by Steve Habrat
After Rob Zombie’s cluttered and distracted 2003 horror debut, House of 1000 Corpses, failed to make an impression on critics and (most) audiences, the pressure was on the horror-loving Renaissance man to really step his game up as a filmmaker. In 2005, Zombie followed up the tie-dyed House of 1000 Corpses with The Devil’s Rejects, a grimy, snarling, and absolutely humorless decent into Hell. While many have labeled The Devil’s Rejects a horror film, I really hesitate to slap that label on it, as it never really even attempts to scare the viewer. Instead, it takes a page from the exploitation playbook and just continuously crosses the line and gets right in the viewers face just to watch them recoil in disgust. This film just flat out refuses to play nice, but then again, would you expect anything less from Rob Zombie? As if this tale of murder and revenge wasn’t intense enough, Zombie makes the wise decision to force us to root for the bad guys. That’s right, this time we don’t root for some group of brain dead teenagers or even the revenge driven police officer on a mission from God to prevail over this trio of death. Nope, we are rooting for that vile and downright rotten Firefly clan to blast and stab their way across the dusty Texas plains. It almost becomes a western, with the last of the true outlaws making their final stand in the face of annihilation. It is nearly a stroke of brilliance.
The Devil’s Rejects picks up in May of 1978, a year after the events of House of 1000 Corpses, with Sherriff John Quincy Wydell (Played by William Forsythe), brother of Firefly family victim Lieutenant George Wydell, leading a group of heavily armed police officers right to the Firefly’s front door. After a nasty shootout between the police and the Firefly family, Baby (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis Driftwood (Played by Bill Moseley) manage to escape capture, but Mother Firefly (Played this time by Leslie Easterbrook) isn’t so lucky. Baby and Otis quickly get in touch with their father, Captain Spaulding (Played by Sid Haig), who agrees to meet up with his children so that they can plot their next move. While waiting, Baby and Otis find shelter at a rickety roadside motel and to amuse themselves, they immediately take a traveling band hostage. Spaulding suggests that they flee to a local brothel called Charlie’s Frontier Town, which is overseen by smooth-talking pimp Charlie Altamont (Played by Ken Foree) and his simple assistant Clevon (Played by Michael Berryman), both of which are friendly with Spaulding. Meanwhile, the relentlessly brutal Sherriff Wydell is hot on the group’s trail and he plots a trap that will bring down the rest of the Firefly family once and for all.
There is no doubt that the best part of The Devil’s Rejects is the opening fifteen minutes of the film. Zombie starts things off with a gritty early morning shootout and let me tell you, that shootout is just plain awesome. It is cleanly shot, in your face, and suspenseful from the first shot fired. It certainly proves that Zombie could do all-out action if he really wanted to. After wasting one character and capturing another, Zombie launches into an equally cool opening credit sequence set to The Allman Brothers Band “Midnight Rider” all while the picture keeps freezing to announce cast and crew members. It looks like it was ripped out of the coolest exploitation film from the 70s that you never saw. This opening sequence shows us that Zombie really means business this time around and that he is abandoning the psychedelic approach of House of 1000 Corpses in the Texas sun. From here on out, the film is relentlessly intense, but it never really ever becomes scary. There are sequences of gruesome torture, both mental and physical, but they don’t ever fill us with terror. Instead, they just make us massively uncomfortable, but that is exactly what Zombie wants to do.
Much like House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects is overflowing with colorful creeps to make your skin crawl. Moon Zombie is much better this time around as the giggling Baby, who can be all smiles as she seduces her victims one minute, only to snap into a demon-eyed banshee the next. Moseley is busy channeling Charles Manson as the stringy haired hippie killer Otis Driftwood. He is absolutely fantastic and wildly memorable as the grizzled outlaw who enjoys stuffing his gun barrel down the underwear of one poor woman and carving the face off one of another male victim. Then there is Haig’s Captain Spaulding, who once again manages to steal the entire movie. The first time around, we only saw a few glimpses of how sinister Captain Spaulding could be but here, he is 100% evil. He can be darkly hilarious as he terrifies a small child and he can be surprisingly soft as he howls along with Baby for some tutti fruity ice cream. We also have cult legends Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) as Charlie and Clevon, two shifty pieces of work who enjoy snorting cocaine and bickering about having sex with chickens. Last but certainly not least is William Forsythe as Sheriff Wydell, a stone-cold man of God who may actually be worse than the Firefly clan. He will stop at nothing to trap his victims and when he finally is staring them down, he resorts to some of the nastiest torture out there.
What ultimately turns The Devil’s Rejects into a winner is that Zombie doesn’t appear to be preoccupied with trying to overstuff the film with references to other horror or exploitation films. He is much more subtle this time around with his tips of the cowboy hat. Most of the references here come in the form of cult actors Foree, Berryman, Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000) and even P.J. Soles (Halloween), all of which will have seasoned horror and grindhouse buffs chucking to themselves but never overly distracted. One of my only complaints about the film is the fact that Zombie trimmed the Dr. Satan sequence from the film, something I never thought I’d be complaining about. If you have a copy of the DVD, it is worth checking out this particular deleted scene because it actually grounds the whole Dr. Satan thing in the real world, at least in my humble opinion. Overall, as a tribute to old exploitation thrillers and grindhouse revenge flicks, The Devil’s Rejects is a homerun. It is a twisted and erratic western that can be unbelievably brutal, but never very scary. This is a modern day exploitation classic and a masterpiece for Rob Zombie.
The Devil’s Rejects is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
I was actually quite honored when Steve asked me to be a guest contributor for his Halloween spectacular. One of the hardest things for me to do is to come up with a list of favorite anythings. If you put something in front of me, I can tell you whether or not I liked it, but it’s hard for me to honestly place one thing above another. Luckily, this is just a list of “five films that scare me” so that’s a plus. I’ve never really been a huge fan of horror movies, the ones I’m most familiar with are the classics that spawned dozens of sequels that were all pretty formulaic and tired. Even when I was younger, I never really got caught by the allure of watching a horror movie that I wasn’t supposed to be watching. I think that’s partly because of the first movie on my list.
I had to have been about 6 or 7 when I first saw this movie, I don’t recall the specific details, but I believe I really wanted to watch it based on the previews, and I enjoyed watching it. But that line at the end must have stuck with me “…turn on all the lights. Check all the closets and cupboards. Look under all the beds. ‘Cause you never can tell. There just might be a gremlin in your house.” I remember that it was the movie Gremlins that made me scared of the dark for about a month. And even though my daughter is currently infatuated with all things monster (from Monster High to Hotel Transylvania) I made her skip that movie when I recently re-watched it.
Of course I have seen my share of horror movies once I passed my teenage years, usually not due to my own choice but rather due to the choosing of my girlfriend or later on, my wife. And while it’s not on my list, I will give an honorable mention to The Grudge which scared the living daylights out of my wife when she first watched it, and not only that but it was the movie that really introduced both of us to the wide world of Asian horror movies, and led us to a more obscure series that fascinates me more than scares me but I have to share it with you.
