The Top Films of 2012 (Take 3)

The Night of the Living Oscars is almost upon us, which means it’s time for film buffs everywhere to make lists and make desperate attempts to compare apples to oranges in order to decide which one goes where. My attempts are as follows:

The Top 10 Films of 2012:

10. The Raid: Redemption
This is the Tony Jaa film with no Tony Jaa, and I wish that Ong Bak 2 & 3 had been anywhere near as good as The Raid. With a similar setup to Dredd, involving a multi-storied building on lockdown while hordes of tenants fight our protagonists, The Raid has excellent fight choreography that is creative, rapid-paced, and as is essential for a martial-arts action film, in plentiful supply. The Raid doesn’t bog itself down trying to make the story any more than it needs to be; it doesn’t feel tacked on but it doesn’t overburden the rest of the film and take away from the action either. A solid piece of adrenaline-laced action filmmaking.

9. The Grey
A sobering story about a man who has nothing to live for fighting to survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, The Grey isn’t just a film about the struggle against the natural world, but a personal look at a man’s conviction in the face of death, despite the pain and sadness in his past. Liam Neeson shows some real acting chops here, and seems to really delve into the role instead of going through the motions. What could have been a by-the-numbers survival story digs a little deeper and the result is powerful.

8. God Bless America
Perhaps it’s the cynical asshole in me, but throughout almost all of God Bless America I had a smile plastered across my face. With his death looming over his day-to-day suffering, Frank (Joel Murray) decides to cleanse the world of modern society’s shortcomings. Watching Joel Murray do what we have thought about once or twice in our darker moments is almost cathartic, and the entire film has a biting wit to go with the carnage that it portrays. Dark comedies, such as the work of Todd Solondz, never seem to get much exposure; perhaps because they sometimes strike a little too close to home. God Bless America fits the genre perfectly by making you want to laugh and despair at the same time.

7. Cloud Atlas
The Wachowski’s & Tom Tykwer’s brazenly ambitious Cloud Atlas is a film I kept thinking about for days. At first it was almost difficult to keep up with the many stories running concurrently, but the film quickly settles into a rhythm, and it’s an impressive sight to behold. Each arc goes through the build up and climax of their story simultaneously, with actors playing multiple characters at different points in time, all the while different key elements of one story will have an effect on another that takes place later in time. Some elements aren’t even central to the plot, but when you notice that the buttons stolen by one character are now a necklace worn by his descendant in the far-flung future, it’s a nice touch. Cloud Atlas is a multilayered epic that deserves multiple viewings.

6. Prometheus
As a long-time fan of the Alien franchise, this was easily my most-anticipated film of 2012. The original director my personal favorite, Alien (1979), returning to create a prequel that delves into the origins of the Xenomorphs? Yes, please and thank you. Prometheus, however, is quite the tease. While we get fantastic special effects, some great sci-fi storytelling and a healthy dose of horror and action, we also get plenty of questions that don’t get answered. While some may feel this detracts from the film, with a Prometheus 2 allegedly in the works, those questions may yet be resolved, and really, Prometheus stands just fine without having everything explained. Didn’t the original Alien? With that in mind, there’s plenty to love here, and Fassbender’s excellent performance as David deserves a little more attention. For Wes’s review of Prometheus, go here.

5. Frankenweenie
Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s love letter to the films of his youth, proves that Burton still has that charm that makes his older films so enthralling. It’s a shame that this and ParaNorman did somewhat poorly at the box-office, especially since stop-motion is one of my favorite methods of filmmaking; we may be seeing some of the last big-budget stop-motion films for quite some time. For a more in-depth look at Frankenweenie, check out my original review here.

4. Life of Pi
Not having read the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. From the trailers I had no doubt the film would be a visual feast (and it is), but all the visuals in the world mean nothing if there isn’t a solid core story. Fortunately, Life of Pi is a colorful and vibrant story about a young man who survives a shipwreck told in flashback, and somewhat like 2003’s Big Fish shows that the perception of a story may in fact be more honest than the basic truth. Simply put, Life of Pi is a fantastical tale that blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

3. Cabin in the Woods
As much as I love horror films, I’ll be the first to admit that the bulk of the genre is plagued by almost anything that can be bad in a film. Perhaps one of the worst is the overuse of clichéd plots that we’ve all seen a billion times over. And surprisingly, that is what makes Cabin in the Woods such a stellar film. I had expected a decent movie, I wasn’t expecting a film that poked fun at tired horror conventions while using them to construct an enthralling look at the horror movie itself. Even those who aren’t horror fans should give Cabin in the Woods a look, if only to see the jaw-dropping turns the story takes. For David’s review of Cabin in the Woods, go here.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson continually impresses with his work, Moonrise Kingdom is likely one of his best efforts. Between the amazing cast all turning in excellent performances, the camerawork so good each shot could be a piece of art, and a compelling story that captures youthful love and rebellion, it’s hard to find anything that hasn’t been carefully tuned to perfection by Mr. Anderson. This editor hopes that we can look forward to more of the same. For David’s review of Moonrise Kingdom, go here.

