semi-interesting bit of gore. The rest of it is just tedious. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Don’t bother, unless you’re a die-hard Naomi Watts fan.
*. We’re not in Nebraska anymore, cornhuskers. We’ve moved to Chicago. But while you can take the boy out of the corn patch . . .
*. This is not a movie that gets a lot of love (to put it mildly), but on the whole I prefer it to The Final Sacrifice (which was Children of the Corn II). There are some imaginative practical effects that are actually pretty good, at least until He Who Walks Behind the Rows finally puts in an appearance.
*. Or maybe that’s not He himself but just some garden variety corn demon that He summons at the end. I have to say I find the One Who Walks Behind the Rows to still be a pretty vague concept. Some fans complained that this film made a mess of the series’ “mythology” but I can’t figure out what that mythology consisted of in the first place. Is He the anti-Christ? Why would He have any relation to Christianity at all? In the original (and Stephen King’s story) the children use a Christian Bible, albeit one that leans heavily on the Old Testament. But the Bible here, despite being decorated with a cross, seems more like the Necronomicon. Is He Who Walks etc. supernatural, or uber-natural, being some kind of pagan fertility spirit? I don’t know.
*. The connection to Native American mythology, introduced in the previous film, isn’t mentioned. They still hold on to the idea though that the cult is a sort of youth Green movement, fighting against pesticides and pollution. This may be demonic corn, but at least it will be organic too. But such a message also sends mixed signals. Shouldn’t we appreciate the youthful idealism of this children’s crusade? Don’t we nod our heads a bit when Eli tells them that blindness comes with age and that children represent the purity of the land? I have to say, I’m with the kids on this one.
*. Charlize Theron’s film debut. I didn’t know that when I was watching. She’s one of the followers and gets attacked by killer corn vines in a rather suggestive way. Give the woman credit, she paid her dues.
*. Corn plants, by the way, do not have vines. I kept wondering where they were coming from.
*. As someone who has worked with corn a bit I feel the need to point this out. You don’t use scythes or sickles to harvest corn. They won’t cut the stalks, which are far too tough. You use a scythe to cut grass or grains. You also can’t cut a corn stalk with garden shears. If they really wanted to get rid of that urban corn patch I’m afraid they’d have to pull the plants up by the roots. Which is hard work even when the roots don’t go all the way to hell.
*. The premise here is pretty silly and, as discussed, the mythology (if we must use that word) is all over the map. It does have a kind of kitschy charm to it though, with the evil corn playing a similar role to the troll food in Troll 2. And even though I find the giant demon at the end ridiculous, it’s kind of fun as well. How could it not be when it’s credited to “Screaming Mad George”? Since there’s no way anyone coming to this movie could possibly expect it to be any good I don’t have to tell you to keep your expectations low. If you do you might find it worth your while.
*. This is a terrible movie, made nearly a decade after the original Children of the Corn in what was simply a cash grab. It would be the last film in the franchise that would have a theatrical release, and while I was watching it I had a hard time believing it ever made its way into theatres. Pretty much everything about it is bad: poor direction, awful acting, a worthless script. So let’s put all that aside and mention a few things that at least make it amusing. Just remember I’m not saying it’s worth watching, even once.
*. John Franklin and Courtney Gains (Isaac and Malachai in the original) are sorely missed. There’s nobody here who captures our interest, aside perhaps from Ned Romero as the Wise Old Indian Man. But his presence further complicates the nature of the evil deity (He Who Walks Behind the Rows). Is he (or He) a Native American harvest deity? There’s an interesting idea raised that the children are under the influence of some kind of corn mold, but nothing further is done with this. There’s also a suggestion that the children are perhaps eco-warriors, taking their revenge on adults who have polluted the earth. But again, this is only suggested.
*. So is He Who etc., even a physical being? If he isn’t, why do we keep getting shots from his Wolfen-style thermal vision? And if he can control adults too, like the sheriff here, why doesn’t He?
