Death Wish: The Face Of Death

The villain in Death Wish:  The Face Of Death looks so much like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper I wonder what the real Hot Rod could’ve done with the same role.  God knows he would’ve been an improvement over his inept doppelganger, Michael Parks, who can’t generate heat to save his life.

Mild-mannered architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson collecting an easy paycheck) is now a professor with a changed last name (he’s in the Witness Protection Program presumably because of the mostly hilarious events of the ludicrous Death Wish 4:  The Crackdown).  Once again, he’s found love.  This time, he’s fallen for British fashion designer Olivia (the lovely Lesley-Ann Down).  But she’s trouble.  Her ex-husband Tommy O’Shea (Parks) is a notorious New York mobster who won’t let her go.  He’s hijacked her entire operation and has his cartoonish goons shake down her competition for “protection money”.  (Shouldn’t they just buy them out of business?)

Tired of his meddling ways, she agrees to testify against him in a possible court case.  (Preposterously, he has already eluded the authorities for 16 years.  Trust me, he ain’t that clever.)  Somehow, one of Tommy’s hired assassins, a cross dresser with a dandruff problem (I’m not kidding), brutally rams her head several times into a restaurant bathroom mirror just moments after she accepts the cursed Kersey’s marriage proposal during a dinner date.

Realizing that it’s a bad idea to call the district attorney (the always good Saul Rubinek in a nothing role) because someone is always listening in, Kersey tells him over the phone that Olivia’s changed her mind.  But when he makes a surprise impromptu visit to his home, he tells the D.A. she will still take the stand.

Unsurprisingly, the word still gets back to Tommy and you can guess what happens to poor Olivia.  With her young daughter Chelsea (Erica Lancaster) now back in the custody of the impotent crime boss (which partially explains why his marriage fell apart), Tommy absurdly keeps his ex-wife’s fashion line going.  Two words: stripper wear.  His attire is no better than Olivia’s less than spectacular designs.

Now thoroughly pissed off, Kersey springs back into action.  God knows the cops aren’t getting anywhere.  (When one of Olivia’s bullied factory employees wears a secret wire to try to get some incriminating comments on tape, the results are predictably disastrous.)  One by one, Tommy’s pathetic henchman get dispensed with rather easily.  The most fitting method:  death by cannoli.

As Tommy and his men keep going back to that same church for funeral after funeral, it takes him a ridiculously long time to finally view Kersey for the serious threat that he is.  His idea of setting a trap is so transparent, though, Kersey has absolutely nothing to worry about.

Neither does Chelsea who has no problem escaping the clutches of her deadbeat dad.  (She’s one of the only female characters in this series who doesn’t need the protection of a man.)  Tommy O’Shea is such a weak heel (like numerous other moments in the film, Parks is laughable at times) it’s extremely difficult to accept him as an intimidating toughie.  He’s supposed to be this scarily violent, misogynistic racist but Parks is too sleepy to bring out the character’s edge.  And why is this Irish-American trying to sound Italian?  Who’s he trying to impress, exactly?

Death Wish:  The Face Of Death has the dubious distinction of being Bronson’s final movie.  (He would end his 50-year career with a trilogy of TV movies.)  I’ll say this for it.  It’s not as bad as Death Wish 3.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 11, 2016
4:12 a.m.

Published in: on September 11, 2016 at 4:13 am  Leave a Comment  

Death Wish 3

How stupid is the villain in Death Wish 3?  At any moment, he can dispose of the hero.  Any moment!  But what does he do instead?  He talks and threatens.  And waits.  And waits some more.  By the time he has the hero in a very vulnerable position, instead of finally pulling the goddamn trigger already, he just can’t shut up about his precious bulletproof vest.

Roger Ebert famously called this cliche The Fallacy Of The Talking Killer.  God knows it’s been employed by lazy screenwriters for decades.  Maybe it’s time to retire this overused technique for good.

In the original Death Wish (a good, challenging film worth seeing), mild-mannered architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson in his most famous role), a lifelong pacifist, sees his happy little world completely shattered after a band of thieving rapists assault his family in their own apartment.  His wife murdered and his daughter institutionalized, he can’t track down the assailants (one of whom is played by a pre-stardom Jeff Goldblum) because he doesn’t know what they look like.

Instead, armed with a powerful Wildey Magnum he receives as a gift from a friend, he lures other would-be muggers into a trap and blasts them, turning him into an unlikely folk hero for the public and a constant frustration for law enforcement.  By the end, a deal is reached.  There won’t be a prosecution if Kersey leaves town.

In Death Wish 2 (a terrible movie), Kersey relocates to Los Angeles where another band of thugs (one played by Laurence Fishburne wears sunglasses from the Jesse Ventura collection) steal his wallet and then break into his house to assault his maid who is never seen or heard from again.  By the time he arrives on the scene with his now mute daughter after a day of bonding, they attack him and kidnap her.  After she is again assaulted, she accidentally kills herself while trying to escape.

Because he actually saw their faces (and apparently has an incredible memory), he systematically tracks them down over a series of nights and assassinates them.  (He doesn’t believe the cops will ever arrest them.  Kersey refuses to cooperate with the investigation.)  After murdering the last one in a mental hospital (yep, the same one that once housed his traumatized daughter), his once skeptical new squeeze Gail (Bronson’s real-life wife Jill Ireland), a radio journalist who believes in criminal justice reform, quietly breaks off their recent engagement.

Which brings us to number three.  When it begins, a stone-faced Kersey returns by bus to New York City to visit an old friend who is in the process of being beaten up by, you guessed it, another band of violent thieves, who demand money for “protection”.  It is such an unconvincing scene, one of many in what is easily the silliest chapter in the Death Wish saga thus far.  (Would you believe one of them is played by Ted’s future pal Bill, Alex Winter?)

After arriving in his friend’s apartment in the slums, Kersey is wrongly nabbed by the cops who think he killed him.  (Yep, they’re not too bright, either.)  Once back at the precinct, they start beating him up for some reason until their boss calls them off.  He gets a cheap shot in, as well, and then recognizes Kersey.  (He was using Kimble (an obvious Fugitive reference) as an alias.)