Tomie: Replay (2000)
There are quite a few Tomie movies that have been released over the years, but my favorite is probably the second one, even though (or possibly because of) it’s the one that most closely follows the conventions of a typical Western horror movie. The concept behind Tomie is that she is a beautiful demon that makes men fall totally in love with her and drives them crazy until they eventually kill her and chop her into pieces. And then those pieces grow into new Tomies and she goes on to start the process over again. It’s such a bizarre premise, but it’s a pretty great movie. Well, this one and Tomie: Rebirth are probably the best, some of the later ones get way to bizarre for my own liking.
Event Horizon (1997)
This movie is on my list because it’s probably the first horror movie that I watched for the purpose of watching a scary movie. It caught my interest because of the sci-fi aspect, and it was recommended to me by a friend. I don’t think I’ve watched it again since, but when I think of movies that are actually scary rather than just movies in the horror genre, this movie usually comes to mind. The scene with the guy (or girl?) suspended by all the hooks was the singular image that really stuck with me for a long time, I also remember the scene where they spend a brief time in the vacuum of space, shutting their eyes tightly to keep them from exploding. It’s interesting what details can stick with you after so many years.
I’m almost ashamed to admit that the only reason why I rented this movie in the first place is because it had Anne Hathaway’s first nude scene in it. It was her first “grown up” movie to try and keep from being pidgeonholed into movies like Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted. The movie itself isn’t really anything worth mentioning, but for whatever reason the initiation scene which contained the reason why I wanted to see the movie in the first place disturbed me a little more than I thought it would. If you haven’t seen it, and I wouldn’t really recommend it, Anne Hathaway and Bijou Phillips play gangsta wannabes who end up trying to get into a real gang. Their initiation is they roll a die and that’s how many guys they have to sleep with. Hathaway is lucky and rolls a one and has her tender moment with the guy she likes, but her friend rolls a 3 or 4 and only after they start to they find out that it’s how many guys they have to sleep with, at the same time. I can’t put my finger on it, and it probably sounds silly to describe it but when she’s bouncing back and forth between two guys, it just stayed in my mind in the worst way.
Son of the Mask (2005)
The final movie on this list scares me to think that it somehow actually got made in the first place. It is one of the most awful movies I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen quite a few awful movies. They took a good movie, a couple good actors (and several bad ones), and came up with a movie where I wanted to hide my eyes more times than any so-called scary movie I’ve ever seen, and I had to figure out some way to toss in a superhero/comic book movie, I just couldn’t help myself.
A little about Bubbawheat:
Bubbawheat is the author of Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights, a review site focused on reviewing superhero and comic book movies, as well as featuring superhero themed fan-films and interviewing the fan-filmmakers. When he’s not watching superhero movies, he spends his time with watching children’s movies and romantic comedies with his wife and 5-year old daughter and has recently moved to the Chicago area. You can follow him on Facebook facebook.com/flightstightsandmovienights , on Twitter twitter.com/Bubbawheat , and he’s also a member of the As You Watch podcast podomatic.com/asyouwatch
by Steve Habrat
For many years, it has been said that the western is a dead genre. It may not be as popular as it once was, but every so often, the genre rides back from the sweaty cinema graveyard and sternly reminds us all that it is alive and well. Take John Hillcoat’s 2005 Australian western The Proposition, a clammy, existential stargazer of a picture that appeals to both aging fans of the genre and the wine-sipping art house crowd. There is an echo of Leone here and maybe a faint whistle of Peckinpah there but gently rolled into the center of The Proposition is an apocalyptic rumble that refuses to quit. There are many layers to The Proposition, from a story about the complex relationship between a trio of outlaw brothers to the idea of taming the unruly Australian outback through violent force. Don’t be fooled by the film’s sensitive side as The Proposition can turn on you in an instant, almost like a whiskey-drenched outlaw who has just been disrespected in the local saloon. Yet the real shock comes in the way the film warns us that in a place this wicked and gray, even the most innocent soul isn’t immune to the horrors that can blow in from the plains.
The Proposition takes us into the unforgiving Australian outback of the 1880s, where a savage gang led by the Burns brothers roams about causing mayhem. It is rumored that the Burns brothers gang is responsible for the horrific massacre of the prominent Hopkins family, who appear to have been beloved by the local community. After two of the Burns brothers, simpleton Mikey (Played by Richard Wilson) and clever Charlie (Played by Guy Pearce), are apprehended by lawman Captain Stanley (Played by Ray Winstone), Captain Stanley cons Charlie into riding into the outback and finding their eldest brother Arthur (Played by Danny Huston), who is said to be the deadliest of the Burns brothers gang. Captain Stanley warns Charlie that he has nine days to find and kill Arthur and if he doesn’t, Mikey will be executed. Charlie reluctantly accepts and rides out into territory that is savagely defended by Aboriginal tribes that kill any white man that dares set foot on their land without an army. With the clock ticking, Captain Stanley soon finds himself fending off protests from the community and his fragile wife, Martha (Played by Emily Watson), who was very close with the Hopkins family. As the protests turn violent and his job slowly slips out of his hands, Arthur learns of the plot to bring him down and he sets out to find Captain Stanley and innocent wife.
Set to a gulping bass line and whispery chants from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, The Proposition hints that a storm of fury is gathering on the horizon, just waiting for the right moment to rain down on the dusty town. The whispers in the score ask “when”, “why”, and “who” as all three of the brothers gaze up at the fiery sun and the twinkling stars. The build up to this storm doesn’t hesitate to linger on the beautiful Australian outback even though we know that this untouched land is slowly being gutted by senseless bloodshed. Nick Cave’s screenplay may use a different location for this squinty showdown but he doesn’t mind drawing from the good old western tradition of waiting around for death to come riding into town on a rusted horse. The outlaws pass the time chatting about love and starring out at the landscape while the military men grunt about the sexual acts they would like to perform on Martha while the Captain is away. We do have to wonder who the real savages are in The Proposition and that question is easily answered as the film moves into its second act. The outlaws use violence to protect their freedom while the Aboriginal tribes are using violence to protect what is rightfully theirs. The military uses senseless slaughter and overkill to send a message, all while flies gather on their sweaty backs. Yet Cave and Hillcoat don’t ever squander an opportunity to show us how senseless all this violence really is. It is written in the reactions of those who pound a drum for it.
With the weighty script in place and an atmospheric score pondering about how this will end, Hillcoat and Cave give their actors plenty of room to really develop their characters. Pearce is a marvel as he silently rides through the rocky terrain, sipping from a bottle of liquor and touring the smoldering ruins of the Hopkins’ home, ruins that now lie empty as their spirits cry out in agony. He is eerily similar to Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but I’d dare you to find me a modern day gunslinger that doesn’t draw from that legendary cowboy. Huston is a slow burner of a baddie, a sadistic killer who only shows his true colors when he is prodded with a hot poker. You will fear for the fool who dares anger this slumbering beast. Winstone’s collapsing Captain Stanley is desperately trying to provide a safe place for both his wife and himself to call home. It is emotionally draining to see the dim light of hope die in his eyes as things go from bad to worse. Watson brings her fragile gaze to Martha, who only wishes to have a cozy Christmas with her loving husband. You can see the naïve gears in her head turn as she silently tries to comprehend the violence in these outlaws. When this delicate soul is smashed in the final moments of the film, it shatters into tiny pieces that will never be able to be put back together. David Wenham rides into town as Captain Stanley’s boss, Eden Fletcher, who dishes out one hundred lashes to poor Mikey, leaving him a sobbing, bloody heap. Also present is David Gulpillil as Jacko, an Aboriginal tracker who tries desperately to understand the viscous nature of the white man and John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, a sloshed old bounty hunter searching for Arthur.
