The Driller Killer (1979)

Thank God Abel Ferrera made Bad Lieutenant and Body Snatchers.  If The Driller Killer was his only credit, his career would not be remembered with much fondness or respect.

Released 40 years ago when he was a hungry guerilla filmmaker in New York, Ferrera the director also plays the title character (but curiously uses a pseudonym for his acting credit), a struggling, temperamental painter living with two women, one his girlfriend, the other her secret lover.

Living right underneath their surprisingly spacious apartment is the world’s shittiest punk band, The Roosters, led by the deeply untalented Tony Coca-Cola.  He can’t sing, they can’t play.  Yet, they still attract groupies and a small club following.  When Ferrera’s girlfriend claims with a straight face that they actually sound good on their album, he is dumbfounded and unconvinced.  One of their hooks is a blatant rip-off of Peter Gunn.  It’s still awful.

Ferrera has a psychotic streak that isn’t properly explained or even remotely credible, despite his frequent bitchiness.  He has some bizarre dream early on that’s supposed to foreshadow his inevitable rampage.  One night, while huddled around the TV with the ladies, an ad comes on for Porto Pack, a portable battery pack that allows you to use appliances and electrical tools without a cord for just $19.95.

Shortly thereafter, Ferrera buys one.  And then for some reason, he starts murdering random homeless people by drilling holes in their heads, hands, backs and chests with his power drill.  He has no legitimate beef with them.  There’s even a scene where he converses with one friendly, smiling street person while sketching his portrait.

As Ferrera continually complains about the godawful Roosters and their endless noise pollution, at no time does he contemplate taking them out.  When Tony Coca-Cola comes around to ask if he’ll paint his portrait, Ferrera obliges for a 500 dollar fee.  Not a single homeless guy ever bothers him.

In the meantime, Ferrera’s relationship with his girlfriend is deteriorating.  He has this giant buffalo painting that he really needs to sell.  (Her alimony from her still smitten ex-husband is the only way they’re staying barely afloat.)  She wonders not unreasonably when he’s ever going to finish it.  He snaps at her condescendingly, proclaiming only he knows what he’s doing and it gets finished when it gets finished.

His increasingly impatient gay art dealer, who ultimately dismisses the work once he sees it, refuses to give him any more advance money.  For a guy who contemplates a better life, Ferrera is curiously more interested in killing randoms than selling his work.  He’s in no hurry to be the next Warhol.  And the movie is far too invested in showcasing The Roosters.  Honestly, what more could they do to warrant Ferrera’s wrath?  He refuses to do us all a favour.

Besides its complete lack of genuine scares and incomprehensible plot, The Driller Killer also embraces casual misogyny and homophobia.  Pissed off after his buffalo piece is brutally rejected, Ferrera lures the art dealer back to his apartment by unsubtly suggesting sex is on the table.  Spoiler:  it’s not.  The way Ferrera treats his girlfriend it’s no wonder her ex is suddenly looking like a better option for her.  But what about her secret bisexual lover?  Guess it was just a fling and not serious.  Anyway, their love scene in the shower feels more gratuitous than essential to the confusing plot.  Besides, she ends up rolling around with Tony Coca-Cola.  As Costanza would say, she could do a hell of a lot better than him.

Perhaps the strangest scene is the first one.  Ferrera walks up to some muttering, bearded guy in a church, sits down next to him, slowly reaches out for his hand and then gets freaked out when the guy suddenly looks at him.  He barrels out of there in a hurry.  What was the point of that exactly?  Bearded guy apparently had Ferrera’s name and phone number on him, and the church put them in contact with each other.  But they don’t have any connection whatsoever.  They’re not related.  This was their first meeting.  Is this the beginning of Ferrera’s inexplicable animus towards the homeless?  Really weak.

And then there’s the ending.  Despondent over his now ex-girlfriend’s exit from his life, a now completely unhinged Ferrera decides to pay her an unexpected visit.  The moment builds up as she climbs into bed thinking her ex is under the covers (even though she was expecting to have tea after her shower).  Will he kill her or will she survive?  We’ll never know because instead, we get the end credits.  We’re left to imagine the actual ending, not that we ever cared that much in the first place.

“THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD”, the film instructs right off the top.  Actually, in this particular case, the mute button is your friend.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, June 16, 2019
12:37 a.m.

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Published in: on June 16, 2019 at 12:38 am  Leave a Comment  

The Beast Within (1982)

It’s 1964.  A newlywed couple is traveling through Mississippi late at night when their car gets stuck.  The husband (Ronny Cox in a rare babyface role) instructs the wife (Bibi Besch) to stay inside with the doors locked while he runs back up the road to get a tow truck.

But, of course, the wife doesn’t listen.  The couple’s yappy dog wants to get out from the back seat.  So, out they come.  But then she loses sight of him.  Meanwhile, something is on the prowl.  And it’s hungry.

Once chained in the basement of some old house in the woods, this thing is now loose and ravenous.  The wife soon makes two horrifying discoveries, one that will dramatically change the future course of her life.

That’s the set-up for The Beast Within, a truly terrible horror film that’s equal parts silly and tasteless.  In other words, a typical 1982 release.

Seventeen years later, we learn the married couple has a teenage son (an overwrought Paul Clemens) and he’s not doing too well.  Something to do with his pituitary gland, according to the doctor (R.G. Armstrong).  The kid keeps having sweaty, unscary nightmares about that old house where that mysterious thing was held prisoner.

Sure enough, he inevitably escapes the hospital and locates that same house.  Against his better judgment he opens up the locked cellar door and his heel turn begins.

What’s strange about The Beast Within is that because there’s lots of full moon shots we think we’re gonna see a werewolf movie.  But instead, we get a possession movie.  The boy is a catalyst for a pissed off spirit seeking vengeance against an entire family in a small Mississippi town.  One by one, the married couple’s son tracks them down and either eats them or stabs them.  These are not well-executed scenes, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Meanwhile, his idiotic parents belatedly start investigating what happened that fateful night in 1964.  The wife learns about a murder while rifling through the archives of the local newspaper that apparently has just one employee.  Some of the residents, including the mayor and the judge, are deeply concerned about their sudden investigation.  This is the worst cover-up since Watergate.

