IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973)

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Far out, man!

The early 1970s was such a groovy time the vampires just couldn’t keep away.  Dan Curtis’ THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) unleashed a superhuman vampire onto the streets of 1972 Las Vegas, while Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) resurrected Dracula (Christopher Lee) in 1970s London.

Likewise, the black exploitation films BLACULA (1972) and its sequel, SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973), the film we’re looking at today, revived a vampire in 1970s Los Angeles.

When you hear the name Blacula, you no doubt laugh.  You shouldn’t.  The BLACULA films, in spite of their campy titles, are no laughing matter. They’re actually decent horror movies.

I’ve always enjoyed the two BLACULA movies, and like Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972, they were dismissed back in the day as silly 1970s schlock, but they have aged well.  In fact, they’ve gotten better.

For me, the main reason the BLACULA movies have aged well and the number one reason to see them is the performance by William Marshall as Blacula.  Marshall was a Shakespearean trained actor and it shows.  With his deep majestic voice, he’s perfect as the noble vampire, Prince Mamuwalde.  In a way, it’s too bad these films came out in the early 1970s and Marshall had to star in a film called BLACULA because he easily could have portrayed Stoker’s Dracula, and had he done so, he’d be in the conversation as one of the screen’s better Draculas.  And that’s not to take anything away from Marshall’s Mamuwalde character, because he’s a memorable vampire in his own right.  It’s just that you don’t often hear Marshall’s name in the conversation about best movie vampires. Perhaps it’s time that changed.

SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM continues the story of  Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall), the vampire introduced in BLACULA.  In that film, Mamuwalde, an African prince, was bitten by Dracula and then locked in a coffin where he remained until he was resurrected by an antique dealer in 1972 Los Angeles.

In SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, he’s revived yet again, this time by voodoo.  In fact, voodoo plays an integral part in this movie’s plot.  The voodoo scenes in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM reminded me a lot of similar scenes in the first Roger Moore James Bond movie, LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) which immersed Bond in early 1970s culture.  I told you the early 70s was a happening time.  Even James Bond got in on the action.

Anyway, in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, cult member Willis (Richard Lawson) vows revenge against his fellow cult members because he feels slighted at not being chosen as its new leader.  He decides to use voodoo to resurrect Blacula thinking the vampire can exact revenge for him, but things don’t go as planned as Blacula has other ideas and quickly makes Willis his slave.

The young woman who does lead the voodoo cult, Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier) crosses paths with Blacula who immediately takes an interest in her.  He seeks out her help, as he wants her to use her voodoo skills to perform an exorcism to free him of his vampire curse.  But Lisa’s boyfriend Justin (Don Mitchell) and the police arrive, spoiling the moment, and Blacula vows revenge.  Now seeing Blacula as a threat to her boyfriend, Lisa changes her tune about the vampire prince and uses her voodoo powers to combat him.

As far as vampire stories go, the one that SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM  has to tell with its voodoo elements is actually pretty cool and quite different.  You don’t see that combination of vampirism and voodoo very often.  The screenplay was written by Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig, and Maurice Jules, and it tells a pretty neat tale.  The dialogue is standard for the period, with lots of early 70s groovin and hip jargon.  You expect to see Kojak or Starsky and Hutch racing to the crime scene.  In fact, Bernie Hamilton who would go on to play Captain Dobey on STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) has a small role here.

Bob Kelljan directed SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, and he’s no stranger to 1970s vampire movies, as he also directed COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971), two films that also featured a vampire in modern-day Los Angeles, Count Yorga (Robert Quarry), and these films actually pre-dated THE NIGHT STALKER, which is often credited as launching the vampire-in-modern-times craze of the early 1970s.

There’s some pretty creepy scenes in this one, as William Marshall makes for a frightening vampire, and when he gets really angry, he suddenly breaks out in wolf-like make-up. There are also some entertaining scenes featuring Blacula on the streets of L.A., and one in particular where he tangles with some street thugs.  Needless to say, things don’t turn out so well for the thugs.

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Blacula (William Marshall) getting angry in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973).  You won’t like him when he’s angry.

Is it as frightening as THE NIGHT STALKER?  No, but Blacula’s scenes are as scary or perhaps even scarier than any of Christopher Lee’s Dracula scenes in DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA.

Again, William Marshall does a fine job as Blacula.  Marshall also appeared in the demonic possession film ABBY (1974) and went on to appear in many TV shows during the 1970s and 1980s. Probably the last film I saw him in was the Mel Gibson version of MAVERICK (1994) in which he had a bit part as a poker player.  Marshall passed away in 2003 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.  He was 78.

