Let’s Scare Jeff… To Death! Vol. 5

Special post-Halloween entry! This year I watched 45 movies in October (46 if you count watching Hack-O-Lantern twice due to its surprise appearance on The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs). That’s probably the most movies I’ve watched in the space of a month in my entire life. Some of them were even good! Here’s the final batch.

Fade to Black (1980) wants to be a nuanced portrayal of mental illness. It, uh, fails. Annoying film nerd Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher, Breaking Away) is obsessed with classic movies and likes dressing up as and quoting his favorite characters, and, even more charmingly, bugging people with obscure movie trivia. Already off to a good start! After getting stood up by a girl, he kills his haranguing aunt (who turns out to be his mother in a pointless twist) and goes on a murder spree against people who he thinks wronged him — only he kills like half his victims by accident. Basically, it’s an incel movie 40 years before Joker and about as appealing. Writer/director Vernon Zimmerman tries to do too much and doesn’t do any of it well — it’s too tame to be a horror movie and too trite to be an effective character piece. Some nice examples of Los Angeles Playing Itself, though, especially the finale outside, inside, and on top of Mann’s Chinese. Fun fact: the main female police officer, Gwynne Gilford, would go on to be best known as Chris Pine’s mother.

How to Make a Monster (1958) has a fun meta concept: when a studio’s new owners decides to shut down its monster pictures because they’re out of date, a legendary makeup artist decides to teach them a lesson using the very monsters they dismiss. The studio in question is even the one actually producing the film, American International Pictures, and there are some fun cameos from props from their other movies. It weirdly turns out to be another look at toxic masculinity as the makeup artist (Robert H. Harris) uses and abuses his assistant and actor clients to achieve his nefarious ends. It’s from the 50s, so the pacing and acting require a little patience. Funnily enough, actual AIP recording artist John Ashley’s musical number below unintentionally makes a great case for why AIP was better off sticking to fright flicks.

Gate II (1990) may be the rare horror sequel that’s better than the original. I wasn’t a huge fan of the first one — cool stop motion effects but otherwise pretty dull and bloodless, with a young Stephen Dorff (Alone in the Dark) as the very boring lead. This one focuses on his nerdy, awkward metalhead friend Terry, who turns out to be a much more compelling lead as he tries to harness the power of the demons to help turn his family’s failing fortunes around. Lots of “be careful what you wish for” goodness ensues. It’s well-paced and genuinely funny, and you don’t really need to see the original to enjoy it. Love interest played by Pamela Adlon (King of the Hill, Better Things)!

The Devil’s Rain(1975) is maybe the most 70s thing I watched this month: Satanic cult, ESP, desert locales, William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerrit, Eddie Albert, Anton LaVey, a young John Travolta. The only thing that could make it more 70s would be a bitchin’ car chase, but you’ll have to watch Race with the Devil for that. It’s a weirdly structured movie — the first thirty minutes feels like you’ve been thrown into the third act of another film, the middle has lots of patented 1970s ambulating, and the final third is totally bonkers. Definitely a cult (lol) film, a little slow at times but it has enough insanity to make it worth watching — and the ending is pretty nihilistic in that post-Nixon way.

Cat’s Eye (1985) is the forgotten Stephen King anthology film, and while it isn’t nearly as wild as Creepshow, it’s a hidden gem. “Quitters, Inc.” is the funniest, with a suitably slimy turn by James Woods as a man who goes to the wrong people to help him quit smoking. This would’ve been when King was in the throes of his own drug addiction, so I wonder if there’s some wishful thinking here. “The Ledge” features Robert Hays (Airplane) as a guy who pisses off a casino owner and has to make a perilous journey around the building on a ledge five inches wide. Director Lewis Teague does an admirable job making the story, a mostly internal affair on the page, suitably cinematic. The final story, “General,” features a resourceful tomcat protecting a young Drew Barrymore (Scream) from a nasty little troll in her wall. Some funny similarities to Bad Moon here. The troll is voiced by Frank Welker, and he’s in full Nibbler mode. All three stories work well, plus that cat is pretty damn cute.

A Blade in the Dark (1983) was directed by Lamberto Bava (Demons) and has a fun meta premise, so I had high hopes for it. Alas, it’s a pretty standard murder mystery giallo with a few fun flourishes that don’t make up for the dull story. The concept of a giallo composer thrown into a murder mystery at his remote villa had potential to be an intriguing commentary on the genre, but Bava doesn’t do much with it. Apparently originally meant to be a four-part TV show with each episode ending with a shocking murder, it was edited together into one film — but that means the murders still come a half-hour apart, and the time between doesn’t really offer much scintillation outside of the occasional nudity. Also not the most sensitive to transgender individuals. Leave this one in the dark.

Halloween II (1981) could never live up to the original. Nothing can. The first time I saw it, I was inevitably disappointed. This viewing proved more fun — while Rick Rosenthal (Halloween: Resurrection) can’t come close to matching John Carpenter’s mastery of suspense, the kills are brutal and well-executed. The film’s biggest weakness comes in its lack of a central character. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween) is lying in a hospital bed for most of the film, and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance, Halloween) is off chasing red herrings but in a less interesting way than in the first one. Carpenter clearly phoned the script in, introducing the Laurie-Michael sibling relationship and druid stuff that I hate. It’s an okay slasher flick but pretty disposable overall, especially considering it’s from 1981, a year already heavy with okay slasher flicks.

Night of the Demons (1988) is another cult favorite that I never quite got the love for. It’s definitely got some fun touches — Linnea Quigley (Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama) and actress/choreographer Amelia Kinkade’s Angela make for some scarily sexy demons, and the special makeup effects by Steve Johnson (Return of the Living Dead III) are the right amount of gooey. Like a lot of these movies, though, the pacing just doesn’t quite work, with lots of dead spots dragging down memorable bits like Angela’s demonic dance to Bauhaus’ “Stigmata Martyr” and Quigley playing “hide the lipstick.” The highs are high, it’s just a bit of a slog getting to them.

