LIFE (2017)- Science Fiction Thriller Pretty Lifeless

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life-movie-poster

Life.

A great name for a breakfast cereal.  Works for the board game, too.

But for a science fiction horror movie?  Not so much.

And the title is the least of this movie’s problems.

LIFE (2017) takes place aboard a space station where six astronauts make the remarkable discovery of the first extraterrestrial life form, and this occurs before the opening credits. This life form starts off as a single cell organism but quickly grows, and the next thing the scientists know, the thing escapes, and it’s none too friendly.

Hmm.  A deadly alien creature loose aboard a space station terrorizing its occupants? Sound familiar?  Of course it does!  And while it would be unfair to completely dismiss this movie as a straight clone of ALIEN (1979), because there are differences— LIFE takes place on a space station orbiting Earth, while ALIEN took place on a space ship in deep space, for instance— it’s similar enough to draw comparisons, which doesn’t do it any favors since LIFE is vastly inferior to ALIEN.

So, this deadly organism which is both incredibly strong and smart, sets its sights on picking off the crew one by one.  The crew see it as their mission to either destroy the creature or at the very least, make sure it never makes it to Earth.  Easier said than done. And just why is this creature killing people?  Well, according to the scientists, it’s not because it hates people, but because it’s simply trying to survive.  It also has the nasty habit of entering people’s bodies, and when it exits after killing the person, it’s bigger, so I can only guess that it’s consuming the person’s innards, although this is never made clear in the movie.  Perhaps it’s killing people because it fears for its own life, although it became aggressive first before it was ever attacked.  Of course, it might have simply seen humans as a threat.  Or perhaps it just likes to kill.  Why am I offering all these guesses?  Because the film never really says.

One of the reasons I wasn’t all that excited about LIFE was I had seen the trailer multiple times and it seemed to give away a lot of the movie and it also made it seem like a dull clone of the movie ALIEN.  So, I felt somewhat optimistic when about 2/3 of what was shown in the movie’s trailer occurs in the opening moments of the movie, before the opening credits.  I thought, maybe there are some decent surprises ahead.

Alas, the only surprise was that a certain prominent cast member didn’t survive in this movie for very long.

The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick doesn’t create any memorable or interesting characters, nor does it provide for a compelling story.  We hardly get to know any of the characters, and when their lives were in danger, I simply didn’t care all that much.

The idea of finding the first extraterrestrial life form isn’t handled with any sense of grandness or awe, and the actual creature didn’t impress me, either.  Unlike the Alien in ALIEN, we learn very little about this creature.  It looks okay, but it’s hardly terrifying.

The film also really struggles to build any decent suspense.  Late in the movie, when all hell is breaking loose, we get to see Jake Gyllenhaal’s character deal with his fear by reading the children’s book Goodnight, Moon.  Oooh, scary!

Reese and Wernick are the guys who wrote the screenplay for DEADPOOL (2016) and ZOMBIELAND (2009), two films I liked a lot.  But they also wrote G.I. JOE:  RETALIATION (2013), a film I didn’t like.  Where does LIFE fall?  Let’s put it this way.  LIFE is no DEADPOOL.

The cast is largely wasted because none of their characters are developed.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays astronaut David Jordan, and he’s probably the character we learn the most about.  For instance, we learn that he’s about to break the record for the most days spent in space by a person, and we learn that he prefers it in space, as he is rather disillusioned with the world below.  Yet, unlike another disillusioned astronaut, George Taylor (Charlton Heston) from the classic movie PLANET OF THE APES (1968), David Jordan doesn’t get to have his beliefs challenged by a society more barbaric than the one he left behind, nor does he even get to be in the forefront of his own movie.  He’s just one of the six on board the space station, going through the motions of being chased by an alien.

The other lead belongs to Rebecca Ferguson who plays astronaut Miranda North, and she’s pretty much in charge of security.  It’s not one of Miranda’s better days.  We learn very little about this character, and Ferguson doesn’t really get to do much with the role.

The other big name in the film is Ryan Reynolds, and he plays Rory Adams.  Likewise, his talents are also largely wasted in a very underdeveloped character.  Rounding out the cast of space station astronauts are Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Murakami, Olga Dihovichnaya as Ekaterina Golovkina, and Ariyon Bakare as Hugh Derry.  Their roles are pretty much cardboard cutouts of scared astronauts on board a space station terrorized by a deadly alien.

LIFE was directed by Daniel Espinosa, who also directed the action film SAFE HOUSE (2012) starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, another film I wasn’t all that crazy about.  LIFE is very similar in terms of quality: it’s okay, but at the end of the day it’s nothing all that special.

The opening shot in LIFE of the space station emerging from the darkness just outside Earth’s orbit is a good one and is probably the most cinematic shot of the whole film.  If only there were more shots like this.

The scenes of suspense and horror just aren’t all that intense, and I really didn’t find LIFE scary at all.  Part of the problem here is the alien creature really isn’t very frightening.  And none of the astronauts’ deaths are all that horrific, save for one, and even this scene pales in comparison to say the alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in ALIEN.

