WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017) – The Best of The New APES Movies

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The new PLANET OF THE APES series keeps getting better and better.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) was an okay reboot, solid yet uninspiring. Its sequel DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) was better. I liked it but I didn’t love it.

Now comes WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017) a thoroughly engrossing tale that is equal parts futuristic science fiction, epic adventure, and prisoner of war drama. All three parts work well to comprise a story that is captivating from start to finish, so much so, that this third film is clearly the best entry of the series thus far.

Of course, it helps to have a talented director at the helm.  Matt Reeves, who also directed DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, is one of the more talented directors working today. He’s directed some of my favorite horror movies in recent years, films like CLOVERFIELD (2008) and LET ME IN (2010), and now WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. I only wish he’d make more movies.

When WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES opens, we find Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of apes still hiding in the woods, still trying to avoid the humans who are out to conquer them.  This time around, the advancing human military is led by a charismatic officer known as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

A small military unit locates the apes and attack, but they are defeated.  Caesar spares the lives of a couple of prisoners and sends them back as a peace-offering, but this doesn’t stop the Colonel, who returns and raids the apes’ camp, killing Caesar’s wife and son.

Found out, the apes have to move, but Caesar announces that he’s not accompanying them, as he is intent on finding and killing the Colonel.   Eventually, all the apes, Caesar included, are captured by the Colonel’s forces, setting the stage for the second half of the movie, which plays out as a riveting prisoner of war tale, where the apes attempt to plan a daring escape, even as another military contingent moves in, one that is at odds with the Colonel and plans on wiping out all the occupants at the base, including the apes.

There is so much to like about WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.  I liked how Caesar evolved here.  In the first film, he barely spoke, saying one word here, one word there. In the second film, he spoke more, but not entirely fluently.  Here, he speaks effortlessly, which makes him an even stronger character.

The storyline of the disease which wiped out humans and gave intelligence to apes continues to evolve in this movie and remains compelling.  This time around, we learn that the disease is changing, that the remaining humans are gradually losing the ability to speak, and are slowly becoming more beast-like, while the apes are becoming more intelligent.  This plot point hearkens back to the original series, where apes were intelligent, and humans were mute animals.

We first get a hint of this change when Caesar and friends find a young girl (Amiah Miller) who cannot speak.  Orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) eventually names her Nova, in a nod to the Linda Harrison character from the 1968 original film PLANET OF THE APES.

And more apes than just the ones with Caesar were affected, as they meet another chimpanzee who goes by the name Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and who tells them his story.

There are a lot of nods to the original series here.  The soldiers wear the symbols for Alpha and Omega on their helmets, which is a nod to the Alpha/Omega bomb which destroyed the Earth in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970).  The line is used, “the only good ape is a dead ape,” which is a reference to General Ursus’ line “The only good human is a dead human,” also from BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Again, there’s the character of Nova, and I liked how they came up with the name, as she finds a grille from a Chevy Nova.  Also, when Maurice says her name, “Nova,” he says it the same way and with the same cadence as Charlton Heston said it in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, so much so that I wonder if they dubbed in Heston’s voice here.

Speaking of Maurice, his name is a nod to the actor Maurice Evans who played the orangutan Dr. Zaius in the original films.  And Caesar’s little son is named Cornelius, who was the character played by Roddy McDowall in the original films, and in those films Cornelius was Caesar’s father.

There are also just some funny monkey references. The back of one of the soldier’s helmets reads BEDTIME FOR BONZO, a reference to the Ronald Reagan movie, a comedy which featured a chimpanzee. Also, the apes who work for the Colonel are called “donkeys,” a reference to Donkey Kong.

The special effects are amazing. The apes look phenomenal. They’re so good it’s easy to forget that nearly every character in this movie is a CGI creation.  The only main human character is Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, and the rest of the humans are nameless soldiers, and yet the film doesn’t suffer for it at all. You don’t watch this movie and feel like you’re watching an animated cartoon.  These characters seem genuine and real, more so than some of the human characters we see in other movies.  And their story is compelling.  You really do feel for the apes and want them to escape from the prison.

Andy Serkis, who’s become the king of motion capture performances, is excellent once again here as Caesar. I don’t think they give Oscars yet for this category, but if they did, he should get one.  And he’s not alone here.

Both Karin Konoval as Maurice and Terry Notary as Caesar’s other loyal friend Rocket have also been in all three APES movies, and they’ve been excellent each time as well.  Also of interest, both Serkis and Notary have played King Kong.  Serkis played Kong in the Peter Jackson remake KING KONG (2005), and Notary played Kong in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017).

Two newcomers also really stand out.  Steve Zahn as Bad Ape nearly steals the movie with his humorous and touching performance as the ape who had survived on his own all these years before meeting Caesar and his band of apes.  The best part about Bad Ape is that he’s funny without being annoying, and he’s scared without being a coward.  He steps up when needed.

