Archive for the Reassessment Files Category

tHe rEaSsEssmENt FiLes: THE FACULTY (1998)

Posted in 1990s Horror, 2013, Aliens, Horror, Monsters, Paul McMahon Columns, Reassessment Files with tags , , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by knifefighter

A Reassessment File
By Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic

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For a long time, THE FACULTY had the unofficial title of “My Favorite Monster Movie I’ve Only Seen Once.” I don’t recall the specifics of when I first watched it, other than it was a rare occasion that I could turn off all the lights and unplug the phone and let myself get completely swept away. The movie wasn’t designed to win awards or revolutionize the horror genre. It was designed to be a haunted house on film, a monster-infested roller coaster that genuflected to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The novel actually gets a mention during the course of the film. THE FACULTY has always existed in my head as a 3 1/2 star film. Time to see if that rating holds up.

We open with Coach Willis (Robert Patrick, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, 1991) abusing and insulting his football team like any good stereotypical football coach. After he chases off his team, he is approached by someone we don’t see, and when he turns around his attitude softens. We shift into the school, where Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth, Lilith on TV’s CHEERS) shoots down requests for new computers, educational field trips, and this year’s musical because there’s not enough money. Of course, the football team will get their new jerseys and jock straps and helmets because that’s what the school board and the parents want. After the meeting, Principal Drake returns to her office, where Coach Willis is waiting for her. He attacks, and Principal Drake defends herself with a pair of scissors. Finding the doors of the school locked, Mrs. Olson (Piper Laurie, CARRIE, 1976) helps her escape and re-lock the doors, trapping Coach Willis inside. Then Mrs. Olson attacks Drake with the scissors. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” she says.

Coach Willis teaches his boys to put on their "Game Face."

Coach Willis teaches his boys to put on their “Game Face.”

School day. We’re treated to a smorgasbord of assault and battery, aggravated assault, assault with intent to maim, and assault with a deadly weapon, all of which are simply called “bullying” on school property. The main victim is Casey (Elijah Wood, THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, 2001 – 2003). While he is beaten by Gabe (Usher Raymond, SCARY MOVIE, 2013), he is scorned by classmate Stokes (Clea Duvall, IDENTITY, 2003). Elsewhere, Stan (Shawn Hatosy, BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS, 2009), captain of the football team, is telling his girlfriend Delilah (Jordana Brewster, FAST & FURIOUS 6, 2013), captain of the cheerleading squad, that he’s quitting the team to focus on academics. Delilah does not take the news well. “What am I supposed to do while you’re on this yellowbrick quest for a brain?” she asks. Meanwhile, Zeke (Josh Hartnett 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, 2007) drives himself to school, roaring past school busses and screeching around the parking lot. Students leap this way and that to keep from getting run over. He immediately starts selling pens full of white powder out of the trunk. Ms. Burke (Famke Janssen, X-MEN, 2000) comes to scold him, and while she reminds him that she is the authority figure, it’s obvious she’s not up to the task. Further still, newcomer Marybeth (Laura Harris, DEADWEIGHT, 2013) is trying to find the office. With her southern drawl, she compliments one of the kids on her nose ring. “It really brings out your eyes,” she says.  In the teacher’s lounge, we meet the school nurse, Ms. Harper (Salma Hayek, SAVAGES, 2012), and the irony is thick because she’s got a cold that won’t go away.

Having met most everyone, we rejoin Casey, who is now having lunch at the top of the deserted football stands. As he starts back to the school he finds something large and slug-like in the grass. Curious, he brings it to his Biology teacher, Mr. Furlong (John Stewart, I don’t need to introduce you to THE DAILY SHOW, right?), who doesn’t know what it is. With the help of Zeke, who is far more brilliant than you’d believe for someone repeating his senior year, they determine that it’s a new organism. They drop it into an empty aquarium at the back of the class, because all Biology labs have full but fishless aquariums “just in case.” The slug sprouts red tendrils and swims around, and an excited Mr. Furlong dreams about calling the university.

Later on, the plot thickens when our heroes find the aquarium empty.

Later on, the plot thickens when our heroes find the aquarium empty.

The teachers begin to act out of character. Principal Drake begins to call students to the office for an “ear exam.” Coach Willis keeps his cool when Stan finally gets up the nerve to tell him about quitting. Soon after, in the locker room shower, Stan is surprised by Mrs. Brummel, the school’s oldest teacher. She  begs Stan for help, and patches of her hair and skin tear free when Stan tries to push her away. A little later on, Delilah, who is also the editor of the school newspaper, takes her star photographer, Casey (because somehow the school bullies don’t attack him when he’s wearing a camera), into the teacher’s lounge to dig up a cover story for the next issue. When Coach Willis and Mrs. Olson surprise them, they hide in a closet and watch the pair attack Nurse Harper. Then the corpse of Mrs. Brummel falls on them from the back of the closet….