The tortured teenage son develops a crush on a cute local girl (Katherine Moffat) with an abusive dad (John Dennis Johnston).  There’s an odd scene where he hears a high-pitched noise and is in excruciating pain so he falls to his knees.  Then, they make out on the ground.  Killing the mood is her dog who runs over to drop off a severed hand he just dug up.  The police eventually recover 36 skeletons in the same wooded area, only one of which is identified.

In the meantime, the killings continue.  There’s the coroner who looks like an even creepier Conan O’Brien.  And the “crazy” old drunk, an old friend of the vengeful spirit, who no one believes is telling the truth about the teenage son.  (Why he gets electrocuted to death makes no sense.  He didn’t wrong anybody.)  By the time everybody finally stops being stupid, the son has transformed into some kind of monster ready to relive 1964.

Let’s focus on that transformation scene for a moment.  Now I’m a sucker for old-school effects that are done well.  Look at what David Cronenberg’s team put together in Scanners and Videodrome which were released during the same period.  Those effects and the make-up hold up really well.  Compare all of that with The Beast Within and you’ll notice one major difference.  These scenes provoke unintentional laughter.

Why does the teenage son look like a generic deformed monster when this vengeful spirit that’s inhabiting his mind and body is supposed to be an ordinary human being?  And what’s with the sexual assaults?  Does the spirit only have a limited amount of time in a certain body?  Is that why he has to procreate?

The movie comes full circle in its final scene essentially repeating what we witness in the opening.  At no point during this movie does anyone mention the word “abortion”.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, June 16, 2019
12:19 a.m.

Published in: on June 16, 2019 at 12:19 am  Comments (1)  

Haven’t Felt In Years

Numbing agents at my disposal
All I need is a single dose
No forthcoming counter proposal
Far away and yet so close

A stinging sensation, then a hint of bliss
A permanent chemical solution
A thrust of denial works like this
A perfect shot of delusion

Hammer the nail until it breaks the flesh
Target the pain for removal
Pound it hard while the wounds still fresh
This always meets my approval

Protect yourself from further decay
Keep stabbing at the ghosts of the past
Even though they refuse to go away
This valley of depression is vast

Dreading the impact of the final blow
Arrival uncertain and the source of all fears
When it finally comes, I won’t even know
I haven’t felt in years

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, June 9, 2019
3:19 a.m.

Published in: on June 9, 2019 at 3:19 am  Leave a Comment  

The Legend Of Hell House

The Legend Of Hell House begins with an enticing proposal.  An old man summons a respected scientist to his palatial estate.  He wants him to be part of a team that enters an infamous mansion.  Each member will receive a hundred thousand pounds after living in it for four days.  Their task: to determine if one can indeed survive after death.

For you see, this particular mansion is supposedly haunted.  And this is not the first time outsiders have attempted to understand its enduring mystery.

One of the team members, the much missed Roddy MacDowell, knows this place all too well.  20 years ago, he barely survived with his life intact while all his colleagues either died, were critically injured or driven insane.  He’s a physical medium who has learned to turn off his gift.

The beautiful Pamela Franklin plays a young mental medium absolutely convinced of the house’s legend.  (As expected, the scientist (Clive Revill), who already thinks she’s too young for such a challenging assignment, is not persuaded in the slightest.  They frequently butt heads.)  Rounding out the team is the scientist’s hot red-headed wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) who is sexually frustrated.  One wonders why she is even here when her husband’s not putting out.

What’s really peculiar about this movie is when it takes place.  The scientist has his meeting with the old man on December 17th.  Once the team is all picked up, they arrive together three days later.  That’s right.  This is all supposed to wrap up on Christmas Eve.  You know what’s even more peculiar?  No one mentions Christmas.

The moment they arrive at this place is the moment The Legend Of Hell House stops being interesting.  This mansion does not live up to its dark reputation at all.  The pacing becomes much slower as it becomes clear the filmmakers have no real idea how to scare us.  There is no unsettling atmosphere (unless you get jumpy around fog, suddenly breaking objects, falling chandeliers, moving bed sheets and creaky doors that sometimes open and close on their own), just a bunch of moaning and old school physical effects that are too old fashioned by today’s standards to be truly effective.  (The movie came out in 1973.)  The low, repetitive, rumbling music isn’t much better.  Where’s Bernard Hermann when you need him?

It does not help that, as the movie progresses, we are constantly reminded of the date and time which feels unnecessary and excessive.  Seeing these graphics again and again reinforces the film’s sluggish tone.  December 24th can’t arrive soon enough.

It takes a while to even learn the history of Hell House.  Many moons ago, unspeakable acts of depravity took place here culminating in a massacre that left a little more than a couple dozen people dead.  The only one unaccounted for is the wealthy freakazoid who owned this place.  His body remains missing.

Pamela Franklin’s character is able to channel the spirit of what she thinks is the owner’s son.  A seance is conducted.  At one point, the spirit speaks through her.  (How is this possible?  She’s not a physical medium like MacDowell.)  The message is not friendly.  The warnings are not heeded.

She is repeatedly visited by this invisible entity.  And yes, there’s the obligatory scene where they fuck which she later regrets.

Meanwhile, the scientist’s hot red-headed wife starts making a play for the wide-eyed, bespectacled MacDowell, since she’s not getting any action.  (At one point, while laying in bed next to her always sleeping husband she sees and hears shadows going at it.  She is really backed up.)  For his part, MacDowell, no longer blocking his medium powers, has his own freak out where we see him screaming and writhing on the floor all contorted like a stretching cat.  Maybe he shouldn’t have turn down her advances.  Looks like he could use a release, too.

Franklin, the mental medium, participates in another experiment.  As she sits quietly in a chair with her eyes closed, Revill, the skeptical scientist, starts doing play-by-play into a mic’d up recorder as he monitors various levels on his equipment.  Unexplained white energy starts emanating from her fingertips.  (Not exactly a dynamite effect.)  Revill is convinced she is somehow creating this energy herself.  Okay.

At one point, the scientist unearths this giant machine.  When it’s eventually turned on, everyone steps outside as it “cleans” the mansion of its filthy spirits.  (He finally uses it on day four.  Franklin, now controlled by the horny, angry, invisible entity, tries to destroy it but only causes minor damage.)  Incredibly, it works with one big exception.  By the time this finally wraps, only half the team will make it out alive.

