Archive for August, 2011

Pickin’ The Carcass: WOLVESBAYNE (2009)

Posted in 2011, Michael Arruda Reviews, Monsters, Pickin' the Carcass, Vampires, Werewolves with tags , , , , , , on August 31, 2011 by knifefighter

PICKIN’ THE CARCASS:  WOLVESBAYNE (2009)
By Michael Arruda

 

Welcome to another edition of PICKIN’ THE CARCASS, that column where I scour the juicy horror movie carcass looking for delectable morsels I missed the first time around.

Today’s feature, WOLVESBAYNE (2009), now available on DVD, is about as satisfying as a cookie crumb.

WOLVESBAYNE can be summed up in three words:  vampire –werewolf – feud.  Need I say more?

A realtor named Russell Bayne (Jeremy London), who starts out in the beginning of the movie as a greedy son of a bitch (but then later, when he becomes a werewolf, enjoys an even more stunning transformation into a nice guy), unsuccessfully tries to convince a woman Alex Layton (Christy Romano) to sell her store to him.  How many times have we seen this plot point?  Fortunately this movie doesn’t spend much time on this cliché.  Alex, who says she “sees” things, warns Russell that he’s in danger, and since he’s still in SOB mode at this point, he takes her words as a threat and tells her what she can do with her warning.

Should have listened to Alex, Russell.  Later that night, he’s attacked by a werewolf, and when he himself becomes a werewolf—and a nice guy— Alex decides to help him.  Why?  Well, it turns out that Alex used to be a werewolf, and so she knows that as a werewolf, Russell is now a target of the vampires, who are in the middle of a feud with the werewolves.  The evil leader of the vampires, Von Griem (Mark Dacascos) is hell-bent on resurrecting the ultimate vampire leader, a female vampire named Lilith (Yancy Butler), and to do this he has to collect a bunch of artifacts and other cool items that Indiana Jones would be interested in.  Following this?  There’s more.

To help Russell fight back the vampires, Alex enlists the aid of famed vampire hunter Jacob Van Helsing (Rhett Giles) and his followers.  Just why the vampires are so interested in Russell is never clearly explained, or maybe I was just daydreaming at that point, since this plot was oh-so-compelling!

WOLVESBAYNE is a ridiculously silly and unrealistic movie that is totally unsatisfying as a horror movie, which is too bad, because the film looks good, and the actors do a fairly good job with what they have to work with.

The story is just flat out awful.  Whatever happened to the days when werewolves and vampires were scary?  Since when did they start acting like elves and hobbits?  What’s next?  Vampires and werewolves go to Congress?  Romeo and Juliet as a vampires vs. werewolves story?

Leigh Scott wrote the screenplay, and it’s full of one unrealistic conversation after another.  When the characters interact about normal everyday things, the story works, but as soon as the dialogue shifts to vampire/werewolf feuds, vampire/werewolf treaties and talisman treasures, all bets are off, and it loses me.

Scott also wrote FRANKENSTEIN REBORN (2005), another film I didn’t like.

If just one person involved in this movie had said, “we want our audience to believe what’s going on in our story,” there’d be hope for this movie.  It’s as if the people who made WOLVESBAYNE assumed people will never believe this so let’s not even go for believability.  Wrong assumption.  The best horror, no matter how outlandish it seems on the surface, must be believed for it to work.

The werewolf make-up here, what little we see of it, isn’t bad, and Russell Bayne’s initial transformation scene is pretty good, but WOLVESBAYNE doesn’t even come close to being a decent werewolf movie.  The werewolves here, especially Bayne, do absolutely nothing.  No Larry Talbot angst, no werewolf ferocity, just a feud with vampires.  Boring.

The acting’s not bad.  Jeremy London is pretty good as main character Russell Bayne, though I don’t understand why it is that he starts out like a jerk, and by the end of the movie he’s a nice leading man.  Maybe turning into a werewolf actually helped his disposition!  London has a “Brendan Fraser” thing going in this movie, though he never matches Fraser’s leading man charisma or physical presence.

London also has the misfortune of saying the most ridiculous line in the whole movie.  When he meets Jacob Van Helsing, he says with a straight face, “Van Helsing?  I’ve heard that name before.”

Christy Romano is actually pretty hot as Alex Layton, and better yet, she’s a pretty good actor and does a nice job with the role.  Mark Dacascos looks good as the evil vampire Von Griem, and his performance is pretty good too, but sadly, he doesn’t get to do all that much in terms of evil vampire stuff.  Yancy Butler as the queen vampire Lilith— Lilith? Didn’t she used to be on FRASIER? —is okay, but she didn’t really make much of an impression.

As famed vampire hunter Jacob Van Helsing, Rhett Giles is good-looking and sufficiently dashing, but his performance is simply standard.  He does have a cool name though.  In fact, Rhett Giles is a much cooler name than Jacob Van Helsing!  Giles has experience playing Van Helsing.  He also played Jacob Van Helsing in DRACULA’S CURSE (2006), and he played Abraham Van Helsing in WAY OF THE VAMPIRE (2005).  Giles also played Dr. Victor Frank in FRANKENSTEIN REBORN (2005), a silly modernization of the Frankenstein tale.

WOLVESBAYNE was directed by Griff Furst, and as silly and forgettable as this movie is, I wouldn’t say it’s because of the director.  The movie looks polished, and some of the scenes are handled well, like the initial attack scene where Bayne is bitten by a werewolf, but so little happens in this movie, and later, when the action involves werewolves feuding with vampires, I just didn’t care.

A weak and ridiculous story is the fatal flaw of WOLVESBAYNE, not the director.

If you like fantasy tales about werewolf gangs fighting vampire gangs, you might find WOLVESBAYNE slightly interesting.  But if you’re like me, and you like werewolf horror movies, WOLVESBAYNE is anything but and should be avoided like wolfs’ bane on a full moon.

—END—

© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda

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Remote Outpost: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)

Posted in 2011, 70s Horror, Demons, Goblins, Haunted Houses, Mark Onspaugh Columns, Monsters, Remote Outpost, TV-Movies with tags , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by knifefighter

REMOTE OUTPOST. DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)
By Mark Onspaugh
“..Free, free, set them free…”.

Kids watching TV in 1973 had no idea what they were in for...

I told you last time there was something out there, buried in the ice… Something strange, possibly dangerous… And I was right.

This is the movie that scared the crap out of Guillermo del Toro when he was nine years old. It may not be solely responsible for THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001), PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006), MIMIC (1997) and THE ORPHANAGE (2007), but it did inspire him to produce a remake.

