Escape From New York (1981, directed by John Carpenter)


What’s your favorite John Carpenter film?

Halloween is an obvious choice.  It’s probably the film that John Carpenter is best-known for.  The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13 are two other popular choices.  Libertarians and anarchists have embraced They Live as a sacred text.  In The Mouth of Madness is one of the few films to capture the feel of a classic H.P. Lovecraft story.  Christine is one of the best of the Stephen King adaptations.  My techphobic father recently purchased a Blu-ray player just so he could watch Big Trouble In Little China whenever he felt like it.

For me, though, my favorite will always be Escape From New York.

Everything about this movie, from the premise to the execution to the darkly funny ending, is pure brilliance.  For those who have been living off the grid for the last 40 years, Escape From New York takes place in what was, at the time of the film’s initial release, the near future.  Due to a 400% increase in crime, Manhattan has been turned into a floating prison.  A wall has been built around the island.  The bridges are covered in mines.  All of the residents are prisoners who have been sentenced to a life term and the Chock Full O’Nuts is now literally full of nuts.

There’s a new resident of New York City.  He’s the President (Donald Pleasence!) and he was supposed to soon deliver a classified cassette tape to the Soviets.  Instead, with the world on the verge of war, Air Force One has crashed in Manhattan and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes!!) is holding him hostage.  Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef!!!) recruits notorious criminal Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell!!!!) to sneak into the prison and retrieve the cassette and save the President, by any means necessary.  If Snake succeeds, he’ll get a pardon.  If Snake fails, he’ll die due to the microexplosives that have been injected into his system.

How unbelievably cool is Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin?  Before fanfic was even known by that name, people were writing stories about Snake Plisskin’s past and how he lost his eye.  Delivering his lines in a Clint Eastwood-style rasp, Kurt Russell gives one of the best action hero performances of all time.  (Snake was the role that transformed Russell from being a clean-cut former Disney child star to being a cult film icon.)  Everything that Snake says is quotable and, even with tiny explosives circulating through his blood, Snake never loses his cool.  Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like Snake cares whether he lives or dies and that’s what makes Snake such a strong hero.  He’s wiling to take the risks that no one else would.  If he saves the President and the world, cool.  If he doesn’t, neither was probably worth saving anyways.  At the end of the film, Snake reveals that there are things that he does care about.  If you don’t appreciate the people who sacrificed their lives for you, don’t expect Snake to do you any favors.

Snake gets some help from a rogue’s gallery of familiar faces, all of whom have their own reasons for trying to save the President from the Duke.  Harry Dean Stanton is Brain while Adrienne Barbeau is Maggie.  Brain is the smartest man in Manhattan and Maggie’s good with a gun and it’s too bad that we never got a prequel about how they met.  My favorite of Escape from New York‘s supporting cast is Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, who is the perfect New York taxi driver and whose taste in music plays off in an unexpectedly satisfying way.

Escape From New York is John Carpenter at his best, an exciting race against time full of memorable characters and thrilling action.  Whenever I go to New York and I cross over a bridge into Manhattan, I think about Snake, Cabbie, and the gang driving through a minefield.  Everyone who meets Snake says “I thought you were dead,” but we know better.  Snake Plisskin will never die and neither will my love for Escape From New York.

Creepshow, S1 Ep 1, “Gray Matter” “The House of the Head” Review by Case Wright


Creepshow

Happy Horrorthon! We are in the thick of it and it is AWESOME! Yes, I got another streaming subscription service, but I draw the line at Disney and CBS because they’re boring.  In 1982, Creepshow was a film written, produced, and directed by horror masters, including Stephen King.  The stories were an homage to the EC Horror Comics from the 1950s and 1960s.  The show has become reincarnated on the Shudder streaming service and I will review all of the episodes as they are released.

What’s great about these shows (except for Two Sentence Horror, which is a steaming pile of garbage) is that they give talented people a chance to direct or write when they haven’t had the opportunity prior. Also, because Greg Nicotero (Executive Producer Of The Walking Dead and friend to everyone in horror) is helming it, the show has tremendous access to great stories by Stephen King and actors like Tobin Bell (Saw) and Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad).

The two stories in the premiere were Gray Matter – a Stephen King short story from Night Shift, Directed by Greg Nicotero and The House of the Head was the second story and was Directed by John Harrison, written by Josh Malerman.  The two stories and direction were completely different.

