Monday, October 5, 2015

Silver Bullet


A wildly entertaining film that Stephen King scripted (based on his novella Cycle of the Werewolf), Silver Bullet follows a brother and sister (young Marty and teenager Jane) who live in a small town where someone authorities describe as “a maniac” has been picking off residents during full moons. Dense with lycanthropy action (the antagonist kills four people within the movie's first thirty minutes, though one death occurs off-screen), the story features some emotionally gut-wrenching beats (like when the father of a murdered child confronts the sheriff in a bar). 
The tale's midpoint consists of a way cool dream sequence set in the community's church.

One night Marty is out shooting off fireworks when the werewolf attacks him. Marty hits the beast in one eye with a rocket and gets away. He tells Jane what happened, and the next day she canvases the town looking for someone with only one eye. Soon enough Marty and Jane know the identity of the werewolf, and they set out (with the help of their uncle) to kill the beast before it gets them. I won't spoil the plot beyond this point.
In the foreword to a book that includes the screenplay and the novella on which it is based, Stephen King writes, “Is the picture any good? Man, I just can't tell. I'm writing without benefit of hindsight and from a deeply subjective point of view. You want that point of view? Okay. I think it's either very good indeed or a complete bust... After you've been through four drafts plus spot rewrites, the film itself seems like a hallucination when you first see it.”

Silver Bullet is a fantastic movie with richly-drawn characters, witty and realistic dialogue, and a plot that spins along at just the right pace with plenty of tense and horrifying scenes in which the werewolf strikes. It ranks alongside Ginger Snaps as one of my favorite werewolf films. 
Not all critics agree with me. A review in The Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Horror states that the project “is half-hearted horror” and says, “Set in a rural community populated by hysterical, intolerant, booze-befuddled, trigger-happy rednecks, this displays King's cynicism about the common people.” Roger Ebert wrote, “I know that a case can be made for how bad Silver Bullet is. I agree. It's bad. But it's not routinely bad. It is bad in its own awesomely tasteless and bubble-brained way...”
I urge you to check out Silver Bullet, for I perceive it as a superior horror movie. It's an anomaly: an R-rated project with kids as the central characters. That alone sets it apart from the pack.

Friday, October 2, 2015

It Follows


With a musical score and visual style that evoke the vibe of the best aspects of John Carpenter's early films, the 2015 project It Follows (written and directed by David Robert Mitchell) tells the tale of Jay, a young woman who lives with her mom and sister in a suburb. Jay sleeps with a guy who claims his name is Hugh. The dude then presses a chloroform rag to Jay's face and knocks her out. When Jay awakens, she's tied to a wheelchair in a crumbling abandoned parking garage, and Hugh explains that he has to show her something. He says that he's passed something on to her, and soon a “thing” (that can look like anyone) will be following her with the intent of killing her. He encourages Jay to sleep with someone else to pass “it” to that person, and he notes that whenever it kills someone it then goes after the previous person in line; no one who has ever encountered it is ever safe. The thing shows up in the form of a nude woman, and Hugh wheels Jay to his car and speeds away. Hugh advises Jay that the thing is “slow but not stupid.” Hugh dumps Jay in the street outside her abode, where her allies (sister Kelly and friends Paul and Yara) rush to help her. Thus begins Jay's ongoing waking nightmare.

At first skeptical of Hugh's story, Jay goes about her normal life until she spots an eerie old woman relentlessly walking toward her. Jay flees and next encounters the thing at her house, at which point she's utterly convinced of its reality (though her friends and sister don't believe her). Neighbor Greg drives the group to the abandoned house that Hugh had been renting, and there (within the pages of a pornographic magazine) they discover a photo print of “Hugh” with a classmate who sports a letterman jacket. Jay recognizes the school and in a yearbook finds her assailant, whose real name is Jeff. Jay and her posse go to his house, where (out in the yard) Jeff spouts more exposition and advises Jay to buy some time by driving somewhere. Greg takes the group to an isolated beachfront property where his dad used to take him hunting. There Kelly, Paul, and Yara become convinced of the thing's reality when it (invisible to all but the afflicted) attacks Jay from behind; Paul breaks a chair over the entity, which shoves him back with preternatural force. Greg (who had been off peeing and missed the assault) remains the only skeptic after the group escapes. Jay takes off in Greg's car, crashes, and winds up in the hospital where she sleeps with Greg to pass along the curse. To describe the plot from this point on would be to deprive a first-time viewer of some of the story's best frightening moments.