Robert Rodriguez (SIN CITY, 2005, GRINDHOUSE, 2007, MACHETE, 2010, SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR and MACHETE KILLS, both 2013) directed this one. Say what you want about the man, he makes a ton ‘o fun for the big screen. This project was one of his early films, and only the second that he didn’t write himself (the first was FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN, 1996, which was written by Quentin Tarantino). He has a great time with this idea, and his enthusiasm infects the cast, as well. It plays like everyone is having a great time with their roles. The scenes are busy and detailed, and infused with enough comedy to keep things light without overpowering the monster story.

"Somebody missed the memo that warned against getting these things wet.

“Somebody missed the memo that warned against getting these things wet.

There’s a little continuity slippage about what this creature can and cannot do. This is mainly apparent in its inconsistent ability to heal its host’s body. A more serious flaw is how Rodriguez has stretched the compare-and-contrast between the normal school and the infested school. The violent scenes of the pre-infested school feel too over-the-top for a suburban school like this one. The shenanigans that go on seem more suited to a prison yard– some of it rivals the pre-Joe-Clark Eastside High School of LEAN ON ME (1989). It does set up an interesting dilemma for the students, though, making them decide if they really want things back the way they were.

I’ve got to say, I enjoyed this one all over again. The only change I’m making is to upgrade its unofficial title to “My Favorite Monster Movie I’ve Only Seen Twice,” but I suspect it won’t hold that title for long because like the best roller-coasters, I want to go again.

Original rating: 3 1/2 stars.
Reassessment: THE FACULTY keeps its 3 1/2 stars easily.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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The Reassessment Files takes a second look at THE PROPHECY (1995)

Posted in 1990s Horror, 2013, Angels, Christopher Walken Movies, Paul McMahon Columns, Reassessment Files, Supernatural, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , , , on June 12, 2013 by knifefighter

A “Reassessment File” by Paul McMahon, the “Distracted Critic”

P - VHS coverIt will come as a no-brainer to anyone reading this that I’m into horror movies. I have favorites outside the genre, of course, as well as a brother who is a full-fledged movie buff who has introduced me to a great many films I would not have chanced without his urging. One memorable night a number of years ago, he showed up at my place waving a VHS box at me. “I have a horror movie you’ve never heard of!” he said. At the moment I would have snickered at his folly, he dropped THE PROPHECY in my lap. “It’s Christopher Walken playing a bad angel. You’re gonna love it!”

The movie held my attention throughout. At the time, I was reading a great many books on the philosophy of religion, comparing theologies between Sky Father faiths and Earth Mother beliefs. While THE PROPHECY didn’t delve into this head-on, it did bring the two together in an interesting way. Not interesting enough for me to remember the specifics, though. Whenever discussion of the movie has come up, I’ve remembered that I watched it, but couldn’t recall anything beyond Christopher Walken playing a bad angel.

Looking back, I don’t remember anything significant about it, so I’d retro-actively rate it a single star. Recently, due to the urging of another friend, I dug up a copy and popped it in to see if I’d missed some deeper worth years ago.

We open with a voice over tale of the first war of Heaven and the banishment of Lucifer along with a third of heaven’s legion of angels. God’s elevation of man over angels precipitated the second war of Heaven, which split the remaining legion in half, leaving the sides locked in a stalemate that has kept the gates of Heaven closed since the beginning of time. The Angel Gabriel has come to Earth—where angels are mortal—with a plan to break the stalemate by stealing an evil human’s “dark soul” and making it fight for his side, thus breaking the stalemate and winning Heaven.

From here, we are dropped into a church. There is Latin, clouds of incense, a Cardinal, bishops, and deacons awaiting Ordination as priests. We’ll choose to ignore the major movie goof of a completely empty church behind them– ordinations are typically SRO.  Deacon Thomas is called. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Sunday School knows that a character named Thomas in a religion-themed movie will lose his faith. As Deacon Thomas lies prone before the feet of the Cardinal, he is assaulted by visions of bloodied angels that make him cry out and turn away. In the very next scene, Thomas is a LAPD detective standing on a rooftop and looking down at the city—taking in an angel’s perspective, if you will.

Now it’s time for more exposition as the Angel Uziel drops in on the Angel Simon, who has been sent by God to keep the dark human soul from Gabriel. Simon throws Uziel out of an apartment window, where he is crushed by an out-of-control automobile that is barreling down that exact dead-end alley at that exact time. By the reactions of the investigating officers, they never expected to find anyone behind the wheel and aren’t at all concerned that no one’s there.

Here comes Deacon Detective Thomas. He pokes around Simon’s apartment and finds an obituary for a Colonel Arnold Hawthorne from Chimney Rock, Arizona; a theological text that Thomas himself wrote back in the day; and an ancient, hand-written Bible that contains a twenty-third chapter of the Book of Revelations. “There is no twenty-third chapter,” he tells the medical examiner. After Gabriel incinerates Uziel’s body on the floor of the morgue, leaving nothing for the medical examiner to investigate, Thomas decides to head to Chimney Rock, because apparently the LAPD has no budget to telephone law enforcement in Arizona to follow up on leads, and, apparently, there are no jurisdiction lines in this movie, so Thomas’s LAPD badge gives him carte blanche across state lines.

