The Prowler (1981)
by Steve Habrat
During the heyday of slasher horror flicks, when Freddy, Jason, and Michael roamed movie theaters slashing the throats of helpless, horny teens everywhere, the 1981 gem The Prowler was overlooked and lost in the sea of exploitation imitators. It is a shame because The Prowler is far scarier and better than any given Freddy or Jason romp. Sure, its premise of a crazed WWII veteran who received a “Dear John” letter during a tour of duty and then goes on a killing spree when he returns home is the stuff exploitation films dream of, but it is actually an invigorating direction with a killer introduction and some seriously wicked gore effects by FX wizard Tom Savini. If you consider yourself a fan of the horror genre in anyway, you need to get your claws on The Prowler. You are in for a real treat.
The Prowler begins with a vintage newsreel that shows soldiers returning home aboard a boat called the Queen Mary. A voiceover declares that while the homecoming is a happy event, some of the soldiers returned depressed and heartbroken from receiving a “Dear John” letter from their beloveds on American shores. The film then bounces to the 1945 graduation dance in Avalon Bay where Rosemary (Played by Joy Glaccum), who recently sent her boyfriend a “Dear John” letter, arrives with her new boyfriend Roy (Played by Timothy Wahrer). The two slip away to a secluded gazebo where they begin necking. Suddenly, the power is cut in the gazebo and the lovers find themselves brutally slain by a killer in unnerving combat gear. The film speeds ahead 35 years and finds Avalon Bay setting up for the same graduation dance. Despite the fear that the murderer may return, Sheriff George Fraser (Played by Farley Granger) departs on a fishing trip and leaves his steadfast deputy Mark London (Played by Christopher Goutman) in charge. As the dance gets underway, the combat clad murderer descends on the dance and begins racking up a body count. With the help of his crush Pam (Played by Vicky Dawson), Mark desperately tries to figure out who this prowler is before any more innocent victims meet their demise.
Director Joseph Zito makes a mature and atmospheric hack-and-slash romp that isn’t as concerned with how many naked girls he can squeeze into his runtime. Sure, there is the gratuitous nude scene but he practices infinite amounts of self-control, focusing more on delivering a proficiently made whodunit complete with a nod to the Psycho shower sequence. Yes, The Prowler holds the conservative mentality of all eighties slasher movies that, yes, if you have sex, plan on having sex, or fool around in any way, you will find yourself gutted by a pitchfork wielding nut job. But maybe it was the expert acting (the young cast is surprisingly strong for a film that seems to have been made on a shoestring budget), a creepy killer, and shifts into extremely gruesome violence that keep The Prowler afloat.
Zito also stages a well-rehearsed chase sequence to finish off the film, a climax that gives way to two major twists, one including the shocking reveal of the combat clad prowler. Gore guru Savini also lets loose and fills the screen with splashes of blood from sawed off shotgun blasts, bayonets to the throat, a pitchfork sealing two embraced lovers in each other’s arms for good, and an exploding head. I guess blowing one head up in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead didn’t quench that thirst. And how about that killer? A faceless killer who rivals Michael in the boogeyman department when he has his mask on! In a way, it is a disappointment when we do discover who the killer is because it removes some of the fear that this could be anyone causing the chaos. In the recent horror film book Shock Value, critic and author Jason Zinoman argues that once events are explained and there is a meaning given to the horror on the screen, the film looses its fear factor. In a slight defense of The Prowler’s reveal, once you process it, it is actually quite chilling that this person could be the one responsible for it. Either way, the reveal is a blessing and a curse.
The Prowler does have some moments where it takes a big bite of cheese. A scene right before the big reveal has to be one of the most gauche and uncomfortable scenes to watch. Zito must have been having an off day when he shot and edited the scene together. The scene features two characters staring at each other with smiles on their faces. They must have forgotten that there is a person who has just been blown away by a sawed off shotgun lying right next to them. I know that I would either be in hysterics or sick to my stomach from the grizzly scene. There is also an agonizingly slow scene where the killer flings his pitchfork around a room in search of Pam. Either the killer is enjoying dragging his work out or Zito was desperate to drag the runtime of the film out.
