by Steve Habrat
In the 1980s, the horror genre was besieged by an array of drive-in and grindhouse slasher movies. Among the numbers were hockey-mask clad madmen, scarred dream-world psychopaths, and slumber party massacres, but the bad boy of them all had to be 1982’s Spanish bloodbath Pieces. Directed by Juan Piquer Simón, Pieces is one of the most savage and downright hilarious slasher movies from the movement—one made all the more likable through its flaws in logic and it’s seemingly insatiable bloodlust. Boasting the gruesome taglines, “It’s exactly what you think it is” and “You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre,” Pieces goes for the jugular vein with its violence, never cutting away from the skin-shredding brutality and chainsaw carnage that fills the screen. It’s a treat for those who absolutely adore their exploitation films with geysers of gore and an abundance of topless babes sprinting around as a chainsaw growls just inches behind them. While it may not be nearly as terrifying as Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Pieces is a extravagant effort that continues to win over cult horror buffs with its ominous synthesizer score, fluid attack sequences, cheese-filled dubbing, and shriek-inducing climax that leaves your jaw cemented to the floor.
Pieces picks up in 1942, with a young boy named Timmy assembling a puzzle of a nude pin-up girl. As he quietly and harmlessly snaps the pieces together, his mother walks in and erupts in anger at the boy, threatening to burn the filth Timmy is playing with. In retaliation, Timmy grabs an axe and proceeds to gruesomely hack his fuming mommy up into bloody bits. The police and a concerned neighbor soon show up on the scene and find the seemingly terrified and innocent Timmy hiding in the closet. Many years later, a bloodthirsty madman is running loose on a college campus in Boston. As the body count rises and the campus shudders in fear, a hardboiled police lieutenant, Bracken (played by Christopher George), partners with an enthusiastic college student, Kendall James (played by Ian Sera), and a beautiful undercover agent, Mary Riggs (played by Lynda Day), who is on campus posing as a tennis star, to identify the murderer before more bodies turn up. As the group investigates the horrific crime scenes, they discover that the shadowy killer is claiming various severed limbs from his victims and assembling a macabre work of art.
As unintentionally hilarious as Pieces may be, much of the film’s appeal is drawn from the rivers off blood and gore that flow forth from the screen. About as exploitative as you can get, Pieces contains unflinching violence that is off the charts—opening with a hair-raising attack with an axe, and following it up with a nasty beheading, a very messy pool encounter, a simultaneously goofy and savage attack in an elevator, a waterbed stabbathon that splashes blood all over the audience, and a topless chase that culminates with a chainsaw tearing a poor girl in two right after she wets herself out of fear (According to some members of the cast and crew, the poor actress actually did urinate due to a real chainsaw being shoved into her face. Simon must have loved the hell out of reaction, as he left the girl’s accident in the film). To give the film an extra gross-out edge, Simón instructed his crew to use pig carcasses for specific scenes, adding a blunt-force realism to the up-close-and-personal shot of a buzzing chainsaw separating a girl’s lower half from her top half. While much of this carnage is stomach churning, overblown, and about as gratuitous as you can get, the real shock comes in the final moments of the film, when Simón effectively reveals what our silhouetted antagonist has been up to with those body parts he has been claiming. The surprise won’t be revealed here, but it’s a stitched-up science project/warped work of art that acts as the cherry on top of this strawberry sundae. And just when your heart slows to a normal rate, Simón springs one more surprise that is gloriously out of left field, vaguely channeling the final supernatural minutes of 1980’s Friday the 13th.
And then we have the performances, all of which are extremely over the top, made even more ridiculous through the ham-fisted dubbing that Simón applied in post-production. Ian Sera is fine enough as our curly-haired hero, Kendall, who gets involved with the case after one of his gal pals bites the dust. He develops a fast friendship with Lt. Bracken, who practically makes him an honorary police officer in seconds, and a far-fetched relationship with Lynda Day’s Mary, the gorgeous undercover agent who struts around campus as a tennis pro. Much of Day’s performance relies on her good looks, but her unforgettable “bastard!” moment is pure cheese you can’t help but chuckle at. Together, they dash from crime scene to crime scene, as squeamish cops recoil is disgust and vomit all over their shoes. Christopher George ultimately blends in with the woodwork as Lt. Bracker, the veteran cop that is always one step behind the killer. Hulking actor Paul L. Smith stops by as Willard, the suspicious groundskeeper who pummels a room full of cops and grins maniacally to himself as he cleans the chain of his chainsaw. Another shady cast member is Edmund Purdom, who is present as the campus dean, an oily suspect in the morbid case.