The Legend Of Hell House is a good title in search of a good story.  It knows how to set things up in an interesting way.  (The best scene really is the first one.)  It just fails to pay everything off.  The moment we see this mansion from the outside we are decidedly unimpressed.  (The mood isn’t properly established.)  Once that front door opens and the foursome walk in, that opinion is solidified.

The ending is overwrought but not even remotely frightening.  One mystery is solved but many questions linger.  For one, how is that cat still alive?

It’s never a good sign for a supernatural horror film to see a suspicious disclaimer right at the top.  Some real-life psychic I never heard of, who had apparently advised European royals way back when, wants you to know that while this story is fake (the screenplay, written by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), is based on his novel), the fanciful ideas suggested in The Legend Of Hell House could very well happen off-camera.

Oh, fuck off, Tom Corbett.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, May 13, 2019
10:01 p.m.

Published in: on May 13, 2019 at 10:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hands Of The Ripper (1972)

What if Jack The Ripper had a family?  What if his wife discovered his dark secret?  And what if his infant daughter inherited his psychopathy?

It’s perfectly plausible that this notorious serial killer, who was never caught, may have led a double life in the real world.  After all, there have been many such examples throughout history.  John Wayne Gacy was a pillar of his community while he quietly picked up teenage boys to rape, torture and murder, dozens of whom he buried on his own property.

When he wasn’t terrorizing young women, Ted Bundy had a steady girlfriend, was an exceptionally bright law student and volunteered for Republicans while aspiring to be one himself.  Christ, The Golden State Killer, a house invader, rapist and murderer, was a cop.

But in Hands Of The Ripper, that’s where the plausibility ends.

In the opening scene, Jack The Ripper is being chased by an angry mob.  But he’s too fast for them.  As he returns to his fictional family home, his wife takes a moment to realize who he really is.  Fearing the worst, Jack throws her down and stabs her to death, right in front of his crying two-year-old.

Fifteen years later, Anna is now a vulnerable teenager shamelessly exploited in two ways by her current caregiver, a shady psychic.  First, she pretends to be a disembodied voice from the spirit world for phony seances.  Second, that same psychic pimps her out to wealthy johns.  Soothsaying isn’t lucrative, apparently.

There’s a scene where a member of the British Parliament offers the psychic money for what he thinks will be a deflowering.  But once he gives Anna a piece of jewelry as a gift, she is hypnotized by the light reflecting on it and becomes silent.  The elected official starts smacking her around when she doesn’t respond to his advances.  Overhearing the violent commotion, the psychic enters the room and gives the man a refund.

Outside, a cynical Freudian doctor, who had just attended the psychic’s latest bogus seance (he’s trying to have all of these fraudulent businesses shut down), is waiting for a cab ride home.  Suddenly, he hears a scream.  As he passes the departing politician in the open doorway, he makes his way upstairs and notices the psychic pinned against Anna’s bedroom door, a poker jabbed right through her.

What Dr. Pritchard does next calls his own sanity into question.  Instead of reporting Anna to the police (she first gets picked up along with a bunch of lippy sex workers), he takes her in, placing her in his dead wife’s old bedroom and allowing her to wear her old clothes.  When the politician is interrogated for the psychic’s murder, the doctor covers for him.  He wants his elected official to dig up all he can on Anna’s past.

While the sleazy politico fails to find anything, he is ultimately right about Anna.  She is definitely possessed.  The second he gives her that gift, she transforms into a different person.  Poppycock!, declares the supremely foolish Dr. Pritchard, who thinks she’s suffering from a severe mental illness.  It will take him the entire movie to realize how wrongheaded he really is.

There’s another trigger for Anna’s explosive violence.  Whenever she’s embraced or kissed, she suddenly hears her murderous father’s voice calling her name.  And then, it’s stabbing time.

Doubly blinded by his lust for her (his wife’s been dead a while; Anna gives him a look that suggests the feeling is mutual) and his stubborn determination to understand and cure her, Dr. Pritchard stupidly becomes an accessory.  No one seems to care about all these dead bodies laying about (except the torch-carrying dudes curiously outraged over a lesbian sex worker’s assassination).  There’s absolutely no follow through by the police.  They care even less than we do.

In one scene, the desperate psychoanalyst is about to dispose of one such body when his oldest domestic staffer startles him and he scrambles to avoid detection.  No one challenges him on his blatant lie about her permanent disappearance.  Did he actually leave her body in the tub?  We never see him try to dispose of it again.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pritchard’s son is to be married in less than a week to a klutzy, blind woman.  Dad’s oldest domestic worker is very old fashioned towards the couple.  (To be fair, the movie is set in the early 1900s.)  They are never to be left alone before their wedding.  They must always be chaperoned.  They can’t even live together.  In the underwhelming climax Anna fills in for the old lady while accompanying the blind woman on a pre-wedding trip to a historic monument with sentimental value which horrifies a no longer delusional Dr. Pritchard.

Hands Of The Ripper was released in 1972 by Hammer, the British studio best known for reviving Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Mummy after Universal abandoned them at the end of the 1950s.  This is not their finest production.

Although it looks good and features decent performances from its mostly unknown, accented cast, it will not haunt you while you sleep nor will it inspire you to look over your shoulder when you leave your home.  That said, the horror scenes are surprisingly graphic, even by Hammer standards at the time, but the emphasis on shock rather than suspense and logic hurts the quality of the film.  The filmmakers aim for cheap rather than clever.

The late Angharad Rees is the picture of innocence as Anna, Jack The Ripper’s tortured daughter.  But she’s nowhere close to being terrifying as she jabs anyone who triggers her.  We just don’t buy her bizarre possession.  It doesn’t help that we don’t care about any of her victims.

Eric Porter, who plays Dr. Pritchard, looks uncannily like F. Murray Abraham.  He has a great, intense stare.  But his character is too dumb to take seriously.  Dr. Pritchard is part of a long history in horror of well intentioned men of science who insist on studying evil rather than vanquishing it.  Because of their misguided compassion, they pay the ultimate price.

Jack The Ripper’s hold on his only child turns out to be so weak, a simple, repeated command from a desperate man ends everyone’s suffering.  If only Dr. Pritchard wasn’t so horny and stupid to begin with.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, May 11, 2019
10:54 p.m.