*. There’s an attractive teen lead, so of course he meets up with a sexy girl with a corn-fed body she doesn’t mind putting prominently on display. To the extent that we see her taking a shower in a waterfall while wearing a bikini and shoes and socks! Every truly garbage movie needs a moment or two you can laugh out loud at like that.
*. Apparently the children aren’t as steadfastly puritan as in the earlier movie. Could you imagine Isaac or Malachi killing someone with a remote-controlled toy car?
*. The toy car does give the film one of its signature scenes though, of the old woman in the wheelchair being tossed through the window of the bingo parlour. I also liked the guy getting a corn stalk speared through his throat, the old doctor being needled to death, and Micah’s psychadelic transformation (what was going on there?). Using the combine harvester as a way of doing people in was also a plus. They had some good ideas here. They just couldn’t weave them together into an interesting movie.
*. Apparently it was originally called Deadly Harvest. I wonder why they changed it, as I don’t think they had any intention of stopping at II and making this The Final Sacrifice. This sort of thing was typical of horror franchises at the time though. We were equally assured that Jason wouldn’t be coming back after The Final Chapter and The Final Friday.
*. I’d like to say this one is worth watching just for a laugh, but it isn’t. And the glimmers of potential only make it worse. But worst of all is the fact that there were many more children to come.
*. I’m not sure why I like Child’s Play 3 as much as I do, since it’s not a great movie. I’m also not sure why I don’t like Bride of Chucky more, since it has a lot going for it.
*. Don Mancini is back as screenwriter, a role he would play in all of the Child’s Play movies before the 2019 reset (he would also direct the next three instalments). Such continuity is rare for any film series, with the only comparable personal commitment I can think of being Don Coscarelli’s, who wrote and directed the first four Phantasm movies (being less involved in Phantasm: Ravager, which he only co-wrote and produced).
*. The script is very knowing in the way that had become obligatory post-Scream. Nods and in-jokes begin with the opening shots of various ’80s horror paraphernalia. It’s all very much of its period and self-aware. Chucky is even dismissed at one point as being too ’80s, and then too ’90s. But what’s interesting is that most of these references have dated less than the ones to Martha Stewart.
*. Brad Dourif is also back as the voice of Chucky, joined this time out by Jennifer Tilly as his girlfriend. The evil duo have a larger role to play and are up to the occasion, as they are given slightly more rounded characters. Meanwhile, the rest of the plot (which gets its impetus from some freshly introduced nonsense about a magic amulet buried with Charles Lee Ray) is surprisingly fresh, involving a road trip with an eloping young couple.
*. John Ritter shows up. Katherine Heigl (only 20) looks sensational. There are lots of good ideas. Chucky needed a new look and his stitched-together face is a great tie-in to the (slightly overworked) Bride of Frankenstein connection. There’s a “bus” scene before Final Destination and puppet sex before Team America: World Police. There’s a bloody, even shocking, coda that sets up the sequel. I enjoyed all of this.
*. And yet there’s something about Bride of Chucky that just doesn’t work for me. Perhaps it’s the way it has all become a joke. Perhaps it’s because Chucky is less of a threat now than he is an anti-hero. We even feel sympathy for him at the end as he complains about how he’ll always come back but dying is such a bitch. This is not necessarily a bad new development, but as I’ve said before horror comedy only works if the horror has some traction, and it doesn’t here. Nothing is at stake.
*. Perhaps Ronny Yu was part of the problem. His background was in action films and you don’t get the sense that he has any feel for directing horror. He’d later go on to direct Freddy vs. Jason, which took another pair of icons and put them in a movie that really wasn’t a horror movie at all.
*. Or perhaps I’m being too hard on this one. As I’ve said, there are a lot of good things going on. And it stands well in comparison with other fourth instalments in classic horror franchises. Technically this is Child’s Play 4, and it’s a better outing than Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers or Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (the fourth part of that series). A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master might have been better though.
*. Anyway, you get the point. It has some energy and creativity, but this time out it’s more about the gags than the kills. These are OK, but I miss the sense of danger and subversion. Chucky as the anti-Martha Stewart feels like a diminished thing.
