Category Archives: 1990s

Arachnophobia (1990)

*. This was my first time coming back to Arachnophobia since I caught it in the theatre thirty years ago. I had forgotten almost all of it. Easy to do when so much of it is so generic. The big-city doctor moving with his family to a picture-postcard small town where bad things happen. It’s Steven Spielberg meets Stephen King, spiritual neighbours who aren’t usually associated.
*. I’d forgotten Jeff Daniels as the doctor. I’d forgotten the spiders. Sure, I knew it was about killer spiders, but giant spiders? Swarms of spiders? No. Actually just poisonous spiders. That’s another part I’d forgotten. I’d even forgotten Julian Sands as the ponytailed scientist with the British accent. How could I not remember the Warlock?
*. The only part of the movie I still recalled was John Goodmn as Delbert the exterminator. I even remembered many of his lines, from “Tear out bad wood, put in good wood” to “Yeah, that’s right, I’m bad.” He’s a lot of fun.
*. Today it strikes me as wholesome family entertainment. No gore, and (in the form of Delbert) a bit of humour. The spiders are a one-joke monster: hiding away in various everyday places — a football helmet, a bedroom slipper, a popcorn bowl — before zapping their victims. It all plays out very predictably, to the point where the final battle between Daniels and the General starts to feel like a bit of a drag. Something that I think they were aware of given how hard the score is working throughout the whole cellar scene. It doesn’t let up for a moment.
*. It’s not very inspired or noteworthy in any way, but given the genre I think you have to rate it pretty highly. It was accused of being a rip-off of Kingdom of the Spiders, and its most prominent successor would be Eight Legged Freaks twelve years later. It’s a lot better than either of those movies.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

*. I doubt anyone at the time figured Mission: Impossible would turn into such a long-lived franchise, running for more than twenty years with the same star in the lead. But generic spy stuff never goes out of date. Bond will never die and Jason Bourne had a good run. So why not Ethan Hunt?
*. It also helped that while keeping Tom Cruise (and I don’t think he ever played a part as well) they also kept the talent around him strong and fresh. Brian De Palma directed this first instalment (he was in need of a hit), while David Koepp and Robert Towne did the script. Give those guys a lot of money and things were set to get off to a good start.
*. All of which makes the fact that I had completely forgotten this movie all the more surprising. I guess (nearly) twenty-five years is a long time, but still. The only part that had stuck with me was the immediately iconic scene of Cruise suspended from the ceiling while breaking into the CIA mainframe. I couldn’t have told you a thing about the plot. Even the climax in the Chunnel only came back to me when seeing it again.
*. This isn’t meant as a criticism of Mission: Impossible. In fact, I was impressed at how good a movie this is seeing it again. It’s only more evidence of how little stays with us of the culture we consume. Books, TV, movies . . . seen today, all but gone in a week or a month.

*. I don’t think De Palma was pushing himself too hard here, but he employs his usual bag of tricks all to good effect and without being overly distracting, building suspenseful scenes out of weird angles and interesting edits. I also like that the plot isn’t unnecessarily complicated. I think the twist is pretty clear right from the beginning, as perhaps it should be, but being able to follow everything as it unfolds is a plus.
*. Speaking of seeing the twist coming, I raised my eyebrows while listening to producer Paula Wagner talking about how great it was to have Jon Voight playing Mr. Phelps since “you wouldn’t expect him at all.” I don’t think of Jon Voight as having one of the most trustworthy faces in the business.
*. What I like most about Mission: Impossible, I think, is that it doesn’t feel like a blockbuster, despite all of the signature big moments. What De Palma, and I suspect Towne, give to the proceedings is a human scale. This is something that is also emphasized by the large close-ups of people’s faces. I even found myself looking at the stubble on Cruise’s cheeks in one scene. Too often action blockbusters become impersonal at the same time as they become more generic, but this movie never loses contact with the people in it. Not real people, to be sure, but people we can relate to. In a similar way, Prague actually feels like a real place and not just a location. Maybe it’s the lack of CGI, but I appreciated all of this.
*. As I began by saying, it is a bit surprising that I’d so completely forgotten such a good movie. But these things happen. I’m glad I watched it again, and I hope it won’t be the last time.

