The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Unspeakable (dir by Thomas J. Wright)


So, here’s a few good things about the 2002 film, Unspeakable.

First off, Jeff Fahey plays the governor of New Mexico.  Any film that presents us with a world where Jeff Fahey can be elected governor of an actual state has to be worth something.  Seriously, I’ve long thought that the country would be more interesting if actors were elected to run each state.  Here in Texas, for instance, there was a movement to draft Tommy Lee Jones a few years ago.  (Personally, I’d rather live under Governor McConaughey.)  Steven Seagal (agck!) apparently wanted to run for governor of Arizona and, of course, Cynthia Nixon actually ran up in New York.  There’s always a chance of Alec Baldwin running for something and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger actually did govern California for two terms.  Val Kilmer, I should add, came close to running for governor of New Mexico, where this film is set!  Personally, I’d vote for Jeff Fahey over Val Kilmer,  It’s the eyes.

Another good thing about Unspeakable is that it features Dennis Hopper playing a crazed prison warden who rambles about how much he enjoys sending people to the electric chair.  “I am God!” Hopper says at one point and you have to enjoy any scene that features Dennis Hopper saying, “I am God!” in a southwestern accent.

Another fun thing about Unspeakable is that it features Dina Meyer and Lance Henriksen as scientists!  Meyer invents this weird little headband thing that allows her to look into your mind and see your thoughts.  Let me repeat this for those of you who might have missed the significance: DINA MEYER HAS INVENTED A MACHINE THAT ALLOW HER TO SEE EXACTLY WHAT IS HAPPENING IN SOMEONE’S MIND!  If that wasn’t amazing enough, there’s also the fact that no one seems to be that impressed.  In fact, no one really cares.  Everyone just kind of shrugs it off.

Meyer and Henriksen ask for permission to test their invention out on death row inmates.  Sure, why not?  It’s not like Warden Hopper cares what happens to the inmates, right?  Meyer discovers that one of the inmates is innocent!  Unfortunately, no one cares.  Gov. Fahey, who is also Meyer’s former lover, refuses to commute the sentence because he’s got an election coming up and voters love the death penalty.  And so, that innocent man goes off to the electric chair.

But wait!  There’s a new prisoner on death row.  His name is Jesse Mowatt and he’s played by Pavan Grover, the doctor who wrote this film.  It turns out that he is America’s most prolific serial killer!  He’s murdered hundreds of people, all because of some weird issue he has with religion.  Anyway, it’s pretty obvious that this killer has a date with the electric chair but first, Meyer gets to use her amazing-invention-that-nobody-cares-about on him.  What she discovers is that this serial killer might be a demon-possessed monster who can use his mind to drive other people to do things like rip their faces off.  Or maybe he’s just really clever.  He does definitely have super strength and beats up any guard that comes near him.  It never occurs to the guards to use handcuffs on him or anything.  That’s just the type of prison that it is.

Anyway, I appreciated the film’s anti-death penalty theme but the film still got a bit too heavy-handed for my tastes.  Pavan Grover wrote himself a pretty good part but he doesn’t really have the screen presence necessary to do the whole irresistible sociopath thing.  Still, I appreciate any movie that features Jeff Fahey as a governor.

FAHEY 2024!

 

Horror On The Lens: Night Tide (dir by Curtis Harrington)


Night Tide

First released in 1961 and directed by Curtis Harrington, Night Tide stars a young Dennis Hopper as Johnny, an awkward sailor.  Johnny meets Mora (Linda Lawson), who works as a “mermaid” on the pier.  For Johnny, it’s love at first sight.  However, the more that Johnny pursues her, the more he learns about both her mysterious past and the dark fate of her previous boyfriends.

Night Tide is low-key and atmospheric gem of a movie, one that serve as an inspiration for low-budget filmmakers every where.  Lawson is perfectly cast as the enigmatic Mora but the film really belongs to Dennis Hopper.  Hopper’s naturally off-key presence made him perfect for the role of Johnny.

Night Tide is one of those low-budget movies that, because it’s in the public domain,  has been released on DVD (often in inferior form) by dozens of different companies.  Often times, films like this turn out to be fairly forgettable.  Night Tide, however, is an exception.

When It Comes To Halloween, Should You Trust The IMDb?


Dr. Sam Loomis

Like a lot of people, I enjoy browsing the trivia sections of the IMDb.  While it’s true that a lot of the items are stuff like, “This movie features two people who appeared on a television series set in the Star Trek Universe!,” you still occasionally came across an interesting fact or two.

