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Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead #1

by Steve Habrat

Before the summer of 2003, the zombie genre had largely remained dead and buried. There was a sluggish 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead here and the final Italian effort Dellamorte Dellamore there, but the zombies seemed content to rest six feet under. In 2002, we caught a glimpse of the undead in the futuristic action-thriller Resident Evil, a film that was unexpectedly fun despite the fact that it was based around a video game and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. In 2003, zombies—or should I say INFECTED people—came back in a big way. Danny Boyle’s grim indie 28 Days Later re-ignited interest in the apocalyptic subgenre and the craze grew ever stronger with the spring 2004 release of the Dawn of the Dead remake. With the zombie craze re-established, the fall of 2004 saw the release of British director Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, a written-in-blood loveletter to George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy, some of the early Italian releases like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, and, yes, Boyle’s gritty reimagining of the genre. Down-to-earth, warm, hilarious, and tense in all the right places, Shaun of the Dead is without question one of the strongest modern zombie movies and it ranks up there as one of the best undead films ever made. Oh, and it also happens to be a romantic comedy, which means your girlfriend might like it too.

Shaun of the Dead introduces us to Shaun (played by Simon Pegg), whose life seems to be stuck in a rut. He works a dead end job as an electronics salesman at Foree Electric, he loathes his stepfather, Phillip (played by Bill Nighy), he constantly quarrels with his roommate, Pete (played by Peter Serafinowicz), over their lazy best friend Ed, who shacks up on their couch and refuses to get a job, and he wants to spend every night sipping pints in a local pub called the Winchester. To make things worse, Shaun is loosing his girlfriend, Liz (played by Kate Ashfield), who wishes that Shaun would do more with his life. After Shaun forgets to book a table at a fancy restaurant for their anniversary, Liz decides to call it quits with Shaun because he just can’t seem to grow up and take on responsibility. Devastated, Shaun and Ed retreat to the Winchester to drown their sorrows in a couple pints and shots, but the next day, the two awake to discover that mankind has been wiped out and the cannibalistic undead roam the streets. Hungover and terrified, Shaun and Ed begin devising a plot to round up Liz, her roommates, David (played by Dylan Moran) and Dianne (played by Lucy Davis), and Shaun’s mother, Barbara (played by Penelope Wilton), in an attempt to show Liz that he is a responsible adult. The plan is to hold up in the Winchester until the whole thing blows over, but as they begin their trek to the pub, they realize that the situation outside is a lot more dangerous than they had anticipated.

The early scenes of Shaun of the Dead are absolutely hilarious and brimming with social commentary. The opening credits find ordinary citizens shuffling through their daily lives with a blank stare frozen on their faces, rooted in monotonous routines. Even Shaun is stuck in a mundane ritual as he shuffles out of bed like a zombie, throws on his work clothes, and sulks obliviously down to the local market where he picks up sodas and ice cream to munch on while he plays video games with Ed. Funny enough, Ed is the one that reminds Shaun that he can’t jump into a game because he has to go to work. Shaun is so blind to his surroundings that when the zombie apocalypse does finally hit, he has absolutely no idea that it is happening until Ed calmly tells him that there’s a girl in their garden. From here on out, the film falls back on the blind leading the blind. Shaun and Ed are clueless over how to deal with the situation they find themselves in. They think that throwing records like Frisbees at the zombies that have stumbled into their back yard (the movie’s best and funniest sequence) is a good idea and they hilariously believe that they will be able to shack up in a pub and sip pints while the undead pound away outside. These early scenes show that Pegg and Wright, who penned the script, both fully understand that Romero’s Dead trilogy had a lot more on its mind that just blood and guts.

Shaun of the Dead #2

While there are plenty of smarts to be found in the depiction of daily life, which clearly Pegg and Wright detest, the film also gets by on some witty references to other zombie movies. Early on we get a nod to Lucio Fulci, Ken Foree, who was the star of Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, a sly nod to the 1984 cosmic zombie movie Night of the Comet, a hilarious spin on the “we’re coming to get you, Barbara” line from Night of the Living Dead, and charming use of Goblin’s score from Dawn of the Dead. There is also a blink-and-you-miss-it tribute to Boyle’s 28 Days Later near the end of the film. While Wright and Pegg are eager to pay tribute to the zombie movie greats, they create a unique offering to the genre. The film is also a hilarious slacker-stoner comedy and a touching romantic comedy that finds us rooting for the romance to rekindle between Liz and Shaun. By the end of the film, Wright has scrubbed away most of the laughs in favor for the typical gut munching and closed-off claustrophobia that made horror fans fall in love with the zombie genre in the first place. The final sequence has powerful emotional blows, a quick visual gag to break the tension, and then a final siege that finds our heroes realistically trying to work their way around a firearm. The scene is all the better because we truly want every single one of these characters to make it out alive, but when the zombies start trying to claw their way in, our stomach twists into knots and we know that won’t happen.

The characters of Shaun of the Dead are all brilliantly written and beautifully played by a handful of very talented British actors. Pegg is a revelation as Shaun, who still gets a belly laugh out of a good fart joke. He shares several touching moments with the stoner Ed, who seems to have grown roots to the couch and super glued an XBOX controller to his fingertips. Ashfield is sweet and tightly wound as Liz, who thinks that there is a lot more out there for her than simply wasting away at the Winchester. Moran is a geeky puke as David, who pines for Liz even though she sees him as just a friend, and Davis tries to be mediator as Dianne. Nighy is stern discipline as Phillip, Shaun’s no-nonsense stepfather who is given one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie. Serafinowicz is wildly unlikable as Pete, Shaun’s fed-up flat mate and Wilton is naïve as Shaun’s lovable mother Barbara. Amazingly, Wright gets us to like even the most detestable characters and he almost drives us to tears when the cannibals seeking human flesh bite a few of them. Overall, Shaun of the Dead dares to take on quite a bit and it could have been crushed under the heavy load it attempts to lift. It is bound and determined to take on several different genres at once and it does it with shocking ease. It is an inventive, poignant, hilarious, and creepy zombie movie that has even earned praise from the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. You’ll want to watch this movie again and again.

Grade: A-

Shaun of the Dead is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Anti-Film School’s 15 Best Zombie Movies of All Time!

Best Zombie Movies

by Steve Habrat

With director Marc Forster and Brad Pitt’s epic World War Z swarming the global box office, I thought it would be a good time to countdown the 15 best zombie movies of all time. Now, if there is one thing that I know in this world, it is zombies. I love ‘em. I cut my teeth on Night of the Living Dead when I was just a little sprout and I never looked back. I’ve dabbled in everything from the Italian splatterfests of the late 70s and 80s to all of Romero’s heady zombie romps. I’ve thrilled at the sprinting zombies and I’ve chuckled right along with the new string of “zom-coms.” Hell, I even religiously watch The Walking Dead when it is on AMC. So, without further ado, I give you my picks for the top 15 zombie movies of all time. I do hope you’re craving some brrrraaaaaaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnnssss!

15.) Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie

Director Jorge Grau’s surreal 1974 chiller doesn’t feature the undead in thick hordes like many of the films on this list. No, this film was made when the zombie subgenre was still suffering from some growing pains. However, it is still a massively chilling, impeccably acted, and brutal zombie movie made in the wake of the collapse of the counterculture. With an alien score that would have been perfect for any 50s science fiction flick and spine tingling wheezes creeping over the soundtrack, this go-green atomic freak out is an absolutely must for zombie fanatics and horror freaks, especially the final blood-soaked twenty minutes.