While Pieces aims at being a nauseating slice of terror, this little exploitation gem works much better as a sleazy little laugh riot. The synthesizer score sets the spooky stage nicely in the opening credits, but that gritty sense of unease is quickly sacked by a skateboarding chick smashing into a mirror, a leering glimpse at a aerobics/dance class set to a pure 80s robotic tune, the killer attempting to “conceal” his chainsaw on a cramped elevator, and Day’s nighttime encounter with a wandering kung-fu instructor who ate some “bad chop suey.” And then there is the bottomless pit of female nudity, which is certain to keep male eyeballs ogling at the screen. Any chance that Simón gets, he’s coaxing his female victims to shed their tops as they run for their lives from the figure pursuing them. Overall, the horror may be scarce, portions of it may not make a lick of sense, and the performances are borderline embarrassing, but cult fanatics and exploitation aficionados are guaranteed to adore Pieces simply because it is a 90-minute orgy of excess. This is one of the sickest and most fun grindhouse movies around.
Pieces is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After striking box office gold with 1978’s slasher classic Halloween and finding more success with 1981’s follow-up, Halloween II, John Carpenter and Debra Hill thought there was potential to turn the Halloween series into an anthology. Acting as producers, Carpenter and Hill recruited Tommy Lee Wallace and Nigel Kneale to come up with a screenplay that didn’t contain Michael Myers or Laurie Strode. Leaning more towards science fiction than straight up horror, the result was 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, an imaginative but ultimately middling exercise in terror. Directed by Wallace, Halloween III: Season of the Witch’s biggest mistake was cutting the popular Michael Myers character out of the action and replacing it with a mad toymaker who uses Halloween masks to sacrifice children. Since it’s disappointing release, Halloween III: Season of the Witch has earned a cult following despite being considered the worst entry in the Halloween series by Halloween fans. Truth is, Halloween III has its heart in the right place, and the desire to break away from the stab-and-slash formula that the filmmakers applied the first time around is commendable, but the film seems slapped together and it’s poorly acted. To make matter worse, the film never even comes scaring the viewer the way the original Halloween did. Only once or twice does it actually get a little spooky, but the rest of the time it’s falling into unintentional comedy territory.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch begins with Harry Grimbridge (played by Al Berry) getting chased down by mysterious men is suits. He finds help from a kindly gas station attendant, who immediately takes him to the nearby hospital. As the doctors try to evaluate Harry’s condition, they discover that he is clutching a Halloween mask and that he keeps babbling about unnamed individuals who plan on killing everyone. The doctors leave Harry in a room to rest, but he is soon discovered by one of the suited men and brutally murdered. Just as the man is trying to escape, Dr. Dan Challis (played by Tom Atkins) encounters the individual and chases him down. Before Dan can stop him, the man gets into a car and kills himself through self-immolation. A few days later, Dan meets Harry’s daughter, Ellie (played by Stacey Nelkin), who tells Dan of her father’s store, which sold popular masks made by Silver Shamrock. Sensing that something isn’t right with the Silver Shamrock company, Dan and Ellie head to the Silver Shamrock factory in Santa Mira. Upon their arrival, they notice that town seems almost abandoned and those who remain seem strangely cheerful. Making things even more suspicious, the entire town is filled with surveillance cameras. It doesn’t take Dan and Ellie long to learn of Conal Cochran (played by Dan O’Herlihy), the suspicious head of the Silver Shamrock Corporation. After touring the Silver Shamrock factory, Dan and Ellie grow convinced that something strange is going on with the Halloween masks, and that the company may be plotting something sinister on Halloween night.
Attempting to draw its scares from the witchy side of the Gaelic holiday Samhain, Halloween III takes its terror to epic levels that weren’t even dreamed about in Halloween and Halloween II. What made the first two Halloween films such a hit was the idea that the horror could be taking place just up the road or a street over. It was striking in suburbia—the heart of America where kids scamper happily to school and Dad goes to work from 9 to 5. To make it even spookier, it appeared to be the boogeyman and he was reluctant to stay dead. Halloween III captures none of this and instead opts for blunt force violence, synthesized jump scares, and clashing science fiction to give us a few sleepless nights. There are suited androids that leap out from the shadows and there are more than a few gruesome deaths, but the problem is that it seems to be completely misunderstanding what made the original film scary. The original film didn’t need to rely on jump scares or graphic gore—it was scary because it seemed completely plausible. Computer-chipped Halloween masks, irritating jingles, and Stonehenge just don’t make the spine tingle like a white-masked maniac appearing out of nowhere and stabbing a screaming teen to death.
With Wallace flubbing a good majority of the scares, it’s up to stars Tom Atkins and Dan O’Herlihy to do the heavy lifting in Halloween III. Genre star Atkins is his usual heroic self as Dan, a doctor with a broken marriage, a drinking problem, and thing for flirting with nearly every single woman he meets. Naturally, Atkins is likable and we do root for him to stop Cochran from carrying out his evil plot, but he never gives a performance that matches his work in 1980’s The Fog. O’Herlihy is easily the best here as Cochran, the demented toymaker who is all smiles and warm promises when he meets with his fans, but is sinister and scowling when he is challenged by anyone attempting to stand in his way. As far as the rest of the cast goes, Nelkin gives a flat and unexciting performance as Ellie, Grimbridge’s daughter who strikes up a steamy relationship with Dan as they investigate Silver Shamrock. Ralph Strait stops by as Buddy Kupfer, a cheesy, roly-poly salesman who has been pushing large amounts of Cochran’s Halloween masks. His character would honestly disappear from your memory if it weren’t for the scene in which his family is treated to a sneak peek of what Cochran is planning on doing Halloween night.
