Monthly Archives: August 2011

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

by Steve Habrat

While watching Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the new horror film from writer/producer Guillermo del Toro and director Troy Nixey, one would swear that the film had some creative input from Goth director Tim Burton. The film relies heavily on its gothic atmosphere and gloomy landscapes to carry what is otherwise a painfully dull horror movie with an utterly monotonous storyline. The film, which was the penned by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is a repetitive bore that keeps the same formula up for an hour and forty minutes. It’s frustrating, really, because del Toro is much better than this and capable of whipping up some truly original material. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, however, just keeps looping jittery attacks on a peculiar little girl by an army of whispering, hunchback critters that resemble a pack of demonic meerkats. If I were the girl’s father in the movie, I would have had enough of her blubbering and called in the exterminator just to get some peace.

Most horror films that are produced by Hollywood these days have stellar build-ups with a crash-and-burn payoff that nearly sends the whole project up in a fireball. Take a look at the excellent haunted house flick Insidious for example. It was a great horror film that was marred by a quivering, out of place ending. Another prime example is 2008’s The Strangers, which was consistently intimidating all to add up to the biggest “What the fuck?!” ending I had seen in quite some time. It copped out and played things safe. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark does the exact opposite. It has one of the most tedious build-ups that ends in a fifteen minute finale that had me sitting on the edge of my seat and yelling “Oh, shit!”

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is totally devoid of any real scares. The film follows a young girl Sally (Played by Bailee Madison), who is sent by her dingbat mother to live with her workaholic father Alex (Played by Guy Pearce, who for the first time in his career is overacting). Alex is an architect, who is attempting to revitalize his career by fixing up the Blackwood Manor. He is staying there with his girlfriend Kim (Played by a surprisingly good Katie Holmes), who is also aiding in the restoration. Shortly after moving in, Sally discovers a hidden basement while exploring the Shining-esque garden in the backyard. Soon, she starts hearing voices from the basement, which beg to be set free and become friends with her. Unknowingly, she unleashes a dormant army of bloodthirsty pint-sized critters who hate light and scamper the house in search of a life to take. Are you quivering in terror yet?

Director Nixey has a gifted cinematic eye. He gives the whole project a gothic gloss that suits the storyline of the film and actually gives it brief hints of life. I’m sure that Tim Burton is currently out there somewhere just gushing over this film. The major problem here is that the creatures that lurk in Blackwood Manor are about as scary as my puppy. They bang around in the air vents and steal screwdrivers, razors, and more. In one brief, uncanny moment, they attack one of the workers at Blackwood Manor and reduce him to a staggering, bloody mess. I should point out that this is only one of two scenes that actually deliver on the R-rating the film posses. The rest of the time, they shred Kim’s clothing and knock over lamps. They bicker with one another in their hissing voices and beg Sally to “come play with us.” It’s absurd and unintentionally funny at some points. Nixey and del Toro are so anxious to show off the little pests and they constantly give us a good look at them rather than keeping them in their preferred dark. This adds to the disappointment because del Toro can dream up some creatures that surpass anything our imagination can conjure up on it’s own.

Another aspect of this disappointment that surprises me is Pearce, who is a truly gifted actor, does such a poor job here. He must have been bored between projects and playing darts with the stack of scripts he received. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark must have been the bull’s eye. This movie made me want to go home and watch The Proposition, Memento, and The King’s Speech all in a row so I could be reminded how incredible his talent is. Holmes gives a sufficient performance, especially in the final moments of the film. I’ve always found her to be a mediocre talent but she actually takes this one seriously. Bailee Madison, the child star, seems robotic and clearly being coached by the muted director. She delivers her lines in a stiff tone and seems to have only gotten the job because she can scream until your eardrums pop.

If you are a fan of del Toro and want to see everything he touches, I’d say see this film. You won’t be left a changed individual and you will probably be left wishing for greatness like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Otherwise, this is a half-baked horror movie that drags on entirely too long. It won’t leave you pulling the covers over your head at night or sleeping with a nightlight on. The film could have benefitted from a scarier monster at the heart of it and maybe some more emotional depth. It’s a missed opportunity that left me wishing I had stayed at home and watched Insidious again. Is it too much to ask for more than one good horror movie a year? Grade: C-

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Feature: The Summer of 2011 Belonged to Superheroes

by Steve Habrat

It’s official, boys and girls, the summer of 2011 belonged to tights clad do-gooders who saved the world countless times from certain doom. They protected the innocent from world annihilation and we cheered them on every punch and kick along the way. We saw three superheroes from the Marvel Comics camp and one lifeless cosmic cop from DC Comics. I feared that Marvel would have too heavy of a presence at the local cinema, but I have to commend them for the quality films that they delivered. They were smart, colorful, and just downright entertaining until the last villain was knocked out cold. I had some hostility to Thor at first, but after watching him hurl has hammer at Loki a couple of times, I was hooked. I loved his brutish arrogance and empathized with him when he had his powers taken by his old man Odin. I had my doubts about X-Men: First Class. I was convinced it would be a cheap money grab of a film that was just milking a name. What I saw was easily the most unsettling, brooding, and arresting superhero film since The Dark Knight. Sure, there were moments were it winked at it’s comic roots, but that earth shattering climax is a must see and was played absolutely straight. And how about Captain America? How could that not put a smile on your face?! It was a retro, rip-roaring escapade that was actually better the second time I saw it (and yes, I LOVED it the first time I went to see it). It was the kind of summer movie we wish for but we rarely get. We just get more transforming robot aliens and alien invasion movies (yawn).

Many audience members will be quick to argue that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 was the real king of the summer but let me point something out to the ones who defend the Boy Who Lived until they are blue in the face: He had no staying power. As quickly as he made a bang, he fizzled. He quickly faded from the memory of audiences and we were right back to rallying behind Captain America. Sure, it was sad to see the Potter franchise finally come to an end but the film was honestly a bit underwhelming. I will give Potter credit, he now holds the title for the biggest opening weekend of all time but let’s not overlook those inflated 3D tickets. Thor opened to a respectable $66 million when it debuted, X-Men: First Class pulled $56 million, and Captain America mustered up $65 million respectably. And yes, I am aware Thor and Captain America were in 3D as well but they seemed to linger a bit longer near the top of the box ofice than Potter did. I still distinctly remember moments of Thor and I still shudder at the final frames of X-Men. The most distinct memory I have of Harry Potter was the jaw dropping teaser trailer for The Dark Knight Rises and few haunting images from the film itself. But as far as moments go in HP, I got nothing.

Perhaps the nation was under Potter fatigue. They were ready to just get the inevitable end over with. Yet I feel like more people actually saw Thor, X-Men, and Captain America than saw Harry Potter. I have one theory as to why audience members responded well to those three films. If we take a look at the news, all we see is one disaster after another. This year alone, we have seen the devastating tsunami that ravaged Japan, a shooting rampage in Norway, a shooting rampage in Arizona, another shooting rampage right in my backyard (Copley, Ohio), Casey Anthony found not guilty for the murder of her daughter, war in Libya, riots in Egypt, Hurricane Irene, etc. The world seems now more than ever in need of some form of hero. The times are undeniably grim and now, we are coming up on another anniversary of the horrifying September 11th attacks. Maybe that is why we flock to see the heroes vanquish evil. We need some form of comfort and even if it’s just pretend, we can still sleep better at night with the hope that someone will come around and protect us.