Temporarily thrown in one of two holding cells filled with stereotypical toughies, he encounters Manny Fraker (Gavin O’Herlihy), a gang leader who looks like David Carradine with Road Warrior Hawk’s haircut.  He also has an equal sign with a red line through it on his forehead, the lamest gang sign I’ve ever seen.  (All his followers have it, as well.)  Among many dumb mistakes he makes, he calls out Kersey and even orchestrates an attempted assault on him that doesn’t exactly go well.  Oh yeah, and then after he’s released (how in the hell does he have a clean record?), he foreshadows what he’ll do to an old lady on his “turf”.  It’s one of the only times O’Herlihy’s performance is genuinely scary.

The rest of the time he’s a complete moron.  After Kersey makes a deal with the anti-Constitutionalist police chief who is now suddenly super friendly (why the initial suckerpunch, motherfucker?), Fraker is stunned to see his new enemy move into his area of control.  (Why did you pick a fight with him, you dope?)

But does he have him immediately killed?  Nope.  He calls him to offer a warning.  Why?  For Christ’s sake, why?  I mean, he knows Kersey is there to take him down.  He knows this!  (Kersey has free rein to do what he pleases.  Plus, Fraker’s goons killed his friend.)  He has many loyal members in his gang willing to do his bidding.  In fact, one is sent to Kersey’s old friend’s apartment (where our hero is temporarily residing) to spy on him (but not kill him).  Unfortunately, he’s as discreet as Anthony Weiner.  Which means the next time he sneaks in through the bathroom window, Kersey has left a rusty surprise for him.  Should’ve looked down before taking that first step, dumb dumb.

As the neighbours in this dilapidated hellhole get shaken down for their money and their belongings (while the women here get routinely harassed and assaulted including Marina Sirtis, the future Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation), because he can’t get to Fraker (he’s always surrounded by his loyalists) Kersey can only take out a few of his goons at a time.  For instance, he rents a car using it as bait to attract a couple of thieves who get blown away the minute one of them threatens his life.  (Like Kersey’s life is ever seriously threatened in these movies, rare stab wounds notwithstanding.)

In another, he dares an elusive mugger to steal his camera which he dangles temptingly over his shoulder.  With his trusted Wildey Magnum brought out of retirement, The Giggler is no longer laughing.  (He really did enjoy his mugging.)  His stupid nickname inspires unintentional laughs when his fellow gang members mourn his death.

All the while, Fraker takes forever to attempt to extinguish Kersey’s life.  None of them are ultimately successful because he has remarkably shitty aim and he fucking talks too much.

Oh, I forgot to mention Deborah Raffin.  She plays Kersey’s public defender who meets him once at the police precinct early on and then takes a cab all the way to this shitty war zone later on just to ask him out.  (Really?  An instant attraction with old stone face after a 30-second conversation?  She must have a thing for vengeful psychos.)  Unlike Jill Ireland in number two, she’s no reformer.  Tired of defending unrepentent scum in court (well, someone has to do it), she wishes for a tougher system.  (If only she knew about Kersey’s methods.)  What ultimately happens to her is predictable and I have to say, laughable.  Gratitituous explosions in dumb action films have that effect on me.

What’s puzzling about Death Wish 3 is by the time we reach the inevitably violent conclusion, where the gang call in reinforcements for their escalated war with the neighbourhood, we learn that these traumatized residents could’ve protected themselves right from the start.  (On the other hand, what was stopping the gang from kicking everyone out of their apartments to avoid all of this?  Why do you prefer to live in absolute squalor, idiots?)  I mean what’s the point of having guns in your apartments if you never use them?  Yes, the cops confiscate one such weapon from the nice, elderly Jewish couple but they have a spare we only know about once it’s retrieved from its hiding spot.

Speaking of that, are the cops in cahoots with the gang?  It’s never fully explained why they let the gang do what they want (but give parking tickets to the law-abiding residents) until things get way out of hand.  Then, they suddenly start caring.  (Remember, this movie was released in 1985, well before the NYPD’s implementation of Broken Windows.)

Kersey learns through a local he befriends that his old war buddy (the one killed off in the opening scene) hid a couple of giant war time machine guns he was somehow able to slip past customs.  As it turns out, only one of them still works.  And, as you can imagine, unintentional hilarity ensues.  The whole time he fires, Branson somehow maintains a straight face.  I couldn’t.

As the war rages on in the third act, Fraker slips into Kersey’s friend’s apartment (what happened to the board of nails?) in what should be a successful assassination mission.  His bulletproof vest he’s so goddamn proud of initially saves his life.  But then he starts yakking.  Less chitty chatty and more bang bang, dipshit.  I mean you had one job, one fucking job, Manny!  Jesus.

The Death Wish franchise began during a high crime period in the mid-70s and ended two decades later during the year Joe Biden wrote a destructive “tough-on-crime” law that over time would institutionalize America’s already heartless mass incarceration state and target the most vulnerable populations, mostly for drugs.  Only the first one cleverly captures the hopelessness and paranoia of a time where citizens had legitimate reason to fear for their lives and their loved ones.  It’s a skillfully made thriller.  I understand Kersey’s rationale even if I don’t necessarily agree with his actions.

Death Wish 2 is a simple-minded urban revenge fantasy that transforms the once likeable Bronson character into a despicable assassin.  He’s no better than a mob hitman.  As Entertainment Weekly correctly pointed out 20 years ago, it blatantly recycles the set-up of its superior predecessor.  Any attempts to challenge the idea of vigilantism are minimized without further discussion.  The radio reporter barely gets any time to make her case for sensible, non-violent reform.  As she’s about to do a story on it, the film completely cuts her off.

Death Wish 3 is an unintentional howler, a self-parody of an action film, a cinematic wet dream for right-wing drug warriors who refuse to see the undeniable connection between their racist “justice” policies and the severe poverty that results from them.  In Death Wish movies, violent, rapey, drugged out degenerates are everywhere, especially in this particular neighbourhood, and it is only with ruthless, unapologetic force that they can be stopped.  To hell with their Constitutional rights.