Likewise, young Amiah Miller is superb as Nova, in a role that is even more impressive considering she doesn’t speak any lines as Nova cannot talk.  Her scenes with Caesar are especially moving.  Once Nova and then Bad Ape enter the storyline, the film really takes off.  Miller reminded me somewhat of a very young Amanda Seyfried.

And Woody Harrelson does what he has to do as the evil Colonel.  The role isn’t as fleshed out as the apes’ characters, but it doesn’t really need to be.  He’s the villain, and Harrelson gives the guy real presence, so much so that things always feel disturbing when he’s on-screen. And we do get some background on him, as we learn what happened to his son.

The script by Mark Bomback and director Reeves is excellent.  I loved the story it tells, and the ape characters are all fleshed out to the point where you forget you’re watching CGI creations.  I especially liked the story, which is essentially divided into three parts. The first part picks up where DAWN left off, and features apes and humans battling in the jungle.  The second part becomes an epic adventure, where the apes migrate from the jungle, and where Caesar and his small band of friends go off on their own across beaches and eventually into a wintry mountain terrain as they seek out the Colonel.  It’s this sequence where they find Nova and meet Bad Ape.

And then there’s the third part, the gripping grueling prisoner of war tale, where Caesar must lead the apes on a daring escape.  This part plays like the classic war movies of yesteryear, films like STALAG 17 (1953) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963).  With each chapter of the story, the film gets stronger, as each story is better than the previous one.

I’m a huge Matt Reeves fan, and he does a phenomenal job here.  His films CLOVERFIELD and LET ME IN are among my favorite horror movies period.  WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES now joins that list.  Of course, the true test for Reeves is his next movie, as he’s writing and directing the upcoming THE BATMAN, the standalone Batman film starring Ben Affleck. Good luck, Matt!

And WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES features yet another powerful music score by Michael Giacchino, who we just talked about last week as he scored SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).  I liked his score for APES here even better than his SPIDER-MAN score.  It reminded me a lot of the score he wrote for LET ME IN.  It’s potent, militaristic, and haunting.

I really liked WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Everything about it works.

It’s easily the best of the rebooted APES series.

—END—

 

 

THE HORROR JAR: Genre Films Where PETER CUSHING Did NOT Play A Doctor/Scientist/Professor

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Peter Cushing and the Skull in THE SKULL (1965), a horror film in which Cushing did not play a doctor.

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at lists of odds and ends pertaining to horror movies.

Up today, my all time favorite horror movie actor, Peter Cushing.

When you think of Peter Cushing, his two most famous roles immediately come to mind, Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing, two characters who were also both doctors.  In fact, a lot of Cushing’s roles in horror movies were of medical doctors, professors, or scientists.  So much so, that I thought:  when did he not play a doctor?

Turns out— many times.

Here’s a look at those roles, the times Peter Cushing starred in a horror or science fiction film but did not play a doctor or scientist.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959) – Sherlock Holmes.  Technically not a horror film, but that being said, Hammer Films added plenty of horror elements to their rendition of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tale.  Directed by Terence Fisher, with Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville.  Superior little movie, atmospheric and full of thrills, with Cushing’s energetic Holmes leading the way.

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Cushing as Holmes in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959).

 

NIGHT CREATURES (1962) – Rev. Dr. Blyss – even though the character is identified in the credits as “Dr. Blyss” he’s really the vicar of the small village of Dymchurch— check that, he’s actually the infamous pirate Captain Clegg, hiding out, posing as the vicar, while secretly smuggling rum in this rousing adventure/horror tale by Hammer Films.  Cushing at his energetic best.

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Peter Cushing delivers one of his best performances, as Captain Clegg/Dr. Blyss in NIGHT CREATURES (1962).

 

SHE (1965) – Major Holly – lost cities, a supernatural woman, and lots of action in this fantasy adventure by Hammer Films.

THE SKULL (1965) – Christopher Maitland – plays a private collector interested in the occult who purchases the skull of the Marquis de Sade with deadly results.  Christopher Lee co-stars as Cushing’s rival in this fine horror film by Hammer’s rival, Amicus Productions.

TORTURE GARDEN (1967) – Lancelot Canning – another film by Amicus, this one an anthology film featuring five horror stories based on the works of Robert Bloch.  Cushing appears in the fourth segment, “The Man Who Collected Poe,” once more playing a collector of the macabre.  Jack Palance co-stars with Cushing in this segment.

THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968) – Inspector Quennell-  One of Peter Cushing’s worst movies.  In fact, Cushing himself considered it his worst.  Produced by Tigon Films, a company that tried to join Hammer and Amicus as a voice in British horror but ultimately failed.  The monster is a woman who turns into a giant moth that preys on men’s blood, and Cushing plays the police inspector (in a role originally written for Basil Rathbone) who tries to stop her.

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970) – Major Heinrich Benedek – pretty much just a cameo in this film, famous for being the first time Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price all starred together in the same movie.  A bizarre flick, perfect for 1970, but ultimately a disappointment as Cushing and Lee only appear briefly, while Price gets a bit more screen time.

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) – General von Spielsdorf – Cushing finally appears in a vampire movie where he’s not a doctor or a professor!  This time he’s a general, but he’s still hunting vampires in this atmospheric and very sensual vampire film from Hammer, starring Ingrid Pitt as the vampire Carmilla.  The first of Hammer’s “Karnstein” vampire trilogy.

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971) – Philip Grayson – Another anthology film by Amicus.  Cushing stars in the second segment “Waxworks” and plays a retired stockbroker who runs afoul of a nefarious wax museum.  Director Peter Duffell once said in an interview that Peter Cushing’s entire segment in this film was simply a contrivance to place his head on a platter, which remains one of the more shocking images from the film.

TWINS OF EVIL (1971) – Gustav Weil – Cushing is excellent (as he always is) in this vampire film from Hammer, playing a different kind of vampire hunter.  He leads the Brotherhood, a fanatical group of men seeking out witches in the countryside, a group that is every bit as deadly as the vampires.  As such, when the vampire threat becomes known, and the Brotherhood turn their attention to the undead, it makes for a much more interesting dynamic than the typical vampire vs. heroes.  It’s one of Cushing’s most conflicted roles.  There’s a scene where he laments that he only wanted to do the right thing, that really resonates, because for most of the film, he’s been doing the very worst things.  The third “Karnstein” vampire film.

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Peter Cushing as the fanatical Gustav Weil in TWINS OF EVIL (1971).

 

I, MONSTER (1971) – Utterson – plays a lawyer in this version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale by Amicus, which changed the names of Jekyll and Hyde to Marlowe and Blake, played here by Christopher Lee.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) – Arthur Edward Grimsdyke – famous Cushing role in yet another anthology film by Amicus.  Cushing appears in the third segment, “Poetic Justice” where he plays an elderly junk dealer who is terrorized into suicide by his neighbors, but a year later, and this is why the role is famous, he returns from the grave.

DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972) – Captain – cameo in this Vincent Price sequel.  Blink and you’ll miss him.

ASYLUM (1972) – Smith – appears in the segment “The Weird Tailor” in this anthology film by Amicus.

FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972) – The Headmaster – plays a sinister headmaster, in this thriller written and directed by Jimmy Sangster, and also starring Joan Collins and Ralph Bates.

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974) – The Proprietor – plays the owner of an antique shop, and the man in the wraparound story in this Amicus anthology horror vehicle.

MADHOUSE (1974) – Herbert Flay – plays a screenwriter in this one, and best friend to Vincent Price’s horror actor Paul Toombes.  Toombes is having a rough go of it, as the character he played in the movies- Dr. Death – seems to be committing murders in real life.  A really interesting movie, not a total success, but definitely worth a look, mostly because Price and Cushing share equal and ample screen time in this one.

TENDRE DRACULA – Macgregor – bizarre ill-conceived French horror comedy, notable for featuring Cushing’s one and only performance as a vampire.

LAND OF THE MINOTAUR (1976) – Baron Corofax – plays the villain to Donald Pleasence’s heroic priest in this tale of devil worship and demons.

STAR WARS (1977) – Grand Moff Tarkin – aside from his work in Hammer Films, the role which Cushing is most known for.  As Tarkin, he’s the one character in the STAR WARS universe who bossed Darth Vader around and lived to tell about it.

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Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS (1977).

 

SHOCK WAVES (1977) – SS Commander – Nazi zombies attack!    Nuff said.  With John Carradine.

THE UNCANNY (1977) – Wilbur – Cushing plays a writer who learns that cats are a little more “active” than he first imagined in yet another horror anthology film.

MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND (1981) – William T. Kolderup – plays the “richest man in America” in this bizarre horror comedy.

HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983) – Sebastian Grisbane – famous teaming of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, and John Carradine in the same movie for the first (and only) time ever, this really isn’t a very good movie.  It tries hard, and ultimately isn’t all bad, but could have been so much better.  Price and Lee fare the best.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE MASKS OF DEATH (1984) – Sherlock Holmes – Holmes comes out of retirement to solve a case.   Again, not horror, per se, but since this film was directed by Roy Ward Baker, written by Anthony Hinds, and of course starred Peter Cushing, there is a definite Hammer Films feel about this movie.  John Mills plays Dr. Watson.