Yes, it’s the original DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, a 1973 made-for-TV movie starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton. Darby first grabbed attention with the original TRUE GRIT in 1969. She played John Cusack’s mother (hilariously) in BETTER OFF DEAD (1985) and later played one of the Strodes in HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995). Jim Hutton was a prolific actor who, besides playing detective ELLERY QUEEN on TV (1975-1976) was in the movie THE GREEN BERETS (1968) and 60’s romantic/sex comedies with great titles like THE HONEYMOON MACHINE (1961) and THE HORIZONTAL LIEUTENANT (1962)). Hutton also starred in PSYCHIC KILLER (1975), a mash-up of voodoo and science fiction with some wonderfully lurid poster art.

I missed the movie when it debuted in 1973, and both VHS and DVD copies are now hard to come by since Warner Archives stopped burning them. Luckily, this one was out there in the ABC Movie of the Week graveyard.

A black cat we will never see again yowls, grabbing our attention as we see a house shrouded in darkness. Nothing scary so far… Then the whispering starts. Small, malevolent voices – their questions ooze with malice and greed:

“Will she come? Do you think she will come?
“She will… You know she will.”
“But when, when?”
“Very soon… It’s just a matter of time… Of waiting for a while.”
“All we have to do is bide our time.”
“Bide our time.”
(Creepy laughter from Mr. Patience)
“But it’s been so long! So many years!”
“When will she come and set us free?”
“Patience, patience! We have all the time in the world!”
(More creepy laughter from Mr. Patience)
“We have all the time in the world!”
“In the world, in the world!”
“To set us free!”
“To set us free… in the world!”
(All of them laugh maniacally)

(Dialogue from the original teleplay by Nigel McKeand)

Now, if you’re nine in 1973, then that is a pretty scary set-up… Who’s whispering? What are they going to do when they’re free? Are they under my bed? Behind the couch?

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is an “old dark house” movie with tiny, demonic creatures rather than ghosts or a serial killer. The house is a large Victorian one, complete with a stone turret. It’s not ramshackle or cobwebbed, and looks freshly painted when we first get a good look at it. Aside from its unusual architecture, nothing really cries out, “Stay away!”

Sally (Darby) and Alex Farnham (Hutton), a nice middle-class couple, are moving in. Alex would have been happier with an apartment in the city, but the house belonged to Sally’s grandmother and she loves it. A famous and patronizing decorator is overseeing a makeover of the house. Alex is concerned about a big dinner party impressing his boss, but Sally assures him it will be wonderful.

The only problem with the house is a locked door no one can get into. Of course, Sally finds the key. A flight of stairs leads down into an old office, dominated by a huge brick fireplace. Curiously, the fireplace has been bricked in and the metal door to the ash pit has been bolted shut. Sally questions Mr. Harris the handyman about this, since he also worked for her grandparents. Mr. Harris, is played by veteran character William Demarest, who was in about a billion movies and played Uncle Charlie on MY THREE SONS (1960-1972). He tells her the room was her grandfather’s office. After he died, Harris bricked up the fireplace and bolted the door shut. She wants to know why, and he tells her it was her grandmother’s wishes. Sally wants to know why she would do such a strange thing, and he tells her that “some things are better left as they are.”

Of course, this “because I say so” explanation is never satisfying to anyone, and Sally promptly unbolts the metal door. She looks in, but sees nothing but darkness. After she leaves, we see an odd green light from the bin and hear more creepy whispering. Sally learns that the fireplace has been sealed three bricks thick with rebar, and it would be an long and expensive process to make it workable. Sally thinks she hears mice moving around in the dark, but Alex assures her the place has been fumigated – it’s probably (say it with me) “just your imagination.”

The creatures whisper Sally’s name and play little pranks, like breaking an ashtray by flinging it off a side table, We don’t see them yet, and her husband and best friend Joan think she is imagining things. Joan’s solution is to go shopping. Mr. Harris, ticked off that she has been thinking for herself, rebolts the door… But we know it is too late. Later, the bolts turn as something behind the plate loosens them.

While shopping, Joan says that she is afraid of mice, no matter what Women’s Lib tells her. This explains a lot about Sally and Alex. Sally tries to make her own decisions, follow her own path, but her husband is not comfortable with this. He likes her to be the perfect wife and hostess. As a witness to anything strange or paranormal, she is (to him and others) hysterical and unreliable. Because women have achieved greater equality since 1973, I suspect this is why del Toro added a child to the remake – a child can still be portrayed as both vulnerable and unreliable, without being politically incorrect.

We get glimpses of the creatures roaming the house. They are about eighteen inches high with taloned hands, their bodies covered in fur.

The demons/gremlins/goblins step up their game. They grab Sally’s hem and tell her, “We want you, Sally, we want you!” Sally pulls away from this unseen menace and runs.

Hysterical, Sally calls her husband. Rather than being concerned, he becomes furious with her, certain this is a practical joke on the part of the handyman. Alex wants Sally to get a grip so his big dinner party will be a success and he’ll be promoted.

At the party, Joan’s husband is snapping lots of pictures, to the annoyance of many. I thought this might lead to proof of the goblins, but these photos never pay off. Sally gets her first glimpse of a creature in a flower arrangement, it’s face wizened like a raisin with deeply hollowed eyes and a pointy head. Sally shakes this off, but then one grabs her napkin at dinner and lets her drink in its ugliness. Sally stands up, screaming her head off. Alex gets furious with Sally and brings up the idea of a psychiatrist. While he is shouting at her, the gremlins climb up the stairs. One whispers that he is impatient to kill Sally, the other advises patience – they need her alive.

In one of my favorite sequences, Sally takes a shower (maybe I should rephrase that). While Sally is taking a shower, one of the creatures reaches out with a coat hanger to turn off the light. The sight of a wire hanger emerging from the cabinet and flipping the switch is both scary and hilarious. The three creatures get a straight razor, which is about the size of a machete in their wee paws. But Sally sees them and they run away, leaving the razor on the floor. When Sally turns on the light, one straggler gremlin shrieks and his friends drag him to safety.

Why it's a good idea to return your library books on time...

Realizing she has no credibility, Sally comes into the bedroom and tells Alex the house is depressing and they should sell. Alex, who never liked the house in the first place, is only too happy to oblige. They’ll discuss it when he returns from his business trip to San Francisco.

Before he goes, Alex has an encounter with that sage of sages, the handyman. He asks Mr. Harris to stay on, but Mr. Harris will not. Alex tells him he doesn’t believe “all that superstitious nonsense”, and Harris replies “It might be better for you and your wife if you did.” Then comes a bizarre little moment —Harris goes to collect his tools and the creatures whisper, “You told!” and “You know what happens to people who tell!” Harris denies it but gets a minor slash. He hurries out, telling Alex he had an accident.

Before leaving, Alex calmly tells Sally to “Stop being so scared.” Sally doesn’t want to stay in the house alone, so she asks Joan if she can stay with her, and Joan agrees.