14.) Grindhouse-Planet Terror (2007)

Planet Terror

In early 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino unleashed this passion project into an America that frankly didn’t get what the duo was trying to do. Well, America, you missed out. This scratchy double feature kicks off with a gooey bang in the form of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a pus-filled tribute to zombie godfather George A. Romero and Italian goremaster Lucio Fulci. Brimming with tongue-in-cheek violence, melting penises, machine gun legs, and kerosene action, Planet Terror is a self-aware charmer that is guaranteed to churn your tummy. Keep an eye out for an extended cameo from Tom Savini, who did the make-up effects in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.

13.) Shock Waves (1977)

Shock Waves

Way before Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies took the world by storm, this little-known but unnervingly creepy tale about a troop of goggle-clad SS ghouls patrolling an abandoned island snuck into theaters and then was largely forgotten. Fueled by a ghostly atmosphere and flooded with horror icons (Peter Cushing! John Carradine! Brooke Adams!), this sun drenched chiller doesn’t feature the same old flesh-hungry ghouls ripping victims limb from limb. Nope, these guys march out of the water, sneak up on their victims, and then violently drown ‘em. Trust me, they are VERY cool. With a score guaranteed to give you goosebumps and an immensely satisfying last act, this is a low budget B-movie gem that deserves to be showered in attention. Track it down and show your friends!

12.) 28 Weeks Later (2007)

28 Weeks Later

It seemed like an impossible task to try to do a sequel to Danny Boyle’s terrifying 2003 game changer 28 Days Later, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from giving it a try. Surprisingly, 28 Weeks Later, which was produced by Boyle and directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, is an intimidating follow-up that goes bigger and louder than the previous film. Clearly crafted for a summer audience, 28 Weeks Later is an effects heavy blockbuster that finds much of London being reduced to ashes, but the acting is top notch, the smarts are in place, and the zombie…sorry, INFECTED mayhem will leave you breathless and shaking for days.

11.) Day of the Dead (1985)

Day of the Dead

The third installment in George A. Romero’s zombie series was a bomb when it was first released and unfairly dismissed by many critics including Roger Ebert. You should know that the shockingly dark and cynical Day of the Dead has many tricks up its sleeve. Perhaps the angriest zombie movie ever made, Day of the Dead is the work of a man who has completely lost his faith in humanity and our ability to work together. Did I mention that it also features an intelligent zombie? Yeah, wait until you meet Bub. While much of the zombie carnage is saved for the shadowy climax, Day of the Dead is still a film that spits fire. I’d even go so far to say that it is one of the most important films of the Regan Era.

10.) Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Return of the Living Dead

This punk rock “zom-com” from writer/director Dan O’Bannon passes itself off as an unofficial follow-up to Romero’s 1968 treasure Night of the Living Dead. The characters all openly acknowledge the events of that film, but they do it all in neon Mohawks while snarling rock n’ roll blares in the background. With plenty of gonzo action and a swarm of ghouls that howl for more “braaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnssss,” Return of the Living Dead is like a living, breathing cartoon. If that doesn’t convince you to attend this ghoul shindig, wait until you catch a glimpse of the tar zombie, one of the most visually striking zombies ever filmed. Rock on!

9.) The Dead (2011)

The Dead

The newest film on this list is actually one of the most impressive throwbacks of recent memory. The Dead is basically a road movie smashed together with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and a forgotten spaghetti western. It could also be the most beautiful zombie film on this list (aside from Dellamorte Dellamore). Taking place on the parched African landscape, The Dead will send shivers as its zombies slowly shuffle along in the background of nearly every single shot, making you wonder if our two silent protagonists will ever make it out of this situation alive. While the last act dips, The Dead never lets up on the intensity. Just watch for a scene where an injured mother hands her infant child off to Rob Freeman’s Lt. Murphy as zombies close in around her. Pleasant dreams!

8.) Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator

It seems that 1985 was the year of the zombie. We were treated to gems like Return of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, and Stuart Gordon’s cheeky horror-comedy Re-Animator. A bit more restrained that some of the films on this list (but not by much), Re-Animator is a big glowing tribute to science fiction and horror films of years passed. It has a little something for everyone, all wrapped up in a big Sam Raimi-esque wink. Did I mention that it can also creep you out big time? Featuring a must-see performance from Jeffrey Combs and a zombie doctor carrying his own head, Re-Animator is a science-lab romp that will have you shrieking one second and giggling the next.

7.) Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Zack Snyder’s speedy remake of George A. Romero’s masterpiece was probably the most expensive zombie movie of all time until World War Z came crashing into theaters. It was also much better than it had any right to be. While it will never trump the heady original, Snyder makes an energetic gorefest that will make horror fans giddy with delight. The film has a stellar opening sequence that is followed by grainy news reports of a world going to Hell, all while Johnny Cash strums his guitar over bloody credits. From that point, Snyder lobs one gory gag after another at the audience, the most fun being a game of spot a zombie that looks like a celebrity and then turns its head into hamburger meat. Oh, and if the film didn’t have enough blood and guts already, wait until you see the chainsaw accident near the end of the film. It’s a doozy.

6.) Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man (1994)

Dellamorte Dellamore

From the late 70s through the mid 1990s, Italy had severe zombie fever. In the wake of George A. Romero’s massively successful Dawn of the Dead, the Italians cranked out more knockoffs than you can shake a severed arm and leg at. Many of them were cheapie exploitation movies that lacked artistic vision, but right before the craze died off, director Michele Soavi released Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man, a gothic zombie fantasy that truly is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Surreal, sexy, and episodic, Dellamorte Dellamore borders on arthouse horror and has earned fans as high profile as Martin Scorsese. The last act of the film is a mess and it seems like Soavi wasn’t exactly sure how to bring the film to a close, but this is certainly a zombie movie that you have to see to believe.

5.) Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead

In 2004, American audiences were introduced to British funnyguys Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, and we were all the better for it. The first “romantic comedy with zombies,” Shaun of the Dead is a side-splittingly hilarious romp that can also be quite terrifying what it sets its mind to it. Loaded with nods to classic zombie movies (each time you watch it you will spot another tip of the hat), endlessly quotable jokes, and some eye-popping gross-out gags, Shaun of the Dead is a surprisingly sweet film with a core romance you can’t stop rooting for. Also, Romero has given it his approval, which automatically makes it a zombie classic.

4.) Zombie (1979)

Zombie 1979

Lucio Fulci’s 1979 grindhouse classic Zombie (aka Zombi 2) was the first Italian knockoff inspired by George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It is also the best Italian zombie movie out there. Entitled Zombi 2 in Italy to trick audiences into thinking that the film was a sequel to Dawn, Zombie is a beast all its own. Without question the most violent and exploitative zombie film to emerge from the Italian zombie movement, Zombie is a tropical blast of excess that will have your jaw on the floor. Gasp as a zombie has an underwater battle with a shark (you read that correctly, in case you were wondering) and dry heave as a woman has her eye gouged out by a piece of splintered wood (shown in an extreme close up). And that is Fulci just getting warmed up! Approach this sucker with caution.