Pam Grier is also very good as Lisa.  Grier has and still is appearing in a ton of movies.  The last film I saw her in was THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012), and arguably her most famous role was in Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997), an homage to her own FOXY BROWN (1974).

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Pam Grier and William Marshall in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973).

Also in the cast is Michael Conrad as the sheriff.  Conrad would go on to fame for playing Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on the TV show HILL STREET BLUES (1981-1984).

But it’s William Marshall who gives the most biting performance in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM.  Marshall is thoroughly enjoyable as Blacula/Prince Mamuwalde, and his work in both BLACULA films is noteworthy enough to place him among the better screen vampires.

So, don’t be fooled by the title.  SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM is more than just a silly 1970s exploitation flick.  It’s well-made, it has an engrossing story that implements voodoo into its vampire lore, and as such it’s all rather refreshing.  It’s also done quite seriously.  It’s not played for laughs, and William Marshall delivers a commanding performance that is both dignified and frightening.

If you haven’t yet seen SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM or the first BLACULA movie, you definitely want to add them to your vampire movie list.  They’re part of a special time in vampire movie history, when the undead left their period piece environment and flocked to the hippie-filled streets of the 1970s.

Get your voodoo dolls ready.  It’s vampirism vs. voodoo!  It’s SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM!

Just watch where you stick those pins.

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RINGS (2017) – A Complete Waste of Time

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Here’s a look at RINGS (2017), another theatrical horror movie release from early 2017. Again, for a year that so far has had some pretty cool horror movies, it didn’t start out that way.

In RINGS, the main character is a young woman Julia (Matilda Lutz) whose boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe) goes off to college where he becomes a participant in an experiment run by his professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki).  Gabriel has in his possession the infamous videotape from THE RING (2002) and he’s having his students watch the tape to learn more about it. The way Gabriel sees it, as long as his students copy the tape and have someone else watch it, they will be saved.  And so on, and so on. Of course, that’s a lot of “so ons.”

When Julia receives a strange message from Holt’s phone, she decides to investigate.  Soon, she and Holt are searching for clues to learn more about Samara, the mysterious woman in the video, and their search takes them to a small town where they meet an equally mysterioius blind man Burke (Vincent D’Onofrio) who may have the answers they are looking for.

And that’s the story folks.  Sound interesting?  Not  to me either!

I found RINGS incredibly dull and boring, so much so, that it was really difficult to sit through this one.  The biggest offender was the storytelling.  The screenplay by three writers, David Loucka, Jacob Estes, and Akiva Goldsman really struggles to tell a story.  The movie gets off to such a disjointed start it’s laughable.  We’re on a plane at first, there’s an incident, then we’re at some sort of yard sale we meet professor Gabriel, and then we jump to a bedroom with Julia and Holt, and then Holt  goes off to college, and blah blah blah, and eventually after all this meandering we realize that the main character in this one is Julia, but you wouldn’t know it by the way it starts off.

The story itself about the videotape and Samara was a complete snooze.  The most interesting part of the entire story happens in the final few minutes of the movie, and it deals with technology, and what would happen with today’s social media and just how fast videos can be shared today.  Had this been what this movie was about, they may have had something interesting here.

Director F.  Javier Gutierrez goes through the motions here.  No memorable images or scares are to be found.

I did enjoy the peformance by lead actress Matilda Lutz as Julia. She was good here and I was actually interested in her character, even if she was stuck in a dull and predictable storyline.  Lutz is an Italian actress and hopefully we’ll see more of her in future films.

Alex Roe was pretty standard as hunky hero Holt.  He was rather plain and boring.

And while it’s always fun to watch Vincent D’Onofrio, his role here really doesn’t amount to all that much.  I mean, it’s ultimately an important role in terms of plot, but he could play it in his sleep.

Sadly, I’ve reached the point where I dread seeing horror movies at the movies these days.  The majority of these flicks are flat out awful.  RINGS is no exception.  Don’t bother with this one.  It’s a complete waste of time.

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Of course, when I wrote this review in February 2017, I hadn’t yet seen GET OUT (2017), A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017), or THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017), three excellent horror movies, so the year definitely got better in terms of horror movie releases.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

LEADING LADIES: Linda Hamilton

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Linda Hamilton in probably her most famous role, as Sarah Connor in THE TERMINATOR (1984).