Unfortunately, the decorator returns, intent on remaking the upstairs. When Sally tells him they are selling the house, he throws a fit. As he is charging down the stairs, the creatures string a rope across the stairway in classic HOME ALONE (1990) fashion. The decorator plummets to a messy, color-coordinated death. Sally grabs the rope and has a brief tug-of-war with the creatures, demanding to know what they want. They tell her it’s her they meant to kill, the decorator was an error. They yank the rope from Sally, giving her nasty rope burns on both palms. Later, one cop is apparently all that’s needed to rule the death unworthy of further investigation, and the doctor tells Joan she should try and get Sally to take some sleeping pills. Neither the cop nor the doctor notice Sally’s injured hands.

Once Sally shows Joan her rope burns, Joan believes her. And Alex is rushing home from San Francisco, as the killing of the decorator is enough to make him forget his quarterly reports for the moment. Sally does not want sleeping pills, she wants coffee. Apparently in a cut scene the critters drug her coffee, as she becomes dopey and disoriented. Sally cries to be taken out of the house, and, in a very creepy scene, the three main creatures watch her silently from a bookcase.

Alex returns, but still believes Sally is hysterical and overreacting. Joan convinces him to call the handyman, because something is going on. The handyman will talk, but not over the phone. Alex leaves and Sally cries.

Instead of taking Sally out of the house, Joan decides they will stay put. When the critters cut the power, she goes out to check a fuse box, and they lock her outside. Now the demons are going after Sally, and no one is around to protect her.

(WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!)

At the handyman’s place, Mr. Harris tells Alex that their house was built in the 1880’s. When Sally’s grandparents moved in, the fireplace was already bricked up and bolted shut. One night, Sally’s grandfather went into his office to work, and his wife heard strange sounds and screams… The old man was never found. Alex refuses to believe that any of this relates to the supernatural. Sally tries to call him for help, and the phone is cut. Alex and the handyman hurry back to the house.

Joan tries unsuccessfully to get back in the house, and gets her hand slashed trying to break in. Meanwhile, the creatures call Sally by name, coaxing her out of bed. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Sally takes a flashlight and manages to hurt them a little, but they trip her with a hat rack. The demons bind her ankles… I must tell you it was the neatest job of tying someone up I have ever seen—it looked like an illustration from a manual on knot-tying. The creatures drag Sally toward the dread room… She manages to grab the camera off a small table (Ah! It did pay off!) and delays them by using the flash. You really think Alex is going to get there in time, maybe see the creatures… But, no. He hears Sally scream as he gets in the house and he rushes to the fireplace. There is a great shot of him peering with a flashlight down into the Stygian darkness, but there is no sign of Sally.

The final scene is where we started, with the house and all the whispering… Only now Sally’s voice is the one telling the others to be calm, that someone will come and free them, that they have “all the time in the world.”

For all my carping, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is an effective thriller. All of the actors play it straight, and Darby manages a vulnerability and a real-ness that is compelling. We believe she is up against something totally evil, and we feel for her. Also, the fact that the ending is an unhappy one is both unexpected and frightening.

The creatures are sometimes puppets but mostly little people in suits. The main creature was played by Felix Silla, who was Cousin Itt on THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1964-1966). Use of over-sized props (stairs, books, straight razors) help sell the illusion that the creatures are really tiny. Their faces are the only problem, which feature full head masks without any mouth opening. Not only do we miss the opportunity to see some nasty teeth, you can see the masks inflate when an actor breathes. Still, their look is both scary and memorable.

These sure look a lot creepier than the monsters in the remake ~ LLS

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is also interesting in that many questions are left unanswered: Where do the creatures come from? What do they want? How were they trapped in the first place? They want to be free, why don’t they leave the house? Sally’s grandfather must have become one of them, is he now evil? Is she? Why didn’t anyone warn the Farnhams about what was going on down in the depths? Why did the handyman lie so much? What’s his history with the creatures?

Of course, it’s questions like these that young Guillermo del Toro may have tried to answer, and perhaps that helped set him on the path to film making. Whether or not his remake is better than the original, we shall have to wait and see…

Lorimar, the company that produced DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, also produced BAD RONALD (1974) a year later… I think I’ll hop in one of the crawlers and see if I can dig that out for another time. Remote Outpost… out.

© Copyright 2011 by Mark Onspaugh

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (2011)

Posted in 2011, Cinema Knife Fights, Demons, Monsters, Remakes with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2011 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (2011)
By L.L. Soares and John Harvey

(THE SCENE: A Rhode Island mansion in the middle of nowhere. L.L. SOARES walks to the front door and knocks loudly. JOHN HARVEY pulls open the door to find LS smoking a cigarette and carrying a large tank on his shoulder that has a skull and crossbones on it. LS notices dozens of small homunculus-like troll creatures crawling all over Harvey. One is passed out on top of his head, though he seems not to notice.)

LS: You the man of the house?

JH: I guess so. Apparently, I can’t live anywhere except creepy old houses in Rhode Island. What’s with the big tank o’ poison?

LS: I’m the exterminator. I came here to get rid of your pests. Errr … those pests.
JH: Oh these little guys? Nah. They’re fine as long as you keep them liquored up. They’ll even clean up a bit if you get them the good stuff. Would you rather review the new movie DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK?

LS: Well, if I’m not going to be doing an exterminating today, I guess so.

JH: Excellent! Come on in.

(LS and JH walk into an incredibly ornate library with huge leather chairs.)

LS: Holy Jeez! Are we reviewing a movie or kicking off an episode Masterpiece Theater?

JH: Har-dee-har. Make with the reviewing already.

LS: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is being promoted as the new Guillermo Del Toro movie, but he just produced it and co-wrote the script. The film was directed by newcomer Troy Nixey, whose only previous credit is a short film called Latchkey Lament (2007), which obviously impressed Del Toro enough for him to hire the guy to direct this movie.

JH: True, but it’s got Del Toro’s fingerprints all over it. Ranging from the look and feel to the pacing and characterization, I’d say that Del Toro spent a fair amount of time looking over Nixey’s shoulder. Anyway, what’s it about?

(One of the little trolls brings LS a Tecate beer.)

LS: Hey! Thanks little guy. (Pops the can open) I guess you’re not so bad after all. Well, the movie kicks off with a sour-faced little girl named Sally (Bailee Madison) going to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce—who you might remember from MEMENTO [2000]) at his new mansion. Alex, an architect and restorationist, has sunk all of his money into remodeling a big old house for resale and to restart his career. And it is a pretty amazing-looking joint. Alex is accompanied by his interior decorator/girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes, who you might know as Mrs. Tom Cruise, but she’s also a decent actress with movies like BATMAN BEGINS [2005] to her credit. I remember her back when she was Joey on DAWSON’S CREEK [1998 – 2003]). Bailee is a sad little girl who takes anti-depressants and feels like her mother is punishing her by sending her to live with her dad. Obviously, this kid didn’t take the divorce very well. Alex tries to cheer Sally up, but she’s a hard nut to crack, and Kim is sure that Sally hates her. So much for a fresh start.