1. Django Unchained
While Quentin Tarantino had used elements of the Western genre in nearly every one of his films, he’d never simply made a Western. Django Unchained is that Western, and it succeeds admirably. A revenge/rescue story set in the pre-Civil War south, the oftentimes cartoonishly violent and racially charged plot sees Django (Jamie Foxx) becoming a bounty hunter as he attempts to rescue his wife. Where Tarantino’s films really shine is with character performances, enhanced with great dialogue for those performances, and Django Unchained does so through superb performances by the always-impressive Christoph Waltz and a knockout performance by DiCaprio as the villainous Calvin Candy. With yet another of Tarantino’s carefully picked soundtracks backing it, Django Unchained is a fine addition to the director’s lexicon.

Honorable Mentions:
Stuff that didn’t make the cut, but is still worth talking about.

7 Psychopaths – Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) was easily one of my favorite films of that year, and his latest offering is nothing to sneeze at either. With some excellent performances (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Tom Waits are all great) and repeated “I didn’t expect that at all” moments, 7 Psycopaths was just shy of making the list.

Argo – Ben Affleck’s film about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis is a competent film, and while I’m not sure that I’m as impressed as some are by it, there’s certainly nothing overtly wrong with it, and it’s a solid, engaging piece of work.

The Avengers – I doubt there’s anyone who hasn’t seen this film, but I’m including it here simply because when it was being made I thought that I was going to hate it. There was no way that anyone could make a superhero league film that wasn’t all over the place. But Joss Whedon managed to make a decent film that, though not flawless by any means, surprised me. Kudos to you, Mr. Whedon. Wes’s review can be found here.

The Dark Knight Rises – After The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises had some big shoes to fill. Too big, perhaps. While I still maintain that it is a good film, I can’t get past some of the suspension of disbelief that is required. It’s a shame that it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but there’s still plenty of cinematography, great acting, an impressive score and intense action sequences that make it better than just average.

Dredd – Though Stallone’s Judge Dredd (1995) does the comic book character no justice, 2012’s take on the character was much more in-line with the tone of the comics. A gritty, brutal action movie that was a pleasant surprise, especially given that didn’t expect anything from it.

Looper – While Looper might have some major plot holes, the film is done with such style and conviction that they can be set aside. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a notable performance as a young Bruce Willis, and the subtle make-up only enhances the effect. The psychic-powerhouse bit is cool too. Wes’s review can be found here.

ParaNormanParaNorman is a stop-motion film about a boy who can see the dead and must save his town from a witch’s curse. Like the aforementioned Frankenweenie, ParaNorman is visually impressive, and though the story drags sometimes, it’s worth noting for the amount of craft the Laika team put into it.

The Pirates!: Band of Misfits  – Yet another stop-motion film worth mentioning, from the amazing team at Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run). It gets a bit too juvenile for my tastes at times, but the entire film is a visual treat, and genuinely funny at times.

Sinister – Though there are issues with Sinister, it still is one of the better horror films to come out in 2012. There are moments that are truly creepy, and moments that are truly disturbing. Something about the home camera aspect makes the entire movie have an unsettling vibe, the atmosphere (aided by some great use of the band Boards of Canada) will stick with you, and that alone makes this film worth mentioning.

Skyfall – A noticeable improvement over Quantum of Solace (2008), the newest Bond film serves up some great sequences and top-notch cinematography, and one of the better Bond songs. Craig continues to impress as a no-nonsense take on the 007 character, and more of these to come is good news.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph was a strong contender for my Top 10, but Sarah Silverman’s character too often tread into annoying instead of charming. That aside, it’s a great movie that is considerably improved by the plethora of videogame character cameos. If you consider yourself an avid gamer (not you, CoD players), you’ll get a kick out of simply spotting all the references.

Worst 10 Movies of 2012
Though I wish I had descriptions for each of these films, I’m finding it hard to muster up the desire to expend any more time on them than I already have. They already stole several hours of my life, so this simple list will hopefully represent the last of such theft.