While there is quite a bit to frustrate the viewer in Halloween III: Season of the Witch, there are a few parts that horror fans just won’t be able to resist. Much like the original Halloween, Halloween III features a synthesizer score from Carpenter that will surely send a few shivers. Then there is the gore, which is sure to satisfy the gore hounds that have come to see arteries spurt in creative ways. One character has their head ripped off their body, another has their skull crushed, and there are also the scenes in which we get to see just what Cochran masks can do to those who wear them. While the explanations are a bit hazy, the masks appear to melt the heads of those who are wearing them. As if a mushy melon wasn’t enough, we then get to see slimy snakes and bugs crawling out of the melted mess. These little demonstrations are probably the most horrific aspect of Halloween III! Overall, while you can’t blame Carpenter and Hill for wanting to take their series in a new direction, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is still an uneven departure from the original formula. The script features numerous plot holes, it’s not very scary, and a majority of the performances will roll off your memory. However, Wallace is game to spring some nasty visuals and the chilling final note of the film is sure to get to you. Oh, and good luck getting that Silver Shamrock theme out of your head. In the end, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is like digging through your pillowcase after a long night of trick or treating. It’s a mixed bag.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
As any lover of horror will tell you, picking a short list of favorite monsters is no easy feat. The most classic movie monsters are those with an element of tragedy; the ones who evoke empathy as well as horror. While I love the classics and admire the craft required to create a sympathetic monster, I don’t know that I can call them my favorites. To be my favorite, a monster must be truly frightening, something that makes you want to hide under the bed, if only you could be sure that there wasn’t something much, much worse lurking, just out of sight, down there. To help narrow the field to these most terrifically terrifying fiends, I’ve drawn from five fears of children and childhood to give you my favorite monsters of horror.
1. Creepy Kids
By subverting the notion of children as harmless innocents, creepy kids make for extraordinary effective monsters. Whether made evil by external intervention, as in The Exorcist or Pet Cemetery, or simply born bad like little Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, these children of horror are more perceptive than you, more devious, and without a single moral objection to your violent demise. Playing upon mankind’s perceived biological imperative to protect children, these monsters ruthlessly twist any act of mercy and care into a lethal mistake. The best of these (and my first favorite) is Samara from 2002’s The Ring. Rachel, our protagonist, sees poor Samara as a tragic figure, murdered by her own mother simply for being too different. Except no. She’s actually a sea monster rape-baby who gleefully wants to burn awful images into your mind until you die. She doesn’t “just want to be heard,” Rachel. She just wants to kill you.
Aidan: Is she still in the dark place?
Rachel: No. We set her free.
Aidan: You helped her?
Aidan: Why did you do that?
Rachel: What’s wrong, honey?
Aidan: You weren’t supposed to help her. Don’t you understand, Rachel? She never sleeps.
2. Scary Dolls
Psychologists recognize automatonophobia as the fear of anything falsely representing a sentient being, including robots, dolls, and ventriloquist dummies. Perhaps, like creepy kids and evil clowns, dolls make for terrifying monsters by representing the juxtaposition of the joyous things of childhood with the looming inevitability of death and decay. Scary dolls are like creepy kids, but littler, creepier, and therefore more likely to be tucked into hidden spaces, watching you. Watching and waiting…
Although horror offers plenty of scary dolls to chose from, including the disturbing Dolly from Dolly Dearest and sinister Hugo from Dead of Night, the eponymous dolls from 1987’s Dolls win in a multi-way tie for my favorite scary doll monster on sheer horrifying volume alone. Killed and imprisoned in toys to pay for their crimes, these dolls might be sympathetic if they weren’t so completely full of malevolent, unrepentant mischief, fully committed to killing you, even if it takes their tiny doll hands all night to do it.
3. The Monster in the Closet
That thing that’s lurking under the bed. Or possibly in the closet, or in the dark at the bottom of the basement stairs, where the light doesn’t quite reach. These monsters, easily dismissible in the light of day, gain a terrifying immediacy and presence in the dark, when you feel the sudden, irrational imperative to gauge the leap between the light switch and the relative safety of your bed.
Well represented by Lovecraft’s Night-Gaunts and The Whisperer in the Darkness, my favorite Monster in the Closet can be found in Stephen King’s short story The Boogeyman, which asked, “Did you look in the closet?” and left me unable to sleep alone for an entire summer. Since the latest short film version of the story hasn’t been released yet (and we don’t acknowledge the 1982 full length atrocity of an adaptation), I’ll use Drew Daywalt’s 2010 short There’s No Such Thing to illustrate my choice. Sleep tight, kittens.