The good outweighs the bad in The Prowler and the result is a creepy exercise in boogeyman slash. It may be no deeper than the pool one victim meets their demise in and the beginning may be depressing, but The Prowler is high art compared to some of the installments in the Freddy and Jason franchises of that came out around the same time. If one were to watch it in the dark by themselves, this would make for a pretty good freak-out. I wish the film would get a bit more recognition than it does, as Zito has made more of a rewarding mystery than a teen fright movie. At the time, the film must have been a godsend of an option to Friday the 13th Part II or My Bloody Valentine, two slasher films that were doing their best to ruin the subgenre that same year. Love it or hate it, The Prowler puts a unique spin on a genre where the knives have long since rusted over. Pray that Hollywood never discovers it and remakes it.
The Prowler is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
by Steve Habrat
It’s a Wonderful Life ranks as one of my favorite films of all time. I fell in love with this film many, many years ago, allowing it to both carve a sweet spot out in my heart, but also finding it to be one of the most heartfelt movies I have ever laid my eyes on. I adore everything from the good-old-boy performance from James Stewart to the small town setting of the film. Doesn’t that town just feel so homey? Hell, even our contributor Charles Beall, who resides near Seneca Falls, sent me a photo of the famed bridge where George Bailey tries to end it all, the bridge all decked out and trimmed with Christmas lights. While the film’s message of savoring everything that surrounds us and using the backdrop of Christmas still resonates today, this is a sturdy production with sharp direction, bountiful sets, and a surprising romanticism that fails to be matched (“Do you want the moon, Mary?”). It still wows me that this film was made in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Hollywood was embracing film noir and grittier pictures rather than fantastic productions, as the world had seen the epitome of evil and destruction first hand during the war. And yet the pains of real life do hang over It’s a Wonderful Life, as suicide, hopelessness, and desperation all come up, it’s all handled with a compassionate sanguinity from director Frank Capra. Capra makes us feel George’s heart and soul breaking, and we fear he may be lost, but surprisingly, it’s not the religious tones that oddly lift the picture up and allow it to really soar. It’s George’s heart of gold.
George Bailey (Played by the marvelous Stewart) is a real stand-up guy, one who will go above and beyond for the people he loves and stand up to those who bully. After the sudden and tragic death of his father, George finds himself taking over his father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan Association. While George had dreams and aspirations to go off to college and travel the world, the board of directors beg him to stay and run the family company to keep it out of the hands of the ruthless and leering Henry F. Potter (Played by Lionel Barrymore), a majority shareholder in the company who rejects giving home loans to the lower class workers of Seneca Falls. Potter desperately pleads with the board of directors to put an end to this but George consistently stands up to Potter. On the night that his father dies, George was wooing the beautiful Mary (Played by Donna Reed), who has liked him ever since he was a boy. George also had to watch as his brother Harry (Played by Todd Karns) goes off to college and gets married. George finally marries Mary, but finds himself sacrificing the honeymoon to keep the Building and Loan from collapse.
World War II soon erupts and Harry is drafted into the army as a fighter pilot and ends up being a war hero. George cannot enlist due to a bad ear, an accident from his childhood, so he stays in his hometown to hold down the Building and Loan. On Christmas Eve, George’s Uncle Billy (Played by Thomas Mitchell) is on his way to make a deposit of $8,000 for the company when he bumps into Potter. Uncle Billy shows Potter a newspaper headline that says Harry has won the Medal of Honor. When Potter takes the newspaper, he finds the $8,000 hidden inside and keeps the money for himself. A frantic search breaks out to find the money and George finds himself at the mercy of Potter, who refuses to give him a loan to save the company. Potter then promises to have George arrested for bank fraud. As George’s world crashes around him, he begins to contemplate suicide and right as he is about to end it all, a guardian angle appears named Clarence (Played by Henry Travers) and begins showing George what life would be like without him around. If Clarence can save George, he will earn his wings he has desperately been working for.
A cozy film, It’s a Wonderful Life presents George as such a likable guy, its damn near impossible to find a flaw in him. You find yourself wanting to reach through the screen and give George a big bear hug to reassure him everything will be just fine. Potter is the epitome of a vile antagonist, a man you can’t bring yourself to see any kindness in. It’s heart wrenching to watch George realize his fate as he begs to be spared by Potter. It’s moments like this that portray the realism that cinema was trying to achieve after the war but it also is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film. The scene is bitter, cruel, pathetic, and quite possibly one of the most charged sequences I have seen in a motion picture. Yet the film eases the tension the whimsical appearance of Clarence, who comes in the nick of time and adds a much needed dash of fantastic. The ending of the film reminds us of the magic in the air come Christmas, and how it puts a spell over all of us. That is, if you are willing to believe in magic.