Gray Matter was what I expected: an over the top story with lots of gore that would have been totally at home in a Tales From the Crypt episode.  The House of the Head, on the other hand was genuinely TERRIFYING! I had trouble watching this story because it was so intense that I really worried about the characters and the figurines- I’ll explain later.

Gray Matter is about a son who’s trying to live with his alcoholic single dad.  Everyday the Dad promises to stop drinking and everyday it ends with both of them disappointed.

One day, the father drinks some tainted beer and turns into a slime monster with a craving for beer and people.  The son who enabled his father’s drinking now enables his father’s thirst for human flesh.

This enabling dooms mankind. In essence, the disease of alcoholism consumed the alcoholic and destroyed everyone around him. Sounds about right.

At this time in the 1980s, Stephen King was in the worst period of his cocaine and alcohol addiction and many of his stories revolve around the enabling and tragedy that followed his disease.  In an interview, he described how he put cotton balls up his nose from the frequent bleeds and he kept a sugar bowl filled with cocaine next to him while he wrote.

The symbolism in the episode was not that obvious; it was much into dramatic performances and gore. The monster was a classic Tom Savini art work.

The House of the Head was amazingly unexpected.  It was tense, subtle, and had you on the edge of your seat for the entire episode.  Evie, the central protagonist in The House of the Head, is a nine year old girl whose father got her a dollhouse. Screenshot (98).png

The dollhouse is adorable with cute figurine parents and a child.

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Unfortunately, the dollhouse is also haunted by a severed head!!!! Yikes!

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The writing and direction ramps up the tension as we see that reality is being blurred by this supernatural entity.  The figurines in the dollhouse get terrorized and murdered by the severed head.  It’s real nightmare fuel.

The suspense/thriller writing and directing was also unexpected.  I thought it was going to be a Tales From the Crypt style story; instead John Harrison (Dir) and Josh Malerman (Writer) relentlessly pull the viewer into the haunted dollhouse where every shot is filled with uncertainty and terror.

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The dollhouse itself becomes a character and the viewer is forced to wonder if our protagonist and her parents are in fact figurines themselves with shots like this.

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The parents are laying in an doll-like manner and the furniture also looks like a dollhouse’s accessories. Is the Head pulling them into a dollhouse world? Is it pushing its way into our reality? Much like the episode itself, you never really know. Every time Evie looks from one room to another, the camera pans back and the figurines have changed and it’s rarely good.

This show was a lot of fun and it’s great to see a horror anthology story done well!

It’s not really enough to recommend this show without recommending Shudder itself. It’s not a lot of money per month and has a lot of original programming.

A Movie A Day #150: Back to School (1986, directed by Alan Metter)


Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) started with nothing but through a combination of hard work and chutzpah, he started a chain of “Tall and Fat” clothing stores and made a fortune.  Everyone has seen his commercials, the one where he asks his potential customers, “Do you look at the menu and say, ‘Okay?'”  He has a new trophy wife named Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) and a chauffeur named Lou (Burt Young).  Thornton never even graduated from high school but he gets respect.

However, his son, Jason (Keith Gordon), doesn’t get no respect.  No respect at all.  Jason is a student at a pricey university, where he is bullied by Chas Osborne (William Zabka) and can’t get a date to save his life.  Jason’s only friend is campus weirdo Derek Lutz (Robert Downey, Jr.).  When Thornton sees that his son isn’t having any fun, he decides to go back to school!

Back to School is a predictable but good-natured comedy.  It is like almost every other 80s college comedy except, this time, it’s a 65 year-old man throwing raging parties and making the frat boys look stupid instead of Robert Carradine or Curtis Armstrong.  On the stand-up stage, Dangerfield always played the (sometimes) lovable loser but in the movies, Dangerfield was always a winner.  In both Caddyshack and Back to School, Dangerfield played a self-made man who forced his way into high society and showed up all of the snobs.  While Back to School is no Caddyshack, it does feature Rodney at his best.

Rodney may be the funniest thing about Back to School but a close second is Sam Kinison, who owed much of his early success to Rodney Dangerfield’s support.  Kinison plays a history professor, who has some very strongly held views about the Vietnam War and who punctuates his points with a primal screen.

Also, keep an eye out Kurt Vonnegut, playing himself.  Rodney hires him to write a paper about Kurt Vonnegut for one of his classes.  The paper gets an F because Rodney’s literature professor (Sally Kellerman) can tell that not only did Rodney not write it but whoever did knows absolutely nothing about the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

So it goes.