There you have it.  A list of genre films starring Peter Cushing where he did not play a doctor, scientist or professor.  Perhaps next time we’ll have a look at those films where he did don a lab coat or carry a medical bag.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

47 METERS DOWN (2017) Doesn’t Ratchet Suspense Up

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In general, I like movies about sharks.

Obviously, there’s the classic, JAWS (1975), the best movie about a killer shark ever, but there have been a few other enjoyable shark movies as well, although admittedly not very many.  I thought last year’s THE SHALLOWS (2016) was rather fun, and even the subpar sequel JAWS 2 (1978) had its moments.

But most of the movies about killer sharks have been pretty bad.  Today’s movie 47 METERS DOWN (2017) joins that list.

Sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are vacationing in Mexico, enjoying the beaches and basically getting away from it all.  Specifically, they’re there because, as Lisa tells her sister, her boyfriend has broken up with her, claiming that he got bored with their relationship, and she thinks taking this trip will show him that she’s not so boring after all.  Really?  I think Lisa would be better served if she dropped her loser of a boyfriend and found someone else rather than trying to impress a guy who dumped her for being boring.

Anyway, the film wastes valuable minutes early on setting up this back story which is a waste of time since the audience knows exactly what this movie is about and isn’t sitting there at this point thinking, Gee, I wonder what’s going to happen next?  We know exactly what’s going to happen next.  The film easily could have opened with the sisters on the boat getting ready to dive into the water inside the shark cage. Instead, we have to sit through a dull opening back story before the sisters finally meet a couple of fun loving young men who convince them to take the shark cage tour under water.

The boat belongs to Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine), and although the sisters still have reservations about taking the cage underwater, the two guys go first and they come back up without incident.  I found this plot point strange.  They’re there on a date.  Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Lisa and Kate to go underwater with their respective dates rather than with each other?

Anyway, Lisa and Kate do go underwater, the sights including a large shark, are fabulous, and for a brief moment they are happy they made the trip, but then the line breaks and the cage falls to the ocean floor, which is 47 meters down and well out of range for their radios, and so they are not able to communicate with Captain  Taylor.  To do so, Kate has to leave the cage and swim up into the shark infested waters to reach Taylor by radio.

And the waters are full of sharks, and so the rest of the movie is about the sisters trying to survive long enough to be rescued.

This sounds like a very exciting movie, but strangely it is not.  The whole thing is all rather flat.

You’d think that a tale about two women trapped in a shark cage underwater surrounded by sharks would make for one relentless thriller, but that’s not what happens here.  Instead, there’s some rather uninspiring direction by Johannes Roberts. And there just isn’t much suspense here.

The film also struggles with realism.  While I’ve seen worse CGI effect, the sharks don’t look all that real.  I never believed that these women were being hunted by real sharks.

I also never felt the fear that these women should have felt.  They might have been stuck in an elevator for all I knew, rather than in a shark cage.  Their emotions were never that intense.

Part of this is the script by director Roberts and Ernest Riera.  The dialogue is hardly memorable, and the sisters get stuck saying things like “I don’t want to die!’  and “Help us!”  There’s definitely a lot of whining going on.  I wanted to see them react and fight to survive.

The two leads, Mandy Moore as Lisa and Claire Holt as Kate are adequate, but when they go underwater and they’re wearing their oxygen masks, which is for the majority of the movie, their personalities become like their faces, hidden by water and their masks.  I thought they grew increasingly dull as the film went along.

And Matthew Modine, seen last summer as the questionable scientist Dr. Martin Brenner in the hit Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016) is wasted as Captain Taylor.  We hardly see him in the movie at all.  For most of the movie we just hear his voice over the radio, saying things like “Don’t leave the cage,” “We’re coming to save you,” “Stay in the cage,” “Do you have any threes?  Go fish.”  Okay, that last quote isn’t real, but it could have been.  That’s the kind of emotion Modine displays as Captain Taylor.

I was really surprised at how dull this film was.

Maybe Lisa’s boyfriend had the right idea after all.

—END—

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) – Quiet Horror Movie Frighteningly Real

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IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) is everything that the rebooted THE MUMMY (2017) is not.

It’s simple in its execution, it’s believable, it’s frightening, and its depiction of horror on the big screen is as pure as it gets.  The only thing the two films have in common is they opened on the same weekend.

IT COMES AT NIGHT takes place during a time when some unknown disease has crippled the world, thrusting people into heavy-duty survival mode.  We meet a family of three, the father Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) just as they’re dealing with Travis’ grandfather Bud (David Pendleton), who has succumbed to the disease.  They perform a mercy killing and then burn the body.

The family lives inside a house which they keep locked and boarded up, and they don’t venture outside without gas masks.  With all contact with the outside world shut down, they can only guess as to what is going on.  All they know is that infections happen and people die.