Let’s Scare Jeff… to Death! Vol. 4

Man I’ve watched a lot of horror movies this month. Here’s the penultimate batch. I’ll be back Monday with my wrap up and thoughts on my Halloween day viewing.

Haunt (2019) takes the premise of an extreme haunted house experience to its natural conclusion. Nice slow burn before it gets to the carnage, which I always appreciate. Gnarly scares and a surprisingly fresh take on the villains make this one stand out — sure, it’s not really groundbreaking, but the directors’ understanding of the genre lets them craft a very effective thriller. The team of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods also wrote A Quiet Place. I thought that one got bogged down in the sci-fi rules, but the lean, mean, contained story here lets them unleash without hitting logic speed bumps. Also, while Eli Roth executive produces and there is some unpleasantness, it’s not nearly as torture porn-y as you might expect. Could’ve done without the melancholy indie rock cover of “Dragula” over the end credits, though.

Night of the Comet (1984) is a great little B-movie that’s even underrated by the text on the back of the Blu-Ray sleeve. Although the logline is ostensibly “The Last Man on Earth but with two valley girls,” the teenybopper duo of Regina Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) turn out to be surprisingly well-rounded, capable characters with lots of nice contradictions and complexities. Lots of great lines and a very eighties aesthetic make this a treat. Serious bonus points for a great diegetic soundtrack — most of the background music comes from the radio station the girls always have on. Although there were only like three bands doing the music, the songs really capture the zeitgeist of the time. A real treat.

Deepstar Six (1989) proves that Miguel Ferrer is second only to Paul Reiser in the “untrustworthy scumbags in 80s sci-fi movies” category of character actors. A sort-of underwater version of Alien only it takes two-thirds of the movie for the alien to actually appear. The rest of the film would be better if there were characters that you cared about or had some sort of arc, but alas. At least the monster (designed by The Walking Dead‘s Greg Nicotero) looks pretty cool, even if it is just a giant mutant lobster. Director Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) does a decent job with the budget, but this mostly shows he doesn’t know how to make a movie that doesn’t feature multiple shower scenes.

Leviathan (1989) comes from the director of Rambo: First Blood Part II, the writers of Blade Runner and Die Hard, the producers of Predator and Die Hard, and the deep-pocketed studio behind the Terminator movies. The exceptional cast features Peter Weller, Ernie Hudson, Daniel Stern, Richard Crenna, and Meg Foster. It has a much bigger budget than DeepStar Six, a score by Jerry Goldsmith, and creature effects by Stan Winston. It’s still a pretty inconsequential underwater Alien/Aliens knockoff despite all that. A fun little romp, but lacks the kind of solid grounding in theme and character someone like James Cameron would make sure to focus on, making it hard to really care.

The Rift (1990) is the zero-budget version of Leviathan and DeepStar Six, and Juan-Piquer Simon was not the man to make a scrappy little gem out of what little he had to work with. The Spanish, uh, auteur behind trash-terpieces like Pieces, Slugs, and MST3k fave The Pod People does have a bigger budget than usual here, and even real actors in the form of Dallas‘s Jack Scalia, R. Lee Ermey, and Ray Wise. It wasn’t enough, even though Ermey does a solid job and Wise gets to have fun once it’s revealed that (SPOILER) he’s a traitor! Some good laughs in the form of the nonsensical plot and special effects. It just takes them forever to get out of the damn sub, and the film languishes until they do. In typical fashion, Simon didn’t even bother to learn which part of the submarine was the front.

Eraserhead (1977) really makes you work for it, huh? David Lynch’s debut feature evokes very different reactions from people — some hail it as a masterpiece, some want their 90 minutes back. It feels remarkably self-assured, every image ripe with meaning. As abstract as it is, though, it actually feels less opaque than some of his later films. Lynch clearly uses the form to work through his struggles of fatherhood and the crushing claustrophobia of the modern, post-industrial age. The score and sound effects do as much heavy lifting as the visuals to squeeze the viewer in the movie’s oppressive vice grip. Not exactly horror in the traditional sense (although the worm baby is freaky), its existential terrors haunt you long after the final reel.

The Old Dark House (1932) is one of those movies considered to be a “forgotten classic” or whatever. It comes from director James Whale, tackling gothic horror between Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. His trademark larger-than-life flourishes and tongue-in-cheek script help enliven this “travelers stranded at a creepy house on a dark and stormy night” story, and those more versed in noticing these things have pointed out that, in its own subtle way, there’s just as much queer coding to this as a certain other (time) warped film with a similar setup. That said, the haphazard plotting, laughable love story and surplus of characters (each with their own entertaining quirks, admittedly) made this feel overstuffed to me –especially considering the scant 72 minute runtime. It’s like yard sale Legos. There are some really cool pieces but they don’t quite fit together.

The Car (1977) is basically Jaws with a demonically possessed car, but also better than that makes it sound? Sure, it’s a silly concept, but it’s a lot of fun. The cast is packed with great 70s character actors playing quirky roles, the Car itself is genuinely terrifying, and the stunts were coordinated by Everett Creach (who would choreograph the amazing chases in Walter Hill’s The Driver the following year). It’s also nihilistic as hell. The titular monster destroys everyone in the movie, even the people it doesn’t kill; the most likable character in the movie dies the most tragic death; the wife-beating racist turns out to be key to stopping the vehicle’s rampage. Very 70s, in other words. Critics at the time derided it, but I loved it. I guess it just wasn’t their speed.

All the Colors of the Dark (1972) has it all: sex, drugs, Satanic orgies, and a killer spaghetti psych soundtrack. This giallo entry from Sergio Martino does an excellent job of using cinematic techniques to make the audience question whether or not the weirdness happening on screen is reality or just a hallucination by its deeply traumatize subject, Jane (played by Edwige Fenech). The too-conventional ending undercuts all that, unfortunately, but up until that point it’s a total trip. Definitely lives up to the craziness one wants from Italo sleaze. It’s also VERY NSFW, but since you’re probably working from home, go ahead and watch! Also, listen to the song below that plays during the aforementioned Satanic orgy, it rules.