*. In my notes on Child’s Play 2 I mentioned how I’d completely forgotten it after seeing it when it came out. I’d almost forgotten all of Child’s Play 3 but I had a vague recollection of the cadets and I also remembered the opening credit sequence. I think those credits, with a new Chucky being born out of the vat of plastic his blood had spilled into, are the best part of Child’s Play 3.
*. The credits also make it clear that, for all intents and purposes, Chucky is now immortal. It doesn’t matter what you do to his heart. So long as there is some material atom for his evil soul to bond with, he’ll be back.
*. As with the previous movie the satire of corporate cynicism is dealt with in a quick prologue that catches us up to speed. Despite the bad publicity engendered by the events of the first two movies, the CEO of Play Pals wants to get the Good Guys dolls back to market. After all, “What are children but consumer trainees?” I think screenwriter Don Macini originally wanted to do more of this, but somehow it never developed as much of a theme in the series.
*. You won’t find a lot of love for Child’s Play 3 out there. It was released only 9 months after Child’s Play 2, and Mancini felt rushed on the screenplay. Both he and Brad Dourif claim it’s their least favourite Chucky movie, and that’s an opinion shared by a lot of critics and audiences in general. The box office fell off and it would be another seven years before the next instalment, Bride of Chucky.
*. I can understand where some of this is coming from. It’s a mess of a film in terms of both plot and tone. The pieces don’t all fit together, starting with the question of what a kid as young as Tyler is doing at boot camp. The finale set in a haunted house ride at an amusement park is a cliché that feels stuck on to the rest of the story. It’s hard to figure out how Chucky is getting around as much as he does. I’ll grant all of this. But still.
*. But still I kind of like this movie. I think I even enjoy it more than 2. At least it’s something a bit different. I like the military academy setting, as it gives us some more interesting victims than are usually found in such fare. I mean, Andy could have just turned into a troubled youth hanging out with the wrong crowd, leading to another dead teenager movie. We also get a couple of somwewhat interesting kills, like the garbage truck and, best of all, the commanding officer having a heart attack. Even Chucky has trouble believing that.
*. So it’s not all bad. Justin Whalin is actually really good as Andy. It was fun seeing Andrew Robinson again. Chucky, who remains underwritten (or poorly written), at least gets to deliver some better lines. Some of the elements, most notably the coitus interruptus of Chucky’s attempts to exchange souls, are definitely feeling old but I’d write that off to either Mancini being out of ideas or the studio not wanting to mess with the formula. To be sure this is a movie that misses more than it hits, but the series was a long way from being played out yet.
*. I’m sure I saw Child’s Play 2 when it came out. Thirty years later I found I couldn’t remember a thing about it. That may not mean very much — I find it happens a lot — but on the other hand . . .
*. The success of Child’s Play guaranteed a sequel. It’s pretty clear, however, that they didn’t have any new ideas. Karen and Mike (Catherine Hicks and Chris Sarandon) are both dismissed with a wave of the hand and a bit of dialogue at the beginning of the movie, allowing us to push the reset button and basically go through the same plot all over again. Chucky has come back to terrorize little Andy (Alex Vincent), but the adults (foster parents played by familiar faces Jenny Agutter and Gerrit Graham) don’t believe him until it’s too late (for them).
*. Even many of the situations are the same. There’s another scene where Chucky is in the back seat of a car and gets the drop on the driver that I thought showed a certain lack of imagination. I also thought Chucky’s foul-mouthed dialogue was starting to wear thin, and was never very witty in the first place.
*. But for all that it’s a replay it’s not a bad flick. During his commentary on Child’s Play, screenwriter Don Mancini (who also wrote this film) mentions how Child’s Play was the most naturalistic of the series and that the movies gradually became more stylized and comic. That’s evident right from Chucky’s rebirth here, which is played as slapstick. And the final meltdown takes place in a Fisher-Price toy factory with all kinds of brightly coloured Playskool machines. It’s fun, but silly and kind of weightless in a way that the first film wasn’t.
