Django Unchained (John’s #1 of 2012)

The number one pick of my top 20 list of 2012 is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Django Unchained. David wrote an amazing review just after the film’s release and I implore you to scroll down and check it out if you haven’t already. When creating my top list (which was already a bigger endeavor than I had initially planned) I found myself at a crossroads when posting a short review of Django. On the one hand, David had already written an incredible post on the film and one that mirrored many thoughts of friends and movie goers that I have encountered. On the other hand, my thoughts on the film were just too much to narrow down to a single paragraph and having 3 months to digest the film only increased my desire to discuss the film. So to properly finish off my top 20 list (which everyday followers will know has taken about 3 weeks) I offer a 2nd look at Quentin Tarantino’s controversial western.

Quentin Tarantino is my idol. In many ways I consider him to be my mentor in film; my inspiration for writing and the gateway to my favorite films in cinema. I first discovered the news of Tarantino doing an all out western in February of 2011 when co-editor David sent me a text. At the time the rumor was a Tarantino western starring the original Django: Franco Nero, Christoph Waltz and Keith Carradine. Within a week it was announced the film would be the story of a slave named Django who is freed by a German bounty hunter that mentors him and helps him free his wife from an evil plantation owner. About a week after that I had my very own copy of the script. I read bits and pieces over the next year and carried it with me in my backpack everyday. Everytime a cast member was announced I would flip through the script and read the characters introduction. I refused to read anything past the 1st half in fear of spoiling any characters inevitable demise (a lesson I learned from reading the 3rd act of Inglourious Basterds a year before it was filmed). The beauty of a Quentin Tarantino film is that, despite nearly 2 years of holding the movie in my hands, I was still unprepared for the world Tarantino projected onscreen.

To me a “perfect” movie is one that contains great scene after great scene from start to finish. Think Goodfellas – the opening with Frank Vincent in the trunk (“What the fuck?, Tommy what is that, we hit something?). The early days of Henry Hill (“Oh my god, you look like a gangster”). De Niro hijacking the truck (“You may know who I am, but we KNOW who you are”), the Lufthansa heist, taking Karen to the Copacabana, slicing up onions in prison so thin they used to melt in the pan, getting coked out and making sure little Michael is stirring the sauce. It’s just great moment after great moment.

Every Tarantino film achieves this as well. And with each project Tarantino is breaking new ground, pushing his meta-narrative further and further and challenging audiences with every new step. Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino’s films get richer with character and more meticulous with cinematography, editing and style. He treats his screenplays as if creating the next chapter of the Bible. Every page is perfected before he moves on to the next and it certainly shows. If every writer were as passionate about creating a literary piece like Quentin is, then cinema in general would be worlds better than it is.

The first thing that strikes me about Tarantino’s work is how accessible it is to mass audiences. The first time I read Aldo Raine’s speech in Inglourious Basterds about “killing Nazis” I thought “Oh my god, this is too hardcore. There is no way this is getting in.” How surprised I was when this speech became the centerpiece for the film’s marketing campaign. Also when reading the Basterds screenplay, I began to quickly notice that 2/3rds of the film would be in subtitles. I immediately thought “there’s no way this will play with today’s audiences, no one wants to read subtitles anymore”. So I was overjoyed when discussing the movie with my aunt and uncle (two people I suspect have never seen a foreign film and never had to read a majority of a film’s dialogue before) to discover that they loved the film and even made note of how delightfully comical it was when Waltz’s Hans Landa requests to shift from French to English in the film’s opening scene.

The same goes with reading Django Unchained, within in the first few pages and the rampant use of the N-word I thought “Oh man this is gonna cause a huge uproar”. Luckily audiences are smart enough to know that what Tarantino has in mind is an adventure story first and an energetic movie experience one will never forget. While working at the movie theatre I was very intuitive of what audiences felt as they left the showing. The majority of black audiences I encountered were absolutely thrilled with the final product. It’s a comic book-y tale of a black superhero. The first film about slavery that allowed black audiences to stand up and cheer for its hero instead of wince at the pain their ancestors have suffered, much in the way the Jewish community could rally around Shoshanna and the Basterds as they lay waste to the Third Reich. Even those who could take offense to the racial slurs projected from Don Johnson’s Big Daddy Bennett and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie were only that much happier to see these crude men meet their brutal demise.

I also noticed a rising hesitation to the film from white audiences, a common feeling of discomfort and a sense of “white guilt” at the brutality and harshness of slavery in the Antebellum South displayed on-screen. Now this is more accurate to what I think Tarantino hopes to achieve with this film. Rarely are white audiences challenged to view their past here in America, unlike the people of Germany who sit through endless films depicting brutal Nazis and forced to revisit their unfortunate past and heritage. Even when a film takes on the historical aspect of slavery, a lot of the cruelty and contempt felt by these white slave-owning ancestors are placed on the back burner. For example Amistad, while a sentimental portrait of the uprising on the infamous slave ship, seldom depicts its white characters as brutally as, say a film about WWII, would depict its Nazi oppressors. Personally, I do feel that white audiences should be subjected to more films that evaluate our nation’s past and all the fucked up shit that we have done. To not be sheltered and to acknowledge that yes, we did this sick shit, and it wasn’t the first time either (think about the Indians when we first arrived).