Next year, the summer movie season will see The Avengers, which teams up Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and The Hulk to wage a war on terror in the form of Loki. We will see a fresh take on everyone’s favorite web head, The Amazing Spider-Man, and to top it off, we will see the third and final chapter in Batman legacy, The Dark Knight Rises. Next Christmas, we will see the return of The Man of Steel himself, Superman, to stand once again for truth, justice, and the American way. While I feel that Batman is really the only superhero to actually engage politically (rather blatantly might I add) as The Dark Knight is now acting as the defining film of the Bush era, there is still something about the remarkably wholesome Marvel good guys. If we also look at the suspected plots of these films, there are some rather disquieting comparisons to what many speculate will occur next year: An unstoppable, apocalyptic event. We see four powerhouse heroes joining together to fight Thor’s God-like half brother and (supposedly) a race of aliens in The Avengers.  In The Amazing Spider-Man trailer, Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard asks Spidey if he’s “Ready to play God”. Judging by the trailer, this will be a much darker portrayal of the character and there are a few moments of what appears to be apocalyptic action. But what does this particular line of dialogue mean? Spidey has to play God and save us all from destruction? And lets not forget that jarring trailer for The Dark Knight Rises. It is rumored that Batman is going to need a little help from Catwoman to defeat the brute force that is Bane and save Gotham from annihilation. Just take a looksy at the final image from the trailer, which shows Bane advancing on a winded, clearly in pain Batman. Gotham is going to need more than one hero to save it. When we look at The Man of Steel, all we can do is speculate, as we have no trailer to go off of. The main villain has been confirmed as being General Zod, who wields the same powers as Superman. Has Superman finally met his match?

It makes sense to me that both Marvel and DC Comics would unleash their A-team next year to protect us from the rumored apocalypse. Maybe it is to subconsciously reassure us and give some hope to the individuals who are convinced the apocalypse will occur. But one aspect is certain, that superheroes were the true rulers of this blockbuster heavy summer. Together, Marvel had a mighty pull and combined, the three films were a juggernaut. Combined all together, I suspect that The Avengers is going to become one of the highest grossing films ever made. And what about the hype that has surrounded The Dark Knight Rises? It’s poised to become another monstrous victory for superhero movies. So is the Boy Who Lived really on top? He won this battle, but he will most certainly fall to another do-gooder next summer. His triumph was brief. Enjoy it now Potter fans, because it’s a superhero world and we are all just living in it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollow Ending: A Reflection of the Biggest and Most Disappointing Film of the Summer (2011)

by Charles Beall

I did not like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

There, I said it.  Phew, I needed to get that off my chest!  I have seen the movie twice now, because after the first viewing, when everyone started applauding and taking off their 3D glasses to reveal their tear-stained cheeks, I felt something was wrong with me.  Listening to the murmurs of praise among departing theatergoers, I found myself disagreeing with them.  I was quiet the rest of the night; I went to grab a beer with my friends and they kept asking me what was wrong.

“I didn’t like it,” I confessed, my head hanging in shame.  They looked at me like I was a freak, like I had said something along the lines of supporting Michele Bachmann for president.  What was wrong with me?!

I went back a second time…again, disappointment.  I am a horrible person, I thought to myself.

It seemed as if rain clouds followed me and I had a big scarlet “A” on my chest (for “asshole” for not liking the last-ever Harry Potter movie).  But then, I began to think that I wasn’t a horrible person- maybe the final Harry Potter chapter really did suck.

That is not to say that Hallows: Part 2 is a poorly made film; quite the contrary, which is why I was so disappointed in it.  First off, the craftsmanship on this film is amazing.  Not only is the cinematography gorgeous (Oscar-worthy, in my opinion), the eerie set pieces, costumes, visual effects, and even the performances are pitch-perfect.  Which leaves two key ingredients that are lacking that could’ve made this the best Potter film: the screenplay and direction.

Now I have had a love/hate relationship with David Yates as the director of the last four Potter films.  I wasn’t crazy about The Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince (they were good, not great) but I was floored with Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (which I consider the best-and my most favorite-film in the series).  I loved the pacing of it and, by the end of that film, I conceded that it was a good idea to split the final book into two movies.  As the release date of Part 2 approached, I was eager to see it.

The gorgeous, foreboding pacing of Part 1 was replaced by a frantic, amateurish, and uneven film in Part 2.  I know this was an “action movie,” but the filmmakers (or Warner Bros. corporate heads?) abandoned what worked so well in Part 1 and just shat out the final chapter so it could get converted to 3D in time for its release date (my theory- not a fact).  Call me a pessimist, but there were dollar signs hanging over Hogwarts, not dementors; it felt that there wasn’t a screenplay, but rather a checklist of the last half of the book that Yates was going by.

The whole world has seen this film by now, so I will not go into an all-out review of it.  In the case of this article, I will touch upon some key scenes that I believe were butchered for this movie.

The first is the Battle of Hogwarts, which in the book was both heart-felt and action packed, but in the film was just action-packed.  Yes, all of Harry’s friends show up to help save the day, but that is it.  Indeed, it was like the film was a supplement to the book- you needed to have read it to know who people were and what their relationships to Harry were.  That emotional connection that was so well-written by Rowling and decently portrayed in previous films was thrown out for the last film.  I know their allegiance to Harry…I read about it.  I want to see it.

Another complaint of mine (in regards to the Battle of Hogwarts) is the death scenes of certain characters.  I will not name names in case the reader is one of the 19 people who haven’t seen the movie, but in the book, their deaths were dramatic and heroic.  They died for Harry, for the greater good.  In the movie, their deaths just served as a transition to the next scene, losing all of the emotional weight that it carried in the books.  Another death scene (SPOILER) is that of Bellatrix.  Now, that was my favorite part in the last book, mainly because I couldn’t wait to see Julie Walters deliver “the line” in the movie.  I knew going in that “the line” would be in there, and I barely missed it.   Again, it seemed that “the line” was just on the checklist that Yates had as his screenplay.  There was no emotion, no drama, no suspense to the delivery of “the line.”  It just happened…and it sucked.

Finally, the epilogue to the film, while nearly verbatim from the book, was just…what were we talking about?  To be fair, I felt the epilogue to the book, while bittersweet, was a bit too uneventful.  Yes we know everyone is okay and happily ever after, but this was a real chance for Yates to do something epic.  Do a montage of Ron proposing to Hermione, Harry proposing to Ginny, Hogwarts rebuilding itself, Ron and Hermione getting married, Harry and Ginny getting married, Neville and Luna hooking up, Draco becoming head of the Republican Party, the lives of Ron and Hermione and Harry and Ginny with their children, Hagrid marrying that giant chick from The Goblet of Fire, Harry killing Jacob and Edward from Twilight, etc.  How come after eight films of “tweaking” things from the books, the filmmakers actually take the weakest part of them and adapt it verbatim?!  You can end with the train station; just show what happened in those 19 years.  I wonder if Yates was working under the assumption that we had read the book and were waiting for, indeed expecting and demanding, the epilogue.  My hypothesis was validated with the hisses of “yes!” that escaped in the packed theater when the “19 years later” title card came up.

