The Thing (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
In the icy landscape of Antarctica, a Siberian Husky attempted to outrun a helicopter because one of the people inside was shooting at it. When the dog arrived in an American research facility, the helicopter landed and came out a man speaking Norwegian. Nobody understood the dialect. He started shooting; Americans shot back. Everyone was baffled with how quickly everything happened and without an apparent reason. When the researchers took the dog to be with its own kind, in the dark, it revealed its true nature: inside it was an alien organism. Based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. and written by Bill Lancaster, “The Thing” deservingly gained a strong cult following over the years. It took its time in showing us the alien’s abilities and how it was able to survive for so long. It was dangerous because it seemed to have both intelligence and great survival instincts. It was capable of copying an animal in exact detail but in order to do so, it had to absorb its victims’ cells. Although the picture didn’t quite delve into specifics, it made sense because cells house DNA. Humans in a contained area were right for the picking. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) was the helicopter pilot and the eventual leader of the group. Along with Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), they had to figure out a way to find which of their colleagues were imitations. One of the best scenes involved MacReady and Dr. Cooper visiting the nearby Norwegian facility and finding the place in utter ruins. They saw deformed and charred human bodies as well as a hunk of ice which, from the looks of it, formerly preserved something. The grotesque and mysterious images allowed us to construct a narrative in our minds about what possibly happened. The film successfully captured a paranoid atmosphere. For instance, the camera’s attention shifted from one person to another. Characters were often in different rooms because they had jobs to do, some were on shifts depending on time of day, while others kept to themselves because certain personalities clashed. What happened to Person A when the camera was on Person B? Another element that added to the paranoia was its calculated use of score. It was able to generate so much tension by simply allowing us to hear heartbeat-like notes during key scenes. And it wasn’t only implemented when a person would walk into a dark room in an attempt to investigate something. It was used in broad daylight when danger was right around the corner. Unfortunately, I had serious issues with the film’s pacing, notably with its final thirty minutes. While it managed to maintain a certain level of creativity in terms of the build-up of who was possibly infected, once we knew, the point-and-shoot-the-flamethrower tactic became repetitive. There was nothing inspiring or surprising during the last fifteen minutes. Despite its shortcomings, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. The special, visual effects, and make-up teams should be applauded for creating images found in nightmares. Directed by John Carpenter, “The Thing” is one of the few movies I feel I must watch every year. I’m hypnotized by it each time.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Becky (Tracy Arnold) recently left her husband so she decided to live with her brother Otis (Tom Towles) and his roommate Henry (Michael Rooker) for the time being. She immediately developed a crush on Henry, not aware of the fact that Henry and her brother stalked and killed unsuspecting women as their extracurricular activity. Directed by John McNaughton, it was easy for me to see why “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” became a cult classic. I admired its cold detachment from its subject just as Henry and Otis treated their victims as less than animals. They obsessively videotaped their conquests and Otis was even sexually aroused as he repeatedly watched the tapes in their apartment. However, I found the first half to be a bit amatuer filmmaking and the project only found its identity half-way through. While the first forty-five minutes’ purpose was to establish the cruelty and analytical nature of Henry’s actions, it eventually repeated itself too often. I wanted to learn something new about the main character who was plagued with the need to kill. The movie came alive when Henry talked about the importance of not having a signature in terms of murdering people. He claimed that a signature was the key to getting caught so it was important to use various weapons when taking a life. That scene was memorable to me because Rooker described it in such a way that it was like a surgeon talking about the instruments he was about to use prior to an operation. The film was able to look the character in question in the eye and note a total absence of humanity. Another scene that stood out to me was when Becky and Henry tried to share something very personal from their past. When Henry shared about his abusive home when he was a child, Becky seemed moved and was able to completely sympathize with him. But when it was Becky’s turn to share, I was convinced that Henry did not feel a thing, that he could only pretend to care about her past. I think much of the movie’s power was the fact that it chose not to paint Henry’s story so that we could understand him better or feel sorry for him. It treated us as smart audiences because Henry was essentially a textbook serial killer. While both Otis and Henry were murderers, there was an important difference between them. Based on a true story involving Henry Lee Lucas’ confessions, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was unsettling movie to watch because there were times when the pointless murders felt downbeat to the point where it felt almost too authentic. It argued that there was nothing romantic about killing in cold blood.
