Cat in the Brain (1990)
by Steve Habrat
If you’re one that has ever sat through an entire Lucio Fulci film, you understand that the Italian horror director was something of an acquired taste. The “Godfather of Gore”—as he is often referred to—took great pleasure in painting the movie screen red with globs of entrails, buckets of candle wax blood, jellied brains, rotting skin, and showers of wiggling maggots, something that he was often criticized for. Surely, a man that crafts ultra-violent films such as these must have, well, a cat fiercely clawing, scratching, and chewing away at his brain! Near the end of Fulci’s long and varied career (he made everything from comedies to gialli to spaghetti westerns), he released Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert), a meta-gorefest that finds the cult filmmaker reflecting upon his gruesome body of work and the toll those gory films had on his psyche. Strung together with horrific snippets from his earlier gialli and horror films, Cat in the Brain is surprisingly well rounded and clever for a film that threatens to act as a sort of highlight reel for Fulci’s most revolting kill scenes. Yet the splatter master smartly builds a thought-provoking thriller around these recycled sequences, and the end result is a standout release from the twilight of his career.
Cat in the Brain finds Fulci playing himself, Dr. Lucio Fulci, a horror director who is well known for his ultra-violent genre films. One day, after filming a particularly nasty sequence involving cannibalism and a questionable steak, Fulci decides to go to a nearby upscale restaurant for lunch. Upon arriving, Fulci orders up a steak, but his appetite is quickly curbed when his mind wanders back to the gruesome sequence that he was filming just moments before. Some time later, Fulci suffers another flashback after glimpsing a gardener slicing up some logs with a chain saw. The flashback triggers a nervous breakdown that prompts the horror director to seek out the help of a local psychiatrist by the name of Professor Egon Swharz (played by David L. Thompson). Swharz suggests that Fulci try hypnotism to aid with these terrifying flashbacks, but as it turns out, Swharz has a much more sinister plot in store for Fulci. Swharz plans on committing a number of heinous murders and using the hypnosis to trick Fulci into thinking he committed the murders, pushing the already fragile director to brink of madness.
With Cat in the Brain, Fulci is fiercely aware of his fan base, composing a grand old opera of sex, violence, and depravity almost exclusively for them. It also finds the director recognizing the fact that he wasn’t exactly held in high regard in many circles, as he was often attacked for the exploitative nature of his horror films. In response to the criticism, Fulci conjures up a tidal wave of carnage that features chain saw mutilation, beheadings, cannibalism, melting faces, surging guts, a cat gnawing away at a brain, and various other segments of bloodshed that will have his devout fans floating on cloud nine and his harshest critics groaning is disgust. While there are various points of Cat in the Brain that send a chill or two (a certain graveyard sequence comes to mind), the endless barrage of grindhouse violence seems to be Fulci’s way of taunting his critics—looking them square in the eye and saying, “You thought my pervious work was vicious? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Of course, his response comes off as light-hearted and comical, as he presents himself in the opening credits as a perverse mad scientist hunched over a pad, conjuring up various death scenes to use in future movies. This transitions into a close up of a cheesy-looking cat devouring Fulci’s glistening brain matter, a ravenous and cartoonish madness that just can’t be tamed.
Then we have Fulci’s sympathetic performance as himself, a role he seems to take great pleasure in playing. In between his bouts of insanity, Fulci portrays himself as a nice guy who is just doing his job. To his friends and neighbors, he is simply that guy who makes those horror movies, yet everyone seems to have a general fondness and respect for the artist. When that cat starts hissing and clawing around upstairs, Fulci really gets to have fun with people’s perception of him. When directing a Nazi orgy, he presents himself in a misty medium shot as he manically whispers orders to his bare-naked cast members. Other times, he is stricken with disgust over the visions he suffers from, clutching at his heart like he is fending off a sudden heart attack. The stand out scene comes when he wanders around a friend’s house in terror, gasping at visions of the friend’s family members getting chopped, stabbed, sliced, and diced like a couple of Thanksgiving turkeys. (This sequence also appears to feature a bloody tribute to the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) The puppeteer behind Fulci’s madness is David L. Thompson’s Professor Swharz, a grinning madman who hypnotizes the poor director into thinking he is on a killing spree. Thompson is surprisingly creepy in the villainous role, a sadistic psychiatrist who uses other people’s demons to his advantage. One thing is certain; Fulci doesn’t think much of shrinks.