Now there are parts I enjoyed.  The fight between Harry and Voldemort is pretty badass; I even liked the lack of a film score in some scenes, just the cracking of spells from wands.  The best part of the film was Snape’s memories, which were really the only emotional part in the film.  This was a rare case where Rowling’s words were beautifully transformed to images on the screen.  I just wish the rest of the film was like that.

In conclusion, I didn’t hate Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2– I was just disappointed in it.  There was so much building up to this final chapter that I just felt underwhelmed, unmoved, and let down.  Maybe my expectations were too high?  I will have to see it again, but at $13 a pop to see it, those pesky dollar signs play too much a roll.  Maybe when it is out on Blu-ray, I’ll revisit it.

Grade: C+ (but I really do love Harry Potter…don’t hate me!)

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

by Corinne Rizzo

When a film starts out as brilliantly in color as this film does, one might expect some well thought through and artful surprises. Sitting comfortably in a vibrant red boxcar surrounded by the slightly enhanced colors of trees whizzing by, our stereotypical hobo waits for his destination to approach. And with this scene, the viewer might feel as though they’ve got a pretty good grasp on the type of film on deck, though Hobo with a Shotgun falls short of the grind house/satire it seems to promise.

The opening credits reveal a highly contrasted world in a visual sense which prepare the viewer for a heightened experience and in that sense, the film delivers. Our Hobo hops of his stereotypical train without much attachment to anything and heads into town. When he gets there, a place that was once supposedly Hometown, USA, has turned maliciously violent. Almost as if the Hobo and the viewer have stepped into an alternate universe, the first glimpse into the town shows Drake and his duo of offspring clamping a manhole cover around the neck of nameless character played by Rob Wells (of cult television fame Trailer Park Boys). Drake is our head gangster, the guy everyone fears and a name nobody utters.

So when the Hobo witnesses such a fucked up situation he understands that a hero is needed, but makes no move, also understanding that he isn’t prepared to become the vigilante his character is written to become. The situation escalates on a whole other level when the nameless character trapped in the manhole cover is set inside the cover’s respective manhole. A rope is tied around his neck, the other end attached to Slick’s motorcycle. The last frame in this opening scene is Drake celebrating his undefeated dark behavior.

Drake has used this fear tactic to overrun the city. He is the under lord in charge of setting his two sons Slick and Ivan (appropriately dressed in varsity jackets with each of their names respectively embroidered on the back) to uproot mayhem when things become too quiet. The opening scene is Drake’s unveiling and while it’s ultimate in its violence, with no real motive and no real justice being served, it lacks what other grind house type films seem to achieve.

It feels as though Jason Eisener created a film in the vein of the genre, but forgot the most important part of filmmaking, the viewer. This slight oversight is forgiven in the first fifteen minutes of the film as Hobo meets a prostitute. Hobo, having nothing to offer her but solace for her daddy complex, is taken in by Abby who has all of those material things Hobo is without. Together they make a nearly endearing pair and it is understood that they have eachother’s backs when shit goes down.

Something is missing and it has nothing to do with the actors in the film as they are mediocre at best, or at least over acting at best, often practiced in the genre to get the downhome grind house feel. The story lacks a genuine premise, which makes it hard for the viewer to accept the characters and the location. The rules of this imaginary place are hard to follow and it’s easy to resist it all together.

It is understood that the genre this movie falls into is uncategorically violent and bloody and without reason, but when  compared to a movie like Planet Terror, where there is some sense of normalcy before it all comes crashing down, the viewer has nothing to connect to. There is no past life for the hobo or the prostitute and it makes you wonder how anyone in the town survived up to this point without being recklessly slain. How did Drake come into power? The movie lacks dedication to these questions and therefore loses the authenticity of premise that other grind house/cult classic movies enjoy..

The film feels unfinished and unfocused. The gore and guts are there for those who celebrate ultraviolence in films, but it’s not unlike amateur pornography in that way. Not everyone needs a reason to get off, they just do. But for those watching with intent, nothing is airtight. The film almost functions entirely on the holes in plot and tears in continuity.

Similar to what is happening to this review.

Eventually, Hobo turns vigilante and surrogate father and starts in on the violence and Abby the Prostitute is right there to help. Blood and guts become funny in some scenes as the characters the viewer finds it hard to feel for laugh at the idea of anyone being smuggled inside of dead bodies or entire sets of genitals being blown off by a homeless guy. People are dismembered and protective battle armor is made out of lawn mowers and trash cans. Things get weird and times (Santa Clause abducts a child) come and go where one might not entirely regret dedicating time to such a film. Though in the end, the viewer is left unfulfilled as the plot lays out the final scenes, revealing exactly what one expects to happen.

Running only eighty six minutes in length, the film is worth watching, if for nothing else, the cult potential. This movie is on the radar as a worthy flop in an unstoppable genre.

Grade: D+

Top Five Reasons to see Hobo with a Shotgun

1)    It ruins your appetite, therefore leaving you with a lower caloric intake for the day, which can be healthy sometimes.

2)    A villainous character meets his fate while bleeding out from a gunshot wound to the genitals.

3)     There is a ridiculously incoherent story about a bear involved.

4)     A man dressed as Santa Claus drives around abducting children.

5)     There is a Freudian love story between a prostitute and a hobo.

Hobo with a Shotgun is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Netflix Instant Queue.

Super (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Last year, Hollywood released the highly intelligent but morally questionable Kick-Ass. It shocked audiences with it’s unblinking portrayal of what it would be like if an ordinary citizen decided to don a cape and prowl the streets fighting crime. They would be beaten to a bloody pulp. And yes, Kick-Ass had plenty of Looney Tunes moments sprinkled throughout but it was unfathomably offensive. It also happened to be a wonderful movie that had quite a bit of depth to it. Early this summer, director James Gunn released his indie superhero outing Super, which globs on the black humor and spurting arteries with such maniacal glee, you almost start to question Gunn’s sanity. Yes, it’s THAT twisted.

I will admit that I found moments of Super enjoyable and the climax was an emotional sucker punch. I will confess to chuckling when Rainn Wilson’s dopey Frank would conk evildoers on the noggin with a monkey wrench and yell, “Shut up, crime!” But I sat stirred by how savage the film behaved even outside the inevitable action scenes. It wears a crooked grin even while it blindsides us with rape, child molestation, substance addiction, and endless foul language that would please Judd Apatow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude when it comes to films of this nature but I completely understand why the film was never released into mainstream theaters.

Frank thought he had everything going for him in life. He had a beautiful wife Sarah (Played by the cooing Liv Tyler) and a mediocre job as a cook. He thought he had aided Sarah, who was apparently an ex-junkie, in kicking her habit and changing her life. That all changes when ostentatious drug dealer Jock (Played by Kevin Bacon, who seems to be everywhere this summer) shows up and steals Sarah away from him. One night, in a sequence that appears to be left over from Gunn’s zombie/alien opus Slither, Frank has a vision from God. He is told to don an amateurish suit of armor and parade around the streets as The Crimson Bolt. While building his alter ego, he strikes up a quirky friendship with a local comic book store clerk Libby (Played by an extremely off-putting Ellen Page). She convinces him to let her be his mad, bloodthirsty sidekick and together, they aim to take down Jock and get Sarah back.

