Horror Film Review: Final Destination (dir by James Wong)

I was recently rewatching the 2000 film, Final Destination, and a few things occurred to me.

Number one, no one ever really thanks Devon Sawa for getting them off that plane before it explodes.  Final Destination opens with a group of high school students boarding a plane so that they can go on their senior class trip to Paris.  (I wish I had gone to their high school.  Our senior class trip was to …. well, we didn’t get one.)  When Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) has a vision of the plane exploding, he freaks out and he, his teacher, and a few other students are kicked off the plane.  Needless to say, everyone’s pretty upset with Alex but then, just a few minutes after taking off, the plane does explode.  Alex was right.  He saved everyone’s lives.

And yet, no one ever says, “Thank you, Alex!”  Instead, everyone is still like, “Hey, that’s the weirdo that ruined our trip to Paris!”  No, the plane exploding is what ruined your trip to Paris.  Alex saved your life!  Poor Alex.  And yet, it kind of makes sense.  In the face of inexplicable tragedy, people need someone to blame and Alex is a convenient scapegoat.

That scapegoating continues once the survivors of the flight start to mysteriously die.  No one wants Alex near them, even though Alex has managed to figure out that Death is stalking them because they messed up its plans by getting off of that plane.  Then again, Alex doesn’t always come across as if he’s the most stable person in the world.  Gaunt and hallow-eyed, Sawa portrays Alex as someone who haunted by survivor’s guilt even before it became obvious that he and his former friends were being targeted.  Sawa, it should be said, gives a remarkably good performance in Final Destination.

Another thing that occurred to me as I rewatched Final Destination is that, in this film, Death doesn’t have much of a sense of humor.  The Final Destination sequels are notorious for their elaborate and often ironic death scenes, the majority of which seem to indicate that Death might be a little bit too clever and precocious for its own good.  However, in the first Final Destination, Death is a lot more direct and, in some ways, a lot more sadistic.  Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer) steps out in the street and gets run over by a bus.  Goofy Billy Hitchcock (Seann William Scott — why two n’s Seann!?) makes the mistake of standing too close to the railroad tracks and he loses the top half of his head.  Death really only get creative when it comes to taking out Todd Waggner (Chad E. Donella) and Ms. Lewton (Kristen Cloke) and, even then, it’s methods are nowhere near as elaborate as they would eventually become.

The final thing that I noticed is that Final Destination holds up really well.  It’s hard to remember now but, when Final Destination first came out, a lot of critics dismissed it as just being a slasher film with a slightly clever twist.  But actually, that twist is far more than just “slightly” clever and the film really does a lot more with the idea than it’s often given credit for.  Final Destination is a film full of thrills and chills — I still freak out at some of those death scenes — but it’s also a film that always makes me think about mortality.  Has our destiny already been written?  Can we defeat death?  Or are we just pawns with our fates predetermined?  In the end, that’s what makes Final Destination so effective.  We all know that we can’t escape death, both in real life and in the movies.  The one thing that everyone has in common is that death is eventually going to come for all of us.  It’s the one enemy that we can’t defeat or laugh away.  Instead, all we can do is try to hold it off for a while.  Final Destination taps into the fears that we all have.

The plot is clever.  The script is frequently witty.  I liked the fact the characters were all named after horror movie icons.  Plus, you got Tony Todd dominating the entire film with just a brief role.  Final Destination is a classic.

The Late Shift (1996, directed by Betty Thomas)

Want to relive the public battle over whether David Letterman or Jay Leno would be Johnny Carson’s successor?

Then The Late Shift is the film for you!

Though it pales when compared to the subsequent battle between Leno and Conan O’Brien, the competition between Letterman and Leno to succeed Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show riveted America in the early 90s.  Most media critics (and, reportedly, Carson himself) felt that Letterman had not only earned the right to host The Tonight Show but that he represented the future of late night comedy.  The NBC network execs, however, preferred Leno, who had served for years as Carson’s permanent guest host and who was viewed as being more of a team player than Letterman.  The end result, of course, was that Leno got The Tonight Show, Letterman switched networks, and for years the country was separated into Leno people and Letterman people.  (Letterman got the critical acclaim but Leno got the ratings.)