While Cat in the Brain’s self-reflexive structure seems a bit disjointed and slightly puzzling in places (Would you expect anything less from the “Godfather of Gore?”), Fulci still manages to produce a final product that effectively blurs the lines between what is a hallucination and what is real. This makes Cat in the Brain seem like a playful horror exercise, one that simultaneously toys with the viewer like a ball of yarn, while advising other horror directors who may have suffered light trauma from their violent work to opt for a sunny vacation with a pretty girl over a trip to the dreaded psychiatrist’s office. Another admirable aspect is the fact that Cat in the Brain is able to overcome the trap of acting as a highlight reel. It actually takes on an identity all its own, as Fulci meshes the gooey clips seamlessly with his freshly shot footage. Overall, Cat in the Brain is far from Lucio Fulci’s best work, but as a late-career effort from a man who was past his glory days and grappling with deteriorating health, it’s something of a high point. This is a delightfully deranged and darkly hilarious horror rendition of Federico Fellini’s celebrated art-house classic 8 ½, with an overflowing ladle of sex and sleaze drizzled on for extra zing.
Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert) is available on DVD.
Halloween Guest Feature: Five Films That Scare… Rob Belote
by Rob Belote
I’m not the kind of guy who enjoys watching movies whose primary objective is to scare me. Some guys enjoy it, but I don’t. Some of the other lists you’ll see in this article series are going to have more of the traditional scary movies, but not from me. I won’t watch the Nightmare On Elm Street films or anything from the Friday The 13th series. Exorcist? Out of the question. Does that make me less of a man? Perhaps, but I’m guessing the fact that I run GuysNation – which provides plenty of good sports, movies and hot women content somehow makes my avoidance of certain movies something you can overlook.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen some movies that scared me. Here’s a look at a few, leading up to my Top 5.
Castaway – can you imagine the horror of being a volleyball amidst all that sand… and there’s not enough people for a game? Talk about torture…
Three Amigos – not only were there Hollywood careers drawing to a close, but a small town in Mexico tricked them into fighting a warlord for them. Put yourself in their boots, throw in the insane singing bush, and the fact that they had to wear those outfits? I think you’re getting the picture here.
Basic Instinct – a smokin’ hot blonde wants you… but she just might be a serial killer, and you won’t find out until you have sex with her – during which she might stab you to death? Not to mention the lovely ex-girlfriend you have to see every day at work that still wants you, and it turns out she might have a killer streak in her as well. Where’s a guy supposed to get laid anymore?
In all seriousness….
Poltergeist – I can’t fully put this one on the list because I couldn’t watch all of it… and I don’t know which one of the films in the series I saw. What I can tell you is that when I was younger and I saw that creepy guy show up in the mirrors? I avoided looking into mirrors for like 2 weeks. Legit
Arachnophobia – Never saw it, never will. The commercials creeped me out more than anything you can understand unless you, like I, have arachnophobia. Just typing this out brings back terrible memories.
The Sixth Sense – after getting to the end of the film and knowing what’s going on, it’s not as scary, so it doesn’t actually make the list. The couple of times that things pop up and give the “jump” factor definitely catch me every time, and I find Mischa Barton to be scary in all of her roles.
Psycho – to this day, I don’t like showering if I can’t see past the curtain. On the plus side, that means when my wife showers…
The Top 5 Films That Scared Me
5. Zodiac – the randomness of the killings, the scene in the basement where they were supposedly alone in the house, and the reality involved in the end of the film (which I won’t ruin for anyone) are just a bit too much for me.
4. Silence Of The Lambs – all in all, it wasn’t Hannibal Lector who scared me. Sure, there was a slight jumpiness involved in the ambulance scene with the dead skin mask, but that’s not what put this on the list. The final scene with Jodie Foster being followed around in the dark still haunts me a bit anytime the power suddenly goes out in my house and I’m walking around, searching for a flashlight.
