Monthly Archives: July 2013
Today marks the second anniversary of Anti-Film School. Once again, I just want to say thank you to each and every one of you for stopping by, reading, commenting, sharing, voting, and supporting. While it would take way too long to thank all of my friends, family, and fellow film bloggers, writers, and critics, just know that you’re all wonderful and your support keeps the reviews coming. So, readers, here is to another great year at our theater. And feel free to tell your friends or bring a date, but just remember, no disruptive public displays of affection allowed at our theater!
Thanks again, my friends!
-Theater Management (Steve)
by Steve Habrat
Two years after the abysmal King Kong vs. Godzilla, director Ishiro Honda returned to the giant monster genre with yet another installment in Toho’s Godzilla franchise. Enter 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, a massively entertaining and thoroughly satisfying monster fight that more than makes up for what Honda delivered in King Kong vs. Godzilla. Once again, the emphasis in Mothra vs. Godzilla is on the earth shaking action and the epic showdown, but Honda dares to let his this film be a bit more thoughtful than the last two Godzilla efforts. With this offering, Honda is attacking big business greed, but he does it in the most colorful and exciting way possible. Thankfully, Honda never forgets why we are watching Mothra vs. Godzilla and this time around, he really makes sparks fly. Unlike the odd-couple pairing of King Kong and Godzilla, this effort actually seems a bit more plausible, mostly because these two hideous titans are coming from the same monster family rather than two separate cinematic universes. No, these are abominations of the bomb, two radioactive gods who mean to dish out some serious hurt and not simply toss boulders at each other while doing the twist.
After a typhoon washes a giant egg onto a Japanese beach, the local citizens descend upon the beach to marvel at its exotic beauty. Among the admirers is news reporter Ichiro Sakai (played by Akira Takarada) and photographer Junko Nakanishi (played by Yuriko Hoshi), who are both determined to get some answers about the big blue wonder from Professor Miura (played by Hiroshi Koizumi), who has arrived to study the egg. It doesn’t take long for local businessman Kumayama (played by Yoshifumi Tajima), a bigwig at Happy Enterprises, to show up and declare that he has purchased the egg. Pretty soon, Kumayama meets with Happy Enterprises CEO Jiro Torahata (played by Kenji Sahara) to draw up plans to turn the egg into a tourist attraction. During the meeting, the two businessmen are visited by the Shobijin (played by The Peanuts), two pint sized twin girls who claim to be from Infant Island. The Shobijin explain that the egg belongs to their god, Mothra, and that they wish to take the egg back to their island. Kumayama and Torahata ignore the Shobijin’s pleas and try to capture them in an attempt to exploit the tiny girls. The Shobijin narrowly escape the attack and they soon bump into Sakai, Nakanishi, and Professor Miura, who agree to help the girls get their egg back. Meanwhile, it appears that the egg wasn’t the only thing washed to shore. To the horror of the locals, Godzilla has re-emerged and is on the rampage. As Godzilla nears the egg and threatens to destroy it, the aging Mothra arrives to protect her what belongs to her.
While it might have seemed like a good idea at the time to bring RKO’s King Kong and Toho’s Godzilla together, the film had a hard time making this viewer buy into the fact that those two giant beasts were mortal enemies. It’s easy to see why Honda and Toho thought it might be a good idea to have these legends meet up (Kong battled dinosaurs in his first solo outing), but the two behemoths were from drastically different cinematic universes that didn’t compliment each other in the slightest. Thankfully, Mothra vs. Godzilla more than makes up for that slapdash effort with solid special effects and a completely plausible union, even for a genre film such as this. The appeal of the Toho monster movies is their tacky special effects, but King Kong vs. Godzilla really pushed it to the limit. Anyone who calls themselves a fan of “kaiju” movies knows to expect some cheese but that effort delivered moldy cheese that had been left out in the hot sun for weeks. With Mothra vs. Godzilla, Honda smartly pulls his monsters out of Japanese cities and has their battle take place largely in the scenic countryside. Godzilla still attacks a military base and he can’t resist crushing a few small villages, but widespread destruction remains on the sidelines. It’s a nice change of pace for the series that has relied on the gimmick of the radioactive dinosaur trudging his way into a crowded metropolis and smashing everything to pebbles.
Another major slip-up in King Kong vs. Godzilla were the monsters themselves, which look like they were done up by a distracted ten year old boy. Kong’s face looked like a swirl of brown and red and the rest of costume looked like it was a crewmember’s old Halloween costume complete with cardboard claws. Here, we have nothing that comes remotely close to that eyesore. Mothra looks spectacular as she soars around Godzilla’s head and grabs at his tail, a ferocious lioness protecting her young cubs. Even the first glimpse we get of her here is pretty chilling, which is surprising because she had a hard time making an impression in her first solo outing. When Mothra’s slimy young come slithering out of their big blue egg, the clash really gets good as they splash their way towards Godzilla, who has stomped off to feast on a handful of terrified school children stuck on an island. They nip on his tail and strategically spit their silk spray on the roaring giant to freeze him in place. As far as Godzilla himself goes, the big guy hasn’t looked this menacing and nasty since we first saw him in his shadowy black and white debut. When he descends upon the scattering villagers, he is welcomed by menacing horns that could easily have influenced the legendary score of Jaws. He is a force to be reckoned with, one that is out to cause serious pain, which allows us to really root for Mothra to put this radioactive abomination in his place.