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, the column where we look at leading ladies in the movies, especially horror movies.

Today on LEADING LADIES we look at the career of Linda Hamilton, who helped define 1980s cinema with her signature performance as Sarah Connor in THE TERMINATOR (1984).

In addition to her iconic portrayal of Sarah Connor in the TERMINATOR movies, Hamilton is also known for her role as Catherine Chandler on the TV series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1987-89).  Linda Hamilton has always been a favorite of mine, in spite of appearing in one of the worst monster movies ever made, KING KONG LIVES (1986)— by far the worst King Kong movie ever made.

Hamilton has 75 screen credits to date, and she’s still actively making movies today. Here’s a partial look at her career so far:

NIGHT-FLOWERS (1979) – Wafer – Hamilton’s film debut in a movie about rape and murder at the hands of two disturbed Vietnam vets.

RAPE AND MARRIAGE:  THE RIDEOUT CASE (1980) – Greta Rideout – Hamilton has the lead role in this TV movie based on the true story of Greta Rideout (Hamilton), an abused wife who was constantly raped by her husband John (Mickey Rourke).  The movie tells the story of how she fought back and charged him with rape, even though they were married.  Written by Hesper Anderson, who would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for her co-written screenplay for CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (1986) .

TAG:  THE ASSASSINATION GAME (1982) – Susan Swayze –  once again playing the lead, this time co-starring with Robert Carradine in a tale about a college assassination game turning deadly as it becomes the real thing.  Written and directed by Nick Castle, most famous for playing Michael Myers in the original HALLOWEEN (1978).

SECRETS OF A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER (1983) – Susan Decker – TV movie drama about a mother and daughter involved with the same man.  Katharine Ross plays the mother, Linda Hamilton the daughter, and Michael Nouri the man.

HILL STREET BLUES (1984) – Sandy Valpariso – recurring guest spot role on four episodes of Season 4 of the critically acclaimed TV show HILL STREET BLUES.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984) – Vicky – big screen adaptation of the Stephen King short story was the first time I saw Linda Hamilton in a movie, and all I can say is I’m glad she made THE TERMINATOR that same year, because I did not like CHILDREN OF THE CORN at all and would have quickly forgotten Hamilton if not for her performance in THE TERMINATOR.  In spite of the source material, CHILDREN OF THE CORN is a pretty awful horror movie.

THE TERMINATOR (1984) – Sarah Connor – the movie that put Linda Hamilton on the map, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron.  Iconic movie, one of the most memorable from the 1980s, so much so that in terms of movies, it arguably defines the decade.  The movie that propelled Arnold Schwarzenegger to superstardom, and gave him his signature line, “I’ll be back.”  Also director James Cameron’s first hit, coming before ALIENS (1986) and long before TITANIC (1997).

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A girl and her dog.  Linda Hamilton and a canine friend in THE TERMINATOR.

Hamilton plays Sarah Connor, the target of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, who’d been sent back in time to kill her, since she gives birth to the man responsible for leading the resistance against the machines in the future, and so the machines decide that if they kill his mother, he’ll never exist.  Of course, you’d think it would just be easier to kill him. Pure fluff, but masterfully done, and Hamilton is excellent as the unlikely heroine, a young woman who sees herself as a failure, then victim, and ultimately rises up as the savior of the human race.  By far, my favorite Linda Hamilton performance.

SECRET WEAPONS (1985) – Elena Koslov/Joanna – TV movie where Hamilton plays a Russian spy.  Directed by Don Taylor, who during his long prolific career directed several notable genre films in the 1970s, including ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971), THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977), and DAMIEN:  OMEN II (1978).

BLACK MOON RISING (1986) – Nina – Hamilton plays a car thief in this tale of thieves, FBI agents, and a super car, the “Black Moon.”  Co-starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Vaughn.  Story by John Carpenter, who also co-wrote the screenplay.

KING KONG LIVES (1986) – Amy Franklin –  If there’s one movie that Linda Hamilton should not have made, it’s probably this one.  Why in the world would director John Guillermin, whose career was nearly destroyed by his first Kong venture KING KONG (1976) ever agree to make a sequel ten years later?  Bad move, John!  This horrible sequel has gone down in film history as the worst Kong movie ever. And whereas the 1976 KING KONG has aged well and has gained more respect over the decades, the same can’t be said for this awful sequel.  It’s still as bad as it ever was.