3. Halloween – this was one of the films that cemented the idea for me that I shouldn’t watch this kind of movie. He’s a relentless killing machine who somehow has supernatural powers to be able to disappear? I can’t even hear the awesome theme song to this movie without getting seriously creeped out.
2. Scream – I have a love-hate with this film. It’s such an entertaining film that does a great job of including all of the common horror movie elements while overtly explaining them on screen. A few of the scenes are some of the most clever I’ve seen on film. And yet, the lack of supernatural element, the gore involved and the choice of killers that totally blew my mind? It just gives it a more REAL feel, which makes it feel like it could actually happen.
1. JAWS – for years after seeing this movie, I had trouble going into water. I’d stay in the shallow part of the ocean, and even sometimes in the swimming pool the theme song would hop into my head and I’d get to the side for an exit as quickly as possible.
Rob is the founder of GuysNation.com, which brings together writers from across the internet to provide content in areas that guys enjoy discussing: sports, women, movies, beer, women, television, wrestling, women, snacks, comic books, women, video games, women… He’s also working on building an app to promote movie reviewers and predict which movies people will like based on common interests, and he’s currently looking for more people to be involved. You can follow GuysNation on Twitter (@GuysNation) and you can also like them on Facebook.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
by Steve Habrat
The first pairing between director Tim Burton and versatile actor Johnny Depp would become one of their most beloved collaborations in the years the duo have been working together. The 1990 gothic fairy tale Edward Scissorhands is a fragile and enchanting bedtime story that seems to come from a personal place within Burton himself. Over the years, Edward Scissorhands has climbed the classic film ranks as it seems to gain more and more popularity as the years pass and new generations are introduced to it. While a wide audience sticks by Burton’s tale, the film has really resonated with the Hot Topic goth crowd. It’s easy to see why they love the film, as it follows a soft-spoken misfit who is encouraged to mingle with conformist suburbia where he is at first viewed as an alluring oddity and then is quickly misunderstood. Edward Scissorhands also features a tender love story, one that ends in a cracked heart but also happens to be vaguely romantic in its longing. The film is also incredibly memorable for Depp’s performance as shy recluse who is inquisitive of the world around him, a world he has never ventured out to explore.
Edward Scissorhands ushers us into candy colored suburbia where we meet local Avon saleswoman Peg Boggs (Played by Dianne Wiest) who has a heart of gold. While going door to door, she makes her way up to a seemingly abandoned mansion where she stumbles upon a shy young man cowering in the shadows. It turns out that this shy young lad is Edward Scissorhands (Played by Johnny Depp), who Peg manages to coax out and interact with. She notices that his face is horribly scared and that his hands are made out of scissors. Noticing that he is alone in the dilapidated mansion, Peg encourages Edward to come home with her and to meet her family. Upon arriving, Edward meets Peg’s husband Bill (Played by Alan Arkin), her young son Kevin (Played by Robert Oliveri), and her beautiful teenage daughter Kim (Played by Winona Ryder), who Edward quickly falls in love with. Peg begins to introduce Edward to the rest of the curious neighborhood, who quickly discover his stunning artistic talents. It turns out that Edward is a master at hedge trimming and hair cutting, making him an instant hit of the neighborhood. Soon, Edward meets Kim’s boyfriend Jim (Played by Anthony Michael Hall), who refuses to warm up to Edward. Edward also finds himself being seduced by the sultry neighbor Joyce (Played by Kathy Baker), who after being rejected by the nervous Edward, accuses him of trying to rape her. The neighborhood soon grows suspicious of terrified Edward and they begin attempting to run him out of the neighborhood.