The Proposition boils down to a bond between brothers, and what they will end up doing for one another. Despite their shocking actions, they stand by, loyal even as they hold a gun to each other’s head. When the bullets fly across the screen, The Proposition remains ever thoughtful of the situation in front of it. Yet any good western boils down to how affecting the story truly is and I must say that The Proposition is one that sticks to your ribs long after the last gunfighter falls to the ground and a defiled woman shrieks in horror. With an ending as black as night, The Proposition is certainly not a Hallmark western, one where the sheriff walks away triumphant and the outlaw is led away with cuffs around his wrists. Oh no, it is far from it but that doesn’t even begin to spoil the ending of the film. In fact, it seems clear to me that all that time the western has spent out in cinema’s forgotten graveyard has only toughened the genre up and caused it to be a bit more philosophical than it already was before it pulls the trigger.
The Proposition is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After Joel Schumacher and the money hungry Warner Bros. put the final bullet in the Batman franchise in 1997, the character lay dormant for many years at the studio, sitting on the shelf collecting dust. Every so often, rumors would emerge that the studio was trying to get a Batman project off the ground but you knew nothing would come of any of these rumors. There were also whispers of a Batman/Superman mash-up but that was also unlikely due to how long Superman had been sitting on the bench. Plus, if you even mentioned Batman in a normal conversation, it was followed up by laughs and eye rolling. Then the news came that upcoming filmmaker Christopher Nolan, the director of solid but small thrillers like Memento and Insomnia, was planning to reboot the Batman franchise and take it back to its darker roots. This was glorious news to anyone who was a Batman fan. In 2005, the world was graced with Batman Begins, a darker, meaner, and deadly serious adaptation of the Dark Knight that stayed furiously true to the DC comic book origins of the character. Audiences were a bit hesitant to flock to the film at first but as positive word of mouth leaked out, Batman Begins slowly became a big hit. It was a hit that made up for the Batman & Robin atrocity while also proving to both mainstream audiences and Batfans that there is still plenty of life (and brains) in this masked vigilante. It was untapped potential that the world would be starving for, they just didn’t know it yet.
In the wake of the death of his parents, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Played by Christian Bale) travels the world to study the behavior of criminals. He is soon detained in Asia where he meets the mysterious Henri Ducard (Played by Liam Neeson), who works for a shadowy organization called the League of Shadows. Ducard promises to train Bruce in ways of battling crime and if he can make it through the grueling training, he can join the League of Shadows, which is led by the equally peculiar Ra’s Al Ghul (Played by Ken Watanabe). Bruce makes it through his training but as he discovers the sinister true intentions of Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, he escapes and heads back to Gotham City, where he is reunited with his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Played by Michael Caine). Once he lands in Gotham, Bruce reveals to Alfred his master plan for saving Gotham City, which is gripped by organized crime and corruption. Bruce also tries to work his way back into the family company, Wayne Enterprises, which is slowly deteriorating at the hands of slippery CEO William Earle (Played by Rutger Hauer). Once back at Wayne Enterprises, Bruce meets longtime family friend Lucius Fox (Played by Morgan Freeman), who shows Bruce a number of prototype weapons that were shelved by Wayne Enterprises. With access to a slew of nifty gadgets and Alfred and Lucius on his side, Bruce puts together his alter ego that he plans to use to strike fear in the criminals of Gotham City. He also begins trying to form an alliance with Sergeant Jim Gordon (Played by Gary Oldman), the last good cop in Gotham City who hasn’t given in to corruption. With all the pieces in place, Bruce hits the streets as the masked vigilante Batman and his war on injustice begins.
Throughout the two hour and twenty minute runtime of Batman Begins, director Nolan breathlessly explains all angles of Bruce’s transformation into Batman. Both Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher failed to ever really explain where Bruce was getting all these snazzy vehicles and these high-tech weapons to battle the evildoers of Gotham City, which was always a bit frustrating to me. Furthermore, how did he ever get so good at being stealthy and how did he get so powerful in a fistfight? Nolan covers all of that and more, which was incredibly exciting as a fan of Batman. We also get a psychological look at Bruce Wayne, who is consumed and driven by fear and anger, emotions that he is taught to control. He blames himself for the death of his parents, angry that he got scared in the theater that fateful evening. Fear is ultimately the theme of Batman Begins, with Bruce’s father Thomas (Played by Linus Roache) explaining, “all creatures feel fear”, wise words that would lead Bruce to create Batman. Nolan uses this theme of fear to reflect our post 9/11 world, where American citizens are gripped by the fear of terrorism and attacks by rebel organizations that lurk in the shadows. He goes on to reinforce the idea that fear can be one of the most powerful weapons on the face of the earth, more powerful than bullets, bombs, fists, or roundhouse kicks. Entire cities can collapse through mass panic, a heady idea for a summer blockbuster.
With the psychology and reflection of a world gripped by fear firmly in place, Batman Begins can focus on the performances, particularly Bale’s Bruce Wayne. For the first time, a Batman film actually puts the most emphasis on our conflicted hero, who grapples with his identity once he pulls the cowl over his face and begins his never-ending battle. Bale is a whirlwind of emotions from the first time he is on the screen. He suffers from nightmares of a traumatic childhood event that sparked his fear of bats. We see him consumed by vengeance and anger as he contemplates assassinating Joe Chill (Played by Richard Brake), the man responsible for the murder of his parents. He coldly shuts out the affection of Alfred, who desperately tries to reach him before he disappears on his quest to study criminals. His metamorphosis under Ducard is equally gripping as Bruce learns to control his emotions, a discipline that paves the way for the awakening of Batman. This exploration of the character goes on for slightly over an hour before Bruce finally unleashes his alter ego on Gotham City but you will never once find yourself clamoring for the Dark Knight to finally emerge from the shadows. Nolan said that he wanted us to really care for the man behind the mask and he absolutely meant it. Once Bruce becomes Batman, he also has to become the reckless playboy for the paparazzi, a third side to a character that already has two interesting faces. With the reckless playboy, Bale really gets to let loose and have some fun, but the pain and longing creeps in.