Super does offer up its fair share of craggy authenticity. The film is shot with a handheld camera and at times, if the violence isn’t making your stomach groan, the camerawork sure will. It’s twitchy but alarmingly confident. Like Kick-Ass, the film realizes (only every once in a great while) that it has to use some sort of idiosyncratic distraction from the gruesome atrocities at hand. It does this by juxtaposing the action with freeze frames and animated “BOOM”s and “WHACK!”s that look like scribbling from a teenagers own private comic book creation. It’s efficient but also seems like just a petty attempt to soften the blow of the relentless cruelty.

The shining star in this bloody mess is Rainn Wilson’s disciplined and committed performance as Frank. It’s a relief to not see the Office funnyman relegated to tween scum like The Rocker but after Super, I have to wonder about Wilson’s actual character (according to the Blu-ray features, he stood by the project from the get-go). The worst part about the film is the abhorrent performance from Ellen Page, who is downright out of control. I failed to see anything funny about her character and see this as one of the lower points of her career. Everyone else is incredibly underused including the surprising presence of Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Walking Dead) as Abe, Jock’s right hand hitman. All his character does is munch on jellybeans, stare at Frank, and occasionally remember to fire his pistol. There is none of the subtle brewing intensity that he is so famous for. Bacon, however, seems to be having a blast in the role playing another villain (he was also the baddie in X-Men: First Class) and Tyler, who claims she found the script “touching”, seems to be bored to tears.

Overall, the film has an arresting climax that is great compensation for the warped first portion. It is moving and almost becomes a tearjerker. The final showdown between Jock and Frank is guaranteed to shake you up even if you have found the rest of the film despicable. Super is just simply not a film for everyone. If you are in the target audience, you’ll have a blast with it. If not, you will just walk away shaking your head and wondering why Hollywood doesn’t make more wholesome movies like they use to. Either way, it will get a reaction out of you and that is what good cinema should do. While I consider myself in the target audience for a film like this, it left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. I was left wishing the first half were as gratifying as the second. I also could have done without Page but I think all will safely agree that Wilson is downright magnetic. He is the heart and soul of Super and believe it or not, that allows us to forgive most of its morally contestable moments. Grade: B-

Super is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Feature: Kubrick Meets Frankenstein

by Steve Habrat

In many of Stanley Kubrick’s films, we see characters that slowly descend into madness. With this slip into madness, they usually end up committing some sort of atrocity to someone around them. But if we examine these characters descent into madness closely, we can conclude that their madness is created by another character in the films. If we look back at the 1931 film Frankenstein, the structure of Frankenstein seems to fit with the creation of madness and characters becoming monster-like in a good majority of Kubrick’s films. Kubrick could almost be considered the mad scientist of his films, as he takes certain aspects from Frankenstein and uses them to construct several of his films.

If we first look at Kubrick’s 1956 film The Killing, we subtly see a Frankenstein reference within the film. One of the characters, George (Elisha Cook Jr.), is married to Sherry (Marie Windsor) who has no interest in him other than money. George is in on a racecourse robbery with several other men and if the robbery is pulled off, the men can stand to make two million dollars. Near the beginning of the film, we see Sherry with another man named Val (Vince Edwards), who Sherry is having an affair with, as they discuss killing George and the other men and taking the money for themselves. Through the scene, we can see that Sherry is creating a vicious monster and implanting a criminal mentality in Val. At the climax of the film, Val storms an apartment where George and the other men are regrouping after the robbery. A gunfight breaks out and everyone except for George is killed. George ends up making it out of the apartment even though he is severely wounded. He lunges outside and gets into a car and drives off to find Sherry. Sherry has unknowingly created another monster. George is a rather weak man who will not stand up to Sherry in the beginning and at the climax; he is on a murderous quest. Even through George’s movements, he moves very similar to the monster in Frankenstein. He lurches into his home to find Sherry and then viciously guns her down. Sherry is like Henry Frankenstein because she dabbled into an operation that was out of her control and ends up falling victim to her own manipulation. Henry Frankenstein tried to artificially create life when he should have left the natural process of creating life alone. Sherry tries to override the bank robbery and she ends up with a monstrous creation. She has awoken the killer in George and rather than remaining content with what she would have gotten out of the robbery, she was greedy and tried to take it all. While the comparisons are rather minor in The Killing, there still seems to be a hint of influence from Frankenstein in the film.

In 1962, Kubrick released Lolita, and the similarities to Frankenstein appeared once again. In Lolita, the monster takes shape in Humbert (James Mason), who at the beginning of the film has entered the mansion of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Humbert, similar to the monster, seems primitive as he searches the mansion for Quilty. We learn that Humbert is there to kill Quilty for stealing Lolita away from him. Throughout Lolita, we watch as Humbert and the young Lolita begin a sexual relationship. Clare Quilty, who is a famous playwright, is also pursuing Lolita. Near the end of the film, Quilty ends up stealing Lolita away from Humbert and starting an affair with him. Humbert learns of this affair only after some time later when Lolita writes to Humbert that she has married and needs money. Lolita broke off the affair with Quilty after he tries to persuade her to be in one of his films. The spectator can assume that this “film” is of pornographic nature and that Lolita had no interest in Quilty’s perverse vision. Through the act of stealing Lolita away from Humbert, he creates a vengeful monster in Humbert. At the end of the film when Humbert desperately tries to persuade Lolita to come away with him, he takes on the primitive form as he weeps and lunges to his car and sets out to find his “Henry Frankenstein.” Just like in the Frankenstein film, he is out to find his creator and destroy him. This is where we learn that the beginning of the film, which shows us the confrontation between Humbert and Quilty is actually the ending of this story. If we take into account the setting of the climax, which is Quilty’s mansion, it takes on a similarity to the castle that Henry Frankenstein inhabits at the beginning of Frankenstein. So now, we have the monster shuffling about through his creator’s eerie mansion, setting out to commit such atrocities as murder. Humbert proceeds to kill Quilty and is caught shortly after the murder takes place. Similar to Frankenstein’s monster, it is cornered by the law and is captured. While a burning supposedly destroys the Frankenstein monster set by outraged villagers, Humbert dies naturally in the hands of his captors.

In 1964, Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and once again, the Frankenstein structure would be present. This time, however, Kubrick would predominantly use the structure as the backdrop for the film. If we compare the Cold War to the Frankenstein structure, we see some very shocking similarities. We first have to look for a Henry Frankenstein, which could be found in the people who created the nuclear bomb. With all the scientists that helped create the nuclear bomb, we have a large amount of mad scientists or Henry Frankensteins that have created a monster that is a scientific breakthrough. With this breakthrough, we have created a bomb that can level an entire city. Since we have identified the Henry Frankenstein, it becomes obvious that the monster comes in the form of the bomb itself. Just like we will see later with the Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick is using a situation to build the Frankenstein structure for Dr. Strangelove. But we still have to identify a storm that would set off the creation of this monster. That storm could be a hypothetical storm in the form of the Cold War paranoia that was sweeping over the citizens of the United States.