Simon steals and then hides the dark soul in a school girl who was nice to him, because nothing displays eternal gratitude like jamming the soul of a cannibalistic war criminal into someone’s head. Gabriel finds Simon and tortures him, but Simon will not reveal the location of the soul. Thomas enters Hawthorne’s apartment and discovers a trunk full of evidence that the deceased Colonel is a Korean War criminal, because criminals like this keep mementos of their crimes out in the open for easy access on the off chance that an out-of-his-jurisdiction cop will show up without a warrant to poke through their belongings. Shaken, Thomas enters a local church to contemplate his situation. Gabriel appears in the pew behind him and freaks him out by knowing things about him that he shouldn’t. Then Gabriel disappears, forgetting to warn Thomas off the case, or fooling him with a false trail, or anything else

Proof that Gabriel is an angel and not a man-- when he gets lost he actually stops to ask for directions. (His assistant here is played by Amanda Plummer, PULP FICTION (1994).

Proof that Gabriel is an angel and not a man– when he gets lost he actually stops to ask for directions. (His assistant here is played by Amanda Plummer, PULP FICTION (1994).

Gregory Widen, best known for writing 1991’s incredible firefighter movie BACKDRAFT, wrote and directed this one. He does everything by the numbers here, using tried and true camera angles throughout and taking no risks, thereby failing to put a personal touch on the work. The writing is circular and hollow, silly in places, and doesn’t hold up to the slightest theological scrutiny.

When the movie ended, I remembered my brother’s words from so long ago. “It’s Christopher Walken playing a bad angel,” and that is part and parcel of this film. In fact, that’s what they should’ve written on the back of the VHS box. Walken acts creepy and delivers his lines in that halting, oddly emphasized way of his. There’s a feeling of “That was cool” when the final credits roll, but nothing more substantial than that. Walken has made a career out of this unique delivery, utilizing it in such films as THE DEER HUNTER (1978), BILOXI BLUES (1988), PULP FICTION (1994), SUICIDE KINGS (1997) and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)…. He’s got 123 titles listed on IMDb, and all of them have in common the “Walken Mystique.” I’ve heard it said that if you’re a casting director in Hollywood and you need to fill the “Walken Type,” you are stuck with having to cast Christopher Walken or re-define the type. This is his movie, plain and simple.

Viggo Mortensen and Elias Koteas share a moment in THE PROPHECY. If he'd had more screen time in his surprise role, Viggo would have stolen this movie from Christopher Walken

Viggo Mortensen and Elias Koteas share a moment in THE PROPHECY. If he’d had more screen time in his surprise role, Viggo would have stolen this movie from Christopher Walken

Elias Koteas, (LET ME IN, 2010), plays Thomas Dagget. He does a good job with the role, but with 82 titles beneath his name, he hasn’t exactly created a “Koteas Mystique.” Eric Stoltz,(MASK, 1985 and also PULP FICTION), shines as the angel Simon. He’s been in 115 movies, and what little I can find of a “Stoltz Mystique” is not very flattering. As the film rolls along, there’s a surprise role played by Viggo Mortensen, known mainly for playing Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003) and Tom Stahl in David Cronenberg’s HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005). With only 55 titles to his credit, Viggo is well on his way to establishing a “Mortensen Mystique.” Virginia Madsen plays Katherine, the school teacher who teams up with Thomas to protect the possessed child from Gabriel. She will be best known as the protagonist of CANDYMAN (1992). She also played Tommy Lee Jones’s love interest in 1988’s GOTHAM. There is definitely a “Virginia Madsen Mystique,” but it may only affect me….

Altogether, watching this one a second time after so long, I was slightly more impressed with it story-wise, however it still felt like there was way more unsaid and unexamined than showed up on the screen, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Still, there was a lot of interesting acting from both Christopher Walken and Viggo Mortensen, and I’m always interested in watching Virginia Madsen grace the screen. If your aim is to watch any of these actors do their thing, you could pick far better showcases for their work. The story here remains uncompelling and unmemorable.

Original rating: 1 star.

Reassessment: 1 star.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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The Reassessment Files Look at EVENT HORIZON (1997)

Posted in 1990s Horror, 2013, Compelling Cinema, Ghosts!, Outer Space, Paul McMahon Columns, Reassessment Files, Science Fiction, Space with tags , , , , , , on March 20, 2013 by knifefighter

A Reassessment File
Review by: Paul McMahon

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There was a stretch of time after I got my own place that I reveled in free weekends. Such weekends didn’t happen often, but when they did I would celebrate by hitting the video store to load up on movies. Usually I crammed six movies between Friday night and Monday morning. I first saw EVENT HORIZON during the last of one of those marathons.