JH: I believe that Sally’s mom really is punishing her, because Guy Pearce plays an incredibly monotone, detached, and distracted dad. Honestly, this kid did not hit the jackpot in the parents department. This plays up Del Toro’s common use of a fairytale story structure…

LS: Too common, if you ask me.

JH: …where parents are almost placeholders rather than developed characters. Whereas, Katie Holmes performance is both warm and believable at the same time. I think that she did the best acting in is movie.

LS: I agree with most of what you just said, pardner. But more on that later.

(The little creatures serve LL and JH finger foods while wearing tiny butler outfits.)

LS: Honestly, you have the best infestation EV-ER! Anyway, I thought Bailee Madison was an interesting choice to play Sally. Usually, you’d see a cute kid in this kind of role, but Bailee kind of looks like she’s always sucking on a lemon. And in some scenes, she looked to me an awful lot like a miniature version of Katie Holmes—maybe it was the hair—which I found kind of creepy.

JH: Yeah. I didn’t see the resemblance. But I agree that it was an interesting and good choice to use a child actor that wasn’t a Dakota Fanning knock-off. That said, I also thought that she was a bit dismal throughout the movie. It’s hard to get attached to a kid that’s so totally emo.

LS: Okay, so Sally is off to a rocky start. Add to this a strange hidden basement of the house that was being kept a secret from Alex (which Sally finds). It turns out to be where a famous nature painter named Blackwood did his final work (he was one of the house’s former owners). They find his workspace and an odd furnace-like contraption that Alex says is most likely an ash pit.

The boss of the workmen renovating the house, Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), is clearly upset that they found the basement, and he knows something he’s not telling them (because his grandfather was the house’s caretaker way back when). Meanwhile, Sally starts to hear strange, whispery voices calling to her. She’s very curious about the basement (the only interesting thing about the house she’s found since she got there) and goes down there whenever she can sneak away from the adults. At one point, she brings a wrench to help unlock the furnace door and let out the unseen creatures who have been calling to her.

(One of the little trolls climbs up on LL’s shoulder with a Q-Tip and an intent interest in LL’s ear. LL pokes it in the chest.)

LS: Right. There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. Keep the booze and food coming. I’ll take care of my personal hygiene. And I don’t want to see any of you in the bathroom with me. Got it?

(The little troll sighs deeply and leaves.)

JH: I’d like to interject just to say that I found it totally ridiculous that Sally would actively try to release and befriend these creatures, even before she’s laid eyes on them. No matter how lonely I am, if I was a kid and heard those terrifying hissing voices calling my name from under my bed, I’d exit that house on a jet-stream of feces. I get it; it’s a movie. But I still think that characters need to act logically within their made-up world.

LS: The thing is—we’re supposed to think Sally is a moody but smart kid. I guess they telegraph that by making her so damn serious all the time. And you’re right, a lot of what she does isn’t all that smart.

Anyway, that’s when things get a bit hairy. Harris tries to lock the creatures up again, but they’ll have none of it, and soon they have free reign of the house. Their only weakness is light. They don’t come out in the daytime and they scream when bright lights are flashed on them. Needless to say, Sally has some very good reasons to be afraid of the dark, as these odd creatures, that at first said they want to be her friend, reveal their true nature. What they really want to do is capture Sally and drag her back down into their tunnels, where (we’re told) they love to eat things like “children’s teeth and children’s bones.” (Which contradicts the other theories presented in the film: 1) that the creatures must kill one person every time they are set free, and 2) they want to turn a human into one of them. Make up your minds already!)

When Sally tries to tell her father and Kim about these menacing little gnomes, they don’t believe her and think she’s just acting out. But as the movie develops, they begin to change their minds…..

(JH looks down to see some of the creatures giving LL an pedicure and foot massage.)

JH: Didn’t you have personal space issues …

LS: Yeah, but this is awesome. Besides, they’re the only things that will get close to my feet.

(JH notices that all the little homunculi have clothespins on their noses.)

JH: I’m going to have to buy a case of Black Label to make up for this.

LS: I’ll chip in! Anyway, I had a lot of problems with DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK. First off, I didn’t like Sally and found it difficult to care much about this mopey little brat. Although, I will admit that she grew on me a bit as the movie went on, I never was totally won over by her as the main character.

JH: True, but by the time I started warming up to Sally. The movie had already stopped being scary. The first 30 minutes of this movie is genuinely creepy and tense. The train comes off the tracks the moment that they show the creatures. Who, to me, looked like they came off of a special effects demo reel. DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is a prime example of a movie where not showing bogey man would have been the better choice.

LS: You’ve got that right. Also, there is a scene where the work foreman, Harris, is viciously attacked by the monsters (when he tries to lock them up again). He staggers upstairs badly hurt, bleeding, with sharp objects sticking out of him, and collapses on the floor. Alex then proceeds to call this incident “Harris’s accident.” All in all, they don’t seem to take his brutal injuries seriously. You would think that would make them consider getting the hell out of this place, but nobody seems to be interested in what happened to the man and they just dismiss it, which I found very strange.

(JH nods emphatically while several little creatures give him a shoulder rub.)

JH: Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff! Right, back on topic. That was the other plot point where I threw down the bull#$%& flag. Apparently, they believed that Harris fell down on his tools. All of his tools. And then rolled around on them like a dog on roadkill, and then threw himself down a flight of stairs for good measure … by accident. That whole sequence pulled me out of the story entirely.

LS: It was stupid with a capital “S.” I also wondered why nobody else saw/heard the creatures. I mean, I know that they wouldn’t talk when anyone else was around, but there are several scenes where someone will enter a room and the creatures will scatter and yet nobody has a clue. You’d think someone would hear them scurrying about. Or see them jumping around quickly. But no one does.

In particular is a scene where the creatures attack Sally while she is taking a bath. People come to her rescue, and they clearly heard the commotion inside and must have seen small figures fleeing when they turned the light on – but no, they don’t believe that anyone or anything else was in there with Sally.

LITTLE CREATURE (clears its throat): Ahem. Listen up, bub. A) we’re magical, B) in old homes you hear a bunch of odd little noises that can’t be explained. You write them off after a while. I think you’re being a bit hypercritical.

LS: Hey you little bastard! Who’s reviewing this movie, you or me? Go get yourself another Scotch and make me a hamburger.

(The little guy rolls his eyes and stalks off.)

LS: Besides, I hardly think a hundred little creatures jumping around and tearing down shower curtains would sound like typical “odd little noises.” Oh yeah, and Sally was screaming throughout.