3.) 28 Days Later (2003)

28 Days Later

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is not technically a zombie movie. The red-eyed, blood-spewing maniacs that dash through the streets of devastated London are suffering from a virus known only as “RAGE.” Still, the ghouls are very zombie like as they sprint towards their victims like coked-out marathon runners. Gritty, grim, and absolutely terrifying, 28 Days Later is an impeccably acted and smartly directed apocalyptic thriller that astounds with each passing second. The climax has split viewers, but in my humble opinion, it is an unflinching glimpse of human beings at their absolute best and absolutely worst. This is an essential and influential modern-day classic.

2.) Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead

In 1968, George A. Romero crafted a film that would go on to lay the foundation for the zombie subgenre. Cramped, creaky, and infinitely creepy, Night of the Living Dead is a lo-fi horror classic that continues to sit securely on the short list of the most terrifying films ever made. Romero instantly throws the viewer into the chaos and flat-out refuses to give us any sort of explanation for why the dead-eyed cannibals outside are trying to pound their way into that boarded up farmhouse. All we know is that something is very wrong and the situation seems to be steadily getting worse. Brimming with Cold War anxiety and flashing images that would be right at home in a forgotten newsreel from the Vietnam War, Night of the Living Dead is a film that will stick with you the rest of your life. A true horror classic.

1.)  Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Dawn of the Dead 1978

Ten years after he shaped the subgenre, Romero returned to give audiences his ultimate apocalyptic vision. Often imitated but never duplicated, Dawn of the Dead is the king daddy of zombie movies. Set just a few short weeks after the events of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead begins with a flurry of blood and bullets ripping across your screen, assuring the viewer that once again, Romero is taking no prisoners. Once Romero decides to usher his four protagonists off to the Monroeville Mall, the satire kicks into high gear. Launching a full-scale attack on consumer culture, Romero dares to compare mall shoppers to his shuffling ghouls that wander the aisles of JC Penney. He also warns us that our inability to work together will be the death of us all. Featuring heavy character development, heart-pounding action sequences, and a devastating conclusion, Dawn of the Dead stands as a pulse-pounding masterpiece not only for Romero, but for the entire zombie subgenre.

So, do you agree? Disagree? Did I leave something off of the list? Feel free to leave me your picks! I’m dying to hear them!

Halloween Guest Feature: Five Films That Scare… Raymond Esposito

by Raymond Esposito

Echoes in a Quiet Room

When Steve asked me to write an article for Anti-Film School, I was honored. When he said, the topic was “my” top five horror movies I thought, “Perfect. Two things that I love…horror and my opinion. I can write that in about ten minutes.” It took me almost five weeks…not to write the article but to choose the movies. For a horror fan and dark fiction author, asking me to pick my five favorites is like asking me to eat a single potato chip…I can do it, but it’s really difficult. There are, after all, so many great horror scenes spread out across so many movies. The challenge loomed even larger when I considered all those scenes that filled me with dread, but didn’t actually belong to a horror film. Take for example, Saving Private Ryan. It’s a war movie true, but there is one scene in that film that disturbs me more than most horror scenes I’ve watched. Near the end of the film an American soldier fights a Nazi. The Nazi gets the upper hand, pins the American’s arm and so begins the short struggle with a very large knife. The American soldier pleads while the Nazi slowly impales him all the while softly whispering. I always skip it. I’ve watched hundreds of other knife scenes that had no effect on me, but this one is different. Perhaps because there is nothing more frightening than watching another human plead for their life – not in screams of horror, but in the soft voice of reality.

So that was my dilemma. How does one decide the “best” or the “scariest”? Is it based on how many times one jumps in fear? Do you have to spend the entire film cowering in your seat? Does it matter if you were five or forty-five years old when you watched it? Can a movie from the seventies scare anyone these days? These were all difficult questions I needed to consider. I mean I can’t just “rank” things without a proper criteria – that’s anarchy. I spent a number of weeks contemplating these and many other questions. It was a quest not for my five scariest movies, but for the criteria to reduce a list of at least twenty five choices. (Steve said be creative, but I was certain he didn’t mean go ahead and make up my own rules.) Five. I needed just five.

Resonance. That was my final criteria. I decided it did not matter when the movie was made, how old I was when I saw it, or even if it was the overall scariest movie. It had to be a film that resonated long after I watched it. And resonate in a “bad way.” By that I mean I had to find myself in situations where I remembered the movie and maybe ran a little faster up the stairs, or closed the door a little quicker…and locked it, or actually decided not to do something because I remembered “that scene.” Now that level of fear may seem a little extreme for a forty six year old guy who writes horror stories. All I can say, in my own defense, is that an active imagination is both a gift and a curse. I feel sorry for people who are so pragmatic that a horror film could never scare them or those who can dismiss the darkness as just the world without light…people with imaginations understand that the darkness is so much more than just daytime’s counterpart. Those pragmatic souls may lead a braver life than me, but I don’t think they’re having as much fun. When it comes to horror, well I’m still ten years old.

Resonance. Like that scene from Saving Private Ryan. That helped. It brought my list down to eight films. Did I want to cheat? Hope that Steve would overlook my three “extra” films? Maybe he just threw out a number and didn’t really care about the actual count. I considered it. I realized however that not all eight films ranked the same in their resonance. I mean, The Strangers left me as enraged over the characters’ stupidity as I was filled with dread. That single line from the darkened doorstep, “Is Tamara here?” was creepy but it’s not like it made me pause each time the doorbell rang (well maybe for a couple of weeks.) The randomness of why the killers choose that couple, “Because you were home,” certainly confirmed my belief that the world can be dangerously random, but hey, that’s why I have a gun and a 135 pound dog. So The Strangers didn’t feel like top five material. So seven it was. And while I’ll admit I was a big fan of keeping the lights on after that opening scene of Darkness Falls, today it is hard to recall why I found it so frightening…it no longer resonates in emotion or in memory…so I was down to six.

I turned to the three films competing from my long spent youth. One was a keeper because it changed me so fundamentally that it had to be number one. The other two presented a real problem. The first film stayed with me for years and I can still recall that fear. Forty years later the “idea” still resonates. The other by and far was the scarier film and if I wanted to be popular, this would be the choice. The Exorcist should be on anyone’s list of scary films, but for me it would be number six because as crazy as it sounds, The Omega Man gave me more nightmares than the young Linda Blair and her friend Captain Howdy. It resonated longer and broader too. The hooded “white” people. Those crazy eyes. Jumping from windows onto Heston’s car and that primal requirement to “get inside before the sun set” were all the perfect fodder for my five year old imagination…and eight…and ten. Perhaps it was the combination of my age in 1971 (5), the fact that I saw it at a drive-in, and that my brother and I kept the scare alive by taking turns screaming… “Watch out for the white people,” while locking each other out of the house at sunset or in the dark basement. Today it can’t hold up to new films…but when I was five…oh boy!

So nine hundred and something words later I arrive at my top four. Number four is a little odd, for two reasons. The first is that once they cleaned up the film quality for DVD, the effects were sort of lost…I mean the gore looked fake.. The second, and bigger issue, is that following The Evil Dead were the Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness and both films turned the original into a sort of “horror-comedy trilogy.” This was not how I felt in my first viewing of The Evil Dead and I don’t believe Sam Raimi intended it as a comedy. Nonetheless, my seventeen-year-old self loved this movie and I still do, at least in memory. It stayed with me for a long time. Partly because of that “demon in the basement” scene…that is one of my primal fears…basements. But mostly because of the texture of the film and those cackling demons. Demons can talk, they can scream, hell I don’t care if they sing, but that damn giggling…that’s creepy and I want it to stop.

The film Paranormal Activity is more dividing than a presidential election. Audience opinion on Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 56%, which demonstrates that this film has only two camps…love it and hate it. The biggest criticism I hear from the haters is “it was stupid.” I’m not sure what that means, but perhaps they wanted more special effects. Maybe they needed to “see” the demon. Granted this low budget Indie only used a bag of flour and an old photo, but for me it comes in firmly in the number three position. It resonated. I jumped several times during the film and actually felt something I don’t often experience during horror films…fear. Sometimes it’s what we don’t see that frightens best. Years later I still worry that I may awake to find my wife standing over me in the darkness (I’m not worried that she’ll be dragged down the hall because I see that as my escape opportunity.) I thought about setting up a camera to assuage my fear but then thought, “wait I saw that movie…everybody dies.” We have an attic hatch in our laundry room. It’s a low ceiling attic, more like a crawl space and I’ve never been up there. I have no desire to come face to face with a spider in a place that I can’t run. (I have no facts to support that spiders live in our attic, but it’s prudent to err on the side of caution.) Sometimes at night when I pass that dark laundry room, I think about that hatch. I wonder if there is a photo of someone I know sitting amongst the installation. I often pick up my pace as I pass and try to keep my eyes forward, but at times…it’s just so difficult not to steal a glance.

Six months after I saw my number two film I was in a hotel traveling on business. Every now and again I get it in my head to take the stairs just to burn a few extra calories (I pretend twenty steps will offset that coffee cake muffin I ate). On this particular night, I took the two flights up to my room. It was a well-lit and well maintained stairway at the Hilton. Absolutely nothing to conjure thoughts of creepiness. Halfway up I remembered The Grudge and thought, “this is exactly why people die in horror films you idiot…now run!” I don’t often take my own advice, as my pragmatic self can be a real f-in kill-joy, but that night I did. Later… after I locked the door, turned on all the lights, checked under the bed and in the closet, and pulled back the bathtub curtain (don’t invite trouble leaving that closed) … I felt foolish for running up those stairs. The Grudge had so many great moments. Probably the “under the covers” scene was the worst, followed closely by “meow boy” and “whatever the hell that mouth noise was.” I still like to think about it from time to time. It doesn’t scare me as much today, but I can still remember how much it did frighten me. It still resonates at least in memory.

When a film touches a “primal” fear, when that film changes how you experience an activity, when it can transfer to any body of water…that is the ultimate definition of “resonates.” Before the summer of 1975 I was a water rat. We lived in Connecticut about thirty minutes from the beach and I loved the ocean. At the age of nine, I was certainly aware of sharks, but seldom thought about them beyond science class. After Jaws my love of the ocean was forever tainted. Besides being frightened of the sea, my nine year old self began to question the safety of ponds and lakes…and swimming pools. Several times I had a dream that my bed had been washed out to sea and the waves kept threatening to toss me into that dark green water where Jaws waited. I guess being in the ocean is like that attic crawl space…not much chance of escape. I live in Fort Myers Florida now and still go to the beach and I still swim in the warm gulf. Never though without consideration that perhaps at that very moment, a black-eyed death is charging silently towards me. And all these years later I still take a quick look at the deep end of my pool before I get in, I pretend I’m checking for snakes (they get in sometimes) and in part I am, but in truth I’m also looking for that fin. Jaws may not be a horror story in the classic sense, but its attack on primal fears, the way it forever changed my thoughts on the ocean, and for being an iconic symbol, it earns its place as number one on my list.

So those are my top five horror films…with some creative cheating to add the others…and it is what I love about the genre. It’s a personal experience – some things scare universally but most just individually. I don’t believe special effects cause fear. I’m not even certain it is the monsters on the screen. I believe the truly haunting moments, the terrifying things are just a reflection of the stuff we brought with us to that movie. The dark little thoughts our imaginations create and our rational minds work to hold at bay. And when every so often, if we’re lucky, a story stirs those fears, we hear the sounds like echoes in a quiet room, and they whisper to us… Yes, I understand.”

A little about Raymond:

American novelist, Raymond Esposito lives multiple lives. He is a husband, father of five, the executive vice president of an international professional services firm, proprietor of the website Nightmirrors.com, and when time allows, the voice of Graveyard Radio. His debut novel, “You and Me, Against the World,” is book one of his Creepers Trilogy and provides his own spin on the zombie apocalypse.

To purchase “You and Me, Against the World,” click here.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

by Steve Habrat

In case the cramped zombie/mutant terror of 2002’s Resident Evil left you wanting more action, then you should immediately seek out 2004’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Lacking the suspense and the chilling build up that the first film had, Resident Evil: Apocalypse hits the ground sprinting and launches into one long and very loud continuous action scene. A step down in nearly every department, Resident Evil: Apocalypse seems like a fans-only party that plays more like a video game that in its predecessor did. The film has the small group of survivors dodging and darting around a city where zombies stumble through fiery wreckage, Lickers crawl around gothic cathedrals, and a gigantic final boss called Nemesis prowls the streets while firing a rocket launcher at anything that moves a muscle. Where can I find a controller? The film also does a poor job fleshing out the new characters while its evolution of Alice, the gal who shot and kicked her way through the Hive in a little red dress, seems just too phony for us to buy. It’s pedestrian action that even lacks the annoying but memorable score from Marilyn Manson. Well, at least it has a whole bunch of zombies who are really, really hungry.

Just 13 short hours after the initial T-virus outbreak in the Hive, the sinister Umbrella Corporation sends a team of researchers in to reopen the Hive. Naturally, it is a huge mistake and swarms of the undead come stumbling out and kill of the team. In response to the outbreak, Umbrella quickly quarantines the city and begins a hasty evacuation of its highest-ranking employees. One of these employees is Dr. Charles Ashford (Played by Jared Harris), who has a daughter that gets stuck inside the walled off city. As panic rips the city to shreds and the citizens turn into mindless cannibals, Umbrella decides that they are going to nuke the city. With time quickly running out, Dr. Ashford finds Alice (Played by Milla Jovovich), a former employee of Umbrella who is still inside the city. He explains that if Alice can find his daughter, than he will arrange for her to be evacuated from the city. In her search, Alice stumbles upon STARS solider Carlos Olivera (Played by Oded Fehr), police officer Jill Valentine (Played by Sienna Guillory), Sergeant Peyton Wells (Played by Razaaq Adoti), and surviving citizen L.J. (Played by Mike Epps), who all agree to help her battle the endless waves of the undead. The mission gets even more dangerous when Umbrella sends in Nemesis, a mutant super soldier that is seemingly indestructible.

With more special effects, more explosions, and more of Jovovich’s bare chest, Resident Evil: Apocalypse certainly has plenty of eye candy for males between the age of 17 and 30, but the story, if you can believe it, has been extremely watered down even more than it already was. The plot is pretty feeble and seems like it was thought up in a hurry, just to quickly crank the film out so the studio could cash in on the popularity. The film is never very scary and it has only a handful of white-knuckle moments to speak of. In a way, you will find yourself wishing that Paul W.S. Anderson would step in (if you can believe it) and relive new director Alexander Witt, who just seems to be going through the blockbuster motions. Witt isn’t a very interesting director, opting to make things visually stimulating through blurry shots of zombies shuffling up stairways or through windows or low angle shots of characters firing Gatling guns. There is small amount of fun to be had, mostly because the film is padded with infinite amounts of brainless and completely nonsensical action. There is one scene after another of Alice running away from trigger-happy helicopters, jumping through the air with two pistols in her hands, and crashing motorcycles through church windows. It’s wanton destruction just for the sake of destruction.

While the acting in Resident Evil wasn’t anything to write home about, it still fared better than the acting of Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Jovovich is still the tough cookie she was in the first film but with far less personality here. All Witt asks of her is that she be game to flip through the air and fire a couple of machine guns. Guillory’s Valentine struts around in a tube top and posing like she is Victoria Beckham. She is supposed to be a no-nonsense cop but she is rather forgettable version of Lara Croft in a high tech metropolis. Fehr plays the clichéd tough guy commando by the books, doing virtually nothing different with the character he signed on to play. Meanwhile, Mike Epps has a blast wisecracking his way through the role of L.J. He is here to lighten the tension but there is very little tension so he to be found so he just seems out of place. Still, he gets the film’s best one-liners and his encounter with a pair of topless stripper zombies will have you giggling. Jared Harris manages to get by as Dr. Ashford, a character that is largely ignored and there simply to move the poor excuse for a plot along to the next battle scene. Adoti drops in as Wells, a character that is only here to be zombie bait. Also on board is Thomas Kretschmann as Major Tom Cain, an evil Umbrella employee who forces Alice to do battle with Nemesis for his own enjoyment.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse does have some pretty impressive special effects and I have to say that some of the detail on Nemesis is pretty darn dazzling. Granted, the character just walks around and growls but he does make an impression by just stepping on the scene. Sadly, I found the way that they worked him into the action to be pretty pathetic, as he has nothing really to do except hunt down STARS officers and fight a genetically altered Alice. The zombie mayhem is still pretty fun and there are plenty of moments where the ghouls get to viciously rip some human flesh from the bone. I especially enjoyed the scene where Alice and company cut through a graveyard and zombies begin crawling their way out of the ground. It’s a pure B-movie moment but I couldn’t help but wonder if they use coffins in Raccoon city (apparently not). If you happen to be a big fan of the Resident Evil video game franchise, you’re going to love this movie. It’s apparent that Witt is determined to cram in as many characters and references from the game that he can. While I am not a die-hard fan of Resident Evil, I will still give him credit for trying to deliver for the ones who adore these characters and plots, but I wish that they wouldn’t have just thrown characters and plots in for the sake of doing it. Overall, Resident Evil: Apocalypse is a pretty mixed bag of solid zombie carnage, B-movie action, and artificial thrills that are used up before the end credits. Video game controller not included.

Grade: C

Resident Evil: Apocalypse is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Catwoman (2004)

by Steve Habrat

As if Batman & Robin didn’t do enough damage to the Batman name, Warner Bros. and DC Comics then came up with 2004’s Catwoman, a film so bad it left the Batman legacy in ashes. Even though the Dark Knight isn’t anywhere to be found in Catwoman, the fact that this character stems from his universe does enough damage. Directed like a miniseries for MTV and set to music that sounds like it was lifted from a perfume commercial, Catwoman is under the impression that it is a sleek and sexy thrill ride that will drive the ladies wild on girls night out. No matter how many sexy actors and actresses director Pitof (yes, that is the name he goes by) throws into the mix, nothing about the film is sexy. Furthermore, Catwoman attempts to be a lioness roar of female empowerment, one that howls at the thought of aging but declares war on the evil cosmetic companies that promote everlasting youth. Confused yet? With a terrible story and some of the worst dialogue you are likely to hear in a movie, Catwoman tosses the comic book character’s origin story in a box of kitty litter and then proceeds to defecate all over it. It does all of this while wearing the most laughable superhero getup you can think of and battling what has to be the lamest villain ever thought up by Hollywood. Does it make sense why I was ashamed to admit I was a Batman fan for so long?

Catwoman introduces us to Seline Ky… Patience Phillips (Played by Halle Berry), a geeky graphic designer who works for a cosmetics company called Hedare Beauty, which is developing a new skin cream called Beau-Line. Beau-Line is supposed to help preserve youth but the side effects are extremely dangerous. One evening, Patience stumbles into the Hedare laboratory where she overhears her boss, George Hedare (Played by Lambert Wilson), and his wife, Laurel Hedare (Played by Sharon Stone), discussing the horrific side effects. Patience is quickly discovered and George orders his goons to kill her. She tries to escape through a conduit pipe but George’s goons have it sealed and flushed out. Patience’s body washes up on a nearby island where a mysterious cat named Midnight finds her and breathes new life into Patience. Armed with new cat-like abilities and crazy skills with a whip, Patience dons a silly leather outfit and takes to the city rooftops as Catwoman. After she commits a robbery, the persistent Detective Tom Lone (Played by Benjamin Bratt) is on Catwoman’s tail, but the two end up locked in a steamy romance. Catwoman also begins setting her sights on the people who were responsible for trying to kill her and exposing the dirty little secrets of Hedare Beauty while she is at it.

While the first half of Catwoman drones on and on about how much of a plain-Jane Patience is, the second half of the film spits out a unconvincing sex kitten that struts along the rooftops of a CGI city (Gotham City?) like she is working a catwalk. She throws her hips around in an unintentionally hilarious costume that is completely absurd, especially when she begins hoping around in a fight scene. Catwoman herself seems to lack a real motive or direction as she prowls the streets at night. She slinks around robbing jewelry stores and when she gets bored, she slips over to the Hedare laboratory to pick off one of George’s goons. Berry tries desperately to own the role while giving it plenty of sassy attitude that would make all the other actresses that have donned the cat-ears double over in laughter. She never once becomes a true threat to the bad guys here, but that may be because every time a fight breaks out, Berry is replaced with a CGI double that jumps around like Spider-Man. If she isn’t making you groan during a fight scene, her origin most certainly will. What makes it even worse is that Pitof tries to sell this outlandish rebirth angle with a straight face.

Then we have Sharon Stone as Laurel Hedare, an aging beauty queen who is addicted to Beau-Line. This addiction has made her skin as tough as concrete and allowed her to feel no pain (I wish I was making this up). She bitches and moans about how she was once the beautiful face of Hedare and now a younger, prettier model is replacing her. Laurel becomes truly evil due to her husband’s infidelity and she ends up murdering him, something that she frames Catwoman for. While the source of Laurel’s rage is clear, it just comes off as idiotic and evil for the sake of being evil. We then learn that Laurel plans to unleash Beau-Line on the public yet she is angry because younger girls are replacing her. Riiiight. Also in the mix is Benjamin Bratt as Detective Tom Lone, who suspects that Patience is Catwoman. Berry and Bratt have little to no chemistry and each meeting they have just screams scripted. Just wait for the scene when they play basketball together and Berry begins jumping around like, well, Catwoman. It never occurs to Bratt that something is up when she begins pulling off moves like she does! Come on! We also have Lambert Wilson’s smug and arrogant George, who is about as intimidating as a mouse. It is okay if you forget he was ever at this fashion show.

When Catwoman isn’t limping by on its poor excuse for a plot, the film is busy trying to wake us up with one overdone fight scene after another. Pitof was the visual effects supervisor of Alien Resurrection and he just can’t seem to resist piling on needless effects here, all of which look rubbery and done on a laptop. It is even worse when he insists on multiple overhead shots of this unknown metropolis, all of which boast absolutely awful CGI to match the fight scenes. Catwoman is anxious to send a message of female empowerment and assure its female viewers that you are beautiful just the way they are, yet the hero struts around in a bra and leather pants with tons of make-up caked on her face and not an ounce of body fat. I’m starting to think that the screenwriters did think that aspect though too well. No matter how low your expectations are going in to Catwoman, they just simply aren’t low enough. A tissue paper thin origin story mixed with forced girl talk, awful performances, sloppy romance, terrible music, and stuck up villains, Catwoman is perhaps one of the worst comic book movies ever conceived. It is a film with little respect for its source material and for the fans of the source. A real hairball!

Grade: F

Catwoman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Hellboy (2004)

by Steve Habrat

I wish that audiences paid more attention to visionary director Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 superhero film Hellboy, a funky and gothic monster mash that practically explodes with creativity. Based on Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse comic book of the same name, Hellboy seems like an absurd premise but because del Toro gives his ragtag group of ghouls a human heart, the film becomes a real charmer. Credit should also go to Ron Pearlman’s performance as the big red crime fighter who loves a good cigar, has a hopeless crush on a colleague, weakens at the knees for a Baby Ruth, and just can’t resist a kitten. While many may not be able to wrap their heads around a demonic superhero, Hellboy rewards those who will give him a chance with tons of monster-on-monster brawls, nightmarish critters who prowl the subways of New York City, and plenty of quirky one liners to really allow Hellboy himself to come to life. Oh, and did I mention young love? While Hellboy hasn’t aged particularly well since its release, del Toro keeps things timeless by his use of tons of outstanding make-up and icky puppets that will simultaneously make your skin crawl and give you nightmares. Not bad for a comic book movie.

Hellboy begins during the final days World War II, taking us to a stormy island off the coast of Scotland where a handful of American soldiers and the young Professor Broom (Played by John Hurt) are spying on a small band of Nazi soldiers performing a strange occult ritual that would awaken “The Seven Gods of Chaos”, monstrous creatures that slumber in another dimension. This ritual is being led by Grigori Rasputin (Played by Karel Roden), his mistress, Ilsa (Played by Bridget Hodson), and monitored by the gas-masked Kroenen (Played by Ladislav Beran), Hitler’s top assassin. The American soldiers attack half way through the ritual and stop the Nazi’s before any dangerous creatures get through the portal that has been opened. Rasputin manages to get sucked through the portal and shrapnel kills Kroenen, or so the Americans think, but the world is saved from annihilation. As the soldiers and Professor Broom explore the site, they discover a strange little creature that is all red and has a massive stone hand. Professor Broom determines that the creature means no harm and begins looking after the little fella. The soldiers decide to name the creature “Hellboy” due to his bizarre and demonic appearance. Fast-forward to present day where adult Hellboy (Played by Ron Pearlman) works for a super secret organization called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.  With the help of the psychic amphibious humanoid Abe Sapien (Played by Doug Jones), beautiful pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Played by Selma Blair), rookie agent John Meyers (Played by Rupert Evans), and Professor Broom, Hellboy battles bizarre critters that mean to unleash destruction on Earth.

Hellboy wins the audience over instantly with Ron Pearlman’s devoted performance as Hellboy, a towering man-child who files his horns down to fit in with society, something that he never sees yet longs for. He ends up grounded by Professor Broom for sneaking out of the underground facility he calls his home and having a picture snapped of him, which inevitably ends up on the news. Debates rage over the existence of Hellboy on talk shows, all theories debunked by Tom Manning (Played by Jeffery Tambor), a grouchy FBI Director who loathes the big red beast. It is a blast when Hellboy sneaks out on Halloween to meet up with Liz, who has checked herself in to a mental institution after multiple accidents that involve her fiery ability. He steals a six-pack and begs Liz to have a good time but she is reluctant, which deflates the lovable oaf. It is in these little moments that we really find ourselves rooting for Hellboy, even more than we do when he is rumbling with a drooling demonic creature with tentacles slithering out of its head. In fact, his job almost looks like it gets on his nerves and is just a giant inconvenience. Things really get tough for Hellboy when Meyers begins moving in on Liz, a move that drives Hellboy bonkers. This sets a knee-slapping immature rivalry into motion that culminates in Hellboy, who has a chocolate chip cooking dangling from his mouth, tossing stones at Meyers, who is trying the old yawn and stretch trick to put his arm around Liz. Boys will be boys!

While Pearlman steals the show, his supporting players are not too shabby themselves. Blair was born to play the perpetually frowning Liz, who curls inside wool coats with a hat pulled over her jet-black bangs, wearing a withdrawn look on her pretty face. She becomes a gothic heroine to a million girls in black t-shirts and combat boots.  And then there is Doug Jones as the slinky Abe Sapien, a soft-spoken and thoughtful sidekick who tries to keep Hellboy in check. He is the cool head to the loose cannon (del Toro symbolically represents that in their skin color, cool blue on Abe and hot head red on Hellboy). Tamobor is hilarious as Tom Manning, who is consistently appalled by the belligerent behavior of his horned employee. John Hurt is marvelous as the gentle father figure who looks over these crazy kids, stepping in when they get a little too wild. Rupert Evans is appropriately fidgety as Hellboy’s rival and it is hysterical to watch Hellboy try to come to terms with this new hotshot member on his team. Then there is Roden’s Rasputin, a typical sunglasses-wearing baddie who is hell-bent on reducing the world to ashes. His evil plot is a bit yawn inducing considering it has been done several times before but his henchmen spice things up. When Hodson’s Ilsa isn’t making your hair stand on end with her glassy-eyed dedication, Beran’s acrobatic assassin Kroenen will. Beran is one of the coolest comic book baddies, sporting one hell of a gas mask and spinning around blades like he came out of the womb doing it.

While the elaborate monsters that del Toro’s FX shop spits out are remarkable works of art, the real draw is the actors who are bound and determined to make Hellboy a keeper. They succeed with flying colors as I preferred the moments where the characters were interacting with one another over the scenes where things are blowing up. Even though they have to ooze sentiment through heaping gobs of spirit gum, Jones and Pearlman manage to pull of the almost impossible and make their character heartwarming. There is plenty of exhilarating action sequences that are a marvel to drink in but Hellboy just misses greatness due to a routine finale that finds Rasputin threatening to unleash giant monsters on New York City. The film also trips over some dated computer effects, which are glaringly out of place when they are piled onto del Toro’s jaw-dropping puppets. The plot of Hellboy is also thinly spread over the course of its two-hour runtime but there is enough adolescent shenanigans and young romance to keep you smiling. Ah, if only fitting in and scoring a date with the girl was as easy as turning a demonic hellhound to ash.