The Christmas aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life enters only at the end of the film, which may leave some who have never seen it to question why this is such a popular holiday film, but it is the spirit of kindness and giving that solidifies it’s place in holiday movie history. The way George Bailey lives his life, as a kind and warm soul, willing to go the extra mile, is a mentality that many of us only embrace around the holidays. What would happen if we embraced that attitude all the time? Why should it only be limited to the Christmas season? If only we could all be like George every day of the year. It’s his past actions that ultimately save his life by the end of the film, rather than Clarence, who is only there to provide examples.
Capra begins the film with a hand turning pages in an old story book and he molds it into an ethereal bedtime story for all ages. He does a hell of a job with the snow caked scenes at the end of this film, scenes that especially seem like they could have been ripped out of that old story book, sometimes so detailed they almost seem like a painting. I dare you to watch the scene of George Bailey running through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, Christmas lights and artificial bells strung across the streets and trees, calling out “MERRY CHRISTMAS” and not help but think that would make a perfect Christmas card graphic or painting. Even though the film is shot in black and white, it remains eternal despite some dated dialogue. The film circumvents the cookie-cutter religious preaching and becomes a beacon of hope in humanity itself. Every time I see It’s a Wonderful Life, I swell with happiness and hope that kindness will reign supreme in the hearts and souls of every human being. With not one performance slacking and not one scene out of place, it’s a rare work of art that defines excellence. It really is the perfect film to watch with a mug of hot chocolate in hand, Christmas tree glowing bright, and snow quietly drifting down outside from the night sky. Who am I kidding? It’s the perfect film to watch anytime.
It’s a Wonderful Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Sucker Punch (2011)
by Steve Habrat
After all the gun smoke had cleared and the credits crawled across the screen, it became crystal clear to me how Christopher Nolan settled on Zack Snyder for the reboot of Superman: Snyder simply showed him Sucker Punch. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Nolan gushed over it either. Sucker Punch is a trippy puzzler that sends you stumbling from the theater to debate what the hell just happened with your friends, which is quite similar to what Nolan did with his towering Inception. But where Inception pulled off it’s elusiveness with refined sophistication, Sucker Punch takes the dirty, dusty road where dragons swoop from above, girls in fishnets wield 50 calibers, WWI zombie German soldiers leap from trenches, and our heroes bop around in a WWII bomber. And that is just naming a few of the oddities that Snyder lobbed into his obvious pet project. I’m sure by this point you’ve seen the other reviews of Sucker Punch and, to use a term from Mr. Obama, the film has taken quite a “shellacking.” Sure it’s big, loud, and completely overblown, but I oddly found myself enjoying the madness. What actually appalls me is that Battle: Los Angeles, a film that makes no attempt to be about anything except blowing everything up, actually received better reviews than this film did! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! Did we see the same movie?
Maybe I was rooting for Snyder to actually pull off the impossible. Everyone under the sun has seen the unruly trailer. Snyder seemed like he wanted to shove every possible genre of film into one film to make one hulking masterpiece. One that encompasses everything from the kung-fu films to epic medieval fantasies. I truly found Sucker Punch to be a noble, and at times, refreshing attempt at it even if it was beginning to show signs of collapsing on itself. The film also has had a slight hypnotic affect over me in the sense that I am confident that there is more to this particular film than first meets the eye. The first time seems to be a shock and awe campaign to pin you to your seat but the more my mind wanders back and evaluates the little touches, the more I’m lured into wanting to uncover more about it.