Just when you think that Mothra vs. Godzilla can’t get any better, Honda decides to neatly tuck a very human story inside all that gloves-off fury. The characters here are very similar to those found in Mothra, but there doesn’t seem to be a bumbling one is sight. Takarada and Hoshi have plenty of chemistry as our two warm and surprisingly heroic leads. They team up with Koizumi’s wise Professor Miura on an exotic detour to Infant Island, which allows Honda to reflect a bit more on the atomic testing. Tajima and Sahara are perfect as the cartoonish money-hungry businessmen, who see a disaster as a quick way to make a buck. Watching them mistreat the pitiful Shobijin really pierces your heart, especially when they try to capture the girls and put them on display. It appears that sometimes, greedy humans can be even more monstrous than any radioactive giant with fire breath. Overall, while it wouldn’t have taken much to really make up for King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla goes above and beyond to erase all the bad memories of that film from the viewer’s mind. It is well-paced, intelligent, action packed, vibrant, moody, ornate, and carefully crafted for maximum entertainment. This is perhaps the most satisfying Godzilla sequel.
Mothra vs. Godzilla is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
About three years ago, director Robert Schwentke’s geriatric action-comedy RED became a respectable success. It raked in a nice chunk of change, it seemed to charm anyone who went to the theater to see it, and it even went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Picture-Musical or Comedy category. While I found RED to be a fairly entertaining comic book outing, it really didn’t win me over like it did with almost everyone else who ventured to the theater to check out Helen Mirren with a machine gun. The absolute last thing that I thought it needed was a sequel, but apparently Hollywood thought differently. Enter RED 2, an action comedy that practically throws its back out to capture the same small, off-beat charms of the first film in a summer blockbuster season crammed with giant robots, monsters, and other, better superheroes. While new director Dean Parisot may have had his heart in the right place, RED 2 is a sluggish and stale shoot-‘em-up that feels obligated to incorporate every action movie cliché imaginable. The returning cast members sure seem spirited and the newcomers are relishing the idea of spending time with Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich, but after a while, all of them start to seem bored, confused, and, much to my horror, a bit winded. Come on, guys, pick it up!
Former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis) is trying to live a normal life with his feisty girlfriend, Sarah Ross (played by Mary-Louise Parker). One day while shopping at Costco, Frank and Sarah bump into paranoid buddy Marvin Boggs (played by John Malkovich), who warns Frank that there are people after them. Frank dismisses Marvin, and moments later, Marvin’s car is blown up. Sarah and Frank attend Marvin’s funeral, even though Frank is convinced that Marvin is not dead, and afterward, Frank is taken to the Yankee White Facility to be interrogated. While in custody, the Yankee White Facility is attacked by Jack Horton (played by Neal McDonough), who is there to find Frank, but right before Frank is going to be killed, Marvin, who turns out to be alive, saves the day. Frank and Sarah go on the run with Marvin, who explains that they were listed as participants in a secret Cold War mission called “Nightshade,” which revolved around sneaking a nuclear weapon into the Kremlin piece by piece. As it turns out, that mysterious weapon is now in high demand. Just when the trio believes that things can’t get any worse, they learn that their old friend Victoria Winters (played by Helen Mirren) and top contract killer Han Jo-bae (played by Lee Byung-hun) have been hired to kill them. As Frank, Sarah, and Marvin travel the world to clear their names, they come face to face with the beautiful Russian secret agent Katya (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), a deadly assassin called “The Frog” (played by David Thewlis), and the crazy Dr. Edward Bailey (played by Anthony Hopkins), the man responsible for the creation of the weapon.
After getting off to a cloudy start, RED 2 quickly morphs into another seen-it-all-before action comedy. While RED was more humorous than it was flat-out funny, RED 2 can’t seem to deliver a good laugh to save its life. The only one who doesn’t fumble through her one-liners is Mirren, who really knows how to make even the most wooden joke cut like a knife. It is one thing that the jokes come off as lazy, but it’s another when the action can’t seem to ever get your adrenaline pumping. There are the expected car chases through narrow Paris streets, there are the fistfights that are meant to show us that Bruce Willis can still throw a mean right hook, and there are the Gatling-gun shootouts that turn cars and buildings into Swiss cheese, but all of these would-be rushes seem like they were executed by using a how-to manual for action films. The only time that Parisot really adds any personality to all the compact destruction is near the end, when Byung-hun and Mirren hop into a ice blue sports car and swerve around whizzing bullets like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. The entire sequence is anchored by Mirren’s ability to barely raise an eyebrow as cars go flipping end over end behind them. This is basically where the fun begins and ends in RED 2.