Things are relatively calm for them until one night a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home.  When they learn that he has a wife and young son, they debate whether or not they should invite them inside.  On the one hand, they know it’s best not to trust anyone, but on the other hand there is safety in numbers, especially since the surrounding woods are seen as threatening, as no one knows what is really happening, other than people will do anything to survive.

They decide to invite Will and his family into their home, and the two families work together, until the inevitable matter of trust or lack thereof begins to rear its head and mess with their minds.

IT COMES AT NIGHT is an example of movie making at its finest.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults has taken a simple straightforward story— it’s basically THE WALKING DEAD without the zombies, and in fact, shares the intensity of the show’s best episodes— and made it compelling and frightening, all without gimmicks or special effects.

The best part about this movie is Shults’ directorial style.  The bulk of the action takes place inside the boarded up home, and as such makes for a very claustrophobic experience.  The audience definitely shares the feelings of isolation with the characters.

The film is quiet and unassuming.  There are no major special effects or extreme scenes of violence and carnage, yet the suspense is high throughout.  A walk into the surrounding woods at night is a sweat-inducing experience.  The camera stays in close with characters, who we get to know and care for.

And that’s because Shults’ screenplay is a good one.  He creates three-dimensional characters who we care about, and so as the movie goes along and lines are drawn between the families, you don’t want to see either family harmed.  It makes for some wince-inducing storytelling.

It also creates a threat— an unknown disease— that works as a major menace in the movie even though we know absolutely nothing about it, other than it kills.  It puts the audience in the same place as the characters, and it works wonderfully.

Joel Edgerton, an actor I like a lot, is very good here as the head of the household, Paul. He trusts no one and armed with a shotgun will kill without hesitation to protect his family, but he also is extremely sensitive and caring towards his son Travis.  He goes out of his way to explain to Travis why he does certain things and why these difficult decisions have to be made.  Travis comes off as a dedicated family man who must do whatever it takes to protect his family.

I’ve seen Edgerton in a bunch of movies, and I’ve pretty much enjoyed him in all of them, from his role as Tom Buchanan in THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), to his fine work opposite Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS (2015), to his battling aliens in the rebooted THE THING (2011).  Edgerton’s work here is as good as ever.

Carmen Ejogo, who played Coretta Scott King in SELMA (2014) and who also just starred in ALIEN: COVENANT (2017), plays Paul’s wife and Travis’ mom, Sarah.  She’s sufficiently serious and thoughtful.  No one in this film is a loose cannon or an idiot.  As such, you care about them all.

Christopher Abbott does a nice job as Will, the man who breaks into their home and then claims he was just looking for supplies for his wife and little son.  Abbott makes Will a fine three-dimensional character.  There’s something less than trustworthy about him, yet he does have that family, and the suspicion about him could certainly stem from his own agenda, that he has his own family to take care of.  Again, it puts the audience in the same seat with Paul- do you trust Will, or not?

Also excellent is Riley Keough as Will’s young wife Kim.  Like the rest of the cast, she creates a three-dimensional character.  Kim is also involved in a sub-plot where teen Travis develops a crush on her, and the two share some very interesting scenes.  Keough, by the way, is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, making her the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and Priscilla Presley.

And Kelvin Harrison Jr. really stands out as Travis.  For most of the film, Travis is a quiet introspective young man who is very sensitive.  We see the horror of what’s going on in their world through his eyes.  It makes some of the film’s more disturbing scenes all the more powerful as we experience them along with Travis.

Travis is also prone to having vivid dreams, several of which make for some frightening moments in the movie.  The dreams are symbolic of the dreams of youth, although in this case, they are all dark and nightmarish, showing us firsthand that this is now the world that young Travis has been left with.

It’s also worth noting that the family here is of mixed race.  Paul is white and Sarah is black.  While refreshing, it’s also the type of thing that needs to happen more and more in the movies, and when it does, it’s important to celebrate it.

While I loved IT COMES AT NIGHT, it does have some flaws, and I can see how some people might be disappointed by it.  For one thing, the threat here is never explained, and while I didn’t have a huge problem with this, had the film taken that next step and immersed us into a specific threat, it might have been a stronger movie.

I saw it with an audience full of teenagers, and when it ended, they were vocally disappointed. Someone said, “It comes at night?  Nothing came!”  I wanted to lean over and say in my best Donald Pleasence voice, “Death came at night.”  Because, really, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.  The specific threat isn’t important.  If the characters aren’t careful, they’re going to die.

IT COMES AT NIGHT shares a similar tone and feel with the quiet zombie movie MAGGIE (2015), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I liked IT COMES AT NIGHT much better because it packs a bigger punch with its horror elements and with the suspense.