If we explore Dr. Strangelove, we can see the structure of Frankenstein present within the film. We have Brigadier General Jack Ripper who orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. General Ripper is the delusional mad scientist who thinks he is doing the United States a favor by protecting our countries “precious bodily fluids.” General Ripper has unleashed this monstrous creation, the nuclear bomb, out into the world where it will cause destruction and death to anyone who is around it when the monster eventually explodes. Kubrick seems to imply that one day, a mock Henry Frankenstein will allow this monster out into the world where, rather than using the monster for scientific study, it will bring about the destruction of humanity. We then watch the helpless creators of this bomb try to race to stop the monsters trail of destruction before it is too late. If we compare Dr. Strangelove to Full Metal Jacket, we can see that Kubrick likes to use the Frankenstein structure to tackle America’s creation and reaction to the conflicts it has found itself in throughout the years. In the case of Dr. Strangelove, it is the Cold War and as we will see in Full Metal Jacket, it is the Vietnam War.

In 1968, Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, which featured a sequence incredibly similar to the story of Frankenstein. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we meet a creation named HAL, which is hailed as a scientific breakthrough. HAL 9000 is a computer on board a space station that interacts with the crew of the ship. We learn that HAL is in charge of running the space ships major functions. Also on board the ship are five crewmen, three of which are in a cryogenic hibernation. The two who are not are two scientists named Dave (Keir Dullea) and Francis (Gary Lockwood). The first obvious similarity is that HAL is a creation of scientists just like the monster is in Frankenstein. HAL is deemed a marvel by the media but not necessarily a monster. In Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein’s fiancé Elizabeth and her friend Victor watch in horror as the monster awakens from his miscellaneous parts. We even get a reaction from the “public”, or in Frankenstein’s case, “the villagers”, as they react in utter horror to the monster and they begin their quest to destroy it. As HAL becomes more and more monstrous, he kills Dave’s partner in their work. If we look at Frankenstein, the monster first kills Fritz, the partner of Henry Frankenstein. Through this murder, and the murder of the three other crewmembers in the cryogenic hibernation, Dave becomes more aware that he has to stop this artificially created monster before it can do more harm, even though it is not necessarily his creation. One could even view the murder of the three helpless crewmembers that are in cryogenic hibernation as the little girl who is murdered by the monster in Frankenstein. She, as the three crewmembers are, are helpless against this strong and dangerous creation. As HAL wanders his own village or castle or in 2001’s case, space station, he searches for Dave as if Dave is the creator. Dave feels the need to destroy the monster in the same vein as the villagers do in Frankenstein. Just as the villagers do, Dave corners HAL and then proceeds to destroy the monster before it can do anymore harm.

With 2001: A Space Odyssey and two of his films that followed, Kubrick really began borrowing from Frankenstein. Kubrick’s next film, A Clockwork Orange, would also have several references to the 1931 horror classic. The first important aspect I want to analyze is the character of Alex de Large (Malcolm McDowell) at the beginning of the film. When the events kick into motion, Alex is unruly youth who wanders the futuristic landscape causing trouble and committing unspeakable acts. He is a monster by choice and he doesn’t seem to have a creator. It could almost be said that Alex is his own Henry Frankenstein. But what strikes me as odd is the fact that every time Alex commits a truly horrific crime, he wears a mask. When Alex breaks into the home of Mr. Alexander, Alex and his droogs wear masks while they viciously beat Mr. Alexander and rape his wife. Later in the film, when Alex breaks into the home of the cat lady, he once again dons the same mask. What should be established about Alex is that he is actually a very refined young man. He likes Beethoven and at one point, scolds and physically attacks one of his droogs for making fun of a woman who breaks into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It seems that when he goes out and causes chaos, we are not seeing the real Alex. When Alex is caught after murdering the cat lady, he is then chosen for a experiment that is supposed to “fix” his destructive behavior. In Thomas Allen Nelson’s Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze, Nelson describes the device that holds Alex:

“Later, he is bound in a straightjacket inside a theater—his head wreathed by the straps and electronic plugs of a Frankenstein crown of thorns, his eyes held open by lidlocks—and forced to watch, but not participate in, hackneyed film versions of his past history, namely droogs tolchocking a man (the tramp scene) and raping a devotchka (the casino).” (Nelson, 157)

Nelson describes the device as Frankensteinesque and once Nelson points out the horrific nature of the device, it does seem like the device that creates the monster in Frankenstein. Just as in Frankenstein, the device is going to create a monster, but not a murderous monster. Rather than implanting the brain of a criminal, they are implanting the brain of a normal, harmless citizen. The scientists are making Alex sensitive to the sight of murder and rape. But the execution of this scene does not seem to be a comforting point of the film. This scene is particularly chilling as we are in essence seeing the creation of a new monster. Violence was normal to Alex and now, we see someone who isn’t the same. We see Alex become physically ill by the violence. Another striking aspect of this scene is the use of Beethoven’s music in the background of these images. Could this be suggesting the perversion of a refined brain? It is possible, as the real Alex does not seem to exist after the experiments.

Shortly after the “treatment” that Alex receives by the Henry Frankenstein’s, Alex is then put on display in front of a room of scientists so that can marvel at what a scientific breakthrough that he is. He is called 655321 by his captors and is never referred to by his real name. He has lost his identity, he uniqueness and is now looked at as a science experiment rather than a human being. This seems to go hand and hand with Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein’s monster isn’t an individual and he lacks a name to his creator and his captors. When Alex is presented on the stage to the room of scientists, you almost expect one of them to exclaim, “It’s alive!” just like Henry Frankenstein does when he realizes his experiment is a success. When Alex takes the stage, an actor comes out and proceeds to slap and abuse him. Could this actor be mirroring Fritz, as Fritz taunts and abuses the monster? In Frankenstein, the monster attacks Fritz, but in A Clockwork Orange, when Alex tries to defend himself, he becomes ill at the thought of violence. Alex is a different monster than the monster in Frankenstein, but mad scientists create them both and they both Alex and the monster lack an identity.