GO TOWARD THE LIGHT (1988) – Claire Madison – TV movie about a young couple caring for their child who has been diagnosed with AIDS.  Co-starring Richard Thomas.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1987-89) – Assistant District Attorney Catherine Chandler- Hamilton’s second most famous role, after Sarah Connor in THE TERMINATOR, this modern-day update of the Beauty and the Beast tale featured Ron Perlman as the beast and Hamilton as the beauty, an assistant district attorney in New York City.

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Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman in the TV show BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

MR. DESTINY (1990) -Ellen Burrows – Comedy fantasy starring James Belushi and Michael Caine.

TERMINATOR 2:  JUDGMENT DAY (1991) – Sarah Connor- Hamilton reprises her role as Sarah Connor in this big budget sequel to THE TERMINATOR which featured some of the most cutting edge special effects of its day.  This time around Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is a lean mean fighting machine, while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is warm and fuzzy.  Yup, in this sequel, Arnold plays a  “good” Terminator, helping the humans fight off an even more advanced and dangerous Terminator from the future.  Once again written and directed by James Cameron.

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A leaner, meaner Linda Hamilton in TERMINATOR 2:  JUDGMENT DAY (1991)

SILENT FALL (1994) – Karen Rainer – co-stars with Richard Dreyfuss and John Lithgow in this thriller about an Autistic boy who witnesses his parents’ double murder.

A MOTHER’S PRAYER (1995) – Rosemary Holmstrom – TV movie about a woman (Linda Hamilton) diagnosed with AIDS trying to raise her son as a single mother with the knowledge that she won’t be around for long.  Also starring Bruce Dern and Kate Nelligan.

DANTE’S PEAK (1997) – Rachel Wando – disaster movie about an erupting volcano.  With Pierce Brosnan.

RESCUERS:  STORIES OF COURAGE:  TWO COUPLES (1998) – Marie Taquet- TV movie about citizens rescuing Holocaust victims.

THE COLOR OF COURAGE (1998) – Anna Sipes – based on a true story, the movie chronicles the relationship between a white woman and a black woman.

BATMAN BEYOND:  THE MOVIE (1999) – Dr. Stephanie Lake – lends her voice to this animated Batman film.

SILENT NIGHT (2002) – Elisabeth Vincken- TV movie about a German mother (Hamilton) and her son on Christmas Eve in 1944 who find themselves bringing German and American soldiers together for one night.  Based on a true story.

MISSING IN AMERICA (2005) – Kate – Drama about a Vietnam veteran (Danny Glover) suddenly having to raise Vietnamese girl.

CHUCK (2010-2012) – Mary Bartowski – appeared in 12 episodes of the TV series CHUCK.

A SUNDAY HORSE (2016) – Margret Walden – Hamilton’s most recent screen credit, a drama about a horse and its young female rider.

Starting from about the early 2000s, the lead roles became fewer for Linda Hamilton, and she appeared more often in supporting roles. And the lead roles she did take were often in films that didn’t have the same resonance as the movies from her earlier days.

But she’s still busily acting, and so there are still more Linda Hamilton movies to come. And I for one am happy about that.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the career of Linda Hamilton, the subject of today’s LEADING LADIES column.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Say Bye-Bye to THE BYE BYE MAN (2017)

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While 2017 has been a great year for horror movies so far, it didn’t start out that way. Here’s a look back at one of the year’s earlier efforts, as well as being one of its more forgettable, from January, THE BYE BYE MAN (2017).

THE BYE BYE MAN— what an awful title— opens in the 1960s, when we see an unhinged man with a shotgun chasing his family and neighbors, asking them if they’ve told anyone the name.  Regardless of their answers, he kills them.  He eventually kills himself, all in an effort to prevent the evil of the Bye Bye Man from being spread.  But spread it does!

The story jumps to present day where we meet three college friends about to rent an off campus house together.   There’s Elliot (Douglas Smith) and Sasha (Cressida Bonas), who are dating, and John (Lucien Laviscount), who’s been Elliot’s best friend since childhood. It doesn’t take long before they realize they picked the wrong house to rent.

At their house-warming party, attended by their college friends and Elliot’s older brother Virgil (Michael Trucco) and Virgil’s young daughter Alice (Erica Tremblay), it’s little Alice who discovers a mysterious gold coin in the upstairs bedroom.  This coin later leads Elliott to find the words “Don’t say it!  Don’t think it!” written inside a drawer which eventually leads him to more hidden writing, and this time it’s the name “The Bye Bye Man.”  So, you can’t say it or think it, but I guess it’s okay to write it.