The movie didn’t stand out for me back then. It struck me as excessively weird and illogical in its execution. I’ve always regarded it as a broken film that should’ve been a whole lot better. The production values were impressive, however, and though at the time I wasn’t filtering my cinematic opinions through a ratings system, I imagine that if I had been, I’d have given it half a star. At the time, I walked away and didn’t give it another thought.

Fans of the movie exist, though. I’ve met a few of them. One or two were quite rabid in their defense of it, which made it a prime candidate for a reassessment. I toyed with the idea for a while, and recently stumbled across a copy buried in a $5.00 MOVIES box at the front of my grocery store. I took it as a sign that the time had come.

(Disclaimer: As with other Reassessment Files columns, this movie came out so long ago that I feel no need to avoid spoilers. If you haven’t seen it in the past fifteen years, I recommend you check it out before reading on.)

The movie kicks off with a text backstory detailing the history of the space ship EVENT HORIZON. She was launched in 2040 to “explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy,” but disappeared just beyond Neptune. We’re told it’s 2047.

Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill—star of one of last year’s Reassessment subjects, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, 1994) suffers a nightmare featuring the EVENT HORIZON and awakens surrounded by dozens of photos of the same woman. “I miss you,” he tells one of the pictures, and we know immediately his mental train’s running with at least a few wheels off the track. He boards a rescue ship, the Lewis and Clark, and the movie’s characters begin tucking themselves into stasis for the long trip to Neptune.

To float in stasis grav tanks, perchance to dream.

To float in stasis grav tanks…perchance to dream.

Once “the Clark” reaches its destination and the crew awakens from their grav tanks, Captain Miller (played by Laurence Fishburne, who recently completed a stint as Dr. Langston on CSI, and is cast as Perry White in the upcoming MAN OF STEEL, 2013) calls a meeting so Dr. Weir can fill the crew in on the real story behind the Event Horizon. “… it’s the culmination of a secret government project to create a spacecraft capable of faster-than-light flight.” Making this impossibility possible is Dr. Weir’s “Gravity Drive,” a device he himself designed and built. Problem was, when they activated it back in 2040, the Event Horizon disappeared without a trace. Now, apparently, it’s back and stuck in a decaying orbit around Neptune.

The Clark attaches to the Event Horizon and some of the rescue crew board to search for survivors. There are none. In some areas of the ship there are greenish blobs floating in the zero gravity. “There’s been a coolant leak,” says Justin (Jack Noseworthy, U-571, 2000) as he makes his way toward the engine to restore power. The Gravity Drive, a spinning gyroscope of metal plates, seems to liquefy and then sucks Justin inside. This causes an explosion that rips through the Lewis and Clark’s hull, compromising its atmosphere. The entire crew is ordered to suit up and board the Event Horizon. Meanwhile, Justin reappears from the gravity drive unconscious and unresponsive, though his vital signs remain stable.

The Gravity Drive:- round and round and round it goes, and when it stops, you're in hell.

The Gravity Drive:- round and round and round it goes, and when it stops, you’re in hell.

Work begins on trying to repair the Clark for the trip home, but when the gravity drive begins draining power from the Event Horizon, Dr. Weir climbs into the bowels of the machine to attempt a repair. As he tries to locate the problem, he hears a woman’s voice calling his name, and then the lights go out. “Captain Miller? I’ve got some problems here!” he yells. The lights blink back on and the woman from all the pictures at the beginning of the film is only inches away from Dr. Weir. “Be with me, Billy,” she says. “Forever!”

The cast is impressive. Laurence Fishburne is a former Oscar nominee for his portrayal of Ike Turner in 1993’s WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT. He gives a stellar performance here, as you would expect. Kathleen Quinlan (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, 2006) plays Med Tech Peters. She is also a former Oscar nominee for her work in 1995’s APOLLO 13. The rest of the cast includes Joely Richardson (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, 2011, as well as the TV show NIP/TUCK), Richard Jones (COLLATERAL, 2004 and SUPER 8, 2011), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the HARRY POTTER series), and Sean Pertwee (DOG SOLDIERS, 2002). All of them give great performances.

The movie is directed by Paul W.S. Anderson of RESIDENT EVIL and ALIEN VS PREDATOR fame. Apparently, Mr. Anderson turned down the opportunity to direct 2000’s X-MEN, opting instead for this “The Shining In Space” tale and the chance to deliver an R-rated horror movie. He handles the material very well, building suspense throughout while delivering subtle homages to popular haunted house movies, including THE HAUNTING (1963), Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979).

For my part, I accepted that re-watching the film with an eye toward glimpsing what people like about it would create the possibility that I would change my mind. I did not expect that my opinion would change as much as it did. I have completely re-written this column five times now. Every time I think it through, I find that I like the movie even more. I’ve watched it three times in the past week, letting other chores and expectations fall by the wayside.