The true strength of RED lied with its all-star cast of energetic veterans who really made the film something worth talking about. While the cast of RED 2 is clearly having a good time with each other, their performances are a mixed bag. As far as the returning cast members go, Willis is the one headlining the mayhem and he looks to be right at home while doing it. He jumps, shoots, kicks, punches, and bleeds like a champion, but as the story progresses, he almost seems to be loosing interest in saving the world for the hundredth time. As Marvin, Malkovich dials back some of his acid-flashback craziness, which is a shame because his character relied on the idea that he had more than a few screws loose. Parker is clearly enjoying the fact that she is surrounded by a handful of legends, but she probably gives the laziest performance in the entire film. She basically just constantly gets mad at Frank for having dated Katya several years earlier. Mirren probably gives the best performance of the film as Victoria, who doesn’t remotely seem phased by anything going on around her. As far as the newcomers are concerned, Jones is here to give the film a bit more sex appeal. She is vampy and fun, but we are barely given the chance to get to know her character. Byung-hun turns up as the usual unstoppable hitman who can, you guessed it, kill someone with almost ANYTHING. It appears that Malkovich handed all of his crazy pills over to Hopkins, who jolly-goods his way through a crackers performance as Dr. Edward Bailey. Rounding out the cast is Neal McDonough as Jack Horton, the most boring bad guy ever. Seriously, he even has a boring name!
While the original RED had quite a few positives working in its favor, the film found success mostly because it was released during a slow month at the box office. The film came out at the end of October, with absolutely no competition whatsoever. RED 2 has been released in the middle of July, on a weekend that is usually reserved for a major studio release that is sure to make close to $100 million. It is surrounded by epic releases that almost dwarf it and make it seem like a wimpy effort. While it could be argued that RED 2 offers a nice change of pace from the usual superhero movies and alien invasion blockbusters, the film is still trying to be an action movie without bringing anything new to the table, which is really a shame. Overall, RED 2 isn’t a particularly awful film, but it is one made with absolutely no artistic vision. The tone is flat, the plot is dull, the action recycled, and the acting all over the place. Maybe if the studio shot for a release date earlier in the year or later this fall, these issues may not have been as noticeable. If there is a RED 3 in the works, which I’m sure that there is, maybe they should start rethinking it or hire a director willing to shake things up a bit.
by Steve Habrat
There was a time when I thought that James Wan was a hack. In 2004, he failed to move me with his industrial indie Saw, the film that was responsible for igniting the torture porn craze that gripped the horror genre for a solid five years. While I’ll acknowledge that Saw offered a few clever surprises and a seriously wicked piece of rusty headgear, the film felt like a wannabe Seven that lacked the gloomy urban goth of David Fincher’s grotesque classic. It didn’t help that it was followed up with a string of pale and uninspired sequels (Wan only directed the first film) that stretched the premise to the breaking point. Wan offered up two more exercises in mediocre brutality (Dead Silence, Death Sentence) before he really made something worthwhile. In 2011, he made me a believer in his talent with his fiendish funhouse horror movie Insidious, a near perfect thrill ride that was tripped up by an overkill climax and a ghoul that looked like Darth Maul from Star Wars. It appears that Insidious was just a warm-up. A little over two years later, Wan returns to the horror genre with The Conjuring and he means business. The Conjuring doesn’t find Wan reinventing the haunted house horror movie formula, but it does find him at the top of his game and delivering the knock-out punch that horror fans have been waiting years for. Yes, this film is genuinely scary, folks.
The Conjuring picks up in 1971, with Roger (played by Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (played by Lili Taylor) moving their happy family to an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. As the Perrons settle in to their rural palace, the family begins experiencing a number of strange occurrences. At first, their youngest daughter talks about a new imaginary friend, they hear eerie noises throughout the home, their dog is terrified to come near the house, birds fly into the windows, they find strange bruises on their bodies, and they wake up every morning to find their clocks frozen at 3:07 AM. As the activity increases and becomes more malevolent, the petrified Carolyn approaches local paranormal investigators Ed (played by Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (played by Vera Farmiga) Warren about coming to their home and investigating the activity. At first the Warren’s are a bit hesitant, especially after their last case, which took a severe toll on Lorraine, but upon arriving at the Perron house, they uncover the home’s grisly past and quickly come to the realization that this may be their most horrific case yet, especially when the supernatural forces begin fighting back.
Proudly sporting the “based on a true story” badge, The Conjuring finds Wan refusing to hide behind this fatigued gimmick. He could have peppered his film with the same old lazy jump scares and then argued in an interview that the film is scary because it supposedly really happened, but he resists at nearly every single turn. There are loud bangs and there certainly are plenty of sudden jolt scares, but for each easy “gotcha,” Wan balances it out with a nerve-frying moment of bloodcurdling intensity. He starts out small, with faint bumps, thumps, footsteps, and bangs that would make Robert Wise smile. He then graduates to poltergeist activity, with the Perron girls getting yanked out of their beds while they sleep, doors slamming on their own, people getting thrown across the room, and Carolyn getting violently shoved down the cellar stairs. When Wan shifts his attention to the full-on manifestations, The Conjuring takes a bit of a hit, mostly because the spirits seem a bit too familiar. They have the usual gray skin, blackened eyes, and dusty period clothing, all something that you might have spotted in Insidious. A few of them are eerie, especially the young boy that appears in the music box mirror, but for the most part, you wish that Wan would have left them in the shadows. Thankfully, they don’t take too much away from the film.