10. Step Up Revolution
9. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
8. The Cold Light of Day
7. Resident Evil: Retribution
6. Mirror Mirror
5. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
4. The Devil Inside
3. That’s My Boy
2. One for the Money
1. 3 Stooges

Disappointments:
The stuff that should have been great, but wasn’t. YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!

The Man with the Iron Fists
Despite David’s review, I still had this one on my watchlist because the trailer had looked promising. While The Man with the Iron Fists does many things well, such as the multitude of eccentric characters, it just isn’t quite what it could (and should) be. The camerawork leaves something to be desired, the CG blood / special effects look terrible and take you right out of the film, and the ending could have really used some extended fight scenes. Hopefully RZA can fix these kind of grievances and give us the 70’s kung-fu film that will do the genre justice.

Iron Sky
Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Iron Sky seemed to have tongue planted firmly in cheek from the outset. Nazis on the dark side of the moon is a delightfully ridiculous premise, and the trailer had me excited for something that played up the cheese while being thoroughly creative with that license. While Iron Sky attempts to reach this goal, it bogs itself down by going in the completely wrong direction, and while there are laughs to be had here and there, too much of what we get consists of a boring subplot and wasted potential.

Brave
Now, let’s be clear that I don’t consider Brave a bad film by any means. It’s a visually impressive movie that doesn’t have any major flaws. But Pixar has a fairly impressive track record (barring the Cars films, in this editor’s opinion), so I had very lofty expectations after seeing the first trailers. Brave’s story, however, is simply lacking that special touch that would make it stand with the other Pixar greats. In other words, Brave is a good, not great film. And that is disappointing.

Missed:
Films that weren’t seen in time to make (or not make) this list.

Amour
The Imposter
Lincoln
The Master
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Robot & Frank
The Secret World of Arrietty
Silver Linings Playbook
Shame

-Adam

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

After the 5th Nightmare on Elm St. film, “Dream Child,” the series was beginning to feel especially long in the tooth. The plight of the Alice character played by Lisa Wilcox was beginning to feel stale, and the storyline needed a fresh plot. Despite this, for the 6th film, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (notice that whenever a film has the sub-title “final” it never is?) the original script would have called for a continuation of the 4th film and brought back characters from the 3rd, which would have made it the 4th film in that story arc. Director Rachel Talalay (1995’s Tank Girl), unhappy with the script, decided to use an entirely different one by Michael DeLuca, eschewing the cast and story of the previous sequels.

This go-round, “John Doe” (Shon Greenblatt) is a teenager with amnesia whose dreams are constantly tormented by Mr. Krueger. Curiously, Freddy seems less interested in killing John and more interested in pushing him to a specific destination. This destination is a home for “troubled teens” who have suffered from abuse and/or otherwise can’t seem to play nice with the rest of society. Counselors “Doc” (Yaphet Kotto) and Maggie (Lisa Zane) attempt to help them resolve their troubles, and “Doc” is especially found of dream therapy (no surprise there). Maggie herself has a recurring dream that she can’t quite figure out, but discovers that a newspaper clipping John has on his person has ties to parts of her dream. She decides to investigate the town mentioned in the clipping along with John, and is accompanied by stowaway teens Spencer (Breckin Meyer), Tracy (Lezlie Deane), and Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan).

They arrive in the town of Springwood and find the town bereft of children, apparently Freddy has cleaned the place out (look for Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold as childless parents “This time I swear it’ll be different. This time I’ll be careful and I’ll hide you better so that he’ll never find you!”). Here Maggie and John attempt to discover their pasts while Freddy goes to work on the stowaway teens.

Despite the change of scenery (and a cameo by original Nightmare star Johnny Depp, credited as “Oprah Noodlemantra”), Freddy’s Dead still doesn’t quite pull itself out of the deep rut that the series had dug itself into at this point. The film doesn’t bring anything new to table aside from a new story arc and characters, it’s a very “safe” film that relies on the established Freddy Krueger character and the series’ hallmark, the creative ways that Freddy eradicates his victims. The revelation towards the later half of the film that “Freddy had a kid!” isn’t a particularly believable plot point either, and that, combined with a lazy explanation for the source of Freddy’s powers (flying, evil, worm-shaped “dream demons”???), only further erodes Freddy Krueger’s viability as a scary, rather than solely humorous, character. As far as performances, Shon Greenblatt has some pretty awful dialogue, as does Lisa Zane, and it’s hard to tell if it’s a failing of the actors or just spots of terrible writing they’re given to work with. Honestly the scenes that work best are those that are less about story exposition and are more focused on the bizarreness that typically flavors a Nightmare film, which should tell you the caliber of the storyline.