Naturally, this is quite a hot topic of discussion and one that will surely spark a bit of a debate amongst our readers. However I’d also like to point out that Django Unchained tackles many different sides and oppositions to slavery that cinema has rarely explored. For example the character of Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) is a foreigner to this country and represents an outsider’s view of America and slavery. Several times Schultz explains his disdain for slavery and his confusion as to why people are so fascinated with dictating what one man can and cannot do. Schultz also describes his feelings of responsibility for Django and his reasoning to help Django remain free long after their relationship has ended. Schultz has a true admiration for Django’s strength and ability to endure the pain that surrounds him. He also admires Django and his wife Broomhilda’s belief in the sanctity of marriage, a belief that shows that these are in fact real people and not the uneducated savages that people like Big Daddy and Calvin Candie attribute them to be.

Then there is the depiction of slave owners themselves. On one side you have Big Daddy Bennett who is the epitome of a racist slave owner, a man who seems appalled at the idea of a free black man when Django arrives on his plantation with Schultz. Then you have Calvin Candie, a character who has inherited his plantation through generations of white slave owners. Now where Big Daddy clearly gets off on slavery, Candie appears to be somewhat done with the whole slavery idea; choosing to focus his attention more on mandingo fighting than buying and selling slave workers and show ponies. Big Daddy is a proprietor of slavery, one of the original creators; Candie is the disinterested descendant whose come in at the end.

Another interesting depiction is the level of social class amongst slaves. When Django is riding along with Candie’s entourage he is a free man, a man who rides atop his horse while the slaves walk alongside. There is a huge disdain for Django from the slaves, and in order to stay in character Django is forced to look down on them as well. Then there is Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen. Stephen is an elderly slave and the overseer of all of Candyland’s belongings, including both the land and the many souls who tend to it. The relationship between Calvin and Stephen is incredibly essential to the dynamic of the story. Stephen has been apart of Candyland since the beginning when Calvin’s father owned the property and has raised Calvin since birth. Stephen and Calvin have a father-son type relationship much like the bond that forms between Schultz and Django, but with one big difference…Stephen and Calvin love each other more than Schultz and Django do. This helps make the character of Stephen the darkest and most despicable villain in the film. Here is a man that stands above approach from the rest of the slaves on his plantation, a slave with power over every other slave and, in some ways, Calvin Candie as well. As Django points out in the film, there isn’t anything lower than a man in his position.

And yet, despite all this subtle analysis of the Antebellum South, what Tarantino delivers is an all-out action packed and hysterically funny American western. Its extremely difficult for me to rank Tarantino’s films because they are each perfect in their own way. When viewing Kill Bill’s two parts together I felt that Tarantino couldn’t get any better. Then when Aldo Raine delivers the final line in Inglourious Basterds “this just might be my masterpiece” I couldn’t have agreed more. Now Tarantino achieves even more with Django Unchained and another masterpiece expands his perfect canon. I simply continue to name Pulp Fiction as my number 1 favorite simply because its the one that introduced me to the man himself and to the world of movies that I would soon become obsessed with. 

Like Goodfellas, this is for me a “perfect” film. Its just great scene after great scene. “State your business or prepare to get winged”, “Can’t we just leave?”, “Treat him like you would Jerry”, “So it would be nice to see!”, “Its a German legend, there’s bound to be a mountain in there somewhere”, “We got us a fight goin’ on that’s a good bit of fun”, “I’m gonna walk in the moonlight with you”, “All the passions you inspire are completely justified”, “There have been a lotta lies told around this table tonight, but that you best believe”, “Tell Miss Laura goodbye”. Perfect is a movie I can relive moment-to-moment in my head at anytime. 

 

 

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Vernon, Florida (1981)

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I’ve been a bit of a “movie shark” recently, consistently moving from one new film to the next, knocking out both classics that have been on my must-see list for forever and a day and also consuming the cinema offered up to us in 2012 to finish off the best of list I posted last week. Hopefully, I will get out of this mode soon as there are piles of movies that I want to revisit and also show to people for the first time, which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite things to do. Since it is obviously impossible to watch a film again for the first time, the next best thing is showing a film you truly love to one of your friends or family for the first time, hopefully being able to live vicariously through them for an hour or so.

One of the plus sides of going through the “movie shark” phase like this is I get to see a lot of film in a short amount of time, and most of it is offbeat and picked up for extra cheap. Now that the DVD medium has become so damn inexpensive, I pick up most anything that catches my fancy if it’s under 5 bucks. If I don’t like it, I can trade it in at a couple of my regular movie-buying haunts for another movie, getting my wallet caught up in a particularly vicious cycle of commerce that only film buffs fully comprehend. Truly, it is a sickness; I know it, but I embrace it. One of my favorite places to pick up cheap flicks is Big Lots, where I can find long forgotten gems and an abundance of movies that I now wish I could forget. Luckily, Vernon, Florida, the second directorial effort by the legendary documentarian Errol Morris, turned out to be one of the best pickups I’ve made in quite sometime, and the fact that it was only $1.88 didn’t hurt either.