While the first half of The Conjuring acts as a chilly ode to haunted house classics like The Haunting and The Amityville Horror, the second half of the film becomes heavily indebted to demonic horror films of the 1970s like The Exorcist. While nothing comes close to the horror we saw in William Friedkin’s classic, The Conjuring certainly doesn’t go soft on us. The climax is usually where these types of horror films collapse on themselves, mostly because the filmmaker is under the impression that they have to outdo themselves and bring the story home with a deafening bang. Wan was certainly a victim of this on Insidious with his maroon nod to famed Italian horror director Dario Argento, but on The Conjuring, he fights the urge to go over the top. The climax here is fabulously tame, with only a few special effects that keep us from totally buying into that whole “based on a true story” thing. There is some bloody barf, nasty burns, and demonic howls that even Linda Blair’s Regan would chuckle at, but Wan never lets the film slip. He puts several innocent lives at stake and he even threatens the sanity of our heroes, who have already been pushed to the brink once before. I’ll be damned if you won’t be holding your breath.
While Wan’s expert direction certainly makes The Conjuring a winner, the film’s stars do a remarkable job seeming natural and authentic for the camera. Taylor is spot on as the sweet Carolyn, a loving housewife who oozes affection for her family. She shares many wonderful moments with Livingston’s Roger, a down-to-earth nice guy trucker who is powerless to protect his family. Taylor and Livingston work overtime to make us really like them and their hard work pays off when the spooks come knocking. While Taylor and Livingston hold their own, they take a back seat to Farmiga and Wilson, who elevate their real life paranormal investigators to horror movie heroes for the ages. Farmiga is on fire as Lorraine, a levelheaded clairvoyant who fights the urge to scream bloody murder when one of the manifestations gets right in her face. She is immensely likable, especially when her motherly affection comes forth. Wilson’s Ed doesn’t emit the warmth that Farmiga does, at least not at first. It takes some time to dig into him, as he is perpetually all business in his lectures and interviews, only softening when his young daughter comes calling. Rounding out the cast is Shannon Kook as the Warren’s techie assistant Drew, who gets a chance to play hero at the end of the film, and John Brotherton as Brad, a skeptical local cop here simply to add a bit of unnecessary comic relief.
While there certainly are a few little things that The Conjuring could have done without, the film is just way too strong where it counts. The scares are not always accompanied by loud music queues and there is a heavy reliance on atmosphere to keep us on the edge of our seats. The terror is consistently held and the moments that threaten to become cliché are thrown off to keep us uneasy about what Wan will do to us next. The Perron household is convincingly done up to seem old and aging, all yellowing walls, big heavy doors, and long hallways shrouded in shadows. The outside seems frozen in a perpetual autumn, complete with a blackened pond out back, dead leaves blanketing the ground, and a gnarled tree that was perfect for a satanic suicide. It is clear that Wan understands that the house itself is as much of a character as the flesh and blood ones we are invested in. The nods to past horror classics are all slyly placed and Wan even dares to work in a tip of the hat to Alfred Hitchcock’s apocalyptic masterpiece The Birds. He does effectively play with the “found footage” craze a bit, giving it a retro edge that feels oddly fresh. Overall, The Conjuring is carefully crafted in vein of 70s horror films (get a load of that gloriously retro opening credit sequence) and offers up enough moments that will sear themselves into your nightmares for the rest of your life. In a time when the horror genre finds itself unsure over how to scare the audience silly, Wan reminds it that simplicity is key.
by Steve Habrat
After passing on directing duties for the 1955 Godzilla follow-up Godzilla Raids Again, director Ishiro Honda was reunited with his radioactive beast on the 1962 monster-against-monster epic King Kong vs. Godzilla. With Honda returning to the director’s chair, you’d think that sparks would fly as these two legendary names squared off against each other, but that certainly isn’t the case with King Kong vs. Godzilla. The third entry into the Godzilla franchise was probably the worst of the Toho Studios bunch at that point, but the film went on to be a megahit anyway. In America, King Kong vs. Godzilla was picked up by monster movie juggernaut Universal Studios, who further drove the film into the ground with distracting commentary sequences, horrible dubbing, inane dialogue, and even reused the bone chilling score from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The horror doesn’t stop there, folks, as King Kong vs. Godzilla ends up being a shoddy horror outing plagued by overacting and an outrageously awful portrayal of Kong, a monster who simultaneously scared us out of our wits and earned our sympathy in his 1933 debut King Kong.
King Kong vs. Godzilla begins with the chairman of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, Mr. Tako (played by Ichiro Arishima), trying to figure out how to market an exotic berry that was just discovered on Faro Island. Mr. Tako soon learns that Faro Island is the home of the legendary monster King Kong, a beast that he believes would make a great face for his new product. Mr. Tako sends two explorers, Osamu Sakurai (played by Tadao Takashima) and Kinsaburo Furue (played by Yu Fujiki), to track the giant ape down and capture it. Meanwhile, an American submarine studying bizarre oceanic conditions gets trapped in the same iceberg that the Japanese government buried Godzilla in several years earlier. Just as help arrives, Godzilla breaks free from the iceberg and stomps off. On Faro Island, Sakurai and Furue manage to make their way past the natives and an array of exotic creature and track down King Kong. The duo captures the beast and secures him on a raft for transport to Japan. Along the way, Kong manages to break loose and head off to find Godzilla, who turns out to be his ultimate rival.