Then we have the supporting players who compliment Bale quite nicely. The second best here is Michael Caine’s Alfred, who has looked after Bruce ever since they buried Thomas and Martha Wayne. He is an authority figure, coming down on Bruce after he witnesses a destructive chase between Batman and Gotham police department. We also have Lucius Fox, a gentle “Q” who looks the other way when Bruce asks him to show him the Tumbler, a heavily armored tank prototype that becomes the Batmobile. The best exchanges in the film are between Bruce, Alfred, and Lucius. Gary Oldman’s Sergeant Gordon also gets the proper attention that his character deserves, which was a huge relief for Batfans disappointed with the way Pat Hingle’s Gordon was handled in the previous films. Oldman really gives a reserved performance that ranks as one of my favorite in Batman Begins. The love interest here is Rachel Dawes (Played by Katie Holmes), who has caught quite a bit of criticism for her performance here but I fail to see where she is so bad. She only becomes the damsel in distress one time throughout the film, a strong gal who holds her own when one of the film’s main villains bears down on her. The bad guys here are Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow (Played by Cillian Murphy), mob boss Carmine Falcone (Played by Tom Wilkinson), and a figure from Bruce’s past that I won’t reveal here if you have never seen the film. Murphy’s Scarecrow is a real weasel of a villain, one who really uses fear to manipulate and intimidate. Wilkinson’s Falcone is a nod to Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, a snarling mob boss who controls the law in Gotham. There is also the superb Liam Neeson as Ducard, a father-figure mentor who hides a devastating secret that will rock Bruce’s world.
Batman Begins is heavy on the human drama and the raw emotions but it also delivers plenty of thrilling action to satisfy the summer movie crowd hungry for explosions. An extended car chase will get the adrenaline flowing and a massive prison break that unleashes hundreds of psychos into the streets of Gotham will have you holding your breath. There are plenty of twists and turns in Batman Begins that will keep you guessing about certain characters, with a slow build plot of destruction that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention. The film is relentlessly dark, disturbing, and violent, with plenty that will terrify the children who will want to see it. Batman Begins does come with a few flaws, mostly in the way that Nolan cuts his fight scenes. They are marred by a strobe light approach that makes some of the battles incomprehensible, which was slightly disappointing. Flaws aside, Batman Begins is still an absorbing, chilly look at Batman’s rise, our post 9/11 jitters, and the psychology of a hero. It restores honor to the Batman name and makes fans everywhere proud to stand behind the Dark Knight.
Batman Begins is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Craig Thomas
As Marvel’s The Avengers continues to break box office records and has received (almost) universal critical acclaim (see Samuel L. Jackson’s Twitter tirade against the NY Times film critic for one of the few exceptions), it’s amazing to think that it is only the director’s second big screen effort. It’s even more amazing when you discover three out of four of the shows he made for TV were cancelled and his big screen debut, despite widespread critical acclaim, failed to recoup its budget at the box office. That film was Serenity, and this is its story.
Serenity is the big screen adaptation of the much loved (and much cancelled) TV show, Firefly. Lasting a mere 14 episodes, shown at no particular time and in no particular order (the first episode was the last to air, three didn’t even make it that far) nevertheless found a home on DVD. If you’ve not seen the TV show, I would recommend watching it first (mainly because it’s awesome) but is in no way vital to understanding or thoroughly enjoying this film. Despite being an opportunity to tie things up after cancellation, it still manages the difficult task of successfully appealing to its hardcore fan-base as well as the casual viewer, making it both a vital part of the canon as well as a great stand-alone feature in its own right.
Simply put, it’s a sci-fi western. There is a lot of back story, including the destruction of the earth, the colonization of another solar system and a war of independence between the sinister central government and the pioneers on the frontier-esque outer planets, all of which is explained at the very beginning of the film so that a child could understand, literally.
We then move to a laboratory where Alliance scientists are performing experiments on River Tam (played by Summer Glau) who we learn has psychic abilities. She is rescued by her brother, Dr Simon Tam (played by Sean Maher). We are then introduced to the man brought to bring her (and the secrets she may have) back to the Alliance, a shadowy figure known as the Operative (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a mild-mannered killer with his own particular code of honour. Here the events are set in motion, which drive the rest of the film.
When we are introduced to Serenity for the first time, a Firefly-class spaceship to which River and Simon escape, we are taken on a four-minute, one shot tour and meet the ship’s ragamuffin crew as they prepare for the next job and try not to crash at the same time. There’s Captain Mal Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), the pilot, Wash (played by Alan Tudyk), second-in-command and Wash’s wife Zoe (played by Gina Torres), the gun-loving muscle-for-hire in the form of Jayne (played by Adam Baldwin), and the mechanic Kaylee (played by Jewel Staite), as well as Simon and River. During this one shot we get a feel for each of the characters and their relationship to Mal.
That’s a lot of characters to be sure, but this is very much (in the words of writer/director Joss Whedon) Mal’s story told through River’s eyes.
Being based on a TV show and having a director whose only experience is directing for TV, it does at times feel like a feature length episode. Which is not to say it’s a bad thing, giving a sense of continuity and familiarity that fans of the TV show will appreciate, but it will probably be more of an issue with newcomers.
The CGI effects are good, but do have a kind of homemade feel to them and have you wishing they could have spent a bit more money to make them seamless, but that is nitpicking in quite a major way. Even so, this is not a film that would benefit from being seen in an IMAX cinema. That said, the epic battle scene in space is done very well and is very much for the big screen.
The script is excellent, being dramatic and moving, but never losing its sense of humour, even during the darkest moments. There’s more genuinely funny lines here than you find in most comedies which is not surprising given Whedon started his career writing for the TV sitcom Rosanne and such language has permeated his entire catalogue of work from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Toy Story (for which he was nominated for an Oscar).
To a man (and woman) the performances are spot-on, which is no surprise to fans of the show. Yet special note should be made of performances by Nathan Fillion who has to play a much darker version of Mal than fan are used to, and Chiwetel Ejiofor whose brutal, yet never malicious character is truly one of science fictions great villains (think Hannibal Lecter killing out of duty rather than pleasure).
Unusually, the director’s commentary is also worthy of a mention. Forgoing the usual time-filling anecdotes about funny things that happened during filming, Whedon sticks almost entirely to the technical aspects. Camera angles, choice of lens, story structure and why some scenes were included and why others were cut are all covered (even the deleted scenes have commentary), providing an invaluable insight to the film-making process. Yet it is never dull, for Whedon is (like Kevin Smith of Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma fame) a born raconteur.
If you are a fan of sci-fi or westerns then this is a film you must see. If you’re not a fan of either genre this is still a film you must see. Like all his best work, this is a film about characters, about people facing their demons (literally and metaphorically), but with fighting and explosions. Made on a relatively modest budget the team work wonders to create an enjoyable and engaging work and you can’t help but wonder how great it could have been with an Avengers-sized wad of cash.
Whilst it may be forever overshadowed by the success of Marvel’s The Avengers and the giant projects that should now inevitably fall into his lap, for many Whedonites this is the film against which everything else is measured, and rightly so.