The Late Shift opens with the unexpected retirement of Johnny Carson (played, as an enigma, by Rich Little) and then follows Letterman (John Michael Higgins) and Leno (Daniel Roebuck) as they maneuver their way to become his successor.  Unfortunately, neither Higgins nor Roebuck are particularly believable in their roles, though Roebuck does get to wear a truly impressive fake chin.  Far more impressive are Kathy Bates as Leno’s manager and Treat Williams as Mike Ovitz.  Bates rips through her scenes, destroying anyone standing in the way of Jay Leno while Williams is cool, calm, and menacing as the agent who was, at the time the film was made, the most powerful man in Hollywood.

The main problem with The Late Shift is that, when it went into production, Letterman was ahead in the ratings and the film is clearly sympathetic to him.  Leno comes across as a weasel while Letterman is portrayed as being neurotic but brilliant.  But, shortly before the film made its debut on HBO, Leno landed the first interview with Hugh Grant after the latter’s arrest with a prostitute.  Leno not only won that night in the ratings but he won every subsequent night and soon, Letterman was the one who was forever stuck in second place.  A title card was added to the end of  The Late Shift, admitting that Leno was now winning the war for the late night.  Since every minute of the film was designed to make Letterman appear to the winner, it’s hard not to be let down by the ending.

Despite the disappointing ending, The Late Shift is an entertaining look at network politics.  (Seinfeld fans will note that, after playing a version of Warren Littlefield during the show’s 4th season, Bob Balaban was cast as the real thing in The Late Shift.)  After watching the movie, be sure to read the Bill Carter book on which it’s based.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Dead Night (dir by Brad Baruh)

Hey, I’ve got an idea!  It’s Spring Break so why don’t we spend it in a cabin in the middle of a snow storm!?

Great idea!

Let’s go!

Oh, look — we’re at the cabin now and there’s some strange woman passed out front.  What should we do!?

Hey, let’s bring her inside!

Good idea!

Uh-oh, the woman’s inside and she’s alive but she’s acting kind of weird!

Hey, let’s eat dinner!

Now, in all fairness to the characters in 2018’s Dead Night, things are a bit more complex than that.  It’s not just that they decided to go up to a snowy cabin for Spring Break.  The cabin is actually supposed to be a therapeutic location.  James Pollack (AJ Bowen) is dying of cancer and it’s felt that the cabin will not only ease his pain but perhaps increase his life.  If nothing else, the wilderness will bring some sort of inner peace.  Accompanying James are his wife, Casey (Brea Grant) and their two teenage children, Jessica (Sophie Dalah) and Jason (Joshua Hoffman), and Jessica’s best friend, Becky (Elsie Luthman).

As for the mysterious woman who shows up out front of the cabin, they’re just trying to be nice when they invite Leslie Bison (Barbara Crampton) to stay in the cabin with them.  Even though Leslie can’t tell them how she ended up at their cabin, the Pollacks are not the type to just allow someone to die in the snow.  Really, we should all be more like the Pollacks, I guess.

Still, Leslie does turn out to be really obnoxious.  She makes inappropriate jokes.  She rudely asks which member of the family is dying.  She blows kisses at Jason and smirks when Jessica announces that they can’t eat until they’ve said grace.  In fact, the family is on the verge of kicking Leslie out when …. well, things happen.

What things?  We get some hints from a terrifically over the top true crime show, segments of which appear throughout the movie.  Hosted by Jack Sterling (Daniel Roebuck), the show deals with the question of how a perfect wife and mother like Casey Pollack could eventually go insane and chop up her family and friends with an ax.  Sterling tells us that, even though Casey called several people and told them that she had found a strange woman outside the cabin, the police were convinced that this was all just a part of an elaborate lie.

Hmmm….so, I guess we know what’s going to happen, right?

Well, no,  Not quite.  It turns out that the true story is a little bit different from what we might have seen on television.  For instance, Jack Steling’s show says nothing about the weird incident that happened in the early 60s, when a young woman got lost in the wood and was apparently impregnated with a piece of a tree….

If you go over to this movie’s imdb page, you’ll find a lot of angry reviews from people who felt that this movie didn’t have a real plot and that it was too gory but I don’t know.  I kind of liked it.  I mean, it’s a horror movie about people stuck in the middle of the woods.  What exactly are you expecting to get other than some nonsensical ax murders?  I mean, yes, the film doesn’t make complete sense but the cabin and the woods are both wonderfully creepy locations and the film also featured the great Barbara Crampton playing a …. well, I won’t spoil it.  Plus, I watch a lot of true crime television and I can tell you that this film’s satire of the particular genre is spot-on!