The Brood (1978) is definitely the strongest 70s work by David Cronenberg (best known for his acting roles in Nightbreed and Jason X). It’s more focused than Shivers and Rabid for sure, the start of his more intimate portrayals of individuals whose trauma and rage manifest in supernatural ways. Apparently he was going through a bad divorce and child custody battle and this was his response. Cronenberg does a good job of making everyone sympathetic. Even though the protagonist, Frank Carveth (Art Hindle, Black Christmas), seems the least damaged character, the ending indicates he was just better at suppressing his rage than his wife. Oliver Reed’s over-the-top persona works well here, especially once he dials it down in the climax. The reveal of where the demon children come from will be burned into my brain forever.

The Stepfather (1987) seems like it’s gonna be a cut rate Psycho knockoff, but the script was written by Donald E. Westlake, one of the greatest crime writers of the 20th century, so it’s got that little extra zing that sets it apart. As deft as his balance of violence and humor may be, though, this is the sort of film that relies on a great performance in the central role to carry it through. Terry O’Quinn certainly delivers. It’s not the most sensitive to people with mental health issues, but O’Quinn makes the character feel believable and multi-faceted, which helps ground the film. The acting and writing help elevate this above your average thriller — although the chintzy synth score courtesy of Moody Blues keyboardist Patrick Moraz makes it feel more bargain bin than it actually is.

Let’s Scare Jeff… To Death! Vol. 3

One week to Halloween! Horror train keeps on rolling.

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) doesn’t have much to do with the first two outside of barrels of Trioxin and a preoccupation with sexy undead punk ladies. Prolific low-budger sci-fi/horror producer/director Brian Yuzna (Society) is behind the camera here, and unfortunately he’s a much better producer than director. His twisted take on Romeo and Juliet has some pretty cool gore effects and some decent ideas; plus, horror romances are somewhat rare. Still, it’s mostly memorable for the scene where Melinda Clarke (Spawn) shoves a bunch of spikes, glass, and rebar through herself to try to stave off the hunger — aka the moment that triggered puberty for a thousand metalheads.

Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990) was Barker’s most ambitious film, which of course means the studio had to take a knife to it. I’ve only ever seen the director’s cut but I have to imagine it improves on the butchered theatrical cut. Even still, it’s flawed. It’s a total “chosen one” narrative — basically Harry Potter with more bondage — but it’s not clear why Boone (Craig Sheffer) is the chosen one other than that he has a cool leather jacket. Still, the underground monster society is fascinating, and antagonist Decker (David Cronenberg from Jason X) makes a very creepy psycho therapist. It’s pretty characteristic of Barker. He’s more interested in the monsters than the audience characters — it’s not like Kirsty from Hellraiser has any memorable character traits besides screaming. It actually reminds me of a dark reflection of a Tim Burton movie (down to the Danny Elfman score) with its stunning production design, memorable supporting characters, fractured fairy tale narrative, and utter disinterest/antipathy towards the humans.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) sure was a Friday the 13th movie. I’d previously only seen the last half hour, and it turns out the last half hour was the only part worth watching. I realize they still hadn’t established the formula but it takes way too long to get to the carnage. To its credit, the cannon fodder kids are much less obnoxious than they’d become in future entries, which makes the wait less tedious. The filmmakers figured it out more on the next one, perfected it on the fourth one, and by part 6 (the best one) it had become self-parody.

Suspiria (2018) could never outdo the original in terms of sheer batshit insanity, so director Luca Guadagnino took the exact opposite approach. Where the original burst with color to create a sense of the uncanny, this one goes for the muted grays of divided Cold War Germany. The original deliberately (sometimes frustratingly) avoided letting the audience know what the hell was going on, but this one delves into the internal politics of the coven and the workings of their witchcraft. The original’s discordant, jarring score from Goblin almost made itself another character in the movie, while the muted soundtrack here from Thom Yorke works in concert with the film but isn’t nearly as memorable. The original trapped its characters in a hermetically sealed world; this one constantly engages with the current events surrounding Berlin in 1977. That said, I surprisingly enjoyed it. Great performances from Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Dakota Johnson help anchor the film, and it builds its own kind of quiet tension until it explodes into what can only be described as an orgy of blood at the end. The more I think about it, however, the more the movie’s big twist bugs the hell out of me, so that tempers my enjoyment of the final product. I think it ultimately tried to do too much — the stark simplicity of the original (which seems confusing the first time you watch it but turns out to basically be “Hansel and Gretel”) makes it more effective.

Hack-O-Lantern (1988) has the word “hack” right in its title, and that should tell you all you need to know. Jag Mundhra would go on to direct a bunch of schlocky “erotic thrillers” after this. The biggest name in the cast, Hy Pyke, was best known for playing the Mayor in Dolemite, and he’s definitely playing for the cheap seats here. There’s incest, a few decent kills, Satanic cults, a surprising amount of nudity, an utterly unprompted stand-up comedy routine, and a music video by the (not very Satanic) hair metal obscurities D.C. Lacroix that turns out to be a dream? That makes this sound more entertaining than it is — which is not very. It’s got just enough weird to be a fun group watch, though. Kudos to Gregory Scott Cumins, who plays disturbed twenty-something metalhead Tommy, for parlaying his performance here into a bunch of guest roles in TV shows and a recurring character on Bosch. IMDb claims this had a budget of $5.5 million. I’d be surprised if it was a hundredth of that amount.  

Verotika (2020) still sucks. I can’t believe I watched this thing again. My review from last year still stands. Here’s a picture of my cat. He’s scarier than this movie.

The Endless (2018) was recommended to me by two very different friends in the space of a couple days, so I figured that was a good enough reason to check it out. Ostensibly about two brothers returning to visit the “UFO death cult” they escaped from a decade before, it slowly descends into one of the more inventive depictions of cosmic horror on film — not entirely a spoiler, considering that it opens with an HP Lovecraft quote. Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead capture an existential dread much more terrifying than the business end of a killer’s knife. Not only that, but they couch it in affecting human stories. You genuinely feel for each of these characters. If you thought low-budget horror flicks had run out of innovative ways to scare you, consider my voice added to the recommendations mentioned above.