As the real-life Wars on Drugs and Terrorism stumble on years after they began, we now know that’s no solution at all.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, September 5, 2016
4:00 a.m.

Published in: on September 5, 2016 at 4:00 am  Comments (1)  

What Daniel Bryan Should’ve Said To The Miz

Last week, Talking Smack lived up to its name.  Airing right after Smackdown Live every Tuesday night on The WWE Network, the show allows wrestlers a chance to further their storylines outside of the ring and vent if they so desire.  (They must’ve gotten the idea from The Talking Dead, the wrap-up show that follows The Walking Dead on AMC.)

During last week’s broadcast, The Miz was a guest.  One of the hosts, Daniel Bryan, made a pointed criticism about his in-ring work.  The former four-time World Champion claimed that the current InterContinental Champion was “soft” (or did he mean “sawft”?) and that he seemed less than eager to take bumps, particularly punches to the face.  He bluntly called him a “coward”.

In the past, when he was knocked for any number of reasons, The Miz would simply laugh off and diminish such negative views as the work of “haters”.  He even turned it into a T-shirt.  In all the years I’ve been watching him in the WWE, he has never let this get to him.

But judging by his ferocious reaction on Talking Smack, Bryan clearly touched a nerve.  Shaking so much with rage, The Miz passionately defended himself, claiming in his decade-long run with the WWE, he had never gotten seriously hurt.  He went on to hammer Bryan for telling the fans he would return but then retiring instead.

The Yes Man had a very good reason for ending his pro wrestling career, as Miz well knows.  He accumulated so many concussions, among other serious injuries, the WWE would no longer clear him to wrestle.  As he noted to The Miz, he would be back if the company would let him.

That wasn’t good enough for the star of Christmas Bounty.  The Miz suggested that if he was serious about coming back, he’d return to the “bingo halls” where he got his start.  Sticking the proverbial knife ever deeper, the IC Champ claimed that he loves the WWE fans (he’s currently a self-absorbed heel) and would make his title (which he has won on four previous occasions) mean something again.  (Bryan’s last title run in 2015 was with the same belt.)

Daniel Bryan eventually walked off the set which added even more fuel to The Miz’s venom.  With a very noticeable vein bulging out of his shiny forehead, he pointed out the obvious.  When vigourously challenged, ironically, Bryan was the one who showed fear.

But was The Miz right about everything else he said?  Is his “safe” style of wrestling, as Bryan derisively called it, the best way to work?

Bryan could’ve easily demolished his argument but because he abandoned this heated conversation while an agitated Miz was still lashing out at him in mid-sentence he missed a glorious opportunity to do so.  There are so many things he could’ve said instead of just walking away in disgust.

First off, he could’ve asked the IC Champ if he had ever had a classic match?  The Miz would probably respond with his two main event matches with John Cena for the WWE Championship back in 2011.  To which Bryan would’ve noted that his match with Cena at SummerSlam 2013 was better than both of them put together.

Miz would’ve countered that he was Champion that night for just a few minutes thanks to Randy Orton cashing in his Money In The Bank briefcase with a big assist from Triple H.  Bryan would’ve reminded him that the only reason he remained WWE Champion at WrestleMania 27 is because of The Rock.  And that Miz only became the champion in the first place because he cashed in his own MITB briefcase on a fallen Orton during a November episode of Monday Night Raw in 2010.  The only way he was able to keep the title in a 2011 Royal Rumble rematch with The Viper is because of the interference of CM Punk.

Miz would likely go on to mock Bryan for losing the World Heavyweight Championship to Sheamus in the opening match of WrestleMania 28 in less than 20 seconds, to which Bryan would note that his loss led to his eventual babyface push as the fans began enthusiastically chanting “Yes!”, his once purposefully obnoxious catchphrase, in protest that night.  When Miz would take credit for that success, as he did in an interview in 2012, Bryan would argue that despite his love of the fans, they didn’t love The Miz back during his own ill-fated, mercifully brief babyface turn.

The Yes Man could list a whole slew of great matches in his career.  A Money In The Bank ladder match in 2011 (which led to his first world title push), the 2012 Elimination Chamber match for the WHC, the three WWE title bouts on pay-per-view with CM Punk (including one that featured Kane) during the Spring and Summer of 2012, his Royal Rumble 2014 match with Bray Wyatt and that stellar encounter with Triple H at WrestleMania 30 which directly led to him regaining the WWE Championship in a 3-way with Orton and Batista in the main event of that same show.  Both encounters lasted 30 minutes apiece. Could The Miz have accomplished any of this with his “safer” approach?

Bottom line, Daniel Bryan can easily say he had more memorable, important matches in his six years in the WWE than The Miz has had in his entire career even if he did suffer serious physical setbacks that ended his wonderfully inspiring run all too quickly.

As for the IC Champ’s assertion that he’s never been seriously hurt, I can think of two instances where things went wrong at his expense.  The original finish of the Cena match at WrestleMania 27 ended in a double count-out where Miz hit the back of his head hard on the concrete while taking a bump at ringside.  If memory serves, I do believe he suffered a concussion from that.

And then, there was the Raw match he had with Kofi Kingston where he got struck so forcefully with the Trouble In Paradise (basically a spinning kick to the head), you could hear the loud thump of the impact.  Miz looked dazed for a bit after he was pinned.

Interestingly, if Bryan had brought up these instances during their Talking Smack interview, Miz could’ve used them as proof he can take a serious bump and not lose his spot.  To which Bryan would’ve instantly countered that these were rare, unfortunate accidents and he doesn’t handle genuinely safe but tough-looking bumps on a regular basis.

On this week’s Smackdown Live, The Miz delivered another blistering heat-seeking promo that seemed slightly inspired by CM Punk’s brilliant “pipe bomb” promo in 2011.  Once again sounding very defensive, especially when he was booed, he talked about how great a team player he is for WWE.  Whenever the company needs him for PR work, he’s there, dignity be damned.