A disjointed mess from the get-go, King Kong vs. Godzilla does away with the dark atmosphere of the first two films and reintroduces these two titans of terror in glorious color. The color certainly does give the film plenty of personality, but also reveals the tackiness of the special effects. There are moments when superimposed natives or soldiers actually glow blue as they dart around and scream at the feet of the rubber monsters. The once spectacular miniature sets are now cardboard metropolises with glaringly obvious remote-controlled plastic cars and shiny train sets. Honda was able to conceal some of the cheesier moments in Godzilla because he plunged everything into moody darkness, but here, everything is presented to the viewer in broad daylight, which reveals all the screws, tape, and glue. They make you long for the days when Japanese officials ordered a black out as the radioactive Godzilla lumbered through the builds and spat a jet of fire down on the terrified citizens in crisp black and white. The rural sets fare much better than the city sequences, but these moments are marred by the two worst performances from men in rubber suits that you may ever see.
First, let’s discuss Godzilla. As it turns out, Godzilla’s slightly redesigned costume here is the one that his diehard fans adore the most. While the changes are minor (Godzilla has three toes here rather than four, he is a bit bulkier, and the eyes appear to be a bit bigger), the costume looks relatively the same. He still looks fierce with those giant fins on his back that glow white when he gets ready to unleash his fiery stream. The problem is the person inside the suit, who just swings their arms around and does something resembling a dance when he confronts his ape nemesis. Kong’s costume is the real eyesore of the two beasts, mostly because it looks like a cheapie Halloween costume that the filmmakers picked up at a grocery store. The Kong mask looks like a misshapen blob that has been used for a painting palette and the costume itself looks like an early gorilla suit that was dug out of one of the crew member’s attic. It is also clear that when Kong pounds his chest, the actor is wearing fake hands to give the illusion of longer arms. It is like a sick joke when held up next to the original stop-motion Kong, who was a hell of a lot more menacing than anything we see here. Just when you think that Honda can’t desecrate the Kong character anymore, he then informs us that Kong uses lightning to strengthen him up. Um, what?!
As far as the showdowns go between the two beasts, nothing really stands out as being particularly entertaining or exciting. It is largely like the battle you saw in Godzilla Raids Again, just sillier, shorter and in color. The first time the two beasts actually stare each other down, Kong throws boulders at Godzilla and Godzilla swings his arms around like he is trying to fly away. Perhaps the neatest action sequence of the whole film is the scene in which Kong battles a giant squid on Faro Island. It has some slimy special effects and some icky sound work that will pucker your face. As far as our human characters go, no one does anything remarkable with their character. Arishima just looks dumbfounded behind giant glasses and Takashima and Fujiki are there simply to add unfunny comic relief to the playtime action. Mie Hama also drops by as Sakurai’s sister, Fumiko, who is here as a stand-in for the original King Kong’s Fay Wray. Overall, while it may have seemed like a good idea to try to bring together the two biggest names (literally) in horror, King Kong vs. Godzilla is an empty-headed clash of two titans who mix like oil and water. Honda never hits a stride and his Americanized vision is tarnished even further with unnecessary additions. Godzilla should have stayed frozen and Kong should have remained on Faro Island.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is available on DVD.
Evil Dead (2013)
It has been a slow few months in Blu-ray release land, but I’ve finally got one that I think is collection worthy, especially for you horror fiends out there. If you are any kind of a horror fan, you rushed right out in April to dry heave over all the nastiness in Fede Alvarez’s rusted Evil Dead reboot. While it wasn’t particularly scary, the film was a boomstick blast of brutality that had to be seen to be believed. Evil Dead also turned out to be one of the better horror remakes that I’ve ever seen, and trust me, they very rarely get my approval (to date, the only ones that I really like are Dawn of the Dead (2004), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Halloween (2007), and The Crazies (2010)). Visually striking and hugely entertaining, Evil Dead will most certainly look amazing on your 1080p television and makes for a wicked little alternative for when you’ve worn yourself out on Sam Raimi’s 1981 original. If you’ve got a Target nearby, make sure you head there to get your claws on the Target Exclusive Steelbook Edition, which has some killer box art. Some of the special features include a number of documentaries, a commentary with the cast, and even an interview with none other than Bruce Campbell.
So, if you wish to read Anti-Film School’s review of Evil Dead, click here. Otherwise, grab those credit cards and head over to Target so you can add this beast to your horror collection. It is one of the few remakes that deserves to be there.
-Theater Management (Steve)
by Steve Habrat
When you take a look at some of the giant creature features made during the 1950s, most of them are extremely campy due to their low budget. Most were made quickly and on the cheap, simply to fill out a drive-in double bill. However, when compared to the 1970s B-movie Equinox, which was made for—get this—just under $7,000, the Atomic Age creature features were dripping in cash (the rickety 1958 effort Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is said to have had a budget of $88,000!). Made as a short student film by Dennis Muren in 1967, Equinox was picked up by Tonylyn Productions and completed by Jack Woods and producer Jack H. Harris. At a quick glance, Equinox may seem like just another monster throwaway, but if you dare to look closer, you will begin to see how influential the film really is, especially when held up next to a specific cabin-in-the-woods cheapie released in 1980 by none other than Sam Raimi. Today, many audience members would probably die laughing at some of the special effects that Equinox has to offer, but as a testament to resourcefulness and creativity, the film is a major triumph. We are watching a group of kids make magic and they could barely afford the wand to cast the spell!