Another interesting similarity comes when Alex is released into society. People do not view him as a “reformed” human being, but rather a freak who is part of an experiment. Alex’s parents reject him and have replaced him with a new “son”. Alex then flees his parents flat and wanders the futuristic “village” and is attacked by a group of homeless men who could be mirroring the villagers in Frankenstein. Two policeman break up the attacks on Alex by the homeless men, but then they proceed to beat Alex as well. It turns out, that these two policemen are two of Alex’s former droogs. They take Alex to the outskirts of the town, beat him and then leave him for dead. The droogs also tell Alex they will see him around, almost implying that if Alex shows his face in town again, they will destroy him. Alex, who is left bloodied and covered in mud then shuffles about the outskirts of the “village” in a similar way that Frankenstein’s monster does in Frankenstein. It is also important to point out that Alex is stumbling around in a strong storm. This storm forces Alex to unknowingly seek shelter in the house of Mr. Alexander, whom we have met earlier as Alex and his droogs attacked him. What Alex does not realize is that he has also created a monster in Mr. Alexander, so Alex is the monster and is also a Henry Frankenstein. Because of the storm, which forces Alex to Mr. Alexander’s “castle”, he creates a monster in a storm. Mr. Alexander takes Alex in and realizes he is the boy that the government performed experiments on but he does not recognize Alex is the one who beat him and killed his wife until Alex begins singing “Singin’ in the Rain”, which is what Alex sang during the rape. While Alex sings the song, Mr. Alexander’s monster is awakened. Once again, we almost expect someone to exclaim, “It’s alive!” as Mr. Alexander becomes an entirely different person. Rather than the kind Good Samaritan that took in Alex, he is now the monster who is seeking revenge on his creator. What is also striking is that Mr. Alexander seems to have his own personal Fritz, as Fritz seems to appear in Julian, the man that is residing with Mr. Alexander. Julian performs Mr. Alexander’s dirty work. Mr. Alexander is especially interesting because he acts as monster and destroyer of the monster. Through Mr. Alexander’s vengeance, he almost kills his creator. He drives Alex to try to commit suicide as Alex is becoming physically ill at the sound of Beethoven. This scene is especially intriguing because it could almost mirror the climax of Frankenstein, when the monster throws Henry Frankenstein off of a roof, nearly killing him. Alex is nearly killed and even though he chooses to jump out the window himself, he is still driven to suicide by a monster that he has created. Mr. Alexander also works as outraged villager by destroying the nameless monster that Alex has become. Alex has reverted right back to his old ways of ultra-violence in the end. It is also important to note that Alex has gained his identity back. Alex is recognized as a normal human being by society and his parents rather than some horrific experiment.

The final Kubrick film that has references to Frankenstein is Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. From the first shot of the film, we can tell Kubrick is still interested in borrowing aspects from Frankenstein. We see several men who are receiving haircuts from a military barber. We watch as they all stare blankly at the camera as all of their hair is shaved off. It becomes obvious that this haircut is all just part of the process of turning innocent young men into blank, identical monsters. Shortly after this scene, we are introduced to the man who is acting as the Henry Frankenstein. He goes by the name Gny. Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and his job is to breakdown this young soldiers and turn them into mindless killing machines. When we first meet Hartman, he tells the young men: “You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings!” Right from the start, Kubrick subtly slips in that these are monsters in progress. If we compare Hartman to Henry Frankenstein, they are in essence the same person. Both Hartman and Frankenstein are both creating mindless monster that will all go out and kill. Just as Frankenstein implants a criminal brain in his creation, Hartman will do the same exact thing. In one particular scene in Full Metal Jacket, Hartman is lecturing about firing weapons to a large group of marines. This is the conversation that takes place in the scene:

Hartman: “Do any of you people know who Charles Whittman was?” (No one raises their hand) “None of you dumbasses knows?”

Pvt. Cowboy: “Sir, he was that guy that shot all those people from that tower in Austin, Texas, sir!”

Hartman: “Anybody know who Lee Harvery Oswald was?”

(Everyone raises their hands)

Pvt. Snowball: “Sir, he shot Kennedy, sir!”

The point of this exchange is to show the young maries that killers emerged from the marines and to point out that they were skilled in killing too. Hartman is exactly like Frankenstein in how they both instill criminal mindsets in their monsters.

The first monster that we stumble across in Full Metal Jacket is Pvt. Pyle, who at first seems rather harmless. As the training sequences go on and Hartman gets further into the head of Pyle, we start to see the harmless, clumsy young man descend into madness. During the discussion about Whitman and Oswald, we get a close up shot of Pyle, who has a blank expression on his face and it appears that his eyes are rolling back into his head. His appearance seems almost monstrous like Frankenstein’s monster. What is also notable about the discussion about Whitman and Oswald is that there seems to be a storm brewing in the background. In Frankenstein, the monster is created during a rather violent storm. After this sequence, Pyle seems to be more and more primitive in his actions. This all leads up to Pyle’s murder/suicide that he brutally commits. Pvt. Joker, one of the main characters in the film, is on watch duty one evening and he finds Pvt. Pyle sitting on a toilet with a weapon. When Pyle starts to raise his voice and act out in the typical primitive way, his Henry Frankenstein, who is Hartman, emerges to try to stop his behavior. Pyle then successfully murders Hartman and then turns the gun on himself. Pyle cannot live with what he has become and he acts as terrified villager and kills himself, which destroys the monster.

After this training and murder/suicide sequence, the film then travels to Vietnam, which is what the soldiers are training for. This is where we begin to follow to other monsters that were created by Hartman’s Henry Frankenstein. We follow Pvt. Joker and Pvt. Cowboy and their experiences in Vietnam that climaxes in their showdown with a Vietnamese sniper. What is interesting about Pvt. Joker’s appearance is that he has written on his helmet. Scrawled across his helmet says Born To Kill and at one point, he gives an explanation as to why he has that written on his helmet. I believe that this keeps tradition with the installation of the criminal mindset. Joker was installed with a criminal mind and, just like Frankenstein’s monster, was born to kill. Pvt. Joker and Pvt. Cowboy seem less monstrous until they are faced with this sniper. When the group of soldiers that they are traveling with gets attacked and several of their men get killed, they decide to storm the building that the sniper is located in and kill them. Joker eventually stumbles upon the sniper and just as he gets ready to shoot the sniper, his gun jams and he gives away his position. Just as tries to go for his pistol, another marine storms in and kills the sniper. What is important to not about this scene is that the sniper is a young, terrified girl and the abandoned building that she hides in is burning. The marines all stand around the young girls body and try to figure out what to do with her, as she lies dying. They all have the smallest bit of remorse on their face, similar to the monster in Frankenstein. What is interesting about the fire that surrounds them is the fact that it was fire that killed Frankenstein’s monster. Could Kubrick be implying that these men will all burn for being the monsters that they are? They are one big group of created monsters, who after killing the young Vietnamese girl, march on while casually singing the Mickey Mouse theme song. They march on and sing a children’s song and they never stop to reflect on the violence that they inflict. They are marching about a primitive looking environment where terrified villagers are trying to corner these strange monsters and destroy them. What is also interesting is that we strictly see the marine’s silhouettes. We do not see any detail and it becomes impossible to distinguish one from the other. These men are one collective, primitive and created monster that lunges through the night and kills.

Another interesting aspect of Full Metal Jacket is that Kubrick decided to explore the Vietnam War. America entered the Vietnam War with the intentions to help the southern part of Vietnam fight back against Communists from northern Vietnam. But as the years passed and the death toll of American troops kept rising, the Vietnam War started becoming extremely unpopular. If we compare the Vietnam War to Frankenstein, we can start to see some similarities. We first have to look for the “mad scientist”, or in this case “scientists”, which could be the U.S. Senate and President Johnson for the escalation of involvement in the conflict. The war last from 1964 to 1975 and every year the war lasted, it spiraled more and more out of control. So the Henry Frankenstein’s in the case of the Vietnam War would be the U.S. Senate and President Johnson and their monstrous creation would then have to be the Vietnam War. If we look at the American backlash of the Vietnam War, we could even say that the American public was the outraged villagers. They protested the creation of the monster. Young men did not want to be sent to die in a war that they were unclear on. If we look at the similarities of the war and the film to Frankenstein, Kubrick was referencing Frankenstein of multiple levels. It clearly emerged in certain scenes, situations and characters within Full Metal Jacket and it if we looked close enough; it was in the subject matter that Kubrick was using as the backdrop for the film.