Event Horizon (1997)

*. A lot of movies have scripts that are stupid. This is certainly the case with Event Horizon, but I would characterize its sort of stupidity more precisely. It is juvenile. It has the feel of a script written by a twelve-year-old. It posits a black hole opening a doorway to hell in the skies above Neptune, but hell is just an orgy of gothic sadism while advanced physics gets explained using language borrowed from A Wrinkle in Time. Nevertheless, it is all presented as being very serious stuff, as evidenced by lines like “A black hole. The most destructive force in the universe. And you’ve created one?” or “You break all the laws of physics and you seriously think there wouldn’t be a price?”
*. That said, what charm Event Horizon has comes from this same silliness. You can’t take it seriously for a second, at least after one of the crewmen of the rescue vessel turns out to know what is, I am told, incorrect Latin (a language that apparently nobody on Earth had been able to figure out).
*. But like I say, this silliness is charming. Take as another example the fact that the ghost ship Event Horizon isn’t actually in orbit over Neptune but is somehow stationary in its atmosphere. This, I am again told, is impossible, but it allows for the fact that the film’s action takes place on a dark and stormy night with lots of thunder and lightning outside. That thunder and lightning, in turn, ties in to the fact that director Paul Anderson wanted this to be a haunted house movie set in space, echoing everything from The Haunting to The Shining.
*. Actually, the entire movie is a vast echo chamber of other films. In addition to the two I just mentioned there’s also, of course, a lot of Alien. From the sleep pods to the banter among the burnt-out crew right down to everyone wearing the same regulation underwear. Then there’s Solaris and its alien force messing with the crew’s minds and the main character being haunted by his wife’s suicide. Or Hellraiser, with the whips-and-chains vision of hell and the gravity drive that’s like a puzzle box solving itself and summoning demons. Anderson really wanted that medieval look, to the point where he wanted the ship’s interior to look like Notre Dame cathedral and the spacesuits to seem like suits of armour.

*. There are also homages built in to individual scenes. When Peters goes looking for her lost son it plays out like the climax of Don’t Look Now. And this too was deliberate, as the commentary makes clear. Does it make much sense, given that Peters knows her son isn’t on board the ship and that she’s chasing after an illusion? Not much. But then, it’s all very silly.
*. Equally silly — meaning nonsensical but charming — are all the antique touches. Miller (Laurence Fishburne), the captain of the rescue vessel, wears a WW2-style leather jacket. The crew members smoke and drink coffee. Despite the fact that they carry around touch pads, they have pictures of sexy women cut out of magazines stuck to their quarters. This is all silly too.
*. Oh the steps we have to take to avoid showing gasp! genitals. I mean, few people wear underwear in a bath. Note also how Neill’s evil doppelganger at the end is in a full body latex suit with all his precious scars: no clothes but no genitals either (you can see this clearest in a rough cut on the documentary included with the DVD, there’s just a sort of bulge down there).
*. I don’t know if there’s any point trying to understand where it is the Event Horizon has gone or where the doorway it opens leads to. This is a type of horror that was very popular at the time, where the scary stuff all basically comes by way of psychological states or hallucinations being made real. This is also why the vision of hell we get is presented in such generic terms. These aren’t alien tortures but images drawn out of the collective human unconscious.
*. Of course, such an interpretation torpedoes the idea of the ship being somehow alive or sentient. It doesn’t even have an AI personality to be corrupted. But looking for some kind of consistency in the plot here is a fool’s errand.

