HALLOWEEN (2018) – Jamie Lee Curtis Returns With a Vengeance, But Rest of Horror Flick Pretty Bad

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HALLOWEEN (2018)

The Jamie Lee Curtis story arc in HALLOWEEN (2018) is so good it almost saves the rest of the movie which sadly is rather— well, there’s no other way to say it, awful.

HALLOWEEN (2018) is the latest chapter in the Michael Myers saga, and before this film was released, I found myself shaking my head at the title. This is the eleventh film in the series and the third to be called HALLOWEEN. Granted, the second film entitled HALLOWEEN (2007) was Rob Zombie’s flawed reimagining of the original, but still, to call this movie HALLOWEEN seemed rather lazy.

However, when I saw the film’s trailer, which I really enjoyed, I decided to reserve judgement on the title because what I saw in the trailer looked so good.

HALLOWEEN (2018) completely ignores events in any of the sequels and re-imaginings and exists in a universe where only events from the original HALLOWEEN (1978) have occurred.

And so it has been forty years since Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) survived the brutal attack by masked killer Michael Myers on Halloween night, a night that saw three of her high school friends murdered. She has spent her remaining years dealing with the trauma, preparing for Myers’ eventual escape from the mental hospital, as she says here in the movie, so she can kill him.

And of course, Myers does escape and does return to Haddonfield, Illinois, to kill more teenagers on Halloween night, and to go after Laurie Strode once more, who after forty years of preparation, is more than up to the task of taking on the masked madman.

The best part of HALLOWEEN is the Laurie Strode story arc, and in fact it’s the only part of this sequel that’s worth watching. Her story is first-rate, as is Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance. It’s a shame the writers couldn’t come up with equally impressive stories for both Michael Myers and any of the other new characters.

But back to Laurie Strode. She’s agorophobic and lives in a secluded fortified compound. She’s estranged from her adult daughter Karen (Judy Greer), but she has a better relationship with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who’s now in high school and along with her friends are the new natural targets for Michael Myers. But even Allyson implores her grandmother to “get over it” and get on with her life.

But Laurie is wise not to, as Michael Myers returns to start another murder spree. The story told from Laurie’s perspective is completely believable, and her scenes where she takes on Myers are the best in the movie.

Jamie Lee Curtis is excellent here, and she pretty much alone saves this movie from being horrible.  She does this because the rest of the movie is pretty bad, and with Curtis’ effective performance and watchable storyline, things balance out.

So, why is the rest of the film so awful?

Let’s start with the Michael Myers character. If only the writers had spent as much care crafting Myers’ story as they did Laurie’s. His story here makes little sense. One of the biggest problems is the constant need by several characters in this movie to know more about Michael, in effect teasing the audience with their questions, and then the film gives us absolutely nothing for answers.

In John Carpenter’s original classic, we knew nothing about Michael Myers other than he was, as Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis constantly reminded us, “pure evil.” Myers was somehow for whatever reason the embodiment of evil. Not knowing more about him worked here because frankly it didn’t matter.

In the sequels, we learned all sorts of laughable reasons for his existence, from he was Laurie Strode’s brother to he was controlled by an evil cult going back to the time of the Druids. None of these plot points did the series or the character any favors. In short, there has never been a decent explanation for who Michael Myers was or what he did other than he was “death on two legs.”  And in Carpenter’s original movie this worked just fine.

Actually, the best explanation may have come in Rob Zombie’s 2007 reimagining, which revealed Michael’s traumatic childhood. What that flawed film failed to do however was connect the dots from bullied child to supernatural killer.

The problem with Myers in this new HALLOWEEN is that everyone and his grandmother keeps asking “what’s Michael Myers’ secret?” “What’s it like to be Michael Myers?” “Why won’t he talk?” And for answers, the film gives us nothing. If you’re going to give the audience nothing, don’t ask the questions!

That being said, I did enjoy how Michael Myers walked in this one, as he had a little more skip in his step—even at his advanced age!— than he did in the older films, where he would have lost a race to Kharis the Mummy!

The other huge problem with HALLOWEEN is the supporting characters are all for the most part, dreadful. It’s as if the writers spent all their time writing Laurie Strode and had nothing left in the tank for anyone else.

Judy Greer, a fine actress, who I’ve enjoyed in such films as CARRIE (2013), the recent PLANET OF THE APES movies and the ANT-MAN films, is wasted here in a whiny role as Laurie’s adult daughter Karen who criticizes her mom for obsessing over Michael Myers but herself can’t stop obsessing about her own childhood or lack thereof.

Newcomer Andi Matichak is okay as Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson, but it’s not really her story, and even though at times it seems as if she’s going to become a central character, she never really does.

I like Will Patton a lot and pretty much enjoy everything he does, and his performance here as Officer Hawkins is no exception.  Patton is very good as an officer facing his own demons, as we learn that he was one of the officers at the scene of the original 1978 Michael Myers murders.

But the writers botch this character as well, as he simply is not in this story enough to make an impact.

All of the teen characters are negligible and forgettable.