So, what can I say?  Suck it, imdb.  I kinda liked Dead Night.

2017 in Review: The Best of Lifetime

Today, I continue my look back at the previous year with my picks for the best of Lifetime in 2017!  Below, you’ll find my nominations for the best Lifetime films and performances of 2017!  Winners are starred and listed in bold!

(As a guide, I used the credits for the imdb.  If anyone has been miscredited or let out, please feel free to let me know and I’ll fix the error both here and, if I can, on the imdb as well.)

Best Picture

Drink Slay Love, produced by Tina Pehme, Kim Roberts, Sheri Singer, Bella Thorne

From Straight A’s to XXX, produced by Austin Andrews, John Bolton, Anne-Marie Hess, Tina Pehme, Kim Roberts, Sheri Singer

Four Christmases and a Wedding

New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell, produced by Deen Dioria, David Manzanares, Ron Schmidt, Judith Verno, Frank von Zerneck.

The Rachels, produced by Paige Lauren Billot, Margaret H. Huddleston, Maggie McFarren, Hannah Pillemer, Rebecca G. Stone.

Running Away, produced by Dureyshevar, Jeff Faehnle, Jack Nasser, Jacob Nasser, Joseph Nasser, Bri Noble.

Sea Change. Produced by Sharon Bordas, Alec Chorches, Adam Fratto, Steven Gilder, David MacLeod, A.J. Mendez, Shawn Piller, Lloyd Segan, Stephanie Slack, Fernando Szew

Secrets in Suburbia, produced by Kristopher McNeeley, Jacobo Rispa, Damian Romay, Stephanie Slack, Fernando Szew.

The Watcher in the Woods, produced by Simon Barnes, Alexandra Bentley, Andrew Gernhard, Jennifer Handorf, Paula Hart.

* Web Cam Girls, produced by Tom Berry, Pierre David, Hank Grover, Sheri Reeves, Ken Sanders, Noel Zanitsch* 

Best Director

* Doug Campbell for Web Cam Girls

Michael Civille for The Rachels

Vanessa Parise for From Straight A’s to XXX

Damian Romay for Secrets in Suburbia

Brian Skiba for Running Away

Stephen Tolkin for New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell

Best Actor

James Franco in High School Lover

Zack Gold in Psycho Brother-in-Law

Stephen Graybill in Web Cam Girls

Timothy Granderos in The Twin

Ted McGinley in Fatherly Obsession

* Ryan Patrick Shanahan in Sinister Minister

Best Actress

Barbie Castro in Boyfriend Killer

Holly Deveaux in Running Away

Sedonna Legge in Web Cam Girls

* Penelope Ann Miller in New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell

Heather Morris in Psycho Wedding Crasher

Haley Pullos in From Straight A’s to XXX

Best Supporting Actor

Francois Arnaud in High School Lover

Joe Hackett in Web Cam Girls

William McNamara in Running Away

Patrick Muldoon in Boyfriend Killer

Judd Nelson in From Straight A’s to XXX

* Daniel Roebuck in New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell

Best Supporting Actress

Madison Iseman in The Rachels

Anjelica Huston in The Watcher in the Woods

* Tonya Kay in Web Cam Girls

Paula Trickey in Running Away

Ashley Wood in Wicked Mom’s Club

Lorynn York in Web Cam Girs

Best Screenplay

From Straight A’s to XXX. Anne-Marie Hess.

New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell. Stephen Tolkin.

The Rachels. Ellen Huggins.

* Running Away. Sheri McGuinn.

Secrets in Suburbia. Damian Romay.

Web Cam Girls. Stephen Romano.

Best Cinematography

Drink Slay Love. Vic Sarin.

Four Christmases and a Wedding. Mike Kam.

Off the Rails. Denis Maloney.

Running Away. Patrice Lucien Cochet.

* Sea Change. Jackson Parrell.

Ten: Murder Island. Richard Clabaugh.

Best Costuming

* Drink Slay Love. Liene Dobraja.

From Straight A’s to XXX. Liene Dobraja.

The Lost Wife of Robert Durst. Tina Fiorda.

New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell. Maria Bentfield.

The Rachels. Courtney Stern.

Stage Fright. Monique Hyman.

Best Editing

* From Straight A’s to XXX. Rob Grant.

Four Christmases and a Wedding. Paul Ziller.

New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell. Mark Stevens.

The Rachels. Brett Solem.

Sea Change. Matthew Anas.