★★★ / ★★★★
An isolated town in the middle of the desert with a population of 14 had to deal with giant worms attracted to anything that caused a vibration above ground. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward star as two friends with a couple of odd jobs. They liked to joke around, talk about women, and make silly decisions based upon rock, paper, scissors. But after finding a dead body and stumbling upon man-eating worms, they had to toughen up and warn the town that they soon would be up for the picking. What I liked most about this movie was its self-awareness. It knew that the concept was silly so did not take itself too seriously. Instead, it took advantage of our lack of knowledge about the organism. Initially, we had no idea how the worms looked like and their capabilities. As the picture went on, as the characters began to struggle for survival, surprisingly, the worms started to smarten up and plan in order to capture their prey. The characters were then forced to get creative in two fronts: How to get away from the worms and how to destroy them. My favorite scenes were the ones where the characters were given the chance to have a closer look at the creatures. I constantly had a sneaky feeling that those worms weren’t really dead, that perhaps they were smart enough to pretend. It gave me the creeps because I just have a disgust for anything that resemble worms or snakes. I also highly enjoyed the scenes with Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as a couple who had a penchant for collecting firearms. Unlike horror movies, especially zombie and slasher flicks, I noticed that the writers did not allow their characters to argue with each other like there was no tomorrow. Time was of the essence and the importance of teamwork was consistently highlighted for survival. I also noticed a low number of false alarms which is atypical for horror pictures, even horror-comedies. Since it wasn’t the norm, it made me feel uneasy in a good way. I felt like I was always on my toes, which was a great sign because it meant that I was engaged. I enjoyed the material because it surprised me in many ways and I felt like the filmmakers and actors had fun while making the picture. Kudos to the special effects and make-up team for creating the disgusting worm guts. “Tremors,” directed by Ron Underwood, achieved cult status and understandably so. With its B-movie premise and tone of silliness, it was easy dismiss. However, it was undeniably fast-paced, energetic, adventurous and farcical. It’s one of those movies that can brighten up one’s night during an uneventful weekend.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) had been promoted for successfully infiltrating an enemy line. However, he was not proud of himself because he played dead in the battlefield while his comrades met their demise. Capt. Boyd was sent to a fort in the California’s snowy Sierra Nevada mountains with seven others (Neal McDonough, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, Sheila Tousey, Joseph Running Fox) who guarded the place. When a badly injured soldier (Robert Carlyle) arrived at the fort, he told them that he and his men ate each other in order to survive for three months in utter isolation. I thought this film was simply superb. Even though it was a little rough around the edges such as its sometimes distracting soundtrack, I was impressed with its originality. This picture was a melting pot of various genres. It mainly worked as a horror film because of the Native American’s myth involving the fearsome wendigo, a cannibal whose taste for its fellow man increasingly grows over time. It was also effective in being a dark comedy. Certain scenes were purposely amusing to relieve some of the tension prior to the kill and the graphic images of eating or destroying human flesh. One-liners such as, “It’s lonely being a cannibal; it’s tough making friends,” arrived at the most unexpected moments and I could not help but smile. Lastly, it succeeded as a western because it paid attention to the land and its impact on the individuals who occupied it. The main character was conflicted because he was torn between survival and his moral code. Watching the events unfold was such a joy because the ideas were executed with confidence. It was not afraid to take risks and embrace the bizarre. It could easily have been a one-dimensional horror movie about cannibalism in the mountains were characters make one stupid decision after another. (Or worse, attempting to climb down the mountain to “find help.”) But since the premise was so exotic, it took advantage of what we are not normally aware of such as our potential lack of knowledge involving the Indian myth. “Ravenous,” written by Ted Griffin and directed by Antonia Bird, is an overlooked gem with a perfect measure of menace and wit. It might have done poorly in the box office but gained a deserved cult status since then. However, I must warn that this film is not for everyone. It might make some people uncomfortable because of the subject matter or the images of human flesh being eaten raw or even cooked in a cauldron. I loved every minute of it because it was not afraid to show us something different. It makes Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and other commerical cannibalism movies I have seen look like child’s play.
★★ / ★★★★
James Woods stars as a journalist who went to El Salvador to acquire stories about the political turmoil that was unfolding in the country. Despite having a wife and a child in the United States, he made contact with old connections who all thought he was dead such as his girlfriend (Elpidia Carrillo) and a photographer (John Savage). This film was a mixed bag. What I enjoyed most about it was when it finally focused on the civil war at hand which culminated in the last thirty minutes. There was something so poetic with the way Oliver Stone, the director, dropped Woods and Savage in the middle of raining bullets; the soliders held their guns and shot their bullets and the two leads held their cameras and took photos. Another part of the picture that stood out to me was the scene when Savage and Woods decided to take pictures of mountains of dead bodies. The decaying bodies looked so real especially when the camera loomed over the image in a wide angle. The film performed best when it really honed in on the seriousness of war and the innocents that were caught in the crossfire. However, my main problem with this film was its sense of humor that pervaded the first half. James Belushi’s character did not work for me at all because whenever he was on screen, I felt like I was watching a teenage film from the 80’s–like he was that boisterous uncle in a frat party who never found the time to mature. His character was just so out of place that it was kind of painful to watch. I don’t know what Stone was thinking writing this character into the story but I found it a bit disrespectful. Was the character’s purpose to show the obliviousness of Americans regarding the situation in El Salvador? If so, that was not my initial reaction because his character did not show any range or growth. The romantic angle did not work for me either for the same reasons. In the end, I wanted to know more about Woods and why he loved being a journalist. The way he argued his opinions about the war (even though he sounded preachy) against Americans in power convinced me that he wasn’t just doing it for the fame or the money as other synopses suggested. Even though he was flawed, he cared about what was happening in El Salvador. To me, half of this film borderlined greatness because I could feel the passion in the images on screen while the other half was more blasé and somewhat offensive. It is unfortunate that it was just a mediocre experience for such a powerful subject.