But the absolute worst character is Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) who is Myers’ current doctor and who calls himself a protegé of the deceased Dr. Loomis. Sartain’s motivations make no sense at all, and the plot twist involving his character is one of the most ridiculous plot points in the entire series. It’s awful.

The only other character who fares well is young Jibrail Nantambu who plays 10 year-old Julian who’s being babysat by Allyson’s friend Vicky (Virginia Gardner). Nantambu is only in a couple of scenes, but he steals them all, and is the only other lively part of this film other than Jamie Lee Curtis.  That being said, Virginia Gardner’s best scenes are the ones she shares with Nantambu.

Director David Gordon Green and Danny McBride wrote the deeply flawed screenplay. They get Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode right, but that’s all they get right. The other characters and the rest of the story is a mess.

The same can be said for Green’s direction.  Truth be told, I did enjoy all the scenes where he pays homage to the original HALLOWEEN. For example, the scene where Allyson sits in her high school class listening to a teacher— played by P.J. Soles, who played Laurie’s friend Lynda in the original—  drone on about fate is exactly like a similar scene in the original where Laurie sits in class listening to a similar lecture. Laurie looks out the window and see Michael Myers. Here, Allyson looks out the window and sees her grandmother.

Laurie falls from a balcony the same way Myers does at the end of the original, and likewise, just as Donald Pleasence’ Dr. Loomis looks down to see that Myers has disappeared, here, Myers looks down to see that Laurie has disappeared.

These scenes work well, However, the gas station scene which is supposed to pay homage to a similar scene from HALLOWEEN 4 – THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS (1988) simply comes off as too derivative.

And what’s with Myer’s obsession with wearing a garage mechanic’s uniform? He wore similar garb in the original because he happened to kill a random man for his clothes, but in the sequels he seemingly has to find a way to wear the same kind of clothes all the time. Rather silly when you think about it.

The film tries to make a big deal about Myer’s mask. Everyone in the movie wants to know: What is it about this particular mask that sets off Michael Myers? Again, the film offer no answers.

Green also doesn’t give the film any decent pacing or true scares. It simply plays like your standard— and oftentimes bad— slasher horror film, complete with characters making bone-headed decisions.

John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN was ripe with suspense, including a final twenty minutes which was sweat-inducing. There’s no such suspense here.

Speaking of John Carpenter, he’s credited once more with scoring the music, and that is certainly a plus. His HALLOWEEN theme has never sounded better.

HALLOWEEN (2018) is a mixed bag of trick or treats. I loved the Laurie Strode storyline and Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance, but the rest of the film isn’t any better than HALLOWEEN’s worst sequels.

Somewhere druids are celebrating.

—END—

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BABYSITTER (2017)

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Judah Lewis and Samara Weaving in THE BABYSITTER (2017)

I had so much fun watching THE BABYSITTER (2017) I almost watched it again immediately after finishing it.  It’s that good!

The best part of THE BABYSITTER is the script by Brian Duffield. It’s hilarious. Think SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) meets STRANGER THINGS (2016-present) with a sprinkling of 80s slasher horror.

THE BABYSITTER is the story of twelve year-old Cole Johnson (Judah Lewis) who like other middle schoolers is dealing with issues of self-confidence and bullying. But he has a super hot babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving), who is a very popular high school student. She treats him well, and they enjoy spending time together.

Cole’s friend and neighbor Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind) dares him to stay up and spy on Bee after he goes to bed, to see what she really does late at night, the implication being that she invites friends over and has wild parties. Curious, Cole does just that, and when a bunch of friends do come over, and he spies Bee making out with one of them, he smiles thinking he is going to watch a fun time, but when Bee suddenly drives two knives into another teen’s skull, Cole discovers that Bee and her friends have an entirely different agenda, and it involves a cult, a sacrifice, and the blood of a young boy— Cole’s.

THE BABYSITTER starts out fun and never lets up. As I said, the script by Brian Duffield is nonstop funny.  The dialogue is fresh and lively, full of pop culture references, and the characters of Cole and Bee are developed long before the horror elements kick in.

Add some very creative direction by McG and you have an instant winner. McG uses clever touches like superimposing words on the screen for comedic effect, first person camerawork, and during the film’s second half plenty of blood and gore. None of it is all that scary, but it is very entertaining. That being said, the initial murder scene with Bee and her first victim is rather jarring.

McG has directed a lot of movies, including the standard Kevin Costner actioner 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014) and the lowly regarded TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009), the one with Christian Bale and without Arnold, a film that in spite of its bad reputation I actually liked quite a bit. That being said, THE BABYSITTER is by far the best film I’ve seen that McG has directed.

It was filmed in 2015 and was intended to be a theatrical release until it was bought by Netflix for a 2017 release on its streaming service.  Like other Netflix originals, the colors are exceedingly bright and vibrant. There’s a clean, crisp, look to the film which goes a long way towards making it watchable.

I loved the cast.

The two leads are perfect. As Cole, Judah Lewis is a nice combination of dorky and heroic. He’s a middle schooler without self-confidence, but he’s a nice kid who’s more mature than he thinks he is. And later when it’s up to him to save the day, he’s more than up to the task.