Up until I purchased the film, I had never heard of Vernon, Florida. Even my girlfriend, who spent most of her life in that particular state, didn’t know the town existed. Suspicious. Since everyone who shows up in the film ranges somewhere between charming in a mentally challenged way to full-on wackadoodle, and just to make sure Morris wasn’t trying to pull one over on me (yes, me specifically, 20+ years after he released the film. Diabolical, isn’t it?) by creating an entirely fictional town, I consulted Wikipedia and, yes, Vernon, Florida, does exist. I will provide you with these maps as evidence:

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Vernon is still a tiny town, just like it was when Morris pointed his lens at it all those years ago. According to the 2004 census the population clocked in at 757, up just 14 people from the one performed in 2000. Clearly, nobody moves to Vernon, but it appears nobody leaves either; the town seemingly exists as some type of muggy, critter-infested Florida limbo for anyone (un)lucky enough to be born there. Then there is the small matter of limb dismemberment. In the 1950s and ‘60s, this quiet, unassuming hamlet rose to prominence in the national consciousness due to the improbably high percentage of citizens who placed insurance claims on lost limbs, causing speculation that residents of the town were, in fact, dismembering themselves to collect some extra cash at an insurance company’s expense. During this stretch of time, the residents of Vernon accounted for as much as two-thirds of lost limb claims nationally, which is quite an impressive feat when your population is somewhere between 500 and 800 folks at the time, thus earning the nickname “Nub City*.”

As you could imagine, the citizens are a colorful bunch, which helps in transforming Morris’s documentary feature into a strange and utterly captivating piece of work, chronicling their obsessions with a deadpan, slight-of-hand style that doesn’t get in the way of the film becoming an involved record of the town’s colorful characters. Vernon’s memorable residents include a wildly enthusiastic group of turkey (the smartest birds in America, he enthuses!) hunters, one of whom who can recall each of his hunting achievements in such detail that could only be described as epic; the solitary local cop who seems to have learned the ins and outs of his trade by viewing cop shows, who is equipped with outdated equipment including a two-way radio that, since he has no counterparts, is used only to talk with his wife; and an elderly couple whose prize possession is a jar of sand collected from White Sands, NM, that they insist, thanks to radiation, had begun to multiply.

As with the rest of his filmography, Morris takes the simple approach of placing his subjects in their environment and only listening to the stories they wish to regale him with. This allows the residents to talk of their dreams, philosophies, superstitions, and fantasies in a surprisingly candor-filled fashion. In one of the film’s best scenes, you see and hear an old man pontificate on what a turtle he keeps in his backyard must be thinking about, and begin to realize you just got the Cliff Notes version of his life’s philosophy. This probably goes without saying, but the movie is often very funny. The aforementioned cop uses a bewildering array of law-enforcement jargon that makes it impossible to tell if he is joking or not, and in my personal favorite scene, we get to see Sunday morning church service with the local preacher, a man who appears to be in over his head (but enthusiastically so), giving an entire sermon on the significance of the word “therefore.”

Upon its release, Vernon, Florida received a fair amount of criticism, including allegations of making fun of its subjects, a charge I don’t exactly agree with as the film seems to have too much in the way of affection for the residents for that. Instead, I think Morris saw them as true American originals that’ve let their enthusiasms for wild, rabies-infested animals, worm farming, idioms, and Jesus run away with them. In truth, all they are trying to find in their eccentric obsessions is a way to make sense of their lives and the universe they find themselves in. All they want is to find a pattern in life that makes their existence worthwhile and worth living. In that way, the residents of Vernon are no different from the rest of us, it’s just the system they chose is skewed from the norm.

-David

*This was the original title chosen by Morris until several death threats from the townsfolk changed his mind.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

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Evil seems like a simple enough thing to describe. It is the opposite of good. In a world of black and white, the hero is good and the villain is evil. Unfortunately for us, the world is not black and white. It is not always that easy to tell good from evil. People are not always upfront with who they are or what their intentions may be and this may rest entirely on their trust level with you or society in general. Parents see more into the heart of their child than anyone else, yet they may be the most blind to the truth that lies within. The horrible school shooting in Sandy Hook, CT is the most appalling of the many recent mass shootings in this country. People who were functioning members of society committing savage acts of slaughter and violence. Now, I’m not saying that this guy who shot up a bunch of Kindergarteners led a perfectly normal life and did nothing wrong before he walked into that school, but my point is nobody ever thought he would do anything like that. Especially his mother and father, right? Maybe.

Any parent who has a special child will have some battle stories to share about the struggles of raising someone who seems indifferent to the pain they cause, whether the child realizes it or not. I use special in a way meaning just that, special, not handicapped. The child may seem perfectly normal to one parent, yet impossible to handle by the other. As the child grows, he may exhibit extremely troubling personality traits that will no doubt have a logical explanation. Kids have ways of attempting to manipulate their parents to get them to do what they want, and it usually starts very early in life. A child drops a stuffed animal. The child cries. The parent picks up the animal and hands it back to the child. The learning has begun. Some children are better at it than others, honing this skill through adolescence and their teenage years. With all the programs now in place to protect children from any kind of mental or physical harm, if the child becomes aware of how to start manipulating their parents in society’s rules then there is very little chance for the parents as they become locked in a situation of raising a potential psychopath. Put another person in the parents’ situation and give them the same information and it’s more likely that the child will receive the help they need, but I truly believe a parent will love their child no matter how they act or what they do. A parent will do anything to see their child happy when everyday seems to be filled with anger and pain. A parent will continue to try for their child if there is the slightest chance of helping them. This leads them past the point of what a normal person would tolerate. Everyone has a breaking point and unfortunately sometimes its not until after tragic events take place.