*. This may not be the worst of the Child’s Play movies, but I find it to be the least memorable. Everyone plays well, including Christine Elise as the punky big-sister Tyler, but there’s nothing new here and I just had the sense that the franchise was marking time while trying to figure out what direction it wanted to go in.
*. We begin by seeing things from Motoko Kusanagi’s point of view, with her tactical vision and voices being listened to over various frequencies. We are immersed in a mechanical world, just like Kusanagi inside her shell. It’s the perfect opening note to strike.
*. Anime is a special taste. It’s never been a particular favourite genre of mine, but when it’s done well, as it is here, I do think it has a kind of poetry to it. I still don’t care for the saucer-eyes of the characters, but the way the murky images appear to move slowly as though underwater, and the way a single bit of graceful motion within a static frame draws the eye and is made expressive are things I can appreciate. How much of that is due to Mamoru Oshii’s direction and how much to the nature of the medium itself is another question.
*. At the time it was a very expensive production, and the animation — a combination of traditional cel animation and CGI — was a painstaking process. The results, however, were worth it. The look of the film fits the theme, with that blending of the digital with old school atmosphere.
*. The story feels a bit trite, but has to be judged in context. The movie is based on a manga comic book that started publication in 1989. Cyberpunk was something new. William Gibson’s Neuromancer had only been a few years earlier. The idea of cyberspace and human-computer hybrids was something relatively new. When the Puppet Master describes itself as “a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information” that must have seemed kind of deep at the time.
*. Blade Runner, which informs a lot of the look of New Port City, as it would the look of so many cities of the future, came out in 1982. So while this movie is ground-breaking there’s also a lot that was becoming standard grammar. I’d also mention the highly sexualized presentation of the heroine, who rises like Aphrodite through the opening credit sequence and is basically nude a lot of the time (that is, in skin-tight outfits with her nipples jutting out). Now sure, most superheroines are exaggeratedly sexy, but then there’s Kusanagi turned into a schoolgirl at the end. How perfectly manga. At least we’re spared the tentacles.
*. Is it more than just a great-looking anime? Here I’m not sure. The story is pretty basic and moves at an awkward pace. Why is there so much expository dialogue? Plus the fact is I just wasn’t as interested in Kusanagi as I thought I should have been. I think some of the blame for this falls on the choice of having Mimi Woods do her voice in the English version. That didn’t work at all for me.
*. I’ve seen this referred to as one of the greatest if not the greatest anime ever made. I can’t judge that, but it is a movie I not only enjoy but admire in a lot of ways. It’s also grown on me over several viewings. I don’t think it transcends its genre, but twenty-five years later it’s earned its status as a classic.
*. John Waters is one of the very rare low-budget, exploitation auteurs to make a successful jump to the (more-or-less) mainstream. He was able to do this because he has some talent. A lot of marginal directors fall on their face when given greater resources because guerilla filmmaking, a specific talent, is really all they can do. Waters, however, has a broader competence.
*. Serial Mom is one of his better known mainstream films, and despite its reputation (oversold, I think, as a cult film) it strikes me as only gently subversive. Once more conventional morality is shown to be hypocrisy, with the placid exterior of American suburban life concealing a host of evils. This was not a new theme for Waters, or really for anyone in 1994. Serial Mom is basically a genteel version of Female Trouble (1974), befitting a more genteel time.
*. Despite not having much in the way of shock value, however, I think Serial Mom is well made. It also has a rock solid central performance by Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, the titular mom. But in the end it’s not much of a movie.
*. The big problem, which I’ve already flagged, is that it’s just not tough enough to be satire. The send-up of celebrity culture is always timely, and this movie came out just as the O.J. Simpson insanity broke, but it’s nothing new. And the trashing of the Leave It to Beaver caricature of the American family (with the Cleavers being specifically invoked at one point) is even older. We didn’t need John Waters to give us this.