I do recognize where EVENT HORIZON fell apart for me fifteen years ago. By the time Weir enters the workings of the Gravity Drive, other members of the crew have been reporting strange occurrences. Weir has scoffed at all of them, insisting that their experiences are imaginary. The moment fear enters his voice inside the Gravity Drive, we get that “Told You So” tingle because the skeptical fool is being confronted with the same phenomena he’s been discounting all along. In the very next scene, though, he’s back to insisting that nothing unusual is happening. Such an unexplained and illogical character turn leads to questions, such as: Has Weir been taken over by the ship? Has he been driven completely mad? Has he suffered such a traumatic shock that he’s blocked out the experience altogether? Or, remembering the nightmare that woke him in the opening shot, does he have some kind of psychic link with the ship? I think this psychic link is what the writer and the director were going for.

Also, with today’s technology it doesn’t take much to pause the film during the “glimpses of hell” montage so you can gape and squirm at the brilliant and intense practical make up effects that zip past the screen. Much of it betters horror images being released today.

This film surprised me completely. I remembered it as something very different, and I find myself wondering how I missed so much goodness back in the day. Maybe cramming so many films into a single weekend wasn’t the best choice after all. Be that as it may, I’m changing my rating of the film to an embarrassing degree.

Original assessment: half a star.
Reassessment: 3 and a half stars.

I’m not ashamed to say that I’m going to watch this at least once more before I move on to the next film.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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The Reassessment Files: MALEVOLENCE (2004)

Posted in 2012, Indie Horror, Killers, Madness, Paul McMahon Columns, Psychos, Reassessment Files, Serial Killer flicks with tags , , , , , on October 17, 2012 by knifefighter

The Reassessment Files:
Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic

To be perfectly transparent, the first time I saw MALEVOLENCE was at the premiere in Worcester Mass, at the Bijou theater. Today, the Bijou exists as a deep pit of rubble right in the heart of New England’s second-largest city. I miss the hell out of that theater. Anyway, that night was great fun. I went alone, as I often do when attending horror-themed events, and the place was packed with horror freaks. I felt so at home. I arrived early and was met at the door by R. Brandon Johnson, who plays Julien in the movie. He was a great guy and obviously as excited to be there as everyone else. He introduced me to Stevan Mena, who wrote and directed MALEVOLENCE, who in turn introduced me to Gunnar Hanson (the original Leatherface in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, 1974), who wasn’t in the movie but came to draw fans.

I admit that the venue might have had something to do with me granting the movie three enthusiastic stars at the time. I’ve been told that rating was a result of my being caught up in the excitement. There are elements of the film, however, that have stuck with me long enough that I don’t believe all my love for it was tied up in the experience of that night.

The first thing we see on screen is a title card of missing children statistics. Next we get: “In 1989, Martin Bristol disappeared while playing on his backyard swing in Minersville, Pennsylvania. He was six years old.” We then see a girl hanging by her wrists in a dark cellar while a shadowy figure carries in a burlap sack, which he opens to free a young boy– Martin Bristol. It’s the same opening as in the film BEREAVEMENT (2010) (see my previous review), only shot with different actors. The action plays out the same way, and then we’re treated to a scene card that says: “September, 1999.” Martin is now sixteen.

Link to Paul’s review of  BEREAVEMENT.

We look up a hill in a beautiful cemetery, a great cinematic view, while two shady-looking characters meet at the top. They talk in riddles for a few moments, giving us a clear idea that they’re planning some kind of heist and will meet up afterward at a house that’s been “vacant for years.”  Max, an evil-looking character with a mean facial scar, promises Kurt, a mullet-wearing, goofy-grinning, itchy-way-down-deep-in-his-pants type, that there’ll be “no loose ends.”  If you’ve seen more than one movie featuring a crime, you know what that means.

Now we meet two more characters, Marylin and Julien. Marylin is Max’s baby sister. Julien is her boyfriend and he doesn’t want to go along with this, but they owe money to “those people” and he really doesn’t see another option. “I’m not spending the rest of my life scratching off lottery tickets hoping for a miracle,” Marylin says.

We cut to a girl’s softball game. A blonde, skinny mother watches the game excitedly, waving to the pitcher. The pitcher’s name is Courtney. The mother’s is Samantha.

There’s a bank robbery. Max, Marylin and Julien arrive. Max gives Julien a gun. Julien doesn’t want it, but is forced to pocket it anyway. They don Halloween masks. Kurt must have missed that memo because he shows up wearing a pillowcase with eye slits cut in it. The bank robbery goes badly, and Max is shot. Kurt runs with two bags of money down one alley. Marylin and Julien return to their car, stuff a bloody Max into the back seat, and drive away.

Kurt lost his Frankenstein mask, so he improvised with stolen motel pillowcase. He’s such a criminal.

By now, Courtney’s team has lost the ball game. Courtney feels it’s her fault. Samantha, being one of the world’s greatest Moms, pulls into a gas station for a curative highly processed ice cream snack. Courtney digs around behind the seat for her mitt.