We hear these descriptions of mass murderers all the time. He kept to himself a lot. He never talked very much in school. As a child he hurt small animals. During sex he enjoys strangling or choking his lover. He had an obsession with knives/guns/fill in the blank weapon. He was extremely personable and charismatic. He was abused as a child. The truth of it is I probably just described half of the world with at least one of those sentences. Evil is all around us, its everywhere. Its in our schools, our neighborhoods, our shopping malls, our offices, our tv shows, our movies. Evil is in more places now than ever before for the simple reason that there are more people now than ever before. The key to fighting this evil is not to make laws that would intend to inhibit it, but to actually not fight it at all and accept this as part of the world that we live in. Having an expectation that pure evil can be stopped by a law is akin to expecting to govern someone’s dreams through bureaucracy. If we succeed in eradicating all evil from the earth then we will have also succeeded in the extermination of the humanity. I’d like to think that there’s a lot of good in humanity and if evil must exist so that we are able to have that, then that’s fine with me.

-Wes Kelly

The Thing (1982)

In the film nerd world, the best year in film history is a hotly debated topic that has no clear-cut answer. Some of us prefer 1939. Others prefer 1999. Myself? I prefer to stick with 1974, a year that championed the auteur theory as legendary directors (both foreign and domestic) released one film after another, all of them with their cinematic voice in peak form. It was also a wonderful year for movies that sought only to entertain via suspense and action and several boundary-pushing comedies made the audience laugh to beat the band. Since I happen to love lists, here is a quick sampling of 1974 films that have stood the test of time:

  • The Parallax View
  • Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
  • Blazing Saddles
  • Young Frankenstein
  • The Godfather Part 2
  • The Conversation
  • The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
  • A Woman Under the Influence
  • Chinatown
  • Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
  • Amarcord
  • The Phantom of Liberty
  • The Enigma of Kasper Hauser
  • Lenny
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
  • The Towering Inferno

While 1974 is the entire year I tend to rep in this particular conversation, I back 1982—the popular opinion, I know, but sometimes the popular opinion is correct—as the best summer of all time. This is partially due to me being a child of the ’80s, but since the Alamo Drafthouse programmed an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the movies released that particular summer—continuing to show why they alone are the go-to theater chain in the States, consistently making me wish I lived in Austin—I will assume I’m correct. In fact Alamo takes movies so seriously that they actually enforce movie theater rules and regulations, like no talking or texting, which led to this little incident that, in a perfect world, should have increased their stock by 231.7%:

But back to 1982 and another list (yeah, lists!) to help illustrate why a plethora of fans are on record as backing this summer as the best ever:

  • Poltergeist
  • The Road Warrior
  • Rocky III
  • E.T.
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • Tron
  • The Wall
  • Class of 1984
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn
  • Fast Times at Ridgemont High
  • Blade Runner
  • The Secret of Nimh
  • The Thing

Between the trailer, poster, and title of this post, I’m sure you are able to deduce that I’m going to talk about John Carpenter’s The Thing, and since I’ve burnt through roughly 400 words and 2 lists without even mentioning the genius of the film, I suppose at this point we should get right to it.

When it was announced that Carpenter, a life-long fan of Howard Hawks and his production of The Thing from Another Planet, intended to remake the film that had become a staple for monster-movie enthusiasts of his generation, the reaction was akin to anger. How the director of Dark Star and Escape from New York could presume a remake was needed in the first place was sacrilege, ignoring the fact that Carpenter’s decision wasn’t exactly surprising. He habitually mentioned Hawks’s work as a template, one that would shape and inform the now prodigious director’s career: Assault of Precinct 13 was a loving riff on Rio Bravo, and for one segment in Halloween, Carpenter would use a scene from the original Thing on Laurie Strode’s television set. Initially, fans of the classic got the last laugh as Carpenter’s film bombed at the box office. It seemed that audiences weren’t quite prepared for a film as bleak as this, especially two weeks after the release of E.T., a film that was much more optimistic about visiting extraterrestrial life, featuring none of the gore effects, disturbing imagery, and paranoia and distrust that made The Thing such as powerful cinematic concoction, a true masterpiece of suspense and horror.

Wisely, Carpenter elected to go back to source material, John W. Campbell Jr.’s Who Goes There?, the novella the original was based upon, and by extension, made the smart decision of ditching the Frankenstein’s Monster from space special effects, turning the alien back into a shape-shifting body snatcher that can imitate and replace any living organism it encounters and consumes. When the being is unearthed at the ass end of the earth, it encounters a group of men—each one as mysterious to the audience as the alien—allowing the director to explore their relationships in an understated fashion that also serves to ratchet up the suspense to, at times, seemingly unbearable levels. In this manner, Bill Lancaster’s script (son of Burt, who also penned the original Bad News Bears) is a masterwork, giving the audience lots of thoughts and ideas to chew on if they choose to look closely enough. Lancaster makes the correct decision to not flush out the backstory of a single character, dispensing with the common need of having to describe their motivation at every turn, making the movie stronger. The only common thread of the men’s past lives is that they are distrustful of people. You don’t end up in an Antarctic research station unless you are at the bottom of the company totem pole or unless you severely pissed off enough people in your line of work that they decided to send you there, ridding themselves of your existence.

Even the hero of the story, R. J. “Mac” MacReady (Kurt Russell in a signature performance) is fairly unlikable and, from the first time we meet him, it becomes readily apparent that he has no good will stored up toward the human race. The one thing that this helicopter pilot and loner seems to hate more than people is losing, establishing early on that he has no problem with ripping things down to their foundations in an effort to level the playing field when he pours a glass of liquor into the hard drive of a computer after it “cheats” to win in a chess match. Soon enough, he will be engaged in his own chess match with The Thing, and you can be damn sure he won’t let it win on its own terms, just like the unfortunate chess program finds out in the character’s introduction.