In 1999, Stanley Kubrick released his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, which thematically seems to be interested in other topics. It does not seem to borrow from Frankenstein and seems to have other interests on its mind. I believe that these similarities are quite striking and seem to dominate much of his later work. While Eyes Wide Shut and his 1975 film Barry Lyndon seem to steer away from these trends, I believe that Kubrick was heavily interested in the creation of monsters. The Frankenstein structure is just one of the layers to Kubrick’s multilayered films. This is what has made Kubrick so fascinating, that the more you study his films and peel back the layers, the more you will find. In this case, Kubrick is a regular Henry Frankenstein. He has created some films that we are still marveling over after all these years.

Works Cited

Nelson, Thomas A. Kubrick: Inside A Film Artist’s Maze. Pg. 157. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000. Retrieved: 9 Dec, 2009 Print.

The Killing is now available on Blu-ray for the first time. The Kubrick Collection is also available.

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Go Ape.

by Will Nepper

For the uninitiated here’s a critical primer to the original Planet of the Apes series. See ’em before you see Rise. See ’em after. It doesn’t really matter.

Planet of the Apes (1968)
I love the series more than I love any of the individual films, if that makes sense. The original is easily the most impressive and sports the most exciting and innovative make-up effects. (A decline in budgets meant a decline in effective make-up in subsequent entries.) Chuck Heston devours scenery with such gruff gusto we’re partially relieved when his 20th century astronaut Taylor loses his voice for several scenes. As holds true of the whole series, even for sci-fi, the logic is wobbly and the social subtext, blunt and anvil-heavy. But I always return for the performances, particularly those of Roddy McDowel (Cornelius), Kim Hunter (Zira) and Maurice Evans (Dr. Zeius). And of course, Linda Harrison as Nova, the mute human slave girl, is pretty easy on the eyes. The action sequences are well realized and the ape town sets impressive, but there’s no denying that PotA is one lucky B-movie in A-movie clothing. Despite a dreary twist ending — no surprise considering Rod Serling wrote the script (which is based on a novel by Pierre Boulle) — PotA shies from getting too high-falutin’ and knows to incorporate a sense of playfulness that would make it perfect fare for rainy Sunday afternoons in front of the TV with Dad for decades to come.
Grade: B

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
My vote for the silliest and least imaginative entry, Beneath, does little more than recycle the entire first half of the original with James Franciscusas part of a crew of astronauts sent on a reconnaissance mission to rescue Taylor and his (unbeknownst to them, dead) crew. After a few expository clips from the end of the first movie, Franciscus’s trajectory (discovery of talking apes, realization that he is in danger, acceptance of assistance from Cornelius and Zira, hiding, escaping, etc.) is the same as Taylor’s. When Beneath finally does get around to doing it’s own thing, it does so by introducing a mysterious society of deformed telepathic humans, led by Victor Buono, who worship, pray and chant about nuclear warheads underground (?!). It pretty much loses its way from there and even Franciscus crossing paths with Heston’s Taylor (who, by now, is firmly off his nut) does little to salvage any coherence left in the cash-grabbing direct sequel. Spoiler alert: In the end the Earth is pretty much nuked to nothing. “It’s ARMAGEDDON!” Heston hamily emotes.
Grade: C-

Escape from Planet of the Apes (1971)
Now we’re getting somewhere. This marks the first time our simian leads get to play the fish out of water. Cornelius and Zira do the titular escaping, back through time to the “present” when humans still held the keys to Earth’s destiny. Perceived by the government as a threat to human existence they go from being sensations (“Talking apes!”) to hunted pariahs. This is easily the most cerebral and well-acted of the original series with McDowell and Hunter, as the tragically pregnant talking ape, giving career-highlight-type performances, both droll and heartbreaking. By now the downbeat finale is a series staple, and no Apes conclusion has yet to top the THEY-DIDN’T?! shock value of Escape’s borderline-cruel last act. With fewer apes in attendance, it’s obvious that the make-up of the two primaries has returned to it’s original grandeur.
Grade: B+

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
One of the most surprising things about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is how much it owes to both Escape and Conquest. For one, Caesar (McDowell playing his own character’s son) — Zira and Cornelius’ surviving offspring who was switched at birth with another chimp by a benevolent circus animal trainer (Ricardo Montalban!) is originally a product of the second and third lesser-known sequels. In conquest, upright (but suspiciously silent) apes have become Earth’s domesticated pet of choice after a mysterious virus wipes out the world’s dogs and cats. Every bit as smart and sophisticated as their human counterparts, Caesar loses faith in the human race after Montalban is murdered, and leads a revolution of apes against humans. The revolution begins with the previously subservient and apes uttering the single syllable “No!” Rise brings much of this premise full circle while simultaneously setting the stage for the original Heston Apes via several subtle but well-developed prequel strategies. Conquest suffers from being relative-to-the-series slow. The political agenda of the first film is resurrected and employed even more heavy-handedly, which is no good this late in the game. The movie ends with what is essentially a poorly executed race-war riot. Budget constraints are clearly visible especially in group shots of ape extras. But the next entry would trump that distinction…

with Claude Akins in a gorilla mask that looks about as impressive as Claude Akins in an Official Planet of the Apes Halloween Mask from Woolworths. That’s good for laughs, anyway. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) also features the diminutive singer/songwriter/Phantom of the Paradise, Paul Williams, as an orangutan voice of reason. Battle is easily the cheapest looking of the original series’ sequels but also sports a decent enough story that relies more on action than dramatic exposition. Roddy McDowell appears again as Caesar; now the ruler of a peacefully integrated society of apes and humans. Yeah, how long do you think that’s gonna’ last? I should also mention that African Queen director, John Huston, appears a handful of times as the ape “Law Giver.” No shit. –and I’m not sure whether to upgrade or downgrade for the movie’s parting shot of an ape statue shedding a single tear.
Conquest Grade: C
Battle Grade: B-

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

by Will Nepper

If you’d have told me a decade ago that there was any banana juice left in the Planet of the Apes franchise, I’d have expected you meant it in a straight-to-video capacity. Tim Burton’s Apes — just like his Alice and Willy Wonka — seemed to reflect a filmmaker with little understanding of what made the source material great. (And when I apply the adjective “great” to anything PotA-related, I don’t mean it so much as in a “cinematic-achievement” way, as I do a “Tony-the-Tiger” way.)

The PotA series is beloved by many but not because its all that special. It’s a sci-fi movie that was in the right place at the right time. Its effects were state-of-the-art and fairly convincing. (I mean, if man evolved halfway back to ape … I could see it looking like that I guess.)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may represent the first shot of dignity the series has ever been allowed. It’s a well-acted, well-structured prequel that establishes a loose origin story for a series that actually deserves one. (How did those apes get so smart anyway?)

James Franco looks a little bored as some top-shelf genetic medical mad scientist-lite type of guy who has invented what is supposed to be the “cure to Alzheimer’s” (or just “The Cure” in the original trailer). When tested on apes they find that its brain-building properties turn chimps into little cheeping Steven Hawkings! Cool! –wait! Not cool! That’s how the Statue of Liberty got buried!