In this editor’s opinion, however, this film is still relatively entertaining. It has its share of eye-rolling dialogue and wooden acting, but still has some of the charm that makes the third film enjoyable, and is less groan-inducing than the somewhat painful plotline of the 5th film, special effects nonwithstanding. The deaths, though fewer in number than most of its predecessors, are both funny and unique. Freddy’s Dead marks the last of the “traditional” Nightmare films, followed by the unconventional film-becoming-real-life New Nightmare (1994), the crossover Freddy vs Jason (2003), and the 2010 remake of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Given that Robert Englund is in his mid-sixties, and that the series has already received a gritty, “modern” remake (a critically panned one at that), it may be that we never see another “classic” Nightmare film ever again. Whether you think that’s a blessing or a curse is up to your personal taste, but with Freddy Krueger having more or less completely transitioned from legitimate slasher villain to commercial funny-guy, it may be for the best.

-Adam

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

With the success of 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (a success that rescued New Line Cinema from the edge of bankruptcy, and was the company’s first commercial success), it was inevitable that a sequel was going to be produced, even though Wes Craven voiced his opposition to the idea. New Line handed direction to Jack Sholder, and writing duties to David Chaskin, due to Wes Craven’s unwillingness to work on the film. The resulting sequel, which narrowly avoided having someone else cast as the infamous Freddy Krueger*, grossed nearly twice as much as its predecessor, further cementing the Nightmare franchise as a bankable commodity.

But sequels, especially those taken from the hands of their original creators, have a tendency to be unable to live up to expectations; even more so if the preceding film was especially well-received. Does A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 break this trend?

This time around, Freddy Krueger is seeking to return to the realm of the living, by taking over the body of Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton), who has just moved into a familiar house in Springwood. Jesse has a hard time adjusting, between the heckling he receives from the school bully Grady (Robert Rusler), awkwardly attempting to foster a budding romance with his friend Lisa (Kim Meyers), and having his dreams tormented by Freddy, he begins to slowly lose his mind. After he has a “dream” in which he is taken from an S&M bar by his gym teacher to the school’s gymnasium and said teacher is killed by Freddy, he discovers that the murder actually has happened, and it is apparent that Freddy is gaining control of his body. With the help of Lisa and an old diary he finds in his house, he attempts to fight back against the ever-looming threat of losing himself.

Though A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 has several memorable scenes mostly owing to special effects that were impressive at the time (some examples include an exploding parakeet, Jesse’s tongue extending and gaining a life of it’s own, Freddy tearing his way out of Jesse’s body in one sequence, an eye in the back of Jesse’s throat, a pool party gone horribly wrong when Freddy arrives and begins causing havoc, and human-faced dogs guarding a gateway), it fails to deliver the same kind of impact that the original had. By making Freddy a run-of-the-mill slasher through taking over Jesse, the unique “dream-killing” aspect is taken away. All that is left is Freddy’s dark sense of humor, which, at this point in the franchise, is still underplayed, especially since Freddy is given a meager 13 minutes of screen time. And, although I didn’t notice it the first time I watched the film, writer David Chaskin says he deliberately wrote in homoerotic undertones throughout the film, which, as far as I can tell, serve no apparent purpose aside from being laughably bizarre and somewhat out of place with the tone of the rest of the film. Perhaps one of the worst parts of the film is that the ending is somewhat trite and unremarkable, and simply feels underwhelming given what precedes it.

As for the acting, Mark Patton handles the role of Jesse in a sort of shrill, hammy-in-a-bad-way manner that is more irritating than something to empathize with, and unfortunately the rest of the cast either doesn’t impress or simply gives a passable performance, save a humorous display by Clu Gulager as Jesse’s father and of course Robert Englund continuing in the role that he’s still the most famous for.

Despite its commercial success, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is really the point at which the franchise stumbles and is trying to find its legs. It hits its stride in the following film A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987) and its somewhat formulaic sequels that establish Freddy’s personality and his unique methods of teenager disposal as the series’ real draw. Simply put, this is a rather weak offering for a Nightmare on Elm Street film that suffers for its attempt to go in new directions, which, though admirable in spirit, ultimately misses the point.

-Adam

*Initially, New Line refused to give Robert Englund the pay raise he requested to return as Freddy Krueger, but after the extra cast to play the role failed to meet expectations, producer Robert Shaye agreed to Englund’s requests.