Published in: on May 11, 2019 at 10:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cape Fear (1962)

He has waited so long for this moment.  Strolling into town with a new air of invincibility, he finally sees him.  But he is cruelly ignored.  The man, the one who ruined his life, walks right past him.  An unforgivable denial of responsibility.

Max Cady has wanted to get his hands on Sam Bowden for over eight years.  Now he has his chance.

Having just served a long sentence for assaulting a young woman, he is not reformed.  He is infuriated.  And Bowden’s gonna pay.

Why target him?  Sam saw everything and didn’t keep his mouth shut.

In four notes, Bernard Hermann’s brilliant theme for the original Cape Fear immediately hooks you into the story. (The score will be quite familiar to anyone who saw Martin Scorsese’s superior update.  He used the same music.)  Without it, the opening title sequence is just a cigar-smoking guy in a hat walking around town during the day.  With it, a new menace has arrived and everyone should be on their guard.  The spectacularly moody black and white cinematography with its strong emphasis on shadow increases the tension that much more.

Robert Mitchum plays Cady as a sly, vengeful devil, his phony charm carefully concealing his hidden venom.  When he famously takes Sam’s car keys right out of the ignition the second time he sees him, it is only then that the upstanding lawyer remembers.  Cady will never let him forget again.

He starts stalking Bowden and his family.  At the bowling alley.  Outside his large house.  And most memorably, at the docks.  Cady is conspicuous on purpose.  He wants Sam to confront him.  In a moment that is as provocative now as I’m sure it was in 1962, the ex-con tells the devoted family man that his young teenage daughter, cleaning the top of a boat in bare feet and short shorts, is getting to be almost as “juicy” as his wife.  Sam’s understandable reaction is his biggest vulnerability.

All that time in prison has made Cady a student of the law and a better criminal.  Either he comes close to the line without crossing it or he’s more skilled at covering his tracks.  Knowing his nemesis will never relent, Sam continually calls on his friend, the police chief (Martin Balsam in a very fine performance), to do something about it.

Did Cady register as a previous offender now that’s he moved here?  Yes he did.  Is he violating vagrancy laws?  Nope.  He just came into money from selling his family’s farm.  Can he be arrested for stalking?  No he can’t.  He hasn’t made any direct threats.

Unable to legally deport him from the state, the police start directly harassing Cady.  As he calmly sips on his booze at a local watering hole and notices the cute brunette eyeing him from across the way (she’s talking up another guy), here comes the heat urging him to come downtown.  Just before they take him away, though, he hits on her right in front of her companion and makes future plans.  Balls of steel.

By no means a shrinking violet, Cady then hires a very smart lawyer.  This man has all the receipts.  In a meeting with the police and Sam, he lists off all the times they questioned his client about numerous recent crimes they’re investigating.  There are no arrests because they can’t nab him on anything.  A smiling, chuckling Cady is firmly in control.  All Sam can do is scowl in frustration.  The roles have been reversed.

When the family dog is poisoned, Cady is fingered but there’s no proof.  When that same brunette he picks up from the bar, who openly and boldly denounces his savagery on the car ride to her place, is inevitably assaulted by the Southern creep, she is too afraid to have him arrested.  She bolts.  And when Sam’s daughter notices him walking towards her as she sits in her mom’s empty car, she freaks out and runs back into her school thinking he’s following her.  (Clever use of The False Alarm.)  Ironically, she ends up in his arms anyway but while fleeing once more she gets hit by another vehicle.

Sensing his growing fatigue with the police’s lack of success in quashing his new neighbourhood threat, the chief suggests a “humiliating suggestion” to Sam.  Call Telly Savalas, a private detective.  Maybe he will uncover something useful.  But Cady won’t stop.  He will never stop.

He won’t take bribes.  He’ll even survive a beating from hired goons.  (Note to Sam.  You should’ve recruited monster heels from the NWA.)  And he’s no longer coy about his intentions.

Knowing what he must do, Sam develops a risky plan with the full consent of his family.  When you think about it, it is not entirely smart or reasonable.  But he’s quickly running out of options.  That said, I’m not sure I would want to be bait for a sociopath.

I saw the updated version of Cape Fear on Boxing Day 1991 and it’s clearly the better movie.  Robert De Niro was given way more freedom to make his Max Cady more seductive and terrifying.  (Note the respective scenes where he convinces a teenage Juliette Lewis to fellate his finger and how he brutalizes Illeana Douglas, another paramour.)  Alternately, The Bowden Family are not completely innocent.  (Note the religious symbolism of Nick Nolte’s hands in the final scene.)

But Scorsese would never have been able to pull off his remake were it not for this surprisingly contemporary original, itself an adaptation of the novel The Executioners.  He improved the finished result but director J. Lee Thompson provided him with the blueprints.  There’s no way the 1991 version would exist without it.  (Scorsese constructed it as an homage to the film not the book, despite making numerous departures.)

Like a lot of his characters, Gregory Peck plays Sam Bowden as a man of decency facing challenging tests to his integrity and beliefs.  (It’s coincidental that his most famous role, Atticus Finch, another attorney, this one under societal pressure to side with racism, in To Kill A Mockingbird (for which he won an Oscar), was released the same year as Cape Fear.)  When we meet him, he’s quite liberal and supportive of civil rights even for the lowest of the low.  But Cady’s intrusions into his family’s life pushes him so hard at one point he considers shooting him with his gun.  Polly Bergen, wonderful as his wife, threatens to turn him into the police which sounds like an idle threat but there she is, receiver in hand, police on the other end, and here he comes, returning to reason, hanging it up just in time.  She knows that’s what Cady wants.

His plan to use Detective Savalas as a lure to lead Cady to his isolated houseboat is fraught with complications.  (You should’ve hired more cops, counsellor.)  Sam doesn’t anticipate being outsmarted quite so easily.  Nonetheless, the sequence pays off handsomely with Cady in full-on sleaze mode.  When the rapist cracks that egg and smears all that goo over Sam’s traumatized wife’s chest, the creepy symbolism is unmistakable.  Bergen’s reactions, especially the ones heard off camera, evoke just the right amount of terror.  You think she’s still being assaulted.