Daniel Bryan’s promised direct response to last week’s Talking Smack segment, on the other hand, was a huge letdown.  Bryan and The Miz never actually had a follow-up face-to-face encounter which is baffling.  In fact, as Bryan noted on this week’s Talking Smack, it was decided by WWE management to keep them apart on-camera from this point forward.  (Ridiculous.  Talk about poor creative judgment.)  For his part, Bryan apologized for abandoning co-host Renee Young during a hot segment and for pissing off The Miz, although on Smackdown Live, it was more than clear he stands by his original criticisms, as he should.

It’s such a shame he didn’t go further last week because had he done so, he would’ve won the argument.  Handily.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
7:34 p.m.

Published in: on August 31, 2016 at 7:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Boy (2016)

There are two key questions at the heart of The Boy:

1. How far will one couple go to appease their psychotic child?
2. How much of a ruse will an abused woman tolerate in order to flee her tormenter?

The answers?  Too far and too much.

Greta (Lauren Cohan) is a Montana native so desperate to escape her violent ex-boyfriend she takes a babysitting job in the UK.  But she’s not looking after an actual child.  No.  She is tasked with caring for a doll that resembles a child.

This obviously requires an explanation.  The eccentric Heelshires (the very good Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) have never gotten over the loss of their 8-year-old son, Brahms.  So, as a way of coping, they pretend the aforementioned doll is him.  (Greta lost her own unborn child after her ex beat her.)

They clothe him, sit him at the dinner table, read to him, play his favourite classical music quite loudly and give him goodnight kisses after they put him to bed.  They’ve been performing this charade, this meticulous routine for 20 years.  Greta isn’t the first babysitter they’ve hired.  (They instruct her to follow 10 typewritten rules altogether.  She ignores pretty much all of them at first.  Not smart, as it turns out.)

As if that wasn’t strange enough, the replacement Brahms seemingly disappears without warning.  On her first night alone in the Heelshires’ sprawling mansion (they’re taking a much needed vacation), completely creeped out by the thing, she covers his snow white face with a blanket while she reads a magazine and guzzles red wine.  At one point later on, she notices the blanket is off.  Did he remove it himself when she was out of the room or did it just fall?

On a different night, she hears a child crying.  When she goes to investigate, she notices a tear falling from the silent doll’s eye.  But then, a drop of water from the ceiling hits his face.  Did that cause the first tear?

Going back to the very first day she arrives at the mansion, after removing her boots and getting a small tour & instructions from the family, when she goes back to retrieve them, they’ve disappeared.  Mrs. Heelshire blames Brahms.  “He can be playful,” she says matter-of-factly.  Later on, when Greta opens her bedroom door, they magically return.  When she closes it and opens it again, he also leaves her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  (She made one for herself earlier in the kitchen.)  At times, she can see movement in the small space underneath her closed door.  Mr. Heelshire tells her he’s “too timid” to do this while being watched.

Greta’s only company is a flirtatious grocer, Malcolm (Rupert Evans), who arrives every so often to awkwardly hit on her and deliver food.  Their gradual bond is awfully convenient for what’s to come.  When they eventually give in to their supposed attraction, a jealous Brahms cranks up the classical to interrupt their abbreviated, spiceless makeout.

When they make plans to go out to a club, after taking an impromptu shower, Greta notices all her clothes and jewelry are suddenly missing.  That leads her up to the attic where she inevitably gets locked in and can’t get Malcolm’s attention when he arrives for their date.  Despite dropping in constantly unannounced in other scenes (the obligatory False Alarm scares that seem half-hearted in their execution), on this occasion he curiously drives off.  Shortly afterwards, she spots a shadowy figure (a shot so poorly lit it took me a few times to actually see it) and passes out.

Meanwhile, as the days go on, she keeps hearing unexplained noises and Brahms never seems to stay in place.  She also starts having nightmares about the damn thing, one of which inspires the scariest moment in the film, which isn’t really saying that much, honestly.

For a little over an hour, The Boy wants you to think you’re watching a rip-off of Annabelle, the hokey spin-off of The Conjuring, itself one of the most overrated horror films of the decade.  But then, something terrible happens to the doll, and suddenly the last half hour becomes another Halloween-style slasher flick complete with a masked villain.

Which leads us back to those two key questions.  As it turns out, Brahms the doll is not possessed by any demonic spirit.  He’s a prop for a sinister scheme cooked up by the Freeshires who have so much guilt over their dark secret, they pull a Nicole Kidman in The Hours without informing Greta of their plans.  How far will they go to appease their son?  They’re willing to recruit a potential victim for him.  Sick and truly puzzling.  No wonder their chauffeur eyes Greta so closely in the opening scene.

Greta’s violent ex (a generic heel who lacks intensity), who’s been stalking her sister’s family back home in her absence, eventually learns of her whereabouts.  Greta is stunned to see him playing pool in the mansion one night.  (Like Malcolm, he doesn’t believe in knocking.  Does she ever lock the front door?)  He asserts their break-up didn’t count and insists that she’ll be leaving with him first thing in the morning.  How desperate is she to shake off this misogynistic loser?  She buys into the idea that Brahms the doll will take care of this problem after she commands him to do so.  Things turn out not quite like she expected.  In fact, they go from bad to worse.

The Boy really wants to be an M. Night Shyamalan movie, quiet for the most part with unexpected swerves.  Unfortunately, it’s so wrapped up in its mysterious, highly contrived plot it forgets to be consistently scary.  It fails to build enough tension to properly pay off the twisted Brahms portion of the story alone.  It’s all foreplay with no climax.

The maternal Lauren Cohan is an appealing lead who deserves a smarter character to play.  Her initial instinct that someone is fucking with her is absolutely correct.  But sadly, she doesn’t stick with it.  She foolishly buys into the idea the doll is alive.  In fact, she actually bonds with it.  Much like the Heelshires, she uses the doll as a conduit for her buried, unresolved feelings towards her dead fetus.