The Invisible Man (2020) did what The Mummy (2017) reboot could not: it reinvents a classic Universal monster for today’s world and makes it relevant and terrifying. Director Leigh Whannell (Upgrade, which I still need to see) does a phenomenal job here, using long takes and the negative space in the frame to build tension in a way only film can. I know it seems funny to be amazed when a director actually uses the medium to his advantage, but I’ve seen so many movies where the filmmaker utterly fails to do so that it’s a nice surprise when it happens. It feels very Carpenter-esque. The story does get a bit silly towards the end, granted — Whannell traps Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) in such a nightmarish situation that it requires some script liberties to get out of it. While it’s an easy joke to say that Moss’s performance is the best of the year, she works wonders in the role. She really strikes the difficult balance between making Kass seem desperate and traumatized to the audience and crazy to the other characters.

Asylum (1972) was apparently the fifth in a series of anthology films churned out by British horror house Amicus in the late 60s/early 70s. I’d previously seen The House That Dripped Blood, although the vignettes are probably more consistent and framing story more coherent here. Adapted from four Robert Bloch (Psycho) short stories centered around the theme of obsession, the most effective tale is the one that doesn’t have any supernatural elements at all — “Lucy Comes to Stay,” which features the perfectly-cast Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland right before their breakout roles. As with all these films, it relies heavily on its cast of professionals (Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, Barry Morse) to sell some of the cheesier aspects. Its take on mental illness also isn’t the most sensitive. It’s still a fun throwback.

We Summon the Darkness (2019) is, frankly, a movie I’m disappointed in myself for not writing. 80s metal? Satanic Panic? Green Room-style siege scenario? Alas, it was some other 30-something metalhead dude attempting to write teenage girls (and it feels like it at times). Still, this was a blast. Almost more of a black comedy than a horror flick, it does deliver on the red stuff and suspense. I always enjoy stupid people doing stupid things and getting themselves in trouble. It helps that this was in a milieu that I understand very well — the metal subculture stuff felt honest and not just like they’d looked up the “heavy metal” page on Wikipedia. And if you thought the band at the beginning sounded pretty good, well, there’s a reason for that.

Let’s Scare Jeff… to Death! Vol. 2

Welcome to the second installment of my horror movie digest! This week we have werewolves, ghosts, demons, and — most terrifyingly of all — Bill Maher. Also, some of the movies have excellent theme songs, so I’ve included links to the videos below the blurbs.

House II: The Second Story (1987) unfortunately has nothing to do with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s bizarro haunted fantasy House (1977). It doesn’t even have anything to do with its actual predecessor, 1985’s House, other than that it takes place in a house. I guess the idea was to do an anthology series? The writer of the first one returns to direct this time, and it’s a much broader entry — more of a comedy adventure set in a haunted house. It also continues the series’ casting of Cheers regulars with John Ratzenberger stepping in for George Wendt this time, and his sequence is a highlight. Bill Maher appears as a yuppie scumbag but unfortunately doesn’t get his comeuppance. Boo. Otherwise, it’s filled with crazy left turns — if you’re gonna watch it (and I recommend it), don’t watch the trailer above so you can go in cold.

Demon Wind (1990) posits the question of what would happen if you made Evil Dead without Sam Raimi or Bruce Campbell. You don’t need a cheat sheet to guess the answer to that. Another protagonist who makes manila folders look exciting in comparison surrounded by a cast of unlikable dullards — EXCEPT, and that “except” is what makes the movie special, the kung fu magician duo of Chuck and Stacy. These bargain basement Sam and Deans keep things entertaining with their dumb repartee and sweet combination of martial arts and parlor tricks right up until they’re killed. Even then, their demonized versions continue to be the highlight of the movie. It’s a dud otherwise.

Kwaidan (1964) may very well be the longest horror movie ever made, clocking in at a phantasmagorical 3 hour run time. Usually horror anthologies are a mixed bag, but in this case the bag is filled with Twix, Snickers, and every flavor Starburst except the red one. While the stories themselves are pretty simple (I was able to summarize the whole thing to my wife in under five minutes), Masaki Kobayashi fills the time with eerily quiet, deliberately paced atmospheric sections that get under your skin more effectively than jump scares ever would. The inevitable tragedy of “The Woman in the Snow” struck me hardest, but each story is its own ghostly gem.

Amsterdamned (1988) comes from Dutch director Dick Maas (a name that made my very classy wife giggle each time it appeared on screen), who brought us the off-beat killer elevator flick The Lift. This entry centers on a killer stalking the canals of the titular city in SCUBA gear, a novel concept for a slasher killer indeed! Maas’s trademark quirky characters and sense of humor, some truly memorable kills (the tourist boat and the translucent raft in particular), and a genuinely great speedboat chase (courtesy of bonafide Bond stunt coordinator Dickey Beer and stunt legend Vic Armstrong) make this a winner that transcends some of the more pedestrian procedural elements. Bonus points for the excellent title theme at the end courtesy of Prince collaborators Loïs Lane!

Knife + Heart (2018) was called A Knife in the Heart in its original French, and I prefer that title — it captures the giallo sleaziness much better. I’ve seen a lot of queer-coded movies (Nightmare on Elm Street 2, anyone?) and a few “lesbian vampire” type flicks like Daughters of Darkness, but it’s funny how gay male eroticism is such a rarity in horror that I still found it somewhat shocking when presented this explicitly and unflinchingly. This film takes place in the LGBTQ+ underworld of 1979 Paris, specifically centering around a director of gay porn (Vanessa Paradis), so it throws you right into the deep end… if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Still, one of the prime purposes of horror is to make the viewer uncomfortable as a way of making them think — and I’m glad it made me confront my own unconscious biases. As the movie articulately points out, society’s mistreatment of marginalized people causes infinitely more damage than a masked man with a knife.

Side note: The excellent score is by the director’s brother, Anthony Gonzalez… better known as M83. Worth checking out on its own.