With an oddly-paced third act that's laced with a large degree of ambiguity, It Follows is not a perfect film, but it's an enthralling ride that pulls you through a tension-filled journey that largely takes place in an environment generally associated with safety and the American dream (the suburbs). Jay and her friends are pleasant characters to spend time with; there's a bit of business involving a fart early in the narrative that reveals how comfortable these kids are around each other, and it's a fine moment of levity to balance out the grim tone of the prologue (which reveals what can happen when the thing catches up to a victim). The soundtrack features synthesized rhythms that are as driving and unrelenting as the antagonist. It Follows is a singular project that filled me with dread the first time I watched it (at the movie theater in the spring) as I rooted for Jay to find some way, any way, to escape the seemingly unstoppable entity. Having just revisited the story on Blu-ray, I can testify that It Follows is even better the second time around, and I imagine it'll hold up to repeat viewings over the years ahead. The “monster” of It Follows is wholly unique and thought-provoking. I look forward to whatever cinematic yarn David Robert Mitchell spins next, and I hope he remains in the horror genre (his debut film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, is a straight-up ensemble drama). It Follows: utterly marvelous.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Invitation to Hell


A charming but unintentionally silly made-for-television movie that aired on ABC in May of 1984, Invitation to Hell (directed by Wes Craven from a script by Richard Rothstein) follows suburbanite Matthew Winslow's efforts to resist constant pressure to become a member at Steaming Springs Country Club in the community he's just moved to with his wife Pat and two young children (Chrissy and Robbie). Quoted in Brian J. Robb's book Screams & Nightmares, Craven described the project: “The premise was that Susan Lucci was a woman who ran a country club that was attracting all the executives from these high-tech agencies, but she was really the Devil and the steam room was the entrance to hell, if you can believe that.”

As the tale begins, everything's looking up for the Winslows. In the first thirteen minutes, the family moves into a pleasant new abode and enjoys a visit from Matt's old fraternity buddy Tom Peterson, who works at Micro-Digitech (the company where Matt's just been hired). Via a scene at Matt's laboratory the next day, the viewer learns that Matt's working on fine-tuning a spacesuit intended to be used for a mission to Venus (the suit can withstand extreme temperatures, features built-in weapons, and scans the surrounding environment for threats). Six minutes later, Matt crosses paths with Jessica Jones (director of the Steaming Springs Country Club) for the first time when their cars nearly collide. A couple of minutes later, Jessica initiates Tom Peterson and his family into the club by ushering them through a doorway into a dense cloud of steam while saying, “Enter the spring and taste its power.” Twenty-six minutes in, Matt finds himself pressured by his boss (Harry) to join the club, and two minutes later Jessica (who has inexplicably stopped by Matt's workplace) also encourages Matt to join. The pressure to conform continues as newly-initiated Tom (who has been promoted) invites Matt to explore all the club has to offer. Four minutes later, Matt's wife Pat (envious of the new car that Tom's wife drives) asks Matt to join the club. Apparently sick of all the pressure, five minutes later Matt takes Pat to the club, where Tom and Jessica take them around to see the sights. Matt strays away and ventures into the foyer of the steam room, but Jessica interrupts him before he discovers that Hell lays beyond a locked door. Around the story's midpoint, Pat and her kids join the club without Matt and (after agreeing that they “forsake all for the club”) go through that door. The next day, the Winslow's dog (Albert) growls at Pat and the kids. Matt notices marked personality changes in his family, and near the one hour mark Pat asks her husband to “just give us a little bit more of yourself.” Seventy minutes in, Matt (now certain that there's a connection between the club and his family's turn to the dark side) returns to the steam room and measures the temperature beyond the forbidden door: it's eight-hundred degrees fahrenheit. Matt returns home (after apparently murdering a security guard who caught him at the steam room) and finds Chrissy beating her plush toy bunny with a crowbar. “You're not my daughter,” Matt realizes, and he locks his kids in a closet and incapacitates his wife. Matt goes to his lab, steals the experimental spacesuit, and heads to the club (where conveniently there's a Halloween costume party in full swing). At the eighty-one minute mark, Matt ventures into Hell. A ten-minute sequence in the underworld sports some truly trippy imagery, and Matt ultimately rescues his real family. Back home, Matt ventures outside where neighbors chatter about a massive fire that has burned the club down. The project runs just over ninety-three minutes before the end credits.