Meanwhile, Kurt celebrates getting away and has a blowout. He grabs the money and the mask and abandons his car, running across a field to a highway, where he finds a gas station and an apparently vacant minivan, still running. Kurt leaps in, surprising Courtney and then overpowering her. With his mask back in place and his gun to the girl’s head, he makes Samantha drive them to the house in the middle of nowhere. The one that’s been “vacant for years.”

Once there, Courtney escapes and runs through the forest to a nearby abandoned meat packing plant. At that point, things start to go really wrong for everyone.

Samantha (Samantha Dark) and Julien (R. Brandon Johnson) search an abandoned house for the explanation to everything.

There are enough parts to the story that it stays interesting throughout. It’s the first full-length effort of Stevan Mena, but his being an amateur isn’t apparent. MALEVOLENCE was shot on a miniscule budget, and that much is apparent here and there. Even so, Mena’s found a foreboding and formidable location to shoot the movie. The natural growth of the forest gives the same hide-and-seek shadow trickery that is a staple of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise, and the deserted abattoir is rife with creepy, dirty hallways sporting jagged shadows from the junk piled everywhere.

There are no well-known actors involved. R. Brandon Johnson, who played Julien, has appeared in the soap opera ONE LIFE TO LIVE and, more recently, in the TV series SHAKE IT UP! Samantha Dark, who plays Samantha, does some pretty convincing work here. She’s appeared in ULTRACHRIST (2003) and Mena’s horror-comedy BRUTAL MASSACRE (2007). A shout out should go to John Richard Ingram, who played Sheriff Riley here and then reprised his role in BEREAVEMENT.

Watching the movie again, I came away with the same sense of satisfaction that I had the last time. There are definite glimpses of a director who knows how to tell an effective story, and who is only going to get better. My rating for the film fell, but only from “three enthusiastic stars” to a simpler “three stars.”

First viewing: 3!!! out of 5 stars
Reassessment: 3 out of 5 stars

© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon


The Reassessment Files: SHATTERBRAIN (aka THE RESURRECTED) (1992)

Posted in 1990s Horror, 2012, Demons, H.P. Lovecraft Movies, Horror, Indie Horror, Inheritance!, Lovecraft Movies, Paranormal, Paul McMahon Columns, Reassessment Files with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2012 by knifefighter

The Reassessment Files:
By Paul McMahon

SHATTERBRAIN came out in 1992 under the far more appropriate title THE RESURRECTED. I didn’t get the opportunity to see it right away. As I established in my last column, I came to the works of Lovecraft relatively late. By the time I got around to seeing THE RESURRECTED, I had read enough that I was impressed with how closely the movie mirrored the tone and feel of Lovecraft’s work. I liked it overall, and told friends it was an upper-tier B-movie, well worth hunting down and checking out.

The story begins with a confusing mess in a gore-spattered cell of the Waite Institute. Amid the blood, we see scorch marks on the floor, a headless corpse, shattered overhead lights and an open window with a suitcase smashed on the concrete four floors below. Charles Ward has escaped! We are then transported across the city to the March Agency, where someone — presumably March — is bloody and beaten and dictating into a tape recorder the closing events of the case of Charles Dexter Ward.

He begins: “Three weeks ago, Providence was a sane enough place….”

It’s the same trite, “Sleight Of Hand Start” that these days is over-used and much-abused. Normally this turns me off, but here director Dan O’Bannon (who also directed RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, 1985, and wrote ALIEN, 1979, DEAD & BURIED, 1981, and the original TOTAL RECALL, 1990) uses the trope to good effect, giving us a taste of weirdness and leaving us with a good number of questions to ponder while the story builds.

Claire Ward hires John March to look into the business of her estranged husband, Charles Dexter Ward. He was working on something in their carriage house until — between the foul smells and the all-night noises — she told him to find someplace else to conduct his experiments. He moved to a long-forgotten house owned by his family in Pawtuxet Valley. Recently, the police contacted her, asking if she knew why her husband was receiving the remains of dead human beings at all hours of the night.

Lonnie: “What?”

March: “I don’t know. That’s why I’m a detective, to find out all about what I don’t know.”

The strangeness of this mystery, coupled with the gory images that started us off, keeps us interested and invested as John March and his assistant Lonnie delve into the increasingly morbid world of Charles Dexter Ward.

The buildup is slow, with quite a few twists and turns. We learn that Charles inherited an old family trunk from “an obscure relative,” and that his strange behavior began shortly after. We learn that his family had a long and sordid history in Providence. We learn that Charles took on an assistant, a man that Claire is afraid of called Dr. Ash. Each secret we learn is not only weirder than the last, but promises even weirder secrets to be revealed, the last of which — what happened in that padded cell at the Waite Institute — comes at us like a car crashing after a very long skid.

The acting is exactly what you would expect. John Terry (ZODIAC, 2007) does a serviceable job as Detective John March, delivering his lines with the seen-it-all matter-of-factness you’d expect of a detective that had been in the business for a long time. Jane Sibbet (various TV appearances such as CHEERS, FRIENDS and more recently OUT OF JIMMY’S HEAD) plays Claire Ward serviceably as well, a rich girl who is accustomed to getting what she wants but is thrown off by the oddball nature of her husband’s activities.