Samara Weaving steals the show as Bee, the babysitter. Early on she’s the ultra cool and sexy babysitter who really treats Cole right and does well by him. But when she becomes the cult killer, she’s all vamp and evil, and she pulls off both sides of Bee with relative ease. She’s very convincing in the role.

Weaving was also in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) and the TV show ASH VS. EVIL DEAD (2015-16), and I’ve enjoyed her most of all here in THE BABYSISTTER.

The other reason THE BABYSITTER works so well is the chemistry between Judah Lewis and Samara Weaving. In spite of the humor, the film portrays a very real relationship between Cole and Bee. They really do like each other, and the emotions felt between the two of them later when things go south, are genuine and real. The story works as more than just a lighthearted farce because Cole loves Bee and feels betrayed by her. These feelings come out loud and clear, despite the film’s over the top style.

Lewis and Weaving are also helped by a strong supporting cast.

Robbie Amell has a field day as Max, the ultra handsome friend of Bee’s who wants nothing more to personally end Cole’s life. Hana Mae Lee and Bella Thorne round out the cult team, and both turn in strong performances.

Leslie Bibb and Ken Marino do a fine job as the cliché clueless and syrupy sweet parents, looking and acting like they walked off the set of FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986). Their performances work because it’s all played for laughs.

My second favorite performance in the film behind both Lewis and Weaving belongs to Emily Alyn Lind as Cole’s friend Melanie. She obviously has a crush on Cole, and her scenes with him are some of the best in the movie.

So, THE BABYSITTER is light and funny, but how does it hold up as a horror movie? Surprisingly well! The film doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore, and the humor never becomes dumbed down or stupid, and so it never detracts from the story, which ultimately is about a group of cult members who want to harvest the blood of a young teenager.

At least that’s the plot. The theme is much more in line with needing to stand up for oneself, which is something that Cole never does early on, but that all changes later on in the film.

But make no mistake.  This one is played for laughs, so don’t expect GET OUT (2017). That being said, the humor is so sharp and the script and direction so imaginative, you’d be hard-pressed not to totally love this movie.

I know I certainly did.  In fact, THE BABYSITTER is the most fun I’ve had watching a horror film in a long time. And while I’ve never encountered a babysitter like Bee, everything else about this story, in spite of its over the top humor, rings true.

This Halloween, as you’re heading out to a party or to a haunted house tour or to a night of just plain old trick or treating, make sure—even if you don’t have kids— you hire THE BABYSITTER.

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FIRST MAN (2018) – Serious, Somber Look at Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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first man

FIRST MAN (2018) tells the story of astronaut Neil  Armstrong, following his personal journey as he becomes the first human to step on the moon. It’s a journey that is as focused as it is somber, and the film does an outstanding job capturing this mood.

The film also presents a raw and honest look at NASA. Don’t expect the crowd-pleasing heroics of Ed Harris and company in Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13 (1995). NASA here is more often portrayed as a group of scientists so caught up in the speed of the space race that they often pushed ahead without fully knowing what they were doing, at a great cost, as human lives were lost.

Regardless, Neil Armstrong is shown here, in spite of his own personal demons, believing the space mission was indeed worth the cost. FIRST MAN is not a knock on NASA. It’s simply an honest look at the space program in the 1960s.

When FIRST MAN opens, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the failing health of their very young daughter, who has developed a tumor. She dies shortly thereafter, and it’s a loss that stays with Armstrong throughout the course of this story. His somber mood sets the tone for the entire film. He cannot get over the loss of his daughter, and he struggles to deal with it. He sees her in his mind’s eye constantly. Yet, we learn as the story moves forward, that Armstrong keeps his daughter’s memory close to his heart and uses it as a focal point to drive him forward on his quest to reach the moon. It makes for some very effective storytelling.

Which is pretty much the plot of the entire movie, the quest for NASA to reach the moon before the Soviet Union does, as experienced by both Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet, who throughout the whole process is the rock which keeps her family together.

As such, FIRST MAN works on a much more personal level than a broad history lesson on the moon mission.

FIRST MAN was directed by Damien Chazelle, his first film since he won the Best Director Oscar for LA LA LAND (2016), a film I liked a lot, so much so that it was my favorite movie from 2016.

With FIRST MAN., Chazelle is as focused on Neil Armstrong as Armstrong is on the mission. At times, this focus proves to be almost claustrophobic, as sometimes I wished Chazelle would just pull back a bit and look at the space mission through a broader lens, but that clearly wasn’t his purpose here.

This is Armstrong’s story from beginning to end, one he shares with his wife Janet, who is every bit as important to the story as her husband. Indeed, the strongest scene in the movie doesn’t take place in space at all but inside the Armstrong home. It’s the night before Neil is leaving for the moon mission, and Janet confronts him about wanting to leave without saying goodbye to his sons. The scene at the table where he has to admit to his young sons that he may not be coming back is by far the most powerful scene in the movie.