A Movie A Day #101: Swamp Thing (1982, directed by Wes Craven)


I have been dreading this moment for a while.

Ever since I decided that, while we are reviewing every episode of Twin Peaks, that every entry in Movie A Day would have a connection with the show, I knew that I would have to eventually review Swamp Thing.  I didn’t want to because I hate Swamp Thing but, outside of his work as Leland Palmer, it is also Ray Wise’s most famous role.  One of the good things about Twin Peaks is that it saved Ray Wise from being forever known as Swamp Thing.

Of course, Ray Wise does not really play Swamp Thing.  He plays Alec Holland, the human scientist who is working on a formula that will allow animals and plants to thrive in extreme environments.  When the evil Dr. Arcane (Louis Jourdan) sends his henchmen (including veteran bad guys David Hess and Nicholas Worth) to steal the formula, Alec gets set on fire and runs into the Louisiana bayou.  When Alec emerges, he has become Swamp Thing, half-human and half-plant.  He is also now played by Dick Durock.  Swamp Thing must protect both bodacious Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) and streetwise swamp kid Jude (Reggie Batts) while trying to prevent Arcane from using the formula to turn himself into a werewolf and conquer the world.

Despite the easily mocked name, Swamp Thing has often been one of the best characters in the DC universe.  The movie does not being to do the character justice.  At the time, Wes Craven was best known for movies like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes.  Swamp Thing was an attempt to show that he could direct a big-budget, studio production.  Unfortunately, Craven takes a deliberately campy approach to the material, to the extent that, if not for a handful of scenes like Swamp Thing crushing David Hess’s skull, Swamp Thing could have easily been directed by Joel Schumacher during his Batman years.  Just the name Swamp Thing is campy enough.  There’s no need to toss in Louis Jourdan turning into a werewolf.  Fans of Adrienne Barbeau will do better to rewatch Escape from New York than sit through Swamp Thing.

Fortunately, for Ray Wise, Twin Peaks came along and saved him from forever being known as Swamp Thing.

A Movie A Day #6: The Cannonball Run (1981, directed by Hal Needham)


cannonball_runA legendary Hollywood stuntman, Hal Needham moved into directing in the 1970s and proved that all he required to make a successful film were willing stuntmen, fast cars, Coors beer, and Burt Reynolds.  Following that logic, The Cannonball Run may very well be the ultimate Hal Needham movie.

The Cannonball Run follows several teams of racers as they compete to see who can be the first to reach California from Connecticut.  Trying to stop them is Arthur J.  Foyt (George Furth), who represents the Safety Enforcement Unit and who believes that cars are a menace.  However, Foyt is no match for these racers, who include:

  • J.J. (Burt Reynolds), who is racing in memory of his father, and his mechanic Victor (Dom DeLuise), who turns into Captain Choas whenever he is feeling threatened.  J.J. and Victor are driving an ambulance and are accompanied by crazy Dr. Van Helsing (Jack Elam) and a fake “patient” (Farrah Fawcett),
  • Bradford Compton (Bert Convy) who is riding a motorcycle and who, because of the weight of his mechanic, has to pop a wheelie for the entire race,
  • An Arab oil sheik (Jamie Farr) who is racing for “the glory of Islam” and who would probably not be in the movie if it were made today,
  • Sidney Goldfarb (Roger Moore), the heir to a mattress fortune who has had extensive plastic surgery to make himself look like Roger Moore,
  • Jackie Chan and Michael Hui, called “The Japanese team” even though they both speak Cantonese throughout the entire movie,
  • Terry Bradsahw and Mel Tillis because why the Hell not?,
  • Marcie (Adrienne Barbeau) and Jill (Tara Buckman), using their cleavage to get out of speeding tickets, or at least they do until they’re pulled over by Valerie Perrine,
  • And Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., pretending to be priests and apparently drunk throughout filming.

Based on a real life (and very illegal) cross-country race that was held four times in the 1970s, The Cannonball Run is profoundly stupid movie that, if you’re in the right mood for it, is also profoundly fun.  It’s a movie that really has no plot but it does have a lot of cars, a lot of stunts, a lot of cleavage, and a lot of politically incorrect humor, some of which has not aged well.  Despite being hated by the critics, The Cannonball Run was a huge box office hit and it still remains a nostalgic guilty pleasure for a lot of people, myself included.  One person who did not like The Cannonball Run was Burt Reynolds who, in an interview with the New York Times, once said, “”I did that film for all the wrong reasons.  I never liked it. I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham. And I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out so I couldn’t really object to what people wrote about me.”