Stationed along with Mac, who becomes their de facto leader in the remote station, is a motley crew of individuals: Blair (Wilford Brimley), the first to detect the grave threat to the camp; Childs (Keith David, never better), one mean fucker who I would imagine pushed too many of the wrong buttons back in the real world, making this the only job he could procure, and as a result having to suffer around all these stupid-ass white folks; Palmer (David Clennon), the pot-head mechanic and chronic whiner; Clark (Richard Masur), a loner who feels more at home around animals than people; and Garry (Donald Moffat), the dependable but in-over-his-head security chief. Without the normal amount of exposition, Lancaster’s script opts for telling bits of action to let the audience in on who these people are, in turn allowing the actors to open it up a bit and bring their own sensibilities to the roles. When coupled with the lean script, the acting choices ensure that the audience has to pay attention to keep up—every mystery isn’t explained away, which some viewers seem to have a problem with. I happen to adore these traits, as they make repeat viewings a must, as there is always something new and interesting to discover, be it a turn of phrase or minor character beat. I’ve seen this movie upward of 20 times and I still have no idea “who gets to the blood” or when the monster gets to Blair or Norris, infecting them. For these reasons, The Thing becomes a film that one takes home with them, allowing the viewer to continue to play with the events of the movie in his or her head or leading to a group of friends sitting down with each other to discuss how they think events really went down.

This helps to ratchet up that aforementioned tension and paranoia, prominently displayed in the first of the film’s two signature scenes. MacReady comes up with an “identity test” designed to find out which of them has been infected. The test itself is simple enough, a blood sample is taken from each remaining member of the camp, and then a hot wire is pulled through it, burning the cells. Since it was deduced earlier that each cell of the organism is capable of acting dependently, if any of the samples truly contains the blood of “The Thing,” it will try and save itself and reveal who isn’t who they seem to be. It’s an incredibly effective scene, soaked in dread as each man waits his turn to be cleared.

If you’ve seen the film, you know the second signature scene is the last one, and it’s also the one that lifts the film into classic territory. Having dispatched the monster and set the compound on fire, MacReady sits down in the harsh storm that is currently pounding the Antarctic. Resigned to his fate, he suddenly notices Childs walking up out of the storm, seemingly the only other survivor. They sit together watching each other closely, full of mistrust and doubt, knowing that as the temperature drops, they will, without fail, freeze to death. The ending is one that has been dissected and speculated on ad nauseam, and due to the ambiguity in which it is shot, the main question on everyone’s mind will forever remain:

Is Childs a Thing?

Not in my opinion, no, he’s human. And instead of deciding to slowly freeze, MacReady and Childs could do something to save themselves or the people who will come to the research site, looking for answers as to what happened there. Only their mistrust and suspicion of one another hold them back, making a partnership impossible. It’s a nihilistic ending, one that fits the tone of the film perfectly as The Thing is chock full of characters whose Achilles heel is the fact that they can’t trust one another, which, fortunately for the alien, is exactly what it needs to not only survive but thrive in its new surroundings. In the end, the humans bring themselves down, stare destruction in the face, and lose. The real horror of Carpenter’s masterwork is not the monster, capable of mimicry so real it becomes nigh impossible to tell who’s real anymore, but in humanity’s failure to relate and trust in one another. The Thing’s screenwriter and director don’t seem to be too optimistic about our chances, but its message remains clear: as humans, we need each other to survive. A simple message we as a society still need to take to heart 30 years later, spun into a landmark creature feature by a master of the medium.

-David

The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

Don’t you hate it when a movie or some other piece of pop culture you have been waiting for—in some cases the wait feels like an eternity—finally comes out, only to leave you disappointed and dejected, barely able to (slowly) walk to your car from the theater in the dark, left only with your thoughts as they swirl about one’s brain matter in a frantic effort to deduce just what went wrong?

I sure as hell do. Those experiences suck.

Regretfully, this is how I felt last night after viewing RZA’s directorial debut, a film that has been in some level of development since the ‘90s when he created Bobby Digital and the album of the same moniker, which originally intended to be used as the soundtrack. RZA has been floating around Hollywood for sometime now, showing up in different capacities; sometimes as actor for Ridley Scott’s American Gangster or bringing the funny for Judd Apatow in Funny People. The lyrical legend has also left his stamp on the film industry as a composer with serious chops, as his score for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is nothing short of sweet, sweet candy for one’s eardrums. To any film fanatic (or causal fan of music who happens to love RZA and follow his career closely), it was becoming readily apparent that he was biding his time, soaking up cinematic knowledge from the masters of the medium he associated with (Jarmusch, Tarantino, etc.) in preparation for the time a studio would be good enough to entrust him with a film production of his own.

And for those who know anything about him or the Wu should have had no doubt in their minds as to what genre he would take on. Of course, I speak of Kung Fu—Grindhouse style.