The film also does well with its moon mission scenes. The most cinematic scene in the film is the lunar module’s approach to the moon’s surface. It’s a magnificent scene and an example of movie-making at its finest. It truly captures the moment of what it must have been like for human beings to actually see the moon up close and then actually set foot upon it.

It’s no surprise that the somber screenplay of FIRST MAN, based on the book by James R. Hansen, was written by Josh Singer, the man who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015). That screenplay won Singer an Oscar.

Singer’s screenplay here for FIRST MAN reminded me a lot of his screenplay for SPOTLIGHT. Whereas it was the subject matter in SPOTLIGHT that was bleak, here in FIRST MAN it’s Neil Armstrong’s broken heart. He is devastated over the loss of his daughter, and he refuses to forget her. He uses her memory to drive himself forward towards the moon. It is not a happy journey. Of course, we know from history that the end of this journey is a happy one, as Armstrong made it to the moon and did indeed become the first man to step onto the moon’s surface. And in this movie, the moment also allows him to find closure with his daughter.

The screenplay also does an excellent job showing NASA as a human organization rather than one occupied by superhuman scientists and engineers. There are nonstop flaws and setbacks, and astronauts lose their lives in the process. In another of the film’s best scenes, NASA scientist Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tries to assure Janet that Neil is going to be fine, that they have things under control. She quickly lashes out at him, saying, You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  It’s a painfully poignant moment.

And yet as I said, this is not a movie that bashes the space program. The tone is prevalent throughout that the entire mission to the moon was worth the cost. FIRST MAN is simply an honest look at these costs.

Ryan Gosling is one of my favorite actors working today, and as expected, he does a fine job here as Neil Armstrong. He nails Armstrong’s focus throughout, and plays him like a grieving introvert who oftentimes shuns away both his family and friends. He needs to deal with his grief alone. Yet, Gosling is careful never to paint Armstrong as a jerk. For instance, he does not come off like a jackass when he ignores his family but rather like one who is truly struggling with a personal lost, and when he is pressed by his wife to step up for his family, he doesn’t lash out at her. He quietly acquiesces.

Some may think this is a one note performance by Gosling, as he seems to be stuck in this sad mood throughout, and while this may be true, he does effectively capture Armstrong’s pain and resolve.

That being said, Claire Foye I think gives the best performance in the film as Janet Armstrong. She certainly displays the most range, from loving caring wife, to frustrated mother, to the incredibly strong woman who has to go above and beyond to not only keep her husband focused but NASA honest about what they are doing with her husband. Foye is more than up to the task. Better yet, she shares almost the same amount of screen time as Gosling. She’s no supporting love interest. Janet is a prominent character here.

I haven’t seen much of Foye. She’s done a lot of TV work, and she was the best part of the weak thriller UNSANE (2018) earlier this year. She played the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s silly thriller, notable because it was shot entirely on an iPhone.

The supporting cast is excellent.  Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, and Ciaran Hinds all make solid contributions, as do a bunch of others. It’s well-acted throughout.

There’s also a powerful music score by Justin Hurwitz, which is no surprise, since he also composed the music for LA LA LAND and WHIPLASH (2014).

I didn’t absolutely love FIRST MAN. First of all, by design, it’s not a happy movie. In fact, it’s so downright mournful that I almost had a headache by the time it was over.

There are also times when the pace slows a bit. I wouldn’t call the film uneven because these moments are few and far between, but they are they nonetheless.

The film does end on a strong note, with the successful moon landing. In fact, the phrase “The Eagle has landed” has never sounded better, not since Armstrong said it for real.

History remembers that Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on the moon, and it’s easy to accept that moment as it was captured in the grainy TV footage from 1969.

FIRST MAN fleshes out Armstrong’s story, presents it not as a black and white image but in high-definition clarity, and by doing so reveals that the human side to Armstrong’s story is every bit as important and relevant as the scientific side.

In short, Neil Armstrong was a real person with real fears, problems, and pains, and in spite of these things which we humans all face, he didn’t let them get the best of him but instead in his own quiet way used them to propel him to the moon.

—END—

 

VENOM (2018) -Tom Hardy Carries Lighthearted Superhero Flick

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Venom

VENOM (2018), the latest Marvel superhero movie, stars Tom Hardy and is a fairly entertaining superhero flick even if it doesn’t always play out like one.

It’s not for a lack of trying, with its witty one-liners and slick action scenes, but at the end of the day this tale of a man dealing with a symbiotic alien life form known as Venom feels more like a 1980s John Carpenter or David Cronenberg movie, only not as dark.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative TV news reporter, and for his latest assignment he’s been asked to interview the controversial scientist and businessman Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) but it’s supposed to be a soft interview. No difficult questions. But Eddie isn’t having it, because he believes Drake is a bad man, and so he takes off the kids’ gloves and asks Drake the tough questions. As a result, Drake cuts the interview short.