Of course, sometimes, you just come across something that makes so little sense that you can only assume that it was posted as a joke.  For instance, I was reading the IMDb’s trivia for the original 1978 Halloween and I came across this:

Peter O’Toole, Mel Brooks, Steven Hill, Walter Matthau, Jerry Van Dyke, Lawrence Tierney, Kirk Douglas, John Belushi, Lloyd Bridges, Abe Vigoda, Kris Kristofferson, Sterling Hayden, David Carradine, Dennis Hopper, Charles Napier, Yul Brynner and Edward Bunker were considered for the role of Dr. Sam Loomis.

Now, some of these names make sense.  Despite the fact that Sam Loomis became Donald Pleasence’s signature role, it is still possible to imagine other actors taking the role and perhaps bringing a less neurotic interpretation to the character.

Peter O’Toole as Dr. Loomis?  Okay, I can see that.

Kirk Douglas, Sterling Hayden, Charles Napier, Steve Hill, or Lloyd Bridges as Dr. Loomis?  Actually, I can imagine all of them grimacing through the role.

Walter Matthau?  Well, I guess if you wanted Dr. Loomis to be kind of schlubby….

Abe Vigoda?  Uhmmm, okay.

Dennis Hopper?  That would be interesting.

Mel Brooks?  What?  Wait….

John Belushi?  Okay, stop it!

Dr. Sam Loomis

My point is that I doubt any of these people were considered for the role of Dr. Loomis.  Both director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill have said that they wanted to cast an English horror actor in the role, as a bit of an homage to the Hammer films of the 60s.  Christopher Lee was offered the role but turned it down, saying that he didn’t care for the script or the low salary.  (Lee later said this was one of the biggest mistakes of his career.)  Peter Cushing’s agent turned down the role, again because of the money.  It’s not clear whether Cushing himself ever saw the script.

To be honest, I could easily Peter Cushing in the role and I could see him making a brilliant Dr. Loomis.  But, ultimately, Donald Pleasence was the perfect (if not the first) choice for the role.  Of course, Pleasence nearly turned down the role as well.  Apparently, it was his daughter, Angela, who changed his mind.  She was an admirer of John Carpenter’s previous film, Assault on Precint 13.  Carpenter has said that he was originally intimidated by Donald Pleasence (the man had played Blofeld, after all) but that Pleasence turned out to be a professional and a gentleman.

Laurie Strode

Of course, Halloween is best known for being the first starring role of Jamie Lee Curtis.  Curtis was actually not Carpenter’s first choice for the role of Laurie Strode.  His first choice was an actress named Annie Lockhart, who was the daughter of June Lockhart.  Carpenter changed his mind when he learned that Jamie was the daughter of Janet Leigh.  Like any great showman, Carpenter understood the importance of publicity and he knew nothing would bring his horror movie more publicity then casting the daughter of the woman whose onscreen death in Psycho left moviegoers nervous about taking a shower.

There was also another future big name who came close to appearing in Halloween.  At the time that she was cast as Lynda, P.J. Soles was dating an up-and-coming actor from Texas named Dennis Quaid.  Quaid was offered the role of Lynda’s doomed boyfriend, Bob but he was already committed to another film.

Not considered for a role was Robert Englund, though the future Freddy Krueger still spent some time on set.  He was hired by Carpenter to help spread around the leaves that would make it appear as if his film was taking place in the October, even though it was filmed in May.

Robert Englund, making May look like October

Interestingly enough, Englund nearly wasn’t need for that job because Halloween was not originally envisioned as taking place on Halloween or any other specific holiday.  When producer Irwin Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad originally approached Carpenter and Hill to make a movie for them about a psycho stalking three babysitters, they didn’t care when the film was set.  It was only after Carpenter and Hill wrote a script called The Babysitter Muders that it occurred to Yablans that setting the film during Halloween would be good from a marketing standpoint.  Plus Halloween made for a better title than The Babysitter Murders.

And, of course, the rest is history.  Carpenter’s film came to define Halloween and it still remains the standard by which every subsequent slasher movie has been judged.  Would that have happened if the film had been known as The Babysitter Murders and had starred John Belushi?

Sadly, we may never know.

Film Review: The Hot Spot (dir by Dennis Hopper)


As befits the title, the 1990 film, The Hot Spot, is all about heat.

There’s the figurative heat that comes from a cast of characters who are obsessed with sex, lies, and murder.  There’s the literal heat that comes from a fire that the film’s “hero” sets in order to distract everyone long enough so that he can get away with robbing a bank.  And, of course, there’s the fact that the film is set in a small Texas town that appears to be the hottest place on Earth.  Every scene in the film appears to be drenched by the sun and, if the characters often seem to take their time from getting from one point to another, that’s because everyone knows better than to rush around when it’s over a hundred degrees in the shade.  As someone who has spent most of her life in Texas, I can tell you that, if nothing else, The Hot Spot captures the feel of what summer is usually like down here.   I’ve often felt that stepping outside during a Texas summer is like stepping into a wall of pure heat.  The Hot Spot takes place on the other side of that wall.