Equinox begins with a young man named David (played by Edward Connell) being sent to an asylum after stumbling out of the woods in a daze and getting struck by a passing car, which apparently has no driver. A year after being committed, David is visited by a local reporter named Sloan (played by James Phillips), who is interested in hearing David’s outlandish story. David claims that he went to visit one of their college professors, Dr. Arthur Waterman (played by Fritz Lieber), with his girlfriend, Susan (played by Barbara Hewitt), his best friend, Jim (played by Frank Bonner), and Jim’s girlfriend, Vicki (played by Robin Christopher). After finding Dr. Waterman’s cabin in ruin, the group stumbles upon a cave where they meet a crazy old hermit who gives them an ancient book filled with mystical writings and drawings. Shortly after coming into possession of the book, the group bumps into a park ranger named Asmodeus (played by Jack Woods), who is also looking for the mysterious book. Asmoedeus begins stalking the teenagers and conjuring up a handful of demonic beasts that will stop at nothing to get their claws on the book.
When it comes to the narrative, Equinox is simply concerned with ushering the audience from one monster attack to the other. But then again, isn’t that why we are watching Equinox in the first place? The creature effects here do have a bit of a Ray Harryhausen vibe about them, especially a giant ape-like beast that is one of the first to attack the group of teens. In the short time that Equinox occupies the screen, we get to marvel at a giant green squid rip apart a cabin, a green-skinned giant that looks like a demonic Fred Flintstone, a howling hooded specter appear in a graveyard, and last but certainly not least, a winged red demon, which is perhaps the most visually striking of all the monsters to appear in the film. It should also be noted that these monsters are pretty spry. The winged demon leaps through the air and barrels down on the kids while the ape-like brute stomps and pounds its way around a rocky hill while one of the kids dangles from some roots. These moments are extremely amazing, especially when you take into consideration that they were accomplished with almost nothing.
While the monsters are the true stars, the handful of amateur performers do their absolute best to keep the viewer entertained. Connell is the headliner of the show and despite a few hiccups here and there, he manages to nail being both the levelheaded leader and the whimpering lunatic yelling for his cross. Bonner’s Jim is fairly one dimensional, a forgettable sidekick for Connell’s David. About the most memorable moment for Bonner was his run-in with the ape monster. Jack Woods gives probably the most colorful performance as Asmodeus, the creepy park ranger with a demonic side. He does bring some serious menace to the role, even if one particular scene finds him swishing his mouth around and drooling on the camera, which is supposed to show his evil side coming out. The crew also adds a bit of black face paint around his eyes just to further drive the point home. As far as the ladies go, Hewitt’s Barbara would fade from memory if it weren’t for her scene with the face-contorting Woods. The rest of the time, she is asked to act all spaced out and wander around confused. There is, however, a nice little twist at the end with her character even if we can see it coming. Christopher is probably the least memorable of all the characters as Vicki, the girlfriend of the beige sidekick Jim. Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by horror and science fiction writer Fritz Lieber as Dr. Arthur Waterman. He doesn’t speak any lines and he is only seen briefly, but it is neat the filmmakers managed to convince him to show up.
While the special effects make Equinox a must-see for horror fanatics, the film is also a must for fans of Sam Raimi’s low-budget cabin-in-the-woods nightmare The Evil Dead. While not nearly as gruesome or terrifying as Raimi’s film (although, there is quite a bit of gore in Equinox), there are still plenty of similarities between the plots of Equinox and The Evil Dead. Both films deal with a group of kids reading from an ancient text and battling against relentless demonic forces that wish to rip them to shreds in the woods. Equinox was also a major influence on Star Wars and Dennis Muren even went on to be a key crewmember on the film. Overall, Equinox isn’t a film that you should walk blindly into. To truly appreciate all the blood, sweat, and tears that were poured into the creature feature, it is best to do a bit of research on the film. It may have a choppy plot, strained performances, and creaky scares, but Equinox is an inspirational work of art, one that proves that anything is possible if you can dream it. This is a one-of-a-kind cult classic that was the original warning to stay away from that old cabin in the woods.
Equinox is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
These days, it is extremely difficult and rare for a major Hollywood studio to take a creative risk, especially during the hot and humid summer months when audiences turn out in droves. The suits fall back on time-tested franchises, overdone remakes, comic book heroes with built-in audiences, and winded sequels that guarantee them a major worldwide hit. Take this summer, for example, as we have seen another Marvel megahit with Iron Man 3, a grim reboot of the Man of Steel, two familiar animated sequels (Monsters University and Despicable Me 2), a Brad Pitt led zombie blockbuster based off of a wildly popular novel by Max Brooks (World War Z), and another installment in the Star Trek series. While I have enjoyed all of the films I’ve pointed out here, I’ve still craved something fresh and creatively stimulating. Enter Guillermo del Toro, a man with a vivid imagination and a knack for serving up some seriously zesty cinematic efforts, both big (Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and small (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth). After a lengthy hiatus from the director’s chair, we finally have a new summer blockbuster from del Toro and that film is the astonishing giant monster-giant robot mash-up Pacific Rim, a pulpy blast of rainbow science fiction that is exactly what the cinema doctor ordered. Seconds, please!