Edward Scissorhands is such a joy to watch because we get to see Edward exploring a world that he never knew existed. It’s a delight to see him interacting with a waterbed, a mirror, and whatever else he happens to come in contact with. A scene where he attempts to eat peas is a pure “awwwwe” moment. He warms your heart with his attempts to fit in with the neighborhood. He is unassuming and always has a sheepish smile for the eccentric housewives who flock around him. He is even more intriguing because he never has too much to say and he lets his twinkling eyes do most of the talking. Credit the talented Depp, who says so much with just his movement. When he cuts hair and trims hedges, his face contorts with extreme focus and confidence but when he wanders around the neighborhood, that confidence dries up and in its place is uncertainty and wonder. In my opinion, Depp makes this film the heartwarming tale that it is.
Director Burton, who is working with a script by Caroline Thompson, allows his interest in Vincent Price and classic horror films to find a place in Edward Scissorhands. Vincent Price has a cameo in the film as a lonely inventor who creates Edward but dies of a heart attack before he is able to finish Edward’s hands. When the film is wandering the halls of the mansion, Burton relentlessly tips his hat to films like 1931’s Frankenstein and the Hammer horror films that he loved as a kid. The film also happens to be about a misfit loner artist who is misunderstood by the conservative suburbia, who only seem to accept him when they are benefitting from his talent. Even the character of Edward seems to be a haven for both Burton and Depp, a misunderstood outcast who is tormented by Kim’s jock boyfriend. In many respects, the world that Edward comes from seems much more normal and disciplined unlike the circus that is suburbia. Burton twists this suburbia into a day-glo world of routine and ennui, a place where many take comfort in gossip and empty pampering, nothing that is ever truly fulfilling.
Edward Scissorhands also finds a strong supporting cast, especially Ryder as the sympathetic Kim. Kim begins to find herself hypnotized and attracted to this peculiar young man and rejecting the obnoxious jerk that mistreats her. Her performance is absolutely magnetic. Wiest shines as the kindhearted Peg who sticks by Edward until the very end, becoming a motherly figure to poor Edward. Her patience and grace are absolutely stunning. Arkin is comical in the role of a dry husband who does his very best to connect with Edward even if that connection is a weak one. A scene in which they share a drink is absolutely hilarious, especially Edward’s reaction to the alcohol. Baker as the dishonest housewife Joyce who accuses Edward of rape is a despicable individual as is Hall’s aggressive Jim, who is equally terrible to the naive Edward. The dark horse here is the briefly seen Price as the inventor that builds Edward. The few scenes in which we get to see his radiant love for Edward is the strongest part of Edward Scissorhands and the ones that hit the hardest.
Tragic and sweet, Edward Scissorhands does have a handful of dark and sinister moments that are a staple of Burton’s work. You can try to resist the film all you want but there are moments that will charm you whether you like it or not. Like any good fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands lures us back to its magical world again and again to make us feel all warm and fuzzy from it’s fish out of water story. The film proves that there was magic to be found when you pair up Burton with Depp, as it leaves us ravenous for another collaboration from the unconventional duo. Overall, Edward Scissorhands stands as one of Burton’s strongest efforts and one of Depp’s best performances to date. If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to step into the wondrously gothic world and get to know Edward Scissorhands. A true marvel in every sense of the word.
Edward Scissorhands is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Godfather Part III (1990)
by Steve Habrat
The Godfather Part III is widely regarded as the weakest installment in The Godfather trilogy. Many aim their blame at the performance from Sofia Coppola, director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, the fact that the film doesn’t operate as a stand-alone piece, or at the simple fact that the film doesn’t provide a satisfying wrap up to the gangster epic that began in 1972. Many of the major themes are still in tact (The American Dream, family loyalty, corruption, etc.) but I think the film just simply doesn’t tell a story that is as engaging as 1972’s The Godfather or 1974’s The Godfather Part II. In my humble opinion, I think things were properly wrapped up in The Godfather Part II, the film ending with Michael’s vicious hold on the family deteriorating into tragedy. While I don’t think The Godfather Part III holds up to the greatness of the first two films, I still believe that the film is good on its own terms, which I know is odd because the final installment leans so heavily on the events of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Coppola and returning screenwriter Mario Puzo make a film that thinks even bigger than the first two films, stretching the events out and getting a little bit too implausible for its own good.