The Hot Spot is a heavily stylized film noir, one in which the the traditional fog and shadows have been replaced by clouds of dust and blinding sunlight.  Harry (Don Johnson) is a drifter who has just rolled into a small Texas town.  Harry’s not too bright but he’s handsome and cocky and who needs to be smart when you’ve got charm?  Harry gets a job selling used cars, though he actually aspires to be a bank robber.  Harry finds himself falling in love with Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), a seemingly innocent accountant who is being blackmailed by the brutish Frank Sutton (William Sadler).  Meanwhile, Harry is also being pursued by his boss’s wife, Dolly (Virginia Madsen), an over-the-top femme fatale who is just as amoral as Harry but who might be a little bit smarter.  Complicating matters is that, while Harry’s trying to rob a bank, he also ends up saving a man’s life.  Only Dolly knows that Harry isn’t the hero that the rest of the town thinks he is.  She tells him that she’ll keep his secret if he does her just one little favor….

The Hot Spot was directed by Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) and, from the start, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not really that interested in the film’s story.  Instead, he’s more interested in exploring the increasingly surreal world in which Harry has found himself.  The Hot Spot plays out at a languid pace, which allows Hopper to focus on his cast of small-town eccentrics.  (My particular favorite was Jack Nance as the alcoholic bank president who also doubles as the town’s volunteer fire marshal.)  The film is so hyper stylized that it’s hard not to suspect that every character — with the possible exception of Harry — understands that they’re only characters in a film noir.  For instance, is Dolly really the over-the-top femme fatale that she presents herself as being or is she just a frustrated housewife playing a role?  Is Gloria really an innocent caught up in a blackmail scheme or is she just smart enough to realize that the rules of noir requires her to appear to be Dolly’s opposite?  And is Harry being manipulated or is he allowing himself to be manipulated because, deep down, he understands that’s his destiny as a handsome but dumb drifter in a small town?  Do any of the characters really have any control over their choices and their actions or has everyone’s fate been predetermined by virtue of them being characters in a film noir?  In the end, The Hot Spot is more than just a traditional noir.  It’s also a study of why the genre has endured.

It’s a long and, at times, slow movie, one that plays out at its own peculiar pace.  As a result, some people will be bored out of their mind.  But if you can tap into the film surreal worldview and adjust to the languid style, The Hot Spot is a frequently entertaining and, at times, rather sardonic slice of Texas noir.

Film Review: Blood Red (1989, directed by Peter Masterson)


The time is the 1890s.  The place is California.  Sicilian immigrant Sebastian Collogero (Giancarlo Giannini) has just been sworn in as an American citizen and owns his own vineyard.  When Irish immigrant William Bradford Berrigan (Dennis Hopper) demands that Sebastian give up his land so Berrigan run a railroad through it, Sebastian refuses.  Berrigan hires a group of thugs led by Andrews (Burt Young) to make Sebastian see the error of his ways.  When Sebastian ends up dead, his wayward son, Marco (Eric Roberts), takes up arms and seeks revenge.

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the famously self-indulgent directors Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola teamed up to make a movie about the American Dream?  The end result would probably be something like Blood Red.  Like Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Blood Red begins with a lengthy celebration (in this case, in honor of Sebastian’s naturalization ceremony) that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film but which is included just to make sure we know that what we’re about to see is more than just a mere genre piece.  Like many of Coppola’s films, Blood Red features a tight-knit family, flowing wine, and a score composed by Carmine Coppola.  The only difference between our hypothetical Cimino/Coppola collaboration and Blood Red is that the Cimino/Coppola film would probably be longer and more interesting than Blood Red.  Blood Red is only 80 minutes long and directed by Peter Masterson, who seems lost.  There’s a potentially interesting story here about two different immigrants fighting to determine the future of America but it gets lost in all of the shots of Eric Roberts flexing his muscles.

For an actor known for his demented energy, Eric Roberts is surprisingly dull as the lead but Blood Red is a film that even manages to make veteran scenery chewers like Dennis Hopper and Burt Young seem boring.  (Hopper’s bizarre attempt at an Irish brogue does occasionally liven things up.)  The cast is full of familiar faces like Michael Madsen, Aldo Ray, Marc Lawrence, and Elias Koteas but none of them get to do much.  Of course, the most familiar face of all belongs to Eric’s sister, Julia.  Julia Roberts made her film debut playing Marco’s sister, Maria.  (Because the film sat on the shelf for three years after production was completed, Blood Red wasn’t released until after Julia has subsequently appeared in Mystic Pizza and Satisfaction.)  She gets three lines and less than five minutes of screen time but she does get to briefly show off the smile that would later make her famous.  Today, of course, that smile is the only reason anyone remembers Blood Red.