Robert Mitchum’s unseemly leering at their teenage daughter, especially during the dock sequence, and the scary story he tells Sam during the bar scene, prepares us for the moment he abducts her.  (He has experience with kidnapping women.)  Mitchum never overdoes any aspect of his performance, firmly grounding it in reality.  Cady is always in control which makes him so formidable.

Mitchum understood the power of his own face.  By dialing down his expressions, his Cady commands more loathing and contempt and genuine fear rather than ridicule.  His downplayed glances say everything.  Watch him ogle that passing woman just before he climbs up the courthouse stairs during the opening credits.  He objectifies with a single stare.  There is no kindness in him, either.  Note how instead of picking up that book a woman drops on the staircase, he just keeps on walking past much to her astonishment.

Cape Fear doesn’t end the way you expect.  I would argue it’s not necessarily a happy ending.  Sam Bowden makes a decision most others, if put in the same situation, would not.  Cady has pushed him so hard to completely stray from his liberal principles but clearly not far enough.

In the end, Sam tries to have it both ways.  On the one hand, by not following through the way Cady wants him to, he’s able to maintain his faith in the justice system and his own sense of decency.  But on the other, he’s clearly not interested in restorative justice.

More importantly, he is forever changed by the experience.  When Sam manages to retrieve his gun in time, Cady sounds defeated.  But look at all the damage he caused the Bowden women.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, May 11, 2019
10:25 p.m.

Published in: on May 11, 2019 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

Wanted (2008)

Wesley Gibson is a loser.  When he Googles his name, nothing comes up.  His best friend, a co-worker in his office, is having an affair with his bitchy, live-in girlfriend.  Their boss loudly and repeatedly demeans him at his cubicle.  And he’s not exactly rolling in the dough.

Everything changes when he gets a prescription refill at his local pharmacy.  (He’s quite anxious.)  It’s here he meets the appropriately named Fox.

We already know Wesley’s dad abandoned him when he was a baby.  Fox informs him he’s recently been murdered.  Moments later, the man who killed him is firing in their direction.

So begins Wanted, a film I’d originally screened with a friend during its original theatrical run in the summer of 2008.  Unfortunately, the idiot projectionist forgot to turn on the sound.  There was dead silence for the first few minutes as someone rushed out to alert an usher.  Eventually, the problem was resolved.  The only sound we heard in those opening moments came courtesy of the morons seated behind us reading the opening graphics out loud.

Needless to say, I was pissed and essentially threw out that screening.  (I’ve not been back to that particular theatre since.)  Last year, I borrowed a Blu-ray copy from my local library but never got around to screening it before it was returned.  Thankfully, earlier this month, I spotted a DVD edition and picked it up again.

So after more than a decade, what did I miss?  As it turns out, an overrated movie.

James McAvoy plays the downtrodden Wesley, a man of inaction recruited into a secret society of assassins led by Sloan.  No, not the great Halifax band, but creepy Morgan Freeman.  Founded a thousand years ago to prevent the world from descending into chaos, they’re able to hide in plain sight by masquerading as textile workers.  Sure.

How do they know who to bump off?  The loom!  What the hell is that?  It’s this big contraption that manufactures code through yarn that, once deciphered, reveals a name.  Uh huh.

After being rescued by Fox at the pharmacy, Wesley substitutes one mind numbing routine for another.  Instead of working on numbers in an office and being reamed by his jerky superior, now he gets repeatedly pulverized by Sloan’s underlings as they prepare him for revenge.

I have to admit the recovery room gimmick is pretty cool.  After every merciless beating and stabbing, Wesley is placed in a bath looking like Han Solo at the end of Empire.  Once he shatters free of his temporary prison, he’s given some vodka and sees his wounds heal in mere hours rather than days.  Because he’s a slow learner he will return here again and again.

Then he gets his first assignment:  kill some guy sitting in a fifth floor office while on top a speeding train for reasons that are never, ever explained.  When the moment of truth arrives, understandably Wesley backs down.  What did this guy do to anybody?

Then, while once again recovering, Fox tells him the story of what happened to her dad, a federal judge with a reputation for not selling out.  Some thug lured him into a trap and beat his ass to death while young Fox watched in horror.  Then, he branded his initials on him using an uncoiled wire hanger.  Discreet!

Employing logic that Dick Cheney would heartily endorse, Fox lectures that had the thug that assassinated her father been assassinated himself when his name was selected weeks earlier by the loom, none of this would’ve happened.  Cut to Wesley back on top of that speeding train finally killing that mysterious guy in the office window.

Wanted is based on a comic book series not unlike the Kick-Ass franchise where a number of scenes uncomfortably mix humour with bloody violence.  There’s only one really funny moment in Wanted.  Everything else is just cruel.

Consider the scene where Wesley goes back to his office after being introduced to The Fraternity, the secret assassin society, and finally flips out on his abusive, donut-loving boss.  He’s just as mean.  Or his explosive reaction to Barry (Chris Pratt in an early film role), his treacherous best friend boinking his shrill girlfriend.  He doesn’t punch him in the face.  He drills him with his ergonomic keyboard resulting in a knocked out tooth and a spelled out punchline.  (Barry’s eventual respect for him is weird and unpersuasive.)

We never see the inevitable break-up scene with his ex.  (She inevitably shacks up with Barry.)  But Wesley does go back to their apartment to retrieve a gun he has hidden in the toilet while getting another earful.  When Fox walks in, here comes the “slut” shaming and a kiss to shut her the hell up.

Halfway through the film, there’s the famous train derailment sequence (which is really well done) where Wesley finally catches up with the man he’s been chasing since his recruitment.  But an unexpected revelation at the last moment undermines his whole purpose within The Fraternity.

Wanted was directed by Timur Bekmambetov who would go on to make the surprisingly good Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  With numerous slowed-down action sequences clearly inspired by The Matrix, Wanted ultimately lacks its cleverness, originality and genuine excitement, bullet detours notwithstanding.

How many times have we seen stories about a wuss who eventually discovers his inner badass and stands up to his bullies?  How many times have we seen stories about the hero being deliberately misled into doing something awful only to belatedly learn he trusted the wrong people?  And how many times have we seen stories where one guy improbably destroys a well-armed multi-manned institution singlehandedly?