*. I am sure there’s no point trying to figure out how Sam Neil gets super powers. He just does. Or what the “really strange readings” are that the rescue team pick up during their scan for life forms. Maybe they’re ghosts.
*. One thing that does make me wonder though is to what extent Dr. Weir(d) (Neill) knows what’s going on. He did design the ship after all, and he seems to be in some kind of psychic contact with it even before setting out on the mission. As with Peters chasing after her son, however, it isn’t clear why Weir is in such a rush to go to hell. Penance? Where is the lure here that draws these people to their destruction?
*. It was criticized for being too talky, but that in itself isn’t fair. I like talk. The problem is that the talk here is dumb. There are even a couple of scenes where people are asked for straight talk and when they get it they immediately ask for things to be dumbed down or for someone to speak in English.
*. A box office bomb, it’s gone on to gain a minor cult following, helped in part by being seen as a sort of ruined movie, with Anderson never permitted by the studio to bring his full (130 minute) vision to screen. I don’t buy it. This would never have been a good movie. Though it may have made more sense if given more time and money. But I doubt even that would have helped, since what I’ve heard is that most of the cuts involved getting rid of excess gore.
*. While a bad movie, I do enjoy it. It may be stupid, but it’s not dull, and I like all the gothic design elements. Like those giant spikes sticking out of the gravity drive room. The whole ship is a giant torture chamber even before they go to hell. All part of the silliness, and the fun.

The Ice Storm (1997)

*. Though it only came out in 1997, I think The Ice Storm is representative of what people have in mind when they talk about the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore. Meaning an adult drama. Not a genre picture or comedy, and certainly not a comic book fantasy.
*. You could see it as standing at a sort of watershed. It may be significant in this regard that we begin with Paul Hood reading a Fantastic Four comic book. Because in the new millennium Tobey Maguire would be franchised as Spider-Man, starting in 2002. Ang Lee would direct Hulk (2003), Katie Holmes would be Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend (sort of) in Batman Begins (2005), and Elija Wood would be Frodo. So long, New Canaan.
*. Another watershed it marks is in how young people come to learn about sex. I’m not talking about 1973 here, the year the film is set in. I’m talking about 1997 vs. today. The effects of getting all of their sex education from Internet porn is often condemned in our own time, but are today’s kids any worse off than the ones we see fumbling toward ecstasy in this movie?

*. This is all, however, looking back at The Ice Storm in hindsight, post-Internet and post-MCU. At the time the movie was very well received critically, though it tanked at the box office. Critics did, however, register some reservations. One in particular has to do with the lack of depth given the main characters. What do we know about Mr. and Mrs. Hood, beyond the fact that their marriage is dead? Just what is Mrs. Carver playing at?
*. The complaint made was that for all its moral probing, The Ice Storm was a movie of surfaces, evoking a time but not a spirit of that time. Brian D. Johnson in Maclean’s: “While The Ice Storm charts the slippery slope of moral misadventure in the Seventies with meticulous care, it still just skids along the surface.” David Ansen in Newsweek: “In the novel [by Rick Moody] — which is in many ways harsher than the film — you get a sense of [the characters’] histories and inner lives. [Director Ang] Lee and [screenwriter James] Schamus grant them a certain pathos, but for a movie that wants to encapsulate an era, these are slender shoulders upon which to rest so large a metaphor.”
*. Why, Ansen concludes his review, “if the characters are stick figures, does this movie have such lingering weight? Lee has caught the surface of an era so indelibly it feels as if he’s sounded the depths.”

*. Maybe. And maybe the era itself was on the way to becoming all surface. Personally, I don’t find this movie a particularly telling indictment or even evocation of the 1970s. Instead, for all that has changed it seems contemporary to me. All the characters we meet, adults and children, seem drifting into a nearly autistic state. They barely communicate with one another, and “nothing” seems to be the answer to almost any question that is asked. They’re bored, with nothing to do but the usual round of drugs: sex, booze, pills, and pot. Again, this is before the Internet. Before cell phones.
*. I think Roger Ebert saw this, and expressed it nicely: “What we sense after the film is that the natural sources of pleasure have been replaced with higher-octane substitutes, which have burnt out the ability to feel joy. Going through the motions of what once gave them escape, they feel curiously trapped.”
*. There’s nothing terribly profound in this. Indeed, the denial of profundity is a large part of what The Ice Storm is about. It’s easy to say the adults are behaving worse than their kids (and it’s telling that the kids show more genuine concern over their parents well-being than their parents do about them), but such an observation underlines how insulated New Canaan society is. No one here has grown up. No one is an adult.