The pacing is off, and I found the film rather slow.  As the movie went along, the suspense sadly did not build.  Like I said, in a key moment near the end, Jake Gyllenhaal’s David Jordan pulls out Goodnight Moon and starts reading.  It’s supposed to be a poignant and terrifying moment, but I took it for what it was:  main character reads from a children’s book when frightened by the alien monster. Imagine if in PLANET OF THE APES Charlton Heston, rather than screaming, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” quoted Mother Goose. Something tells me it just wouldn’t have been the same.

LIFE is a mediocre science fiction horror movie.  It’s not all that awe-inspiring, so don’t expect anything deep like ARRIVAL (2016), and it’s certainly not all that scary, so don’t expect ALIEN.  Instead, in terms of quality,  it reminded me of another flawed science fiction film which came out last year, PASSENGERS (2016) with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, only LIFE has an extra passenger, a murderous alien life form.  Not that it matters much.  LIFE is just as dull as PASSENGERS was.

Yup, at the end of the day, LIFE is pretty lifeless.

—END—

 

 

 

SHOCK SCENES: KING KONG APPEARS! (2017)

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I wrote the following column in 2015, in which we looked at King Kong’s entrance scenes in the various King Kong movies.  Well, here in 2017, we’ve just had another Kong movie, KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017).  And so, here’s an updated version of this column to include KONG:  SKULL ISLAND.

—Michael

 

SHOCK SCENES:  KING KONG APPEARS!king kong 1933 poster

By Michael Arruda

Welcome back to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at memorable scenes in horror movie history.

Up today is the big guy himself, King Kong.  With apologies to Godzilla, King Kong is the baddest monster on the planet.  Sure, Godzilla is known as the King of the Monsters, and he’s been in more movies than Kong, but Kong is King as well, and the one time they squared off in a movie, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), it was Kong who emerged victorious.

Today we’ll be focusing on King Kong’s entrance scenes, the scenes in his movies where he first makes his dramatic appearance.  We will concentrate mostly on the original KING KONG (1933) and its two remakes, but we will also look at the Japanese films and the awful KING KONG LIVES (1986).

KING KONG (1933) is the classic giant monster movie, one of the most exciting and well-made monster movies of all time.  It has aged remarkably well and still appeals to modern audiences.  The film is chock full of classic scenes, and Kong’s first entrance is no exception.

It starts when the Natives on Skull Island abduct Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and bring her back to the island where they plan to offer her as a bride for Kong.  With Max Steiner’s memorable music blaring, the Natives lead Ann beyond the great wall where they tie her up so she can await the arrival of Kong.

With the beats of a gong, the Natives summon their king, and moments later, he arrives.  First we hear his roar— the special effects department used a lion’s roar played backwards and at a lower speed for this effect— and then as he knocks a tree over, Kong makes his appearance, and we see Willis O’Brien’s remarkable stop-motion animation effects as Kong breaks through the trees and descends upon Ann.

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

We then see a close-up of his monstrous face, which was in reality a huge model of his head built by O’Brien’s special effects team.

As first entrances go, it’s a classic.  It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like for movie audiences back in 1933 seeing Kong for the first time.  It must have been awesome and frightening.

The special effects here work so well.  To see Kong standing there, with Ann Darrow, with the great wall behind her and the Natives standing on top of the wall, and it all looking so real, is truly astonishing.

KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) is a silly movie that is only notable for pitting these two legendary monsters together in one film.  Since Kong died at the end of the original KING KONG (1933) falling from the Empire State Building in probably the movie’s most enduring image, there really couldn’t be any sequels.  There was SON OF KONG (1933) which featured a younger cute and cuddly Kong Jr., but that was it.  There were plans for a Kong prequel of sorts, a story which would have taken place in the middle of the action in KING KONG, which would have been built around a storyline of the adventures of Carl Denham and the crew of the Venture on their way back to New York City with King Kong in tow on a raft, an adventure that would have seen Denham and company and Kong face off against a new threat, but that project never got off the ground.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

So decades passed before Toho, the Japanese movie studio which brought Godzilla to the world, secured the rights for the Kong character and made KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Kong’s first entrance in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA isn’t memorable at all.  We hear his roar first, and then suddenly he’s there, showing up at the Natives’ village to fight off a giant octopus.  Toho always used the man-in-suit method to create their giant monsters, and their Kong suit in this movie has to be the worst looking King Kong of all time.

KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) is yet another silly Toho movie, supposedly made to tie-in with the 1960s animated TV series KING KONG.  It certainly plays like a Saturday morning cartoon, which is the complete opposite of the original KING KONG which was much more akin to the relentless ferocity of JAWS (1975).  That being said, I have to confess, I like both Toho King Kong movies.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Still, KING KONG ESCAPES has nothing to offer in terms of Kong’s first appearance.  On Kong’s island a dinosaur shows up and scares young Susan (Linda Miller).  When she screams, the camera cuts away to a close-up of Kong’s face.  His eyes are closed.  He opens them to reveal eyes that look like they belong on a Sesame Street Muppet.  We then see him sitting in a cave.  He quickly gets up and races to the scene to protect the young woman from the dinosaur.  What a gentleman!

KING KONG (1976) the incredibly hyped remake by producer Dino De Laurentiis was a box office bomb and panned by both fans and critics alike.  It’s a pretty bad movie, but in spite of this, surprisingly, it does enjoy a few fine moments.  Kong’s initial entrance is one of them.  In fact, it’s so good that I’d argue that of all Kong’s entrances, it might be the best!  It’s certainly the only part of this 1976 film that even comes close to equaling anything done in the 1933 original.