Music Video Of The Day: God’s Gonna Cut You Down (2006, dir by Tony Kaye)


This is a case where I like the song more than the music video.  This video was actually filmed three years after Johnny Cash’s death.  As far as “official” music videos are concerned, I always feel like a musician should have some sort of say into how their music is visually interpreted.  Obviously, Johnny Cash wasn’t around to have anything to say about the video for God’s Gonna Cut You Down.

Since Cash wasn’t available, director Tony Kaye filled the video with cameos from other actors and musicians, a few of whom (though not many) were previous Cash collaborators.  Among the celebs who make an appearance in this video: David Allan Coe, Patricia Arquette, Travis Barker, Peter Blake, Bono, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Depp, the Dixie Chicks, Flea, Billy Gibbons, Whoopi Goldberg, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Hopper, Terrence Howard, Jay-Z, Mick Jones, Kid Rock, Anthony Kiedis, Kris Kristofferson, Amy Lee, Adam Levine, Shelby Lynne, Chris Martin, Kate Moss, Graham Nash, Busy Philipps, Iggy Pop, Lisa Marie Presley, Q-Tip, Corinne Bailey Rae, Keith Richards, Chris Rock, Rick Rubin, Patti Smith, Sharon Stone, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Brian Wilson, and Owen Wilson.  Some of the celebs — like Dennis Hopper and Kris Kristofferson — seem like they naturally belong there.  Others seem so out-of-place that you’ll want to throw something.  You know how that works,

God’s Gonna Cut You Down is a traditional folk song.  I’ve heard countless versions of it.  I prefer Cash’s version to the more traditional gospel arrangement but, then again, I tend to find gospel music to be dull in general.  Cash’s arrangement brought new life to an old song.

Enjoy!

6 Good Films That Were Not Nominated For Best Picture: The 1980s


Rob Lowe and Snow White perform at the 1989 Oscars

Continuing our look at good films that were not nominated for best picture, here are 6 films from the 1980s.

Out of the Blue (1980, dir by Dennis Hopper)

After spending several years in the cultural wilderness, Dennis Hopper directed his best film, this downbeat study of a young girl, her junkie mother, and her irresponsible father.  From the film’s first scene, in which Hopper crashes his truck into a school bus to the film’s explosive ending, Out of the Blue is a fascinating trip into the heart of American darkness.  It was definitely too dark for the Academy.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982, dir by Amy Heckerling)

Fast Times would appear to take place in a totally different universe from Out of the Blue.  Still, it’s an unexpectedly intelligent look at growing up in the suburbs and it’s influenced practically every high school film that’s come after.  Plus, this may be the only movie in which Sean Penn was intentionally funny.  Despite good reviews and a cast full of future stars, Fast Times At Ridgemont High received not a single nomination.

Once Upon A Time In America (1984, dir by Sergio Leone)

Sergio Leone’s final film, this epic gangster film might be a look at how America grew and changed over the first half of the 20th Century.  It might be a trenchant critique of capitalism.  It might be an homage to the classic gangster films of the 30s.  Or it might just be a hallucination that Robert De Niro is having while visiting an opium den.  That critics are are still debating just watch exactly this film actually means says a lot about the power of Once Upon A Time In America.  However, because the film was originally released in a severely edited form, Once Upon A Time In America received not one nomination.

Brazil (1985, dir by Terry Gilliam)

Much like Once Upon A Time In America, Brazil is a brilliant film that was betrayed by the studio that distributed it.  Convinced that Terry Gilliam’s satire was too strange for American audiences, Universal Pictures initially released the film in a severely edited version.  Fortunately, Gilliam’s version was eventually released but the controversy undoubtedly hurt Brazil when it came time for the members of the Academy to select their nominees for Best Picture.

The Breakfast Club (1985, dir by John Hughes)

Perhaps the Academy understood just how unfair it was that Anthony Michael Hall had to write the essay while everyone else got either a makeover or a new romance.  For whatever reason, this classic high school film — perhaps the classic high school film — received not a single nomination.

Blue Velvet (1986, dir by David Lynch)

David Lynch was nominated for Best Director but the film itself proved to be just a bit too controversial for the Academy to give it a Best Picture nomination.  David Lynch described this film as being “the Hardy Boys In Hell” and it would have been an uncoventional, though very worthy, nominee for Best Picture.

Up next, in an hour or so, the 90s!