Chris Sarandon plays both Charles Dexter Ward and Charles’s distant relative Joseph Curwen in his usual commanding fashion. He owns the movie when he’s on screen, and his smirk is obviously hiding far more than he lets on.

What really sets this movie apart is the shocking and creepy special make up effects created by Todd Masters’ Company. A lot of the monsters are shot in bright light, and the camera lingers on them as they squirm and writhe and try to communicate. They are in such bad shape that it is obvious these are not costumed actors, but detailed and remarkable animatronics. The workmanship involved and the puppeteers required to pull these effects off must have cost a lot of money — and with this movie you can see that money on the screen.

Originally, I believed this movie was just Lovecraft-ish. The opening credit sequence is less-than-average and does very little to hold your attention. That would explain how on my first viewing I missed the writing credit for Brent V. Friedman (TICKS, 1993 and NECRONOMICON: BOOK OF THE DEAD, also 1993), which stated that he based the movie on Lovecraft’s story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Turns out, THE RESURRECTED is the most faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s work that I’ve seen.

The fact that this was released straight-to-video in the early nineties tells you that it’s one the distributor had little confidence in. As much as I enjoyed the film, I think their decision was the right one. I can’t see this little tension-builder blowing anyone away on the big screen. It certainly wouldn’t have impressed fans of 1985’s RE-ANIMATOR, who would most likely have considered THE RESURRECTED boring. I think giving the film a chance to slowly build a fan base on VHS was the right choice.

The only moment in the movie that comes close to living up to the idiotic new title “Shatterbrain.”

I do not understand the decision to re-release it under the ultra-dumbass title SHATTERBRAIN. On the one hand, the word says nothing about the movie. On the other, it implies exploding heads and enough gore and screaming to make the hardest of hardcore fans grin. I go on record saying that the decision to re-title the film this way could only have been cooked up by a room full of suited morons.

If you can only find a copy of this under the title chosen by this pool of dopes, I still recommend giving it a look. Just pay no attention to the packaging. It’s a very cool movie.

First viewing: 3 out of 5 stars

Reassessment: 3 out of 5 stars: Still an upper-tier B-movie, well worth hunting down and checking out.

© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon

“The Reassessment Files” Take a Second Look at John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

Posted in 1990s Horror, 2012, Ancient Civilizations, Cult Movies, Demons, John Carpenter Films, Lovecraft Movies, Lovecraftian Horror, Monsters, Paul McMahon Columns, Reassessment Files, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , , on August 14, 2012 by knifefighter

The Reassessment Files:
By Paul McMahon (The Distracted Critic)

John Trent: You’re waiting to hear about my “them,” aren’t you?

Dr. Wrenn: Your what?

John Trent: My “them.”Every paranoid schizophrenic has one; a “them,” a “they,” an “it”. And you want to hear about my “them,” don’t you?


Maybe that’s where this first “Reassessment Files” should begin, eh? My “them.”

John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS came out in 1994—almost two decades ago. I rented the VHS from a mom and pop place called Lake Ripple Video near where I grew up. The store itself was a bit of a sore spot with me, because before the video people moved in that shop was The Yankee Bookseller, and it’s where I spent every lawn-mowing and snow-shoveling dollar I earned. Lake Ripple Video has also long since closed. But I digress. Before I’ve even started, I digress.

The timing of the movie was such that I was on the verge of being unemployed because my job was closing. (Seeing a trend here? The mid-nineties sucked for that sort of thing.) I had a lot on my mind. The end result was that IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS came across as disjointed and incoherent, a blatant mess with logic holes and dropped plot strands. It looped endlessly and ended abruptly, leaving far more questions than answers. The kicker was, I really wanted to like it, having seen a CNN filler interview in which Carpenter promised this movie would have more and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for a monster story, so naturally I took that promise to heart.

Carpenter’s movie disappointed in a huge way. For the guy who brought THE THING (1982) to the big screen, I expected a hell of a lot more. Frankly, I got a much better view of the monsters during the CNN interview. I grumbled all the way back to Lake Ripple Video and tossed the whole IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS concept onto my mental trash heap and moved on.

Over the past few years, though, I have heard repeatedly at cons and on Facebook and from friends whose opinions I trust that IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is one of the very best H.P. Lovecraft homages that exists. I’ve always used my skeptical eyebrow when dealing with these crazies. It’s a strategy that has worked well in the past, but lately there are more and more of these loonies to contend with, and my eyebrow is tiring. It seemed my best option was for me to give the film another look.

Since the movie is just shy of two decades old, I’m going to reveal spoilers if they come up. If that’s going to bug you, go watch the film before you read another word.