This time, it’s Jessica Lange who’s captured and tied up as the Natives summon Kong.  I actually love the way director John Guillermin conceived this sequence.  We see trees being knocked over from Kong’s point of view, and we first see Kong through close-ups of his face, and it’s the best most authentic looking face to date, thanks to the incredible make-up of Rick Baker.  We see Kong’s eyes as he marches through the trees towards Jessica Lange.  Close-up, Kong looks as menacing as he’s ever looked on film.  It’s a thrilling sequence, probably the most original and thrilling part of this 1976 flick.

Kong's looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

Kong’s looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

It’s also helped along by John Barry’s music score, which as a whole, I don’t like at all.  But in this scene, it’s probably Barry’s best moment.

At this moment in the movie, the film truly captures the awe of King Kong.  The build-up—audiences hadn’t seen a serious Kong since the 1933 original, the anticipation, is wonderfully captured in this sequence.  And when the camera pulls back, and we see Kong’s entire body for the first time, Rick Baker in his ape suit, he’s awesome to behold, and when he roars, the film nails King Kong at this moment perhaps more effectively than any other moment in any other King Kong movie.

And then— it’s all downhill from there.

It’s amazing how quickly and how far this movie falls after this scene, which is the story for another article.   A lot of it is the silly script, but most of it is the special effects which to me has always been the main reason this 1976 film failed.  Rick Baker’s ape suit looks fine, and in terms of how he looks, he blows the Toho Kongs out of the water, but at the end of the day, it’s still a man-in-a-suit which has never ever been a completely satisfying way to make a giant monster.  The hype for the 1976 KING KONG was all about the giant mechanical robot of Kong that was built and was supposed to be the main special effect in this film, but a not-so-funny thing happened:  it never worked. It appears in two brief scenes in this film for a mere few seconds.

But Kong’s first entrance in this 1976 film— priceless.

 

KING KONG LIVES! (1986) is the horrible sequel to KING KONG (1976) that is believe it or not even worse than the 1976 film.  In this one, scientists bring Kong back to life after his fall from the World Trade Center so the first time we see Kong in this one he’s a patient in a laboratory.  Not very exciting.  Neither is this movie.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KING KONG (2005) is Peter Jackson’s homage to the 1933 original.  Jackson’s obviously a fan of the original Kong, and this was clearly a labor of love, but strangely, it’s a very uneven movie.  The scenes on Skull Island are exceptional and make this one worth watching for these scenes alone, but surrounding these scenes is a dull opening in New York City, and the climax which also takes place in New York also doesn’t really work.  Kong and Ann share a romantic moment in Central Park?  Seriously?

Now while I love the Skull Island scenes, I’m not so hot on Kong’s first entrance.  Why?  Because it’s oddly all very undramatic!  It’s Naomi Watts who’s abducted for Kong this time, and when Kong appears, he just sort of shows up, coming out of the jungle swinging his arms and roaring.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and it plays much closer to the mundane first appearances in the Toho movies than the well-crafted and dramatic entrances in the 1933 and 1976 versions, making it yet another contribution to the reasons why the 2005 version is an uneven movie.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017) was just released a week ago, and while many fans are instantly calling this the best Kong flm since the 1933 original, I was only lukewarm on it.  I found the script rather stupid, the characters dull and not developed to any degree of satisfaction, and Kong himself, while looking fine, rather boring.

Kong in this movie is probably the least satisfying Kong in any of the movies for the simple reason he has zero personality.  In the other movies, Kong showed a wide range of emotions, from anger to rage to ferocity to even tenderness, but here, he’s just a slow moving enormous creature who fights monsters and humans.  Blah.

There are actually two entrance scenes here for Kong.  The first is a teaser, in the opening moments of the film, which takes place during World War II.  Both an American and Japanese pilot crash land on Skull Island, and they quickly become involved in hand to hand combat, when suddenly King Kong appears.  We see his giant hand, and they see him.

Kong’s official first appearance comes later in the movie, which now takes place in 1973, as military helicopters carrying the scientific expedition to Skull Island suddenly encounter Kong who introduces himself to the copters by hurling trees at them.

Kong-Skull-Island-Kong

Kong battles helicopters in KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017)

This scene had the potential to be awesome, but the full effect of this first entrance is never as cinematic as it should have been.  Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts seemed satisfied to film this as a routine war scene as opposed to a larger-than-life Kong-makes-his-first-appearance scene.  Too bad.

Like the entire movie, Kong’s first entrance in KONG: SKULL ISLAND falls short of expectations and never rises above standard giant monster fare.

 

You can’t really argue that any other Kong movie is actually better than the 1933 original KING KONG.  It simply hasn’t been surpassed yet.

However, I can and will argue that in terms of first appearances, if any other film challenges Kong’s first entrance, surprisingly, it’s the 1976 version of KING KONG that does this.  Director John Guillermin pulls out all stops and creates an impressive and thrilling first Kong scene, combined with John Barry’s effective music—the only moment in the film where his music works—, as well as Rick Baker’s amazing make-up, makes this moment as good as Kong’s opening moment in the 1933 film, and way better than similar scenes in any of the other Kong movies, which is saying something, since the rest of the 1976 film is so bad.