I had misplaced suspicions about Malcolm because he kind of resembles an adult Brahms.  Despite that, I wasn’t charmed by his lameness.  For instance, pretending to be able to sum up a person’s history through their chewing gum is weak.  He’s only useful when he fills in some of the blanks about the Freeshires’ troubled history.  Why neither of them don’t just run for zee hills well before the third act is beyond me.

By the end, the filmmakers are clearly hoping for a second chapter.  The ultimate fate of Brahms, the real one, is purposefully ambiguous.  Who is that person walking around and making repairs?  But how would they accomplish this without relying on the same bogus conceit?  And why bother with a sequel when they didn’t get it right the first time?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
7:06 p.m.

Published in: on August 31, 2016 at 7:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2

How shameless is Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2?  Well, if you missed the original Silent Night Deadly Night, not to worry.  Number two gets you right up to speed.

In its first 40 minutes.

That’s right.  Nearly half of its 88-minute running time is devoted to completely rehashing the earlier film.  It unapologetically recycles half of the footage from its predecessor.

It’s fairly obvious why.  Part 2 doesn’t have nearly enough material to justify being a feature.  In fact, it’s one of the silliest horror sequels I’ve ever seen.

At the end of the first film, poor, tormented Billy, the kid who saw his parents murdered by a thief in a Santa costume, comes very close to getting revenge against the sadistic nun who put horrible ideas in his impressionable head about punishing the naughty at an orphange she ran.

His little brother, Ricky, who was just a screaming baby when they suddenly became orphans, witnesses his final moments and inevitably follows in his slasher footsteps.

As Part 2 begins, we catch up with him again as an impatient, chain-smoking adult in a mental institution as he’s about to be interviewed by his 13th psychiatrist, a mild-mannered widow who has no idea what he’s in for once he hits record on the reel-to-reel machine.

Eric Freeman, who plays the demented Ricky, overacts constantly with his eyebrows.  His glare is not even close to being intimidating.  Sometimes, he turns his head slowly and robotically like The Terminator.  His line readings are routinely forced.  After he needlessly recaps his brother’s story in full, he delves into his own troubled history.

Adopted by a Jewish couple who gave him a good life, like Billy, he had traumatic flashbacks as a child. Two nuns walking down the street freaked him out.  Seeing red fabric brought up more bad memories about Santa.

After his stepfather died, he started going for long walks in the woods.  In one flashback, he spots a drunken man attempting to rape his girlfriend.  (A blatant rip-off of a similiar scene in the first film.)  Once she successfully fights him off, he retreats to his truck to get another beer.  By the time he discovers Ricky in the driver’s seat, it’s too late.  The aftermath leads to an unintentional laugh, one of many.

When he turned 18, Ricky became a busboy at a restaurant.  We see him throwing out trash one night as he overhears an argument between two men.  One is owed money and a beating is in progress.  When it ends, Ricky prevents the thug from leaving and after no-selling a few punches Terminator-style, he stabs the man with an umbrella.  And yes, it opens up.

Then we find out about his girlfriend, a cute blond he met after she literally bumped into his motorbike with her car.  (There’s a genuinely funny scene when they go to the movies (a clip from Silent Night Deadly Night is shown in full screen, for some reason) and are bothered by some loudmouth in the back row.)  He lost his virginity to her but when he found out about her obnoxious, overbearing ex, well, he became a fan of “slut” shaming.

And that’s when Freeman’s already laughable performance devolves into full-on camp.  It’s hard to tell if he gave up trying to be scary.  After he escapes the mental institution to track down the evil Mother Superior (sadly played by a different actress who isn’t nearly as effective), now retired with strange bumps on the side of her face (does this happen to stroke victims?), Ricky starts channelling Jack Nicholson from The Shining.  Badly.

At no time is any of this scary.  How can it be?  It’s so over-the-top you can’t take it seriously.  (That electrocution special effect is particularly noticeable.)  I mean right from the very begininng there’s a big credibility problem.  During Ricky’s interview, he’s not in a strait jacket or handcuffs.  He’s not shackled at all.  He’s free to roam around the entire time.

Um, guys?  He’s killed half a dozen people!  Doesn’t that make him dangerous?  Shunning good judgment and common sense, the dumb shrink (it turns out 13 isn’t his lucky number) shoos away an orderly who rightly eyes the occasionally smiling Ricky with suspicion.

Can you believe they made 3 more sequels?  Thank God none of them played in theatres so I don’t have to see them.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
6:23 p.m.

Published in: on August 24, 2016 at 6:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Silent Night, Deadly Night

Some movies want to be liked and respected.  Others want to be loved and treasured for all times.

Silent Night, Deadly Night dares you to hate it with every fibre of your being.  When it was released in late 1984, many took the bait.  Critics crucified it.  Parents torched it.  Politicians were outraged.  Even Mickey Rooney condemned it.  It lasted a week in theatres.

It was exactly the kind of reaction the filmmakers were hoping for.  (It more than doubled its budget in box office receipts.)  In fact, it’s right there on the poster:

“You’ve made it through Halloween, now try and survive Christmas.”

The filmmakers were so shameless in their sales pitch they deliberately tied their decidedly mediocre offering to John Carpenter’s more skillfully made thriller.  They had to do something to reel in the gullible.

So, what was it about this movie that enflamed the delicate sensibilities of so many Reagan-era Americans? A guy in a Santa costume killing people.

About a half hour into Silent Night, Deadly Night, a character we’ve gotten to know at three different stages of his tortured, young life completely snaps.  At age 18, he gets a job working as a stock boy in a toy store during the Christmas holidays.  As the big day draws near, the store needs someone to be Santa for the visiting customers and their kids.  They’re kinda desperate.  There’s not much time left to fill the position.

Unfortunately, young Billy doesn’t see Santa like everybody else does.  That’s because of one terrible day he had when he was five years old.

During a visit with his grandfather in a mental institution (the overly obvious zoom on the outside sign made me laugh out loud), he’s informed that Santa punishes naughty children.  The grandpa’s supposed to be in a catatonic state like De Niro in Awakenings but when Billy’s parents are busy talking with the doctor in his office, this crazy, cackling old man suddenly comes to life to ruin Christmas for his naïve grandson.