*. Given this theme it’s hard to gauge the acting. As noted, none of the characters has any great depth, and that is the point. Young Paul is a sort of Holden Caulfield figure, but with even less on the ball. Wendy (Christina Ricci, who was actually 17 but is totally believable as 14) is politically hip but sexually naive. Or just naive about people. She cares more about what’s on TV than what’s going on around her. A personality type that was going to inherit the world.
*. Otherwise Janey (Sigourney Weaver) and Ben (Kevin Kline) are Scarlett and Rhett, while Elena (Joan Allen) and George (Henry Czerny) are Melanie and Ashley. Meaning the bad people are the only interesting ones. Elena can’t even shoplift a lipstick from her local drug store, while poor George is just a piece of furniture, albeit with a hair trigger.
*. The only character I feel the script cheats is Janey. She still has a spark inside her, and when she grabs that whip it’s a moment that threatens to tear the lid off everything. Play with that, young man! But she too remains a wall. Obviously the men of New Canaan can’t satisfy her, and one imagines her soon traveling further afield. By the end of the movie she’s all but disappeared anyway.

*. I’ve driven in ice storms. To drive in an ice storm while drunk is beyond merely moronic. And I’m sure it was in 1973 too. But here everyone seems to take it for granted that they’re going to drive home.
*. I think key parties have been pretty much exploded as a myth as well. Whose 1973 is this anyway?

*. The politics — basically some snatches of Nixon playing on TV in the background, and the appearance of a Nixon mask that Wendy finds — plays as little more than period decor. It reminded me a bit of the presence of politics in Shampoo, which Warren Beatty thought was used to make a connection between political hypocrisy and sexual hypocrisy. Is that what’s going on here?
*. Bill Krohn, in his Criterion essay: “Ten years after it was made, The Ice Storm looks like the best American film of the nineties.” Hm. No, but I could see someone trying to make the argument. The ’90s were awful, weren’t they? I just looked at a list of the 50 highest grossing films from that decade and I could count the ones I might consider great on the fingers of one hand. I still like The Matrix. Of the ten movies to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards the only one I really liked was The Silence of the Lambs. Other names that were nominated that I’d rate as above average include Goodfellas and Fargo. Out of a whole decade? Thin pickings.

*. I like The Ice Storm but I don’t care for the ending. It might be melodramatic or ironic, depending on whether we’re meant to take it more seriously than the characters do. Put another way, is Paul someone we’re meant to identify with? Do we share his point of view? Was I Paul in 1973? I don’t think so. Even more, I’m pretty sure I’m not what he would have turned into. But then the world changed more in 1997 than it did in the ’70s. The Ice Storm looks back at that period as the aftermath; it was more of a foreshadowing.

The Truman Show (1998)