The Godfather Part III picks up in 1979, where a graying Michael Corleone (Played by Al Pacino) is being named a Commander of the Order of St. Sebastian at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City. At a celebration after the event, Michael is reunited with his ex-wife Kay (Played by Diane Keaton), who informs Michael that his son Anthony (Played by Franc D’Ambrosio) wants to drop out of law school and pursue a career as an opera singer. Michael is upset by the decision and wishes that he would either remain in law school or join the family business. Michael, who is still desperately trying to make the family business legitimate, is still haunted by the death of his brother Fredo. Michael also finds himself confronted by his late brother Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent Mancini (Played by Andy Garcia), who wants in on the family business and wants Michael to settle a spat between him and Joey Zasa (Played by Joe Mantegna), who now handles the Corleone family’s criminal interests. Michael has been busying himself by buying up enough stock in International Immobiliare, which is an international real estate holding company. Michael becomes the biggest single shareholder and then looks to buy the Vatican’s 25% interest in the company. As the deal continues, the spat between Joey Zasa and Vincent becomes more and more deadly, pulling Michael back into the criminal underworld. After a brutal assassination attempt, Michael thinks that there may be trouble to be found in the Immobiliare deal.
The Godfather Part III has perhaps the most convoluted plotline of all the three films, which makes some stretches of the film slightly boring. This is disappointing because there wasn’t a slow moment to be found in the previous two entries. It is interesting to see how some of the remaining characters have progressed, mostly Michael’s sister Connie (Played by Talia Shire) and Kay, who has mixed emotions about Michael’s behavior and his ruthless control on the family. The biggest change can be found in Michael, who appears to have lost some of his coldness and embraced a warmer, generous heart. There are still brief flashes of the Michael in The Godfather Part II, but he is nowhere near as menacing as he once was. Coppola also removes some of the ominous feel, this film a bit brighter than the other installments. What has remained in tact is the epic reach of the film, jetting all over from New York City to Sicily and everywhere in between. The film also establishes a creepy love story between Vincent and Michael’s daughter Mary (Played by Sofia Coppola), who are first cousins but apparently are not bothered by this at all. The love story is my least favorite aspect of The Godfather Part III, at once completely unnecessary and incredibly out of place for this series.
Like the first two films, Coppola and Puzo pile on tons of characters that we need to pay attention to. The film introduces us to the vile Joey Zasa, who has turned Little Italy into a drug filled slum. We also meet Don Altobello (Played by Eli Wallach), a seemingly reasonable old man who has a dark side, Michael’s bodyguard Al Neri (Played by Richard Bright), Corleone family friend Don Tommasino (Played by Vittorio Duse), Archbishop Gilday (Played by Donal Donnelly), and powerful Italian political figure Don Licio Lucchesi (Played by Enzo Robutti), to name a few of the new characters. It times, it is almost impossible to keep track of all of them, but you will barely manage. We are really supposed to care about hotheaded Vincent, who is quickly rising to power within the Corleone family. While Garcia plays him with confident determination, at times, I really didn’t care much for his character and would have rather just stuck with Michael, who is facing deteriorating health and wishes to overcome his inner demons, which consistently plague him.
The Godfather Part III explores even further family loyalty, corruption, and the American Dream. With this installment, we learn that Michael has all the power and wealth he could ever dream of, but he still finds himself alienated from a good majority of his family. Apparently, Connie has come around and stands firmly beside her brother, at times even more vicious than he is. His son, Anthony, wishes to keep Michael and the family business as far away from him so he can and seek out an honest living. Yet The Godfather Part III firmly states that corruption is found in big business and yes, even the Vatican. This criminal underworld is like a parasite that has infected even the places that should never have been infected. Michael still voices that he wishes to make the family business legitimate and wash his hands of the mafia but this is easier said than done. Vincent also rejects trying to make an honest man of himself, firmly rejecting the idea all together and instead gleefully descending into the criminal underworld. The downside to the subtext of The Godfather Part III is that it gets a bit ludicrous and looses its subtlety. It is disappointing because this is territory that Puzo and Coppola have covered before and much more effectively at that.