Serenity is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
What a wonderful, wacky, and downright weird world that goth auteur Tim Burton crafts in the marvelous retelling of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which stays furiously faithful to the 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl. Making a kaleidoscope trip into a world of neon candy and Busby Berkely-esque musical numbers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory features tart laughs and sugary sweet lessons for the kiddies, all while bursting at the smokestack with imagination and (as usual) vision from Uncle Tim. In the wake of Johnny Depp’s breakout role as boozy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Warner Brothers and Burton allow Depp to go straight bonkers with his portrayal of famed chocolate maker Willy Wonka, a grinning and (of course) misunderstood creep who talks like a valley girl and shudders at the mere sight of a child. Unlike Gene Wilder’s performance as Wonka in the 1971 original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Depp’s version is much more bubbly and, dare I say, memorable than Wilder’s dry and conservative performance, which is a performance I do have quite a bit of respect for. But Depp’s Wonka had me in stitches far more than Wilder’s and I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the emotional wounds that Depp’s Wonka hides from the world behind giant bug-eyed sunglasses.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory introduces us to the poor but sweet Charlie Bucket (Played by Freddie Highmore), who happens to be a fanatic of mysertious candy maker Willy Wonka (Played by Johnny Depp). Charlie gets one chocolate bar a year from his warm mother (Played by Helena Bonham Carter) and father (Played by Noah Taylor), a treat that he heavily looks forward to. He shares the small chocolate bar with his live-in grandparents and while they munch, his Grandpa Joe (Played by David Kelly) shares stories about when he worked in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The cloistered Wonka suddenly makes an announcement to the world, declaring that he will allow five children into his world famous chocolate factory. To gain entry, they need to find a Golden Ticket hidden within the chocolate bars that fly off the shelf at an alarming rate. As the children who found tickets are revealed, they turn out to be spoiled rotten brats and know-it-alls who are far from deserving to have a tour of Wonka’s factory. After multiple attempts, Charlie finally gets his hands on a Golden Ticket and is accompanied to the factory by his Grandpa Joe. After a bizarre introduction to Willy Wonka, the group begins their tour of the astonishing factory, with the promise of a very special prize to one lucky child.
Much like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is jam packed with room after room of unrestrained imagination that acts as candy for the eyes. In each of these rooms, Wonka’s tiny employees called Oompa-Loompas treat us to tasty musical numbers. These musical numbers, which are taken from Dahl’s book, are brought to the screen by frequent Burton composer Danny Elfman and boy, are they a fiesta for the ear buds. They also turn out to be the one aspect of the film that is majorly flawed. Acting as a far-out ball of electronic, rock, swing, jazz, and literally every other musical genre you can think of and then some, Elfman’s execution of these songs features voice alteration of the Oompa-Loompas, all played by Deep Roy. At times, the lyrics are difficult to understand, the clarity buried under multiple effects and squealing instruments. Two numbers in particular will have you reaching for the remote to switch on subtitles or flipping through your copy of Dahl’s book.
In addition to trippy visuals, Depp’s Wonka is a real sight to behold. Acting as a creepy mix of valley girl and man-child, Depp’s Wonka does make you feel slightly uncomfortable, much like he does the parents of the children who are visiting his factory. He cringes when a child touches him and has no clue how to connect with one of the little sprouts. A sequence in which he discusses cannibalism with them is one of the highlights of the entire film. Depp’s Wonka also conceals a fractured relationship with his father, one that has caused them to sever contact with each other. Through flashbacks that are triggered by comments that the children make throughout their trip through the candy factory, we see how the relationship between the stern dentist Wilbur Wonka (Played by the booming Christopher Lee) and little Willy Wonka went sour. These scenes are effectively emotional, watching Wilbur forbid Willy to enjoy a sugary treat. Depp’s Wonka is a sympathetic misfit, especially when we learn why he has opened his factory doors to these children and that he does have a heart buried beneath all of his bitterness.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be nothing without its child actors who for the most part do a good job. Highmore is the true star as the kind and generous Charlie Bucket, who always thinks of others before himself. He is really incredible when he plays off of Depp, the two of them sharing interactions that are both funny and touching. Other standouts are Jordan Fry as Mike Teavee, who scowls through the entire tour of the factory and Julia Winter as the wealthy spoiled brat Veruca Salt, who wants everything she lays her peepers on. Philip Wiegratz as Agustus Gloop seems a bit coached by Burton, huffing and puffing through he dialogue but seeming like he is holding back a bit. AnnaSophia Robb as the overachieving smart-aleck Violet Beauregarde is effective in annoying the hell out of you but also seems a bit coached. The rest of the players, who are mostly there as the children’s parents, do a fine job at playing horrified when something happens to their child. The best is Adam Godley as the exasperated Mr. Teavee, who seems more puzzled by his own child rather than the spaced-out Wonka.
Overall, Burton’s film hits a few waves (the vocals in the music are the biggest disappointment and a few of the special effects could have used touching up) but this boat floats along quite smoothly on Wonka’s chocolate river. It’s a joy to watch Depp really allow his freak flag to fly (in many respects, I think he is having more fun as Wonka than he did as Jack Sparrow) and give you the willies. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also works because the terrific Highmore, who is always perfect while he gently guides the film along. The film has multiple nods to pop culture, ranging from The Beatles, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Busby Berkeley, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is no question that Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of the weirder children’s movies you will ever see but it has only the best of intentions. It has a lasting warmth that comforts you like a blanket and has humor that will have you away for days. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may not contain much depth, but it has a soul as sweet as sugar and frankly that is enough for me.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
The Dead series was always articulate, no one can argue against that fact. Even 2008’s Diary of the Dead had something to say about our current zeitgeist, but I supposed pressure got the best of George Romero, the man who always seems to know how to make a statement with zombies. In 2010, Romero found himself in an odd situation. His Diary of the Dead was a big hit on DVD and there was a scramble to deliver another zombie adventure to his old fans and the new generation who was being introduced to his work. This was all in the span of just under three years and boy does Survival of the Dead reek of rushed ideas and impersonal filmmaking. While there was a minor shift from 2005’s Land of the Dead to 2008’s Diary of the Dead, there was really nothing more to do with his zombies in 2010. It seemed to exist solely in response to the zombie fixation that is gripping our great nation. It’s the only reasonable explanation for the abomination Survival of the Dead to exist and shuffle among us. We have Zombie Soccer, Zombie Highway, and Plants vs. Zombies, all readily available for you to play on your iPhone. We have Call of Duty: Zombies, the massively successful online zombie shooter/survival game. We now even have a television show, The Walking Dead, to satisfy the fan’s unquenchable thirst for more bloodshed. Zombies are as big as vampires, this I think we can all agree on, but they lack the romance factor, which prevents the tween girls from shrieking and crying over them.
Being a fan of the Dead franchise, I was heavily excited to see his latest entry when announced. I was surprised by how quickly he was producing another film, especially after the fatigued Diary. I was convinced that he would find some inspiration and when it was announced it would have a western backdrop, I couldn’t wait to see it. Survival of the Dead was given a limited theatrical release and then shunned to DVD and Blu-ray. It was met with a strong negative reaction, almost unheard of for a Romero zombie film. I rushed out the day of its DVD release and picked it up, eager to add it to my Dead collection. After popping it in and watching it, it was evident that Romero had hit rock bottom. Loaded with even more of the wretched computer effects that paled the impact of Land, Survival applies more farcical death scenes, wisecracking characters, and monotonous scares than you can shake a severed arm at. It made me realize that Diary, for all of its patchiness, at least strayed from the digital gore.