The movie opens with John Trent (Sam Neill, JURASSIC PARK ,1993) being thrown into a padded cell in a very busy lunatic asylum. Once his raving subsides, he’s visited by Dr. Wrenn (David Warner, THE OMEN, 1976) and is coaxed into telling his story. He reveals that he was an insurance investigator, and he was sent to investigate a claim by a big-time New York publishing house that their star author—Sutter Cain (Jurgen Prochnow, most notably DAS BOOT, 1981) —has disappeared with his latest manuscript. As Trent reads and studies Cain’s books to familiarize himself with the case, we learn he’s anti-horror, most likely anti-fantasy, and probably anti-fiction of any form. Waking from a nightmare featuring repetitive disturbing images, he discovers strange lines on the covers of Cain’s paperbacks. He cuts them out and pieces them together. They form a map of New Hampshire, revealing the exact location of Cain’s fictional town of Hobb’s End.

To him, this means that the whole “disappearing author” thing is a publicity stunt and not a real mystery. If Trent seems more than a little disappointed by this, he seems positively put-out that he’s sent to find the town with Cain’s editor, the sultry Linda Styles (Julie Carmen, FRIGHT NIGHT II, 1988). Styles insists that the only person to have read the entire manuscript, Cain’s agent, went crazy. Turns out the agent is the same nut that attacked Trent with an axe in broad daylight and was shot dead by police earlier in the movie. Eventually, Trent falls asleep in the car and Styles manages to find the town after experiencing some haunting activity on the road, including a weird sequence where the car seems to be flying. Trent wakes when they arrive and they investigate the seemingly deserted town, finally discovering that Cain is living in the town’s church.

I came to the writings of Lovecraft after I saw the film. I’d say that has a bit to do with my not ‘getting it’ the first time. This time, I was surprised to find a veritable smorgasbord of creepy Lovecraftian images and events. There were many quick, indirect images of things that could be defined as “unnamable” and “unspeakable.” A lot of the horror happened indirectly and was hard to identify. On the two occasions that Styles reads Cain’s work aloud, she actually read passages of Lovecraft’s work, most notably “The Rats In The Walls.”

Things get complicated as Styles’ personality is swallowed by the town, resulting in her becoming more of a hindrance than an ally. When she disappears one evening, Trent finds her in the dark old church, watching Cain write. Trent watches as well and with a flourish Cain finishes the last page of his manuscript. The same Cain’s agent already read, which is why he went mad in the first place. If the book wasn’t finished until now, how could that have happened?

Driving people insane is the whole point of Cain’s book, by the way. Cain wants to drive his readers mad. Once a high enough percentage of the population is crazy, the Old Ones who sleep beneath the skin of the Earth can arise and rule the world.

Ah, the Old Ones...

This brings us to my biggest complaint, and the main reason I gave the film such poor marks all those years ago. The Old Ones are loosed before Trent has delivered the manuscript, so before anyone has read the thing. They, in fact, chase him through a mystical tunnel out of Hobbs End and into reality, and at no time do we get a clear shot of the things. Yeah, there are images of parts– a few drooly teeth here, an angry looking eye there, a pair of sharp talons on a scaly, deformed foot– but never a really good look at the monsters. I realize this was in keeping with Lovecraft’s style, but it definitely bucks Carpenter’s promise of “more and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before.”

“More and better monsters than had ever been seen on the silver screen before!” – Enjoy this screenshot. It’s the best look you’re going to get.

They are “onscreen”– used a stopwatch to time it– thirty seconds out of a movie 5,700 seconds long, and a lot of this segment is Trent running, falling, and screaming. Even crap movies have more monster than this. If you absolutely insist on counting Mrs. Pickman’s “reveal” and Styles’ “transformation,” the total monster-on-screen ratio is two minutes out of 195.

Hardly “more and better monsters” at all.

Watching the sequences on freeze frame, it’s obvious the “Wall of Old Ones” cost a lot of money to pull off. We’re talking a dozen to twenty puppeteers just to make the creatures seem alive. To spend that kind of money and then not show the damn things… suffice to say that it’s one of the rare instances where if I’d been producing I would’ve stepped in and enforced my will that there be more– and clearer– shots of the creatures. “Put my money on the screen,” I’d have said. “Lovecraft used the terms ‘unnamable’ and ‘unspeakable’ because he dealt with the printed word and couldn’t fully convey the unusual monstrosities he was seeing. You, John Carpenter, are a filmmaker who has hired the wildest creative imaginers in the business today (The KNB effects group of Robert Kurtzman, Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger), so you have no excuse to hide your vision from the viewer.”

Anyway… I went into the movie this time expecting to be let down. Without the pressures that were dragging me down the first time I watched it, and with having read most of Lovecraft’s body of work in the interim, I was able to get into the spirit of the movie a lot deeper and it meant a lot more to me. The homages and tributes were recognizable and fun, and I had a good time, even though the monsters are few and far between.

I still think the film would’ve rocked with a THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997)- type montage, where each monster is seen mutilating people in a different city. That would’ve been “more and better monsters.”

First viewing: 1 out of 5 stars

Reassessment: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Best Lovecraft homage ever? I remember one I liked better.

Stay tuned.

© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon