Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Cowboys & Aliens – Review

Cowboys & Aliens – Review

Aug 4, 2011

reviewed by Skot
directed by Jon Favreau, 2011

Several years ago, I started reading a novel about an extraterrestrial craft that crashed in Portugal in the Middle Ages.  The townspeople had no frame of reference to interpret their visitors as beings from another planet.  The benighted humans thought the advanced technologies of the spacemen must either be the results of sorcery or divine mediation.  For one reason or another, I never had the chance to finish that book before I had to return it to the library.  I can no longer remember what it was called or who wrote it and haven’t been able to track it down to complete it.

I’m not sure if the book was any good or not, but the premise was very sticky.  The concept of space aliens visiting earth in a time other than the modern one has a lot of untapped potential.  I’m sure there were some episodes of Twilight Zone or Star Trek that explored this thought.  It’s an underlying concept for Battlestar Gallactica. And who hasn’t heard about the theories of Erich von Daniken in Chariots of the Gods?  But I can’t recall a major motion picture that has dwelt on it.

How would people from times past react to advanced technology?  Though realism is not the first word that comes to mind with this film, it does strike me as genuine that the townspeople initially plug the aliens into their worldview.  They used the only vocabulary they had, wondering if their extraordinary assailants were demons.

Cowboys and Aliens stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde and Keith Carradine.  You can see that the cast is something special.  It even has Sam Rockwell in an all too bland supporting role.  If they could have thrown in Samuel L. Jackson or Robert Downey Jr., it would have been perfect!

Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan (“Loner” – gan) who wakes up at the beginning of the movie lying in the desert, shoeless, wounded, with a strange metal contraption on his wrist, and no memory.  He quickly establishes himself as a man not to be messed with.  Having made his way to town, he finds himself at odds both with the sheriff, played by Keith Carradine and the big-shot rancher tycoon played by Harrison Ford.  This is the best role I’ve seen Ford play in years.

When the town is attacked by flying machines which rope random residents and rustle them away, the guys in the black hats and the guys in the white hats determine to work together, form a posse, and to try to rescue their kinfolk.  Other directors might have utilized energy beams to zap their captives up, but the use of the lasso was a nice western touch.

The men are helped by the always strikingly beautiful Olivia Wilde in the role of Ella Swenson.  As a side note, Olivia Wilde may be the new go-to action movie chic.  Consider Tron and now this.  She doesn’t yet have the fighting cred of Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Salt).  But she’s a step above the token eye-candy girlfriend who is otherwise pointless to the plot (ie. Megan Fox in Transformers).  Jennifer Garner hasn’t done action in years, so maybe Wilde is the up-and-comer.  Have you started taking Karate lessons yet Liv?

Craig and Ford are the narrative focal points, and Wilde to a lesser extent.  All three of them are more than they first appear.  Wilde is in a category all her own, about which I’ll say no more.  Neither of the fellas is exactly admirable.  The preacher could have been talking about either one when he uttered this astute observation: “I’ve seen good men do bad things and bad men do good things.”  Are our heroes bad or good?  Both of them experience a change by the end of the picture.  Their sufferings and their losses are redemptive.

Most of the jabbering in the press is about the genre-bending mashup of the western and science fiction.  There’s at least one other genre that should get factored into the equation: horror.  If you think a move called Cowboys and Aliens sounds like kid’s stuff, be careful.  This is not a movie for little children.  The monsters are genuinely frightening at times and truly revolting all the time.  There are several jump scares and there are scenes of torture and grisly violence.  Alien abductions constitute a spooky sub-genre of horror and this movie goes there (cf. Fire in the Sky (1993) and The Fourth Kind (2009) et al.).

One moment struck me as particularly poignant.  When Craig finds the pile of gold watches and other personal items of abductees, it resembled a scene from the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.  The nazis collected the valuables of the concentration camp prisoners into piles.  This hints at the possibility of genocide or human extinction.  It also suggests that otherworldly monsters are not the only ones we need to worry about.  I realize I’m reading between the lines, but I don’t think I’m pressing the imagery too far.

In earlier decades, filmmakers faced what they called the “monster problem.”  That is to say, you had to have a creature that looked real enough to produce the intended effect.  You didn’t want to get everyone all geared up to see a nasty beastie, only to reveal a man in a rubber suit.  Having people laugh at your monster is not desirable.  Personally, I prefer old-school physical special effects whenever possible, but there are limits to what you can do without CGI.  C&A utilized both to the optimum effect.

There were many moments that called to mind sci-fi films that preceded it.  The abductees returning, for instance, reminded me of a similar moment in Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind.  A hat tip to Steven Spielberg, one of the several top shelf executive produces of C&A?

Cowboys and Aliens is a fun adventure.  So many things about it make it cooler than other blockbusters this summer, not the least of which is the cast.  Jon Favreau, the director, is not known for helming subtle thinky pictures, but he does know how to punch you the face with a good time.

What we have here is primarily a blistering fun time, not a message movie.  But if you will indulge this reviewer, one moral of this story seems to be that people can change.  It might just be that we need an impending global catastrophe to get us to wake up.  When the threat is great enough, even cowboys and indians will put aside their differences and work together.  Don’t waste your days on things that don’t matter.  Chasing gold is futile.  Family counts.  Community counts.  Even religious faith is given a nod.  And learn to give your brother a chance.  The town is named Absolution after all.

Super 8 – Review

Super 8 – Review

Jun 16, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by J.J. Abrams, 2011

When I returned home from seeing Super 8, I had to fight the urge to look through my VHS movie collection to make sure I didn’t already have it on tape.  It is that much of a throwback to the works of Spielberg and his halo of directors in the 70’s and 80’s.  Add some additional hints of Stephen King, and the overall effect is one of almost overpowering nostalgia.  If that was all the film had going for it, it would be ultimately unsatisfying, but Super 8’s real strength is its characters and their stories, which in the end are far more compelling than the sci-fi horror fiction that serves as their backdrop.

Super 8 opens with a wake for protagonist Joe’s mother, who has been killed in an industrial accident.  At the wake, we meet not just Joe, but his group of friends who are in some ways stereotypical adolescent film characters but ones who lean much closer to the underlying truths of the stereotypes than to their flat shadows.  This becomes more and more evident as the film progresses and we get to see the characters behave realistically to a variety of fantastic events.  I was especially glad to see (as weird as this will sound) one of the friends vomit in panic as one particularly frightening event played out.  Unlike so many genre films, we never get the sense that Super 8’s characters are taking the extraordinary situations for granted.

Those extraordinary events start when the kids witness the spectacular wreck of a military train carrying some unusual cargo.  Pre-release publicity makes it pretty clear that there is an alien on board the train, but I’ll avoid any more details since learning about the creature and its motivations is so closely intertwined with the young characters learning about themselves, and that character growth is, refreshingly, the real meat of the story.

At the heart of those stories is the relationship between Joe and his deputy father.  Apparently estranged before the mother’s death, the father and the son are struggling.  Refreshingly, Joe’s father is a good guy, and he is trying to make up for the past.  For his part, Joe can’t get separation from his mother’s memory, a fact symbolized by the fact that he carries his mother’s locket with him at all times.

This is clearly Joe’s film, but, like Goonies and Stand By Me, it is the ensemble of characters around him that truly make the film work.  It is such a success that it seems ridiculous that it has taken this long for a Hollywood to get back around to this model.  Of course, it takes great young actors to make the formula work, and Super 8 has an abundance of them, led by the stand out performance of Elle Fanning as Alice, a the troubled daughter of the man whose failure to show up for his shift put Joe’s mother in harm’s way.

For the first two and a half acts, Super 8 gets everything just about perfect.  It isn’t until the ending that Abrams’s film breaks down a little.  Clinging so closely to Spielberg’s conventions means Abrams is forced to give us a larger-than-life conclusion.  Here, it is not so visually spectacular to truly impress and, worse still, comes at the expense of not allowing the film’s sub-plots to come to a natural conclusion.  There is a hurried reconciliation between the two troubled teens and their estranged parents and then, “Cue the awesomeness.”  For a film that has spent so much time allowing us to learn about and care about its characters, the rush to climax is especially disappointing.

That quibble aside, Super 8 is a remarkable film and a great time at the theater.  In many ways, it is Abrams’s best movie and one that leaves me wondering just how great a director he is capable of being.

Night of the Creeps – Review

Night of the Creeps – Review

May 19, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Fred Dekker, 1986

Before a single word is written about the 1986 B-film classic Night of the Creeps, it is imperative that the career of writer and director Fred Dekker is acknowledged as one of the more unfortunate stories in horror movie history.  Dekker is an immensely gifted artist who created two of the most enduring and fan loved genre films of the 80’s – Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad.  Today, both of these films enjoy a massive cult following and have been highlighted in various horror conventions over the years.  As they say, hindsight is always 20/20, and I have yet to hear a single producer, director, or actor in the movie industry say anything other than the confident brilliance Dekker brings to a film project.  However, money rules the day in Hollywood.  Both Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad were box office failures.  The failure of Robocop 3 sealed the deal.  There is little argument, even from those within the movie studios, that the poor return at the box office had nothing to do with Dekker’s ability to direct and everything to do with the incredibly inept marketing strategies employed by the studio.  Case in point, the tag line for The Monster Squad was “You know who to call if you have ghosts, but who do you call if you have monsters?”  Wow, that is horrific.  Much more could be said, but this reviewer mourns the early departure of what I consider to be a superb director and talent in the horror industry.  Enough time has elapsed; a studio needs to give Dekker another chance.

Night of the Creeps is a perfect blending of about every B-film ingredient you can think of.  Aliens, zombies, sororities, a two-fisted cop, parasites, college humor, cryogenic labs, and gore are all beautifully mixed together.  Dekker refers to his film as placing all his favorite elements in a blender and hitting puree.  It is done tongue-in-cheek and yet has a serious tone.  It is filmed unmistakeably in the style of the 80’s and yet is not overly campy.  This is horror at its best.

The film begins with a strange UFO and alien scene where an experiment of some kind is launched from the spaceship down to planet earth.  The year is 1959 and a couple of sweethearts see what they mistaken to be a falling star.  The boyfriend finds the capsule and several slug like creatures infect him.  At the same time, the girlfriend is chopped up by an escaped homicidal maniac.  Yep, that is one heck of an awesome beginning.

Cut to the present age where we meet and begin to follow two college roommates, Chris Romero (Jason Lively – tough to see him as anything other than Rusty Griswold) and J.C. Hooper.  By the way, that “J.C.” is short for John Carpenter and you can probably figure out the Hooper and Romero names.  J.C. is a crippled who walks with two crutches and is on the prowl to help his best friend Chris score with the love of his life, Cynthia Cronenberg (yep, Cronenberg – seeing a pattern here?).  In order to accomplish that feat, they figure joining a fraternity is in good order.  Their orientation task?  To steal a cadaver and leave it on the front steps of a rival fraternity.  When the two friends set out to accomplish their goal, they find their way into a cryogenic lab where a frozen dude, who just so happens to be the infected guy from 1959, is encased in carbonite (or something like that).   You can guess what happens.  Chris and J.C. thaw out the corpse and the slugs are back on the loose!

Enter the best character of the film, Detective Ray Cameron (a nod to James) who is the coolest cop to grace the silver screen except maybe for Joe Hallenbeck.  Ray Cameron is beautifully played by Tom Atkins, perhaps my favorite character actor of all time.  “THRILL ME!”  Those are the words used by Cameron when answering a phone or walking into a crime scene.  Anyway, Cameron was the cop on the scene in 1959 when the girl was hacked to pieces (who just so happened to be his ex-girlfriend).  He begins to make the connection to the present day situation.  Meanwhile, pandemonium is running wild as more and more college students become infected by the slugs, turn into zombies, and produce more slugs.  Unfortunately, J.C. meets his demise, but not before he learns the secret to killing the creeps – fire.

Eventually the film boils down to an entire fraternity being turned into zombies while on the way to pick up their dates at the sorority house.  This leads to some of the most epic scenes imaginable as you have a bunch of college dudes in tuxedos walking around as zombies.  After Ray Cameron busts into the sorority house to save the day, he delivers what is possibly the best line in horror movie history:

“I have good news and bad news girls.  The good news is that your dates are here.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“They’re Dead!”

Flame throwers, shotguns, lawn mowers, and all kinds of fun inhabit the last 20 minutes of the film as Chris and Cynthia fight their way out of trouble.

As you can tell by now, I love this film.  But it is far from perfect.  Some of the scenes are beyond believable, even for B-film horror, and the cheese factor at times goes pretty high, which is of course intended, but probably goes overboard on occasion.  Much of the dialogue is strained and you may find yourself rolling your eyes at specific scenes in order to get through them.  But all of this happens with the greater good always at hand.  Dekker manages to maintain a small piece of sincerity in the film, especially in scenes such as Chris listening to J.C.’s recorded final message and Ray’s speech on finding his ex mutilated.