Survival of the Dead does have an old-school feel in its clench, and I enjoyed that. It does feel like a film you would have watched in between sips of a beer that you snuck into your local drive-in. It’s B-movie heaven and I will praise that aspect of it, but Survival of the Dead has absolutely nothing to say. Romero is just going in circles and recycling his idea that we will never be able to get along, even in the face of annihilation. Death does not even stop our grudges. The film follows a group of commandos, much like 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. The motley crew is lead by Sarge Nicotine Crockett (Played by Alan van Sprang), who along with three other soldiers, are trying to figure what to do in the midst of the apocalypse. The world has been reduced to chaos and the cities are being abandoned in attempts to escape the groaning cannibals. Sarge meets up with a young kid (Played by Devon Bostic), who tells them of an island where they could go to be protected from the zombie plague. Two feuding families, the Muldoons and the O’Flynns, who share drastically different views on what to do with their zombified family members, control the remote island. Patrick O’Flynn (Played by Kenneth Welsh) aims to exterminate every last walking stench and Seamus Muldoon (Played by Richard Fitzpatrick) demands they keep the ghouls alive in the chance that a cure is found. They obviously haven’t seen Day of the Dead yet. After Sarge and his gang arrive on the island, they are caught in a warzone that threatens the lives of all the people who live on the island. A side plot involves Muldoon attempting to get the zombies to eat something other than human flesh. They are also desperately trying to catch a mysterious female zombie (Played by Kathleen Munroe) who rides a horse.
Survival of the Dead does not boast a bad premise, and it does every once and a great while show signs of Romero’s wit. The handling of the film is what disgusted me, which appears as if Romero could have cared less about the entire project. It shuffles around and everyone furrows his or her brow. Background characters plea with their stubborn fathers to bury the hatchet and come to an agreement. Sarge seems to have no place in the entire film, just there to fire a machine gun every now and then. His crew is wiped out quickly and we are left barely remembering their names. The film never musters up the scares that Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead blasted their viewers with. The film is just an absolute mess that is more Saturday morning cartoon than horror movie. The performances from everyone involved are too animated, no one offering a lick of concern for their current situation. Why is everyone so calm?
There is some good to be found in all of this, as it does pack two thrilling attack sequences. One occurs at a boathouse where several characters become zombie chow and a gunfight at the end that would seem appropriate in an old school western, if one was to go in and take out the zombie attacks. The cinematography is also crisp and clear, putting the lush and photogenic landscape front and center. There is also some seriously sweet zombie make-up and a hoard of ghouls tearing a horse open and feasting on its guts. I wish I could say more for the characters, who are all unlikable. I wish I could praise Romero’s script or his dialogue, but here it’s disposable and infuriatingly juvenile.
Romero is defeated by his own premise in Survival of the Dead, one that we’ve seen before and to much greater effect. See any of his original three zombie films for further proof. It’s going through the motions, which are rank with decay and in need of life support. It doesn’t help that he shows no subtly whatsoever this time around, something he seems to rejecting as he grows older. The film concludes with the said horse attack, which is both relevant to the series, harkening back to the bug munching going on in Night of the Living Dead while offering a fresh direction for a future zombie film. But that is precisely the problem with Survival, it’s all seems like set-ups for future films. This is just the detour. Romero seems to at least be acknowledging that he’s beating a dead horse, having his own zombies beat and then devour the damn thing. I sincerely hope he gets back on track and soon. The remake of his 1973 film The Crazies was really fulfilling (He produced the remake of his own film). George, we know you still have it in you, man, and I’m not giving up on you, but I can’t be kind to Survival of the Dead. You are capable of so much more than this. Grade: D+
by Steve Habrat
In 2005, George Romero finished off his zombie saga with a bit of a whimper with Land of the Dead. It was good to see him back in the genre he created, but it felt like he became a victim to CGI magic tricks. The film was a little too epic for it’s own good and when news came that he was going to restart his Dead franchise with a smaller, independent movie called Diary of the Dead, I was pretty excited to see what he would come up with. It was announced shortly after the news broke, that the film would be shot cinema-vérité style, opting for hand held camera work by one of the films characters over the traditional style of filmmaking. It made sense to this fan because Night of the Living Dead seemed to have traces of cinema-vérité influence within it. It would be small, tight, and focus on a smaller group of people once again facing off against the undead. They were college film students instead of ordinary folk and they would be waiting it out in an RV rather than an isolated farmhouse. Romero furthermore stated that the film would be taking place the same exact time as Night of the Living Dead did. How could you not be intrigued? The master is returning to his roots!
Diary of the Dead concerns itself with our recent discovery of online media and social networking. The characters in the film hover around their glowing computer screens to get the news, much like the desperate survivors did with the television in Night. They are also interested in getting out into the action, filming the carnage for the world to see so everyone knows the truth. Every leader and newscaster seems to be promising that everything is under control while the terrified students discover nothing but unrest and violence stampeding through the countryside. Diary is without question the first Dead film that was truly a disappointment. There are decent moments within the film, but it strayed too much from what made the original series great—the zombies. There are barely any zombies in the film. Romero argued that it was supposed to be more low-key than his hoard heavy Night, Dawn, Day, and Land. No one seems to have told Romero that the smaller scale here was actually ineffective.
Jason Creed (Played by Joshua Close) is making a mummy horror film with fellow students and their brooding professor. When one of the students, Elliot (Played by Joe Dinicol) declares that the news is bring in reports of the recently deceased returning to life, the students pack up into an RV and head back to campus to scoop up Jason’s stone-cold girlfriend Debra (Played by Michelle Morgan), who has barricaded herself into her dorm room. The group sets out to find their families and, well, find a safe place to wait out the situation. As they journey further out, they realize that things may truly be worse than the news is saying. They then decided to fight their way towards the home of their wealthy buddy Ridley (Played by Phillip Riccio) who has been hiding out since the news broke.
The first problem that any seasoned Romero fan will notice while watching Diary of the Dead is the amateurish acting and writing that plagues every scene. The film is loaded with clunky dialogue that is directed at the audience in such a way that it borderlines on lecture. Most of the gabbing comes from Debra, who consistently demands that Jason put down the camera and help out when the few zombies that make their way into the film attack. He keeps whining that they have to record the truth. Romero keeps asking us if letting others suffer all for a good story is worth it. Furthermore, can we live with ourselves for behaving this way? The film doesn’t ask this question subtly and it’s about as obvious as a hoard of zombies trying to pound their way into your home. What happened to the wily director who slipped in satire quietly? The acting is also distracting, clearly coming from a bunch of elementary actors who have not refined their talent. Michelle Morgan is groan worthy and the snappy blonde bombshell Texan Tracy (Played by Amy Lalonde), who always interjects in a cockamamie southern drawl “Don’t mess with Texas!” is downright embarrassing. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to like any of the characters that Romero puts at the center of the action. Jason was an okay character, but he can’t even hold a candle to the relatively unexciting Riley in Land of the Dead. Nerdy Elliot tries his damndest, but he is mostly reduced to hysterics.
Diary of the Dead does offer its fair share of promising set ups. A siege on Ridley’s mansion at the end that is filmed by surveillance cameras set up around the house is efficient. It shows glimmers of Night of the Living Dead and you won’t be able to help yourself to give a geeky fist pump for the nod. It will distract you from asking the question What does Ridley’s father do to earn his money and why do they NEED surveillance? It will also distract you from asking when they found the time to get the footage from the said cameras. There is, after all, a massive wave of zombies lurking outside. I should also mention the humorous run in with a deaf Amish man named Samuel. While holding up with Samuel and contemplating what to do next, the zombies make their move and the students have to make a quick departure. The way the sequence plays out is both disappointingly campy and strangely evocative of Night. The most disgraceful part of the film is the film professor Alexander Maxwell (Played by Scott Wentworth), who prefers a bow and arrow to a firearm. Romero seems to have forgotten what made Night of the Living Dead so unforgettable. Everything seemed real. The characters used what was around them and never pulled out a weapon as ludicrous as a bow and arrow. Could you imagine Ben using a rocket launcher to defend the farmhouse? The fact that this weapon is used in the film is a bit of an outrage.