Also, if Sally is so damn smart for her age, why didn’t she just tell her father that she saw rats in the house, instead of telling him all about creatures trying to talk to her and grab her, which she knows he won’t believe. If she’d changed the truth a bit and said it was rats, not only would they have believed her, but maybe they would have gotten someone like an exterminator to come and take care of the damn things. (LS taps the poison tank that is resting beside his chair). And maybe Alex and Kim would have considered moving to a hotel room during the rest of the renovations if they thought the house was infested with vermin.

Another big gripe of mine is a certain scene where someone is dragged down into the furnace and the tunnels below the building. I won’t say who. But I will say I found it very strange that the survivors merely picked up and left after that. Not trying to get the person back and not calling the authorities to bring help to get the person out. You’d think if you really loved someone you’d try your best to get them back and not just leave them down in a pit with a bunch of horrid little monsters.

JH: I cared less about your first two points there, but I did have issues with the third. It did seem like a cold response from characters who supposedly loved each other quite a lot. That said, I’ll give the movie a modicum of credit for providing an ending that isn’t all rainbows and lollipops. Which happens too often in American (or Americanized) horror films.

LS: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is actually a remake of an old ABC TV-movie from 1973. In that version, it was about a young couple who move into the house and the creatures haunt the wife, played by Kim Darby. That movie was actually kind of surreal and worked because nothing was really explained and it all seemed very weird and otherworldly. In that version, the monsters were strange little bald-headed men with furry bodies. Odd-looking things that really gave you the creeps. We never found out what they were or why they wanted Darby. But that was part of what made it so cool.

JH: I don’t think I ever watched the original. If I did, I’ve forgotten about it. So, this was a new movie to me, not a remake.

LS: Do yourself a favor and check out the original.

The new version tries to explain things a bit more, with tales about ancient races that lived before mankind and allusions to the writings of Arthur Machen. The movie begins with a flashback to the painter Blackwood and his own demise at the hands of the beasties in the house decades before. None of this was in the original version, and it tries too hard to flesh out something that is scarier if it’s not explained.

Also, in this new version, the creatures are kind of a cross between monkeys and rats, as they scurry about the place with twisted, rat-like bodies and human-looking hands. They’re obviously CGI creations and while there are few scenes where they’re effective, they look too ordinary for lack of a better word. Despite their monstrous faces, they look too much like rodents or the kind of fast-moving critters you’d expect to infest an old house. In other words, they lack the strange magic of the original creatures. Sure, in the original movie it was just little men in costumes, but it really did seem to work a lot better. I just didn’t find the monsters in this movie all that compelling, and in too many scenes they are so obviously just CGI cartoons jumping around. Say what you will about old fashioned latex and make-up, but I think old school effects were a lot creepier.

JH: I didn’t mind that they tried to explain things more. I thought the back story made it a little more interesting and added depth. But I’m going to stick to my argument that they became far less scary once they appeared on camera. It didn’t matter what they looked like.

LS: Well, I see it as a need to over-explain creatures that should be a complete mystery – DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK reminded me of American remakes of Japanese horror films like THE RING (2002) and THE GRUDGE (2004) that also attempted to over-explain things that should have been left to the imagination. As if American audiences need everything spoon-fed to them and can’t appreciate the creepiness of unsolved mysteries. Hey – maybe they have a point there!

JH: There’s an argument out there that standard American audiences (meaning not horror geek fans), actually don’t like to be genuinely scared or disturbed during a movie. They like to jump out of their seats every so often, but that’s about it. I have friends who say they love horror films, but can’t watch SESSION 9 (2001) when I recommend it to them. I think there’s some truth to that theory, which is unfortunate.

LS: Really? That’s kind of sad.

In this movie, the acting is good enough. Bailee Madison makes the Sally character believable enough. She does seem like a real kid. I just didn’t like her all that much. Guy Pearce is given thankless role as the father—who has to be the voice of reason throughout, and therefore the most boring character. Strangely, the best one in the movie, and the one I found myself rooting for the most was Katie Holmes as Kim. I sympathized with her attempts to befriend Sally, and she was the first one to actually start to believe what Sally was talking about, and slowly becomes her protector.

The direction is serviceable. Nixey does a decent enough job with his first feature film, but I had a lot of problems with the script by Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins (based on the original teleplay by Nigel McKeand). Another reason why I thought the original was so interesting is because it was about adult characters. In this remake, Del Toro and Robbins immediately change the dynamics of the story by making a child the protagonist, and I just didn’t find the story as interesting. Sure, kids are afraid of the dark, and this movie gives them a reason to be. But so have a hundred other movies before this one. I also thought that the fact that a little girl was the lead drew comparisons between this movie and Del Toro’s much superior PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006), and the comparisons don’t do DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK any favors. It just emphasizes how much weaker the script is for DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK.

You said before that Del Toro has a tendency to tell his stories like fairy tales and the adults aren’t as important to the story. Well, this is the first time in a Del Toro-written film where I found myself getting really tired of this “lonely child” perspective. In his own, more personal films like PAN and CHRONOS (1993), Del Toro made it work. But here, his often-used themes started to feel like clichés. And it’s not just because Troy Nixey directed this one. Like you said, it has Del Toro’s “fingerprints all over it.”

JH: For me, the script required too many leaps of faith over too-wide plot holes. That plus the non-scary nature of the creatures made for a very ho-hum film after the 30-minute mark.

LS: Yeah. This movie had a lot of potential, and adapted an interesting story. But I don’t think the new version improved on the original in any way. I give it one and a half knives. And most of that is for Katie Holmes, who played the only character I gave a damn about.

JH: I wanted to like it more, because I generally enjoy anything that has Del Toro’s stamp on it. But I’m giving this two knives. Too bad.

LS: I’m a Del Toro fan, too, but this movie just didn’t do it for me.

I’d also like to note that DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK was supposed to be released last year, but it stayed on the shelf while Disney sold the movie’s studio, Miramax. It’s funny, I’ve been seeing the trailer for this movie for a long time now—since they were originally planning to release it—and I thought the trailer was very effective. Pretty cool, in fact. It’s too bad that the movie didn’t live up to it.

(JH sits up and claps his hands)

JH: You know what? I’m in the mood for musical theater. What can you guys do for us?

(Several of the small creatures walk out onto a table dressed like the Family Von Trapp. They look less than thrilled.)

JH: I think they’d be more enthusiastic if they weren’t being filmed.

LS (to camera): Yeah, the review’s over. You can go now.

(Shoves hand to push lens away as we FADE TO BLACK)

© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares & John D. Harvey

L.L. Soares gave DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK – one and a half knives

John Harvey gave DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARKtwo knives.


WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979)

Posted in 1970s Movies, 2011, 70s Horror, LL Soares Reviews, Psycho killer, Scares!, Serial Killer flicks, Trasmissions to Earth with tags , , , , , , on August 26, 2011 by knifefighter

TRANSMISSIONS TO EARTH:
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979)
By L.L. Soares

I remember seeing the original WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) when I was a kid. I saw it in a movie theater during its initial release, but all I could remember about it was the beginning, and (faintly) the ending. Now that I’ve finally watched it again (over 30 years later!) I understand why that was the case.