If you like your horror pure and simple, without convoluted stories or  overblown special effects or gratuitous blood and gore, if you simply like to be scared, and to watch a story about characters you care about thrown into a situation which puts them in extreme danger, then IT COMES AT NIGHT is the movie for you.

It’s the type of horror movie that’s good for the genre, a horror film, like the recent GET OUT (2017), that makes horror fans proud.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKELETON KEY (2005)

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The following IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on THE SKELETON KEY is a reprint from 2011.  John Hurt, who passed away in January, appears in the film in a supporting role.

—Michael 6/8/2017

 

I first reviewed THE SKELETON KEY (2005) when it was released theatrically in 2005.  I liked it then, and I was curious to see how the film would hold up several years later.

THE SKELETON KEY is a Hoodoo tale set in New Orleans.  Hoodoo is different from Voodoo, as Hoodoo is African American magic while Voodoo comes from Haiti, but in movie terms, they’re pretty much the same thing:  black magic, evil spells, and witchcraft.

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) accepts a position to care for stroke victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) in his southern home.  Devereaux  is paralyzed and has lost the ability to speak, and he’s become too much for his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) to care for on her own, and so their lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) hires Caroline.

Violet gives Caroline a skeleton key that supposedly opens every door in the house, but Caroline discovers that the key doesn’t open the door to the attic room.   Violet informs Caroline that the room is off limits, and she tells Caroline the tale of how over a hundred years ago the room belonged to two servants who practiced Hoodoo.  When they were caught teaching their black magic to the children of the house, they were murdered, but supposedly, their spirits remain in the house.

Caroline begins to believe that Violet isn’t “all there,” and when the mute Ben tries on several occasions to communicate to Caroline, asking for help, apparently fearful of his wife, Caroline concludes that her patient’s life is in danger.  She even confides her fears to Ben’s lawyer Luke Marshall, who tells her he can’t believe such a thing, that it doesn’t make sense to him.

Caroline decides that it’s up to her to save Ben from his deranged wife, but as she attempts to rescue him, she discovers there’s more going on inside that attic room then she at first believed.  It all leads to a twist ending that is actually better than most.

THE SKELETON KEY is a mildly entertaining story of witchcraft, black magic, and ghosts.  The best part about the film is the strong performances by the leads and a well-written plot that doesn’t fall apart in the end.

Kate Hudson is very enjoyable as Caroline.  She’s a likeable heroine, a sincere character who you worry about once her life is in danger.

The best performance in the movie though belongs to Gena Rowlands as Violet Devereaux.  She’s extremely believable as the southern woman set in her ways, fearing the ghosts who still live in her house, respecting the Hoodoo magic conjured up by those in the know, and who does not trust the young Caroline in her home.  It’s a terrific performance.

Peter Sarsgaard isn’t bad as the lawyer Luke Marshall, and as much as I like John Hurt as an actor, he’s largely wasted here as stroke victim Ben Devereaux.  He doesn’t speak, and he barely moves.  And no aliens explode from his chest.

THE SKELETON KEY is also a very atmospheric movie.  The scenes in and around the mansion give it a strong sense of place.  You can almost taste the jambalaya and smell the humidity in the air.  Director Iain Softley did a nice job capturing a spooky feel in this movie.

THE SKELETON KEY is definitely “quiet” horror.  Ehren Kruger wrote the screenplay, and he keeps things tame and mysterious, as opposed to shocking and in-your-face.  The movie does have a pretty decent twist ending, as those things go.  Most twist endings I see coming a mile away.  Not so, here.  Plus, a lot of twist endings seem tacked on, added just to make things different.  This twist works because it fits in perfectly with the story.

One thing THE SKELETON KEY is not is scary.  It’s not going to give you nightmares, but this doesn’t mean it’s not a successful horror movie.  It is.

It reminds me of some of the old Val Lewton horror movies, which were also subtle in the way they depicted horror, films like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943).  THE SKELETON KEY isn’t as good as these old Lewton classics, but it is similar in mood and tone.

THE SKELETON KEY is not a classic of the genre, but it does tell a good story, and it’s teeming with Hoodoo atmosphere.  It also gets better as it goes along and finishes strongly.

As the weather begins to heat up, and the humidity begins to rise, and you’re reaching for that tall glass of sweet iced tea, you might want to pick up THE SKELETON KEY.  It’s the perfect complement to a sultry evening.

—END—

 

 

 

ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) – Straightforward Thrill Ride

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alien covenant

As a sequel to PROMETHEUS (2012), ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) works rather well.  But as part of the ALIEN universe, not so much.

ALIEN: COVENANT takes place ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS.  In an opening that is all too reminiscent of the recent— and inferior— science fiction movie PASSENGERS (2016), the spaceship Covenant is on its way to colonize a new planet, filled to the brim with sleeping human beings and embryos traveling to their new home.  But catastrophe strikes, the ship is damaged, and the crew awakes to save the day.