I find myself troubled about Romero’s restart of his beloved franchise. Diary of the Dead is an interesting commentary of our obsession with social media and the deceiving nature of the news. Yet Romero seems out of his element here and a bit rushed. The Dead series always had long pauses between their releases. It was ten years between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. It would be another six years until Romero would unchain Day of the Dead. Twenty long years filled the gap between Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead. Three years had passed since Land of the Dead played in mainstream theaters. Diary of the Dead did not have this luxury and found a zombified life on DVD and Blu-ray. Perhaps the coolest aspect of Diary is the cameos from Romero’s famous buddies, all who lend their voices to newscasters. Keep an ear out for Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, Stephen King, Wes Craven, Tom Savini, and Simon Pegg. Diary is an underwhelming effort from a man who usually leaves us astonished. Diary of the Dead only nips the viewer. It never takes a bloody bite out of us. Grade: C+
by Steve Habrat
It only took twenty years and a lot of coaxing by fans to lure George Romero back to the genre that he created. Twenty long years for him to whip out his camera and take a snapshot of an era. With 2005’s Land of the Dead, he certainly takes an ugly picture. He also apparently does not like George W. Bush, which comes as no surprise really considering his creeping liberalism in his previous work. In comparison to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead is much more pulpy than it’s predecessors. Many were disgusted by the film, both by its violence and the fact that the film seems too silly for the Dead series. Romero claimed that Dawn of the Dead was his comic book film, but Land of the Dead seems to be the true embodiment of that claim. Armed with a budget this time around, Romero makes his grandest zombie oeuvre and boy does it look pretty. He also sprays the audience with his most ornate death sequences of his career. Even as the runt of the original Dead litter, I still have a soft spot for this film despite the negative views from many I have showed it to. I hoped for several years that Romero would return to the zombie genre and he kept threatening he would. I was delighted when I saw the gallant trailer for this movie. I wanted to burst into applause in the theater. The master was FINALLY back.
In the opening moments of Land, the geek in me was sold on the movie. It wasn’t even fifteen minutes in. The opening credits establish that this is a direct sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Shot in black in white, the sputtering footage set against radio broadcasts that come through on an old Zenith radio are macabre and will give any Dead fan the excited chills. Strung through the credits, Romero keeps showing us autopsy like footage of a zombie rotting away, establishing that it has probably been years since the events of Night. These credits stick with you just like the ones from Zach Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. They flaunt themselves as real news footage and boy is it an effective start to what is somewhat of a disappointing film. I have really tried to put my fanboy tendencies to the side for this review, mostly because I want to give an honest evaluation of the film. The original three Dead films are masterpieces in their own right, legendary in horror history. Land is well known, but I feel that many weren’t hip to what Romero brings to the table. You really have to know the man and understand that he isn’t just blood-and-guts spectacle. There is quite a bit more going on to this film, mainly the idea that the middle class was fading under the Bush administration and that capitalism was king. Romero came back to unleash his zombie hoards on the issue. All it took for the fan in me, however, was to see those credits.
Land of the Dead establishes a world where the last living humans are residing in a walled-off city. It bears a strange resemblance to Pittsburgh, Romero’s beloved birthplace. The city is controlled by Kaufman (Played by the late by always awesome Dennis Hopper), who runs a high-rise apartment complex for the wealthy called Fiddler’s Green. It features fine dinning, luxury apartments, high-end shopping, and impenetrable protection for the zombie army lurking just beyond the city. The rest of the survivors are reduced to the slummy streets, where gambling, prostitution, and organized crime reign. The wealthy inhabitants of Fiddler’s Green turn their backs on the decay, hoping it will all disappear. Kaufman sends out special teams of scavengers, whose jobs require that they bring back supplies for the city. They venture into the suburban areas where they murder and maim their way around. The scavengers are lead by soft-spoken Riley (Played by Simon Baker) and his two partners, conniving Cholo (Played by John Leguizamo) and disfigured Charlie (Played by Robert Joy). Cholo believes that Kaufman is going to let him move into one of the spiffy apartments he controls, but when he is set-up and humiliated by Kaufman, he steals the cities most valuable weapon, the tank-like Dead Reackoning, and threatens to bomb the city if he is not given what he wants. Kaufman enlists Riley and Charlie to find Cholo and take back the weapon. Riley and Charlie team up with a tough-as-nails prostitute Slack (Played by horror film icon Dario Argento’s daughter Asia Argento) and soon they discover that the zombie army outside is evolving in the deadliest possible way.
Land of the Dead begins with the vintage Universal Pictures logo, the one used before such films as the Bella Lugosi Dracula and Boris Karloff Frankenstein. Romero is blatantly telling us that this is an old-fashioned monster movie at its heart. I think it also explains Romero’s approach to the film, which does have a dated feel. The zombies are the most monster-like, abandoning the monsters-are-us mentality that was applied to Night, Dawn, and Day. It also goes with the idea that in the original monster pictures, the movies almost always made us sympathize with the monsters. Romero applies this idea every time the zombies lurch onto the screen. It’s a nifty device and it will no doubt appeal to the fans of classic horror. The acting in the film is also a bit extreme and silly. It should be expected, mostly because this was toted as the final installment to the original trilogy. In this regard, it works as a Romero zombie film.
The aspect of Land that I think upset many viewers were the guileless politics that were usually discreet in a Romero zombie film. This film takes direct aim and it never flinches. Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman is a direct allusion to George W. Bush and his administration. Kaufman is presented as a buffoon that is involved with things that are way over his head. He doesn’t “negotiate with terrorists” and he comes across as crass and careless. The lack of a “middle class” within the film is also prevalent, as the ones with money flourish while the ones with nothing live in squalor. He even makes hints at an administration looking for a fight, or slaughter for that matter. While Kaufman’s troops raid the suburbs, they go on a needless and pathetic killing spree in which hundreds of zombies are riddled with bullets. The zombies do not have the number to be dangerous and due to their decay, they have been slowed down even more than they already are. In one scene, a soldier unloads a machine gun clip on a zombie that has already been electrocuted. Eliminate the enemy that seeks to destroy us at all costs, says Romero. Once the zombies make their way into Fiddler’s Green, the tables are turned and the wealthy citizens are shredded with machetes, arms ripped in half, bellybutton rings torn out, and blown up to meaty bits. Overkill is king.