Not only that, but the next thing he knows, Eddie is fired, his girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams) breaks off their engagement and leaves him, and he pretty much hits rock bottom. But his instincts about Drake were right. He is a bad man. He’s been conducting experiments with alien life forms that need human hosts to survive. Trouble is, the human hosts keep dying, and Drake keeps bringing in more and more unknowing “host” people who continue to die.

When Eddie decides to investigate Drake’s lab, he finds himself face to face with one of these life forms, and for reasons not clearly explained, when it enters Eddie’s body, unlike so many other hosts, he doesn’t die.

This life form is Venom, and it turns out he doesn’t like Drake all that much either, and so he and Eddie work together to take down the villainous scientist.

Yup, it’s all kinda stupid when you think about it, so don’t think about it too much.

The best part of VENOM is clearly Tom Hardy. He pretty much carries the first half of the  movie, which can be slow at times, and he does this by making Eddie less a jerk and more a lovable loser. Hardy also provides the voice of Venom, and  when the two join forces in the film’s second half, things are far more entertaining.

Where does this stack up among Tom Hardy performances? Well, truth be told, I liked Hardy better as Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) and as Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). And I enjoyed him more in THE REVENANT (2015) and DUNKIRK (2017), so it’s not the most amazing role he’s ever taken, but that doesn’t mean he’s not very good here. He is.

I’m also a big fan of Michelle Williams, but sadly her role here as Eddie’s love interest Anne isn’t much of a role.

Riz Ahmed is okay as the villainous Carlton Drake, but like so many other Marvel movie villains before him, he’s rather boring. As good as these Marvel movies have been, the majority of them haven’t had villains who have been on par with the heroes. Ahmed was much more memorable as Bodhi Rook in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

I did enjoy Reid Scott as Anne’s new boyfriend Dr. Dan Lewis. He wasn’t the typical cliché annoying new boyfriend. In fact, he likes Eddie a lot, having been a fan of his TV work.

And Jenny Slate is also up to par as Dr. Dora Skirth, one of Drake’s scientists who develops a conscience.

VENOM was directed by Ruben Fleischer, and he does an okay job.  The look of the film is dark and edgy, yet the tone and the script are light and funny. It’s an odd mixture at times.

Part of this, I think, is that VENOM was originally going to be an R rated superhero movie, but plans changed and it was released as a PG-13 vehicle. It may have worked better as more of an adult tale.

The action scenes are okay, but none of them blew me away, and the special effects which created Venom were also just okay.  Nothing here really stood out, other than Hardy’s performance.

Fleischer also directed ZOMBIELAND (2009), a zombie horror comedy that had more bite— heh heh— than VENOM, as well as GANGSTER SQUAD 2013), a good-looking gangster film which ultimately didn’t have much of an impact.

The screenplay by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel mixes goofy humor with its darker tale and the result as you might expect is a mixed bag. It also leaves some key points unexplained, like why Eddie doesn’t die once Venom enters his body. Also, Venom says he likes Eddie because back on his home planet he was kind of a loser as well, which is a funny line, but the trouble is Venom doesn’t really act like much of a loser here, so that revelation didn’t exactly ring true for me.

All this being said, I had fun watching VENOM and was glad I went to see it.

Where does it rank with the recent Marvel films? Well, clearly it’s not as good as the Marvel heavyweights which came out earlier this year, BLACK PANTHER (2018) and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018). Nor is it on the same level as DEADPOOL (2016).

But for what it is, a lighthearted superhero caper starring Tom Hardy, it does what it sets out to do. It entertains.

As long as you’re not expecting comic book genius, you should enjoy it just fine.

—END—

 

A STAR IS BORN (2018) – Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga Sizzle in Remake

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a star is born 2018

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A STAR IS BORN (2018).

If A STAR IS BORN (2018) is anything, it’s a showcase for its two performers, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, who share strong chemistry throughout and lift this film at times to something quite special.

It also happens to be a remake.

A third remake, to be exact.

And so originality is definitely lacking. I’ve seen this story told three times before, in 1937 starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, in 1954 with James Mason and Judy Garland, and in 1976 with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand. As good as this new version of A STAR IS BORN is, and it is very good, it really can’t get over the fact that it’s telling the same story the fourth time around.

Famed musician and performer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) while riding high on the celebrity charts is struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. One night, after a show, he visits a bar and happens to catch the performance of a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga). Jack is instantly impressed, and he basically asks her out on the spot. She initially says no, but Jack persists, and Ally gives in and agrees to go on a date with him.

They hit it off immediately, and Jack encourages Ally to pursue her songwriting career. In fact, one night at one of his concerts, he invites Ally on stage to sing with him, and the rest is history. Ally makes a big splash, and as her career is born and takes off, Jack continues to struggle with his addictions, leading the two, in spite of their romantic relationship, on opposite life journeys.

So, there’s the story, and if you’ve seen any of the previous film versions, it’s one you’re familiar with.  Now, I liked this 2018 version of A STAR IS BORN, but I would have liked it even more had I not known exactly what was going to happen.

The best part of this new A STAR IS BORN is the performances by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. They are completely believable in their roles and as I said they do share tremendous chemistry onscreen. It’s not an exaggeration to say the two sizzle as a couple, which makes their characters’ ultimate fate all the more tragic.