“I made TV movies to pay the bills and keep the lights on in my office – they don't represent my body of work,” Wes Craven once said (as quoted in the book Screams & Nightmares).

Invitation to Hell may have been intended as a satire about materialism and conformity. Patricia Winslow (who pines for new furniture, a piano, and a better car) literally loses her soul until her husband brings her back from Hell. Whatever the ambitions of the project's writer (Richard Rothstein), the final product is worth a look if only to marvel at the hairstyles and primitive computers of the eighties (and of course to enjoy the ten-minute sequence set in Hell). The project has solid production values largely courtesy of the director of photography (Dean Cundey, most famous for his work on John Carpenter projects including Halloween and The Fog).

Invitation to Hell is neither terrifying nor thought-provoking, but it is fun and entertaining.

Thursday, September 10, 2015



Even if you overlook its myriad shoddy special effects, the 1989 film Shocker (written and directed by Wes Craven) falls apart the further along the plot goes, which is a shame as the first act is rather gripping. The story follows a college football player named Jonathan Parker who awakens from a dream in which his foster mother and step-siblings are murdered by a television repairman named Horace Pinker. Jonathan then receives a phone call informing him that his family really is dead. He tells his cop father about the dream, and eventually Pinker's captured (but not before he brutally slaughters the protagonist's girlfriend Alison). The movie's most gut-wrenching image appears nearly twenty-seven minutes into the tale when Jonathan sees Alison's corpse in a tub full of bloody water. At the forty-two minute mark, Pinker's execution goes all wrong. Turns out that Pinker (a practitioner of black magic) has found a way to transfer his spirit from body to body, and he's hell-bent on taking revenge against Jonathan (his biological son) for giving his identity away to the police. Pinker leapfrogs from a doctor to a cop to a jogger to a young child, and in the film's wittiest moment (about an hour in) Pinker (in the kid's body) drops an F-bomb. Pinker keeps on hopping bodies until he somehow develops the ability to travel through pure electricity. The story spirals into abject silliness ninety-nine minutes in when Jonathan and Pinker magically hop into a television and travel from program to program (momentarily appearing in an episode of Leave it to Beaver). My willing suspension of disbelief totally snapped when the hero and the antagonist jump out of a television into a random family's home, and the mother (instead of being terrified and awestruck) comments, “I've heard of audience participation shows, but this is ridiculous.” Jonathan somehow vanquishes Pinker by having his friends sabotage the local power plant. If you can sort out the logic of this film's third act, send me an e-mail and let me know how all the pieces fit together.

A review in Variety aptly summarized Shocker's flaws: “At first glance (or at least for the first forty minutes) Shocker seems a potential winner, an almost unbearably suspenseful, stylish and blood-drenched ride courtesy of writer-director Wes Craven’s flair for action and sick humor. As it continues, however, the camp aspects simply give way to the ridiculous while failing to establish any rules to govern the mayhem.” 

On one of the Blu-ray's audio commentary tracks, Craven acknowledges that the special effects are rough around the edges but never addresses the story's problems. In the book Shock Masters of the Cinema, interviewer Loris Curci quotes Craven as saying “I like Shocker.”