Grade: B+

Hellboy is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Incredibles (2004)

by Steve Habrat

The family who argues together saves the world together in director Brad Bird’s 2004 superhero adventure The Incredibles. One of the most action packed Pixar offerings, The Incredibles is a zippy homage to comic books while also pulling back the curtain on the suburban family and allowing us to see what makes every member of the All-American family tick. While The Incredibles, which was also written by Bird, borrows heavily from the critically acclaimed comic book Watchmen, Bird and the Pixar team tweak the storyline is multiple places, watering Watchmen’s extremely complex storyline down, and allowing the focus to be much more intimate. The results are dazzling with snappy jokes, gripping action, and one perfectly timed joke after another. The Incredibles is also a much more adult film, running two hours with multiple suggestive moments and really earning its PG rating. This is far from the warm and cuddly offerings that Pixar is famous for, especially when we glance back at the films that came before The Incredibles. This is the film that really showed the world the emotional punches that Pixar could throw at audiences all while keeping them wildly entertained and mesmerized.

The Incredibles ushers us into Metroville, where multiple superheroes fly through the sky and save the innocent civilians from destructive foes looking to level the city. We meet Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Voiced by Holly Hunter), and his best buddy Lucius Best/Frozone (Voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), all who team up together to rid the city of scum. After the government grows weary of all the collateral damage caused by the “Supers”, they put into place the “Supers Relocation Program”, which forces “Supers” to retire their crime fighting ways and fit in with the rest of society. Bob and Helen soon retreat to the suburbs and Bob takes a job at an insurance agency while Helen raises their three children, Dash (Voiced by Spencer Fox), Violet (Voiced by Sarah Vowell), and the toddler Jack-Jack. Bob, who longs to relive his superhero days, is bored with white-collar conformity and grows more and more frustrated with each passing day. After loosing his temper at his job and getting fired, Bob finds himself approached by the mysterious Mirage (Voiced by Elizabeth Pena), who asks Bob to stop a deadly rogue robot on a remote island. Mirage promises Bob that if he can successfully destroy the robot, he will receive a reward. Bob defeats the robot and he soon begins getting other missions from Mirage, all while leaving Helen in the dark about his new job. Bob soon learns that these missions are being controlled by Syndrome (Voiced by Jason Lee), a super-villain who masterminds countless destructive weapons and has a plan that will wipe the retired superheroes off the planet.

At just under two hours, The Incredibles is given room to really develop its characters to the fullest extent possible, paving the way for weighty superhero films that followed in its wake (the next year would see Batman Begins hit theaters, which would set the bar even higher for the superhero genre). We get to see the day-to-day of each Parr family member, seeing what secrets they hide and how they deal with having extraordinary powers while living ordinary lives. Bob has to take mental torment from his boss, each little mental shove just bringing Bob closer to tossing him around like a ragdoll. Violet is an outcast at her high school, hiding behind thick black bangs and practically fainting at the sight of her crush. When he notices her, she activates her power to turn invisible. The troublemaking whippersnapper Dash enjoys placing tacks on his teacher’s chair, using his lightning fast speed to keep the teacher scratching his bald head over how Dash is pulling the prank off. Helen, who acts as the housewife glue of the family, wears a happy face as she spoons meatloaf and green beans onto her family’s dinner plates. Meanwhile, Bob rounds up Lucius for “bowling night”, which really consists of the duo sitting in a car listening to a police scanner and chatting about the good old days. Lucius, now married, tries to keep his wife happy by not ruining special meals, even while a robot pummels downtown Metroville. Each hero is given their conformist demons and they grapple with how to tackle those demons, realizing that they really do need each other to work these issues out.

The supporting characters of The Incredibles are just as fun and hilarious as the first string. Bird thinks up a really nifty villain in Syndrome, who as a boy was Mr. Incredible’s biggest fan. Syndrome, whose real name is Buddy Pine, was always eager to help Mr. Incredible out even when Mr. Incredible would tell him to stay out of the way. Being wounded by his idol makes him all the more interesting and sinister when he is dishing out his payback to Mr. Incredible. Mirage is a character that is a bit underused but I did enjoy the way she would vacillate back and forth from evil to hero. I really enjoyed being kept in the dark over which side she would be aligned with next. The scene-stealer here is Edna Mode (Voiced by Brad Bird), an oriental fashion designer who comes up with the costumes worn by the “Supers”. A chic pint sized motor mouth, Edna is hysterical when explaining why she dislikes capes and recoiling from Mr. Incredible’s dated superhero get up. She really shines when she unveils a new line of outfits for the entire Parr clan. She also seems like she could be a villain in future Incredibles installments, seeming to get quite a bit of joy out of Bob and Helen’s rocky marriage.

You will be surprised to know that The Incredibles never feels like almost two hours. The film flies by and before you know it, you are right smack dab in the middle of a thunderous final showdown between one of Syndrome’s horrifying creations and the Parr clan. The action will keep the kids glued to the screen, even more so than some of the other Pixar films. While the film does get a bit heavy when it deals with the inner workings of a rocky marriage, the kids won’t really notice and instead by enamored with all the nifty gadgets and laughing over Edna. For fans of comic books and superhero films, The Incredibles is essential viewing and in my opinion ranks as one of the better superhero films to emerge from Hollywood. It is just as interested with the people under the cowls and what they carry around in their heavy hearts. Easily in my top three Pixar films of all time, The Incredibles is a touching film about the beauty of family and friends, all while being a relentlessly entertaining superhero thrill ride packed with gut-busting humor and wit. Let’s hope the Parr clan returns to save the world again.

Grade: A

The Incredibles is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Punisher (2004)

by Steve Habrat

Marvel Comics, which is usually known for their family friendly heroes, finds a dark side in Frank Castle or The Punisher, a machine gun toting vigilante who gruesomely murders evildoers after the mob slays his entire family right before his eyes. Since 1989, Marvel has been puzzling over how to get The Punisher up on the big screen properly, with a dark film to match his even darker actions. Unfortunately, 2004’s The Punisher just isn’t a fit for this killing machine, as director Jonathan Hensleigh makes an artless and lukewarm telling of The Punisher’s bloody origin and then drives the film into the ground with unimpressive action sequences, zero character development, and poorly timed jokes which are unnecessary due to the subject matter of the film. While I was never an avid reader of The Punisher, I can tell you that I would have liked to see more growth in Castle and some confliction about his decision to become The Punisher. Hensleigh, who also penned the script along with Michael France, seems to want to make a film that is all brawn and bullets, with zero psychological exploration of our antihero.

The Punisher begins with an arms deal between Bobby Saint (Played by James Carpinello), the son of powerful money launderer Howard Saint (Played by John Travolta) and the mysterious “Otto Krieg”. The FBI suddenly breaks up the deal and FBI agents end up killing Bobby Saint in all the action. It turns out that “Krieg” is in fact undercover FBI agent and former U.S. Army Delta Force operator Frank Castle (Played by Thomas Jane). Castle retires from the FBI and returns home to his wife and son, who then jet off to a family reunion in Puerto Rico. After Howard Saint discovers that the arms deal was just a set up and his men uncover that Krieg was Castle undercover, he orders his men to track down Castle’s family and lay waste to all of them including Frank. Frank survives the horrific attack, heals, and then begins collecting a large assortment of weapons that will help him bring down Saint and those around him.