Meanwhile, Sasha’s friend Kim (Jenna Kanell) who is psychic decides to give the house a psychic cleansing, and in an absolutely ridiculous scene in which she must be the most powerful psychic who ever lived because she knows every single answer to every single question naysayer Elliot throws her way, she eventually receives some bad vibes from the Bye Bye Man himself and quicker than you can say séance she makes like the bye bye girl and gets the heck out of there.  Well, sort of.  She does stay long enough to sleep with John.

Anyway, the Bye Bye Man is unleashed and he begins to haunt our three fine college friends who find themselves experiencing strange delusions and having impulses to harm those around them.  And they can’t tell anyone what’s going on because, well, you know, “don’t say it.  don’t think it.”  Say the Bye Bye Man, and it’s curtains for those you say it to.  Whatever.  These folks aren’t that clever.  I mean, they don’t even try to become creative in communicating what’s going on.  There are ways, after all, to get a message across without actually saying a name.  Try “there’s something haunting us which we can’t think about or name” for a start.

THE BYE BYE MAN is a dreadful horror movie that really isn’t worth your time.

The acting is particularly bad.  I thought the two leads, Douglas Smith as Elliot, and Cressida Bonas as Sasha were pretty awful.  I didn’t find them convincing at all, and Smith goes through the whole film with a weird expression on his face, a cross between sadness and fright, regardless of what’s happening around him.

The supporting cast was a bit better.  Lucien Laviscount at least showed some personality as John, and I actually liked Jenna Kanell as Kim, the psychic girl.

Doug Jones plays The Bye Bye Man, and we’ve seen Jones as other monsters as well, in OUIJA:  ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016) and in CRIMSON PEAK (2015).  Jones also played Abe Sapien in the HELLBOY movies.

And in a bizarre bit of casting, Faye Dunaway shows up in a bit part as the Widow Redmon.  Is this the best she can get nowadays?  Very sad.

The direction by Stacy Title isn’t any better.  There are some awkward shots here, almost amateurish, during some scenes of dialogue, where the camera jumps from one character’s face to the other and often lingers there.  It was just odd.  In fact, it was so noticeable that the audience actually laughed a couple of times.  It wasn’t smooth camerawork at all.

In terms of shocks and scares, again, the audience was laughing.  Not a good sign.  In fact, I saw it in a packed theater— which I guess explains why these movies get theatrical releases, because horror movies make money.  Although good horror movies would make more money!—and on the way out I heard several people say it was the worst movie they’ve ever seen.

The script by Jonathen Penner was dull and redundant.  Don’t say it.  Don’t think it.  How about Don’t repeat it?  Over and over again we kept hearing the same phrase, and yet I left that movie not knowing much at all about who the Bye Bye Man was or what he was up to, which I guess is because nobody in the movie could say anything about him.  How convenient.  Let’s create a monster that the characters can’t talk about for fear of death and that way we don’t have to develop him!  Er, no.

The characters were also weak, and I wasn’t interested in any of them.

I will say, that the first time we actually see the Bye Bye Man, I thought he looked kinda cool, but sadly, the more we see of him, the less cool he looks.  And, the worst part is, that the Bye Bye Man has a buddy, and it’s, I guess, some huge carnivorous dog.  Whatever he is, he’s the saddest looking CGI creation this side of those god-awful TWILIGHT wolves.

THE BYE BYE MAN is a weak and forgettable horror movie.  In fact, I have no problem with don’t think it, don’t say it, because lucky for me, I’ve already forgotten about it.  You should too.

Say bye-bye to THE BYE BYE MAN.  Good riddance!

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LIFE (2017)- Science Fiction Thriller Pretty Lifeless

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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—

 

 

 

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017) Hard Hitting Horror Movie Makes Its Mark

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belko_experiment larger poster

How low can humanity go?

For instance, would you willingly commit murder to save the lives of those around you? That’s one of the questions asked in THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017), a new horror movie by director Greg McLean and screenwriter James Gunn, the man who wrote the insanely entertaining Marvel superhero movie GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

Belko Industries is a company located in Bogata, Colombia.  On a morning that begins like any other morning, the employees come to work, but  they soon notice that the non-American employees are being sent home, and there is a heavier military presence outside the office building.  Rumor has it that there has been some kind of bomb scare, which makes sense in this day and age, and so the 80 employees inside the office continue with business as usual.