The Godfather Part III is a well-made film and no one can really say otherwise. There are still solid performances to be found, but no one really rises above good and strives for greatness. No one here really challenges what Brando did in the first film and not even Pacino can match the unbearable intensity that he conveyed in Part II. Much has been made of Sofia Coppola’s polarizing performance as Mary but I personally didn’t find her all that bad. I think she is a victim of the subplot that she is thrown into, which is just there to add another layer of tragedy to a story that is already tragic enough. The cinematography is just as beautiful and Coppola can’t resist returning to Sicily to exploit that beautiful countryside and baroque architecture. The film plants here for almost half the runtime but I certainly was not complaining about this aspect. In the end, there is the feeling that all the events that are playing out are vaguely forced and empty, almost like they didn’t need to play out at all. I really liked the scenes with Kay and Michael and their attempts to patch up their relationship but I liked the way things were left in Part II. With the second installment, we knew that Michael was doomed by the suggestions of the final frame and there was really no need for Coppola and Puzo to drag things out further and then put it in bold print and italicize it.
The Godfather Part III is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Given all the images that have been passed around of E. Elias Merhige’s heavily symbolic art house horror film Begotten, you’d think it would be a hell of a lot more impactful than it actually is. A virtually indecipherable film, Begotten drives the viewer to the brink of madness with its grainy black and white cinematography and nightmarish symbolism that only Merhige himself truly comprehends. At a brief hour and twelve minutes, Begotten is dreadfully pretentious at times, coming across as a big budget film school project rather than a feature film debut. I’ve always heard that Begotten is one of the scariest unknown horror films ever made but I was unaware that it is cryptically coded religious mumbo jumbo that is left up for debate for pseudo-intellectuals who confidently say they understand it. Trust me, you won’t understand much of Begotten.
Begotten begins with by telling us, “Like a flame burning away the darkness, life is flesh on bone convulsing above the ground.” The film then cuts to God (Played by Brian Salzberg), shrouded in what appear to be bandages and a flowing white robe, disemboweling himself with a straight razor. A clock ticks in the background, sounding almost like a muffled gagging noise as God bleeds out. When he dies, Mother Nature (Played by Donna Dempsey) emerges, impregnates her self and gives birth to the Son of Man (Played by Stephen Charles Barry), who she leaves in a barren wasteland. Soon, barbaric humanoid creatures begin preying on Mother Nature and the Son of Man, raping Mother Nature and the proceeding to dismember her. After destroying her, they set their sights on Son of Man, who crawls across the grotesque and barren landscape.
I said in my introduction that you’d think that Begotten would be a hell of a lot impactful than it actually is. Elaborating on this, Begotten gives the viewer a plethora of chilling images that end up being tattooed in your brain without the option of ever having them removed. The images of God disemboweling himself ranks as one of the creepiest things I have ever seen in a motion picture. Merhige’s camera presses right in on the gross stuff, especially when Mother Nature rises out of his corpse and then proceeds to arouse his dead body and impregnate herself. Try getting that sequence out of your head. Later in the film, when Mother Nature gives birth to a trembling, gasping man-child that is the Son of Man, he withers on the ground and vomits out these bizarre sacks that these faceless nomads eagerly snatch away from him. Or how about Mother Nature finding the Son of Man, tying a giant umbilical cord around him and dragging him through a dead forest? These are images out of a nightmare, purposely bleached and washed to make the film even more freakish and difficult.
While Begotten has creepy images, the film would solidify itself as a horror classic if we could penetrate the message of all these symbolic metaphors. The vague narrative that runs through it is impossible to understand unless you go look it up before hand. To even attempt to unlock the message that Merhige is trying to send, you need a fairly extensive background in religion. The message I gathered from Begotten (and trust me, I don’t claim to understand this film nor am I even going to pretend that I have a full grasp on it) is that the introduction to the film is the creation story. God created the world (Mother Nature) and put life in it. Mother Nature gives birth to this innocent and fragile life. Mother Nature and Innocence (Son of Man) are then set upon the bestial humanity (the humanoids), who proceed to rape, torture, dismember, and cannibalize beauty and innocence.