Web Cam Girls. Jordan Jensen.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Drink Slay Love. Jessica Green, Catherine Long, Alysha McLoughlin, Sahar Sharelo.

The Lost Wife of Robert Durst. Lorna Bravo, Kelly Grange, Shelly Jensen, Mary Renvall, Melissa Sahlstrom.

* New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell. Claudia Breckenridge, Daniel Casillas, Nicole Gabaldon, Pepper J. Gallegos, Madeline McCue, L. Taylor Roberts

The Rachels. Taylor Bennett, Austin Cuccia.

Secrets in Suburbia. Andrea Ahl, Trevor Thompson

The Watcher in the Woods. Chloe Edwards.

Best Score

Drink Slay Love. Justin R. Durban

Fatherly Obsession. Aiko Fukushima.

Sea Change. Shawn Pierce.

* Story of a Girl. Travis Bacon.

Ten: Murder Island. Ceiri Torjussen.

The Watcher in the Woods. Felix Bird.

Best Production Design

New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell. Will Albarz, Anthony Medina.

Running Away.   Vincent Albo, Rose Beltran

Secrets in Suburbia. Brendan Turrill.

Ten: Murder Island. Eric Whitney, Caley Bisson.

Tiny House of Terror

* Web Cam Girls. Catch Henson, James W. Thompson Jr., Katherine Bulovic, Valerie Munguia

Best Sound

Britney Ever After

Drink Slay Love

From Straight A’s to XXX

Sea Change.

Under the Bed

* The Watcher in the Woods

Best Visual Effects

* Drink Slay Love

Fatherly Obsession

Sea Change

Stalker’s Prey

Ten: Murder Island

The Watcher in the Woods

And there you have it!  Those are my picks for the best of Lifetime in 2017!  Thank you for your indulgence!  On Friday, I’ll be concluding my look back at 2017 with my picks for the 26 best films of the year!

Previous entries in the TSL’s Look Back at 2017:

  1. 2017 in Review: Top Ten Single Issues by Ryan C
  2. 2017 in Review: Top Ten Series by Ryan C
  3. 2017 In Review: Top Ten Collected Edition (Contemporary) by Ryan C
  4. 2017 In Review: Top Ten Collected Editions (Vintage) by Ryan C
  5. 2017 in Review: Top Ten Graphic Novels By Ryan C
  6. 25 Best, Worst, and Gems I saw in 2017 by Valerie Troutman
  7. My Top 15 Albums of 2017 by Necromoonyeti
  8. 2017 In Review: Lisa Marie’s Picks For the 16 Worst Films of 2017
  9. 2017 In Review: Lisa Marie’s Final Post About Twin Peaks: The Return (for now)
  10. 2017 in Review: Lisa Marie’s 14 Favorite Songs of 2017
  11. 2017 in Review: The Best of SyFy by Lisa Marie Bowman
  12. 2017 in Review: 10 Good Things that Lisa Marie Saw On Television in 2017
  13. 2017 in Review: Lisa Marie’s 12 Favorite Novels of 2017
  14. 2017 in Review: Lia Marie’s 10 Favorite Non-Fiction Books of 2017

Cleaning Out The DVR: New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell (dir by Stephen Tolkin)

(Lisa is not just watching horror movies!  She is also trying to clean out her DVR!  She has got over 200 movies that she needs to watch before January 1st!  Will she make it?  Keep checking here to find out!  She recorded New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell off of Lifetime on April 23rd!)

“That is some hard wood.”

— Joyce Mitchell (Penelope Ann Miller) in New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell (2017)

Why would Joyce Mitchell, a middle-aged wife and mother, help two convicted murderers escape from a prison in upstate New York?

That was the question that everyone was asking in 2015, even though everyone already knew what the answer probably was.  (Bad boys are sexy.  Murderers are the ultimate bad boys.  Plus, Joyce Mitchell appeared to be a little bit crazy and a little bit stupid.)  After breaking out of Clinton Correctional Facility, both Richard Matt and David Sweat spent several weeks on the run while Joyce Mitchell was briefly both the most hated and the most ridiculed woman in America.  Interestingly, Joyce Mitchell was not the only prison employee to help out the two convicts.  She was just the only woman.

During the manhunt for Sweat and Matt, I did what I usually do.  I made a joke.  I can’t even remember what the joke was but I do remember that it really ticked off some random people on twitter.  Seriously, the way these randos reacted, you would think that I was the one who had helped two killers to escape from prison.