On the drive back home, Billy’s dad temporarily stops the car to assist a guy in a Santa outfit who’s having car trouble.  Billy freaks out at the mere sight of him purely because of what his duplicitous grandpa told him.  His now paranoid instincts unintentionally turn out to be correct however because we just saw the guy kill a cynical clerk for 31 bucks in an earlier scene.  In a flash, the dad is shot through the windshield and Billy’s mom is assaulted before her throat is slashed.  As his infant brother cries throughout this cringeworthy ordeal (which thankfully is somewhat restrained), Billy flees and hides, leaving him behind.

The next thing we know it’s three years later and Billy & his brother are living in a Catholic orphanage overseen by a sadistic Mother Superior.  Poor Billy can’t do anything without evoking her anger.  Completely oblivious to his traumatic state that recurs every Christmas, she ruthlessly punishes him not understanding how much further damage she’s inflicting on his already fragile psyche.  Her stupidity is terrifying.  God knows nothing else in this movie is.

He’s sent to his room for drawing a picture of Santa with knives stabbed into his body next to a decapitated reindeer.  He gets a literal ass whooping for leaving without her permission.  When he has a nightmare, his wrists are tied to the bed.  It’s only after amusingly slugging a visiting guy in a Santa suit after being stupidly forced to sit on his lap that we are thankfully spared from seeing him receive yet another cruel punishment.

When a kindly nun allows him out of room detention for that dark drawing to go play with the other orphans outside, mysterious moaning leads him to look in the keyhole of a room where a couple is having sex.  Seeing the young woman’s breasts triggers his memory of his mom having her top ripped open by the bad Santa which spooks him.  Right on cue, Mother Superior throws him out of the way and proceeds to whip the couple for enjoying each other’s company.  She’s not down with coitis.

That leads to a pivotal moment that changes Billy’s life for good.  Mother Superior explains to him that people who do naughty things must be punished.  Ten years later, after witnessing a fellow employee assault a co-worker he has a mad crush on during his toy store’s after hours Christmas party, he makes his inevitable heel turn while wearing that Santa suit as he strangles the combative son of a bitch with Christmas lights in the stock room.  Instead of showing appreciation for ending the assault, the cute brunette calls him “crazy”.  He offs her, as well.

And that’s about the time the purposefully offensive Silent Night, Deadly Night, an awkward mix of cheese & tasteless provocation, becomes just another unimaginative slasher flick only with lousy original Christmas songs.  (To be fair, I did like the outdoor scenery.)  After exiting the toy store, Billy seeks out more naughty victims like the amorous teen couple who should be studying and a bully who steals a kid’s sled.  Meanwhile, the kind nun who tried to protect him seeks out the assistance of law enforcement which turns out to be a really terrible idea.  They’re as unaccountable and reckless as real-life cops.

One of the biggest misconceptions about John Carpenter’s Halloween was this false notion that he was making some kind of conservative statement against teen sex.  Michael Myers didn’t kill those babysitters because they were fucking.  He killed them because they reminded him of his sister, his first victim.  They were distracted and wouldn’t fight back.

On the other hand, Silent Night, Deadly Night, like The Toolbox Murders, I Spit On Your Grave, Maniac and Friday The 13th among many other appalling examples, is very much about punishing the sexual.  Poor Billy is so screwed up about carnal pleasure that when he has a dream about fooling around with that cute co-worker from the toy store it turns violent.  Even his own “naughtiness” isn’t immune from the influence of Mother Superior’s pervasive sex-negative attitudes.

Inevitably, Billy’s trail of bloody carnage leads him back to the place where he felt most alienated.  But the movie, which only views him as sympathetic up to a point, doesn’t even allow him the pleasure of killing his biggest tormenter.  All it does is set up a sequel no one asked for.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 21, 2016
4:04 a.m.

Published in: on August 21, 2016 at 4:04 am  Comments (1)  

Masters Of The Universe (1987)

There are certain movies from your childhood that you’ll always love:  E.T., Back To The Future, Superman II, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the original Halloween and of course, the first Star Wars trilogy.

Masters Of The Universe is not one of those movies.

Back in the 80s, I was a huge fan of the cartoon show.  I never missed an episode.  Naturally, I also had dozens of action figures, tiny, plastic, sometimes flexible recreations of the numerous colourful characters featured prominently in the series.  Guys like Clawful (half man, half lobster), Cyclone (you could spin the top half of him around), Leech (a green monster with suction cup hands who sprayed water out of his mouth), Two-Bad (a two-headed monster) and plenty more.

When I heard a live-action feature of the show was coming out, I was thrilled.  (I don’t remember why I didn’t see The Secret Of The Sword, the animated feature.)  I had to go see it in the theatre.  That happened shortly after the film’s cinematic debut in August 1987.  At the time, I wasn’t exactly super critical.  I enjoyed it.  The following year when it hit home video, my dad rented it and I enjoyed it a second time.  Bare in mind, I was 12 and didn’t believe pro wrestling was a work.

Nearly 30 years later, watching Masters Of The Universe again (this time on Blu-ray) as a grown man in his early 40s, I’m wondering what I found so appealing.  Good Lord, it hasn’t aged well.

In retrospect, it was not a good idea to cast Dolph Lundgren as He-Man, the hero of the original series.  He looks ridiculous in his skimpy outfit and cape, clearly designed to show off his pecs.  His delivery of dialogue is so stiff it’s noticeable.  (Lundgren had yet to master English in his thick Swedish accent.)

His arch nemesis, Skeletor (Frank Langella), is a low-rent Emperor Palpatine with a skull for a face.  He even has his own version of stormtroopers.  The only difference being their uniform is black, not white.  Langella does his best to work up some heal heat but I never hated him.  No matter how times he pounds that ram-headed staff on the floor I never felt intimidated.  I also kept wondering why he doesn’t have any skin.  (Did the cartoon ever explain this?  I don’t remember.  It’s been a while, eh?)