Pacific Rim begins by explaining that giant monsters known as “Kaiju” have crawled out of a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean and stomped into our cities. Unable to bring them down with the weapons we already have, the world develops a new weapon called “Jaegers,” which are giant robots capable of tossing around the raging “Kaiju.” After several exhausting years of battle, the “Jaegers” grow less and less effective in keeping the “Kaiju” at bay. The united governments of Earth grow weary of the giant robots and they decide to cut funding for their construction. The remaining “Jaegers” are shipped off to Hong Kong, where they are left to rust away and fade from memory. The remaining “Jaeger” program is left to Commander Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba), who is determined to keep the “Jaegers” fighting the good fight. Stacker approaches washed-up “Jaeger” pilot Raleigh Becket (played by Charile Hunnam), who piloted the American “Jaeger” Gipsy Danger but quit when he watched his brother die in combat, about rejoining the program in a final attempt to prevent the imminent apocalypse. Raleigh agrees and begins training to find a suitable co-pilot, which he finds in the scrappy “Jaeger” test pilot Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Meanwhile, bickering scientists Dr. Newton Geizler (played by Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (played by Burn Gorman) have assembled a machine that allows them to establish a mental link with the “Kaiju” and discovered that the giant monsters are in fact genetically-bred weapons sent to wipe out the human race so that their masters can colonize the planet.
While many will be quick to label Pacific Rim as a Transformers wannabe, the film has so much more to offer than one of those Michael Bay abominations. This candy-colored gem is an exhilarating ode to Toho Co., the Japanese production company that is responsible for releasing giant monster movies (called “kaiju” movies, which is Japanese for “giant monster”) like 1954s Godzilla. While Pacific Rim certainly tips its hat to Godzilla and his family of rampaging atomic beasts (Rodan, Mothra, etc.), del Toro’s vision is something completely singular. The story line is carried by the myriad of colorful characters, which consistently stand apart from the astonishing special effects and towering action sequences that are loud enough to wake up the two people sleeping through The Lone Ranger in the neighboring theater. In the vein of Toho, the action is relentless, especially the neon fist-fight between a handful of “Jaegers” and a couple of seriously nasty “Kaiju” in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. It’s a rock ‘em-sock ‘em moment of pure adrenaline ecstasy that will have adults and children cheering in delight. But the thrills don’t stop there, as del Toro keeps uping the ante and powering up his beasts for a show-stopping underwater brawl boosted by a nuclear fizz.
While the heavy metal CGI action is a must-see, Pacific Rim is a very human film and one brimming with performances that will beckon you back for more. Del Toro proves that you don’t necessarily need a Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., or Johnny Depp in the thick of the action to keep the audience absorbed in what is playing out before them. All you need is colorfully drawn characters with fragile emotion tucked delicately inside the layered armor. The relatively unknown Hunnam is out for blood as Raleigh, and I mean that in the best possible way. He is the all-American good guy—one that is nursing deep wounds but is eager to deliver a one-two hit to the massive monsters that wade through the Pacific. His chemistry is exceptional with Kikuchi, who isn’t the same old love interest (It is hinted at but never addressed outright. Perhaps in the sequel.). Kikuchi is heartwarming as the girl with a shy crush, but she is a lightning bolt of vengeance when we are allowed to glimpse inside her broken heart. These two animated leads are kept on a short leash by Elba’s no-nonsense father figure, who pops pills for a life-threatening illness and delivers pulse-pounding speeches about meeting the “monsters that are at our door” and “canceling the apocalypse.”
While our three leads do an incredible job, the supporting players are certainly something to behold. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day is a quirky and fun choice as the tattooed “Kaiju” scientist Newton, who rambles and shakes like a hipster lunatic in oversized specs. Surprisingly, he isn’t here simply to act as the comic relief, which really is a testament to his talent. Burn Gorman is great as Day’s uber-nerd partner Hermann, who pounds on a chalkboard and hobbles around like a comic book Albert Einstein with high-waisted pants and a cane. Clifton Collins Jr. is a treat as Tendo Choi, an Elvis-like greaser “Jaeger” whiz who is determined to spice up the role of the guy who simply sits behind the computer screen and acts as a guide to the heroes in the field. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are great tough guys as Hercules and Chuck Hansen, a tough-as-nails Australian father-son duo tasked with a beast of a mission. The pint-sized Mana Ashida is fantastic in her minor role as a young Mako Mori. She basically just cries and wanders around with a shoe in her hand, but she sent chills down my spine with her raw emotion. Last but certainly not least is the always-welcome Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a blinged-out black marketeer in sinister goggles who tracks down and deals “Kaiju” organs. He shares some wonderful moments with Charlie Day’s twitchy scientist.
Considering that Pacific Rim is a tribute to Atomic Age creature features, there are numerous nods to Godzilla and many other Toho releases. I certainly smiled when Hong Kong citizens were locked into an underground shelter and huddled together as “Kaiju” footsteps boomed overhead, something that called to mind the original Godzilla. There is also a sly little tribute to the flare tactic used to keep Godzilla away from a blacked out city in Godzilla Raids Again and there is a magnificent aerial moment that sung praises to Rodan and Mothra. If there is something I absolutely need to criticize, there are a few moments where the action was a bit incoherent, but these moments are few and far between. Overall, while Pacific Rim doesn’t ever get as political and poetic as those post-World War II efforts did, there is still something deeply personal about del Toro’s vision. It is coming from the heart and it is a beautifully written love letter to the monster movies that del Toro loved as a kid. This film is a labor of love, a carefully crafted summer epic that earns its action sequences and doesn’t ever forget to remain human.