4. Evil Clowns
Clowns were once considered gentle buffoons, the perfect choice to entertain crowds of children. Now we know better. As a society, we have recast clowns as monsters, lurid freaks and crazed killers, their painted-on smiles intense grins of maniacal joy. In The History and Psychology of Scary Clowns, Smithsonian Magazine notes that no less an authority than Andrew McConnell, English professor and coulrophobia historian, credits Charles Dickens with introducing the idea of the clown as a secret, sinister monster, “an off-duty clown…whose inebriation and ghastly, wasted body contrasted with his white face paint and clown costume.”
Whatever the reasons clowns make for fabulously frightening movie monsters, there are no shortage of candidates for a favorite. However, when it comes to childhood fears, the 1982 classic Poltergeist hits the nightmare trifecta of monster in the closet, something under the bed, and a scary clown that really, really, wanted to see you dead.
5. The Monster that Doesn’t Need an Explanation
As children, we fear many things that do not have a name. Some, horrifying abominations that defy definition, become no less repugnant as we age. These monsters push at the boundaries between dimensions, shrugging off all normal rules of physiology and rationality. The very alienness, the wrongness, of these creatures is exactly what makes them so completely terrifying. My favorite monster in this category needs little introduction and bears no explanation – the thing from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing. Sure, it was based on a novella and there was an attempt at an extraterrestrial back story, but there’s really no amount of explaining that can rationalize a whip-mouthed spider dog monster that wants to be inside you. Monstrous, abhorrent, and viciously single-minded, this monster simply is. Best start running now.
To check out more from Eva Halloween, click here to visit her spooky website, The Year of Halloween.
by Steve Habrat
If you want a prime example of guerilla filmmaking at its most bizarre, then you need to get your hot little hands on a 1982 film called Basket Case. Shot on a shoestring budget (director Frank Henenlotter actually shows his film’s budget in one specific scene of the film) in the grimy streets of early 80s New York City (it appears that 42nd Street is shown in the opening of the film), Basket Case is a seriously wrapped exploitation horror comedy. There is plenty of blood, guts, gore, and ear splitting groaning and screaming from our deformed Siamese twin Belial, sleazy settings to make you want to shower after watching it, and the most outrageous rape/sex scene you are ever likely to see. There is also plenty of black humor to keep you snickering to yourself, especially when Belial goes on one of his noisy rampages. Yet even at a scant hour and a half, the weird comic charms begin to wear themselves out and Basket Case just settles down in just plain weird and seedy territory with a particularly dark climax. The film has quite the passionate cult following and many even consider it a horror classic, which I think is going a bit far, due to the film’s reluctance to fully commit itself fully to serious scares. Every tense moment is broken up by a wink when it should have played itself straight to really creep you out.
Basket Case introduces us to the socially awkward Duane Bradley (Played by Kevin Van Hentenryck), who arrives in New York City with a handful of cash, some clothing, and a wicker basket under his arm. Duane checks in to the seedy Hotel Broslin, where he locks himself away in one of the rooms and studies over a mysterious file of medical papers. It turns out that that Duane was born with a grotesque Simaese twin named Belial growing out of his. When Duane was just a boy, his father was repulsed by Belial and recruited a few doctors to remove and discard Belial. When Duane woke up from his operation, he rescued Belial and vowed revenge on the doctors that separated them. All grown up and out for blood, Duane unleashes Belial, a deformed monster with claws and fangs, from his wicker basket to tear the doctors limb from limb. Their plot hits a snag when Duane meets a pretty receptionist named Sharon (Played by Terri Susan Smith), who he begins falling in love with him. Naturally, Duane’s feelings for Sharon enrage Belial and begin tearing the brothers apart. Meanwhile, the nosy guests of Hotel Broslin begin to suspect there is something strange about Duane and his wicker basket and they begin snooping around.
Even though Basket Case was not made with much, there is still plenty of dedication from the tiny cast and crew. The film itself is about as grainy as they come, giving it an almost documentary-like sense of realism even if the subject matter is the epitome of silly. Some of the early scenes of New York City are pretty interesting; especially the opening sequence that finds Duane wandering one of the neon strips of grindhouses, adult video stores, rundown bars, and twitchy junkies. Even the hotel that Duane calls temporary home was a real hotel, but certainly not one you would ever want to stay in. Your skin crawls at the very thought of what pests might be crawling all over you when you turned off the lights. Then there is the nightmare sequence, which finds a nude Duane running through the seemingly deserted streets of a city that claims to never sleep. Even though the film was made in the late 70s/early 80s, you still get nervous for the cast and crew, fearing that a junkie or mugger may leap out of the shadows that are claiming the streets. This nightmare scene is probably the scariest moment of the entire film, the only one that doesn’t seem to be chuckling at itself.