At the start of the film, we learn that Castle Greyskull (which doesn’t look all that impressive today) has been taken over by Skeletor and his army after a war with the people of Eternia.  He’s taken the Sorceress (Christina Pickles wearing a silly-looking crystal headpiece) hostage and put her under a spell which will age her rapidly and drain her completely of her power.

Skeletor wants to be, wait for it, master of the universe.  (Kinda funny this was released the same year as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, a far superior work.)  In order to achieve this goal he needs two things:  He-Man’s sword (think Excalibur) and The Cosmic Key.  What the hell is a Cosmic Key?  It’s a time travelling device that looks like an electronic pineapple.  You play it like a keyboard (this is an 80s movie, remember) and it opens up a cheap special effect that allows you to go wherever you want to at any point in time.

Skeletor thinks he has the only one but Gwildor (Billy Barty in heavy make-up), a troll that reminded me of the late Oliver Humperdink, the inventor of The Cosmic Key, has a spare.  After he’s rescued by He-Man, Man-At-Arms (Jon Cypher), and his daughter Teela (Chelsea Field), he randomly selects planet Earth as a make-do location after an early encounter with Skeletor’s occupying army at Greyskull.

They end up somewhere in the United States (we never know the exact location but I’m guessing California where the film was shot) where they eventually encounter a teen couple in crisis.  Julie (a very young Courtney Cox) is an orphan who wants to make a fresh start in a new city without her musician boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill) even though they’re both still in love with each other.  (That makes sense.)  Her parents died in an unexplained plane crash a year ago.  She’s a day away from boarding her own commercial flight.

When He-Man and his pals arrive, they lose The Cosmic Key.  Kevin spots it in a crater in a local cemetery and ultimately comes to believe it’s some kind of far out keyboard.  (He just so happens to play keyboards in his high school band.  Convenience!)  Curious, he leaves Julie behind in their high school gym (where the decorations for prom are already set up) to take the device to a friend who runs a local music shop.  (Why doesn’t he take her with him?)

Because he was tinkering with it, Skeletor now knows where He-Man and company escaped to.  (Does he secretly work for the NSA?)  In a scene overly reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back, old skull face lines up a small group of baddies at occupied Greyskull and instructs them to retrieve the key and capture He-Man alive.  (Like the CIA, he loves to torture his prisoners.)  They’re not exactly competent.

Meanwhile, the passing commotion outside the music shop leads Kevin back to his high school where he encounters uptight cop Lubic (James Tolkin who hated “slackers” like Marty McFly in Back To The Future) who informs him that his girlfriend is MIA.  That’s a good thing because of the fire now extinguished.

Masters Of The Universe lurches from scenes like this to a number of pitiful action sequences.  None of them contain any tension, suspense, cleverness or conviction.  (Despite seeing it a couple of times as a pre-teen, I barely remembered much of it.  Not a good sign.)  Even when characters start flying around on circular platforms, there is no awe.  Also, I was struck by how sparsely populated this unknown American city is.  The only people who seem to notice all the unusual commotion going on are the characters themselves.

Inevitably, everything boils down to a final sword fight between He-Man and Skeletor (what’s with the strange lighting?) which is a far cry indeed from Luke Skywalker’s two memorable light saber showdowns with his father.  When I saw the movie in the theatre, I’m pretty sure I left as the end titles played.  It wasn’t until I saw the movie again on tape that I watched right to the end where I saw that credit cookie for the first time.  I’m amazed James Cameron didn’t sue.

Masters Of The Universe is as derivative as it gets.  Even the title music by Rocky composer Bill Conti is unoriginal.  It blatantly rips off John Williams’ soaring Superman anthem.  Hell, they even do the opening credits in a similar way.

But the movie does deserve some praise for its unexpected feminism.  Yes, Courtney Cox is pretty much a naïve damsel in distress (no, that’s not your mother, dummy) and her imprisoned Friends mom is reduced to telling the villain he won’t succeed but you can’t say the same for Teela or Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster and her hypnotic eyes), Skeletor’s number two.  As the Greyskull occupation starts falling apart, Evil-Lyn (now there’s a good pun for ya) is smart enough not to go down with the sinking ship.  You could argue she’s the most intelligent character in the film.  She has an excellent bullshit detector.  As for Teela, as they say in wrestling, she’s one of the boys.  Her abilities are never questioned.

Cannon Films, the distributor of this mess, were actually planning a sequel which would’ve excited my 12-year-old self.  Today, there are two reasons I’m glad it never happened:  MOTU bombed and the company went out of business.  That’s what you get for using junk bonds to make junk movies.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 31, 2016
6:00 p.m.

Published in: on July 31, 2016 at 6:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

No Invitation For Peace

All good moods must be destroyed
All dark thoughts must be enjoyed
An army of lies have been deployed
The path of truth I will avoid

No room for love in this hostile place
No chance of escaping this confining space
Better get used to this relentless pace
Fear and self-loathing you will embrace

I’ve stopped competing with the ghosts of my success
I can’t measure up.  I’m failing to impress.
An insatiable appetite for constant stress
Counterfeit thinking you refuse to address

There’s a rage inside me that knows no bounds
I’m always at the mercy of its seductive sounds
A frenetic heart that pounds and pounds
A gruesome force that frightens and astounds

There is no hope for a liberating release
How I long for this internal torture to cease
Misplaced resentment continues to increase
No forthcoming invitation for peace

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, July 18, 2016
6:24 p.m.

Published in: on July 18, 2016 at 6:25 pm  Comments (1)  

Fragile Entanglements

It takes a while to notice your absence
A sure sign you’re truly missed
Confirmed your rejection with a single click
I guess I should be pissed

I don’t know the reason
There really was no warning
Should I feel dead inside?
What’s the protocol for mourning?

It’s not like we had a real connection
We only chatted once in a while
Those encounters were always pleasant
Unless I’ve been living in denial

But you’ve decided you’ve had enough
So I’m reaching for my tissues
Time to call back the therapist
And sort through all my issues

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 17, 2016
9:44 p.m.