Ginger Snaps (2000) makes me wonder if it’s harder being a werewolf or a teenage girl — and based on this, I think I have to give the edge to teenage girl. Lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty works pretty well. I just wish the second half was as fun as the first; once it turns into a straight-up werewolf movie it loses some of its Heathers-style satirical charm. One of the more inventive wolf(w0)man flicks I’ve seen, though. It has just the right amount of crunch to it and you genuinely care about the leads. Also, it’s SUPER late 90s if you want a punch to the face of nostalgia. The soundtrack dates it even more than the clothing: Junkie XL, Fear Factory, Machine Head, Glassjaw. Chunky guitar and techno beats galore!

Sugar Hill (1974) follows the Black exploitation tradition of naming the film after the protagonist, but don’t expect something straightforward like Foxy Brown. When racist gangsters murder Diana “Sugar” Hill’s (Marki Bey) fiancé, she seeks revenge the only way she knows how, and it ain’t how Fred Williamson or Jim Brown would: she summons the voodoo deity Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley, having a blast) and has him raise an army of the undead to “make them die slowly.” Although written and directed by white guys (the only directing credit for Paul Maslansky, producer of the Police Academy movies?!), the film’s portrayal of a strong, confident Black woman who gets what she wants — without every really getting put in sexual jeopardy — feels surprisingly refreshing. Add in some genuinely creepy zombies, a killer funk soundtrack (check out the infectious theme below), and a sparkling sense of humor, and you have a hidden gem as golden as the Baron’s teeth.

Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies (1999) comes from Jack Sholder, director of another infamous horror sequel: the aforementioned Nightmare on Elm Street 2. Needless to say, I didn’t have high hopes for this — especially since I wasn’t a big fan of the first one — but my wife special requested this one. I found it surprisingly entertaining! It helps that they didn’t have the budget to put Andrew Divoff in the Djinn prosthetics as much, and he’s much more fun when he’s not weighed down under all the makeup and just gets to grin creepily without blinking. Shoulder steers the ship well as long as he stays within his limitations — which means things definitely get a bit silly towards the end when he tries to go for a big special effects climax he clearly can’t afford. It’s no Phantasm II, but as far as straight-to-video horror sequels go it beats the hell out of any of the Leprechaun follow-ups.

Let’s Scare Jeff… To Death! Vol. 1

Welcome to the inaugural edition of “Let’s Scare Jeff… to Death.” I’m still workshopping the name. It’s better than my previous idea of “Jeff Watches Horror Movies!” In case you hadn’t guessed, in October I watch a LOT of horror movies, so I figured this year I would keep a digest. I’m probably scraping the bottom of the barrel for the most part, but there are still some classics I haven’t seen!

Graveyard Shift (1990) was not one of them. It’s in the bottom tier of the Stephen King theatrical adaptations I’ve seen — which, admittedly, isn’t that many. The Shining, Dead Zone, It (2017), Christine, Carrie, The Running Man, Stand by Me, Shawshank Redemption, Silver Bullet, Secret Window, 1408. Never mind, that’s a lot. About half of them are good. Not too bad a record, I suppose. Still, while not really worth going out of your way for, Graveyard Shift has a suitably bonkers performance from Brad Dourif (right before the underrated Exorcist III!) and Stephen Macht doing a real thick Mainer accent and tearing the chunks out of the scenery that the giant rat-bat didn’t get to first. Some gnarly (gnaw-rly?) gore as well. Main character is a soggy piece of pasteboard with a mullet. Bonus Andrew Divoff (Wishmaster)!

Bad Moon (1996) could’ve been retitled Werewolf vs. Dog. PLACE YOUR BETS. Clocking in at a lean 80 minutes and dumped into theaters unceremoniously the day after Halloween, it’s actually a solid creature feature. The weird thing? The dog is the main character! The weirder thing? It’s basically a “boy and his dog” kid’s movie with an explicit sex scene (thankfully not between the boy and dog), lots of gore, and a terrifying werewolf. Still, slide those toggles a different way and it’s a kid’s movie. The weirdest thing? They don’t use the song “Bad Moon Rising!”

Color Out of Space (2020) will draw a lot of comparisons to Mandy, but sir, let me tell you: it’s no Mandy. Really effective atmosphere, great Colin Stetson score, great Nicolas Cage performance, a few really unsettling scenes — but man, why did Richard Stanley have to use fuckin’ Burzum on the soundtrack? It was clearly a deliberate choice. Maybe he likes the song, maybe he likes Varg Vikernes’ occult sensibilities, but that’s still no excuse to give a racist convicted murderer royalties. Left a bad taste in my mouth. If you can get past that (or don’t care), it’s one of the better Lovecraft adaptations. Maybe the best not directed by Stuart Gordon or John Carpenter.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) has Vincent Price, so that’s worth at least three stars right there. Turns out Roger Corman could actually direct when he gave a damn (and had a budget and time). Moody, effective adaptation of the Poe story with some really cool paintings by the late Burt Schoenberg. Not quite as good as Masque of the Red Death (the high point of the Corman/Price Poe collaborations), but still very much worth your time.

Nomads (1986) stars Pierce Brosnan (ALL of Pierce Brosnan) with a French accent, Adam Ant, Mary Woronov, and features a soundtrack by Bill “Rocky” Conti with guest guitar by Ted “not quite as repellent a human being as Varg (but only because he didn’t actually murder anyone)” Nugent. Also, it’s the first feature from John McTiernan (Die Hard, Predator, Hunt for Red October), and he’s in full Michael Mann mode here. Despite its flaws (the plot could best be described as “impressionistic”), it has a very cool concept for the supernatural stuff, a great ending, and a mastery of tension so impressive that Arnold picked McTiernan to direct Predator based on this. I just wish they didn’t make poor Remington Steele struggle through that French accent.