Frankenweenie (2012)

I’ll admit than when I saw the trailer for Frankenweenie, I was cautiously enthusiastic. When it comes to upcoming films (and videogames… any media, I guess) I try not to get too hyped about them, because that makes the bitter sting of disappointment that much greater when things don’t pan out. In this editor’s opinion, Tim Burton hasn’t made a great film since Big Fish (2003). Now, put down the pitchforks, I said great, several are still good films, just not great. Perhaps coming from another director my expectations wouldn’t be as high, but I’ve always been a fan of Burton, especially his earlier works, such as Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and though he didn’t direct it, the very much Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). His newer offerings, such as Alice in Wonderland (2010), Corpse Bride (2005), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) have all had amazing visual style, but are simply lacking enough of the typical Burton charm to elevate them from being decent films to being amazing. Corpse Bride was especially disappointing to me in this regard, because I’m such a fan of stop-motion, and Corpse Bride looked amazing, but the story / writing was simply lacking any memorable impact.

But enough about disappointments, Frankenweenie is a return to form for Tim Burton. From the opening shots of a suburban sprawl (heavily echoing that of Edward Scissorhands) to the character designs that immediately bring to mind his other stop-motion works, this is a film that feels like something the director would have made at the early stages of his career. Perhaps that’s because it is, in a way, because it’s based on a live-action short Burton did in 1984 by the same name (a short that was supposed to be released alongside the Pinocchio (1940) re-release, but was pulled by Disney because it disturbed children at test screenings).

The plot is fairly straightforward; Victor (Charlie Tahan) is an introverted boy who likes to make movies, his only real friend is his dog, Sparky. Victor’s suburban town of New Holland is populated by a suitably bizarre cast of characters, from a girl whose cat (named Mr. Whiskers) apparently leaves prophecies in the litter box, to the new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau). Unfortunately for Victor, Sparky is hit by a car, and Victor’s solution to his grief is to bring him back in tried-and-true Frankenstein (1931) fashion. He is, of course, successful, but must hide his resurrected friend from his friends and parents (voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short). This all goes awry when his secret is discovered by his classmate, Edgar ‘E’ Gore (Atticus Shaffer), who demands to know how he’s managed to cheat death, and Victor concedes, with the stipulation that no one can know. Naturally, with the big science fair around the corner, Edgar can’t resist telling other students, which leads to a chaotic, horror-film-inspired third act.

This might be the best part of the film, which has nods to Gamera (1994) and Gremlins (1984) amongst others. In fact, the entire film is chock full of horror references; the storyline itself loosely follows that of Frankenstein, the parents are watching a Dracula film (voiced by Christopher Lee) in one scene, the poodle next door ends up looking like the Monster’s Bride from Bride of Frankenstein (1931), a model in one of Victor’s films looks almost exactly like Rodan from the 1956 film of the same name… I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s clear that Frankenweenie is Tim Burton’s homage to the films that inspired him in his youth, and perhaps Frankenweenie is his pseudo-biography in stop-motion form.

Frankenweenie’s only major flaw is perhaps its pacing, the time period between Sparky’s resurrection and the action-packed third act feels too slow for the events that precede and follow it, despite the fact that it contains more or less vital plot points. Despite this, the film is still a very enjoyable watch, and has plenty of humor to go along with its somewhat dark subject matter. As a matter of fact, I could easily see very young children being scared of this film, and it’s almost surprising that they got away with a PG rating, though in comparison to many films from the 80’s and 90’s a PG rating isn’t that far out of the question, political correctness be damned.

In summation, Frankenweenie does have problems here and there, but all the different parts are stitched together in such a way as to make the first Tim Burton film in a long time that really feels like it belongs to the director, as opposed to something that seems like he was talked into at a studio board meeting. If you long for Burton’s glory days, Frankenweenie just might fit the bill.

-Adam

Creepshow (1982)

Let me start by saying that Creepshow is one of my personal favorites, horror or otherwise. I’m sure there are faults to be found, but ever since my father introduced me to this movie I’ve had an unabashed love for Creepshow. I think the same can be said for my father and brother as well, and the three of us quote it fairly frequently (it seems that good movies are always highly quotable). Creepshow is set up as an anthology, with a brief psuedo-short that bookends the five short films that make up the film.