So there you have it.  A look at King Kong’s first entrances in the KING KONG movies.

Hope you enjoyed today’s SHOCK SCENES.  I’ll see you again next time when I look at more classic scenes from other classic horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

Kong Battles A Weak Script in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

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kong-skull-island-poster-

King Kong is back!

And while he’s still king when it comes to defendindg Skull Island from giant monsters and aggressive humans, he’s not so adept at overcoming a bad script.

KONG:  SKULL ISLAND is a new King Kong movie, produced by the same folks who made GODZILLA (2014), the one with Bryan Cranston.  As such, it’s not a sequel to Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005), but as most everyone knows by now, a new story to set up a future King Kong vs. Godzilla bash which is scheduled for release in 2020, which is why Kong has been taking steroids.

Yup, in this movie, Kong is huge!  Whereas in the Peter Jackson movie, Kong stood at 25 feet tall, here in KONG:  SKULL ISLAND Mr. Kong stands at a towering 104 feet tall.  The 25 feet tall is comparable to Kong’s height in the original 1933 film, and the tallest Kong appeared in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) where he stood at 147 feet.

For reasons I’m not sure I understand, KONG:  SKULL ISLAND takes place in 1973, just as the Vietnam War comes to a close.  Scientist and adventurer Bill Randa (John Goodman) asks for and receives—why?— federal funding to lead an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific in search of giant monsters.  He also asks for and receives a military escort, led by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s still smarting over the way the Vietnam War ended, for as Packard says, “we didn’t lose the war.  We abandoned it.”

Also going along for the journey are professional tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), as well as various other military folks and scientists who are just as under-developed as these main characters.

When they get to Skull Island, it doesn’t take them long to encounter Kong who quickly makes short work of them, downing their helicopters and killing most of them.  Those who survive find themselves scattered on the island, but they know of a rendezvous point where more helicopters are scheduled to arrive to pick them up, and so they know if they can get there, they can be rescued.

Of course, Kong and the other giant creatures on the island have other ideas.

While I wouldn’t call KONG:SKULL ISLAND the worst Kong movie ever made— that distinction still belongs to the utterly horrible KING KONG LIVES (1986)— it’s certainly one of the stupidest Kong films ever.  What a ridiculously inane story!

First of all, it’s not a new story at all.  While technically not a remake of the original Kong tale, it basically tells the same story:  a group of people travel to an uncharted island in search of something monstrous that supposedly lives there.  It’s the same exact story, only without the Fay Wray character.  This is the best the writers could do?

Don’t be fooled.  KONG:  SKULL ISLAND is not an original tale.  It’s just another origin story, and we’ve already had plenty of those.  They’ve been called KING KONG. Sure, here it’s been altered to fit into a Vietnam era tale, but these alterations only make things more ridiculous.

I’m not really sure why there is a Vietnam connection.  It’s obvious from the film’s poster that the filmmakers are going for an APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) connection.  And while there’s plenty of cool 1970s songs on the soundtrack, along with wise cracking soldiers, none of it really works.  It all just feels out-of-place.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does the film no favors with a choppy style that is more reminiscent of TOP GUN (1986) than APOCALYPSE NOW.  Like TOP GUN, there are lots of characters  who we never really get to know, often shown in brief music video-style clips which serves as a substitute for genuine character development.

The screenplay by three writers with considerable screen credits—Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly is pretty bad. It’s chock full of awful dialogue, and the only reason folks like John Goodman and Tom Hiddleston say their lines with straight faces is because they’re really good actors.  And the story is a snooze.  It’s an origin story disguised as monster movie/war movie hybrid, and it just doesn’t work.  Gilroy wrote NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), Borenstein co-wrote GODZILLA (2014), and Connolly co-wrote JURASSIC WORLD (2015).  KONG: SKULL ISLAND is not their best work.

Back in 1976, critics made fun of the fact that in the 1976 remake of KING KONG, Kong walked upright like a man, which was a clear departure from the way he walked in both the original 1933 classic and in the ensuing Japanese Toho productions.  Kong was a giant ape and was supposed to walk like an ape.  To be honest, I never had a problem with Kong walking upright in the 1976 version, as it is an interpretation which suggests that Kong is not just a giant ape but a different creature altogether.  This interpretation makes Kong more monstrous.

I bring this up because here in KONG:  SKULL ISLAND Kong once again walks upright.  I don’t have a problem with this.  However, I do have problems with Kong in this movie.

While Kong looks fine, he has to be the most boring King Kong ever to appear in a movie.  In every Kong movie, even the Toho films, Kong has a personality.  He is a definite presence in the film.  He has no personality here.  In KONG:  SKULL ISLAND, Kong is nothing more than a slow-walking giant who battles both humans and monsters and that’s it.  Not that I’m arguing that every Kong movie has to be a love story between Kong and a woman, because that’s not what I’m talking about.  In other films, Kong has been angry, Kong has been heroic, and Kong’s has been ruthless.  It’s these emotions which have set Kong apart from other giant monsters in the movies, and while Kong goes through the motions in this movie, I never felt these emotions at all.

It’s one of my least favorite Kong interpretations of all time.

One thing the movie does have going for it is it is full of good actors, and so you cannot argue that the acting is bad here.  In fact, the acting in spite of the silly script, is one of the film’s best parts.