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
I have to admit that I’ve never heard of the Z Channel until I started looking for documentaries similar to “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!” for movie recommendations. “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” directed by Alexandra Cassavetes, was about Jerry Harvey, the man who selected the films that were shown on the first pay cable channel that featured only movies. While it was about his accomplishments and movies that gained fans from his influences, the picture started off with the fact that he had murdered his wife and killed himself afterwards. His friends and the people he worked with recalled how his personality was volatile, how he was brought up, and all of the major events that ended up in the tragedy. Since I’m a fan of HBO and Showtime (Z Channel’s former competitors) I was interested in what the Z Channel was all about and the kinds of movies it showed. What worked for me was the fact that I had the chance to note several films that caught my interest: “Images” (1975), “Overlord” (1972) , “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), “The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981), “L’important c’est d’aimer” (1975) and a whole lot more. The interviewees discussed each one and told us why Harvey decided to show it on the channel. It was fascinating to me how each film didn’t do well commercially upon initial release but after being shown on the Z Channel, they received so much critical acclaim and gained cult status. What’s more impressive is that the “director’s cut” movies (longer running time) fared better than the studio versions (much shorter running time). It really showed me that not only did Harvey have great taste in picking which ones would appeal to the masses but also the fact that he really had the passion for movies; instead of waiting for them to fall on his lap, he actively searched for them and shared to the world what he loved. What didn’t work for me, unfortunately, was the fact that the people being interviewed sometimes said the same exact thing (only using different words) about Harvey: he was moody, aggressive and sometimes cold. I just wished that they featured him under another light. Nevertheless, the positives outweigh the negatives. This documentary made me wish that the Z Channel still existed because I was so fascinated with the strange (and sometimes I’ve never heard of) movies it featured.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“El espinazo del diablo” or “The Devil’s Backbone,” written and directed Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), was about a newcomer in an orphanage named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) and the dark secrets that were about to unfold during his short stay. I love the fact that the film started off trying to define what a ghost was. When the proposed definitions seemed unfit, it jumped into the story and actually showed us what a ghost could be. Of course, by the end of the picture, it was astute enough to let the audiences define for themselves what a ghost was after we’ve seen the events that happened in the orphanage. The three main adults in the story set in the middle of the Spanish Civil War included a lady with a prosthetic leg (Marisa Paredes), a doctor (Federico Luppi), and a caretaker (Eduardo Noriega). Stuck in the orphanage for so long during the war, tension begins to arise and secrets begin to mount among the three. Caught in the middle of it all were the children such as Carlos and Jaime–as one of the tougher older kids with a secret (Íñigo Garcés) involving a ghost named Santi (Junio Valverde). The organic manner in which all of the various elements came together and the extremely atmospheric orphanage was exemplary. By that I mean that the shadows in the backdrop looked alive and haunting even if the focus was supposed to be on a character’s facial expression as he discovers something morbid or shocking. I admired del Toro’s use of foreshadowing involving a missile that landed but never exploded though that event marked the day where everything changed. Each scene had some kind of purpose which began to make more and more sense as the film progressed. I also liked that half of this film was more of a supernatural thriller with elements of mystery and the other half was a story of survival. The director balanced the tone so well that each half complimented each other and ended up with a work that was touching, heartpounding and quite clever. There were certain shots in this picture that stood out to me. One of them was whenever the camera was fixated on a character’s face in a close-up as something terrible happened, the lens would zoom out and show a beautiful and peaceful background. Even though techniques like that stood out to me, it never distracted me from the film. In fact, it enhanced my experience because the events that transpired in “The Devil’s Backbone” often had a silver lining. I saw this film back in 2002 or 2003, liked it, forgotten about it, and since then became a sleeper hit. I’m not surprised at all because it was so well done. There’s still a lot of people out there that haven’t seen the movie and they really should because it takes ghost stories on a new level.