Upon further reflection, my biggest problem with the story is that Pinker somehow eluded capture for quite a long time even though he apparently openly parked his business van (with “Pinker's Television Repair” plastered on the side) outside the homes of his victims before he killed them. Surely an eyewitness would've noticed this vehicle and remembered seeing it near the crime scene at least once.

Casual horror fans should steer clear of Shocker, while Craven completists will be delighted with the quality of the new Blu-ray (dense with special features and sporting a fabulous transfer). I wanted to like Shocker given its intriguing core concept, but its flaws are too numerous to overlook.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Hills Have Eyes 2 (1985 version)

THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 (1985 version)

“The boogeyman's dead,” a psychiatrist assures Bobby Carter (one of the survivors from the first Hills Have Eyes) seven minutes into the sequel. Bobby, still traumatized from the ordeal he endured eight years earlier, has an intense fear of the desert and opts to not accompany a team of motorbike racers there even though they'll be testing out a new form of fuel that he formulated. As the film opens on a closeup of Bobby, I assumed that he would be the protagonist this time around, but his role turns out to be little more than a cameo. Indeed, there is no clear lead character in The Hills Have Eyes 2, and that's one of the project's many flaws.

Whereas the first film was steeped in realism, Hills 2 (written and directed by Wes Craven) requires serious suspension of disbelief almost from the get-go. Early on, the viewer learns that Bobby's wife is Ruby (from the first film's family of savages), only now she calls herself Rachel and masquerades as a civilized woman. By a massive coincidence, the racing team that's going to test Bobby's fuel must attend an event in the desert not far from where the original film took place. Ruby accompanies the team on a bus and (twenty-one minutes into the story) agrees without much protest when the group opts to veer off the paved road on a shortcut that will lead right to her old stomping grounds. Beast (one of the dogs from part one) goes on this trip too. The bus traverses rough terrain, and jagged rocks puncture its fuel tank, thereby stranding the group (conveniently close to a seemingly abandoned property that Ruby and the bikers explore in search of gasoline). Naturally, Pluto (Ruby's brother from part one) appears and attacks his sister, then scampers off into the desert. At the thirty-five minute mark, “Rachel” confesses to the others that she is in fact Ruby from the legendary family of desert cannibals. Nobody freaks out. Pluto steals one of the motorbikes, and two of the guys (Harry and Roy) pursue him. The first death occurs fully forty-two minutes in (nearly at the midpoint) when a large rock falls and crushes Harry. Four minutes later, Roy (on his bike) ends up ensnared in a net (Pluto and his ally this time around, a gigantic fellow known as The Reaper, have developed a knack for constructing elaborate traps). Cut to nightfall. In the second half of the film, the deaths occur one after another swiftly. One fellow takes a massive spear to the chest, and seven minutes later a dude named Foster gets pulled under the bus and axed in the head. Four minutes later, The Reaper crushes a girl named Jane in his arms. Within a minute, he slits the throat of another gal (Sue). Four minutes later, Pluto plummets to his death. Ruby's fate is unclear, for around this time she hits her head on a rock and is never seen again. The only memorable and singular character (a young blind woman named Cass) fills the “final girl” role and (with the help of another survivor) outwits The Reaper in a harrowing (if unbelievable) denouement.

In a 1985 interview with Kim Newman, Wes Craven explained that the film that reached audiences did not reflect his artistic vision: “It was not intended to be released as it was. It was not completed, and I had an agreement that when we'd finished the initial shoot the producers would cut it together and we'd see what we needed. Then we'd go shoot for another five or six days. That was agreed upon but... suddenly they were acting as if that was the finished film... The whole thing is unfinished. I wasn't satisfied with the whole ending. There were a couple of main sequences in the center of the film that didn't quite work. And the whole opening needed to be shortened drastically.”

Craven articulates additional reasons for the project's flaws in this quotation from Brian J. Robb's book Screams & Nightmares: “It was a much better script, I think, than the movie turned out to be... It was very underfunded. The movie was originally budgeted on the first draft of the script, and the producers said they thought it should be expanded, so I wrote a much better and bigger script, but the budget stayed the same.”