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is a strange movie. Even though it was released during the whole slasher craze of the late 70s/early 80s, it’s not a typical slasher flick by any stretch. The movie also can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a horror movie, a chase film or a character study. In some ways, it seems to fails at all three. In other ways, it’s a much more fascinating film than I gave it credit for.

The movie starts out with the famous sequence where teenager Jill Johnson (a young Carol Kane – a very underrated actress who most people might remember as Simka on the 80s TV series TAXI) goes to babysit for Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis. They leave and she spends her time talking on the phone with a friend, or just lounging around. Then the phone rings, and a spooky voice asks her “Have you checked the children?”

Okay, she’s a babysitter. Checking on the kids is her job. Yet, we don’t see her go upstairs even once to check on the kids after the parents leave. At one point, she almost goes up the stairs, but the phone rings again and she comes back down. I found myself thinking, “What an awful babysitter!”

The phone calls continue. With warnings like:“Why haven’t you checked on the children?”

Here’s another bit of dialogue:

Jill Johnson: What do you want?

Caller: Your blood all over me!

Jill calls the police to report the harassing phone calls. They say there’s not much they can do, but that, the next time the guy calls, to keep him on the line for a while and they’ll trace the call. The big payoff is, they trace the call and then call her back to tell her the caller is inside the house, and she should get out right away!

Even after all this time, that’s still a scary scene and it works well.

The unfortunate thing is, by the end of this sequence, the movie is only like 20 minutes into the story.

It’s at this point that the movie seems to lose its way.

Suddenly, it says on the screen “Seven years later,” in a nod to similar fright fests like HALLOWEEN (1978). Except nothing really happens for a while. We do find out a few things, though. The guy on the phone was named Curt Duncan, he was a guy who came to New York from England. And when he called Jill that fateful night, he had just killed the two Mandrakis children with his bare hands.

Since that night, Duncan has been locked away in an insane asylum, but now, seven years later, he’s escaped. The cop who was in charge of the case, John Clifford (Charles Durning) is now a private detective. When the Mandrakis family finds out that Curt Duncan escaped, they hire Clifford to track him down.

Clifford is not just content in finding Duncan and turning him in to the cops, however. His plan is to find the guy and kill him. Clifford feels the world doesn’t really need another child killer around.

When we finally see the murderer, it’s amazing how not scary he is. As portrayed by Tony Beckley, Curt Duncan is a skinny, kind of pathetic guy who tries to pick up a woman named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst) in a seedy bar, and, when she gets annoyed with him, a thug playing pool tells Duncan to leave, and then proceeds to beat the stuffing out him. The guys drags the pummeled Duncan outside into an alleyway, and you wonder “What’s so scary about this guy? He’s actually kind of a wimp!”

We then get a character study as Curt Duncan goes about his life, sleeping in shelters, hanging out with homeless people, not knowing what to do with his life now that he’s back on the street, and you almost sympathize with the guy. Mostly because you can’t picture this sad little weakling performing the horrific acts he’s accused of.

He doesn’t know anybody and he reaches out to Tracy, looking for a friend. But from her point of view, he’s more like a stalker who won’t leave her alone, and she’s even more horrified when John Clifford tracks her down (after asking around the bar) and tells her what Duncan has been up to the last seven years.

There are some scenes where Durning tracks Duncan down and chases him around the city. These scenes are almost comical considering how overweight and out of shape Durning is, as he tries to keep up with a man half his size.

The movie just seems to meander until Duncan rediscovers Jill Johnson, who is now married with children of her own. A scene where he calls her at a restaurant where she’s having dinner with her husband (they’re kids are back home, being watched by a babysitter) and says “Have you checked the children!” is actually a very effective punch to the gut, and you feel the horror as much as she does.

The cops rush to the house but it turns out to be a false alarm. What follows, however, is a final sequence where we know Duncan is in the house – Jill Johnson knows this as well, but can’t find him – and we’re treated to a long, horrifying night of a woman trying to protect herself and her family from a killer hiding in her house.

Despite the fact that the movie is very uneven and shifts from a horrific tone to a more mundane one and back again, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS actually does have some good scares and I found it strangely satisfying. I’m sure a lot of people would be disappointed with it, especially the lull in the middle which seems to want to humanize Duncan, but I found the whole thing very watchable and compelling.

Especially scary is a sequence where the deranged Duncan, who has just escaped from being captured by John Clifford, is sitting alone in the shadows and starts muttering about how “No can see me. No one can hear me. No one can touch me.” This scene has a much scarier equivalent toward the end, that really works.

Another cast member worth mentioning is the great Ron O’Neal (the star of 1972’s SUPERFLY, himself), as police chief Charlie Garber, who is also a long-time friend of Durning’s who is torn between helping his friend crack this case, and knowing that Durning has murder on his mind.

For some reason, even though Duncan looks like an unlikely killer, this adds to the creepiness of it all. Tony Bleckley is actually very good in the role. On a sad note, after decades of acting on the stage and mostly on British television, Bleckley died of cancer soon after WHEN A STRANGER CALLS wrapped. It was his last role.

Tony Bleckley is actually pretty good as killer Curt Duncan. Unfortunately, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) was his last film role.

A lot of the credit here needs to go to director Fred Walton (who co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Feke), for turning in a slasher movie that is off the beaten path. Its very quirkiness is what makes it such an interesting film.

Considering it didn’t make a huge impression on me as a kid (at least after the big opening sequence), I wasn’t expecting much by rewatching WHEN A STRANGER CALLS now, but I was pleasantly surprised. A lot of times you rewatch things you liked as a kid, and they don’t hold up as well. This was a rare instance where a movie that didn’t impress me much as kid, impressed me more as an adult, when I could actually appreciate its nuances more.

© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares

(Note: This movie was remade in 2006 with Camilla Belle as Jill Johnson and Tommy Flanagan as “The Stranger.”)

Coming in the next “TRANSMISSIONS TO EARTH” column: a review of this movie’s sequel, WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK (1993).

Suburban Grindhouse Memories: LUNCH WAGON (1981)

Posted in 2011, Exploitation Films, Hot Chick Movies, Nick Cato Reviews, R-Rated Comedy, Suburban Grindhouse Memories with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2011 by knifefighter

SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES
30 Years Ago: Hormones and Whoremoans…
By Nick Cato

 

September, 1981: after having enjoyed screenings of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 and a re-release of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) only a few weeks earlier, it was time to take a break from the gore and scares.  Along comes a sex comedy titled LUNCH WAGON, with its enticing poster and newspaper ad (enticing for a bunch of thirteen year-old boys, anyway) nearly DARING us to try and get in without adult accompaniment.  And thanks to Staten Island’s Amboy Twin Cinema (who let ANYONE in, so long as they had CA$H), my buddies and I waltzed right in and were set for who-knew-what (remember this was a full year before the sex comedy craze that came after PORKY’S and FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH were released).  If not for the Amboy Twin Cinema (that has long since been replaced by a Perkins Restaurant), I wouldn’t have seen half the films I write about in this bi-weekly column.  Man do I miss that place!