Cooper, who is also making his directorial debut here—more on that in a bit— is excellent as Jackson Maine. For starters, I believe he did his own singing and guitar playing here, which is pretty awesome, considering how good he sounds. He makes Jack an authentic music star. And he’s likable. When he’s on top of his game, he’s generous enough to help Ally get started and more so he falls completely in love with her.

As Jack’s addictions grow worse, Cooper makes his pain so palpable you almost feel as if you’re drinking too much along with him.

Jack tells Ally that success is fleeting, and the world is full of talented people, but the ones who make it are the ones who have something to say, and he advises her to tell the truth, because truth is what compels audiences to show up. It’s perfect advice and reflects one of the secrets to good writing: keep it truthful. This theme resonates throughout the movie.

Lady Gaga is just as good if not better than Cooper. At first, she shows us Ally’s vulnerabilities and her lack of self-confidence, which is one of the reasons she’s so hesitant at first to spend time with Jack, as she fears he may only want to take advantage of her. But she soon realizes that’s not the case.

And of course, once she starts singing, being Lady Gaga, her voice takes on a life of its own and obviously makes her newfound fame completely credible. More impressive, though, aside from her singing, is that she shows off some first-class acting chops. I liked Ally and wanted to see her succeed, and more so, I was pulling for Ally’s and Jack’s relationship to succeed as well.

It’s also not lost on me that there is an added layer to this movie regarding the real life performers. We have Bradley Cooper, an actor, playing a famous singer, and Lady Gaga, a famous singer, making her acting debut, playing a newcomer to the entertainment scene.  As I watched their early scenes together, where Jack advises Ally how to handle her music career, I couldn’t help but think it’s Lady Gaga who knows the ins and outs of the music industry, and in reality she’s the one who could be doing the advising.

As I said, A STAR IS BORN is Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, and it’s a strong one.  His work behind the camera shows that he’s a good storyteller, as the film conveys its emotions at all the right places.  The story moves at a decent pace with the possible exception of the third act which drags a bit.

Cooper also wrote the screenplay along with Eric Roth and Will Fetters. Roth has a ton of writing credits, including FORREST GUMP 1994).

A STAR IS BORN also features a strong supporting cast. Sam Elliott, in spite of the fact that sometimes his muttering is difficult to understand, does a fine job as Jack’s older brother and some-time manager Bobby. The two share some emotional scenes together, in particular one where Jack says some pretty hurtful things to his older brother, and later, the opposite, where Jack tells Bobby the truth about how he has always looked up to him.

Andrew Dice Clay gives a nice subdued performance as Ally’s dad Lorenzo. And Dave Chapelle enjoys some key scenes as Jack’s buddy George “Noodles” Stone.

Overall, I liked A STAR IS BORN, mostly because I really enjoyed watching Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga together on screen. The film also has something to say about success, the entertainment industry, and alcohol and drug addiction.

However, I would have liked it more had I not known exactly how this ill-fated love story was going to end.

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HELL FEST (2018) – Horror Movie Gets Better As It Goes Along

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Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James, Reign Edwards, and Amy Forsyth in HELL FEST (2018).

HELL FEST (2018) is one of those rare horror movies that actually gets better as it goes along.

And that’s a good thing, because it didn’t get off to such a hot start. In fact, after a lackluster opening sequence which could have appeared in countless other slasher films, I thought that this was going to be a pretty bad horror movie.

I was wrong.

HELL FEST opens at a Halloween attraction where a young woman is murdered by a man in a mask who’s obviously taking his job of scaring people a little too seriously. Of course, he’s not working there at all.  He just snuck in, and no one notices him because it’s a Halloween attraction and all the employees are wearing masks. As opening sequences go, this one is as derivative as they get.

The action switches to a couple of years later where we meet a group of college students on their way for some Halloween fun at Hell Fest, a horror-themed amusement park. Of course, our masked friend from the movie’s first scene is also planning to be there.

The characters here include Natalie (Amy Forsyth), Brooke (Reign Edwards), Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), Quinn (Christian James), Asher (Matt Mercurio), and Gavin (Roby Attal). Natalie and Brooke are best friends, and Brooke is trying to set Natalie up with Gavin, but she doesn’t have to work too hard because they hit it off immediately.

Too bad for them they choose Hell Fest for their first date.

After its initial ho-hum opening, HELL FEST continues its sloppy start with the introduction of its main characters. All of these folks seemed like they had ten cups of coffee each, and there’s so much excitement about going to Hell Fest, these college kids act like toddlers on Christmas morning. It just didn’t seem all that real to me.

The dialogue didn’t help either. There was just something off about the film’s early scenes. The script gave us lines that didn’t seem real, the way people today talk, and the direction was choppy.

I also had an issue with the look of the film. I’m guessing this was done on purpose, but HELL FEST looked like a 1980s slasher pic, in particular Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE (1981). But this movie isn’t taking place in the 1980s. It’s taking place in the here and now.