Tom Hiddleston, who plays the villain Loki in the MARVEL superhero movies, a character I have never liked, is very good here as hero tracker James Conrad, in spite of the laughable dialogue he has to say.   The same can be said for John Goodman, who plays adventurer Bill Randa, a sort of Carl Denham character— in fact, the clothes he wears in this movie are an homage to the clothes Denham wore in the 1933 original film—and who has to say even worse dialogue.

Brie Larson also does a fine job with Mason Weaver, although like every one else in the movie, her character is way under developed.  Samuel L. Jackson probably fares the worst, because in addition to his lousy dialogue, his military character is strictly cliché, the type of character who always seems to show up in a giant monster movie, the military officer who takes out his misplaced frustrations on the giant monster, vowing to kill the creature at all costs.  Blah, blah, blah.

The most interesting character in the film is Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) a World War II pilot who was shot down during the war and has been living on Skull Island ever since when he is discovered by the folks in this movie.  Reilly has a field day with the role, and he has all of the best lines in the movie.

In fact, the story of KONG:  SKULL ISLAND is really the story of Hank Marlow.  The film begins with him being shot down, and the entire story arc in the movie which goes all the way into the end credits follows his tale, not Kong’s, which would have been okay, had I bought a ticket to see HANK MARLOW:  SKULL ISLAND.

Surprisingly, there are not any dinosaurs on Skull Island, this time around, but there are plenty of giant creatures.  Some work, others don’t.  I liked the giant spider and the bird creatures, but Kong’s main adversary in this film, giant reptilian creatures which come out from underneath the ground, did not work for me.  I thought they looked really silly.

The giant spider is an homage to the giant spider in the pit scene from the original KING KONG (1933) which was cut upon release, lost, and has remained missing ever since.  Kong’s fight with a giant octopus is also an homage to a similar scene in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962).

There is an after-credit scene, but I didn’t stay for it.  I had had enough by the film’s end.

KONG:  SKULL ISLAND isn’t really all that intense.  In fact, you can make the argument that the 1933 original KING KONG is a far more intense film than this 2017 edition.

I love King Kong and I’m a huge fan of the King Kong movies, both the good and the bad, and so I can’t say that I hated KONG:  SKULL ISLAND. I just thought it was really stupid, and I didn’t particularly like the interpretation of Kong in this movie.  The actors all do a good job, but they’re in a story that doesn’t help them at all.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND is certainly one of the weaker films in the KONG canon.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

IN THE SHADOWS: TORIN THATCHER

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torin-thatcher

Torin Thatcher as the evil magician Sokurah in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at the career of character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Today IN THE SHADOWS it’s Torin Thatcher, a character actor known mostly for his villainous roles.  I remember him most for his outstanding portrayal of the evil magician Sokurah in the classic fantasy film THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) which also features some of Ray Harryhausen’s best stop-motion special effects.

And when you watch a movie featuring Ray Harryhausen’s special effects, it’s usually those effects that you remember, not the actors in the film.  This is true with THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, with the exception of Torin Thatcher.  His work in 7TH VOYAGE is so strong you remember the magician Sokurah just as vividly as you do Harryhausen’s fantastic creatures.

Before he become an actor, Torin Thatcher was a school teacher.  How cool would that have been?  To have Sokurah the Magician as your teacher.  But seriously, I can only imagine how powerfully effective he must have been standing in a classroom teaching students.

Here now is a partial list of Torin Thatcher’s 150 film and TV credits:

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (1927) – Solanio – Torin Thatcher’s first movie credit as Solanio in this silent short adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.

NORAH O’NEALE (1934) – Dr. Hackey – Thatcher’s first screen credit in a feature-length movie.  Early drama starring Lester Matthews, known to horror fans for his work in WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) and the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi classic THE RAVEN (1935).

SABOTEUR (1942) – uncredited appearance in this classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946) – Bentley Drummle – small role in the classic David Lean version of the Charles Dickens tale starring John Mills, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson who played Elizabeth in the Boris Karloff classic THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), and future Hammer Films stars from THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) Martita Hunt and Freda Jackson.

THE FALLEN IDOL (1948) – Policeman – Plays a policeman in this classic mystery from director Carol Reed (Oliver Reed’s uncle) with a script by Graham Greene.

THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1952) – Humble Bellows – Swashbuckling pirate adventure starring Burt Lancaster and directed by Robert Siodmak, the director of SON OF DRACULA (1943).  Also memorable for featuring a young Christopher Lee in a supporting role.

THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO (1952) – Johnson – classic drama starring Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner, and Leo G. Carroll.

THE DESERT RATS (1953) – Col. Barney White – Robert Wise-directed war movie starring Richard Burton and James Mason.

THE ROBE (1953) – Sen. Gallio – Biblical tale  of Roman tribune with a conscience starring Richard Burton and Michael Rennie.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) – Mr. Myers – Billy Wilder-directed Agatha Christie tale starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester.  Also features veteran character actor Una O’Connor, also from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933).