*. But was satire even the intention? I’m not so sure. In his review Roger Ebert thought the film undone by Waters’s “essential niceness” and the tenderness he expresses for Beverly Sutphin. I think this is missing something. Though I don’t know Waters, I have read some of his books as well as seen many of his movies and I have to say I doubt he is a nice man. I think that’s an act. And I don’t think he expresses tenderness so much for Beverly as he identifies with her.
*. The thing is, Water is himself a collector of murder memorabilia and has a fan’s obsession for serial killers, so he can’t really be sending these things up. I think that this part of the movie isn’t meant as satire. Instead, I think he’s just saying that this is the natural state of the American id. Everything else is a lie. The kitsch you order from the Franklin Mint, singing along with the musical Annie . . . all of that trash. But no man is a liar in his vices, so the porn videos, the Chicks With Dicks magazine, and the serial killer scrapbook are real, or at least realer.
*. Beverly embodies this split in her multiple personality disorder. Half of her is perfect: ornithology, cooking, and generally keeping up appearances. But the other half, the real half, is the serial killer. And, crucially, it is this darker aspect that we are meant to approve of.
*. Like I say, however, none of this is new. Nor is it controversial or shocking or funny. And in the second half of the film you really have the sense that things are getting out of hand. The whole concert sequence should have been cut.
*. Worst of all, a fine performance by Kathleen Turner is wasted. Beverly is obviously the only character Waters is even slightly interested in, but he doesn’t get much out of her. She could have been so much more interesting. While going mainstream, Waters seems to have trouble going big screen. Serial Mom only feels like a rental. On VHS.
*. This is a movie I could barely finish watching. Not because of the violence (it isn’t that violent), but for a couple of other reasons.
*. In the first place, it’s predictable. It signals right away where it’s going and then it goes there. I don’t think there’s a single scene in this movie that doesn’t play out just the way you’d expect. And it’s so programmatic. The set-up introduces us to the well-groomed yuppies and the trailer-trash. Evil, in the form of killer Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) easily seduces pretty boy Brian (David Duchovny). Carrie (Michelle Forbes) feels sorry for the mentally challenged Adele (Juliette Lewis).
*. There might have been something interesting to say about the total incompatibility of these characters because of their different social classes, which would complement their journey through a rusty American wasteland, but that’s not how it plays. It’s simpler than that. Brian has to leave his ivory tower and confront the reality that thus far he has only written about. This will make him not only a better writer (surely the book deal he gets out of this road trip will be in the six figures), but a sadder and a wiser man. Carrie takes erotic photos that only suggest rawness. Her experiences with Early will show her how phony all that was. Do you get it? It’s all pretty hard to miss.
*. Most reviewers were impressed by the performances. Not me. Duchovny, appearing here just before his X-Files stardom, does what would become his usual dry and laid-back routine. He really only has the one register as an actor. Juliette Lewis is fine as Adele, but her character isn’t exactly complex. She’d add slightly more depth playing a similar part the next year in Natural Born Killers. Pitt’s Early is a caricature down to the tics like the oinking noise he makes. For my money the only cast member who really stands out is Michelle Forbes, who was either pushed to the background of the theatrical posters or entirely erased from them. She went on to mainly work in television. Things like that happen in Hollywood.
*. The other reason I found Kalifornia hard to watch has to do with that element of caricature I mentioned. This may have been residue from an earlier version of the script that imagined the story as a black comedy, but whatever the explanation for it the thing is that you get sick of caricatures after a while. And boy did I ever get sick of Early and Adele. I just couldn’t understand how Brian and Carrie were able to stand being in a car with them for five minutes, much less five days. For all the “seductiveness of evil” that Early represents this was too much for me to buy into.
*. Maybe it’s for these reasons that I couldn’t get into Kalifornia more. It’s a good-looking movie though, and competently put together. Dominic Sena’s feature debut, and you might have expected he’d go on to better things. That’s not how it worked out. He hasn’t been prolific. Swordfish wasn’t bad, though it didn’t rate with critics. Whiteout and Season of the Witch were disasters. How odd that in a movie featuring two stars on the verge of breaking out the best work would be by a director and actor who went on to have otherwise quiet careers. Hollywood!