“Certain things are not funny!” they shouted, “CERTAIN THINGS YOU DO NOT JOKE ABOUT!”

(Seriously, can you believe that people could actually get that mad at little old me?  What is this world coming to?)

Anyway, I have to wonder if any of those self-righteous losers watched New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell and, if they did, how they reacted to it.  New York Prison Break may sound like a standard Lifetime true crime film but it takes a satiric approach to the material.  If certain people found my relatively innocuous comments to be triggering, I can only imagine how they reacted to a made-for-TV movie that opened with a bloody recreation of Matt and Sweat’s crimes and then segued to a scene of Joyce making breakfast while listening to a trashy romance novel on tape.

As played by Penelope Ann Miller, Joyce is somehow sympathetic, pathetic, annoying, and frightening, all at the same time.  She has a nice house with a perfect kitchen and a husband, Lyle (Daniel Roebuck), who is utterly clueless as to how bored and dissatisfied Joyce has become with her very safe life.  It leaves her open to being manipulated by both David Sweat (Joe Anderson) and Richard Matt (Myk Watford), both of whom drew her into aiding their escape by feigning a romantic interest in her.  While they both encourage Joyce to fantasize about running off with them and starting a new life in Mexico, Lyle’s idea of adventure is to go out for Chinese food.  For Joyce, helping Sweat and Matt escape is like a real-life version of one of her novels.

Though it’s a true story, it’s also a very absurd story.  New York Prison Break emphasizes the strangeness of it all.  Scenes of Joyce and Lyle discussing the ins and outs of fabric softener are mixed with scenes of Sweat and Matt bickering over whether they should go to Canada or to Mexico.  Joyce’s desperate attempts to cover up her own involvement in the escape are contrasted with Sweat and Matt bonding outside of the prison.  Joyce may have been in love with both of them but, as the film makes clear, Sweat and Matt only loved each other.  And, as it eventually turns out, they didn’t even love each other that much…

“Mrs. Mitchell,” one detective asks, “you knew these men murdered and tortured a man and you gave them the means to escape from prison?”

“Everyone says I’m too nice,” Joyce explains.

New York Prison Break is a superior and well-made Lifetime film, distinguished by a quartet of strong performances.  Penelope Ann Miller, Daniel Roebuck, Joe Anderson, and Myk Watford are all at their best and it makes for very compelling viewing.

A Movie A Day #225: Behind The Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy (2005, directed by Neil Fearnley)

The year is 1978.  A television producer named Garry Marshall (Daniel Roebuck) teaches America how to laugh again by casting Pam Dawber (Erinn Hayes) and a hyperactive stand-up comedian named Robin Williams (Chris Diamantopoulos) in a sitcom about an alien struggling to understand humanity.  Despite constant network interference, the show makes Robin a star but, with stardom, comes all the usual temptations: lust, gluttony, greed, pride, envy, wrath, and John Belushi.

The Behind The Camera films, which all dramatized the behind the scenes drama of old television shows, were briefly a big thing in the mid-aughts.  Because they were lousy, they never got good reviews but they did get good ratings from nostalgia-starved baby boomers and gen xers.  I think The Unauthorized Mork & Mindy Story was the last one produced.  It probably would have been better if there had been any sort of drama going on behind-the-scenes of Mork & Mindy but, according to this movie, everyone got along swimmingly.  Williams may get hooked on cocaine but the film squarely puts the blame for that on John Belushi.  The script, which was obviously written with one eye on avoiding getting sued, is sanitized of anything that could have reflected badly on anyone who was still alive when the movie aired.

Stuck with unenviable task of having to play one of the most famous people in the world, Chris Diamantopoulos was not terrible as Robin Williams.  Considering how sanitized the script was, not terrible is probably the best that could be hoped for.  There was not much of a physical resemblance but Diamantopoulos nailed the voice and some of the mannerisms.  Erinn Hayes looks like Pam Dawber but, just as in the actual show, the movie gives her the short end of the stick and focuses on Williams.

For aficionados of bad television, this is mostly memorable for Daniel Roebuck’s absolutely terrible performance as Garry Marshall and a scene in which Williams is heckled in a comedy club but an overweight man who steps out of the shadows and announces that he’s John Belushi!  Roebuck’s performance as Garry Marshall begins and end with his attempt to impersonate Marshall’s familiar voice.  He was much better cast as Jay Leno in The Night Shift.  As for Belushi , since he was not around to sue or otherwise defend himself, the movie goes all out to portray Belushi (who was played by Tyler Labine) as being an almost demonic influence on Williams.   The film’s portrayal of Belushi is even worse and probably more inaccurate than Wired and that’s saying something!