Personally, I enjoy anthology films (which seem to be overwhelmingly set in the horror genre, such as Tales from the Darkside (1990) Cat’s Eye (1985) and the more recent offering Trick r’ Treat (2007)), if only because short films are often straightforward in their setup and delivery, and don’t require as much to be a solid piece of filmmaking. That’s not to say that a short film is superior to a full-length feature or vice-versa; they’re different animals and what works for one will not necessarily work for the other. And with anthology films, if one particular segment is terrible, the next one might be great.

Creepshow excels because all of the segments have their own charm (not to mention an excellent cast); this is largely because the whole affair is an homage to the classic horror comics produced by William H. Gaines’ EC Comics, namely The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, and the well-known Tales from the Crypt. Better still, Creepshow is a collaborative effort between horror-legends George A. Romero and Stephen King, both of whom created the film because of the influence of EC Comics had on them. Most of the segments have some sort of moral lesson, just as the comics they were inspired by did, and if you’ve familiar with HBO Tales from the Crypt TV show, you have a fairly good idea of the kind of stories each segment tells. To further reinforce the comic book inspiration, each segment starts and ends with an illustrated “comic book” image that transition into and out of the actual live action.

The first full segment, titled “Father’s Day,” is about an aging, wealthy, overbearing father (Jon Lormer) who drove his daughter (Viveca Lindfors) to murder him on Father’s Day with an ashtray* after he had her lover killed. This segment takes place 7 years after the fact, as the entire family, knowing that they owe their current wealth to “Aunt Bedilia” has a “celebration” every Father’s Day to mark the occasion. Hank Blaine (Ed Harris), has recently married into the family, and he and the rest of the family will soon find out how very badly Aunt Bedilia’s father wanted his Father’s Day cake.

“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” segments stars Stephen King as a country bumpkin who discovers a meteorite in his backyard. Said meteorite happens to cause a bizarre plant growth that begins to cover literally everything. This segment is largely humorous, with several “dream sequences” where King’s character imagines the outcomes of his actions in a suitably ridiculous fashion. King gives a somewhat over-the-top performance here, and while still entertaining, this is probably the weakest segment.

“Something to Tide You Over” stars late, great Leslie Nielson, in an atypical role as a jealous husband who decides to get revenge on his wife and her lover (Ted Danson) by burying them up to their necks in sand on an isolated beach, telling them that when the tide inevitably comes in, they can make it if “you can hold your breath.” In typical EC fashion, revenge is exacted, and death proves no deterrent to those seeking it. It’s great to see Nielson in a non-comedic role, and he really shows his acting chops as a villain. Perhaps one of the better factoids about this segment is that the haunting, carnivalesque music that backs the segment is, in fact, “Camptown Races” played extremely slow and off-key.

“The Crate,” which is my personal favorite segment, stars Hal Holbrook as Henry, who is married to the insufferable Wilma “Billie” Northrup (Adrienne Barbeau). His only joy seems to be playing chess with his fellow professor Dexter (Fritz Weaver). When a janitor at the university calls Dexter in to examine an ancient crate he found under the stairs, neither of them could imagine that it contained something alive and hungry, leaving Henry to decide what to do with its contents. Adrienne Barbeau pulls off obnoxious in a way that would drive anyone out of their mind, and this entire segment is one of the scarier of the bunch, with some great scenes that stick with you.

“They’re Creeping Up on You” centers around Upson Pratt (E.G. Marshall, perhaps best known for his role in 12 Angry Men), a wealthy businessman who lives in a pristine, almost-sterile apartment in Manhattan. Almost sterile, except for the roaches that he can’t stand and can’t seem to get rid of. Through his angry phone calls and mutterings to himself it becomes obvious that Mr. Pratt feels that most of humanity is like the roaches he so loathes. On this particular night, however, Mr. Pratt’s concerns that the roaches, like his subordinates, are creeping up on him are not entirely unfounded.

These five segments are encompassed by a brief story entailing a angry father (Tom Atkins) who has just thrown away his son’s (Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son) horror comic, which is, of course, an issue of Creepshow**, which the boy is rather upset about. Keep an eye out for special effects guru and horror legend Tom Savini (who also did the special effects for the film) as a garbage man in this sequence.

Upon re-watching it for the umpteenth time for this review, I found myself grinning as soon as the familiar intro music started up; Creepshow carefully walks the tightrope of a film that deals with horrible things happening to people (some that rightly deserve it) and being a film that is extremely fun to watch and oftentimes funny, even if what is happening would never be humorous in real life (nevermind supernatural). Often overlooked by horror buffs now, Creepshow deserves credit for not only being an example of an anthology movie done right, but for its spot-on homage to the EC Comics that inspired it. Any fan of the HBO Tales from the Crypt should give Creepshow a watch, and if you’ve already seen Creepshow, give its less-than-perfect sequel Creepshow 2 (1987) a look as well. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have being scared.