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) – Sokurah the Magician – My favorite all-time Torin Thatcher role.  This classic fantasy adventures features some of Ray Harryhausen’s best special effects ever.  Who can ever forget his giant Cyclops?  In addition, it also features a rousing Bernard Herrmann score, one of my favorites.  The third outstanding element of this movie is Torin Thatcher’s performance as Sokurah.  It’s a rare occurrence indeed in a Ray Harryhausen movie for anything to be as memorable as his creature effects, but Torin Thatcher achieves this feat.  He’s just as memorable in this film as Harryhausen’s effects.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS (1957-59) – Constable Johnson – “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” (1957)/ Felix Edward Manbridge – “Relative Value” – appearances in two episodes of the classic Alfred Hitchcock TV series.

THRILLER (1961) – Jeremy Teal – “Well of Doom” – appearance in the classic horror anthology TV show hosted by Boris Karloff.

JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962) – Pendragon – Once again playing the villain in a fantasy adventure.  Thatcher is reunited with 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD director Nathan Juran and lead actor Kerwin Matthews who played Sinbad in 7TH VOYAGE and plays Jack here, but missing this time around is Ray Harryhausen and his fantastic creatures, resulting in inferior special effects.

GET SMART (1966) – Dr. Braam – “All In the Mind” (1966) – appearance in the classic Mel Brooks TV series starring Don Adams as Secret Agent Maxwell Smart and Barbara Feldon as Agent 99.

LOST IN SPACE (1966) – The Space Trader- “The Space Trader” (1966)- plays a villain in this Season 1 episode of the Irwin Allen science fiction adventure TV show.  Trades with the Robinson family, takes advantage of Dr. Smith’s greed and makes him his slave, only to be eventually outsmarted by the Robinson Robot.  Way to go, bubble headed booby!

STAR TREK (1967) – Marplon- “The Return of the Archons” (1967) – appearance in this Season 1 episode of the classic TV series chronicling the adventures of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy aboard the starship Enterprise.

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1968) – Sir John Turnbull – TV movie version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale, produced by Dan Curtis, the man behind DARK SHADOWS and THE NIGHT STALKER (1971).  Starring Jack Palance as a very sinister Mr. Hyde.

LAND OF THE GIANTS (1970) – Dr. Berger – “Nightmare” (1970) – appearance in this Irwin Allen fantasy TV show.

NIGHT GALLERY ( 1971) – Captain of the Lusitania – “Lone Survivor” (1971) – appearance in the horror anthology series by Rod Serling.

BRENDA STARR ( 1976) – Lassiter- Torin Thatcher’s last screen credit is in this TV movie adventure involving extortion, voodoo, and the supernatural.  Starring Jill St. John.

Thatcher passed away on March 4, 1981 at the age of 76 from cancer.

Torin Thatcher – January 15, 1905 – March 4, 1981.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of IN THE SHADOWS.  Join me next time when we look at the career of another classic character actor.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GREAT WALL (2017) – Colorful Adventure Fantasy Held Back by Fake Looking Monsters

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THE GREAT WALL (2017) is certainly a good-looking monster movie.

The costumes, the colors, the photography are all vibrant and stunning.  Yup, everything looks good in this new Matt Damon action/fantasy flick except for one thing:  the monsters.  And since this is a monster movie, that’s a problem.

In the distant past, a group of European mercenaries travelling in China in search of “magical” black powder that creates fire find themselves exhausted and weak.  One night, they are attacked by some unseen creatures.  One of the mercenaries, William (Matt Damon) manages to chop off one of the creature’s hands. The creatures flee, but only William and one other man Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survive the attack.

William and Tovar continue onward but are soon captured by a massive army and brought into a fortress behind a great wall. The authorities there are most interested in the severed hand in William’s possession, and at first they do not believe the story that William killed one of the creatures on his own, but soon they discover he has a magnet, which they believe can be used to render the creature harmless.

The fortress is soon attacked by a horde of vicious reptilian creatures.  After a brutal battle, the creatures eventually retreat.  William and Tovar meet another European man, Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who tells them he’s been a prisoner there for many years, as the Chinese refuse to let anyone leave.  Ballard tells them that he knows where they keep the black powder, and if they work together, they can steal the powder and escape.

However, during his time inside the Great Wall, William becomes friends with the leader of the army, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and he finds himself growing more interested in helping her fight the creatures than stealing the black powder.  When the creatures assemble to attack one last time, William has to decide whether or not he’s going to try to escape or remain and fight.

Hmm.  Take the black powder which you’ve travelled half-way across the world to get, or stay and fight an army of vicious creatures and most likely die.  It seems like an easy choice to me, but in this movie, well, that’s one of the ways the film doesn’t succeed.  I didn’t believe for one second that William, this supposedly cold-hearted mercenary, would be moved to help Lin Mae so easily.

But visually, THE GREAT WALL is a real treat.  The costumes for all the different factions of the Chinese army are eye-poppingly colorful, and the photography is rich and resonant. The film looks terrific.

However, as I said at the outset, the monsters do not.  They’re not awful.  In fact, they are actually quite cool looking.  The problem is although they are cool looking, they also look fake. The CGI here looks cartoonish, and the result are creatures that are not scary at all.   The scenes where we see thousands of these creatures racing towards the wall and then ascending the wall look particularly bad.

The story is so-so.  The idea of monsters attacking the Great Wall of China is a good one, although it’s not handled here in a way that made it all that believable.  The reason the creatures are attacking, as explained in a legend, is adequate, but the actual story is little more than an excuse to feature one battle after another.  The whole mercenary storyline is somewhat interesting, made better by Matt Damon’s presence.

Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay.  I’m guessing the lively contemporary dialogue comes from Gilroy, as he wrote the BOURNE movies, and he’s also one of the writers who worked on ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

The cast is decent.

I like Matt Damon a lot, and his presence here only helps the movie. He also shares decent chemistry with Tian Jing.  However, Damon did seem a bit old for the part.  A younger protagonist would have made things more believable, especially later on when William takes part in lots of ridiculous over-the-top action sequences.

Tian Ling is also very good as Commander Lin Mae.  And while she and Damon do work well together, again, had Damon been younger, their attraction to each other would have been more believable.

Pedro Pascal has the thankless job of playing the dutiful sidekick, and pretty much everything he says in this movie is a sidekick cliché.  Willem Dafoe is largely wasted here, without a whole lot to do, although his character does go out with a bang.

Director Yimou Zhang does a nice job with the visuals but struggles with the intensity later in the movie.  The film gets off to a rousing start, and there’s a lot of energy early on, but once the creatures attack, the film goes down several notches because the attacking monsters do not look real.  As such, the action sequences never rise above average.

Also, for a movie called THE GREAT WALL that has as its centerpiece the Great Wall of China, the wall itself hardly factors into the story at all.  Oh, battles occur on either side of it and on top of it, but I didn’t really get a sense of the actual structure.  There’s no sense of awe or vastness about it or even interesting historical tidbits.  It’s just part of the CGI landscape, a place where the army fights the monsters. The audience is never invited to go in for a closer look at the Great Wall.  It’s a missed opportunity to make this film something memorable.

THE GREAT WALL is not a bad adventure movie at all, and with an OK script and Matt Damon in the cast, it’s actually better than it should be, as Damon and his fellow actors rise above the lackluster monster effects.

At the end of the day, it’s a decent adventure fantasy.

It’s just not— great.

—END–

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972)

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For a monster born more than 50 years ago, Godzilla may be more relevant now than ever before.

The movies just keep on coming.  The latest Godzilla movie arrived last year with SHIN GODZILLA (2016) to a limited release here in the U.S., and it received some pretty good reviews.  And there is another film in the works, GODZILLA:  KING OF MONSTERS, due out in 2019, from the same folks who made the Bryan Cranston GODZILLA (2014).  All told, there have been 31 Godzilla movies to date, and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping any time soon.

But today’s movie comes from that time when Godzilla was a silly monster superhero, constantly saving the world from the evil and bad monsters.  Silly stuff for sure, but also the type of Godzilla movie that a lot of us grew up with.

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT it’s one of my favorite Godzilla movies from the 1970s, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972).

This one sat on the shelf for a few years before being released in the U.S. in 1978 with the title GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND.  It was supposed to be a return to the traditional Godzilla format, after the offbeat message-driven GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971),  a film I did not enjoy as a kid, but it’s one that has definitely grown on me over the years.

In GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, aliens from outer space are once again trying to take over the Earth, and they employ space monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah to help them.  To defend the Earth, humankind turns to their giant monster friends Godzilla and Anguirus for help.

And defend the Earth they do, in one of the series’ better and longer climactic monster bashes.  And there you have it.  That’s pretty much GODZILLA VS. GIGAN in a nutshell.  What did you expect?  Shakespeare?

I find GODZILLA VS. GIGAN particularly enjoyable for two reasons.  The biggest reason is the aforementioned climactic battle.  It’s one of the best in the series.  That being said, in terms of monsters, this one gets off to a slow start, and it seemingly takes forever for Godzilla and Anguirus to show up, but once they do, nearly the final third of the movie is one long and rather exciting giant monster bout.

The other fun thing about GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is its human characters.  While the space villains are your typical bad guy types, the heroes in this one seem to have stepped out of a Scooby Doo cartoon.  They’re young and they’re hip.  Groovy, man!  We have a young cartoonist who draws monsters, a young woman looking for her kidnapped brother, and her male friend, a classic hippie who can’t seem to stop eating corn on the cob.  I guess Scooby snacks weren’t available. These three provide lots of light-hearted fun during the people parts of this monster flick.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is also the film famous for being the movie where Godzilla actually talks!  Yep, words come out of Godzilla’s mouth as he talks to his buddy Anguirus. It’s a ridiculously silly scene, and Godzilla and Anguirus sound like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.  It’s awful.

The good news is, we live in the age of DVDs and Blu-ray, and these discs often include the original Japanese versions as well.  So, you can watch the original Japanese version in which Godzilla and Anguirus do not talk.  Oh, they communicate, but through sounds rather than words, and it’s very obvious that they are communicating.  Unfortunately, the American distributors didn’t think their Godzilla audiences were intelligent enough to figure this out, and so they added the ridiculous English language dubbing.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN was directed by Jun Fukuda, no stranger to the Godzilla franchise, as he directed five movies in the series. In addition to GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966), SON OF GODZILLA (1967), GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974) were all helmed by Fukuda.

Shin’ichi Sekizawa wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Takeshi Kimura. Kimura wrote the screenplays to some of my favorite Toho movies, including RODAN (1956), THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), and KING KONG ESCAPES (1967).

Are there better Godzilla movies?  Certainly!  But in terms of fun Godzilla movies, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN ranks near the top.