To quote Mork himself: Shazbot!  This movie is full of it.

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: 31 (dir by Rob Zombie)


Are you scared of clowns?  Sure, you are.  All good people fear clowns.  However, if you somehow do not find clowns to be frightening, you may change your mind after seeing Rob Zombie’s latest film, 31.

Of course, that’s assuming that you actually see 31.  31 is not a film for everyone.  In fact, if you’re not a fan of Rob Zombie or his style of horror, you should probably stay miles away from 31.  Bloody, intense, violent, and occasionally rather nihilistic, 31 is perhaps the Rob Zombiest of all the films that Rob Zombie has ever made.

However, if you’re a fan of extreme horror, you’ll appreciate 31.  It may not always be easy to take but then again, that’s kind of the point.

The film takes place in the 70s, which means that it has a really kickass soundtrack.  A group of carnival workers are driving across the desert in a van when they are attacked and kidnapped.  They find themselves in a dark building, being lectured by three people who are dressed like 18th century French aristocrats.  The leader of the aristocrats (played by Malcolm McDowell) informs them that they are going to playing a game called 31.  For the next twelve hours, they will be locked away in a maze.  They will be hunted by five murderous clowns.

Yes, you read that right.  Not just one murderous clowns — FIVE!  (Even worse, a sixth bonus clown eventually joins the game.)

If they can survive for 12 hours, they win.  What do they win?  Other than freedom, the film is never particular clear on this point.  The motives of the aristocrats remain a mystery for the majority of the film.  Are they just sadists, are they perhaps devote fans of The Purge who were so disappointed with Election Year that they decided to recreate the second film on their own, or is there some bigger reason behind this game of 31?  The film leaves the question for us to answer.

The rest of the film is a collection of progressively more violent fights between the carnival workers and the clowns.  For the most part, the carnival workers are all likable and you don’t want to see any of them harmed.  The clowns, meanwhile, are just about the freakiest collection of killers that you’ve ever seen.  When one of them is cornered, he pathetically begs, “We’re all pawns!  We don’t want to do this!” but you never quite believe him.  The deadliest of the clowns is Doom-Head (Richard Brake) and his evil smirk will give you nightmares.

31 is an incredibly intense film and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.  Everything from the acting to the set design to the costumes to David Daniel’s stark cinematography comes together to make 31 into a harrowing horror film.  If you can’t stand Zombie’s trademark mayhem, I would suggest avoiding 31.  However, if you’re a fan of Zombie’s films, you’ll find 31 to be perhaps the purest distillation of his artistic vision.

Back to School #43: River’s Edge (dir by Tim Hunter)

In his film guide, Heavy Metal Movies, Mike McPadden describes the disturbing 1987 teen crime drama River’s Edge as being “666 Candles“.  It’s a perfect description because River’s Edge appears to not only be taking place in a different socio-economic setting than Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club but perhaps on a different planet as well.

River’s Edge opens with a close-up of a dead and naked teenage girl lying on the edge of a dirty, polluted river and it gets darker from there.  The dead girl was the girlfriend of the hulking John Tollet (Daniel Roebuck, playing a character who is miles away from his role in Cavegirl).  As John explains to his friends, he strangled her for no particular reason.  His friends, meanwhile, respond with detachment.  Their unofficial leader, the hyperactive Layne (Crispin Glover), insists that since nothing can be done about the dead girl, their number one concern now has to be to keep John from getting caught.  While Layne arranges for John to hide out with a one-legged drug dealer named Feck (Dennis Hopper), two of John’s friends, Matt and Clarissa (played by Keanu Reeves and Ione Skye), consider whether or not they should go to the police.  Oddly enough, John really doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.

Seriously, River’s Edge is one dark film.  If it were made today, River’s Edge would probably be directed by someone like Larry Clark and, in many ways, it feels like a distant cousin to Clark’s Bully.  The teenagers in River’s Edge live in a world with little-to-no adult supervision.  Matt’s mom is more concerned with whether or not Matt has been stealing her weed than with the fact that Matt might be covering up a murder.  The local high school teacher is a former hippie who won’t shut up about how much better his generation was compared to every other generation.  In fact, the only adult with any sort of moral code is Feck and he’s usually too busy dancing with a sex doll to really be of much help.  It’s a world where no one has been raised to value their own lives so why should they care about a dead girl laying out on the banks of the river?