The Punisher does nothing in the way to explore Frank’s trauma or his psychological state. Director Heinsleigh thinks he can convey Frank’s misery by showing him sipping from a bottle of Wild Turkey and closing himself off in his dingy apartment. His transformation is even more head scratching, the film implying that once we suffer a traumatic event like Frank does, we automatically become a one man killing machine (Riiiight…). Like many action films from the 1980’s, The Punisher really cringes if it begins flirting with some depth in the character of Frank. It’s more comfortable when it is showing us Frank stomping around in all black and killing a seemingly unending army of henchmen while alternative rock blares over the soundtrack. Its even more confounding because the film runs just slightly over two hours and after it ends, you’ll be wondering how on earth the filmmakers managed to avoid putting anything remotely substantial at all into it.

If the lack of development in Frank is a problem, wait until you get a load of Travolta’s Howard Saint. Travolta just isn’t the proper fit for a villainous role, as he is never menacing or a true threat to Castle. The filmmakers think that if they make his slicked back hair fall into his face, spray him with a bit of water to make him look sweaty, and he trembles a little bit, he is automatically scary when he actually looks like a gangster knockoff. Thomas Jane as Frank Castle/The Punisher does a passable job but not much is really required of him. He speaks in a monotone voice to his concerned neighbor Joan (Played by Rebecca Rominjn-Stamos), who appears to have feelings for the closed off Frank, but the film quickly severs the love connection between them. Jane does have some hints of fun, but it is mostly found in chuckle worthy one-liners which most of the time are wildly out of place. His best comes after a brutal fight with a towering Russian hitman. After the fight, he looks up at his horrified neighbors and chokes out, “I’m okay” and then proceeds to fall over.

The Punisher’s major problem is that the film itself has absolutely no personality to speak of. It’s a lot like Jane’s Frank Castle, it’s mostly apathetic, extremely empty, and, inexplicably desensitized. There is no adrenaline pumping action to be found and when the film does finally muster a good fist fight, it ruins it by weaving unneeded jokes throughout the sequence. The film is also poorly paced, dragging its feet in some spots and then blasting through the final confrontation that we have been eagerly waiting for. Even worse, moments of the film make absolutely no sense whatsoever. In one scene, Saint complains that they are having a difficult time finding Castle’s whereabouts and then orders two hitmen to go find him. These two hitmen find Castle effortlessly and one even conveniently knows where he lives (Riiiight…).  The film tries to keep things edgy by remembering its R-rating and throwing in a little blood here, a topless woman there, and a couple F-bombs to assure you that the film is hardcore. Had The Punisher not been so terrified of its own pain and emotions and been willing to confront them, this may have been a much more fulfilling film for both fanboys and nonfans alike. Unfortunately, the title of this film says it all–it truly is a real punisher of a movie.

Grade: D+

The Punisher is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Crazies (2010)

by Steve Habrat

When it comes to horror remakes, I tend to be less forgiving than I usually am with my reviews of classic horror films or more recent original work within the genre. To me, the never-ending string of remakes and face lifts that have been given to horror classics in the past several years just reflect the sorry state of Hollywood and reveal their appalling lack of creativity. But since Hollywood continues to force them on us, I guess we have to separate the good from the very, very bad. In early 2010, we saw the Breck Eisner directed remake of George Romero’s 1973 cult horror film The Crazies. The Crazies ended up being one of the better remakes that I have seen, ranking next to 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead as one of the best ones out there. The Crazies actually works because there is some minor involvement from Romero, who helped pen the screenplay and served as executive producer of the film. With Romero’s involvement, The Crazies plays with the idea of the people we know and love suddenly becoming homicidal maniacs and the savagery that lies in the ones who are supposed to be protecting us.

The Crazies takes us to the small farming town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, where a government engineered biological weapon code named Trixie is accidentally unleashed in the town’s drinking water. Soon, David (Played by Timothy Olyphant), the local Sheriff, and his wife Judy (Played by Radha Mitchell), the Ogden Marsh doctor, begin noticing strange behavior in the town residents. After an encounter at a high school baseball game and several other bizarre murders, David, Judy, and David’s dependable deputy Russell Clank (Played by Joe Anderson) find the town under quarantine and gas-masked soldiers separating the sick from the healthy. When Judy, who also happens to be pregnant, is separated from David, he breaks away from the soldiers and ventures back into town to find Judy and save her. With Russell at his side, they have to continuously avoid the trigger-happy soldiers patrolling the town and the roaming “crazies” who will tear anyone apart who get in their way.  As they look for a way out of the war-zone town, the government’s horrifying plans to contain Trixie are revealed.

Director Eisner approaches The Crazies in a surprisingly conservative manner. Sure, it has its fair share of stomach churning gore for the horror gurus who thrive on the red stuff but it is incredibly muted for a horror film and especially for material from Romero. Even though it is conservative in approach, the film is fairy intelligent behind all the apocalyptic hoopla. The material is very weary of the government and what they are willing to reveal to their own civilians. The army refuses to tell the terrified citizens of Ogden Marsh what exactly is happening to their friends and family and even worse, if the army detects any sign of infection while processing the civilians at a makeshift quarantine camp, they panic and rip the individual away from their confused family. The images are reminiscent of those we have seen from the Holocaust and they still haven’t lost their lingering power. The film also touches on the idea of those that we think we know suddenly becoming homicidal maniacs who will maim in the blink of an eye. A scene in which a husband locks his wife and young son in a closet and then lights the house on fire will send chills down your spine.

The Crazies has a talented lead in Timothy Olyphant’s David, who is determined to protect his pregnant wife any way he can. His role doesn’t demand too much of him, playing the cookie cutter Sheriff who is just searching for answers and trying to protect the town citizens but Olyphant does his best to add some emotional depth. I did like the way Eisner had his character react when he was forced to take the life of one of the roaming “crazies.” Instead of reacting with indifference, his initial response after the shot if fired from his gun is, “Oh, my God!” The first time he is forced to shoot one, he races to the crumpled body, stricken with shock and grief over taking the life of someone who was close to him and he thought he knew. Olyphant also has some great chemistry with Mitchell as his soft-spoken wife Judy, the pair getting a handful of great one-liners. Together, they provide us with some tender moments of affection and even some sly black humor. Joe Anderson also gets to have some fun as the deputy who may or may not be loosing his mind. He ends up getting the best line of the film, “Welcome to Ogden Marsh! The friendliest place on earth!”

The Crazies doesn’t attempt to break any new ground and instead retreats to familiar territory to scare us. It applies the same old jump scares and despite my dislike for this technique, a few actually end up working. The premise of a small town gone to Hell has been done countless times before and Eisner really does nothing to build upon it. There are a number of chilling scenes; the standout is the group trying to hide from an army helicopter that wishes to wipe them off the face of the earth. They hide in an abandoned car wash that just so happens to be the hiding place of a handful of snarling “crazies.” The scene ends in a shockingly sadistic death that will not settle well in the pit of your stomach. The Crazies doesn’t shy away from B-movie premise and it is aware that the idea is a bit outlandish. Eisner does manage to pepper in a little fun in all the solemnity (both a certain nursery scene and a run-in in the town morgue come to mind) and the fact that the film doesn’t go on longer than it needs to is a major plus. Eisner wastes absolutely no time getting to the action that we came here for and I applaud him for it. Also, for fans of the Romero original, keep an eye out for a seriously awesome cameo from original cast member Lynn Lowry. Scaled back for mainstream audiences (there is no father raping his daughter in this remake), The Crazies is a bare bones horror remake that thankfully doesn’t ask us to switch off our brains to have a spooky good time. You’ll be happy you gave this remake a chance.

Grade: B

The Crazies is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.