Then we have the acting, both from the cast of unknowns and from the little puppet Belial. Van Hentenryck does a fine job at being both a clueless sweetheart and a deranged psychopath. He shares some great moments with Smith’s Sharon, who genuine falls for his oddball charms, and Josephine (Played by Dorothy Storngin), a prostitute with a heart of gold who picks him up when he is at his lowest. Smith isn’t really given too much to do as the love interest, but she gets a memorable moment at the end when she finally comes face to face with Belial in the most discomfited way possible. Storngin is great as Josephine, barely flinching when Duane shares his dark past with her. Another standout is Robert Vogel as Anthony, the sweaty, no-nonsense manager of Hotel Broslin who is constantly scratching his head over the strange noises that ring out from Duane’s room. Then we have Belial, the blob-like monster that crawls around and claws his victims to shreds. For a puppet, he has plenty of personality and he can sometimes be weirdly cute when he throws his temper tantrums or hides in the toilet. Even though he is the bloodthirsty monster, he may be the most likable and sympathetic character in the entire film. When his relationship with Duane becomes strained in the final stretch, you wouldn’t mind giving the little guy a hug even if he may bite your face off.
While there are plenty of moments in Basket Case that are a good deal of fun, there are some moments that the viewer is left wishing the film would stop winking at them and keep a straight face. It doesn’t completely ruin the film, but I felt that it was definitely holding the film back from reaching its full potential. You do have to give Henenlotter credit for the way he slowly builds up Belial’s reveal, giving us little hints at what may be in that wicker basket until finally springing him on us. Just wait for the hilarious opening scene where Duane feeds Belial a bag of hamburgers. For you gorehounds out there, Basket Case has plenty of the red stuff to keep you happy, but don’t expect anything too elaborate. Overall, Basket Case is another shining example of less-is-more horror, something that Hollywood and the mainstream just doesn’t seem to understand these days. It does stand head and shoulders above most of the horror films you see today and it is a great film to show to your friends simply to see their reactions. You also have to admire the touching and tragic relationship between the brothers at the core of the film. While I don’t consider it the classic some horror and exploitation fans do, Basket Case is still a solid midnight movie.
Basket Case is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by John LaRue
When Steve asked me to count down the five films that scared me, I grinned like the Cheshire cat. It gave me a bonus opportunity to write about one of my earliest loves- horror films. As I sat down to compile the list, I realized that most of what scares me all ties back to childhood. Apparently, I was steeled for life as a horror-watching adult before my 7th birthday, because I watched nearly all of my selections in 1982 at age six. Is there anything scarier than what we see when we’re children, unprepared for the fantasy worlds given to us on a movie screen? The same naiveté that gives you Santa Claus also gives you ghosts, goblins, witches, vampires, and a whole host of other things that give kids nightmares. I’ve illustrated all of this the best way I know how- with an infographic detailing my list of five films that scare me, along with some fun facts about my personal quintet of terror.
John LaRue is owner and minister of information of tdylf.com. In his spare time, he is a baseball and Nazi zombie enthusiast, as well as a graphic designer. He lives in the provel cheese capital of the world- St. Louis, Missouri. Follow John on Twitter (@tdylf).
by Steve Habrat
What a hypnotic and transcendent film that Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction/neo-noir film Blade Runner is. An entrancing genre mashing of sounds, images, words, philosophy, and artistic vision that finds very few challengers to this day. One of the biggest cult films around, Blade Runner was a polarizing film when it was first released but has since gained a wider audience who yearn to be transported to Scott’s twinkling metropolis where it always rains, femme fatales strut in smoke filled rooms, and large neon corporations bear down on the dystopian Los Angeles from all angles. If Blade Runner chose to not say anything at all, it could exist solely as a visual work of art that could hold us in wide-eyed wonder, making us nervous to even blink for fear we would miss a tiny detail. Released almost thirty years ago, the film still has some of the most breathtaking effects that I have ever seen (seriously), not aging a day while continuing to maintain their rusty allure. The film has managed to reverberate with a wide ranger of viewers, from intellectuals eager to decipher the deeper code to science fiction fanatics just looking for a spaceships and laser guns spectacle, for its grand approach and bold pairing of two different genres that shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence.
Blade Runner ushers us into the dystopian world of Los Angeles in 2019. We meet Rick Deckard (Played by Harrison Ford), a “blade-runner” who hunts down bioengineered beings known as replicants, who are banned on earth and incapable of showing empathy. These replicants are designed to perform tasks that could be dangerous to normal human begins and usually only live about four years. Deckard’s job is to track down and “retire” (kill) the replicants who get loose on earth. While dining on a meal of sushi and noodles one dreary evening, Deckard is detained by officer Gaff (Played by Edward James Olmos) and taken to his former supervisor, Bryant (Played by M. Emmet Walsh), and finds himself forced into taking on one last job. This one last job asks that Deckard track down four replicants who have come to earth to find their designer and are leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. These replicants, Roy Batty (Played by Rutger Hauer), Pris (Played by Daryl Hannah), Zhora (Played by Joanna Cassidy), and Leon (Played by Brion James), are extremely dangerous and capable of blending in with normal human begins. This last job pushes Deckard to the edge and introduces him to Tyrell (Played by Joe Turkel), head of the Tyrell Corporation who produces Nexus 6 replicants, which is what Deckard may be dealing with, and falling for an advanced experimental replicant named Rachael (Played by Sean Young), who believes herself to be human.