The film features good performances from Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, and Daniel Roebuck but really, the entire movie is stolen by Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper.  In the role of Layne, Glover is a manic wonder, speaking quickly and gesturing even when he isn’t making a point.  When Layne first shows up, he seems like he’s just overly loyal to his friend John but, as the film progresses, it becomes more apparent that he’s less concerned about protecting John and more interested in ordering other people to do it.  For Layne, protecting John is ultimately about maintaining power over Matt, Clarissa, and the rest of their friends.

As for Dennis Hopper — well, this is one of those films that you should show to anyone who says that Hopper wasn’t a great actor.  The role of a one-legged drug dealer who lives with a sex doll sound like exactly the type of role that would lead Hopper to going totally over-the-top.  Instead, Hopper gave a surprisingly subtle and intelligent performance and, as a result, he provided this film with the moral center that it very much needs.

Glover and Hopper


Back to School #38: Cavegirl (dir by David Oliver)


Believe it or not, Back to the Future was not the only film released in 1985 that dealt with a high school senior taking a trip through time and ending up in the distant past.  There was also Cavegirl, which tells the story of Rex (Daniel Roebuck), a nerdy science student who, during a field trip, finds himself transported back to prehistoric times.  It’s there that he meets the title character, the cheerful and friendly Eba (Cindy Ann Thompson).  Eba likes Rex and Rex like Eba.  The only problem is that Eba can’t speak a word of English and Rex can’t get a moment along with her without being interrupted by various cavemen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this film was distributed by Crown International Pictures.

CIP_LogoOne thing that I always find interesting about the various high school films that were released by Crown International is that the schools always look so ugly.  That’s certainly the case in Cavegirl.  It’s not just that the school’s lay-out is boring.  (Apparently, nobody put much effort into designing high schools in the 70s and 80s.)  It’s just that the school itself looks dirty, as if all of the custodians are on strike.  When, at the beginning of the film, you see Rex walking through the school, you just know that the entire building probably reeks of stale air, rotting food, and decaying rodents.  (In fact, it looks like it might be the same school from The Pom Pom Girls.)  No wonder Rex doesn’t seem to mind being sent into the past!

And speaking of Rex, he’s played by Daniel Roebuck.  Roebuck actually gives a pretty good performance in this film, bringing a lot of conviction to some incredibly silly lines.  But the best thing about seeing Daniel Roebuck in this film is know that, decades later, he would play the ill-fated Leslie Arzt on Lost.  Arzt only appeared in a handful of episodes but every time he did appear, he was whining about something and petulantly demanding to be included in whatever the main characters were doing.  When they finally did allow Arzt to tag along with them, he mishandled some dynamite and blew up.  (Leading to the classic line: “You’ve got some Arzt on you…”)  Arzt may have only been created so that the creators could blow him up but Roebuck gave such a memorably fussy performance in the role that, even after exploding, he retained a following among the show’s many fans.  In Cavegirl, Roebuck gives a similarly fussy performance and, as a result, the entire film feels like it could be called “Leslie Arzt: The Early Years.”

As for Cavegirl itself, it’s definitely a crude film, in both execution and much of the content.  There’s about as much humor based on bodily fuctions as you expect to see in a film like this and there were a few such scenes that I choose to look away from until they were over with.  But, at the same time, it’s ultimately a surprisingly likable film.  That’s largely due to Daniel Roebuck and Cindy Thompson.  They both have a very likable chemistry and Thompson gives such an enthusiastic performance that you can forgive a lot of the film’s weaker moments.

Is Cavegirl as good as Back to the Future?

Well, no.

But, as far as low-budget 80s teen comedies are concerned, it works.



Review: Bubba Ho-Tep (dir. by Don Coscarelli)

Bubba Ho-Tep was one of those film projects which just screamed out “can’t lose” the moment it the people who were going to be attached to it were announced. I mean for people who grew up watching horror movies and other such fun things during the 80’s would know of the name Don Coscarelli. His Phantasm franchise scared and creeped out a large number of young kids and teenagers as they grew up during the 1980’s. Author Joe R. Landale is not as well-known for the unread but he also brings big smiles to people who also like their stories to be full of quirky humor, dry sarcastic wit in addition to pulp-style horror and thrills. But the major coup this film had which made all genre fans suddenly smile and grin like fools has to be hearing that genre-veteran and B-movie extraordinaire Bruce Campbell taking on the role of an aging Elvis Presley.