-Adam

* As a bit of trivia, this ashtray appears in every segment of the film, including the bookends.

** The comic used in the film was drawn and inked by none other than EC Comics artist Jack Kamen, who agreed to do it after another EC Comics artist, “Ghastly” Graham Ingels declined.

Mindwarp (a.k.a. Brain Slasher)(1992)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Given that this is the week of all things Bruce, I’ll confess that when I rented the VHS of Mindwarp (also known as Brain Slasher) several years ago I did so because of one name and one name only, which was of course Mr. Campbell’s, emblazoned across the top of the cover. At this point I had watched The Evil Dead trilogy and fallen madly in love with it, so anything that had more Bruce was a good thing in my book. But would that hold true with this blind watch? The self-proclaimed King of B-movies is known for starring in, well, B-movies. And B-movies aren’t exactly known for being high-caliber, quite the opposite. But there are good-bad movies and bad-bad movies, and sometimes the line between the two is thin.

Mindwarp takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting; our protagonist, Judy (Marta Martin, credited as Marta Alicia), lives in a tiny room with her mother. Here, they (and presumably everyone else in this complex) plug themselves into Infinisynth, a virtual reality program where they can do whatever they want; only pausing to eat and take care of bodily functions. Not terribly original, but at least it predates The Matrix (1999) by 7 years or so. Judy, however, is unsatisfied with virtual reality; she yearns for something more “real.” After getting in an argument about her missing father with her mother (who can’t even remember her name), she accidentally kills her mother by interfering with her virtual scenario. She is summarily accosted by a SWAT-like team and given an injection that makes her pass out.

She wakes up in a wasteland with crucified skeletons everywhere, and is attacked by a band of cannibalistic mutants (think Mad Max (1979) + mutants) and is about to be carted off when Stover (Bruce Campbell) rolls in and saves her. Back at his shack, he tells her how the remaining population was left on the surface to fend for themselves while the well-off shut themselves up in the Infinisynth facility. That night they are both dragged into the hellish underworld of the mutants, full of scrap metal, parasitic fish, slave workers, and mutants snacking on human remains. The Seer (Angus Scrimm) has created a religion around human sacrifice that the mutants adhere to, and proceeds to explain how he’s doing a great thing by giving these mutants something to live for and so on. So it’s up to Judy figure out how to free Stover and escape back to the surface.

Now, all that sounds appropriately cheesy and campy, but is the movie any good? Well, if you take it a face value, probably not. Mindwarp is a Fangoria Films production (as in the popular horror movie magazine Fangoria), so that alone should tell you heaps about the kind of film this is. The acting from our lead, Marta Martin, is pretty god-awful. Her lines all have a fairly stiff delivery, and her dialogue is just bland in general. It’s unfortunate that the lead character is far less compelling than the supporting roles, which would, of course, be horror legends Bruce Campbell and Angus Scrimm. Campbell gives a passable performance as Stover; it’s not terrible, but it certainly doesn’t have the charm of his Evil Dead 2 (1987) and Army of Darkness (1993) performances. Angus Scrimm (best known for his role as the Tall Man in Phantasm (1979)) is probably a little too over-the-top for his own good, but at least he dominates the scenes he has with his lengthy bad-guy speeches. The film quality is fairly muddy, and this is exacerbated by the darkness in the underground scenes. Whether or not this is just a bad transfer I can’t say, but with both the versions I’ve seen it this was the case. The soundtrack is forgettable (I don’t even remember it, and I literally just watched it), but the special effects are acceptable, given the budget.

When it’s all said and done, Mindwarp is moderately entertaining, and horror buffs / fans of Mr. Campbell and Mr. Scrimm should definitely check it out. I can’t really recommend it to anyone who’s not a horror fan or can’t enjoy a campy movie though, because although Mindwarp has a decent premise and some cool set pieces and effects, it’s just not “must-see” material for anyone but fans of cheesy horror / sci-fi who are looking for something new.

-Adam

-My apologies for the lack of a trailer. I have scoured the internet and simply cannot find one, all I could find was a clip that was mostly the last scene of the movie. Mindwarp must be too obscure to be granted such glorious privilege.