When things go to shit in the test-monkeys-to-cure-Alzheimer’s wing of Franco’s Mega-Medical-Corp employer, he finds himself adopting Caesar, the first recipient of the AMAZING only-temporarily-cures-Alzheimer’s-but-makes-monkeys-rule-the-Earth serum.

Franco is impressed with Caesar’s ability to communicate, emote, and make it okay to like CGI again (and let’s not forget how uh-dor-a-bullll and natural he looks in kids’ clothes!) that he decides to bring the hairy kid home to meet Dad (John Lithgow, underplaying it for as change) who — and you may be one step ahead of me here — happens to have Alzheimer’s.

But as much as Franco seems to love living with his genetically-altered monkey-old-man sitcom-ready duo, his genetic animal specialist or whatever girlfriend has the good sense to mention that this situation might be on a collision course with an action-packed last reel. After an unfortunate incident in which Caesar damn near takes Franco’s neighbor apart he’s sent away to an ape … storage … facility? … or Hell Zoo? … or some Animal Planet version of the Truman Show? I don’t know…it’s been a few weeks since I screened the movie.

When Caesar sees that he’s rejected by both human and ape alike, he makes like Charlie Bronson and takes the law(s of nature) into his own hands. After making friends with a gorilla and an orangutan, he breaks out, steals the secret formula and blesses all of his monkey pad-mates with the gift of accelerated evolution. You can guess what happens next? Or maybe you can’t — either way, Rise is worth your time.

Its story is constructed with the dramatic heft found in a lot of late 70s sci-fi without sacrificing the stuff that makes you want to see a PotA movie, like battles and clumsy sociological subtext.

Fans of any of the Apes’ earlier incarnations with a keen eye are endlessly rewarded with references, in-jokes and meaningful connections. For a broad example, Rise establishes the Gorilla-as-militant, orangutan-as-thinker, chimps-as-sensitive-and-kind dynamic that runs consistently through all Ape endeavors.

Some of the dialogue is clunky and as much as I usually enjoy James Franco (really!), I didn’t buy him in Rise. It kinda seemed like hiring Cheech Marin to play Albert Schweitzer. Beyond that though, I don’t have many bad things to say about Rise. It represents the best that the science fiction genre has to offer; the binding together of known science and fantasy in a way that takes hold of the imagination. Add to that what may be the most convincing digitally-rendered characters I’ve ever seen (How about that motion-capture technology? Amiright?), an impressive (if not completely absurd) action finale, and it makes sense that Rise has become the sleeper hit of a summer stuffed with crap you couldn’t pay me to see…and Captain America. Grade: B 

Fright Night (1985)

by Steve Habrat

If you are someone who is familiar with the evolution of the horror genre on film, you understand that horror underwent a massive metamorphosis in the 1960s. The more traditional approach to horror films, which means the use of monsters and mutated freaks, was beginning to diminish and the interest in the human monster was growing at a rapid rate.  There had been serial killers (Whitman and Gein) and the true embodiment of evil (Nazi Germany) which had shown their ugly mugs to the citizens of America. Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster simply no longer freaked us out and we were instead cowering at the average Joe that lived down the street. One of the first films to openly address the death of one movie monster and the birth of another was Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, which features Boris Karloff playing a version of himself and a Charles Whitman-esque serial killer. Prosthetic movie monsters just weren’t relevant and as times became more and more violent, so did the horror movies. They were unpolished and tattered, grainy and off-putting, economical but effective.

Star Wars and Jaws kicked off the special effects boom in the mid 1970s but it truly gained momentum in the 1980s. This movement did not just mold the blockbuster genre, but it touched horror too. The horror films of the 1980s were loaded with gruesome special effects and new advances in make-up that left audience member’s stomachs churning. We had everything from Freddy Kruger to Evil Dead. We also had 1985’s Fright Night. Fright Night took the old fashioned concept of vampires and smashed it together with the monster in suburbia. The results are a half campy, half eerie merger that stands as a minor classic in the eyes of horror buffs everywhere.

Fright Night kicks off with a collage of shots of quiet suburban streets that look like they could have been plagiarized from John Carpenter’s Halloween. We climb into the bedroom of Charlie Brewster (Played by William Ragsdale) who’s necking with his gal-pal Amy (Played by Amanda Bearse). While they are preoccupied, we see Charlie’s television playing Fright Night, a horror show that presents old fright flicks that feature Peter Vincent (Played by Roddy McDowell), the self proclaimed vampire slayer. Charlie soon realizes that his debonair new neighbor Jerry (Played by Chris Sarandon) isn’t just a smooth ladies man, but a ferocious killer with something to hide. He happens to be a vampire. Jerry realizes that Charlie has discovered his dirty little secret and begins threatening Charlie (One scene involves a petrifying transformation that will knock your socks off), his mother, and his girlfriend. But when Jerry encounters Charlie’s girlfriend, who resembles a woman from his past, the terror around Charlie escalates even further.

What makes the original Fright Night work is its sleepover appeal. It’s a movie you could pop on with a bunch of your friends and watch with beers in hand. It packs a handful of memorable creep outs and some remarkable monster make-up effects. One lady vamp in particular will be etched into your brain for the rest of your days. The effects have aged well since 1985 and will satisfy the skeptics. Remember, they weren’t making movies like Transformers during this era. Yet the effects, which sometimes consist of claymation techniques, are often scarier than the rubbery CGI that’s slapped onto movies these days. They are at least guaranteed to gross the viewer out.

Another reason to seek out the original Fright Night is the panting, wild-eyed performance from Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed, Charlie’s smartass chum who at first provides sarcastic advice on how to dispatch a bloodsucker and then turns into one himself. Ed comes equipped with an icky transformation scene and the neatest make-up of all the demons lurking in the film. Geoffreys disappears into the performance and becomes one of the more memorable bloodsuckers in the history of vampire cinema. The film also benefits from the anxiety-drenched performance from Ragsdale, who is all twitchy desperation. Sarandon is magnetic at the beginning but he seems to run out of steam and he lets his make-up do the work in the climax. It’s a shame because he is uncannily imperturbable at the start.

Director Tom Holland effortlessly mixes gothic horror with suburban normalcy. Jerry’s home is shrouded in mist and moss. I admit I half expected to see toppled graves and headstones littering the backyard. It’s delightfully old fashioned. The film is however derailed by it’s shameless 80s flair, making the film a complete relic of it’s own era. The score is all thumping synths and blaring saxophones, which cause the film to seem painfully dated. It’s also loaded with the expected pastel color palette, especially in a wobbly club sequence. Yet Fright Night is still a relic worth digging up. It has truly classic moments that I’m sure fans that saw the film at the lap up with glee again and again. The film can also be seen as a minor little commentary of belief in good and evil, which suits the conservative Reagan era quite nicely. Furthermore, its use of a more traditional menace makes the film all the more stirring against its political backdrop. It has moments of pure cheese and it will cause you to giggle, but that isn’t a particularly bad thing. It’s a spooky, kooky good time you won’t mind reliving. Grade: B