Day of the Dead (1985) RULED. I’m not sure why I put off watching it for so long. I’d always heard it was the weakest entry of the original Dead trilogy. Turns out that that’s true, but only because Night of the Living and Dawn of are two of the greatest horror flicks ever made. I’ve read reviews criticizing the cast for overacting, but I see it as a deliberate choice — they’re all stressed and going mad, of course they’re yelling! Plus Romero was an old hippy, he wasn’t gonna go for much nuance in his portrayal of the military guys. Otherwise, I’m glad he wasn’t able to make the bigger movie he wanted to make. I thought the contained cast and setting led to a real ratcheting of tension. It’s not wall-to-wall gore or zombie action, but we’ve seen so much of that stuff by now that who cares? I’d rather see a good movie. This is that. Plus the gore is some of Tom Savini’s best work. Highly recommended.

Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971) is a giallo. It’s fine. People online seem to like it, but if you’ve seen any of Dario Argento or Mario Bava’s similar murder mysteries, they beat the shit out of this one. A young Giancarlo Giannini and a decent twist make it worth watching if you’re hard up for Italo schlock. More of a suspense thriller than a horror movie, but not very memorable even as a thriller. Basically the 70s Italian equivalent of Kiss the Girls or something. 

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974) comes from the mind of Brian Clemens, one of the principal writers behind The Avengers (the “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed” one, not the “We have a Hulk” one), one of my all-time favorite TV shows. While Horst Janson certainly cuts a dashing figure as the titular captain, his hunchbacked assistant Grost (John Cater) probably couldn’t rock a catsuit as fetchingly as Diana Rigg. Despite feeling like an extended TV episode sometimes (fitting, considering the source), this swashbuckling entry into the annals of vampire fighting never feels dull. Clemens’ off-beat humor and witty repartee makes the final entry in the Hammer House of Horror a memorable one.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

The first thing to remember when reviewing a giant monster movie is that it’s really freaking hard to make a giant monster movie. Sure, massive creatures stomping through cities are inherently cinematic, but unless you’re making a coffee table book, that ain’t enough on its own. You need some human drama to carry the thing through. That’s a tricky thing to do when the focus is on the behemoths. There are a few successful approaches, of course. Like the classic Universal monster movies, the original Godzilla gets a lot of mileage out of the allegorical aspects. It deals with the grief and trauma from Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s destruction less than a decade before — a lot of the arguments about whether they should study the creature or destroy it stem from the discussions about the use of nuclear energy at the time. You can make it a family melodrama (most of the Godzilla and Gamera movies). You can make the monster a straight-up Macguffin for an unrelated plot (Larry Cohen’s exceptional Q: The Winged Serpent). You can even make it a sports movie (Pacific Rim). Still, despite the plethora of giant monster flicks out there, you can probably count the good ones on two clawed hands.

Not only that, but like any franchise, the Godzilla franchise is almost impossible to evaluate by regular standards. It’s like the James Bond franchise, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe — there are a few genuinely classic films in there that stand on their own (Casino Royale, Iron Man), but for the most part, you have to evaluate them in the context of their film family. It’s hard to argue that something like The Living Daylights is a great movie in comparison to, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s still a damn fun Bond flick. Similarly, most of the Godzilla movies are terrible: boring, overly long, with wooden characters and nonsensical plots. The monster stomping is always fun, but even then, it can get repetitive. I recently tried showing even some of the better ones (Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah 1993, Destroy All Monsters) to my S.O. and we fell asleep in the middle of both. I still love those movies, but the Godfather they ain’t. They’re popcorn fun.

That brings us to Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), an unabashed love letter to the Godzilla franchise. Co-writer/director Michael Dougherty came into the project having co-written the exemplary superhero flick X2 and written/directed modern-day classic horror anthology Trick r’ Treat and less-classic-but-still-fun Krampus. He’s a man who, at least based on his previous efforts, understands both genre and story — important when handling a film whose genre has been so well-established. G: KOTM feels like an attempt to update classic Godzilla movies from rubber-suited schlockfests into a Hollywood megabudget blockbuster while still retaining everything that made those movies so enduring. And for the most part, Dougherty and his co-creators succeed.

In some cases, spectacularly so! The hardest part of any giant monster movie is making you care about the giant monster fights. Sure, it’s fun to watch two enormous creatures pounding on each other and wrecking cities, but after a while it just becomes noise. It’s hard to get emotionally invested in Godzilla when he’s basically invulnerable. You need to get the people in there so you can worry about them. The Gamera: Guardian of the Universe trilogy from the 90s (probably still the best kaiju movies ever made) had a novel way of handling it: they had a young girl who was psychically linked to Gamera, so whenever Gamera took damage, she took damage as well. That added real stakes to the fights — you wanted Gamera to win, but also for the girl to not get hurt. In this case, they do a great job of putting the human protagonists literally underfoot as the colossi battle. Sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch to get them there. Still, the movie does a solid job of keeping the humans present and engaged for much of the action.

The humans are a bit thinly drawn, sure, but that’s pretty par for the course with these movies. They do a solid job of establishing what everyone wants and their personalities, so even though there are a few too many of them running around, you know who they are and what their deal is. Some of the plans are (very) silly, especially on the bad guy side — but you know what? They are no more silly than, say, the bad guys being aliens who pose as humans from the future to get people to go back in time to stop proto-Godzilla from getting hit with an atom bomb while at the same time leaving baby Ghidorah-lings to get hit instead so they can turn into King Ghidorah and allow the aliens to take over the earth in the future. THAT’S A REAL GODZILLA PLOT. FROM THE NINETIES. Like I said, context. It is a bit silly that one of the bad guy’s turns comes from SPOILER only wanting to have destroyed the Earth a little bit instead of all the way, but so be it. On this large a scale, it’s fine. Plus it perfectly illustrates its theme: history shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.