*. In hindsight we might call 1998 the Year of the Simulacrum. The two big films that are most often paired are Dark City and The Matrix, but The Truman Show is very much a work in the same vein, playing especially close to Dark City. When Truman punches a hole in the horizon, with only a mysterious void beyond, it’s a near equivalent moment to John Hurt’s breach of the wall at the end of Alex Proyas’s film.
*. It might have been even closer in spirit to Dark City if the original concept had been filmed, which was more of a suspense thriller set in an ersatz Manhattan. But things went in a slightly different direction, leading to a (somewhat) sunnier vision of a man trapped in a fake reality.
*. Of course Seahaven is a much sunnier place than the dark city of Dark City (though they both seem to represent a strange amalgam of 1940s America). It never rains in Seahaven (except for very local cloudbursts) just as the sun never rises on the dark city. But The Truman Show is a sunnier film in other ways as well. The ending, with the viewers cheering (ourselves included, since the viewers on screen are just there to play a laugh track-like role), appears to have only a minor irony attached to it, as the television audience realize the show is finally over and they can change the channel. Truman has demonstrated the triumph of the human spirit. Now on to the next station.
*. The sunshine also means that it has to hold back from killing Truman at the end. Christof seems willing, but the executives all around him plead for Truman’s life. “We can’t let him die in front of a live audience,” they insist. Compare the studio suits in Network, who have no hesitation in killing Howard Beale for ratings, or Robert De Niro’s Conrad Brean (a showrunner not unlike Christof) who can casually order the execution of Stanley Motss. Wag the Dog being another simulacrum movie that came out just the year before. This sort of thing was all the rage in the late ’90s.

*. Is Christof an artist? He does wear a beret. Or is he just interested in ratings and keeping the cash cow that is Truman going? He also has wire-rimmed glasses. Apparently Ed Harris was given a lot of back story to help him understand the character better, but he remains a mystery to me. Perhaps he’s less the creator of Truman’s world than someone who has been swallowed up by it himself. When he insists that its ideal environment is in fact normal we sense that something is very wrong.
*. The idea that this is really The Christof Show also fits with the way it is presented as a narcissistic fantasy. The whole world really does revolve around Truman, even if he doesn’t know it. Within such an environment he can remain a man child forever. Indeed if he were to grow up or show signs of maturity he would have to leave Neverland.
*. Was it a film ahead of its time? Anthony Lane was one critic who couldn’t understand why billions of people would watch Truman, but hasn’t that question been answered now? Millions of us watch people online play video games and open boxes of toys, so.
*. Whatever happened to Jim Carrey? At the time of this movie he was one of the biggest stars in the world, but for the last fifteen years he seems to have done nothing but crap. Talk about a disappearing act.

*. Carrey was widely praised, but I felt the role could have been so much more. There’s really only the one scene where he has much of a chance to show anything, and it’s the wonderful one where he finally confronts his wife as she tries to jam in some more product placement. I wish there were more scenes like that. But even at the end he seems to have retreated behind the plastic smile again. Which may be meaningful and sad — that part of Truman Burbank, even if he knows it’s fake, is all he knows — but it’s frustrating as well.
*. I still like The Truman Show and I think it’s aged reasonably well, if not as well as the other Simulacrum movies I’ve mentioned in these notes. Perhaps it just needed more cynicism or irony. There were a number of interesting directions it could have gone in — like, for example, a reflection on Plato’s parable of the cave. Might Truman have been happier staying in Seahaven, even knowing the truth? Wouldn’t the audience turn against him for breaking the fourth wall? Instead there’s little development of any of the issues raised, like authenticity vs. reality, or public vs. private life. These are points that the film raises, but, at least to my eyes, fails to address.
*. Instead I remember it mainly for its imagery and few effective moments. The idyllic town. The warnings that seem torn from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The extras as automated as the robots in Westworld. The ship’s bow puncturing the skyline like a Guy Billout cartoon. Of course it all looks terribly fake, and maybe that was a missed call. When fakery finally took over it wasn’t so obvious.

Wag the Dog (1997)