You know the answer.  More importantly, you know you’ve seen better executed examples of this concept.

What’s startling about the film is its open embrace of fascism.  The Fraternity doesn’t take out unrepentant Nazis like Perry King’s pacifist teacher in Class Of 1984 or serial killers like Dexter or even serial rapists like Lisbeth Salander in the Dragon Tattoo movies.  No, they take out mystery men not formerly accused of anything.  They’re the CIA with a lamer cover story.

And how are they able to get away with any of this when they are caught on surveillance cameras (the photos are then published on the front page of major newspapers with the headline “Wanted”) and blasting away during the day in public with a whole lot of witnesses and innocent, dead civilians left behind?

Angelina Jolie is far more interesting than the generic McAvoy (who made a much bigger impression on me in Split), her undeniable charisma casting a long, tattooed shadow over everybody else.  She has that rare mix of grit and grace that makes her such a compelling performer.  What a miscalculation to limit her scenes and not make her the central character.

Terence Stamp is good as well playing a weapons supplier who provides Wesley with all the missing details he didn’t know he needed.  But the casting of Morgan Freeman was a mistake.  When the truth is fully revealed I didn’t really hate him or understand his motives.  Maybe pick a better fake business to run.

And maybe not train the guy who will completely destroy your life’s work.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, April 29, 2019
8:13 p.m.

Published in: on April 29, 2019 at 8:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pet Sematary (2019)

Nearly four years ago in this space, I announced I was done with watching movies in the theatre.  Too loud, I complained, and too expensive.  Besides, DVDs & Blu-rays have closed captioning.  And rewind and pause buttons.  Best of all, I can pee and eat whenever I want for as long as I want without missing anything.

Yeah, about that.  I caved.  Hey, when an old friend you haven’t hung out with in a couple of years wants to get together, and you have this long, collective history of moviegoing, you reconsider your boycott.

I’m glad I did.  Too bad the movie we screened wasn’t as much fun.

I saw the original Pet Sematary on a dubbed VHS tape when I was a teenager.  Based on the famous Stephen King novel, it tells the tale of a young family relocating from the big city to a small town to start a new life.  Their pet cat gets killed and is buried not in the actual, misspelled pet cemetery but in an ancient Native American burial ground nearby.  When it comes back, it hisses more than usual.

Then the family’s young son dies.  Same drill.  But he’s even more vicious.

I had a hard time accepting the dad’s insistence on making the same mistake over and over again despite being repeatedly warned of the inevitable consequences.  As a result, I never got into the premise and wasn’t particularly frightened.  (Gene Siskel gave the film zero stars out of four.  It’s not that awful.)  Hard to believe Stephen King himself thinks this is his scariest story.

30 years later we have this remake which is only slightly better despite making some significant changes to the plot.

Jason Clarke (who was excellent in the overlooked First Man) plays Louis the patriarch, a burned out ER doctor from Boston hoping for a slower pace in the sleepy forests of Maine.  Amy Seimetz plays his stay-at-home wife, Rachel.  They have two cute kids, toddler son Gage (played by Hugo & Lucas Lavoie) and eight-year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence who has a bright future).

As the family settles into their new home, curious Ellie notices a bunch of kids wheelbarrowing a dead pet near their extended property.  They’re wearing animal masks.  A little later on while her mom is preoccupied, she goes out and follows the trail.  She discovers a pet cemetery and a large barrier mostly comprised of discarded barks and branches.

As she climbs it, she’s startled by her new neighbour Jud (a bearded John Lithgow who has now officially graduated to grandpa parts) and gets stung by a bee.  He’s a widow and the opposite of a crotchety old git.  They become fast friends.

Louis likes him, too, and Jud immediately becomes a grandpa figure within the family.

Then poor old Church, Ellie’s beloved cat (named after Winston Churchill for some reason), is discovered all bloodied up by the side of the road.  Before that happens, though, there’s a scene where Louis and Rachel try to explain death to the young girl.  Mom favours the bullshit heaven theory, dad is more honest about the end truly being the end.

Rachel has a very good reason for not accepting finality.  In flashbacks, we learn about her older, terribly disfigured sister Zelda.  With a fucked up spine and ugly-ass feet, she’s not what you’d call a happy camper.

Young Rachel used to dread sending meals up to her room (Zelda resented her healthy body), so one day she decides to send a tray of grub up the old dumbwaiter (which is risky since it doesn’t always work properly).  As Zelda lumbers across the floor to ultimately reject her food, suddenly she falls right down the open shaft.  Adult Rachel still feels guilty all these years later.  Why feeding her sister was her responsibility though is never explained.

Worried about how Ellie will take the news of Church’s death, against all common sense, Jud convinces Louis later that night to take his hairy body past the not-so-effective bark & branch barrier to that same sacred Native American burial ground that destroyed the first version of this family.

And, what do ya know, the next day Church is back and at first Ellie is thrilled.  (Louis & Rachel told her he ran away.)  But now he’s a little cranky.  And a bit of a biter.  (Poor birdie.)  It’s not long before Ellie doesn’t even want him in her room anymore.  Furthermore, she wants to go back to Boston.  She’s the smartest character in the film.

At his new job in the local ER at a nearby college, Louis is mostly bored looking after kids with sore throats.  Then a real emergency is dropped into his lap.  A student (who resembles a young Diddy) is barely surviving after being brutally struck by a car.  (His brain is exposed.)  After he quickly expires, he suddenly sits up, spooking Louis who never wanted to go through losing another patient again.  So begins a series of hauntings warning the good doctor about burying anything in that sacred Native American burial ground.  Like his predecessor, Louis is a bad listener.

There’s a moment during Ellie’s 9th birthday party where the entire audience is bracing for the inevitable.  A blindfolded Louis is playing hide and seek with the kids.  Having not been able to kill off heel Church, in an earlier scene a resigned Louis drops him off near a no trespassing gate.  But, sure enough, here comes the little furry bastard strolling up the road.  Did he really think he’d stay put?

Meanwhile, a distracted truck driver is fiddling with his phone when both of Louis & Rachel’s kids are in the street watching Church come towards them.  What happens next is a swerve and would’ve been more effective if we didn’t already know how this part of the story will play out.