Critics have savaged the film. A review in Variety states that Hills 2 is filled with “dull, formula terror pic cliches, with one attractive teenager after another picked off...” In his book about Craven, John Wooley opines that “the biggest disappointment about Hills 2 is the sense of detachment from what's happening on the screen, an air of unreality and not the good kind of unreality.” The Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Horror concludes, “This perfunctory sequel drops the thematic drive of pitting two mirror-image families against each other and rehashes the uninteresting Friday the 13th strategy of isolating a group of teenagers in a rural locale and killing them one by one.” The comparison to Friday the 13th is particularly apt given that Harry Manfredini composed the scores for many of the films in that franchise in addition to scoring Hills 2. Also, Kane Hodder (who would go on to play Jason Voorhees in 1988's Friday the 13th part 7) performed stunts in Hills 2.

A serious missed opportunity to tell another gripping tale of primal survival, The Hills Have Eyes 2 is a curious footnote in Wes Craven's oeuvre – a critically-reviled movie peppered with bits of clever dialogue (“It ain't natural to be in a place without a disco,” says Foster when talking about being in the desert). The only film in history in which a dog's memory appears as a flashback scene (Beast recalls the time in part one when he nearly killed Pluto by tearing the savage's throat out), Hills 2 is as derivative as part one was innovative. This project really does feel like a sub-par eighties slasher film, whereas part one pushed the envelope and enthralled audiences upon its release in 1977. Unless you're a Craven completist, avoid The Hills Have Eyes 2.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Hills Have Eyes (1977 version)

THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977 version)

[A shorter version of this review originally appeared here in September of 2011.]

An auteur film (written and directed by Wes Craven) about the Carters (a family from Cleveland) whose car (pulling a camping trailer) crashes in the middle of nowhere en route to Los Angeles, the 1977 version of The Hills Have Eyes has a slow first half balanced by a flurry of violent action in the final forty-five minutes. The Carters find themselves under attack by a savage family that dwells in the hills near the crash site. There are bloody casualties on both sides before the ordeal ends. To go into much more detail would be to spoil some of the movie’s finer surprises.

“I set out to have the two families in The Hills Have Eyes be mirror images of each other so I could explore the different sides of the human personality – the two brothers being the [antithesis] of each other within the bounds of popular entertainment,” Craven once said (as quoted by Brian J. Robb in the book Screams & Nightmares). The Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Horror suggests that Craven failed in this goal: “The film is hobbled by its inability to confront the inference that the depraved 'family' of marauders are a dark mirror image of the 'typical' middle-American family they attack. As it is, the attackers are just garishly repulsive, while their victims are neither likable enough to serve as identification figures nor placed in any critical perspective.” 

For extended discourse about the families in this movie, see D.N. Rodowick's essay The Enemy Within: The Economy of Violence in The Hills Have Eyes. You can find it in a book titled Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film (edited by Barry Keith Grant).

My main complaint about this project is the abrupt ending that leaves the viewer in the dark about how the survivors ultimately return to civilization (or if they do so at all). The first half borders on being boring, but the pace really picks up after the midpoint. Gritty and realistic, the original version of The Hills Have Eyes may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed the journey to the finale even though the members of the Carter family are somewhat bland and unmemorable. The antagonists, on the other hand, are fascinating and terrifying (at one point, they plan to devour a baby they’ve kidnapped from the Carters). One review suggests that I may be wrong in dismissing the Carters as bland: a piece in Variety asserts that the screenplay “takes more trouble over the stock characters than it needs.” 

In a featurette titled 'Looking Back at The Hills Have Eyes' on the Blu-ray, Wes Craven says, “As bizarre as the premise of the film is, I've always struggled to make the people in it seem real... that white-bread family from Cleveland... those were people that I grew up with. That mother was like my mother.” 