Published in: on July 17, 2016 at 9:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed

She is jittery.  She slouches and shrugs.  She tries to avoid eye contact.  But when she does, it’s with deep suspicion and fear.  She constantly acts as though she’s completely allergic to her own body.

One of the best things about the original Ginger Snaps is Emily Perkins’ effective performance.  She plays the awkward, unsmiling Brigitte, a sullen teenager who forms a morbid pact with her older sister, Ginger (Katherine Isabelle).  From that very first moment she walks out the family garage, we see a young woman completely uncomfortable in her own skin.

After Ginger gets infected by a werewolf bite, Brigitte goes out of her way to find a cure for her.  In the film’s final scene, she has a needle full of monkshood in one hand and a knife in the other.  When Ginger lunges at her, fully transformed into a four-legged, mostly hairless hellhound, all Brigitte has to do is puncture her with the needle to save her.  She uses the knife.

In Ginger Snaps 2:  Unleashed, Brigitte’s fateful decision to infect herself with her sister’s tainted blood has put her in a complete state of denial.  Every day, when she’s not shaving the little hairs that spring up all over her body, she injects herself with monkshood, a poisonous substance for everybody else, but a temporary solution to delay her inevitable transformation.  She meticulously keeps track of how long it takes for her self-inflicted cuts to disappear.  The healing time is getting shorter and shorter.  Whether she likes it or not, she’s becoming a werewolf like her sister.

Her life is even lonelier than it was in the first movie (no parents this time around, Ginger only shows up as a mocking, know-it-all hallucination) and disappointingly, a lot more depressing.  Whereas the original Ginger Snaps was darkly humourous and genuinely creepy (but also a lot of fun), Ginger Snaps 2 is dour, pedestrian and witless, a significant comedown.

While Ginger embraced her new reality with unrelenting gusto, her gradual evolution strangely similar to puberty, Brigitte’s dilemma is no different than that of a heroin addict and about as delightful.  (Trainspotting, this isn’t.)  Without regular injections, she looks like hell and starts experiencing withdrawals.  Knowing what’s coming she wants no part of it.  Considering how she has absolutely no life whatsoever regardless of this, it’s a curious reaction.  What else does she have to do other than rack up fines for overdue library books?

Not helping matters is her involuntary stint in rehab.  As she fears the return of a mysterious werewolf that’s been hunting her for a while, among other obstacles, Brigitte finds herself at the mercy of a sleazy orderly who demands sexual favours for her confiscated monkshood.  While a couple other young female addicts service him before getting their particular fixes, Brigitte resists and for a time, quietly suffers in solitude.  If only she would let nature take its course.  Her stubbornness is not as noble as she thinks it is.

Meanwhile, an irritating, comic book-obsessed blond girl named Ghost (future Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany showing surprising charisma at such a young age), who enjoys talking in third-person narration (that gets tired real quick), gravitates towards her for reasons that don’t become completely clear until the end.  She’s in the rehab center visiting her terrified, badly burnt grandmother.

When Ghost tells an anxious Brigitte that she can help her escape, there’s only one catch.  Ghost gets to leave, too.  By the time they make their move, the werewolf’s killing game is already strong.

The rarity of female-centric horror films is one of the primary reasons why I like the original Ginger Snaps.  Plus, from its jolting opening scene, it hooked me.  Normally, I have a big aversion to gorefests (excessive blood tends to replace strong characters and a suspenseful plot) but because of the film’s cleverness in seeing remarkable similiarities between menstruation and werewolf transformations, all that blood is necessary.

Ginger Snaps notes the frustrating double standards of female sexuality in smart and humourous ways.  In a society that constantly puts males above females, sexually aggressive women are seen as scary, overly demanding, selfish even for making their pleasure a central focus of their carnal pursuits.  Ginger openly acknowledges how unfair this is and then proceeds to do what she wants anyway because she’s too powerful to be denied.  Plus, she now has an outlet to release all that pent-up anger that’s been building after so many years of being an outcast in her own town.

In Ginger Snaps 2, the reluctant Brigitte is far less willing to embrace her destiny which is not nearly as entertaining to watch, nor convincing.  She’s a victim who doesn’t need to be.  Whereas Ginger was addicted to her newfound voraciousness because it greatly improved her life, her younger sister is addicted to the illusion of recovery that repeated shots of monkshood will never fully deliver.  She’s wasting everyone’s time pretending she can beat this.  What exactly is she trying to protect?  A boring, isolated life?

The film is colder than the original and lacks its biting quips.  Brigitte gets brutally mocked for all those slashes on her wrist.  One fellow rehab patient thinks she’s bad at suicide attempts.  (To be fair, she has contemplated it at least once.)  Ghost gets pelted with pennies in the TV room.  Other rehabbers say and threaten cruel things to each other.  And, of course, there’s that manipulative orderly who demands sex for drugs.  As if it wasn’t already abundantly clear, there’s just no fun to be found in any of these sequences.

By the time we reach the somewhat surprising finale, when the truth about Ghost and her grandmother are revealed, the impact is drearily minimal.  We just don’t care.

Unlike the original, Ginger Snaps 2 also lacks a dynamic opening which proves fatal.  Watching an overly confident library worker attempt to pick up Brigitte is more eye-rolling and pathetic than amusing.  (He’s full of shit when he says he’s “just kidding”.  You only say that when you strike out.)  Not only that, her clichéd dismissal of his pitiful advances is much weaker than the very funny way Ginger turns down a future lover in the original.  (All she needs is a dramatic pause and one word to get the point across.)  Like Brigitte’s dilemma, there’s no recovery from this.  The needless sadness of her life sullies the entire atmosphere of the movie.

There was a third film in this series, a prequel called Ginger Snaps Back:  The Beginning, but it went straight to video because of the lack of audience enthusiasm for Unleashed.  It’s a shame, really.  Ginger Snaps showed even with all its low-budget limitations the unique appeal of a feminist horror film.  We need more of them.  God knows it’s an untapped area of creativity.

But let’s hope for better offerings than this downer of a sequel.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
7:34 p.m.

Published in: on June 28, 2016 at 7:34 pm  Leave a Comment