Thanks to the monstrous success of the ghastly It two years ago (the concluding chapter will be out this fall), Stephen King adaptations are all the rage again.  (Doctor Sleep, the sequel to the brilliant Kubrick version of The Shining, is coming later this year, as well.)  I have always believed that if you’re going to remake something, particularly in the horror genre, fix a bad movie and make it better.  (It worked for 2014’s Godzilla.)  This updated Pet Sematary has improved performances and better make-up & special effects, but sadly the finished result is pretty much the same.  It’s just not scary.

How many times do the filmmakers think they can get away with False Alarms involving trucks?  How many times can they let a scene go on and on in near complete silence before something or someone pops out not resulting in a genuine scare but a cheap jump?  Where’s the creativity?

Jud tries to justify leading Louis down this inevitable path of self-destruction by claiming that sacred Native American burial ground messes with your mind and convinces you with cloudy reasoning to keep burying loved ones in its rotten soil.  (It also causes Rachel’s dead sister Zelda to make an unwelcome return visit.)  Because Church was a loving housepet, he incorrectly figures it would be resurrected with the same chill personality.  (Jud’s twice-deceased dog was already a bit of a dick before going through this exact same process.)

At the plot drags on, the family temporarily gets separated (mama needs a timeout), and Louis, reeling from a tragedy and increasingly susceptible to the supposed lure of the sacred burial ground, makes a series of questionable decisions that will irrevocably change everything and not for the better.

You know, a funny thing happened as the screening was drawing to a close.  As the final scene was rolling, the picture cut out.  Despite still hearing everything, an unanswered question lingered.  Were we getting a Sopranos-like ending, all mysterious and ambigious?  Nope.  The projectionist was asleep at the switch and we all missed the last shot.  The dead giveaway was the absence of a final credit roll.

As a few of us complained to staff, we learned there was some sort of technical glitch, something involving wind hitting the projector fans which cut out the picture or some bullshit, I don’t exactly remember because the explanation was so strange and hard to understand.

The good news is those who stayed behind got courtesy passes.  The bad news is the unseen ending was the best part of the movie.

(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, April 15, 2019
2:20 a.m.

Published in: on April 15, 2019 at 2:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Pathology (2008)

In the gonzo Pathology, bored med students don’t just play God, they reinvent Clue.  Led by the smug, overly hammy Jake (Michael Weston), this small, insular group of young sadists routinely fail to stump each other with their not so carefully hidden methods of execution.  Because everyone is complicit, there are no rats.  And because this movie never lives in the real world, they have zero worry about getting caught.

Milo Ventimiglia plays Ted, the new recruit.  On the verge of marrying the very rich Gwen (Alyssa Milano), he immediately butts heads with Jake and his obnoxious colleagues.  But just as quickly, he’s suddenly invited into their inner circle.  During a fateful get-together at a local bar, Ted is asked a pivotal question.  His answer changes everything.

The next night, Jake invites Ted out for more boozing.  Big mistake.  Back in class the next day, Ted knows what Jake did.  The corruption has begun.

With Gwen temporarily out of the picture as she prepares to take the bar, Ted is easily tempted by Jake’s sexually fluid paramour Juliette (played by Frankie Drake herself Lauren Lee Smith).  And this is where the movie gets incredibly silly.

When it’s Juliette’s turn to play “the game”, she selects a seemingly despicable character.  Once the deed is done, instead of just leaving the scene of the crime, she suddenly gets busy with the suddenly voracious Ted right there in the man’s living room.  (They also find autopsy tables wildly stimulating.)

Then comes the pay-off.  The vic wasn’t really who she said it was.  Are you really this stupid, Ted?

As the bodies pile up (and then get incinerated without anyone outside the circle noticing), out comes the meth pipe.  When she’s not easily and repeatedly breaking down Ted’s once devoted vow of monogamy, Juliette also makes out with Catherine (Mei Melançon) and has kinky autopsy table coitis with Jake.  (Are those acupuncture needles?)  Juliette is in the wrong movie.  She belongs in Cronenberg’s Crash.

With the madness increasing as the med students continue to chase ever more paraphelic highs, a tormented Ted visits Gwen in her family’s rather large estate.  When she surprises him by announcing she’s going back with him for a couple of months, you can tell by the look on his face that he’s completely thrilled.

When they return, Jake has completely lost it.  He’s getting sloppy.  Bored with attempting to shadow his murderous techniques (which Ted always guesses correctly), he’s devolved into becoming a low-grade slasher.  (Those sex workers deserved better.)  Ted walks into the old, abandoned crematorium (where the group secretly gathers to determine the cause of death of mostly innocent people) to witness the aftermath of a bloody scene.

Pathology is loaded with gross, unsympathetic characters doing and saying gross, unsympathetic things for the sake of shock value and dark titillation.  Ted’s sudden descent into this world isn’t believable.  While I can understand his attraction to the out there Juliette, why is he willfully interacting with the repugnant Jake?  For a guy smart enough to figure out every single murder the group commits, how does he not know he’s always being manipulated by sociopaths?  Shouldn’t it take one to know one?

John de Lancie (best known as the mischievous Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation) plays the professor.  He’s also a bit of a weirdee.  He has a huge jones for Gwen (he’s known her since she was a kid) and makes an incredibly inappropriate remark to her during a big party which she laughs off.  (He makes another one to her fiancé later on which inspires an unintentional laugh.)  Somehow he knows that Ted has been dabbling but not that a lot of his students are spree killers.

Speaking of inappropriate behaviour, at that same party, Jake has a big fight with Juliette.  A really loud fight filled with cursing and the usual “slut” shaming.  (For his part, Ted also smears her outside the elevators to his apartment building after cutting her off from pleasuring little Ted.)  Earlier on, while the students are working on corpses in class, Jake makes a curious, impromptu speech about how much he hates humanity for reasons that only a mass murderer would applaud.  Screaming red flags, anyone?

As Ted attempts to pull away from the group, an increasingly unhinged Jake tries to pull him back in.  That sets in motion a rather standard revenge plot.  In the end, almost no one, including Ted’s hero-worshipping classmate Ben (Keir O’Donnell), is innocent.