But the captain is killed, leaving the second in command Oram (Billy Crudup) to secure the ship and have it ready to continue the voyage.  But before he can do so, the crew receives a garbled message which they recognize as human, and when they trace the source to a habitable planet that is much closer than their original destination, they decide to investigate.

Of course, awaiting them there are both mystery and danger, courtesy of the events of the previous film in the series, PROMETHEUS.  Director Ridley Scott, the director of the original ALIEN (1979) has planned a prequel trilogy to his original science fiction shocker.  ALIEN: COVENANT is the second film in this trilogy, and so we are crawling closer to the events of ALIEN, and the Alien creatures themselves are evolving towards those familiar monsters we know so well.

I enjoyed ALIEN: COVENANT well enough, mostly because it was a well-paced thriller that kept me interested throughout, at least until the end, as at that point it had become rather predictable.  But I liked it better than PROMETHEUS, which attempted to be high brow science fiction but didn’t quite achieve its goal.  I liked the ideas which PROMETHEUS put forth, but not the way they were executed.

ALIEN: COVENANT is a far less ambitious movie than PROMETHEUS, but it works because it doesn’t try to be something it’s not.  It seems satisfied to be a straightforward science fiction thriller.

Still, director Ridley Scott and his team of writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, continue to flirt with the deeper theme of the origins of life.  As android David (Michael Fassbender) says to his human creator at the beginning of the movie, “If you created me, who created you?”  That’s the million dollar question being put forth in both PROMETHEUS and ALIEN: COVENANT.  It’s a thought-provoking question, but a part of me has to laugh when I think that somewhere down the line the vicious alien creatures from these movies are going to be somehow tied into the origins of humanity.

This is Harper’s first screenplay, but John Logan has a list of very impressive writing credits, having worked on the screenplays to such films as GLADIATOR (2000), STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002), and SKYFALL (2012).

But again, ALIEN: COVENANT works best as a thriller, and director Ridley Scott does a nice job at the helm and creates some decent suspenseful scenes.  The sequence where two crew members first become infected, and then are raced back to the ship for medical attention where it proves far too late to save them is one of the more riveting sequences in the film.  And what would an ALIEN movie be without an alien bursting from someone’s chest?  Yup, there’s one of those scenes here as well.

Michael Fassbender plays the dual lead role of “brother” androids,  David, who we met in PROMETHEUS and as we find out in this movie was the only survivor, and Walter, a member of the crew of the Covenant.  Fassbender is very good, as always.

Billy Crudup plays the ineffective Oram, a man forced into the captain’s seat obviously before he was ready.  Katherine Waterston plays the Sigourney Weaver-type role, Daniels, the woman who pretty much becomes the leader of the group.  Danny McBride plays Tennessee, and I guess the ALIEN films like southern geographical character names, since Tom Skerritt’s character’s name in ALIEN was Dallas.  Here we have Tennessee.

None of the other characters are really developed all that well, and no one else in the cast really stood out.   They were all pretty much cardboard characters.

But I didn’t mind that all that much here, since I enjoyed the mystery and the thrills.  The alien scenes here are quite good, although they pale in comparison to the original and its sequel, ALIENS (1986).  I was intrigued for a while, as I was happy to go along for the ride with these folks as they searched for answers about the planet they had landed on and were hoping to call home.  Likewise, I enjoyed the alien scenes.

But about two-thirds of the way in things began to grow predictable and I pretty much knew exactly where this film was going.  I hoped that I would be wrong, and that I would be surprised instead, but that wasn’t the case.    In terms of plot, especially if you’ve seen other ALIEN movies, you can figure out the ending long before it occurs.

Even so, ALIEN: COVENANT was an enjoyable thrill ride for me, and in spite of not absolutely loving this one, I am definitely looking forward to the next installment of this reborn ALIEN franchise.

—END—

 

Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price: Their Busiest Years

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petercushing_vincentprice_christopherlee friends

Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price all share birthdays in May— Cushing on May 26, 1913, Lee on May 27, 1922, and Price on May 27, 1911.

To celebrate, here’s a column where we’ll look at their busiest years in the business, and they had a lot of them.  According to IMDB, Peter Cushing had 131 screen credits, Vincent Price had 201, and Christopher Lee surpassed them both with a whopping 281 screen credits.

But which years did they appear on screen the most?

For Peter Cushing, he had three such years.  In 1940—very, very early in his career— and in 1972, he made seven screen appearances.  But he did one better in 1974, with eight screen appearances.