I won’t dive to deeply into the plot of the film because some of it is up to you to piece together, but the film follows the starry-eyed, pig-tailed Babydoll (played by Emily Browning), who is admitted into a mental institution by her unhinged stepfather after she accidentally shoots her baby sister. It’s here that she falls under the care of the at times menacing and at times motherly but always vampy Dr. Gorski (played by Carla Gugino). Behind the walls of the institition, she embraces her new life in a brothel and learns to dance for the seedy men that come to drool over the young girls. Babydoll soon joins forces with the tough-as-nails leader Sweet Pea (played by Abbie Cornish), Sweet Pea’s gung-ho little sister Rocket (played by Jenna Malone), the uneasy “pilot” Amber (played by Jamie Chung), and the big guns specialist Blondie (played by Vanessa Hudgens). The gang rapidly starts plotting an escape from the institution/brothel and through their wildly untamed imaginations, envision elaborate dream-missions to find the supplies they need to break out of the big house.
While the film marvelously finds a perfect balance between the hectic dream worlds and the rotting walls of the institution, the film tries to cram so much in that points are a little to overpowering. There is an incredibly inspired sequence that takes place on a WWI battle field complete with zombified German soldiers wearing ghastly gasmasks, biplanes falling in flaming ruin from the sky, earth shaking explosions and a lofty android walker with a rabbit face that Amber maneuvers into a outrageously bad ass death machine. It’s a truly breathtaking action sequence that is worth the trip to see the movie alone. Sadly, the film stumbles when it ventures into the realm of medieval fantasy in a war sequence that smashes WWII together with the Lord of the Rings. I give it credit for being atypical but it’s shockingly monotonous and lacking in any sort of looming danger. This leads me to my next compliant, which is the fact that all the girls are magically scrappy superheroes. There is never any concrete justification and we are supposed to just embrace it. One sequence that is especially irritating is when Babydoll confronts three giant samurais. She flips through the air so repeatedly that I almost wanted to shout “ENOUGH ALREADY! WE GET IT!”
Ultimately, Sucker Punch overcomes the obstacles and still manages to be engaging. I still found myself consumed by much of it and the writing, although uneven, is never less than interesting. The dialogue is good but not great and the premise alone never lost me. The performances’ by the young actresses are finely tuned and convincing. I was extremely worried that they would be wooden. The standout is without question the wounded Rocket. She kicks ass while nursing the burden of a broken heart. I actually breathed a huge sigh of relief that the film never descended into a perverse fantasy for Snyder. While the girls are adorned in fishnets and lingerie, the film is surprisingly tame. We never get a glimpse of the burlesque dance sequences and instead are substituted with the dream world. An even bigger relief is that the film counters Snyder’s fixation with masculine heroes. I enjoyed the girl power feel that he explores this time around. It’s more substantial than his homoerotic bloodbath 300. It still comes in third to his colorful Dawn of the Dead remake and spacey adaptation of graphic novel juggernaut Watchmen. On top of it, Snyder further refines his coarse camerawork and his fluid montages of slow motion into real time. It all flows so gorgeously and it’s impossible not to eat it all up.
The aspect that truly wounds Sucker Punch is the ending where, like Watchmen, it crams all of it’s “profound” ideas in a brushed over climax that feels curiously unsatisfying. This is where the film truly flat lines. It piles on nonsensically cryptic monologues on top of some obvious visual symbolism. The film is convinced that it is a fine wine that will be savored as the taste sticks in your mouth. Unfortunately, it’s just a high-end, calorie-loaded beer that is surprisingly tasty in the beginning. A taste that you and your buddies exclaim about for the first few sips but when you reach the bottom of the bottle, you just gulp down the last drops to finish it. It wasn’t as refreshing as the first few half but it wasn’t impossible to polish off. You’ll oddly find yourself wanting to experience it all again to peel back some more layers and it will make for some good conversation in the long run.
Sucker Punch is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
If every single employee at Marvel Studios isn’t celebrating the massively successful summer that they have had at the movies, they should be. Captain America: The First Avenger is the third quality picture from the comic book factory that sparkles with vision, zippy action, gung-ho characters, and an innocent simplicity that all come together to provide an exhilarating summer escapist romp that will leave you hounding for more from this star spangled hero. Still, the WWII superhero is just a notch below the more socially relevant X-Men: First Class but out eye-candies the cosmic Thor. Bustling with an art deco aesthetic, you will find yourself falling head over heels with this nostalgic ode Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It truly is a relief that Marvel, who appeared at first to be forcing themselves too strongly onto audiences this year, pull off a triple threat of terrific with their three towering releases. I was worried that too many do-gooders trying to save planet earth in 3D would weigh down this summer. Yet Thor exceeded my extremely low expectations and the X-Men series received a much-needed shot of inspiration into a franchise of films that were becoming increasingly cheap and extremely frivolous, especially for one that began on a thought-provoking note. But X-Men: First Class was also not looking to tie in three other heroes and be the final step before the much anticipated Marvel mash-up The Avengers that is to come next summer. And with DC Comics barely making a ripple with The Green Lantern, they also found absolutely no competition (Well, maybe from a certain boy wizard) from their rivals. WithCaptain America being the one of the last major blockbusters of this sweltering summer, they end on a seriously cool note.