Pathology peppers its dialogue with the usual, sometimes impenetrable medical jargon heard in a million hospital dramas to make its characters seem ridiculously smart.  But strip away all the nerdspeak and all that’s left are tedious villains who make so many bad decisions, in the real world they would’ve aroused immediate suspicion and been caught a whole lot sooner.

If any movie can convince you to say no to meth, it’s this one.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 14, 2019
11:58 p.m.

Published in: on April 14, 2019 at 11:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ernest & Celestine (2014)

Every year since 2002, the Motion Picture Academy has insisted on selecting nominees for Best Animated Feature, a category long overdue for abolishment.  Why?  Because far too often they embrace mediocrity.

During the years they choose five films instead of three, they more or less follow a basic nominating formula: pick the Pixar/Disney hits, throw in another major studio release, single out a title or two from Japan and save the remaining spot(s) for a traditional entry from Europe or South America.

As a fan of Akira and the Ghost In The Shell releases, I’ll never complain about the academy heaping love on anime (even though they snubbed all three).  But in this disappointing era of uncanny valley 3D, the more crude offerings from countries like Brazil and France pale even more than usual.

Consider Ernest & Celestine, a 2014 nominee that wasn’t even in theatres until after it got nominated.  (It was originally released in French before being shown here in English.)  Based on a series of childrens’ books, it’s about an unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse.  Not only is it heavyhanded at times with its belated moralizing, it’s also quite predictable and completely unfunny.  According to Rotten Tomatoes, most critics loved it.  Once again, I am the voice of reason in a sea of sycophants.

Celestine (MacKenzie Foy), the mouse, lives in a home for orphaned girls.  Lauren Bacall voices the house mother who terrifies them all with her bogus propaganda about Big Bad Bears.  She asserts with a straight face that satiating their boundless hunger goes beyond food.  They even devour lamposts!  And bicycles!  And benches!  And buses!  And bridges!  Not to mention entire buildings!  Uh huh.

Oh, and they can’t get enough mice in their stomachs, raw and cooked.

That doesn’t stop Celestine from imagining being friends with one.  Always drawing, she is the only individual in this conformist, underground society.  It must be noted she is not a good artist.

There’s a weird recurring gag involving mice who lose teeth.  Even if you’re down to just one, you suddenly become incomprehensible.  That’s why the little ones are assigned the thankless task of secretly infiltrating the bears’ world to steal their considerable chompers which will be used as replacements.

How do they achieve this?  By apparently pretending to be the tooth fairy or rather, the mouse fairy, as one bear mom puts it to her young cub.  Celestine observes this family of three but then gets caught.  The dad chases her around her son’s bedroom until she jumps through a window softly landing into a garbage can on the sidewalk below where she’ll have no choice but to spend the night trapped inside.  At least she got the kid’s tooth.

The next day, she’s discovered by Ernest (Forest Whitaker) the bear who is starving and desperate.  Having already fought with nosey birds over mere crumbs in his cabin in the woods, he has already annoyed passersby with his one-man band routine.  I’m convinced he gets fined by the bear cops not because busking is illegal but because he is that bad.  You’re literally begging someone to feed him so he’ll stop performing.

After unsuccessfully finding something edible in about half a dozen cans, he spots the sleeping mouse after removing all that crap on top of the lid.  Celestine slaps him for even thinking of eating her.  She points him in the direction of a candy store owned by the same dad (Nick Offerman) who tried to kill her the previous night.  A thankful Ernest dozes off in the store’s cellar having made up for lost time.

Meanwhile, Celestine returns home to an unwelcome reception.  She didn’t collect enough bear teeth and now has to go back to retrieve more.  Back up top in bearworld again, she observes the candy store owner flipping out on Ernest.  Now about to steal his van to make his getaway, a concerned Celestine climbs into the passenger seat and Ernest manages to steer them both out of danger.

Before the unexciting car chase, Ernest is actually arrested and put in the back of a paddy wagon.  Celestine rescues him on one condition.  She needs a favour, a big one.

Nick Offerman’s real-life wife Megan Mulally runs a denture clinic directly across the street from her bear husband’s candy shop.  Their young cub is not allowed to eat any candy.  Why?  Because they both know that it’s bad for your teeth.  The cubs who become addicted to the sweets will later seek out Mulally to replace their absent incisors, a not-so-well thought out scam that can only pay off after years of patience.  The kid doesn’t care.  He’d rather have the candy.  I would prefer actual laughs since there are none in this overrated movie.

Celestine needs Ernest to break into the store and steal as many teeth as he can carry.  He’s not exactly discreet but then again, bears are sound sleepers.  You would be too if you read the script.

Now a hero for the huge haul of treasure she’s brought home, that moment of rare glory is cut short once Celestine’s entire mouse community becomes aware of Ernest (How can they not?  He towers over all of them.) who tires easily and foolishly rests in the orphan house.

Chased out and banished, the two misunderstood loners, who don’t get along at first, of course, are now forever joined at the hip and have more in common than they realize.  Stuck in his cabin because it’s covered in snow, Ernest encourages Celestine to keep drawing and painting from the inside until the Spring.  The radio in his cellar continually reveals they have not been forgotten by the authorities.

It’s hard to watch Ernest & Celestine without thinking about better films like The Jungle Book and Shrek which previously covered this very familiar terrain with more memorable characters, superior songs, more laughs and actual heartfelt moments.  Jungle Book, in particular, has such an effortless charm about it that you’re always smiling while you’re watching.  The unlikely pairing of a jazzy bear and a lost Indian boy is so lovely and sweet even this cynical adult was moved.

On the contrary, E & C is such a dour release, you can’t wait until it’s over.  The friendship between the title characters feels very forced and unnatural.  When they inevitably get arrested and put on separate trials (what’s with the harsh punishments for petty theft and property destruction?), there are the usual cries for tolerance and understanding which, of course, go unheeded until catastrophe erupts and heroism becomes the only reason for softened attitudes.  Why does one have to do something extraordinary to finally be accepted by dickheads?

In the end, even the title characters themselves are all too aware they’re in a bomb.  When Ernest urges Celestine to tell the world their boring story, she notes it’s “too sad”.

When one of your heroes literally does a rewrite of your entire film in seconds, you can’t deny you’ve completely failed.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, April 13, 2019
4:04 a.m.

Published in: on April 13, 2019 at 4:04 am  Leave a Comment