Burt has a point but, in defense of The Cannonball Run, what other movie actually features Jackie Chan beating up Peter Fonda?

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Or Roger Moore playing someone who thinks that he’s Roger Moore?

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Or Jack Elam playing a mad scientist?

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Or Sammy and Dino, phoning it in one last time?

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Or Captain Chaos?

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Like most of Hal Needham’s films, The Cannonball Run ends with outtakes of Burt Reynolds blowing his lines and hitting people.

Tomorrow’s movie a day will be a film that Burt Reynolds is presumably much more proud of, Sharky’s Machine.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Wes Craven Edition


Today is the birthday of one of the masters of horror. So, here’s wishing Wes Craven a happy birthday.

Now, go out there and check out his films. Here’s a four to try out. It’s got voodoo, a thing from the swamp, a street full of nightmares and, the one that started him off, the very last house on the left.

4 SHOTS FROM 4 FILMS

Swamp Thing (dir. by Wes Craven)

Swamp Thing (dir. by Wes Craven)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (dir. by Wes Craven)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (dir. by Wes Craven)

The Last House on the Left (dir. by Wes Craven)

The Last House on the Left (dir. by Wes Craven)

Quick Horror Review: John Carpenter’s The Fog


I have something of a tradition with John Carpenter’s The Fog. Every year, I try to watch the film on the date and time where the story starts – April 20th, at around 11:55pm. It’s not the scariest of stories, but it does have a spooky atmosphere that lends itself well to Halloween – or any late quiet night. I love this movie.

The Fog marked the first film that John Carpenter worked on after Halloween, collaborating with the late Debra Hill, who also produced the movie. She’d go on to also produce both Escape From New York and Escape from L.A for Carpenter. While it didn’t really have the impact of Halloween, it held up until Escape from New York came out the following year.

Here’s the story:

In the town of Antonio Bay, an old captain (John Houseman) explains to some children about the ill-fated Elizabeth Dane (what a beautiful name, I might add), a ship that belonged a rich of crew of lepers led by someone named Blake. The heads of the town conspired to steal the gold by setting up the ship to crash against the docks. It works out for the Conspirators, as they are “aided by a unearthy fog” that blinds the Leper ship’s navigators. and the gold they collect helps to form the great town the kids play in to this day.

What they don’t realize is that vengeance is coming in the form of that very same fog, as the ghost of the Lepers have come to claim the lives of the six conspirators…or their direct descendants.

As a kid, I had a problem with that. You mean because my great great grandparents messed up somewhere ages ago, I have to get killed for it? I remember thinking that it really wasn’t fair, but I’m kind of diverging from the topic here. The story gives you four points of view. You have Nick (Tom Atkins, sans his signature mustache) and a hitchhiker he picks up played by then scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis. You have Curtis mother, Janet Leigh, who’s character is working on the anniversary party for the town and her assistant, Sandy, played by Nancy Loomis (who appeared in the first three Halloween films). The third comes from Adrienne Barbeau’s character, Stevie Wayne, who works for the local radio station. Her character acts as the warning voice for the town and she starts to notice that something’s going on when her son gives her a piece of Driftwood that later echoes Blake’s warning. The final viewpoint comes from Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), who discovers Blake’s diary and learns the truth about what happened 100 years ago. His character helps to piece the mystery together, somewhat.

Carpenter and Hill gathered many of their friends, who went on to work on other films for this. Tommy Lee Wallace went on to direct Halloween III: Season of the Witch (and coincidentally did the voice of the Silver Shamrock ad-man in the commercial) and Vampires: Los Muertos. Wallace’s name was given to Carpenter fan favorite Buck Flower. Nick Castle’s name was given to Tom Atkins character. Makeup Wizard Rob Bottin (who also played Blake in the film) went on to do some of the effects in The Thing.

The makeup effects in this film were okay. The lighting and fog did more to obscure than to actually help one see what was doing the attacking, but it really worked for some of the shadowing in the film. If the movie has any drawbacks, it’s that there’s a really low body count to the film. In essence, there are only 6 people the ghosts are after, so these are only the ones they actually get. It would have been interesting if there were a few random deaths, or more individuals in danger, but I supposed it worked out well for the time period.

The Fog is a nice film to catch late at night. You won’t find it at the upper rankings of top horror films, but it’s one to try, at least. Don’t even bother with the Remake for this one. It’s not even work talking about.