It’s a shame that Begotten doesn’t let us in on what it is trying to accomplish. I believe that there could be a chilling message to compliment those disquieting images that Merhige paints. Begotten ends up being such an exasperating film that at times I started giving up and getting bored with it because I just couldn’t find a doorway in. Begotten turns out to be the visual equivalent to nails on a chalkboard, grating due to its inaccessibility and jolting in the same breath. I bump the grade up from average to just slight above average because you will be struck by images in Begotten, creeping you out long after it has ended. In a way it is a shame because with Begotten, experimental style trumps profound artist statement.
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)
by Charles Beall
There is a good movie in Psycho IV: The Beginning that is dying to get out, yet never does. The premise (for the fourth film in a series) is promising: what was life with Mother like? The problem is that there is a lot of good material here, but the film is so campy that you can’t take it seriously.
It is interesting to look at the progression of the story of Norman Bates through the Psycho series. We know that the original Psycho is a more “serious” film“ (albeit with a lot of dark humor), as is Psycho II, and to an extent, Psycho III, but this installment walks a fine line of seriousness and camp, falling into the latter category. This is a shame, because with Psycho IV, we have a screenplay by Psycho’s original screenwriter Joseph Stefano, another spirited performance from Anthony Perkins, and enthusiastic direction from Mick Garris. What went wrong?
The film starts off with a solid concept. Late night radio host Fran Ambrose (the amazing and underrated CCH Pounder) has a show dealing with boys who kill their mothers, and of course, a now married and “rehabilitated” Norman Bates calls in. This is an instance where the movie flails between the serious and camp. There is potential and Pounder and Perkins take their roles seriously, yet the direction of Garris seems to take the performances to a campier level. Through his phone call, we meet Normans’s mother (the hot Olivia Hussey) through narratives about their life together, with young Norman played by Henry Thomas of E.T. fame. I give credit for Garris for choosing Hussey to play Mrs. Bates; she is gorgeous and not at all the image one would think of for Mrs. Bates. However, Hussey camps up her performance and I believe it is because of Garris’ direction.
That isn’t to say that Psycho IV isn’t well-made. The film is bursting with color, giving an idea of life back in the era at the time of the original film. But, much like Norman Bates himself, this film is at war with itself. It doesn’t know how to treat its material, and instead of being firmly on one path, the movie straddles the serious and the campy, leaving this viewer satisfied to an extent, but disappointed at what could’ve been.
Tomorrow…ugh, Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake. Although, this is a pretty sweet trailer.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
by Steve Habrat
By now you probably understand that I believe George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead is a towering achievement in independent and blockbuster filmmaking. It’s so sprawling and was achieved with very little. When the recent fixation with horror remakes started to show their ugly mugs, I crossed my fingers that Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t be touched. I had seen what Tom Savini did to Romero’s first outing with the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. Inevitably, the news came that Dawn of the Dead would be getting a makeover, and it came as a personal blow. How can they do this to a classic? It’s like remaking The Exorcist? Any real fan of Romero would oppose this blasphemous decision! I sulked to the theater after school on a cool spring day to be a witness to this travesty, eager to see what new they’ve done with the classic and nervous about what they got wrong. I heard that the original cast members make small appearances, it was more action packed, and not as bright as the brainy original. The lights went down in the surprisingly packed theater, the opening moments flashed across the screen, a CGI model of the original film’s helicopter glided through a war zone, sprinting zombies dashed around like marathon runners, and then came the stock footage heavy opening credits set the apocalyptic moans of Johnny Cash. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were getting it right and giving it it’s own hellish life.