Two girls (played by Pamela Jean Bryant and Roseann Katon, both with impressive exploitation film credits) are roommates who also happen to be auto mechanics (!).  They’re sick and tired of their sleazy boss spying on them as they dress for work (because, as you know, all female mechanics get undressed AT the garage), and when they confront him about their crappy salary and a host of other issues, the guy flips out and fires them.  Aggravated, our two lovely ladies stop for lunch at a local lunch wagon (owned by Dick Van Patten, who goes unaccredited here although there’s two other Van Pattens with higher billing) and, after a talk about their future, manage to buy the lunch wagon off of Van Patten and start their own business.  Realizing neither one of them can cook, they get their friend Diedre (played by Amazonia blonde Candy Moore, the woman who modeled for the cover of the classic album CANDY-O by THE CARS) then set up shop by a local construction site, where the girls start to get hit on by the workers and their business starts to take off.  Deidre is the funniest of the group: she has a thing for short, dorky guys, and manages to control them like a dominatrix in the sack…

While the boobage wasn’t as high as our young perverted minds were hoping for (nor the laughs for that matter), we were treated to a surprise—another unaccredited appearance by a band called TERRI AND THE ROUGH RIDERS.  One of the two songs they perform was quite catchy, and a few weeks after seeing the film I found a 12” single with said song (‘Mental Hopscotch’) by a band called MISSING PERSONS, and sure enough, it was the same band.  I’m assuming MOST of LUNCH WAGON’s budget went to paying this up-and-coming new wave act.  The band was made up of three members and two actors, one who our girl Diedre ends up dating in the film.

Despite the rockin’ tunes and cute cast (who call their lunch wagon “Love Bites”), the film doesn’t work too well as a comedy, and after a recent re-viewing, it doesn’t even hold up good as a teenage T&A feature, either.  And yet for some reason I still can’t figure out, it’s quite entertaining.  The screenwriter tried to deliver a bit of a story: a rival lunch wagon sets up shop near the same construction site, and of course it turns out to be a front for a bunch of jewel thieves.  Even with the added gangster goofballs, LUNCH WAGON only offers an occasional chuckle and an even rarer flash of flesh.  With everything it has going against it, the film is still worth it for the horrendous spandex outfits every female character seems to walk around in (which drew howls from the crowd, even in 1981), the great soundtrack, and it’s overall positive vibe: here’s a trio of girls with (seemingly) no future, making the best out of life by serving sandwiches at a construction site!  If that doesn’t make you feel better about your own mundane existence I don’t know what will…

The déjà-vu I felt while watching this the first time in 1981 must’ve been due to the aforementioned female cast, who had previously starred in exploitation and horror epics such as H.O.T.S. (1979), DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE (1980), THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS (1974), and even DEATH RACE 2000 (1975).  In researching this article, I discovered the beautiful Pamela Jean Bryant had just passed away in 2010, which added a sad undertone to my recent viewing.

If you want to taste a pre-PORKY’S sex comedy that’s easy on the comedy and the sex but big on horrible fashion and kick-ass music, give LUNCH WAGON a try.  (The film was also seen on late night cable TV under the title LUNCH WAGON GIRLS, and was released in Germany as HAMBURGER GIRLS).

Suddenly I’m in the mood for ham and Swiss on rye…

© Copyright 2011 by Nick Cato

The late great PAMELA JEAN BRYANT (the blonde in the white top), ROSEANN KATON (center), and Amazonian beauty CANDY MOORE are the LUNCH WAGON GIRLS

Meals For Monsters: MOTEL HELL (1980)

Posted in 1980s Horror, 2011, B-Movies, Campy Movies, Cannibalism, Jenny Orosel Columns, Meals for Monsters with tags , , , , on August 24, 2011 by knifefighter

MEALS FOR MONSTERS: MOTEL HELL (1980)
By Jenny Orosel

Everybody loves a good cannibal movie, and you can’t get much more classic than MOTEL HELL (1980).  With its blend of horror, comedy and pure absurdism, it set the bar for other horror-comedies to come in the eighties.  And nothing says, “Delicious Dinner Night” like a cannibal movie.

Vincent and Bruce Smith are brothers in a small southern town.  Bruce is a good-natured sheriff and Vincent is a hog farmer/motel owner.  His smoked meats are the best in town.  What makes his food so special?  He combines the pork with…other meats.  Those other meats come from folks driving down the lonely road running alongside the ranch.  Sure, it might be a bit unpalatable for some but “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!”  Things change when Vincent runs a busty, barely legal drifter off the road, and instead of lunch, he sees her as a possible love.  Unfortunately, so does Bruce, and their brotherly affection is put to the test.

For the cocktail, I look to the one scene with alcohol featured—Vincent slips something into the drifter’s champagne to knock her out.  This meal calls for its own champagne cocktail (without the illegal incapacitating substances, of course).

The Motel Hell Cocktail

1 part cranberry juice (or preferred derivative)

2 parts sparkling wine.

****

As far as the main course, you can’t do MOTEL HELL without making Farmer Vincent’s Fritters!

For the sauce:

1 18oz bottle barbecue sauce

1 12oz bottle of beer

Directions:

Whisk both together in a large saucepan and bring to boil (I learned the hard way that the beer mixture expands greatly when boiling.  Make sure you have plenty of room).  Reduce to simmer and cover.

For the fritters:

1 lb ground pork (regular pork, not long pig)

1 lb ground turkey

½ cup breadcrumbs

1 egg

1tbsp liquid smoke

1tsp salt

2 tsp cumin

1 tsp paprika

Directions:

Mix all ingredients in a bowl.  Form into 12 balls.

Pour just enough oil into the fry pan to just cover the bottom.  Heat at medium-high.  Brown the meatballs, turning once.  Do this a few at a time if your fry pan isn’t as big as a small doghouse.  Once meatballs are toasty on the top and bottom, put them in the sauce mixture.  When all the meatballs are in the sauce, pop the lid back on and let cook at simmering for a half hour.

Serve on toasted rolls or on top of rice.  Corn on the cob makes a tasty side, and that way you can say there’s a vegetable involved in your dinner.

The dessert didn’t come directly from the movie.  But there is one thing I’ve learned since moving to Texas—any time smoked meats are involved, there is only one acceptable dessert.  That is Southern-Style Banana Pudding.  It’s not enough for southerners to make plain banana pudding from the box.  No, they dress it up and the result is a nice, smooth finish to a hearty meat dish.