RZA plays a freed slave named Thaddeus Smith, now a blacksmith in Jungle Village, China, after the ship he stowed away on encounters a brutal storm that washes him ashore, beaten but not broken, lying unconscious amid the vessel’s remnants. His love interest goes by the handle of Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute by trade–employed at the Pink Blossom brothel–and as soon as they save enough funds, they plan to run away together. Of course, as it often does, fate has other plans and Thaddeus gets caught up in some serious Chinese shit when he helps out an injured Chinese warrior named Zen-Yi the X-Blade (Rick Yune, the black hole of charisma), who’s trying to get revenge on Silver Lion for sending his father, Golden Lion (Chen Kuan-tai, Iron Monkey), to an early grave as well as prevent him from stealing a shipment of gold. Also arriving in town is Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), a stranger with mysterious intentions, except when it comes to libations and ladies (hint: he REALLY likes both). The battle for the gold and, more important, the power that comes along with it, threatens to rip apart the town. Hopefully, Thaddeus and his new found allies can put a stop to it before too much mayhem and property damage ensues.

If you know me and my film tastes, you should know that the synopsis outlined above appeals to me greatly. If a movie has characters going by the handle of Angry Hippo or Brass Body, features wire work by the legendary Cory Yuen, and pays homage to the cinematic output of the Shaw Brothers (man, RZA nails the shaky opening credits and old-school freeze frame of the end title card) and the movies found down on 42nd Street in its hayday, that’s fine by me, just tell me when and where to be and I’ll be the first to line up. That being said, for all the things that he gets right in his directorial debut, the things RZA botches loom large.

The number one reason this genre is so popular is the fight sequences. Fans don’t necessarily come to these films for the story or acting (but if both are good, it’s always a bonus), we come to see the stunning physicality that is on display, the lighting fast kicks and punches, the often-times vicious stunt work of the extras, and, most important, to take part in those moments when the audience screams out loud or jumps out of their seats together, barely able to comprehend the badassary they just saw. RZA’s camera placement and cinematography prevent this. Much like the rest of modern action films, The Man with the Iron Fists is shot much too close in, and when accompanied with the frantic editing, it becomes hard to follow the action. If he made the decision to pull the camera back a bit, the problem would be rectified and the scenes would be more enjoyable. Even more curious is his choice to keep the camera locked in too closely and using an abudence of medium shots in dialogue scenes, which wastes what looks to be wonderfully detailed period sets, perfect for wide shots that could allow the viewer a sense of the scope I’m sure he had in mind for the film. Framing is also an issue, with some expository scenes having the actors cut off on the sides of the screen, which, in my opinion, is very irritating.

Further exasperating matters is the odd choice of short fights. Who in the world ever goes to a Kung Fu movie, sits in the dark for an hour and thirty minutes, and then comes out saying:

“You know, that was a pretty kick ass movie, but the martial arts sequences should have been shorter!”

That’s like saying you don’t go to musicals to view the show-stopping set pieces. You’re supposed to show off, that’s what brings the fans in! Remember back to the House of Blue Leaves sequence at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1. I don’t recall anyone (haters excluded, remember, I’m talking about lovers of this genre) mentioning that sequence and including the thought that it was too long. These fights should be exhilarating, with the goal of taking the audience’s breath away. Hell, they may even want to applaud if you do it correctly. The fights here are best described as fun, but the issues above made it hard for me to fully invest in the film.

All that said, RZA’s personality shines through. It becomes readily apparent that he loves the world he created and that he was full of enough cool ideas that he could have made the movie 3 hours long and would still have had come choice bits left over. He took the approach of “everything including the kitchen sink” here, populating his newly created world and its characters with quirky beats and clothing choices that aren’t period specific but allow his cinematic voice to come out and play, fully uninhibited. This allows his characters to wear sunglasses because it looks cool. It allows the use of Wu Tang’s “Shame on a Nigga” to be played at just the right moment. And most important, it allows the actors freedom to really embrace the type of movie they have found themselves in, especially Crowe. As Jack Knife, the Oscar-winning thespian looks to be having the time of his life, even showing up to principle photography looking like he was in the process of playing Brando, The Island of Dr. Moreau style. I admire the actor for taking on a role that requires him to smoke a boatload of opium and ply three ladies of the night with only his beads, dildos, and devil-may-care smile. What I REALLY hope is that 5 years from now, this performance isn’t the one we pinpoint as the exact moment the actor’s career went from prestige pictures to headlining efforts more in the vein of what Cuba Gooding Jr. and Val Kilmer have been up to for the past 10 years.

This all adds up to a rather schizophrenic viewing experience, as I went from loving the film one moment to wanting to pull my hair out the next. I do hope that RZA gets another shot as a director because I do believe he can work these kinks out and deliver a Kung Fu movie that represents all the love and knowledge he posses for the genre. Sadly, The Man with the Iron Fists falls short as it ultimately becomes weighed down by the learning process of a first-time director. Hopefully, The Return of the Man with the Iron Fists will set the record straight and trumpet the arrival of a fully formed cinematic voice.

-David

House of the Devil (2009)

In a market that is genuinely oversaturated with the same thing wrapped in a different package, it does get difficult for horror fans to find a low-budget masterpiece that forces their jaws to drop to the floor. In the past, there were plenty of “straight-to-video” gems that still have a special place in horror-film history, but these days, it seems that there are constantly 30 or 40 new “horror films” a week, made by some guy you’ve never heard of, and released by a brand new indie production company that you’ve also never heard of. By looking at most of his catalog, Ti West, a man whose filmography includes gems like Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, seems like he should fit right into this category along with that kid down the street who made a zombie movie a couple weeks ago. Much to everyone’s surprise though, West’s 2009 opus, The House of the Devil, gives true fans of suspense something that they have deserved for many years, and while it may not have been entirely inventive 30 years ago, to see a film like this come out in the past five years is really something that deserves notoriety.