Moreover, the characters didn’t exactly look like college students here in 2018. They looked like 1980s college students. I found this to be rather distracting early on.

Now, the actual amusement park, Hell Fest, was pretty cool.  I’ve never been to a Halloween attraction as elaborate as this one, but I thought, well, if this film remains bad, then at least I can enjoy all the horror elements from the amusement park. And this really is a plus for this movie. It doesn’t take place in a house, haunted or not, and we don’t have to suffer through long boring scenes where characters walk alone in dark corridors looking for trouble. The Hell Fest setting really helps.

But then a funny thing happened. The movie actually gets better and becomes a decent horror flick.

The moment this occurs is when Natalie meets the masked killer in one of the haunted attractions, and he’s got a victim pinned to the floor, and of course Natalie and her friends all believe this is just part of the show. Natalie, who’s into this less than her friends, has been trying to make herself more resilient and less scared, and so when her friends exit the room, she remains to watch. The killer has the knife pointed at his victim, and finally Natalie says “Just do it, already. You’re here to scare me.” And he does. He stabs her to death in front of Natalie.

The expression on Natalie’s face when she realizes that what she has just seen looks real is one of the best moments in the movie. Amy Forsyth who plays Natalie doesn’t play this scene in a clichéd manner, where she suddenly screams outright. No. The camera lingers on her face, and it’s one of those moments where she’s so good an actress that the audience knows exactly what she’s thinking and feeling.  She goes from confidence to suspicion to anger to uncertainty to fear. It’s a great moment. And the movie never looks back. It takes off from that scene and keeps on going.

There are plenty of well-done horror scenes. Gavin’s encounter with the killer is a good one, as is a memorable sequence involving a guillotine. There’s also a very suspenseful scene in which Natalie wears a mask to hide, and another bit where she’s trapped in the rest room by the killer.  The ending is not half bad either.

The film also put a nice spin on the jump scare trope. Pretty much all the jump scares in this one are from the masked employees at the amusement park, and so they all work. The filmmakers use them here very effectively, as they are caused by people who are supposed to be causing them. The real horror here, the killer, operates outside the jump scare scope.

And the very ending of this one is a welcomed improvement over “the killer is dead but then leaps back up at the camera” routine. I liked how this one ended. It achieves the same result, setting up possible sequels, without the traditional way of doing it.

I thought Amy Forsyth was superb as Natalie. The best part of her performance is she makes the character her own. She’s not a traditional “scream queen” constantly running away screaming, nor is she the traditional “bad ass heroine.” She’s someone in between.  She plays it as the thinking person’s heroine. A lot of thought goes into her actions, and she’s one of the smarter characters to take on a masked serial killer.

Likewise, Reign Edwards is excellent as her best friend Brooke, who early on acts all bad ass, but later becomes so incapacitated by fear it’s up to Natalie to save the day.  Bex Taylor-Klaus is fun as Taylor, the quirky loud and abrasive friend. Both Christian James and Matt Mercurio as Quinn and Asher make for stand-up boyfriends, and Roby Attal as Gavin shares a natural chemistry with Amy Forsyth’s Natalie and so their romance came off as likable and real.

Michael Tourek is believable in a brief role as a security guard, and has one of the more memorable lines in the movie, when he tells the girls he can’t help them since they weren’t harmed, and that it’s just the employees doing their job. He says rather dismissively,  “You’re scared? Welcome to Hell Fest.”

And Tony Todd plays the masked killer. Todd has some experience in this department, years ago having played  The Candyman in CANDYMAN (1992). He really doesn’t have to do all that much here other than walk around and look scary.

The actual mask used in this movie is indeed rather creepy, and I certainly liked the look.

Director Gregory Plotkin stumbles to get out of the gate with some unconvincing and awkward early scenes, but he more than makes up for it with some effective horror scenes in the film’s second half.

The screenplay by Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper also struggles early on. The initial dialogue between the main characters came off as forced and phony, but once the horror elements settle in, the script, like the direction, improves.

I also really enjoyed the music score by Bear McCreary, who also does the music for TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

HELL FEST certainly hearkens back to the slasher films of yesteryear, especially from the 1980s. In fact, this one looks a lot like a 1980s slasher flick, which at times distracted me because it looked more like the 80s than 2018.

Which also got me to thinking. Forty years ago, when I first saw the slasher film that really got these films started, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), I was 14, and subsequent films continued to be from my generation. But now here we are in 2018, and the main college age characters in this film are actually from my sons’ generation.

And so I got to thinking, and this is one of the things that rubbed me the wrong way early on with HELL FEST, that forty years have passed, and characters from 2018 shouldn’t be acting the way characters acted in 1978, which in effect, was the way they were acting in this film. I remember clearly as a teenager watching films on TV like THE BLOB (1958) which had teens from my parents’ generation, and teens from the 1950s definitely were different from teens from the 1970s.

Forty years is a long time to be dealing with movie serial killers without bringing anything new to the table. Horror films like HELL FEST need to do a better job of bringing their characters into the here and now.