Normalcy comes to a crashing halt when a voice announces over the intercom that unless the office workers kill two of their own, innocent people will die.  The doors to the building then lock and metal shielding covers all the windows, effectively locking the 80 occupants inside, and cell phone service is also disrupted.

At first, everyone believes it’s a prank, and they rationalize that as long as they stay calm, nothing bad is going to happen.  When the time limit comes and goes, the voice announces they have failed the first part of the test, and suddenly two people inside the office die as their heads explode.  The workers discover that their co-workers were not killed by gunshot blasts but rather by explosions from within their skulls.  They realize that they all have implants in the back of their necks, put there by the company as tracking devices in case they ever got kidnapped in the highly dangerous Colombian countryside.  Now they understand that they all have bombs inside their bodies, and so they know that whoever is responsible for this horror can kill them with ease.

The voice on the intercom raises the stakes:  unless they kill 30 people inside the building, the voice says 60 people will be killed, so they must kill 30 to save 30.  The employees pretty much divide into two camps, one led by Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) who believes killing is wrong, and that they must use their energies to find a way to escape, and the other led by Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) who with his military background believes that it is best in order to save 30 lives, to eliminate 30 lives.

I really enjoyed THE BELKO EXPERIMENT, not because it’s a highbrow thought-provoking drama, but because it’s a quick efficient thriller that grabs you within the first few minutes and never lets you go, a hard-hitting actioner that remains intense from beginning to end.

Director Greg McLean makes this one lean and mean.  It clocks in at a mere 88 minutes. There’s no fat here.

McLean crafts some very suspenseful scenes, the high point when Barry and his team round everyone up and decide to choose who will live and who will die.  Then the power goes out, and all hell breaks loose.

James Gunn’s screenplay presents the perfect set-up for a thriller and then executes it brilliantly.  Sure, the characters aren’t as fleshed out as one might want, but this movie is a rare instance where I didn’t mind the lack of character development.  The characters are all terrified, and knowing that they could die at any moment, was enough for me.  They become instantly sympathetic because their lives are in danger.

I wasn’t nuts about the ending.  It’s not weak enough to sink the movie, but it is certainly not the film’s best part.  It’s inevitable with a story like this that you want to know who is responsible and why, and I don’t think the answers provided here were anything special.  The ending just isn’t as satisfying as all that came before it.

Other than the strong screenplay, the best part of THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is the acting.

John Gallagher Jr. is excellent as Mike Milch.  He makes Mike a very likeable character who’s easy to route for.  He also cares for his co-workers and values their lives, which is something some of the others quickly forget.  Gallagher Jr. was also in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he was also very good, and he starred as the masked killer in the horror movie HUSH (2016).

Equally as good as Gallagher Jr. is Tony Goldwyn as Barry Norris.  Goldwyn plays Norris as a three-dimensional character, not just a cardboard cutout.  While Norris sees himself as the man most qualified to both choose who lives and dies and then to be the one to pull the trigger at the executions, when the time arrives for him to do this, you can see the pain on his face.  The horror of what he is doing is not lost on him.

Adria Arjona also stands out as Mike’s co-worker and girlfriend Leandra.

John C. McGinley, probably most known for his role as Dr. Cox on the TV comedy series SCRUBS (2001-2010), but I always remember him for his outstanding portrayal as serial killer Edgler Vess in INTENSITY (1997), is excellent here as the unhinged Wendell Dukes, a role I could easily have seen Bruce Dern play back in his heyday.

The rest of the cast is also very good.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT isn’t going to win any awards for being a deep and thought-provoking drama, but it is a heck of a thriller, an intense horror movie that makes its point.  It’s also quite violent, although it is not a gore-for-gore’s sake movie.

In terms of intensity, it reminded me a lot of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, only without the zombies.  And while there’s nothing in this film as painfully disturbing as the Neegan scene in THE WALKING DEAD, the film does capture that feeling of the horror people feel at being helpless in a situation in which they have no control.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is the third straight above average horror movie I’ve seen in 2017, following A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) and GET OUT (2017).  All three of these films have featured a fresh story that hasn’t relied on clichéd material.  Even better, all three films have been well-acted, well-written, and well-directed.

2017 so far has been an excellent year for horror movies.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT continues this trend.

It’s a relentlessly intense thriller that will have you squirming in your seat.  For a horror fan, you can’t ask for much more than that.

—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.  

 

 

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 defending 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.