Existing on a relatively simple plot, you are introduced to Samantha Hughes, played by Jocelin Donahue, a young college student looking for work in order to pay for a new place. After a slow opening sequence, plot exposition suddenly slaps you in the face, and Donahue comes across a flyer with a request horror fans know all too well, “In Need Of Babysitter.” After a bit of frustrating phone tag, our heroine sets out with her best friend to an isolated house far out in the woods. Upon their arrival, the audience is introduced to the owner of the house, Mr. Ullman, played by veteran actor Tom Noonan, whose filmography includes Wolfen, Manhunter, and The Monster Squad. Samantha then finds out that as opposed to housesitting for children, Mr. Ullman is requesting that she look after his mother, whom he swears will not even make herself known, while he and his wife attend a party for the lunar eclipse later that evening. After agreeing to take the job for what most of us would consider an exorbitant amount of money (even more so back in 1980, when the film is set), the Ullmans take their leave. Samantha then informs her friend that drove her all the way out to the house that the owners were uncomfortable with having both of them there, and that she could pick her up later that night. Despite her best friend’s apprehensive assessment of the situation, our protagonist decides to press on. By this point in the film most of the audience is already yelling at Donahue for being gullible enough not to realize a horror movie setup for a satanic cult when it’s waiving a severed goat’s head in her face, but God bless her anyway. Suffice it to say, after a while in the house, things begin to take a very serious turn south for Donahue, and the audience is left sitting face-to-face with every horror movie stereotype of a cult they can imagine. The climax of the film results in a bloody nightmare that, while some will feel it cannot make up for the slow pacing of the rest of the movie, most will agree that the payoff was well worth the wait.

Even with the age old horror setup of “babysitter alone in creepy old house,” House of the Devil does not fail to impress the veterans—or the newcomers—of the genre. Director West brings an almost overwhelming sense of impending doom with every shot after the homeowners leave the house. Menial time wasters like Donahue playing billiards or watching TV only seem to bring you closer and closer to the edge of your seat with no explanation as to why. Tension like this has not had serious play in horror movies since Hitchcock, and it feels wonderful to have it back. Instead of a constant barrage of blood and worn out jump scares, this film gets back to the idea that the actual event is often not half as scary as the buildup. An inventive sequence, in which the main character is doing nothing more than dancing around the almost empty house listening to her portable cassette player, puts the viewer ill at ease because they just “know” that something is going to happen, but the protagonist won’t be able to hear it. A moment in which the babysitter’s friend is doing nothing more than attempting to bum a light off of a random passerby on the road, resulting in her shocking death, succeeds in bringing the audience out of their mellow approach caused by the first half of the film into the uneasy second act. The audience spends the majority of the movie watching an unwitting co-ed inch closer and closer to her doom, knowing that there is nothing anyone can do to save her from this plight.

Everything in the film reeks of the 1980s, and it works so well that it’s hard to believe the film came out three years ago. It seems that the filmmakers thought of everything, from the clothes and the cars, to the hairstyles, to the strong soundtrack, which features the pop/rock hit “One Thing Leads to Another” by London rockers The Fixx. The film also prays on the “satanic panic” shockwave of the 1980s, and while it may be something that is lost on the younger viewers, those who understand the reference will definitely feel a resurgence in the dread of that era. In order to expound upon the myth that the film was in fact made in the early ’80s, the production company decided to run a limited promotion of the film, which appeared on VHS, and in the classic clamshell boxes we all remember from years of pilfering through video rental shelves. The acting also feels very much like that of the early low-budget ’80s horror films we all know and love. Instead of the feeling that these are second rate B-actors, the cast gives off the vibe that they are incredibly savvy with the type of film they’re doing. The characters show some complexity, and during the final payoff all of their motives are explained well. The dialogue and pacing are well done in accordance with the films that West is paying homage.

The actual filming style of The House of the Devil is really something to behold. The influences drawn from classic horror and suspense filmmakers of the time—such as Roman Polanski or John Carpenter—are very evident and are, in fact, welcomed with open arms. Modern horror is populated by directors who want to pay homage to their predecessors, but very few do a good enough job of bringing the spirit of these older films back to the silver screen. Instead of relying on modern conventional filming techniques, West gets back to the way it used to be done, and while this may annoy those who have grown used to crisp picture and stunning sound quality, most of us aren’t looking for the horror equivalent of a Michael Bay film. For example, West opted to make the entire film using a 16mm camera, as opposed to using the current standard of digital filming with additional effects added post-production. If one was to simultaneously play The House of the Devil alongside any one of the countless low-budget horror films of the early 1980s, almost no one would be able to tell the difference in when the two were made. The cinematography also fits seamlessly with its predecessors, with an abundance of lingering shots and extremely slow zoom-ins, as West casts away the current industry standards of fast-paced, “what the hell just happened?” shots that make it seem like the filmmakers drew inspiration from a strobe light. Instead, The House of the Devil relies on building the tension through plot devices and camera work that dwells on a shot so long that the audience feels like they may see too much.