In a way, it is not surprising to know that Blade Runner didn’t cause too much of a stir when it was first released in June of 1982. By that time, George Lucas had shown us what could be done with science fiction and special effects with Star Wars. Coming just two short years after The Empire Strikes Back and a year before Return of the Jedi, science fiction gurus were most likely not on the prowl for a much more thoughtful and meditative futuristic thriller. By the early 80’s, it was all about the action and while Blade Runner does have some action (it is sporadic), it doesn’t have enough to satisfy the lust for explosions that a Star Wars fan has. The film was attacked for having a weak storyline and poor pacing, which today seems just downright absurd considering some of the garbage of today that is disinterested in any sort of build up. The first time you see Blade Runner, you will be caught off guard by the slower pace of the film (I was), but Scott clearly understands what he is doing and each step he takes toward the big finish seems like it is a completely necessary one and he refuses stop to give us dizzying flashes and blinding bangs of action. In all the rusted steel, dangling wires, and pulsing lights, Scott gives us a never-ending string of conversations about emotion and memories, making Blade Runner a very intimate and human encounter in a world with shimmering artificial advancement and consumerism.
Ford’s performance as Deckard also adds to the hushed pace of the film, a hushed hero who has been forced into taking on a job he really doesn’t want. He finds himself falling for Rachael, which he grapples with until he cannot resist the urge anymore. He sulks through rain soaked streets atmospherically lit by glowing neon advertisements, pulsing strip clubs, and ominous hotel rooms that belong to fugitives. He is far from the grinning, rip-roaring action hero in Indiana Jones and Star Wars. He is absolutely unforgettable as the drained hard-boiled detective. When the film gets to the final showdown between Deckard and Roy, Deckard is a normal flesh and blood guy getting pummeled rather than a superhero who can keep up an ultra-strong being. There has been some debate over whether Deckard is a replicant but his character wanders a dreary, decaying landscape where nothing seems sincere, where corporations dominate the never-ending steel labyrinth. It seems like his character has numbed to his backdrop, a world that doesn’t require any real feeling at all.
The supporting cast of Blade Runner is also memorable, the best being Hauer’s Roy Batty, who never seems like he is in any big rush. He is a mysterious villain who claims he has seen unforgettable things in his existence and craves an extended life as he stalks Ford’s disoriented Deckard. He is a villain that fights with his words rather than his superhuman strength, which are both terrifying when accompanied by the absolutely flawless lighting scheme and the one-of-a-kind score that allows Blade Runner to take on a life of its own. Also notable are Daryl Hannah as Pris, a leggy replicant who enjoys slinking around like a spider and using her innocence to manipulate her frail prey. She is just as unpredictable and dangerous as Roy. You will also find Young’s Rachael grabbing for your sympathies as she comes to terms with the fact that she is a replicant implanted with someone else’s memories. You feel her longing to be human and her spark when she begins to fall for Deckard. We also get small but equally great performances from William Sanderson as J.F. Sebastian, a designer who works closely with Turkel’s businessman Tyrell.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Blade Runner is the marvelous lighting that is strung throughout, effective lit to give maximum ambiance. It can be harsh but often ethereal and strangely soothing. The final showdown between Roy and Deckard is without question the best lighting sequence in the entire film, one that finds our characters backlit by beams of white light in a derelict prison of chain link fence, wood, and checkered tile. The climax does swell into a crescendo of run-down beauty, a dazzling mixture of glorious rays of light, moldy darkness, swirling score, and heady ideas of death and memories. For the casual viewer, it may take a few viewings to really allow you to make a final judgment on the film. I myself was a little unsure of how I felt about it on my first viewing but as years pass, I have grown fond of the film’s technical accomplishments, its neo-noir story, and Ford’s controlled performance. A busy work of art that demands we look closer, Blade Runner dares to challenge the viewer and push the boundaries of science fiction, creating something that still feels fresh to this day.
Blade Runner is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Another month, another horror remake coughed up from lazy Hollywood and this time it’s the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 chiller The Thing. August saw the remake of another 80’s horror flick, Fright Night, which was playful, spry, and hip. The Thing 2011 fits nicely along with the original 1982 classic, but after establishing no mood, it becomes a showcase for the latest special effects Hollywood has to offer and to be perfectly honest, they are not much to write home about. The creature effects are what made the Carpenter original such a standout. They were appallingly real where here they seem rubbery and computerized. In fact, they are only a notch above direct to DVD effects. The Thing 2011 is also the furthest thing from hip, seeming appropriately old school but never really utilizing the effect (the film begins with the classic Universal Studios logo). It’s drenched in fakery when it could have benefitted from a real scare. It’s also certainly not playful, never elaborating on the original story but rather simply resorting to rehashing the original plot with different actors. It only adds B-movie princess Mary Elizabeth Winstead gripping a flamethrower and a big, laughable UFO at the end.