The movie was released in very limited screens in the summer of 2002. In fact, the movie really only got shown during the summer genre film festivals which dealt with genre movies like horror, sci-fi and other so-called low-brow genre projects which the more elitist film goers tend to shun. Luckily I wasn’t too elitist enough to be able to find Bubba Ho-Tep playing in the San Francisco Film Festival. To say that what I saw was pure cheesy fun would do the film a disservice. While it’s true that the film had it’s moment of horror, I mean it is a movie about a soul-sucking Egyptian Mummy let-loose in a Texas retirement home. What I was surprised to see as I watched through Bubba Ho-Tep was just how much more than a cheesy B-movie horror flick it turned out to be.

The film pretty much brings up the scenario of how it would be if the real Elvis Presley was still alive, in his 70’s and wasting away in a Texas retirement home. That the Elvis Presley who passed away sitting on a toilet at Graceland was actually an impostor who switched places with the real Elvis after the genuine article decided all the fame, groupies and excessiveness of being The King was just too much and wanted a break from it all. So, the real Elvis lost his chance to switch back with his double and thus ended up forgotten in a Texas retirement home where the employees and caregiver treat him like a child and don’t believe him when he tells them he is the real deal. To make matters worse he now has to deal with a cowboy hat and boots wearing Egyptian mummy whose sole source of nourishment are the souls of the old retirees who inhabit the retirement home. The way the mummy sucks the souls from its victims become a running joke within the film. Let’s just say it doesn’t try sucking the souls out through the old folks’ mouth or nose.

Bruce Campbell has always been a mainstay of the B-movie scene. His popularity as being “The Man” who has inhabited such iconic cult characters such as Ashley “Ash” Williams of Evil Dead fame has made him a well-known actor to genre fans everywhere. Campbell could’ve easily hammed it up in the role of the aging Elvis Presley in Bubba Ho-Tep. No one would’ve faulted him for such an over-the-top performance, but instead of going that route he instead plays the role with such an understated and subtle style which made the character more human and sympathetic. Campbell’s nuanced performance also turned a horror-comedy into something more sentimental and sad. Bubba Ho-Tep had turned into a horror-comedy which had a unique and sympathetic look at how the elderly have been treated and seen more as nuisances and less than human. It doesn’t help that their cries for help once the mummy targets them for feeding fall on deaf ears as those hired to help them consider their pleas as the senile ramblings of someone whose mental facilities have long left them.

Campbell’s performance as “The King” was supported quite well by the great, late Ossie Davis whose role as an elderly black man who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy brings new meaning to the film cliche: buddy movie. Davis’ character truly believes that he was and is President Kennedy who was turned black through some conspiracy by Lyndon B. Johnson to save his life. At first, we the audience are in on the joke but due to Davis’ wonderful performance we begin to believe that he may be right. If cowboy-attired Egyptian mummies and an aging Elvis look real why not him. The interplay between Campbell and Davis makes for some great acting and comedy. Without these two men the film would’ve been relegated to the direct-to-video level of filmmaking. Instead what we get is a wonderfully crafted film which despite its pedigree still became one of the better films of 2002.

Don Coscarelli does a fine job of balancing the scenes of comedy and horror with poignancy without ending up with a film that’s too maudlin for its own good. It’s a good sign that one of the 80’s master genre directors has found a nice project to show that he hasn’t lost the edge and skill when it comes to making genre movies. He has also shown with Bubba Ho-Tep that one can have a horror-comedy without drowning it in gore (which this movie had a surprisingly little of) and juvenile slapstick. Even joke sequences involving aging Elvis’ penis with it’s unidentifiable growth made for genuine laughs instead of laugh for laughs sake. The same goes for the double entendre from JFK involving his Ding Dong snack. I think with anyone else at the helm of this picture the movie would’ve fallen either too much into gorehound territory on one side or inane slapstick comedy on the other end.

In the end, Bubba Ho-Tep was one of those rare little genre gems which transcends its genre pedigree and beginnings without meaning to. Like I said with the convergence of Coscarelli, Lansdale, and Campbell making the project happen this was one little movie that was bound to not fail. I highly recommend this movie to anyone who hasn’t seen it. Despite it’s silly sounding title the movie is more than just the sum of its cover.