Overall, The House of the Devil is well worth the time of any horror-movie buff interested in finding something new to rekindle the golden age of Hollywood scares. With few to no flaws in its design, few people will be disappointed in the current apex of Ti West’s career. No matter what subgenre of the horror industry you love, there is something that you can get from this movie, be it gore, suspense, or the disturbing nature of the film’s climax. Most any serious fan of the genre would agree that films like these far surpass the never-ending barrage of mind-numbing trite that audiences are inundated with these days. While it may not have all of the bells and whistles that audiences have grown accustomed to over the past decade, this film brings horror back to a time when scares were simply better than they are now.

-Matt

Matt Oakley is a journalist and investigator of the unexplained.  He has written articles for the Politomatic & Culture of Spirits Blogs, as well as Intrepid Magazine, and made appearances on several radio programs.  Oakley currently writes, and is a radio personality for www.gralienreport.com and its sister radio show and podcast The Gralien Report.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

As much as I can vividly remember watching movies at the theater when I was a young kid, I often can recall watching the movie’s trailer even more. I’ve always loved movie trailers. When shot, edited and scored correctly these mere pieces of advertising can become a work of art. Some trailers can evoke such a feeling of exhilaration that the experience stays with you long after the feature presentation is over. Many of today’s best writer/directors choose to edit their own trailers and it shows. I can remember watching the trailer for Punch-Drunk Love and found myself days later still singing Shelley Duvall’s rendition of “He Needs Me” that plays over the commercial. Or the night I screened 3:10 to Yuma which was preceded by the trailer debut of There Will Be Blood and I spent the rest of the feature damning life because I was watching Yuma and NOT Blood.

I bring up trailers for two reasons. One being that fellow editors, David and Adam and myself spent Saturday night watching a two hour plus trailer pack at our theater. Sort of our farewell to 35mm since in two weeks our place of business is going all digital and consequently making our collection of 80s and 90s trailers obsolete. And two because trailers were often my first exposure to movies I was underage to see at the time. It is the trailer for Under Siege 2: Dark Territory that led me to run home and pretend I was Steven Seagal taking down terrorists on a train. The trailer for Tombstone that led me to pretend I was Wyatt Earp (or most times Sam Elliott) strolling the Old West. Of the recent trailer pack I had chills rewatching the Independence Day trailer and being taken back to the excitement I felt of seeing it for the first time in 96.

Which brings me to tonight’s post: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

At the age of 8 I had already seen a handful of the latter Elm Street films and always found them intense, a little creepy but rarely ever scary. I imagine it was the benefit of watching them with older audiences, like my older sister or older cousins and their friends who would make second rate Mystery Science Theater puns throughout each viewing. Even at a young age I knew that no matter how horrific the event, it was still just a movie. That is until I saw the trailer for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in which the director’s original creation has somehow manifested itself into a real life terror. This meant that at the age of 8 I would scream “Holy shit you mean Freddy’s real!!!”

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s Wes Craven witnessed the genre he created, “the slasher film”, plummet to the depths of straight to video knockoffs and endless sequels barely resembling the presence of its original roots. In the age of Critters 3: You Are What They Eat and Scanners III: The Takeover and Puppet Masters 5: The Final Chapter it was clear that something needed to be done to save the empire that Craven had built on disembodied teenagers. Horror filmmakers needed a new way to strip and murder the innocent. In 1994 Wes Craven began the notion that would reinvigorate both his career and the genre for another decade. The plan was simple: Let the victims know they are in a horror movie. Lay out all the classic horror movie cliches in plain sight and watch as the knowing teens still meet their demise. Horror movies were now in on the joke and audiences were laughing with the movies and not at them.

A year before Craven perfected this idea with the genre busting Scream franchise, he wrote and directed the final official sequel to the Elm Street series. The plot follows Heather Langenkamp as herself who begins to suffer from nightmares similar to that of the Elm Street franchise just as production on the latest sequel gears up. Heather’s husband Chase is a prop designer on the film and in the opening sequence of the film she dreams he is being maimed by a robotic Freddy glove. Its spider-like crawl across the table being one of the images that terrified me as a kid.

Heather is invited to the set of the film by real life New Line producer Bob Shaye where she is offered the chance to reprise her role as Nancy from the original film. She declines but still arranges a meeting with director Wes Craven for information on her dreams. Craven explains to Heather that the new film he is writing has been coming to him through a series of dreams. In his script pure evil can be defeated if its essence is captured in a work of art that is able to allow evil to express itself and that the evil has taken the familiar form of Freddy. Apparently Freddy has decided to stalk Heather since she was the actress who portrayed Nancy and thus gave Nancy her power. What!!

Following the death of her husband, Heather must protect her son from Freddy and takes sleeping pills to put the two of them into a final showdown. The ending culminates into a Hansel and Gretel-like display of inserting Freddy into a lit furnace. At the age of 8 the idea of placing Freddy into the real world was quite terrifying. Watch the film now and it is a hilarious parody of the Hollywood system. Robert Englund is a tour de force in his dual role playing himself and the wretched Freddy Krueger. The great John Saxon appears playing the dual part as well and Craven seems to be having a ball letting his inner Hitchcock roam free in a portrayal of Hollywood directors. The movie doesn’t quite have the self-mockery smarts as Kevin Williamson’s script for Scream but its a nice direction toward madcap parody. Freddy’s look was also updated to resemble more of Craven’s original conception of the clawed one, attempting to make him more menacing than comical.

Though not a box-office or critical juggernaut, New Nightmare still holds as one of my personal favorites of the series and will remain the launching pad for the late 90s resurgence of slasher films and more importantly the “horror-satire”.

-John