Southern-Style Banana Pudding:

2 boxes banana pudding mix

Milk

4 ripe bananas

Box of vanilla wafer cookies

Directions:

Prepare the pudding according to the instructions on the box.  In a 9×9 pan, put one layer of cookies, one layer sliced bananas (you should use two bananas per layer unless you slice them really thin) and half the pudding.  Repeat.  Put in the fridge for a few hours.  Scoop into serving bowls and top with whipped cream.

MOTEL HELL is a fun movie to watch, and would make a great party movie.  This meal can easily be adapted to fit a bunch of people.  Just be careful when wording the invitations—this is not the movie where you should say to folks, “I’d like to have you for dinner….”

© Copyright 2011 by Jenny Orosel

"Meat's meat and man's gotta eat!"

CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011)

Posted in 2011, 3-D, Action Movies, Fantasy Films, LL Soares Reviews, Magic, Pirates, Warriors with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2011 by knifefighter

CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

Welcome to the Hyborian Age, by Crom!

It makes sense that someone would want to reboot the CONAN franchise. After all, Robert E. Howard gave us one of the greatest characters in the history of heroic fiction, and the movies have just barely scratched the surface of Conan and his world. For all the cult adoration for John Milius’s 1982 version with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the truth is, it’s not a very good film, and didn’t stick very closely to the source material. Oh yeah, and Arnold might have looked the part, but he couldn’t really act. So a lot of Howard fans were a little disappointed. Almost thirty years later, Hollywood has decided to start fresh.

The 2011 version of CONAN THE BARBARIAN is a decent enough flick. This time around, Jason Momoa plays the title role. Momoa rose to fame in TV shows like BAYWATCH and STARGATE: ATLANTIS, but his most recent television role was as another barbarian leader, Khal Drogo, in the HBO series GAME OF THRONES. Momoa was fairly impressive as Drogo, and he does a good job as CONAN. He may not be the most gifted actor to ever appear on screen, but at least does a better job fleshing out the role than Arnold did.

The new movie begins during a war of barbarian tribes. Conan’s mother gives birth to him on the battlefield, his birth cries filling the air just as his mother breathes her last breath. I have to say, though, that the blood-covered baby looked incredibly fake as his daddy lifted him up toward the sun.

The boy is brought up by his father, the Cimmerian leader (and blacksmith) Corin (played by Ron Perlman, who always makes movies like this better, just by appearing in them), and shows a gift for fighting (and killing) at an early age. He easily moves ahead of the pack during a ritual of manhood, to determine who of the youngsters will be allowed to fight with their elders in battle (the ritual involves running up a hill and back, without breaking a quayle’s egg that you carry in your mouth). But as soon as he proves himself, Conan’s tribe is attacked by an army of killers.

The army is led by the ruthless Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), who is searching for a piece of a mask made from “the bones of kings.” It is supposed to bring its wearer untold magical power, and Zym is determined to reassemble it and rule his world. Corin is hiding one of the pieces, and Zym’s “uber-goth” daughter Marique (she’s about the same age as the young Conan), sniffs it out. Corin is tortured and killed with molten metal in front of his son for his troubles. In fact, Conan does what he can to save his father, but it’s a lost cause. He makes a blood oath to get revenge on Zym and his warriors.

We then leap ahead to a grown Conan, who has taken up with a band of pirates, led by his buddy Ukafa (Bob Sapp). Already, Conan is a legendary warrior to those who know him, but he has yet to make his mark on the world. As we know from Robert E. Howard’s stories, this guy is destined for big things. But before he can get there, he has a little thing called revenge to dish out first.

Despite the years of proving himself a warrior, he hasn’t had much luck finding the guys who killed his father, until he finally tracks his enemies to a monastery where Khalar Zym has gone to find a girl who is of “pure blood,” whose descendants can be traced way back to a race of mighty sorcerers. Her name is Tamara (Rachel Nichols) and she’s been raised in the temple as a female monk, and has no idea of her lineage. Zym wants her because only her blood can activate the mask he’s gone to such trouble to put together again. So, of course, Conan spends the rest of the movie trying to prevent Zym from getting what he wants.

Along the way, Conan has to battle Zym’s vicious henchmen, and a giant tentacled sea creature, among other obstacles.

I have to admit, I had high hopes for this movie. As a Conan fan, I really wanted this new franchise to blow me a way. The truth is, while I did enjoy this movie, and thought it was a decent-enough reboot, I was also a bit disappointed.

The acting is good for the most part. Momoa is not Laurence Olivier, but then again, he doesn’t really have to be, and he has just enough charisma to keep our interest. He looks a bit small for Conan, but over time that doesn’t seem to matter much, as he does a good job embodying the character.

As Conan says, “I live, I love, I slay – I am content!

Stephen Lang is just as effective as the bad guy, Khalar Zym, and his various henchmen are pretty cool, especially Rose McGowan as the grown-up version of Zym’s daughter, Marique. She looks pretty freaky with her futuristic hairdo, strange tattoos and wild eyes, and as a sorceress, she’s a force to be reckoned with. A scene where she conjures up warriors made of sand is especially interesting.

Ron Perlman always turns in an entertaining acting job at this point, and he’s just fine as Conan’s father, instructing his son in the ways of war, until war claims his life.

But my problem is that, while there are good action sequences, there are also parts that drag a bit, and the movie seemed overlong to me at 112 minutes. Also, while I liked this version of Conan, it didn’t completely blow me away. I was hoping for some really amazing scenes, and some came close, but none really amazed me.

The 3D effects didn’t help at all. This is another case of 3D being added after the movie was made—a la’ last year’s CLASH OF THE TITANS—and, frankly, it looks terrible.

Everything looked very dark and murky. And there were very few times when the 3D aspects stood out at all. This was one of those occasions when 3D actually hurt a movie for me, and I really didn’t see the point of it. If you’re going to see this one, seek out a theater playing the 2D version.

Director Marcus Nispel also directed the remakes of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009) – this guy whole career seems to be made up of music videos and movie remakes – and those two horror reboots didn’t impress me much at all. Nispel is good at stuff like atmosphere, but his movies always seem to be lacking something, and the same goes for CONAN. I liked this better than a lot of his other films, but I still think it doesn’t go far enough in establishing Conan as a vicious killing machine. After all, he was born on the battlefield and he lives to crush his enemies. But the storyline in this movie seemed like a distraction.

I barely give this one three knives. I kept debating whether to give it two and a half or three – but it’s at least as good as something like CAPTAIN AMERICA.

But I wanted a more dynamic story. And I wanted more exciting filmmaking. CONAN THE BARBARIAN comes close, but doesn’t fully deliver the goods. I guess I just had high expectations for this one.

© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares

(NOTE: If you’re going to see this one at the theater – go to a matinee and skip the 3D. You’ll save yourself some money and save yourself a headache.)

L.L. Soares gives CONAN THE BARBARIANthree half  knives.