My favorite criticism I’ve seen in reviews is the “IT’S BIG AND LOUD AND INCOMPREHENSIBLE.” It’s 2019. Michael Bay innoculated us to this shit years ago. The CG is fine, if sometimes obvious (there are some definite rear-projection vibes when the humans are in the same shots as the monster battles). Dougherty stages the action to provide some iconic shots, and while I will grant some of the editing can make things confusing at times (especially during the Antarctica sequence), it’s certainly not difficult to follow the action most of the time. Yes, it is big and loud and strains scientific credibility. But who cares? It’s a giant monster movie. In the context of the genre, and specifically the Godzilla series, it’s a miracle that it keeps the story engaging for over two hours and provides lots and lots of motivated monster-on-monster action. Most of the classics don’t even do that. The old movies feature interminable human drama with a couple brawls until the last thirty minutes or so.

The dialogue is super cheesy, I’ll grant that.

Is Godzilla: King of the Monsters a great movie? Probably not. There are too many characters — none of whom are exactly great dramatic figures for the ages — and there’s a lot of heavy lifting to set up future installments of the franchise. Is it a great Godzilla movie? Hell yeah it is. It gives you everything you’d want from a huge budget kaiju movie — big time.

The Big Want

I’ve been thinking a lot about the craft of storytelling lately. No matter how long you’ve been doing it or how many stories you’ve written, there’s something about theory that’s endlessly fascinating. Lately, as I try to generate new material, it’s been on my mind.  I’m certainly no expert in the academics of it, but as someone who’s done his fair share of professional dramatic writing and talked to a lot of people who do the same, I think the whole shebang boils down to one thing:

Stories happen when somebody wants something but can’t have it.

Dramatic stories, at least. But there are very few stories that aren’t dramatic at heart — at least, not interesting ones. Even the Bible works that way, whether you believe in the theology or not. Why did God create the universe? There’s a reason for it, right? God didn’t just do it because it was told to do it, because who would tell God to do something before anything else existed? So God wanted something, and it didn’t have it, so it created the universe to get it. God went through all this stuff so it could get to its ultimate goal: humankind. Someone to talk to and command and mess with. God wanted to be entertained, God wanted company, so God created the Earth and everything on it. Boom. Story.

Of course, from there you need something to give the story some zing, some purpose. It’s usually strongest when the person can’t have what they want because somebody else has something they want but can’t have. You need conflict. You need an antagonist, a foil.

God creates Adam, but now Adam becomes a pain in the ass because he wants company. So God creates Eve. Now God has friends, but it doesn’t want to lose its new friends, so it tells them not to eat the apple. They want the apple, but they can’t have it. Enter a full-on opponent, the snake, that convinces her to do so. The snake wants to watch the world burn, basically. Adam and Eve get kicked out, so on knew so forth and begat somesuch, etc., leading to every other story because we all know that, when you start running out of story threads, you start introducing new characters that — everybody with me now — want something they can’t have.

There’s a reason the Bible stuck around: it’s chock full of solid storytelling. When you strip away all the setting and plot and theme and everything else, it boils down to people doing dumb shit because they want something they don’t have. It’s easy to lose sight of that. As long as you have that North Star of your character’s desire, you can always follow your character to wherever he needs to go. It can be something as insignificant as a child wanting a candy bar or as epic as Thanos wanting to murder half the universe. It’s often helpful to have a destination in mind, but sometimes (especially in serialized/franchise storytelling), it’s stronger not to. One of the most bone-dumb film genres illustrates that perfectly: the slasher movie.

Nobody’s ever going to claim those movies are narrative masterpieces. What makes the best ones work, however, are when you have really driven protagonists who can never achieve their goal. That protagonist is, of course, the killer. Jason Voorhees seeks vengeance for his torment and “death” at the hands of his counselors, but he can never get that satisfaction because they’re already dead. Same with Freddy Krueger — he wants revenge on the parents that burned him alive, but he can’t get to their dreams so he has to adapt by tormenting their children. Michael Myers wants to fill a hole inside himself that all the killing in the world won’t fill, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try. That’s why those characters are so indelible and lend themselves to sequel after sequel — they can pursue their goal endlessly and never cross that finish line.

That’s okay, though, because in a story, the finish line means character growth and that’s just something that’s never gonna happen for those characters. It’s why, in serialized TV, you gotta keep yanking the carrot away. Once they get the carrot, the show’s over. Unfortunately, the show being over doesn’t always correspond with the network deciding the show is over, which is usually when things start going downhill.

It’s also possible the audience won’t like what happens when the character finally gets the carrot they’ve fought so hard for. That fight changes them. In traditional three act storytelling, they no longer want the carrot because they’ve found what they need instead of what they want. That’s a discussion for another day, though (and a more complicated one).

In the meantime, if you’re struggling with a story problem, ask yourself: what does my character want, how do I stop them from getting it, and how do they get around that obstacle? Find your character’s North Star.

Cosplay Matters

I went to WonderCon in Anaheim this past weekend, and I was struck by something (besides the elbows of nerds rushing to see the Shazam! cast signing): the subtle way greater representation in media has changed cosplay for the better. It can’t be overstated just how much of a positive effect the depiction of characters of different ethnicities/genders/body shapes has had on people of those ethnicities/genders/body shapes. Representation matters, and seeing it take physical form at the con really struck home just how important it can be.

I know I’m a white dude, but even still, as a Jew, it’s not like there are a lot of badass Jewish dudes running around in your favorite books and movies. Magneto is a bad guy. Atticus Kodiak from the Greg Rucka novels is literally just a muscular version of Greg Rucka and I’m not gonna cosplay as a comic writer, no matter how much I love his work. I guess there’s the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing, but he’s, you know, made of rocks. Most action heroes are named Jack McIrishlastname, most male comic heroes are Christian. So I get it. It’s nice to have positive examples of someone with your background in media. And this year’s crop of cosplayers really demonstrated that.

I have nothing against “crossplay” or people transforming their favorite (usually white, male) characters into versions they can dress as. But there’s a specific, empowering feeling offered when you see someone similar to yourself on screen. It confirms that you exist, and you matter.

Black women dressed as Shuri and the other Dora Milaje, embracing Black Panther‘s depiction of women more badass than their male counterparts. Black teens suited up as Miles Morales. Spider-Gwens and Captain Marvels filled the floor. I saw Asian women as Gogo Tomago from Big Hero Six or D.Va from Overwatch. Samoan guys dressed (or undressed, as the case may be) as Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Kal Drogo. Queer comics fans had role models in the form of Midnighter, Iceman and Batwoman. There was a Middle Eastern kid dressed as Aladdin. Even middle-aged guys with pot bellies could go as Peter B. Parker.