I have to applaud director Zack Snyder, who seems to be a big fanboy at heart, for respecting the original film. He had the decency to make a film with some thought and originality rather than lazily making a shot for shot duplication of a film that was already good enough. Some people like shot for shot remakes, but in terms of a horror film, if you’ve seen the original and then you see the shot-for-shot remake, there is absolutely nothing in the way of surprise. There is plenty to be surprised about in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a thrashing and teeth gnashing zombie film that is both undeniably freaky and coated with a thin layer of black humor. One moment you’ll be giggling over a sniper sequence, in which characters pick which zombies to shoot from the roof of the mall based on their resemblance to celebrities and the next moment, your knuckles will be white for a thrilling rescue mission that turns into a chaotic escape through a sea of zombies. The film should be described as a roller coaster ride, but the misstep of the film is the blatant lack of a social commentary. The consumerism exploration is only touched upon, seemingly to satisfy those who enjoyed the underlying message of the original, but then it’s back to entertaining the screaming tweens in the front row who snuck into it.
Dawn of the Dead ’04 begins with what could very well be the best opening sequence in any motion picture in the last ten years. Nurse Ana (Played by Sarah Polley) arrives home after a long day in the ER, where an unusually large number of people are being admitted for strange illnesses and bites. The next morning, the little neighbor girl awakes Ana and her husband while lurking in their bedroom. After her husband takes a nasty bite to the neck and is turned into a shrieking ghoul (the zombies are very similar to the infected in 28 Days Later), she flees her collapsing neighborhood and hits the raucous streets to find safety. She ends up bumping into a bad ass, shotgun wielding cop Kenneth (Played by Ving Rhames), a television salesman Michael (Played by Jake Weber), and a terrified couple Andre and Luda (Played by Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina). They decide the safest place to take refuge is the local mall, where they stumble upon a group of trigger happy security guards led by the domineering CJ (Played by Michael Kelly). The group begins to coexist and soon another truckload of desperate survivors comes banging on the delivery doors to be let in. They are lead by valiant Tucker (Played by Boyd Banks) and cowardly Steve (Played by Modern Family‘s Ty Burell). The group fortifies the mall so the rotting stenches can’t force their way in, but as the group begins to crumble apart, they must make a daring escape through the zombie army just outside the doors.
Dawn of the Dead ’04 revolves around more characters than the original 1978 film did. Rather than the measly four main protagonists, we have a large group, ranging from the usual good guys to the royal pains in the ass that any group like this would be made up of. This is a smart move on Snyder’s part, but it also hinders the viewer in their attempt to allow themselves to grow attached to any specific character. It’s the quality that really drove the original film. I cared about the original characters and when one bit the dust, we mourned them as if they were real and not a part of the cinematic realm. There are likable characters to be found in this jazzed up remake, mostly Ana, Kenneth, and Michael. The reluctant CJ finally comes around in the final stretch of the film and proves himself a hero. Getting the character set up correct is an integral part for a re-envisioning of Dawn of the Dead, and this one comes up half right.
What little remains from the original is the bright colors that are used in the film, running with the claim that Romero made way back when about it being his comic book film. Here Snyder uses Dawn of the Dead to announce his chiaroscuro approach to his work. It’s always really brightly lit or shrouded in darkness. It makes the film into a funhouse, which I admired, but sometimes felt like Snyder sees the original film as pure pulp filmmaking. It’s a trait that bothers me even to this day, and I’m sure that Romero was not pleased about it either. Romero has expressed some strong feelings about the film, mainly that they never even consulted with him or asked his permission to remake it. Sure, Romero intended to make something fun, but he also used the film to say something about our society. Well, at least they kept the ending gloomy.
I like Zack Snyder’s vision here and I the entertainment value on Dawn of the Dead ’04 is out of this world. One Christmas Eve on year, my cousins and I sat around sipping beers and wallowing in the aggressive temperament of this film. It does pack a few creep out moments and the mandatory jump scare, which every horror film feels the need to apply. It is stylishly made, designed to make all who watch it will walk away deeming it “cool”. And that is precisely how to evaluate Snyder’s body of work. He does things because he thinks its “cool” and everyone will like it. This is, however, Snyder’s strongest film he’s made. Despite its flaws, it’s original and just like one of Romero’s zombies, has an immensely likable personality. If for no other reason, it wins for its opening sequence and end credits. In this case, cool is king and surprisingly scary. Grade: A-