by Steve Habrat
A year after Toho’s thunderous Godzilla took the world by storm, the Japanese production company quickly got to work on a follow up film to capitalize on the success of the first film. Director Motoyoshi Oda’s 1955 sequel Godzilla Raids Again certainly isn’t interested in capturing the guilt and sorrow of a nation still reeling from the devastation of World War II and the detonation of the atomic bomb, but this “kaiju” film is one that is certainly determined to deliver a whole bunch of smashing and clashing. And deliver it does. Godzilla Raids Again is the first film in the Godzilla series to pit the legendary radioactive beast against another roaring adversary, something that would become wildly popular in Toho’s later work. While it is never as eerie as the first film and it doesn’t feature that sulking human soul, Godzilla Raids Again does succeed as a breathless action extravaganza, even if it does seem like Toho threw it together in a frenzied rush. The destruction doesn’t pack the authentic punch that it did the first time around, and the miniature destruction sequences seem drawn out to pad the runtime rather than send shivers down the spine of the drive-in audience, but boy, this sucker is a giddy rush. Let the battle begin!
Godzilla Raids Again introduces us to two pilots, Shoichi Tsukioka (played by Hiroshi Koizumi) and Koji Kobayashi (played by Minoru Chiaki), who are hunting schools of fish for a tuna cannery in Osaka. Kobayashi’s plane malfunctions, which forces him to make an emergency landing on Iwato Island, a jagged and uninhabited cluster of volcanic rocks. Tsukioka tracks down Kobayashi and finds him among the rocks, but the men make another horrific discovery. It turns out that the island is home to Godzilla, who is currently fighting with another bizarre creature. As the two creatures trade blows, they both fall into the water and disappear. Tsukioka and Kobayashi make their way back to Osaka and report what they saw to the authorities, who conclude the this new Godzilla is a second member of the same species brought back by the same hydrogen bomb tests that awoke the original Godzilla. As for the other monster, the authorities believe that it is Anguirus, a creature that has an intense rivalry with Godzilla. As the creatures bring their grudge closer to the shores of Osaka, the government orders a blackout of the city under the belief that the monsters hate light because it reminds them of the hydrogen bomb. Since neither of the monsters can be killed, the government uses flares to draw them away from the shore, but after a freak accident causes a fire, the two monsters bring their battle to the streets of Osaka.
Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla was a film that was packed plenty of splintered spectacle to marvel at, but the film had a heavy human presence and a meditative sorrow that forced the radioactive destruction to play out in the background. Honda took his time to work up to these spellbinding moments and he forced us to really identify with the terrified Japanese citizens who were convinced that they brought this horror on themselves. Godzilla Raids Again doesn’t take that same subtle approach, as the film launches head first into destruction and never looks back. It is still implied that Godzilla is a walking A-bomb, but his pounding footsteps never remind us of bombs being dropped from above. The only true form of suspense that we get in Godzilla Raids Again is the sequence in which Godzilla wanders towards the Osaka coast as flares glide over his head. It truly is a magnificent moment that brought the original film to mind. Outside of this, Oda can’t wait to have his beasts engage in their urban clash and reduce buildings to ruble. While the extended battle is zany fun, the annihilation never really makes the hair on your arm stand up and it’s not even half convincing, as it is painfully obvious that these are just two actors swatting at each other in rubber suits.
While the black out brawl in Osaka is quite a bit of fun, Godzilla Raids Again looses that fun spirit during the extended final battle that finds a stationary Godzilla battling jets that zoom over his head. This is the moment where our two fine but forgettable heroes get to do their he-man thing and sock it to the rampaging abomination. The climax is thick with an icy and vaguely apocalyptic atmosphere that certainly does get you to pay attention, but after a while, it just gets repetitive as the same hills blow up, the same rocks keep tumbling down, the same planes keep getting knocked out of the sky, and the same soldiers keep yelling the same orders, all while Godzilla just stands there and does absolutely nothing to get out of the line of fire. Why isn’t he trying to get away? Why doesn’t he charge at his foes? And do they really think that their approach to defeating him will really work? The entire climax feels like the filmmakers weren’t exactly sure how to bring this monster mash to a close, especially since their main grudge match plotline gets clipped way too early.
As far as our two main performers go, Koizumi is your typical action hero who woos a pretty girl and goes toe-to-toe with the roaring beast. He is likable enough but nothing really stands out about him, which is a shame when you think back to the complex heroes that we had in the original Godzilla. Chiaki fares better as the lovesick Kobayashi, a pudgy goofball who seems to be always coming in second place with the ladies. Together, the two men have fine chemistry and we really buy their friendship, but the film clearly isn’t framing itself around them. The only returning cast member from the original film is Takashi Shimura as Dr. Kyohei Yamane, who shows up to identify Godzilla and show a montage of Godzilla laying waste to Tokyo. Overall, while Oda’s vision may not be as clever, haunting, and poetic as Honda’s 1954 original, Godzilla Raids Again still packs hints of the atomic metaphors that loomed over the apocalyptic original. This follow up may peak a bit too early and suffer from a monotonous final confrontation, but Godzilla Raids Again still stands as a satisfying slice of creature feature drive-in escapism.
Godzilla Raids Again is available on DVD.