She-Ra was the most prevalent one, however. A group of ethnically diverse, powerful young women in fun costumes that aren’t exploitative? No wonder nerdy girls flock to that franchise. Not just one token example, either — there’s someone for everyone, thanks to the show’s nuanced variety of skin tones and body types. Adora spoke to girls with more boyish figures; stockier girls could go as Glimmer; muscular women could dress as Scorpia. Frosta offers someone for indigenous girls; Catra could be Hispanic; I even saw an Asian woman dressed as Entrapta (although her floor-length hair seemed like a safety hazard). The show’s casually diverse cast allows viewers to see themselves in any number of its characters. It tells young women that it’s okay to be who you are, and it’s aimed at young women who are at an age where that’s important. It doesn’t expect them to conform to dumb societal standards.

And you know what? It didn’t mean there were any less Batmen or Deadpools. The representation just added to the mosaic. I’m skeptical of nerd culture as a rule. I’ve made fun of my share of shitty cosplay. Clearly, however, many people flock to it as an escape from their everyday lives and as a way to feel seen. It’s a big tent, and not only is there room for everyone, it makes for a much brighter, more enjoyable experience when you have people of different backgrounds in there with you. People love to see themselves in what they watch. They rush to fill those slots when they exist. It’s one thing to be told representation matters; it’s quite another to see just how readily that representation is embraced in the most colorful way possible.

A Cut Above

When I was a kid, I would get a new Mega Man game every year for my birthday. They cranked those things out once a year for a while. I’d wake up in the morning, open my present, stare at the bright blue box — and then have to go to my grandmother’s for the day. When you’re that young, a day seems like an eternity to have to wait to charge up your Mega Buster and deliver pelleted justice to evil robots.

Point is, I loved those games. I even daydreamed about one day getting to create a Mega Man cartoon series. That didn’t happen, but instead I got the next best thing — the chance to write an episode of Man of Action’s take on the character, Mega Man: Fully Charged. When I say it was a literal childhood dream come true, I’m not kidding. I can’t think the MOA guys — Steve Seagle, Joe Kelly, Duncan Rouleau, and Joe Casey — enough for the opportunity. Thanks also go out to Marcus Reinhart, A.J. Marchisello, and Rocco Pucillo for their contributions in the room.

As my first time in a writer’s room, watching the MOA guys break down the episode was a real crash course in episodic TV writing. As much as the internet trolls like to talk trash, they really know what they’re doing after story-editing hundreds of episodes of children’s animation. So not only did I get to live a childhood dream, I also got to hone my craft in the process. It was a real treat. I think my joy comes across in the episode, and, as a bonus, the final result is almost exactly the script I wrote (a surprising rarity in this field). I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Mega Man: A Cut Above

On Death (Not the Band)

My cousin died seven years ago. Age 31, no warning, just went to sleep and never woke up. She was just gone. No goodbyes, no resolutions, just an empty husk in a bed. My aunt found her; I can’t even imagine what that was like. We lived in different cities and fought a lot as kids — probably because we were too similar — but as adults we had grown closer and found a lot more common ground: board games, nerd shit, rebellion. Then one day I discovered our game of Scrabble on Facebook would forever go unfinished. I don’t think I’ve ever quite come to terms with it.

Today would have been her birthday.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. I don’t think it has anything to do with my cousin, since I didn’t realize it was even her birthday until her sister posted about it, but it’s been on my mind and I’m not sure why. I’m not sick or anything. I’m still relatively young and relatively healthy (although I could stand to improve my exercise regimen and diet, but who couldn’t?). Of course, none of that matters. Death could come at any time in any way. And then that’s it. You’re done. Game over. All your thoughts, experiences, emotions, a lifetime of knowledge — wiped away forever. The worst part? None of it really matters. You’re one of billions of people that have existed. You don’t matter, your thoughts don’t matter, your death doesn’t even matter. Even Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination doesn’t matter in the cosmic scale of things, and his demise sparked an entire world war. No matter how hard you try to leave a legacy, it’s all dust in the end.

It’s certainly a topic that has inspired many philosophers, artists, even entire religions. I have nothing interesting or new to add. I hadn’t even thought it about other than as an abstract concept until this week. We’re surrounded by death, constantly hearing about suicides and shootings and war casualties, watching TV shows and movies centered around the precursor or aftermath to the occurrence. And that’s just the humans — there’s an entire complicated ballet of mortality going on at the insect level. Of course, none of that matters to the actual dead person. They no longer have any skin in the game (and possibly no longer have any skin).

When you die, that’s it. There’s nothing. And nothing isn’t just blackness or a void — it’s a complete cessation of sensation and experience. We can imagine it, but it’s not something anyone can actually picture because it’s such an alien concept to our very way of being. Living is experiencing. Even if it’s clearing the mind for meditation purposes, you’re still there on some level. No wonder the afterlife is such an appealing concept for people to grab onto. You get to keep experiencing things forever without fear of death! In some ways, eternal torment in hell is more comforting than the idea that you just don’t exist any longer. You’ve spent your whole life existing. It’s hard to envision doing anything else. The closest we can come is sleep, and even then your brain is working in the background.

So much of being human revolves around our expiration date. We try to find ways to postpone it, cheat it, come back from it. Certainly a lot of literature explores those angles. It’s difficult not to wonder about it. After all, as long as you can wonder about it, that means you’re still alive. Maybe that means life is about collecting experiences and cramming as much into your skull as you can? Hell if I know. I’m not endorsing hedonism here, but it does seem like you may as well use it while you got it. No matter how shitty things get, there’s no way back from death. You only have this one body, this one brain, this one chance to absorb as much as you can from the universe. This is it.

The idea of dying is scary. But everyone dies. I’m starting to think the idea of not living — of wasting this precious time — may be worse.