The original premise differs from the final film. On the Blu-ray's audio commentary track, Craven reveals that “the first version of this script... was written [in the] early seventies, obviously, and was set in 1984 during the presidential primaries, and people needed a passport to go from state to state because it was kind of like [an Orwellian] 1984 type of society. [Producer Peter Locke] said, 'We don't need all this. Let's get to the desert.' So this very elaborate script got pared down.”

If you’re looking for a decent chilling tale about primal survival against difficult odds, spend ninety minutes with The Hills Have Eyes.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Deadly Friend


[A shorter draft of this review appeared here in August of 2010.]

A dark and subversive take on the “people with their own sentient robots” type of film (like Short Circuit), 1986’s Deadly Friend (directed by Wes Craven) includes some wildly entertaining moments. You just have to exert tremendous effort to suspend your disbelief.

The story follows Paul Conway, a young whiz kid who studies the human brain and has built an intelligent robot named BB. Paul and his mom (with BB) move to a new neighborhood, where Paul swiftly befriends the local paper boy (a high school sophomore named Tom) and the cute girl next door (Sam, who has an abusive and controlling father). One night Sam’s father knocks Sam down a flight of stairs. She hits her head at the bottom and goes brain-dead. Doctors intend to remove her from life support after twenty-four hours pass. Paul goes all Frankenstein and concocts a plan to insert a small computer (which he calls a pacemaker for the head) that he salvaged from BB (who earlier took three shotgun blasts from a paranoid neighbor) into her brain. With the help of Tom, he actually executes this scheme – with dire consequences. Cyborg Sam sets out to exact revenge on all those in the neighborhood who have wronged her, including her father and the mean old lady across the street (whose death scene, which involves a basketball, is one of the greatest ever filmed). Paul’s efforts to control Sam mostly involve locking her in different places (like her old bedroom and the attic). Ultimately Paul’s mom and later the police come face-to-face with the new Sam, and a cop’s bullet ends the cyborg’s deadly rampage. A brief epilogue (added at the insistence of Mark Tapin, who at the time was the Warner Bros. alpha male) makes no sense unless interpreted as a nightmare.

Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote Jacob’s Ladder) penned the screenplay for this project (based on a Diana Henstell novel that I've never read). Rubin originally set out to write “a deep and heartfelt movie” but explains that the studio demanded additional violence after an early cut of the film didn't go over well. “We showed the picture to a bunch of Wes's fans, who hated it. All they wanted was guts, so the studio told me to give them six more scenes, each bloodier than the last,” said Rubin (as quoted by John Wooley in his book Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares).

According to Brian J. Robb's book Screams & Nightmares, Craven had the following to say about Deadly Friend: “There were seven or eight producers, and they all had their idea of what the film should be... the film became a hodge-podge, then it was censored by the MPAA. They made us submit the film thirteen times.”

Though the material in the finished film sometimes veers into silly territory, Craven successfully constructed an engaging tale that evokes both chills and laughter despite the studio's meddling. You know you’re watching a unique story when at one point you realize that the protagonist has slipped his mother a mickey so that he can sneak out of the house to perform unauthorized experimental brain surgery on the gal from next door. The tale is only ninety minutes long and absolutely worth sitting through to get to that death-by-basketball scene. Deadly Friend isn’t a realistic yarn, but it’s damn entertaining.

Some critics enjoyed the film at the time of its release. In The New York Times, Caryn James described the movie as “a witty ghoul story” and said, “Mr. Craven deftly balances suspense and spoof.” Variety noted that Deadly Friend has “the requisite number of shocks to keep most hearts pounding through to the closing credits.” Other critics were less impressed. Paul Attanasio wrote in The Washington Post that the film “is a routine horror movie, poorly photographed (by old-time cinematographer Philip Lathrop) and poorly performed...” Time Out published this summary: “This may be Craven at his crummiest...”

If you don't expect high art or a yarn steeped in realism, check out Deadly Friend for a fabulous ninety-minute dose of raw entertainment. I rather enjoy this unusual over-the-top story.