Steven Spielberg is all over the place in Night of the Creeps.  There is, of course, a blatant spoof of the beach scene when Cameron sees his girlfriend rise out of the water, complete with the cuts being signaled by people walking past him.  There are more subtle tributes as well, such as when the camera zooms on Cameron’s face while the background moves in the distance when he sees the ax-murderer turned zombie.  That Dekker was influenced by Spielberg’s brilliance is putting it mildly.

Thankfully, Night of the Creeps is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray in a wonderful edition, complete with terrific behind the scenes footage and interviews.  I really don’t like the cover art for the DVD however.  In its original release, the movie went through several different poster and art changes, the best by far being the zombie dressed in a tuxedo holding a bouquet of roses.  If you have never seen Night of the Creeps, then by all means click the link below and buy it now!

Click Here to purchase Night of the Creeps

Monsters – Review

Monsters – Review

Mar 31, 2011

reviewed by danny
directed by Gareth Edwards, 2010

I don’t believe I have ever used the word “lyrical” to describe a giant-monster movie before now, but that was first word that popped into my head after watching Gareth Edward’s powerful, touching Science-fiction/horror film Monsters.  Monsters is the story of two travelers who, after a not-so-cute meet, find themselves allies on a hike across a dangerous landscape.  Often in horror films, the personal stories that filmmakers include seem perfunctory and get lost among the more fantastical, high-concept elements of the plot.  In Monsters, the “little” stories drive the plot.  The film explores how personal tragedy and conflict can dictate how we behave even during a large-scale disaster.

The details on what has happened on earth are sparse.  We learn that a NASA ship crashed while carrying evidence of alien life. Six years later, Northern Mexico is under quarantine because it has been “infected” by the alien life forms.  Monsters follows a photojournalist, Andrew, and an American tourist, Samantha, who, unable to book passage to the US when the army shuts down the region, decide to hike to America across the Infected Zone.  These characters, not the giant monsters are the heart of the film.

As the two characters make there way across the beautiful but ravaged landscape (Edwards experience filming natural disaster documentaries certainly shows), we learn through flashbacks about what was going on in each of their lives before they found themselves stranded in Mexico.  Their stories are common and familiar.  Being so, it would be easy for the stories to be simple character development.  Not here.  It becomes obvious that it is the alien crisis that is playing in the background as the characters work through these smaller issues.  All along, the two characters are also growing closer together.  It isn’t a film working its way inevitably to a kiss, but there is always the hope that together they can deal with the pain they each carry.

We really don’t see the aliens for most of the film.  We hear them off-screen, see parts of them during an attack, see them in the distance battling soldiers.  This delay in gratification builds a great deal of suspense.  We wait to see what the creatures are going to look like, how they are going to behave.  When our protagonists finally see the creatures up-close, the film doesn’t disappoint, but it also doesn’t give us what we might have been expecting.

It is strange.  The movie doesn’t have a big twist in the end or any real surprise plot points, but I am wary of giving many more plot details for fear of playing spoiler.  This is a film that it is best to come to fresh because it challenges so many conventions, albeit in a quiet, non-jarring way. All I feel safe saying is that the big reveal of the monsters and the final scene with our characters feature a powerful juxtaposition.  The main theme of the film is revealed in these two scenes.  I think it is that theme, not the plot, that I feel so wary of spoiling.

Lyrically paced, beautifully shot and deeply personal, Monsters is a film unlike any I have seen before.  At a time when mainstream horror is stuck in a deep, depressing rut, I am ecstatic that independent horror can come up with something so fresh and powerful.  Monsters gets my highest recommendation.

Click Here to purchase Monsters

The Thing – Review

The Thing – Review

Feb 16, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by John Carpenter, 1982

Arguably never in the history of cinema has a film been so universally hated upon its release at the box office only to be near universally loved upon its home video release; that is the story of John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing.  The movie is based very loosely on the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing from Another World, which was in turn based on the novella “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell Jr.  It is an apocalyptic story concerning an assimilating extraterrestrial parasite that wreaks havoc on an Antarctic research station and, like  other “virus” related movies, ultimately asks the question, “what would happen if this creature reached civilization?”  One researcher at the Antarctic station, Dr. Blair (portrayed brilliantly by Wilford Brimley), discovers the answer to that fateful question which leads him to the brink of insanity.  Thus, the movie once again leads us into that wonderful world of horror where the humans are as much of a threat as the creature.