Of course, the big question for Godzilla fans is, how does Godzilla fare in this one?  Well, truth be told, it’s not one of the big guy’s better performances.  The costume looks rather silly here, and it does take Godzilla forever to finally show up and take on Gigan and King Ghidorah.  There really isn’t a good balance here of Godzilla scenes.  It’s pretty much all or nothing, with the “all” coming in the film’s final  30 minutes or so.  But the climactic battle is worth the wait.

Plus, Godzilla’s goofy appearance kinda fits in with the rest of the movie, a 1970s romp.  You almost expect to see Cheech and Chong show up.  It would actually make a nice companion piece with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972).

Want a cure for the winter blues?  Watch GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and see Godzilla and Anguirus take on Gigan and King Ghidorah in an all-out monster bash.  It’s a sure-fire way to smash out the cold weather doldrums.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Horror Movies 2016

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Elle Fanning in  THE NEON DEMON (2016)

Here are my picks for the BEST HORROR MOVIES of 2016.

First off, I have to say that unlike a lot of other folks, I wasn’t overly impressed with the line-up of horror movies that came out in 2016.  For the most part, I was disappointed.

For example, while many people loved THE WITCH, I was lukewarm on it.  I loved its style and how well it captured the period it portrayed, but I was let down by its ending which I found much less compelling than the rest of the movie.  As such, THE WITCH did not make my BEST OF LIST.

THE BOY was kinda the opposite.  It was a rather silly horror movie that didn’t really go over big with fans and critics, but I found it entertaining and rather decent.  But again, not good enough to make my BEST OF LIST.

Similarly, LIGHTS OUT had its moments, but not enough of them to make the list.

Without further hesitation, here are my picks for the TOP 5 HORROR MOVIES of 2016:

 

5. DON’T BREATHE – The best part of DON’T BREATHE was its premise.  Three young thieves in economically depressed Detroit break into a blind man’s home in what they view as an easy heist, but they are oh-so-wrong when their “victim” turns out to be an ex-military who in spite of his blindness is a very deadly foe.

First half is better than the second half, which deteriorates into standard horror fare.

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4.  10 CLOVERFIELD LANE- Not really a sequel to the J.J. Abrams produced and Matt Reeves’ directed giant monster masterpiece CLOVERFIELD (2008), but it takes place in the same “universe.”  A lot of people really loved this one.  I didn’t love it, but I found it decent and respectable and much better than the huge crop of awful horror movies that traditionally flood mainstream theaters.

Dan Trachtenberg provides tight direction, and strong performances by John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead lend support to this tense tale about a woman abducted and held prisoner in an underground bunker, while her seemingly deranged captors try to convince her that the world above is no longer there, destroyed by some unknown apocalypse.

This one is claustrophobic and will have you on the edge of your seat.  Even so, I expected more and was somewhat disappointed by the film’s conclusion.

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3. HUSH – This one I didn’t see at the theater but on Netflix Streaming, and it’s a fine example of a weird trend these days where higher quality horror movies for whatever reason don’t enjoy wide theatrical releases.  Many of the horror films released to the theaters are terrible, and oftentimes you’ll catch a film on a streaming service and it’s terrific, and you wonder why it didn’t get a wide theatrical release.  Weird.  This seems to happen a lot.

Anyway, HUSH is a very suspenseful tale about an insane killer armed with a crossbow stalking a deaf woman who lives alone in the middle of the woods.  This deaf woman also happens to be a very successful author, and in one of the film’s more enjoyable moments, uses her skills as a writer, specifically the way she constructs plots, to form a plan to fight back against her attacker.

Entertaining, violent, and well-made horror movie by writer/director Mike Flanagan.

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2. THE SHALLOWS- This shark movie was probably my favorite horror movie of the year, even though I list it here as number 2, and that’s because while this may have been a guilty pleasure, it’s not my pick for the best horror movie of the year.

Anyway, while THE SHALLOWS isn’t JAWS, this shark tale starring Blake Lively as a surfer who finds herself attacked and then trapped by a great white shark a mere 200 yards off the shore of a desolate beach is one taut tight little thriller.  With it’s brief 86 minute running time, this one bites you right away and never lets go.  Beautifully photographed by director Jaume Collet-Serra, known more for his Liam Neeson action movies than horror films, THE SHALLOWS is the perfect summer time horror movie.

 

And now for my pick for the #1 horror movie of 2016, and it’s a strange pick because it’s not a traditional horror movie at all, yet it’s the best horror vehicle I saw this past year.

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1. THE NEON DEMON- This was the most disturbing movie I saw in 2016, as well as the most thought-provoking and stylish horror film I’ve seen in a while.  Its tale of a young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) caught in the vicious cutthroat world of modeling, takes its figurative message of a world that devours its own and turns it on its head and makes it literal.  This one takes a violent unexpected turn which will upset most people, but there’s no denying the force and power of where this film ultimately goes.

Written and directed by controversial writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, THE NEON DEMON is not for everybody, but if you can get past its disturbing elements and images and allow yourself to enter its provocative world, you’ll be treated to a film that is every bit as weird and horrifying as the work of visionary directors David Lynch and David Cronenberg.

So, there you have it.  My picks for the Top 5 HORROR MOVIES OF 2016.

Coming soon, my picks for the Worst Horror movies of 2016.

See you then!

And thanks for reading!

—Michael