Remember in the Carpenter original when MacReady (Krut Russell) and the resident doctor ventured into the charred ruins of the Norwegian camp at the beginning of The Thing 1982? The place looked like hell had rained down upon it. It was also especially creepy because our mind filled in what happened to these people. Well, Hollywood found it necessary to show us what happened and it doesn’t look that much different from what happened in the American camp. After a group of Norwegian scientists stumble upon a UFO and a crablike alien buried in the snow of the Arctic, American paleontologist Kate (Played by Winstead) and her partner Adam (Played by Eric Christian Olsen) are recruited by a Norwegian scientist named Dr. Sander Halvorson (Played by Ulrich Thomsen) to come to the site and help them remove the alien from the snow. She takes on the job and upon her arrival, she meets a pair of American pilots Carter and Jameson (Played by Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Once the scientists remove the alien from the ice and bring it back to the camp, it soon wakes up and breaks from its icy confines. It begins attacking the scientists one by one and duplicating the helpless saps. Paranoia rips through the group and soon the alien begins rearing it’s fangs and tentacles all over the place, ripping out from heads, arms, stomachs, etc. As the group awaits help to arrive, they desperately search for a way to figure out who is normal and how to quarantine the alien from spreading outside the camp.
This Thing isn’t a terrible movie and it actually has a bit of potential buried beneath the snow and ice. Winstead is a talented actress and her toughness is believable, but she’s not the reluctant hero the MacReady was. Edgerton also attempts to fit ol’ Kurt’s boots but he doesn’t fair any better. The film segues nicely into the ‘82 original and I will pat it on the back for that, but other than that it really seems to have no reason to exist. Furthermore, it’s empty headed and without commentary. The Cold War paranoia was part of what makes the original a classic to this day. It’s a frosted over mirror of paranoia, dread, fear, and suspicion. It comes as no surprise to me because the trailer boasted that the same people who gave George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead a CGI makeover produced this film too. The 2004 Dawn of the Dead was much more fun than The Thing 2011 and that is mostly because it wasn’t afraid to stray a bit from the original concept.
So what exactly is the potential here? For one, the characters could have been a bit more interesting. None of them grabbed me and when one of them crumpled into alien bits, I wasn’t filled empathy. I never really cared. The film could have also had some more memorable moments in the alien department. The original film works because it has moments of pure exhibition. Who will ever forget the severed head sprouting legs and trying to walk off? Or how about a dead man’s chest caving in and revealing a set of teeth, which proceed to bite off another man’s arms? There is nothing like that here and all we get is a computerized dog-like human that crawls around and has two heads. And how about the alien itself? Well, it would have been better left charred and on an autopsy table rather than actually seeing it scamper about the camp. It was creepy never truly knowing what it looked like. I could have also done without the end, which finds several of the characters chasing the alien around its massive UFO. The film climaxes with another perfect grenade toss, unfortunately missing a one liner as good as “Yeah! Well fuck you too!” And how about the blood test in the original? Here, there is nothing that suspenseful and instead we get a tooth-filling test. It never comes close to the unbearable intensity of the original scene.
The Thing 2011 pulls the same stunt as Dawn of the Dead 2004, making the audience sit through the end credits and watch brief flashes of the set up for the original film. Over these scenes, the original Ennio Morricone score slithers over the footage. I kept crossing my fingers for a cameo from MacReady but don’t get your hopes up too high. The Thing 2011 needed to discover it’s own identity and it never does. I never minded sitting through the film and spotting the references to the original, but it became tedious after a while. It never offers up any new information on the alien, just a few minor hints at how it duplicates its prey. None of the explanations are riveting and they slowly suck the terror out of the film. Much like the gooey, roaring antagonist, The Thing 2011 is just a duplication of the 1982 film. And just like any duplication or copy, there are a few imperfections that eventually give it away. And what does The Thing 2011 give away? It slowly reveals that the filmmakers had absolutely no idea how to build upon this story. Grade: C+
The Evil Dead (1981)
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
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by Steve Habrat
Around Halloween, if one was unsure what horror film or films to make the hairs on their arm stand at attention, you can find many in the John Carpenter department. In 1978, Carpenter crafted the classic serial killer flick with Halloween, which spawned several god-awful imitations and limp sequels. In 1980, he spooked us with his campfire ghost tale The Fog, a favorite of mine come Halloween with its disfigured ghost zombies and its ominous atmosphere. In 1982, he delivered The Thing, a heart pounding science fiction horror film that features some truly hideous make-up and puppet effects that have yet to be topped. They fill us to the brink with pure fear and it has one of the most memorable heroes aside from Ripley in Alien: MacReady. Carpenter heavily relies on atmosphere in his horror films, making the environment just as much of a character as Laurie Strode, Stevie Wayne, and MacReady. Whether it’s the stillness of Haddonfield, the looming evil in the small town of Antonio Bay, or the howling winds and whipping snow in Antarctica, these films could scare you without their otherworldly monsters lurking in the shadows. The Thing makes the best use of environment, making the bone freezing chill in the air just as deadly as the enigmatic alien copying it’s prey and becoming almost indistinguishable copies of the paranoid researchers who are slowly turning on each other.