*. This was a timely film in 1997, being released just a year before the Monica Lewinsky story broke. That said, I don’t think it’s really a political movie and I don’t think the creators had Clinton in mind.
*. Instead, I think other developments the next year help place it in its proper context. What I’m talking about is what I’ve called the Year of the Simulacrum, meaning the year of Dark City, The Truman Show, and The Matrix. These are all movies about the creation of a totally fake reality that is in effect more real than the real world.
*. So even more than jumping the gun with the Lewinsky affair, Wag the Dog anticipates a change in the zeitgeist, away from what Karl Rove famously dismissed as “the reality-based community.” Under the new media dispensation those with power — TV producers, politicians, ailens — create their own reality, leaving the rest of us to only comment on it.
*. Why did this idea take hold so firmly at this point in time? Maybe it had something to do with the way the Internet was knocking on the door. Let’s face it, as bad as things are presented in Wag the Dog they were about to get much worse. On the commentary track Dustin Hoffman says that the drive behind the film was Barry Levinson’s hatred of television, and Levinson adverts to this in his commentary as well. When people complain about being too cynical with regard to TV he counters that “it has played perhaps the biggest role in the second half of the twentieth century. I don’t think there’s anything that’s come along that has affected our lives as much as television.” This is a notion that a few years later would come to seem quaint.
*. To take just one example, the sophisticated editing done in studio to create the video of the girl with the cat can be achieved today by one guy doodling on a tablet with some off-the-rack software, and then be posted online as a “deep fake.” And today we’re still only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

*. I’m dwelling on the question of how prescient a movie this is because that seems like its main point of interest today. But personally, what I find most compelling is the tragic collapse of Hoffman’s Motss. There’s no situation he hasn’t handled before (“this is nothing!”), but he is ultimately undone by his producer’s ego. Isn’t that the essence of classical tragedy? This campaign is his show, and he wants to be respected, or at least acknowledged as a real artist. He’s tired of just being the puppetmaster and man behind the scenes. He doesn’t need an award, or money, but he does need someone to pay attention. This is what an artist needs more than anything. The threat of anonymity is what breaks him.
*. It’s a tight script all the way through, though it strikes me as being a two-man show. There’s a great collection of talent, but I think Andrea Martin only shows up for a minute or two and Denis Leary only has the one good line. William H. Macy and Woody Harrelson are both very good but in very limited parts. Anne Heche is also good but her character remains passive throughout and she disappears completely at the end.
*. As for the two leads, I don’t get the sense that they’re working hard but they are effective. De Niro might be reprising his role as Mr. Louis Cyphre, only gentler around the edges. Hoffman was apparently channeling his father.
*. And yet despite being so well turned out this remains a minor film, without the fierce impact of Network say (which had been twenty years earlier). This is the downside of being ahead of the curve, as the curve always ends up being even sharper than you think. For all its cynicism and darkness, the satire here plays in a genial key. The reality, I think most of us feel, is, if not quite so strange, very much worse.

Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return (1999)

*. Actually, this should be Children of the Corn 6 or VI (as they’re usually put in Roman numerals). But how could they resist 666? Or DCLXVI? Or (just to be pedantic) χξϛ? Well, they could have resisted. But they didn’t.
*. However, as I’ve made note of before, none of the films in this series follows any of the previous entries. I thought perhaps this one might be different because it marks the return of Isaac (John Franklin, who also co-wrote the script) from the first Children of the Corn. But he doesn’t appear to be the same Isaac and there doesn’t seem to be much continuity with that film.
*. Instead of continuity there’s an entirely new plotline introduced about somehow keeping a prophetic bloodline going. I’d explain more but I had a hard time following it and didn’t care much anyway. Most curious of all is the fact that despite introducing a character with supernatural powers it’s questioned whether or not such an entity as He Who Walks Behind the Rows even exists. Which is a very big break from all the previous instalments.
*. This confusion is a shame because Kari Skogland actually seems to be trying, even injecting a few notes of style into the proceedings. But the script makes nothing out of its potential to follow up the story of “the children of the children.” In fact, children don’t play much of a role here at all. I guess that’s what you get when a franchise runs this long. It’s not just the concept that gets old. Meanwhile, there aren’t even any good kills to pass the time. Just shots of the heroine driving around dusty roads and corn fields.
*. If there were any justice in the world this franchise would have never made it this far, but in fact it had further still to go. A depressing testament to the power not of formula (as there isn’t much of a formula being followed in these movies) but of brand alone.

Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

*. 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 for 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: The Gathering (1996)

*. 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.

Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)

*. 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.