Despite your political stance, Land of the Dead can still be enjoyed even if you don’t agree with Romero’s left wing commentary. He can still make a meaner horror movie than the new class of directors who are now in the driver’s seat and he appears to be out to prove he’s still “got it”. But what is “it”? Bite is what “it” is and there are still some moments that will leave your spine tingling. The film does suffer from some CGI overreliance, which seems out of place with the previous three films. The death scenes are more elaborate and at times, the film can seem a bit too cheeky. When he actually goes for an executed gag versus computerized trick, the results are like night and day. There are still the trademark feeding scenes that will please die-hard fans like myself, which was something that was very important to me when I first plunked down the money to see it in theaters. Land ultimately feels incomplete, left hanging with a rushed tone. It’s not properly paced and this flaw is distracting. It seems like Romero ran out of money so he had to quickly wrap things us as fast as he could in order to produce a film on budget. He does build upon his evolved zombie premise nicely, a plotline I will not divulge here in case you haven’t seen the film. Furthermore, some of the characters here are a bore and are just dangling zombie chow. Land of the Dead is a good, scrappy horror film, but is just inches from greatness. It’s not an ultimate masterpiece like it was promised it would be, but it finishes things off messy enough, and when I say messy, I mean entrails strewn everywhere you look. At least Romero has the good sense to display them into something substantial rather than just for effect. Grade: B+
by Steve Habrat
There is something intoxicating about a director who helped pioneer a certain genre way back in the day once again jumping behind the camera. I don’t care if he was making Alvin and the Chipmunks 6, if George “Night of the Living Dead” Romero is promised to direct, it’s a must see for me. But with the horror genre, it becomes something more of an event. It morphs into a holy pilgrimage for fans of the genre. Back in 2005, George Romero emerged from his crypt and served about a hearty dose of gore and stuck it to the hoards of wannabe zombie directors with Land of the Dead. Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi conjured up some demonic spirits in 2009 with the superb throwback Drag Me To Hell. There is just something about the living legend that gets me inebriated on excitement. That’s what I felt when I entered the theater to see Wes “Nightmare on Elm Street” Craven’s newest addition to his Scream franchise, Scream 4. If we stop to review Craven’s resumé, we will find it to be quite hit or miss. Name me a person who saw 2005’s Cursed and I’ll be pretty impressed. Or even last year’s 3D opus My Soul to Take! Yet the man has also provided the horror genre with the grungy grind house flick Last House on the Left and the clammy mutant extravaganza The Hills Have Eyes. Just to remind you, those came out in the 1970s. He’s also the man who is responsible for what I believe to be the most overrated horror film ever made, Nightmare on Elm Street, but that is an entirely different conversation all together.
It’s been eleven long years since Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson have crafted a self-aware stabbathon know as Scream for horror fans. I’ll be frank, it was long overdo, as horror is in such a sorry condition and the Scream films always seemed to be a cut and slash above the rest. So where did we end up in those eleven years that ol’ Ghostface wasn’t stalking a pretty young face around an empty house? Well, we are stuck in a perpetual cycle of reboots, remakes, and torture porn. Thank you, Saw. Funny enough, Scream 4 sets it sights on the Saw franchise in the first five minutes of the movie. It seems like Craven and Williamson were fed up with them too. But the film manifests itself into something else entirely: A brutal and bitter meditation on the current zeitgeist and Hollywood’s refusal to give something new to audiences. It’s just recycle and reuse according to Scream 4, but it also presents some spiffy little homages to the films that started it all and a true master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
The film commences with one of the worst opening bloodbaths of the series and then jets off to Woodsboro, the place where all the mayhem began. Sidney Prescott (Played by Neve Campbell, who is aging remarkably!) has returned home after eleven years to promote her new self-help book, Out of Darkness. She bumps into her now married old pals Gale Weathers (Played by Courtney Cox, also aging remarkably!) and Dewey Riley (Played by refined thespian David Arquette). Gale is a has-been journalist struggling with writers block and Dewey is now the dim sheriff of Woodsboro. Upon Sidney’s return, someone has donned the Ghostface mask and is taking aim at Sidney and her little cousin, Jill (Played by Emma Roberts). Of course, Jill and her group of friends are keen on horror films and the new rules to survive them. She gets lots of help from the horror-obsessed tomboy Kirby (Played by Hayden Panettiere, with what could be the worst haircut since Anton Chigurh stalked helpless victims in No Country for Old Men.) and two film nerds who run the film society at their high school, Charlie and Robbie (Played by Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen).
Scream 4 ends up being a mixed bag. The film relentlessly globs on the self-awareness to the point where it becomes sickening for the audience and it’s more interested with being a comedy. There is barely a scare to be found this time around. Craven, however, lived up to his title of the Master of Suspense and does provide some brief moments of pure tension. But the film makes the grave mistake of confusing tension for scares and the tension is fleeting. The film’s most fatal error is the fact that it spouts off the formula for the new generation of horror films but rarely utilizes them. The characters constantly spew hollow mumbo jumbo about how the sequels and the remakes have to go a step further than the original. That’s all fine and dandy if Scream 4 actually took things a step further. Instead, it plays it safe and rarely strays from the original formula.
While the self-awareness weighs the film down, Scream 4 further self-destructs from it’s misguided profundity. It thinks it has something intelligent to say about social media, but instead it just becomes shameless plugs for iPhones. It’s clear that Williamson had absolutely no clue how to actually incorporate it into the film. The film further suffers from the fact that it has no idea what to do with Dewey and Gale. They appear to have only been incorporated to please the die-hard fans of the series, as they are given little to do. Gale stomps around spouting off flimsy one-liners about how she still “has it”. Dewey is reduced to rushing from crime scene to crime scene while looking horrified. The film also implies that they are having problems with their marriage—problems that are never revealed or that we could actually care about. The most glaring problem with the characters is Panettiere’s Kirby. She has to be the most unconvincing horror buff on the face of the earth. She rattles on about Suspira and Don’t Look Now when she seems like the type of girl who would know more about The Grudge 2.
For all of its flaws, Scream 4 gets a few things right. The film has some truly gruesome death scenes that are the best since the original film (This is a Scream film, people!). One scene in particular has a character get stabbed in the forehead and then trying to flee from Ghostface, who calmly walks along side watching the character bleed out and die. Unfortunately, the horror of the scene fizzles out with a crappy one-liner. The film does prove that it can run with the new line of splat pack gore fests. Italso comes equipped with snappy nods to classic horror films. One scene pays blood-spattered tribute to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and another scene tips it’s knife to Psycho. One character is even named Anthony Perkins! One scene in a hospital is eerily similar to the original Halloween II. This entry is probably the most successful in capturing the spirit of the original 1996 film that started all the slashing and gashing. The film refuses to conceal the bitterness from Craven and Williamson, as one character snarls to another, “Don’t fuck with the original”. It’s a line of dialogue that elicits some giddy snickers but also mirrors some frustration that I’m sure Craven has felt, as three of his classics have been remade for modern audiences.
To be fair, Scream 4 is a descent time at the movies. You will not walk away disgusted you just spent nine bucks on the movie. It provides some fun moments and it’s a blast to see Campbell chased around by the iconic killer again. I’m glad Craven and Williamson had the good sense to keep her front and center in all the bloody chaos. The outrageous finale also makes up for some of the film’s weaker moments. Scream 4 is a viciously average time at the movies and if Ghostface should return, as I’m sure he will, let’s hope that Williamson tweaks his script and shrinks his focus down, as this is an overly busy scattershot of a product. GRADE: C+
Scream 4 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.