I still believe that Halloween is Carpenter’s masterpiece, the ultimate slasher flick and also one of his most thought provoking films. The Thing, however, is an exercise in how to scare the living hell out of an innocent viewer. From the start, this film is disorienting, gloomy, and isolated, lacking even the slightest bit of hope that help could swoop in at any given moment and save the group of scientists. The way the film springs it’s infected antagonists on the viewer makes every frame an unpredictable nightmare and cloaks us in mistrust. But what really puts The Thing in another world completely is the jaw dropping make-up and puppets that leap out at us and make our skin crawl off the bone and hide under the couch we sit on to watch it. There is some disturbing imagery in this film, steeped more in gore than Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter has a way with monsters and I wish he would grace the silver screen again with another horror film. We need another reason to be afraid of the dark.
Set in the secluded Arctic, a group of American researchers witness a bizarre event when a Norwegian helicopter shows up on the premises tracking a fleeing dog. The helicopter has a sniper on board firing at the dog, desperately trying to kill it. After a freak accident, the helicopter crashes in the American outpost, leaving one American wounded by a stray bullet. Pilot R.J. MacReady (Played by the ultimate cinematic badass Kurt Russell) and Dr. Blair (Played by Wilford Brimley) venture out to find the Norwegian research camp, only to find the camp in ruin and all the foreign researchers dead. The evidence at the foreign camp hints at the discovery of extraterrestrial life, a deadly organism that copies it’s prey and imitates them. After returning to the American outpost with a charred alien body, paranoia grips the group with the researchers turning on each other. After a string of horrifying discoveries and the alien showing it’s repugnant face, the group finds themselves trying to protect themselves from the alien and each other.
Isolation is key in any great horror film, a touch that shakes the viewer up and fries the nerves. There is no hope in this story and things will end badly. THAT is what scares most people. Look at Night of the Living Dead, a film that boasts a remote setting and the threat that no one will help the desperate survivors locked in that iconic farmhouse. I’d compare The Thing to Night of the Living Dead in that regard, along with its jumpy Cold War paranoia. Furthermore, the uninfected men are just as dangerous as the ones who are being mimicked. The isolation, however, is what really makes this film a keeper. Carpenter really gets under our skin by driving the point home that these men are alone. Every time they venture out into the cold and snow, there is an unsettling dread that washes over us. And what if one gets trapped outside? The conditions outside are just as deadly as the ones lurking in the hallways and rec rooms. Carpenter hits us with two monsters, a natural one and an alien one. As their numbers slowly trickle down, you may start to consider getting up and hitting the pause button just to have a moment to calm yourself down.
There are two other reasons The Thing is a horror masterwork even though it was a bomb upon its initial release. Kurt Russell’s MacReady is a classic movie hero and the monster effects that are downright staggering. You can always count on Russell to be an ultimate hardass in any movie that announces his presence. The man is Snake Plissken! Yet I like MacReady for his resourcefulness and his bursts of sarcasm. He will always be standing proud in my mind, armed with dynamite and a flamethrower, looking the roaring beast in the face and after the roaring ends and the growls begin, dryly yelling “Yeah?! Well fuck you too!” and sending a lit stick of dynamite right at the alien. His reassured buoyancy in himself that he is not infected is also positively noted by this movie fan and this lets him sit securely on the great protagonists list. His antagonist is also beyond belief, a true beast from Hell that looks like Satan himself created it. Making awful howling noises and gurgling growls, severed heads sprout legs and walk off, stomachs open up and rip off arms, heads split open and turn into fang riddled jaws, and dogs grow tentacles and morph into towering juggernauts. Some of it really has to be seen to get a good mental image. It’s that rare film where the more you see; the more it leaves you looking like a heap of shivering jelly. It keeps topping itself, only finding competition with that other legendary extraterrestrial horror in Alien.
A nice break from the ghoulies, ghosts, classic movie monsters, zombies, vampires, and slashers, The Thing is a good Halloween freak out. It’s twisting halls forebodingly lit, it’s monsters constantly up to the challenge to leap out and genuinely scare the life out of you, and with a final showdown that only Carpenter himself could pull off, there is a reason this film has evolved into a massive fan favorite in the horror genre. More horror than actual science fiction, The Thing is perfect for Halloween simply because, much like the Halloween season, it’s dependent on the atmosphere. Lacking a clear explanation about the beast (Jason Zinoman would be proud!) and shrouded in mystery, The Thing is a modern classic in monster horror, coming from the studio that knows monsters—Universal Studios. The Thing is a flawless achievement featuring one of the greatest one-liners in movie history. Grade: A