 

The Evil Dead (1981)

For me, The Evil Dead stands as a defining film in the history of horror films. The same sentiment has been said a million times by cinephiles and film reviewers who have said it better than me, and that’s because this campy, gory, rollercoaster of a movie deserves all the praise it receives. Sam Raimi’s first feature film about a man fighting off the demon-possessed corpses of his former friends in a remote cabin not only spawned a devoted cult following that persists today, but also is responsible for countless imitators, both thematically and stylistically.

The Evil Dead starts off with Ashley “Ash” Williams (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), Scott (Richard DeManincor credited as Hal Delrich), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) and Shelly (Theresa Tilly credited as Sarah York) all piled into a yellow 1973 Oldsmobile Delta and headed to a run-down cabin in the Tennessee wilderness. After crossing a dangerously unstable bridge, they settle in and eventually discover a flesh-bound book and tape recorder in the cellar (along with a movie poster for The Hills Have Eyes (1977), to which Wes Craven responded to by having The Evil Dead playing on a TV in the background of A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)). They decide to gather around and play the recording for kicks, and the words spoken by the recording (the voice of the late Bob Dorian) are translated passages from the “Book of the Dead” that they hold in their hands.

This awakens an ancient evil in the woods, which is represented by a POV camera racing through the woods with ominous sound effects to back it, and this kind of shot is one of Raimi’s trademarks. I think it might have been said before on this blog, or maybe just in passing conversation with my fellow editors, but it seems to me that the most memorable directors, those that really elevate film to an art form, all have their trademarks; you could be watching one of their films without knowing they had directed it and it would still be fairly obvious. The rest of the camera work is equally impressive, it wouldn’t surprise me if Raimi’s flair for camerawork and editing is what convinced studio executives to hand him 2002’s Spider-Man.

Afterwards, Cheryl wanders out into the woods, where she is summarily attacked and raped by tree branches and vines. This infamous scene was banned in several countries* and caused enough controversy for Sam Raimi to have said he regrets having put it in the film. When she returns, she insists on leaving and enlists Ash to drive her back to town. They discover the bridge has been destroyed and the metal support beams bent backwards into the air, giving it a clawed-hand-like appearance. This is a genuinely creepy shot, as Cheryl and Ash both realize they are trapped and that there is definitely something out in the darkness that doesn’t want them to leave.

When they arrive back at the cabin, Cheryl transforms into a “Deadite,” a possessed corpse intent on making her friends join her in her newfound state. The next half of the film consists of Ash fighting off his former friends, trying to keep Cheryl down in the cellar while she mercilessly taunts him, and finding the resolve to “bodily dismember” his girlfriend once she has been taken by the Deadites. While the first half of the film is mostly a tension-building affair, the second half is a no-holds barred cornucopia of body parts, white-eyed Deadites cackling maniacally as they assault Ash with fire-pokers and knives, and literal gallons of blood coming from all directions. The violence is so absurd and over-the-top it verges on comedy at times, something that is taken to its logical zenith in the remake / sequel Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987).

On that note, given its exceedingly meager $350,000 budget and the myriad of production troubles that Raimi and co. had getting this film made, the special effects are quite impressive, especially the stop-motion that is used for some of the later scenes. Of note is that all that blood and gore (a mixture of Karo syrup, food coloring and non-dairy creamer) took its toll, and the shirt Bruce Campbell was wearing became so saturated that once it dried, his attempt to put it back on caused it to break into pieces. That’s a lot of blood.

The performances in The Evil Dead are somewhat lacking, but truth be told, the whole affair is so campy that it doesn’t really detract from the film, and Bruce Campbell has noticeably improved his acting chops in the sequel. Really, all that is required from the actors is to be suitably terrified at their situation and then sadistically deranged when they portray Deadites, and they’re perfectly sufficient in this regard. It’s hard not to be caught up in the mayhem and chaos that is The Evil Dead, and this is truly its greatest strength, it really is the cinematic equivalent of a horrific carnival ride.

And, at the risk of sounding like a film snob, those who don’t like The Evil Dead 9 times out of 10 don’t get it. Maybe they’re put off by the obvious low budget, or the somewhat stiff acting. Maybe they can’t appreciate the absurdity of the violence, or maybe they simply dismiss any movie that’s too gory for their tastes. In any case, this film, which is truly a labor of love from its creators, is a true modern classic of the horror genre.

Hail to the king, baby.

-Adam

*Coincidentally, The Evil Dead was listed in Britain as one of the “Video Nasties,” and was shown in court to demonstrate the idea of what was considered a “Video Nasty.” A cut version was released with an X rating on video, and though The Evil Dead was listed many times, it was never prosecuted successfully in court.