Which brings me to the worst part of HELL FEST: it’s a slasher movie. There’s only so much one can do with this trope.

But the best part of HELL FEST is that in spite of this, it has a talented group of young actors, led by Amy Forsyth in the lead role, and it does make full use of its horror elements, and so once this one gets started, about midway through, it really becomes a decent horror movie. Sure, we’ve seen all this before, and we’ve seen it done better, but we’ve also seen it done a lot worse.

Is HELL FEST as ambitious as GET OUT (2017) or A QUIET PLACE (2018)? No. But it’s certainly a fun horror movie, and with Halloween on its way, you can’t ask for much more than that.

 

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE OBLONG BOX (1969)

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This one is a reprint from September 2010, originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association:

 

IN THE SPOOKGLIGHT

By

Michael Arruda

 

Vincent Price made a career playing over-the-top hammy dramatic characters in colorful period pieces in the 1960s.  He’s at it again in THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a film in which he is paired with Christopher Lee.

THE OBLONG BOX is loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name—very loosely, as in just borrowing the title!

The story begins in Africa, with Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) tortured by natives, his face apparently scarred beyond recognition. Markham’s brother Sir Julian Markham (Vincent Price) arrives too late to save him.

They return to England, with Sir Edward now a crazed lunatic. Sir Julian is forced to keep his brother locked in chains in an upstairs bedroom of their mansion.  With the help of a family friend Samuel Trench (Peter Arne), Edward plans his escape.  They hire an African witch doctor to supply Edward with a drug to imitate death.  The plan is for Edward to be removed from the house as a “corpse” only to be revived and rescued later by Trench.

However, Julian immediately seals Edward’s lifeless body inside a coffin and unknowingly buries his brother alive. Trench decides rescuing Edward from a premature burial is too dangerous and out of the question, and so he leaves him for dead.

Meanwhile, Dr. Neuhartt (Christopher Lee) has been paying grave robbers to supply him with bodies for his research. As luck would have it, his grave robbers dig up Edward. When Neuhartt opens the coffin inside his laboratory, Edward attacks him but doesn’t kill him, deciding he could use the doctor as an accomplice.

Edward then dons a crimson hood and seeks revenge against both Trench and his brother, going on a bloody rampage through the countryside, slitting the throats of his victims. Eventually, Julian discovers his brother is still alive, setting the stage for the final confrontation between brothers, as well as the obligatory unmasking of Edward’s hideous face.

THE OBLONG BOX has long been considered too long, too slow, and too rambling by critics, but I’ve always liked its intricate plot with its many pathways.   It takes the viewer along a very creepy ride, with premature burials, African voodoo, a masked maniac, and bloody murders.

THE OBLONG BOX was supposed to have been directed by Michael Reeves, the talented young director who had just finished another Price movie, THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) [also known as THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL), a film that had been very well received. Sadly, Reeves died before he could direct THE OBLONG BOX, and so the directing duties went to Gordon Hessler.

A lot has been made of Hessler’s lackluster direction of this picture, and I would have to agree. In spite of its strong story, there really aren’t a lot of memorable scenes in THE OBLONG BOX.  On the contrary, there are a lot of weak scenes. The bloody killings are tepid and the blood obviously fake, and the final confrontation between Edward and Julian is also a disappointment, as well as the unmasking scene.  The make-up job on Edward’s face is embarrassingly routine. Still, Hessler can direct.  Five years later, he would be at the helm of THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), one of the best of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies.

The acting is just OK. With Vincent Price, you get exactly what you would expect, an over-the-top hammy performance. As always, he’s fun to watch.  Christopher Lee is cast against type as the decent Dr. Neuhartt, but sadly, there’s not a lot for him to do with this role.

Alister Williamson is a disappointment as Sir Edward Markham.  As the main villain, Edward should dominate this movie. He doesn’t. Had Christopher Lee played Edward, THE OBLONG BOX would have been a much better movie. Of course, I can understand Lee not always wanting to play the bad guy. Trouble is, he’s just so damned good at it! I wish he had played the role.

Speaking of bad guys, probably the most memorable performance in THE OBLONG BOX belongs to Peter Arne as Samuel Trench. Trench is the slimiest character in this movie, and Arne plays him to the hilt.

But the most disappointing part of this movie is that in spite of the pairing of the two horror superstars, Price and Lee only share one brief scene together. Rip-off!

And the final nail in the coffin— heh, heh— regarding THE OBLONG BOX is that its ending doesn’t make any sense. It’s one of those endings where you see it and you know it was shot just to have a shocking last scene, even though based upon what has happened before, it makes little or no sense.

But even with all these flaws, I still like THE OBLONG BOX, for the simple reason that I love its plot, an exciting roller coaster ride of frights and thrills.  The screenplay was written by Lawrence Huntington, with additional dialogue by Christopher Wicking.

THE OBLONG BOX is an example of a movie that succeeds because of the strength of its writing. The direction is fair and the acting okay, but it’s the writing that lifts this one to memorable status, which is a rare thing in movies, a medium dominated by directors and actors.

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