Captain America follows the attempts of the steadfast Steve Rogers (Played by a hulking Chris Evans), a weakling with asthma from the Bronx who relentlessly attempts to join the US Army and jet over to Europe so he can “kill Nazis.” Finally, with a little help from a German scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Played by a enthusiastic Stanley Tucci) and the gruff Col. Chester Phillips (Played by sleepy-eyed Tommy Lee Jones), he gets enlisted in a program that turns the not-so-manly-mans into manly-men super soldiers. They pick Rodgers “because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power.” Under the watchful eye of the machine-gun packing femme Peggy Carter (Played by a smoking hot Haley Atwell), Cap dons a blue get-up and brandishing a stars-and-stripes printed shield, he goes toe-to-toe with HYDRA, a Nazi weapons division lead by the sadistic Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull (Played with purring evil by Hugo Weaving) and the mousy scientist Dr. Arnim Zola (Played by the always-welcome Toby Jones).
Under the masterfully paced direction of Joe Johnston (The Wolfman), Captain America takes its time get to know its characters and dreamily gaze on their personalities. We can’t help but root for the morally responsible Cap as he always does the right thing. Chris Evans plays him as the all-American good old boy when he’s bulked up and a runt with a heart of gold when he’s shrunken down. In one scene, the runty Rogers throws himself onto a live grenade to protect his fellow hulking soldier, who all ran and hid themselves. It’s scenes like this the Rogers steals our hearts and allow us to root for him even when he’s in the stickiest of situations. His best friend, Bucky Barnes, who acts as the unwavering voice of support for his comrade, stands behind Cap every step of the way. Haley Atwell transcends the damsel in distress role and is instead is a pistol-packing hellion who can hold her own against Nazis and keep the Cap drooling in a little red dress. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is perhaps one of the more terrifying villains as he grapples for independence from the Third Reich and salivates over world domination. He and Cap have many show-stopping smack downs that will leave the audience cheering for the Cap to give Red Skull a good, old-fashioned ass whooping. Pitting the extreme good against an extreme evil is a bit obvious, but it works with Captain America lore, as Cap appeared in March of 1941 on a comic book delivering a lick to Uncle Adolph (America had not yet joined the war, which slathered on controversy at the time). The rest of the performances are fine, especially from Toby Jones, who appears to be channeling Ronald Lacye’s Arnold Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It should be noted that the retro Captain America is one of the more conservative superhero films to come down the tube. They are churned out at an alarming rate these days and they are coming in all shapes and sizes! But the Cap becomes the symbol for all that is morally and ethically right. It seems old fashioned and has a wide-eyed innocence that makes the film impossible to dislike. It’s good clean fun and takes very few risks. Even at the end when the US Army is plotting their final move on HYDRA, the Cap makes the simple suggestion of knocking on HYDRA’s front door. Why complicate the matter? The film is desperately avoiding any sort of complexity, whether it underlying or outright. There are no profound opinions or winking satire to the film. It just keeps everything simple and that is honestly it’s most alluring quality. It helps that the characters are so wonderfully illustrated and realized, which ultimately allows them to be more intriguing than when the Cap is wrecking havoc behind enemy lines. The film is also a rallying cry for the underdogs, which balances out the self-confidence that radiates from titans like Iron Man and Thor. Captain America isn’t looking to change the world, despite his worldwide battle, and I commend it for that. It’s just looking to thrill us the old-fashioned way, much like Super 8 so beautifully did. It’s just trying to cater to the child-like wonder in all of us, and the Cap beyond succeeds with that mission. Plain and simple, I loved everything about this movie. I loved the look, feel, the epic scope, the characters, their earnest interaction, and all the arresting action. Go see it.
Grade: A (Make it a double feature with Super 8)