Here are his eight screen credits from 1974:

1. SHATTER – Rattwood

2. FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE  – The Proprietor

3. FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL – Baron Frankenstein

4. THE BEAST MUST DIE – Dr. Lundgren

5. THE ZOO GANG (TV series) Episode:  “The Counterfeit Trap” – Judge Gautier

6. MADHOUSE  – Herbert Flay

7. THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES – Professor Van Helsing

8. TENDER DRACULA, OR CONFESSIONS OF A BLOOD DRINKER  -MacGregor

frankenstein-and-the-monster-from-hell-peter-cushing

Peter Cushing plays Baron Frankenstein for the last time in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974), the year he made the most screen appearances, with eight.

There are a couple of “lasts” and a “first” in this list of credits for Peter Cushing during his busiest year in 1974.  Both his role as Baron Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL and as Professor Van Helsing in THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES marked the last time he would play these characters.  He played Van Helsing five times in the movies, and Baron Frankenstein six times.

TENDER DRACULA, OR CONFESSIONS OF A BLOOD DRINKER, marked the first and only time that Peter Cushing played a vampire in a movie.

Also of note, Cushing co-starred with Vincent Price in MADHOUSE. And surprisingly, during his busiest year ever in terms of screen credits, Cushing did not star in any films with frequent co-star Christopher Lee that year.

 

Christopher Lee, with his 281 credits, seemed to be busy every year he was working, but his busiest year was very early in his career, in 1956, when he amassed 11 credits in that one single year.

Here they are:

1. CHEVRON HALL OF STARS (TV series), Episode:  “Captain Kidd” – Governor

2. PRIVATE’S PROGRESS – Major Schultz

3.ALEXANDER THE GREAT – Nectenabus (voice)

4.THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (TV series) – Louis

5. PORT AFRIQUE – Franz Vermes

6.PURSUIT OF THE GRAF SPEE – Manolo

7. BEYOND MAMBASA – Gil Rossi

8. RHEINGOLD THEATER (TV Series) – Appearances in various episodes

9. AGGIE (TV series) – Inspector John Hollis

10. SAILOR OF FORTUNE (TV series) – Yusif/Carnot

11. THE ERROL FLYNN THEATER (TV series) – The Visitant/Compte de Merret/Maurice Gabet

christopher lee 1950s

Christopher Lee in the 1950s, right around his busiest year in the biz, 1956.

And while 1956 may have been Christopher Lee’s busiest year in terms of screen credits, it would be the following year that all his hard work would come to fruition, for in 1957 Christopher Lee would achieve international stardom for his role as The Creature in Hammer Film’s megahit, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), the film that also launched Peter Cushing’s international career, for his starring performance as Baron Victor Frankenstein.

 

Vincent Price didn’t have just one, but three busiest years of his career.  He made eight screen appearances in one year three times, in 1956, 1969, and 1970.

Here’s a look at those credits:

1956

1.SERENADE – Charles Winthrop

2.WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS – Walter Kyne

3.LUX VIDEO THEATRE (TV series) – Joseph Bentley/Dr.Austin Sloper/Christoff

4.THE ALCOA HOUR (TV series) – Alvanley

5.THE VAGABOND KING – Narrator (voice)

6.SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE (TV series) -Sgt. Gary Williams/Dr. Philip Redmond

7.THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – Baka

8. CROSSROADS (TV series) – Reverend Alfred W. Price/Rabbi GershomSeixas/Rev. Robert Russell

 

1969

1.MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE – Dan Ruffalo

2.DANIEL BOONE (TV series) – Dr. Thaddeus Morton

3. THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS – Mr. Morality

4.THE OBLONG BOX – Julian

5. BBC PLAY OF THE MONTH (TV series) – Dr. Austin Sloper

6.THE GOOD GUYS (TV series) – Mr. Middleton

7. WORLD WIDE ADVENTURES:  ANNABEL LEE (Short) – Narrator

8. GET SMART (TV series) – Dr. Jarvis Pym

 

1970

1.SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN – Dr. Browning

2.AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLAN POE – Narrator

3.CRY OF THE BANSHEE – Lord Edward Whitman

4.LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE (TV series)

5.HERE’S LUCY (TV series) – as Vincent Price

6. MOD SQUAD (TV series) – John Wells/Wentworth

7. HOLIDAY STARTIME SPECIAL (TV movie)

8.CUCUMBER CASTLE (TV movie) – Wicked Count Voxville

vincent price scream and scream again

Vincent Price in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970)..

Some things of note regarding these credits:  in THE OBLONG BOX, he co-starred with Christopher Lee, and in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN he starred with both Lee and Peter Cushing, the first of only two times that all three of these actors appeared in the same movie together.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the busiest years in the careers of three of the busiest actors in horror film history.

Happy Birthday Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price!

Thanks for reading, everybody!

—Michael