After discovering the charred remains of a Norwegian research facility, some of the American researches stumble across a frozen creature that seems to have partially human features.  They decide to bring the creature back to the American base for research, and when the thawing out process begins, so does the carnage.  Soon, the team realizes that this creature can perfectly assimilate any living organism it touches.  The hunt is on both for the creature itself and to discover who among the team has already been infected.  This is done by a simple blood test that yields one of the most suspenseful and pulse-pounding scenes of the film.  The movie concludes with a rather pessimistic ending, leaving the viewer to wonder if the “thing” has truly been destroyed.

Apart from Halloween, The Thing is John Carpenter’s best film to date.  The movie features an all male cast with Kurt Russell playing the lead character R.J. MacReady, a character that seemed to perfectly fit the personality of Russell.  The near claustrophobic nature of the Antarctic research facility is the ideal backdrop for the horror of the “thing” and the score provided by Ennio Morricone adds the perfect ambiance for the frozen, snowed over terrain (incidentally, this is one of the few films Carpenter did not score himself, although the music sounds exactly like something Carpenter would have written).  But it is the creature effects provided by Rob Bottin that sets the film apart as truly special.  For something as elaborate as these creature scenes, and there are many of them, one would typically think that a 1982 film would dramatically show its age.  Not so.  The effects stand up to today’s standards even in the realm of a 21st century digital universe, the only possible exception being the Blair creature at the very end of the film that was created using stop-motion animation.

What is most interesting about The Thing is the nature of assimilation.  Since the creature perfectly mimics those who it is in contact with, the team must discern between normal, human emotions and “weird” actions that could point to infection.  As they discover, the difference between the human and the infected is not always easy to determine.  What ensues, then, is an increasing level of distrust among the group which ultimately leads to the great universal downfall of all civilizations:  an interest only in self.  With those sub-themes firmly in place, combined with brilliant creature effects and a beautiful shot film, The Thing is a movie for the ages.

Its legacy continues to grow.  In 2007, Universal Studio’s Halloween event called Halloween Horror Nights featured a haunted house called “The Thing:  Assimilation” (unfortunately it was not very good).  Video games have been created based of Carpenter’s film.  A comic book series was adapted and it has been released that a 2011 prequel is in the works.  The special edition DVD is one of the very best out there, the audio commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell is simply priceless.

The Thing by John Carpenter probably goes on my top ten horror list of all time.  I unreservedly recommend it.

Click Here to purchase The Thing.

Plan 9 From Outer Space – Review

Plan 9 From Outer Space – Review

Jun 29, 2010

reviewed by hallo
directed by Ed Wood Jr, 1959

This is the second review in my series of the movies showcased in Disney’s Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater.

According to Michael Medved, Plan 9 From Outer Space carries the dual distinction of being the worst movie ever made by the worst director of all time.  Of all the movies shown in Disney’s Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, my hunch is that Plan 9 is the most recognizable name of the lot.  The movie is about a group of extraterrestial beings (who look and talk remarkably like humans) descending to planet Earth in order to prevent the humans from creating a bomb that will destroy the universe.  Unlike Doc Brown’s lesser degree scenario of the “destruction being limited to our own galaxy”, the extraterrestials are convinced that the universe is at risk of being obliterated.  Since their first 8 plans apparently failed miserably, they decide to give the green light to plan 9 which brilliantly involves bringing the dead back to life in order to create mass confusion and stall the work on the bomb.  Despite the fact that they are only able to resuscitate 3 corpses from the dead, they remain strangely optimistic that their plan will prove successful.  Of course, it doesn’t and a group of highly boring army generals, an airplane pilot, and some keystone cops save the day by really not doing anything.  Fortunately, the UFO housing the foreign visitors catches on fire and explodes in space.

One of my favorite parts of the film was the opening narration by “The Amazing Criswell.”  This terribly written monologue features some of the worst, and therefore some of the best, lines of all time.  For example, Criswell prepares the viewer by asserting that “future events such as these will affect you in the future.”  It really has to be seen to be believed.

From there the movie is just one bad scene after another.  Bela Lugosi, who passed away before filming ended, is seen only for a minute or two in the movie.  The rest of the time a stand-in holding a cape over his face plays Bela’s character.  The acting is atrocious and the dialogue is fantastically bad.  Add to all of this the classic philosophical narration that is so typical of Ed Wood.

So, put all of these bad things together and what do you get?  One heck of a good movie!  Plan 9 should be seen by all true horror/Sci-Fi lovers just because it embodies so many of the things we love to make fun:  wobbly flying saucers clearly hanging by a piece of string, martians in shiny pajamas, shadows of boom mics and camera operators, and the kind of acting that made Leslie Nielson turn into a comedy genius!